Of all the four children of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series (yes, we do have to count Enterprise), Deep Space Nine is my favourite. Sorry, I’ll get my coat.
But really, whilst The Original Series and The Next Generation were off exploring strange new worlds, DS9 was exploring something much more interesting: human nature. Yes, all of Star Trek has done this — hell, it’s what all good science fiction should do — DS9 did it in much greater depth.
I think that’s largely down to the setting. Being on a space station, they were stuck. Unlike the various ship-based series, the DS9 crew couldn’t float off at the end of each episode, to ruin someone else’s shit the next week. If they made a mess — which they often did — then they had to sit in it.
And that meant that the themes and the stories were bolder, braver. From the strains of religion running through the entire series, to the brutally devastating Dominion war storyline of the last two seasons — which bizarrely the studio only wanted to last six episodes.
So here’s the run down. My five favourite episodes of my favourite Star Trek series.
5) Homefront/Paradise Lost
(Season 4, Episodes 11 and 12)
Straight off with a two-parter. This is the beginning of a theme in DS9, of the rot at the heart of Starfleet and the Federation. It also makes early and effective use of the shapeshifting (if not imaginatively named) Changelings, raising the spectre of infiltration which looms over the series as whole. When Sisko is summoned to Earth to help investigate such a suspected infiltration of Starfleet Command, he becomes a pawn in an attempted coup by a military convinced that the Federation is unready for the threat it faces.
It’s quite mild by the standard of later episodes, but it goes somewhere that TNG never really would. Starfleet is the enemy. Not a threat having infiltrated Starfleet, but Starfleet itself. It goes a long way to humanising the whole franchise.
4) The Visitor
(Season 4, Episode 3)
I’m not usually a fan of sentimental. And really, this episode is somewhat cloying. It’s also beautiful though, and lovingly crafted. An elderly Jake Sisko recounts the “death” of his father decades previously, where Sisko sr. came unstuck in time. The son’s single-minded determination to save his father and put right the lives which went so wrong — even down to giving his dying breath.
3) The Maquis, Parts 1 and 2
(Season 2, Episodes 20 and 21)
I didn’t like the Maquis in TNG. I tolerated them in Voyager. But it was only really in DS9 that I actually sympathised with them. When an act of terrorism threatens to spark a war with the Cardassians, Sisko is teamed with another captain to hunt them down. Until the captain, Ben’s friend, defects.
There’s a lot of interplay and politics around the perceived failures of Starfleet. It serves as a neat counterpart to the conflict in the “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost” two-parter in season 4. The extreme actions of Cal Hudson here have very similar root causes to Admiral Leyton’s attempted coup, and it’s hard to out and out condemn them. In DS9, things are a lot less black and white.
Indeed, in one of his (many) excellent speeches, Sisko lays out to Admiral Nechayev the differences between DS9 and it’s brothers, and puts Roddenberry’s utopian Earth in context:
“On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!“
2) The Siege of AR-558
(Season 7, Episode 8)
In contrast to “The Visitor”, “The Siege of AR-558” is DS9 at its dark and unforgiving best. Sisko and an exhausted, inexperienced troop of Starfleet officers fend of wave after wave of Jem’Hadar until reinforcements arrive. This is the episode where the realities of war really hit home, and the idea dawns that even if the good guys win, too much harm and damage has already been done for things to ever be the same.
It’s also brilliant for Quark’s speech about the true nature of humans. It’s fascinating to look at us through the eyes of an alien and wonder what they might see, and the Ferengi’s keen assessment is a stark departure from the standard Star Trek selfless humanity:
“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people – as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts… deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers… put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time… and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don’t believe me? Look at those faces, look at their eyes…“
1) In the Pale Moonlight
(Season 6, Episode 19)
In my opinion, this is hands down the best episode that any Star Trek series has produced — or is ever likely to. In a desperate gambit to bring the Romulans into the war and turn the tide against the Dominion, Sisko allies himself with Garak and throws aside his morals in pursuit of the greater good.
It’s brilliant. It’s also about as far from Roddenberry’s utopian vision as is possible to get. The presentation through the form of Sisko relating the events to his log puts the audience in his shoes, and both the lengths that he goes to and his grapples with his conscience are summed up perfectly in his final lines of the episode. It’s punchy, brutal, and leaves the gut unsettled whilst the head knows he’s done the right thing, and saved untold numbers of lives:
“So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover up the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning of all… I think I can live with it… And if I had to do it all over again… I would. Garak was right about one thing – a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it. Computer – erase that entire personal log.“
Feel free to disagree in the comments.