As Star Trek celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, we here at cultofwhatever are looking back at the shows and films at the heart of the beloved science fiction franchise. Previously, we looked at the Original Series and noticed how, when it was on its game, it embraced the best of the 60’s social revolution. On the other hand, there were times with the first Star Trek show was just like every other hokey sci-fi show on the air in those days. After fifteen years off the air, Gene Roddenberry brought the series back in a whole new way, with a new cast, a new ship, a new time and a whole new approach to the medium. It took a couple years to find its footing, but once it did, The Next Generation elevated science fiction to high art.
Gene had been in poor health almost from the inception of The Next Generation. His role as executive producer became more and more hands off from the premiere of the show until his death in 1991. By the time he died, he had watched as his “Wagon Train to the Stars” idea had blossomed into the crown jewel of science fiction television. His TNG show had, by 1991, become one of the most-watched shows on TV, with countless Emmy awards, TV guide awards and Hugo awards. When he died he left this world knowing that his baby had reached its zenith.
But there were already plans for the future. Even while Roddenberry was still living, early ideas were being tossed around for a sequel series once The Next Generation went off the air. After Gene died, the new steward of Star Trek, Rick Berman (who had been Roddenberry’s right hand man since 1987) continued those plans and set a 1993 premiere date for the new series.
Because the new show would air while TNG was still producing new episodes, Berman and company wanted a different kind of Star Trek show to set it apart from the space-adventuring of its Next Generation counterpart. Instead of a ship seeking out new life and new civilizations, this show would be set on a space station where the action would come to them. The idea was to present it like a sci-fi western, with a lone settlement out in the middle of nowhere out in the western frontier. Travelers would pass through, and with them plot contrivances would give each episode their main storyline of the week. The biggest change that a stationary setting would provide, in stark contrast to The Next Generation, would be semi-regular characters. In the past, Star Trek was a very “episodic” show, with a brand new adventure every week, with a brand new guest star for the crew to mingle with. This new Star Trek show—now called “Deep Space Nine”—would allow for traveling aliens to make the station a frequent rest stop, passing through occasionally, usually to stir up new trouble and to show how they had developed and changed over the years. This new “serialized” format was a departure, not only for Star Trek, but for fantasy television in general. From its very conception, DS9 was doing things differently.
Like with The Next Generation, DS9 took a couple years to find its footing. Those early years were spear-headed by TNG mastermind Michael Piller, but looking back it’s clear that Piller’s skill at running the TNG writers room wasn’t translating to this new kind of Star Trek show. Early episodes were slow, too philosophical and lacked the energy that TNG had at its peak from seasons three to five. After Piller left to start Star Trek Voyager, Ira Steven Behr was given the baton and at that point the show found it’s groove.
It didn’t hurt—and it’s not coincidental—that DS9’s turnaround coincided with Rick Berman’s focus turning to Star Trek Voyager. The show that would run alongside DS9 for its final five years was the flagship of the new UPN network (a TV station owned and operated by Star Trek parent company Paramount). Production and studio focus was on making sure Voyager “worked.” That meant that DS9 and its writing team (including TNG alums René Echevarria and Ronald D. Moore) would have a little more freedom to experiment without having to worry about Berman reining them in for “drifting too far away from what made Star Trek, Star Trek” (a hesitancy to break the mold that would eventually cripple Voyager and crush Enterprise).
As a result of creative freedom, from it’s third season to its finale, DS9 became a show that embraced its characters and explored their place in an expanding and turbulent corner of the galaxy. Countless episodes could be mentioned that highlighted what made Deep Space Nine such a brilliant piece of science fiction but if I have to limit it to three, these are the three that I would say best exemplified DS9’s standing among many fans as “the best Star Trek there ever was.”
IMPROBABLE CAUSE / THE DIE IS CAST
Front and center in these episodes is one of the show’s most fascinating characters: Garak, the simple tailor…who going in to this episode was only suspected to have been a spy and an assassin. After this two-parter was finished, all rumors were confirmed and the man we know as Garak changed forever. The first episode begins with a modest lunch between Dr. Bashir and Garak. It highlights one of the great strengths of the show: With so many characters, there were so many pairings to enjoy. Bashir and Kira, Bashir and Dax, Bashir and O’Brien and here Bashir and Garak (and that just covers Bashir; every main character on the show had multiple counterparts that spawned great plotlines). After lunch the episode begins properly with Garak’s tailor shop exploding. What happens next is a classic mystery episode as Odo begins to investigate who would want to kill Garak (and why). The mystery leads him to the head of the Cardassian Obsidian Order (sort of the CIA of their whole empire) Enabran Tain. It is revealed that the Cardassians and the Romulans (or at least their respective spy agencies, the Obsidian Order and the Tal’Shiar) had joined forces with a plan to sneak into the Gamma Quadrant and destroy the Founders home planet. Due to his loyalty to Tain (having worked for him as a spy), Garak turns traitor against Odo and joins his former mentor on his quest to destroy the Founders.
The second part lacks a lot of the oomph that part one enjoyed as the mystery and the revelations are what made Improbable Cause such a delight, but the second part—in classic DS9 fashion—does not go for the neat and tidy ending. Of course the Romulan/Cardassian forces fail in their mission, but it’s what happens on their way to the Founders planet that makes this two-parter so great. Garak is tasked with interrogating Odo in order to find our what the changeling knows about his people that might be of some use to the mission. What follows is a tense series of scenes with Garak clearly upset to see the man he brought into this mess suffering at the hands of his interrogation techniques (essentially torture). We learned a lot about who Garak had been in the first part, and we learn a lot about who Garak is now in the second part. In the end it is revealed that the Romulan working with Tain on the mission was actually a Founder in disguise; the entire mission was a ploy to wipe out two of the four major forces of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants (leaving only the Klingons and the Federation to deal with…and of course the Founders had a plan for those two as well).
