I love science fiction, and I love when people new to the genre take their first steps into it. There are a lot of negative stereotypes around sci-fi (some admittedly well-deserved), which makes it all the more impressive when non-fans make the courageous jump.
As a massive sci-fi franchise of seven television series, twelve feature films, and countless books, graphic novels, and games, Star Trek is a daunting universe for the novice to get into. From the outside looking in, the bulk of that material can seem dull, pedantic, and devoid of feeling. But beneath the slick surface of transporters, warp engines, and holographic doctors, Star Trek is, at its core, a story about the triumph of the human spirit. Trek shows us humanity at its best: flawed in many ways, but capable of astounding ingenuity, bravery, and compassion. These themes and story-lines are relate-able to anyone, hard-core sci-fi geek or otherwise.
So, how does the non-Trek-fan break in? Which show offers the path of least resistance for the modern pop culture consumer? My answer–and I am 100% firm in this–is Deep Space Nine.
Trek fans, please bear with me. I’m sure many of you are foaming at the mouth right now. Trek newbies, uh… you should also please bear with me on this. I know that the vast majority of you probably haven’t even heard of DS9, let alone watched a full episode. Trust me though: it’s easily the most relate-able Star Trek product for the average modern TV viewer, in spite of the fact it debuted 21 years ago.
It’s more like a modern TV series than any other Trek show
Take a look at today’s popular, critically-acclaimed TV dramas, like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, etc. They’re serialized shows, which is a TV nerd way of saying the story-line progresses from episode to episode, sometimes even across seasons. The opposite of this is episodic television, where each episode is a self-contained story with few (if any) plot threads connecting it to the rest of the series. Think CSI as a recent example of this, or really, almost any drama from the 1990’s and prior.
The other defining characteristic of modern drama is, for lack of a better term, grit. Nothing is black or white. Nobody is purely a good guy, or purely a bad guy. Characters struggle with themselves just as much as they struggle with each other.
Most of Star Trek is episodic, good-vs-evil television. The original Kirk-Spock-McCoy series (“TOS”, as Trek fans refer to it) is purely episode-driven, set on an extremely fast and powerful starship that carried the crew from one self-contained adventure to another. The Next Generation (“TNG”) largely followed this blueprint, as did Voyager and the much-maligned prequel Enterprise.
Deep Space Nine is the only Trek series not set on a mighty starship; not coincidentally, it’s far more serialized than its peers. The action takes place on the titular far-flung space station, which, in addition to being stuck in the same remote corner of the galaxy for seven seasons, happens to be a decrepit death trap (initially, at least). The crew can’t just warp away at the end of an adventure; they’re in this for the long haul, and they don’t have the seemingly infinite resources of the Enterprise. This leads to longer story-lines, outcomes that linger, and messes that need to be cleaned up.
Speaking of mess, the DS9 version of the 23rd century is no gleaming, high-tech, good-triumphs-over-evil paradise. It’s gritty, nasty, and occasionally straight-up depressing. The good-guy heroism of TOS is nowhere to be found here, nor is the superior morality of TNG. Characters routinely bend the rules, act selfishly, and wrestle with issues external and internal. And forget technology saving the day; on DS9, shit breaks down all the goddamn time. Chief O’Brien, the station’s electrician/sysadmin/HVAC tech, can frequently be found grumbling and cursing while he repairs yet another critical system that’s smoldering away. Heck, they even have a vermin problem!
It has the most diverse cast
For a show that debuted in 1993, DS9 is about as diverse as it gets. If it debuted today we’d probably expect a bit more, especially when it comes to sexual orientation, but again: it’s twenty-one years old.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Star Trek, up until DS9, was pretty white, and very male-dominated. Granted, TOS was shockingly diverse for a 1960’s TV show. (“A commie, a jap, and a negress! And that pointy-eared fellow seems Jewish! Good golly, Martha, put the kids to bed!”) By today’s standards, though, it’s a male-dominated testosterone fest (yes, there was Uhura, but let’s get real: she was the ship’s secretary). TNG added a few more ladies, but the “tough” one left the show almost immediately, and the remaining two got saddled with form-fitting costumes and face-palm-inducing story-lines (with a few exceptions).
DS9 wins the Trek diversity contest quite handily. Most obviously, we have a black station commander and an Arab doctor, but color is just one facet. The second-in-command is a tough-as-nails Bajoran woman: a species that, in the Trek universe, serves as an excellent stand-in for your favorite oppressed minority (their strong spirituality reminds me especially of Tibetans). The smartest, wisest person in the crew is also a woman, and neither of the female leads are sexed up or routinely stuck with boring B stories. In general, the ladies of DS9 are smarter, stronger, and more involved in the action than their TOS or TNG counterparts.
