Last week, I began a two-part look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s twenty best episodes. Today, I finish that feature with episodes from seasons five through seven. This is the fourth part in a series of five articles featuring the best of Star Trek‘s six pre-21st century series. Star Trek: Enterprise will be the final article in the series, but will be delayed until I’ve finished season four. Until then, we’ll go over some other lists as I come up with them.
Getting back into Deep Space Nine, the series is hands-down the best that has ever been done thanks to its multi-part story arcs and fascinating episodes. Before, we get into the final episodes that make up the top twenty episodes of the entire series, let’s look at a handful of episodes that earned four-star ratings, but which didn’t quite make the top twenty. Splitting the seasons unevenly would have been confusing, so this week’s article will be much shorter than last week’s as it’s covering three seasons instead of four.
As season five played on, the conflict with the Dominion intensified with numerous revelations coming out of the two-part episode consisting of part 1: “By Inferno’s Light” and part 2: “In Purgatory’s Shadow.” While the second part was just slightly weaker, the two episodes tell an intense story. Worf (Michael Dorn) and Garak (Andrew Robinson) are taken captive by the Jem’Hadar who have been amassing in a nebula near the wormhole. Worf barely gets a message off to DS9 before they are captured. While the crew of DS9 readies to destroy the wormhole to prevent the fleet from coming through, Worf and Garak are taken to a prison colony where they meet Martok (J.G. Hertzler), Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig), and Garak’s father/mentor Enabran Tain (Paul Dooley). This fascinating duo of episodes explores in great detail the frayed relationship between Tain and Garak. It also explores Worf and Martok as they butt heads regarding Worf’s insistence on beating the Jem’Hadar into the ground or dying trying. We also learn more about all of the machinations in place from the Dominion. All-in-all, this was a very dense and tense pair of episodes, which is part-and-parcel for this series.
All Trek series have felt very episodic with few throughlines. Deep Space Nine was radically different, though they had a few of their own. “Children of Time” features a time-bending narrative about a strange planet separated from time. As the USS Defiant crew finds themselves on the other side of the barrier, they discover a planet of their own descendants who had crash-landed years earlier. At 8,000 strong, this isn’t a small villaeg. Through various plots, the crew of the Defiant must decide whether to doom 8,000 people in order to save the life of Kira and to return the crew to their families and loved ones. It’s a challenging decision made better by strong performances and a fascinating late-episode twist that twists again before the potent conclusion.
The only season 6 episode that stands apart form the top twenty is “Time’s Orphan.” Maligned by many, the emotional heft of the episode drowns out most of those concerns. Another out-of-continuity episode finds Miles (Colm Meaney) and Keiko (Rosalind Chao) on a planet for an outing with their eight-year-old daughter. As she gets sucked through a time gate into the past, the teenage version of Molly exits the portal and the couple must decide if they can handle not getting to see their daughter grow up. A bittersweet episode that gives audiences a glimpse into the challenges of parenting when on the edge of the quadrant and with dangers all around.
The final episode before we dig into the remaining top twenty is an episode from season seven. In “Covenant,” Kira finds herself transported light years away to an abandoned Cardassian mining station called Empok Nor. There, she is asked to witness the community that has developed around the worship of the Pah Wraiths, spiritual enemies of the prophets. Believing instead that the Pah Wraiths are the actual prophets of Bajor, the group is being led by former DS9 commander Gul Dukat who has supposedly turned over a new leaf. As a sinister plot is unveiled, Kira must try to convince the other worshipers that they are being led astray before they meet a bitter end. Another in a long line of spiritual exploration episodes, this one not only furthers the Dukat storyline, it asks the audience to examine faith from different sides of the same belief system.
Trials and Tribble-ations
Most often, callbacks to prior series have a certain groan-worthy quality that antagonizes Star Trek fans more often than it appeals to them. We are well aware of our own history and incessant references are distracting. Yet, DS9 managed to execute the single greatest callback of all time. In the episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” the USS Defiant crew is escorting one of the Orbs of Prophecy, this one the Orb of Time. An unfamiliar passenger sneaks in to use the orb in order to go back in time and assassinate James T. Kirk. He transports back to the events of “The Trouble with Tribbles” as that’s the moment Kirk exposed his treachery and he will do anything to poetically end Kirks’ life there.
The DS9 crew must avoid temporal alterations while they maneuver through the events of that episode attempting to track their own nefarious operator. Taking the original series episode and using modern visual effects to superimpose DS9 crew members into the action was a stroke of brilliance that managed to come off so well that any future attempts would rightly draw comparison, probably negatively, to this one episode. Not only is “Trouble with Tribbles” one of the greatest Star Trek episodes in history, the DS9 time-traveling callback fits well into that upper echelon as well. It’s certainly one of the best of this particular series.
