And so Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has changed once again.
A Time to Stand represents a new beginning for Deep Space Nine, kicking off an ambitious six-episode arc that effectively sets up both the status quo and the tone for the final two years of the series. To be fair, this version of the show is very clearly the model to which the fourth and fifth seasons had been building. It is not quite a second (or third, or fourth) pilot in the style of The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II or The Way of the Warrior, but it is very clear that Deep Space Nine is entering a new stage of its evolution at the start of its penultimate sequence.
More than that, this opening six-episode arc very clearly serves to set up and establish themes and ideas that will play out across the series’ remaining episodes; Kira suggests she will support Odo’s decision to return home in Behind the Lines, Damar’s alcoholism and the shame it hides is introduced in Behind the Lines, Sisko talks about the house that he plans to build on Bajor in Favour the Bold, the Prophets promise that a price will be exacted from Sisko in Sacrifice of Angels.
Although the formal declaration of war came at the end of Call to Arms, the sixth season premiere truly ushers in the era of the Dominion War.
The Dominion War has been building for quite some time. It was arguably inevitable from the moment that the Jem’Hadar made their début in The Jem’Hadar, and only became increasingly unlikely after episodes like Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast. However, as the show entered its fourth and fifth seasons, it became clear that the Dominion was not an opponent with which the Federation could readily negotiate. As those seasons continued, the Federation saw their options gradually diminishing.
In The Way of the Warrior, the Dominion manipulated the Federation into intervening in a conflict between the Klingon Empire and the Cardassian Union, which destabilised some of the core diplomatic relationships in the Alpha Quadrant. In Homefront and Paradise Lost, it was made clear that the Dominion was consciously trying to undermine the Federation. In Broken Link and Apocalypse Rising, the Founders attempted to trick the Federation into assassinating High Chancellor Gowron in a plot that would plunge the major powers into chaos.
By the time of The Ship, Sisko seemed to have reconciled himself to the inevitability of a major galactic conflict between the Federation and the Dominion. In Rapture, the Prophets gifted Sisko a vision of the coming war with the Dominion and with a tease of the major events lying ahead. In In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, the Dominion swarmed into the Alpha Quadrant and allied themselves with the Cardassians. By the time that war was formally declared in Call to Arms, there was nothing that could be done to avoid it.
A Time to Stand opens following “three months of bloody slaughter.” The Dominion War is a fact of life. This is not like the Klingon Civil War introduced in Redemption, Part I and neatly resolved in Redemption, Part II. This is a new status quo. This is very much the way that things are going to be. In fact, the impressive seven-minute teaser to A Time to Stand is effectively dedicated to assuring viewers that there will be no single magic resolution to this crisis, and that the story being told is one exploring life during wartime more than one about the end of war.
Contrary to what some purists would argue, Star Trek had played with the idea of warfare before. Balance of Terror was based upon a cosmic war between Earth and Romulus. Errand of Mercy portrayed a short-lived war with the Klingons, and cold war simmered between the two powers in episodes like Friday’s Child, The Trouble with Tribbles and A Private Little War. The fact that the Federation and the Klingon Empire come to peaceful terms in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country only means so much because of their extended conflict.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was more explicitly utopian in its philosophy than its parent series, but it also touched upon similar ideas. The Federation and the Romulan Empire found themselves playing a game of brinkmanship in episodes like The Neutral Zone, The Enemy, The Defector, Mind’s Eye, Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II. More than that, The Wounded would reveal that Chief Miles Edward O’Brien was a traumatised veteran of a recent conflict between the Federation and the Cardassian Union.
However, the Star Trek franchise had never really depicted an extended and continuing state of war between the Federation and another major power. Such conflicts tended to be discussed in the past tense, as in Balance of Terror or The Wounded. When they did unfold on-screen, as in Errand of Mercy, they were mercifully brief affairs. With all of this in mind, the Dominion War would prove a very controversial addition to the Star Trek mythos. Indeed, it would become another stick with which a vocal section of fandom could beat Deep Space Nine.
