Humanity Through Character – A Guide to the Best of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
January 20, 2017 \ TV \ 1 Comment
When Gene Roddenbury envisioned Star Trek, he wanted stories without interpersonal conflict. As upset as he’d be that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine broke that rule, I think he would be proud. Deep Space Nine (DS9 for short) is about taking characters who have issues with each other and having them work together to solve larger problems.
Deep Space Nine begins after the Cardassian occupation of Bajor (think the Nazis and the Jews in World War II). The show largely takes place on DS9, a former Cardassian outpost the Bajorans ask the Federation to occupy while they rebuild their society. Bajor is essentially using the Federation as a shield against the Cardassians while telling the Federation not to get involved in their affairs.
Which makes a great foundation for conflict.
The Commander of Deep Space Nine is Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Sisko is a man who follows his heart first and his orders second, and cares a little too much about winning. His second in command is Major Kira (Nana Visitor), a former Bajoran resistence fighter. She is brash, headstrong, and filled with enough conviction for the entire crew. Her job is be a liaison of the Bajoran government to the Federation (because even though the Federation essentially runs DS9, it is a Bajoran station). Odo (Rene Auberjonois) is a shapeshifter who was head of station security when DS9 was run by the Cardassians and remains Chief of Security when The Federation takes it over. He is stern, private, believes in justice and order above all, and he is one of the loneliest people on the station because he might be the only shapeshifter in the entire universe. The only person as lonely as Odo is Garek (Andrew Robinson), a Cardassian who is exiled from his planet, and lives out a miserable existence as a tailor on DS9. Garek’s one solace are the lunches he shares with Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig), a brilliant young doctor who naively thinks frontier medicine is exciting, and deeply believes he can heal everybody. Bashir becomes friends on the show with Chief Engineer, Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney). O’Brien is my favourite. He’s loyal, racist in a stereotypical kind of way, and emotionally raw, which is probably why the writers make him suffer so much. Then there’s Quark (Armin Shimerman), the Ferengi who runs the bar on the station. Quark values profit above all and he’ll wheel and deal with just about anyone to get it. And yet he fundamentally cares about people (which is why he runs a bar instead of doing something impersonal like weapons dealing). There’s also Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), who is host to a symbiote that has nine lifetimes worth of memories. Her previous host, Curzon, was friends with Sisko, which is why Sisko always calls Jadzia “Old Man.” And of course there’s Jake (Cirroc Lofton), Sisko’s son. Jake is special. Because he is the Commander’s son, he is everyone’s son. He brings a vulnerability to all those around him, especially his Father. And the writers accentuate this throughout the series by showing us that no matter how old Jake gets, he desperately needs his Father.
All of these characters don’t get along at one point or another on the show. Odo and Quark are archnemeses because Quark is always trying break the law to earn a profit and Odo is always right there to stop him. O’Brien doesn’t get along with Garek because O’Brien fought the Cardassians in a war. And Kira fights with everybody. And it’s through these conflicts that the characters begin to care about each other (and likewise, make us care about them).
When people say that Deep Space Nine is the best Star Trek series, what they mean is that of all the shows, it tells the most innovative stories that deal with the broadest spectrum of humanity. In its run, Deep Space Nine deals with shame, xenophobia, cowardice, love, loneliness, depression, ambition, arrogance, loyalty, faith, revenge, same-sex relationships, and family.
Deep Space Nine is at its best when it wrestles with humanity from a character perspective. Want to write an episode about people overcoming differences? Take a guy who values justice and honour in the highest regard, and a guy who values money (even if it has to be earned through illegal means), and strand them on a planet and force them to work together to survive. Want to write an episode about experiencing war for the first time? Take a youth who is excited about war, and show how cowardly he is once he’s immersed in it.
While Deep Space Nine may have the highest number of excellent individual episodes, many would agree the show has plenty of mediocre ones. As such, a lot of people have written episode guides detailing what episodes to skip (though none of us are going to do a better than Max Temkin’s medium piece).
Where my guide differs is that I tried to break the series into categories so people could pick and choose the types of episodes if they wanted. I feel Deep Space Nine episodes mostly contain the following elements:
Important to Overall Series Story
While the majority of the episodes are one-offs, Deep Space Nine has a main storyline it threads throughout seasons. These episodes are either directly part of that thread, or part of big storylines.
These are episodes where characters are tested as individuals and must face a challenge and learn from it, or grow. For the most part, these are small lessons confined to the episode, and the characters aren’t visibly changed by these events in episodes that follow. Nevertheless, they are tested.
Episodes where relationships between characters changes or is challenged, whether their relationship is based in love, friendship, or family.