Call to Arms / A Time to Stand / Rocks and Shoals / Sons and Daughters / Behind the Line / Favor the Bold / Sacrifice of Angels
As season five ends, the episode “Call to Arms” sets up the high risk game that results in Benjamin Sisko giving up control of Deep Space 9, encouraging the Bajorans to put their membership with the Federation on hold to enable a peaceful transition to Dominion control, and provides a brilliant set up for the six episodes that lead off season six, including the re-taking of the station and the setting of numerous plot points into motion for the rest of the series.
With only the fourth of the seven episodes, “Sons and Daughters,” failing to earn a four-star rating, this is one of the strongest multi-part arcs in Trek history, even better than the eight-parter that finishes out the Dominion War arc. This tense series of episodes ebb and flow like a great miniseries might, giving audiences insight into the life-and-death decisions each member of the Deep Space 9 crew make. Exploring what it means to lose a battle in order to win a war, this seven-part arc helped ensure that Deep Space Nine would be classed as an all-time great series.
Far Beyond the Stars
This stand alone episode sees Benjamin Sisko being overtaken by visions that place him in the 1950s as a sci-fi writer named Benny Russell who is struggling to get his work published as part of a genre-specific monthly collection. He must find a way to get his work published while the white management of the periodical would rather not antagonize the white readers that they feel are their bread and butter. Looking at the difficulty black writers faced during the mid-20th Century was a fascinating subject to explore.
As Benny tries his best to convince his editor (Rene Auberjonois) to green light his work, his fellow writers, all cast members from the show out of makeup, stick up for him as best they can realizing that even as liberal as most of them are, the periodical’s owner is very conservative and too much defense could mean the end of the line. Cirroc Lofton, Michael Dorn, and Penny Johnson (who plays Sisko’s late-series paramour Kasidy Yates) are given key roles in the episode, which asks audiences to try and see how far we still have to go in our treatment of the black community. A poignant and essential episode.
In the Pale Moonlight
As Deep Space Nine explored moral gray areas, one of their darkest episodes is “In the Pale Moonlight,” a look at the desperation of Benjamin Sisko and the rest of the Federation in ensuring that the Romulan Star Empire joins the war against the Dominion rather than sit on the sidelines and see who comes out the winner. Against his better judgement, Sisko agrees to enact a plan devised by Elim Garak that would falsify a planning meeting by the Dominion where they reveal that the Romulans are going to be imminently attacked.
Sisko faces numerous internal and external influences as he wrestles with the recriminations of enacting such a plan. The Federation cannot claim the moral high ground if they engage in such duplicitous acts. How far will you go and which morals will you sell out in order to defeat an enemy that wants to eradicate your way of life. This moral ambiguity form the heart of the episode and make it a most compelling exploration on the subject. There would be a number of episodes with dark moral quandaries, but this one is perhaps the darkest and, ultimately, the most brilliant.
The Sound of Her Voice
“The Sound of Her Voice” is another off-story episode that pulled audiences away from a constant glut of wartime action to give them a beautiful story about a distress call that sends the USS Defiant crew on a rescue mission. Debra Wilson provides the voice of Captain Lisa Cusak, who is the only survivor of a crash on a desolate, inhospitable planet who’s on the verge of succumbing to the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning. As the Defiant spends the next few days pushing forward as quickly as they can, the crew spends time keeping Capt. Cusak’s attention focused on survival. As she and they expose information about one another, we come to know Cusak solely through these conversations.
Wilson’s brilliant vocal work almost overshadows the deeply challenging storyline at play in the episode. A desperate crew trying to rescue her and worrying for her safety mirrors the audience’s hopes for her survival. It isn’t until the Defiant reaches the planet where she’s crash landed that we find out what has actually happened. The final scenes are as haunting as they are touching. It’s one of those rare bottle episodes that hits the audience in its emotional center with poignant energy.
The Siege of AR-558
Star Trek seldom dealt directly with the horrors of war, oftentimes preferring allegory over brute force. Deep Space Nine changed that calculation, which enabled the show to deftly explore the ugly side of war without sacrificing its integrity. In this episode, the USS Defiant arrives at a liberated Dominion communications array, which is being held by Starfleet soldiers. While guidelines require troops be rotated more frequently, this team has been defending the array for five months and their nerves are frayed and their morale is exceptionally low.
