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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 2 (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

Well, that’s more like it. The second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might not rank with the very best of the franchise, but it doesn’t have to. Deep Space Nine is still a young show, and Star Trek spin-offs have a long history of taking their time to find their feet. The second season of Deep Space Nine contains its fair share of classic or memorable episodes, but it’s defined by a sense that the producers are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

While the first season occasionally felt like the series was stumbling back towards safety, trying to become a lighter version of Star Trek: The Next Generation as faith in its premise wavered, the second season is a lot more confident in itself. It’s willing to play around a bit to figure out how to be the show that it wants to be. And there’s a sense, as the season winds to a close, that we’re almost there.

By the time we hit the second half of the season, it seems the show has learned to churn out inoffensive episodes that feel unique and distinctively Deep Space Nine – episodes like Playing God or Shadowplay. However, it’s in the final third that the show seems to figure out how make truly great episodes of Deep Space Nine.

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The second season of Deep Space Nine feels like it can be broken down into three very clear sections. These aren’t necessarily “thirds” or anything so convenient, but there’s a logical sense of growth and change in how the production team are approaching the show. The writing begins to figure out and tease the strengths of the series. The actors grow increasingly comfortable in their roles. The storytelling becomes a bit more confident, and a bit more free-spirited.

As you might expect, these three discernable sections of the second season break up almost entirely by the production and airdate blocks. The first stretch of the season, the episodes that aired in 1993 – The Homecoming through to Sanctuary – feel like a conscious attempt to make up for ground lost during the middle section of the first season, and to keep up with the momentum carried over from Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets.

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The first season of Deep Space Nine began confident in itself, proud to be something very different from The Next Generation. However, towards the middle of the season, there was a sense that the show was growing uneasy. It’s easy to understand why that might be – the ratings from Deep Space Nine entered a downward slope from the moment the end credits on Emissary were finished. However, the middle of the first season seemed to try to do generic Star Trek stories.

Episodes like The Passenger or Battle Lines could easily have been written for the crew of The Next Generation. Only towards the end of the first season did the show begin to assert its own identity. Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets aren’t just the two strongest episodes of the show’s first year. They are two of the strongest episodes of Deep Space Nine ever produced. They saw the show experimenting with its setting and characters, trying to do something bold and unique.

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The first half of the second season continues that trend. The opening episodes give us the first three-part Star Trek episode, assuming you don’t consider Family to be The Best of Both Worlds, Part III. Necessary Evil gives us “Star Trek as film noir”, a concept that simply couldn’t work on any other Star Trek spin-off. Cardassians dealt the with the legacy of the Occupation, and also the fall-out from the opening trio of episodes. Sanctuary was about the harsh decisions that need to be made when nation-building. Rules of Acquisition opened up the Gamma Quadrant.

Necessary Evil is among the best episodes of Deep Space Nine ever produced, but most of the rest of the first third of the season suffer a bit in execution. There’s ambition, and a desire to tell stories unique to Deep Space Nine, but any genuine attempt at experimentation means that there must be failures along the way. After all, it’s rare for a show to try something and to see it work pretty much straight away. There are growing pains.

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And so there are quite a few “interesting in concept, mediocre in execution” episodes. The Siege feels like a trite way to wrap up what had been a true political epic. Cardassians feels like it engages with the issues on a level that is almost academic. Rules of Acquisition introduces the Dominion, but with a sense that the producers don’t know what it is yet. Sanctuary has a pretty powerful ending, but no real idea of how to get there. Invasive Procedures has a great set-up and hook, but ignores that Dax needs to be a character rather than a plot point.

That’s not to be harsh about these episodes. I like most of them quite a bit – Melora, Second Sight and maybe Rules of Acquisition excluded. However, what’s really great about these early episodes is that the show is at least consciously trying to address the fundamental problems with the first season. Every episode has a purpose, even if the execution feels a little disappointing or shallow.

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Melora is a Bashir episode that tries to improve on The Passenger by actually being about Bashir. The problem is that it makes him seem like a creepy pervert. Second Sight acknowledges that the show hasn’t really done a Sisko show yet, but suffers because a sucky Bashir storyline is still a sucky Bashir storyline even if you swap out the lead. Both of these episodes recognise flaws, even if they don’t know quite how to fix them. They are trying, and that’s important – because eventually the show will figure out how to fix them properly.

