Posted by: kshayes513 | September 29, 2012

Watching Deep Space Nine and Creating Conflict

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?


  1. That is real life, whether it’s siblings or coworkers, we don’t always agree all the time and do have personalities that don’t quite mesh. Learning to compromise or back away is part of life. Without it, a work of fiction would not seem realistic. You’re right about the stereotypes though, and there are so many different things for people to not get along over — including perceived stereotypes. I never got to watch all of Deep Space Nine, but I enjoyed disliking the Ferengi.

  2. DS9 paid much more attention to the politics of conflict than the rest of Star Trek, and at their best, those political moments still seem very fresh against today’s headlines.

  3. Karen,

    One important distinction about the use of that trope is the connection between the characters and social, political or economic interests.

    When the trope is used without any thought to those factors, the relationships have to revolve around petty bantering and made up conflicts that become flat. But the use of those factors adds a new dimension to the relationships those characters have with each other.

    Sisko is trying to redeem himself from a guilt he feels as a leader. He is tied to a New Orleans culture that views spirituality differently than most Western religions, which gives him an appreciation for the Bajoran view of spirits. Kira is a former rebel leader, while Odo is a police security expert. Quark stands out as an economic interest in a world where the term economy is changing. And Garak holds ties to both factions on Cardasia. Yet he contains feelings for the people he serves as a tailor. So he uses the needle to needle people and that point can be a sword or meant to fix things.

    One other note. The first view of Bajor posed the people as the Palestinians, who had a culture that stood out in the past, but were denied a homeland.

    Yet, in DS9, the Bajorans controlled the planet. Maybe they were the Israelis who once had been denied a homeland. Or was the message that the Israelis and Palestinians were similar in their quests? That the only difference was who controlled power?

    Let me know what you think,

  4. Tom, excellent point! If the character conflicts aren’t about things that matter, the story becomes a soap or a bad sitcom (or these days, a reality show). Thanks for stating that so clearly.

    Re: Bajorans and Palestinians – I assume you mean the TNG episode that introduces the Bajorans, as drawing parallels with the Palestinians. However, I think I remember reading in Memory Alpha (quoting a book about DS9) that when Berman and Pillar were creating the show, they thought of it as “The Rifleman in space,” and the Bajorans were like the Indians. But then, they could also be considered equivalent to any newly independent colonial nation – Ireland, the Philippines, or any of dozens of African and Middle Eastern countries. Then, of course, the writers started writing, and the characters and all the different races quickly grew into their own identities and their own unique conflicts.

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