'Star Trek: DS9' showrunner Ira Steven Behr reflects on 'What We Left Behind'
“It’s hard to say,” says Avery Brooks‘ Captain Benjamin Sisko in his emotional final scene. “Maybe a year. Maybe yesterday. But I will be back.”
Next month marks a full two decades since “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” aired its series finale, “What You Leave Behind,” concluding an epic seven year “Star Trek” adventure that boldly went where none had gone before, exploring issues and ideas previously untouched, even by the famously progressive franchise. Now, after all these years, Benjamin Sisko returns in true DS9 fashion. That is, not exactly in the form you might expect, but in a manner that “Star Trek” fans are all the better for having the chance to experience.
On Monday, May 13, Shout! Factory and Fathom Events are proudly bringing to the big screen the retrospective documentary “What We Left Behind,” a two-hour plus look at the series that forever changed “Star Trek,” not by contradicting Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a perfect future, but by exploring notions of contradiction inherent in that idealism. As Sisko says in a second season episode, “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise.”
“Avery had made this big deal about [the documentary],” says Ira Steven Behr, DS9 showrunner and, alongside David Zappone, director of “What We Left Behind”. “‘I’m not doing it,’ [he said], but I’m just saying that you shouldn’t do talking heads. They’re all the same.’ And this is truth, as always with Avery. There’s always truth to what he says.”
That’s where a unique idea developed. While “What We Left Behind” is filled with new interviews with cast and crew (Brooks included), the doc offers an approach that “Star Trek” fans will find fascinating. Reuniting with fellow screenwriters, Behr offers a glimpse into a hypothetical eighth season writers room, continuing the story DS9 twenty years later.
“I was just thinking about how could I shake it up,” he says. “Ron [Moore] and I were over at ‘Outlander’ at the time and we were seeing each other every day, or every day that one of us wasn’t in Scotland. It just seemed like good, normal thing. Wouldn’t it be cool to get the band back together? I knew that it would be and once we got in the room, everyone would be firing on all cylinders. It would work.”
Unlike the original “Star Trek” or “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” DS9 embraced a form of serialized storytelling that, while commonplace on television today, was something unexplored on “Star Trek” when the new series launched in 1993. For Behr, serialization didn’t mean mapping out a seven year story.
“I just don’t believe in that,” he says. “I mean, look, I get it. ‘Outlander’ is an example where we had these books and we knew that we had to stay close to the books so we knew what the ending was. But, to me, it was about what we found within the story within each season without freaking people out… In terms of ‘Deep Space Nine,’ I liked to know going in each season what I thought it was going to be about and have some vague idea where it was going to end up. But hopefully, by the time we were deep in, we’d come up with something better.”
For “Star Trek” fans, that’s one of the true joys of DS9. Over the course of seven years, the evolution of the characters is virtually unparalleled anywhere else in television. It’s not about sweeping changes for the shock value, though. Each central character manages to grow organically, becoming someone very different than they were when the series began.
“The perfect example is Worf coming on in season four,” Behr continues. “Every idea we had got blown out of the water and it took us a year to get back to where we wanted it to go. Now, at the time, I was like, ‘Do we need this? Do we really need this kind of aggravation?! We know where we want to go.” We were finally really moving and, suddenly, it was, ‘Whoa! Now it’s about the Klingons and not the Dominion. How do we get back to that? That’s what we want to do. But we did it and season four was a strong season. We just went with it. So it can’t be wedded. It’s a living, breathing organism, a TV series, if it’s a good one. It should take you places that you don’t know you’re going to go.”
Not only did DS9 offer growth for its diverse cast of specific characters, it managed to expand fictional cultures and bring depth to alien races that had appeared as one note on TNG. The prime example is the greed-driven Ferengi who, with Armin Shimerman’s Quark, Max Grodenchik’s Rom and Aaron Eisenberg‘s Nog were offered their place in the spotlight.
“I was not a fan of the Ferengi,” laughs Behr. “When I was on TNG season three, it was Max [Grodenchik] who played one on ‘Captain’s Holiday,’ but I just was not a fan of them. When Michael [Piller] told me a Ferengi was on the show, I was like, ‘Why? Why?!’ But, you know, Michael usually knew what he was doing… So it’s like, okay, you have Ferengi. Who are they really? How do you get there? They had never really been explored. No one really looked at them and thought about what they could become and how they fit in to the franchise. I quickly glomed on onto the fact, thanks to Armin [Shimmerman] and the way he played Quark, that they were 20th century human beings. After that, it was just easy.”
Among the more disturbingly prophetic episodes that Behr scripted is the two part “Past Tense” from DS9’s third season. In it, Sisko is accidentally sent into the past alongside Terry Farrell‘s Dax and Alexander Siddig’s Bashir, specifically to the year 2024. There, social imbalance has led to a homeless crisis across America about to break out into violent civil rights riots.
“I always say ‘Star Trek’ isn’t about the twenty third and fourth centuries,” says Behr. “Obviously, it’s about the 20th or 21st century. We’re not meant to be futuristic. When I look at the homeless problem that we’re currently dealing with in Los Angeles and probably all over the country, yes, it’s kind of weird that we did ‘Past Tense’ and said it was five years away. I know that’s a frightening thing. But that’s not how I gauge our success that we predicted this. That’s not what it’s about. The show was always about the 20th century. It’s about who we are, who we think we are, who we want to be and who we don’t want to be.”
