Star Trek: Deep Space Nine changed a lot during its fourth season. Sisko‘s look changed, and along with his new promotion to Captain he is more authoritative and concerned with issues of the chain of command that are more reminiscent of TOS and TNG. A new cast member joins from TNG, Worf, and along with him new interactions with other cast members and new story opportunities — it’s a large cast. The “geo/astropolitics” of the Trek universe are shook up, and not only involve the Dominion but also heavily feature the Klingons. The opening theme is spiced up with a faster orchestration accompanied with an electronic beat, and more miniature and CGI visuals. The budget looks higher, and the image quality has improved (or at least the VHS-to-DVD transfer was better!).
All of this was a conscious decision on behalf of the studio and producers to make DS9 more attractive to viewers. Klingons and action sell! Worf sells! While TNG enjoyed a stable or even growing audience over its 7-year run, DS9 saw its audience slowly decline over the years. There was also VOY at the same time; for mainstream audiences, there might have been some thing as too much Trek over a too long period of time. Still, for the new showrunner Ira Stephen Behr, the fact that DS9 got less studio attention than DS9 gave DS9 more freedom to experiment and tell bolder stories. Season 4 is by far DS9‘s best season so far, and the one that most consistently had good or even excellent episodes, week after week. An achievement!
On with the capsule reviews of DS9 s4 (1995-1996).
4×01/02: The Way of the Warrior: “If a Klingon were to kill me, I’d expect nothing less than an entire opera on the subject”
Wow! There’s… so much going on here! And so much action! It’s as if they suddenly got the budget to make a big movie with as much money as all previous three seasons combined, they could have easily released this to the cinema! Klingons declare war, DS9 under attack, explosions! This is the most action-heavy DS9 has got, and certainly that was a studio strategy to attract new viewers. This double-length episode is like a second pilot, where the stakes are redrawn and restated, and we rediscover DS9 through the eyes of the new cast member, Worf. They wasted so much money on this one that I expect many of the next episodes to be pure low-budget talk shows!
In the middle of the paranoia that the Changelings have infiltrated the Alpha Quadrant, things get tense. The Cardassians close their borders. The Klingons massively move close to Bajor and DS9 to fight the Dominion and start doing in-depth checks of transiting ships to find infiltrators, which raises tensions all around. As “the only people who can really handle the Klingons are Klingons”, Sisko calls for help and Starfleet sends him Worf — who, like Sisko in the pilot, is about to resign. On Cardassia, the military junta falls and a civilian government takes over; but the incredible bug-eyed Chancellor Gowron and his menacing General Martok accuse this coup of being due to Changeling infiltration and attack Cardassia! Sisko finds an amazing way to inform the Cardassians ahead of the attack, by just having Garak be in the room as a tailor while he is casually discussing the attack with his officers — Garak then of course informs Dukat. The Federation condemns the attack and the Federation-Klingon alliance is dissolved! This time, Worf cannot play both cards: he is forced to choose between his allegiance to Starfleet and to the Klingon Empire, and as he considers the attack as lacking honour, Gowron completely expels him from the Klingon world. The Defiant manages to get safe passage for the Cardassian government onboard DS9, which results in an impressive siege of DS9 by a fleet of Klingons, with great space battle shots and hand-to-hand combat on-board (notably, with Dukat and Garak fighting side by side, with great hate/love dialogue!), until Starfleet reinforcements arrive and Gowron retreats. Worf is left unable to return to the Klingons, unable to return to his old Enterprise crew (Generations happened, and that Enterprise was destroyed); Sisko helps him realize that if he resigns that won’t help him find his way, and convinces him to stay at DS9.
Risking a complete collapse of the Klingon Empire, the Cardassian invasion is left incomplete; but the astropolitical map is redrawn, with a weakened Cardassia, a more aggressive Klingon Empire occupying Cardassian territory, and the Federation standing alone. It was not proven that the Changeling infiltration on Cardassia actually happened. The Founders have succeeded in destabilizing the Alpha Quadrant.
In the middle of all that war, there is time for romance too — Sisko and Kasidy share a kiss — and Dax has turned into the female version of Riker, taking holosuite hot baths with masseurs together with Kira, and generally flirting anything that goes (including Worf). And I loved this dialogue between Quark and Garak, two aliens who don’t have a particular liking for the Federation but come to agree that compared to all the craziness going on around it’s the next best thing, when Quark offers Garak root beer:
Quark: What do you think?
Garak: It’s vile.
Quark: I know. It’s so bubbly and cloying and happy.
Garak: Just like the Federation.
Quark: But you know what’s really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you begin to like it.
Garak: It’s insidious.
Quark: Just like the Federation.
Garak: Do you think they’ll be able to save us?
Quark: I hope so.
With dialogue like this, DS9 continues to explore what the Federation pretends to stand for and what it really stands for. The station DS9 has become the refuge of many outcasts — Odo, Garak, and now Worf — and the station is like a microcosm alternative Federation, struggling to get along despite all odds. And that’s beautiful.
4×03: The Visitor: “Time passes, and they realize that the person they lost is really gone. And they heal.” “Is that what happened to you?” “No. I suppose not.”
