Happy Birthday to Star Trek, which turns fifty this year. The definitive sci-fi TV show, it codified tropes that would influence all subsequent creativity in the field that followed. Of course, it also adopted familiar themes and it is Deep Space Nine, the dark horse of the ensemble, that plays so freely with Gothic themes and imagery.
The titular station itself is so reminiscent of a haunted house. Built by the cruel Cardassian empire, its’ arachnid appearance – so at odds with the clean white lines of Picard’s Enterprise – inspires immediate revulsion and fear in the unconscious.
In a later episode, ‘Civil Defence’, the new Starfleet owners are exploring the older, abandoned sections of this intimidating installation, and accidentally trip a forgotten security system. They are then plagued by automated defences – booby-traps – as well as recorded messages from the original station crew, specters of the past who menace our heroes. There’s even a deliciously evil twist near the end of the episode.
Into this forbidding, dark world comes widower Benjamin Sisko, carrying the familiar trappings of a man plagued by a recent loss and carrying his grief bundled up in anger. The lead character was a flawed hero, who would discover new and unsettling things about himself as the show confronted his convictions with grim scenarios. His young son Jake ages with the show, and his ascent into adolescence and manhood is a familiar tale of the death of innocence and childhood, especially in the risk-heavy atmosphere of the Federation frontier.
Frequently the show explored the darker side of humanity and personality, often literally in the regular excursions to the ‘mirror universe‘ pioneered in Kirk’s ‘Original Series’. This parallel universe was typified by heightening all the negative traits of our familiar heroes and crew, and the writers gloried in painting broad, dark strokes across the familiar, noble endeavours of Starfleet officers.
More subtly, Deep Space Nine scripts were ground-breaking in terms of creating the ‘arc’ that shows like Game of Thrones and other hits now rely on – building complex journies across several episodes and series. It was a dramatic break from the isolated-episodic nature of predecessor ‘The Next Generation’, an intentional exploration of how different DS9’s worldview was.
Picard’s Enterprise sailed under the flag of a utopian Federation, committed to freedom, equality and justice. Every episode a scenario was resolved, and the Enterprise moved on to a brand new story. Meanwhile, Ben Sisko frequently found himself enmeshed in the antics of a broad range of regular guest stars, or involved in murky and ongoing galactic politics – and even found himself aiding and abetting murder to secure the survival of the Federation in a grim war. The needs of the many, it seems, outweigh the moral objections of the one.
One regular thread permeating the show were the ‘Prophets’, central figures in the religion of the station’s Bajoran hosts. It was revealed early on they were also extradimensional creatures inhabiting another plane of existence – a clear derivation of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.
At least DS9 had them divided between somewhat compassionate – if incomprehensible – Prophets, and the more familiar, evil Pah’Wraiths, who possessed characters, killed and destroyed in order to advance plots of domination familiar to readers of Cthulhu et al.
The great War that dominated the final seasons of DS9 was also a rich source of gothic tropes. The enemies were the mysterious Founders, shapeshifting aliens with a visceral hatred of all ‘solids’, in essence any other species. Their omnicidal intentions were based within their ‘othering’ as changeling beings, and their threat originated from their often exercised ability to assume the form of anyone, even our regular heroes. Again, the show achieved dramatic tension, and gothic uncertainty, by highlighting the darkness amidst the familiar.
Throughout the war, scripts grappled with topics like brutal military dictatorship, torture, abduction, the blurring of real and unreal, and death, both personal – amongst the main cast – and abstract – the high casualty count, another grim first for Star Trek.
Such stories would have been impossible in the idealistic world of ‘The Next Generation’, or the uncompromising moral code of Janeway’s ‘Voyager’.
Such a contrast is even highlighted by Sloan, the devious spymaster of Section 31 – the covert ops organisation that is at odds with all the supposed morality of the Federation.
“The Federation needs men like you, doctor. Men of conscience. Men of principle. Men who can sleep at night…
You’re also the reason Section Thirty-One exists — someone has to protect men like you from a universe that doesn’t share your sense of right and wrong.”
Deep Space Nine was the first, and only, Star Trek show to acknowledge, explore and even relish in the darker, amoral truth of human existence. It probed genocide, religious extremism, alternative sexualities, mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other, hitherto forbidden topics.
It shone a harsh light on the darker tendencies of humanity, and transported them to a fantastical world amidst the stars. As such, it remains one of the most original shows on television, with one foot firmly planted in the realm of the gothic
At the time I dismissed this show as a blatant rip-off of “Babylon 5”, and apparently the question of how consciously its creators were mimicking the rival show remains unanswered to this day. All the same, this post has inspired me to get over my grumpy/geeky grudge and give “DS9” a fair crack!
I strongly urge people to go beyond that suspicion and give DS9 an impartial hearing. Glad you’re giving it a chance!
I like “Star Trek Deep Space Nine”, but it was a blatant rip-off of “Babylon 5”. I cannot deny it. And as for is “dark” exploration of the Trek universe . . . it wasn’t enough. Every time it seemed as the series is about to get into the nitty gritty or show any consequences of a questionable or morally wrong act/decision by the Federation, Starfleet or the main characters, it backs off and quickly moves on to the next topic. This is what I found so frustrating about “Deep Space Nine” and the Trek Universe in general.
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