“Rick [Berman] had no problem with the whole homeless story,” he smiles. “He was good with all that. But the time travel shit? You know, that tech talk in order to justify the time traveling? It drove me crazy. One of my goals was to remove as much of it from ‘Deep Space Nine’ as I could. It just didn’t interest me. We had ‘Voyager,’ which was doing plenty of tech. I didn’t care about that. But one of my favorite movies as a kid, one of my touchstone films, was ‘The Time Machine’, so I do have a propensity for it. But God damn, every time we tried, it was like you spent a half the time talking about it in the writer’s room or trying to justify and figure it all out… There were some funny conversations about about time travel. I wish we had recorded those. I kind of liked it by the time ‘Far Beyond the Stars’ rolled around it. By then, it’s less about a hard science and more about just the idea. The Prophets, man, they gave us some major leeway. It’s so funny. ‘Star Trek’ is all about the technology, but if you have aliens with incredible abilities, suddenly you’re okay with magic.”
Time travel wound up being a key element in one of DS9’s most famous episodes, the fifth season “Trials and Tribble-ations,” timed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Star Trek”. Although there wasn’t enough time to go into the episode in depth in “What We Left Behind,” Behr promises that it’s just one of many deleted segments that will appear on the documentary’s eventual Blu-ray release.
“People were having way too much fun,” recalls Behr of the episode, which saw the DS9 cast travel back in time to the original ‘Star Trek’ episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” using VFX to seamlessly allow the cast to interact with footage from the 1960s “That’s the most fun I’ve ever seen on a TV series and I’m talking about the writing staff, the crew and even the actors. It was a special episode and also they let us throw money at it with reckless abandon.”
Ironically, Behr was initially against the idea of doing anything to celebrate the “Star Trek” three decade milestone.
“Why salute that were old, you know?” he laughs. “Why is that so cool? Then [Rick Berman] said ‘Voyager’ was doing one and it was like, ‘Screw that. ‘Voyager’ is doing it. We don’t want to do it.’ But then we sat around talking and it just developed into this really cool episode.”
From the initial brainstorm, an event then took place of such extraordinary coincidence that one could argue that the Prophets themselves had blessed the production.
“We were sitting in a pizza place in Beverly Hills,” Behr recalls, “Talking about who is alive from the original cast of ‘Trouble with Tribbles’ and talking about people we could bring back as an actor. I said, ‘No, he passed away. Nope. Gone.’ Then I mentioned that the only one who’s alive was Charlie Brill, who played the Klingon in disguise. Someone said, ‘Who’s Charlie Brill?’ I said, ‘He was a comedian as his claim to fame. He was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ the night the Beatles premiered and he spent the rest of his career, him and his wife, claiming that that destroyed their career because the Beatles just took all the publicity. They said, ‘Yeah, okay. I’m kind of remembering, but I wonder what it looks like now.’ And I looked over and he was standing there, ordering a slice of pizza. I said, ‘He’s right over there!’ And everyone said, ‘Bullshit! No, no, no, no, no way. But it was him. It was Charlie Brill and it was the most ridiculous thing that ever happened to me.”
“What We Left Behind” boasts some impressive footage, restored to HD for the documentary. Tragically, DS9 is not available in HD and, despite an impressive restoration of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” some years ago, Behr is not optimistic that DS9 will ever receive the same treatment.
“Do you have a spare $25 million?” he says. “We talked about starting an Indiegogo campaign to kind of force the network to say, ‘Hey, look at all the money they’re raising’ But it’s just not going to happen. There are a couple of shots that are still in SD because they had special effects in there that they couldn’t find. We had them keep looking and pulling boxes with reels of film and send them to us, but every box is like ten reels. We were running out of time and we realized that, clearly, the shots with special effects were not on the same reel of film as what they shot that day. Who the hell knows where those are buried. It was expensive to do what we did. The little we did do was was a pain money-wise. So I would love it, but something would fundamentally have to change either cost wise or ‘Star Trek’ wise, which just isn’t going to happen that would make them say, ‘Okay, roll up the sleeves. We’re gonna remaster this whole thing. I would like nothing better. Trust me.’
While it’s certainly not the aim of the documentary, the best way that “Star Trek” fans can demonstrate their love for “Deep Space Nine” is by checking out “What We Left Behind” on the big screen next Monday. You can click here to find out where it’s playing at a theater near you. After you see it, check back right here and scroll down past the below image of the station for Behr’s revised thoughts on how he would end the season eight opener!
“A year ago, in fairly early 2018,” Behr recalls, “I woke up one day and I raced to Paramount and said, ‘Okay guys, here’s how we should have ended episode one! It’s not Sisko who comes back onto the station. It’s Benny Russell who comes back. Then we cut to this room in like 1959 or something and to a bedroom where Benjamin Sisko wakes up in his starleet uniform. Everyone looked at me and said, ‘Well, okay, but we’re not doing that. You didn’t think of that at the time.'”
Although it may never materialize beyond just an idea, perhaps just the dream of an eighth season of “Deep Space Nine” is enough. It’s a comforting thought to imagine that, after all these years and far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is still dreaming of us.