It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first three seasons of Deep Space Nine sucked.
OK, so that's an overstatement. But there is a consensus among the show's fans that its early seasons were missing a certain component, and that Deep Space Nine didn't come into its own and earn the title of best Star Trek series until its fourth season, and until the addition of Worf, the Defiant, the Dominion and their quest for galactic domination, and arc-driven storytelling. I'm here to tell you that this is... well, not wrong, precisely, but certainly a vast oversimplification. Firstly, just in terms of chronology: the Dominion is first introduced in the second season finale "The Jem'Hadar," and the identity of the Founders is revealed in the third season premiere, "The Search." The Defiant is introduced in that same episode, and though Worf does join the show in the fourth season premiere, "The Way of the Warrior," it's a full two seasons before war breaks out with the Dominion--the intervening period is spent mostly on inter-quadrant disputes between the Klingons and the Cardassians or the Klingons and the Federation--and the show only starts telling multi-episode stories in its final two seasons.
More importantly, though there is no denying that Deep Space Nine underwent many changes and transformations over the course of its seven seasons, and that the fourth season premiere was a turning point for the show in many respects, a stark division between pre- and post-"Way of the Warrior" Deep Space Nine, and an insistence that the latter is entirely superior to the former, ignores both the earlier seasons' strengths and the later ones' weaknesses, as well as the shared qualities which are, I believe, at the heart of what made Deep Space Nine good TV.
Deep Space Nine's pilot episode, "Emissary," surprised me by being a great deal stronger than I remembered. Like all pilots, it has a lot of work to do--introduce us to the characters, establish their relationships, create a sense of place and educate us about the balance of power within it--and it manages these tasks with grace and intelligence while telling a damn fine and exciting story in the process. It is also quite obviously attempting to distance Deep Space Nine from its older sibling, Star Trek: The Next Generation, mostly by bucking against that show's signifiers. The station's dishevelment stands in stark contrast to the Enterprise's gleaming orderliness. The distrust and resentment the locals feel towards the Starfleet officers, whom they view as interlopers thrust upon them by a foolish bureaucracy, as opposed to the tightly-knit Enterprise crew and the unwavering faith in Starfleet's goodness and necessity that they encounter wherever they go. Finally, in one memorable scene, "Emissary" actively strives to alienate The Next Generation's fans.
I'm speaking of the first encounter between Sisko and Picard, in which Sisko, still grieving the loss of his wife at Wolf 359, reminds Picard of that battle and of his role in it. Coming back to this scene as a Deep Space Nine fan (and as someone who recognizes how absurd it is to expect all of the veterans of that battle to be perfectly OK with Picard in its aftermath) I wasn't thrown by it, but several days after watching "Emissary" I realized that to the teenage, uninitiated version of myself watching it for the first time, it must have felt like a body blow. I didn't know or care about this Sisko person. I knew and cared about Picard, and I knew how tormented he was by Wolf 359. For Sisko to throw it in his face seemed unspeakably cruel (which, of course, it was) and given that I was already feeling wrong-footed by the unfamiliar setting and tone, is it any wonder that I walked away from "Emissary" somewhat dubious? So, I suspect, did many other Next Generation fans, a reaction which was almost certainly the one sought by the pilot's writers (who probably didn't have to worry about losing those fans, Star Trek loyalty and the SF television landscape being what they were in those days). They wanted to make the point that Deep Space Nine, the place and the series, were outside of our comfort zone.
