Deep Space Nine has always been my favorite of all the Star Trek incarnations. Sweeping in scope, meticulous with character, and challenging my moral intuitions, I got the feeling from the entirety from Deep Space Nine that one gets from a rich and satisfying novel: I felt like a better person for having experienced it.
Occasional viewings of particular out of context episodes aside, I’ve been through the series twice. Once when it originally aired in the 90s when I was in high school and college, probably missing a view episodes due to the ephemeral nature of fixed-schedule TV airings (which seems an absurd way to watch a series now); and in the aughts when I was in my twenties, mostly via torrented downloads on my computer and old-school video iPod.
I am now beginning a third time around, in my late 30s, this time alongside my wife who, while no stranger to Star Trek, never saw DS9. We’ve just watched the pilot episode, titled “Emissary,” and there was something different about it this time, some things I truly didn’t expect.
First of all, I think I expected it to seem more dated and hokey. Instead, it came off as rather mature, far more sure of itself than most TV pilots, and head and shoulders and freakin’ torso over other Star Trek pilots. Jessica, to my surprise, said it seemed a little more mawkish than she expected, but within acceptable parameters (my words, she never talks like that). But not for me. It really held up. I rarely felt taken out of the action by something that seemed forced or overdone.
Also, I know that DS9 has the reputation of being the “downer” of the franchise, the “grim” series, but coming back to it, from the beginning, after all these years, this really was something of a shock. The original series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise all began their runs with heaps of wonder and optimism. (Things of course go badly wrong for Voyager in order to set the stage for the series, but the hopeful “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” spirit was always there.)
The series opens with a flashback to a massacre, and our lead protagonist unable to save his dead wife, and having to abandon his ship to a relentless zombie-cyborg force. Being stationed then at Deep Space Nine, née Terok Nor, we are placed in the midst of an ugly transition out of a brutal occupation. In the pilot episode of a Star Trek series, we are immediately faced with violent, pointless deaths and several characters absolutely spilling over with anger, regret, and helplessness. It’s quite stirring, and it all works.
But there was one part that hit me the hardest, that sunk deep into me, and oddly it’s something I’d almost entirely forgotten about from past viewings.
Toward the end of the episode, Ben Sisko is conversing with the skeptical wormhole aliens, non-physical entities who don’t even experience linear time as we do. They speak to him by taking the form of people in his memories, in the very settings he originally experienced them. So, for example, he discusses how humans experience time with his “son” Jake as they sit by what appears to be a lake, or with his late wife “Jennifer” as they walk down the beach where they met. It’s not really Jake and Jennifer, but wormhole aliens who have assumed their forms, taken from Sisko’s memory.
Somehow, Sisko repeatedly finds himself talking to the aliens amid his memory of the day his wife was killed by the Borg, where he sees his wife, dead, under a pile of rubble, as he’s about to be pulled away toward an escape vessel by his Bolian crewmate. Memory after memory, conversation after conversation, Sisko returns to the place and time he lost his wife.
Throughout their conversations, which are some of the headiest and evocative pieces of dialogue one was ever likely to hear on prime time commercial television, Sisko struggles to explain to the aliens how humans and other “corporeal beings” do not exist in a timeless state, but begin an existence, live their lives through a chain of causal events, and then cease to exist. The aliens are entirely unfamiliar with such an existence, and they ask increasingly probing questions in order to grasp the concept.
One thing doesn’t make sense to them. Remember, they only have Sisko’s memories as a frame of reference. Sisko is telling them that corporeal beings travel along a timeline, and make the best of their lives from one moment to the next, aware that each choice affects and allows the moments to come. And yet, they keep returning to the scene of Jennifer’s death. One of them asks Sisko, “If what you say is true, then why do you exist here?!”
It’s not the aliens taking Sisko to this scene, it’s Sisko taking them.
“I never left this ship,” Sisko says, a realization dawning on him.
“You exist here,” the alien in the form of Jennifer says, also beginning to understand.
“I exist here,” says Sisko. “I don’t know if you can understand.” He begins to sob, increasingly so as he speaks. “I see her like this, every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her… like this!”
“None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.”
“And I have never figured out how to live without her.”
“So, you choose to exist here,” says the alien, and Sisko nods. “It is not linear.”
“No,” he says, drained, exposed, defeated. “It’s not linear.”
In previous viewings, this scene was meaningful, but to the extent that it was a character I was interested in coming to terms with something painful. It did not truly resonate with me.
Now, as I approach 40, with a wife and two children that I love beyond measure, and with an ongoing struggle with my own post-traumatic stress, I understood.
For so long after I was attacked, I existed there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, with the sounds of footfalls running toward me, of the blows to my head and body, the impact of the concrete, the vertigo of the stumbling walk home. I existed there.
I existed in the throngs of middle school classmates joyfully mocking me, I existed in the oppressive air of the abuse and scrutiny (real and imagined) of my preteen and teenage years. Decades on, I stayed there.
And much to the sadness and frustration of those who loved me, but couldn’t understand, it was not linear.
I suppose I simply hadn’t yet lived enough to truly understand Sisko’s journey before. It’s amazing to me now, to think that this profound, climactic lesson of my favorite show just flitted away in previous viewings. I’m so glad I came back to it now to experience in earnest. I wonder what else Deep Space Nine will show me this time that it couldn’t before.
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