In 1993, following the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine hit our screens, promising to push the franchise in all new directions and test the limits of its ingrained idealism. And… people hated it. From the setting, a slowly rotating space station as opposed to an adventuring starship, to the brash characters who didn’t get along, this was not the Star Trek that fans had grown accustomed to. But during its seven-year run, the show evolved and transformed into what many (myself included) consider to be the crowning achievement of the franchise.
This is something that the new documentary, What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, tackles head-on, opening with an amusing sequence featuring cast members reading scathing fanmail. The likes of Armin Shimerman and Nana Visitor are clearly having fun in this and other segments, which are peppered throughout the film, making for an amusing counterpart to the waxing poetic that generally goes on in these types of films. But they’re especially funny given the show’s current reputation and when compared to the similarly vitriolic reactions to the new series Star Trek: Discovery.
Really, the fundamental issue at the heart of What We Left Behind concerns the legacy of DS9 — what it did for serialized television, how it tried (and sometimes failed) to bring greater representation to the franchise, and what an eighth season would look like in today’s television landscape. But this is far from just an excuse for cast and crew to pat themselves on the back. What We Left Behind director and DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr isn’t afraid to dig beneath the surface and confront the show’s failings, despite the overall positive tone of the film.
At one point we get a rundown of issues tackled by DS9, as the creators discuss how they delved into timely subject matter like the human cost of war and homelessness. We hear from fans who’ve been personally affected by these episodes, while news footage shows just how prevalent those issues continue to be, two decades on. This is until they reach the topic of sexuality and Behr pauses to reflect on how he could have done better in this regard.
The episode “Rejoined,” which features one of TV’s first lesbian kiss scenes, is rightly celebrated for how it uses the Trill species to explore the sexuality and gender identity of Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), but Behr is also willing to discuss how he failed the character of Garak (Andrew Robinson). Earlier in the film, Robinson talks about the character’s explicit (at least in his mind) attraction to Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig), but Behr notes here that in keeping the character’s sexuality vague and unexplored was a mistake, something he’d do differently given another chance.
Speaking of second chances, another big part of the doc sees Behr reuniting a small group of the show’s writers, including Ronald D. Moore, who went on to create the Battlestar Galactica reboot, for a fantasy eighth season pitch. It’s great fun to see them work like this and getting an insight into how those sessions might have worked during the show’s run and how they’d bring it forward now. Their ideas are nicely complemented by hand-drawn animation too, giving us a real sense of what this new chapter might look like.
Although it’s questionable whether any of these ideas would actually work were the show to be revived (Kira and Bashir, in particular, feel oddly out of character), it makes for an enjoyable peek behind the curtain, and it must have been a nice trip down memory lane for those involved.
What We Left Behind also looks back on DS9‘s impact on representation in television, specifically how important it was in the ’90s for Avery Brooks to portray a stable black father to son Jake (Cirroc Lofton), another way in which the show is considered ahead of its time. Behr also discusses how streaming and binging culture has done wonders for the show, noting how DS9 plays better today in that context than it ever did on a week-to-week basis, where viewers could so easily miss an episode.
Of course, there’s always going to be important things left out — notable episodes and character arcs only get passing mentions here — and you can’t help but wish that this or that had been added to the doc’s already lengthy runtime (certainly not a complaint). But for what it is, What We Left Behind is an honest, engaging, and surprisingly funny look back at one of modern television’s greatest achievements, a film that will delight fans of the show and leave them wanting to go back for one more rewatch.