Unfortunately, like Enterprise, whose pilot also sought to distance that show from the neatness associated with Star Trek in all its incarnations, Deep Space Nine backslid in its first season. Most of that season's episodes are variants on The Next Generation's standalone formats--something weird comes through the wormhole, or the characters travel through the wormhole and find something weird. Trouble and/or hilarity ensue, and the whole thing is resolved by discovering a new particle. Putting aside for a moment the fact that by the time Deep Space Nine premiered even The Next Generation was scraping the bottom of this storytelling barrel, and that most of the offerings in Deep Space Nine's first season are rather tired staples of SFnal TV ("The Passenger" and "Dramatis Personae": alien possession; "If Wishes Were Horses": magical wish fulfillment), Deep Space Nine's premise and setting were simply not suited to this form of storytelling. It's one thing to travel from planet to nebula to space anomaly--that's what the Enterprise was for, after all. Deep Space Nine's mission was different. Its purpose was to protect the wormhole and prepare Bajor for Federation membership. Standalone, self-contained stories were never going to accomplish this goal. Luckily, interspersed with the forgettable Next Generation-style stories were also episodes which dealt with the ongoing political situation on Bajor, and which, taken together, add up to an important arc for their protagonist, Kira Nerys.
A good rule of thumb for Deep Space Nine, and something that its writers were quick to pick up on, is that Kira makes everything better. A line, a scene, an episode--give it to Kira and, at the very least, you'll get something watchable, and quite often fantastic. I'm going to talk some more about this kickass character and the ways in which the show serves her both well and ill later on in this series, but for the time being let's just note that, in the first season, political, Bajoran-centered episodes tended to get handed to her, with Sisko playing a secondary role, and since these episodes were pretty strong pieces to begin with the result was very, very good. More importantly, these episodes charted genuine changes and developments in the character.
Kira starts off almost an antagonist to Sisko. She clearly resents his, and Starfleet's, presence in "Emissary," and though they end up working well together they are by no means fast friends at that episode's end. "Emissary" also shows us a Kira who is frustrated by her government and by her role in Bajor's rehabilitation. "It was so much easier when I knew who the enemy was," she sadly tells Odo soon afterwards, obviously ill at ease with her more difficult and less rewarding role as an administrator. In that same episode, "Past Prologue," she's drawn into the orbit of an extremist resistance fighter, but ultimately turns him in when she realizes that he has prioritized his desire for an enemy over the good of Bajor. Later on, in "Battle Lines," Kai Opaka forces Kira to acknowledge the corrosive effect that violence has had on her soul, and in so doing to begin to heal. Soon afterwards, Kira is once again forced to examine her new role as a representative of authority when she's ordered to forcibly evacuate the last holdout on a moon about to be rendered uninhabitable by a public works project in "Progress." After she befriends the man, Kira refuses to evacuate him, and it falls to Sisko to remind her that she no longer has the luxury of bucking authority for the sake of maintaining a spotless conscience.
Sisko and Kira's mutual respect is further deepened in the magnificent "Duet," in which he acquiesces to her request that he arrest and allow her to interrogate a Cardassian whom she believes to be a notorious war criminal (in a neat bookend to "Past Prologue," in which Kira went over Sisko's head to secure her friend asylum on the station). When Kira realizes that her prey is really a tormented file clerk trying to expiate crimes he wasn't responsible for, she demonstrates the decency and compassion that will continue to be her most distinctive characteristics throughout the series, and tries to help him. Kira's faith in Sisko, and his involvement in Bajoran politics, are cemented in the season finale "In the Hands of the Prophets," which is also the first appearance of then-Vedek Winn. Though initially a supporter of Winn's hard-line, isolationist views, Kira is disillusioned when Winn attempts to gain power by fomenting hatred towards Starfleet, and Sisko in particular, and ultimately chooses to stand with him, in a reversal of her stance in "Emissary." Kira's arc over the course of the season is a transition from a straightforward us-vs-them mentality to a more sophisticated worldview, and through it we glimpse Bajor undergoing a similar process as it adjusts to the realities of self-rule. The first season is therefore a strange mixture of the utterly forgettable and the superb, and though it can hardly be called a success, seven excellent hours of television out of twenty is pretty good for a show that is still figuring itself out.