Indeed, I’d argue that Star Trek: Voyager is missing a run of episodes like this. Voyager gets a lot of flack for being the first truly mediocre Star Trek spin-off, and I think that sells the show short. Voyager never really tried to be anything more than what it was: disposable and mediocre science-fiction television. Sure, a few great episodes slipped through, but there was never any sense that Voyager was ever trying to make itself work.

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And, to be fair, this is a legitimate approach – as much as the results may not be to my own personal tastes. Rather than trying to figure out how to make good episodes of a new show, running the risk of failing spectacularly and going through some truly horrifying birthing pains, Voyager instead opted to take the path of least resistance. It settled for being a passable imitation of a better show. Voyager got stuck in that identity crisis of Deep Space Nine‘s first season, but it never bothered to pull itself out. It just settled in there.

So I would argue – perhaps controversially – that the problem with Voyager isn’t that it lacks the skill of the later Deep Space Nine seasons. I think the writing talent was on the show. Bryan Fuller is one of the best writers in American television, and Brannon Braga can be better than he often allows himself to be. The problem is that Voyager lacked the will and courage of the second season of Deep Space Nine, where the show took risks that didn’t always pay off in order to figure out what it wanted to be.

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So that’s the first of the three segments, building off the end of the first season, and a clear attempt to carve out its own niche. You can see the definite influence of Michael Piller on that part of the season – the idea that Star Trek stories should be driven by characters rather than by contrivance. Even Cardassians is anchored in the relationship between Bashir and Garak. Sisko and Kira root the opening three-parter in the personal lives of our characters.

Piller doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions to modern Star Trek. Although spared the vilification that Rick Berman has received from fans, Piller’s influence is generally discussed in the way that the writer and producer shaped the third season of The Next Generation. Of course, that season pretty much invented modern Star Trek, and it’s one of the most dramatic turnarounds in television history – taking a show from “passable” to “one of the best shows on the air” after two years straddling the line between “quite okay” and “souldestroyingly bad.”

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However, Piller was also responsible for a lot of what worked about Deep Space Nine. He left the show to work on Voyager towards the end of this season, but his fingerprints are all over the early episodes of Deep Space Nine‘s second year. Most obviously, there’s the whole idea that a given episode is “a Sisko show” or “a Bashir show.” There’s a clear desire to keep the focus on the people inhabiting the station.

While Ira Steven Behr deserves a lot of credit for building the world Deep Space Nine, a lot of the foundation feels like it was inspired by or driven by Piller. That said, Behr’s influence on the show only increases as the show drags on, and the end of the second season feels completely different from the first block of episodes. It’s something that’s quite appealing about the second season, even despite the show’s occasional growing pains. The three sections of the season feel remarkably distinct.

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The second of the three sections of the season is about Deep Space Nine figuring out how to make a fairly average Deep Space Nine episode. It’s worth noting that a fairly average Deep Space Nine episode is different from a fairly average Star Trek episode, or a fairly average The Next Generation episode. It’s about figuring out how the cast work together as a matter of course, the structural elements that you might expect in a Deep Space Nine episode that you wouldn’t see in an episode of The Next Generation.

This stretch of the season roughly covers the block between January and March – Rivals through to Blood Oath. (Although I’d argue that Blood Oath really begins the massive upswing towards the end of the second season, but it’s convenient to draw a dividing line here.) There’s a sense that – now the writers have a decent idea of how all the parts are supposed to work – the show is trying to put them together. For example, although we have two episodes focusing on Quark here, neither centres on him putting the station at risk.

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The show is also figuring out structure. Shadowplay and Playing God are two back-to-back episodes that have three plots unfolding simultaneously, keeping the cast perfectly occupied. This is somewhat distinct from the more traditional “a- and b-plot” structure of The Next Generation, and gives a sense that Deep Space Nine might actually be more character-focused than its direct predecessor. There isn’t just one big plot and character development arc in the background, there’s a whole host of stuff going on – the station is hub of activity and life. The Enterprise may have had all the requisite facilities and a vibrant community, but the station feels like a real city in space.

It’s this second stretch that really seems to focus on the business of making Deep Space Nine. Rivals teases life outside Sisko’s command structure. Armageddon Game and Whispers introduce the concept that “O’Brien must suffer.” Odo’s mysterious past is wheeled out again in The Alternate, which ultimately decides that Odo’s own internal issues and conflicts are more interesting than the mystery of where he came from.

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You can see the production staff sort of marking out the borders of the show, firmly delineating what is and isn’t going to be part of the show as it presses ahead. It’s almost business-like, as the show finally settles on a characterisation and approach to Jadzia Dax that works, building from her role in Rules of Acquisition and pushing that characterisation of the character to the fore in Playing God. Blood Oath actually marks a convenient cut-off point for this section of the season because it is the last appearance of the truly stoic Dax.

