Deep Space Nine 25 years later: An oral history of the show that changed Star Trek

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Jan 18, 2018

In January 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered and changed the way people thought about the iconic science fiction franchise. For nearly 40 years, the show had its tropes. The Next Generation, the first live-action spin-off of The Original Series, stuck to the familiar formula, sprinkling in a few updates. There was still a crew on an Enterprise starship, they were still exploring new worlds each week, and storylines were still unlikely to be serialized from season to season.

Deep Space Nine arrived to introduce a new crew on a space station that wouldn't be moving from place to place each week. Suddenly, the characters were left to face their continuing struggles on the station, as well as the events happening on the planet Bajor and around the nearby wormhole.

Over the course of seven seasons, Deep Space Nine showed us previously unexplored territory in the Star Trek universe despite its stationary setting. It was a grayer world than the often black and white future of previous incarnations, as it focused on politics, war, and religion in new and complicated ways. The community on the station started off with a mix of characters that at first seemed difficult to believe could ever get along, but by the end would become a family.

For the 25th anniversary of Deep Space Nine's release, SYFY WIRE explores how this series came to be and the impact it left in Star Trek and beyond. Speaking to cast and crew in separate phone interviews, we look back at the game-changing show.

Assembling the Crew

The team behind the series featured those with and without Star Trek experience.

Ira Steven Behr (showrunner and executive producer): I had a weird dance with the franchise. They asked me in season two of The Next Generation to come on board. I had a meeting at the famous Paramount lunch room with Maurice Hurley and asked a couple of questions. He gave a couple of answers and at the table I said, "Forget it. I'm not doing the show." If you saw the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, it talked a lot about what was going on behind the scenes and I just didn't want to get involved because it sounded awful. I said "thanks, but no thanks" and I thought that was it.

Then the following year Michael Piller, who I had known for a couple of years already, came on to TNG as the showrunner and they asked me again. Because Michael was on and some other people I knew had come on the show, I said OK. I did that third season and at the end of the season I said goodbye to that. I thought OK, that's really the end of Star Trek as a place of work for me, but Michael and I were still friends.

He'd take me to the ball game all the time. We'd go see the Dodgers and one night he says to me "look, we're doing a new show and it's going to reflect your sensibilities a lot more than TNG. It's going to be darker, more character-driven, and if you come back to the show and say you'll do this, I guarantee you that after two years I'll hand it over to you and you'll run it." Now that's the kind of thing that people say to you and you don't necessarily believe, but Michael was a man of honor and a man of his word so I knew he meant it and I said ok.

Robert Hewitt Wolfe (writer, Seasons 1 to 5): I had been invited to pitch to The Next Generation and I had sold them the story for "A Fistful of Datas." They let me write the script and they liked it enough that they invited me to freelance for Deep Space Nine. They had the story for "Q-less" from another freelancer and they wanted me to take a crack at the script. I came in and I broke the story with Ira and Michael Piller and Peter Allen Fields and they sent me off to write it and I guess I did a good enough job on that freelance script that they invited me on the staff.

Behr: It was a little different than the way things are normally done because there wasn't a network and they knew they had the pickup and they knew we were going to be on for seven seasons. They brought me on and Peter Allen Fields in the middle of '92.

Michael would give me the casting tapes of people who were up for the various parts and different people bring different things to roles so we didn't know what we were doing, to be honest. We were told Odo was going to be a Clint Eastwood type so that's the story we were breaking for Odo and then he turned out to be René Auberjonois, who is a fantastic actor, but not Clint Eastwood, so we had to change all of that.

Sisko was going to be this young commander in his early 30s and then Avery Brooks comes along who's an adult and suddenly it's like that's a whole different character and why is he a commander if he's already in his 40s? Why isn't he a captain? That's a whole other story. The pilot was being shot, we were watching dailies, but my job, the job that Michael gave me and Pete, was get this thing up and running long before we go into production.

Alexander Siddig (played Dr. Julian Bashir): I got a call from my new agent because I was a brand-new actor back in those days in London, saying "would I audition for Star Trek? Was I interested in auditioning for Star Trek?"

I thought I was going to be auditioning for The Next Generation because that was the only Star Trek I knew existed at that time and it was still running, so I racked my brain thinking what part could I possibly be playing? Maybe I'll be Deanna Troi's long lost cousin or something. I did the audition. I only had a couple of lines and then I got another call from my agent saying you got through, they want to see you in Los Angeles. I had this huge contract that I had to look at which was 25 pages or something ridiculous like that. I was with a few friends and we'd never seen anything like this as young actors.

