We were the ‘dark’ Star Trek.
More than merely a look back at what was, Ira Steven Behr‘s documentary project What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Deep Space Nine is also a way to look forward—a perfect contrast considering how maligned the show was during its tenure compared to today. You could say “Deep Space Nine” stands as a dividing point amongst fans that appreciated the grand social and political ideals of the Star Trek universe and those who wanted spaceships fighting with laser beams. The latter are the ones that sent hate mail and refused to watch this static space station avoid going where no man had gone before. The former conversely understood instantly how prescient, progressive, and important that locked location was to delivering its treatise on the human condition.
It truly is fascinating to watch Behr (DS9’s showrunner) and co-director David Zappone weave interviews of recollection (with all the major players save Avery Brooks, who pops up through archival footage) against a writers room imagining how the show could continue if an eighth season was green-lit now (a 2015 reunion between Behr, René Echevarria, Ronald D. Moore, Hans Beimler, and Robert Hewitt Wolfe). So much has happened to the world these past twenty years that you really do have to both admire what it was the show put on-screen at a time when few dared to follow and acknowledge that a lot of it couldn’t be delivered the same way at present. Its narrative use of terrorism post-9/11 and its behind-the-scenes inclusion standards would obviously need considerable alterations.
These contentious subjects are handled well, though, and perhaps with more complexity than you might imagine—even if those at fault aren’t overtly called out. There’s a fine line between letting former Paramount chairman Kerry McCluggage shield himself in ambiguity when explaining his part in Terry Farrell‘s contract dispute and pushing him to rescind involvement altogether. The same goes with co-creator Rick Berman and how his desire for episodic television (amongst other things) clashed with Behr’s serialization push. Would the film make more noise with these two backed into a corner in ways that would foster self-incrimination and force apologies? Sure. The way the film is cut, however, ensures we know who was in the wrong, inevitably despising them more for their conscious choice to skirt the issue.
That Behr hasn’t completely erased these more controversial truths is commendable. He may go too far when “stopping” the film to give himself a scripted soapbox session via the edit bay that highlights his personal regret about not doing more to represent the LGBT community, but those self-absorbed moments ultimately say more about his personality than the issue itself (and proof that he being the director does little for objectivity). When he lets the actors and fans talk about how the show impacted their lives in terms of those same issues instead, we start to see beyond intent. And when the context surrounding Brooks’ casting and his utilizing the character as a tool for the Black community is shared, it becomes impossible not to appreciate that intent too.
Showcasing the heady science-fiction undercurrents that positioned TVs as mirrors onto society during the 90s isn’t this documentary’s only draw despite being the irrefutable evidence necessary to cement “Deep Space Nine’s” legacy as arguably the most Star Trek of all the Star Trek properties. More so than the writers room and its ability to extrapolate where these characters would have gone in the interim and what would bring them back together (I’d watch the episode they draw up) is the display of love and respect so many of the alumni have for one another. How they speak about their working experiences is inspiring (especially considering the long hours) and none are afraid to set the record straight on character motivations that might be implied yet never outright admitted.
Behr injects a few funny, random moments too like Max Grodénchik singing and leading original lounge songs at the start and finish respectively or Andrew Robinson doing his best Garak to take audiences onto a mysterious segue that’s more fan service than relevant. What makes these interludes work is the fact that they confirm cast and crew were fans too. Many shed tears and more consider how bold the storytelling was in exposing realities we still struggle to overcome today. The anecdotes about swapped prosthetics, Michael Dorn‘s studio-enforced move from “The Next Generation”, and the Ferengi family rehearsals Armin Shimerman would conduct at his home may reveal the details fans have come to hear, but the moments proving DS9’s powerful worth two decades later literally vindicate its existence.
So we can laugh as cast members read disparaging remarks Behr collected over the years because hindsight has exposed those sorts of lazy detractors unequivocally wrong (or unapologetically bigoted and/or prejudiced). From the show’s depiction of strong women to its commentary on the cost of war to its naturalistic display of a true utopian melting pot, “Deep Space Nine” would be considered ahead of its time if it debuted next week. To tell that truth while also delivering a brand new episode in animated, storyboard form renders Behr’s film relevant beyond the unavoidable “home video special feature” dismissals it will receive. Despite blatantly targeting the fans that helped crowdsource it, the much loftier goal of contextualizing DS9 within the annals of sci-fi and television history is also met.