After all, Deep Space Nine frequently found itself subjected to petty “no true Scotsman” arguments that insisted the series was unworthy or undeserving of the title Star Trek. These criticisms spanned from the existence of conflict between the cast to the fact that the series unfolded primarily in a single fixed location. Even franchise veterans would wade into the conflict, with Marina Sirtis arguing that Gene Roddenberry sincerely believed that “Star Trek is about exploring space, it’s not about a hotel in space.”
As such, the decision to commit to the Dominion War was treated as an attack upon Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek and his legacy. His widow, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, would write a scathing letter to The Star Trek: Communicator condemning the storytelling decision. Of course, she was also in the process of trying to promote Earth: Final Conflict. Nevertheless, Barrett-Roddenberry had considerable cache with Star Trek fans owing to her informal status as the “first lady” of the franchise.
Similarly, George Takei would make a similar swipe at “Deep Space Nine, which was the polar opposite of Gene’s philosophy and vision of the future, so Star Trek lost it’s way then.” Of course, much like Barrett-Roddenberry, it should be noted that Takei had his own reasons to snipe at the creative direction of the Star Trek franchise. Takei had long lobbied for his own Star Trek spin-off picking up from The Undiscovered Country, and so Deep Space Nine could be seen as the competition.
In fact, several of Roddenberry’s closest associates would make counter arguments. Bjo Trimble made a convincing argument that the lack of violence in Star Trek was down to matters more pragmatic than philosophical:
I feel that Gene might have come to like DS9, had he lived to see it. There might have been some changes. Majel recently said that GR would have hated the war in DS9, but frankly I am amazed that she cannot see the same theme in much of what Gene did, including his recent “discovery” of Earth: Final Conflict. The only reason there were not full battles in early Trek is lack of funds to pull it off, and lack of technology to show it. Otherwise, GR would certainly have added it; he knew what audiences liked.
This argument certainly carries a lot of weight. During the production of the original Star Trek, space battles were simply impossible. The inclusion of a few stray shots in Elaan of Troyius took months to render and visualise.
More than that, the suggestion that Gene Roddenberry was a pacifist is ultimately revisionist history. It is quite akin to the fan-favoured notion that Star Trek was consistently and ideologically opposed to the Vietnam War. In truth, the episodes most vocally and strongly opposed to the Vietnam War (A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy) were written by Gene L. Coon. Roddenberry seemed more sympathetic to American intervention, best demonstrated by his suggestion that The Omega Glory would have made a good pilot for the series.
After all, there are any number of episodes in which Kirk finds himself driven to intervene in the affairs of a less powerful species. Often, that intervention is driven by the threat of a rival major power like the Klingons upsetting the balance of power in episodes like Friday’s Child or A Private Little War. In other cases, that intervention is driven by a more ideological perspective, such as his desire to free societies from computer-imposed tyranny in Return of the Archons, The Apple, or For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.
I think Gene would have liked it ultimately even with the darker themes. Let’s face it, Gene lived and fought through World War II and that is pretty dark days so he has to know they occur. He was around when we were in the middle of the muck of Vietnam. He would like to think that humanity would be better than that, but we made the same mistakes over and over again and until we learned from history I suspect we are going to keep on doing it.
Given her influence on the shaping and development of the larger Star Trek canon, Fontana can certainly speak with some authority on the matter. Indeed, it is worth considering how much of the franchise’ iconography can be traced back to her interpretation of it.
At the same time, it is perhaps a little disingenuous to frame the debate in such terms. It is impossible to know whether Gene Roddenberry would ever have endorsed the Dominion War. After all, despite the pro-war sentiments of his work on the original Star Trek, it seems that the writer and producer had a genuine epiphany at some point towards the end of the original run. Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that Gene Roddenberry came to see Star Trek more as a philosophical statement than a television series in his later years.
This was most obvious in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, particularly Roddenberry’s novelisation of the film that included explorations of twenty-third century Earth and futuristic free love. Although Roddenberry was quickly jettisoned from the feature film franchise, he carried that utopian philosophy over to The Next Generation, most notably in its awkward first two seasons. In later years, Roddenberry would butt up against the future architects of the Dominion War; with Ira Steven Behr on Captain’s Holiday and Ronald D. Moore on Family.
