It was a key scene in the second episode of what has become a triumphant final season for Paramount+’s science fiction series “Star Trek: Picard.”
A corrupt crime boss named Sneed — from a hyper-capitalistic alien race called the Ferengi — has a cat-and-mouse-style conversation with a woman pretending to be an addict who is actually an undercover intelligence operative. Played by Aaron Stanford, Sneed is streetwise, confident and relishes the game he’s playing, dumping the decapitated head of a former associate on a table to prove the operative is lying.
And when Armin Shimerman, one of the first actors to play a Ferengi on TV, saw Stanford’s work as Sneed, he admits it brought one feeling above all.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘That’s the way I should have played the Ferengi from the first,’” said Shimerman, who played one of the aliens in their first TV appearance, a 1987 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” called “The Last Outpost.” Later, Shimerman would become the actor who helped define the race onscreen, playing Ferengi nightclub owner Quark on the syndicated series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” for the show’s seven-season run.
“[Sneed] was both cunning and oily and believable and less cartoonish … it would have been an entirely different species if I had played a Ferengi as well as that actor played it,” said Shimerman, who developed a reputation on the “DS9” set for resisting attempts to turn the greedy, trollish-looking characters into one-dimensional comic relief. “If I had his approach from day one, the world would be very different.”
Picard’s third and final season has now wrapped, sparking headlines and a deluge of fan affection for its kinetic, updated storyline reuniting the principal cast from “The Next Generation.” But the show’s characters and storylines have emerged as an extended love letter to three Trek TV series which aired from the late 1980s to the early 2000s: “Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” and “Voyager.”
As the series which arguably got the most criticism for its pointed and repeated departures from traditional “Trek,” “Deep Space Nine” may also be the most vindicated by the repeated references in “Picard” – prompting a re-examination of the series as it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
“We recognized the problems with authority, we recognized the problems of a bunch of different races living together…things that were automatically accepted in the previous “Star Trek” shows were questioned on our show,” said Shimerman of the series, set in a bustling space station. “I think we made ‘Star Trek’ that much more real. That’s a huge legacy that we gave to the franchise.”
Nana Visitor, who played the space station’s second in command, Kira Nerys, says “Deep Space Nine” is a “Trek” series that highlights the difficulty in bringing diverse cultures together equally — a struggle reflecting where the world is right now.
“There’s a space missing between everybody getting along and everybody being [at war, like] Klingons,” she said. “It’s not going to be pretty. There are uncomfortable conversations that must be had. I think we’re at that point in the world, and that’s where ‘DS9’ was. This is multiculturalism at its realest.”
The show also featured the first Black starring character in “Trek,” casting Avery Brooks as Commander (and later, Captain) Benjamin Sisko. But Cirroc Lofton, who played Sisko’s son Jake, still doesn’t think Brooks gets enough credit for the pioneering role he played on “Deep Space Nine” as a capable Black leader and caring single father.
“I feel like there’s a slightly vague avoidance to address Sisko and really what his legacy is in the world of ‘Trek,’” said Lofton. “In this latest iteration, there’s a lot of respect given to Picard and his adventures. … I just want that same kind of energy when you talk about Sisko.”
Lofton suspects one reason the show hasn’t embraced Sisko’s legend so readily is that he was played by a Black man with a history of speaking on social justice issues in ways that make Hollywood bigwigs uncomfortable.
“‘Star Trek’ has this duality,” he said. “It represents the ideals of what we want to strive for … where we work together for the common good and we explore the universe to spread knowledge and to help people. But the show is produced in Hollywood, which still has to deal with its own racism and bigotry and sexism.”
Debuting in 1993 amid the success of “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” was pointedly different – set on a space station instead of a starship, featuring characters who mistrusted and sometimes openly disliked each other, in an area of space which eventually would be embroiled in an interstellar war.
“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991 years before the debut of “DS9,” had a strong vision for the franchise, dating back to the debut of its first iteration, now called “The Original Series,” back in 1966. Roddenberry often insisted storylines about war and conflict among humans could not be part of a franchise set in humanity’s idealized future where Earth was part of a United Federation of Planets.
The stories of “Deep Space Nine” were also occasionally serialized — written to unfold over several episodes, instead of wrapping up in one — which was antithetical to how syndicated TV worked back then.
