Quietly, the forgotten step-child of Star Trek, the only show not to take place on a starship, proved to be the universe's most engrossing adventure. And to put it simply, this was because on Deep Space Nine, things happened. Galactic alliances stood and fell, wars were fought, characters died, and characters fell in love and got married. On Deep Space Nine, many of the minor characters had more growth and development in single seasons than some of their more well known counterparts had during seven years of episodes. Deep Space Nine was about it's characters, but it also managed more plot than other Treks, probably because it's plots always revolved around people and not around silly sci-fi premises that ceased to be interesting partway through the Next Generation's run. Because Deep Space Nine was willing to take chances, willing to go a step further from the Next Generation in moving beyond action/adventure storytelling, and willing to experiment with multi-episode and multi-season plot arcs, the show suffered in the viewership department during it's initial run. And I was one of those viewer casualties in the mid-90's, dropping the show just as it was becoming interesting. But after rediscovering the show on DVD, I'm convinced it was the best Trek has to offer.
The show struggled throughout it's first few season's to find a real direction, before finally introducing the Dominion as an adversary to the Federation that would guide the show's backdrop until all our war dominated the show's final seasons. The first season is notable for some big misses, most notably those that recycled Next Generation characters and plots. Star Trek had always been about putting the Enterprise in danger, week in and week out, but with a space station, the idea of placing our characters in harms way on a weekly basis just didn't make any sense. (As a practical matter, why would anyone stop, visit, or set up shop at a station that was constantly in imminent danger?) Perhaps more than anything else, this simple fact on the ground allowed the show to be about more and grow out of the limitations inherent in the Star Trek premise.
What Was Awesome:
# Captain Sisko, for my money the best captain of the bunch. Yes, better than Kirk, better than Picard. While Kirk and Picard were able to warp away at the end of every adventure, the stationary nature of Deep Space Nine necessitated that Sisko be a builder. Along the way he became a bad ass military leader, embraced his status as a religious leader, and was the strongest character in a large and ever growing cast of strong characters.
# The continued story arcs of Deep Space Nine occupation and the end of the Dominion War, the only time until the last few seasons of Enterprise where Star Trek experimented with multi-episode arcs.
# The space battles. Starting with season four's "The Way of the Warrior," DS9 blew the other Treks out of the water in terms of special fx sequences that stand up well to this day.
# The character growth, which dwarfs all the other Treks combined. Not just that, but every other Trek focussed solely on Starfleet officers and our characters goals and motivations were nearly always similar. Voyager, for instance, was about a group of characters desperate to get home. But Deep Space Nine had numerous non-Starfleet characters and even amongst the Starfleet characters there were very different sorts of motivations at play, as family and culture were actually given equal time to notions of duty.
# "The Ship," an episode in which Sisko and a small bunch the 'Niners fight a small cadre of Jem'Hadar over a crashed Dominion ship. It's a tight, claustrophobic episode, with a not too subtle speech at the end from Sisko that powerfully hits home how small misunderstandings can have horrific endings.
# The exploration of alien cultures. Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians, and even the Ferengi were all examined in detail. Some might argue with my inclusion of the Ferengi in the awesome section, but whether you liked them on DS9 or not, you have to admit that the show painted a particularly rich tapestry of different cultures.
# The Sisko as Emissary arc, which began and the pilot and was followed through to it's logical conclusion in the show's finale. Sisko starts to become a believer in Season 3's "Destiny," embraces his role in season 4's "Accession," and defies the will of Starfleet and his superiors to deliver a frightening spiritual warning in Season 5's "Rapture." For a show that generally rejected religion, it was a bold move not just to feature religion, but to have the show's main character as such a force of faith.
# The show's annual tradition of torturing Chief O'Brien. Starting with season 2's "Tribunal," when the Chief faces the Kafkaesque Cardassian legal system and continuing with such sci-fi classics as "Hard Time," where memories of a lifetime prison sentence are implanted in O'Brien's head, there was always fun to be had.
# The charismatic aliens, Weyoun, Gul Dukat, and Garak in particular. It's a tribute to DS9's great writing and great acting that these rubber-headed protagonists were typically the most magnetic characters on screen.
# "The Visitor," "Hard Times," and any of the other more traditional sci-fi premises that DS9 took and ran with. While Voyager and even the Next Generation at times always seemed to get bogged down in technobabble, DS9 was able to take a page from the original series and use big sci-fi premises to tell big character pieces.
# "The Siege of AR-558," where war is showcased in all it's tragedy and glory. The understated scenes where Nog loses his leg make the episode all the more powerful and the images of soldiers fighting and dying while the music of Vic Fontaine plays in the background is just haunting.
# Season 5's finale "A Call To Arms," simply the most bad ass Star Trek season finale ever. That the station would ever be abandoned to enemies was unimaginable when the series began.
# The show's focus on very adult relationships- The O'Briens, Sisko and Cassidy Yates, Worf and Dax, Odo and Kira and even the friendship between O'Brien and Bashir. Particularly in comparison to Voyager, where the main characters seemed to play the role of teenagers to Janeway and Chakotay's mother and father like positions, the difference is palpable.
What Was Not Awesome:
# Some of the early season one episodes that borrowed Next Generation guests and Next Generation plots. Deep Space Nine had some real gems in it's early going, but it also had it's share of stinkers.
# "Melora," a pc season two episode that reeked of a bad Next Generation plot. A new crew member is in a space wheelchair, but perseveres despite her handicap. The episode's exciting climax occurs when the crew member in the wheelchair saves the day, conveniently because of her handicap.
# "Past Tense," the two-part time travel episode in which Sisko and company travel back to 2024. It's a politically correct call out to the plight of the homeless that posits that at some future date, humanity will finally start caring and solve these problems. I complain very little about the politics of Star Trek, but this liberal nonsense that social problems only persist because we don't care enough is preposterous.
# Re-introducing Worf's son, Alexander, at an age that really made no sense in terms of what we knew about the time frame DS9 and the Next Generation. It was such a bad idea that he was written off after only two appearances.
# "Let He Who Is Without Sin," an absolute abortion of an episode. It's almost as if the writers thought, "hey, let's send Worf and Dax on vacation," and didn't realize they had to come up with a real story to tell until after they were finished shooting.
# Perhaps a minor complaint, but I would hope anyone with a legal background would have been appalled by the first season episode "Dax," in which resident Trill Jadzia Dax is put on trial for the crimes of her past host. The episode approaches the issue as if it is brand new, but surely a joined species must have some legal precedent of their own. Surely a joined Trill has been dragged into court before due to acts committed by a previous host. Maybe it's a minor oversight, but it's an important part of creating a vivid new world and an example of the show failing in it's early going.
I'll stop with not so awesome parts here as I can't really come up with too many. This is not to say that DS9 doesn't have it's weak moments, but most of my complaints are either minor or are from the show's early going. Down the stretch in season's six and seven there are a number of plot points that make you go "ehhhh," but nothing terribly offensive. Even the replacement of Jadzia with Ezri Dax had it's moments and while I wouldn't call that experiment a complete success, I wouldn't call it any sort of a failure either.
For my money, Deep Space Nine still remains a model of what television is capable of, grand and sweeping in scope, yet showcases for unique characters. There was initially much debate about whether DS9 stays true to Trek's ideals and I would argue that the series puts those values to the ultimate test and eventually see them pass with flying colors.