As "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" winds down to its last poignant episode (syndicated, check local listings), after a long and distinguished run of seven seasons, another promising space opera winds up for a 13-episode summer run.
"Crusade" premires June 9 (TNT, 10-11 p.m.), and though it has neither the high polish nor the complexities of "DS9," it gets better and better as it goes along - one of the few new summer offerings sure to please its targeted audience.
Although "Star Trek: Voyager" continues next season, Trekkers of all ages are bound to miss "DS9." It just seemed to improve with every episode. For one thing, the characters really did evolve, and their relationships were sometimes surprising.
The greedy Quark (Armin Shimerman) could at times be kind, the sensual Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig) fell deeply in love at last, and the severe security officer, Odo (Ren Auberjonois), developed a sentimental attachment.
Except for the villains, of course, most of the characters were admirable - especially Captain Sisco (Avery Brooks), a courageous, dignified, spiritually minded man whose love for his son was expressed through tender respect. He was not as paternalistic with his crew as the great Captain Picard of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," principally because Sisco's crew members were all strong-minded themselves and also because he was too busy playing father to his son. "DS9" celebrated a community of equality in diversity.
Then, too, how many TV shows (other than science-fiction adventures) really bother with ideas about honor, integrity, and respect for other cultures without appearing either moralistic or merely PC?
Finding "DS9" as a new fan was difficult toward the end of the series because the story line had become so complex. Casual viewers could get lost. And though the last two-hour episode, a rich, emotional tapestry of knotted threads, does stand on its own for the most part, longtime fans definitely have the advantage. (Especially the scenes in the fire caves!)
In the end, "DS9" returns to the themes of its beginnings and sends two of its heroes on further quests beyond the scope of the show. Others fly home to sanguine destinies, and evil gets its comeuppance.
Meanwhile, "Crusade," a modest series from the makers of "Babylon 5," also offers some deep-space homilies worth watching, if viewers can just get through the first predictable episode. Humor and intelligence are at work later, along with a bright running commentary about life on Earth as we live it today.
The premise is a bit thin, just an excuse to set the heroes off on a journey across the galaxy. Evil aliens have spread a plague on Earth. It's rather like a slow poison, but will not affect the inhabitants for five years. So the heroes have five years in which to find the antidote.
"Any propulsion of ourselves into space has to be a crusade," says Peter Woodward, a British actor who plays "Galen." "The only real reason to go into space is that we must.... It's like the early settlers going West. They had to go."
Mr. Woodward is the most riveting presence in the series. His piercing blue eyes, shaved head, and precise speech make him unforgettable. But he has another side, a wry, dry wit that injects his character with life.
The classically trained actor enjoys tweaking the role just a bit.
"When I read the script, I thought 'Merlin' immediately," Woodward says. "He doesn't like to reveal too much about himself. What was interesting to me about Galen is that he reminded me of several Shakespearean characters. He likes to use language beautifully. You hardly ever get that on TV."
Woodward wanted to bring presence and weight to the role, to lend Galen mystery and mythic importance. He uses theatrical tricks, vocal gymnastics, carriage, and so on to create a mysterious figure.
"Galen is a theatrical creation," Woodward says, "and he's a bit of a poser. He does foresee the future, but he doesn't know what to do about it."
How would Woodward describe the ongoing appeal of sci-fi shows like this one?
"When you watch science fiction, it challenges your imagination," he says. "We know that [future] generations will be going into space. What we don't know is what we are going to find.... 'Crusade' isn't alien of the week.... These are human beings with human qualities [onto] which our imaginations have been projected."
*The TV movie on which the 'Crusade' series is based, called 'A Call to Arms,' airs on TNT June 9 at 8 p.m.