“It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you with weapons or with ideas, but to coexist and learn.”
-Benjamin Sisko (“Emissary”)
Hey nerds! I’ve got a question for you: did you watch DS9 when it first aired?
I didn’t either. Well, I’m here to tell you that we’re all crazy and if you haven’t seen this one, then you’re really missing out.
I came to it much later than TNG because Young Me didn’t quite get it at first, but as I marathoned it as an adult, I quickly understood why this one is called the best Trek series nobody noticed.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992-1999)
The Ship: The action is mostly confined to starbase Deep Space Nine (neé Terok Nor). Throughout the series, they go through a series of Danube class runabouts (all named after Earth rivers) which are like shuttles during bulking season. Now, in season three, they do get the “tough little” Defiant, a cute-but-deadly ship with Starfleet’s first (official) cloaking device.
The Captain: Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), a tough-as-nails leader with a penchant for baseball and Creole cooking. He’s posted to DS9 with his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton), and it takes both of them a while to get settled. Sisko also wrestles with being named the Bajoran Emissary. As the series progresses, he learns what benefits and sacrifices come with the title. It’s a magnificent, crazy, tragic character arc.
The Premise: When the Cardassians pull out of Bajor after brutally occupying it for 50 years, the Federation establishes a presence on an old Cardassian station to help the Bajorans rebuild and, hopefully, facilitate their joining the Federation. Commander Sisko is reluctant at first, but when he discovers a stable wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant nearby and encounters a race of non-corporeal, non-linear entities (the Bajoran’s Prophets), he is heralded as the Emissary, a title he will grow to understand and accept over the course of the next seven years.
At the end of their second year, they encounter a brutal coalition of worlds called The Dominion (a sort of anti-Federation) led by a race of shapeshifters (much to the joy and chagrin of Sisko’s shapeshifter security officer, Odo, played by Rene Auberjonois). After years of cold war, things go boom and the Federation finds itself on the losing side more often than not. They must find a way to end the war without compromising their principles, which is sometimes easier said than done.
The Best Episodes: It would be easier to give you the list of five or so episodes that I don’t care much for since the whole show is incredible, but I’ll do my best. There are three categories of “best episodes.”
I adore “Duet” from the first season where a Cardassian who may or may not be a brutal dictator, is picked up. This episode really helps to establish Major Kira’s character as she goes from calling for the man’s execution to realizing who he really is and reevaluating her whole worldview.
“Paradise” is one of those that’s very uncomfortable to watch, but really well written. Sisko and O’Brien (Colm Meaney) crash onto a planet and face off against a political radical named Alixus who has created a “perfect” community. Everything seems lovely until Sisko and O’Brien are tortured and manipulated into conforming with Alixus’ extreme ideals when they begin questioning things. What I like about the episode is that, even though the villain is a contemptible woman, the other people in this community are decent people and the community does seem like a pretty nice place (most of the time). It explores some nice grey areas in terms of social contracts and social philosophy.
“Far Beyond the Stars” is a pitch perfect love letter to the sci fi writers of the 1940’s and a cutting denouncement of the deeply embedded racism of the day. Sisko is given a vision by the Prophets in which he’s a writer in the 40’s who has an idea for a story featuring a black man in command of a space station in the future, but his boss refuses to publish it unless he changes it. The episode features the full cast out of makeup, all playing period characters.
“In the Pale Moonlight” is one of DS9’s darkest episodes. With the Federation falling to the Dominion, they are desperate for allies and so Sisko tries to convince the Romulans to join them. When they refuse, he concocts a plan to trick them into joining the war, enlisting the aid of former Cardassian spy Elim Garak. But when the lie begins to fall apart, he has to completely compromise his principles to succeed. Garak actor Andrew Robinson described the episode’s moral saying, “You can’t go to bed with the devil and not have sex.” It has one of the most devastating final scenes, as well.
“Trials and Tribble-ations” was the anniversary episode where the Defiant crew ends up traveling back in time to the events of the TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Clever cgi work integrates the new characters into the original scenes, and much fun is had by all. If you dislike this episode, you’re dead inside.
“Badda-Bing Badda-Bang” is one of my all time favorite episodes. In it, the whole crew has to pull off an Ocean’s Eleven style heist in a holosuite recreation of a Vegas casino in the 60’s, where sentient hologram Vic Fontaine (James Darren) lives. It was the last big hurrah before the 10-part series finale, and serves as an upbeat farewell to the cast.
High-Concept Sci-Fi Episodes
“Past Tense” is a great time travel two-parter in the vein of “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Sisko ends up having to take on the identity of a famous historical figure during a brutal riot in late 21st century Earth to usher in radical political reform. Great social and political commentary.
