Picture it: January 3rd, 1993. Star Trek is still riding high off of the popularity of The Next Generation and the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary, barely more than a year in the past, and is building off of that momentum with the much-hyped launch of the brand-new Deep Space Nine.
It feels odd to consider that “Emissary” aired thirteen months after Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country opened in theaters, but it’s definitely a product of this moment in the history of Star Trek. There’s a strange sort of confidence imbued in the premiere episode: the creators, Michael Piller and Rick Berman, are trepidatious enough about attracting an audience to a new Star Trek series that they take care to set it in specific niches of TNG continuity, yet sure enough that the audience being attracted will already be Star Trek fans, or at least know about the franchise through cultural osmosis, that there are fundamental elements of the world the show will take place in that require little to no explanation. Indeed, after a brief text scroll “Emissary” jumps right into an unseen part of one of the most iconic TNG episodes, “The Best of Both Worlds,” and puts its new star, Ben Sisko, in the middle of it.
It’s a thrilling opening that works on different levels for established fans and the uninitiated. For Trekkies, who know the significance of the battle at Wolf 359, the chance to finally see the battle and not just its aftermath fills in something that many fans had been imagining for over two years. It also fills that space with more human, pragmatic stakes: while in the TNG episode the enterprise crew is rushing to pursue the Borg ship to save Earth (and Captain Picard), after the initial confrontation at Wolf 359 Sisko is rushing to save his family from a ship that’s about to be destroyed. For non-fans who don’t know the history this opening is being placed into, they still get a prelude featuring a space battle and the sudden death of Sisko’s wife, Jennifer, the ship’s explosion searing itself into Sisko’s memory as he escapes with his son.
When creating DS9, Piller & Berman knew that it had to be different from TNG in important ways to make two weekly series set in the same universe viable. A major part of that is the setting, placing the series on a space station rather than a starship that can simply upend a society and warp away to its next adventure; while Our Heroes will be able to get around to an extent, they’ll always have the station to go home to, and that station is placed in the middle of a political situation bigger than itself. The Bajoran people have just gained their independence from the Cardassians after sixty years of occupation, theft of natural resources, and brutal oppression; their provisional government stands on shaky ground and has invited the Federation in to lend assistance, a decision some disagree with, including Major Kira:
Since its introduction in the original series, the Federation has always existed in superposition as the United Nations in Space and the United States in Space. While it consists of many distinct member worlds whose ambassadors come together in a central council, it operates as one political entity either allied or opposed to other powers, with many episodes focusing on Federation foreign policy, as it were. Nearly every country on Earth is a UN member, so there are no such outside powers for it to relate to as a collective entity. This muddled allegory is easily attributed to the fact that Star Trek has always been made in the US, written in large part by people from the US for a largely US-based audience, cosmopolitan though its ambitions may be. The Bajoran situation at the beginning of DS9 is more like the US lending aid to another country that’s just thrown off the yoke of oppression and formed a fragile new government, and just like many situations in which the US “helps the cause of freedom,” some of the local citizens who just broke away from one military occupation aren’t keen on inviting another. Starfleet exists in a similar superposition as an exploratory organization as well as a military one, while no writer quite wants to admit that it actually is the military. (In the 2009 film Captain Pike describes Starfleet as “a humanitarian and peacekeeping armada,” a view that hews closely to the “UN in Space” interpretation of Federation mechanics, and also one that serves as a slightly hilarious demonstration of the doublethink that can arise from the topic.)
The skepticism over the Federation’s intentions on Bajor is an element of DS9 that exists in order to be proven wrong, but in keeping with the dedication to sticking around for the consequences of actions implicit in the space-station setting, that happens at different times for different characters, and isn’t tied up neatly by the end of this premiere. Indeed, the process of showing it being proven wrong will be one of the main points of focus for the first era of the series.
