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Josh Reviews the Amazing Documentary About Star Trek Deep Space Nine: “What We Left Behind”

On Monday night I had the pleasure to see, on the big screen, the extraordinary documentary What We Left Behind, looking back at my favorite of the Star Trek shows, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  The documentary was directed by Ira Steven Behr, who was the show-runner of DS9 for most of its run, and David Zappone.  It’s a glorious love-letter to the show, to the men and women who worked so hard to create it, and to the fans who loved it (and love it still).

Deep Space Nine is easily my favorite of the Star Trek shows.  I realize it’s hard to argue that any Trek show can top the Kirk/Spock/McCoy Original Series, and if I was ranking the Trek shows in order of importance, clearly the Original Series would be on top.  I love the Original Series.  And I love TNG (Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first spin-off) dearly.  But Deep Space Nine is my favorite.  To me it is by far the most interesting and complex of all the Trek series.  The show was unafraid to feature complicated storylines and complicated, morally grey characters.  The show delved far more deeply into its characters than any of the other Trek shows.  (As someone in the documentary astutely notes, the least-developed DS9 character was far more developed, by the end of the show’s seven-season run, than any character on TNG.)  Many fans were turned off by DS9′s being set on a space-station rather than a starship like all the other Trek shows (before and after).  But that unchanging location quickly became a virtue.  Rather than jumping to a new planet and new characters/situations each week, DS9 stayed in one place, and so was able to dig deeply into its setting and its characters, developing an extraordinarily deep bench of beloved and richly-developed supporting characters and long-running storylines.  The show’s characters were complex and messy and flawed, and it developed a long-running story of interstellar conflict (the Dominion War) that was thrilling and complex and unlike any story Trek had ever told before (or since).  The show was groundbreaking in its continuity in a way that many (fans and the studio) found off-putting at the time, but that I always loved, and that laid the path for all of today’s heavily-serialized shows.  And it is almost always overlooked (a point Mr. Behr makes at one point in the doc) for how groundbreaking it was for having an African American in the lead role, and for its deep bench of characters played by African American men and women.  The show was great back when it aired and it holds up remarkably well today.  (Sadly, no subsequent Star Trek show has even come close to equalling DS9.  The show that came closest was TNG and DS9 writer Ronald D. Moore’s follow-up: his reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.)

(Quick aside: I am a huge Star Trek fan and I am always tryin to get people to try Trek.  But I know that, because there have been so many Trek movies and TV shows, it can be hard for a potential new fan to know where to begin.  Well, I am working on a blog entry that will give my advice on how to dip your toes into Star Trek!  More on that soon.  Now back to my review of this documentary…)

What We Left Behind is a joyous look back at the series.  We hear stories of its creation and development.  We hear from all of the actors (both the lead characters and the many great supporting ones) and a diverse group of the show’s key creative behind-the-scenes people.  (It’s amazing how many of the show’s key players they were able to interview.)

But this isn’t a standard, boring, talking-heads documentary.  Right from the beginning, it’s clear that this documentary is as quirky and unique as Ira Steven Behr, and the show itself.  Like the prophets/wormhole aliens, the doc isn’t linear: it jumps around in time and bounces from story to story in a pleasingly stream-of-consciousness way.  It’s filled with all sorts of fun digressions, from getting to see several of the actors sing a song about the show, barbershop quartet style (that sounds like it could have easily been embarrassing, but they’re really great singers!), to seeing Mr. Behr and Andrew Robinson (who played Garak) arguing about when in the doc they should show the big space battle (from “The Sacrifice of Angels” — more on that below).

Mr. Behr is a big part of the doc, and I love the gentle way he’s woven into the story of the film.  He has a lot to say and it’s fascinating to hear his perspective.  But what I particularly loved were the times when we’d see the process of his interviewing people in the film.  This is the stuff usually left on the cutting room floor or only seen in behind-the-scenes featurettes.  But we often got to see what was happening before or after an interview, or between the questions.  It was fun to see Mr. Behr banter and joke and occasionally bicker with the people being interviewed.  These casual moments of these talented people having fun and interacting as real people who love one another was really sweet and touching.  I found it very moving to see what an impact the show had on the people who made it.

Running throughout the doc is an incredible sequence in Mr. Behr assembled several of the show’s key writers (Ronald D. Moore, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rene Echevarria, and Hans Beimler) to break the story of an imaginary season eight premiere.  It’s a delight to see this amazing group of writers in a room together, having fun and pitching story.  And it’s fascinating to hear their thoughts on where they might have taken the show.  I don’t love all the ideas they came up with, but that’s OK!  This imaginary episode will never actually exist.  It’s very cool to be a fly on the wall and to see their process.  It’s amazing how easily they were able to fall back into working with one another, two decades after the show ended.

But the best part of the documentary was getting to see clips from DS9 in gloriously beautiful HD.  Deep Space Nine was filmed on film, but it was edited on video as a cost-saving measure, and all of the visual effects were created at that low resolution.  So the show, sadly, tragically, only exists in SD, and could only be released in HD if CBS/Paramount were willing to fund a total reconstruction of the show from top-to-bottom as they did (miraculously) for the blu-ray release of TNG.  Because those discs did not sell well, and because DS9 has always been a less-popular show, and because the process for DS9 would be even more difficult than it was for TNG (because most of TNG’s visual effects were created on film that could be scanned in HD, but DS9′s CGI effects only exist in low-rez SD and so would mostly have to be rebuilt from the ground up), it seems extremely unlikely that this will ever happen.  (You can read more about this here.)

But the film crowdfunded their efforts to scan all of the clips from the show (twenty-plus minutes, throughout the film) into HD, and let me tell you, it was jaw-droppingly beautiful.  And to see it on the big screen??  Amazing!!!  The show has literally never looked this great (because it was only ever broadcast in SD!).  It’s a revelation to see how amazing the sets, the costumes, the props, and everything else looks in HD and on the big screen.  And we also got to see one spectacular battle sequence, a fully-HD version of the battle with the Dominion from “The Sacrifice of Angels”, recreated for HD by Adam “Mojo” Liebowitz, one of the visual effects artists on the show.  Mr Lebowitz famously created a test of DS9 in HD with that battle footage several years back that’s been bumping around the internet.  That test was awesome, but what I saw onscreen was even better.  (I just discovered this footage is online: click here to see a minute-and-a-half clip!)  Getting to see these clips from DS9 in HD was a gift, and was alone worth the price of admission to the film.

There are so many other wonderful moments in the film, stories and anecdotes and peeks behind the scenes.  I can’t wait to see this film again.  (It’s been picked up by Shout!, and you can be sure that I’ll be purchasing this on blu-ray when it’s released in a few months.)  (UPDATE: The blu-ray is available for preorder on Amazon RIGHT NOW!)  Even the credits were great, with Mr. Behr and Nana Visitor (who played Kira Nerys) playfully bantering about all the great stories they hadn’t been able to fit into the doc.  And the final post-credits scene is a perfectly-chosen clip from the show.  This doc is just marvelous from start to finish.

This isn’t a film I’d suggest that someone who’s never seen DS9 watch.  Although there are several sequences that I’d love to show to someone on-the-fence about watching DS9, because they’re all about how great and groundbreaking this show was, there are also plenty of spoilers in the film of important plot developments from the course of the series that I wouldn’t want revealed to a newbie.  (The writers’ room segment, especially, directly addresses many major events from the series finale.)  This film is really made for the fans.  As someone who has loved DS9 since it originally aired, and who has deeply enjoyed revisiting the series several times in the years since, I felt like this film was made just for me.  I loved everything about it.

For all Trek fans, this is a must-watch.

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