‘What We Left Behind’ charts the struggle for creative survival

“What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (2019). Cast: Interviews: Ira Steven Behr, Avery Brooks, Nana Visitor, Terry Farrell, Nicole de Boer, Alexander Siddig, Colm Meaney, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Dorn, Armin Shimerman, Cirroc Lofton, Wallace Shawn, Jeffrey Combs, Andrew Robinson, Penny Johnson Jerald, Marc Alaimo, Chase Masterson, James Darren, Aron Eisenberg, Max Grodénchik, J.G. Hertzler, Casey Biggs, Robert O’Reilly, Hana Hatae, Ronald D. Moore, Rick Berman. Archive Footage: Cecily Adams, Louise Fletcher, Rosalind Chao, William Sadler, Levar Burton, Michael Piller. Directors: Ira Steven Behr and David Zappone. Web site. Trailer.

It’s often sad when a favorite television show goes off the air. But it’s even more regrettable when a series reaches its end without having been given the chance it should have received. That was very much the case for one program that had a decided love-hate relationship among viewers, one that had to fight for every bit of recognition to stay afloat, an effort chronicled in the captivating new documentary, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

In 1993, the “Star Trek” franchise embarked on a new chapter with the debut of a new TV series different from its predecessors, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Coming after “Star Trek,” the original 1960s network series, and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” its highly successful syndicated follow-up set 80 years in the future from its forerunner (both of which followed the adventures of their spaceship crews exploring the galaxy), “DS9” was set on a space station through which a myriad of different alien species passed, not far from the planet Bajor. But the differences extended beyond that. It was the first “Trek” series featuring an African-American in charge, Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Sisko was also the first commander to be a parent, in this case a widowed single father to his teenage son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton).

What’s more, “DS9” was a series that truly went where no one had gone before in a number of respects, dealing with such themes as the role of spirituality in the lives of its characters. This included Sisko, who, upon arriving at the station, was proclaimed Emissary of the Prophets, a physical liaison to a band of enlightened extradimensional beings who brought religion to their devoted followers. It was a title that made the commander uncomfortable and that he embraced reluctantly in spite of attempts to deny it. These were all genuine differences that Sisko’s TV predecessors Kirk and Picard never had to contend with.

On top of this, “DS9” introduced a host of characters and story lines vastly different from anything to come out of the “Trek” franchise, some dark, some edgy and many of them exotic. Among the more inventive characters were Odo (Rene Auberjonois), the station’s shape-shifting security chief who struggled with his fluidic nature in the presence of beings who remained in fixed form all the time; Maj. Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), the highly spiritual Bajoran station commander who served as Sisko’s first officer; Garak (Andrew Robinson), a refugee from the enemy Cardassian Empire and suspected spy who operated a tailor shop on DS9’s retail promenade; and Capt. Cassidy Yates (Penny Johnson Jerald), a freighter pilot who made regular stops at the station, eventually becoming Sisko’s love interest.

The very large regular and recurring cast members of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” reunite for a documentary retrospective on the series, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” soon to be available on DVD and Blu-day disc. Photo courtesy of Fathom Events.

As for the story lines, “DS9” featured a wide array of innovative plot lines. There are too many to detail here, but one that opened doors to many possibilities (both literally and figuratively) had to do with the station’s unique locale. DS9 was positioned in the vicinity of a wormhole connecting its area of space with a distant sector of the galaxy known as the Gamma Quadrant, home to a race of beings known as the Founders. These morphic aliens, relatives of Odo, possessed an extreme dislike and mistrust of their faraway (or not so faraway, thanks to the wormhole) monoform counterparts, beings they disparagingly called “solids.” The wormhole itself was also a special place, serving as a sanctuary for the aforementioned Prophets, a holy place that many of their devoted Bajoran followers called the Celestial Temple. This portal thus became a fertile source of story material for the show, given its enigmatic attributes and its functionality as a transit corridor between far-flung sectors of the galaxy. Imagine the possibilities.

Given the foregoing, one would think that this cutting-edge series should have been a big hit. Unfortunately, nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, the show’s producers routinely received barrages of venomous hate mail.

