I’ve written this article, and I see and feel a glaring problem … I’ve built a reputation as a fair handed reviewer who objectively takes a given subject and presents a case for its effectiveness. In this article, however, I’m an opinion writer … so I write this article more as a fan and 3rd generation Trek fanatic than anything. The extent of my professional background is limited and a source of scrutiny – I’ve only been reviewing film and television shows since April 2002. My acting experience is limited to my performances in University theater. I have several inside contacts throughout the film and television industry developed through my writing and college lives. Does this make me the foremost expert on film and television? Am I nothing more than a glorified fan with an opinion? Is this article going to generate some of the best hate mail in the history of this website? I’ll let you, the reader, answer those questions and think that you want.
This article is simply about me, Sean Gibson, wanting to express an opinion about something he deeply cares about. The hope is that I’ll develop some discussion and have the internet community at large think about the franchise they so deeply care about as well.
If you don’t want to take the time to read this lengthy article, fine. The main points in an executive overview:
Deep Space Nine, on its own merits, was just as good if not a better show than Star Trek The Next Generation. Although the acting on TNG was better, the technical value of the special/visual effects and the fact that Deep Space Nine is a series that was developed more for episode-to-episode television made it much more addicting to watch. TNG was developed for syndicated television – great for short term profits, bad for long-term lastability. DS9 benefited more from being produced on DVD than any show I’ve ever seen, as the people at Paramount revamped the color and gamma – watching DS9 on syndicated television and on DVD is an almost night and day difference. Due to DS9′s gripping over-lining storyline, superior special effects in the form of giant space battles and unbelievable makeup jobs, and finally a longer lasting value – Deep Space Nine can be argued to be a better television series than Star Trek The Next Generation.
deep space nine: Why some of you didn’t watch – an overview
After watching every single episode of Deep Space Nine on DVD (yes, every single one) over the course of 2003, my opinion of the show turned an entire 180 degrees. Like a lot of Star Trek fans I tuned in dutifully the first two seasons and then gave up – “Space Politics” wasn’t something I was interested in. (Also it should be noted that my college dorm didn’t have a television) Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) was an absolute institution, the series that gave science fiction a much needed kick in the ass. Inevitably, fans unfairly held STTNG (which in retrospect wasn’t good its first season either) on a pedestal and used the show as a measuring stick for all things Star Trek (and science fiction). After developing a successful formula (which will be dissected later) for 6 seasons, fans were introduced to Deep Space Nine.
A darker, scarier, stranger Star Trek was promised – with plenty of aliens to catch your eyes and imaginations. What we got was characters so different from the STTNG franchise that there was a deep backlash from the 20 million+ devoted Trekkers. The character of Dr. Bashier in particular came under intense fire – how dare a revered Star Trek position such as head doctor be a naive, wet behind the ears, recent graduate of Star Fleet Academy? The lead man, Ben Sisko, was no Captain Picard – he was a distant man who was a builder of things, caught up in his personal grief and the pressure of becoming a religious icon. Too much for an audience to deal with? Perhaps.
The production value of Deep Space Nine offered big payoffs and an extremely high budget. The problem that is completely evident when watching the show on television and on DVD is that the “dark atmosphere” of the show comes off SO poorly on television (especially on syndication) that it’s barely tolerable to watch. I’m not sure if Paramount spent time in the box working the show over with their gamma and color correction when they revamped the seasons for DVD – but there is absolutely no question that there’s a night and day difference in the quality of the picture between the aired version and what you get on DVD. Was the decision to make the show dark (almost literally) a poor one? I think so. What was evident was that Star Trek fans had their tolerances on a short leash.
storylines – DS9 and TNG
Star Trek The Next Generation had an extremely successful formula for almost every single episode of the 7 year run of the show. The Enterprise would encounter some galactic calamity, become personally involved, go near the brink of destruction (or someone near the point of death), find some amazing solution to the problem, and all gets better and ends up as if it all never happened. TNG was specifically tailored for syndication because Paramount had the “1990s foresight” to see that the money made from The Original Series would be pennies compared to the profits that TNG could generate from syndication sales (they were right by the way). What they didn’t anticipate back then was that a technology would be developed (DVD) where it would be possible for mainstream buyers to purchase an entire season of a show, and that the money generated would rival that of syndication.
TNG was developed for no main over-lining storyline or story arc in order to help sell the show for syndication. Don’t give me the “search for new civilizations” stuff as the main storyline for TNG – we’re talking about an ongoing story that we visit on a regular basis. There were hints at such attempts through the cast’s personal development, such as Worf’s discoveries about dishonor and Klingon politics that were given their due attention once or twice a season. But an over-arching storyline encompassing their entire mission or existence? Never happened.
Deep Space Nine, behind Steven Ira Behr, was supposed to be developed for syndication. The Star Trek brain trust however, quickly realized that unlike the Enterprise, the space station wasn’t going to zoom away to the next adventure, leaving whatever changes it made in the universe behind in the warp drive rear-view mirror. The people there would be affected, and things would change. On-going stories from episode to episode and an on-going main storyline weren’t just an idea, it became the logical conclusion for action on the show.
