As the documentary What We Left Behind heads to theaters, showrunner Ira Steven Behr and castmembers look back at what made this Star Trek so special.
Like an Orb of the Prophets, Deep Space Nine has become the focus of intense meditation in many sectors of fandom, having not only finally gotten the recognition it deserves in the pantheon of Star Trek shows, but also landing a crowd-funded documentary called What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
That doc will be released by Fathom Events in more than 800 movie theaters in the U.S. on Monday, May 13. The What We Left Behind filmmakers, including Ira Steven Behr (DS9’s executive producer and showrunner) and David Zappone (producer of Trek-themed docs The Captains and For the Love of Spock), went to Indiegogo to raise funds in order to license clips and finish work on the documentary, bringing in $647,000 in a month thanks to 9,500 backers.
What We Left Behind revisits the making of the show with pretty much every key cast and crew member, while also featuring newly remastered HD footage from the series, fan commentary, and a writers room reunion where Behr and his fellow scribes break a new episode for a hypothetical Season 8.
So what is it that makes Deep Space Nine resonate with audiences 20 years after it went off the air? There’s not one clear answer, though its willingness to buck the trends of 1990s television certainly has something to do with it: DS9 was featured a widowed black male lead (Avery Brooks’ Sisko) who moves with his son to a space station on the frontier, where he must learn to work with a former terrorist who is now his second-in-command. The distant space outpost of the title is a place where the creature comforts and safety of The Next Generation variety of Trek are few and far between. With a diverse and ever-expanding cast of characters who were often at loggerheads with one another, a penchant for serialized storytelling in an age where that was a no-no, and a willingness to explore topics like religion and war in meaningful ways, Deep Space Nine was Peak TV before Peak TV had been invented.
Perceived as Being an ‘Asshole’
Behr, who was a writer-producer on DS9 from its beginning and became showrunner in Season 3, can be credited for pushing the envelope of what Star Trek was and could be, even if it did cause frequent conflicts with Paramount and Trek’s head honcho of that time, Rick Berman.
“We were just asking to do the most interesting show we could do and that became a thing, because it was part of the Star Trek franchise and had to fit into this zeitgeist,” he told IGN in an interview this week. “And we wanted to just create the zeitgeist, I guess. That was the core thing that made me be perceived as being an asshole, I guess.”
The Star Trek shows of the period, and television in general, eschewed the long-form storytelling that we take for granted on the small screen today. The idea was that audiences wanted to be able to tune in, watch a story for an hour, and not have to worry about what happened before or after to these characters. As a result, most episodes had to pretty much wrap up any major plot points by the closing credits. Deep Space Nine increasingly tested that notion over its run, eventually building to its now legendary Dominion War arc. But for Behr, it wasn’t enough.
“My biggest disappointment is we didn’t just go serialized as soon as I took over [as showrunner],” he says. “At the time, not wanting to serialize just became the big bugaboo. We had many a battle about that. And little things like that. I would have done more with the Dominion War. Rick and I had to go back and forth. ‘How many episodes?’ ‘Three episodes.’ ‘No, no, no, 10 episodes!’ … And it all seems so silly now. Those battles now, I get it for the time. But looking back, they were so…”
Of course, nowadays the question would be “why aren’t you serializing more?” Behr and his team always wanted to find new and different ways to explore the Star Trek world.
“It was because we didn’t want to fall into lockstep,” says Behr. “We just wanted to do our own thing to the point where I used to say, ‘Take Star Trek off the name of the series. Just call it Deep Space Nine.’ Which was never going to happen. I just said that to piss people off!”
Nana Visitor, who played Major Kira Nerys on the show, recalls some of those battles.
“Ira and I would fight together,” she laughs. “But you know, I always took it as we were both New Yorkers. Yelling was how we communicated. And I always felt like I would fight for everything that I’d want, and know that I’d get maybe one out of 10. But that it was my responsibility to fight the good fight.”
When we first meet Visitor’s Major Kira in DS9’s premiere, she’s essentially a terrorist who won. After decades of her home planet Bajor being occupied by the militaristic Cardassians, Kira and her fellow Bajorans have finally gotten their world back. They’re freedom fighters in their own eyes, but at the same time the show never spared us the dark details of what Kira and her comrades had to do to achieve victory. Of course, Deep Space Nine finished its run two years before the 9/11 attacks, but one has to wonder how the depiction of her character would’ve changed had the show come after that horrific day.
“I think there would have been more push back,” says Visitor regarding the portrayal of her character. “I’m sure the writers would have had really interesting things to say if it was post-9/11, but I’m just not sure if she would have been number two on the series.”
Visitor can laugh now about it, but hate mail and criticism of her and her character were commonplace back when the show debuted. (There’s an amusing running gag in the documentary where various actors read some of that hate mail out loud.)
“I got criticized for just about everything,” she chuckles. “People thought that my character came across as a bitch. It was not the Star Trek world, she wasn’t this, she wasn’t that. But I understood, in some basic way, the experience of someone coming from war and what that does to you. And I just had to be truthful to that. And as the years went by, she goes from tough to real strength. But that was an arc. She couldn’t end up there; it had to just happen to her. It wouldn’t have been truthful [otherwise].”
Visitor also points out that Kira was essentially a racist in the early years of the show, which is not exactly a hallmark of Star Trek protagonists. She cites her favorite episode from the series, Season 1’s “Duet,” where Kira comes face to face with an apparent war criminal from Bajor’s past.
“That taught me so much,” says the actress. “And when I saw it, it affected me. It’s not an easy thing to look at, just like freedom fighter [versus] terrorist. My arch enemies were racists, but guess what? So was Kira. Kira was a racist. And to examine her racism in an episode and come out the other side in a new place, I thought that was amazing. It was really useful to me for informing me for the rest of the show.”