So why did fans turn on the show? For starters, many viewers disliked the space station setting, claiming it was too fixed and didn’t afford enough opportunities for adventure and exploration of the unknown, despite the presence of so many diverse influences on site. Then there was the spiritual angle, something that made for plot lines that were seen as “too cerebral” and “overly talky,” with not enough of the action that helped characterize the predecessor series. And, of course, there were some regular characters who were either disliked or seen as unrealistic. While all of these elements were groundbreaking in the “Trek” franchise, they didn’t set well with many diehard fans.

Given the foregoing, “DS9” was faced with the daunting – and ongoing – task of continually having to reinvent itself to survive. Executive Producer Ira Steven Behr, the driving force behind the series (and this documentary), had to come up with ways to keep the show fresh – and to appease disgruntled viewers. This called for some drastic measures, tasks implemented in the “can-do” spirit that typified the efforts of those behind other “Trek” projects. For instance, for viewers who tired of the show’s fixed location, the producers introduced story lines that took the characters off the station on occasion. The presence of the nearby planet Bajor, for example, provided ample fodder for story material, given its rich, diverse cultural, spiritual and historical nature. The DS9 crew was also provided with transportation to ferry them off-station, such as shuttle crafts known as “runabouts” and, eventually, a warship known as the Defiant. The producers even incorporated alien species and characters familiar to “Trek” viewers from other series, such as the inclusion of Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn), a staple from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” who joined the “DS9” cast as a regular during the series’ fourth season. Thankfully, Behr and crew rose to the occasion, regularly rejuvenating the series to keep it afloat and, ultimately, to enable it to thrive for seven seasons as one of television’s most unique productions.

Ira Steven Behr, executive producer of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” shares his memories of the series in the new retrospective documentary release, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” soon to be available on DVD and Blu-day disc. Photo courtesy of Fathom Events.

But, even with this fine-tuning, the show had other factors working against it that kept the series from setting ratings on fire. For instance, “DS9” was distributed through syndication, mostly to independent stations, which meant it didn’t have a fixed air time across all of the affiliates of its ragtag network. Some stations weren’t kind in their scheduling, either, airing episodes at times that were far from viewer-friendly, such as late at night or on Sunday mornings. Also, the show was frequently subject to schedule changes, especially on stations that broadcast live sporting events, necessitating alternate air times that were often difficult to find. And, because of stagnant ratings, the show’s time slots often didn’t improve over time. It was thus difficult for “DS9” to find a loyal, steady audience, despite the producers’ earnest attempts to cultivate one.

All was not lost, though. Those who appreciated the show’s singularly distinctive attributes came to love the series and stuck by it through its entire run. Also, as the show’s format and narrative were favorably tweaked, it slowly began to attract new fans, including those who may not have given the series a fair shake initially. Yet, even with these gains, “DS9” was still the stepchild of the franchise, lurking in the shadows of its two older relations and its junior sibling, “Star Trek: Voyager,” the wunderkind offering of the UPN TV network launched in 1995.

Interestingly, though, “DS9” has experienced impressive growth in its audience of late, years after leaving the airwaves. Thanks to developments in on-demand viewing options, such as streaming services and physical media like DVDs, the problems associated with inconsistent broadcast schedules have been eliminated, enabling fans to watch episodes on their time and terms. Also, given the serial nature of the show’s overall story line (especially in its last few seasons, another distinguishing quality of “DS9”), these new media have promoted binge watching, making it easier for viewers to follow the unfolding nature of its mythology, enhancing the appreciation and comprehension of this impressive body of work.

On multiple levels. “DS9” is an excellent example of a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. The groundbreaking nature of the series, for instance, represents a wondrously creative breakthrough that, narratively speaking, set the show apart from anything else on television, including other installments in the “Trek” franchise. In so many ways, it truly reflected the familiar tagline of all the “Trek” properties – humanity’s desire to boldly go where no one has gone before. Even if “DS9” didn’t necessarily do that through the locales in which its stories were set, it certainly did so through the kinds of stories it told.

But the influence of conscious creation didn’t end there. The creation of the show was also an exercise in this process by those who brought it to the TV screen. When the production wasn’t going well, for instance, the show’s creative team needed to adjust, making alterations to keep the series afloat. This required a tremendous, concerted effort to push limits while infusing familiarity to keep viewers interested, a creative tightrope if there ever were one. In their own way, the production team’s efforts were themselves as ambitious as the stories they told, quite a feat to be sure.