A Star Trek series has certain archetypes that must be filled in order to build its ensemble — among the more prosaic are the commanding officer, the doctor, the science officer, and the engineer, but more interesting are the characters who are set apart from the humans and serve to comment on humanity in the abstract (and sometimes in the particular). The original series got a lot of mileage out of Mr. Spock and his internal and external conflicts between rigid logic and human emotion; TNG had Data, who aspired to become human, and Worf, who manifestly did not and was often anxious that he’d become too human. DS9, meanwhile, is positively chock-a-block with outside perspectives on humanity, and the Federation & Starfleet by proxy. Major Kira chafes the most at Starfleet’s presence in Bajoran space, and by the end of “Emissary” comes to admit their strategic help against the Cardassians, but there’s a long way between grudging acceptance and affection, let alone integration into her life and her larger worldview. Odo is set up as an outsider relative to everyone — he doesn’t know where he came from, and is a shape-shifter unlike any seen before — and toward the end of the episode he’s still referring to Doctor Bashir as “that doctor of yours,” though he does start to like Sisko a little bit when he shows some guile in manipulating Quark to stay on the station. Quark, as a Ferengi, approaches things from a commercialist viewpoint, and calls out the entire situation as a bad investment from the beginning. (The addition of a Ferengi to the main cast is one of the more blatant instances of DS9 taking something that was all but swept under the rug on TNG and trying to get it right. In 1987 the Ferengi were supposed to be the main recurring enemy for the series, and in fact had Armin Shimmerman on board from the very beginning, but fell just about as short of that ambition as it’s possible to fall. Now begins DS9’s Ferengi reclamation project. DS9 saw fit to pilfer many other pieces from TNG — the Trill in the form of Jadzia Dax, the Bajorans, Miles O’Brien, and the Cardassians, to name a few. TNG also helped out by airing the fantastic “Chain of Command” two-parter, highlighting the villainy and deviousness of the Cardassians, in the two weeks before DS9 premiered, before taking most of January off to let the new show get its legs under it.) In return for all of the outside perspectives on humanity, there’s one human character who gets to comment on the conditions of the station and Bajor as they are at the beginning of the series in the form of Doctor Bashir, who thinks it’s just delightful that the Cardassians trashed the station before leaving, because now he’ll get to practice real frontier medicine out here in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, in the wilderness, where heroes are made. It’s an obnoxiously naïve, — and it’s a colonizer’s mentality, simultaneously romanticizing and infantilizing the natives. (It’s also, significantly, coming from Siddig El Fadil, a Sudanese-born actor with a British accent. Nothing is postcolonial here, which also accentuates some Bajorans’ anxieties.) Kira quite rightly knocks that notion right down: it’s not the farthest reaches of anything to the people who live there and whose civilization stretches back tens of thousands of years.
But all of those other characters will receive starring roles in future episodes; “Emissary” is dedicated to Ben Sisko’s emotional journey. We first meet him on the worst day of his life, when his wife Jennifer is wrenched out of it, leaving him to raise his son Jake alone. Years later he arrives at Deep Space Nine still a broken, insular man, having stuck to a desk job before being ordered to this downtrodden station to help the Bajoran people rebuild their world and eventually, in the hopes of Captain Picard, apply for Federation membership. (That ambiguously colonialist undercurrent is still there, but the show isn’t equipped to make a full critique of it yet.) Many of the characters in DS9 ensemble are more “spiky” than the TNG crew, moodier than their counterparts who were conceived of by Gene Roddenberry in an explicitly utopian way. Sisko shows this spikiness in a confrontation with Captain Picard, the beloved leader of The Next Generation. Even after Sisko coldly delays their meeting, Picard approaches it like any friendly mission briefing on his own show, until basically the first thing out of Sisko’s mouth is “We met in battle. I was on the Saratoga at Wolf 359,” spit out contemptuously. Picard immediately changes the subject to something a little more relevant to the present mission, but he’s rattled for the rest of the scene.