We were all bubbling with excitement trying to keep the lid on it because I probably wouldn't get it. It was a shot in the dark. They were going to fly me to America and I'd never been to Los Angeles. I was totally amazed and astonished by Paramount Studios and how romantic it all was.

I went into the audition and said one word and I believe that was "no." They all clapped and as I walked out one of the ladies who had escorted me in, a casting person, said to everybody waiting outside "thanks, guys. We won't be needing you today" and I think at that moment I realized I got the job. I was predestined to get the job and I didn't know that. They'd already given me the job before I'd even auditioned on the strength of the film I'd done a year before so it was a really amazing way to get a job. It changed my life. I think within a week I packed my bags and moved to a hotel in West Hollywood.

 

Aron Eisenberg (played Nog): I got a call to go into Paramount for the new Star Trek show, but I didn't put too much together other than it was another audition. I didn't think "Oh my god, this is going to be huge." Especially since it was a guest star role, I thought this might just be a one episode kind of thing.

I went in and met Ron Surma. I was blessed he was in my corner. I'm sure he probably gave the same to the other actors that auditioned because he's a decent human being, but he brought me in and asked me "Do you know what a Ferengi is?" I said "I have no idea" and he gave me a VHS tape to go home and watch, and also gave me the script so I could prepare and read the pilot. I went home and read the script. To all the other actors out there, if they ever give you a script, read it!

I watched "The Last Outpost" from TNG and was like "oh wow, that's what I'm playing." I went into the audition and it was very odd because the Ferengi from TNG were growling and hunched over and that was my perception. You walk in and there's seven, eight people sitting at one table at the end of the room in one line and then one chair in front of them, so it's a very intimidating process. I had auditioned with the scene when I meet Jake.

It was a short scene and here's why you should read the script. When I sat down, David Livingston, one of the producers and directors of the show, was sitting directly across from me. He goes "so you have a worm in your body?" I said "Nope, I'm not playing a Trill. I'm playing Nog the Ferengi" and he goes "Good job." It was good that I read it because I was able to not look like an idiot in the audition. It was a check in my box. Read the script because you never know if they'll test you.

Changes in Front of and Behind the Camera

As the show progressed over the years, changes would be made to characters and people would continue to join and leave the show.

Siddig: I remember the character wasn't incredibly popular in the first couple of seasons and there were constant attempts in the first years to get rid of him because he wasn't a normal, young, juvenile lead in a TV show. In those days, it was Jason Priestley and people like that. He wasn't at all like that. He was very unsexy. He was quite real and incapable of seducing anybody and blundered and made errors of judgement and malpractice from time to time. What we thought of as a very real young doctor.

Ronald D. Moore (writer/supervising producer, Seasons 3 and 4. Co-executive producer, Seasons 5 to 7): As my tenure at Next Generation was coming to an end and as the show was coming to an end, in that last season I was starting to think about what I should go on to do next.

Voyager was in development and Michael Piller and I had a conversation where Michael said he thought I would probably enjoy going to Deep Space. The question was Voyager or Deep Space among those of us at TNG who were talking about continuing with Star Trek. Michael thought I would enjoy Deep Space more. Ira Behr was running the writers' office and I had worked with Ira on my first year at Next Generation. Michael said "it's just more your sensibility. It's a little darker. It's more ambitious, more complicated." He said "Voyager's going to be more of another starship show."

He was the one that kind of nudged me in that direction and I had seen the Deep Space Nine pilot and an episode or two here and there, but I hadn't really watched it. When I was on Next Gen, those of us in the writers' office had a sense of rivalry. It was a friendly rivalry, but there was a rivalry between these two Star Trek shows. We were all in the same building at the Paramount lot. We shared a lot of the same soundstage space and production department and so on, so we were always kind of like "yeah Deep Space is getting all of the attention. We're still the biggest ship." There was that kind of spirit between the two shows so I hadn't really watched it religiously.

I watched all the episodes and I was impressed at what they were trying to do. I didn't realize how deep they had gotten into the politics and social commentary about Bajor and Cardassia and the after-effects of the Cardassian occupation and Kira's backstory and all that. I was sort of intrigued by it so I talked to Ira and that was a really good conversation.

 

Siddig: There was a conversation between Ira Behr, who became promoted, and myself and we said we can do something about this. We know this is a choice we've made to make the character as real as possible as a young graduate doctor. Let's play with the audience and see whether we can change their opinion. We did a show called "Our Man Bashir" which was a spoof on James Bond and overnight because of that heroism, the audience started to like him.

