Hopefully, you’ve at least started watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine by now. It’s my favourite Star Trek series, and I believe the most underrated. While a highly serialized story doesn’t seem strange today, you must remember that in the 1990s, it was highly unusual. Syndicated shows like Star Trek generally returned to status quo at the end of each episode. Thus, Deep Space Nine had some of the deepest and most compelling character development in Trek of that era and an ongoing story that was genuinely thoughtful and impactful in a way that its contemporaries weren’t capable of being.
So this week, as an addition to the viewing guide I’ve already laid out, I’d like to present to you what I believe to be the 14 best episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Just a word of warning, though: the viewing guide, I did my best to keep as spoiler-free as possible. I’m not going to do that here.
14: “Improbable Cause” & “The Die is Cast” Season 3, Episodes 20 & 21
Picking these episodes is kind of cheating right off the bat because it’s two episodes; however, each is half of a whole. When Garak is nearly killed, Odo traces a plot back to the Romulans, but it turns out to be orchestrated by Garak’s old mentor Enabran Tain.
When they catch up with Tain on a Romulan Warbird Tain asks Garak to join him, and Garak agrees. Tain then orders Garak to interrogate Odo with a device that prevents him from changing shape, which turns out to be torture for the changeling.
The first half is mostly Odo and Garak investigating and bonding as friends, but the second half is where the story really shines. Garak jumps at the chance to reclaim his old life in the Cardassian Intelligence organization, but through being forced to interrogate his friend, he finds he doesn’t quite have the stomach for it that he once did. In fact, he may actually be happier on Deep Space Nine despite being an exile there. Also, we learn that Garak and Odo have something in common: Odo longs to return to his people despite knowing what evil they are capable of.
These episodes feature fantastic development for both Garak and Odo. It plays out in brilliantly acted scenes between Rene Auberjonois and Andrew Robinson, with Garak begging Odo to give something up so he can stop what he’s doing.
The episode also teaches us one crucial thing about the Founders: they’re several steps ahead of anything anyone in the Alpha Quadrant has planned.
13: “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” Season 7, Episode 16
The best thing about Deep Space Nine is that it exists in a world of grey, unlike other Star Trek. Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges is one of the best examples of this. Dr Bashir is on his way to a conference on Romulus, and along the way, Section 31 shows up with a job for him: spy on a high ranking Romulan: Koval.
Throughout the story, Bashir doesn’t know who to trust but decides to do the right thing and come clean about what’s going on with Section 31. Admiral Ross has fallen ill, so he turns to the Federation’s primary Romulan ally, Senator Cretak. A bunch of twists and turns later, Koval, an anti-federation advocate, is now the top man in Romulan Intelligence and Cretak is convicted of treason.
Bashir has a revelation and confronts Ross on his way home: it was all a big trap. Koval is a mole for the Federation, and they wanted him confirmed to a higher post. The Federation has used him and sacrificed one ally to strengthen another, and they exploited Bashir’s good nature to make it happen.
Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges translates as “in times of war the law falls silent”, and the Federation is now complicit in illegal acts. This is not the Federation you would ever see in Next Generation, Voyager, or The Original Series, except that it is.
12: “Waltz” Season 6, Episode 11
Deep Space Nine has another thing that distinguishes it from most other Trek: a well-developed villain. Sure, Kirk had Khan, but Gul Dukat is a supporting character for all seven seasons and has more depth than any other Trek bad guy I can think of.
Waltz is another beautiful two-character piece that Deep Space Nine did so well. Dukat went mad after witnessing the death of his daughter as the Federation re-took Deep Space Nine from the dominion just a few episodes earlier. While being transported to his trial for war crimes, the ship that he and Captain Sisko are on is destroyed, and they end up stranded together on a desolate planet. Sisko is injured, and Dukat says he’ll take care of him until help arrives. However, it becomes clear that Dukat is still unstable as he tries to convince Sisko that he has always been a good man.