Indeed, Ronald D. Moore seems to concede as much. Moore, who worked professionally with Roddenberry on Star Trek much later than Fontana had, acknowledged of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry’s criticism of the Dominion War:
I have very little argument with Majel (who wrote a letter saying that Gene would never have approved of having a continuing war in a Trek series). She’s probably right. It would’ve been very hard to argue Gene into going this way and maybe he’d have never gone for it. However, I would’ve still argued for doing the Dominion War with him and if he’d rejected it, I would’ve thought he was wrong. I respect Gene and his work, but I don’t think he was always right and I’m not going to pretend that I do. The Dominion War has been one of the better storylines we’ve come up with whether Gene would’ve agreed or not.
This seems like the most pragmatic approach to the question, one that understands the reality of writing within a shared universe. The stories that endure need to change and evolve, pushing new frontiers and living beyond their creators.
Of course, all of this sidesteps the big question. Is it possible to construct a Star Trek story that is actually a war story? Are the two concepts mutually incompatible? Does trying to tell a war story within this framework immediately discount the story’s validity as a piece of Star Trek? This is an argument that is popular with certain strains of fandom that suggest that Deep Space Nine cannot be “real Star Trek” because “real Star Trek” would never feature an extended two-season-long war.
There are any number of reasons to be wary of this argument. The most obvious is that Star Trek has always changed and evolved. Star Trek was not a comedy, until I, Mudd was broadcast. Star Trek was a live action television series, until it became an animated television series. Star Trek was a television show, until it became a major motion picture franchise. Star Trek starred William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, until Encounter at Farpoint introduced Patrick Stewart. So defining “real Star Trek” is a very tricky concept.
More than that, arguments over what constitutes “real Star Trek” are ultimately exclusionary in nature, because they are designed to cut certain parts of the franchise out of the equation. This has happened with pretty much every attempt to do something novel within the framework. Star Trek: The Animated Series was repeatedly and consciously gerrymandered out of continuity until it was subtly brought back into the fold. Fans rejected Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on release. Never mind reactions to Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.
In purely technical terms, the criteria for determining whether something is “real Star Trek” would seem to be the branding on the product, and the ownership of the copyright. Within that, it seems reasonable to accept that everybody will have their own preferences and opinions about what they deem to important or essential. This is a much more honest argument than the one over “real Star Trek”, because it does not attempt to elevate subjective opinion to objective fact. So, in no practical sense does the Dominion War delegitimise Deep Space Nine.
To the production team working on Deep Space Nine, the question of how the franchise’s futuristic utopia responded to a war that was inevitable and unavoidable was a question worth asking. As Ira Steven Behr confessed to The Fifty Year Mission, it was a challenge that Behr would have loved to make to Roddenberry as a writer:
I barely knew Gene Roddenberry, and I know millions of Gene stories and I’ve heard people tell Gene stories, but why he got so caught up as a creative human being and allowed himself to restrict his storytelling, I’ll never know. I know we need restrictions and being in a box. Like I’ve said a lot of times, being in a box I have used to my advantage. But to be that rigid about it? I always felt that Next Gen was meant to be a monument to him. To his future as a futurist. As a man giving hope. I’m not against hope. The fact that there’s a show taking place in the twenty-fourth century is pretty f$%king hopeful to begin with. And I get that. But I want to understand something: there’s no wars, there’s no money. Well, if you’re going to say that stuff and there’s no conflict, you better be able to back that up. I felt the show could never back it up. It was just these rules. They might as well have said the colour orange has disappeared. In the twenty-fourth century there’s no more orange. I don’t know how, but it went with the money. I wish I had the time to sit with him over a bottle of something and – even if it would have ended badly – put him in a position where he would have had to explain it. Not to me, but himself almost. I wanted him to hear it out loud as we went through it piece by piece and validate it, because I can’t. I still can’t.
Behr makes a very valid point. Unless Roddenberry could explain how and why conflict was impossible within the twenty-fourth century, which he had never done, the story was fair game. After all, the Federation might have a highly-evolved sensibility, but what would happen when they brushed up against an opponent who did not share their values?