Which brings us to the final third of the season, when things really start to work for the show. There’s a sense that Deep Space Nine knows what it wants to be now. I’d argue that it gets a little bit lost in the middle of the third season, but there’s a definite sense of identity to be found. The Maquis is, after all, the quintessential Deep Space Nine story – it’s about authority indifferent to those who chose to live outside the rigid structure that society has imposed.

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It’s no coincidence that the major antagonistic races of Deep Space Nine – the Cardassians, the Dominion – are defined by that sort of scary group-think. It’s the first time that Deep Space Nine has been openly critical of the ideals of the Federation, suggesting that the large organisation might not actually have the best interests of all its members at heart. It’s also the point where Sisko’s faith in the Federation begins to waver, and we begin to see that the universe is not really shades of black and white. Gul Dukat can be a thinly-veiled Cardassian version of Adolph Hitler and still prove a valuable ally to our heroes.

Crossover might fall just short of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the most self-critical piece of Star Trek written, despite attempts to distract the audience by asking Nana Visitor to ramp up her sex appeal. It’s essentially one giant criticism of James T. Kirk’s entire philosophy, demonstrating what happens when you meddle in a society that you quickly abandon, without a care for the context of that society or the consequences of your actions.

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And The Jem’Hadar closes off the season with the promise that the ante has been well-and-truly upped. There’s no going back. The Rubicon has been crossed, even though that particular runabout won’t arrive until Family Business. Things have changed. Deep Space Nine is a different show now. It’s more than just a spin-off from a more popular parent show. Deep Space Nine might have been dwarfed by The Next Generation in the ratings, but now it was finally out of the shadow of its elder sibling.

The Jem’Hadar really capped off a nice run at the end of the season, pretty much confirming that Deep Space Nine had gone beyond the point where it could be reworked into a lame knock-off of The Next Generation. Despite early temptations in episodes like The Passenger, this is the point at which Deep Space Nine makes it absolutely clear that the viewer won’t find a substitute for the recently wrapped-up Next Generation by watching Deep Space Nine.

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For better or worse, this final stretch of episodes is the point where Deep Space Nine proudly stands tall and steps out from beneath The Next Generation. And that feels important, and exciting, and a little provocative. Indeed, these episodes feel much more exciting knowing that they are the first steps on a road that will take Deep Space Nine well outside the franchise’s comfort zone. Even if the second season isn’t composed of particularly strong episodes, it has a very clear and calculate goal – which it accomplishes.

This is the year where the production staff on Deep Space Nine blew up a stand-in for Picard’s Enterprise in an episode apparently unfolding mere hours before Picard wrapped up his run in All Good Things… This is ambitious stuff. There are a couple of stinkers here (Melora, Rivals), and a few gems (The Wire, Necessary Evil), but there’s a pervading sense that change is in the air. Deep Space Nine has figured out the show that it wants to be.

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It’s just a matter of tidying everything up.

You might be interested in our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

4 Responses

  1. 1. “Necessary Evil”-5/5
    2. “The Wire”-5/5
    3. “Whispers”-4.5/5
    4. “Blood Oath”-4.5/5
    5. “Crossover”-4.5/5
    6. “The Jem’Hadar”-4/5
    7. “The Circle”-4/5
    8. “Tribunal”-4/5
    9. “Cardassians”-4/5
    10. “The Collaborator”-4/5
    11. “The Maquis Part 1”-3.5/5
    12. “The Maquis Part 2”-3.5/5
    13. “The Homecoming”-3.5/5
    14. “The Alternate”-3.5/5
    15. “The Siege”-3/5
    16. “The Armageddon Game”-3/5
    17. “Shadowplay”-3/5
    18. “Profit and Loss”-2/5
    19. “Rules of Acquisition”-2/5
    20. “Invasive Procedures”-2/5
    21. “Playing God”-1.5/5
    22. “Melora”-1.5/5
    23. “Rivals”-1.5/5
    24. “Paradise”-1.5/5
    25. “Sanctuary”-1.5/5
    26. “Second Sight”-1.5/5

    The mid-section of this season really sinks it. So many clunkers in such a short span of episodes.

    • Not a bad ranking. For me “Crossover” would be higher, “Cardassians” and “The Jem’Hadar” would be lower. But it’s an interesting season, the show still figuring out what it wants to do even as it emerges from the shadow of “The Next Generation.”

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