In the second season, the Bajoran-centered political storylines are downplayed, and Sisko begins taking center stage in those stories that do deal with Bajor and with the legacy of the occupation, perhaps because the show's writers had realized where its strengths lay, and wanted to give their main character a chance to take part in these more successful stories. Though Kira has an important role in the season-opening three-parter, it's Sisko who learns the truth about the famed resistance legend Li Nalas, and Sisko who urges him to continue to embody that legend. Similarly, it's Sisko who, in "Cardassians," has to decide whether to return an abandoned Cardassian child to his father or let him stay with the Bajoran couple who have raised him. (An exception is the extremely fine "The Collaborator," in which Sisko barely makes an appearance as Kira struggles to prove Bareil innocent of collaborating with the Cardassians, and becomes the instrument of Winn's accession to the position of Kai.)
The second season is also when we start seeing the prevalence of a third kind of episode, on top of the SFnal standalones and the political stories--the character piece, which focuses on a single member of the main and supporting cast. Some of these, such as "The Alternate" or "Playing God," are quite good, and others, such as "The Wire," are utterly fantastic (much like Kira, Garak makes everything better), and these episodes will continue to be a cornerstone of the series. On top of which, the second season gives us "Necessary Evil"--still my choice for the best episode in the show's run--and "Crossover," which in spite of the ever-increasing inanity of its sequels is not just fun and well-made but downright scary. Finally, the second season introduces the Maquis--at the time, a rather bold and messy addition to the show's universe (which may explain why they were almost immediately downplayed in favor of more straightforward adversaries such the Klingons and the Dominion). All that said, there is no denying that in its treatment of its wider universe and the station's long-term goals, the show goes into a holding pattern in its second season, and unfortunately, things only get worse.
It's my personal theory that the reason so many fans think Deep Space Nine only got good after "The Way of the Warrior" is not that the show's later seasons were that good but that the season preceding them, season three, was that bad. The closest the season comes to standout episodes are "Second Skin" (lock Kira in a room and attack her sense of self--how could it go wrong?) and the two-parter "Improbable Cause"/"The Die is Cast" (Garak and Odo trying to outsmart one another for 90 minutes--see above). In between there's the sheer popcorn fun of "Civil Defense," but none of these episodes scale the heights achieved in the previous two seasons. Some of the remaining episodes in the season are merely missed opportunities--"Defiant" features an intriguing rapport between Sisko and Dukat, and some smart observations about the difference between soldiers and freedom fighters from Kira, but it implodes due to the complete nothingness that is Tom Riker at its center, and "Life Support" has some fantastic interactions between Kira, Bareil, and Winn, but its choice to squander a political development as important as the signing of a peace treaty between Bajor and Cardassia by using it as a backdrop to a medical ethics story is a crucial failure of priorities, not to mention a waste of a good character.
But for the most part, season three is just bad. It's a season that gives us three Ferengi episodes (alright, the first one, "The House of Quark," is more a Quark story and also not bad) as well as "Fascination," a Lwaxana Troi story in which people are compelled to have sex with one another and the entirely boring time travel two-parter "Past Tense." Worst of all, if the second season downplayed the political stories, in the third season that aspect of the show is all but absent. Between "The Search" and "Improbable Cause" there is almost no mention of the Dominion and the threat they pose. The season ends with the discovery of a changeling spy aboard the Defiant who informs Odo that more of his people have infiltrated the alpha quadrant, but if that's so then where have they been all season, and why haven't they been making their presence felt? As I've already said, the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict is used as a backdrop to personal stories, but the same is also done with the Maquis, who are all but ignored except when they need to catalyze a story. It is probably because of this choice to ignore the show's universe that, by the end of the season, the show feels tired, its storytelling, in every variety, perfunctory and not a little bit boring.
