By Guest Contributor Kendra James
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is like The West Wing. But in space. With a Black president. Kind of.
That’s normally how I find myself trying to describe the show to the uninitiated, as I firmly believe that it’s the Trek series you have to use when trying to get people into Trek canon, especially people of color. Deep Space Nine (DS9) causes a strange division in the world of Trekkies. I’ve always found (non-scientifically; I just spend a lot of time at cons) that people either love it or loathe it. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to show it to my kids.
DS9 has your aliens and spaceships, and characters do occasionally say things like “set phasers to stun,” but the Trek cheese-factor is more often than not outweighed by the political storyarcs covered over six out of the show’s seven seasons, its criticisms of 20th century history, race relations in America, and lead actor, Avery Brooks, who stars as Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko–the first and only African-American captain to lead a televised Star Trek franchise.
In both the original Star Trek series (TOS) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the existence of the United Federation Of Planets provided a perfect excuse to ignore (human) race and racism completely. The Trek franchise has always featured black actors and actresses, well developed Black characters, and TOS even featured the first televised interracial kiss in the episode “Plato’s Kiss.” Both shows dismissed racism on Earth as being as outdated as using money, instead highlighting racial politics between alien species rather than humans.
This model may have continued through DS9 had they hired any other actor to portray Captain Sisko. However, Brooks–a Shakespearean-trained actor, graduate of Oberlin College, and the first African-American to earn an MFA in acting and directing from Rutgers University, where he has also worked as a professor–brought much of himself to the role, and that included an emphasis in the importance of the African-American experience. Even nearly three hundred years in the future. Whether Trek fans were ready for it or not, DS9 brought the topic of race closer to home.
While I suspect that direct tone is one of the reasons DS9 isn’t as popular as its’ predecessors–along with the heavy emphasis on backroom politics instead of “seeking out bold new worlds”–if you didn’t like TNG chances are you’re going to love a show that goes out of its way in the first episode to distinguish Sisko from the already-established Captain Jean-Luc Picard. In the premiere we learn Picard (while under control of the alien species The Borg) had killed Sisko’s wife.
In a meeting between the two, Sisko speaks to Picard in a tone he’s likely never heard from a non-superior officer before, and Sisko’s dislike of the man–and the stationis made apparent. With that, Sisko distinguishes himself immediately in the DS9 pilot as one of the few people with the mettle to speak openly to Picard and to not simply fall under the spell of influence the captain was often written to command. While the scene was likely included to make the segue from TGN to DS9 as smooth as possible, Picard does not exist to emerge as the hero of the scene or to bring Sisko back in line, so to speak. Because Sisko is given his outrage, his choice to accept permanent assignment there later is that much more genuine.
The meeting also introduces what would be one of the series’ most important subplots: Sisko is a family man in a way that neither Picard or Kirk ever were. He’s a widower with an 11-year old son Jake (Cirroc Lofton), a situation that was one of the reasons for resisting his assignment to the station.
In William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, Brooks said it was important to him to portray a black father on television that plays an positive role in his son’s life.
“I read the pilot, and said well, this is very interesting to me,” Brooks said. “A man dealing with loss, having to raise a child–indeed a male child–by himself, and be brown as we spin this tale in the 20th century about the 24th century.”
The depiction of the black father continued to be an important dynamic to Brooks through the show’s finale, like when he initially thought they were going to have Sisko abandon his son and unborn child. Upset by this decision he’s quoted as saying, “ The Producers told me, ‘Look we thought you’d be thrilled…The difference, of course, is you have Sisko with another child on the way. You still have Sisko with a young man [Jake Sisko] trying to find his way…That wasn’t fair.” [Shortened for Spoilers].
This view on “Parenting While Black” is unique in sci-fi fantasy television. More often than not in these shows, black parents die off or abandon their children early on in their lives, leaving them unhappy, lonely and hungry for revenge. Brooks’ efforts helped Lofton’s character largely avoid the fate of others like Robin Wood and Kendra Young (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Charles Gunn (Angel), Bonnie Bennett (The Vampire Diaries), and Walt Lloyd (Lost).
Even with an intergalactic war raging around them later in the series, Sisko is always there for Jake. They’re often shown having dinner together and Sisko is always eager to read over and help edit Jake’s stories and articles. He supports Jake’s decision to become a writer instead of going to the Starfleet Academy, even though that’s perhaps what he would have preferred. Episodes like “The Visitor” (guest starring Tony Todd as an older Jake Sisko) and “In the Cards” (where Jake tries to acquire a 1950s baseball card to cheer Sisko up during a stressful week) highlight the strength of the bond and loving relationship between father and son.
