The first season of Deep Space Nine really struggles to forge an identity for itself. Most of the season is dominated by The Next Generation style ‘anomaly/alien of the week’ episodes, and not even good ones. More promising are the episodes that delve into Bajor’s political situation, with Duet creating a strong template for the series to follow.
Emissary pt 1 & pt 2 – Back in TNG I told you to skip the pilot because it isn’t very good and you probably already knew everything it was going to tell you. Well DS9 is different. Not only is Emissary a far better pilot than Encounter at Farpoint, it’s introducing a more complex and less well known show. Also Picard is in it!
The Nagus – The first Ferengi episode and the introduction of their leader, played by the fantastic Wally Shawn (The Princess Bride).
Duet – The first truly great DS9 episode. Kira arrests a Cardassian who may or may not have been involved in some of the worst atrocities of the occupation of Bajor. It’s an episode all about the hatred and guilt created by the destructive legacy of colonialism.
At this point the TNG-lite episodes are rapidly being jettisoned and the real DS9 is emerging. Instead season 2’s major problem is the small stakes. Storylines about Bajoran extremists or the Marquis just don’t feel big enough at a time when TNG was tangling with The Borg, Romulans and a Klingon civil war. There is a silver lining though, as this is the series in which Garak really emerges as a breakout character.
Cardassians – The first really good Garak episode, which neatly sets up his strange friendship with Bashir and hatred of Dukat. The story is another post-colonial one, dealing with a Cardassian orphan raised by Bajorans, and also introduces us to the backstabbing of Cardassian politics.
Necessary Evil – This is DS9’s attempt to go a bit film noir, and unlike Voyager’s terrible Ex Posto Facto it mostly works! The trick is that the murder mystery is used mostly as a jumping off point to explore what Odo, Kira and Quark were like back when the Cardassians controlled the station.
Whispers – There’s a subcategory of DS9 episode called ‘O’Brien must suffer’, which essentially revolves around Colm Meaney having such a sympathetic face that putting him in peril really resonates with the audience (much like Jewel Staite in Firefly). They’re never plot significant, but they’re usually good. In this one he becomes paranoid the crew have been replaced with replicants.
Profit and Loss – An interesting early Quark episode as for once the story isn’t about money, despite the title. Profit and Loss develops Quark as a more three dimensional character by bringing in his old flame: Cardassian dissident Natima Lang. It’s also interesting for telling us more about the Cardassians’ fascistic society.
The Wire – The second big Garak episode tackles much the same ground as before, but delves more into his character. We learn a lot more about his past and why he is exiled to the station. Then it turns out it’s all lies. I love Garak.
The Jem’Hadar – Here we go. What starts off as a mild family comedy with Sisko, Jake, Nog and Quark turns into the introduction for The Dominion, the antagonist that will come to define the series. As a fascist empire who are technologically and militarily superior, they finally give DS9 the stakes it desperately needed.
At this point DS9 has firmly settled into its stride, with the cold war with the Dominion adding a much needed sense of threat. We also see the introduction of the beloved Defiant, aka the ship Starfleet sends when it wants to stop messing around with this peaceful exploration lark and shoot you to death.
The Search pt 1 & pt 2 – Essentially a follow up to the Jem’Hadar. The crew take the Defiant into the Gamma Quadrant to find the leaders of the Dominion. If you don’t already know who that is then watch the episode already. It’s a good twist.
Second Skin – Remember the only good Troi episode of TNG, when she got turned into a Romulan? This is that, but with Kira being turned into a Cardassian, which is inherently more interesting and thus better. Sorry Deanna, you never could catch a break.
Heart of Stone – This episode kicks off the long running story of Odo’s unrequited love for Kira. It’s interesting because while Odo doesn’t really fess up to his feelings and stews on them, he mostly also avoids the typical passive aggressive ‘nice guy’ behaviour. It’s more a case of him not really understanding how to love on account of being a gelatinous blob that sleeps in a bucket. That classic story.
Visionary – Another good ‘O’Brien Must Suffer’ episode. In this one he starts jumping through time and obviously bad things happen every time.
Distant Voices – An early Bashir episode that gives some much needed character to the obnoxious doctor, finally giving Alexander Siddig a chance to display his range by portraying Bashir as an insecure overachiever.
Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast – A big pair of episodes that achieves a whole bunch of stuff. It tells us a slightly more true (the best you’re going to get with Garak) version of Garak’s past, shades in Odo’s relationship with his people and tells us what the rest of the Alpha Quadrant thinks of the Dominion.