This two-parter was tucked away toward the end of the third season. It wasn’t a season finale, it didn’t air during “sweeps month.” It was just the next two episodes on the docket for the season but the quality of writing, acting and direction was so stellar across the board it showed how far the show had come from its rocky opening seasons, and what great things the show had in store for fans over the next four years.
Nominated for a Hugo Award (science fiction’s highest honor), The Visitor was originally written to be a minor and quiet episode in the aftermath of the huge season four opener, The Way of the Warrior (which kicked off the Federation/Klingon War and brought Worf onto the show). Everyone knew they had a good episode on their hands but they were stunned at how positive the reception was. The plot is classic science fiction: An accident seems to kill Captain Sisko right in front of his son Jake. Weeks later, Jake was lying in bed and saw a flash of light. When he looked, he saw his father sitting in a nearby chair. A moment later, he disappeared. Jake tried to explain what had happened to a skeptical Dax, but after scanning the room, she found nothing. Eventually, Jake dismissed it as a dream. Later Jake saw his dad again, and this time he was able to touch him. Taking him to the infirmary he discovered that Sisko had not died, but instead was caught in temporal anomaly, with his body floating in and out of time and subspace. Years past, Jake grew into a man, moved back to earth, married and became a writer. Then, his dad returned….only to disappear soon after. Now obsessed with getting his father back Jake turned to studying the science of what happened.
That just sets up the basic premise of the episode. There is a lot that happens, such as some tension with the Klingons in the early part of the story, but the real heart of the plot is Jake Sisko. We watch this character grow in an adult, and eventually into an old man. We see his obsession with getting his father back cost him everything around him, and even though we know everything will work out in the end (there are many more episodes left in the show, after all), once again DS9 does not go for the easy solution: Jake makes a big sacrifice in order to return his father to normal time.
TV Guide ran a poll that with this episode winning fans favorite Star Trek episode, a vote which shocked the magazine considering how many classic episodes have aired in all of Star Trek and the fact that DS9 was always thought of as the red-headed stepchild of the franchise. According to many staff and actors, it was the best episode they ever worked on. This was DS9’s version of TNG’s Hugo-winning “The Inner Light.”
HOMEFRONT /PARADISE LOST
This two-part episode was well-received when it first aired. It offered a nice change of pace for the series, taking things to Earth. It explored the growing menace of the Changelings. It offered some fun space battles. It was good. It’s not the best thing Star Trek has ever done, or even the best that DS9 has to offer. So why include it here? Because hindsight has made this a remarkable two hours of television. These two episodes were released in January of 1996. Essentially it was “peacetime” in the United States. Twenty years later and our military is involved in multiple theaters, having spent the better part of the last decade in heavy wars with Iraq and Afghanistan. The impetus for those wars was the fear that terrorists could be among us, looking like ordinary citizens until the time comes for them to strike. We were grossly unprepared for what happened on September 11th and the aftermath led to many rash and freedom-curtailing decisions, the effects of which the United States is still dealing with.
At the time this was just a well-made two-part episode. But looking back it is amazingly prescient. The paranoia on earth about the growing Dominion threat, especially with regards to the shapeshifter Founders, is palpable. This is not the utopian Earth that Gene Roddenberry envisioned when he conceived of our 24th century future. In fact, Sisko makes that very point when he says that San Fransisco/Earth is paradise, but DS9 and the vastness of space “out there” is not paradise. It’s easy to sit on earth and talk about utopia, but space is not a utopia: It’s filled with some evil alien races who don’t necessarily want to play nice with the Federation. And that fact is just starting to reach people on Earth…and it’s scaring them. So much so that by the end of the first episode, ambitious and paranoid admiral Leyton declares martial law on Earth.
The second episode deals with the fall out of the powerplay attempted by Leyton as Sisko begins to discover that the Founders aren’t the only threat facing the Federation. Leyton and his desire to use the changeling terror to acquire power are the real pressing threat at the moment. In fact, Odo comes face to face with a changeling who confesses that only a handful of them had ever even bothered to enter the Alpha Quadrant. The Federation and all it stood for was almost torn apart by just a few well-timed terror attacks and some good old fashioned fear mongering.
Showrunner Ira Steven Behr commented a lot about his disappointment in the two-parter. Originally it was going to be the third season finale and fourth season opener. But Berman and Paramount ordered a stand alone third season finale and something big to shake up the show in the fourth season (which ended up being the Klingon War). As a result, by the time they got around to making these episodes, they didn’t have the money or the time to devote to them to get them right. Still, looking back on them through post-9|11 glasses shows how great Star Trek can be when it touches on the world around us (even if, in this case, it didn’t even mean to).
Again, there are so many episodes that deserve to be mentioned: Shows that highlight Gul Dukat (the finest villain in Trek history and one of the most layered and well-written recurring characters in all of television) were overlooked, the great mirror-universe episodes, the wonderful, annual “torture O’Brien” shows, the lighter shows that explore the relationship between Jake and Nog, or Quark and Rom, and there are some true masterpieces that have to be seen, such as “Nor the Battle to the Strong” and “Far Beyond the Stars.” The entire final ten episodes of the show is one-big, multi-faceted arc that brings the entire series and all its rich history to an action-packed, and sometimes highly poignant, close. Like TNG’s two-part finale, DS9’s final ten are must-see TV.
The Next Generation may have been the perfected template of what people think of when they think “Star Trek,” but Deep Space Nine was willing to take that template and expand it. It changed what it meant to be Star Trek, and fans look back on it now as the real creative peak of the whole franchise. If you’ve never experienced it before, do your self a favor and watch every episode.