What We Left Behind | A Flawed But Moving Star Trek Documentary

Star Trek is just a TV show!”
“So was Brideshead Revisited!”
“You’re angry, so I’m going to ignore that.”
Frasier (‘Star Mitzvah’)

26 years ago, a new Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine, launched, going where no Trek show had gone before – or rather staying still in a way the original series and The Next Generation hadn’t. Based mostly on a space station rather than venturing to a new planet week after week – dealing with Starfleet’s decision to help a formerly-oppressed, newly-liberated alien species recover and eventually join the Federation – the format of the show deviated from what was expected, and many existing Trek fans dismissed and derided it.

In the fan-funded (via Indiegogo) documentary, What We Left Behind (a nod to the title of the final episode, ‘What You Leave Behind’), originally intended to go live for the series’s 25th anniversary in 2018 and delayed by a desire to ensure the digital remastering of footage was up to speed, various actors from the show read out critiques and complaints from fans. It’s rare to see an ode to a beloved series give airtime to its detractors. But for showrunner Ira Steven Behr it was almost necessary. For him, as he explains to recurring actor Aron Eisenberg (who appeared in all seven seasons, playing juvenile-delinquent-turned-Starfleet-officer Nog), the fact that viewers had such a strong response meant that he was doing something right.

Deep Space Nine (1993-99) is the black sheep of the Trek franchise, albeit one that has aged well in an era that loves multi-episodic arcs and shades of grey. It embraced moral ambiguity, examining the legitimacy of terrorism and the benefits and dangers of state agencies tasked with safeguarding its citizens. Its characters were flawed and complex. (Lest it sound terribly self-righteous, it also embraced silliness – there is an entire episode about baseball, and another about a casino heist in a holographic environment, to begin with.)

In 2017, nearly 10,000 fans committed various sums of money to support a documentary about the series (insert your own joke about being ‘committed’ here, will you?). In some ways the timing was perfect – not only was that 25th anniversary coming up, but a new Trek show, Discovery, would hit screens soon, and Netflix updated its catalogue to ensure that all previous Trek series were available around the world. Streaming has proved particularly beneficial for older series that pay careful attention to continuity (Arrested Development’s later seasons owe their existence to the appreciation gained when viewers could binge the first three, for example), rather than prioritising the standalone capacity of each episode for syndication purposes.

Among the themes of the documentary is the sense that DS9 is finally being watched the way it was intended. The distribution methods and storytelling methods are finally sympatico! At last! In other ways, of course, the timing didn’t matter. If you own the DVDs – originally available as ‘collectors’ editions’ and then later as infinitely cheaper ‘slim-line’ boxsets (stop fat-shaming my bulky Trek library, guys) – there is plenty of behind-the-scenes material there already. There are cast and crew interviews from throughout the seven-year-run; alongside this an official Companion book was published in 2000, the most detailed companion for any series in the franchise (it’s about twice as long as the Voyager companion, which ran for the same length of time). Though now out of print, the material gathered by the Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion (by Terry J Erdmann and Paula Block, who have gone on to write e-novellas for the DS9 ‘relaunch’ book series), along with other publications from the 1990s, is still referenced on the Trek wiki, Memory Alpha. Not to mention all the panels at fan conventions dutifully recorded for YouTube sharing.

Basically: if you want to know about DS9 behind the scenes, you don’t need a documentary. When Star Trek: The Next Generation ended, Jonathan Frakes (Commander William Riker, as well as director of several episodes and later a couple of movies) presented an hour-long retrospective – but that was in 1994. Documentaries in the post-YouTube age need a particular hook, as we see with 2011’s The Captains, in which the original (semi-original – the franchise’s fondness of prequels complicates things!) iconic captain, James T Kirk, aka William Shatner, interviewed his fellow ‘captains’ in a series of surprisingly intimate portraits of some very talented actors. In particular, Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway, Voyager; you know her now as Red on Orange Is The New Black) is painfully honest about the difficulties it caused for her family-wise to be working on such a time-intensive show. Meanwhile, on-screen, the classically-trained Patrick Stewart (Sir) comes to terms with the possibility of only ever being remembered as ‘Captain Picard’ – and knowing that is a valuable thing. (The Stewart-led Picard-centred sequel is in the works as I type.)

Such breath-taking moments of vulnerability occur with the DS9 documentary, but not with the high-profile characters. Avery Brooks, who played Commander and then Captain Benjamin Sisko, appears only in archive footage, although you’d need to squint to notice this. We see a wonderful moment from a convention where, when asked what his “favourite mission” was, he replies: “raising Jake”, a nod to the importance of the father/son relationship in the series and (of particular importance to Brooks) an example of a brown man loving, supporting, and bringing up his kid alone. It is a lovely moment, and pertinent to a series that – unlike most others in the 90s – was a mainstream show that frequently featured scenes with all-black characters/actors, without drawing attention to it (at least not until much later sixth- and seventh-season episodes that explicitly discussed 20th century racism).

