Character Analysis: Benjamin Sisko
The greatest Commander, promoted to Capitan, from the series that aged best. Star Trek may have elected to forget Sisko and his crew existed while Voyager, the films, and the reboot bloated and declined in quality; but many audience members didn’t. And I would suggest both Star Trek and science fiction fans take a look at Sisko’s series.
Sir Patrick Stewart is an excellent thespian, Scott Bacula a talented actor, Kate Mulgrew has grown further in her career with performances as versatile as a prison matriarch and Meridith from Dragon Age, William Shatner became both a classic TV actor and the outrageous comedian he is today. But Avery Brooks’s performance is clearly the most consistent character acting, perhaps due not just to the very passionate DS9 writing staff with their divergent ideas, but the very deliberate dedication of Brooks layering his performance with a memorable combination of a rich voice and authoritative persona, but also the emotional range to not have obvious moral slips or character inconsistencies.
Sisko expresses interest in cooking, maintaining not only defensive capacity but the community of the station, recreates an old solar sail and vessel to recreate an ancient vessel. His leadership is clear, stern due to his gravitas and imposing voice and manner, but one that quickly dispels in bursts of many emotions, for example laughter. My favourite example being a snigger, then full on howl at the suggestion that he intimidates Worf.
Aside from leading men and women in battle, he notably coaches Worf and his son Jake regarding discipline, cowardice, that the reality is unexpected, demanding, and frightening but that ultimately human qualities, self-acceptance, determination, and being able to always re-evaluate and better oneself get people through conflict and warfare, that the standard of an officer or professional must be high, but that we are people. Our ability to break or make mistakes is common, just as it is a fact that every individual can always take a good look at themselves, at the allies and organisations around them, and that makes for people who can be successful.
A frontiersman, Sisko’s exploration is by far the most subdued and cerebral in comparison to straightforward spacefarers. His station after all is stationary, which cannot be more different than an Enterprise-Class travelling for years, or the entire conceit of Voyager being the vessel engaging in its odyssey to get home. His exploration is a personal one as his affection for the station, the closest planet, and the people around him deepen over time. Many species, challenges and joys come to his doorstep, and not the other way around. The nature of the show’s setting provide the situation and strategy of Sisko as Commander and Capitan: an officer set to restore and essentially occupied/reclaimed/salvaged station, protect a neutral party, and with the opening of the wormhole be a rapidly expanding galactic hub of cosmopolitan transport. The most applicable title to Sisko aside from his name is, fittingly for his character and uniqueness neither related to rank or devoid of anything but the most direct symbolism: The Emissary.
The title is a religious one, but also encompasses his secular role. A cultural emissary to Bajor, and the Gamma Quadrant. As he says directly to the man, he met Picard ‘in battle’. Forged in fire, the life of the commander we see is based in the loss of his wife, and his resolve to raise his son Jake first and foremost. It is not so much Sisko’s ability that makes him notable, as much as his will and tenacity to do what he feels moral (which I believe stems from Avery Brooks’s performance, the actor not being wholly enthusiastic about the show but finishing it to keep his word and provide and example of loyalty to his son; a very admirable decision in my opinion).
Benjamin Sisko is not a genius tactician or diplomat, but the willingness and innovation of his mind, to be both at once different from Trek archetypes, and yet an embodiment of Federation ideals that make him as much a paragon of them as any Capitan or Commander character. In a setting with a paradise Earth and often the peak of technologies available to the heroic cast, Deep Space Nine is the uncharted territory that tests one’s resolve. What is a man, when he is left bereft of his love, assigned a duty he does not want, a responsibility to command a gutted alien station with political hostilities on every side?
Actions, not philosophy are what distinguish Sisko and his answers to that question. From a collection of refugees, neutral parties and the tatters of an alien station he helps build a community, prosperous in peace, and resolute in war. Under his command there is a pattern of unique parties and peoples, the forgotten and dispossessed coming into their potential due to a stance that has battle hardened appeal to warriors, and welcome to pacifists and travellers. Prominent examples of his leadership are in how taken under his wing, O’Brien and especially Worf go from relatively minor individuals in terms of rank and respect, to prominent society members, their talents allowed to flourish as Sisko enables frank talk and a somewhat rough around the edges functionality to temper their territory.
Sisko’s belief, not attention to doctrine or love of adventure drives his actions as an officer, fitting with the only Trek series that actively and positively really demonstrates religiou faith in factions and individuals as something other than a counterpoint to logic of obfuscating dogma. As an intentional outlier and counterpoint to the Trek universe before, and indeed, after him, Sisko uses his unique background, training, and mentality to do the Federation’s will in increasingly desperate circumstances, notably ones that other captains such as Kirk are hard to imagine performing, war footing that Picard seemed ill suited to, and actively demolished Archer mentally.
Sisko is easily the best portrayal of a father figure in Trek, and honestly a contender for one of the best in science fiction’s television history, given the father/child relationship is rarely explored and often deemed less important, fathers usually being depicted as distant, absentee, or at odds with their children. So, a present and encouraging father is surprisingly refreshing and wholesome taken in context of the entire medium. The potential for pathos and a compelling father and son tory is best demonstrated in ‘The Vistor’, one of many surprisingly artistically written Deep Space Nine episodes with a shockingly emotional punch at the end given it follows the ’45 minute long, resolve positively at the end’ episodic formula.
