Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Wertzone Classics: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Season 6

2374. The United Federation of Planets is, for the first time in a century, fighting a full-blown war. The Dominion, augmented by the addition of the Cardassian Union to their ranks, is pushing the Federation and their Klingon allies back on every front. When news arrives that the Dominion is preparing to bring down the minefield defending the wormhole and bringing in reinforcements from the Gamma Quadrant, Captain Sisko takes command of the largest fleet in Federation history to mount a daring mission to recapture Deep Space Nine. But this war is only just beginning.

With the fourth season of Deep Space Nine having taken the show off-track, the fifth season had gotten the show back to where the writers had wanted to go: pitching the Federation into conflict with the Dominion. By the end of the season that conflict had exploded into all-out war, leaving Star Trek with arguably its biggest cliffhanger since Jean-Luc Picard was turned into a Borg: the Dominion capture Deep Space Nine and drive most of the crew off the station.

The aftermath of that event drives the largest-to-date storyline ever attempted in the entire Star Trek franchise: a continuously building narrative that spans the first six episodes of the season. This mini-series-within-a-series was a bold move for Star Trek at the time, although some sceptics sourly noted possible inspiration from DS9's sometimes-rival show, Babylon 5, which had become more significantly serialised some time earlier. Despite the franchise not being really geared to it, the writers do an excellent job of making it work, giving us stories of life on the station under Dominion occupation and on the Defiant and on the Klingon Bird-of-Prey Rotarran as the war escalates. There's some excellent storytelling and character-building in these episodes, particularly the introduction of regular "inside the enemy camp" asides as Dukat, his aide Damar, Weyoun and the Female Changeling plot the downfall of the Federation. For the first time, ever, we have a regular cast of bad guys to balance the regular cast of good guys and it's great fun to see the story being explored from two different angles.

This arc culminates in Sacrifice of Angels, which gives us the biggest battle in Star Trek history (matched only by the battles at the end of Season 7, but those battles are too reliant on stock footage to be as impressive) thanks to Babylon 5's recently-ejected CGI team, Foundation Imaging. The result is a dramatic improvement in vfx quality. For the first time in Star Trek's history, we get immense, convincing fleet battles which remain superb more than twenty years later. The battle is balanced out by tremendous character work, such as Dukat lamenting the fact that the Bajorans (a people he brutally oppressed for years, killing more than five million of them) never erected a statue of them whilst Weyoun looks at him with the slowly dawning realisation that he's allied himself to an increasingly deluded lunatic.

After the initial arc we get an entertaining episode where Worf and Jadzia finally get married (prompting the bachelor party from hell) and then things calm down a bit, with a string of "standard Star Trek" episodes. This string of episodes remains entertaining though: Resurrection brings characters from the Mirror Universe to DS9 for a change (rather than vice versa), whilst Statistical Probabilities is highly influenced by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and asks what happens when a statistical science for analysing future trends reveals that the Federation's defeat in the war is inevitable. The Magnificent Ferengi is a mighty all-Ferengi show as Quark recruits a team of the brightest and best of his race to mount a commando raid to rescue his mother from the Dominion. The barminess of the premise is only enhanced by Iggy Pop guest starring as a Vorta.

Waltz is an angry episode, inspired by Ira Steven Behr visiting a DS9 message board and becoming annoyed by the number of Dukat apologists he saw trying to justify his evil. Waltz makes Dukat's self-delusion absolutely crystal clear and sets up his story arc for the rest of the series. Who Mourns for Morn? and One Little Ship are fun comedy episodes, the former focusing on DS9's resident enigmatic barfly but without revealing too much about him and the latter being an excuse to do a Fantastic Voyage homage (although they don't quite go that far).

Honor Among Thieves is a great character piece that has O'Brien become an undercover intelligence agent for Starfleet Intelligence, much to his own chagrin, whilst Change of Heart reveals one of the problems with the Dominion War putting Starfleet officers who are also family in combat situations alongside one another. Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is another episode about the Cardassian occupation of the DS9 station and is based on a couple of shaky premises (that Dukat spent nine years in a relationship with Kira's mother, which you feel should have come up before, and that Kira would really risk time travel just to find out the truth) but is well-acted. Inquisition is an intriguing episode which sees Bashir apparently outed as a spy, only to discover the existence of Section 31, the Federation's clandestine black ops intelligence agency. Section 31 has gone on to be grossly overused in later Trek shows, but at this point is an intriguing addition to the Trek mythos.

