From the publisher: A different kind of Star Trek television series debuted in 1993. Deep Space Nine was set not on a starship but a space station near a postcolonial planet still reeling from a genocidal occupation. The crew was led by a reluctant Black American commander and an extraterrestrial first officer who had until recently been an anticolonial revolutionary. DS9 extended Star Trek’s tradition of critical social commentary but did so by transgressing many of Star Trek’s previous taboos, including religion, money, eugenics, and interpersonal conflict. DS9 imagined a twenty-fourth century that was less a glitzy utopia than a critical mirror of contemporary U.S. racism, capitalism, imperialism, and heteropatriarchy.
Thirty years after its premiere, DS9 is beloved by critics and fans but remains marginalized in scholarly studies of science fiction. Drawing on cultural geography, Black studies, and feminist and queer studies, A Different “Trek” is the first scholarly monograph dedicated to a critical interpretation of DS9’s allegorical world-building. If DS9 has been vindicated aesthetically, this book argues that its prophetic, place-based critiques of 1990s U.S. politics, which deepened the foundations of many of our current crises, have been vindicated politically, to a degree most scholars and even many fans have yet to fully appreciate.
In A Different Trek: Radical Geographies of Deep Space Nine, critical geographer David K. Seitz looks at the “black sheep” of the Star Trek family, using sets of episodes grouped by theme to analyze the socio-political dimensions of the series and explore why its messages remain so relevant today. And it’s one of my favorite academic books about Star Trek that I’ve read so far.
To be clear, the exploration of the “radical” potential of DS9 in this book is a look at how the series brings forward ideas related to radical socialism, community formation, and struggles for queer justice and racial justice—it’s not related to trans-exclusionary, sex worker-exclusionary “radical” feminism.
Seitz’s writing style is engaging and pretty accessible, seamlessly blending references to denser academic works with fan analysis and his own insights. The introduction to the book situates DS9 in the larger Trek context, rejecting the concept of the “death of the author” by exploring the influences Gene Roddenberry brought to the show, and the settler-colonial legacy passed down from TOS, noting that:
The word “trek” itself derives from an Afrikaans word for a sojourn into a territory from a settler’s point of view. In 1838 thousands of Dutch-speaking Boer colonists in South Africa embarked on the Voortrek or “Great Trek,” packing their wagons and relocating outside the reach of British imperial rule. Chief among the Boers’ complains was the British empire’s abolition of slavery, an institution that the Boers wished to preserve.
Basically, Seitz argues, Star Trek is “perhaps best understood as a contradictory byproduct of the U.S. Cold War liberalism of the 1960s,” which tries to embrace multiculturalism and civil rights while still maintaining American military and cultural superiority. DS9 goes farther than other Trek series in critiquing Federation exceptionalism, partly because it takes place on a space station where our protagonists have to actually work with diverse constituents and hash out solutions to problems rather than just flying off in their spaceship. But it’s still a product of Trek’s colonial legacy, and of a capitalist Hollywood system that relies on turning a profit. A Different Trek works to illuminate these complexities, and opens opportunities for fans to understand DS9 in new, more nuanced ways.
For example, in the first chapter on “The Radical Sisko,” Seitz examines the episodes “Past Tense”, “Far Beyond the Stars”, and “In the Pale Moonlight” and considers not just how each represents their primary themes (homelessness, racism and imperialism respectively), but how race, class and empire manifest in all three episodes, sometimes in subtler ways.
Women at Warp fans might be particularly interested in the second chapter, on Kira, Bajoran culture, and “Cardassian Settler Colonialism,” which looks at how DS9’s representation of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor was influenced by the creators’ interest in the struggles of Native Americans and Palestinians—a topic that is brought into sharp focus by current events. Seitz looks at how DS9 situates itself post-occupation to “address ongoing historical structures and traumas that are central to settler colonialism but that can be hard to name directly from within settler colonies.” Kira-centric episodes like “Duet” and “Second Skin,” Seitz points out, are often vehicles to explore complex systems of oppression, as Kira questions long-held assumptions about individuals, without letting the overarching system of Cardassian occupation off the hook.
Another chapter that I especially appreciated was “Empire’s Queer Inheritances,” which looks at how the characters of Jadzia Dax, and Garak and Bashir speak to queer possibilities while also sometimes reinforcing imperial relations of power (such as through Garak’s conservatism and loyalty to Cardassia). This chapter also included a really interesting observation on how race plays into the Dax/Worf relationship in the episode “Let He Who is Without Sin,” which made me want to rewatch that episode just to appreciate it in that different way.
I had so many sticky notes in this book after reading it, marking new (to me) takes on various episodes and characters and references to other scholarly and fan works that I wanted to check out. The sources Seitz considered for this work are really interesting and varied, drawing from cultural studies, political theory, Star Trek reference books, queer theory and critical race theory. I don’t love works that rely too heavily on feminist psychoanalytic theory, and thought Seitz brought it in where it mattered, without trying to shoehorn all his observations into that frame. And I didn’t even realize until well into the book that in it, Seitz references Women at Warp, as well as some blog posts I’ve written elsewhere. It was a very nice surprise and a bit surreal.
In his conclusion, Seitz talks about how the kind of representation DS9 brought is more relevant now than ever, and raises concerns about whether the legacy of the show is fading from the fandom’s memory. Maybe that’s partly because it was written before more recent seasons of Lower Decks. I feel pretty secure in DS9’s legacy in the fandom, at least for the time being; it’s clear every time I interact with fans that the series is well-loved. I do agree that the cancellation of Discovery leaves the franchise at a place that’s somewhat vulnerable to being overtaken by less radical, less diverse series.
While I didn’t agree with a couple of the points in A Different Trek, I thought they were all worth considering. At the end of the read, I was inspired to rewatch DS9 and re-energized for activism. What more can you ask for?
A Different Trek: Radical Geographies of Deep Space Nine was published in July 2023 in trade paperback. It is available online through bookshop.org or your preferred independent retailer.
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