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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 3 (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a turning point for many reasons. The most obvious was that Star Trek: The Next Generation had gone off the air, meaning the first half of the third season was broadcast during a window where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek show on the air. The show was no longer the goofy kid brother to a much beloved mainstream television show. It was out in the syndication market place by itself.

More than that, though, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was no longer the child of the franchise. With Star Trek: Voyager on the way, launched as the flagship of UPN, Deep Space Nine was left to its own devices for the first time since it was created. Voyager was the high-profile standard-bearer for the franchise, serving as the cornerstone of a new network. In contrast, Deep Space Nine chugged along in syndication, with the powers that be working overtime to bring Voyager to screen.

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In some respects, this was a tough time for Deep Space Nine. It was no longer the newest and freshest Star Trek. It was no longer the bright promising future of the Star Trek franchise. The novelty of having a second Star Trek show on the air had worn off. (Indeed, the decision to treat Voyager as the eighth season of The Next Generation was largely a response to how Deep Space Nine was not filling the niche.)

At the same time, the fact that Michael Piller and Rick Berman were focused on other projects meant that Deep Space Nine really came into its own during the third season. Ira Steven Behr had helped run the writers’ room towards the end of the third season of The Next Generation, and was the logical choice to take the reigns on Deep Space Nine. His influence on the show had been obvious since the beginning, becoming more pronounced after The Maquis.

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However, the third season saw Behr becoming the driving creative force on Deep Space Nine, a changing of the creative guard. Ronald D. Moore and Rene Echevarria joined the show from the staff of The Next Generation. Given all this drama behind the scenes, the third season was as chaotic as you might expect. There were all manner of production problems that haunted the third season, with a sense that Deep Space Nine was being produced by the seat of the producers’ pants.

Episodes tended to get shifted around in production order. Various scripts ended up produced under time constraints so tight that there was no opportunity to properly polish them before putting them in front of the camera. There were rumours that Colm Meaney might have been considering leaving;. Episodes had to be extended into two-parters at the last minute. The show had great ideas, but difficulty realising them. The season as a whole was rather oddly paced, plotted haphazardly. And yet, despite all this, the chaos felt necessary.

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In many respects, the third season of Deep Space Nine feels like a second first season for the show. The third season provided a foundation upon which the rest of the show would build, pushing forward ideas about what a season of Deep Space Nine should look like – adding structural elements like the bombastic agenda-setting opening, the idea of an annual mirror universe episode as an adventure romp, the notion of doing two Ferengi episodes in a year, the mid-season two-parter with two different titles. It introduced the Dominion and had Sisko engage with his role as Emissary.

Not all of these ideas worked flawlessly, but they very clearly marked out areas that the show wanted to explore. Quite a few of these ideas seem prototypical, dry runs for things to come. The Search would work better as The Way of the Warrior. The themes from Past Tense would be hit upon more forcefully with Home Front and Paradise Lost. Even In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light would work off the template of Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast. Destiny leads to Accession and The Rapture.

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The third season may be deeply flawed, but it is purposeful. It has its own goals and objectives. That’s probably the best thing that can be said about the third season of Deep Space Nine. It paves the way for what is to come, laying necessary groundwork that would allow later seasons of Deep Space Nine to do their own thing and find their own voice. It offers the shape of things to come.

However, on an episode-by-episode basis, it’s a wildly uneven experience. Gems like House of Quark, Second Skin, Explorers, Improbable Cause, Family Business and The Search sit alongside episodes like Meridian, Fascination, Through the Looking Glass, Distant Voices and Prophet Motive. Even some of the stronger episodes – like Equilibrium or The Abandoned – are problematic; while some of the weaker episodes – like Life Support or Shakaar or Destiny – have interesting ideas.

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There’s something very awkward about the third season of Deep Space Nine, as the series begins to dip its toes in the waters of serialisation. This is most obvious with the introduction of the Dominion – who debuted in The Jem’Hadar at the end of the second season. The Dominion are established as an adversary for the Federation. However, these aren’t like the Borg from The Next Generation. The Dominion is a different sort of threat; they cannot be relegated to four appearances over seven years.

Instead, the Dominion are a much more insideous threat, an enemy that doesn’t rely on single flashpoints or epic confrontations to advance their plots for conquest. There’s no The Best of Both Worlds for the Dominion – no one big moment where our heroes vanquish their latest foes and send them limping off into the void. The Dominion area political entity, with long-term objectives and long-term plans to help then accomplish those objectives. They are, in short, here for the long haul.

And the third season concedes this. The Search makes it clear that the Dominion will be playing the long game. The ending of The Adversary isn’t a cliffhanger that requires immediate resolution; it’s more a statement of purpose. “You’re too late; we’re everywhere” isn’t a sentiment that gets tied up in a single episode, it’s a commitment to long-form plotting. After all, the boast (and the implied threat) are rooted in the premise that the Dominion are still positioning themselves for the fatal strike.

