9 Times Deep Space Nine Challenged Us As Viewers

Taking inspiration from Star Trek: The Book of Lists, Kat reveals her nine top Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes

Deep Space Nine, the third Star Trek show that ran from 1993 to 1999, is well known as one of the franchise’s darkest and most experimental. Instead of being set on a ship traveling among the stars, it takes place on a stationary space station. Instead of having one or two alien crew members, it has nearly half. Instead of having single episode story lines, it has long narrative arcs. Instead of venerating the Federation and Starfleet, it set up counterpoints and critiques of these institutions. And finally, instead of portraying a galaxy in peacetime, DS9 ultimately chose to send the Federation to war. All these things conspired to make DS9 a fantastically gritty program that dove to great philosophical depths. Here are 9 of the episodes that pushed us the farthest as viewers.

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9. “Far Beyond the Stars” S6E13

While struggling to decide whether to leave Starfleet, Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) has visions of himself as Benny Russell, a science fiction writer in 1950s New York City. Benny writes “Deep Space Nine,” the story of a space station captained by a black man. His editor refuses to print the story, citing race as the reason. Benny is still devoted to his story, but he becomes subjected to racism and police violence and breaks down. The vision helps Sisko come to a decision about his future. He resolves to stay on the station, while wondering which is real, Benny Russell or Benjamin Sisko? This question leaves us thinking about the nature of storytelling and of truth. Are stories any less real because they are stories? Are we, like Benny, both the dreamer AND the dream?

8. “Emissary” S1E1&2

The Emissary introduces us to one of the prevailing story arcs and themes of all 7 seasons of Deep Space Nine: the Bajoran religion and Captain Sisko’s place in it. DS9 was the first Star Trek show to explore religion in depth. The Bajorans are a deeply spiritual people who believe their prophets live in the wormhole discovered by Sisko in this episode. Bajor has recently been liberated from a violent occupation under the Cardassians, and their religion plays a large part in their cultural and political recovery. The wormhole aliens, as the Federation recognizes them, are non-corporeal beings who exist outside of time. Sisko develops a lasting relationship with them and is deemed the Emissary of the Prophets by the Bajorans when he returns. At first he resents this title, but by “What You Leave Behind,” the series finale, he has embraced the role and is ready to do whatever it takes to protect Bajor and the Prophets. Sisko’s own arc is a development of spirituality and acceptance, nicely contrasted with that of his religious, Bajoran first officer, Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor). This first episode plants these questions in our mind for the 7 seasons to follow: Are the beings in the wormhole aliens or gods? Can one be both spiritual and scientific? Is one person’s science another person’s religion?

7. “Past Tense” S3E11&12

Captain Sisko, Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), and Lieutenant Commander Dax (Terry Farrell) find themselves in the 21st century after a transporter malfunction. Sisko and Bashir are thrown into a “Sanctuary District,” a ghetto for the unemployed and mentally ill, on the eve of the biggest riot in American history. The Bell Riots are considered a watershed moment for America as it finally dealt with the social problems that plagued the nation for centuries. Sisko and Bashir accidentally get Gabriel Bell, the future hero of the riots, killed and must assume his role in the violent uprising to keep the future from changing for the worse. Dax, on the other hand, witnesses the events from outside the Sanctuary District. The best science fiction is a reflection of the present. “Past Tense” is a commentary on both segregation and the American prison-industrial complex. Witnessing a piece of Earth’s past, before the utopia it is in the 24th century, throws Star Trek’s belief in the human race’s innate goodness into doubt. How are humans capable of utopia if they let something so terrible happen? Are we, the real human race, letting something like this happen right now by turning a blind eye to injustice? If so, are we deserving of utopia at all?

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6. “Inquisition” S6E18

Dr. Bashir is questioned by Luther Sloan (William Sadler), who says he is from Starfleet Internal Affairs. Sloan goes through a string of Bashir’s recent actions that call into question his devotion to the Federation. Bashir is treated like a criminal by Internal Affairs, who turn out to be members of Section 31, Starfleet’s secret intelligence agency. Section 31 acts autonomously and apparently without moral reservations, going so far as to convince Bashir he’s a Dominion spy. It turns out to be a recruiting tactic designed to test Bashir’s loyalty. This psychological game begs us to question Starfleet’s motives. Having a secret intelligence organization that resorts to psychological torture to recruit sure doesn’t make Starfleet look like the shiny good-doing organization it’s always been in the past. Does Starfleet have more secrets we don’t know about? Is it really the faultless organization we’re often led to believe? Or is it, like most organizations, riddled with faults? If so, does that make it wholly bad? As Bashir says, if Starfleet has an amoral intelligence arm just like the Cardassians and the Romulans, “what does that say about us?”

