Season Four of Deep Space 9 is the best so far. That's enough of a surprise, given how very good Season Three was. It's even more of one when you consider that this is a season which undergoes changes made for purely commercial reasons. Shifting emphasis and adding a new character, both on the record as having been done strictly to boost ratings, are the sorts of actions that usually lead to disaster for series television. Instead, the new elements are used in a way that builds on and ties into what went before.
WHEN A RELAUNCH ISN'T A RELAUNCH: THE CHANGES
Season Four of Deep Space 9 begins with a feature-length episode that, in many respects, seems to act as a second pilot for the show. The Way of the Warrior is designed as a jumping-on point for new viewers, re-establishing the world of Deep Space 9 and resetting its rules. Worf is added as a regular, the Klingons are redefined as adversaries instead of allies, and there is suddenly much more emphasis on action.
Though this shake-up may have been motivated by ratings concerns, real thought has gone into using it to enrich the show. The season premiere may appear to be a "second pilot," but The Way of the Warrior also takes care to weave its plot around existing threads, so that the Klingon complications build on what has already come before. Time is devoted to Worf finding his place on the station, and time is spent on the renewed animosity with the Klingons. By the middle of the season, though, it becomes clear that the series has not redefined itself around these new elements. The Dominion remains the foremost threat, with an ambitious mid-season two-parter showing how the Dominion presence sparks paranoia even in the heart of the Federation.
The Klingon arc is born from the Dominion threat, as is made clear in The Way of the Warrior. Even so, for most of the season it does feel like a digression, something running alongside the larger arc. The season finale takes that digression and folds it back into the main story, making it clear that all the developments involving the Klingons are part and parcel of the story and doing so in a way that promises even more interesting developments in the future.
In short, what starts out looking like a second start for Deep Space 9 is made part and parcel of the series as it already existed. The action builds as much from events in Seasons Two and Three as from anything created this year. The relaunch isn't actually a relaunch; the digression isn't actually a digression; and both new and old elements come together in a way that makes both more interesting than they would be individually.
WARRIOR, TAILOR, DOCTOR, SPY: THE CHARACTERS
Deep Space 9 continues to excel in using its ensemble. Sisko, the Star Trek captain who probably least idealizes the Federation self-image ("It's easy to be a saint in Paradise!"), nevertheless proves a strong protector of its ideals when his old mentor prepares to launch a paranoid coup. He continues to be protective of his son's welfare, emotional as well as physical, whether the situation involves the Mirror Universe's counterpart of his dead wife or an alien muse, feeding off Jake's creative energies. This is most evident in the season's standout episode, The Visitor, which may be the most successfully emotional episode of Star Trek ever made.
In the supporting cast, Garak continues to steal every scene he's in and almost every episode that features him. Likely in response to the character's popularity and to Andrew Robinson's wonderful performance, he is featured more and more often. Amazingly, the writers manage to do this without undermining the qualities that made him so much fun to start with. We still don't know all that much about him, and what we do know hardly inspires trust - yet he remains impossible to truly dislike. He might slip a knife in your back, but he'll be enormously entertaining company right up until the second before that happens.
Strong material is spread among all the regulars, with Odo having to deal with consequences from killing a changeling; O'Brien, facing the prospect of becoming a father a second time; and Bashir facing tests of not only medical skills, but also of his principles and his character. On the downside, this is the weakest season yet for Kira, and the only season to date in which she does not end up being a standout character. She still gets good material, particularly when put opposite Marc Alaimo's Gul Dukat (also underused this year), but she has noticeably less to do than in previous seasons.
Season Four is probably best remembered as the season that brought Worf onto the show. His introduction in The Way of the Warrior is exceptionally well-handled, giving him a dynamic first DS9 episode that makes use of his background from the Klingon episodes of TNG without allowing him to overshadow Sisko and the other regulars. It's an excellent episode, one of the series' best, and an outstanding introduction to Worf.
After The Way of the Warrior, however, there are several episodes in which the writers don't seem entirely sure what to do with Worf. I suspect many of these scripts had already been completed, or at least outlined, before the decision to add him was made, as there are more than a few cases of "a Worf scene" being tacked onto an episode that otherwise has no use for him.
This tendency does improve as the season goes along, however, and Worf gets some strong episodes and subplots. His friendship/budding relationship with Dax has potential for development of both characters, and his respectful but sometimes strained working relationship with Odo. Even at the season's end, I don't think the show has fully found a place for Worf - but I do think this is likely to be rectified in Season Five.
When I wrote my Season Three overview, I observed how far into the background the Bajor arc had been pushed by the rise of the Dominion threat. Seasons One and Two were heavily centered around Bajor and its political entanglements in the wake of the Cardassian Occupation. Season Three saw that focus reduced, with only a handful of episodes continuing to follow up on Bajor and the machinations of Kai Winn.
Season Three at least continued to develop this thread, though, with the Bajoran/Cardassian peace treaty and the rise of Shakaar, Kira's old resistance cell leader, to First Minister. In Season Four, what few Bajor-centric episodes exist are just placeholders, installments which may entertain, but which don't really alter the status quo.
Really, as the show becomes less about Bajor and more about the Dominion, it stands out just how well the series has done at weaving the Klingon, Dominion, and Cardassian stories together with that of the station. All of those threads feel like parts of single, dynamic whole. Bajor, which was the focus of the series when it began, does not feel like part of that same whole, and in Season Four its situation has ceased to be as dynamic as the rest of the series' elements. Continuing to namecheck Bajor has become an obligation of a series that has moved on to other things.
SEASON FIVE WISHLIST
Don't get me wrong when I observe that Bajor has waned in importance at this point. I not only don't foresee a return to a Bajor-centered series, I also don't want that. The central arcs of the series now are genuinely compelling, and the show feels like a richer place than it did in its early days. What I would like is for the Bajoran threads to be woven into the larger story. If this could be done with the Klingon arc - which initially seemed like a colorful digression - then it could certainly be done with Bajor.
Beyond that, the series has gotten so good at this point, it's almost impossible to wish for major changes. I not only would like, but I genuinely do expect, to see better use made of Worf in seasons to come. I also hope to see Kira return to her former prominence.
Past that, I just hope the series continues to do as well as it has in balancing its many characters and stories, and in keeping them feeling like part of the same whole.
Even in Season One, I was impressed by how good this series often was. In Season Four, Deep Space 9 has become genuinely excellent television. My biggest wish is for it to remain such, so that I can continue to enjoy the ride.