The Most Human Star Trek is the One With the Most Aliens

Over the recent holiday season I found myself becoming nostalgic about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Maybe the mid-season break in Star Trek: Discovery made me long for Trek of some kind, and DS9 was the first series that came to mind; maybe the fact that my girlfriend is re-watching Babylon 5 made me think of space stations; maybe knowing that 2018 would mark DS9’s 25th anniversary heightened its importance in my subconscious; or maybe the nostalgia was brought on by inscrutable caprice that can’t be explicated.

At any rate, once I became aware of this nostalgia, I decided I didn’t have the time to engage it in the obvious way, namely re-watching the series. And yet I couldn’t resist the urge to get back in touch, however briefly, with its universe.

I remembered hearing good things about the monthly DS9 comics published by Malibu shortly after the series had premiered. I’d never read these, and over the course of thirty-plus issues they promised to provide bite-sized adventures that didn’t require a commitment of 176 hours and easily could be fit in between other activities. Reading the behind-the-scenes article at the end of the first Malibu comic book in turn reminded me I’d never watched the DVD extras for DS9 either. I set about correcting that right away.

These features certainly satisfied. I learned a ton of new things about the making of the show and the perspectives of its cast and crew. I got to revisit memorable storylines, cornerstone character moments, whole multi-season arcs and plots, all in a matter of hours. I was reminded time and again why, as much as I love individual episodes and even individual seasons of other Trek series, DS9 remains my overall favorite Trek show, and Kira Nerys my favorite Trek character.

The question of what elements set Ds9 apart from other Treks niggled away at the back of my mind as I started working my way through these special features. There were a lot of obvious factors, but it was during a Season 2 feature titled “New Frontiers: The Story Of Deep Space Nine” that something clicked for me.

In this extra, Michael Piller says:

“This show wouldn’t have been anything like it was if Ira Behr hadn’t agreed to help me run the show. I went to him at the beginning and said, ‘Ira, this is going to be something very different. This is going to be a show that looks at space and the Federation in a way we’ve never looked at them before.’ […] Each show is fundamentally dealing with the people who have to learn that actions have consequences. And they have to live with the consequences of their actions on a weekly basis. Ira really responded to the kind of conflict we built into Deep Space Nine, saw great story potential, and ultimately I give Ira so much credit for having the vision to take this for seven seasons and really make Deep Space Nine what it finally became.”

So far, so standard.

It’s what Ira Steven Behr says right after that that got me thinking: “As the show grew, I think we discovered that the real legacy of Deep Space Nine is that it’s probably the most human of all the Star Treks—even though it has the most aliens, it’s truly the most human.”

Poetic and insightful. I’d like to focus on the “most aliens” part of Behr’s comment. When he said this, he may have been thinking about the whole seven-year tapestry of Ds9, and its Dominion War in particular, which involved many alien species; or he may have been thinking about the extended series cast, which included a number of recurring alien characters like Rom, Nog, Garak, Gul Dukat, Morn, Leeta, and later Gowron, Martok, Weyoun and others; or he may have been thinking about the core cast. In the first season, this core group was comprised of Benjamin Sisko, Jake Sisko, Odo, Jadzia Dax, Miles O’Brien, Quark, Julian Bashir and Kira Nerys. Of these eight principals, four—or a full 50%—are not human. (Later, when Worf joined the regular cast in Season 4, that number went up to five.)

That made me wonder—how does the human/non-human ratio of DS9’s pilot cast compare to that of the other Trek pilots?

Here’s the breakdown, arranged in internal chronological order:

