I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family. This was back in the days when I watched TV on an actual TV, wore hot pink Espirit shorts, and yelled “it’s back” to my dad so he’d stop cooking dinner and come in and watch. I identified deeply with Counselor Deanna Troy, although I was too young to have a crush on Riker. I liked seeing Geordi’s eyes in Reading Rainbow.
My family would discuss TNG (although we never called it that back then) over dinner, dissecting the show’s ethical quandaries and adventures. Later, I kept an eye out for Patrick Stewart, pleasantly surprised by his real-life pension for speaking out against violence against women and other atrocities.
So yes, I’m very excited about the upcoming show Picard. But it’s not the show I’d have made first. You see after TNG came Deep Space Nine and I’d much rather learn what Sisco is up to than Picard. Hear me out.
First of all, if you’re new to the Star Trek universe, I’m sorry. In that case, let me suggest you start with Deep Space Nine. If you try to watch TNG now, you probably won’t like it. The show’s still great but it doesn’t have the full-season arcs that modern viewers are accustomed to. DS9 (can I call it that?) did serial episodes when serial was still new, making it part of the vanguard of new television (a la The X-Files). This difference turns out to be a pretty big deal in today’s streaming world — one show is binge-able and the other is not.
DS9 also holds up better because it’s more reflective of the world we actually live in. For one, politics are complicated. In TNG, Picard was a fair, if imperfect leader. He was the wise patriarch of his ship in near-perfect control of his crew. TNG made pains to complicate this vision (see how Picard can’t play poker because of the distance needed to maintain his leadership or those episodes where the Borg take him) but the fundamental truth of it still stands. The idea of a lone, wise white man leading alternates between laughable and frightening today, depending on if the news cycle is covering Twitter misspellings or World War III.
Captain Benjamin Sisko was in a much more complicated position. He ran a space station co-leased between his Star Fleet/Federation of Planets and the neighboring Bajoran planet/people. As such, he didn’t have full control over his dominion and instead had to navigate a foreign society and power structure. Over the show, that relationship moved over time from close to tense to eerily close, like when the Bajorans decide Sisko is their emissary (the Bajoran messiah) and things get really messy.
Also, Sisko is Black. Avery Brooks portrayed Sisco with grace, authority, and a taste for mischief, allowing him to be fully human and an amazingly good leader. We see him struggle as a father, try out romance, and serve as a major player in intergalactic events. And while (human) races don’t really exist in the future that is Star Trek, Sisco’s blackness still matters. We viewers see it and note it. Though there are the episodes where the DS9 crew travels back in time via the holodeck (to when melanin meant something), the real importance of Sisco’s race is how he redefines leadership. It’s not a white guy this time and that’s for the best.
DS9 made waves at the time for its casting of a black man as its captain, but the show’s portrayal of gender is no less evolved. There’s First Officer Kira Nerys in the Strong Woman role. Nerys is tough and firey, a former revolutionary with a deeply spiritual side. While a militaristic woman may not be noteworthy today, it’s worth remembering that the main recurring female characters on TNG were caretakers — the counselor and the doctor — in traditional female roles. TNG’s Tasha Yar is more like Nerys but Yar dies pretty quick while we get to see Nerys change and grow. So another point for DS9.
DS9 also had my perhaps favorite character in the Star Trek universe: Jadzia Dax. Played by Terry Farrell, Dax is a charming risk-taker who’s actually two beings in one: a big slug thing that’s lived seven lifetimes in various hosts and an accomplished science officer who’s melded all those memories, voices, and personalities into one roguish personality. Dax has lived as both men and women, a fact the show keeps top of mind by having Sisco nickname her “old man” in reference to his friendship with the previous host. Talk about progressive! In Dax, we have a charismatic trans character who eventually MARRIES TNG royalty in Worf.
DS9 really had it all — characters that would push boundaries today, politics that made you think (and not just long for a bygone imaginary), an acronym that we used then and now. If the Star Trek captains were US presidents, Sisco would be Obama (and Janeway would be Hillary but that’s neither here nor there). Picard would have to be Lincoln — I wish we could pick someone more recent but it’s been a long time since there’s been a white man of unimpeachable character and competence in office. That’s just not the world we live in now. And re-imagining a white, male savior is not where I’d take the Star Trek franchise next.