There’s an oft-made argument that Sisko’s straightforwardly being a jerk here. Picard was abducted and twisted by the Borg; we saw the impact his assimilation had on him in “The Best of Both Worlds” and its followup, “Family,” one of the first times that a traumatic event in Star Trek was actually still traumatic when the next episode came around. The consequences weren’t in the foreground after that, but obviously Picard had some degree of PTSD and struggled with his emotional recovery from being part of the Borg collective and watching as they destroyed the Starfleet armada as much as his physical recovery from the Borg implants. For Sisko to dredge that back up must be massively triggering. Past that, by January 1993 he’s been the leading hero of Star Trek for more than five years, someone who carries with him a sense of maturity and moral rectitude, someone with the authority to give advice to the other characters and deliver a big speech to the guest stars when needed. He’s been that hero for the other characters and for us as an audience. We know what he went through with the Borg; we rooted for him to get through it and help save the day, and then we rooted for him to get through the lasting trauma and fully become himself again. But that’s just the point — we saw all of that. Ben Sisko didn’t. Of course he knows that someone who willingly assisted an enemy would never return to a ship as its captain, but at this point Ben Sisko’s world consists of his son Jake and a massive hole where Jennifer should be (a hole the size of a refrigerator, you might say), and the force that took Jennifer away from him wore Picard’s face and spoke with his voice. Even if it’s not still as raw for Sisko as it was immediately following Wolf 359, seeing Picard again has got to be triggering for him as well. He’s still living inside his grief, and that can express itself in ways that are unfair. Besides, from a screenwriting perspective, it would be dreadfully boring to have Picard show up just to shake Sisko’s hand and wish him good luck; giving them some conflict leaves a resolution for them to reach before the end of the episode.
This moves the action to the core of Sisko’s journey over the course of “Emissary,” including the best part of the episode. After his meeting with Picard, Sisko travels to the surface of Bajor to meet the elusive Kai Opaka, the Bajorans’ spiritual leader, who immediately declares that Sisko is the Emissary sent by the Prophets to the Bajoran people and that he must find the Celestial Temple. So far, so sci-fi — the outsider who’s immediately anointed by the local religion is a common enough trope in everything from Dune to Return of the Jedi. When Sisko follows a combination of anomalous readings and historical legends into the Denorios belt he finds a wormhole leading to the other side of the galaxy — not just any wormhole, but a stable wormhole — not just a stable wormhole, but one constructed by aliens who live inside of it — the Prophets, Sisko presumes. In a thematic throwback to TNG’s pilot, where the crew encountered Q for the first time, DS9 introduces its own powerful god-like entities in its pilot, though the differences between the shows are again illustrated in their different treatments of them. Both start by judging that the show’s protagonist has journeyed too far, and cannot continue Star Trek‘s ongoing mission of exploration, but where Q was a jestering figure passing judgment on the TNG crew, the Prophets remain enigmatic, a form of life that finds our bodies as alien as our concept of linear time, deciding to cut off access to the Gamma Quadrant through the wormhole as soon as it’s discovered because of their insular fear of linear creatures, surely too different from the Prophets to be worthy of discussion. In the Trek tradition, Sisko must make the case for himself as a proxy for humanity, and humanity as a proxy for all linear life, while trying to understand who and what the Prophets are. In effect, after Opaka declares him the Emissary of the Prophets to the Bajorans, Sisko must act as an emissary from his plane of existence to the Prophets. They rummage through old and new memories as Sisko tries to explain their differences, but they keep coming back to Wolf 359, to the Saratoga, to Jennifer.
Grief is a suffocating thing. Memories become stuck, and reinforce themselves through cruel repetition. Nothing else really seems important; one’s viewpoint is constricted to a narrow band. To live in grief is to be frozen in time while the rest of the world implacably marches on. The Prophets do not understand this, as they are barely beginning to understand linear time, but “Emissary” displays a crushing understanding of the effect this has had on Sisko. “You exist here,” they say, as the scene from the beginning of the episode replays, as the earlier Sisko is pulled away from his wife’s body by a crewman trying to save those who are still alive. Sisko understands what the Prophets are saying, sees the point they’ve run into about his own psychology. “I exist here. I don’t know if you can understand. I see her like this every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her like this. …And I have never figured out how to live without her.” The Prophets understand, and the bridge is made: it’s not linear. What the Prophets experience as a blending of past, present, and future, we experience as fixation on the past at the expense of the present. Through this diplomacy-as-post-traumatic-therapy, Sisko is finally able to grieve properly for his wife, and for the purposes of this series, he’s able to properly take on the assignment he’s been given on Deep Space Nine. It’s a fantastic scene, and Avery Brooks carries it almost entirely.