It should be noted that the Deep Space Nine writers definitely did their homework in this regard. The Dominion War does not happen suddenly. It comes at the end of three seasons of build-up. In particular, the fifth season was a very carefully calculated build-up. The writing staff proved that war stories could work within the franchise framework with episodes like The Ship and … Nor the Battle to the Strong. They also made it very clear that war was coming through episodes like Soldiers of the Empire, Blaze of Glory and In the Cards.
The Deep Space Nine writers did not decide to launch the Dominion War simply because they could, or because they ran out of other story ideas. The writers embarked upon this extended story arc because they felt that it was a story worth telling within this vast shared universe. In fact, the beauty of the Dominion War lies in the careful and considered juxtaposition of the harsh realities of warfare with the utopian ideals of Gene Roddenberry’s twenty-fourth century man. It is easy to be a saint in paradise, but what about in hell?
This is Deep Space Nine in a nutshell, asking what it takes to be a decent person in an indecent time. When pressed on the coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost, former writer and producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe made a similar point:
We still portray humans (and other Federation members) as basically good, enlightened people striving to make the universe a better place. Even Admiral Leyton (who led the coup against the Federation President) did what he did for the best of reasons (he thought he was protecting the Federation from a terrible threat) and tried to accomplish his goals without bloodshed. Remember, he resigned when faced with the possibility of full-scale civil war.
After all, although the Federation and the Klingons were the powers that arguably committed the act of war in Call to Arms, the series very consciously and very clearly closes off all alternatives before reaching this storytelling point.
Indeed, A Time to Stand goes out of its way to elaborate upon this point in a conversation between Joseph and Benjamin Sisko that plays almost as a dialogue with the franchise’s fandom. Discussing the crisis with his father, Sisko is afforded the opportunity to explain the production team’s storytelling choices in as straight-forward a manner as possible, explaining that the Federation will not be retaking Deep Space Nine any time soon and that sometimes wars happen despite the best efforts of one side.
“You know, there’s something I just don’t understand,” Joseph confesses to his son, giving voice to those traditionalist fans. “You’re always telling me that space is big, that it’s an endless frontier filled with infinite wonders.” When Ben confirms it, Joseph continues, “Well if that’s the case, you would think it would be more than enough room to allow people to leave each other alone.” It is a very reasonable argument, one that makes sense in a universe where everybody behaves rationally. Sisko simply responds, “It just doesn’t work that way. It should, but it doesn’t.”
This conversation feels very loaded in terms of its significance to the franchise history and iconography. After all, Joseph couches the idea of interstellar politics in familiar terms. Star Trek has always been about a final (endless) “frontier.” Joseph’s suggestion of “infinite wonders” recalls Q’s warning to Picard Q Who? about “areas of the galaxy containing wonders more incredible than you can possibly imagine, and terrors to freeze your soul” before throwing Picard into literally unfamiliar territory to face the Borg for the first time.
Much like Q warned Picard that the frontier was home to terrors as well as wonders, Sisko suggests that mankind cannot simply outrun inevitability in the larger cosmos. There are some things that follow mankind into space, some universal truths that are waiting even on the final frontier. For some political powers, there can never be enough space, there can be no compromise, there can be no peaceful coexistence. It might not be ideal. It might not be rational. It just is. And the test comes in how the franchise responds to that.
Indeed, even after war has been declared, Deep Space Nine is still careful to keep itself balanced. It is very clear from the outset that the idea of telling a Star Trek war story is not simply an excuse for pyrotechnics or epic space battles. It could be argued that the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager is much more invested in blockbuster storytelling with Scorpion, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Those are much more invested in epic battles and spectacular combat sequences.
The sixth season of Deep Space Nine delays the inevitable epic space battle until Sacrifice of Angels, almost a quarter of the way through the year. Of course, the first five episodes of the year do have their special effect set pieces; A Time to Stand has the raid on the ketracel white facility, Rocks and Shoals has the sinking Jem’Hadar ship, Sons and Daughters has the attack on the convoy, Behind the Lines has Dax’s off-screen raid, and Favour the Bold has its teaser ambush. However, these are relatively small-scale action beats.
Watching A Time to Stand, it is very clear that the production team are dedicated to exploring the psychological consequences of the war upon the primary cast. The seven minute teaser to the episode is given over almost entirely to character beats, particularly those of Sisko and Bashir. The focus on these two characters is quite telling, given that Sisko is the show’s lead character while Bashir is the character most explicitly representative of Roddenberry’s franchise ideals as the character who would have been most at home on The Next Generation.
