Created in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek is a mega-franchise set in a hopeful future where mankind and other alien races work together to explore the galaxy and solve larger problems. If you’re unfamiliar with the shows that make up the Trek franchise you might not think horror has played a significant role in those stories. That would be a wrong assumption though because a large part of Star Trek is about confronting the most primal fear of any living thing; the fear of the unknown. Every Star Trek show has dealt with confronting fear and the things that terrify us.
Deep Space 9 follows the inhabitants of the titular space station. It’s a mixed crew that includes both Starfleet operatives as well as representatives from other alien races; like the very pious Bajorans who worship the alien entities (dubbed “The Prophets) that control the station’s nearby wormhole. Because the show revolved around a fixed locale it had a lot of opportunities to develop a fascinating supporting cast like the station’s tailor, the Cardassian known as Garak (Andrew Robinson), who was a former spy. The Cardassians were the quasi-fascist interstellar empire that previously controlled the station.
Unlike previous Trek shows, Deep Space 9 was stationary, which meant that once a horror found the station, it could find it again…and again. So, over the course of the series Deep Space 9 featured scary one-off episodes and several reoccurring horror elements. In this piece, we’ll look at some of those episodes and ideas. DS9 did several different types of standalone scary episodes during its run, but its two most effective horror one-offs were both very much slasher tales. It’s partly because they allowed the familiar station setting to take on a nightmarish twist, and also because one was written by a fan of the genre.
“Star Trek is about confronting the most primal fear of any living thing; the fear of The Unknown”
In the third season’s “Distant Voices” the station’s chief medical officer, Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), is knocked unconscious by a telepathic alien. He awakens in a darkened version of the facility where a mysterious force is on a killing spree. The episode feels very much like a Nightmare on Elm Street film. The alien that stalks Bashir in it can alter reality and even sounds like Freddy Krueger. There are also some psychological elements reminiscent of the film Identity (2003).
“Empok Nor” is a season five episode that features a story by Bryan Fuller who would go on to create the horror show, Hannibal, for NBC. The episode is almost a love letter to classic slashers. In it Garak Chief Engineer Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney), Ferengi cadet Nog (Aaron Eisenberg), and four “red shirt” types travel to a supposedly abandoned space station. It’s of course not, and the darkened facility’s guardians awake and start killing characters one by one. There’s even a classic slasher scene at the end where a survivor encounters the bodies of all the victims on display.
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Fuller was also inspired by the 1978 drug trip horror film Blue Sunshine. So, there’s a psychotropic drug element to the episode that allows Andrew Robinson to channel the role he’s best known for, Scorpio, the psychotic sniper from Dirty Harry (1971). Miles O’Brien endured a number of horrific things in one-off episodes of Deep Space 9, but his most harrowing experiences came in “The Assignment,” a season five episode that introduced one of the show’s reoccurring horror elements: The Pah-Wraiths. Basically, Star Trek’s version of demons.
The Pah-Wraiths are the malevolent opposites of the godlike Prophets and in “The Assignment,” a Pah-Wraith possesses Miles O’Brien‘s wife, Keiko (Rosalind Chao). At the beginning of the episode, the entity tells the Chief that if he disobeys any of its instructions it will harm and even kill Keiko. The episode is a combination of both possession horror and hostage drama. One of the most chilling aspects of the episode is that the entity possessing Keiko is cheerful and welcoming around the other crew. There’s a scene where O’Brien gets what his colleagues assume is an adorable video call from his wife and young daughter where the possessed Keiko is brushing their daughter’s hair. One brush stroke is too hard though and the daughter says, “Mommy, you’re hurting me.”
The Pah-Wraiths played an especially significant role in Deep Space 9‘s final season. In the episode “Covenant,” Kira Nerys is abducted to Empok Nor where Captain Sisko’s arch-enemy, the Cardassian Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), has set himself up as the leader of a Pah-Wraith cult. David Weddle wrote the episode and a lot of it was informed by the scary things he learned from writing about real-life cults while working as an investigative reporter for the LA Weekly and The San Jose Mercury News.
Dukat’s machinations with the Pah-Wraiths would continue throughout the seventh season and culminate in the series finale, “What You Leave Behind.” The final moments have Sisko facing off against a Pah-Wraith empowered Dukat to try and stop the sci-fi equivalent of an occult ritual that would devastate the galaxy. Star Trek Deep Space 9 was darker and grittier than other Trek shows that came before, but it was also serialized. It’s main storyline, the war with the alien empire known as the Dominion, ran from the second season all the way up to the series finale. That serialization allowed the writers to develop a shapeshifting alien who could become anyone in fascinating ways that are rarely seen in films.
“Star Trek Deep Space 9 was darker and grittier than other Trek shows that came before”
One of the big developments in Deep Space 9‘s third season was that the Founders, the alien race that controls the Dominion, were revealed to be shapeshifters and they had declared war upon an entire quadrant of the galaxy! So throughout the run of the show viewers got to see the paranoia, fear, and terror caused by a race of beings that can replace anyone. Shapeshifting spies would wreak havoc, but the Founders’ most chilling bit of political intrigue came in “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” a fourth season two-parter that showed the damage changelings can do to the Federation’s homeworld and core values. The story sends Sisko and his chief of security Odo (Renee Auberjonois), a shapeshifter loyal to the Captain and Bajor, to Earth. Once they arrive, a Founder appears in public and the resulting panic leads to a crackdown on civil liberties and some hardline war hawks making a desperate grab for power.
The episodes are a prescient prediction of the liberty versus security debates that would arise five years later in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Some of the more creepy and powerful moments include Sisko wondering if his own father has been replaced, but the Dominon changelings weren’t just political saboteurs. They also posed a real physical danger to the series’ cast. In the third season finale, “The Adversary,” Sisko and the crew of the station’s warship, the Defiant, head to a nearby planetary system. Once there, they discover the ship has been sabotaged by a Founder infiltrator out to kill the crew and destroy the ship. So it’s basically an homage to The Thing set aboard a cramped, sabotaged starship.
The Founders’ most shocking act though was abducting and replacing one of the show’s core characters without the audience even knowing! In the fifth season episode “In Purgatory’s Shadow” Garak and Deep Space 9‘s Strategic Operations Officer, Worf (Michael Dorn), are thrown in a Dominion prison camp and discover that Doctor Bashir has been an inmate there for a month, which meant the Bashir imposter was in place for several episodes.
The shapeshifters, demons, and other horror-themed threats of Deep Space 9 were made even more engaging thanks to the show’s fixed location, which to many viewers felt like a home away from home. Plus, it was a home populated by people fans cared about. Every character, even the supporting ones, evolved and changed over the course of the show. So, there was a real sense of investment in them, which made the dangers they faced even more harrowing.
Horror isn’t the only genre the show did well either. If you’ve yet to visit the halls of Deep Space 9 I invite you to come for the horror and the fascinating characters. Once there, you’ll want to stay for the epic plot and the way the show handles other genres like adventure, comedy, romance, and neo-noir crime tales. And yes, you now know some things that happened, but there are many more twists, turns, and terrors awaiting you on the edge of the galactic frontier.
Are you a Star Trek fan? What are your favourite horror-tinged episodes of the series? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.