Continued from part 1 and part 2: in this final third there is a clear upward trend in the quality of the episodes! Let’s see what I’m talking about with these capsule reviews for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 3 (1994-1995)!
3×18: Distant Voices: “You can run if you want to but you can’t outrun death!”
Bashir is in a coma and has all kinds of trippy visions where he grows old quickly and where each cast member is an aspect of his own personality. Odo is paranoid, Sisko is helping of others; there’s even Garak, who proves to be untrustworthy. There’s some thinking about Bashir turning 30 (how young for a top doctor!) and considering how he is getting old and frail and will face death eventually. Death comes in the figure of the alien who put him in the coma initially.
Actually I was expecting that Bashir would turn out to be inside the holosuite simulation that was Garak’s birthday gift to him in the beginning of the episode (a Cardassian mystery/adventure where everyone is guilty and you just have to figure out who is guilty of what!); I found it odd that it was not even mentioned in the dialogue as a possibility. DS9 is already a show that is nearly exclusively shot in the same sets, used over and over again. But this one felt even more of a bottle episode than usual and it drags a bit; in terms of discovering what a character is made of I liked TNG 6×15: Tapestry better.
3×19: Through the Looking Glass: “What was your Jennifer like?”
Another “Mirror Universe” episode after last season’s Mirror, Mirror, building the Mirror mythos as if it were a recurring storyline. Mirror!O’Brien abducts our Sisko in order to replace Mirror!Sisko who has been killed. The Mirror Universe is much, much more sexualized than our universe, as if sex were some dark secret that our “good” characters are withholding: there’s sexy Kira with her gigolos, there’s sexy Dax who has a relationship with Sisko (were Mirror!Curzon and Ben friends? how odd if that was the case!). Sisko has sex with both! Quark has been killed and Rom turns out to be a traitor (damn untrustworthy Ferengis!). There’s also a flash appearance by Vulcan Tuvok, from Voyager! Plenty of fan service, here.
The main story revolves around Sisko convincing his Mirror!wife Jennifer, who has not died, to join the rebels’ cause and not work for the evil Cardassian/Bajoran empire. It turns out that Mirror!Ben was a much different character than our Ben while Mirror!Jennifer is just as likable in both; and so things neatly and very quickly wrap up with Ben again being the savior and convincing Jennifer to switch sides. I liked that Ben used knowledge from Civil Defense (the auto-destruct codes)! Good, but nothing exceptional.
It’s a very interesting way to bring back Jennifer — actually I was expecting a tragic ending with Jennifer also dying in this universe, but with her surviving it’s as if Ben can still hold out hope to join with his wife again, which doesn’t help him move past her death.
3×20: Improbable Cause / 3×21: The Die Is Cast: “The truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination.”/ “These Founders, Elim, they’re very good.”
This two-parter starts like a low-key police investigation and quickly expands to big revelations and space action that has galaxy-wide consequences. These episodes feature the most world-changing events since contact was made with the Founders of the Dominion at the beginning of the season.
The story starts with Garak‘s shop being destroyed by a bomb and Odo investigating suspects, going through interrogating suspects, getting in touch with his “Deep Throat” informant on Cardassia, having a suspect killed by Romulans, and arriving at the conclusion that it was Garak himself that did it, all because Garak wanted to attract Odo’s attention knowing that political developments in Cardassia would bring danger upon Garak, but there really was a planned attack on Garak by his ex-mentor Enabran Tain. That’s a lot of twists and subverted expectations for what is ultimately a simple situation, but that’s how Garak’s mind works. What I found more difficult to stomach was Tain’s willingness to take Garak on board again, right after he had just attempted to have him murdered, the justification for that is a little slim, but then the Tain-Garak dynamic is not a very sane one. The first episode certainly gave us some extremely well written dialogue for two of the show’s best actors, Odo and Garak.
The second episode goes on a quite wider direction, revealing what the Cardassian Obsidian Order was trying to hide in Defiant some episodes back. It seems that a two-parter was not initially planned but came about when there was too much story for one episode: a sign that the writing process in DS9 is an equilibrium between world-changing events for long-term planning and kitchen-sink see-what-sticks improvisation.
Tain’s plot brings together the two “big bads” of the Star Trek world making an alliance to strike at the heart of the big enemy introduced by DS9 as they think the Federation has been too much passive. The secret services of the Cardassians and the Romulans (Obsidian Order, Tal Shiar) cross the wormhole and attack the Founder‘s homeworld!