It's a sort of alarming testament to the audience being manipulated so easily, but that's what happened. I suspect that the darker spy story of Bashir that started to evolve came from that crystallization from that moment, I can't confirm that, but I suspect it was that moment we realized if we push this button and make him look more heroic, people will perceive him as more heroic and start to like him more. That started to happen, but out of respect for the audience we weren't quite as cynical as that. We kept trying to make him real. He just grew up on the show.

It was a really interesting age to be in your 20s when I suppose everyone finishes growing up physically and starts growing up mentally. To be on a television show and have your day to day thoughts and experiences reflected in the drama you do as an actor. I became more mature and Bashir became more mature.

Developing the Dominion

Eventually a new group appeared on the show that would be central to the series in a way fans had not seen in the franchise before.

Behr: At the end of season one, we realized that we had to find our own way. We could not lean on what worked at TNG or The Original Series. We were something totally different just by the fact that we were on a space station. By the end of Season 1, we knew that we hadn't discovered the show so what happened — and it was not anything we discussed with the powers that be — was myself, Pete Fields, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and Jim Crocker, all through season two we would have lunches where we would not talk about so much what we were doing at the moment in season two.

We were talking about, how do we find a new antagonist, a new villain, that would be Deep Space Nine specific and not be taken from the Klingons or the Cardassians or someone else? And because we couldn't take the chance of that villain not being successful, like when they brought in the Ferengi originally to be villains and that didn't work on TNG, I said "we're going to come up with three different races of villains and hopefully one of them will work." That's how the Dominion came along.

Wolfe: We wanted someone new and from the Gamma Quadrant. That was something we really wanted because the Gamma Quadrant was the unique aspect of the show that we had. Deep Space 9 was at this crossroads between the Alpha and the Gamma Quadrant. We were literally right at the edge of the frontier. That made the wormhole and Bajor so much more integral to the entire story, if the biggest issues that were confronting us were coming from the other side of that wormhole. If it was just the Klingons, you could tell that story anywhere in the Federation.

There was no particular reason why Deep Space 9 needed to be the focal point. But if you're telling a story about the Dominion and their influence on the Klingons and their influence on the Cardassians and how they're stirring the pot and manipulating events, then Deep Space 9 becomes the focal point and our characters are right in the center of everything. We always knew that whatever big story we were going to tell, it was going to have to come from the wormhole and the Gamma Quadrant.

Behr: We didn't mention it to anyone else and we just started seeding it into shows. We mentioned the word Dominion in the Ferengi episode ["Rules of Acquisition"], but we didn't give anything away. We were just trying to plot it out and things changed as we went along. Originally the Vorta were supposed to be like Brian Dennehy types. These big burly traders. They became Jeff Combs with his strange ears and those weird eyes, but that's when we knew we had the show. Once we came up with the Dominion, everything started to fall in place.

Serialization and Character Development

Unlike other entries in the franchise, Deep Space Nine went beyond the episodic formula.

Behr: Everyone was against any form of serialization and continuing storylines. It was basically, "You're killing the show. The audience can't follow from week to week. We want TNG type episodes, self-sustained episodes where the story is summed up and completed in one episode and then they go off to another adventure."

We kept saying they're not going off anywhere. That's the cool thing and the different thing about this show. They're a space station. Every decision they make will haunt them one way or the other because they're going to stay there, so it was not pretty in lots of ways. But we just had a very tight writing staff even though it would change over the years a little bit, and we just kept doing the show we wanted to do and thank god Voyager came on and they left us alone.

 

Moore: Fundamentally in terms of just the writers' room and writing the show, on Next Generation everything was very episodic. We had very few plot threads that ran over more than one episode. I did a lot of the Klingon shows and those had sort of a bigger arc about Worf and the Klingon Empire but even that wasn't something you followed week to week at all. Every season you might do another episode or two about the Klingons and Worf, but at Deep Space we were doing long arcs.

We were talking about plots and storyline and character arcs that ran over multiple episodes and I had never done anything like that so it was a very big challenge for me because I was still a very young writer. It was a learning experience. Deep Space just got much more inside the characters and made them more complicated and darker. It was more ambitious in a lot of ways so it was really stretching me as a writer to go onto that staff.

Wolfe: Usually as a season was coming to a close and the next season we were starting to gear up for, we didn't have much time between seasons, but we would try to start talking about the larger bigger arc issues for the next season. One of the things we realized very early on was that the nature of being on a space station was very different from being on a starship. It lent itself to these larger, long arc storytelling because we didn't go anywhere. If someone showed up in episode six, there was no reason they shouldn't be there in episode eight, nine, fifteen. We early on realized we were a different kind of show than The Next Generation or The Original Series. We were going to be much more serialized.