Exacerbating their frustrations, a slew of cloaked mines around the compound have been slowly reducing their number. Sisko and crew decide to help them hold the post as a Dominion regiment is descending on the compound. While it’s certain that our crew is going to survive the ordeal and come out victorious, the casualties and other ramifications are hard lessons to learn about the often indiscriminate tragedy that accompanies such a horrendous method of conflict.
Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges
Dr. Bashir is approached by Section 31 agent Luther Sloan (William Sadler) and coaxed into acting as a spy at a medical conference he’s going to be attending. As Bashir maneuvers through the festivities, finally getting to live out in real time his espionage fantasies, he begins to unravel a plot that could result in a hostile Romulan politician encouraging the empire to withdraw from the Dominion War. Bashir must discover who is helping and who is hindering these goals. Adrienne Barbeau guest stars as a Federation-friendly senator who is competing with a rival for a seat on the continuing committee.
Bashir’s initial maneuvers are to insert her onto the council, but the machinations of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan version of the Cold War era Russian KGB, as well as the covert intentions of Sloan and Section 31 (the unsanctioned Federation version of the CIA). The episode is engaging in its twisting narrative as the audience tries to keep up with every Machiavellian move and finding themselves as incapable as Bashir of unraveling the details. It’s the polar opposite of Bashir’s James Bond-styled holodeck character, but significantly more compelling.
Penumbra / Til Death Do Us Part / Strange Bedfellows / The Changing Face of Evil / When It Rains… / Tacking Into the Wind / Extreme Measures / The Dogs of War
In this final story arc for Deep Space Nine, comprised of eight episodes, all of the dominoes that had been set up over the last six seasons begin to tumble one at a time with the ebb and flow of war finding the DS9 crew winning, losing, and ultimately winning again. As the series wound down, the integral elements of Sisko’s status as the Emissary of the Prophets began to take hold with his decision to finally embrace his role and find a way to bring about the freedom, promise, and future Bajorans had always deserved.
While this eight-episode arc had a lot of issues (two episodes were three-star rated and two others were three-and-a-half stars), it ultimately finished out the series on a high, giving audiences resolutions to nearly every character arc there was with a few not finding resolution immediately. Trying to find a way to encapsulate what happens in these eight episodes is impossible. As such, I will simply say that in spite of the unevenness, there’s little doubt that this arc was the perfect capper for one of the most compelling story arcs in Trek history.
What You Leave Behind, Parts 1 & 2
When I first saw this episode broadcast live, I came away feeling a bit disappointed. Here were some of the greatest Trek characters every written feeling almost incomplete, their storylines left hanging. Yet, as a part of this series re-watch, I came into the episode with a more consistent appreciation of what had come before. Seeing everything in order and in a short span of time gave me a new perspective on the final episode.
Each of the major characters finds some kind of closure with one exception. Sisko doesn’t quite have the kind of conclusion many of us would expect, especially given television history. Yet, the decisions made in the writing of this episode work tremendously well. What struck me as most frustrating when I saw it originally was the presence of Vic Fontaine (James Darren). The character had always been one of the more frustrating for me. His chipper outlook on life seemed especially distracting within this series’ context. While I still don’t care much for the character or most of the episodes he’s in. This final episode does a fine job wrapping him into the narrative in a fitting and non-distracting way.
Unlike the series preceding it, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was never destined to make it to the big screen. It’s persistent narrative environment doesn’t fit well with the episodic nature of big screen adaptations. Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation certainly fit that better, as did Voyager. Unfortunately, by the time Voyager went off the air, even Next Generation‘s movie adventures had faded and the idea of adapting anything else to the big screen just wasn’t in the cards. Having said all that, Deep Space Nine has always been in desperate need of a revival at some point. Either that or a short miniseries to bring to an end the saga of the Emissary of the Prophets.
Whether that ever happens or not, this episode, and the series that preceded it will forever hold a potent position in the Star Trek canon. It was the first series that shifted from an episodic style into a serialized one and that innovation not only helped the show catapult to the top of many lists of best Trek series, it also established that serialized storytelling in a science fiction series could be handled with class and inventiveness and while soap operas had been some of the few shows that carried one narrative over through multiple episodes, Deep Space Nine may have been a key influence in our current climate of serialized dramas. All for the better, I say.
S7, 175-176 – What You Leave Behind, Parts 1 & 2 – The final episode of DS9 as Sisko tries to stop Dukat and Kai Winn from releasing the Pah Wraiths. Meanwhile, Odo defends the Federation to the Founders and Kira, Garak, and Damar work to liberate Cardassia from the Dominion.