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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is acclaimed for its darker and mature approach and its 20 best episodes perfectly combine the core ideals of Star Trek with a more complex morality. DS9 broke the mold of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision to rebuild Star Trek with contemporary relevance. Swapping a starship for a space station, Deep Space Nine was able to explore the impact of Starfleet’s decisions on a micro and macro level. Many of DS9’s best episodes involve putting a fresh spin on a well-worn Star Trek trope, or interrogating the personal costs of maintaining the utopian vision of Starfleet and the Federation.
Avery Brooks’ Commander Sisko was immediately a brand-new type of Star Trek protagonist. A grieving widower and devoted father, he had to juggle duties beyond those expected of him by Starfleet. Sisko begins Star Trek: Deep Space Nine disillusioned, but swiftly finds a renewed purpose. The character arc of Sisko, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s cast of characters was one of the great successes of the show, and often provided depth to episodes that could be lightweight and disposable if they were done elsewhere in the Star Trek franchise.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s pilot episode sets the show up perfectly. It retains many elements from the likes of “Encounter at Farpoint” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, by having Commander Benjamin Sisko justifying human existence to beings of enormous celestial power. However, it also swiftly distances itself from “traditional” Star Trek with the thinly veiled conflict between Sisko and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart). In setting the series on an orbital location, DS9 established itself as a Star Trek show that would live with the consequences of its character’s decisions. Avery Brooks is immediately charming as a protagonist, smoothly working out the best way to interact with the diverse range of characters both under his command and protection on DS9.
19 Little Green Men
Although Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a reputation as one of the darker Trek shows, it always knew when to lighten the mood. Case in point, the season 4 episode “Little Green Men”, in which Quark (Armin Shimerman) Rom (Max Grodenchik) and Nog (Aron Eisenberg) end up at Area 51 in 1947. Area 51 was part of the cultural zeitgeist in the 1990s thanks to The X-Files and Ray Santilli’s faked alien autopsy video. So it was great to see Star Trek take such a unique and comic approach to this iconic location and potential paranormal mystery. It’s the best of DS9’s Ferengi comedies as Quark senses an incredible opportunity for profit, even if it would completely change the course of human history.
18 Past Tense
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine smartly used time travel to shine a light on where society was headed if the social inequality of 1990s America was left unchecked. Stranding Sisko, Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig) and Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) in 2024, it showed the United States had adopted a dehumanizing policy of housing its homeless and disenfranchised populace in walled-off “Sanctuary Districts”. Sisko and Bashir’s presence in the past accidentally jeopardized their future when they derailed a crucial turning point in Star Trek’s social history. DS9’s Bell Riots were key to leading to a more humane and egalitarian response to social inequality. Sadly, in 2023, “Past Tense” is still a painfully relevant Star Trek story.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5 completely changed Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) for the better, revealing that he’d been replaced by a Changeling impostor before exposing the real Julian’s genetic augmentations. While this may have been a lot to take in, it laid the groundwork for “Inquisition”, in which he was accused of espionage. It’s a challenging episode that plays on the audience’s recent suspicions about Bashir, bringing a level of ambiguity to the story being told. When it’s revealed to be an elaborate simulation by shadowy Starfleet organization Section 31, there’s a genuine sense of relief that Bashir’s character hasn’t been changed further.
In “Waltz”, Sisko and his arch nemesis Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) become stranded on a planet together and try not to murder each other. It’s a compelling two-hander between Sisko and Dukat as they discuss Dukat’s war crimes as the Cardassian slides further and further into madness and monomania. Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo are phenomenal together, as they portray the two enemies with real nuance, drawing out their similarities as well as the huge gulf between their respective personalities. It’s this episode more than most that sets up their final conflict in the Bajoran Fire Caves.
15 The Siege Of AR-558
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had previously shown the brutality of war in the episode “Nor the Battle to the Strong”, but from the perspective of a field hospital. “The Siege of AR-558” puts Sisko and his team in the thick of a brutal battle with Dominion forces during a routine supply run. The most striking thing about “The Siege of AR-558” is how it deals with Nog’s Starfleet career, by seriously wounding him in the conflict. There’s no magic cure for Nog’s injury and he has to work through his trauma in later episodes. More interesting still is how the usually comic character of Quark is affected by his nephew’s injuries, adding new depth to the Ferengi in the process.
