The fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the best twenty-odd-episode seasons of television in the history of the medium.
Naturally, some episodes are stronger than others. There are a couple of duds to be found in the twenty-six episodes that make up the broadcast season. This is true of any season that runs for over twenty episodes; the reality of television production means that not every episode can be perfect and that some will inevitably be terrible. This is one of the nicer things about shifts to shorter television seasons; while it means fewer episodes in a given year, it also allows the production team more consistency.
So the fifth season has episodes that do not work, to nobody’s surprise. The fourth season had Shattered Mirror and The Muse. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation had The Price and Ménage à Troi. The third season of The X-Files had The Blessing Way and Teso Dos Bichos. The second season of Millennium had Sense and Antisense and Siren. These are all great seasons of television, diminished in no way by their failures. The fifth season gets its failures out of the way early, with The Assignment and Let He Who Is Without Sin…
However, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine works so well because it has a very strong sense of internal consistency. As with the fourth season before it, there is a clear sense of where this production team wants to take the series. More than that, there is a very strong sense of harmony to the season. While each of the individual members of the writing staff have their own strengths and interests, they are all working together in pursuit of a common goal. Everybody writing for Deep Space Nine is on the same page as to what the show is about.
The result is a season that marches very effectively and very coherently towards a logical and organic end point. A Call to Arms is perhaps the most radical cliffhanger in the history of the Star Trek franchise, sending Gene Roddenberry’s utopia into a two-season-long war while evicting the primary cast from the title location for more than just a single episode. It is to the credit of everybody working on the season that this finale is at once a gripping and subversive addition to the franchise mythology and a perfectly reasonable conclusion to the season.
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine ranks as a spectacular accomplishment.
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is consciously moving towards the Dominion War. Virtually every major creative decision made by the writing staff over the season is designed to move the series closer to the conflict that has been brewing since Sisko first encountered the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar. This is most obvious in the second half of the season, when all of the characters openly talk about the inevitability of war in stories like Soldiers of the Empire, Blaze of Glory and In the Cards. However, it is carefully seeded during the first half of the year.
The swift and clean resolution to the Klingon conflict in Apocalypse Rising allows the writers to move away from stories focusing on the Klingons towards stories built around the Dominion. The stand-off with the Dominion in The Ship makes it clear that there can be no peaceful reconciliation between the Federation and the Dominion. … Nor the Battle to the Strong allows the production team to play with the idea of a Star Trek war story before committing to it. Sisko’s prophecy in Rapture makes the coming war explicit.
By the time that the Dominion fleet comes pouring through the wormhole at the climax of In Purgatory’s Shadow, the fifth season has already laid its cards on the table. Dukat’s boasts about wanting to retake the station in By Inferno’s Light are also a sly piece of set up for the season finale, making it clear that the Cardassians and the Dominion have their eyes on Deep Space Nine. This is all very deliberate and very careful. Rewatching the season is a very satisfying experience, watching all those pieces slide elegantly into place.
Even the themes of the season exist to complement the looming conflict and the season finale. In some ways, Deep Space Nine has always been a show fascinated with trauma and memory. After all, Sisko is the only Star Trek captain to explicitly have his roots in a pre-existing event. Emissary contextualised Sisko by placing him in the Battle of Wolf 359 from The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The character was a veteran, scarred by the horrors that he had witnessed.
Deep Space Nine was built up around this idea. Kira Nerys was a terrorist adjusting to her new role as a soldier. Elim Garak was a Cardassian with a mysterious past. Jadzia Dax was a woman with access to lifetimes worth of memories. Miles Edward O’Brien was a combat veteran who had given up his phaser rifle for an engineer’s tool kit. Even Bajor itself was in the process of healing from the wounds inflicted during the Cardassian Occupation. First season episodes like Past Prologue, Progress and Duet played upon this legacy of trauma.
The fifth season returns to these themes. The season features two episodes with extensive flashbacks to the Cardassian Occupation, exploring the personal failings and traumas of the major characters who lived through the conflict. In Things Past, Odo is forced to confront his complicity in the horrors of the Cardassian Occupation. In Ties of Blood and Water, the slow death of Legate Tekeny Ghemor forces Kira to relive the death of her own father at the hands of the Cardassians. In both cases, memory is the window on the past rather than time travel.
The Cardassian Occupation of Bajor haunts the narrative in other ways. In Rapture, Kai Winn suggests that there are lingering class resentments on Bajor still rooted in those horrors. In The Darkness and the Light, Kira finds herself confronted by a survivor from one of the attacks that she organised while she was a member of the Bajoran militia. There were episodes of the third and fourth season that touched on the legacy of the Occupation, like Life Support or Accession, but never to this degree and never with this intensity.
