2369. The Cardassian Union has withdrawn from its forty-year occupation of the planet Bajor, leaving behind a world with shattered infrastructure and riven with factions and religious strife. The United Federation of Planets offers to help in the reconstruction, taking over orbital station Terok Nor (now renamed Deep Space Nine) and installing a Starfleet administration staff. When a stable wormhole is discovered linking the Bajoran system to the distant Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy, Bajor's future is secured...if they can stop the Cardassians retaking the planet. Deep Space Nine is moved to the mouth of the phenomenon and Commander Benjamin Sisko and his crew have to work to secure the alliance between the Federation and Bajor whilst dealing with the mysteries that lie beyond the wormhole.
It is common - after the original - for Star Trek shows to have decidedly ropey first seasons. The Next Generation's first season was pretty weak, with badly-written episodes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes abounding, with only hints of the greatness that the show would later achieve. Voyager's first season was almost somnambulant, Enterprise's was full of potential that it never came close to realising and modern shows Picard and Discovery both had shaky opening seasons, with excellent casts struggling with wildly inconsistent writing.
Deep Space Nine emerges, almost by default, as having the best opening season of any Star Trek show since the original and also the best pilot. That doesn't mean that either are flawlessly great, but they are batting above average for this franchise.
DS9 was launched as the somewhat "darker," "grittier", and "edgier" spin-off of The Next Generation. Incoming head of Paramount television Brandon Tartikoff had mandated a spin-off show be made and, when the Next Generation team were struggling for ideas, suggested that they base the spin-off on 1950s Western The Rifleman, just as the original series and TNG had been based on the Western Wagon Train. The Rifleman was about a veteran, widowed soldier and his young son making a home for themselves in a dangerous town on the very frontier of the American West. Michael Piller and Rick Berman developed the spin-off with this idea perhaps a bit too literally in mind: hence Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks), a widowed veteran of the war against the Borg that ended The Next Generation's third season, relocating to the dangerous frontier station of DS9 with his young son Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Originally the inspiration would have been even more directly obvious, with the series being set on a starbase on the surface of Bajor, but budgetary considerations (location shooting for every episode would have been ruinous) and plot limitations (the setting would have made Bajor too much the focus of the show) encouraged the producers to move the story to a space station setting, with the wormhole introduced as a means of allowing the show to still explore unknown space.
The most unusual feature of the show - still - is that it blends Starfleet crewmembers with non-Starfleet personnel, with Sisko and his team having to work alongside alien shapeshifter Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Bajoran first officer Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) and Ferengi barkeeper Quark (Armin Shimerman). This means that not all the characters in the show are under Sisko's authority and there is much butting of heads between different cultures and ways of doing things. This generated conflict, and thus drama and stories, circumventing Gene Roddenberry's The Next Generation proscription against drama and conflict between Starfleet characters (something he himself had violated lots of times with various "dodgy admiral" stories, but still). It also added texture to the setting. Previous shows had focused on Starfleet and the Federation perspective near-exclusively, but The Next Generation had modified its focus over time to use Worf to explore the Klingon culture and Deanna Troi the Betazeds. DS9 makes use of its alien characters to explore those cultures in tremendous depth and use them as a way to reflect back on the Federation.
This tremendous depth is impressive, but in the first season, still fairly nascent. Odo's history is a total blank page and only vague hints of his origins are provided this early on. Quark is a petty criminal but also one that doesn't take too many risks and also isn't too keen on mayhem and murder. He has a line he won't step over, not believing in risking his own skin. It's Kira who emerges as the most fleshed-out character in the first season, starting off as a staunch Bajoran nationalist who doesn't believe the Federation should be involved in Bajor's reconstruction, but later becoming more of a believer in cooperation and the need for the Federation to be involved to stop the Cardassians returning. This development gives the first season a reasonably strong character arc, something rather unusual at the time in episodic television, let alone Star Trek.
This early nod towards serialisation is still fairly underdeveloped. There are secondary and tertiary characters introduced this season who only show up once but have much bigger roles in later seasons: rival Bajoran vedeks Winn (Louise Fletcher) and Bareil (Philip Anglim), and "simple tailor" Garak (Andrew Robinson) all make the most of their solitary appearances this season but set themselves up well for later developments. Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) appears a few more times and is set up tremendously well at this point as a foil and opponent for Sisko.
The cast is superb, with Brooks being a more idiosyncratic figure than William Shatner or Patrick Stewart but also a commanding, military figure with a nice line in confrontational diplomacy (and a temper, the sort of weakness Roddenberry would have blanched at). Visitor is outstanding as Kira, Auberjonois is flawlessly gruff as Odo but with an excellent line in subtlety and Shimerman is clearly having tremendous fun as Quark. Terry Farrell as Lt. Jadzia Dax is a bit more lost in the mix in the first season and often doesn't have much to do, but is great when she does, playing the mixture of a young Starfleet officer and world-weary Trill symbiont with 300 years of experience in her head very well. Colm Meaney's Chief O'Brien transfers over from The Next Generation with a much bigger role as the station's chief engineer and nails it perfectly, becoming the most human and relatable character in the cast. An unfortunate weak link at this stage is Siddig El Fadil (later re-credited as Alexander Siddig) as Dr. Julian Bashir: the original plan had been to cast a young hothead as the doctor and the writers weren't able to adjust their scripting to Siddig's strengths until the second season. This leaves him as an underwritten character in the first season with little characterisation outside his arrogance and somewhat tedious pursuit of Lt. Dax. Given his extraordinary later performances, it's a shame to see Siddig being ill-served by the material at this stage.