Clearly, a change was needed, and though the thrust of this essay is that the division into two Deep Space Nines is simplistic, there is no denying that the fourth season breathes new life into the show. It is, in my opinion, the best of the show's seven seasons. "The Way of the Warrior" is clearly a second pilot, with Worf taking Sisko's place as an out of sorts Starfleet officer contemplating resignation who finds a new home and purpose on the station. Once again, much of the episode is spent introducing characters--or in this case, introducing Worf to the cast and forging relationships with them--while establishing the Klingons as a major player in the series's universe and completely upending its political landscape. And, once again, the writers ably manage these tasks while telling a damn fine story to boot (and, incidentally, rebooting the show's look--the entire color and lighting scheme is made sharper and crisper). After this promising beginning there follows a sequence of episodes that are Deep Space Nine at its best--high concept episodes like "The Visitor," "Little Green Men," and "Our Man Bashir," character episodes like "Indiscretion" and "Rejoined," action episodes like "Starship Down," and, best of all, episodes that demonstrate how to properly ground a standalone story in a wider political setting.
In "Hippocratic Oath," Bashir and O'Brien crash land in the Gamma quadrant and are captured by rogue Jem'Hadar who want Bashir to break them of their addiction to Ketracel White. Bashir is moved by the Jem'Hadar's plight and argues that freeing them of their addiction will land a crippling blow against the Dominion. O'Brien doesn't trust their captors and worries that un-addicted Jem'Hadar might be just as dangerous, or even more so, than the regular kind. They both have valid points, and the episode, which is clearly meant to recall the many Bashir-and-O'Brien-in-peril stories that have preceded it, treats both of them with respect, and doesn't pretend that the actions each takes to get their own way won't have an effect on their friendship. It's a smart, thought-provoking piece whose emotional weight is derived equally from the thorny dilemma it places before its characters and the strain that dilemma puts on their friendship.
Though a second attempt to acknowledge the effects of the current political climate, the mid-season two-parter "Homefront"/"Paradise Lost," collapses into a hectoring, preachy mess, other political episodes in the season ("Rules of Engagement," "Return to Grace," "For the Cause") follow "Hippocratic Oath"'s lead, and explore the political through the personal while according both equal respect. In terms of the series's overarching storylines, not much happens in season four. The Federation-Klingon peace treaty is nullified in "The Way of the Warrior" after the Klingons invade Cardassia, and over the course of the season not much changes in that respect. What the season does instead is explore the ramifications of this galactic upheaval on the show's characters, allowing them to discover their altered universe before it is altered again. The result is extraordinarily satisfying--a season with almost no bad episodes and hardly any mediocre ones either.
Unfortunately, this is an unsustainable high note, and when season five comes around there's a noticeable drop in both the show's quality and the complexity of its political writing. Season five should be all about the slow but inexorable buildup to open war with the Dominion, but only three episodes--"Apocalypse Rising," in which Sisko exposes the changeling masquerading as Martok and secures a ceasefire with the Klingon Empire, the two-parter "In Purgatory's Shadow"/"By Inferno's Light," in which the Cardassians ally themselves with the Dominion, and the finale "A Call to Arms," in which war breaks out and the Federation is forced to withdraw from Deep Space Nine--advance that story. In all other episodes, the political situation is static--except for the Jake story "Nor the Battle to the Strong" which, in a return to the bad old days of season three, posits an end to the Klingon ceasefire for just as long as it takes Jake to realize that he's a physical coward, and immediately reinstates it as soon as that point is made--and virtually unacknowledged. Only three episodes--"Nor the Battle to the Strong," "The Ship," and "In the Cards"--draw on the political situation for their plot as so many fourth season episodes did, and none of them are very good or have that much to say. In fact, there aren't a lot of good episodes in the season at all--the only standouts are "Rapture," "Soldiers of the Empire," and "Children of Time," with an honorable mention for "Between the Darkness and the Light" for being a great Kira episode, in spite of its unfortunate descent into histrionics in its final act (I feel about "Trials and Tribble-ations" the same way I feel about Angel's puppet episode--it's fun and technically impressive, but there's not much there there)--and though the rest of the season isn't as bad as the third, it's largely mediocre.
