Interview: DS9’s Ira Steven Behr Sees Something Familiar About ‘Star Trek Discovery’

A few weeks back we shared our interview with Ira Steven Behr discussing the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine documentary What We Left Behind. After covering the documentary, Ira said he had more time so we started talking about my and his favorite Star Trek show: Deep Space Nine. As this was extra time it was less of a traditional interview with prepared questions, and more of a conversation which is why it includes some colorful adult language, such as Ira calling me a doofus and me comparing him to Rodney Dangerfield.  We discussed DS9’s similarities with Star Trek: Discovery, Ira joining DS9, the Ferengi, the legacy of the show, episodes he regretted making, and whether DS9 will be released in HD.

Ira Steven Behr at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017 earlier this month

There is something familiar about Discovery

Anthony Pascale: How much have you been following the development of Star Trek: Discovery?

Ira Steven Behr: Virtually not at all.

Anthony: Well the people behind the show talk about how it is a different kind of Star Trek show and specifically because it has a diverse cast lead by an African-American, it is heavily serialized with the a major war that involves the Klingons as a backdrop, and it breaks the Roddenberry rule of no conflict within the characters. So, I was just wondering, does that sound familiar to you?

Ira: You know, this might sound shocking, but it does. It does sound familiar. But history is – well as we started with this discussion – what is truth? Recently there was a documentary about 90s TV [CNN’s The Nineties] where it said that Homicide – that great TV show – was the only series in the 90s that dared to have scenes with only black actors. Now this is not true. This is blatantly false. But that is how history is written, which is why I constantly tell people, “Only the work matters.” If your work is out there, that is all that matters. People will find it or not find it, but the mere doing of it is a positive thing in this world. It doesn’t matter if CNN gets it right or wrong, the truth is out there.

Something familiar about Discovery

Anthony: No respect for DS9? Are you the Rodney Dangerfield of Star Trek?

Ira: Personally, I have never for a second thought of that. I just think of the work that we did and it is something. We were muzzled by Army brass like in Plan 9 from Outer Space. We were muzzled by forces greater than ourselves every time. We had to fight for the right to party, let me put it that way. Everything we wanted to do, the serialization, the war, every goddamn good thing that we wanted to do to move the franchise along was a fight! And you know what? We fought that battle. Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost, but we fought that battle.

Anthony: When the show was cast, was Sisko always going to be an African-American, or did you guys just like Avery?

Ira: When [co-creator] Michal Piller started his insidious plan to bring me back into the fold – so sitting together at baseball games, when he mentioned it to me, he mentioned to me as an African-American captain. Some people say that is too specific and that it was definitely going to be a brown person, definitely not a Caucasian. They hadn’t necessarily locked in to that person being African-American.

I actually have some of the auditions and some were sent in from England from some very good British actors. So they were covering on all fronts, but I think that was all just due diligence. It was always going to be a brown captain.

Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko

Anthony: You mentioned how you are even talking to “non-fans” for the doc. There is a significant segment of Star Trek fans that just don’t like DS9. Some feel it doesn’t fit with Roddenberry’s vision or they don’t like the war stuff. How do you deal with those critiques?

Ira: I don’t like the term “hater,” but that buzzword is being used too easily and I don’t think that is a good word for a frickin’ TV show, so let’s just say non-fans. But, yes because DS9 was and remains different, it was not embraced by everyone. Some people didn’t like it and came up with reasons why. No one sets out to be disliked or ignored so that is not great, but what has happened is that where in the past I always said the show had Star Trek fans who also Deep Space Nine fans, but they were basically Star Trek fans. I am now meeting a lot of fans who are Deep Space Nine fans first and Star Trek fans second. They feel that DS9 is what sustains them as fans and that to me is really interesting and really different and really positive. So yeah, we are not for everyone, but time has caught up with us in a very very good way.

“The Changing Face of Evil” is an example of how DS9 dealt with war and dark issues in the 90s

Fixing the Ferengi

Anthony: The Ferengi were a failed attempt to create a big bad adversary in Star Trek: The Next Generation and were mostly abandoned. Yet when [Michael] Piller and [Rick] Berman created DS9 they made Quark a major character, therefore making the Ferengi a big part of the show. It turned out you guys rehabilitated the Ferengi and really fleshed them out, but at the time of creation did you feel it was a risk?

Ira: When Michael told me about it I went “Ewwwuggh” and other weird sounds. I was not a fan and I thought it was a mistake. The moment it clicked for for me was when I did the pass on “Babel,” which was the first real episode I wrote on DS9. We started out with Rom being the hard-core Ferengi who didn’t want his son to go to “HU-mon School” and frankly I thought that did not work for me. I didn’t like the Ferengi being the nasty hard-line guy.

What I had was a scene with Quark with O’Brien or Odo and Quark said, “My brother couldn’t fix a straw that was bent,” and that line just started me thinking what if this was a show about brothers, about these two brothers. You have the successful brother and the loser brother. And I started to think of the Ferengi in human terms, 20th century human terms. And that nailed them for me. And that became my push. Not that they were so much comedic – although they were comedic – but more importantly they were 20th century human beings and we could write their relationship as such.

