Why Deep Space Nine is the Most Realistic Star Trek Series

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dug deeper into the themes that make Star Trek what it is than any other show in the franchise.

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.” – Gene Roddenberry

It would be no exaggeration to say that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future as portrayed in Star Trek was revolutionary. In the midst of the space race he gave us a vision of the future. This was a future full of optimism. Humans would finally end bigotry, war, famine, poverty, and the other evils found on our current Earth and would gather for a mission greater than themselves. They would seek out other life forms and gather knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision has enchanted audiences over the course of almost 50 years. This optimism is what has attracted so many people to the franchise.

So no wonder Deep Space Nine has always felt like black sheep of Star Trek. It is a much darker, and arguably more realistic vision of the future. It is a vision of the future unobstructed by rose-colored glasses. Maybe that’s why people have always had such strong opinions about it. The series is more grounded in reality than any other series in Star Trek history and here is why.

10. Science and Medicine

The Quickening (S:4 E:24), Broken Link (S:4 E:26), Statistical Probabilities (S:6 E:9)

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Jadzia Dax: “Maybe it was arrogant to think that. But it’s even more arrogant to think that there isn’t a cure just because you couldn’t find it.”

– The Quickening (S:4 E:24)

Part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision was a future free of disease and suffering, where major diseases have been eradicated by medicine. This is wonderful and optimistic, but it’s not something shared by Deep Space Nine.

In fact, Julian Bashir shows limitations of medicine very realistically. Throughout the entire series, he never really knows how to treat Odo for virtually any medical problem. And why should he? For a good part of the show, Julian doesn’t have any contact with any other Changelings to understand their physiology. Sure, Dr. Mora knows a little but certainly not enough to actually help with medical conditions.

And so Julian does what he can but he’s often at a loss to help Odo. That’s more realistic than Julian learning how to treat a completely alien species so different from humanoids that Odo wasn’t initially recognized as a life form.

A specific episode that really highlights the limitations of medicine and science is “The Quickening” (S:4 E:24). Julian Bashir is an incredible physician, but medicine isn’t magic. He works hard and still never finds a cure for the disease ravaging the planet. And it isn’t his fault. Medicine isn’t a magic wand that can be waved at any random disease that comes along…and unfortunately, disease will likely always be with us.

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9. Colonialism

Duet (S:1 E:19), Ties of Blood and Water (S:5 E:19), Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night (S:6 E:17)

Amon Marritza: “I covered my ears every night. But I couldn’t bear to hear those horrible screams. You have no idea what it’s like to be a coward. To see these horrors… and do nothing.”

– Duet (S:1 E:19)

One of the things that makes Deep Space Nine so unique among Star Trek series is its location. It is a space station that, for the most part, remains immobile. The show centers primarily around one planetary system and its inhabitants: the Bajorans. Deep Space Nine tackles the issue of colonialism with its examination of the relationship between Bajor and Cardassia. We see the damage of the occupation in almost all spheres of life on Bajor. Deep Space Nine isn’t shy about dealing with the issues of post-traumatic stress, terrorism, sexual abuse as a tactic in war, and the complicated relationship post-occupation between colonizer and colonized.

It is easy to think of Gul Dukat as a megalomaniac. It is much more difficult to think of him as a standard colonizer like many of the colonizers of history. In a very Rudyard Kipling kind of way, he honestly believes that Cardassia will help Bajor become civilized, and he can’t possibly understand why a backwards people would fight so hard against civilizing forces.

8. Terrorism

The Maquis Part I and Part II (S:2 E:20&21), For the Cause (S:4 E:22), For the Uniform (S:5 E:13)

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Michael Eddington: “I know you. I was like you once, but then I opened my eyes. Open your eyes, Captain. Why is the Federation so obsessed about the Maquis? We’ve never harmed you. And yet we’re constantly arrested and charged with terrorism.”

– For the Cause (S:4 E:22)

It would be cliché to say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But we’re going to say it anyway because sometimes in clichés there is truth. Deep Space Nine takes on terrorism in a way that’s uncharacteristic of television pre-9/11. Sure, Voyager had members of the Maquis aboard, but in the end they integrate almost seamlessly into normal lives. Not what would you would call realistic.

But Major Kira’s experiences are. Though she is no longer a terrorist, Kira wrestles with the things she has done. Was she justified in her violence against Cardassisa? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make her past any easier for her. During her early development as a character, we have to see her integrate into a “normal” life outside of the resistance. She has to reconcile her actions to herself.

Michael Eddington is quite the opposite. He goes from “respectable” Starfleet Officer to Maquis terrorist. And what is the difference between Major Kira and Eddington? Context. We view Major Kira’s actions as justifiable while we view Eddington as power hungry. But the reality is that they both exist in the space between terrorist and freedom fighter. It just depends on who you ask.

