As far as I’m concerned, the Star Trek universe represents world building at its finest: strong internal consistency, complex thought experiments, and a host of well-populated planets. The main difference between Deep Space Nine and the other series in Star Trek is conveyed in the name. Deep Space Nine is a space station in a continuous orbit around the planet Bajor, not a ship on a mission of exploration like the other series. Most of the action still takes place in the confines of the vessel with occasional jaunts to new and unique landscapes (similar to the away mission trope of other Star Trek series), but this change allows the show to delve deeper into the cultural and spiritual worldviews of non-Federation entities. That aspect of DS9 is what makes it especially valuable from a world building perspective.
There is a chronological overlap between The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. DS9 covers six Federation years (2369-2375), overlapping with either TNG or Voyager for its entire span (TNG covers 2364-2370, while Voyager takes place from 2371-2378). These connections allow for the continuation of characters, like Worf and Miles O’Brien, as well as riffs off of plot points established in other series. The most important of these is the continuation of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, first brought up in episode 5.03 of TNG (“Ensign Ro”).
Bajorans and Cardassians
Both the Bajorans and the Cardassians are introduced in TNG. The Cardassians are introduced as adversaries (ep 4.12, “The Wounded”); as of 2367, their peace treaty with the Federation was less than a year old and they begin the episode by attacking the Enterprise. While the attack is later shown to be somewhat justified, the nature of the introduction still makes it clear to the viewer that the Cardassians are not to be trusted.
The Cardassian role in early seasons of DS9 is similar to that of the Klingons in TNG. They’re not direct enemies, but neither are they allies. As with the Klingons in TNG, we are given a token Cardassian to engage and empathize with (Elim Garak). As the station’s “tailor,” Garak represents the stereotypical Cardassian in the most positive light: in turns charming and ruthless; deceitful, though rarely maliciously so; and fiercely loyal to his family, his father in particular, as shown by his willingness to torture Odo at his father’s behest (ep 3.21, “The Die is Cast”).
The most villainous aspects of the Cardassians are represented by Gul Dukat, who was Prefect of Bajor during the occupation and commanded Deep Space 9 (then called Terok Nor). Like Garak, Dukat is charming and dedicated to his family, even his illegitimate half-Bajoran daughter Tora Ziyal. He is also arrogant and self-serving, and—unlike Garak—his deceitfulness is dangerous. Even so, Cardassians are also staunchly rational, and this shines through in Dukat’s early-season choices (it’s only seasons 6 and 7, well into his character arc, that Ziyal’s death drives him mad and Dukat acts out of spite or vengeance). Actor Marc Alaimo described him as “an opportunist. He aligns himself with what is convenient at the moment, but I don’t think he’s a psychopath, or capable of mindless evil.” (Cinefantastique, Vol. 29) The same could be said of the Cardassians as a whole in DS9. Their rational choice is first to ally with the Federation until it instead seems more rational to join the Dominion, but this is a decision of survival, not hate (in that respect sharing a trait with the Romulans).
The Bajorans are, in some respects, the polar opposite of the Cardassians. Where the Cardassians are staunchly rational and have (by human standards) a flexible moral compass, the Bajorans are deeply spiritual. Their religion is based on worship of the Prophets, entities known to the more scientific-minded Federation simply as the Wormhole Aliens (more on them later). The Bajorans are introduced in TNG through the character of Ro Laren (ep 5.03 “Ensign Ro”). She’s shown to have difficulty following orders and, though likable as a character, ultimately abandons Starfleet to join the Maquis in their fight against Bajor’s occupiers (ep 7.24 “Preemptive Strike”).
Major Kira Nerys, the viewer’s primary entry point into the Bajorans on DS9, shows a similar value system, based primarily on spirituality and loyalty to her home; she was active in the Bajoran resistance. Though Kira is unimpressed by mortal authority she instantaneously obeys what she believes to be the will of the prophets. When Bajor briefly returns to their old D’jarra caste system, Kira dutifully resigns as DS9’s First Officer to become an artist, though she has no talent or inclination (ep 4.17 “Accession”). When the Prophets need a vessel for their battle with the Pah-Wraiths, she volunteers her body (ep 6.21 “The Reckoning”).
Bajoran spirituality extends beyond individual beliefs and has an active role in the planetary government, which has a secular component (the Chamber of Ministers, led by the First Minister) and a religious component (the Vedek Assembly, led by the Kai). This religious overtone to the Bajoran society does create some tension with the Federation, especially in the choice of DS9 captain Benjamin Sisko as the religion’s emissary from the prophets. Winn Adami’s appointment to Kai in 2370 increases these tensions, though that’s largely due to her political ambitions. DS9 generally tolerates the Bajoran faith and there’s a temple onboard the station. This is the first mention of a religious facility on a Starfleet vessel in the 24th century (brief mentions are made to one in TOS), perhaps because it’s a station instead of a ship, possibly because it was constructed by the Cardassians (not the Federation).
The end of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor is the world’s political backdrop; the true motivation for the Federation’s interest in the quadrant is the discovery of the Bajoran wormhole. It’s the first stable wormhole discovered in the Alpha Quadrant and leads into the Idran System of the Gamma Quadrant, on the edge of Dominion space.
The presence of the wormhole serves a few purposes. First, it introduces new species and planets. The dedicated Star Trek viewer has seen enough of the Alpha and Beta quadrants right now that it would seem odd the Dominion has never come up before, given how advanced and aggressive they are. The Gamma Quadrant gives the Federation something new to explore and discover, giving a reason for the inclusion of brand new empires and keeping some of the flavor of past starship-based series.
