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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 6 (Review)

The sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems to brush up against the limits of what the show could do.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine spent most of its fourth and fifth seasons smashing through the arbitrary boundaries imposed upon what a Star Trek show could and could not do. Overseen by executive producer Ira Steven Behr, the writing staff very consciously and very vigourously pushed past the limitations imposed by the so-called “Roddenberry Box” and the style of television overseen by franchise leader Rick Berman. The storytelling became more complex, serialisation crept in, the music became more noticeable, conflict became more evident.

This all built to a climax in the second half of the fifth season, a series of interlinked stories that stretched from In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light through to Call to Arms. Diplomatic tensions rose, character arcs became clear. Then, at the very end of the season, the unthinkable happened. The Federation went to war with the Dominion. More than that, the Federation started a war with Dominion. It was a bold creative choice, one that chipped away at so many of the assumptions underlying the utopian future of Star Trek.

The sixth season faces a number of serious problems. Most obviously, the fourth and fifth seasons had pushed so far that there was only so much ground left to cover. The sixth season explored that ground thoroughly. There is an argument to be made that the arc that opens with Call to Arms and continues through the first six episodes of the sixth season ranks as the single most ambitious stretch of the Rick Berman era. Episodes like Far Beyond the Stars, Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight pushed the franchise well outside its comfort zone.

At the same time, there was a clear sense that the production team was butting up against the limits of the form, that they had pushed Deep Space Nine almost as far as it was possible to push a nineties Star Trek show, and so the season lacked the same sense of forward momentum as the fourth and fifth seasons had. Many creative decisions in the sixth season feel like the result of creative compromise, whether the sense that the writers had told all the big stories that they wanted to tell or because they had to bow in some way to the conventions of television storytelling.

The result is a frustrating season of television. The sixth season of Deep Space Nine features some of the best Star Trek episodes in the fifty-year history of the franchise. However, it also contains a lot of thwarted ambitions. For every barrier that the sixth season smashes through, it brushes up against another. It is a reminder of just how far Deep Space Nine had pushed the franchise during its run. In some ways, it felt like the sixth season of Deep Space Nine was not so much brushing up against the limits of Star Trek as against the limits of nineties television.

It is worth pausing to acknowledge the fantastic accomplishments of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine. It is an entire season built around the concept of the Dominion War, a two-year-long arc in which the Federation finds itself locked in an existential struggle against a deadly opponent. In many ways, it represents the antithesis of the utopian idealism that Gene Roddenberry codified in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Roddenberry had imagined a franchise built on peace and mutual understanding.

The Dominion War was a daring creative decision on the part of the production team, and one that could easily have backfired in a spectacular fashion. To be fair, the writers very shrewdly and very carefully seeded a lot of the preparations in the earlier seasons. This is true not only of plot points in episodes like Ties of Blood and Water or Blaze of Glory, but also in terms of the tone of episodes like The Ship and … Nor the Battle to the Strong or the special effects of episodes like The Way of the Warrior or Shattered Mirror.

In short, the production team spent years making sure that they could pull off a narrative experiment like this before committing to it. Thanks to their work on the fourth and fifth seasons, the writers knew that they could pull off long-form storytelling, construct gritty war narratives, and deliver the requisite science-fiction spectacle. The writers had been rehearsing for years before the curtain came down. They had worked hard to ensure that they could do it, that Deep Space Nine was physically capable of being the show that they wanted it to be.

None of this diminishes the creative accomplishment in any way, shape or form. The opening arc of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine remains a stunning piece of television storytelling. Six episodes that unfold outside the confines of the familiar status quo, building on one another towards a truly spectacular climax. Episodes like A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels are effective on their own terms. Brought together, they play almost like a symphony.

It is an audacious storytelling experiment. It is so impressive that Ronald D. Moore would borrow several key story beats for the opening of the third season of Battlestar Galactica, reimagining it as a metaphor for the Iraq War. even today, in the era of prestige television, that opening run of episodes is an impressive accomplishment. Notably, it runs to about half the length of a modern television season. The sixth season of Deep Space Nine would make a phenomenal thirteen-episode season.

However, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine is not a thirteen-episode season. Even in that opening stretch of the season, the strain is quite evident. The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine were notable for their relative consistency, give or take episodes like Let He Who Is Without Sin… or The Muse. In contrast, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine is a lot more variable in quality on an episode-to-episode basis. It is a season that rebounds from The Reckoning to Valiant before stumbling again to Profit and Lace.

There are multiple reasons for these problems. Most superficially, the writing staff underwent a change between the fifth and sixth seasons. The production team lost Robert Hewitt Wolfe, one of most experienced writers working on the series. In contrast, the staff recruited David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, the two writers responsible for earlier misfires like Rules of Engagement or The Assignment. This is particularly frustrating given that Bryan Fuller was under consideration to join the staff, having submitted stories for The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor.

Weddle and Thompson were not necessarily terrible writers. They are credited on some impressive episodes of Deep Space Nine, like Inquisition or Faith, Treachery and the Great River. However, they were not experienced television writers, their output had not been consistent. Their work on the sixth season is highly variable in quality, including Sons and Daughters, The Reckoning and Time’s Orphan. These were very tough assignments to hand to the rookies on staff, but that is no excuse. In particular, The Reckoning would shape the rest of the run, for the worse.

There was also a sense of strain and exhaustion during the sixth season, reflected in a number of ways. Most obviously, the sixth season struggled to maintain a consistent tone despite that phenomenal start. Immediately following the battle to retake the station in Sacrifice of Angels, the writers committed to a very high quantity of “lighter and fluffier” episodes. It seemed like every serious and considered episode of Deep Space Nine was punctuated by a more comedic installment.

Of the eight episodes that followed Sacrifice of Angels, at least four of them could be considered lighter in tone. You Are Cordially Invited…, The Magnificent Ferengi, Who Mourns for Morn?, and One Little Ship were breather episodes of variable quality, but they arrived in such quick succession that it seemed like Deep Space Nine was struggling to catch its breath. Situated between episodes like Statistical Probabilities, Waltz and Far Beyond the Stars, the sixth season struggled to maintain a consistent sense of tone.

The fifth season of Deep Space Nine had been so effective because it felt more unrelenting in its march towards the climax. Following In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, the pressure quickly began to mount. The characters seemed constantly surrounded by the threat posed by the Dominion, even in episodes that were dealing with other plot threads like Blaze of Glory or In the Cards. In contrast, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine seems to lose sight of this tension and this anxiety.

To be fair, the decision to keep the cast and crew at a remove from the Dominion War makes a great deal of sense. The Dominion War was front-and-centre for the first six episodes of the season, so it makes sense for the front lines to shift over the course of the year. More to the point, this decision to position the characters away from the day-to-day reality of the war prevents the serialised narrative from becoming overwhelming. After all, space is big. It makes sense that war in space should also be big.

Still, there is something disconcerting about how removed the characters seem from the action. Once the opening arc concludes, recurring characters are entirely absent from long stretches of the sixth season. The first six episodes of the season suggest that Deep Space Nine is truly epic ensemble drama with a cast of dozens of characters. However, once the dust settles in Sacrifice of Angels, those recurring characters are largely absent from the rest of the sixth season.

Martok does not appear once between You Are Cordially Invited… and Tears of the Prophets. Between Sacrifice of Angels and Tears of the Prophets, Garak only guest stars in In the Pale Moonlight. Although hallucinations and holograms appear in episodes like Waltz, Far Beyond the Stars, Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight, the real versions of Damar and Weyoun do not appear in any episodes between Statistical Probabilities and Tears of the Prophets. There is something strange and unsatisfying about this.

That said, there is a lot to be said for the way in which the writers approach this new status quo. The sixth season of Deep Space Nine actually does an excellent job using the Dominion War as a canvas upon which it might tell interesting stories. There is a recurring sense throughout the season that the audience is catching glimpses of something impossibly large and incredibly vast. This is reflected in minor pieces of dialogue and exposition, but also in the general mood of the stories.

The sixth season of Deep Space Nine is particularly engaged with the concept of life during wartime, what it must be like for these characters to face this existential crisis on a daily basis. Statistical Probabilities looked at the war as a philosophical or mathematical dilemma, while Honour Among Thieves touched on how the war had rippled through to the criminal underclass. Change of Heart used the war to explore true love between a married couple, while Inquisition looked at the erosion of democratic norms.

