Ira Steven Behr spent eight years in the Star Trek universe, working as a writer-producer for one season of The Next Generation and, later, all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. To this day, he remains a lightning rod of praise and criticism for DS9. Over time, Behr emerged as that series’ show runner, introducing extended arcs, particularly the Dominion War storyline, that enthralled or alienated Trek fans pretty much in equal measure. Following DS9, Behr went on to a long and productive career that’s seen him write and produce such television series as Dark Angel, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Vegas, The 4400, Crash and Syfy’s upcoming show, Alphas, which stars David Strathairn, Malik Yoba, Azita Ghanizada, Warren Christie, Ryan Cartwright and Laura Mennell and will premiere on July 11. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Behr for an extensive and exclusive interview in which he recounted his time and work on TNG and DS9, talked about his post-Trek career and provided a preview of Alphas. Below is part one of our interview, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two.
When you think back on the Star Trek period of your life and career, what springs to mind?
Behr: I’d be insane and completely and utterly neurotic at the very least if I said anything other than that it was an amazing eight years. To be a part of that, to be doing 26 episodes a season, having two or three weeks off and then starting again… It was a good experience. I’m still friends with a lot of people I worked with on Star Trek. About 20 minutes ago Jeff Combs called me from Hawaii about getting together. I’m working here on Alphas with Robert Wolfe. At the end of last season, Ron Moore and I went to a Dodgers game. I had Bradley Thompson and David Weddle in for a couple of weeks on Alphas while they were between gigs. Plus, people still ask me about Star Trek. You’re lucky if you can make any kind of mark on the pop culture, on the mass culture. So, being a part of that, I have no complaints.
Let’s revisit some ground that you’ve discussed in the past, but that may be new to people just now discovering DS9. You left TNG after one year, the third season. So, what happened that season, and why did you leave?
Behr: I just felt that, at that time, even though I know the third season is kind of recognized as the season that TNG found its legs and that the franchise started to move forward again, being there was not a hell of a lot of fun. Even though we’ve now lived long enough that when I tell people I worked with Gene Roddenberry --- I mean actually sat in his office and talked about stuff – they look at me like, “Wow! Wow.” Gene’s been dead for two decades now. So, yeah, there’s the wow factor, but there were just too many rules and regulations. I called TNG, perhaps unfairly, the Connecticut of Star Trek, and I still kind of feel that way. Maybe if I’d come on in the fourth season or stayed through the fourth season, things would have gotten better, but creatively I just felt trapped. That’s not to say I didn’t have a great time with Ron and Rene (Echevarria) and the gang, and (Hans) Beimler and (Richard) Manning. There were a lot of great moments and some of the shows were really well done, but I was not a happy camper for that year. And I never, ever, ever looked back and said, “Wow, I should have stayed” or “Wow, I wish I would have stayed.” I did it. It was good. I ran into Jonathan Frakes at a Coffee Bean about a month ago. It was fantastic to see him. We sat down and we talked. Whenever I see anyone from the show it’s always a good feeling, but I had to go.
Some people, then, were surprised when you returned to Star Trek for DS9. Take us through that. How difficult was it to get you back on board?
Behr: You’d have to ask Michael (Piller, DS9’s co-creator and co-executive producer, who passed away in 2005) how difficult it was to get me back, and that’s going to be a little difficult. Michael and I were close. Leaving was not even a blip on our friendship. I went back in the fourth season, between feature rewrites, and did an episode of TNG in the fourth season when Michael called me up and asked me to do him a favor. But put it this way, it took a couple of seasons of baseball, of going to games together, of Michael saying to me, “We’re doing a new thing… Would you ever consider…” And then it became, “You said at the other game you might consider… Now we have a bible, but we haven’t written a script yet. Would you read the bible and tell me what you think?” So I read the bible and we were at another game, and he said, “Well, now you’ve read the bible and here were are and tell me…” What he said, if I remember correctly, is that “The show was going to be somewhat grittier or darker, with humor, and will represent your point of view a lot more than TNG had.”
Now, how he knew this or how he even knew my point of view, I could never figure out because our points of view often were very different. Then I said, “Look, if I came on I’d want O’Brien and Amoros (whose name eventually became Bashir) to become best buddies even though they’re totally different characters and don’t get along at first. I’d like to really to explore a friendship on Star Trek that doesn’t have to do with the fact that he’s Number One or he’s a Vulcan and they’re both on the bridge all the time and there’s a chain of command. It’s just a friendship.” Michael looked at me and he said, “Yeah, I don’t see why not.” It was so simple. “I don’t see why not. Sure.” Then I talked to my sister, who was a Star Trek fan going way back, and she said to me, “Come on, go give it another shot. You were so disappointed leaving Star Trek. It left such a bad taste in your mouth. Why don’t you see if this time it’ll be different. You trust Mike, and he’s telling you all these things. So why not?”
What worked best about DS9 and, a decade-plus of objectivity later, what didn’t work as well as you’d hoped?
Behr: What worked? The thing that worked best for me was that it told a story over seven years. There was a beginning, there was a middle and there was an ending. You can’t tell a good story without characters, and you’ve got to think that the characters were a big part of that. And I’m not just talking about the leads; I’m talking about that wonderful group of actors who we had as recurring characters, all of whom I loved to bits as people and as actors. So, without getting all blah-blah-blah about it, I’d say that’s what I think worked, or that’s what I’m proudest of. I don’t even know if that answers your question.
We just want your angle on it, your thoughts. There’s no wrong answer. And what didn’t work the way you intended?
Behr: Obviously the simple thing, the one that a bunch of fans are waiting to hear me say, if they’re waiting to hear me say anything, is that once we realized that Armin (Shimerman) wasn’t really connecting to a lot of the humor we were trying to do, we should have probably cut back on some of the attempts at doing humorous episodes, or at least gotten directors who were more comfortable with comedy. It’s so weird. One of the things that Rick (Berman) and I agreed on all the time was Rick would read these comedic episodes and he’d say, “This is great. This is so funny. It’s so funny on the page, but they’re not going to play it, are they?” Not everyone, but some people just weren’t quite going to go there. I’d say, “Yeah, probably you’re right.” But every now and then we’d get a show like “Little Green Men” or “The Magnificent Ferengi,” which I thought did work. So every now and then you’d see a glimmer of hope, but we probably should have admitted defeat. It’s just I thought the Ferengi were really cool characters and gave us a totally different feeling. We had so many f—king heroes. It was nice to have people who were like us, scared and looking out for themselves.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow for the second half of our interview with Ira Steven Behr.