If I could name the most underrated show in Star Trek history, I would point to a space station, located in a galaxy not too far away: Terrok Nor, or as the humans call it, Deep Space Nine. Not only is it host to a wide array of strange creatures, but also home to a Starfleet crew, newly settled and occupied with the hard task of managing it.
At the helm is Captain Sisko, war-hardened from the loss of his wife at Wolf 359: a man dedicated to getting the job done at any cost, even when it means balancing his life as a commander with his status as emissary to the Bajoran prophets.
The complexity starts as baffling, and initially I found myself a little reluctant to watch, but as I dove deeper into the show I started to find something special and more unique than any other Star Trek show. Here are five reasons why I think it’s the best.
1. New themes, New Concept
DS9 had the novelty of trying something Star Trek had never done before: going into a completely new setting. The writers dispensed with the typical starship story of exploring new worlds and created Terrok Nor: a civilization in itself, full of new and exciting creatures. They decided to place the focal point of the action right at home, rather than seeking out into distant space. The concept itself is much bolder, and larger than anything Star Trek had ever attempted at the time. When you consider the fact that the writers pulled it off for seven straight years, it adds ultimate kudos to the DS9 legacy.
2. More Diversity
Deep Space can boast the most unique cast of Star Trek characters, featuring Bajoran, Klingon, Trill, Ferengi, Cardassian (Garak) and Shapeshifter. From these different races came characters with a wide array of different backgrounds. Kira was a resistance fighter during the Cardassian occupation; Dax was the reincarnation of seven lives joined by a symbiont; Quark was the sneaky bartender always at odds with Odo, the shapeshifting chief of security who could morph himself into any form at any moment; Garak was an exiled Cardassian spy-turned quiet tailor; and Worf, well, we all know Worf. A Klingon in Starfleet uniform struggling with the conflict between culture and duty.
3. Darker Premise
Deep Space Nine proved to be different when it decided to explore the darker elements of the Star Trek universe. For starters, we had the Cardassian occupation, a 50 year holocaust that saw the forced enslavement and murder of countless Bajorans. This theme was most appropriately explored in a Season 1 episode called “Duet,” in which the collective guilt of a people is encompassed in one man who witnessed war crimes and did nothing to stop them. Later, the premise grew even darker with the Dominion War (Seasons 3-7), a battle between Starfleet’s finest and an intergalactic army of Cardassians, Vorta, Jem’Hadar, and Founders (shapeshifters). We saw death. We saw the horrors of war played out like never before on Star Trek. We saw characters pushed to the edge. More importantly we saw gray areas in places traditionally painted black and white. Honor does not always come before duty. The line was drawn on TNG: no crossing the Prime Directive. But Sisko was a man beyond the books. In DS9’s darkest episode he utilized pure deceit and, in the end, murder, to bring the Romulan army into the war. It was a tactic never before attempted by any captain that left us questioning the moral calculus of Star Trek as a whole. But it showed true humanity. Sometimes the heroes don’t always act heroically. Sometimes laws become secondary when the ends justify the means. And DS9 was never afraid to show that.
4. Serial Format
While other Star Trek shows mostly functioned on a episode-by-episode basis, DS9 was the first to change that and create a more consistent storyline. Plots build up for multiple episodes. And then culminate at the end of a season. We got to see a final, 10-episode arc that satisfies in its conclusion more than any other Star Trek finale. More plot-drive means better focus and better direction. It follows the trend of modern television, where every hour leads to another advancement, rather than just a different story. For Deep Space Nine, it had the effect of drawing you deeper into the story. It enhanced the characterization by adding new layers of development. It made the show more believable as an epic, ongoing storyline.
5. The Religious Element
What started out in Season 1 as annoyingly baffling became a fascinating concept throughout the series as it matured. Sisko is a Starfleet commander, later captain, committed to duty. But he has the balance this role with his role as a demigod: the Bajoran emissary. In this we got to see the spiritual, as well as physical side of evil. In the end there were two battles: Starfleet and Dominion, and prophets and pah-wraiths. We got to see the hero and villain (Sisko and Dukat) take their respective roles in both places. In the end, you could say that Dukat became Sisko’s darker equivalent: a military leader whisked into the throes of a spiritual war between good and evil. It was brilliant. In a universe where science persistently trumps faith, we got to see the balance of them in Deep Space Nine. And a conclusion on both fronts, even if one did leave us with somewhat of a cliffhanger (spoilers).