From a narrative perspective, the wormhole increases Bajor’s strategic value, justifying its sudden catapult into the interplanetary limelight. To Bajoran eyes, meanwhile, the wormhole is the Celestial Temple, the home of the prophets. Which brings us to…
Gods and monsters
Star Trek has briefly played with the idea of Gods before. In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (TOS, ep 2.04) the Kirk-captained Enterprise finds an alien who claims to be the Greek god Apollo. In TNG, Picard encounters an advanced lifeform around the planet Rubicun III that is worshiped as a god by the Edo race living below (TNG ep 1.08 “Justice”) and is himself mistaken for a God when a computer outage reveals Starfleet scientists to the Bronze Age Mintakans (ep 3.04 “Who Watches the Watchers?”).
In DS9, there are two alien races worshiped as Gods by their respective followers. The first to be introduced are the Bajoran prophets, who appear to Captain Benjamin Sisko in a vision while he’s exploring the wormhole (ep 1.01 “Emissary”). The wormhole aliens have all the traits of gods: they’re non-corporeal, exist outside of linear time, and communicate with linear beings by appearing to them in visions. When they’re briefly shown in their natural state, they appear as a blue energy-like cloud (in visions, they take existing humanoid forms).
The Prophets have an “evil” equivalent (another common god trait) known as the Pah-wraiths, members of the wormhole alien race that have been exiled. They have a different appearance, looking like red energy swirls; the majority of them are trapped in the Fire Caves, an ancient Bajoran cavern. The red and the fire conjure hell images, consistent with the “evil” half of a Christian or other similar religious mythology.
Sikso’s first vision happens when he’s inside the wormhole; after that, the prophets are able to send him visions regardless of his location, whether he’s as close as DS9 or as far away as Earth (ep 7.01 “Image in the Sand”). The prophets are also apparently capable of possessing humans at will to affect physical reality. They are seen using Major Kira as a vessel (ep 6.21 “The Reckoning”) and also possessed Benjamin Sisko’s mother (Ep 7.02 “Shadows and Symbols”) showing there’s not a species or distance limit.To prompt visions, religious Bajorans use the Tears of the Prophets, nine hourglass-shaped orbs that each bring on a different theme of vision. The orbs are the source the ancient Bajoran prophecies and the centerpiece of the Bajoran religion.
The number and names of Prophets are unknown (though, interestingly, the names of the Pah-Wraiths are) and the Bajorans worship the prophets collectively rather than paying homage to individuals. As with any good god, their origin is a mystery. Though they claim to be “of Bajor,” it’s unclear how or when they originated there and how they came to exist within the wormhole instead.
The prophets rarely meddle with life on the planet. People seek orb experiences to gain insight but do not expect the prophets to directly intervene on their behalf. The wormhole aliens had no recorded physical interaction with the Bajorans between the release of the orbs (some estimated 30,000 years before the action of DS9) and the modern opening of the wormhole. When they do interact with the corporeal realm it’s in their own self interest, creating Captain Sisko so that he can keep the Pah-wraiths imprisoned.
The ultimate arc of Sisko and the Prophets is one of good versus evil, a classic hero’s journey with strong religious overtones. There are arguable parallels to the Christ narrative; Ronald Moore has said that the Moses story was an inspiration for Sisko’s life. Utilizing these tropes gives the viewer an “in” to the story, establishing a context or a lens to view the prophets through.
On the Gamma Quadrant side of the wormhole, meanwhile, are the Founders. They are corporeal liquid-based lifeforms capable of also assuming solid or gaseous forms. Individual Founders are easier to identify than individual prophets, but in their natural state they’re a communal unit, a lake of Founders known as the Great Link. They’re biologically immortal but not invincible; disruptor fire, radiation, and physical trauma are shown to kill them, and they’re susceptible to some diseases. When forced to interact with solids they appear to prefer a humanoid form. You could try to justify this in-universe but I assume the likeliest actual explanation is a combination of maintaining visible species continuity with Odo for occasional viewers and practical considerations like makeup time and cost.
The Founders rule the Dominion, a Gamma quadrant empire established to bring “order” to what they see as the chaotic lifestyle of the Solids. The Founders don’t rule directly. The Vorta serve as their commanders and administrators, while the Jem’Hadar comprise the military. Both races have been genetically engineered by the Founders. To guarantee absolute loyalty, a belief that the Founders are gods is encoded into both races’ DNA. This belief is species-based rather than experiential; Weyoun regards Odo with the same reverence even though he’s never lived in the Great Link.
In the Founders, we see religion as a cynic would view them: an artificial hierarchy imposed for one group to control another. The prophets are the believer’s perspective; the question of their god-ness is left more open for debate. It’s never really made clear how they feel about being gods. They don’t discourage the activity, but there’s a sense it’s outside of their concern—maybe the way a human would feel being told he’s god of an ant colony. The Founders take a more active role in their followers’ lives, but it’s an act of exploitation. It’s arguable that the prophets exploit Sisko, too, but there’s more a sense they’re doing it for Bajor’s benefit as well as their own.
The prophets seem more god-like of the two. They are ethereal and omniscient to an extent, their messages often cryptic but always true. On the other hand, though, the Founders created life. You can’t necessarily blame the Jem’Hadar for worshiping the beings that created them. DS9 doesn’t strive to tell you who is and isn’t a god, or what makes a god, but it asks the question sporadically and in many ways throughout the series.
…the religious aspect of DS9 is its most notable, but that’s not all it has to teach prospective world-builders. In part 2, I’ll look at the Ferengi, the Breen, and how DS9 explores language.