Season five is also the point at which it becomes apparent that Deep Space Nine is no longer science fiction in any meaningful sense of the word. The Next Generation-style SFnal stories have all but disappeared from the show's repertoire, and the one exception over the course of the fifth season makes it clear that this is a good thing. In "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" it is revealed that Bashir's parents had him illegally enhanced as a child, and that he lied about this to get into Starfleet. We're told that there's a taboo against genetic engineering in Federation society, but we never get to see it or understand its roots (unless you count dredging up the memory of an overacting Ricardo Montalban, which admittedly is quite a deterrent). In the end, it doesn't matter, because the episode belies this taboo by allowing Bashir to remain in Starfleet after all. There is, in other words, no believable exploration of how a technological innovation is viewed in a future society or how it affects it, which would be the core of an SFnal story that revolved around this premise. In subsequent episodes, we don't get to see what it means for Bashir to live openly as someone who was made intellectually and physically superior to his peers, or any indication that they recoil from him or resent him for this superiority--it's mostly played for laughs.
In the sixth season followup episode "Statistical Probabilities" Bashir works with fellow 'mutants' whose genetic engineering has rendered them emotionally unstable. Finding them starved for information, he exposes them to the current crisis, and they quickly come up with a mathematical model that proves the Federation is going to lose the war. A science fiction story would have taken this premise seriously, and showed us its characters seriously contemplating the mutants' suggestion of surrendering to the Dominion in order to save hundreds of billions of lives. Instead of engaging with this grim choice, "Statistical Probabilities" becomes a story about the triumph and endurance of the human spirit, even in the face overwhelming odds--a warmed-over "Cold Equations"--even if the writers have to undermine their own premise in order to get there, by suddenly revealing that the mutants' calculations are flawed.
Season six is very much of a piece with season five. There are more standout episodes--"Waltz," "Far Beyond the Stars," "Change of Heart," "In the Pale Moonlight," "Reckoning"--but the rest of the season hits the same kind of comfortable mediocrity season five specialized in. The main difference between the two seasons is that the Federation is now at war, which means that instead of episodes that explore the political situation we get ones that deal with the reality of life during wartime--"In the Pale Moonlight," "Valiant," "The Sound of Her Voice" (a trend which will persist in the seventh season with episodes such as "The Siege of AR-558" and even "It's Only a Paper Moon"). These are often good stories, and the season's character work is as good as ever, but politically the show becomes almost black and white. The battle lines have been drawn and, though neither side has a good claim to the title of 'good guys', everyone, including the audience, knows whose side they're on.
Another difference between the fifth and sixth seasons is that in the latter the show's writers begin to explore arc-driven storytelling. As I've said already, the format feels alien to the series. Whereas other series which tell continuous stories will advance overarching storylines in sub-plots of standalone episodes, Deep Space Nine maintained a distinction between arc episodes and standalone episodes, which occasionally resulted in a somewhat artificial quality to the progression of the show's political plotlines. This sensation is heightened in the occupation arc which opens the sixth season. It seems obvious that the arc lasts six episodes not because the writers had a story to tell which, broken down, filled six episodes, but because six episodes were mandated for that story. The storylines focusing on the Starfleet characters are very nearly self-contained, and sometimes the progression of the arc is halted entirely for a character-driven story such as "Sons and Daughters." That said, the six episodes with which the sixth season begins are strong and compelling, with lots of good character work as well as exciting storytelling. The station plotline is continuous, and features one of my favorite character arcs as Odo finally succumbs to the temptation of the Great Link. It's not Babylon 5, but it is good TV.
The seventh season is both better and worse than its two predecessors. The problem with discussing it is that it can be divided into two nearly distinct entities--the arc-driven resolution of the war in the two-part season premiere and ten-part series finale, and the standalone episodes in between. The latter are the usual mix of good--"Covenant," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Chimera"--and not so good, but they are also dominated by Ezri, who is one of only two Deep Space Nine characters I never cared for (the other is Eddington, though to be honest I never got the point of Morn either). She's a cousin Oliver, and the worst thing about her is that I'm not allowed to complain that she's a cousin Oliver because, clearly, there's a good reason for her to be friends with the entire cast and for them to care about her. Actually, the very worst thing about Ezri is that the writers obviously realized this, because they never worked to earn her prominence. In "Afterimage" Garak cruelly informs Ezri that she is unworthy of being Jadzia's successor, and not only is he right, but that never changes. Jadzia was smart, funny, adventurous, sexy, and cool. Ezri is none of these things, and while it makes sense for the writers to make her the anti-Jadzia, she's not anything else either. She's generic, mediocre, and not even a very good counsellor--in "It's Only a Paper Moon" she's upstaged by an interactive hologram--and we're expected not to notice this because her name is Dax.
