The eternal battle, of geekdom: The Original Series vs The Next Generation.
I love Trek and so do most of my friends which means that I’ve heard these arguments over and over. Really, though, they’re not very convincing arguments.
Because, for the most part, the differences between TOS and TNG are minimal and superficial. Both shows are about exploration and the unknown. Both use confrontations with aliens to say something about the human condition. Sure, TNG is more technically sophisticated and maybe TOS is more fun, but really they’re the same show in slightly different packages.
For the life of me, though, I can’t understand why this conversation always ignores the simple fact that neither of these shows are the best that Star Trek has to offer. And that is why, today, I will confess my love for the little brother of Star Trek shows: Deep Space Nine.
Deep Space Nine is not just a Star Trek show (Voyager is just a Star Trek show) nor is it just a pretty good Star Trek show (Enterprise was pretty good, sometimes). No. DS9 is as good, if not often better, than TOS and TNG.
Before I start I will address something that always ends up coming up when I talk about my love of DS9: Babylon 5. A lot of people think that Paramount stole the idea for DS9 from Joe Straczynski. Joe himself thought so (briefly) as well. I can’t say one way or another and, at this point, I don’t care. Having seen both shows I can say that where they go is sufficiently different from where they began that their initial (mostly superficial) similarities are somewhat pointless.
Also, B5 is objectively terrible.
At its core, Star Trek is about the juxtaposition of otherness and humanity.This element of the show was especially important when it originally aired and the world was even more bitterly divided by race, gender, ideology, and class. Embracing otherness as a thing to be celebrated was what made TOS a cultural icon. While DS9 does not explore the universe as the Enterprises do, exploration and confrontations with otherness are still an important part of the show. In fact, the show begins by introducing Sisko to the radical alterity of the wormhole aliens. These aliens act as a foil not only for Sisko to explore his own humanity, but also to explore tragedy as a central element in human life. The comparisons continue, the collective mind of the shapeshifters, the eugenic fascism of the Dominion, each of these groups offers a way to examine human difference by way of allegory while also offering a whole new kind of Star Trek plotting: the long scale story arc.
But that’s not even the most interesting part. What’s MOST interesting is that the show is the first Star Trek show to deal with anti-colonial and post-colonial themes. Bajoran recent history, its struggles with the Cardassians (their colonial oppressors) and the Federation (who did not help the Bajorans fight against the Cardassians) are an excellent examination of the vicissitudes of colonial oppression and freedom fighting. The examination of post-colonial politics benefits from the writers wise choice to also highlight the intersections of colonial power with gender issues, the nature of political theology, and issues of social power.
I understand why people find the characters, especially TOS’ characters so amazing and why their simple elegance makes them appealing. They’re great. Kirk, McCoy, Spock make up a holy trinity of passion, humanist empathy, and cold calculation. TNG has some great characters two, but if TNG has a flaw it is in the fact that all of those characters are essentially written to occupy some element of those same archetypal roles.
DS9 rightly eschewed these roles in favor of a humanistic take on life in the federation (buffered, of course, by a few cast members from TNG) that is made all the more interesting by the show’s sci-fi trappings. Sisko’s mentor returns from the dead in the body of a younger woman. A Bajoran freedom fighter struggles to adapt to life after wartime. A man who can literally assume ANY shape proves to be the best examination of otherness on television. A bright, genius doctor relishes the chance to practice “frontier medicine” but promptly alienates everyone with his class privilege and self-importance. A money obsessed and morality deprived businessman attempts to find profit in the transfer of power. A spy for the departing colonial power tries to make a life for himself as an outcast in the brave new post-colonial world.
So go ahead, argue all you like about which one is better because really, you’re ALL WRONG. DS9 has the better themes, the better arcs, the better characters, and the better setting. Keep your Kirk and Spock, I’m gonna kick it with Worf and Odo.