While I’m still making my way through season 3 (of 4) for Star Trek: Enterprise, its first two seasons suggest it will probably end up fifth of six series on my list of best Treks. That means that the number one itself is safe, and by a long shot. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a new direction for the Star Trek universe. Set on an isolated space station orbiting the planet Bajor, a highly religious society that was occupied for decades by the Cardassians. Now liberated, Starfleet sends a Federation officer, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), to maintain relations between the Federation and Bajor, an advanced civilization hoping for membership, but plagued by the wars fought there recently.
Starfleet also sends engineer Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney), who had served as transporter chief aboard the USS Enteprise captained by Jean-Luc Picard, science officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), and doctor Julian Bashir (Originally credited as Siddig El-Fadil, but was changed at the actor’s request to Alexander Siddig in 1995) to help operate the station alongside their Bajoran liaison and second-in-command Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), the station’s Changeling chief of security Odo (Rene Auberjonois), and Ferengi bar owner Quark (Amrin Shimmerman). Sisko’s son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) is along for the ride after Sisko’s wife Jennifer died at Wolf 359 where the assimilated Picard had been in command of the Borg.
Deep Space Nine is eventually relocated to a position just outside a newly-discovered stable wormhole between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. With the Trek property firmly ensconced on a space station, there was little room to explore strange new worlds or seek out new civilizations. Yet, it still boldly went where no other Trek series had gone before. With a largely serialized narrative, the show explored themes of war, regret, retribution, spirituality, and numerous other topics across its seven-year run.
As the series entered its fourth season, it picked up Michael Dorn’s popular Klingon character Worf, fresh off the then-departed Star Trek: Next Generation, as the station’s tactical officer. From there, the grandest plot line in Trek history began to unwind featuring the same Changeling Founders from which Odo descends and their Gamma Quadrant alliance called the Dominion as they manipulate the races of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants into a war that would pit the Cardassians against the Federation and Klingon Empires. The Cardassians become pawns of the Dominion who wish to assert there dominance through manipulation and brute force with their genetically engineered super soldiers, the Jem’Hadar, and their field lieutenants, the Vorta.
Farrell would also leave the show in 1999 to pursue other opportunities, including a series lead role in the CBS comedy Becker. Her departure at the end of season six left a vast hole that Nicole de Boer tried to fill as the ninth host of the Dax symbiont, a worm-like creature that bonds with members of the Trill race and then merges the consciousnesses of the prior eight hosts together with the ninth, making the symbiont over 350 years old. De Boer was added for only the seventh season meaning a lot of episodes were built around developing the character, which caused a slight hiccup in the momentum the show had built up to that point, but which ultimately didn’t hinder the show as it went out on a tremendous high.The series also introduced numerous recurring characters that added immeasurably to the show’s depth and created a rich tapestry of individuals who helped progress plot narratives and expand the Star Trek universe well beyond what it had already created in the course of three prior series.
Why does this series outperform the prior three and its subsequent two? Quite simply, the writing was unparalleled, a brilliant interweaving mix of gray areas that the Trek universe had never explored with any extreme depth. Across the span of seven seasons and 176 episodes, the show produced 48 four-star episodes, significantly more than the 28 from Next Generation, 15 from the original series, and 24 from Voyager. The average rating of episodes across the entire series was 3.29, 0.14 higher than The Next Generation. Because there are nearly 50 episodes that could be considered for inclusion on a top ten list, I’ve decided to break them down into a top twenty covered over two weeks.
In addition to the series’ high level of quality, it also broke new bounds with its numerous multi-part episodes. There were thirteen of them, two of which spanned three episodes, one that went on for seven, and another that extended to eight episodes. The seven-episode arc started at the end of season five and finished in season six as Sisko and company had to give up the station to Dominion-Cardassian control in order to maneuver and re-assert itself and, at the end of the arc, retake the station. Six of the seven episodes I rated four stars. The first three-parter was at the beginning of season two as a separatist movement on Bajor targeted the Federation and pushed to re-assert Bajoran independence. The second covered the end of season six and the beginning of season seven. It was the weakest of the multi-part groupings, but was no slouch. The final collection was the eight-episode arc that closed out the Dominion War at the end of season 7, culminating right before the final two-part episode closing out the series. This eight-parter was largely impressive, but had a few issues as it petered out at the end. It was a fitting conclusion to the years-long story arc, but could have been just a touch stronger.
Matter of fact, of the three sets of episodes, only four of them didn’t feature all four-star episodes, highlighting the overall strength of the series’ attempts at creating longer story arcs. Of the forty-eight episodes, there were ultimately thirty-one groupings. There are twenty-one stand alone episodes. In the end, I will have to eliminate eleven of the thirty one and it will be difficult. In addition to splitting the top twenty between this and next week’s posts, I will also split the eleven up between the two along the same lines. The first grouping I’ll briefly touch on are from the first four seasons of the show. The remainder will be discussed next week.
