I still find it hard to believe that I’ve been a Deep Space Nine fan for almost twenty years. And like anyone else on an anniversary of note, I want to take a look back and find my favorite moments. It’s pretty easy to pick the best episodes of DS9. Most fan lists I’ve seen contain all the classic standbys: “Duet,” “The Visitor,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “The Siege of AR-558,” and “In the Pale Moonlight.” Those are my favorites too.
But DS9’s strength was the depth of its characterization, the depth of the story itself. Some early critics mocked the show’s premise for “boldly staying” rather than “boldly going.” How could it be Star Trek when you weren’t seeking out new worlds each week? But the stationary nature of the show gave it the opportunity to find its own voice by developing an impressive roster of recurring guest characters, and allowing the actions from one episode have consequences in later stories.
None of this is news to any true DS9 fan. But when many lists of favorite episodes are so similar, that minimizes the impact of all the other episodes. Sure, there were plenty of notable stinkers (which shall go nameless here, we all know the ones). But there were lots of episodes that added to the richness of the story, which weren’t quite as memorable, but were nonetheless great stories.
These are my favorites, ones that never show up on the list of DS9’s best episodes.
“Nobody ever had to teach me the justice trick. That’s something I’ve always known. A racial memory from my species, I guess. It’s really the only clue I have to what kind of people they are. [...] There’s no room in justice for loyalty or friendship or love. Justice, as the Humans like to say, is blind. I used to believe that. I’m not sure I can anymore.”
The universe of Star Trek was always a neat and tidy one. The main characters were good, honest people who were always upstanding examples of the morality of the future. And while it’s nice to look forward to a better future, it’s hard to relate to that future, today. In times of conflict, there are always compromises to be made, values to be sacrificed. This certainly became a recurring theme in DS9, but this was one of the first episodes where we actually witnessed the dark side of the Star Trek universe.
We’d heard plenty of talk about how horrible the Occupation of Bajor was. Now, we see Terok Nor in all its glory, in the heyday of Cardassian rule. The dark, smoky lighting, the sinister guards, the foreboding ghetto fences. Odo and Kira, both strong, confident people, appearing furtive and fearful. And above all, Dukat, just oozing with more superiority than we’ve ever seen from him before.
The plot itself is a straightforward murder mystery, with all the trappings of the classic film noir genre. It’s all just a way to come to some very uncomfortable realizations about some of the main characters we’ve come to know over the past two years, and now we realize we don’t know them nearly as well as we thought.
And of course, there’s the final scene... and almost a lack of resolution. The plot is resolved, the mystery is revealed. But can Odo and Kira trust each other again?
“Of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren’t?” “My dear Doctor, they’re all true.” “Even the lies?” “Especially the lies.”
— Julian Bashir and Elim Garak
“Plain, Simple Garak” is easily anyone’s favorite recurring character of the series. Any time he showed up, you knew you were in for an exciting and entertaining mystery of some sort. “The Wire” wasn’t Garak’s first appearance, but it was the one that established his character the most. I remember when I first watched this show, feeling so frustrated that we didn’t actually learn much new. But Garak was right... all the clues were there, we just weren’t looking for them.
Each of Garak’s stories about his past was plausible in its own right, but by the time you got to the third iteration, you knew this one probably wasn’t genuine either. Though each story was obviously not the literal truth, and even the consistent elements between the stories weren’t true (for instance, were there really any escaped prisoners?), there was nonetheless a consistent theme. Duty, camaraderie, betrayal, and loss. You learned a lot about Garak without knowing any of the details. And of course, there’s the moment when we realize that all the time Garak was talking about his “best friend” Elim, he was really talking about himself.
Then there’s Bashir. He was already a casual friend of Garak, and he had to have known all along that Garak’s past wasn’t all that clean. After all, from his very first meeting, Bashir called him “the spy.” It may have been his job to heal Garak, but it was clear that he was genuinely caring for him, too. Even when some of Garak’s callous, cruel self started to show through. And he didn’t care what exactly Garak had done.
This was the episode that turned Garak from an intriguing peripheral character into a truly interesting person.
“When the river wakes, stirred once more to Janir’s side, three vipers will return to their nest in the sky. When the vipers try to peer through the temple gates, a sword of stars will appear in the heavens. The temple will burn, and its gates shall be cast open.”
— Trakor’s Third Prophecy
This story didn’t have a whole lot of action, and many people weren’t (and still aren’t) comfortable with the idea of religion having such a strong positive role in a science fiction series. Are they really Prophets, or just wormhole aliens? And yet, “Destiny” manages to deftly tell its story without coming down too obviously on either side of the debate.