Considering the feeling-out period many shows need to go through before they arrive at the phase they’re remembered for (to the extent that they’re remembered), it’s notable how much of the show DS9 would go on to be is present in “Emissary.” Odo and Quark’s love-hate relationship is there as soon as they’re both on screen together. Many of the background aliens designed by Michael Westmore are there thanks to the expanded makeup budget of a TV pilot, including the beloved Morn. The use of Jake to give Sisko a home life that grounds him in a context distinct from the more dominant political and science-fictional plots is built into the show from the beginning. Gul Dukat is the first Cardassian who shows up to cause trouble, Marc Alaimo using his one short scene to imbue the character with a winning combination of charisma and sleaze. Colm Meaney’s Chief O’Brien lent an everyman working-class element to TNG, and in DS9 finds himself in an environment where that sort of character can thrive. Sisko and Dax’s friendship is established quickly, and later on they relate to each other with the gentle ribbing of long-time friends (“Are your navigational readings going crazy?” “I’ll recalibrate when I have a moment.” “Take your time”), notwithstanding Dax’s recent change from an old man to a young woman. The Bajoran religion is established early, and treated with more respect than many religions have been in Star Trek — the episode doesn’t provide a platform for any of the Starfleet characters to “debunk” anything, even after discovering that the mystical orbs are advanced probes or that the Prophets are aliens who live inside the wormhole.
Some crucial elements of production design also had to be in place for the beginning of the series. The titular station is specifically a Cardassian one, with a different design aesthetic from any Starfleet facility. Production designer Herman Zimmerman was given an unusually long lead time to create a design that would be iconic enough to represent the series, and produced a beautiful model that incorporates the Cardassians’ sloping necklines (if anyone is going to design large architectural projects that look like themselves, it’s the Cardassians) as well as curving spires reminiscent of a gyroscope to create a unified, spherical space enclosed by the station. Meanwhile, Mike Okuda took inspiration from the circular shape of the station and used circular elements in the monitors and touchpanels used for the station interiors. The other two major new design elements of “Emissary,” the Starfleet runabouts and the Bajoran wormhole that fills out the premise of the series, contrast nicely: the runabouts are squat, smallish ships that emphasize function over form — not that they’re ugly, the design is actually a personal favorite, but they’re definitely ships that give the impression of having a job to do; the wormhole, meanwhile, is a gorgeous piece of art, a blinding flash that resolves into shades of blue and purple swirling around the center. It’s a fabulous visual effect that’s instantly believable both as a spacial anomaly and as the Celestial Temple of the Prophets. It really does seem like a beautiful, sacred gateway.
Also lending a trace of the sacred is Dennis McCarthy’s opening theme. While McCarthy wrote an opening theme for The Next Generation in 1987, it was decided (correctly, to be honest) to use a re-orchestrated version of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic march from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For Deep Space Nine, McCarthy finally got an opening theme on the air, and he did not disappoint: it begins with solo horn accentuated by an organ and proceeds to the main theme for the series as we see a visual tour of the outside of the station, again in a horn solo that’s later bolstered as other melodic lines weave their way in, the theme carrying a sense of loneliness and nobility. (The opening of the wormhole was cleverly left out of the opening credits for “Emissary,” since the wormhole wouldn’t be discovered until later in the episode.)
So, ultimately, what “Emissary” promises us is a look at a couple barely-seen corners of the Star Trek universe, with a window to the totally unknown and ambiguously sacred, following characters with diverse backgrounds, including one who’s already fairly popular. Let’s go.
Screencaps and cast photo courtesy of TrekCore.