What a long strange ‘Trek’ it’s been

It has come to this: On Saturday night, while respectable folk are out enjoying the early evening Seattle sun, I will be home baying at the TV screen as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine slips into first-run syndication history.

I’d be far more discreet about letting my geek flag fly but, dammit, this season has taken away from me every single show I care about: Homicide, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Fantasy Island (yeah, I liked it; got a problem?), the Japanese soap operas on KONG, everything. The Powers That WB even deprived me of the season finale of the one surviving show that matters, just to prove they could. (That would be Buffy the Littleton Slay . . . wait, that doesn’t sound right. But I digress.)

The Star Trek universe has always been an obvious attractor for the techie community—the loving explanations of could-be technology, the strange new worlds, the form-fitting uniforms on the ladies—it all adds up. But Deep Space Nine hasn’t got the ratings of its earlier siblings (the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation), and without Jeri Ryan’s breasts around to grant interviews, it lacks the PR punch of idiot-child Voyager. With its religious fanaticism and interspecies mistrust and ignorant armies clashing by night, DS9 is merely a pain-in-the-paradigm bundle of conflict and cross-purposes, and thus the best and most relevant and most important Star Trek of all.

The glory of Trek from a geek standpoint is that both problems and people are approached, engineer-fashion, in terms of what they do. Technology is the cure for almost anything that ails you, and differences between species are in the main only cosmetic (literally, since they seem to have a humans-only hiring policy for these shows). If on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog, in the Star Trek future no one cares; in fact, one of the great stock characters of Star Trek is the alien (android, Borg refugee) learning how special and wonderful it is to Be Like Folks. You’re more likely to have a messy interaction with a rogue transporter than with a sentient being. Differences between species are generally just part of the rich tapestry of being, or at worst grounds for mostly harmless joshing.

If that early Star Trek universe was Gene Roddenberry’s vision of better living through technology, DS9 calls bullshit on the idea that advanced civilization will naturally ease people of their discontents. In earlier series, the pursuit of profit had been blithely marginalized by everyone of importance; in DS9, profit is the driving motivation of an entire species, pursued with a joy that puts even Internet-stock investors to shame.

If the other Treks cast people in terms of what they do, DS9 cast them in terms of who they are. Characters are motivated by history, by politics, by bigotry, by loneliness, and by all the other things that previous Treks implicitly promised could be safely ignored in the Future. Even 20th-century American racism rears its ugly head. DS9 posits that we aren’t going boldly forth into the Future without our vices tagging complacently along.

Perhaps the most resonant DS9 conflicts have been based on that ancient rabble-rouser, religion. One species’ deities is another species’ alien enemies; at least two characters have been declared gods (much to their dismay), and the most compelling character in the series (Kira) is a serious practitioner of her nationalistic yet deeply genuine religious faith. Even the obtuseness of the formerly shiny-happy Federation bureaucracy feels right: If Dilbert survives until the 24th century (and as heavily as it’s marketed, I fear it will), half the officers (and all of the enlisted folk) on DS9 will have a cartoon or two stuck to their neo-Cardassian cubicle walls.

A television critic once called DS9‘s denizens a cast of haunted characters. I suggest that what haunts them is us—life at the end of the riven and desperately uncertain 20th century, where come Saturday night I’ll be watching the end of an era that hasn’t begun yet.