The main storyline of Deep Space Nine was something that every Star Trek fan, at least it seemed, wanted and begged for. Before I recap the series, I’d like to recreate a conversation I had with staff writer Roy Rossi when developing research for this article…
S. Gibson: “Hey Roy, what if I were to tell you I’m developing an article where I make a case that Deep Space Nine was better than TNG?”
R. Rossi: “I’d say that’d be blasphemy.”
S. Gibson: “Well, let me ask you this, if you could have Paramount create a new Star Trek show, what would it be about?”
R. Rossi: “Well, I’d have plenty of special effects and space battles. There’d be conspiracies, a giant menacing evil empire bent on destroying the Federation… that kind of thing.”
S. Gibson: “Roy, are you aware that you almost described Deep Space Nine exactly?”
R. Rossi: “Really? I kind of gave up on the show during the second season and became a Babylon 5 snob.”
Deep Space Nine, about half way through the second season, began to lay the seeds for a 5 and a half season storyline that would pit the vicious and mysterious “Dominion” against the Federation, Kingons, Romulans, and Cardassians … with alliances in the war changing from episode to episode. The massive search for artifacts and power behind “The Prophets” in an intergalactic race for domination, control, and freedom was the central theme of DS9. A four year war ensued, with lives lost, conspiracies exposed, spies caught, all while the crew of the most important space station in the galaxy managed to hold things down.
Now – don’t think that I feel that EVERY DS9 episode was tailored for the purpose of the on-going story arc. It was plainly obvious that a power play between the writers, the producers, and the higher-ups at Paramount was underway for the direction of Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Would the show be developed for syndication (like TNG), or would the show be one on-going story where episodes connect from one to the next? The power plays took away from the direction of the show, and jerked audiences everywhere. In the end, the proponents of the on-going story won, and in amazing fashion, and 8 part series finale was developed (despite heavy criticism from many in the high positions in charge of the entire Star Trek franchise).
If you look at the two series apart from each other you can see something pretty obvious:
1) Star Trek The Next Generation lacked an on-going main storyline. The stories were developed for syndicated television, meaning things that happened in one episode would rarely affect the next.
2) Deep Space Nine had an on-going storyline of an intergalactic war, but lacked a definitive direction, as it seemed the power-plays between writers, producers, and Paramount management spun the show in different creative directions.
issues with The Next Generation
I understand that people might have read up to this point think I’m bashing TNG left and right. To a degree, I have been, but don’t underscore my respect and sincere appreciation for this show. Star Trek TNG is the home run hitter that revolutionized science fiction. Without this show, there’d be no DS9, no Voyager, no Stargate SG-1, no Babylon 5 … in 1987 there was no ratings-grabbing Sci Fi series.
That aside, it’d be good point out gripes with both TNG and DS9.
If there’s one criticism that most fans had is that it seemed the Enterprise (the ship) was doomed to explode only to have the combination of Geordi’s visor and resident space nerd Wesley Crusher save the day. How often did that happen? How often was the crew saved by simple techno-babble? Way too often. Star Trek TNG was at its best when it took contemporary issues like torture, homosexuality, war, discrimination, and spun them only in the way TNG could to show audiences how we must overcome them to become the society we wish to be (a wonderful lasting legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s vision). Could those philosophies have been adapted to fit a big ongoing story? I think so.
Also – some characters on the show never received their due. Wesley Crusher was completely bungled – a wiz kid, dealing with the death of his father, is put on a ship with the man who was responsible. Only rarely was this intriguing storyline touched, and when it was, it lacked the fire it could have had. Other characters, such as Troi and Geordi never really were able to show much range as actors (which is a shame because I have tremendous respect for LeVar Burton).
issues with deep space nine
The series caught a lot of attention in season one, but a lack of direction and being pulled in several different directions in season two forced people to simply turn off the television. Finally in season three the series really took off, which might have been too long for the entire Star Trek audience to become loyal to a series.
I have a huge gripe with Cirroc Lofton’s character of Jake Sisko, the son of the starbase commander Ben Sisko. His mother was killed by the Borg, he grew up in Starfleet, and his father is in charge of the most important space station in the galaxy during a huge war, all while his father acts as a religious icon for the people of the nearest world. So with all that in the story foundation, there were possibilities that Jake could grow up to resent his father, for dragging him into all this stuff, and blame him for the death of his mother. Another possibility is that Jake could have developed a sense of duty, to serve with his father while trying to break out of his father’s great shadow (like most sons do with their fathers). Instead, Jake became somewhat of a happy go lucky nothing, who decided to become a writer. A writer who barely was involved with anything interesting at all … did you see the “poof” of potential ratings and interesting storylines? I sure did.
The one main gripe with this series is that the creative team never could decide if Deep Space Nine was going to be an episodic television series where the one main storyline would drive audiences from show to show, or if this series would mimic The Next Generation and be made for syndication.
The Long Term Future – DVD
You could make the case that you could pop in an episode from season three of TNG and right after that pop in an episode from season six, and not tell any difference at all. And don’t forget – that’s the way they wanted it.