An early gem is “Progress,” guest starring Brian Keith as an old resistance fighter, now farmer who’s built a homestead on a Bajoran moon. When the Bajoran government decides they want to tap into the energy the moon can provide, which will make the land inhospitable, Kira must try to convince the curmudgeon to abandon the place he’s put so much time into after a long oppression by the Cardassians. It’s an episode that explores progress and our resistance to it as well as the ideas of self-determination.
The second season had a number of solid episodes, but none ultimately made it into the top 20. Here are three sets of episodes worth considering. The first three episodes of the season (“The Homecoming,” “The Circle,” and “The Siege”) are part of a story arc that established what could and would be done with the series as it progressed. Frank Langella guest stars as a Bajoran governor who is secretly working to undermine the interim government while a thought-dead resistance fighter emerges after years in hiding. The three episodes work incredibly well together to bring the narrative forward and establish the internecine conflict between the Bajoran government that wants the Federation involved in their protection and the opposition movement wanting a proud and independent Bajor. The uneven relationship between the Federation and the Bajorans begins here.
In a mid-season episode, “Whispers,” a creative concept plays out as Chief O’Brien finds the strange actions of his fellow crew members troubling, believing them to be enemy assets plotting against him. His paranoia builds with the episode’s tensions until a final act reveal upends everything we thought we knew. This was one of the first episodes in DS9 that set the show apart from its predecessors by toying with our expectations.
The final episode of the season set up one of the episodes included in my top twenty. The episode introduces audiences to the “Jem’Hadar” as the super soldiers execute a marvelous and troubling plot to assess the strengths of the DS9 crew. These bio-engineered aliens become a formidable opponent throughout the rest of the series’ seven-year run.
All of the best season three episodes have made it into the below list of twenty, so we move on to season four with this early episode set on the Holodeck. The Next Generation established the technology as an interesting conceit with DS9 continuing that tradition. Here, Dr. Bashir finds his crew mates are now an unintended part of his James Bond-styled adventure program after a transporter accident strands them there. “Our Man Bashir” is a fun little trifle and one of the more enjoyable episodes in the series, putting to shame a lot of what Bond and Jason Bourne have been putting out in recent years.
“Hard Time” is a fascinating concept for an episode and explores the needs of many cultures to find punishments that fit the crime. Here, O’Brien is implanted with false memories of his multi-year prison sentence, forced to live out horrendous conditions and a companionship with a cellmate. The episode gives Meaney a great opportunity to act and its heartbreaking conclusion was a near-miss for inclusion in my top twenty.
The final episode in the barely-missed list is “The Quickening,” which gives Dr. Bashir another solid episode where his perfectionist sensibilities and desire to solve any medical problem he comes across face an intense test on a planet where a bio-engineered virus has been used to punish the citizens for their open defiance of the Dominion. As Bashir struggles to find a cure, he faces off against a doctor who is offering late-term sufferers a merciful way to die, surrounded by their loved ones. Bashir’s outrage at the doctor’s methods asks the audience to consider whether euthanasia, when a cure might be possible, is appropriate or not.
Now, let’s tackle the best episodes of the first four season, part of Deep Space Nine‘s overall twenty best episodes.
Emissary, Parts 1 & 2
This two-part premiere episode establishes the foundation of everything that will transpire over the course of seven seasons. Having lost his wife Jennifer in the attack on Wolf 359 by Locust/Picard-led Borg forces, Sisko takes a commission at a remote space station recently liberated by the Bajorans from their longtime oppressors, the Cardassians. There, he begins to experience visions that suggest that he is the prophesied Emissary the Bajoran people have been waiting for who will lead them spiritually into a bright future.
Exploring concepts of religion and duty, this perfect example of storytelling tells audiences everything they should expect from the show and superbly establishes the relationships between all of the characters. Terrifically acted with a guest appearance by Patrick Stewart as Picard, the episode is the best season-starter of any series to this point in my viewing cycle. While it doesn’t deal with the Founders, the Dominion, or the Jem’Hadar, foes of future seasons, the humanity and moral ambiguity established in this episode colored and accentuated all that would come after it.
Star Trek has always been at the forefront of philosophical introspection and this late-season episode is one of the cream of the crop. In this bottle episode, a Cardassian paper pusher (Harris Yulin) during the occupation faces off against Major Kira in a tense episode that forces Kira to question not only her religious principles, but her desire for revenge against all those that perpetrated one of the most haunting events in Bajoran history. As the two characters dance around one another, it becomes clear that the Cardassian was far more prominent during the occupation than he claims.
