After literally decades of resistance, the Cardassian occupation of the Bajoran homeworld has finally ended. The provisional Bajoran government has requested a Starfleet presence on Deep Space 9, the Cardassian space station orbiting their world, to help make the transition... well, possible.
Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), a veteran of the battle against the Borg at Wolf 359, has been assigned to command the space station. It is not a task he relishes. Left widowed after his encounter with "Locutus of Borg," Sisko has focused his attention on raising his young son, and prefers duties that give him time for that task. He finds Deep Space 9 a less than ideal environment.
Nothing he sees when he arrives changes that impression. His first officer, the Bajoran Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), resents his presence almost as much as she resents Starfleet's. The Cardassians have left the station in disarray, and it is all his Chief of Engineering, O'Brien (Colm Meaney), can do to get everything on-line and functioning. With Bajoran spiritual leader Kai Opaka (Camille Saviola) talking about Sisko having a "destiny," and a new (surprisingly stable) wormhole appearing near the station, Sisko finds that he has walked into a political and religious minefield.
And with the implications of a stable wormhole granting access to a distant quadrant of space - and back again - the Cardassians, led by former station commandant Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), suddenly find themselves with a renewed interest in the territory around Deep Space 9...
Commander Sisko: Avery Brooks doesn't look right with hair. He needs to start shaving his head immediately. That said, Sisko has much that is interesting, right from the get-go. He's resentful of Picard, more than a little jaded with the Federation, and already contemplating taking an early retirement. He's quite willing to bend the rules to make his job workable, offering Quark a deal to stay that effectively allows the Ferengi to operate outside Starfleet regulations ("We're just here to administrate"). The episode does over-sell Sisko's relationship with his son, but otherwise manages to create an interesting central figure who has some shades of grey unusual for the lead of a Trek series.
Capt. Picard: Patrick Stewart does some terrific acting in the scene in which Sisko reveals exaclty where they have met before. His bearing instantly changes when he learns Sisko was a veteran of Wolf 359, and he spends the rest of the scene trying (and never quite succeeding) to regain his natural authority. There isn't much else for him in this episode, save for a nicely subdued farewell to Chief O'Brien, but Stewart plays what he's given as well as ever.
Major Kira: Has spent her entire life fighting for Bajoran independence from the Cardassians. As a result, she sees Sisko's arrival, and the Federation's, as simply a new occupying force. Sisko gains her respect over the course of the episode - a process that's arguably a bit too fast, and something I would rather have seen played out over a good chunk of the first season. Still, she retains an inherent brittleness, which is something that could be used to good effect.
Dax: The lovely Terry Farrell is Jadzia Daz, the Trill scientist who is also an old friend of Sisko's. Farrell's performance is actually a bit uneven here, with her lack of substantial acting experience perhaps showing in some of technobabble-heavy scenes she is given. She does have a natural screen rapport with Avery Brooks, however, and a natural good humor which eases over some of the bumps in her acting. Beyond which... How to put it? It's a lot easier to forgive an actress a few bad line readings when she looks like Terry Farrell.
Quark: Armin Shimerman, who was the principal Ferengi in that race's disastrous debut in The Last Outpost, does much better in playing the Ferengi merchant, Quark. In an early interrogation scene, he carries himself in a manner reminiscent of a small-time mobster in a police procedural, right down to his dress sense and his baiting of Constable Odo ("If I'm a thief, you never proved it. For four years"). Shimerman doesn't get a lot to do in this episode, but he registers strongly on screen, gets several humorous moments, and is given a strong role to play in the series' development as a community leader whose shady doings will be overlooked - to a point - in exchange for his aid in maintaining the station's economy.
Dr. Bashir: Siddig El-Fadil (aka, Alexander Siddig)'s first appearance as Dr. Bashir is not an entirely auspicious start. For a character who would become quite fun, and an actor who would prove himself not only on this show, but in other work such as Kingdom of Heaven and Syriana, this is a rather disappointing debut. Siddig overplays Bashir's nervous stammer in his early scenes, and Bashir's enthusiasm for "the frontier" is over-written in these scenes as well. He does do well in the only scene in which he is called upon to act as a doctor, coming to the aid of a severely wounded woman during the climactic attack, and summoning up a natural authority that has been entirely absent in his performance up to that point. Thankfully, that one good scene is good enough to raise hopes that the weaker elements of both character and performance will recede over time.
And so begins the darkest, grimiest Star Trek series, certainly the best of the spinoffs and, on its best days, the only Trek series that can lay claim to being as good as the original series. I've long felt that the later Trek movies made a mistake following the popular, yet shallower, Next Generation cast. The Deep Space 9 cast and setting had, in my opinion, more weight on which big-screen movies could balance. And they wouldn't even have had to have Worf making multiple inexplicable trips from DS9 to justify his presence.
I was all set to write a review talking about how startling it is that such a comparatively rich series came from rather generic Trek spinoff beginnings. But you know something? A lot of what made this series great is there in the pilot. The characters have shades of grey. The commander doesn't want to be there (something, disappointingly, that is resolved within the pilot, when I'd have preferred that to be an ongoing element as well). Further, he's willing to bend rules and turn a blind eye to Quark's past goings-on and even potentially to his present ones as long as the Ferengi doesn't go too far. Kira has a huge chip on her shoulder, and obvious problems with authority. Both station and planet are given enough history within this pilot to make them interesting, and not every issue is resolved. For instance, the provisional government's instability is never resolved within this pilot. Beyond that, the wormhole itself will clearly open up new complications. This is a darker and grittier Trek, and the potential is clearly there even in this opening installment.
The standalone plot is passable, if less than remarkable. The discovery of the wormhole and Sisko's opening of communications with the intelligence therein are rendered in a visually interesting manner. I enjoyed the intercutting between Sisko's perspective - a barren wasteland - and Dax's persepctive of a lush garden setting. A reflection of their mental states, perhaps, with Sisko's bitterness and closed-off nature contrasted with Dax's embracing of everything life has to offer? I also thought the production team showed some imagination in Sisko's communications with the nonlinear entity. Some of the bits in that "conversation" went on a bit long, but the cutting between settings that were part of the commander's memory, and the use of different figures from his past to express different attitudes, was intriguing.
It's not perfect, but this pilot holds up very well. It's far better than the 2-hour pilots for Next Generation or Enterprise (and neither of those were bad, by the way). It's not as good a story as The Cage was for TOS... but with strong moments for every character, it's probably a better pilot to an ongoing series.
Next Episode: Past Prologue
Search Amazon.com for Star Trek: Deep Space 9