Deep Space Nine is one of my favourite TV shows of all time, but nevertheless, like The Next Generation, jumping straight in from the start is a big mistake. The first two series are kinda ropey, but the show is so heavily serialised that you can’t just watch the top ten episodes either as you won’t understand what’s going on. Thus I’ve put together another watch/skip list for anyone wanting to check it out for the first time. As with the TNG list, you can skip straight to the episodes by going here, or read my musings about the series first.
Why Do People Watch This Goofy Show?
Well the obvious reasons are the same ones people watched The Next Generation, optimism, exploration and a show about ideas. But there’s also three more:
A Show About Consequences
The fundamental difference between Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation is that the latter is set on a ship and the former is set on a station. This means that once a story has happened, you can’t just fly off, you’re stuck with the consequences of what happened, and boy howdy was DS9 into consequences. The entire set-up of Bajor and Cardassia is about the consequences of colonialism. This also drove the show to become more and more serialised at a time when this was deeply unusual. When stuff happened in DS9, it stayed happened. It informed characters and politics and plots for literally years to come.
A Show About Conflict
Early TNG is defined by Gene Roddenberry’s utopian edict that there would be no conflict between Starfleet officers. Something that might be nice but doesn’t make for good drama. DS9 quickly does an end around on this rule by making half the cast non-Starfleet characters, either Bajoran military like Kira and Odo or civilian merchants like Quark and Garak. This keeps people in dramatic conflict, making things more fun.
Testing Star Trek’s Optimism to Destruction
Deep Space Nine is often described as the darker Star Trek, and this is true, but it isn’t the whole story. DS9 accepts the sunny, optimistic Federation we’ve come to know and love, but then asks if that optimism can be maintained when confronted with a seemingly unbeatable enemy and a long, draining war. It puts the principles of Star Trek under pressure and asks if they will crack, and sometimes they do, characters break under the strain and do the wrong thing. This for me is what puts DS9 above Battlestar Galactica (whose creator, Ronald D Moore, was heavily involved in DS9). The weight of that history of Trek means that we know what is at stake here, we know these are good people even when they make bad choices. When Laura Roslin condones torture she’s just an arsehole, when Ben Sisko lies to bring allies into the war it’s a god damn tragedy.
This is why there’s nothing else really like DS9. Nothing else had twenty odd years of established utopia to spent seven years tearing down, only to (and incredibly obvious spoilers here) have optimism triumph in the end. Your affection for Star Trek is part how DS9 tells its’ story, that’s what makes it work.
So Should I Binge it All Then?
Once again: God no. Series one is very weak, still trying to be TNG, and not very good TNG at that. Series two is better but is obsessed with low stakes antagonists like the Marquis and Bajoran dissidents, that feel small coming after TNG’s Romulans and Borg. By Season 3 The Dominion have been introduced and you can dip in pretty easily at random, but you might find yourself confused because of the heavily serialised nature of the show, which is where the guide comes in.
Could You Tell Me a Little About The Characters?
Sure! There are lots of them! DS9 was a very ensemble show:
Commander/Captain Sisko is the Captain. Where Kirk was defined as a man of action and Picard as a man of diplomacy, Sisko is a man of will and determination. To paraphrase SF Debris, Ben Sisko is a man who when his wife was killed by the Borg, went and designed a spaceship designed specifically to fight the Borg. Then he named it Defiant. He does not back down from a fight, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to win that fight as long as he believes it is right. He is also consider a religious figure by the Bajorans for discovering the wormhole. He has a son called Jake who doesn’t really get much characterisation and exists largely to further his father’s plots.
Major/Colonel Kira is the second in command. She’s our first non-Starfleet character! She’s a Bajoran who spent most of her youth fighting in the resistance. Though she has a spiritual side, she more embodies the tough as nails guerilla fighter aspect of Bajor, struggling to adapt to life after the occupation and worried she has merely traded one master for another with the Federation.
Odo is the security officer. Like Kira he works for the Bajor rather than the Federation, but he’s not a Bajoran. Instead he’s a shapeshifter, who can adapt to any form at will (but can’t do faces very well). He has an innate love of justice, but often feels the temptation to lean towards order rather than freedom. He also has a crush on Kira.
Chief O’Brien is the Chief Engineer. He’s the everyman of the crew. It seems like that should make him uninteresting, yet somehow it works. While everyone else has some deep inner angst or major political issues to work out, he’s just a regular guy with a wife and kid. Like a suburban dad whose job it is to make sure the space lasers are working properly. Half his storylines are about him trying to balance his work and family life. It’s so incredibly normal it’s downright weird.