If you did the same with Deep Space Nine, undoubtedly you’d notice a difference in the story and tone. Is this good for syndication? No! Is this good for what I feel is the future of value beyond airing for the first time? Yes!
DVDs are the future of revenue (maybe the present) for companies that want to make money beyond the profits they make from airing the show during its initial run. Before, it was thought that syndication was the only way to generate this type of revenue. Now, the average consumer regularly buys DVDs, and the hottest thing going now is a television series being released in its entirety, season to season.
Think about it – are you more likely to spend you money on a television series that was good all the way around, or a series that was good that keeps you going from episode to episode through the series towards a main storyline? Star Trek TNG would only offer big cliffhangers between seasons as the way to entice people to the next season. Deep Space Nine wouldn’t offer such a cliffhanger, but by the end of the season’s finale, you knew the stakes had been raised, and leave you saying, “Oh man, it IS ON!”.
well what about ‘Enterprise’?
Like a lot of television watchers I was very curious when the new series Enterprise was first aired. The show was a prequel to the entire Star Trek franchise … and very bold and aggressive idea. With the surprise addition of Scott Bakula, who many liked from his Quantam Leap days, Enterprise was to be Paramount’s only Star Trek show on television. Needless to say we all know about the show’s disappointing ratings – and in my mind, there were a couple of main reasons why the show didn’t get audiences like Paramount/UPN expected.
1) It ran into a phenomenon called “American Idol” … a show grabbing some of the biggest ratings in the last 15 years. Airing the show on Wednesdays at 8pm was a total disaster. Some people don’t think they compete for the same audience … I disagree with this point. If there’s one main television in the house and one person wants to watch Enterprise while the rest want American Idol … guess who wins out?
2) The “searching for new life and civilizations” theme has been beaten to death. We’ve watch TOS, TNG, and Voyager … roughly 17 seasons of this theme. Fans wanted something new.
3) The stories of the episodes in Season One didn’t really make you care about these people. Specifically I remember an episode of season one when the Enterprise was under constant attack, only to have members of the crew worried about what kind of cake to make the Gunnery Sergeant. It made zero sense.
4) It’s very, very, very hard to win back an audience once they’ve left a show.
5) Whenever momentum was gained, the show would take a 4 to 6 week hiatus on UPN. That’s way too long between new episodes and television watchers, with all the new alternatives on TV (especially for Sci Fi programming) can easily be broken out of their Wednesday night at 8PM habits. A big slap in the back of the head to whomever at UPN made that decision.
Now that being said, Enterprise took a whole different direction in this last season three, which many theorize was a bold attempt to save the show from cancellation. Yes, I’ve kept watching, and feel the following things about the show:
1) The new on-going storyline about saving Earth, evil intruders from the future, and the Xindi was absolutely fantastic.
2) The nature of the show changed into a story that goes from episode to episode … forcing even casual watchers to tune in again next week.
3) The characters seem to have developed more depth as they cope with death, war, and the possibility of Earth being destroyed.
I’m glad Enterprise took this turn … and fortunately the brass at UPN did in fact renew the show (a lot of people held their breath) for a 4th season – but a move to Friday night at 9PM is a clear indication that going head-to-head against existing Wednesday night programming was suicide for the show. Oh – and didn’t the change in Enterprise’s format seem eerily familiar? Oh yeah, it’s the same highlights I mentioned earlier about DS9.
the point of all this
There were just some points I wanted to make about my favorite television franchise after bottling them up for years on end. I really believe that Star Trek: The Next Generation will always be thought of as the greatest science fiction television series of all time – which I don’t have any problems with. Nevertheless, Deep Space 9 was if anything the most underrated and under-appreciated series whose elements can be seen in various television series today (more specifically ‘Alias’).
The Star Trek franchise, to many fans, was headed in a terrible direction 3 years ago and many worried if the entire thing had finally played itself out. I think the feeling in the heart of many fans of the franchise is that they deeply want to be entertained, to forget about all the horrible things happening the world, and see how human beings can explore, overcome, and have incredible adventures in the future. Enterprise disappointed us … and many simply have too many alternatives for entertainment to be won back over with a series we gave a try to already. Fortunately, for those of you reading this article and thinking to give the show another try, I’m telling you now it’s definitely worth the effort. We’re seeing a growing number of action-drama shows like 24 and Alias adopt the season-long story arc very successfully … and rumor is that Enterprise will adopt some form of mini-arc format for season 4 to follow up the season long arc format of season 3 – another great move for this improving show.
Gene Roddenberry created a franchise that tried to elevate the awareness of human kind. Many of his ideals and philosophies have been adopted by people from all different backgrounds and beliefs in the theme of unity among people of this planet. I believe that it didn’t really matter that any of the Star Trek shows were in the 24th century … the themes of human evolution, social equality, exploration, and dealing with conflict while maintaining our high standards of morality were the important elements of the show.
Perhaps today’s younger audiences aren’t drawn in by these themes, or perhaps Star Trek has simply saturated itself over the years with the five shows that it has produced. Either way, I think Mr. Roddenberry created an amazing and wonderful legacy for humanity to enjoy for many years beyond the real 21st century.