In this series, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to review a longer show season by season. Let’s see if this works.
It is one of the most loved and most hated of any Star Trek series, focusing on politics, characters, arcs, and worldbuilding rather than the franchise’s traditional “wagon train to the stars” premise. Rather unusually for a 1990s show, and very unusually for its franchise, it developed a complex story arc leading to continuity lockout in later seasons. It arguably influenced Lost, the mid-2000s Battlestar Galatica reboot, and their latter-day descendants (such as The Expanse). It is Deep Space Nine (DS9), the only Star Trek series ever set on a space station rather than a spaceship, a series where they don’t go to their plots; rather, plots come to them.
But it took a while to get started. DS9 first aired in 1993, and when it did, it was immediately following in The Next Generation‘s footsteps. Moreover, the TV world was very different then: shows were designed to be episodic, easy to pick up and get into from any episode, with story arcs relegated to a distant second priority (if ever used at all). Shows like Law and Order and MacGyver were the order of the day — shows where missing individual episodes were unimportant.
The first season falls in the same vein. In the pilot, we get introduced to our core cast — Benjamin Sisko, a veteran of Wolf 359 whose PTSD is so bad (he lost his wife there) he’s on his way out from Starfleet; Kira Nerys, the station’s Bajoran liaison and first officer; Miles O’Brien, formerly of the Enterprise‘s transporter room; Odo, the station’s shapeshifting, OCD, chief of security; and Quark, the resident Ferengi businessman — as well as some of the premise’s basic politics. The Cardassian Union, one of the Alpha Quadrant’s four major powers, has pulled out from Bajor and granted their former colony independence; Bajor, fearing that the Cardassians would return as soon as the galaxy’s eye was away from them, invited the Federation to help run the former Terok Nor orbital refinery, now rechristened “Deep Space Nine”.
DS9 was thought to be one of the worst posts in the Federation — a backwater that the Cardassians would retake once the provisional Bajoran government collapsed of its own accord. That, however, would change once Sisko and Dax stumbled on a stable wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant in the Denorios Belt near the edge of the Bajoran system. This discovery turned Bajor from a galactic backwater into a galactic crossroads, and DS9 into one of the Federation’s more plum postings. It also led to Sisko being anointed Emissary to the Prophets, a Bajoran holy position.
Despite being utterly inadequate to the task when compared to e.g. a starbase, DS9 was Bajoran, and so they moved it to the wormhole’s mouth to cement Bajor’s claim on the wormhole’s mouth (and also function as port traffic control)
It’s at this point the first season picks up. Cardassia lurks in the background, ostensibly biding its time, while scientists and merchants pass through DS9 on their way into the Gamma Quadrant, exploring the region around the wormhole. Occasionally, races from the Gamma Quadrant come back with them. The Bajoran government finally starts to stabilize, but they are set back when their kai (or Space Pope), Opaka, dies. And they struggle with the legacy of guerrilla warfare. When terrorism is your only tool…
DS9’s first season has the feel of a typical Trek show — just one where aliens visit them instead of the other way around. The arcs are still being seeded, and while the wormhole has put Bajor on the map, and made it a galactic frontier instead of political backwater (and buffer state between the Federation and Cardassians), there’s a sense here that the galaxy is still reorienting itself around its presence. The pacing is typical for Trek, as is the scriptwriting quality.
The last two episodes, “Duet” and “In the Hands of the Prophets”, are excellent examples of scriptwriting to advance the Bajoran arc. In “Duet”, we have to ferret out the identity of a Cardassian: Is he, or is he not, a war criminal — Gul Darheel, the Butcher of Gallitep? And what about the Cardassians themselves? Are they willing to atone for the atrocities they committed on Bajor? (This also makes me wonder about other races in Klingon and Romulan territory; the Federation, after all, is the only pluralist society we see.) And in “Prophets” we have treatments of several live issues: religion in schools and terrorism in the name of religion, both of which are even more relevant today than they were when it first aired back in the middle of 1993.
But there is still a latent sense of imminent change, a sense that wheels have begun to turn. This is a station placed in the 25th century equivalent of Belgrade in 1910 — one suspects the peace cannot, will not, last.