When Sisko confronts Dukat for his hypocrisy and self-deception, Dukat comes entirely off the rails. In the end, Dukat escapes the planet. Sisko is rescued but knows that whatever happens, Dukat is now more dangerous than ever. This story brings to a head the personal conflict between Dukat and Sisko, the former as the oppressor of Bajor and the latter as a guiding light of the people. Moreover, it sets Dukat down the path towards the series finale in which he’ll attempt to wipe out Bajor once and for all.
Plus, it’s just fun to watch Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo chew the scenery.
11: “The Collaborator” Season 2, Episode 24
Dukat is the main antagonist of the series, but in terms of who is the most self-serving and amoral of the antagonistic characters, Winn gives him a series run for his money. The Collaborator is the episode that hammers that home.
Winn is running to be the new Kai, spiritual leader of Bajor, against Bareil, Kira’s lover. Bareil is a natural choice as he is wise, kind, and understanding, whereas Winn is a savvy political operator. During the run-up to the election, evidence surfaces that Bareil may have been complicit in the deaths of rebel fighters during the Cardassian Occupation. Kira is assigned to sort it all out and is devastated not only when she all but confirms this to be accurate but when Bareil doesn’t deny it.
He withdraws from the race, and Winn is elected Kai. It turns out that Bareil was covering for the previous Kai, Opaka, as he couldn’t let her public image be tarnished lest the people lose faith.
Winn doesn’t care; she simply wants the power and uses Bareil’s selflessness against him, and at the same time, tries to drive a wedge between him and Kira. It’s nasty stuff, and while it’s early days in the series, this is when you figure out for sure that Winn is never going to be anything but bad news.
It doesn’t hurt that Louise Fletcher, an Oscar-winning actress, does a marvellous job of projecting an outward sweetness that only barely conceals Winn’s uncompromising lust for power.
10: “The Visitor” Season 4, Episode 3
Another favourite feature of Deep Space Nine is the relationship between Captain Benjamin Sisko and his son, Jake. I understand why many shows add conflict to father-son relationships to create tension, but Deep Space Nine never did; Sisko was a loving father to a loving son, and that’s it. Even when Jake makes decisions that Ben doesn’t necessarily like, Ben still respects his son’s decisions ad supports him.
In The Visitor, there is an accident and Ben is hit by an energy discharge which displaces him in time. The episode follows Jake through his entire life, first attempting to move on and then figuring out that his father is in trouble and working to fix it. At the end of the episode, an elderly Jake gives up his life to give them a second chance to live out their lives normally.
The older Sisko realizes what a dedicated man Jake is, and their relationship grows stronger. While the timeline that the elderly Jake existed in is erased, we still get a few glimpses into the show’s future: Jake will publish a novel (which he starts writing later in the series), and Nog will be an excellent Star Fleet officer.
Plus, Tony Todd plays the older Jake, and Tony Todd is an excellent presence in almost any story.
9: “The Jem’Hadar” Season 2, Episodes 26
Season two of Deep Space Nine had one purpose: get you thinking about The Dominion and what they might be. We learn that they’re big and powerful through the season, but we never really get a sense of just how big and powerful they really are. When Sisko is captured, Star Fleet sends the Galaxy-class starship Odyssey into the Gamma Quadrant to find him.
The Jem’Hadar attack the Odyssey, and they prove more than a match for the federation’s most powerful class of ship. Then, as the Odyssey is trying to retreat, they make a kamikaze run at her, ramming one of their ships into the hull and destroying them.
At the same time, a Jem’Hadar ship comes to Deep Space Nine and beams one soldier to Ops, who delivers a message: The Dominion has eliminated a Bajoran colony within their space.
Jem’Hadar: “Here is a list of vessels we’ve destroyed for violating our territory.”
Kira: “Where did you get this data PADD?”
Jem’Hadar: “From the Bajoran colony on our side of the Anomaly. You should be proud. I hear they fought well for a spiritual people. I hope we won’t have to repeat this lesson.”
There aren’t many episodes that advance the plot as much all in one fell swoop as The Jem’Hadar, and there are few episodes that set up an antagonist this well in all of Trek.
