When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted back in 2013, it came with it enormous expectations. The Avengers movie was big, bigger than most people had anticipated. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was hitting its first crest, and one of the next major projects to carry on the banner of the Avengers was a televisions series featuring a beloved side character from Phase One of the films.
Of course, the show faltered under the weight of expectation. Legions of fans, and a myriad of producers, were all pressuring the show to live up to hype of its forebears. This resulted in a spotty first season, with hit and miss episodes from a show not yet able to find its own identity, too weighed down by the universe it was trying to prop up to even really try.
25 years ago, the Star Trek franchise was hitting its peak. The Original Series was riding high across a couple decades of growing popularity, while its spinoff, The Next Generation, was a bona fide mainstream hit with stellar ratings and widespread acclaim unheard of even by its predecessor. So, Paramount voted to continue the franchise beyond the ranks of its first two series. The first one out of the gate? Deep Space Nine.
Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., DS9 bore the weight and expectations of a franchise that carried with it enormous success and popularity, even picking up elements and characters to carry into its first year. Though it didn't buckle as much under the weight, it also diminished significantly after its early outings, while its first year bore its own share of creative missteps. The show's ratings — which were TNG levels for its premiere — gradually dipped as more and more fans turned away with disinterest.
But something interesting happened to DS9 in its following years. It's very fair to say it's similar to what's been occurring with #AgentsofSHIELD over its last couple of seasons. DS9 faded from mainstream awareness, never reaching the heights and popularity of its predecessors. What's more, it became somewhat overshadowed by its immediate successor with its sister series Voyager and the launch of an entire new network on the UPN occupying the attention of Paramount. DS9 continued to exist, but no longer under the belief that it would live up to the heights of TNG.
The producers and writers of DS9 took advantage of this. For one thing, it boasted a different premise that allowed for more specifically tailored story elements. While TNG was about filling in the edges of the map, charting the unknown for a new adventure every week, DS9 stayed in one place. The result was that — more so than TNG and TOS (and very much working off the foundations laid by those two series) — DS9 stabilized the #StarTrek universe greater than it ever had been in the past. The Alpha Quadrant became more clearly defined, with specific boundaries guided by specific elements, like the limitations of Warp travel, and the different factions controlling the known universe.
From there, DS9 started to play. It started to make the world of Star Trek very much its own.
Over the seasons, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has slowly taken more and more advantage of its unique location within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's more ongoing than the films, and works on a grander scale than any of the Netflix series. Meaning that much like what DS9 did for Star Trek, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has stabilized the world of the MCU. It's made the universe a more defined place, with boundaries, rules and clear-cut factions. It's part and parcel of serving as the franchise's centrifuge: everything else spins around this center, which makes all the disparate elements feel more connected than anything else has (or can).
Like DS9 before it, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has started to play, claiming its own piece of Marvel Identity. That's where things really start to get complicated.
Star Trek boasted cross-series elements, of course. TOS actors made appearances on TNG; TNG officially launched DS9 with Picard and the Enterprise appearing in the pilot; DS9 then served the same, launching Voyager in turn. The Borg, the Romulans and Klingons — even individual characters and concepts were introduced by one series and then utilized by another. They even set up more specific factors, where the Maquis (a fringe terrorist group that breaks off from the Federation) is established on DS9, plays a hand in an episode of TNG, and then becomes part of Voyager's foundations.
But there are limits to these kind of continuity elements, and no show demonstrated that better than DS9. Overlooked by the studio and overshadowed by its predecessors, DS9 took advantage of its unique situation to begin exploring ideas like serialization and more intense character conflict. More importantly, it introduced The Dominion — an implacable, empire-like structure of unified aliens from another quadrant of the galaxy that serves as a dark mirror to the Federation and its goals. After multiple seasons building up, the last couple years of the show had the Federation and the Dominion at war. It was the first time that Star Trek (who had hinted at and toyed with the idea in the past) fully committed to that concept.
This put Voyager and TNG into a difficult position because it became more and more difficult for them to pass by without acknowledging what was happening on DS9. Something that — by virtue of series structure — never really happened in reverse. As Voyager succeeded more and more in making contact with the Alpha Quadrant (the home it was striving for, tens of thousands of light years away) then discussion with Federation contacts necessitated acknowledging the ongoing war, while Star Trek: Insurrection (the third TNG film) had to justify the flagship of the Federation off on its own merits and not at the center of such a significant conflict.
We can't really blame the producers of Star Trek here. The Dominion's primary elements were tailored specifically to DS9, and it's fair to say that TNG and Voyager shouldn't have to structure themselves around something based so particularly upon another series. But beyond that, it also started to show the limitations of the shared-universe concept. While DS9 gets a lot of due praise for the Dominion War material, it's also understandable the degree to which producers of other Star Trek properties may have also somewhat resented having to maneuver around that material as it breached the edges of its originating series. After all, Voyager and TNG both remained largely self-contained to the degree that there almost never would've demanded the same kind of acknowledgment from DS9 in turn.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still often best remembered for the first season's HYDRA twist, where reveals from Captain America: The Winter Soldier inevitably spilled over into the TV series, and the show itself took full advantage. But growing past that is even more to the show's credit: From the second season onward, it's explored the Inhumans, the Watch Dogs, Ghost Rider and now LMDs — concepts that no other Marvel property has yet touched. It's no longer just a reactionary to the films: Now it's doing its own worldbuilding to affect the MCU in turn. And the concepts it is introducing have potential to play out across multiple corners of the shared universe.
However, like the producers of Star Trek before them, the higher-ups at the #MCU seem hesitant to do anything with this. For whatever reason, there's been no acknowledgement from any of the other properties — TV series or films — about the worldbuilding that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has laid down. The Netflix series co-exist because they were able to plan for it going in, and it's roughly similar for the films, allowing references and cameos to be made freely with each new entry.
One problem hindering Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it's unprecedented. These kind of goals likely weren't specifically planned for — not least of which because it exists entirely within its own sphere, neither a Netflix TV series, or a film. Beyond that, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has become (like DS9 was to Trek) the underdog — the overlooked one that flailed under the weight of expectations. Yet, it soldiered on unabated and, while almost no one was looking, flourished into one of the best parts in its entire universe.
What it ultimately goes to show is that there are limitations to the shared universe idea, because it's nearly impossible to plan for and coordinate everything. In order for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to flourish, it probably needed to move into this space anyway, free from the needs and demands of each new film or Netflix series. Kevin Feige and co. probably couldn't have fully anticipated what this might mean for the larger universe as a result.
Marvel can't entirely be faulted for this. They're in uncharted territory here, and trying anything so radically new inevitably means getting things wrong as much as right. It's disappointing that the MCU will probably never quite coordinate the TV-film intersection that first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to promise; even more so that they haven't mapped out how to make the show's world-building matter elsewhere in the universe. But it's also rather understandable why the difficulties of the process might take these ideas off the table.
And for whatever else, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can take comfort in DS9's legacy. While it was never a mainstream hit — and while most outside the fandom are unfamiliar with it — it's also incredibly beloved, with a thriving reputation that's only grown over the last 20 years. It is the true definition of a cult TV series: a smaller number of fans, but fiercely devoted and always ready to sing its praise.
The same will likely occur for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For the average moviegoer and TV watcher, it will be a footnote to the MCU. For those that actually watched it over the course of its run, it will be fondly remembered as one of the very best parts of that entire universe.
Are you a fan of either of these shows? What do you love most about them?