When we meet the charming and beautiful Lieutenant Jadzia Dax in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we learn two things—she’s impossibly old, and she has a slug inside her body.
Dax’s species, the Trill, was a compelling creation, first introduced to fans in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Inside each joined Trill is a wormlike symbiont that can live for hundreds of years, transferring to a new host at the end of each lifetime. It’s a type of reincarnation: the mind of the Trill and the symbiont blend into a new personality capable of carrying all its memories forward into its next host.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Deep Space Nine’s premiere, and according to Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha, it also happens to be the year in the Trek timeline that the Dax symbiont is born on the planet Trill. I wasn’t very impressed with the character of Jadzia Dax (played by Terry Ferrell) when she was first introduced. It was supposed to be funny that our main character, Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), called her “Old Man”; he’d known her in her previous life as Curzon Dax, one of his most influential mentors. For some reason it took me awhile to get a good sense of this character: her strange confidence and joie de vivre made it difficult for me to warm up to her. But as the series continued and her character solidified, I began to accumulate an appreciation for a character coming from an unusually complicated background.
My initial struggle was also Sisko’s struggle: he had to come to terms with an unfamiliar person who shared a bond with him under the surface. Deep Space Nine itself offered a similar dilemma to viewers. The show began airing while The Next Generation was at the end of its run, but it was a major departure from the two series that preceded it. Exploration, possibly the most adored theme of the Star Trek canon, suddenly took a back seat in this series. The starbase Deep Space 9 was a stationary outpost orbiting the planet Bajor, newly liberated after a brutal Cardassian occupation. Sisko and his son, still grieving after the loss of the commander’s wife, came reluctantly to the the battered station; it had none of the usual excitement surrounding the launch of a shiny new exploration vessel or working with a highly trained Starfleet crew. It required uneasy alliances with strange characters—an aggressive Bajoran resistance fighter, a laconic, shapeshifting security chief, and a seedy Ferengi bartender. These are the makings of a great story, but they didn’t exactly fit the prescribed Star Trek formula.
If the motley crew weren’t enough, Sisko learns that the native Bajorans believe he has arrived to fulfill a religious prophecy. Sisko almost begins to believe this himself when he and Dax discover the entrance to a wormhole near the station that transports them thousands of light-years away and is inhabited by a race of aliens that seem to exist outside of linear time.
It was a complicated and political beginning, but unlike its predecessor, Deep Space Nine’s stationary nature gave it time to slowly unravel its particular political and ethical complexities. It also wrestled with some of the most interesting character developments and dilemmas. While the Enterprise gets to fly away after pondering the strange situations on strange new worlds at the end of an episode, the characters of Deep Space Nine had to live with their moral consequences in the here and now.
Deep Space Nine never enjoyed the same popularity as the original 1960s series or The Next Generation, but it was well liked by critics and is considered one of the best-produced shows in the Star Trek universe. It was especially praised for its representation of nonwhite characters. I’m still amazed when I go back and watch episodes and can see multiple characters of color sharing screen time with one other, a phenomenon that is still a rarity in mainstream TV programming.
Deep Space Nine was also responsible for one of the most memorable villains in Star Trek history. I have never been more inspired to audibly hiss than when Cardassian military officer Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) darkens the screen with his odious presence. As a former overseer of the Cardassian occupation, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Bajorans, but he exudes a type of snakelike charm and eloquent flattery that is impossible to resist. He wavers from outright enemy to uneasy ally from episode to episode, sometimes in pursuit of righteous vengeance and other times inflicting pain on our main characters just for the hell of it. As a frequently recurring character, I’ve found him to be more delightfully distasteful than any warlike general or conniving conman who has ever threatened our protagonists over the years.
The Trill symbiont life span might be the best metaphor for the Star Trek franchise as a whole. Today, 25 years after Deep Space Nine and more than 50 years after the original series, the spirit of Star Trek has outlived its creators. With the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, the franchise is continuing its tradition in yet another form and style. On its surface, the latest Trek incarnation is a strange new frontier, but like every Trek series, we can rely on it to have the same familiar devotion to the wonders and foibles of humanity at its heart.
Here’s to 2018, the year of Dax!