The Jem’Hadar held a special significance at the time it aired as well. Star Trek: The Next Generation had ended just a month prior. This episode featured the same class of starship we’d come to know as the fastest and most powerful in the entire Galaxy over the previous seven years, being destroyed, and not just destroyed but quickly and handily destroyed. It was a shock at the time to be sure, and even rewatching now, the episode still packed nearly the same punch.
8: “Far Beyond The Stars” Season 6, Episode 13
Far Beyond The Stars is a bit of a strange episode. Sisko is given a vision by the prophets of 1950s New York, inhabited by a cast of characters played by the entire show’s cast.
Sisko is Benny Russell, a writer for a science fiction magazine. Most of the rest of the cast make up the rest of the writers for the magazine. They are all suitably impressed by a story he writes about Deep Space Nine, a space station populated by humans and aliens and with a black man in command.
Yes, Star Trek did metafiction, and they used it to tell a story about racism in the 1950s.
While it doesn’t advance the plot of the series at all, it does give a lot of perspective on where things are compared to where things have been. In addition, it features the only use of the n—– word in Star Trek history (which itself was pretty shocking at the time).
7: “Hard Time” Season 4, Episode 19
There’s a series of episodes in Deep Space Nine that fans refer to as “O’Brien Must Suffer” episodes. Hard Time is the best of them.
Tried and convicted of espionage on an alien world O’Brien is subjected to that culture’s punishment: they put him in a machine that simulates 20 years in basically the worst prison they could get away with on 90s TV.
The episode deals in the present with O’Brien re-adjusting to everyday life and flashing back to his time in prison, and dealing with the fact that it wasn’t real. It’s revealed that he had a cellmate, Ee’char. Towards the end of the sentence, in a fit of hunger-induced rage, O’Brien kills his Ee’char and his erratic behaviour throughout the episode is induced by guilt.
This is one of those episodes which doesn’t have any lasting effect on the characters but really should. The story ends with O’Brien holding a phaser to his head and Bashir barely talking him down. Yet, just one episode later, everything is hunky-dory again.
It’s a shame because there are plenty of ways that they could have come back to this –a tic or phobia or something that O’Brien developed during his time incarcerated– but it just never comes up again despite Colm Meaney giving one of his best performances of the series.
6: “The Siege of AR-558” Season 7, Episode 8
War is hell. The characters of Deep Space Nine live through 2 years of it, so they should know. More specifically, they live through The Siege of AR-558.
AR-558 is an asteroid with a Dominion communication relay that Starfleet troops have seized. Usually, Starfleet makes a point of rotating people off the lines every three months, but when Sisko and company arrive, they find a battered company; Only 40-odd soldiers are left out of 150 deployed there they haven’t been relieved in almost six months.
Sisko, Dax, Rom, Bashir, and Quark stay behind while the Defiant is off fighting, and we see first-hand that War is Hell. The Jem’Hadar attack mercilessly, invisible floating antipersonnel mines are everywhere, and everyone is exhausted and irritable and angry.
The Siege of AR-558 shows us how brutal war can be. We see the characters battered, bruised and severely wounded. We see the characters ground down to the breaking point mentally and emotionally as the battle becomes more and more hopeless.
5: “…Nor The Battle To The Strong” Season 5, Episode 4
War is Hell. If The Siege of AR-558 is the episode that shows us how soldiers deal with battle, …Nor The Battle To The Strong is the one that shows us how we civilians might.
Jake Sisko is writing a profile of Dr Bashir and accompanies him on a mission. The mission is diverted to assist a medical station on a planet under attack by Klingons. For the first part of the episode, Jake helps as an orderly in the hospital and sees the horrors that men and women endure in combat. Later, when a critical piece of equipment is needed, Jake and Bashir attempt to get it, but Jake is terrified and runs. He ends up in a fox hole with a grizzled and dying veteran who confronts him with his cowardice causing him to run again.
When he returns to the hospital, he tells everyone he was unconscious, and Bashir apologizes for putting him in danger. Guilt begins to gnaw at Jake for not admitting what really happened and when the Klingons attack again. He finds himself alone facing down several Klingons, and in a moment of sheer panic, he starts shooting blindly, collapsing the cavern’s roof and inadvertently saving the people in the process of evacuating. He’s treated as a hero for his quick thinking.