The renewed focus on the Cardassian Occupation in the fifth season is part of a larger focus on history within the season as a whole. After all, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine aired as part of the thirtieth anniversary celebrations of the larger Star Trek franchise. Those celebrations were marked by the broadcast of Flashback, Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, along with the release of Star Trek: First Contact. However, it is Deep Space Nine‘s loving tribute to the Star Trek franchise that stands out as the most celebratory instalment of the festivities.
Trials and Tribble-ations is notable as the thirtieth anniversary celebration that most explicitly engages with the past. The cast of Deep Space Nine are digitally inserted into The Trouble with Tribbles, allowing them to directly interact with pre-existing footage of Kirk and Spock and McCoy. By integrating the cast with this footage, Deep Space Nine plays with the popular memory of Star Trek. It is a tribute to the production team that Trials and Tribble-ations is at once the perfect anniversary episode and a comfortable fit with the season around it.
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine repeatedly insists that the characters can never break entirely free of their own history and legacy. In The Begotten, Odo grapples with his relationship to his surrogate father while facing the same pressures in his dealings with a young changeling. In Empok Nor, Chief O’Brien once again finds himself on an abandoned and malfunctioning Cardassian station, but this time has to wrestle with his past as a soldier rather than his present as an engineer.
Deep Space Nine does not believe that history repeats, but it does suggest that history moves in arcs. Characters grow and develop over time, with stronger individuals evolving beyond what they once were, even when confronted by the same challenges. Kira was not there for the death of her father during the Cardassian Occupation, but Ties of Blood and Water allows her the chance to rectify that mistake with Ghemor. O’Brien might have been a soldier during the Cardassian Wars, but he is an engineer in Empok Nor.
In fact, this growth and evolution plays out in Children of Time. In some ways, Children of Time is a stock “glimpse of the future” episode like All Good Things… or Before and After. However, Children of Time is notable for its willingness to let is characters grow and move on. It does not focus on the immediate futures of the core cast as much as their legacies. Deep Space Nine is a show that very much believes in forward progress and change, even if there are elements of repetition and recurrence to the larger universe.
Indeed, this is suggested to be a failing of Gul Dukat and the Dominion. Gul Dukat is a character who refuses to grow and evolve. He allies with the Dominion in By Inferno’s Light to restore his lost prestige. He reclaims his old title in Ties of Blood and Water. He fixates upon retaking the station in A Call to Arms. Dukat refuses to acknowledge his past mistakes, and so can never learn from them. Similarly, the Dominion operate by cloning legions of Jem’Hadar and Vorta, each effectively “reset” on awakening and rolling back any hint of development.
With all of this in mind, the cliffhanger at the end of A Call to Arms seems inevitable. For a season so fixated on the past, it only makes sense that the fifth season of Deep Space Nine would end with a renewed Cardassian Occupation of Bajor. The idea is seeded and threaded across the length and breadth of the season, much like the concept of the Dominion War. However, there is also the question of how characters will react to this recurrence. Kira and Odo were not the same people they were five years ago, so how will they respond this time around?
At the same time, there is an endearing sense of finality to the fifth season of Deep Space Nine. The series is about to undergo some very serious changes into its final two seasons, and the writers are very cognisant of that. There are a number of stories in the late fifth season that serve to bring closure to recurring themes and fascinations. Children of Time is the last Gamma Quadrant story. Blaze of Glory is the last Maquis story. In the Cards is a loving ode to the community broken up in A Call to Arms.
Indeed, there is a recurring sense of movement and change on Deep Space Nine that is refreshing. In the context of its original broadcast in the mid- to late-nineties, that movement was exciting in contrast to more rigidly episodic storytelling on other genre shows. To contemporary audiences, there is an endearing lack of wheel-spinning and stalling. Deep Space Nine is not a show that is afraid of massive and sweeping change, something that stands to the credit of the production team.
Indeed, this commitment to change and growth is perhaps how the fifth season gets away with reversing so many of the big sweeping changes enacted by the fourth season. Taken collectively, a lot of the fourth and fifth season could be seen as a set of narrative cul de sacs, of storytelling dead-ends upon which the show later doubles back. For example, Quark loses his business license in Body Parts and earns it back in Ferengi Love Songs or Odo is made solid in Broken Link and becomes a shapeshifter again in The Begotten.
The relatively swift reversal of Odo’s transformation is perhaps the most frustrating of these twists. There are suggestions that Odo’s changed circumstances might take some getting used to in episodes like Apocalypse Rising, … Nor the Battle to the Strong or The Ascent. More to the point, the restoration of Odo’s power in The Begotten feels like it comes a little too early in the season. A Simple Investigation would arguably have worked much better were a human (or humanoid) Odo at its centre.