7. War

Homefront (S:4 E:11) …Nor the Battle to the Strong (S:5 E:7), In the Pale Moon Light (S:6 E:19)

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Benjamin Sisko: “That was my first moment of real doubt, when I started to wonder if this whole thing was a mistake. So then I went back to my office. And there was a new casualty list waiting for me. People are dying out there, everyday! Entire worlds are struggling for their freedom, and here I am still worrying about the finer points of morality! No, I… I had to keep my eye on the ball, win the war, stopping the bloodshed, those were the priorities. So I pushed on, and every time another doubt appeared before me, I just found another way to shove it aside.”

– In the Pale Moon Light (S:6 E:19)  

War is hell. And Deep Space Nine never shies away from this reality. And no one gets out of the war with clean hands. The war is full of alliances, betrayals, interplanetary tension, and war crimes. And it isn’t always clear that the Federation is going to win.

And the Dominion War is not a glorious war. It makes the show much darker than other Star Trek series and it should. The Dominion’s actions make the Cardassian occupation of Bajor look like a nice day at the fair…and the Federation’s actions aren’t that that much better.

6. Politics

Emissary (S:1 E:1&2), The Way of the Warrior (S:4 E:1&2), In the Pale Moon Light (S:6 E:19)

Garak: “…That’s why you came to me. Isn’t it, Captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing. Well, it worked.”

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– In the Pale Moon Light (S:6 E:19)

One of the major critiques that Star Trek receives is that is has an overly optimistic view of future politics. It seems that every diplomatic issue can be solved via the Federation’s values. Deep Space Nine shows a more nuanced view of politics. Yes, Federation values are still held in high regard. Perhaps it isn’t the values that are flawed, it is the people carrying them out. This can be seen throughout the Dominion War.

There are times when Captain Sisko finds himself torn between what he feels needs to be done and what he knows needs to be done. It is in the ethical dilemmas that realism comes into play. Should Sisko allow the Klingon Empire to attack Cardassia without warning? The Federation has an alliance with the Klingons but allowing Cardassia to be attacked without provocation is “wrong.” So Captain Sisko just happens to allow Garak to overhear vital information knowing that Garak will pass it on to Cardassia. Is it “wrong” to allow this to happen? Maybe. Is it “wrong” to allow your allies to attack another planet without warning? Maybe.

Deep Space Nine also doesn’t pretend that Federation values are the end all and be all of political diplomacy. In fact, a few episodes manage to highlight how using Ferengi political tactics (the “let’s make a deal” tactic) are superior to traditional Star Fleet tactics.

5. Religion

In The Hands of the Prophets (S:1 E:20), Accession (S:4 E:17), Rapture (S:5 E:10)

Weyoun: “Pah-Wraiths and Prophets? All this talk of gods strikes me as nothing more than superstitious nonsense.”

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Damar: “You believe the Founders are gods, don’t you?”

Weyoun: “That’s different.”

Damar: “[Laughs] In what way?”

Weyoun: “The Founders are gods.”

– Tears of the Prophets (S:6 E:26)

Some may argue that The Prophets, Pah-Wraiths, and Emissary business are exactly what makes Deep Space Nine completely unrealistic. But it is important to look at it for what it is: a spiritual and religious debate. Are The Prophets and Pah-Wraiths supernatural entities fighting over the balance of Bajor or are they just two species of wormhole aliens meddling in the affairs of the Bajoran people.

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Is Captain Sisko really the Emissary of the Prophets or just a good Star Fleet officer working hard to get Bajor back on its feet. Or is he both? For every moment that can be explained away via the Prophets, there is always a purely scientific explanation. Captain Sisko himself is often on the fence regarding his belief in the Prophets.

And what of the comparison between Bajoran’s belief structures to the Dominion’s? Why is the belief that the Founders (another race known for meddling in the affairs of others) are gods any different than the belief that the wormhole aliens are gods? There are no easy answers, which is what makes it so realistic.

Besides philosophical gray areas, there is also an intense amount of political backstabbing involved in spiritual matters. Kai Winn uses spirituality as an excuse to grab power. Her corruption makes her, unfortunately, a realistic character.

4. Xenophobia

The Nagus (S:1 E:11), Chimera (S:7 E:14), Extreme Measures (S:7 E:23)

Quark: “Watch your step, Odo. We’re at war with your people. This is no time for a ‘Changeling Pride’ demonstration on the promenade.”

– Chimea (S:7 E:14)

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Gene Roddenberry was optimistic in his vision of racial and species relations. It isn’t to say that Roddenberry’s vision didn’t include interspecies conflict, but Star Trek always portrayed the Federation on the right side of history. But it’s also easy to get along with other species that are relatable. Almost every species the Federation encounters on Star Trek is humanoid. Not so with Deep Space Nine. Often it is Odo’s presence on the ship that brings out the still lingering xenophobia.

Odo is different. He doesn’t eat, sleep, or breathe. He only exists as a solid in order to fit in with everyone on the ship. He’s very clearly an outsider. This becomes especially evident during the Dominion War when his people (a deeply xenophobic race) are at war with the Alpha Quadrant. His differences become more and more apparent as he attempts to fit in with both worlds. And yes, there are several incidents where it is apparent that people are uncomfortable with him. And beyond uncomfortable, there is always a distance between himself and solids.