It is very clear that the war has taken a heavy toll on Bashir, who is introduced trying to tend to Garak’s head wound in a very cynical and disaffected manner. “I have twelve wounded officers and crewmen out there, all of whom are in a lot worse shape than you, Garak,” he insists. Later on, Bashir confronts Sisko with the news that the seventh fleet has been all but obliterated. “We can’t keep taking these kinds of losses, sir, not if we expect to win this,” he insists. It is no wonder that his “boyish smile” is “not so boyish anymore.”
As such, the emphasis on Bashir in A Time to Stand serves to set the tone for the episode. The Dominion War is not something glorious or patriotic, it is not epic or heroic. Instead, it represents a loss of innocence for the franchise and for the characters. Bashir has long been treated as the embodiment of Gene Roddenberry’s utopianism on Deep Space Nine, as evidenced by episodes like Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. With A Time to Stand, it is telling that Bashir is the character thrown into the meat grinder.
A Time to Stand also signals another slight tweak to Bashir’s character, albeit one building off Doctor Bashir, I Presume. The character’s genetic engineering is put repeatedly on display over the course of the episode. In the teaser, he places the Federation’s odds of victory at “thirty two point seven” percent. Later on, he calculates advanced warp timings faster than the computer. He even gets the closing line of the episode, explaining that – without warp drive – it will take “seventeen years, two months, and three days” to get home… “give or take an hour.”
Garak repeatedly draws attention to this shift. “Ever since it’s become public knowledge that you’re genetically engineered, you’ve used every opportunity to show off,” Garak states. When Dax confirms that the computer agrees with Bashir’s math, Garak snipes, “Of course it does. They think alike.” Confronted with these wry asides, Bashir explains to Garak, “I have nothing to hide anymore. I might as well use what I have.” However, even allowing for that, there is something rather strange about the emphasis on Bashir’s mathematical prowess in A Time to Stand.
It is worth noting that this approach to Bashir is toned down across the rest of the run. Bashir’s genetic engineering remains an important part of his character, informing episodes like Statistical Probabilities and Chrysalis, but it is never used so heavily in this manner again. The shift seems to have been reverted almost as quickly as it was suggested in the first place. Bashir does not become Deep Space Nine‘s answer to Spock or Data or Seven of Nine when it comes to delivering exposition punctuated by decimal points.
Part of this might be down to the performer. Alexander Siddig had objected to the initial reveal of his secret back story, and was equally vocal in his objections to this characterisation:
I did it the only way that an actor can. I completely destroyed the lines that they gave me regarding the situation. Every time something came up that was to do with being kind of Data-esque – I mean, I couldn’t get away from the fact – I thought I was being a Data, which is what they wanted to do, they wanted to switch the characters from all the shows, which they ended up doing with Voyager …Well, it was a bit cynical at the end of the day. But I just fluffed the lines; well I didn’t fluff them completely I literally pinned the lines on the back of someone’s shoulder once, reading them. I wasn’t bothered even to learn them. I just pinned them around the office as if they were lines needed for daily modification. And they got the message and dropped it kind of.
This is probably for the best. Bashir is a compelling and interesting character in his own right, and Deep Space Nine does not need a character to provide that level of techno-babble-driven exposition. In fact, Deep Space Nine‘s general avoidance of techno-babble is a virtue that should be encouraged.
A Time to Stand is a rather plot-light season premiere, particularly when compared to past season premieres of Deep Space Nine. The production team are careful to ensure that there is a sense of movement and momentum to each of the first six episodes of the season, but the space available to tell this story allows for a more relaxed and decompressed storytelling style than the production team would typically employ for a season premiere. A Time to Stand definitely has room to breath a little, to wallow in its status quo and to take stock of its situation.
In Homecoming, Sisko finds himself facing rising nationalist tensions on Bajor and Kira rescues a legendary figure. In The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, Sisko takes the Defiant into the Gamma Quadrant to meet the Founders. In The Way of the Warrior, the Klingons invade Cardassian territory and the Khitomer Accords are dissolved. In Apocalypse Rising, Sisko leads a crack squad into Klingont territory to expose a Founder at the highest level of the Klingon Empire. In contrast, the “behind enemy lines” raid in A Time to Stand is rather modest.