Rather than accept the accolades, he writes the truth, that he was a coward and not a hero, and has that story published.
This episode features Cirroc Lofton’s best performance of the series as Jake Sisko dealing with what’s going on and his inability to deal with it all. This episode shows us what war is like to an outsider, to someone more like most of us, who really couldn’t have imagined how bad it could get or how thin the line between bravery and cowardice could be.
4: “Trials and Tribble-ations” Season 5, Episode 6
Usually, I’m not a fan of time travel in Star Trek. It’s hard to get away from, especially in 90s Trek –the people running the show were obsessed with it– but I’ve always preferred Gene Roddenberry’s original premise that Star Trek should be a “Wagon train To the stars”. There are exceptions, though, and Trials and Tribble-ations is one of them.
The story concerns Arne Darvin, a Klingon spy surgically altered to appear human who, in the original series, was caught by Captain Kirk sabotaging a plan to help solve a dispute between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
Disgraced and exiled all those years ago, Darvin manages to take the Defiant back in time in an attempt to
assassinate Kirk, changing the past and making himself a hero to the Klingon people. With no other choice, the crew of Deep Space Nine don period-accurate uniforms and go undercover on the Enterprise to stop him.
Let’s get one thing straight here; this is pretty much straight-up fan service. The beauty of the episode is that they managed to use green screens and digital editing to insert modern actors into classic scenes. Standout scenes include O’Brien and Bashir in the bar fight from the original episode and a lovely little epilogue where Sisko tells Kirk it’s been an honour to serve with him. It’s also the first time on screen that anyone asked about the difference between modern era Klingons forehead ridges and classic era Klingons smooth pates, which leads to one of the funnier moments in the series.
They even brought back Charlie Brill, the man who played Darvin in the original episode, to reprise the role as his older self.
If you were like me and grew up watching reruns of the original series, you probably lost your mind from nostalgia overload the first time you saw this episode. Even for the casual fan, Trials and Tribble-ations is a fantastic way to connect modern Trek to its decades of history.
3: “The Wire” Season 2, Episode 22
Deep Space Nine has a full complement of interesting and dynamic characters. Not the least of these –though technically not a primary cast member– is Garak: an exiled Cardassian with ties to the Cardassian intelligence agency (The Obsidian Order) who lives on the station and makes his way as a simple tailor.
The Wire is the first episode where we get a good look at Garak’s past and present. Andrew Robinson is a great actor and owns the part of Garak throughout the series; however, this was his first chance to chew the scenery as Garak goes through severe withdrawal.
Behaving strangely a the start of the episode, it becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with Garak. Bashir eventually discovers an implant that redirects pain impulses to the pleasure centres of his brain, the idea being it would make him immune to torture. Sometime in the last two years, as a result of living on Deep Space Nine, he turned the device on and never turned it off, and now it’s failing.
When questioned why he would do such a thing, we get a good look at Garak’s present: living on the station is torture for him. It’s too cold, there’s none of the food he likes, and though he’s technically free, the station is a defacto prison as there’s nowhere else to go.
As they can’t fix the device or replace it, Garak goes through severe withdrawal, through which Dr Bashir stays with him. Garak lashes out, and we get our first decent look at Garak’s past as he details stories of the horrors he was involved in as a member of the Obsidian Order.
In the end, Garak recovers from his experiences with the device after Bashir meets with Enabran Tain, Garak’s former mentor, and begins to learn to adjust to life on Deep Space Nine as it is under Federation control. His relationship with Dr Bashir is changed but is still strong. Everyone is left wondering how many of the stories he told were true. When pressed, Garak responds that everything he said was true, especially the lies.
The episode pretty much encapsulates Garak’s character. It doesn’t matter how much we know about him, we’ll never know everything, and even if we did, we still wouldn’t fully know him.
2: “Duet” Season 1, Episode 19
At the start of Deep Space Nine, the Bajoran people had just gained independence after a 50-year occupation by the Cardassians. During that period, the Bajoran people were effectively enslaved and put to work stripping the planet of natural resources. The Cardassians operated prison camps and rationed food to the point where most Bajorans were starving. Any kind of atrocity you can think of, the Bajorans lived through it. It’s never explicitly stated on screen; however, the whole arrangement should remind you of the Nazis occupying Europe.