And then, of course, the Federation attempts to commit genocide against his people using him as a carrier to spread it to his own people. They could care less about all the good things that Odo has done. He’s just another changeling.

3. Family

Family Business (S:3 E:23), Sons and Daughters (S:6 E:3), Change of Heart (S:6 E:16)

Tora Ziyal: “I promise my father will behave!”

– Sons and Daughters (S:6 E:3)

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Almost every version of Star Trek deals with family in one way or another. Whether its dealing with cultural identity (ex: Spock and B’elanna), parenting (ex: Lwaxana Troi and Dr. Beverly Crusher), or marriage (ex: O’Brien/Keiko and Tom/B’elanna), they usually manage to do a very good job.

Deep Space Nine has the upper hand however due to its emphasis on interpersonal relationships. These relationships are really what the show is based on. There is something oddly refreshing about the depiction of the family units on the show. For instance, Keiko and Miles read like a married couple that have moved past their honeymoon phase. They fight about the things that all couples fight about: jobs, children, moving. But they also get along with one another in a way that rings true for long-term married couples. It is always clear that they love each other but they also lead independent lives.

Another realistic, although sometimes humorous relationship, is between Moogie and Quark. Moogie and Quark don’t get along because they are so similar in their behaviors. Despite their strained relationship (especially when compared to Moogie and Rom) it is clear that they have a mutual respect and love for one another. It is no surprise that when Quark is feeling down he shows up to Moogie for comfort.

Of course, not all of the family relationships aboard Deep Space Nine are as healthy as the two above. Gul Dukat’s relationship with his daughter Ziyal is dysfunctional, unhealthy, and abusive. It is clear that Dukat loves Ziyal in only the way that Dukat could love anyone. And when he’s not trying to kill her he’s a good father. And Ziyal desperately wants to believe that he father is not a monster. Their relationship seems forged together through a desperate need on both of their parts to belong to a family.

2. Morally Ambiguous Characters

Indiscretion (S:4 E:5), Things Past (S:5 E:8), Honor Among Thieves (S:6 E:15)

Major Kira: “You were special. You were the one man who stood apart from everyone else, the one man who stood for justice. Now what?”

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Most Star Trek series are filled with heroes and villains and not a whole lot of ambiguity. And if they aren’t good or bad to start off with, they end up there in the end. Deep Space Nine is different in that regard. Almost every character shows their capability for good and their capability for evil. Some of the clearest examples of this ambiguity are Odo, Kira, Garak, Quark.

If Deep Space Nine existed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons (and wouldn’t that be fun?), Odo’s alignment would be lawful neutral. Which is exactly what makes him morally ambiguous. He will enforce the law whether it be by killing an innocent Bajoran during the Occupation, keeping smugglers off of the ship, or arresting a Vedek for breaking a minor law. He believes in justice and for him, that means enforcing the law. And it doesn’t matter whether that law may be moral, intelligent, or “right.”

Major Kira also views morality in terms of black and white, which, in a contradictory kind of way, also makes her morally ambiguous. People are good or they are evil. They are with the resistance or they are collaborators. Upon learning that her mother had a romantic relationship with Gul Dukat, Kira refused to even consider her mother’s reasoning and attempted to kill her. She is completely willing to destroy those who she believes are wrong doers without a second thought because she believes that there are no moral gray areas.

Quark and Garak, conversely, exist only in gray areas. Both of them act in a manner that is completely self-serving. Sometimes those actions are moral and sometimes they’re not. That’s what makes them both complicated characters. Just when people think they have Garak or Quark figured out, they do something completely horrific (or completely honorable). Again, using the Dungeons & Dragons alignment scale, Garak and Quark would both fall right into the true neutral category.

1. Hope

Far Beyond the Stars (S:6 E:13), Profit and Lace (S:6 E:23), What You Leave Behind (S:7 E:25 &26)

Female Changeling: “The Dominion has spent the last two years trying to destroy the Federation, and now you’re asking me to put our fate in their hands?”

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– What You Leave Behind (S:7 E:25 &26)

One of the things that tends to scare mainstream Star Trek fans away from Deep Space Nine is the more pessimistic tone throughout the series. Yes, Deep Space Nine sometimes dwells in the darkness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its hopeful moments. In fact, one might argue that it is the most hopeful of all. Yes, they go through the horrors of colonialization, war, and genocide.

For all of the evils depicted in this show, it ends with hope. There is hope that Ferenginar will enter a new phase of history where women will be granted full rights of citizenship. The end of the war may leave the Alpha Quadrant in ruin, but there is a new connection between the planets. In their alliances they find their strength. And finally, the Dominion may finally find itself at peace.

Deep Space Nine ends on a note of optimism. Not the kind of optimism that is found in The Original Series, The Next Generation, or Voyager. But it is an optimism earned by diving into darkness and surviving.

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