Meanwhile, Garak’s painfully hidden dreams come true and he becomes like a small child again when Tain is willing to take him under his wing. But first he must prove his worth to Tain by not being hesitant at torturing Odo. In this tragic twist of fate, Garak is a reluctant torturer to someone that he had started growing close to; but it is also a reminder that this smiling gentleman really was a monster in his past life in the Cardassian occupation. Even more tragically, a miserable Odo comes to confess what he hasn’t told anyone: he secretly longs to return “home” with his people the Changelings, as much as he remains fully on the side of his DS9 friends. These are some of the series’ most dramatic scenes to date, again showcasing these two very good actors.
But — twist! — the Founders have seen this coming and Garak quotes Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap!”. The Alpha Quadrant organizations have been infiltrated: the Romulan leader Lovok is revealed to be a Changeling in disguise. The Dominion attacks and annihilates the Cardassian/Romulan fleet, something that should have huge astro-political repercussions! “The Die Is Cast” indeed: the tensions between Alpha and Gamma Quadrants have blossomed into a full-scale war. Heavy stuff, and the kind of big stakes that TNG rarely dealt with.
Two very different episodes; I had some narrative issues with the first, but the drama and developments in the second are really excellent and nearly unprecedented for DS9 and TNG included. These landmark episodes come as Behr fully transitions to executive producer and is effectively the showrunner: they are a strong show of force of what DS9 can be and I’m looking forward to what comes next!
3×22: Explorers: “Why? Because it’ll be fun.”
We know Ben Sisko is a good cook and a builder of things. Here he builds his biggest project yet: a replica of the earliest known Bajoran spaceship! Their trip turns out to be a great opportunity for some father/son bonding. Ben learns that his son has a talent in writing that still needs some honing in, and Jake indeed cares a lot for his father and sees experience in DS9 as great learning ground and inspiration for writing (a parallel to what the writers feel about the series?). The Siskos love each other very much and indeed I enjoy their scenes a lot, well written and well acted.
The Bajoran ship is a spaceship with a solar sail, the only time I’ve seen this concept depicted in film or TV fiction, and it is beautiful! But that’s where scientific verisimilitude stops. Solar sails have a very slow acceleration, not the type of travelling depicted here; plus, well, this is Star Trek and magic tachyon particle streams manage to push them faster than light and prove to the Cardassians that yes Bajorans could have done this first a long time ago. There are a lot of sailing parallels and the ship has a steampunk or a Da Vinci touch, it makes it look old but it’s unlikely even the first spaceship of any race would be so low-tech. Plenty to nitpick, but all the other elements are so good that I still liked the episode a lot!
Meanwhile! Bashir is very nervous because the doctor to whom he came second in their class in Starfleet Academy is visiting the station (and he and O’Brien get drunk over it, where they essentially confess their love for each other). It turns out that he didn’t need to worry: she might have taken the more coveted post in an exploration starship, she thinks Julian’s post doing more long-term research is actually the better gig. This is a great very thinly veiled comment on TNG‘s self-contained adventures vs DS9‘s more complex interconnected world-building and character-building!
Also, Sisko starts growing a beard — now I know what his “classic” shaved head look will be and I was actually surprised that he kept his “early” look for 3 entire seasons, but I must say that I like this intermediate bearded + with hair look the best.
3×23: Family Business: “Mother, get undressed this instant!”
More Ferengi comedy! This time with Quark and Rom‘s mother who is under investigation by the Ferengi authorities for earning profit, which of course is illegal because the mother is a fee-male. The episode was going for some drama, with tender mother-son scenes with Rom and scenes of arguments and painful family secrets with Quark — but it really does not manage to be anything more than just comedy. We visit the Ferengi homeworld Ferenginar for the first time — very rainy and mushy, a good place for toads. I was disappointed by the matte painting of the setting with a generic city in the background, nothing particularly Ferengi about it; but I found it funny that they live in modern Hobbit holes with round doors! Corruption and racketeering is absolutely everywhere — actually it was even surprising that there was even a semblance of State institutions given how extremely capitalist the Ferengi are! And of course women shouldn’t talk nor dress! It turns out that the mother was the real business wizard in the family and the late father was more like Rom, and the family name is safe by, what else, corrupting the auditor, while Quark and ma “Moogie” share the profit. A funny little episode somewhat repeating and extending things introduced in 2×07: Rules of Acquisition.