Bending this formula as DS9 grew bolder running into the Dominion War arc also allowed 9 to take steps -actually begun as early as a season 2 3 parter- actively taken by following series whether they admitted inspiration or not, testing the utopian idealists with a war footing, with weariness.
Physicality is part of Sisko’s character as much as the aggression he tempers. His position as a spiritual, military, and political authority give Sisko the opportunity to reprimand even figures such as Worf, well aware of his own failings and the responsibilities of his position. This most of all distinguishes him from any other series protagonist to date. In what’s essentially an action entertainment series featuring supposedly more cerebral and pacifistic characters, Sisko is the only officer who looks not only competent but able in battle. Brooks strikes the portrait of an officer who met physical training standards, and being honest aside from some Janeway moments like ‘Year of Hell’, only he and Kirk really kicks ass in the sense of fitting in with hitting that opponent and taking up a weapon when the time comes.
Willingness to resort to the physical, sport, striking out at even transcendent beings is a distinct divergence to any character save Kirk, and here it is arguably a neutral trait. His aggression cannot defeat all of his enemies, and sadly Sisko is not given the opportunity to shape and sit in the Federation and Bajoran societies he defended. To attack is both his primary option, and last resort. Looking at the wider series, this adds unintended gravitas and tragedy to Sisko, considering the nature of the enemies he faced. Rarely one to wish to kill even very fanatic enemies such as the Jem’Hadar warrior caste, part of his evident energy stems often from the series themes of oppression, constriction and manipulation. It is less a case of Sisko being a person venting or directing his aggression, but the fact that foes literally named after the concept of domination will never settle for anything less than death and capitulation.
It is the situation that requires someone tireless, defiant; which is the name of Sisko’s ship and reflection of his character. A warship, a weapon. One created by him, distinct, even ‘dishonourable’ or morally dubious in comparison to others (due to possessing forbidden technology), but devised because outside circumstances almost killed him and did murder his wife. Intended for The Borg, instead it is used against enemies just as violent, just as eager to kill or capture as we see even in minor villain plots, where the threat of enslavement and terrorism frequently crop up within the plot.
It’s worth noting that Sisko employs pragmatic oration as much as necessary violence in self-defence. There are a surprising number of scenes where if facing an unreasonable hostile or hostage taker he will reason, even manipulate them ultimately for swift conflict resolution. Given the series focus on Constable Odo and his law enforcement, Miles O’Brien’s more salt-of-the-earth approach and so on, it follows that Sisko is less the grand diplomat or lawmaker, but alternatively given more on-screen opportunities to settle the kind of issues the military and military police would be involved in. His temperament, duties and episodic plots very much place the character in the position of needing to take decisive action, be a force that can handle aggression or resistance, and use both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ attitudes for the greater good.
Faith, compassion, rage against his enemies are very much the dominant emotions that come to mind thinking of Sisko, much as his role is very clearly apparent. One of these roles is the name and title of the very first episode; a cultural and spiritual emissary. The other becoming more and more apparent from earlier seasons against terrorists, disgruntled Cardassians, Klingons and the Dominion is the role of a warrior. Sisko is intended to fight, which is demonstrated in as blunt a way as his willingness to punch the Q entity physically in their only encounter. His introduction is battle. I very much enjoy that much like his arch enemy Gul Dukat, the hero is passionate, flawed and articulate, relatable and empathetic; but a deliberately murky reflection of the typical officer, with a pragmatic streak and tendency towards obsession that makes a character famous, but also inaccessible and prone to controversy.
Even for those who dislike the show, I would argue that these flaws highlight the standards and ideal of the officer archetype that Trek and its fan base admires, legal arbiters, explorers and diplomats vaunted as avatars of secular good, or futurism, much as the similarly named but utterly different Star Wars loves to portray spiritually enlightened and hyper-aware judicals, of the knightly or enforcer variety.
While Sisko is a father from the beginning, an officer promoted from Commander to Capitan, most notable in his character development is his unique nature as a very spiritual being. His affection for Bajor, for its rites, avoidance of its destruction, and easing into aiding the Bajorans as an explicitly religious figure gives him a soulful side, an expression of love, exploration and curiosity other Starfleet Captains possess.
While the nature of the religious is belief system quite apart from many classic Trek characters -atheism being something of a default state certainly within the TNG era- I believe the expression of ‘soul’, or perhaps, an intense contemplation and philosophical pastime is shared; Sisko is spiritual in the religious sense where for example Janeway is a scientist and very much in love with her crew, Picard is in love with intellectual pursuits such as music, archaeology, diplomacy and law. Optimism and championing the human condition is a critical part of Star Trek, and the sense of affinity and compassion, development of the self while engaging in a wider social setting is a principle applied in many different contexts. Bajor, the Bajorans, and eventually to an extent the Prophets are the domain Sisko impacts and is adored by, much as Picard’s numerous accords and Kirk’s discoveries and kindling of optimistic adventure are theirs.
Pursuit of duty, gentility towards those one serves and loves, and against that: fiercely opposing opponents and injustices are the virtues of many heroes, and many protagonists. And all of this is clearly on display with the unconventional Capitan. Like his show, he deconstructs and tests the so called ‘Roddenberry ideal’ and established notions of Star Trek, while simultaneously validating the merits of being a figure willing to work, explore, and negotiate with all the universe has to offer in the ultimate spirit of entertainment centred around spacefaring diplomats, commanders and explorers.
All the best,