The season starts out strong with arguably Star Trek's best pilot, Emissary, which introduces the fairly complicated set-up and plot but manages to get through it quite well. It's still a fairly inelegant pilot, rooted in exposition, but it does its job of introducing the characters and setting up the premise. The first season goes on to have a run of quite strong episodes: Captive Pursuit sees O'Brien introduce the first alien visitor from the Gamma Quadrant; Dax is a thorny, class Trek ethical conundrum as Lt. Dax is accused of a crime carried out by a previous host; The Nagus has a great guest turn by Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) as the Ferengi Grand Nagus, Zek; Battle Lines is an unusually violent episode about a culture trapped in a perpetual war (with a great turn by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks as the main guest star); and Progress is a great early Kira episode.
Inbetween you have episodes with great elements but which are let down by some writing decisions: Past Prologue is a fascinating look at Bajor's mixed attitudes to the Federation and the wormhole, but is undermined by a pointless cameo by The Next Generation villains Lursa and B'Etor; Q-Less is terrific fun with John de Lancie on fine form as Q in his sole appearance on DS9, but it does feel more like a TNG episode than a DS9 one; Vortex is a promising Odo episode undermined by a weak guest star; If Wishes Were Horses is a typical "weird things happen on the station; strange aliens involved" Star Trek cliché that was getting old in the original show; and Babel is an "alien virus infects the crew but the doctor saves the day in under fifty minutes" piece, although the solution is a little more creative than normal.
In terms of real howlers, the season is remarkable in only having one: The Passenger, in which Dr. Bashir gets taken over by a murderous psychopath. Even by Star Trek's elastic standards, the science is laughably unconvincing and Siddig El Fadil's attempts to depict the possessed Bashir by making him speak...reallly....slowly are just painful.
Other episodes have weak premises but are livened up by the execution: The Storyteller doesn't make much sense (everyone seems really chill with this one Bajoran village being constantly terrorised by a random cloud monster) but wonderfully sets up the Bashir/O'Brien bromance that will extend across the series; Dramatis Personae has a potentially tedious "the crew acting out of character due to alien influence" storyline but by exaggerating pre-existing tensions rather than creating them out of thin air, it forces the characters to confront genuine issues; and the controversial Move Along Home is so deranged that fans think it's either one of the worst episodes of Star Trek ever made or an unsung work of genius (especially the fantastic ending, which subverts the typical Star Trek ending in a hilarious manner).
The season also has two stand-out classics. Duet is simply one of the best Star Trek episodes ever made, a powerful two-hander between Nana Visitor and guest star Harris Yulin (a perennial great of American television and film who's never quite gotten the profile he deserved, who should have gotten an Emmy for his performance here) that dives deep into the Cardassian/Bajoran relationship, war crimes and survivor guilt. The ending, where Kira discovers that even her hatred for the Cardassians has limits, is one of Star Trek's all-time best moments of characterisation.
The season finale, In the Hands of the Prophets isn't quite in that league, but it is a wonderful piece of drama and worldbuilding, putting Starfleet's morality and ethics squarely in the firing line. The Federation believes in respecting other cultures and their religion without indulging or propagating their beliefs, but on a station the Federation doesn't own this becomes extremely difficult, with Keiko O'Brien's school in the firing line when she starts teaching the scientific truth of the wormhole rather than the Bajoran religious belief that it is the Celestial Temple of their religion, the home of their gods (and not mere "wormhole aliens"). This set up a decidedly timely debate on science versus religion and how respectful teachers should be of beliefs that are not supported, if not flatly contradicted, by science (evolution versus creationism was becoming a big issue at the time in American schools). As well a reasonably strong season finale, it also sets up the rest of the series and acts as a prologue to the three-part arc that opens the second season.
The first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (***½) is the weakest of the show's seven seasons, but still lands quite well, certainly much better than the first season of almost any other Trek show (bar the original and maybe Lower Decks, depending on your sense of humour). It establishes a number of interesting characters, and by Star Trek standards has a low number of forgettable or poor episodes and, for a rookie outing, a nicely large number of good to excellent episodes. Whilst it could be stronger, it sets up the show well. The series is available on DVD in the USA and UK, as well as on CBS All Access in the States and Netflix in the UK.
Note: I previously reviewed DS9's first season as part of a wider review of the first two seasons twelve years ago. That review can be read here.