Kira’s dueling desires for justice and for revenge play out through the episode as the revelations the Cardassian presents create moral grey areas that her antagonistic view of Cardassians have blinded her to. Easily one of the series’ (and the franchise’s) best episodes, you don’t need to have a lot of Trek knowledge to sit down to this episode and its ultimate philosophical argument is just too important to ignore.
The Search, Parts 1 & 2
In the two-part opening episode of season three, a new starship is introduced to Trek canon as the USS Defiant is unveiled. Originally designed to combat the Borg, the Defiant has ablative armor and a cloaking device, closely monitored by a Romulan agent. Now to be used to fight the Jem’Hadar, Sisko and company take the ship out into the Gamma Quadrant to investigate the Jem’Hadar and test out the ship’s capabilities. When the ship is discovered and nearly destroyed, the crew is separated and the machinations of the Dominion become obvious.
The episode eventually splits itself between two narratives. The first follows Odo and an injured Major Kira into a nebula where Odo discovers the Great Link, the coalescent body of liquid that includes all of his people merged into one entity and one consciousness. The other is a harrowing story that follows the rest of the crew, led by Sisko, back to the Alpha Quadrant where they begin preparations to destroy the wormhole to protect the Alpha Quadrant from the Dominion.
Several truths are revealed in this episode, including the nature of the Founders and their relationship to Odo as well as the setting of the tone for the rest of the series and the eventual Dominion War that results.
After Major Kira is abducted and wakes up on Cardassia Prime, she discovers that she has been surgically altered to look Cardassian. Her captor, who claims to be her father, indicates that she is actually his daughter and that she was selected by the Obsidian Order, the Cardassian intelligence apparatus, to go deep undercover as a Bajoran to ferret out information about their capabilities and their alliance with the Federation.
As the episode progresses, Kira begins to question her own history and the complex narrative woven by the Cardassians makes her doubt that she was Bajoran at all. Her father continues to insist that they are related and she almost believes it. This episode is a fascinating look at the extent to which the Cardassians will lie, steal, and obfuscate in order to regain the upper hand over Bajor, believing that the occupation wasn’t a mistake.
Past Tense, Parts 1 & 2
In the history of Star Trek, several episodes have dealt with time travel and while Deep Space Nine is no stranger, it did such things sparingly, and often with tremendous success. This mid-season two-parter finds Sisko, Bashir, and Dax on 2024 Earth just prior to the Bell Riots. Not knowing how to reverse the transporter accident that stranded them there, they begin experiencing the extreme wealth disparity between the upper and lower classes.
Sisko and Bashir are sequestered ino a sanctuary district where the poor, sick, and mentally disabled are packed to ostensibly keep them safe, but largely meant to protect the lives and assets of the upper classes. A hauntingly prescient episode, “Past Tense” is a brilliant look into the nature of oppression, extreme inequality, and the desperation that leads to violent struggles for survival and acceptance. While it may have seemed a bit beyond what could possibly happen when it released in the 1990s, today’s George Floyd riots are an especially potent reminder of the episode and what it says about oppression and the need to treat all people with equity and fairness, not just those who can afford it.
Improbable Cause / The Die Is Cast
Deep Space Nine wasn’t as enamored with naming its multi-part arcs with the same title. This pairing of Improbable Cause and The Die Is Cast exemplifies the eloquence of such a decision with the titles of each giving more narrative resonance than using the same title for both episodes.
In this two-parter, Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson), a Cardassian tailor, who we discover throughout the series was a former member of the secretive Obsidian Order, is nearly killed when his shop is blown up. As Odo investigates the claim, they uncover a web of intrigue that has resulted in the death of all of Garak’s former colleagues. As Garak sets out to warn his cell’s leader, Enabran Tain (Paul Dooley), he discovers that his old boss is plotting a covert mission into the Gamma Quadrant alongside the Obsidian Order equivalent in the Romulan Star Empire, the Tal Shiar, to destroy the Founders’ homeworld and end the threat of the Dominion before it can assert itself in the Alpha Quadrant.
The episode is a twisting labyrinth of lies, misinformation, and secrecy as the two clandestine organizations plot against the even more elusive Dominion. While this all plays out, the relationship between Tain and Garak finds intricate nuances to explore the unstable father-son-style connection between the two. Whether actually related, professional colleagues, or combative adversaries, this fascinating character study wrapped in a season-defining narrative makes for a most thrilling and laudatory episode, especially when the twist takes hold at the end of the second part.
