Why is The Queer Review looking at a crowdfunded documentary about Star Trek’s black sheep, Deep Space Nine? Simple, DS9 was the queerest Trek – breaking new ground with its depictions of lesbian romances, trans-relationships and pointed political commentary. Its representation was patchy, but it was there pushing at the edges.
What We Left Behind started off as a simple fan-funded documentary to celebrate Deep Space Nine’s 25th anniversary, but with overwhelming support grew into something bigger. Examining how the show marked a change in the way viewers consume TV and admitting to many of the shows flaws, the documentary is a frank but loving dissection of a series that has aged better than most.
The film doesn’t waste too much time on backstory, and instead looks at the reflections of the cast and crew who made the series. Often overlooked and overshadowed by the hit Star Trek: The New Generation, Deep Space Nine had the luxury of florishing under benign neglect. That gave it space to delve into murkier moral ground and feature a range of anti-heroes long before it would become a TV trope. A reluctant commander, a former-terrorist, open family discord, a gender-twisting young woman, a sexist bar-keep and an invasion-collaborating police officer don’t make for a standard, sympathic TV ensemble.
Showrunner (and documentarian) Ira Stephen Behr confesses to the way the writers bungled the character of the clearly homosexual Garak, a tailor on the show’s eponymous space station. First seen flirting with Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) in the show’s second episode, and later revealed to a spy, Garak became part of the shows expansive and well-realised ensemble of supporting characters. The character was coded-gay from the start, before the writers stepped back and gave him a heterosexual love-affair.
“Garak was clearly gay,” says Behr in the film. “I mean, everyone knew it and we never played it. What we should have done after the ‘The Wire’ in season two, the episode where Bashir helps him get over his addiction, was we should have had Garak come on to Bashir as a gay Cardassian… Garak comes out as gay in season two and we have five seasons to play with that Bashir/Garak relationship… where that would have gone, who the hell knows? But it could have been so cool.”
Of all the characters, the station’s science officer Dax was the ‘queerest’. The premise behind her species, the Trill, was that they were a ‘joined’ species – two life-forms in a symbiotic relationship (as the host passes away, the symbiote is moved to a new host body). This allowed the show to explore queer relationships and gender issues in a way that felt safe for 1990s TV, but wasn’t without its own controversy. Dax would have one of the first lesbian kisses on primetime television.
“At the time, in the 90s, it was a big thing to have gay relationships,” says actress Terry Farrell who played Dax for the first six seasons. “There were quite a few people who were upset… We did something controversial that still, to this day, people come up to me and say ‘thank you.'”
Dax also allowed the show to explore gender and gender-expressions. Dax’s long-running friendship with the station’s Commander Sisko began when she was in the body of an older man.
Deep Space Nine repeatedly used its sci-fi premise to examine deeper social issues in the best traditions of Star Trek. From the show’s extended war storyline that dug into the murky moral ground of conflict, to its explorations of spirituality, terrorism, addiction and the truly outstanding “Far Beyond The Stars” (a tale of racism set in 1950’s America that breaks the show’s mold for the sake of a great story).
One of the great joys of this documentary is seeing footage from the show upgraded to full HD. Star Trek: The Next Generation was given a complete HD upgrade and re-release, but disappointing sales means a similar upgrade is unlikely for either of the less successful spin-offs, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. So this footage may be fans’ only chance of seeing what the show could have been like with a little more love and attention.
I won’t lie, there is a lot of fan-service in What We Left Behind that may turn off the more casual viewer, and there are gaps to the story (there is no new interview with the show’s star Avery Brooks for example, he appears in archive interviews only), but it is a worthwhile record of a series that broke new ground while no one was really looking, and set the stage for the intersectional canvas that Star Trek: Discovery enjoys today.
By Chad Armstrong
What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is available on BluRay, DVD and digital. For more head to the film’s official website.