With this episode, DS9 gets its The Inner Light episode (TNG 5×25)! There’s the same story of seeing a main character grow old and die in a compressed time span right before our eyes, the same extremely emotional approach compared to all the other episodes, the ending that undoes this story and returns to status quo but with at least one character remembering everything he went through. But does that mean that The Visitor is any less of a success? No, it’s one of DS9‘s best episodes!
Ben Sisko dies right before Jake‘s eyes in a warp core accident — but at the instant of death he and Jake are technobabble-ly linked and Jake has short visions of him throughout his life. As a result, he never gives up hope of managing to catch him and anchor him back to our reality. He develops his career as a successful writer, has a relationship with a woman, but can never let go of his father and completely be free of that doubt. While the world around him changes (the Klingons take over DS9, Nog becomes a Starfleet Captain), Jake is obsessed with his father, and at each of his visits Ben is moved by the man his son becomes. The last solution, when Jake is now a very old man, is for him to commit suicide during one of his father’s visits so that the link is broken. All of this is mainly told in flashbacks, during a visit of a random literature student at Jake’s house. The whole episode has an elegiac atmosphere, guided to us by the soothing voice of the elder Jake — the amazing Tony Todd (who is also Worf’s brother Kurn!). There are plenty of little details to like in this episode, but the greater story of a father and a son’s love for each other has impact and rings true, building on previous father-son episodes like 3×22: Explorers. It’s also about loss and how to deal with loss in order to move on, or in this case how not moving on can prevent one from reaching one’s full potential as a person.
I’m not sure whether I prefer The Inner Light or The Visitor — I have a preference for The Inner Light because of the additional layer of the dying civilization leaving its last trace in Picard, whereas The Visitor is at the end of the day a scarring experience for Ben that does not go beyond that. Also, unlike with Picard, the person who remembers this whole ordeal is Ben, not Jake, while the point of view of the rest of the episode is Jake, which less than perfect. Still, The Visitor is a success!
4×04: Hippocratic Oath: “You had a choice and you chose to disobey orders”
Bashir and O’Brien are captured by a faction of the Jem’Hadar that is trying to get rid of the Founders’ hold on them by stopping their programmed addiction to that white drug. The concept of a free Jem’Hadar is very interesting and would shake things up significantly — I can see that Stargate SG-1 later stole that idea with the Tok’ra and the Jaffa Nation.
But the heart of the story is that Bashir and O’Brien’s friendship is strongly tested in this episode. Before that of course they are the best friends in the world — O’Brien almost says that he loves Bashir more than his own wife Keiko, it’s not the first time this kind of situation emerges and I wonder if the writers have anything more in mind than just humour! At first unconvinced and buying time, Bashir eventually genuinely empathizes with them and puts all his efforts into finding a cure. O’Brien is continuously mistrustful and tries to sabotage for escape. Things reach a point where Bashir has to give orders as a hierarchical superior, and O’Brien breaks them. They are at a very different place at the end of the episode compared to the beginning and there is no easy last scene that gets them back to being pals: DS9 takes the difficult route of more complex characterization and brakes Roddenberry’s rule of there being no conflict between Starfleet personnel. Really good.
Meanwhile! Worf has trouble adapting to DS9 and trusting Odo to keep Quark in check with his contraband side business. He mixes up in what should have been Odo’s business, but Odo’s way to do things as a security officer is much different to how Worf did things on the Enterprise.
4×05: Indiscretion: “The voice of the new Cardassia, so compassionate, so understanding. Almost makes you forget.”
Kira goes on a mission to find lost traces of a ship where some of her former Bajoran resistance mates were — and she is unexpectedly joined by Gul Dukat, who also has a secret interest in this. There is a lot of great Kira/Dukat dialogue here, the writers are having a fine time with them and I must say that Nina Visitor has matured a lot as an actor and I now look forward to her presence. Kira never forgets who Dukat was, an occupier responsible for horrible things, but they do manage to actually break a laugh together during their little trip! Dukat’s secret is revealed: aboard that ship there was his daughter, a Cardassian-Bajoran child, Tora Ziyal, and her resurfacing would be bad news for Dukat’s status on Cardassia, where purity of race is everything. He is there to kill her.
Ultimately, Kira manages to convince him not to kill Ziyal. While I liked most of the episode, I found that this last twist came too suddenly, as if the writers realized that the 45 minutes were fast approaching and had to wrap this up — this happens often actually. Dukat even takes Ziyal back to Cardassia, risking his family’s well-being.
Meanwhile! Hilariously, Kasidy is willing to change jobs and move quarters in DS9 in order to be closer to Sisko and Sisko reacts…well, not enthusiastically enough — big mistake! — and he spends the rest of the episode getting advice on how to get her back.
4×06: Rejoined: “I could always come back later.” “I wish I could believe you.”
This episode is of course famous for being the lesbian kiss episode. It is famous for that in the same way that the TOS episode with the first inter-racial kiss of television is famous just for that (TOS 3×10: Plato’s Stepchildren). That’s what happens in it, there are no two ways about it, even if the writers in interviews try to sell it as not a lesbian love story.