A barnstorming season finale, The Adversary lets a shapeshifter loose on the Defiant, giving us essentially The Thing in space.
Despite coming off the back of a great season, the network rarely had much confidence in DS9, and so attempted to spice it up. Their interference, adding Worf to the crew and bringing in the Klingons as antagonists, could have gone badly wrong, but the writers ran with it and made the show even better.
The Way of the Warrior pt 1 & pt 2 – This is the episode that introduces Worf to the crew and establishes a Klingon presence in DS9. Again we’re seeing how the different powers of the Alpha Quadrant react in different ways to the threat of the Dominion. The Romulans wanted a first strike, the Federation builds defences and the Klingons use the pretext to expand their territory.
The Visitor – The daddsiest episode that ever did dad. The Visitor is a fan favourite episode, and the best Jake episode by a country mile. Consider it DS9’s version of The Inner Light as we see the life Jake Sisko could’ve lead if his father had been taken away from him.
Hippocratic Oath – I’ve said it before, but Star Trek doesn’t generally do one note villains (at least not for longer than an episode). Here the Jem’Hadar, footsoldiers of the dominion, are revealed to be kept in line with drug addiction and religious dogma.
Indiscretion – This is an early villain protagonist episode for Dukat, probably Star Trek’s greatest and most complex villain. This is a relatively sympathetic outing, but to its credit the show would eventually come down on the side of Dukat as a colonial monster.
Rejoined – This episode has Star Trek’s first same sex kiss, although with the major asterisk that it is between two people who were a heterosexual couple in a past life (there is probably a lot of interesting gender analysis to be done on the Trill, which I am in no way qualified to do). For some reason despite its famous barrier breaking, Star Trek never quite seemed willing to pull the trigger on LGTBQ characters. Happilly I am informed Star Trek Discovery will finally correct that mistake.
Starship Down – Basically Disaster but for DS9. Works just as well as a good one off episode.
Our Man Bashir – I am pretty sure this is the only guide that will tell you to watch this incredibly goofy episode, but I kinda love it. Bashir is playing James Bond on the holodeck when the characters are all replaced by the DS9 crew, because Reasons. What makes an otherwise terminally silly holodeck episode work is Garak, an actual real spy, continually snarking about Bashir’s Bond fantasies.
Homefront/Paradise Lost – This episode does what Conspiracy balked at way back in season 1 of TNG: show us a Starfleet crippled by paranoia and conspiracy. Sisko and Odo are ordered back to Earth to help improve security against changeling infiltrators, but they find that the mere fear of this threat is tearing Starfleet apart.
Return to Grace – Another Dukat episode, showing how the consequences of his last outing have left him discredited and humiliated. In retrospect it’s easy to see how the emasculation he suffers, along with his deep narcissism, leads him away from these sympathetic portrayals towards embracing villainy.
Broken Link – The big finale contains a major character moment for Odo, with his people essentially putting him on trial for his actions in The Adversary.
By this point the executives are mostly leaving the DS9 writers to their own devices, and the series begins to turn back to the Dominion, slowly building towards all out conflict.
Apocalypse Rising – Finishes important business started in Broken Link. Also everyone has to wear Klingon makeup, which is good for an laugh.
The Ship – One of the first great standalone ‘war is hell’ stories of DS9, even though the war hasn’t started yet. Sisko finds a crashed Jem’Hadar ship and tries to salvage it, only for the Dominion to show up, leading to a tense stand off.
Nor The Battle To the Strong… – Another ‘war is hell’ story because DS9 is really, really good at those. In this one Bashir and Jake Sisko are caught in a border conflict with the Klingons and Jake experiences combat for the first time. The contrast between his naked panic and Wesley’s obnoxious omnicompetence is telling.
Trials and Tribble-ations – A welcome break from the horrors of war and one of DS9’s iconic episodes. The crew are sent back in time and accidentally get caught up in the original Star Trek episode The Trouble With Tribbles, via clever use of spliced footage. It is a wonderfully silly, goofy, self indulgent treat.
Things Past – The technobabble required to make this episode’s premise work is laughable, but let’s just say that for reasons Odo takes a trip down memory lane to the decidedly different approach to justice under Cardassian rule.
The Ascent – If you have enjoyed Odo and Quark sparring this is an entire episode of them bickering with each other while stranded on a deserted planet. It is wonderful.
The Begotten – Odo discovers an infant changeling, and tries to teach it how to become solid, with help from the scientist who first found him. It’s a nice little episode, and also wraps up important plot from Broken Link.
