It started with a phone call from then-Paramount chief BrandonTartikoff.

“He asked me to create a new science-fiction TV series,” says Rick Berman. “Not necessarily a’Star Trek’ spinoff.” Since Ber-man, along with Michael Piller , wasexecutive producer of “Star Trek:The Next Generation,” a rollicking syndication hit that has been sailing along for much longer than the original “Star Trek” (1966-69), the result might have been predictable.

But Berman says he and Piller discussed many other ideas before settling on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” which debuted in national syndication earlier this month.

“We spent a lot of time discussing numerous projects, some that fell within the Gene Roddenberry ‘Star Trek’ universe and many that were unrelated,” Berman says. “We finally decided that going the ‘Star Trek’ route was the best way to go.”

Michael Piller says that in the end they had very few other choices. “It may sound silly to say when you have a universe as large as that of space in the future,” says Piller. “But if you want to do a space show, you either do it in a spaceship, at a space station or on a futuristic planet.”

They talked of creating a futuristic Hong Kong on a planet surface and building a set in the desert north of Los Angeles on which to film a show.

“We felt that would be extremely expensive and difficult to produce,” Piller says, “so we took our Hong Kong and put it on a space station, then we scaled it back in order to make it cost-effective.”

Both Piller and Berman recognized that special effects alone would not make a new series work. Following on the heels of the original show and “Next Generation,” fans expected solid characters and good drama as well.

Berman likens the process to living in a house you’ve built and then years later saying wouldn’t it be nice if you’d made the kitchen larger or put the door to the basement in a different spot.

“This was how we felt about ‘Star Trek,’ ” Berman says. “It was very close to us, but there was a lot of ‘wouldn’t it be nice.’ Developing ‘Deep Space Nine’ gave us the opportunity to rebuild the house.”

One of the late Gene Roddenberry’s precepts for “Star Trek” was that all members of Starfleet should work in harmony. “He had very clear-cut rules about Starfleet officers having any tension or conflict between themselves. His futuristic humans were too good for that,” Berman says.

“As a result, it’s very difficult to write for these people, because out of conflict comes good drama,” he says. Still, the duo did not want to break Roddenberry’s rule because they were operating within the “Star Trek” creator’s universe ofthe 24th century.

Staying on trek

“We set about creating a situation, an environment, and a group of characters that could have conflict without breaking Gene’s rules,” says Berman. “We took our characters and placed them in an unfamiliar environment, one that lacked the state-of-the-art comfort of the Enterprise, and where there were people who didn’t want them there.” The concept rendered an unexpected bonus. “By putting Starfleet characters on an alien space station with alien creatures, you have immediate conflicts,” says Piller.

Employing all the modern tricks of model-making, miniatures and digital compositing, “Deep Space Nine” has a grittier feeling than the earlier “Star Trek” shows, although Piller rejects the notion that the series is darker in tone.

The first show was basically a journey into a man’s soul and finding the light, he points out, but as the series goes on it will show the inhabitants rebuilding the space station to the best of their abilities. It will never work up to their expectations.

“There are characters who come through much darker than the ‘Next Generation’ characters, but I don’t know that I could say this is a dark series,” Piller says.

“It’s still Gene Roddenberry’s vision. It has an optimistic view of mankind in the future. Reason and dialog and communication are still the key weapons in the fight to solve problems. I think the label of darker is probably exaggerated ,” he says.

Like its predecessors, “Deep Space Nine” boasts a large and skilled cast including Avery Brooks, as Commander Benjamin Sisko, the Starfleet officer-in-charge; Rene Auberjonois, as security officer Odo, a shape-shifting alien; Terry Farrell, as Lt. Jadzia Dax, an alien in female human form whose insides are actually a super-intelligent life-form resembling a short, fat snake; Colm Meaney, as the chief operations officer, promoted from “The Next Generation”; and Nana Visitor, as Major Kira Nerys, as a warrior from the planet Bajor.

The show’s producers say it’s too early to tell which of these, and the other equally exotic, characters will become the most popular.

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