In carrying out its mission, “DS9” pushed limits on many fronts, including story lines that dealt with relevant and controversial topics, themes that might not have been able to be addressed directly but that could be creatively finessed through the lens of science fiction. Continuing a tradition begun with the original “Trek” series, “DS9” frequently told stories that symbolically tackled issues that likely would have been too hot to handle through literal treatment. Topics like the agony of war, racism, religion, political corruption and treatment of the homeless, for instance, were among the touchy themes that the show covered through its expertly crafted, albeit less-than-veiled, scripts. The show also did much to further the roles of minorities and women, featuring such prominent ethnic characters as the members of the Sisko family, as well as such integral female personalities as Maj. Kira, Capt. Yates, science officer Dax (Terry Farrell, Nicole de Boer) and religious leader Kai Winn (Louise Fletcher). The show even went so far as to present a realistic view of the troubles of a married couple experiencing relationship difficulties, Miles and Keiko O’Brien (Colm Meaney, Rosalind Chao).

Such honesty reflects the heartfelt beliefs of the show’s writers, actors and producers. The degree of integrity that they brought to the show’s episodes is palpable. This series truly was a co-created labor of love for all involved, often without commensurate recognition. Yet the pride in what they were creating is plainly evident in the finished product.

Such efforts infused “DS9” with an incredible energy that in many ways allowed the series to take on a life of its own. As the show’s overarching narrative evolved over the years, including such novel attributes as adopting a continuing serial format, “DS9” aptly reflected the conscious creation principle that everything is in a constant state of becoming. This is true not only for its individual story lines, but also for the acceptance and recognition of the series overall. Even though “DS9” was underappreciated at the time it originally aired, its own character has evolved, from the tolerated stepchild of the “Trek” franchise to a respected sibling in this family of space-faring series. It may have taken more than two decades to reach that point, but it has finally come into its own. Viewers have come to see “DS9” for the great work it is, especially among new and younger fans who have taken to it from the get-go, not wishing it to be something that it was not intended to be, as happened with the series in its early days.

Given that conscious creation maintains anything is possible, that’s true for all endeavors, including the manifestation of entertainment vehicles. There’s an intrinsic validity in all materializations, even those that might not generate widespread acceptance upon their appearance. It’s gratifying to see that the validity of “DS9” is finally getting its due. It truly deserves it.

The creative staff of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” reunites to brainstorm the outline for a hypothetical eighth season premiere episode in the new retrospective documentary release on the series, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” soon to be available on DVD and Blu-day disc. Photo courtesy of Fathom Events.

The kind of creativity that went into the making of the series spilled over into the making of this documentary as well. “What We Left Behind,” a variation on the title of the series finale, “What You Leave Behind,” is more than just a chronological retrospective look at the show. In addition to the archive footage and participant interviews that one typically expects from films like this, this documentary features elements that set it apart from other such works. Most notable is a reunion of the show’s writers and producers, who came together to collaborate on the creation of a story line for a hypothetical eighth season premiere, one that picks up 20 years after the series conclusion. Besides bringing viewers up to date on what has transpired in the interim, this hypothetical episode attempts to address questions left conspicuously (and perhaps deliberately?) open when the broadcast series completed its on-air run. And it’s comforting to note that the show’s creators haven’t lost their touch after all these many years, coming up with a compelling scenario right in line with the qualities that characterized its seven years of predecessor episodes. Personally, I would love to see such a project made, even if only as a standalone production, but, given the logistics involved, it’s highly unlikely. However, as with all of the “Trek” properties, one can always dream, one of the enduring inspiring and hopeful messages to come out of the franchise.

For those who may not have heard of “What We Left Behind,” that may be due to the fact that it was a largely crowd-funded project featured at a one-night-only US theatrical screening on May 13, an offering of Fathom Events. However, despite this unduly short stint in theaters, it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray disc in August. I can’t wait to get my copy.

For those who missed “Deep Space Nine” on its first go-round, this documentary may be an ideal vehicle for whetting the appetites of the uninitiated, perhaps even spurring enough interest to give the series a second look. And for diehard fans, this is must-see viewing, a film that will delight, revive nostalgic thoughts and maybe even bring a tear to one’s eye. However, even though the show is no longer in first-run production, viewers can take comfort that its legacy lives on, that its profound and creative nature can still be appreciated now and for generations to come, a genuinely inspired body of work capable of touching us all in innumerable ways.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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