For many reasons, some working on the show felt overshadowed and underappreciated — laboring on the only “Trek” series which almost always had to compete with another “Trek” series also simultaneously airing new episodes: first “Next Generation” and then “Voyager.”
But the nods in “Picard” to “Deep Space Nine” — featuring a race created for the show, the Changelings, as a major villain, motivated by events during a war which took place during the “DS9” run — has shown the value of storytelling the earlier series pioneered decades ago.
Looking back 30 years, “Deep Space Nine” was making a style of television which would become the standard for streaming TV — an extraordinary validation for an often overlooked series that its former showrunner sometimes wished wasn’t even identified as a “Trek” show at all.
“The thing that does my heart good is when someone comes and tells me, ‘I’m not really a fan of “Trek” that much, but I love “Deep Space Nine,”‘” said Ira Steven Behr, a talented iconoclast who served as showrunner on the series over four years and helped assemble a 2018 documentary on the program, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
“By season four, I kept saying, ‘Can we take “Star Trek” off the name of the show?,’” Behr added. “Can we just free ourselves from the bonds of what “Star Trek” is and just be “Deep Space Nine”?'”
Rick Berman remembers “Deep Space Nine” beginning with a meeting, where the head of Paramount Studios, legendary TV executive Brandon Tartikoff, wanted to discuss making another Trek program, drafting off the success of the “Next Generation” series.
Berman, a former Paramount TV executive who had helped “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry develop “The Next Generation,” was now its executive producer and ready to please his boss. Tartikoff, Berman remembered, liked to describe new projects by referencing a combination of old ones.
“What I got [from Tartikoff] was, ‘How about ‘The Rifleman’ in space … a father and son story?,’” said Berman, referencing a 1950s-era TV series starring Chuck Connors as a rancher raising a young son in the Old West. “My response was, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Still, Berman felt a responsibility to uphold Roddenberry’s vision, which had a lot of rules for what was and wasn’t true “Trek.” There couldn’t be conflict among members of Starfleet. The greed for money had been overcome. Humans were united beyond war and petty prejudices. In other words, all the stuff TV writers often use to spark storylines and drama were pretty much off limits.
But Berman thought they had found a loophole. What if the conflict came from characters who weren’t human?
Setting “Deep Space Nine” on a space station was a good contrast with the first two “Star Trek series,” set on spacefaring starships named Enterprise. In “DS9,” which Berman co-created with executive producer Michael Piller, Starfleet would be helping a race called the Bajorans by jointly running the space station after they liberated themselves from brutal oppression by the imperialistic Cardassians. A Ferengi named Quark would run a bar and casino on the premises which could be a watering hole for a wide diversity of alien species.
At the center of it all was stage and TV veteran Avery Brooks, who would complicate the story of “Deep Space Nine” in many different ways.
Behr remembers wondering if Brooks — a tall, stentorian actor with an almost palpable authoritative presence — was right for the role before they even started filming.
“When I saw Avery’s audition, I thought, ‘What the hell are these guys doing?,’” the producer said. “As it was written originally, he’s supposed to be this young commander or this younger commander who needs some guidance. … They picked Avery because … he had this gravitas that said ‘Star Trek Captain.’ Avery Brooks is already a goddamn captain.”
But Berman disputes Behr’s recollection, noting that Sisko had to be old enough to have a tween-age son. Berman said he originally wanted to cast British-raised actor Alexander Siddig as Sisko, but upon learning that Siddig was then 27 years old, he instead cast him as the space station’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Julian Bashir.
“Deep Space Nine” bucked “Trek” tradition in many ways. In the show’s first episode, Sisko is shown hating Enterprise captain Jean-Luc Picard, because Picard led an attack on Federation starships when he was controlled by cybernetic villains, the Borg. The attack led to the death of Sisko’s wife — this anger at Picard over his actions as a member of the Borg was revisited/called back on “Picard” by an emotional scene with Todd Stashwick’s Capt. Liam Shaw, who served on a ship which was also destroyed by the Borg, with Picard commanding the villains.
Nana Visitor’s Kira Nerys was a strong-willed, ex-guerilla fighter who didn’t initially trust Sisko much, either. Visitor, who is writing a book on the women of “Star Trek,” said fans would come up to her at conventions and ask why her character was so strident — she said they called Kira a bitch — or wonder if she was a lesbian.