Meanwhile, more family business indeed (there’s a lot of that in DS9, can be too much at times): Jake is very excited to arrange some matchmaking for his father, so much that he tells absolutely everyone of this interesting captain — which makes things awkward for Ben when he finally meets this Captain Yates! (Again, a black person…) They end up bonding over something rare in the 24th century: baseball!
Plus, after the destruction of the runabout Mekong two episodes back, DS9 gets a new runabout, the Rubicon — interesting name given that it comes right after an episode called alea jacta est! This is one of those quick and small inter-connections with past episodes that increases the enjoyment of the whole series enormously.
Captain Cassidy Yates is Penny Johnson, who I remember loving to hate as First Lady Sherry Palmer from many seasons of 24!
3×24: Shakaar: “I didn’t fight the Cardassians for twenty five years just so I could start shooting other Bajorans”
Back to Bajor. Not content to be Kai, Winn also wants to become Prime Minister, both religious and political leader, but she’s as soft-spoken and with a simple facade as ever when she asks of Kira something. Under Winn’s strong leadership Bajor seems more stable compared to when the government was unstable (see The Circle three-parter at the beginning of season 2) and economic reconstruction is underway. But she is pushing too hard, and discontent is rising. The way she deals with the crisis will be decisive for her political career.
Kira has to convince some of her ex-comrades in the Bajoran resistance to share agricultural equipment with other regions of the planet, but they have been waiting to get it for very long time. Winn’s justification is shifting the economy towards exports, the ex-resistance fighters just want food self-sufficiency: well, you can map this to the real political parties in your country. Fighting is what the ex-resistance knows best and when the central government sends troops they start a guerrilla war in the mountains, the situation verges on a planet-wide civil war. Ultimately, cooler heads prevail and Kira’s group prevents war, fragilizing Winn, but Bajor’s situation will not be simple to solve.
This is a much more convincing episode than the early season 1 episode Progress, where a reluctant Kira had also been called in a mission for Bajor. The chemistry between the old fighters is excellent and I really felt a bond between them. The tense scene where civil war is about to happen felt genuine and heartfelt, people who used to be on the same side turning guns on each other for realpolitik reasons. The writers took inspiration from Zapata’s rebellion, but situations similar to that have occurred in so many places (maybe in your country too?) and the sentimental weight of such situations worked on me.
Meanwhile!, there’s a forgettable storyline about a darts competition at Quark’s and bets placed on O’Brien.
Among Kira’s ex-comrades there was Diane Salinger (who later was the paralysed psychic Apollonia in Carnivale) and William Lucking (who was Roky in perhaps The X-Files‘ best episode, José Chung’s From Outer Space, and a detective in Millennium). Also, the colonel sent to kill them was John Doman (WIlliam fuckin’ Rawls the police lieutenant in The Wire)!
3×25: Facets: “I’d like to borrow your bodies for a few hours”
Finally, a really good episode for Dax! As part of a magic Trill ritual, the memory of Dax’s previous hosts is transferred to her friends, which allows non-Dax Jadzia to directly interact with them instead of them being part of her memories. This is an excellent trick to exteriorize and visualize what must be internal dialogue constantly going on inside Jadzia Dax, I was waiting for the writers to exploit the narrative opportunity of a character that has many characters in her.
The story really gets going with Odo/Curzon, only after more than half the episode has passed, which actually didn’t bother me at all. We discover all of Dax’s previous hosts with each main cast member (plus the pretty Leeta, who comes out of nowhere) and it is fascinating. At times cute (Kira behaving like an old lady), at times funny (Quark not liking being a woman), at times spooky (Sisko being the sinister momentary host revealed in Equilibrium earlier this season).
Odo/Curzon is exuberant, he gambles and womanizes and does what we have come to expect of him; Odo even changes his appearance to be more like him. But behind that outgoing exterior, Curzon has secrets. With Curzon, Jadzia’s issues of self-confidence resurface: why was she initially rejected then chosen again? The revelation that Curzon loved Jadzia comes a bit forcedly in the episode, it has little time left to develop everything, this comes soon after a similar storytelling revelation coming from Odo in Heart of Stone and again uses Jadzia’s physical beauty to drive the story. But ultimately it makes emotional sense overall and gives the opportunity for Jadzia to become more self-assertive, after discussing it with Sisko. Ultimately, Curzon agrees to leave Odo’s body and Jadzia Dax becomes a richer, saner person.