Dr Bashir is the Doctor. When he first arrives he’s very young and enthusiastic and incredibly obnoxious and condescending. Eventually he finds his feet as a character and these aspects get toned down a little. He has a major changing point as a character in series five, which is detailed in that episode summary.
Jadzia Dax is the Science Officer. She is a Trill, a species that is actually two people, a young ‘host’ who is mostly human but with weird spot patterns on her skin, and an ancient ‘symbiote’ that has had many hosts and remembers them all. Dax is thus the blending of both these personalities and the memories of every host before her. She actually knew Sisko when she was a lecherous old man known as Curzon Dax. Dax starts out kind of stoic and wise, but rapidly becomes more of a playful ‘carpe diem’ character. In the final season she is replaced with Ezri Dax, who never really establishes herself as a character.
Quark is the main Ferengi presence on the show. He’s a bar owner and two bit crook always trying to get ahead with some kind of scheme. Any scene where he trades barbs with Odo is a treasure. Quark has fully bought into the Ferengi philosophy of hyper capitalism, despite the fact that he’s only ever achieved middling success within it, making him basically Space Willy Loman. His brother, Rom, would like to be an exemplary Ferengi, but is clearly terrible at it. He eventually gravitates more towards Bajoran culture, which appreciates his technical know how more than his poor business skills. Meanwhile Rom’s son Nog eventually elects to join Starfleet, wanting a clean break with a philosophy he sees as having ruined his father. Yet he still maintains aspects of his own reclaimed interpretation of Ferengi philosophy. Yep the Ferengi came a long way in DS9.
Garak is a tailor. Just a simple Cardassian tailor. Exiled from his home for unspecified reasons and forced to live out his life on the station. He is certainly not a spy, perish the thought dear boy. What ridiculous rumours these gossips spread. Garak knows absolutely nothing about Cardassian politics or their Secret Police, the Obsidian Order, but he can make you a lovely suit.
Finally about halfway through the show’s run Worf joins from The Next Generation. His DS9 characterisation mostly matches up to his better TNG episodes, showing him less as the dude who always wants to shoot everything and more as a restrained and stoic individual with a deep moral code.
Bajoran? Cardassian? Can You Tell Me A Bit More About The World?
Absolutely! That’s way more important in DS9 because, again, we stay in one place for the most part.
The Wormhole is discovered in the first episode and is a key part of the series. It connects the Alpha Quadrant (ie: where the Federation is) to the Gamma Quadrant (the other side of the galaxy, home to The Dominion). The Wormhole is home to a group of aliens that exist outside of time. The Bajorans worship these aliens and call them The Prophets. DS9 literally sits right next to this thing so you can see it is important to the show. The Prophets are part of DS9’s attempt to do Space Religion, and I can confidently say it’s one of the best takes on Space Religion I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t mean it’s great, just that the bar is set incredibly low one that one (looking at you Battlestar Galactica). Specifically if possible you should avoid any episode that involves the Pah-Wraiths, evil wormhole aliens.
Bajor is the co-owner of DS9 and the closest major planet. The Bajorans are a deeply spiritual people who were invaded and occupied by the Cardassians, who strip mined the planet and committed many atrocities. The Bajorans engaged in guerilla warfare and eventually forced the Cardassians off planet. Bajor is a world still defined by the occupation, with most major political figures being former resistance fighters (such as First Minister Shakaar) or religious figures (such as good guy Vedek Bariel and the villainous Kai Winn). A lot of season 1 and 2 episodes are based around Bajoran politics, but most of them aren’t on this list because they’re less interesting than the other stuff.
The Cardassians are a fascist military junta that occupied and exploited Bajor for years. Their society is based around obedience and service to the state, but there are dissidents trying to establish a more civilian lead government. We usually see the Cardassians through Gul Dukat, one of the greatest and most complex villains Star Trek has ever produced. The commander of DS9 back when the Cardassians ran it, Dukat is a colonialist figure who sees himself as bringing civilisation to the Bajorans and protecting them from the excesses of other far worse Cardassians. He is fundamentally a narcissist, who has never gotten over the fact that the Bajorans were not grateful to him for ‘civilising’ them. Episodes dealing with the emotional legacy of Cardassia’s occupation of Bajor are usually good stuff. Later on they also join forces with The Dominion to recover after losing a war to the Klingons.
The Dominion are the big bad of DS9. Discovered at the end of Season Two but foreshadowed from very early on, they’re an advanced empire from the Gamma Quadrant ruled by the xenophobic Founders, and managed by the subservient Vorta and the soldier cast of the Jem’Hadar, who worship the Founders as gods. We often see them represented by Weyoun, an obsequious Vorta middle manager who represents a thoroughly banal evil.
Go to the next page for the actual list!