What We Left Behind Boldly Argues for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Place in the Black TV Canon

Photo: Paramount Pictures

The 1990s are often considered a golden age for black television. The decade gave us the charmingly familial Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the slapstick, exuberant Martin, and the career-launching In Living Color, offering varied depictions of black life and art. The era in television and what it meant for black representation has been studied, revered, and ranked. On a recent episode of The Nod, host Eric Eddings noted, “The past few years have felt like a renaissance for black TV. It’s really, really exciting even though I feel it’s not nearly enough. I feel this way because I remember a hallowed, glorious time when TV was black as hell.”

Most of these nostalgic retrospectives and critical considerations, however, exclude one of the most revolutionary series of the era: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

When it premiered in January 1993, Deep Space Nine immediately stood apart from the Star Trek franchise series that preceded it. Commander Benjamin Sisko — played with intensity by Avery Brooks — was a widow and single father assigned to a Starfleet station, who was tasked with bringing the highly religious Bajorans into the Federation following a decades-long occupation by the Cardassians. Unlike the episodic The Next Generation, Sisko’s serialized story produced arcs that stretched across seasons — the Bajorans, for example, believed he was a prophetlike figure, a detail that anchors many of the show’s subplots. Sisko’s Deep Space Nine therefore felt darker, more lived in than the Enterprise that was dashing across the star system at the time.

Crucially, huge swaths of the show focused on complicated, yearning black and brown characters, free of alien prosthetics and the edicts creator Gene Roddenberry issued for previous Star Trek series (main characters must get along; no war). From Alexander Siddig to Brock Peters, the show gave talented character actors a chance to flex skills other series didn’t. Perhaps most exciting to me as a kid were the complex, capable, and morally gray women of the series — the two most important being Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), a Bajoran freedom fighter struggling with PTSD, and Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), a statuesque and roguish Trill scientist joined to a symbiote who has lived as men and women for the last few hundred years.

What We Left Behind: A Look Back at Deep Space Nine, which was released in theaters May 13, reflects the curiosity and sincerity of the series it wishes to interrogate. The documentary is the work of David Zappone and DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr (he of the cobalt beard), who are attempting to reconsider the show’s cultural importance 20 years after it ended. They’ve collected together spectacularly remastered HD footage of the series and testimonials from fans and cast members, and even reunited members of the old writers room to imagine the beginning of an eighth season of the show. But what’s most striking about the film is how it argues for DS9’s place in not only the canon of science fiction, or the history books of groundbreaking ’90s television, but in the archives of black Hollywood itself. In doing so, What We Left Behind explores both what it takes to craft a truly groundbreaking series within an unforgiving system and how such a show could have been even bolder.

In science fiction, race often exists at the tenor of metaphor. In the neon-drenched dystopia Blade Runner and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, the existential horror of slavery is told through a subjected class of bioengineered androids. Apartheid is reconstituted in District 9 as it concerns insectlike aliens. The history of subjugation has long been transposed into otherworldly stories of monsters and ghouls, sometimes leading creators to elide racial dynamics into pure fantasy — a complaint that can be pitched at the Star Trek franchise itself before DS9 took a different approach. While DS9 skillfully used allegory and metaphor to consider the dynamics of racism, religious fervor, and the devastation of war, its most impactful episodes confronted these issues head-on.

Take for example, “Past Tense,” the two-part episode that sees the DS9 travel back in time to San Francisco 2024 to confront homelessness. As Robert Greene II writes for The Atlantic, “Stuck in 2024, Sisko, who is black […] must contend with unfamiliar racism, classism, violence, and Americans’ apparent apathy toward human suffering. For Sisko, a native of New Orleans, history spoke with a powerful, notably African American voice. Unlike the uplifting accounts other captains pointed to, Sisko indicated that he remembered humanity’s more vicious moments, too.” Then there’s “Far Beyond the Stars,” directed by Brooks himself, in which the horror of America’s past and present play out in Sisko’s visions of a black science-fiction writer in the 1950s (played by Brooks), who struggles with racism in the publishing industry and on the streets of his own neighborhood. That the episode is unflinching in its exploration of police brutality only a few years removed from the L.A. riots makes its impact all the more deeply felt.