You may think it's strange to let a single character determine my feelings towards an entire season, but a quick look at an episode guide will reveal that Ezri is omnipresent. Her introduction is an important part of the season-opening two-parter "Image in the Sand"/"Shadows and Symbols," and she has a major plotline in the series-ending arc (as well as a romantic plotline with Bashir). Of the remaining 14 episodes, four are Ezri episodes (though I'll concede that "The Emperor's New Cloak" is debatable), and they are all as generic as she is: "Afterimage" is an utterly hackneyed and unimaginative portrayal of therapy; "Prodigal Daughter" a by-the-numbers story of familial dysfunction among the rich and powerful; "The Emperor's New Cloak" a veritable cliché-fest, culminating with the scoundrel with a heart of gold; "Field of Fire" a twelfth-rate serial killer story of the kind one tends to find in cheap TV movies. The amount of attention lavished on this character is as unprecedented as it is unearned, and it, and she, taint the entire season.
On the other hand, the ten episodes with which Deep Space Nine draws its story to a close are very strong. For the first time, the show manages to do arc-driven storytelling right. None of the episodes are truly standalones, and the different plotlines advance at similar, yet entirely organic, paces (with the exception of Dukat and Winn in the fire caves, who almost hilariously get put on hold for hours, sometimes days, at a time). There's a lot going on--Ezri and Worf work out their differences and discover the Breen alliance with the Dominion; Odo contracts the changeling virus, leading to Bashir's discovery that it was engineered by Section 31 and his ploy to extract the cure from Sloan; Damar rebels against the Dominion and Kira and Garak travel to Cardassia to help him; Sisko and Kasidy get married in spite of the Prophets' warnings; Worf moves against Gowron and makes Martok Chancellor; Ezri and Julian get together; Rom is made Grand Nagus; and, of course, there's the actual fighting and the end of the war, not to mention Dukat and Winn's attempts to free the Pagh-Wraiths. Not everything here is perfect--introducing the Breen as a major player at the last minute is an unworthy device, and "Extreme Measures" is a bit of a throwback to the show's Next Generation-aping days--but overall the ten episodes are strong, make good use of their air time, and tell their story well without leaving the characters by the wayside. It's a good note on which to end the series.
I started this essay by saying that there aren't two distinct Deep Space Nines. In fact, there are several--the Next Generation clone, the frontier story, the character drama, the political space opera, the war story, and I've left out the fantasy, which is what the Bajor episodes become as they grow more concerned with the Prophets' struggle against the Pagh-Wraiths. Over the course of seven seasons, the show slowly transforms from one to another, occasionally backsliding and leaping ahead, and sometimes combining more than one in the same season or episode. With the exception of the first of these 'sub-shows', none are inherently good or bad, and each, when done well, draws on a different set of the show's strengths. As a result, it is just as accurate to say that the first season is better than the seventh as it is to make the opposite argument--it all depends on which show you were interested in. Regardless of the kind of story it's telling, Deep Space Nine achieved excellence when it committed whole-heartedly to the complexity of its universe. The first season did so when it acknowledged the sheer fucked-up-ness of the situation on Bajor following the Cardassian withdrawal. The seventh season, by realizing that the conflict with the Dominion could only be resolved with the steady and unswerving application of plot. Luckily, the instances in which the writers find it in themselves to do so far outnumber the ones in which they lazily resort to stock plots and clichés, which is the real distinction, I believe, between the two Deep Space Nines.