It seems to me that, after the pilot episode, the writers weren’t quite sure how to reconcile the idea of a Starfleet officer being a religious icon—and as a character, neither was Sisko. It was easy to identify with his discomfort, desperately searching for any way to avoid being pegged for this role he’d never really asked for. But at the same time, Kira’s quiet devotion and warm sense of belief is incredibly convincing. She’s willing to think of Sisko as the Emissary, even when he isn’t. And by the end, as more coincidences mount to the point where they can hardly be called coincidences anymore, you realize that there just may be something to this Emissary prophecy after all. And this epiphany sets the tone for virtually the rest of the series.
The visiting Cardassians were charming, too (well, two of them were, anyway). It’s easy to pigeonhole a hostile, reptilian race as a group of “vipers,” and even though we’ve seen some respectable Cardassians in the past, we’ve never really seen any quite so friendly. The situational humor between Gilora and O’Brien was a little forced, but it nevertheless created a genuine moment of understanding and appreciation.
(There’s just one plot hole: if the comet fragments are the “vipers,” in what way is the wormhole their “nest” that they’re returning to?)
“What you were trying to do was make yourself feel important. Making me feel dumb made you feel smart. But I’m not dumb, and you’re not half as smart as you think you are!”
This episode takes the usually-comical Ferengi and tells an outright serious tale about the consequences of unrestrained capitalism. Star Trek has always been keen on the social allegories, but they’re all the more powerful when they’re subtle, when the characterization takes priority and the message can be drawn from the characters’ actions, rather than having the message dictate their actions.
I remember reading a lot of complaining about the frequent “Ferengi episodes” on DS9. For some reason, a lot of the Ferengi characters seemed to rub fans the wrong way. But not me. I appreciated the humorous situations, the matter-of-fact way they adopted selfish values. But over the years, the character who made the Ferengi relatable was Quark, primarily because he wasn’t an average Ferengi, as much as he tried to be one. He became a bridge between the “pure” and totally greedy Ferengi and us average Humans.
But how could I get this far into the comments without mentioning Rom? Max Grodénchik has always been an excellent Ferengi actor, but here, he sheds his bumbling, imbecilic persona and steps up to the challenge of defending himself. No more the subservient, “Yes, Brother!” type, Rom gets a chance to have his own stories, not just play second fiddle to Quark’s schemes. Brunt proves himself to be an outright villain, rather than just an aggressive
auditor . And Leeta... well, it’s the beginning of perhaps the most unlikely romantic relationship seen in all of Star Trek.
“Trevean was right... there is no cure... the Dominion made sure of that. But I was so arrogant, I thought I could find one in a week...” “Maybe it was arrogant to think that. But it’s even more arrogant to think there isn’t a cure just because you couldn’t find it.”
— Julian Bashir and Jadzia Dax
It may sound repetitive, but I love how DS9 took the time to avoid having clean, tidy endings. If this were an episode of TOS or TNG, they would’ve come up with a full cure by the end of the episode, patted each other on the back, and then flown off to the next mission, just like Bashir expected.
This story is all about hope. What do people do when they have none? How can you give hope to others? Is just a tiny shred of a change enough to count as a victory, among so much pain and suffering? Bashir reacts so negatively to Trevean’s methods, but he sees the suffering everyone goes through from the moment he arrived. Was he shocked at the actual practice of euthanasia... or was he shocked at how willingly everyone seemed to embrace it?
If there’s no hope or possibility of relief, the end of suffering is the most sensible, the most Human thing to do. But who determines when a situation is hopeless? Whose right is it to decide, “no more”? Bashir can’t bring that answer. But he can provide just enough hope to maybe, someday, revive a lost civilization.
“The battle of Ajilon Prime will probably be remembered as a pointless skirmish, but I’ll always remember it as something more — as the place I learned that the line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe.”
— Jake Sisko
If you think about it, Jake Sisko was just as much an outsider on DS9 as older, more traditional outsiders like Odo or Quark. He was an adolescent boy, trying to develop his own identity and not just blindly follow in his father’s footsteps. This is something that happens to pretty much every child growing up, but it’s no less poignant. If I’m remembering correctly, this is one of the first episodes where Jake is completely away from his father’s guidance and protection (until the last two scenes, when the fighting is over anyway).
The plot may be a bit derivative of classic war stories (especially All Quiet on the Western Front), but heroism is something that is completely taken for granted in the Star Trek universe. In past series, every Starfleet officer was perfectly courageous, and knew just what to do in every situation. But not here.
This episode got overshadowed by the even grittier (and more visually impressive) “The Siege of AR-558,” but I think the message in this episode is more accessible, because we see how someone who has absolutely no combat experience could react when suddenly thrust into the worst imaginable crisis. That Jake is a writer, and able to articulate his feelings in the conclusion—to those who are among the most heroic of the cast—becomes a courageous act in its own right.
“The entire future of the galaxy may depend on our tracking down Willie Mays... and stopping him.”
— Jake Sisko
The entire premise of the “A” plot is ludicrous in the extreme. Which makes it all the more crazy that DS9 could not only pull it off, but also pair it with an entirely serious “B” plot, and still have the stories complement each other so neatly.
