Deep Space Nine was the first (and, really, only) Star Trek spinoff series to break from the formula of an intrepid (and morally unambiguous) crew charting space aboard a starship, instead opting for nuanced stories of a motley band maintaining a military space station above a recently demilitarized frontier. While the results weren’t always pretty, Deep Space Nine nonetheless produced some of the most compelling episodes in the annals of Trek canon — and these five are arguably DS9’s best.
Riffing on the old “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” formula of revealing the untold (and unlikely) tales of minor characters from a famous story, the crew of Deep Space Nine warp back in time to the events of the original Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” to prevent a retroactive assassination of Captain Kirk. The DS9 production team pull out all the stops for this one, dressing up the modern characters in period 1960s Trek garb — Dax in a beehive hairdo, go-go boots, and miniskirt is a particular treat — and superimposing them Forrest Gump-style into remastered footage of old-school Trek. The deft weaving of the new narrative with familiar scenes from the old is handled with aplomb, and Team DS9 is clearly enjoying every minute of it, right down to Worf refusing to discuss why Kirk-era Klingons originally had smooth foreheads to Bashir and O’Brien jumping into a bar brawl alongside Chekov and Scotty to Sisko and Dax standing in awe of one James T. Kirk. Eventually all pop culture eats itself, but rarely does it taste so sweet and light as this multi-generational remix of everything that makes Star Trek fun.
4. Far Beyond the Stars [Video clip]
Plenty of television series have tried the old “this is all a dream…or is it?” narrative device, but few with so much heart and subtext as this sterling moment from Deep Space Nine. Put more simply, this is Deep Space Nine’s answer to NextGen’s “The Inner Light“, and the junior series holds its own.
Sisko is suffering recurring and unexplained visions that he’s actually Benny Russell, a struggling science-fiction writer in 1953 New York dreaming tales of a star station called Deep Space Nine. Russell’s terrestrial social circle includes Wizard of Oz-style corollaries for every major character on the show, as you’d expect. What elevates this episode above the standard fare is the racial commentary — Russell isn’t taken seriously as a writer both because he’s black and because he dares to suggest that, in his imagined Roddenberry-esque future, a black man can be both the commander of a space station and the hero of his own story. As Russell wakes up intermittently as Sisko, he struggles with the weight of his Starfleet career, and considers resigning his commission. In the end, Russell is the victim of a hate crime that sees his career ruined and his freedom denied — due in no small part to his uncompromising dream of racial equality. As Russell is taken away, Sisko awakes, his visions never explained, yet committed again to his role as a leader of men. The audience is truly left to wonder whether Sisko dreamed Russell, or the other way around — and the ambiguity only amplifies the message, and makes this episode one of DS9’s finest.
3. The Visitor [Video clip]
There’s an inside joke amongst Trekkies that the franchise might better be called Time Trek, as many of its best episodes involve time travel. Case in point: “The Visitor” — arguably the most personal and intimate trans-temporal tale that Star Trek has yet produced.
We begin with a frame story of an aged Jake Sisko (Tony Todd, in his most understated and captivating Trek performance ever) revealing to a young woman why he abandoned his writing career many years ago. During a treknobabble “wormhole inversion,” Capt. Sisko is struck by a strange energy beam, while Jake is forced to watch. Sisko vanishes, presumed dead, and Jake is wracked with guilt at his helplessness. Hours later, Sisko reappears, and continues to do so at random intervals for the next several years, revealing that he isn’t dead, but trapped in some timeless limbo. Jake tries to move on, but eventually succumbs to an obsession with rescuing his dad, abandoning his career, his family, and everything he loves to save the father he could not live without. In the end, Jake succeeds at the cost of his life, revealing to his father in harrowing terms just how much he means to his son. Sisko avoids the accident in a rebooted timeline, but must live with the knowledge that while his son’s love for him is indomitable, he must teach Jake how to live without him, lest that same bond someday destroy his son. It’s a subtle and bittersweet ode to fatherhood, and one of Deep Space Nine’s finest hours.
2. Duet [Video clip]
Deep Space Nine has often been called a thinly veiled reference to the Nazi occupation of Europe, with the Cardassians vaguely alien-ized versions of the Gestapo and the Bajorans their Jewish victims.
“Duet” is the episode where the veil is more or less dropped in favor of Kira flat out confronting a Cardassian war criminal — played with dazzling presence and depth by Harris Yulin — who tortured and murdered Bajorans in a forced mining camp. Yulin’s character quickly becomes a lightning rod for Kira, the Bajoran government, Sisko, Starfleet, Odo, and the Cardassian military, all of whom want to see him alternately prosecuted, executed, or extradited as a stand-in for every other Cardassian officer who never answered for his actions during the occupation. These demands are complicated by the uncertainty of Yulin’s identity and his guilt.
The episode is built around a sterling series of interrogation-slash-debates between Kira and Yulin’s Cardassian, with Yulin accusing Kira’s own resistance cells with as many indiscriminate atrocities as the Cardassians. The tete-a-tete becomes a treatise on the horrors of war, and the damage suffered by persecutors and persecuted alike. In the end, Kira learns that not all Cardassians were, or are, the enemy — but that wisdom comes at a heavy cost. This was the episode where DS9 proved it could step out of the shadow of The Next Generation, and that science fiction can confront questions far more grounded and human than most casual observers would ever suspect.