25 years ago, on 3rd January 1993, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” made its TV debut in America. It wouldn’t reach UK TV screens until 22nd August later that year. Often thought of as the neglected middle child of the “Star Trek” offspring, looking at it now, it was simply two decades ahead of its time. Its complex, multi-layered and multi-season storytelling was a bold departure for the time and were it to be airing now, it would potentially be lauded as one of the great TV shows of the age. A diverse cast of conflicted and flawed characters, shifting alliances and an ambiguous moral centre which embraced a pragmatic realpolitik, it challenged and deconstructed Roddenberry’s idealistic and optimistic view of the future without ever abandoning or corrupting it. The series has aged far better than “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and doesn’t suffer from the creeping blandness which initially infected “Star Trek: Voyager” and ultimately consumed “Star Trek: Enterprise”. In many ways, its themes of terrorism, occupational legacy, religious extremism, social change and racial prejudices are more timely and relevant now than they were when the show first aired.
Season One is largely concerned, as you’d expect, with setting the scene and the main ongoing theme – apart from the Starfleet officers adjusting to a ‘frontier environment’ – is the ongoing fallout from the recently concluded Cardassian Occupation and the rebuilding and restoration efforts which accompany it. Political instability on Bajor is driven by the sudden loss of a unifying spiritual leader and the resultant factional infighting which consumes a provisional government struggling to reintegrate a rebel militia into civil society. Terrorism, prejudice and scarcity of resources form the dark underbelly of the science-fiction action-adventure, although it’s not all doom and gloom.
With a central cast where Starfleet Officers only make up half of the crew, “Deep Space Nine” set out its stall to be different from the very start. Rather than a wandering starship which would have different adventures from week to week, never having to really deal with the long-term consequences of their actions, the series’ setting on a space station means that whatever actions or decisions the crew make, they own the results. It’s a much more consistent start than “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had in its first season and never really gets close to the many, many low points those twenty-six episodes boasted. Of course, DS9 only has twenty episodes in its first season but still the consistency and quality are palpably better. I give “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” freshman season a combined score of 7/10.
On the surface, and certainly in the first few episodes, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” crams in a lot of Trek tropes: aliens conjured from the crews’ imagination, primitive societies being controlled by technological wizardry, possession of the crew by alien artefacts and there are even early season visits from fan favourite characters as Patrick Stewart cameos as Jean-Luc Picard in the pilot and Q (John DeLancie) and Vash (Jennifer Hetrick) drop by for a visit in a later episode. Interestingly, Q simply doesn’t fit well in this new, grittier Trek. It’s not that DS9 can’t do comedy – it will prove repeatedly in later seasons that it can – it’s just there’s no spark of chemistry between Q and Sisko. Don’t feel too bad for the omnipotent superbeing, though, as he found a new home on “Star Trek: Voyager”, flirting with Captain Janeway. On the other hand, Vash would have fit right in with the new setting, if the crew didn’t already have Quark as its resident wheeler-dealer.
It wasn’t too long, though, before the ideas and themes which would keep the series powering on for seven seasons started to emerge and put down roots. By convention, the first season is heavily structured around introducing us to our new heroes. Thus we get Odo-centric episodes, Dax episodes, Bashir episodes, even O’Brien focussed episodes and he’d been around for fifty episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. But through other characters, the episodes weren’t just focussed on them, but on building out the world of Deep Space Nine. Through Quark, the series starts its long and successful journey to turn the Ferengi from a TNG punchline into a fully-fledged, darkly satirical allegorical Trek society as fully developed as any the franchise has offered before. Through Sisko and especially Major Kira, we start to explore the history of the Bajoran people and the Cardassian occupation. The Cardassians are pretty few in number in the first season but their presence looms large in many of the season’s episodes. Despite its subversion of the Roddenberry doctrine of peace and harmony, “Deep Space Nine” was closer than any series but perhaps the original 1966 series to embracing allegorical storytelling, using the conflict between characters, races and even between science and faith to explore its ideas and differing perspectives.
Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is, especially in this first season, a very different kind of commanding officer for a “Star Trek” series. There’s a soft-spoken authority that Brooks brings to the role, a kind of muscular wisdom and downplayed strength that lends itself well to the Commander’s situation. Even at this early stage, he demonstrates a keen sense of political and tactical awareness and his willingness to use leverage to bend situations and individuals to his will becomes an important trait later on. His status as the Emissary of The Prophets marks him out in a way that no other lead character in “Star Trek” had been before or since, at least until Michael Burnham in “Star Trek Discovery” but it only really manifests in his reluctance to engage with it at this stage.