Indeed, episodes like Far Beyond the Stars and In the Pale Moonlight arguably framed this idea of the war in the starkest terms. Sisko is operating at a remove from the front lines, receiving reports from those in the line of fire. However, the conflict still takes its toll on him, emotionally and morally. Far Beyond the Stars suggested that the mere act of living through the war would drain a person’s strength, while In the Pale Moonlight touched upon the ethical erosion that occurs under that sort of pressure.

In theory, this was a very clever way of telling stories about the Dominion War without allowing the war to suffocate the storytelling, without turning the show into an adventure series about deep space battles, and without surrendering a lot of what made Deep Space Nine so unique. At the same time, there was a sense that the writers were drained going into this sixth season, that there had been a loss of purpose and momentum, particularly coming out of that sensational six-episode opening arc.

This exhaustion reflected itself in a number of different ways. Most obviously, the production team found themselves desperately searching for stories at several points during the season. One Little Ship and Time’s Orphan had both been kicking around the franchise dating back to the production of The Next Generation. Those ideas had been repeatedly pitched and rejected over the years, so the decision to green light both episodes in the space of a single season suggested a measure of fatigue.

However, there was also a recurring sense that the production team had pushed Deep Space Nine as far as it could go, and that they had reached the limits of what they going get away with. To be clear, they had gotten away with a lot. However, Deep Space Nine still existing the context of nineties television. The twenty-first century was still several years away. David Chase was working on The Sopranos, but it would not hit the airwaves until the middle of the seventh season.

Repeatedly, it feels like the writers have reached the edge of what they could do. This was reflected in a number of different ways, both minor and major. To pick a very superficial example, the writers still found themselves having to awkwardly shoehorn scenes of the primary cast into episodes like Valiant or Honour Among Thieves, despite the fact that these scenes often seemed at odds with the story being told. Statistical Probabilities is an episode that strains visibly against the format constraints of syndicated television, including the demand for dramatic act breaks.

Similarly, some of the more reliable episode templates fell flat. Deep Space Nine had been doing “Ferengi” episodes since the first season and “O’Brien must suffer!” stories since the second. Sometimes these stories were brilliant; WhispersHouse of QuarkFamily BusinessLittle Green MenHard TimeThe Magnificent Ferengi. At the very least, these episodes could generally be considered solid; TribunalVisionaryBar AssociationBody Parts. They were a fairly safe bet for the writers when mapping out the season.

However, the late-sixth-season iterations of these familiar templates were underwhelming. Profit and Lace was a disaster; Time’s Orphan was a mess. The writers seemed to acknowledge this. The seventh season combined its Ferengi episodes with other stories; with the mirror universe in The Emperor’s New Cloak and with the penultimate place-setting of The Dogs of War. O’Brien only suffered as a supporting character in Prodigal Daughter, an episode primarily focused on Ezri Dax. The sixth season suggested even these reliable standards were past their sell-by dates.

More seriously, the production team seemed to face boundaries of taste and violence. There are a number of exceptions, with Far Beyond the Stars managing to use the “n-word” and In the Pale Moonlight implicating the series’ lead character in murder. However, there were also examples where the show did not go as far as was necessary. Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night struggles in large part because it fails to convey the true horrors of sexual slavery by an occupying power, reducing it to a question of simple collaboration.

In some ways, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine seems to want to look beyond the confines of the Star Trek franchise itself. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine was very keenly focused on the past, whether in terms of the series itself or the larger franchise; the flashbacks to the Cardassian Occupation in Things Past and Ties of Blood and Water, the meditations upon its consequences in Rapture and The Darkness and the Light, the repetition of the Cardassian Occupation in Call to Arms. (Even the thirtieth anniversary special in Trials and Tribble-ations.)

However, the sixth season seems like beyond the franchise. It delves into the history of pulp fiction. Statistical Probabilities was a gigantic homage to the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Far Beyond the Stars found Sisko thrown back to the fifties pulp science-fiction that would eventually give birth to Star Trek. In the very next episode, One Little Ship allowed the writers to riff on pulpy fifties and sixties science-fiction b-movies. There was a sense that Deep Space Nine was consciously looking beyond the franchise. Far beyond the Star Trek.