For the Uniform – The first of two ‘Dark Sisko’ episodes. In this one he decides to play the villain to entrap self indulgent hero Michael Eddington (who betrayed Starfleet to the Marquis in an episode I told you not to watch because the Marquis aren’t that interesting).
In Purgatory’s Shadow/By Inferno’s Light – An important two parter for the Dominion arc, advancing the doomsday clock towards war by a ton, and also telling a terrific prison break story along the way.
Doctor Bashir I Presume? – A hugely important Bashir episode that reconfigures his character entirely, revealing him to be the product of illegal genetic engineering. The scenes between Bashir and his parents are incredible, but the episode also has an awful B plot that even an appearance from Voyager’s sole source of hope Robert Picardo can’t overcome.
Soldiers of the Empire – This is Star Trek: Klingon, with Worf and Dax serving aboard a Klingon ship. The episode really tries to dig down into presenting a Klingon experience, as if this were their show and our regulars have just stumbled into it.
Empok Nor – For Reasons Garak and O’Brien end up in a fight to the death on a Deep Space Nine’s deserted sister station. It’s mostly good because of Garak going full die hard villain while O’Brien plays it like he just wants to go home and argue with his wife.
Call To Arms – Here we fucking go. Shit is going down. All out spacewar is declared, the Dominion seize DS9 and our heroes are thrust into an uncertain future.
This is where everything we’ve built to so far really pays off, as the Federation and the Dominion go to war, a war that will last the next two years. This series marks DS9 at its finest, delving deep into serialised war stories yet still being able to put out great standalone episodes like Far Beyond the Stars. It also contains the single worst episode of DS9 ever. Under no circumstances should you watch Profit and Lace no matter how much someone dares you to.
A Time To Stand – The first of a six (!) part opening the the series, although you can safely skip the filler Sons and Daughters. This follows up on the series five finale: with Federation that is clearly losing the war the crew is sent behind enemy lines in pivotal mission.
Rocks and Shoals – A tragically humanising episode for the Jem’Hadar. Completing their Klingon-like transformation from disposable enemies to principled but unswayable religious fanatics.
Behind the Lines – Not low note compared to the adjacent episodes compared to the adjacent episodes, this one focuses on the activities of the ‘resistance’ headed by characters left aboard the station.
Favor the Bold/Sacrifice of Angels – This two parter wraps up the arc that began with the war’s start, with Starfleet heading straight to DS9 to try and take it back before the Dominion can bring in reinforcements.
The Magnificent Ferengi – A nice breather after the epic fall and liberation of DS9. Quark discovers his mother has been taken hostage by the Dominion (she’s the lover of the leader of the Ferengi Alliance, so it’s not as weird as it sounds). Rather than ask for Federation help he decides to rescue her the his way, putting together a team of Ferengi to spring her free. This episode also features Iggy Pop as a Vorta, he is not good.
Waltz – A Dukat episode. The Dukat episode, some might say. This is essentially the final cap on the character’s development. Though Dukat would appear in later episodes, it would be as a stock villain, rather than the narcissistic colonial apologise we’ve come to know and loathe.
Who Mourns For Morn? – If you didn’t know, Morn is an incredibly distinctive looking alien who is always sitting at the bar in Quarks. He’s named after Norm from Cheers. He became something of an in joke with the show, eventually getting his own episode. It’s not the best of DS9, but it’s pretty incredible that a non-speaking extra got more character development than many of the Voyager cast.
Far Beyond the Stars – Star Trek often tried to tackle racism through allegory and metaphor, with varying results. Here DS9 decides to go right to the source of the issue as Sisko hallucinates that he is a struggling sci-fi writer called Benny Russo in the 1950s, writing the story of DS9 and fighting institutional racism to get it published. Is Benny dreaming of Sisko, or is Sisko dreaming of Benny? This is the only episode of Star Trek to ever use the n-word. DS9 is not in the business of pulling punches.
Inquisition – Introduces Section 31, another attempt from DS9 to push the envelope of the utopian Federation. Section 31 are the Federation’s secret police, not recognised by its government but seeing themselves as patriotic servants to Federation ideals even while they do things that go against them.
In the Pale Moonlight – Right off the back of that comes the premiere ‘Dark Sisko’ episode. Driven by grief over casualties and the belief that he is losing the war, Sisko works with Garak to try and fake evidence to get the Romulans to join their alliance. This is the darkest act any Trek character has ever done, and some die hard fans loathe the episode because of it. Personally I love it.
His Way – If you are into the Kira/Odo romance, this is where you finally get your payoff. Everyone else probably needs a breather after several incredibly dark episodes (and more to come!).
