Thanks to my latest assignment for Issue 43 of Star Trek Magazine, I’ve just started watching Deep Space Nine from the beginning, for the first time since the series was on the air. If you want to know my take on the overall themes of the series, and why all the ways it is different from the rest of Star Trek make it my favorite, you’re going to have to wait for the article. But here’s what has interested me most in the first 5 or 6 episodes:
Odo gloats over Quark’s business problems and threatens him with the law; Quark retaliates by pointing out that Odo’s vigilance has made him a better criminal.
Garak introduces himself to Bashir, declaring that he likes having new friends. And even the naive doctor can guess that the former spy has hidden motivations, but by the end of the episode, Garak is still the only one who knows what they are.
Sisko and Odo butt heads every week over Odo’s “lock ‘em up before they start trouble” approach to law enforcement.
Kira and Sisko have a stormy confrontation over the rights of a Bajoran terrorist, which ends with Kira declaring that her priority is Bajor, not her obedience to her Starfleet commanding officer.
These ongoing conflicts between main characters were built into the series by its creators, Rick Berman and Michael Pillar, with the specific intention of boosting the drama with a cast that wasn’t the usual “we’re all friends in Starfleet.” The fact that these conflicts continued beyond the first episode (and if I recall, well beyond the first season) seems a tribute not only to the DS9 writer’s room, but also to the showrunners’ ability to persuade Paramount to let them take a few risks with the cash cow.
But perhaps it didn’t appear even to the studio suits as that much of a risk. As a dramatic structure, this trope of “a disparate group of individuals is forced to work/live together and get along” works so well that we see it used everywhere. In capable hands, it can be anything from great entertainment to near genius (Casablanca, Cowboys & Aliens, Marvel’s The Avengers, Firefly, LOST, Gilligan’s Island, The Office).
In the hands of hack writers, it’s such a cliche that we can immediately recognize all the stereotyped characters that make up the group: the Tough One, the Smartass, the Nervous Novice, the Goofy One, the One with the Mysterious Past, the Two Who Hate Each Other and End Up Best Friends, and many more. And we can anticipate every cliched story beat that turns them from a bunch of squabbling dogs into a real team or family, from the first test that the Nervous Novice flubs, to the big dramatic loss of the Guy that Everyone Loved But Who Wasn’t Really Important.
I have my own theory about why writers and producers use this trope so universally- and it’s not just that the trope both is a lazy writer’s shortcut to conflict and the great writer’s foundation for profound drama. I think it’s because all humans live this trope in our lives every day.
We may not have people shooting at us while we’re trying to get along, but we all have people in our families, our schools, our neighborhoods and workplaces, who are different, incomprehensible, irritating and even infuriating. Watching our favorite characters bicker reminds us that maybe our own lives and relationships aren’t that bad, and maybe we can compare our annoying boss to Steve Carell and laugh at him instead of stewing about him.
And if our relationships really seem that impossible maybe watching Odo and Quark or Kira and Sisko as they butt heads and still figure out how to make it work, helps give us the courage, the patience, the humor to do the same.
That’s my theory. Why do you like or dislike this trope, and what’s your theory about why its so popular?