These are the home run episodes. Where the tension (or the plot) is so entwined with the episode’s theme that the whole thing sings. The best of the best.
An episode that primarily cares about entertaining, whether it is through humour or delight.
An Interesting Episode for Morality or Exploration of New Species / Culture
This is the heart of all Star Trek; an exploration of the human condition, or the galaxy.
You can see a full breakdown of which episodes fits into which category here. This way you can tailor a season to yourself (or re-watch a season only focusing on your favourite types of episodes). So if your favourite Star Trek episodes are ones where they explore strange new worlds, or debate morality, then you can focus on the morality / exploration episodes. Or if your favourite part of the show is the characters, you can watch the character development or character relationships episodes. And if you just want to watch the best episodes, just watch the “solid storytelling” episodes.
I’ve also given you my own personal episode guide below. If you haven’t seen the series before, just look at the season and episode number and titles part. In the paragraphs I’m going to talk about the season a bit, so it will contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.
A Few Notes About the List
I decided to include almost all the episodes that were important to the main storyline. While that seems logical, some of the main storyline episodes aren’t ones I would necessarily recommend. Like Season Two, episodes 20 and 21, “The Maquis.” These episodes aren’t bad and you need to see them to understand The Maquis’s origins, but they don’t need two episodes to tell that story. So there’s some fluff in there. But mostly this list is comprised of the best Deep Space Nine episodes mixed with the main storyline episodes (with a few fun episodes and DS9 classics thrown in there).
If I ever skip over episodes that are arguably important to the the overall story, they usually deal with Bajor. For example, I don’t include the episode in the first season that explains what happens with the first Kai. Excluding some of the episodes that deal with Bajoran politics will make some things confusing because Bajoran characters will suddenly change titles or positions or just appear with little back story. Just know this: I skipped these episodes for your own good. You’re welcome.
I also skip over a lot of Ferengi episodes. I feel like a lot of the Ferengi episodes are mostly in there for fun. With the exception of Rom, it is rare to see Ferengi characters change in the course of an episode; every character finishes where they started. I think the Ferengi add a great perspective to the show, but overall the episodes just aren’t the best the series has to offer.
This is also the case with the mirror universe episodes. If you really like the original Star Trek you might think it’s cool that Deep Space Nine references it, but overall these episodes aren’t great (and worse, unnecessary). Once you skip one, you can easily skip them all.
Additionally, when you’re trimming down the seasons and much as you can, you miss a few little things here and there. Like you might come across an episode where suddenly Kira is pregnant with Chief O’Brien and Keiko’s child. That’s probably going to be confusing. But Kira being pregnant is not in the show to make it better, it’s in the show because the actress playing Kira got pregnant, and that was their convoluted story solution because they didn’t want the Kira character to have kids.
Another important thing to note is that I’ve seen episodes numbered differently in various places. This is why I’ve included the episode title. When in doubt, look at the episode title.
I tried to make the list as lean as possible. This episode guide is intended for people who felt like they should watch Deep Space Nine, but could never seem to get into it. As endearing as it is when Rom forms a union, and as important as it is to watch Dukat talk to voices in his head so we better understand his psyche, these episodes have just enough lull to discourage a new viewer who wasn’t that interested in the series in the first place.
- S1E1 / S1E2 – Emissary
- S1E11 – The Nagus
- S1E17 – The Forsaken
- S1E19 – Duet
- S1E20 – In the Hands of the Prophets
If I could skip the first two episodes I would. But The Prophets are pretty important to the show and you need to understand them. I had a friend who had never watched the show before join me for a few episodes in the later seasons, and we happened to watch an episode where Sisko talked to The Prophets. As soon as they appeared I knew he wasn’t going to understand. Which is a real shame, because all the scenes with The Prophets aren’t fun. But they do show up a lot, so even though there’s a solid half hour of Sisko talking to The Prophets in the first two episodes, just stick with it, it gets better.
That’s not to say that the next episode, “The Nagus,” is very good either, but it is an important foundation for understanding Ferengi culture.
People probably won’t agree with my inclusion of “The Forsaken,” but it’s one of my favourite episodes. There’s real humanity to taking the Odo, an incredibly private and proud individual, and having him literally break down in front of Lwaxana Troi, someone who is so open that she’s obnoxious.
