[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
[To Boldly Binge…]
Life feels pretty short, doesn’t it? There’s never enough time to go all the places we see, or meet all the people we want to meet, or watch all the TV shows we want to watch. That last fact is especially heartbreaking, but it’s true: there’s just too much great television, and not enough time to consume it all.
And that’s a problem when it comes to some less-touted great shows… such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Deep Space Nine is my favorite sci-fi TV series ever (sorry, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica) and the first one I recommend to my most sci-fi-averse of friends. However, my recommendation always comes with a caveat: DS9 is 176 episodes long.
I have a hard enough time getting people interested in dramas as gargantuan as Buffy and The West Wing, and DS9 surpasses even those in sheer length. Through seven seasons (20 episodes in the first, 26 in all the others), it is truly a sprawling series.
In fact, it is sprawling on numerous levels. Unlike the two prior Trek series, DS9 was not bound by a standalone formula. Instead, it featured numerous character and story arcs which spanned multiple seasons – and some of which spanned all seven. As with several other great dramas of the 1990s (including Homicide and ER), DS9 tested the boundaries of serialization and world-building over a lengthy period, paving the way for the many great serialized dramas of the 21st century.
So here’s the bad and good news: Because DS9 aired at a time when long-term serialization was still in its germinating period, much of the show is not full-on serialized. There are many standalone episodes (particularly in the early years) meant to pad out the lengthy seasons – some of which are a lot of fun, while others seem merely awkward in their existence.
Knowing all this, and knowing that there’s a lot of great material to be found in this series, I’ve decided to make it easier for the modern-day viewer to get invested in this underappreciated classic. Thus, I’ve created a “Wormhole Version” of the series – a way to transport yourself from one great episode of the series to another while avoiding the drags in between.
What follows is a list of the Must-Watch DS9 episodes – the ones that feed into the show’s primary arcs, and which contain the most crucial and introspective of character development. (I’ve also named many “Recommended, But Not Required” episodes – installments that don’t add much to the series at large, but are still worth watching.) And though I obviously can’t avoid discussing structure and continuity, I won’t be going into specific spoilers.
You may note that there are a few other “Skip It/Watch It” DS9 guides floating around the Interwebs, and none are the exact same as mine. This is, indeed, my own interpretation of DS9 at its finest, and I’ve done my best to make your viewing experience as smooth and comfortable as possible. (Credit where it’s due: I’ve studied up on several other “Skip/Watch” guides, including Matt Fowler’s Person of Interest page and the many lists on Liz Tells Frank.) In short, I’ve worked hard to ensure that my version of DS9 Edited is the best you’re going to find.
Without further ado, let’s begin. We start with…
Let me kick this off by saying that Season One is Deep Space Nine at its worst. While there are some glimmers of quality throughout, the overall season is underdeveloped and entirely too focused on disposable standalones. So as you may expect, there’s a lot worth skipping. But you definitely should watch…
Being the pilot, “Emissary” is naturally an important episode, setting up plenty of characters in addition to the show’s general story. Many future developments are foreshadowed, and the pilot in general exhumes an air of ambition and confidence. “Past Prologue,” the episode which immediately follows, is quite crucial as well.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Captive Pursuit,” “Dax”
Most of Season One’s standalones don’t have much long-term relevance, but a handful of them feature important character and/or story material. These three episodes are among the season’s better offerings, and lay important ground for future character and story arcs.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Progress”
“In the Hands of the Prophets”
Despite its notable flaws, Season One ends remarkably. “Duet” is the best episode of the season, and “In the Hands of the Prophets” – in what will become a consistent trend with season finales – sets up some new material for the following season.
The second season of DS9 is a definite improvement over the first. There are still a lot of standalones, but the episodes in general are qualitatively better, and towards the end, the season starts ramping up some serious tension.
Season Two kicks off with a great three-episode story that follows up on the aforementioned Season One finale. It’s indicative of the later and lengthier arcs to come, even if the immediate resolutions here are rather quickly and hastily dealt with.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Invasive Procedures,” “Cardassians”
“Necessary Evil” is the first truly great DS9 episode. It’s a wonderful character piece with some excellent flashbacks. Another sign that this show is more character-driven than your average Trek.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Rivals”
“The Maquis, Part 1”
“The Maquis, Part 2”
Okay, here we go. Near the end of the season, several new story elements are introduced that will carry weight in forthcoming seasons. The episodes themselves are quite good, too.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Tribunal”
The great Season Two finale introduces a new story element that will carry over the remainder of the series. It’s almost like this is where the show really begins, and the first 45 episodes were just a really long (though often quite good) introduction.
While the first two seasons are typically constructed with standalones (even the arc episodes are self-contained), hints of serialization begin to show in Season Three. The show is not yet great television, but it makes some promising strides this season, thanks in large part to new showrunner Ira Steven Behr.
“The Search, Part I”
“The Search, Part II”
Numerous important events occur in the two-part Season Three premiere, which is entertaining, if noticeably flawed. Focus on the positive, however, as it signals a newer, bolder era for DS9.
Recommended, But Not Required: “The House of Quark,” “Equilibrium”
“Second Skin” is a great episode, both on a character and story level. You’ll begin to notice that Season Three is markedly more focused on character development than its two predecessors.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Past Tense, Part 1,” “Past Tense, Part 2”
“Heart of Stone”
Okay, so “Past Tense” has no long-term relevance on the show, but it’s still a very entertaining two-parter. I recommend it because some of the arc episodes in this season aren’t especially good. It’s a sign that the series is still going through some growing pains, trying to build a long-term arc while keeping the exposition entertaining. But trust me – there’s some great stuff coming up.
