The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is effectively about getting back on track. The DS9 production team's intent for the prior year had been to put the Federation and the Dominion on a collision course to test how the Federation's ideals would hold up against a determined, equal opponent. The studio's desire to "shake things up" had rattled that premise and seen them bring in the Klingons in force, which had taken them away from where the story was meant to go. But in the fifth season Ira Steven Behr and his team decided to "make it a virtue," by using the Klingon/Federation conflict as a way of getting back to the Dominion.
The result is a run of episodes that almost rivals that of the exceptional fourth season. There isn't anything here quite as strong as The Visitor, but at times it comes damn close. Trials and Tribble-ations is the comedy highlight of the show - and possibly the entire franchise - with the DS9 crew travelling back to the events of the original series episodes The Trouble with Tribbles and interacting with Kirk, Spock and company via vintage clips (and the technology used to combine them, Forrest Gump-style, has held up very well over the past twenty-five years). It's brilliantly funny and constantly inventive. It is rivalled in these stakes by In the Cards, one of Star Trek's greatest comedic tour-de-forces and possibly the single most underrated episode in the entire Star Trek canon, as Jake and Nog attempt to procure a vintage baseball card for Sisko which results into them blundering into high-stakes political negotiations for the future of the quadrant.
Elsewhere the season has a plethora of very strong episodes. Season opener Apocalypse Rising starts to undo the damage of the Klingon arc, whilst The Ship is a great "under siege" story. Looking for par'Mach in All the Wrong Places is Cyrano de Bergerac in space and is terrific fun, whilst Nor the Battle to the Strong is the first time that Deep Space Nine plays its "war is hell" card, trying to undo the antiseptic attitude to war and conflict that had built up over the course of The Next Generation. The Assignment is a phenomenal episode where Keiko is taken over by a Pah-Wraith (the enemies of the Bajoran Prophets) and forces O'Brien to sabotage the station. It's a great episode that shows how criminally underused Rosalind Chao was as a performer over the course of the series.
The dangling Maquis plot threads are tied off in a fine duology of episodes, For the Uniform and Blaze of Glory, where Sisko and former Starfleet officer turned traitor Eddington go head-to-head in a Les Misérables-inspired story of obsession. This would be a bit more believable if Sisko had mentioned Eddington once in the dozens of episodes since his last appearance, but the actors sell it well.
Odo gets some good material in Things Past (which tries to challenge the idea of him getting out of the Cardassian occupation with his hands clean, which always seemed a stretch), The Ascent and A Simple Investigation, although the latter is undercut by Odo's first romance happening after he becomes a changeling again, rather than whilst still a solid. Ties of Blood and Water tests the limits of Quark's morality and he is horrified to find how his exposure to the Federation's ideals has limited his ruthless business edge. Soldiers of the Empire is a Klingon-centric, fun action romp, although it's let down a bit by the characters not quite gelling as well as they might (and you never really doubt that Martok is going to come through, which removes some of the tension). Doctor Bashir, I Presume is a great comedic piece, but also important for re-setting Dr. Bashir's character and explaining some nagging issues with his character over the years.
The season is let down a little by some subpar episodes. The Darkness and the Light tries to be a tense story of cat and mouse with an old enemy tracking down and eliminating Kira's resistance cell, but it sizzles out with no sense of tension. Let Her Who is Without Sin is one of DS9's vanishingly few outright awful episodes, with Worf inadvertently joining forces with some crazed (but also very beige) terrorists for reasons that are unconvincing at best. Empok Nor, which sees Garak turned into a serial killer by some kind of gas, is fairly boring. Garak is a powerful and fantastic character when allowed to play his shades of grey, turning him into a one-note villain is pointless. The Begotten is okay, but a little underwhelming (and it relies a bit too much on Rene Auberjonois acting emotionally against a piece of goo, which to be fair he just about sells). Children of Time has a very solid SF premise, but the morality of the ending is never really addressed in the series.
Where the fifth season shines, though, is the move to greater serialisation and the bringing in of bigger set-piece episodes. In Purgatory's Shadow and By Inferno's Light is as fine a two-parter as Star Trek has ever made, a huge, epic story operating on many different levels and nailing each of them superbly (with Andrew Robinson's outstanding performance as Garak a highlight). Grand politics, terrific action set pieces, characters confronting and overcoming their demons and Worf's tendency to punch things being made into a powerful storyline on its own. This is DS9 firing on all cylinders. The same can be said of the season finale, Call to Arms, which finally unleashes the dogs of war in a story featuring a huge space battle, tremendous character work and the biggest cliffhanger the franchise has ever done bar only The Best of Both Worlds.
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine (****½) is firing on all thrusters, and is only let down a little by a few more iffy episodes than the fourth 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 fifth season as part of a wider review of the third through fifth seasons twelve years ago. That review can be read here.