14 You Are Cordially Invited
Star Trek’s best wedding episode “You Are Cordially Invited” is even better – and sadder – when viewed in the context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 6. The wedding of Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) and Jadzia Dax takes place just after Deep Space Nine was retaken from the Dominion. It’s a joyous celebration of home and the relationships between the entire DS9 crew that is also an incredibly touching and very funny wedding comedy. The unconventional Klingon wedding traditions are mined for laughs, but there’s a tenderness at the heart of “You Are Cordially Invited” that becomes melancholic on rewatching it after Dax’s tragic death in the season 6 finale.
13 It’s Only A Paper Moon
“The Siege of AR-558” rightly gets plaudits for its portrayal of the grim realities of warfare, but the episode’s spiritual sequel, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is even more affecting in how it looks at post-traumatic stress. It’s a perfect example of how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used franchise tropes like the holodeck episode to do something completely new. Ensign Nog embraces his Ferengi side by throwing himself into helping Vic Fontaine (James Darren) run his holographic nightclub. By turning his back on Starfleet and reality itself, Nog doesn’t have to confront the horrors he’s experienced during the Dominion War. It’s a great example of how DS9 excelled at melding high-concept sci-fi with emotional drama.
12 Sacrifice of Angels
“Sacrifice of Angels” is the biggest and boldest space battle in Star Trek history as Sisko and the crew attempt to retake Deep Space Nine from the Dominion. It’s utterly thrilling and pays off the whole “Operation Return” arc beautifully. However, it’s also a fascinating character study of Sisko, as he ponders whether to use his status as Bajoran Emissary to request celestial intervention in the Dominion War. It culminates in Sisko making a desperate plea to the Prophets that wins him back the station but at a cost to his future happiness. Despite the episode’s ominous warning, it’s still utterly exhilarating to see the crew win back their home.
11 Homefront/Paradise Lost
In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s retrospective documentary What We Left Behind, it’s stated that a former terrorist like Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) would never have been a sympathetic character had the show been made post-9/11. That’s probably true, and with that in mind, it’s interesting to look at “Homefront/Paradise Lost” as an eerily prescient story about how civil rights can be lost in the fight against an unknowable enemy. Sisko’s attempts to unmask the conspiracy headed by his former mentor Admiral Leyton (Robert Foxworth) and avert his military coup are a bold statement on how the enemy only wins when they force you to abandon your ideals.
10 Take Me Out To The Holosuite
Some of Star Trek’s best holodeck episodes come from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and “Take Me Out To The Holosuite” is the best. Star Trek always works best when it’s an ensemble show, and Star Trek’s first-ever sports movie is a perfect example of this. As the Dominion War enters its final bloody stages, Sisko leads his crew against a Vulcan baseball team in a hugely enjoyable underdog story. It’s an affirmation of the loyalty that Sisko inspires in his crew and a joyous depiction of the importance of unwinding and having fun with friends. The episode’s final scene, where the Niners celebrate in Quark’s Bar is a beautiful moment.
9 Improbable Cause/The Die Is Cast
Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson) is one of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s best supporting characters, and “Improbable Cause” and “The Die is Cast” expand on his complex backstory. In the two-part story, Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois) investigates an attempt on Garak’s life, which soon reveals a plot by Cardassian and Romulan intelligence agencies to attack the Dominion. It’s a compelling political thriller that shows how far Garak is willing to go to be accepted back into the fold on Cardassia. And yet, it also reveals that the inscrutable tailor also has a conscience, when he feels deep guilt and shame at having to torture Odo for information on the Changelings.
8 What You Leave Behind
“What You Leave Behind” is Star Trek’s greatest-ever finale, because it wraps up the story of Sisko’s spiritual journey and the Dominion War, while finding time to satisfyingly resolve everyone else’s character arc. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s ending works so well because the show spent nine episodes resolving everyone’s character journey. This was groundbreaking for 20th century Star Trek and predicted the direction the show would take in the 21st century. From the devastating toll of Cardassia’s resistance against the Dominion to Odo finding his place in the Great Link to Sisko’s heroic sacrifice, “What You Leave Behind” was an epic Star Trek finale that remains hard to beat.