Repeatedly during the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica seems to be lurking in the shadows, waiting to emerge. Thompson and Weddle point to Ronald D. Moore’s vetoed rewrite of One Little Ship, in which the studio refused to allow the brutal execution of a supporting character by the Jem’Hadar. Michael Taylor points to the compromises that drive Ronald D. Moore’s rewrite of In the Pale Moonlight. There is a sense that the sixth season of Deep Space Nine hints at a darkness that it can never render explicit.

In fact, as Moore approaches a full decade of writing for Star Trek, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine seems to position itself as a reflection on Moore’s relationship to the franchise. Valiant plays almost as a deconstruction of the epic narratives that fans expect from genre fiction, in which the audience witnesses a million-to-one plan go spectacularly wrong in large part because it is executed by a collection of guest stars. In The Sound of Her Voice, the season’s penultimate episode, Moore puts the characters in literal conversation with the franchise’s history.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this problem can be seen with the looming departure of Terry Farrell. Farrell had initially acknowledged that she would be happy to remain on the show in a reduced capacity, sharing some of her work load with the series’ impressively deep supporting bench. This would not be a big deal for a twenty-first century television series, where the boundaries between regular and recurring are increasingly flexible. However, it was not possible within the context of the mid-nineties.

As such, Farrell’s departure was unavoidable, but the writing staff enjoyed some freedom in how best to handle it. Change of Heart would arguably have been the perfect point at which to kill off the character, having Dax die while on a covert mission behind enemy lines with Worf. It would allow the writers some room to explore the fallout from the death without having to work it into an overcrowded sixth season finale. More than that, it would have been genuinely shocking, because of its position in the season and the arc of the story.

However, Deep Space Nine was not in a position where it could kill off a regular character so brutally in the middle of a season. Indeed, the death of Dax in Tears of the Prophets is deeply unsatisfying and underwhelming. It is caught between two extremes, the show torn between offering a hackneyed stereotypical “important” death and trying to shock the audience with a brutal “meaningless” murder. The result is a false compromise, adopting the worst aspects of each approach, suffering for the need to appease fans and offer the expected story and character beats.

To be fair, the sixth season does feature a couple of other poor creative decisions. Many of these are tied with the looming conclusion of the series. In particular, the sixth season begins moving the chess pieces into play for the big finale. Some of this preparation is fairly clever and effective, like hinting at Sisko’s fate in Sacrifice of Angels or bringing Odo and Kira together in His Way. However, some of these decisions feel too much like attempts to streamline the continuity and arcs to smooth the final season.

This is most obvious with Gul Dukat. Dukat gets a wonderful focus in the opening arc, with A Time to Stand even allowing him to make a log entry as the commanding officer of Terok Nor. Even the terrible Sons and Daughters manages to provide a suitably creepy Dukat moment when he regifts the sexy black dress that he bought for Kira, giving it to his own daughter to wear. Dukat’s complete psychological breakdown in Sacrifice of Angels feels organic and well-earned, a logical extension of his arc to that point.

Indeed, the extended battle of wits and philosophies with Sisko in Waltz works rather well. For all that Deep Space Nine had been a morally ambiguous Star Trek show, the series had always had a fairly clear sense of right and wrong. Dukat had always been a mass murderer, no matter how charming he might be in episodes like Defiant, Civil Defense and Return to Grace. There is some value in actually labelling Dukat as a monster, acknowledging that he is evil as an extension of Kira’s speech to Ziyal in By Inferno’s Light.

As such, Waltz is a great episode. It would be the perfect place to leave Dukat. Unfortunately, the production team decided that Dukat would return as a recurring threat. However, he is now one-dimensional, and prone to stock villain rhetoric. He cold-calls Kira in the early morning in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night to brag about sleeping with her mother. He allies himself with demons in Tears of the Prophets and murders Jadzia Dax. In short, Dukat becomes a much less compelling character in order to make him a more straightforward villain.

