Within the Star Trek franchise, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are without a doubt the two most controversial and polarizing series among the five television series. Enterprise drew a great deal of criticism for what some saw as its portrayal of an arrogant and somewhat intolerant Starfleet. Following on the heels of the wildly popular Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), which continued to reflect the idealism and optimism of its founder Gene Roddenberry, DS9 shocked many viewers.
Set on a decrepit Cardassian space station far from the Federation home world, DS9 was a darker and more complex place inhabited by less than savory characters compared to the clean, pristine bridge of Jean-Luc Picard’s USS Enterprise. While viewers easily fell in love with the memorable TNG crew, including Commander Riker, Counselor Troi, and the android Data, the same cannot be said for the DS9 crew with its angry Commander Sisko, hot-headed Major Kira, and the Ferengi barkeep Quark. Despite the fans passionate zeal for TNG, it was Deep Space Nine that would produce the single best season of any Star Trek series.
I just recently finished watching all 7 seasons of DS9 in order and after completing season 6 I once again realized how good DS9 was. Season 6 picks up on the ongoing Dominion War, which pitted the Federation against the aggressive Founders from the Gamma Quadrant who forged an alliance with the Cardassians in their quest to conquer the Alpha Quadrant. However, DS9 didn’t just fill the screen with battles and exploding ships, but explored various aspects to the struggles of war.
The main thrust of the early episodes is the Sisko’s effort to regain control of DS9 after having to abandoned it at the end of the previous season. Sisko takes a captured Jem’Hadar deep into Dominion territory to destroy a key plant that produces ketracel-white, the drug that controls the Jem’Hadar soldiers. In the next episode Sisko and his crew are forced to ambush and massacre a Jem’Hadar troop who are marooned on a planet without an adequate supply of the ketracel-white. For most of the season the Federation fights a defensive war that produces few victories.
Later episodes include Sisko’s bold and successful plan to retake the space station. I should add that Season 7 has a few episodes that continue to examine the impact of war, including the impact of extended warfare on shell-shocked forces (Siege at AR-558) and the struggle of wounded soldiers (It’s Only a Paper Moon).
In what is one of the best single episodes of Star Trek, In the Pale Moonlight, Sisko painfully chooses to violate Federation values by tricking the Romulans to enter the war against the Dominion in order to save Starfleet lives. With the help of Garak, the station tailor and former Cardassian spy, Sisko hatches a plan that leads to the death of a co-conspirator and a Romulan official, but which convinces the Romulans that the Dominion plans to break their alliance and attack them.
What makes this episode so compelling is that we learn about it through Sisko’s personal log where he describes the conspiracy and the moral dilemma he faces for participating in this questionable action. But in the end he accepts what he did because he couldn’t live with anymore Starfleet deaths. What viewers see in this season is the cost of war and how it weighs on those who fight it. One of the heaviest costs is the death of Jadzia Dax at the hands of Gul Dukat in the season finale.
Season 6 also provided one of the great DS9 episodes, Far Beyond the Stars, which explores the history of racism in a rather unique way. Suffering from mental exhaustion, Sisko falls into a dream state where he is a black science fiction writer in 1950s America. We get to see most of the crew without make-up and uniforms playing different roles in Sisko’s new alter ego, Benny Russell. Benny struggles to overcome racism that blocks his effort to publish a science fiction tale about a space station commanded by a black captain. Despite a vicious beating by two cops, he pushes forward with his story only to find that the publication was destroyed before it could be distributed because the publisher believed readers would object to a black captain.T he pain and mental anguish Benny expresses is powerful and moving. This is Star Trek at its best.
These compelling episodes alone would make Season 6 rival any other single season from TOS, TNG, Voyager, or Enterprise. But a few other interesting episodes and themes only add to its breadth and depth. Before Dax is killed viewers get to watch the growing love between her and Worf, including their Klingon wedding. Dr. Bashir’s genetically-engineered background is explored through his efforts to work with brilliant but unstable genetic mutants. Gul Dukat tells Kira about his love affair with her mother and we see his mental breakdown following the death of his daughter Miral.
Moreover, the complex, complicated world of DS9 introduces us to Section 31, a secret Federation intelligence agency that works below the radar and outside Starfleet regulations. In Inquisition, Dr. Bashir is secretly transported to a holosuite where it appears that he is under investigation by Starfleet for treason. After finally realizing this was a guise, he learns about Section 31 and its nefarious history and activities. Finally, DS9 writers introduce one of the most interesting and entertaining new characters, Vic Fontaine, an early 1960s Vegas lounge singer who resides in the holosuite. Played by James Darren, Vic not only sings and performs, but dispenses relationship advice to Odo.
While there are a few marginal episodes in Season 6, especially those regarding Quark and the Ferengi, I would put this season of DS9 up against any other single season from the other Star Trek series. In terms of drama, power, intrigue, and excitement, DS9 season 6 reminds us of the sheer greatness of Star Trek and why it is still unrivaled in the history of science fiction television.