With a highly educated and vocal African American actor in the lead it’s no wonder you get get seven seasons of a series that takes his cultural experience to heart; Sisko is specifically written to acknowledge the implications that the color of his skin bring.
Not only are there references to Sisko’s New Orleans heritage, soul food, his love of baseball (particularly players Willie Mayes and Jackie Robinson) and bits of African art we see decorating his quarters, but we see him enter a relationship with an African-American woman, Kasidy Yates, enabling them–and the viewers–to discuss the cultural history of racism, of which Sisko is still acutely aware. In one episode his crew becomes infatuated with visiting “Vic’s,” a holosuite program set in a 1960s Las Vegas casino and lounge, and Kasidy asks him why he doesn’t want to join his team’s Rat Pack cosplay.
Sisko: You want to know … you really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you: Las Vegas 1962, that’s my problem. In 1962, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh sure, they could be performers or janitors, but customers? Never.
Kasidy: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there, and neither has Jake.
Sisko: But don’t you see? That’s the lie. In 1962, the civil rights movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people, and I’m not going to pretend that it was.
Kasidy: Baby–I know that Vic’s isn’t a totally accurate representation of the way things were, but… it isn’t meant to be. It shows us the way things could’ve been – the way they should’ve been.
Sisko: We cannot ignore the truth about the past.
Kasidy: Going to Vic’s isn’t going to make us forget who we are or where we came from. What it does is reminds us that we are no longer bound by any limitations–except the ones we impose on ourselves.
It’s a small scene in a 45-minute episode, but the fact that it’s acknowledged is important and more than you get from most genre shows. Sisko is initially displeased with his crew’s little Mad Men fantasy, and he’s allowed to express it, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for the viewer.
During season five, Brooks also tackled nostalgic racism from behind the camera, as director of the episode “Far Beyond The Stars,” which spends an entire 45 minutes dealing with race relations in mid 20th-century America. “Stars” reimagines Sisko as a science fiction writer named Benny Russell working for a racist and sexist New York magazine in the 1950s where racism is present, but more deceptive and innocent, casually rolling off the tongues of people Benny considers friends and colleagues. The magazine refuses to publish his stories about the character Benjamin Sisko, a black starship captain.
When Benny’s editor finally does agree to publish his stories he insists that the stories must be revealed to be the dreams (not the reality) of a poor Black man in their present time–because everyone knows the idea of a black sci-fi hero is that unrealistic. With that, the episode also reminds the viewer that despite the inclusive attitude the Trek franchise has embraced, science-fiction is still very much a white man’s world. For every Octavia Butler there are five Joss Whedons. More pointedly, for every one Captain Sisko, there’s a Captain Picard, Captain Kirk, Han Solo, John Carter, and … well, you get the picture. With Sisko in the lead, DS9 is self-aware and capable of criticising the flaws of its own genre, and that’s something to appreciate.
I’m struck by how much more I understand this show at the age of 24, compared to when I rewatched it at 17, and before that when I originally watched from 1993 to 1999. I was only 11 when the finale aired (and grounded for a good deal of the season, but that’s another issue entirely) and while I vaguely understood the significance of Sisko, I admit to taking his presence–the presence of a starring Black man–on my screen as normal. I like to think that Brooks would have appreciated that, knowing that part of his reasoning for accepting the role of Sisko was his belief that “brown children must be able to participate in contemporary mythology.”
In some ways the 1990s were better landscape for a kid of color to get into science fiction and fantasy. Not only did I have Sisko, there was Carl Lumbly as M.A.N.T.I.S; Wesley Snipes was Blade; Spawn aired on HBO and was made into a film; Cleopatra 2525 starring Gina Torres debuted in 2000; my favorite book series, Animorphs, starred Black and Latino teens; and Will Smith was king of the summer sci-fi box office.
When one looks at the scope of white genre heroes this isn’t a large number in comparison but, because Sisko was always there, I didn’t feel as if I was lacking for anything. It never occurred to me that the physical and cultural representation I was seeing was unique not only within the Trek franchise, but on television in general. Because, let’s be real: It’s already been 12 years since DS9 ended, and sometimes it’s nice to watch Avery Brooks as Sisko and remember that, yes, we can do that, too.