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Deep Space Nine


It is ironic that as the new “Star Wars” movie blazes across the science fiction firmament, a television series in many ways its diametrical opposite -- “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” -- is coming to a largely unheralded end.

While the epic battle in “Star Wars” between good and evil is painted in broad, bold strokes, for seven years “Deep Space Nine” has immersed itself in shades of gray. Week to week its characters have struggled to make complicated moral choices, sometimes even picking the wrong ones.

Other entries in the “Star Trek” franchise have asked viewers to think beyond black and white, good and evil. But “Deep Space Nine” made it a way of life on its fictional space station, throwing old enemies together on a nearly weekly basis and asking them to deal with each other.

Most often facing that dilemma was Major Kira (Nana Visitor), a former resistance fighter learning the ways of peace, who has found herself working with, training, undermining, interrogating and helping the Cardassians, the people who had brutally ruled her planet, Bajor.

The Cardassians were the ostensible villains, though we were never allowed to see them in an uncomplicated way. Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), the series’ most prominent Cardassian character, was a power-hungry ruler who made us uncomfortable with his odd attraction to the Bajoran women he had once enslaved, and who never showed a twinge of conscience for the horrific abuses he had perpetrated. But we couldn’t help but relish his personal rivalry with Deep Space Nine’s Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks). And we wept with him when his daughter, the child of a Bajoran mother, was killed.

The series’ specialty has been to pose questions, personal and political, that both its characters and the viewers had difficulty settling with pat answers. What is a citizen’s complicity in atrocities carried out by his or her own government? Would you go so far as the inoffensive Cardassian clerk who offered himself as a sacrifice for war crimes committed by his people?

What makes a person a collaborator with an occupying military force? Are collaborators legitimate targets for resistance fighters? What are the limits of violence that can be justifiably used against oppression?

How does one hold on to faith in a religious institution whose spiritual leaders are more devoted to worldly power? How do you balance tradition against the demands of the modern world?

What are the ethical and societal implications of genetic engineering? Does a government have the right to obstruct a doctor seeking a cure for a virus infecting a wartime enemy? What if the government created that virus?

What do you do when you find out your government has a shadow side in conflict with its stated democratic, peaceful ideals?

“Deep Space Nine” took its jumble of politics, personalities, religion and ethnic conflicts and used its science fiction license to parallel all manner of present-day world events and issues. And, after a rather cranky start, it did it all with a healthy dose of humor that became one of the series’ most winning attributes -- a little fun to lighten the load of questions.

“Star Trek” hasn’t quite faded away yet. “Star Trek: Voyager” still plugs away in another part of the galaxy, far from “Deep Space Nine’s” messy politics, but still engaging in its share of morality plays.

But in the waning weeks of “Deep Space Nine,” I’ve come to appreciate its ambivalence more, knowing it will all be resolved soon. Or will it? All hell is literally breaking loose in the plot, consumed by a two-year war that shows no signs of ending, and the few weeks left don’t seem nearly enough time to tie up loose ends.

Whether the war ends in victory for “our side” and all the characters make it out alive, it would be just like them to leave us with one final question: How do we pick up the pieces and make a better future?

Teresa Malcolm is assistant news editor and a staff writer. Her e-mail is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999