“The rule of the ‘90s in Hollywood (for women) was … are you fuckable?,” added Visitor, who said she came to “Deep Space Nine” after a string of unfulfilling roles as someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother. “So when I read the [Kira] role, I thought it was a man’s role because of her first scene [confronting] Sisko … Kira was like a door that opened for me and I ran through as fast as I could. I had people say to me, ‘You’re trying to play a man’s strength as Kira.’ And I was like, ‘No. that’s actually me. That’s the woman I am.’”
Syndicated TV series like “Deep Space Nine” were shown by different TV stations in different cities across the country at different times; episodes could be delayed or pre-empted by sporting events or news coverage in one market, but not another. So Paramount strenuously resisted “Deep Space Nine” storylines which played out over multiple episodes, fearing audiences would get confused.
Behr didn’t care. “I was told by executives that I was killing the show … [but] it was a show that was meant to be serialized, whether Mike and Rick realized that when they created it,” added the producer, who often felt hamstrung by the rules imposed by “Trek” orthodoxy. “At the time, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they really expect us to be writing these shows with crayons.’ I mean, every show should have questions about morality and the problems of command. It just told me how much of a comfort food [‘Trek’] is.”
Rene Echevarria was a writer on “The Next Generation” before he would move over to work as a producer and writer on “Deep Space Nine.” And as “DS9” was developed, he remembered “TNG” writers were envious of the freedom writers for the new series would have.
“We were convinced we were just going to be eclipsed,” he added. “The [‘DS9’] characters were going to have friction, they’re going to have warts. We were, as writers, very jealous and very sure that we were going to get forgotten in the dust of this new show.”
And there was the issue of Brooks’ look. As the show went on, the actor asked to change his look from clean shaven to wearing a goatee and later, with a shaved head. But Berman said Paramount executives feared that look was too close to a character called Hawk that Brooks had played years earlier in an ABC series, “Spenser: For Hire.” Also, they worried it was “too street” or “too urban.”
Berman insists those phrases weren’t euphemisms for “too Black.” “It all came from the studio, and it was a question of making him look too much like Hawk,” he added.
But Lofton felt a little differently. “Certain elements of white America are threatened by certain images of Black people, certain looks,” he said. “But you can’t take away the man inside the skin. It doesn’t matter what you do to his face or how you cut his hair; he’s going to portray these characters in a certain light, that is positive and inspiring for future generations.”
Lofton said he was about age 14 when “Deep Space Nine” started production, so he was largely unaware of many issues the adult actors faced. He also didn’t watch the show much while he was acting in it and didn’t talk much with Brooks about the relationship between their characters.
Instead, Lofton said, Brooks led by example. “I started to learn those things as I got older … how few Black role models there were on television and how few Black fathers were raising children on television. … How [Benjamin Sisko] was counter to the stereotype of absent Black men in the household,” he said. “Once I learned that, I started to have more appreciation for the work we did representing.”
Echevarria recalled that Brooks, who could be tough to read and had a no-nonsense approach on the set, seemed to loosen up when he adopted the goatee in season three, shaved his head for season four and began directing episodes.
“It was transformative,” Echevarria said of Brooks’ revamped look. “We all thought, ‘He looks badass.’ And it seemed like he felt it. He felt the way he wanted to feel.”
“It was a long and winding road to get the character to what Avery deserved, basically,” added Behr. “Keeping your Number One [actor] on the call sheet comfortable and happy in his own skin … that should be your number one concern.”
Shimerman also waged a silent battle to upgrade his character, Quark. Some critics have lambasted the Ferengi as a collection of antisemitic tropes — a group of money-obsessed, evil trolls. But the actor insists that — especially because he, Behr, and Berman are of Jewish heritage — that the Ferengi were never antisemitic, but were often cartoonish and not well fleshed out.
“When Rick told me that I was cast on the show, my sole agenda was to take a one-dimensional character and turn it into a three-dimensional character,” said Shimerman, a longtime “Trek” fan before joining the shows who believes he was the first actor cast on “Deep Space Nine.”
“I wanted to erase out of people’s minds what I had done on that first encounter with the Ferengi [on ‘The Next Generation’], because I was so embarrassed by it,” added the actor, who resisted portraying scenes which might make the character look too simple. “I wanted to take the character with the least amount of potential and make him the character with the most amount of potential … that became my mantra for Quark.”