The story of Jake trying to procure a baseball card as a gift for his father has just the right hook to get you interested. And though DS9 is usually a very serious show, “In the Cards” manages to walk the line between comedy and absurdity. The scene where Doctor Giger starts explaining his work seems completely normal, if a little obsessive... but then he starts talking about your cells being “bored to death,” and you know this thing has gone completely off the rails (in a good way).
The plot with Weyoun and Kai Winn seems completely unrelated, and much more ominous, and yet in a totally unexpected but completely reasonable twist, the two stories collide in the final act. It may not be the most exciting conclusion, for Weyoun to simply realize that everything is as innocuous as it seems and then let everyone go, but by the time you get the triumphant presenting of the gift, the whole thing is completely worthwhile.
“I only hope you won’t condemn us all for the boorish behavior of one man.”
— Gul Dukat
I completely hated the direction the writers took Dukat in the final season. He was already a perfectly credible adversary, there was no need to set him up as this crazy-devoted “anti-Emissary” to boot. They turned him from a despicable but realistic antagonist into a cheesy comic book villain. Dukat’s best scenes were when he was totally in control: during the occupation of the station at the beginning of season 6, in flashbacks to the occupation of Bajor, and other scenes where he knew he had the upper hand.
And if you didn’t think Dukat was evil before this, just consider: Cardassians have photographic memories and keep meticulous records. If Dukat had a relationship with Kira Meru, he must have known all along who Nerys was. Starting from their first meeting in “Necessary Evil” through the now-even-more-despicable sexual advances in “A Time to Stand”, it’s inconceivable that Dukat didn’t know that Nerys was the daughter of his mistress from the first day he met her. So just keep that in mind the next time you watch any scene with Kira and Dukat.
The true conflict of this story, though, is between Nerys and Meru. Nerys has absolutely despised anyone who worked with the Occupation, it’s one of her most consistent character traits. We’ve seen some hints of just how brutal the Occupation was, but she lived through it, so even though I could always sympathize with her hatred, I never quite could understand it. Because Nerys tried to kill her own mother. It’s easy to read in history books how a conflict could tear a family apart, how there can be no easy answers to some problems.
Kira Meru saved her daughter’s life. It’s entirely probable that Nerys wouldn’t have survived long enough to join the Resistance otherwise. Was Nerys’s disgust actually because she realized that her mother was (what she thought of as) a collaborator? Or her realization that maybe she was a direct beneficiary of said collaboration? Either way, knowing what we know of Dukat, it’s clear that Meru was just as much a victim as she was a collaborator. I think that, for all her revulsion, Nerys knew that too.
“They tolerate you, Odo, because you emulate them. What higher flattery is there? ‘I, who can be anything, choose to be like you.’ But even when you make yourself in their image, they know you are not truly one of them. They know that what you appear to be does not reflect what you really are. It’s only a mask. What lies underneath is alien to them. So they fear it... and their fear can turn to hate in the blink of an eye.”
Sometimes I think there’s an inherent paradox in what Star Trek tries to teach us. We try to explore the unknown, to discover that which is alien to us. But we’re still limited by our own preconceptions. (And limited by television budgets, too.) In 1966, we thought that Spock was alien because he had pointed ears and tapered eyebrows. But Laas has a point: most “aliens” are bipeds just like us. In that way, the Changelings are among the few truly alien beings we’ve seen.
We like to pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, but we still fear the unknown. Perhaps Quark was right, and it’s just a genetic reaction to be overcome. Some societies are more willing to accept differences than others. Other societies pretend to accept differences, as long as we’re not confronted with those differences too obviously. And some people reject any differences at all.
Odo was sent out to learn about the galaxy by a people who had retreated from all possible contact with the outside universe. The implication is that the Founders expected to gather intelligence about other races. But they got something far different: love. Kira’s love for Odo, despite (or because of) their seemingly irreconcilable differences. And Odo’s love for Kira, the willingness to work harder to maintain a relationship on a level that wasn’t completely reciprocal. In the end, I believe it was this love that helped convince the Founders to end the war.
On the surface, Deep Space Nine is a very different kind of show from its predecessors. The trappings of war and conflict distract us from the exploration that’s going on right before our eyes. Gene Roddenberry had a vision of the future that involved the elimination of hardship and hatred. But he forgot to account for the infinity of the universe: there are always new boundaries to be explored. Conflict is in some ways a natural consequence of the crossing of those boundaries, of needing to reconcile what we already know with what we’ve learned.
Some fans reject the moral uncertainty of DS9. But I don’t think DS9 could possibly have explored the moral uncertainty that it did without the optimistic background of a better future presented by Kirk and Picard. There are always compromises to be made, we just have to have the willingness to recognize them, and to confront them. And so, Deep Space Nine was still exploring “strange, new worlds”—just in a different way.