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Star Trek 103: The Best of Deep Space Nine

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, we’re holding a month full of Star Trek related fun. We’re reviewing every episode of the show’s first season, from The Cage through to Operation — Annihilate!, one-per-day for all of May. We’re also looking at some of the various spin-offs, tie-ins and pop culture intersections, so there’s always something going on to do with Star Trek. Anyway, with the release of the new film, we thought it might be interesting to make some recommendations for fans of the new films who wanted to “dip their toes in the water” so to speak. Today, we’re making recommendations from the second of the 24th century spin-offs, and the first to broadcast concurrently with another Star Trek project, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

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Being entirely honest, Deep Space Nine is my favourite of the spin-offs. It’s also the tie-in I would argue has aged best in the years since the original broadcast. There are several reasons for this. In part, the show’s serialised nature seemed to predict the model for television shows in twenty-first century. While it’s hardly fair to suggest that shows like 24 or Lost wouldn’t exist without Deep Space Nine, the spin-off was clearly ahead of the curve when it come to using a prime time genre to tell a single expansive story.

There’s also the fact that the show become more timely after it had gone off the air. The show’s central arc saw the Federation’s values under siege from an insidious “Changeling” threat, and dared to question about how idealised and utopian liberal values hold up in times of siege or open warfare. Episodes like Homefront and Paradise Lost would seem heavy-handed, but for the fact they were written years before the War on Terror began in earnest.

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It’s hard to cherry-pick the best episodes of the show for newcomers, because so much of the show is tied into what came before. In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light is the only two-part adventure that could conceivably measure up against The Best of Both Worlds as the best two-parter the franchise ever produced, but it’s steeped in so much mythology and continuity that it’s hard to recommend. The same is true of episodes like Inquisition or the fantastic Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. To say nothing of the massive ten-part finalé that wraps up the show’s extended plots.

If you want a recommendation, I would suggest watching the show from the end of the first season. Skip the opening episodes and jump into Duet and watch from there. Or skip the middle of the second season as well, and jump in with The Jem’Hadar. After that, it’s all really one big story told in different chapters. However, if you do want to sample the best that this instalment has to offer, the episodes below should provide a quick taste of what made Deep Space Nine so unique.

The Visitor

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What it’s about: On Earth, an aspiring young writer visits her idol, the author Jake Sisko. A successful author, Jake has grown from the young adolescent we knew on the show into a lonely old man. Tired and worn out, Jake decides to share his life story with the young woman. He begins with the most important experience of his life: the day that his father, Captain Benjamin Sisko, died.

Why it’s so good: Deep Space Nine often comes under fire for not conforming to the standard vision of Star Trek, eschewing the science-fiction elements of the franchise for politicking and cynicism. While that’s true to an extent, it’s also rather dismissive. When Deep Space Nine set its mind to it, it could produce a very thought-provoking piece of science-fiction that really had very little to do with the show’s long-term storytelling.

Instead, The Visitor is a stand-alone character study with a haunting science-fiction hook, using the set-up to explore the nature of grief and the way that people cope with loss. The episode benefits from two superb central performances. Avery Brooks is as wonderfully emotive as usual as Benjamin Sisko, but the episode also gives regular Star Trek guest star Tony Todd a chance to take off the make-up and to demonstrate his considerable dramatic chops.

Duet

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What it’s about: A year after the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor has ended, the station’s Bajoran second-in-command, Kira, receives word that a survivor of an infamous labour camp will be arriving on the station. Welcoming the guest to the station, she’s alarmed to discover that the survivor is Cardassian. As Kira begins to peel back the layers of the guest’s story, she begins to suspect that he might not be who he claims to be.

Why it’s so good: Detractors like to joke that the mission of Deep Space Nine was “to boldly sit.” The station didn’t warp around the cosmos encountering strange new life forms. Instead, it stayed in one place. This meant that story threads began to accumulate and to build up. There were consequences for actions, and the past was even harder to escape. Duet sees the show engaging with the notion of guilt and blame stemming from historical atrocities.

Nana Visitor was always one of the show’s strongest performers, and Kira the most compelling character. It’s hard to imagine an unrepentant former terrorist as a central character on any major American television show, and Deep Space Nine did wonders exploring how her character responded to the evolving realities of modern Bajoran life. A fantastic guest performance from the wonderful Harris Yulin and a healthy dose of ambiguity helped Duet round out the show’s first season with a firmer sense of identity than any other Star Trek spin-off.