The sixth season does something similar with the Prophets. In the early seasons of Deep Space Nine, there was something decidedly ambiguous about the wormhole aliens. They seemed very aloof and disengaged in Emissary, almost as if they had stumbled into the role of deities by accident. They casually meddled with Zek’s psyche in Prophet Motive. They played mind games with Sisko in Accession. Even in Sacrifice of Angels, they had to be convinced to step into the role of gods and exacted a steep (and ambiguous) price for intervention.

However, the late sixth season strips away a lot of this ambiguity and nuance. Much like Dukat is forced into the role of generic villain, the Prophets are cast as more conventional gods. The Reckoning reconfigures the Bajoran religion, shifting away from the Eastern influences of the earlier seasons towards a more recognisably Christian eschatology. The Pah-Wraiths were introduced in The Assignment, but they are threaded into the series’ religious cosmology in The Reckoning. That episode suggests a looming end-time struggled between gods and demons.

In many ways, The Reckoning is a toxic piece of television. Profit and Lace is undoubtedly worse on its own terms, but The Reckoning effectively strips down any hint of nuance or ambiguity surrounding the religious themes of the series. It sets up plot beats that play across Tears of the Prophets and towards What You Leave Behind. It becomes wedded to the fates of both Sisko and Dukat, eating up a sizable chunk of the sprawling ten-episode series finale. It feels like a misstep, an unnecessary over-simplification of what had previously been a more complex universe.

Still, despite these minor missteps, there is a lot to like about the sixth season of Deep Space Nine. The writers are clearly very comfortable with this cast and with this fictional world. There is a lot of emotion on display over the course of the sixth season, with the writers making a point to showcase their cast effectively. Avery Brooks gives his best performances in episodes like Far Beyond the Stars or In the Pale Moonlight. Even in the episodes that don’t quite work, like His Way or Time’s Orphan, there is still a sense of warmth unique to Deep Space Nine.

More than that, the sixth demonstrates how comfortable the writers have become with continuity and story threading. Little details bleed through, like the repeated references to Casperia Prime as the new Risa in Change of Heart and Inquisition, perhaps a nod to the spectacular misfire of Let He Who is Without Sin… Indeed, even episodes like Let He Who is Without Sin… are not forgotten, with Bilby referencing the events casually in Honour Among Thieves.

There is a strong sense that the writers have a stronger grip of where they are going and what they are doing. In both Sacrifice of Angels and Far Beyond the Stars, the Prophets casually (and ambiguously) allude to the events of episodes like Tears of the Prophets and What You Leave Behind. The events of The Reckoning are implied to have directly led to the tragedy at the heart of Tears of the Prophets. A minor subplot in Time’s Orphan sets up a major plot beat in Tears of the Prophets.

More than that, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine features some of the franchise’s best episodes. About half the season would be ranked highly in any accounting of the franchise; A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Behind the Lines, Sacrifice of Angels, Statistical ProbabilitiesThe Magnificent Ferengi, Waltz, Far Beyond the Stars, Inquisition, In the Pale Moonlight, Valiant. Any season containing that many great episodes cannot be a true disappointing, even discounting the stronger second-tier episodes like The Sound of Her Voice.

Still, there is a faint sense that Deep Space Nine has pushed out as far as it can. The sixth season reaches the limits of what the production team can do. However, that is perhaps the luxury of a penultimate season. As Deep Space Nine enters its final year, it is perhaps reassuring to know that it has not left too much unexplored.

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4 Responses

  1. Okay, another excellent analysis. I agree with you… for the most part. This season would have been much stronger if it had only been 20 episodes long, allowing the weaker entries, which very much come across as filler to eat up time, to be jettisoned. Also agreed that Jadzia really should have died in “Change of Heart,” but obviously in the 1990s it was still unheard of for a television show to shockingly kill off a main character mid-season.

    However, regarding a few other points, I suspect I will have a few disagreements. But more on that once I see what you actually have to say about the seventh season.

    • No worries. Disagreements can be fun and insightful.

      I’d go even further and argue that a thirteen-episode sixth season would be just amazing.

  2. “even episodes like Let He Who is Without Sin… are not forgotten”

    In the words of Scott Bakula, “there’s not enough liquor and therapy in the world to undo that.” Yes, I’m pretty sure Scott said that.

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