The problem with the third season is that the show has absolutely no idea how to tell this sort of story, how to structure and pay off serialised plotting. The Dominion appear in The Search, but the show doesn’t reengage with them for almost half a year in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast. The Adversary does very little to advance the sense of the Dominion as a major threat, even if it does advance Odo’s personal arc. In short, there’s very little movement between The Search and The Adversary.

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To be fair, the show makes small nods towards the Dominion. They are mentioned fleetingly in episodes like House of Quark and Destiny. The Abandoned was designed as a way to keep the threat of the Dominion bubbling away in the background by giving the audience a taste of what their culture might be like. The Female Changeling appears in Heart of Stone to reiterate just how much Odo means to them. At the same time, episodes like Visionary make it clear that the Dominion are having some impact on Alpha Quadrant politics.

But all of this feels like too little to sustain a full season, allowing the Dominion to slip into the background as the show loses focus. The Dominion really should be a game-changer. It’s clear that they were created as a game-changer. In The Jem’Hadar, Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe announced the presence of the Dominion by having them brutally slaughter an entire Bajoran colony and destroy an iconic Galaxy-class starship.

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In the same episode, the Dominion make it clear that the Federation has been encroaching on their territory and that no further violations will be tolerated. This is a pretty big deal – an ultimatum issued that effectively hems the Federation in, setting a firm boundary on their exploration. This should be a state of cold war – anxiety should hang on the air; every breath should be tentative. It should feel like the gauntlet has been thrown down. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The threat is completely ignored during the third season. The Defiant cruises through the Gamma Quadrant in Meridian as if nothing happened. In Destiny, the Federation helps the Bajorans and Cardassians establish a listening post on the other side of the wormhole, with no mention of the massacre of New Bajor. In short, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sympathetic to the Dominion, despite their tendencies towards mass murder and warfare. The Federation are quite possibly the worst neighbours in the history of galactic politics.

There’s a sense that Deep Space Nine is struggling with the conflict between long-form storytelling and episodic adventuring. The show is actually very good at the little things, the small bits of character work that carry over from one episode to the next. Jake’s girlfriends, for example, are kept consistent from episode to episode. Sisko’s date with Kasidy Yates in Family Business is set up by a conversation in Explorers. Even some of the smaller threads connect quite well – the Cardassian and Romulan plotting in Defiant and Visionary leading directly to The Die is Cast.

It’s more that the show isn’t quite sure how to properly pace a long game. Deep Space Nine was largely improvised on the fly. Indeed, the writers had no idea what the Cardassian end game was when they wrote Defiant, ultimately settling on the plan to attack the Founder homeworld. The writers had planned a very different climax to the third season of the show, but constructed The Adversary with a week’s notice when the studio declared they did not want a cliffhanger ending to the season.

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This sense of improvisation was both a strength and a weakness. It allowed Deep Space Nine a great deal of freedom to make things up as it went along – to revise plans, to expand roles, to rework characters based on what worked and what didn’t work. If certain aspects of the show weren’t working, they could be dropped quietly without any real consequence to the long-term plans. The slow shifting of focus away from Bajor is an example of this.

The show’s flexibility was also a boon when it came to its supporting cast. Unlike the rather utilitarian approach that Voyager had to guest characters, where supporting players were typically inserted to serve a specific purpose, Deep Space Nine could be open-ended. Garak only appeared once in the first season; Dukat only appeared twice. Here, Michael Eddington was introduced to fill in for Colm Meaney, but the character’s purpose was allowed to evolve into an interesting character in his own right – despite the fact the writers had no idea what to do with him.

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This approach did have its downsides. It meant that the show could occasionally struggle with an element while figuring out what to do with it – occasionally dropping it completely and hoping that the audience would forget about it. Commander T’Rul was introduced in The Search as a potentially exciting addition to the ensemble; she was never mentioned again. In the third season, it feels like the show is spinning its wheels trying to figure out how to write the Dominion.

That said, the third season does demonstrate that Deep Space Nine is coming into its own. The opening run of episodes – the episodes that aired before Voyager was broadcast – feel like they are making a conscious effort to distinguish the show from the other Star Trek series on the air. There’s a very clear sense that Deep Space Nine is emphasising its own unique identity, stressing the things that make it different from The Next Generation or Voyager.

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The Search is a conscious rejection of the idea that everybody can get along if the Federation is understanding enough. House of Quark is a blistering deconstruction of Klingon culture. Equilibrium suggests that class culture survives into the twenty-fourth century. The Abandoned is a story about how sometimes you are right to judge people based on their race or culture. Defiant teases a crossover with The Next Generation before radically subverting expectations and telling the story of a sibling going through an identity crisis.

There’s something almost adversarial and provocative about this first run of episodes, with the show not offering a traditional Star Trek narrative until Past Tense, the two-parter that broadcast just before Caretaker aired. Watching the show, you can see Deep Space Nine going to great lengths to remind viewers of just how different it is from The Next Generation. There’s something almost hostile in the way that Deep Space Nine frames this. It’s very hard to imagine any Next Generation fans being convinced to join the show based on the first half of the season.