- S2E1 – The Homecoming
- S2E2 – The Circle
- S2E3 – The Siege
- S2E6 – Melora
- S2E7 – Rules of Acquisition
- S2E12 – The Alternate
- S2E13 – Armageddon Game
- S2E20 – The Maquis, Part I
- S2E21 – The Maquis, Part II
- S2E22 – The Wire
- S2E26 – The Jem’Hadar
You won’t find “Melora” on other people’s lists. In fact, I think Deep Space Nine fans will give me guff for putting it there. But Dr. Bashir doesn’t have a lot of great episodes dedicated to him. Most of the time he’s in the background and seems insincere. So in this episode, we not only get to see what it would be like to have a disability in space, we also get to see the true Dr. Bashir, who is vulnerable and holds himself personally responsible for healing the world (while looking for love in the wrong places).
The other episode that doesn’t necessarily belong is “Armageddon Game.” It’s not great, but O’Brien and Bashir’s relationship is an important aspect of the series so I felt it was valuable to see it develop.
Overall these episodes range from “OK” to “not so great.” Except “Melora,” “The Rules of Acquisition,” and “The Wire.” “The Wire” is excellent. If you watch only one episode from this season, watch that one.
- S3E1 – The Search, Part I
- S3E2 – The Search, Part II
- S3E14 – Heart of Stone
- S3E20 – Improbable Cause
- S3E21 – The Die is Cast
- S3E22 – Explorers
- S3E23 – Family Business
There’s not a lot to Season Three. The standout episodes are “Improbable Cause” and “The Die is Cast.” There’s a lot of excellent episodes in Deep Space Nine with Garek in them. He’s so beautifully vulnerable. He’s isolated from his entire race, much like Odo. Which is why when we see him forced to torture Odo in these episodes it’s so painful, because he’s essentially torturing himself. It’s a very brief moment in the episode when Garek invites Odo to start having lunch with him, but the emotional weight behind the invitation is huge. Because it is a chance for two lonely people to feel less alone.
“Explorers” isn’t a great episode, but the father-son relationship between Benjamin and Jake is a critical foundation to the series, so you have to watch it.
- S4E01 / S4E02 – The Way of the Warrior
- S4E03 – The Visitor
- S4E06 – Rejoined
- S4E13 – Crossfire
- S4E19 – Hard Time
- S4E22 – For the Cause
- S4E23 – To the Death
- S4E24 – The Quickening
- S4E26 – Broken Link
Season Four is where Deep Space Nine blossoms. There are a lot of wonderful episodes in here, including my favourite episode of the entire show, “Hard Time,” where O’Brien is implanted with twenty years worth of memories of being imprisoned.
There are a lot of O’Brien episodes like this where they make him suffer. Later on in the series someone meets Miles and says, “If I had to find someone to replace Atlas and hold up the world, it would be Miles. He would do it with a smile, too.” There’s something steadfast about O’Brien. He’s Irish, he’s tough, but he also feels everything around him, and we in turn feel with him. That’s why when we see the unbreakable O’Brien shatter in “Hard Time,” we shatter a little with him.
The episode “The Visitor” is also extremely powerful and I think it might be one of the most important in the series, because it showcases a vulnerability to Jake that permeates the whole show. This episode presents a possible timeline where Jake loses his Father, and Jake is so shaken by this, it destroys his entire life. It shows us that Jake needs to be taken care of, and not just by his Father, but by everyone around him, which creates a familial bond across the crew. Because no matter what happens, they want to make sure Jake is OK.
Season Four also finally tells a great Dax story, which is about a love so strong that it breaks laws and threatens banishment from society. And it was only this watch through that I noticed it was an obvious, pro-LGBT episode.
- S5E01 – Apocalypse Rising
- S5E02 – The Ship
- S5E04 – Nor the Battle to the Strong
- S5E05 – The Assignment
- S5E06 – Trials and Tribble-ations
- S5E09 – The Ascent
- S5E13 – For the Uniform
- S5E14 – In Purgatory’s Shadow
- S5E15 – By Inferno’s Light
- S5E16 – Doctor Bashir, I Presume
- S5E17 – A Simple Investigation
- S5E21 – Soldiers of the Empire
- S5E24 – Empok Nor
- S5E25 – In the Cards
- S5E26 – Call to Arms
Season Five is probably the best in terms of stoytelling. I really admire what the show tried to do in this season. Perhaps the show runners used the war with the Dominion as a way to interest viewers who didn’t want to stay cooped up on the station, but it seems to me like the writers really just used the war as a backdrop to write the stories they wanted. A lot of these episodes don’t push the main story forward; they explore the characters. Like the episode where Jake is excited about writing about the war, only to become a hopeless coward when he experiences it. Or the episode where half the crew gets stuck inside a crashed Jem’Hadar ship, and start to go crazy because the the Jem’Hadar are constantly shelling the area around them. Or the episode that is Deep Space Nine incarnate, where Odo and Quark crash on a frozen planet and have to work together to survive. Then there’s this sweet little episode where Jake is just trying to get a baseball card to cheer up his Father and inadvertently ends up cheering up the entire station.