Then again, that would seem to be the point. A Time to Stand is largely about assuring the audience that the Dominion War is not something that will be resolved immediately. Unlike the Klingon Civil War that began with Redemption, Part I and was neatly tidied away by the end of Redemption, Part II. Typically, when something truly status-quo-shattering happens in a season finale, it is neatly resolved in the season premiere so that things can fet back to business as usual as soon as possible without disturbing the syndication reruns.
When Picard was assimilated by the Borg in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, he was rescued and healed in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. When the crew were banished to the past in Time’s Arrow, Part I, they returned to the present in Time’s Arrow, Part II. When Data betrayed the crew in Descent, Part I, he was redeemed and restored in Descent, Part II. When the Kazon seized control of Voyager in Basics, Part I, they were promptly ousted in Basics, Part II. Typically, order reasserts itself.
Deep Space Nine has had the luxury of avoiding that structure. However, it has largely avoided those neat resolutions by avoiding cliffhangers. Traditionally, Deep Space Nine closed its seasons with a tease of what was to come rather than by presenting a problem with a clear solution. In the Hands of the Prophets introduced Vedek Winn and Vedek Bareil, but it did not end with an existential threat. Sisko was recovered at the end of The Jem’Hadar, with knowledge of a new looming threat. Odo offered a vague warning at the end of The Adversary.
As such, the ending of Call to Arms stands out from the earlier cliffhangers by offering a very clear problem for the characters and a very obvious solution. At the end of Call to Arms, Gul Dukat seizes control of Deep Space Nine and forces the Starfleet crew (and Garak) to abandon the station. It is a stark cliffhanger, but one that recalls Basics, Part I. Given the way that Star Trek cliffhangers tend to work to that point, it seemed reasonable to expect that A Time to Stand would focus on Sisko and his crew plotting to retake the station.
Instead, A Time to Stand goes out of its way to insist that Starfleet will not be retaking Deep Space Nine anytime soon. Once again, the scene between Benjamin and Joseph Sisko is informative. “I’m about to be given new orders, and I don’t know where they’re going to send me,” Ben confesses. Joseph responds, “Tell them you want to go get your son.” Sisko understands that this is not the way that things work. The narrative does not bend in this way. “It’s wartime. It’s not up to me. I go where I’m sent.”
As such, the light plotting of A Time to Stand is very much the point. A Time to Stand is a fantastic season premiere, one very much about setting the stage for the seasons that will follow. And part of that means outlining exactly what is not going to happen. The shattered tea cup is not going to reassemble itself. The pieces are not going back in the box. A Time to Stand is not the end of something. The season premiere is not about resolution or closure. Instead, it is about setting up what will follow.
After all, Deep Space Nine is about to embark upon its most ambitious storytelling experiment to date, a sprawling epic six-episode war story (seven if you count Call to Arms, eight if you count In the Cards) that follows the crew from the dissolution of their unlikely dysfunctional family unit to the moment when Benjamin Sisko fulfills his promise to “stand with [them] again, here, on this place where [he has come to] belong.” It is work of breathtaking ambition, utterly unlike anything that the Star Trek franchise had attempted before.
It is very easy to lose sight of this in the context of modern television, but making a conscious decision to break up the ensemble for six straight episodes was a very daring move for a television series in the late nineties. Deep Space Nine was not quite a trendsetter, but it ranked among the decade’s early adopters when it came to serialisation. The series is often (justifiably) overshadowed by more heavily serialised shows like The X-Files, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5, but this engagement with long-form storytelling was still audacious.
In fact, even more than the Dominion War, this was arguably the biggest change between the show that Deep Space Nine had been in its fourth and fifth seasons and the show that it would become in its sixth and seventh. Much like the fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine were bookended by their two epic Battles of Deep Space Nine, the sixth and seventh seasons are bookended by expansive multi-episode arcs that seek to tell an epic story on a much larger canvas than the show had supported to this point.