Beyond the main cast, the station itself is diverse by its very nature: a frontier outpost/melting pot of races and cultures. The old occupying force still lingers and causes problems, and the new owners (the aforementioned Bajorans) are in the midst of finding their role in the galactic community. The feel of the station is similar to a large cosmopolitan city: there’s a little bit of everything. All of this lends itself to telling really good stories. Which segues me nicely to the fact that …
It does a great job of exploring real-world issues
Religious extremism. The murky ethics of war-time. The fine line between rebellion and terrorism. Tradition versus progress. Culture clashes. Trying to stay sane in a crazy world. These are just some of the themes from modern times that are aptly mirrored in DS9.
One of the best aspects of the sci-fi genre is its ability to show us an incredible world via relate-able–often allegorical–stories. Every Trek show does this to a certain degree, but DS9 is the most well-equipped to pull it off convincingly. The longer story-lines, deeper character development, and darker themes of the show are much more in line with our reality than a monster-of-the-week series about a perfect, gleaming space ship and it’s perfect, gleaming crew.
I will be the first to say that DS9 is far from flawless. It’s not even my favorite Trek show (though it is easily my second-favorite behind TNG). The cast lacks the sparkling chemistry of the three TOS leads, and is nowhere near the rock-solid ensemble that was the TNG crew. And although the story quality is very consistent across all seven seasons, the show doesn’t really hit its stride until the end of season two (to be fair, the same could be said for TNG, and its first season is downright awful).
And when it comes down to it, even though Deep Space Nine is definitely the most accessible Star Trek derivative, it’s still very clearly Star Trek. Some suspension of disbelief is required, especially when the techno-babble starts flowing, and there’s that vast, richly-detailed universe to figure out. Still, I’m convinced that you’ll grasp that universe a lot more firmly than if you watched another Trek series.
Oh, and the mirror universe episodes are terrible. Ugh.
Okay, you convinced me… now what?
Start with the two-part pilot episode. It’s well above average compared to other Trek pilots, and it nicely introduces the setting, characters, and over-arching premise.
After that, you can either slog your way through methodically, or, if you want to get right to the good stuff, skip ahead to the last episode of season two (“The Jem’Hadar”) and go from there. You won’t miss too much essential plot by doing this. From that point on, the show finds its feet and runs like hell. You’ll hardly ever encounter a dud episode.
Oh right… beware of those mirror universe turds I mentioned. Feel free to skip them all; they add nothing to the main plot. In order of appearance, they are “Crossover” (season 2), “Through the Looking Glass” (season 3), “Shattered Mirror” (season 4), “Resurrection” (season 6), and “The Emperor’s New Cloak” (season 7).
Where to go next
If you enjoyed DS9 and want more of the same quality, you pretty much have two choices. The Star Trek show most similar would be The Next Generation. DS9 was actually a spin-off of TNG, and the shows share a great deal of DNA (two of the DS9 main cast members were transplanted from TNG, in fact). The best cast in sci-fi television history (come on, I dare you to disagree) makes even the weaker episodes crackle and pop. Skip the first season if you can – it’s inconsistent at best, awful cornball crap at worst.
Or, go back to where it all began and watch the original series. It’s a bit campy, and it hasn’t aged well in some respects, but it’s got everything that makes Trek what it is. The undeniable chemistry of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is where the magic comes from here. It only ran three seasons, and the third is… not great.
Beyond that, you’re in die-hard fan territory. Voyager is set in the same universe and time period as DS9, but in all other respects its a very different show. Plus, on the whole it’s pretty weak, save for a few bright spots. And then there’s the show that most Trekkies would rather not talk about: Enterprise. This prequel was supposed to be more appealing to a non-nerd audience, but it wound up appealing to pretty much nobody. That said, it has a very DS9-like plot arc in the third season, but this was too-little-too-late. If Voyager killed Trek with lame plots and irritating characters, Enterprise dug up the grave and pissed in the coffin.
Yeah, I went there. Deal with it.
And then there’s the movies. There are two truly great Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (II), and The Undiscovered Country (VI). If you view The Voyage Home (IV) as a goofy buddy comedy, it works well, but it’s barely a Star Trek movie. As for the movies with the TNG cast, First Contact is a pretty solid action movie, but again, barely Trek. And if you got addicted to TNG and just need to get your fix, Insurrection is as close to the real thing as the movies get. None of the other movies are worth your time.