5. “Captive Pursuit” S1E6

The first known life form from the Gamma Quadrant, Tosk (Scott MacDonald), arrives at Deep Space Nine to repair his ship. Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) befriends Tosk in an attempt to understand why he seems to be running from someone. When unidentified aliens arrive on DS9, the answer becomes clear. Tosk was specifically bred to be hunted as sport by this new species and to die in “the Hunt” is the only way for Tosk to find honor. O’Brien and Sisko must reconcile their desire to respect alien cultures with their own values that forbid this murderous practice. Each fall on either side of the debate, which leaves us asking which is more important: taking a hands-off approach to other cultural practices deemed questionable to us or asserting our own cultural values as paramount. Would you have let Tosk continue the Hunt to die honorably or would you have kept him against his will to prevent his death?

4. “Homefront”& “Paradise Lost” S4E11&12

In this two part story, the Dominion comes to Earth. Captain Sisko and Security Chief Odo (René Auberjonois) are sent to Earth after a diplomatic conference is attacked to institute heightened security measures to protect the planet from Changelings. Paranoia grows within Starfleet and before they know it, Sisko and Odo are fighting a corrupt admiral who have taken security too far. This, like “Inquisition,” is one of many times during DS9 that Starfleet is depicted as less than perfect. In the two prior shows (the Original Series and the Next Generation), Starfleet and the Federation were largely unquestioned good-doers, but DS9 shone a mirror on some of their faults. In these episodes, we see Starfleet take security to the extreme by implementing Changeling blood tests to Starfleet families. Sisko begins to question his own dedication to securing Earth and DS9 when he sees what the implementation really looks like. Is security against an invisible threat an impossible task? How far is too far? Is the safety of the planet worth infringing the rights of its people? Does the easiness with which Starfleet was led astray bemoan a greater problem in its mission?

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3. “Call to Arms” S5E26

War is on the horizon for the Federation. The DS9 crew works to deploy a minefield around the station and Sisko evacuates civilians in preparation for a Dominion invasion. “Call to Arms” is an emotional episode which sees each of our beloved crew members step up to take their place in this conflict. Star Trek has always worked to generate hope by giving almost every episode in a happy ending. But by the end of this episode, the station is lost to the Dominion and our heroes are scattered. War has begun with stakes of life and death and it doesn’t look good for our side. There is only a glimmer of hope in this episode, seen in Sisko’s baseball left as a message that he’ll return. The rest is darkness, tearful goodbyes, and a growing sense of doom. Ending a season with “Call to Arms” was a risky move, the biggest cliff hanger since TNG’s “The Best of Both Worlds.” But it worked and helped to define DS9 as a successful experiment for Star Trek.

2. “In the Pale Moonlight” S6E19

The Federation is at war with the Dominion, but needs the Romulans on their side for a chance to win. To make this happen, Captain Sisko falsifies a recording of Dominion leaders planning to invade Romulus. The Romulans ultimately join the war on the Federation’s side due to the fallout from the deception, but not after lives are lost. Sisko is the first Star Trek captain allowed to be morally gray, and even morally wrong, if only briefly. Though he had the approval of Starfleet, Sisko agonizes over his decision. Were the lives and morals lost in this plan worth the lives that will now be saved by having the Romulans as an ally? Does going against his own principles make him a bad man? Can he live with this on his conscience? Do the ends justify the means?

1. “Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night” S6E17

After Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), the main Cardassian antagonist, tells Major Kira that her mother, Meru, (Leslie Hope) was his lover, Kira travels back in time to discover the truth. Kira and Meru are both chosen as “comfort women” for Cardassian troops from their refugee camp. Kira is quickly removed from her new position for fighting, but Meru becomes Dukat’s special consort. Before long Dukat has Meru on his side and Kira turns against her. Does Meru do what she has to do for her family, or is she a pawn in Dukat’s game? She is still in touch with her husband, her presence as a consort having saved the rest of her family. He has forgiven her; does that mean Kira must too? The truth is hard to find in this episode, which makes it one of the more challenging episodes to watch. It expands on the tension in the series as a whole surrounding Gul Dukat’s motives and character. Is he just a charming bad guy or does he have good traits? Is a person ever wholly good or wholly evil? How do you cope with learning that someone you love acted against your values? Are collaborators as much to blame as perpetrators? How do we navigate a world painted in so many shades of gray?

Live Long And Prosper…

Star Trek: The Book of Lists by Chip Carter is published by Harper Design and is available now

Katarina Schultz

Writer & nerd. Lover of science fiction franchises. Cries daily about awesome women, representation in media, and the power of film.

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