That said we did 26 episodes a year so we could touch on the serialization in a B story. We could ignore it entirely for an episode or two and still have 15 episodes to move that story forward. It all started basically with what was the nature of the Gamma Quadrant. We wanted to put a face on it. We wanted to make it more than just some frontier. We wanted to put a scary presence there so we had some long discussions and come up with the Dominion and that sort of led to everything else, the war and all the Dominion's plan which was always very long term, which lent itself really well to the kind of long-term story we were telling.

Eisenberg: I feel that Deep Space Nine really took a huge risk in taking the franchise in a whole new direction, being kind of like the black sheep of the family. Stepping away from what we know to be Trek and telling a whole new story in a whole new way. At that time, serial shows were not huge. We didn't have Netflix, we didn't have all the DVRs so we could binge watch something… They really took a huge risk and to be honest, I don't know if we would have been able to do that if CBS wasn't more focused on Voyager.

Moore: There was a certain subversive attitude among the writers. We wanted to challenge everything about Star Trek in a lot of ways. How far could we push the concept of what Star Trek was? All the writers wanted to do longer continuing more serialized stories, but Paramount didn't want that. Paramount was very much against that. To be fair, most television was against that in those days.

Paramount were terrified that if you tuned into episode four and you hadn't seen episode two or three, you'd be confused and just walk away and never watch the show again. There was all this pressure to not do serialized storytelling.

However, the format itself of Deep Space Nine kind of meant the show sort of had to so whether you liked it or not, the station wasn't going anywhere so all the stories you dealt with last week were pretty much going to be there the following week. What started to happen was bit by bit we just kept sneaking in more and more continuing stories and Paramount kept resisting and trying to push back and make us do more standalone stuff, but eventually they just kind of threw up their hands and said "whatever, we're concentrating on Voyager now." By end of the show, the last couple of seasons, it was almost all straight up serial.

A Station Full of Characters

It wasn't just the main cast that was allowed to shine in this serialized format. The show also had an impressive number of recurring characters that were central to the series.

Wolfe: What we would often do is we would create a character, let that character have their episode and then if they were great, we would keep using them. It was a little bit of a meritocracy. The characters that we reused, sometimes it was based on availability, but often it was based on how well that character popped and a lot of times that was about how well the guest actor did with that character.

When someone would come along like Andy [Robinson, who played Garak] is the poster child for this, but also Jeff Combs with both of the recurring characters we created with him, it was all about that. It was all about "oh my god this guy is great. This is a really cool character. Let's see him again and figure out who he is in the larger scheme of things and we'll keep using him." It was kind of like we would just be able to add that additional person to our dysfunctional family.

Moore: You have great cast members in all those roles and you just started wanting to write for them more. You started wanting to do a Garak scene in your episode even if the episode wasn't about Garak. You wanted to bring Damar back and bring all the Cardassians back and kept wanting to revisit those characters. We kept finding ways to integrate them into the story and then at a certain point, the story itself is just demanding that those characters keep showing up.

Ira used to always talk about John Ford, the director, had his company of actors in all those John Ford classic westerns and other films that he used over and over again and he liked the idea that we had sort of a John Ford troupe of our own guest cast that were part of the family of the show.

 

Eisenberg: Earlier in the years before he went to Starfleet, I'd go to conventions and people would ask "where do you want Nog to go?" I always thought it'd be really cool if he went into Starfleet and became a diplomat. That's how I saw him. An ace negotiator. They didn't quite take him in that way, but they did take him to Starfleet and I always wondered did they hear me or are we just part of the same consciousness? It was awesome when they had me go to Starfleet… I worked more and more and the story got bigger and bigger.

Seven Years of Memorable Moments and Episodes

The cast and crew could easily recall some of the most unforgettable parts of working on the show.

Siddig: There were so many astonishing things that happened. Seven years is such a long time. I think that watching the relationships and the growth of relationships on the show behind the scenes between the actors was a really pleasing thing. Getting married to Nana and having this baby and things like that which made my life completely different was astonishing.

Wolfe: My favorite moments were working in the writers' room. Everything that I learned about television writing comes from those experiences working with Michael and Ira and Pete and everybody else who came and went, but that was amazing and it was sort of this fraternity and those times were very special as a writer coming in from that point of view.