His Way is a controversial episode, first for finally hooking up Odo and Kira (not a popular relationship among DS9 fans, although the actors do a reasonable job with it) and also introducing the holographic character of Vic Fontaine and his Las Vegas holosuite program. Fans were not enamoured of this at the time, but it's reasonably harmless and it's hard not to be charmed by Jimmy Darren's excellent performance. The Reckoning is a hugely significant episode for the Prophet/Pah-Wraith story arc, where the station becomes the battleground for an epic fantasy style duel to the death between two superpowered entities. The more overt fantasy elements border on the silly, but the episode is in reality more about faith, and there's a crushing moment of horror for Kai Winn (superbly played by Louise Fletcher) where she realises that Sisko - an alien - has greater faith than she does.

Valiant is an effective war story, although let down by poor CGI (Foundation Imaging having moved on to Voyager and Paramount bringing a less capable company to work on DS9, which in retrospect was a mistake), whilst Time's Orphan is an effective story about fatherhood and loss. The Sound of Her Voice features one of the best vocal performances in all of Trek, as the crew make contact with a crashed Starfleet officer they can only speak to via subspace. Tears of the Prophets ends the season with a surprisingly brutal cliffhanger as the Federation and their allies go on the offensive against the Dominion and suffer an unexpected loss.

In the middle of this last run of episodes we have Profit and Lace, an episode which started from the idea of making it the "Some Like It Hot" of DS9 with Quark having to pose as a woman. This escalated to Quark having to be surgically altered to become female, with hilarity resulting from his hormonal and personality changes. To say this episode is terrible is a massive understatement: it is simply the worst-ever episode of Deep Space Nine, bar none, and probably one of the twenty worst Star Trek episodes ever made. It's wince-inducing, bordering on the unwatchable.

Profit and Lace is remarkable though, in that it is the sole weak link of the entire season. It is so bad that it was in danger of bringing down the score of the entire season by itself, but fortunately the season more than counterbalances this by deploying arguably the two single finest episodes of Deep Space Nine, and easily two of the best episodes of the entire Star Trek franchise since its inception. If you even had a list of the best episodes of Star Trek and put these two at the very top, I don't think people would argue with you too hard.

The ever-so-slightly lesser of the two episodes is In the Pale Moonlight, an episode of wartime paranoia and deception as Sisko finds himself reluctantly working with Garak on a scheme to convince a high-ranking Romulan senator that the Romulans should enter the war against the Dominion. At every step of the way, Sisko makes what seems like reasonable, logical choices even as they corrupt him further and draw him deeper into the mire, with Garak acting as a siren, luring him on to more dubious decisions. The ending of the episode, with a horrified Sisko trying to morally justify the murder and mayhem he's inadvertently sanctioned and the millions of deaths that will now stem from his actions, ranks as one of the most powerful in all of Star Trek.

The other powerhouse is Far Among the Stars, where Sisko finds himself as a struggling novelist and short story writer in 1950s New York City, with his friends recast in new roles. This episode repeats the trick from (the homeless-centric episode) Past Tense in Season 3, of taking a social issue and directly tackling it head head-on rather than through traditional Star Trek allegories and metaphors. In this case the subject is racism and how arbitrary prejudice (subconscious or outright) limits ideas and progress. The episode is centred on Avery Brooks' stunning performance and also on his outstanding direction, but all of the actors put in tremendous work in what is one of Star Trek's most powerful hours.

The sixth season of Deep Space Nine (*****) is its strongest year, narrowly beating out the almost-as-accomplished fourth season. Thanks to Far Among the Stars and In the Pale Moonlight, not to mention the outstanding opening six-part arc, it shows the series and the franchise at its very best. 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 sixth season as part of a wider review of the final two seasons twelve years ago. That review can be read here.

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