  • Enterprise: 2 (T’Pol, Phlox) out of 7 (Jonathan Archer, Malcolm Reed, Travis Mayweather, Hoshi Sato, Charles “Trip” Tucker III, T’Pol, Phlox) = 29%
  • Discovery: 1 (Saru) out of 6 (Michael Burnham, Ash Tyler, Paul Stamets, Sylvia Tilly, Gabrial Lorca, Saru) = 17%
  • The Original Series*: 1 (Spock; yes, Spock is only half-human, but we’ll count him as non-human for our purposes) out of 6 (James T. Kirk, Leonard McCoy, Montgomery Scott, Uhura, Hikaru Sulu, Spock ) = 17%
  • The Next Generation: 3 (Worf, Deanna Troi, Data) out of 9 (Jean-Luc Picard, William Riker, Geordi La Forge, Tasha Yar, Beverly Crusher, Wesley Crusher, Worf, Deanna Troi, Data) = 33%
  • Deep Space Nine: 4 (Odo, Jadzia Dax, Quark, Kira Nerys) out of 8 (Benjamin Sisko, Jake Sisko, Odo, Jadzia Dax, Miles O’Brien, Quark, Julian Bashir, Kira Nerys) = 50%
  • Voyager: 5 (B’Elanna Torres, Kes, Neelix, The Doctor, Tuvok) out of 9 (Kathryn Janeway, Chakotay, Tom Paris, Harry Kim, B’Elanna Torres, Kes, Neelix, The Doctor, Tuvok) = 56%

I should point out that the count in Star Trek: Discovery is not as clear-cut as the others, for four reasons. One, it didn’t have a traditional pilot in the same sense as the other shows. If we go only by the principal cast of the first two episodes, for instance, that continues to be featured after the first two hours of the series, our count would become 1 (Saru) out of 2 (Michael Burnham, Saru). But that seems unnecessarily restrictive. Two, while no Klingon can probably be counted as a principal cast member, characters like T’Kuvma and Voq get a fair amount of screen time during the first two hours. (Some of my friends think they get too much screen time, what with all those subtitles). Three, there’s a popular theory that one of Discovery’s other six main characters as listed above may be an alien sleeper agent. If this turns out to be correct, our non-human count would go up to 2. Finally, while Burnham is genetically human, her upbringing is Vulcan. So she’s genetically all human, but definitely embodies something non-human as well.

Keeping these caveats in mind, the pattern that emerges from our recap is pretty clear: Generally speaking, the farther we move into the Trek timeline, the higher the percentage of non-humans kicking off each new franchise incarnation.

This doesn’t hold strictly true for Enterprise, which starts with two non-human leads, while Discovery and The Original Series, which follow Enterprise, only have one apiece. But the important thing to note is that the original series and its two prequels all have lower non-human mixes than the later shows, and each of these sequels/spinoffs progressively gets more non-human leads as it opens another chapter of the future.

I’ll admit, just looking at these numbers makes me wish for a new Trek series set after Voyager. If our trend held true, how fascinating it could be to explore a new vision of Star Trek featuring mostly non-human intelligences. There are other reasons, too, for wishing for a post-Voyager series, but that’s a whole different conversation…

Naturally, numerical counts aren’t significant on their own. As mentioned, Burnham’s unique cultural upbringing in some respects makes her as much of an outsider as some of the non-human leads from other shows, and that sense of disconnection from her peers fuels compelling drama. Whether a character wears a strange-looking prosthetic isn’t the point—Phlox, for example, never struck me as profoundly different, though the writers tried. What matters is the depth of character development—the challenges and complexities depicted in a character’s inter-relating to others on a shared journey.

I hope Discovery introduces more aliens in seasons to come, and maybe takes them on as recurring characters, if not leads. Sarek arguably fills that role now, but it would be nice to have others. The show’s producers have indicated that the Klingon war storyline will likely be put to bed at the end of the first season. I welcome the change. Hopefully it will create an opportunity for stories that introduce more alien characters as allies, even if uneasy ones, rather than foes. And while I find myself agreeing with Ira Behr when he says about DS9 that “even though it has the most aliens, it’s truly the most human,” I’d sure like to see Discovery give it a run for its money.

*I’m cheating here, because “The Man Trap”, the first broadcast TOS episode, doesn’t include Scotty, and neither does the second episode, “Charlie X”, though the third episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”—the show’s second filmed pilot—does. But I feel like Scotty is really part of the first season’s core cast, so there you go.

traveler-silverbergAlvaro Zinos-Amaro is the author of the Hugo- and Locus-finalist Traveler of Worlds: Conversations With Robert Silverberg (2016). Alvaro has published many stories, essays, reviews, and interviews, as well as Rhysling-nominated poetry.

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