Major Kira, the station’s second in command, is a former resistance fighter. One day a Cardassian man, Marritza, arrives on the station suffering from a condition that could only have been contracted at a specific labour camp. Kira has him arrested for war crimes, but there’s only one problem: his name isn’t listed for any crimes committed anywhere during the occupation.
Most of the episode takes place with Marritza in a cell and Kira speaking with him, trying to sort out who he really is. Eventually, it comes out that he’s Dar’heel, the commander of the camp and personally responsible for thousands of Bajoran deaths. Once this comes out, Marritza proudly admits to the fact and revels in it.
Inconsistencies crop up in his story, proving that he’s not Dar’heel and that he actually is Marritza, a mere file clerk at the prison camp. He had his face altered to look like Dar’heel so that he would be caught and prosecuted for the commander’s crimes, hoping that the Cardassians would have to admit they were in the wrong and begin to make reparations and heal themselves as a people.
Kira is confronted with her own prejudice: Marritza is a Cardassian, so her instinct is to hate him, but he is a good man. She learns to recognize that someone being Cardassian isn’t enough reason to hate them anymore and that she and her people have some healing to do as well.
There’s a lot to like about this episode, and at the top of my list are the exchanges between Nana Visitor and guest star Harris Yulin (whose name you may not know but whose face you will undoubtedly recognize), which are incredible to watch. Deep Space Nine is often at its best when its characters are forced to grow, and Duet is one where we can see Kira changing right before our eyes.
1: “In The Pale Moonlight” Season 6, Episode 19
As if there was ever any doubt as to what my number one choice would be. I even referenced it in the introduction I wrote to the viewing guide. In The Pale Moonlight is the episode that perfectly encapsulates the world of greys that Deep Space Nine exists in, rather than the black and white that previous Trek inhabited.
The war with the Dominion is going poorly. The Federation needs help, but the Romulans, the only other significant power in the Alpha Quadrant, have signed a non-aggression pact with the Dominion. Despite being a long shot, Sisko arranges to have a high-ranking Romulan senator visit the station and conspires with Garak to forge evidence that the Dominion is planning to attack the Romulan Empire.
Senator Vreenak (a delightful Stephen McHattie) spends some time with the captain before being presented with the evidence making it clear he has no desire to change his position and thinks his people shouldn’t enter the war. Sisko offers all kinds of rational arguments which fail to persuade Vreenak before finally presenting the forged evidence. There’s one problem, though: the forgery doesn’t pass muster. Vreenak resolves to return to Romulus and ruin the reputations of both Sisko and the Federation, but on his way home, his ship explodes.
Sisko then realizes Garak’s plan was this from the start. Garak knew that the forgery wouldn’t hold up; however, now, any imperfections can be attributed to the explosion, and it looks like the Dominion blew up the ship to prevent the evidence from making it to Romulus. Garak then kills the man who helped with the forgery, and Sisko is an accessory to it all. When he confronts Garak, Garak then has this to say:
“That’s why you came to me, isn’t it captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing. Well, it worked. And you’ll get what you wanted: a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant, and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal… and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.”Garak, from In The Pale Moonlight
Followed by the last scene of the episode.
That’s powerful stuff right there. Sisko has likely just saved the Federation, but to do so, he’s had to violate the very principles that the Federation stands for. These principles have guided him through his entire life and career. Still, he thinks he can live with it. He will make himself live with it, and that’s the most challenging part of all.
Avery Brooks is at his best in this episode; he manages to get the inner turmoil Sisko is going through to the audience without explicitly stating it. Andrew Robinson also gets his time to shine as he dresses down the captain in the monologue above, revelling in the opportunity to call him out on hypocrisy and that sometimes a wrong can indeed make a right.
Star Trek had never been in a universe where a wrong could make a right before, but that’s where Deep Space Nine is, right in the middle of it, and In The Pale Moonlight is the best example of that.
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