Even larger political plots undergo reversals. Gowron tears up the Khitomer Accords in The Way of the Warrior, only to reimplement them in By Inferno’s Light. The Klingon Empire declares open season upon the Federation in Broken Link, only to reach a cease-fire in Apocalypse Rising. These big reversals might be frustrating if there weren’t so many other bold ideas taking shape around them. In fact, the entire conflict with the Klingons was largely a narrative tangent for the writing team suggested by the studio, distracting from their interest in the Dominion.
Still, even when these changes to the status quo are (relatively) swiftly reverted, there is a sense that the characters have been changed by their experiences. The conflict with the Klingons in the fourth season sets a tone that plays into the threat of the Dominion in the fifth season. Odo’s separation from his people has left scars that likely contribute to his increased emotional volatility in episodes like Children of Time or Behind the Lines. Even Quark finds himself acting less and less like a Ferengi as the series continues.
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine never loses sight of its characters even in the midst of all of these epic galactic events. More than any other Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine is a character-driven drama series. After all, the fifth season even finds time to build episodes around supporting recurring players like Martok in Soldiers of the Empire and Michael Eddington in Blaze of Glory. However, there is more to it than that. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine repeatedly dedicates entire episodes to deeply personal stories extremely light on science-fiction elements.
Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places serves primarily as an excuse to get Worf and Dax together, after a solid season of flirting. The Ascent was loosely modelled on Waiting for Godot, an exploration of the dynamic between Quark and Odo. Doctor Bashir, I Presume offered some good old-fashioned family melodrama as a character study of Doctor Julian Bashir uncovers some dark secrets buried in his past. This is to say nothing of In the Cards, the penultimate episode of the season that serves as a tribute to the interconnected lives on Deep Space Nine.
This has always been one of the strengths of Deep Space Nine, a willingness to let the characters breath and to focus on their stories and their lives in the moments between galactic crises or existential panics. In fact, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine even finds room for supporting players. The relationship between Rom and Leeta grows from mild interest to marriage between Let He Who Is Without Sin… to Doctor Bashir, I Presume to Ferengi Love Songs to A Call to Arms. Never the sole focus of any individual episode, Rom and Leeta live their lives in the background.
That said, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine also marks a transition in its approach to character. For the first three years of the show, the station was portrayed as an interstellar backwater, perhaps reflecting the series’ existence in the shadow of The Next Generation. However, in the past couple of seasons, the station has developed into a hub of galactic activity. This change was reflected in the change to the music and visuals accompanying the opening credits between the third and fourth seasons.
As the fifth season marches on, it becomes increasingly clear that Deep Space Nine is no longer just some forgotten outpost on the edge of the frontier. It has evolved into the centre of a much larger universe. Gowron remarks as much to Sisko in By Inferno’s Light, while Ghemor insists that Kira has become a celebrity in Ties of Blood and Water while Jake assures his father that he is a figure of galactic note in A Call to Arms. There is a sense that Deep Space Nine itself is still getting used to being the heart of this shared universe.
This hints at a tension that will develop over the following two seasons, as Deep Space Nine seems to become the cornerstone of Alpha Quadrant politics. The station becomes a huge point of intersection in the history of the Alpha Quadrant, a nexus where future Chancellors of the Klingon High Council rub shoulders with future Grand Naguses of the Ferengi Alliance, who were also on the station at the same time as two successive leaders of the Cardassian Union. In the coming seasons, galactic politics becomes a game of two degrees of separation.
The sixth and seventh seasons struggle with this interconnectedness, which occasionally makes the wider universe seem small and cramped. Nevertheless, the fifth season acknowledges the ever-increasing importance of the station and its crew, writing their expanding roles into the text of the series. It is a very clever touch, one that seems to acknowledge that Deep Space Nine has become the driving force that will shape the future of the Star Trek franchise. (Legacy is even more explicitly a preoccupation of Children of Time.)
Deep Space Nine would never be the most popular or iconic of Star Trek shows. Captain Benjamin Sisko would never have the same public profile as Captain Jean-Luc Picard or Captain James Tiberius Kirk. Indeed, there were already some small indications that the franchise was already in decline, with viewing figures slipping even during the bumper thirtieth anniversary year. However, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine seems to understand that the Star Trek franchise needs to keep pushing forward in order to survive.
In some ways, this is the story of the fifth season of Deep Space Nine, a collection of unlikely heroes who find themselves at the centre of something much bigger than themselves whether through chance or fate. These are characters who find themselves in the midst of a dynamic and rapidly-changing universe largely because nobody else is willing to confront it. At a time when Star Trek: Voyager was desperately regressing and retreating to a familiar Star Trek template, it is reassuring to see Deep Space Nine stepping up and taking these creative risks.
After all, those creative risks sometimes pay off. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is one of the most refreshing and exciting seasons of Star Trek ever produced, with an endearingly adventurous spirit. It is a franchise highpoint.