But Brooks has said pretty much all he wants to say on the matter. The more recent interviews we get are with the rest of the cast and it’s here we get the vulnerable moments, if we’re searching for them: Terry Farrell (Jadzia Dax) gets upset about the circumstances under which she left the show before its last season, while Aron Eisenberg (the aforementioned Nog) gets emotional about his character’s arc throughout the years. Although these are difficult moments to watch, there is little new here for a dedicated fan (both Farrell and Eisenberg are active on the convention circuit) – and that really is the overall vibe of the documentary.

There is not much new here. Watching Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat) basically – well, be Dukat – is not a radical reimagining of the actor for anyone who has read or watched previous commentary of interviews. Similarly, the interrogation of the social issues that the show tackled pans out as we might expect – yes, excellent work done on homelessness (‘Past Tense’, a two-part episode set in 2024, inadvertently tackled topical issues of its day in 1995 but it is increasingly prescient) and sophisticated exploration of religion, but the discussion of ‘sexual identity’ is merely a summary of what People On The Internet have said for years. Yes, yes, Garak wanted to have sex with Bashir – well, we knew this, already, didn’t we? Andrew J Robinson (Garak) and Alexander Siddig (Bashir) have noted this for years.

There is perhaps a tiny delight in showrunner Ira Steven Behr holding his hands up and recognising more should/could have been done with this (and indeed, a few rather pointed interview clips with Rick Berman, who is often – rightly – cited as a silencing voice on The Gays in the Trekverse). But less credit – and again, this is internet-discourse-influenced – is given to the DS9 episode ‘Rejoined’, which featured one of the very earliest girl-on-girl kisses on network television (1995!). Behr does not give himself and his team a full ‘tick’ for the ‘sexual identity’ box, and rightly so, because there was also the dodgy/creepy/occasionally thrilling ‘everyone is bi’ nature of the mirror universe, but this episode deserves all the kudos.

In the mid-nineties, women did not kiss on TV because they were so crazy in love that neither of them could help themselves. They kissed on TV because a lesbian made a move on a straight woman (LA Law, Party of Five). Or they were ‘experimenting’ (later in the nineties – see Ally McBeal). Ten years after Jadzia Dax and Lenara Kahn (guest star Susanna Thompson) kissed with such exquisite, tender passion, the ‘making out because it’s sweeps week!’ trope still prevailed in terms of network TV representing women being intimate within one another. But this is not a documentary exclusively focused on the exploration of sexual identity within DS9 (although I would argue that the show lends itself to such a thing in the future, and you can call it ‘Changeling Pride Parade’, and yes I am available for consultation). It is trying to cover everything. Of course it fails. There is even a riff between Nana Visitor (Major, later Colonel Kira – trooper, legend, hero) and Ira Steven Behr over the end credits that discusses the scenes that didn’t make the cut. How do you fit everything you might want to say about a seven-year series (which is part of a 50+ year franchise) into less than 2 hours? You don’t.

This is a wildly imperfect documentary, in large part because the internet exists and we’ve heard a lot of the stories before. And yet it tries, so very hard, to offer something different: opening with a rendition of ‘I Left My Quark (And Captain Sisko)’, a spoof of ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’, performed by Max Grodenchik (aka Rom). (It closes with Grodenchik, Armin Shimerman, Casey Biggs, Jeffrey Combs – Rom, Quark, Damar, Weyoun/Brunt – singing the original song ‘What We Left Behind’, in a feel-good move that only a Vulcan could fail to appreciate.)

In another fan-service move, Ira Steven Behr reunites some of the writers to plot out a ‘season 8’ premiere, a hypothetical episode set twenty years in the future. Despite the presence of such luminaries as Ronald D Moore (you may know him from Every Klingon Episode Ever, or the reimagined Battlestar Galactica), it hits some false notes as they predict – with clumsy graphics – what might have happened next. (To watch this and compare to the book series that emerged after the show ended is fascinating – fervent agreement on certain points and wildly gaping chasms on others.)

‘Season 8’ is not canon – it’s a thought experiment, an opportunity for play on the part of the writers. And easier to process if viewed in this way. What it is, really, is a chance to offer up something that cannot be found elsewhere – not in interviews in magazines or DVD extras. It’s something new and shiny.

And if it fails – and I think for many fans it does – this is a symptom of a bigger problem, i.e. what it means to make documentaries about TV shows in this day and age. If you can see what a TV writer has to say on Twitter, the mystery dissolves a little. If you can watch every episode at the click of a button, you may well appreciate the story continuity more but the specific cultural and political risks taken with a particular episode go unnoticed.

This is a flawed documentary, and it pains me to say it – even as I recognise that its flaws are so very much to do with its cultural context. We don’t get enough new info and insight. But then again how could we, when this airs twenty years after the series finale in a YouTube age? We get attempts at creative engagement, like the proposed season 8 premiere, that we’re bound to have mixed feelings about. We get reflections on the social issues already informed by all the things we’ve said over the years.

And despite all this, I need to add this one tiny detail: I love it. We can love a thing despite its shortcomings, and I love What We Left Behind. It is not the most amazing thing in the world. It is not radically original. But there is enough good in there to make my heart sing, a proper celebration of a TV show I and many many others have loved, continue to love, and that is something, surely?

What We Left Behind: Looking Back At Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is out now in the US, and June 26 in Ireland.

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