Our Man Bashir

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What it’s about: The name’s Bashir, Julian Bashir. The show’s arrogant and very British medical officer reveals that he plays secret agent in his spare time, using the station’s holosuites to act out his romantic fantasies. Joined by the enigmatic Mr. Garak, a former Cardassian real-life spy living in exile on the station, Bashir plays out the role of a suave tuxedoed agent. Until there’s a critical holosuite malfunction. (As there always is.)

Why it’s so good: Holodeck episodes are generally something be avoided. They often serve as an excuse for a Star Trek show to ditch its premise and engage in all manner of self-important nonsense. Also, the rate at which the things critically malfunction raises all manner of questions the show never quite addresses. And yet, despite that, Our Man Bashir stands as the best holodeck episode the franchise has ever produced.

There are several reasons. First, Alexander Siddig and Andrew Robinson make a delightful double-team. Both have great comic timing, and Siddig makes a convincing James Bond surrogate. Plus the rest of the cast are having a great time. Avery Brooks turns his Avery-Brooks-itude up to eleven to play the sinister “Dr. Noah.”

It helps that the script also underscores the fun and humour with a real sense of character development. Garak is the best supporting character in the history of the franchise, and the fourth season was the point where the show seemed to realise what it was doing with Bashir as a character. Our Man Bashir explores both characters and their relationship to each other, in a way that makes it feel more substantial than a forty-five minute Bond homage. Which it does very well.

The Way of the Warrior

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What it’s about: Deep Space Nine gets a second pilot as the Klingons show up volunteering to help assist with the whole shapeshifter threat. Whether their assistance is requested or not. And Worf joins the crew.

Why it’s so good: I mentioned “jumping on” points above, and The Way of the Warrior is as welcoming a place to start as any. The only real downside is missing a lot of the show’s rapidly solidifying third season (highlights including The Die is Cast, Improbable Cause, The Search and The Adversary). However, The Way of the Warrior is designed to welcome the casual viewer to Deep Space Nine. The status quo is explained. The franchise’s most iconic aliens, the Klingons, take a much larger role in things.

The episode also gives a great sense of Deep Space Nine‘s political scale and sense of ambiguity. The Klingons aren’t acting out of the goodness of their own hearts, and The Way of the Warrior offers a probing exploration of just how unstable the franchise’s political framework must be. Not to mention that every character gets their chance to shine, including Garak and Dukat – two of the best guest stars in the franchise’s history.

The Wire

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What it’s about:  the station’s mysterious Cardassian tailor, suddenly collapses. It turns out there’s something wrong with an implant inside his skull. As Bashir tries to figure out who might be trying to murder the former spy, and how to save the life of his friend, Garak proceeds to share his personal history with the young doctor. Naturally, many of the extracts from Garak’s life story seem to be mutually exclusive.

Why it’s so good: Garak is, as mentioned above, one of the richest characters in the Star Trek canon. He serves as the perfect ambassador for Deep Space Nine, embodying a lot of the attributes particular to this incarnation of the franchise. If you like Garak, you’ll probably like the show. If you aren’t intrigued by him, it’s probably not for you. So The Wire serves as a pretty efficient litmus test for anybody curious about whether or not they want to commit to Deep Space Nine for the long haul.

The Wire works in a large part due to the two lead performances from Andrew Robinson and Siddig El Fadil. Robinson is as much a part of Garak as any of the writers, even writing the highly recommended spin-off book A Stitch in Time – drawn from all the actor’s notes about the possible back story for the interstellar man of man of mystery.

In the Hands of the Prophets

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What it’s about: Closing off the first season with a bang – literally – faith and science come to a head on Deep Space Nine as the station’s Bajoran occupants begin to take issue with the “science” being taught in the station’s schools. Things escalate quite quickly as the debate becomes a focal point for the religious politics of the show’s potential Federation member.

Why it’s so good: Star Trek was often at its best tackling the important social issues. Here, indeed, it seems to be ahead of the curve. Much like it’s difficult to image Kira as a regular on a modern Star Trek show, it’s very hard to imagine The Hands of the Prophets airing on a major American television show. It’s an exploration of religious fundamentalism, offering an insight into the conflict between creationists and the science of evolution.

In the Hands of the Prophets is fairly bold. It seems especially bold today, given the resurgence of the religious right in modern American politics. It’s never vicious and always reasonable, but the episode dares to poke at some of the cynical politicking that often underlines the elevation of these community issues to the national stage. It also dares to explore competing viewpoints and philosophies, something that Star Trek used to embrace quite readily, but lost sight of in its last few years on television.