Although “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had leaned heavily into the idea of career officers bringing their families on board with them, “Deep Space Nine” becomes the first series to fully embrace the idea, not just through Sisko’s son Jake (Ciroc Lofton) – who has a well-thought out and decidedly un-Wesley Crusher arc throughout the series – but also through crossover character Miles O’Brien (Colm Meany), who brings his wife Keiko (Rosalind Chao) and daughter Molly (Hana Hatae) with him to his new assignement. As well as seeing Jake mature and grow through the course of the series, we also see the O’Briens navigate the course of a marriage put under the strain of a deep space assignment in dangerous territory and all the ups and downs that come with it. Again, its all of these small side details that give “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” its sense of richness and depth.
The stationary setting allows all of the time more ‘mobile’ series have to spend introducing and explaining the location of the week to be used for character development, and not just of the main cast. As good as the main cast of characters are, it could be argued the real strength of “Deep Space Nine” lies with its array of supporting characters. Nearly every recurring character eventually has a pivotal role to play and virtually all of them appear in this first season. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” simply wouldn’t be what it is without Morn (Mark Allen Shepherd), Rom (Max Grodénchik), Nog (Aaron Eisenberg), Leeta (Chase Masterson) and Gul Dukat (Mark Alaimo). Later seasons would expand this repertory company to great effect but – while commonplace now – it’s incredible how many fundamental ingredients were present in this series’ first season and stayed onboard through the seven seasons, helping to build that sense of permanence and continuity.
Although pivotal to the series, two major supporting characters only make brief debuts in season one. Garak (Andrew Robinson), who I’ll definitely cover in more detail later, is a mischevious delight that only hints at what’s to come whereas Winn Adami (Vedek and later Kai of the Bajoran people) makes an instant impression. Played with an imperious implacability by Louise Fletcher, Vedek Winn makes her entrance in the excellent season finale “In The Hands Of The Prophets”, an episode which highlights the series’ continued topicality. It forces Major Kira (Nana Visitor) to begin to make a painful choice between blind faith and duty and sets up one of the series’ most powerful conflicts which is only, finally, resolved in the series finale. I’ve only just scratched the surface of the richness of the characters and their lives in this piece and I’ll look to cover them in more detail as I cover later series (I don’t want to spoil some of the twists and turns of later seasons by going too in depth with them here).
Top 3 Episodes:
“The Nagus” (S1E11)
Think the Ferengi are a joke? They’re certainly funny but this episode starts the process of giving them depth, pathos and verisimilitude. It’s a comic standout in an otherwise sombre and serious season, giving Armin Shimmerman a chance to shine as Quark while Wallace Shawn has an absolute ball as Grand Nagus Zek. 8/10
It’s a beautifully delivered sucker punch to both the viewers and Major Kira’s sense of moral superiority and certainty as a frail Cardassian visitor to the station is arrested on suspecicion of being a war criminal. The episode boasts brave, sophisticated storytelling as it explores the murky morality and prejudices of war, occupation and the difference between revenge and justice. 10/10
“In The Hands Of The Prophets” (S1E20)
Preparing the way for the explosive second season, the finale to DS9’s freshman year pivots away from the Cardassian occupation to open up the simmering conflicts within Bajoran society. With prescient topicality, the episode presents us with Vedek Winn, an outsider candidate for the post of Kai but one with a talent for opportunistic and inflammatory rhetoric, using division and false accusations of religious persecution and imagined threats to rally and rouse a base from which to launch her bid. 10/10
One(s) to skip:
A pointless and gimmicky episode, it feels like it was written before transmission began, driven by a fear that familiar elements would be needed to get viewers on board. By the time it arrives, it feels like an unnecessary distraction. 4/10
“Move Along Home” (S1E10)
Although DS9 was still trying to find its own identity, this clearly isn’t it. It’s a very Season 7 TNG episode and if you like goofy, surreal fun it might be your cup of tea but it doesn’t really fit with the show. It’s not without ambition but you can tell there was a mid-season budget crunch going on during it. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to a big budget version of BBC2’s “The Adventure Game”, minus the aspidistras and run-down BBC sci-fi charm but the only reason it might be worth (re)watching is just to see how embarrassed the cast are during the alien hopscotch sequence. Even the screengrab looks like it comes from a 90s Nickelodeon game show. 4/10
Next Time: Bajor erupts in Civil War, the Maquis emerge to set up the “Star Trek: Voyager” backstory and we start hearing whispers of a Gamma Quadrant power called “The Dominion”…