Valiant – Jake and Nog get stranded behind enemy lines and find a ship entirely crewed by cadets who were on a training mission when the war broke out. Because this is DS9 and not TNG this ends in complete tragedy. This series man. This series.
Tears of the Prophets – As the Alpha Quadrant powers gear up to attack a strategically important system, the Prophets warn Sisko that bad things are gonna happen. Then Dukat does weird mystic stuff, it isn’t great, but it is plot important.
Like TNG, DS9 wobbled a little in its final season. The war arc remained strong throughout, but the second half of the series seemed to cram too many twists (the Breen Dominion Alliance, the Cardassian Resistance) into too few episodes. Plus there was a little too much wormhole alien prophecy nonsense, and Jadzia Dax was replaced by Ezri, who never really had time to find her feet as a character. Also people will tell you the baseball episode is good but it is not good. Don’t @ me.
Image in the Sand/Shadows and Symbols – The opening two parter solves the mystic bullshit that Dukat did at the end of season six. Meanwhile Ezri Dax is introduced and Sisko finds out weird mystic bullshit about his past. The downside of heavy serialisation is that you have to watch these not particularly good episodes to follow what’s going on.
Treachery, Faith and the Great River – A day in the limelight for Weyoun, who was more often than not the face of the Dominion during the war years.
The Siege of AR-558 – A personal favourite of mine. The Siege of AR-558 includes everything that is great about DS9 war stories. Tragedy, flawed heroes under immense personal stress and a willingness to take dramatic risks, but packaged into a simple standalone episode. It’s DS9 at it’s most military-themed, but with a surprisingly deep commentary on human nature via Quark.
It’s Only a Paper Moon – The coda to AR-558, following up on Nog’s traumatic injury as he spends more and more time on the holodeck. This is the only appearance on this list of Vic Fontaine, a regular holodeck program in the final season of DS9 that never quite clicked.
Field of Fire – I’m throwing this in there because it’s probably the best Ezri episode, of several that tried to establish her as a character in the final season. Here she works with one of her past lives, the homicidal Joran, in a classic murder mystery.
Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges – The follow up to Inquisition, pushing the Bashir vs Section 31 plot that never quite had the time it needed.
Penumbra – From this point on I’m going to ask you to watch every episode, even though the quality varies a little. That’s because we’re into the endgame, with the final nine(!) episodes of the season all following directly on from one another in one big arc. This one is about Dax searching for Worf, who is missing, presumed dead.
Til Death us do Part – Worf and Dax are captured by the Breen, Sisko gets married and Dukat begins his dodgy final plot arc by disguising himself as a Bajoran.
Strange Bedfellows – The Breen ally with the Domnion, leading to Damar launching a Cardassian resistance. Who is Damar? He’s the guy who’s been standing over Dukat’s left shoulder this whole time. They literally had a guy play henchmen #1 for six years so he could turn into Cardassian Che Guevara at the last minute.
The Changing Face of Evil – The Battle of the Bulge: Star Trek style. As a massive attack on by the Alpha Quadrant Alliance is crushed by the Dominion and their new allies.
When it Rains… – Kira, Garak and Odo are sent to Cardassia to join up with Damar’s resistance, a neat circle for Kira, who began her life as a resistance fighter against the Cardassians.
Tacking into the Wind – More Kira and Damar stuff, plus the increasing paranoia and questionable tactics of Gowron, leader of the Klingon Empire, lead to Worf and Martok taking action. This arguably the conclusion to the Worf and the Klingon Empire arc that began way, way back in Sins of the Father in TNG series 3.
Extreme Measures – The final Section 31 episode, which sadly feels a little rushed, but serves as a nice coda to Sloan as an antagonist.
The Dogs of War – Damar’s organised resistance is crushed, but he’s become enough of a folk hero that a popular uprising replaces it. The Nagus names a successor for the leader of the Ferengi, and the Federation prepares to end the war by invading Cardassia.
What You Leave Behind (pt & pt2) – The final battle of the Dominion War begins, and it is great. Slightly less great is the conclusion to the Dukat and the Pah-Wraiths story I’ve been carefully avoiding mentioning during most of these summaries, but trust me, it’s still worth it.
There are no DS9 movies, the series ends on the bittersweet note of What You Leave Behind. There are however a series of expanded universe after the end books. I may even have (glances shiftily sideways) read some of them. They’re pretty good, but they don’t fill the void left when the series is done.
Sorry for taking so long over this. A Voyager list will likely come soon. It’s much easier to write up, as there aren’t anywhere near as many good episodes.