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The recurring theme of identity crisis running through that first block of episodes seems almost like awkward self-awareness on the part of the show. Kira and Dax have their self-image undermined in Second Skin and Equilibrium. In Defiant, Thomas Riker is plagued by doubt and uncertainty underneath his charming exterior. In The Abandoned, Odo finds himself struggling with his own desire to return home by proxy. In House of Quark, Quark’s lies about his own heroism land him in deep water. In The Search, Odo’s people turn out to be the Federation’s new mortal adversaries.

And yet, despite all this, Deep Space Nine remains interested and invested in its characters. Kira gets brushed aside a bit during the third season, but Explorers gives the show its best Sisko episode to date – an episode that basks in the uniqueness of Deep Space Nine in a celebratory (rather than defensive) manner. Quark anchors no less than three episodes. Garak becomes more of a key player. Gul Dukat becomes more slimy in Civil Defense and more sympathetic in Defiant. Bashir gets several character subplots during the third season, including an awkward character-centric episode in Distant Voices.

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Dax and Bashir are still problem characters for the show, but it’s important that the show hasn’t given up on them. Equilibrium uses Dax as a plot device in the same way that Dax or Invasive Procedures did, but Facets makes an effort to push Jadzia to the fore much as Playing God did. Bashir’s subplots are generally inoffensive (and occasionally charming), but Distant Voices ranks among the weakest episodes of the season. However, the fourth season would attempt no less than three Bashir-centric episodes and would knock every single one of them out of the park.

This commitment and willingness to try to make things work is one of the most endearing facets of the third season. By this stage, you would forgive the show for trying to fall into a familiar routine – for setting for something that works reasonably well instead of trying to refine everything further. In many respects, that’s the problem with Voyager – the first few seasons was effective, but not spectacular, but the show never really tried to be anything that much bolder.

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In contrast, the writers on Deep Space Nine seemed to have figured out how to tell good stories by the end of the show’s second season, which had arguably the strongest run of episodes to that point. However, instead of resting on their laurels and settling for a consistently reliable output, the production staff on Deep Space Nine seemed to want to improve. This led to missteps and errors, creating a wildly uneven and unsatisfying third season.

However, it also laid the groundwork for a pretty spectacular fourth and fifth seasons. This was the season where Sisko shaved his head, grew his goatee and earned the rank of captain. This was the season that got everything properly into position.

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

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for such an epic series of reviews!

    I agree the season is uneven though it contains some of my favourite episodes of this, my favourite Trek series. I actually resented Worf back in the day for intruding on my show. I like the character well enough but find the Klingons a little overplayed and DS9 already had a crowded ensemble. I’ve softened that stance since but still in a way these episodes are what turned me into a fan.

    • Really? The fourth and fifth seasons may be my two favourite seasons of Star Trek, along with TNG 3/6? Although I’ll concede that I only really jumped on to DS9 in the fifth season, so nostalgia may be colouring my perspective. I don’t mind the Klingons if they are used well, and I think that DS9 used them very well – for the most part.

      • Oh I know I’m very much in the minority here!

        I do quite like Worf – though he isn’t one of my favourites – and think the Klingon episodes can be well – and many where. That said I felt they dragged too much focus away from the characters I’d liked a lot in favour of someone who had already gone through a lot in TNG, and the same with the Klingons.

  2. 1. “Improbable Cause”-5/5
    2. “The House of Quark”-5/5
    3. “The Die is Cast”-4.5/5
    4. “Visionary”-4.5/5
    5. “Past Tense Part 1”-4.5/5
    6. “Second Skin”-4/5
    7. “Defiant”-4/5
    8. “Civil Defense”-4/5
    9. “The Search Part 1”-4/5
    10. “The Abandoned”-4/5
    11. “Explorers”-4/5
    12. “The Adversary”-4/5
    13. “Heart of Stone”-3.5/5
    14. “The Search Part 2”-3.5/5
    15. “Past Tense Part 2”-3.5/5
    16. “Destiny”-3/5
    17. “Through the Looking Glass”-3/5
    18. “Facets”-3/5
    19. “Family Business”-2/5
    20. “Shakaar”-2/5
    21. “Equilibrium”-1.5/5
    22. “Prophet Motive”-1.5/5
    23. “Life Support”-1.5/5
    24. “Distant Voices”-1/5
    25. “Fascination”-1/5
    26. “Meridian”-0.5/5

    This season is a big mess. They didn’t know what they wanted with the Dominion, or how to properly integrate them into the series. Thankfully, they eventually do figure this out.

    • Yep. The third season is one of those “we’re doing something we’ve never done before, so consider this a practice round” seasons. In that everything that makes the fourth season so fantastic gets a trial run in the third season, and the production team get to see how not to do it. Which is an important lesson, but does not make for good television. Glad to see “House of Quark” getting some much deserved love.

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