To be fair, Deep Space Nine had played with long-form storytelling to this point. Indeed, the conflict with the Klingons in the fourth season and the cold war with the Dominion in the fifth season had in some way paved the way for this storytelling experiment. However, that willingness to shift the status quo was a markedly different proposition than splitting up the ensemble for six whole episodes and taking them away from the eponymous space station for almost a quarter of a season.
The six episode opening arc of the sixth season amounts to about half of a current season of prestige television, which is remarkable for a piece of syndicated nineties science-fiction. Indeed, while many modern prestige or serialised dramas tend to treat their ten-to-thirteen-episode-seasons as a single arc or as a novel (or a chapter of a novel), many will split the season into multiple arcs. Bryan Fuller tended to devote each thirteen-episode season of Hannibal to two arcs. The Marvel Netflix shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are often games of two halves.
Still, there are limits to how experimental Deep Space Nine can be. The opening credits are unchanged, still depicting a Federation outpost and standing as a promise to the audience that order will be restored. The realities of nineties television production mean that A Time to Stand could never do anything as cheeky and subversive to the form as Star Trek: Enterprise would do with In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine starring Avery Brooks does not become Star Trek: Terok Nor starring Marc Alaimo for six episodes.
A Time to Stand devotes considerable time to assuring its audience that these changes to the status quo are at least semi-permanent. What is most remarkable about the episode is the room that it affords itself to breathe, taking pleasure in the character beats and in the space can afford its cast; Ben talking with Joseph, the crew bemoaning the lack of luxury on the Jem’Hadar ship, the establishing of the dynamic on the newly-renamed Terok Nor. A Time to Stand luxuriates in the freedom to move the pieces around the board without having to get them home.
Indeed, it is remarkable have much energy A Time to Stand invests in its characters rather than its plot. Sure, there’s a daring raid on a Jem’Hadar facility, but it takes a back seat to the various character interactions. There is a very reasonable debate to be had as to whether the episode really needs all of its guest stars, whether it is absolutely required that Martok appears briefly in the teaser or whether Damar needs to feature so prominently or if Garak needs to be on the mission. However, this focus on the ensemble is part of what makes Deep Space Nine so good.
To be clear, it is not as though A Time to Stand does little to advance the plot or to set up the remaining five episodes of the arc. The story doesn’t really start moving forward until Kira decides to form a new resistance in Rocks and Shoals or until Damar figures out how to take down the mines in Behind the Lines, but there is a very strong sense of purpose to all of this. There are some very strong thematic throughlines that run across this opening arc, and many of those ideas can be traced back to A Time to Stand.
This is most obvious in the way that A Time to Stand sets up what will become one of the arc’s more low-key themes that builds very subtly towards the climax of Sacrifice of Angels, the question of the role that gods play in the affairs of mortals. It is a theme that comes up repeatedly across Deep Space Nine, but particularly in this run of episodes. It is there in the conflict between the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta in Rocks and Shoals, it is there in the Female Changeling’s conversations with Odo in Behind the Lines. It is there in Sacrifice of Angels.
Repeatedly, the opening episodes of the sixth season ask what interest divine powers have in the petty squabbles of lesser beings. It is repeatedly suggested that the Founders care little for the war that burns across the Alpha Quadrant, with Behind the Lines implying that the bulk of the Founders are separated from the bloodshed by the minefield that blocks the wormhole. It all builds to Sisko’s desperate petition to the Prophets in Sacrifice of Angels that they embrace the mantle of godhood that have been thrust upon them.
The ending is frequently criticised as a deus ex machina. If so, it is a very painstakingly foreshadowed deus ex machina. Even in A Time to Stand, Kira and Odo tease the idea out as Odo grapples with the fact that he is effectively a god to Weyoun. “As far as he’s concerned you’re a god, and that gives you power,” Kira warns Odo. “But what good is power if you’re not willing to use it?” This question of divine authority (and the morality of inaction) play out across the arc, most notably in Odo’s betrayal in Behind the Lines and the climax of Sacrifice of Angels.
Still, this thematic foreshadowing is perhaps the strongest hint that A Time to Stand offers of the potential resolution to this sprawling galactic adventure. A Time to Stand is not an episode especially concerned with endings. It is a new beginning.