Some episodes don’t push forward the story arcs of the series as apparently as others and “Shakaar” is just such an episode. While it doesn’t immediately feel like it will affect outcomes later, the entire affair helps seed further doubt in the piety of Kai Winn (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher), who has already lied and manipulated her way into the leadership of the Bajoran Vedek Assembly. Winn has also gained control of the civilian government as its interim First Minister. As the episode plays out, the adversarial relationship between Winn and Kira intensifies after Winn asks Kira to confront a handful of settlers who are using a handful of soil reclamators that they only recently received. Winn’s desire for ultimate power becomes increasingly apparent, wanting Bajor to slide into Theocracy rather than the secular Democracy it has been developing.
Shakaar is the name of the leader of the farmers currently using the reclamators. He and Kira worked together during the occupation and resistance movements and he has little trouble convincing her of Winn’s duplicity. Together, they start a rebellion against Winn’s government-led crackdown as soldiers are sent to arrest Shakaar and his friends. It all leads to an armed conflict between the two with Shakaar and Kira falling into familiar patterns, but becoming wary of the internecine conflict that could lead to Civil War.
The episode looks at the tenuous balance between the secular and religious components of Bajor’s populace. Exploring faith from both sides of the issue has always been one of the show’s strong suits and here, they mix that dichotomy with a potent discussion about resistance fighters, the lack of end to their resistance, and their recognition of the dangers of such rhetoric for the future.
The Way of the Warrior, Parts 1 & 2
The two-part episode that starts off season 4 brings Lt. Cmdr. Worf to the crew of DS9 after Next Generation had gone off the air. Thinking about retirement, Worf is coaxed into continuing his Starfleet service under the command of Sisko as a Klingon fleet arrives to ostensibly protect the station. As the episodes play out, it becomes clear that General Martok (J.G. Hertzler) and Chancellor Gowron (Robert O’Reilly) are plotting an invasion of the Cardassian Empire against the Federation’s wishes. The Klingon’s believe the Cardassian leadership is run by changelings, but it’s all a carefully veiled attempt to take more territory, adhering to the Klingon way, the way of the warrior.
Exploring what it means to be a Klingon has been done quite often throughout the years Worf has been a main character on the show, but seldom has the concept been so effectively leveraged. Blending in the duplicity and behind the machinations of the politically motivated versus those who see winning victories as the height of Klingon culture, DS9 managed to make the Klingon Empire feel even deeper than had been developed in Next Generation‘s seven seasons. That each new episode tended to move the Dominion War plot line forward in sometimes incremental ways, there were few episodes that didn’t benefit greatly from the deep storylines that had been developed around the event, even before it had formally started.
While Deep Space Nine was the least episodic of the Star Trek properties, the series still produced its fair share of stand-alone episodes. One of its best executed is this time-bending narrative about an elderly Jake Sisko approaching the end of his life. Initially planning to become a prominent author, Jake’s illustrious career eventually falls by the wayside as the intermittent appearances of his father, lost to time in an incident while observing a wormhole inversion, demand his attention. When a young woman arrives at his door seeking his input on how to be a better writer, he relates the entire story to her about how his life collapsed without the presence of his father and that he’s spent his entire life searching for a way to reverse the incident.
As with most time-oriented episodes, keeping track of the ins-and-outs is difficult, but Tony Todd as the elder Jake, Lofton, and Brooks deliver stellar performances in this passionate story about the lust for life, the love of a good father, and the inescapable dread of mortality. Well written and keenly observed, this is an episode you can watch outside of the continuity of Deep Space Nine and still be awed and inspired by its potent themes.
Homefront / Paradise Lost
The last grouping of episodes prior to season five that made an impression were the dual episodes “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost.” Most of the series’ two-part episodes are strongly connected to one another with a single through line going from one to the next. While this pair of episodes has that, each one is a fascinating stand alone concept that works independently of the other, but feels even more important when connected.
“Homefront” looks at an incident where a Founder has infiltrated a diplomatic conference on Earth and detonated a device that killed numerous dignitaries. Sisko, his son Jake, and his father Joseph (Brock Peters) have their Earth-set reunion cut short when Sisko is asked to relate his experiences with the Dominion and help implement new security measures to help detect and isolate changelings before they can wreck more havoc. As the tensions on the planet rise, a massive power outage leads Sisko and Admiral Leyton (Robert Foxworth) to convince United Federation of Planets President Jaresh Inyo (Herschel Sparber) to declare a state of emergency and hand over tactical response to Starfleet.
In “Paradise Lost,” the results of this paranoia begins playing out as martial law forces citizens to fear for their lives and stay off the streets or be questioned, detained, or worse. As further tensions rise, Sisko begins to unravel a plot that suggests all of these measures were in the planning stages long before he arrived and the right catalyst was all that was needed to bring about this change. Sisko’s investigation eventually leads him to Admiral Leyton where he must ask whether losing paradise for the sake of security is a worthy sacrifice. This is another powerfully prescient episode that speaks to our current political climate.