Meanwhile! Nog actually applies to Starfleet Academy. Quark tries to sabotage his exams, which makes Rom furious — Rom standing up to Quark, what a sight!
3×26: The Adversary: “Congratulations, Captain Sisko!”
After 3 years as DS9‘s Commander, Ben Sisko is promoted to Captain — finally, the show has a Captain! Great for him! Although…there is nobody’s place he is taking, there was no need for two positions of Captain and Commander on the station (yet!). He definitely feels good about “sitting in the big chair”, and discusses rising in rank with Lt Commander Eddington (seen in The Search and The Die Is Cast, another recurring character): interestingly, most career people want to be Captains, both people below in rank but also above, as Captains do the exciting stuff.
The Defiant is sent on a mission to the Tzenkethi, who start a war on the Federation…or so it seemed! Starfleet has been infiltrated by the Changelings and the Defiant is sabotaged, meaning that the Tzenkethi situation is false and the Defiant could start a war by attacking them. The Changelings’ methods are insidious and adapted to their shape-shifting / body-snatching nature. The whole crew searches the ship in detail in search of the Changeling, crawling in ducts, in scenes reminiscent of Alien (although the Defiant is much more brightly lit than the Nostromo — Starfleet is not as cheap as Weyland-Yutani!), and of The Thing (the blood tests to see if somebody is a Changeling). By the way, every time the Defiant leaves, the whole top crew/main cast goes with it, nobody left behind to man the station — this is not how Captains do it, Ben!
The hunt ends with the Changeling and Odo at each other’s grasp, the Changeling still leaving the door open for Odo to return to his people but Odo resolutely refusing: Odo, still the most tragic character, does the unthinkable and kills one of his own people, something that will certainly leave him with many psychological scars. In stead of a cliffhanger, we get an ominous and spooky last sentence from the dying Changeling: “You’re too late. We’re everywhere.“!
As a season finale, it’s somewhat underwhelming compared to the world-changing two-parter a few episodes before, but it’s a good episode nevertheless, and sets up a season 4 full of tensions and paranoia regarding the Dominion infiltration.
Season 3 saw the arrival of several TNG writers to the staff: notably Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria; and the promotion of Ira Stephen Behr as executive producer / showrunner, with Michael Piller moving on to Voyager and Rick Berman kind of there and supervising things more as a producer than a story driver, as he always did. The uptick in narrative coherence and ambition is surely related to that.
There’s a mix of signs as to how the writers approached storytelling this season. There are signs that they deliberately planned ahead, pacing themselves between the introduction of the Founders in the beginning of the season (The Search) and big developments later (The Die Is Cast). There are signs that there is a desire to make things more serialized while keeping self-contained stories: references to events in previous episodes are a plus for faithful fans but not a hindrance for occasional viewers. And there are signs that some ideas just don’t go anywhere and are scrapped (Vedek Bareil), so there’s some room for improvement. The series is a living process. It’s not over-constrained by point-by-point plot advancement, it’s not too loose like the first two seasons felt. It has its own relaxed pace more typical of the 1990s, something that is lost in today’s break-neck speed shows that try to retain your attention. It’s a good equilibrium.
I could start making comparisons with Babylon 5 but they would be rather generic. The two series might share some similarities at the macro story level, such as the war-by-proxy that the two big enemies wage: the Jem’Hadar army and the infiltration of Alpha Quadrant forces are similar to Morden and the manipulation of the Centauri. But there are many differences in the details. DS9 has built its own identity and spends a lot of time developing its characters, which distinguishes it from the characters of B5. Already with the Dominion mythos built during season 2 and 3, DS9 is more constructed than TNG: for example, as strong as Best of Both Worlds was, TNG handled the Borg menace only sporadically. Also, DS9 might be darker than TNG, it is also more of a family show or more for a teenage audience, compared to the even darker B5 or Battlestar Galactica; this is not necessarily a bad thing, DS9 is good television and not all shows need to be the same.
Plus, the image quality has improved significantly compared to seasons 1 and 2; it came to me when I went back to see a scene from earlier episodes, and the difference is striking! This is still DVD quality, but s1 and s2 were sub-optimal even for DVD, very blurry and de-coloured, which didn’t help at all appreciating the episodes for the eyes of the 21st century audience.
So, looking forward to season 4!
Finally, one thought for Aron “Nog” Eisenberg who died too soon…