“Crossover” et al. The Mirror Universe was first visited in the TOS episode “Mirror Mirror,” and DS9 visits the Mirror Universe multiple times throughout its run and explores the fallout of Mirror Spock’s reforms and introduces some fantastic alternate versions of the characters. Most notable is the evil Intendant Kira, an unstable narcissist with a penchant for torture.
“Children of Time” is another that I really like. In it, The Defiant crew lands on a planet populated by the descendants of the Defiant crew when it was sent back in time and crashed. Sisko is faced with the option of erasing the entire population by preventing the crash, or recreating the crash and letting history play out again. The ending is brutally heartbreaking but also really important to two of the central characters.
Why It’s Awesome
The characters all have amazing arcs that are explored in ways no other Star Trek series has done. Some of them go in weird directions like Bashir suddenly being revealed to be genetically enhanced (with no prior set up) or his revelation in season five that he’s been replaced by a changeling (even though Alexander Siddig wasn’t told in advance that he was actually playing an imposter for several episodes). Other times, character arcs are set up way in advance and explored in wonderful detail. We see this in two of the series’ villains, Gul Dukat and Vedek (later Kai) Winn.
Gul Dukat is one of my favorite TV villains ever. He goes from ruthless dictator to charming politician to crazed cult leader to revenge-obsessed maniac. He’s equal parts likable and despicable and such a complex, wonderful character.
Kai Winn is the villain we love to hate. And it’s really a testament to how awesome Louise Fletcher’s magnificent acting is. She is sort of the Dolores Umbridge of the Star Trek universe. Her arc from holier-than-thou religious extremist to anti-religious anarchist in league with the Pah Wraiths (the polar opposites of the Prophets whose mission is to spread discord) is stunning.
I also love Garak. Passionately. It literally takes the entire series before we really feel like we understand the former-spy-turned-tailor-but-not-really-because-he’s-still-kind-of-a-spy. He’s probably the only fascist I’ve ever really loved.
Jake Sisko is another of my favorite characters. He’s fourteen when we first meet him, bursting with Federation optimism. He’s a good kid who just wants to do right by his dad. Then we see him grow up, decide to be a writer instead of joining Starfleet (I love you, dude!), naively fancy himself something of a seditionist during the Dominion occupation of the station, and then face his own earth-shattering terror and cowardice during a brutal Dominion attack in which he runs away from his responsibilities instead of staying to help. We watch him grow up, make huge mistakes, but then learn from them. We also get to see his friendship with Nog, Quark’s nephew, grow and evolve throughout the years. He’s so relatable and genuine, and I feel like if I was a Star Trek character, I’d definitely be Jake.
Basically, it’s the characters that make this show so amazing. I could gush about all of them. We’ve got Worf’s romance with Jadzia. We’ve got the epic Bashir/O’Brien bromance. We’ve got Ezri Dax, who struggles to figure out her identity in season seven. We’ve got Nog going from illiterate troublemaker to Starfleet officer (the episode where he has to cope with the loss of his leg is incredible). We’ve got Quark’s rebellious mother and the impact she has on all of Ferengi society. We’ve got Odo’s divided loyalty during the Dominion War. We’ve got disgruntled second-in-command Damar becoming a hero for the Cardassian people when their world is trying to escape from the Dominion. Special mention goes to actor Jeffery Combs, who gives us not one but two iconic characters, Ferengi bureaucrat Brunt and Dominion stooge Weyoun. It’s just all magnificent. All of it. I could gush forever. There are tons of amazing story arcs I’ve left out. Just watch it and fall in love.
I also like how this series deals with religion and spirituality. TNG had a lot of “Religion is bad and backward” speeches in it, but DS9 explores it head on. There are mystical elements (the conflict between the Prophets and the Pah Wraiths, the lost city, Sisko’s visions, the orbs, etc.) but there are also very real, relatable discussions (religious extremism, intolerance, religion in schools, the value of prayer, faith and science coexisting, interpretations of scripture and prophecy, etc.). It’s very fair and never attacks the Bajoran religion itself (which is a central theme of the show) but rather highlights the people who exemplify its positives (Kai Opaka, Kira, Vedek Bareil) and its negatives (Kai Winn, the arguing Vedek Assembly). Lots of really profound and meaningful discussions.
I’m so serious right now because of how much I adore this series. It’s just wonderful and only trips and stumbles a few times. People need to rediscover this one because I know a lot of Trekkies skipped it when it was first on. Shame on all of us!
Go watch it.
I’ll stop talking, now.
Next week, it’s Voyager!!