I loved when I had a little free time or when I needed some time to think to just go down and sit on the promenade and just be there and think about the show because that was an amazing set. It was the most expensive largest set built up until then for television and it was completely immersive. If you were sitting on it, even if it were just work lights, it just felt like you were there.

 

Behr: The shows that stick out are in season one "Duet" which was a fantastic show, the second to last show of the season. We started to find the voice of the show and we thought that was a great show. In season two, we opened up. Michael Piller said let's do a three-parter. They'd never done a three-parter in the Star Trek franchise so that's when I started to think more and more about serialization because I really liked that and I thought that was a fantastic idea. I don't think anyone thought we'd run with it quite the way we ran with it, but I thought that was a great opening for a season.

Obviously "The Visitor" is a very popular episode. "In the Pale Moonlight," "Far Beyond the Stars," there's just so many to name. I also have a strange fascination with all the clunkers that we did because we were doing 26 episodes a year and when you do that on that schedule of a seven, eight day show you're going to have some real stinkeroos and I'm kind of fascinated by those too. I just love the way the fans just can't get enough of hating on them, but that's part of the show. You have to take your victories and your defeats.

Eisenberg: One of the greatest scenes and hats off to the writers for taking it this way too, and I get a little emotional now, not so much then, but now looking back especially considering our times and all the things we deal with socially, when Jake teaches him to read. It's a great relationship and a great story.

Moore: I got to write an episode with Kor. John Colicos from The Original Series returned and we did an episode ["Once More Unto the Breach"] with him on a Klingon ship in the middle of the war. I got to write really fun stuff for him and Martok and him being humiliated, the old forgetful guy and Martok feeling guilty about the way he humiliated him. I got to send Kor out in a last blaze of glory. That was really fun and interesting.

Probably one of the other highlights of the show we would all point to is "Trials and Tribble-ations." That was a tremendous amount of fun for me as an Original Series fanatic and all the writers. We just loved the old show and it was a great opportunity to do something unique and really a salute to that show and also have the fun of walking down on the set and walk through the hallways of the original Enterprise.

 

Siddig: There was a huge earthquake and Armin [Shimerman, who played Quark] who was already in the makeup chair by that time because he was the first in every morning, halfway through his makeup the earthquake hit and he was in a trailer, which is where we had our makeup done. Everything suddenly went dark and he had to go home half made up, no time to remove the makeup because it took too long and when driving along with all the electricity blowing everywhere, fires starting, and freeways collapsing, people looked at him and thought "wow we really are being invaded by aliens…"

There are lots of human things that I remember really. I remember going to Disneyland and waiting in line with my young stepson and when all the kids filed through to meet Mickey Mouse he sort of hugs them and then pats them on the back as they walk away. He's vowed to silence because obviously, you don't want to break the magic and when it came to me he said "Dr. Bashir!" It was like "how does Mickey know Dr. Bashir?"

Wolfe: I'm also proud of the African American family at the core of the show. I think that's a really good legacy. I know a lot of people have talked to me about how they grew up with the Siskos as sort of role models of father-son behavior and family and love and all that kind of stuff.

Also, a legacy of representation. I mean you could look at the Deep Space Nine cast and I think people from a lot of different backgrounds could project themselves onto that cast and think "I could be a captain in the military. I could be an engineer or scientist." I think that's always been something that's also an important part of the Star Trek legacy and the popular culture legacy of Star Trek too. There's a lot of minority and women scientists who say Uhura was a huge influence on them and I like to think that Deep Space Nine had that same effect.

As far as pop culture in general, I think the show has a lot of life to it. People are still discovering it on Netflix and watching it and loving it. It's nice to see that it's got an endurance too. I think time is one of the best tests of quality and the fact that people still are interested in talking about and watching the show is a big deal.

Siddig: In the early days when we started, to be a Star Trek fan was a very shameful thing. It was sort of a guilty secret. We knew millions of people watched it every week, but there was a sense that it was uncool. That it was part of a group of geeky, nerdy people watched it. Of course, 25 years later, those geeky, nerdy people now walk in the streets proud of their geekiness and exhibiting geekiness in various forms all over the country and geekiness is now king. In a weird way, Star Trek gave a lot of strength and encouragement to the geek wave before it was ok to be a geek.

From a very singular point of view, Bashir gave a lot of encouragement to people who weren't socially adept or cool because Bashir wasn't socially adept or cool. I've had tons of letters from people saying "thanks, I've always been a bit shy. It's always been a bit difficult for me to express myself in public and to find a character who's like that has been heartening and refreshing." I think Star Trek found a lot of people who would otherwise have trouble and helped them get up.