The fourth season of Deep Space Nine marks a notable shift in the tone of the show. Prior to this season it had been well-regarded, but perhaps a little underrated by viewers. Star Trek: Voyager, which started halfway through DS9's third season, had attracted a huge amount of attention for the launch of a new starship heading into genuinely unexplored territory, whilst there was a perception that DS9 was a little stale, especially with another space station show, Babylon 5, picking up greater contemporary critical acclaim and awards. This perception, which was not really fair, had been addressed by DS9 upping the ante in its third season, introducing a new starship to help defend the station and telling more serialised stories about the rising threat of the Dominion.
Still, Paramount wanted to shake up the show and bring in some new storytelling opportunities. The DS9 writers hit on the idea of bringing in Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) from The Next Generation and making the always-popular Klingons a recurring feature of DS9. With these changes on the way, the team were asked to make Season 4 something of a "reboot" for the series, a jumping-on point for new viewers.
This explains why Season 4's movie-length opener, The Way of the Warrior, is a little bit bizarrely expository in telling us things we already know: Odo's background and capabilities as a shapeshifter are once again explained and there are lengthy recaps of the Bajoran Occupation, the threat posed by the Cardassians, Garak's background as a spy, Dukat's haphazard career trajectory, Quark's semi-criminal background, Dax's nature as a Trill and so on. This leads to quite a few scenes feeling completely redundant: this show has already aired 72 episodes (one less than the entire run of Game of Thrones and rather more than the complete runs of shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Orphan Black) and reintroducing the characters and concepts as if it's the first time feels a bit weird.
Once you get past that, the episode is pretty good. Shaking up the Federation-Klingon Alliance, which had gotten a little too cosy over seven seasons of The Next Generation, is a good move and bringing Worf over to DS9 makes sense. Worf's angst-ridden, constantly-conflicted backstory and nature were sometimes an awkward fit on the comfortable Enterprise-D but are much more at home on the station. The absolutely massive space battle at the end of the episode is one of DS9's most impressive action set-pieces (even as you can feel the technology of motion-controlled models creakily hitting its limitations) and the episode features several outstanding character and humour pieces among all its explosions, such as Garak and Quark's morbid realisation they are not fans of the Federation but are reliant on it for survival, whilst Quark's determination to defend his bar with a non-existent disruptor is one of the show's funniest moments.
The season goes on much as it started (mercifully with less recapping of well-established plot points). The second episode of the season, the Hugo-nominated The Visitor, holds a strong claim to being Deep Space Nine's best episode and one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made, an exploration of family, parental relationships and obsession spanning decades and lifetimes with an outstanding performance by guest star Tony Todd.
The season seems to enjoy setting up paired episodes which explore ongoing ideas. The Jem'Hadar get more exploration in Hippocratic Oath, in which Bashir tries to free them from their addiction to the ketracel-white as a way of robbing the Dominion's power over them (despite the risk it may also turn them into uncontrollable, all-conquering monsters), to O'Brien's extreme disquiet. Later in the season, To the Death explores more of the Jem'Hadar's nature and reveals that, although they do have a very extreme, odd code of honour, they are still extremely dangerous adversaries. This episode also marks the outstanding debut of the Vorta Weyoun, one of Star Trek's best-ever villains, played with charisma, skill and charm by Jeffrey Combs.
Meanwhile, Dukat gets a lot of character development in Indiscretion, in which he and Kira form an effective working relationship and we learn that Dukat has a (somewhat) nobler side to his character, which is then developed in Return to Grace. These episodes also introduce a new recurring character in the form of Dukat's half-Bajoran daughter, Ziyal, whose very existence provides a huge amount of emotional angst for the character (as well as helping Kira's developing sense that some Cardassians can be redeemed and become allies...just never Dukat).
We also learn more of Bashir, with his lighter and more frivolous side coming to the fore in Our Man Bashir (a James Bond parody that landed the production team in hot water with Paramount's legal department, who received threatening letters from MGM) and his more obsessive, arrogant side come out in The Quickening (as well as Hippocratic Oath). Meanwhile, the Rom/Quark relationship gets a lot of development in Little Green Men, Bar Association and Body Parts (the latter two also seeing the return of "Brunt, FCA," also courtesy of the magnificent Jeffrey Combs), which go a long way to fleshing out the Ferengi as a serious (ish) people with their own culture and beliefs.
New (to DS9) character Worf also gets a lot of development though episodes like The Sword of Kahless, Rules of Engagement and Sons of Mogh, which all do well to flesh out Worf and also give him more stuff to do other than just getting beaten up by the alien guest star of the week to show how tough they are.
Elements which had been much more key to DS9's identity in previous season are reduced to almost token appearances here. Accession is the season's sole contribution to the Bajoran spirituality/Emissary storyline, where Sisko gratefully relinquishes the title of Emissary to a Bajoran who's been trapped in the wormhole for three centuries, only to discovery the new Emissary is a hardline religious conservative who wants Bajor to return to outdated cultural practices from centuries ago. Sisko ends up having to fight for the very title he's wanted to get rid of for three years. Similarly, the Maquis get a sole episode about them in For the Cause, where the Maquis cleverly try to use the beating the Cardassians are receiving at the hands of the Klingons as a way of securing their political goals. There's also only one "let's torture O'Brien" episode, with the superb Hard Time. Shattered Mirror is the season's signature Mirror Universe episode and is a fun piece with an excellent space battle. The season also has only one episode focusing on Odo's unrequited love for Kira, Crossfire, but it's an outstanding piece of character drama with magnificent performances from Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman, and one of the best low-key episodes in all of Star Trek's history.
Even the Dominion get a low-key season. Starship Down sees a badly-crippled Defiant playing cat-and-mouse with two Dominion warships in the atmosphere of a gas giant, in a tense submarine-style movie. It's tremendous fun, with a great guest performance by James Cromwell (just ahead of him going off to shoot the movie First Contact). The two-parter Homefront and Paradise Lost at first glance looks like a Dominion show, but it's actually a story about paranoia and how the Federation allows distrust and fear to get loose on Earth, with almost catastrophic results without the Dominion even having to lift a finger. The finale, Broken Link, is a great character piece which explores more about the Founders.
The most notable thing is that virtually all of these episodes are great. There are some small flaws along the way - Little Green Men is a bit too comedic, Rules of Engagement loses its main character in Worf for long stretches of the episode - but the season only has one mediocre episode, The Muse, about an alien who gets its power by...watching Jake Sisko write? It's a weird concept that never really works, although a subplot about Odo having to rescue Lwaxana Troi with a dramatic declaration of romantic intent is surprisingly more enjoyable.
The result is that 24 out of the 25 episodes this season are good to excellent, incorporating one of the greatest Star Trek episodes of all time in The Visitor and multiple other compelling pieces. These all give the fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (*****) a good claim to being its strongest year. The season 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 third season as part of a wider review of the third through fifth seasons twelve years ago. That review can be read here.