Black fatherhood, in particular, became a crucial theme in the show, so much so that actor Avery Brooks reportedly used his influence to shape the finale; he wasn’t comfortable with the negative connotations wrapped up with a black man leaving his pregnant wife to raise their child alone. In footage of a convention shown in What We Left Behind, Brooks is asked about his favorite journey on the series — he says that it was raising his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Lofton goes on to discuss at length the importance of the series, both from the perspective of a young black man on the show taken under Brooks’s wing and as a fan experiencing its cultural resonance.

Bringing these stories to screen in the 1990s wasn’t easy. In What We Left Behind, Behr sits down with former Paramount TV chairman Kerry McCluggage to discuss the behind-the-scenes battles between the series showrunners and the studio. Behr had to fight for three seasons to allow Brooks to groom himself in the way he was most comfortable — a shaved head and goatee. “I do think going in …” McCluggage says, stumbling over his words, “we thought it would be a mistake to go, uh, street.”

It’s fascinating to watch Behr wrestle with his responsibility as a showrunner, shrugging off pats on the back with a clear-eyed understanding that he could have pushed harder for more representation. During its run, only one DS9 episode directly explores sexual identity — “Rejoined,” in which Jadzia Dax faces a wife from her symbiote’s past life, leading to a bittersweet story and the franchise’s first gay kiss. (For my burgeoning queer self, it was a lightning-rod moment that helped me realize my own desires.) Behr reflects specifically on the character of Garak, the Cardassian spy hiding on Deep Space Nine as a tailor, played with relish and pathos by Andrew Robinson. (Robinson appears in meta-segments of the film, contemplating the nature of documentary itself.)

While the writers never explicitly pushed his story in this direction, the dynamic between Garak and the chief medical officer, Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), often felt romantic. Robinson played Garak as such: “At first he just wanted to have sex with [Bashir] and then it became more complicated.” At a time when filmmakers like the Russo Brothers are gleefully holding themselves up as progressive beacons for including an inconsequential gay character in Avengers: Endgame, it is heartening to watch a writer honestly reflect on what more he could have done.

What We Left Behind is undoubtedly geared toward DS9 fans, but it also holds value as a testament to what it costs to stage a formally and socially revolutionary show within a rigid studio system. Early on in the documentary, various cast members read hate mail the show received, bemoaning how DS9 was too dark, too religious, too dense. Behr explains how hard he fought to keep the show serialized, a first for Star Trek and exceedingly rare in 1993, when TV was defined by tight episodic structures rather than long arcs.

One of the most intriguing subplots of the documentary follows Behr as he reconvenes his writers room in 2015 in order to imagine an eighth season — one that could be produced today. Joining him are René Echevarria, Hans Beimler, Robert Hewitt Wolfe (now the showrunner of Elementary), and Ronald D. Moore (who went on to become the showrunner of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander). In doing so, a question bubbles under the surface: “What would DS9 look like in a TV landscape influenced by the strides it made?” This gimlet-eyed perspective is somewhat dulled by the things not said or unpacked in the reunited writers room and elsewhere — namely what exactly happened with actor Farrell, whose character was killed off only to find her symbiote repackaged in a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed Ezri Dax (Nicole de Boer). Farrell, at one point in the documentary, breaks down into tears discussing the disrespect she dealt with at the hands of an unidentified producer. The writers and cast still exist in a state of confusion over why she was fired. Cryptically, actor Michael Dorn states, “Only the people involved know the facts. We just know what people want to tell us.”

In the end, it becomes clear that without DS9, shows like Star Trek: Discovery and the beloved reboot of Battlestar Galactica likely wouldn’t exist. More importantly, the way the series was able to untangle notions of historical representations and black identity situates it as not only radical to science fiction, but to the canon of black television. How can we consider black fatherhood on TV without casting an eye to the heartfelt, intensely layered dynamics between Captain Sisko and his son, Jake? How can we create an accurate story of blackness on TV without admiring the complicated brio of Avery Brooks’s marvelous direction on episodes like “Far Beyond the Stars”? I could write endlessly on the joys of DS9 and how this offbeat, heartfelt documentary celebrates it. Watching scenic art supervisor Michael Okuda speak with pride about designing the station by basing it on oil rigs or cinematographer Jonathan West discuss how he thought of the show as “film noir in space,” I realize the strength of the documentary is in the details of how this show got made despite the roadblocks the creators faced. In doing so, What We Left Behind becomes a documentary about the hard work that goes into making television history and the ways the medium is indebted to DS9 today.

New Doc Argues for Deep Space Nine’s Place in Black TV Canon