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Queer Space Nine: A frontier rediscovered

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Photo courtesy of CBS
Photo courtesy of CBS

The revival or rediscovery of an old show is nothing new, but with a few exceptions, such events tend toward non-speculative sitcoms — the likes of Parks and Rec, Friends, and Seinfeld. Few of these shows see a grand amount of rediscovery as Queer media, though, fan theories aside.

The Star Trek series Deep Space Nine (DS9) is an exception on both fronts. It's a science fiction show that, despite first airing in 1993, has seen a resurgence in popularity almost 20 years later, for Queer themes both veiled and overt.

It's easy to point to the pandemic as a culprit for why DS9 was on Netflix from 2011 until July 1 this year, when it moved to Paramount Plus with all the other Trek media. In July of 2020, Google searches for the term "DS9" spiked to beyond 2011 levels. Perhaps the ubiquity of Netflix made the show an easy quarantine binge-watch both for Trekkies who hadn't yet given the series a chance, and for newcomers whose curiosity might have been piqued by memes about the show on Tumblr and other platforms.

There were other factors at play, though. In 2018, three years before the first COVID-19 case in the US, DS9 showrunners Ira Steven Behr and Michael Piller released a crowdfunded documentary on the series, bringing the cast back together for interviews and retrospectives. And nine years before that, the broader franchise was introduced to younger audiences by way of a reboot film directed by J.J. Abrams, beginning what some trekkies call the "J.J.-verse."

These factors only explain how the show might have been rediscovered, though, not why it is newly appreciated. Media critic and LGBTQ YouTuber JesseGender said in a Zoom interview that its setting and characters — in other words, its very core — appeal to common Queer experiences.

"I don't think it's necessarily overt, like, 'Yeah, Deep Space 9 is the Gayest Trek!'" they said of the show's Queer themes. "But you see it more in the resonance of those characters — and a lot of those storylines — with LGBTQ people, repeatedly coming up."

JesseGender's favorite Star Trek character, they said, is Jadzia Dax. Jadzia is one of the Trill, a species of humanoid aliens, some of whom are implanted with a wormlike symbiont that carries and bestows the memories and personalities of all its previous hosts. Some fans refer to her as the "Trill slug Transgender lady," as JesseGender put it, because some of her symbiont's previous hosts were men.

"There are a lot of characters — specifically the main character, Sisko — who know [Jadzia] from her past lives, and he even calls her 'old man' as a term of endearment," JesseGender said. "Even though she's not explicitly Trans, the allegory really works for that."

Old friends of Jadzia are often quick to adjust to the change when they meet her, too. No big deal is made when she corrects them on her name, for instance. Most characters accept it and move on, and that's another part of the show's appeal.

"DS9 definitely has a level of 'just go with it' that we Queers are really into," said Grace Moore, co-host of the long-running Star Trek fan podcast Women at Warp.

That relaxed quality is significant, because Jadzia is far from the only "weird" character. Even when compared to previous Star Trek properties, the cast of DS9 stands out.

Among others it has Odo, a shapeshifting blob man, as chief of security; Quark, a capitalist gremlin, running a bar; Kira Nerys, a former anti-occupation terrorist; Elim Garak, a humble, lizard-like tailor who is likely pansexual and most certainly not a spy; and chief medical officer Julian Bashir, who is "weird" for reasons that would spoil the story to mention.

"We love that," Moore said of the Queer community, "and we love getting to see other people who are weirdos and have their found family, and the people who respect them for their weirdness."

Like so many earlier examples of television with Queer themes (especially those written by straight men), DS9 is far from perfect. Both JesseGender and Moore pointed to specific episodes that are heavily transphobic, or otherwise problematic. Star Trek in general has been rightly credited for "trailblazing" social issues in television, but it also has a history of trying and failing to tackle such topics without offending the minority groups affected by them.

Where the series has succeeded in that effort, it has often done so despite the franchise's top brass, at least where Queer issues are concerned. Executive producer Rick Berman shot down any introduction of explicitly LGBTQ characters, and although writers and actors "snuck in" what analogies and implied representation they could, Moore said, the lack of clarity was a kind of erasure on its own.

"There's a very special kind of fly in the ointment when you're talking about representation by way of sci-fi, and by way of it being an analogy," Moore argued. "And that is that it's specifically done so that they can say, 'Well it isn't exactly this thing. Wink.' But you will always be just completely drowning in the people who are like, 'No, the sexism and homophobia is all over.' Well, can we see that explicitly portrayed?"

We can be thankful, then, that today's Star Trek series have broken that trend. The animated Lower Decks has Ensign Beckett Mariner, who is Bi. The live-action Discovery has same-sex couples, and characters who are openly Gay, Trans, or Nonbinary, all portrayed by openly LGBTQ actors.

Still, JesseGender argued that the new Treks aren't as subversive as past ones were in their own time: "Star Trek has always been 'woke,' but because people today are very reactive to everything coming out, they'll say, 'New Star Trek is woke, old Star Trek wasn't!' Or they'll argue it was much more 'subtle about it,' or they did it better."

"I love Star Trek today," they continued, "but it is kind of milquetoast in comparison to a lot of Star Trek of the past in terms of its political theming... And I think reducing Star Trek to that conversation of woke versus anti-woke removes the nuanced conversation that we need to have around shows like this, where we can talk about how wonderful it was, and yet also [how] there were problems based on the perspective of people who wrote it."

For more from JesseGender about Queer fandom and other LGBTQ topics, visit https://www.youtube.com/c/lostrekkie/. You can listen to Women at Warp anywhere you listen to podcasts, and learn more about Grace Moore and its other co-hosts at http://www.womenatwarp.com/.