Sure, it’s not a lesbian love story, it’s a story about how taboos develop in a society for the greater good while individual desires might want a different thing. Jadzia Dax meets Lenara Kahn, both were lovers but when both had different hosts (when they were a man and a woman), and while they both deny it there is still attraction between them. The Trill don’t allow that because this would mean that relations would continue over centuries, resulting in stagnation and I guess lack of social mobility? Kahn is visiting DS9 for a science mission; Dax and Kahn first avoid each other but it is evident to everyone that they are risking being ostracized from the Trill, and thus being unable to pass on the symbiont to another host, end up dying.
Again, I am glad that such an episode with Dax exists. Together with last season’s 3×25: Facets it is one of those storylines that come to mind immediately when you think of the Trill: how is a Trill’s identity defined, when they can change hosts and sex but carry on their past memories? This episode manages not to be melodramatic and childish (unlike 3×08: Meridian) and tells its story progressively.
But ultimately it is about a lesbian kiss! Or at least about getting to show a lesbian relationship. The Trill taboo is an in-universe way to build a story around forbidden love, and the writers chose to have Kahn be a woman; that’s what science fiction does. Where TNG 4×23: The Host, which ended with Dr. Crusher breaking her relationship with a Trill when he/she changed hosts, shied away from addressing this exact issue, DS9 went there. Excellent!
4×07: Starship Down: “You make it sound so antiseptic. Where’s the bargaining, where’s the scheming, where’s the greed?” “Greed leads to misjudgment, and that can result in a loss of profits.”
The Defiant battles the Jem’Hadar in a hostile nebula: this is the DS9 equivalent of Das Boot. There’s torpedo warfare, there’s the sweating crew worryingly looking above as if the hull would crash them to their death, there’s side stories of some of the crew trying to survive in different points of the ship. As such, it’s exciting and well-made, although the typical Star Trek photography doesn’t allow to get as dark as Das Boot.
Among the side stories: Worf learns how to behave in command together with O’Brien, being demanding from his officers but also giving them rewards. Bashir is trapped in a room with Dax and they embrace, facing certain death: a few seasons ago Bashir would have taken the opportunity to flirt with Dax, but by now Bashir has matured and their relationship is built more on mutual respect and friendship. Quark negotiates a trade deal with a Karemma (the ever-reliable James Cromwell again under many layers of make-up) and they have some excellent back and forth on their worldview and the value of trade, the Karemma’s logic of getting goods for living a stable life versus Quark’s immediate adrenaline rush of striking profit. And Sisko is wounded and Kira prays over him, valuing him as the Emissary but also as her friend. There’s something for everyone in this episode; good.
4×08: Little Green Men: “I’d always heard primitive hew-mons lacked intelligence, but I had no idea they were this stupid!”
This was completely unexpected and I loved it! Quark and Rom accompany Nog to his first day at Starfleet, but enter a wormhole and end up on Earth in 1947, essentially becoming the Roswell aliens!
You couldn’t not know about the Roswell UFO in the 1990s (since then it has fallen out of the spotlight), not just with The X-Files but everything from Bob Lazar and the alien autopsy video, to the TV series Dark Skies and Roswell, to Independence Day and that excellent super-90s TV movie with Kyle Maclachlan and Michael Douglas, Roswell: The UFO Cover-Up.
Of course the Ferengi are orange not green, but plenty of things fit: big heads, short stature. We get all the clichés of the 1940-50s and of the B-movies of the time, from the cigar-biting general called Rex to the crazy scientist wearing a lab coat, and his idealistic love interest, a nurse, who imagines the future as a utopia anticipating the 1960s, with telepathic aliens and humanity joining an alliance of alien races (sorry, Federation), repeating word for word Roddenberry’s opening titles to TOS and TNG. Since the universal translator doesn’t work, we hear the original Ferengi for the first time and I must say the actors do a good job out of it (plus, they get some oo-mox). The recreation of the epoch is well done, with that beige tint to everything — and are those military silos actually the film stages at the Paramount lot where Star Trek is really shot? Quark has a lot of fun with how primitive hew-mans were, with smoking, warring nation-states and open-air nuclear bomb tests. He imagines himself selling future technology and becoming the Quadrant’s most important person — incidentally we learn that none among the Ferengi, the Klingons and the Vulcans had warp technology in 1947, barely 3 centuries ago, on a cosmological scale they are as newborns as humans! There’s also a hilarious callback to 3×11/12: Past Tense when Nog sees a picture of Sisko as Graham Bell in Earth history archives: “all hew-mans look alike“!
The episode runs out of steam towards the end with repetitive jokes, but overall it’s an excellent and unexpected comedy, one of my favourites!
There’s a sort of genre TV reunion-before-the-fact here, with the scientist being Conor O’Farrell (will be in the main cast of Dark Skies as Lt. Albano just a year later) and the nurse being Meghan Gallagher (will be co-star Catherine Black in MillenniuM also just a year later)!
A great string of episodes, no? Next in DS9: a visit to Sector 001!