Hard Time

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What it’s about: After serving years in an alien prison after being accused of espionage, Chief O’Brien wakes up to discover that he has only been unconscious a few moments. Returning to the station only a few days after he left, he struggles to reconcile the memories of his time in prison with the reality that he was never actually there.

Why it’s so good: Hard Time has another great science-fiction hook. It’s just a wonderful premise, and one that makes for an interesting philosophic and moral quandary. To what extent is our identity defined by our memories? How cruel is it to force O’Brien to reconcile false memories with what he knows (or thinks he knows) about himself.

Colm Meaney is, as usual, superb and the semi-annual “O’Brien must suffer!” episodes are all generally high quality, but Hard Time is the best of the bunch, putting the show’s loveable everyman through an emotional wringer.

Homefront / Paradise Lost

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What it’s about: After more than a year of build up, the Changelings have reached Earth. A bomb is detonated at a peace conference at the heart of the Federation, the first act of terrorism committed on the planet’s surface in centuries. As you might expect, the revelation shocks the organisation to the core. As Sisko is drafted in to help the planet prepare for an enemy who could be anyone, he discovers that sinister forces are at work within the military to deal with the threat.

Why it’s so good: If these episodes had aired after 9/11, they’d probably seem heavy-handed, or too pointed. Instead, this rather prescient morality tale offers a vision of a comfortable society thrown into turmoil by the shocking revelation that it is nowhere near as safe as it likes to believe that it is.

Star Trek always strove for utopian values, the belief that mankind could be better than what they are. It dared to imagine a world where scarcity had been eliminated and an interstellar alliance could be held together by people simply being really, really nice to one another. Deep Space Nine has been accused for venturing away from this core concept, which is hardly fair.

Instead, at its best, the show demonstrated the importance of these values by putting them under pressure, and exploring how important those cherished ideals are when it stops being easy to live by them. To quote an earlier episode, “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise.” Deep Space Nine just acknowledged that we don’t all get to live in paradise, and – even if we did – paradise isn’t as safe as we’d like to think.

In the Pale Moonlight

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What it’s about: The Federation is at war. The casualty reports are flooding in. It seems like the conflict might not be going Starfleet’s way. In this darkest hour, Captain Benjamin Sisko decides to change the field by drawing the Romulans into the war on the side of the angels. In the Pale Moonlight explores just how far Sisko is willing to go, and how much he is willing to compromise, to secure the future of the Federation.

Why it’s so good: Well, it teams up Sisko with Garak, which is great fun. It’s also narrated by Avery Brooks staring directly at the camera. However, the best part of In the Pale Moonlight is that it so brutally compromises Sisko. It refuses to vindicate or vilify the protagonist, and invites the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the morality of Sisko’s actions. Again, it offers a rather brutal exploration of Star Trek‘s utopianism, exploring what those values mean when the chips are down.

Trials and Tribble-ations

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What it’s about: For the franchise’s thirtieth birthday, Sisko takes a trip back in time and the Deep Space Nine cast get to play Forrest Gump with one of the best-loved episodes of the original Star Trek.

Why it’s so good: Far more exciting than Star Trek: Voyager‘s rather lame thirtieth anniversary celebration, this feels like a love-letter to classic Star Trek. It’s clearly composed with the greatest love and affection for the source material. While it’s hardly the best jumping-on point for somebody unfamiliar with Star Trek, it makes a great double feature with The Trouble With Tribbles, which is also recommended. So that’s a double win.

Far Beyond the Stars

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What it’s about: As Sisko begins to doubt everything, he is haunted with visions of another life as a struggling African-American science-fiction writer, Benny Russell. Russell, a magazine writer, runs into trouble when his latest pitch – about a futuristic space station – is pulped for featuring an African-American leading character.

Why it’s so good: Anybody who ever dares to claim that Deep Space Nine is not a valid part of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek mythos should really take a look at Far Beyond the Stars. Directed (and headlined) by Brooks, it’s a powerful story about the role that science-fiction can play in helping shape and evolve social norms and attitudes.

Far Beyond the Stars is rather unlike anything that Star Trek had ever done before. The closest comparison was The Inner Light from The Next Generation, another classic. It’s powerful and probing stuff, dispensing with allegory and metaphor to seize upon the real-world troubles that plagued the society which dared dream of Star Trek. Problems that have, to be honest, not entirely gone away.

It’s also a great showcase for Brooks, as both director and leading man. And it’s fun to see most of the cast without make-up. (Spot the obvious science-fiction writer pastiches among Benny’s colleagues!)

Want some quick Star Trek recommendations? Try our quick “best of” lists for the shows for those looking to dip their toes in the franchise water:

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