7 The Way Of The Warrior
“The Way of the Warrior” is the Klingon action movie that Star Trek had never attempted before, and also completed Deep Space Nine’s cast with the introduction of Michael Dorn as Commander Worf. Worf’s conflict between his role as a Starfleet officer and his Klingon heritage was never more pronounced than when the Empire declared war on Cardassia and the Federation. The Worf in DS9 is lost, and Sisko becomes the perfect mentor for him by offering him a role on the station to handle the Klingon crisis. It’s a significant turning point in DS9, that many fans point to as the show’s own “Riker’s Beard” moment.
6 A Call To Arms
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s season 5 finale showed the high stakes that the show was dealing with when the Cardassians retook DS9 as a Dominion stronghold. While Star Trek was no stranger to a cliffhanger ending in the 1990s season finales, the story would usually be swiftly resolved in the subsequent season premiere. This wasn’t the case with “A Call to Arms” as all hope appeared to be lost, and it would take Sisko and the crew six full episodes of DS9 season 6 before they retook the station. “A Call to Arms” is an explosive season finale that completely changed the game for DS9 and the Star Trek franchise as a whole.
5 Trials And Tribble-ations
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s contribution to the celebrations of Star Trek’s 30th anniversary was the most inventive and the most fun. Starfleet’s Department of Temporal Investigations arrive at DS9 to question Sisko on his unsanctioned mission into the Star Trek: The Original Series era. What follows is a hugely enjoyable romp that seamlessly slots in Sisko and the DS9 cast into the classic TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” in an attempt to stop an assassination attempt against Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) involving an explosive Tribble. The moment where Kirk and Sisko meet on the bridge of the USS Enterprise more than justifies the episode’s high ranking.
“Duet” is one of the early standout episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from its uneven first season. What begins as an episode about Kira’s determination to unmask war crimes becomes something far more nuanced. The target of her suspicions, Aamin Marritza (Harris Yulin) isn’t a war criminal, he’s simply assumed the identity of one to repent for his own inactivity during the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor. It’s a fascinating episode of Star Trek that interrogates how evil spreads when good people do nothing but also explores how difficult it can be to actually take a stand. It also interrogates Kira’s anti-Cardassian prejudice, as she feels sorry for Marritza, and doesn’t believe he should take the blame for Cardassian war crimes.
3 The Visitor
The relationship between Sisko and his teenage son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) is the emotional core of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the episode “The Visitor” which shows how tragic Jake’s life would be without his father. Giving up a career as a budding writer, the older Jake Sisko (Tony Todd) has spent his entire life trying to bring back his father after he was lost in a freak temporal accident. The moment at the end of the episode where the elderly Jake gives his life to cut the cord and bring Sisko back into phase is one of the most emotionally devastating bits of Star Trek there has ever been.
2 Far Beyond The Stars
Star Trek: The Original Series was often at its best when examining pertinent political issues of the 1960s through a sci-fi lens. What’s so brilliant about “Far Beyond the Stars” is how it flips that core idea to use the racism and social inequality of 1950s America to force Sisko to confront his fears and doubts at a crucial moment during the Dominion War. The story of Benny Russell (Avery Brooks) and his fight against racism providing inspiration to Sisko was a beautiful way to explore the state of both the US and Star Trek 30 years after TOS began, showing that there was still a long way to go.
1 In The Pale Moonlight
The Dominion War arc was a fascinating means to explore how Starfleet and the Federation’s peaceful outlook would hold up against an existential threat like the Founders. So if there’s an episode that best sums up how the Dominion War and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine challenged Roddenberry’s vision, it’s “In the Pale Moonlight”. By showing how far Sisko is willing to go to protect the utopian ideals of Starfleet and Federation, DS9 reaffirmed the importance of Roddenberry’s utopia in the 1990s.
By misleading the Romulan Star Empire into allying with the Federation against the Dominion, Sisko breaks multiple crimes and becomes complicit in a political assassination. And yet, Sisko is tortured by these decisions and crimes, but ultimately he can live with what he’s done because it’s all for the greater good. It’s a breathtaking morality play that stays true to Star Trek’s vision by showing the tough decisions that must be made to maintain it. “In the Pale Moonlight” isn’t just the best that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has to offer, it’s one of the very best 45 minutes of Star Trek as a whole.