These aren’t the kinds of stories you find in other Star Trek series. They are diversified and powerful.
This is also the season where the writers made more of an effort to portray lasting changes in the characters. Quark has his Ferengi business license revoked. We learn Bashir has secretly been genetically enhanced this whole time. And Odo adjusts to being a humanoid (for awhile).
When people talk about how much they love Deep Space Nine, Season Five is where that love started.
- S6E01 – A Time to Stand
- S6E02 – Rocks and Shoals
- S6E04 – Behind the Lines
- S6E05 – Favor the Bold
- S6E06 – Sacrifice of Angels
- S6E07 – You Are Cordially Invited
- S6E09 – Statistical Probabilities
- S6E10 – The Magnificent Ferengi
- S6E13 – Far Beyond the Stars
- S6E15 – Honor Among Thieves
- S6E16 – Change of Heart
- S6E19 – In the Pale Moonlight
- S6E20 – His Way
- S6E25 – The Sound of Her Voice
- S6E26 – Tears of the Prophets
Season Six is so confident it struts. It contains probably the most beloved episode of the show, “In the Pale Moonlight,” where Sisko debates the morality of his attempts to get the Romulans to join the war. And it also has an episode that is based on the film The Magnificent Seven, except that it is told with Ferengi.
Season Six probably has the highest number of solid episodes. And while I could praise them all, I’d like to focus one that might go unnoticed: “The Sound of Her Voice.” (extra spoilery ahead)
In this episode, The Defiant crew is depressed. They’re beleaguered by war trauma (both spiritual and physical). They’re worried they’re losing the war with The Dominion. And while they’re on their way home after a long mission, they get a distress call from a single woman on a planet far away, and Sisko decides that he might not be able to win the war, but he can win this fight. Save this woman. And he turns the ship around to go rescue her. Eventually, they are able to establish two-way communication with her. Her name is Lisa Cusak and she is a Starfleet Captain who has ended up alone on a planet that doesn’t have enough breathable air. She can’t sleep, so Captain Sisko commands at least one crewman to talk to her to keep her company until they arrive.
Even though the crew is trying to save Lisa, she ends up saving them. She listens to their problems and gives them hope, no matter how badly her circumstances deteriorate. Eventually the crew learns they were communicating to Lisa in the past and when they arrive to save her, she’s been dead for years. But despite their failure to save her, Lisa has taught them how to look forward.
It’s a remarkable story about humanity and perseverance that is told in a way only Science Fiction can. And while nothing exciting happens in the episode, it’s a lasting, beautiful reminder that we can all help each other, even after we’re gone.
- S7E01 – Image in the Sand
- S7E02 – Shadows and Symbols
- S7E05 – Chrysalis
- S7E06 – Treachery, Faith and the Great River
- S7E10 – It’s Only a Paper Moon
- S7E14 – Chimera
- S7E17 – Penumbra
- S7E18 – ‘Til Death Do Us Part
- S7E19 – Strange Bedfellows
- S7E20 – The Changing Face of Evil
- S7E21 – When It Rains…
- S7E22 – Tacking Into the Wind
- S7E24 – The Dogs of War
- S7E25 – What You Leave Behind
Oh, Season Seven. You let me down. There’s only a couple of really strong episodes in this season, mixed in with a few that are just OK. Because of all the storylines the show has created, there’s also a nine-part finale (of sorts) to tie up all the ends, which means there are a lot more episodes in here than deserve to be because they’re part of the main storyline.
But you don’t walk away from the season feeling as proud as you did of Season Five and Six. It concludes well enough, but that’s not where Deep Space Nine‘s strength lies. DS9 is at its best in the moments between its characters, not in the battles with The Dominion. And finishing the war with The Dominion is largely what Season Seven is about.
Despite these flaws, I think the show gets the final image right (obviously extra spoilers ahead). In the Season Five episode “The Visitor,” it is clear that Jake cannot handle life without his Father. His Father is so important to him that it ruins his writing career, it ruins his marriage, and it ruins his happiness. With Benjamin stuck with The Prophets (potentially forever) the final image we see is of Jake looking out the window at the wormhole. He does not look OK. And then Kira comes up to him and puts her arm around him, and Jake smiles. He’s going to be OK. He’s going to be OK because he is surrounded by family. Not blood, but family he has earned throughout the course of the show — family we’ve all earned.
Which means that even though the show is over, we’re going to be OK too.