At this point, it's become almost monotonous for me to observe that each season of Deep Space 9 has been better than the last. Season Four raised the bar quite high. Season Five clears that bar by a considerable distance, delivering a consistently exciting series of episodes that exploits the series' strengths as it builds steadily toward a riveting conclusion.
PRELUDE TO WAR
One of the season's few disappointments is how quickly and easily the Klingon conflict is wrapped up. The Klingon hostilities dominated Season Four, but now are all but brushed away in the season premiere. Only the events of Nor the Battle to the Strong keep it from feeling like a reset - And that "reset" feeling comes right back again when encounters with Klingons through the rest of the season are just the way they were during the show's first three years.
Still, if the resolution of the Klingon thread is a disappointment, it's more than made up for by the consistent excellence of the Dominion arc. The Dominion were introduced slowly, first as a name attached to ominous whispers before being revealed as a tangible threat. Seasons Three and Four were built around that threat, with the Dominion gradually making itself a presence in the Alpha Quadrant. This enemy worked subtly, sparking conflict with the Klingons and destabilizing the Cardassian government, often as effective because of others' paranoia about their abilities as through overt action.
By Season Five, they have gained enough strength in the Alpha Quadrant to become more brazen. The Ship, only the second episode of the season, sees open conflict between Sisko's landing party and a group of Jem'Hadar. A changeling replaces Dr. Bashir, patiently spending months playing that role to perfection until the time is right to act. With the fall of the weakened Cardassia, the Dominion establishes an official foothold - and from that moment, the war that's been threatened for more than two seasons becomes an inevitability.
The season ends with the start of that war - and thanks to the Dominion's machinations, Starfleet is almost without allies. Only the Klingons, who were enemies one short year ago, fight alongside, and that's only because Sisko was able to reveal the changeling hands pulling the strings of the conflict. Had Sisko failed, or been manipulated into killing Chancellor Gowron, Starfleet would stand alone, and would be left to a choice between the indignity of surrender or the impossibility of fighting two wars simultaneously. It took less than three years for the Dominion to evaluate the weakest threads in the Federation's tapestry of alliances, and to sever nearly every one of them to leave Starfleet in as weak a position as possible.
LEADERS, SOLDIERS, DIPLOMATS, AND TRAITORS: THE CHARACTERS
As strong as Deep Space 9 is on story, the series' greatest strength lies in its characters. Not only does this series have a large regular cast, it also has the largest retinue of recurring characters of any Trek series. Every year, I find myself more and more impressed by the show's ability to not only make use of this rich and varied ensemble, but to develop and reveal new things about each member of it.
Kira, somewhat underused in Season Four, is back to the foreground this year. The Darkness and the Light reminds us of the things she did during the Occupation, and that she remains unwavering in her belief that all of those actions were justified. The Occupation remains a button that's all too easy for someone to push to get a reaction from her, something Gul Dukat exploits ruthlessly in Ties of Blood and Water. Her friendship/non-relationship with Odo is also effective: The final scene in Things Past, the mirror image of an equally outstanding moment in Season Two's Necessary Evil, completes the circle of each seeing the worst of the other; her shock upon learning of his true feelings in Children of Time is convincing, and it being not that but the alternate Odo's actions that push her away feels exactly right.
Every character gets some terrific material: Quark's brief foray into arms dealing reveals the conscience we already knew he had; Jake experiences the horrors not only of war, but of his own fear, but is able to use the experience to push himself into writing with more honesty and courage than he had before; Bashir and Odo have dark secrets from their pasts revealed; Worf and Dax grow closer as a couple, with Soldiers of the Empire reminding us that Dax may well understand true Klingon culture (as opposed to the ideal of it) better than Worf does; and dependable, decent O'Brien is pushed into becoming a soldier once more.
That's not even mentioning the recurring characters. Dukat begins the season as an uneasy ally, a powerless exile from his own home world. He ends the season as a bitter enemy, having regained his home world by selling it out to the Alpha Quadrant's worst enemy. Kai Winn's convictions are thrown into disarray when Sisko's visions make her reevaluate her dismissal of his role as Emissary. This ruthless manipulator ends the season looking into the eyes of Weyoun, chilled at encountering someone so much colder, more calculating, and more ruthless than she is - Maybe as terrified at the glimpse of herself that she catches as of Weyoun himself. Speaking of whom, Weyoun is resurrected from the dead, in a way that manages not to feel like a cheat - And which quickly pays dividends as it takes only a few episodes for him to become one of the most entertainingly frightening adversaries the Trek universe has seen.
...Given the rich resource of these wonderful characters, exactly why didn't they try at least one Deep Space 9 movie when the TNG ones started to founder?
Overall episode quality in Season Five is staggeringly high. I've awarded almost as many "10" scores as in the previous four seasons put together. All of the following earned full marks: Nor the Battle to the Strong, Things Past, In Purgatory's Shadow, By Inferno's Light, Children of Time, In the Cards, Call to Arms. That's seven episodes - More than a quarter of the season. Other notable installments include: Trials and Tribble-ations, Rapture, The Darkness and the Light, For the Uniform, Business as Usual, and Ties of Blood and Water. Not to mention the many other solidly engaging stories that build up character and plot strands to allow the "big" episodes to be all that they are.
Sure, there are a few duds. Let He Who is Without Sin... is an appalling hour of television; Ferengi Love Songs is, in my opinion, even worse. There are also disappointments, episodes that have good material and ideas but which don't quite properly gel, such as Doctor Bashir, I Presume and Empok Nor. But the bulk of the season is solid at worst, and often excellent.
SEASON SIX WISHLIST
It's hard to develop much of a wish list when the series is this consistently good. All I really want to see is for the events of the finale to be properly followed through. I already know that Season Six will not repeat Apocalypse Rising's mistake of wrapping up a long-running arc in a single episode. I look forward to seeing how the Dominion War develops, and to watching how the scattered characters fare in their new environments.
I strongly hope the series takes some time before reuniting them. Odo, Kira, and Quark on the re-christened Terok Nor, once again under the rule of Gul Dukat, is a situation worth milking for a few episodes. Jake's situation should be worth at least an episode. Worf serving on a Klingon ship again, this time without Dax as a buffer, should be interesting. Sisko's promise to Dukat should be fulfilled - but that payoff should be delayed, with us made to wait for it. And when it comes, it needs to be worth that wait.
Beyond that, I just want the series to continue to do what it's been doing: Develop its character strands and story strands with a steady patience that allows each new development to spring naturally from the ones before, and to lead to new developments down the road. At this point, my confidence in the series is such that what I want is largely just to watch the narrative unfold.
I'll close this review by repeating my opening: Each season of Deep Space 9 has been better than the one before. At this point, I don't know how much better the show could possibly get - but I certainly hope to find out!