Playing the character could be tough. Just applying the oversize forehead, ears, nose, and other makeup required to adopt the Ferengi’s look took about two hours to assemble and an hour to take off, Shimerman said, for shooting schedules which could involve 16-hour days.
Behr said conflicts with various actors over the direction of their characters and tensions on set connect to his biggest regret: That he didn’t visit the set enough to talk with the actors and communicate with them about its creative direction. (Behr’s efforts in this direction likely weren’t helped by what Visitor and Berman called an unwritten rule back then that the “Trek” shows’ writers were not supposed to speak with the actors.)
“My communication with the actors was not up to snuff,” Behr said. “I just wanted to believe, they see the material, they see how much we’re using them, we’re giving them good stuff, that’s enough. And it’s really not enough. I know the actors were constantly being confused that things were happening that they weren’t expecting and no one’s really explaining it to them.”
TV critics may have loved the way “Deep Space Nine” challenged the typical “Trek” formula — TV Guide called it “the best acted, written, produced, and altogether finest” series in the franchise. But some fans criticized the show as too stationary, too riddled with conflict, too dark.
“I think some of the real purists [believe] ‘Star Trek’ is an idea that should focus on the positive benefits of the future … that gives us hope for what’s to come,” Berman said. “With ‘Deep Space Nine’ that fell back a little bit, because it didn’t have that same positive, uplifting attitude. … It didn’t end with somebody saying ‘make it so’ at the end of every episode.”
“Every new show is ruining ‘Star Trek’ [to some fans],” Visitor added. “And we certainly got that feedback. And we were not well received in many areas. And I remember Armin telling me, ‘In 20 years, they’ll get what we’re doing.’”
Adding to the impact, Berman and Piller began working on another series, “Star Trek: Voyager,” just a couple of years into the “Deep Space Nine” run centered on a starship marooned on the far side of the galaxy. So, instead of “Next Generation” ending so “DS9” could step into the full spotlight, Paramount executives began planning to have another starship-based “Trek” series ready for the launch of the UPN network in 1995.
“I would say I felt abandoned … I would imagine the others felt abandoned as well,” Shimerman said. “We felt that we were the heirs to the original ‘Next Generation’ show. And all of a sudden we were no longer important, because here was a new show that needed to be coaxed into being because it was going to be a flagship of this new network.”
But there was at least one person connected to “Deep Space Nine” who saw the focus shifting to “Voyager” as a blessing.
Behr recalls Piller stopping by his office to deliver what he saw as terrible news. After some pacing, Piller told him that “Voyager” was going to be the new flagship “Trek” show and “Deep Space Nine” would never get that honor.
As Piller left, Behr realized top executives at Paramount and the “Trek” shows would be too focused on “Voyager” to stop them from enacting storylines and changes that would stretch the limits of the franchise — from creating an authoritarian empire controlled by the Changelings known as The Dominion, to pitting them against the Federation in a war that would stretch over many episodes and inspire the changeling villains on “Picard.”
“Let them swarm all over ‘Voyager’ … [and] let us go our quiet way and just be our subversive little selves and push the franchise, like a fucking boulder, up a mountain,” Behr said. “‘Voyager’ was the best thing that ever happened to ‘Deep Space Nine.’”
“Deep Space Nine” ended its run after seven seasons; Berman said Paramount had another unwritten rule that all “Trek” TV series would end after seven seasons, as “Next Generation” and “Voyager” also did (“Star Trek: Enterprise,” the show which debuted after “Voyager,” only lasted four seasons.)
And now, as “Picard” has woven new drama from characters and storylines introduced in “Deep Space Nine,” one of the most maligned “Trek” series is earning renewed consideration for its groundbreaking qualities on its 30th anniversary. Just last year, auteur producer Bryan Fuller, who was the original showrunner of “Star Trek: Discovery” praised “Deep Space Nine” for creating room for LGBTQ representation.
“Years later, we are being shown that we were appreciated, when, for many years, we didn’t think we were being appreciated,” Shimerman said. “It’s an acknowledgement that there is a history here — a history that needs to be acknowledged and appreciated. It’s very flattering and I’m grateful.”