“Through the Looking Glass”
“The Die Is Cast”
You know how TNG began improving right around the time Riker grew a beard? Well, DS9 features a string of great episodes near the end of its third season, right around the time Sisko grows a beard. Coincidence?
(Probably. But let’s pretend otherwise.)
Okay, so here’s where the show really starts picking up steam. Things start to get really dark and complex this season. There are also not a lot of true “filler” episodes from this point on. But if you’re pressed for time, stick with me…
“The Way of the Warrior”
This is a two-part premiere that aired as a single episode. It adds a new layer (and a new, yet familiar, character) to the series. And it’s pretty great besides.
Recommended, But Not Required: “The Visitor”
These episodes continue to build on the arcs, which are weaved more thoroughly into each episode than in prior seasons. I sense great TV on the horizon.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Little Green Men,” “The Sword of Kahless,” “Our Man Bashir”
“Return to Grace”
“Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” make another great two-parter. And again, it’s pivotal to the series, as is “Return to Grace.”
Recommended, But Not Required: “Bar Association,” “Accession,” “Hard Time”
“For the Cause”
“To the Death”
There are some pretty forgettable episodes in Season Four’s second half (particularly the terrible “The Muse”), but there are still plenty of great, crucial episodes as well. Sadly, “Broken Link” is probably the weakest season finale in the series. (It’s decent, but nothing great.)
This is the season where DS9 enters the pantheon of “great sci-fi television.” Deep, dark, character-focused – it’s easily the show’s best season yet.
As per usual, the season opens strongly, and sets up some important developments that will pay off later on.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places,” “Nor the Battle to the Strong,” “Trials and Tribble-Ations,” “Things Past,” “The Ascent”
Part of me wants to require all these episodes, since they’re quite good and feature little nuggets of character and plot development here and there. But if you just have time for one, it needs to be “Rapture.”
Recommended, But Not Required: “The Darkness and the Light”
“For the Uniform”
“In Purgatory’s Shadow”
“By Inferno’s Light”
An excellent four-episode stretch. “For the Uniform” in particular is one of the show’s best episodes ever.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Doctor Bashir, I Presume,” “Business as Usual”
“Ties of Blood and Water”
“Soldiers of the Empire”
Not especially great episodes, but very important as Season Five heads toward its game-changing finale.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Children of Time”
“Blaze of Glory”
“In the Cards”
“Call to Arms”
Season Five ends on a high note, with the brilliantly funny “In the Cards” and the brutally dramatic “Call to Arms.” It’s the mark of a great show that can pull off a tonal shift like that and make it work so effectively.
And here we are: The single best season of DS9, and perhaps the best Star Trek season ever. Nearly every episode this season is worth watching, but I’ll break it down for you:
“A Time to Stand”
“Rocks and Shoals”
“Sons and Daughters”
“Behind the Lines”
“Favor the Bold”
“Sacrifice of Angels”
The season kicks off with a heavily serialized six-episode arc that remains one of the greatest sustained runs in the show’s history. It will have some massive repercussions for the remainder of the series, too.
Recommended, But Not Required: “You Are Cordially Invited,” “Statistical Probabilities,” “The Magnificent Ferengi”
Another strong and crucial episode, this is an incredible character spotlight for one of the show’s best villains.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Who Mourns for Morn?” “Far Beyond the Stars,” “One Little Ship,” “Honor Among Thieves,” “Change of Heart”
“Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night”
“In the Pale Moonlight”
Another great trio of episodes, culminating in DS9‘s best episode ever, “In the Pale Moonlight.” See, this is why I’m recommending the show.
Recommended, But Not Required: “His Way,” “Valiant,” “Time’s Orphan,” The Sound of Her Voice”
“Tears of the Prophets”
In addition to featuring some of the show’s best arc episodes and standalones, Season Six also features what may be its best finale. It’s the kind of finale that will grip you, and send you straight into the show’s final season…
Here’s the deal: This is the most serialized season of the whole show. It’s a slight step down from Season Six in quality, but there’s still a ton of great stuff here as the show wraps up all its major arcs. Starting with…
“Image in the Sand”
“Shadows and Symbols”
The early episodes of the season are always important. You should know this by now.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”
“Treachery, Faith, and the Great River”
“Once More Unto the Breach”
“The Siege of AR-558”
“It’s Only a Paper Moon”
Like I said, lots of important episodes. The show is building towards its extended final arc, and doing a great job of it.
Recommended, But Not Required: “Field of Fire,” “Chimera,” “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang”
“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges”
“Till Death Do Us Part”
“The Changing Face of Evil”
“When It Rains…”
“Tacking Into the Wind”
“The Dogs of War”
“What You Leave Behind”
And finally, we arrive at the lengthy, sprawling, series-ending arc. No more standalones, no more filler, just pure arc resolution as Deep Space Nine draws to a close. This final stretch is largely excellent (“Inter Arma…” and “Tacking Into the Wind” are among the show’s absolute highlights), and make the seven-year journey well worth the effort.
And there you have it. Deep Space Nine may seem like a large commitment, but following this template, you can whittle the 176 episodes down to 90 – an average of 13 episodes per season. (Include all the “Recommended, But Not Required” episodes, and the count goes up to a near-Buffy level of 133 – still sparing you about 25% of the series.)
Anyway, please enjoy the often wonderful characters and stories of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And remember, the time you save by skipping the less-important/compelling episodes can best be spent by focusing on another crucial life endeavor:
Watching reruns of The Next Generation.
Jeremy Grayson is a writer for Critically Touched. He lives near the Alpha Quadrant.