Viewers who don’t know a Trekker from a Tribble may nevertheless be drawn into the orbit of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (syndicated; check local listings), the latest, darkest, and densest TV Star Trek yet. If the original Trek is the Old Testament of television science fiction and Star Trek: The Next Generation its New Testament, then Deep Space Nine is the Apocrypha — mysterious variations on Trek lore that work as ripping tales in their own right.
This series — set, like Next Generation, in the 24th century — centers on Comdr. Benjamin Sisko, played by Spenser: For Hire’s Avery Brooks. On Spenser, Brooks was the moody sidekick Hawk; here, as Deep Space Nine’s central figure, Sisko is more than merely moody — he’s a morose tragic hero. Sisko, we see in the premiere’s opening sequence, lost his wife during a battle with those longtime Trek bad guys the Borg. Now a single father raising a sweet-faced young son (Cirroc Lofton), Brooks’ Sisko is bitter, depressed, and slow-simmeringly angry; he’s a far cry from previous Trek protagonists — William Shatner’s stiff, stalwart James Kirk, and Patrick Stewart’s crisp, snippy Jean-Luc Picard.
On top of his wife’s death, Sisko has been given a lousy assignment by his superiors in the United Federation of Planets. He has been ordered to take command of a run-down space station, Deep Space Nine, which circles an equally run-down planet, Bajor. (The Bajorans look just like you and me, except they have a ridge of furrowed skin between their eyes, as if a crinkle-cut french fry had been glued to the bridge of every Bajoran nose.)
Recently, after a 60-year-long fight, the Bajorans freed themselves from the domination by the cruel Cardassians — again, familiar meanies in the Trek cosmos. As Bajor slowly rebuilds itself after war and seeks entry into the powerful Federation, Sisko and his crew find themselves reluctant mediators between the Bajorans, who resent their presence, and the Cardassians, who’d love to take over Bajor again.
If your eyes glazed over during that paragraph, you have a sympathetic friend in me. While I admire the original Trek’s staying power in the popular imagination and appreciate the full-blooded acting talent that Stewart has brought to Next Generation — a rarity in TV sci-fi — I must also say that I’ve never been able to get hooked on these shows. (In high school, I had a girlfriend to whom I was so devoted, I tried to adopt her two worst habits: smoking, and watching Trek reruns every afternoon. For me, both addictions lasted about a week. I may be a wuss, but I’m my own wuss.)
But Deep Space creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller — tinkering carefully, respectfully, with the legacy left them by Star Trek’s visionary, the late producer Gene Roddenberry — seem to have taken viewers like me into account this time. By giving Sisko a troubled past and an ambivalent future, they’ve already made him a more three-dimensional character than most Trek creations. And he’s been surrounded by intriguing supporting players, foremost among them Maj. Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor).
Nerys is a former member of a Bajoran terrorist group who becomes Sisko’s first officer. She has been furious at the Cardassian occupying force for so long, she doesn’t know what to do with her rage now that the war is over; Nerys’ temper spills out into her new work with Sisko. It’s unusual to see a woman on TV this perpetually steamed, and Nerys’ hard-boiled attitude is a welcome contrast to Sisko’s sorrowful brooding.
Although the Deep Space debut this week is top-heavy with plot, setting up the premise and staging a few space dogfights for the kiddies, two other characters have already managed to establish themselves with some vividness. Odo, a shape-shifting security officer, is played with cranky flair by Rene Auberjonois (Benson), and Lieut. Jadzia Dax is a grim bombshell whose looks disguise the fact that she’s a humanoid with a sluglike life-form oozing inside her (hardcore trekkers know them as Trills). Yummy on the outside, yucky on the inside: Whatta dish! Dax is played by Terry Farrell, who used to play a teen model in the classic trash series Paper Dolls (1984).
Like the best Trek manifestations, Deep Space provokes questions. Hasn’t the Earth-based Federation always engaged in little more than intergalactic imperialism? Is the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and the resultant terrorist warfare a metaphor for the Middle East conflict or the ”troubles” in Ireland? And I haven’t even brought up the sub-plot involving the Bajoran spiritual leader Kai Opaka, who bids Sisko to follow his ”pagh” — a Trek version of karma or Joseph Campbell’s ”bliss”: Why is there a definite New Age glow to the picturesque gloominess of Deep Space Nine? Only time-travel will tell… B+