Rom and Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Anthony: Do you feel that the Ferengi became possibly too comedic? Did the Ferengi episodes become comedic filler to lighten things up between the dark and heavy war episodes?

Ira: Obviously we were doing lighter shows that had nothing to do with the Ferengi. “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang,” “Take Me Out to the Holosuite,” “Our Man Bashir,” there were other comedic shows that were not Ferengi-specific.

Anthony: So you reject the premise of my question?

Ira: I am just trying to figure it out.

Anthony: Well I guess for me I grew to love the Ferengi in DS9. You guys really turned them from a failed attempt to create a new Star Trek enemy into a fully-realized and sympathetic culture, but sometimes I felt they were treated too comically.

Ira: Yes, well what I was going to say is a lot of what we were trying to do at the time was to keep the show different. We wore our freak status like a fucking flag in the writing room. You don’t like us? We are not going to win you over. We are going to do more of what we do. On the whole I think that was an excellent strategy. I feel that was the right. I do feel at times the shows got a little too comical.

Rick [Berman] often would call me up and say, “This script is so funny, but you know it is not going to be as funny on the stage. We have very few directors who understand comedy. It is going to get heavy-handed or it won’t be done with the same finesse or tone that you are expecting based on the script.” And often he was right. He was right. And maybe if we had less of a struggle to keep the Dominion story forward, maybe we would have done a few less Ferengi shows. This is all stuff that we would need a time machine to go back and I would have to like to have to look at myself and talk to myself to remind myself exactly what was going on.

But, yes. The simple answer is, yes. Did we go to the Ferengi well sometimes too often? Yes.

Quark as Lumba in “Profit and Lace”

The one episode he would take back

Anthony: So here is one of those annoying hypotheticals. Let’s say you did have that time machine and it can only do one thing. You can go back and stop one episode from being made. Which one do you stop, or not any?

Ira: Oh man that is such a doofus question. Everyone has the episode they don’t like and what you want to hear from me is an episode that I don’t like. Which I understand is better than the “What’s your favorite episode?” question. But not much better.

Anthony: Hey, you are the one that brought up that time machine.

Ira: So obviously Quark as a woman was a total failure from the launch. So if I could take that one back, but it is not number one. It is actually number two. You know when we wrote that script [for “Profit and Lace“] we thought it could work given some changes it could have worked.  But the one that was a fucking disaster in the making was “Let He Who Is Without Sin…” That was a compromised show to begin with. There was no way we could do the sexuality of Risa to make it work, there would be a backlash. So while we were writing it Robert Hewitt Wolfe – god bless him – said, “Let’s dump it, this isn’t going to work. Rick and the whole system is going to be against it being any good. Let’s not do it. It is not going to work. We are straining to get to an issue that we are going to fall short of.”

At that point my command style was to charge to the sound of the guns and don’t retreat and just keep going and push the fucking envelope as far as we can. And when you do that over 26 episodes a season you are going to fail. You are goddamn right you are going to fail sometimes, but luckily you have 26 so you move on. But that show really should have been killed in the script stage.   

Anthony: I recently talked to Morgan Gendel about something similar where he said he knew when he handed you guys the script for “The Passenger” it was in his words a “dog,” but with the production schedule there really isn’t any way to stop it. Sometimes you just have to keep going with episodes you know aren’t going to work.

Ira: Yes, if Robert and I said “Yes, OK, let’s dump this show” what is the timeline we would have had to come up with a whole new episode with a whole new story and get it approved. It wouldn’t have been this cavalier “let’s toss this puppy” and sit down in the writers room and crack open some soft drinks and coffee and get an intern to stand at the white board and let’s break a new show. It is not as simple as that, so maybe that has something to do with my decision. It wasn’t just, “Oh, we are going to prove even ourselves wrong and this is going to work.” Time is a player in television, there is no doubt about it. Once the cameras start rolling you are going baby, and you better have something to film every week.   

“Let He Who Is Without Sin…” is the one episode Behr regrets

Will we see DS9 in HD?

Anthony: Let’s wrap up with returning to the subject of HD. Do you know if there has been any talk at CBS of following up the project to redo Star Trek: The Next Generation in HD with one for Deep Space Nine? Or do the figures not add up for doing it with DS9?

Ira: I am only able to comment on what has been told to me. I have not been to any of those discussions if they have been held. What I have been told is that TNG underperformed expectations. So, I have no clue if that is true, but I know DS9 has a lot of technical issues with regards to the effects and stuff. And it is not cheap and that is the bottom line. These big corporations don’t like to pay money unless they see a payoff down the line. I imagine they don’t see a payoff as of yet.

On the positive side, CBS has been much more supportive of this documentary. The Indigogo campaign really woke up a lot of people and the fans should feel really good. The fans that contributed to the campaign did a great service – not just to documentary – but to the standing of the show within this corporate environment. So kudos to them.

This HD image from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Birthright” shows what we’re missing

What We Left Behind

The Deep Space Nine documentary is due to arrive for the show’s 25th anniversary in 2018. You can learn more and pre-order it on Blu-ray at the official site.

 

Sort by:   newest | oldest