In Star Trek: The Next Generation's seventh-season episode "Emer-gence," the Enterprise computer gives birth to a new life form. After the baby leaves the nest to begin its own life, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard comments, "It came from us....If our experiences with the Enterprise have been honorable, can't we trust that the sum of those experiences will be the same?"
Producers who have inherited the Star Trek franchise from the late Gene Roddenberry may be asking the same question of television viewers who have been slow to embrace Star Trek's second spinoff, Deep Space Nine.
Much of the trepidation has come from the impression that Roddenber-ry's hopeful vision of humanity's future has been abandoned in DS9 . Nothing could be further from the truth, however.
While DS9 is darker and grittier than its predecessors, it is far from despairing. Set on an ominous space station at the mouth of an astronomical gateway to another part of the galaxy (called a wormhole), DS9 explores what happens after first contact has been made and the Kirks and Picards have moved on to continue seeking new life and new worlds.
The space station is in close proximity to Bajor, a planet that is recovering from 50 years of oppressive occupation by an alien race known as the Cardassians. The Cardassians, who used to occupy the space station as well, enslaved the people of Bajor and stripped the planet of its natural resources before abandoning them. Enter the United Federation, who must aid Bajor in its recovery.
Commander Benjamin Sisko is the Starfleet officer assigned to the space station. Portrayed by Avery Brooks, Trek's first African-American commander is charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace "at the edge of the frontier."
In many ways, Sisko's job is more difficult and more important than that of Kirk and Picard. While they are explorers, Sisko is a builder and a breach-mender. He must forge alliances and build relationships. Every act and every decision has repercussions that could affect the region and could come back to haunt him in the future.
A pivotal speech in the two-part episode "The Maquis" sets the tone. Sisko states that sainthood on Earth is easy because they have achieved a utopian society. The rest of the galaxy has not. Sisko must oversee the implementation of a sometimes corrupt Bajoran government while dealing with a continuing Cardassian threat, renegade Federation officers, and a new enemy from the other side of the wormhole. In this unstable and unfriendly environment he must do his best to maintain peace-not an easy directive. Kirk and Picard should consider themselves fortunate to be on their starships.
When viewing DS9 in this context, the character of Sisko could be considered a new paradigm of heroism. Sisko may not always be heroic in a dynamic or active sense, but he is passionate about the peace he is there to preserve.
Even while a new enemy from the other side of the wormhole threatens, he unpacks his past and moves his African art collection from storage on Earth to the station. The station is his home, and he intends to stay there for a while. Herein lies the hope of DS9.
GONE ARE the days of a rigid Federation mythology that provides easy answers. While this mythology has long provided the hope that in the future all interpersonal and social problems will have been solved, it simply makes for weak drama. The world of DS9 is much more like our own, with interpersonal conflict and rugged political terrain that allows for more relevant social commentary.
After all, social commentary is what Trek has always done best. DS9 has tackled such issues as xenophobia ("Sanctuary"), repatriation ("Cardassians"), totalitarian judicial systems ("Tribunal"), and humanization of the enemy ("Duet"). "The Maquis" has generally been described as DS9's West Bank parable, and for peace activists "Paradise" is memorable for its insights into nonviolent resistance.
Also, DS9 is one of the most religious programs on television. It is acknowledged that the strong religious faith of the Bajoran people allowed them to survive the Cardassian occupation. Religious fundamentalism is examined in "In the Hands of the Prophets" and is wedded to corrupt politics in the second-season trilogy "The Homecoming," "The Circle," and "The Siege." The theme of redemption is continually explored as Sisko must come to terms with the death of his wife, and Maj. Kira with her terrorist past.
There is a strong emphasis on character development as a diverse crew is assembled, including stronger roles for women. Also, the relationship between Sisko and his son, Jake, is everything the Crusher mother-son relationship should have been on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has been fun to watch Jake grow, to hear his voice crack, to see him at the brink of adolescent angst. It has also been fun to watch his father struggle through the pangs of adolescence with him.
DS9 is solid drama with a number of intricately woven story lines that remind us of the long and arduous road to peace. The story, however, doesn't end here. Star Trek's third spinoff, Star Trek: Voyager, recently debuted as the flagship program of Para-mount's new television network.
Kate Mulgrew portrays Capt. Kathryn Janeway, Trek's first and long overdue female captain. Janeway is a brilliant scientist and clearly in command of her crew. Much of the publicity for the program states, "It's Janeway's way or the highway!" And so it is. Interestingly, Janeway also conveys a maternal concern for her crew and a feminine sensitivity that has been sorely missing in DS9.
Lost in space 75 years from the nearest Federation starbase, the crew of the Voyager and the Starfleet renegades known as "the maquis" must join together to find a way home. The uneasy alliance provides much of the conflict and drama. Once again, in true Trek fashion, the crew is diverse-an American Indian and an Asian American, as well as the long-awaited return of a Vulcan to the principal cast.
Roddenberry's vision has not been abandoned in these recent Trek incarnations. His hope for humanity's future is still intact. But the message is no longer one of a benign Federation imperialism that promises utopia to those who join in. The message now is that multiculturalism is good. As stated by DS9's Commander Sisko, "We don't always agree; we have some damn good fights in fact. But we always come away from them with a little better understanding and appreciation of each other." This is the hope of our future. We are on the long and arduous trek together.
SHANE HELMER, a former Sojourners intern, is a free-lance writer living in Houston, Texas.