Deep Space 9's fifth season ended with the start of the Dominion War. Deep Space 9 fell under Dominion control, with Gul Dukat once again in command - though facing a promise from Sisko to return. This season ends with the station back in Starfleet control, but with the war still raging and victory far from assured. Along the way, two major characters die, another is changed forever, and the series generally continues to raise its already very high stakes.
"IT IS THE ORDER OF THINGS": WAGING WAR
I complained in Season Five that Apocalypse Rising too easily resolved the Starfleet/Klingon conflict within the space of just one episode. This season does not repeat that mistake. Sisko retakes the station... but only after a run of six episodes, in which all the characters face trials. The Founders offer Odo everything he ever wanted, and he briefly falls to that temptation. Kira finds herself in another Occupation, this time as the very type of collaborator she has always despised. Sisko leads an assault knowing full well that most of those following him will not survive, and even that isn't enough - He's ultimately forced to be not a Starfleet officer, but the Emissary, confronting the Prophets and pushing them to intervene.
That intervention wins Sisko back his station, but it doesn't end the war. Just a few episodes later, Dr. Bashir and a group of emotionally damaged geniuses deliver the devastating news that it is mathematically impossible for Starfleet to win this war. Throughout the season, we see people reading casualty counts, and watch the regulars grow quieter and more isolated as they learn of the losses of people they knew. Planets fall to the Dominion, and only a desperate deception by Sisko is enough to put the enemy on the defensive.
The season ends with Sisko choosing to be a Starfleet officer instead of the Emissary - the exact opposite of the choice that won him back the station. The personal cost to him is devastating, and he fails as a Starfleet officer at the same time. Even though the season finale portrays what should be a major Starfleet victory, it feels like a defeat - and ends with the sense that the hardest part is still to come...
"THE MOST DAMNING THING OF ALL? I THINK I CAN LIVE WITH IT": THE CHARACTERS
Deep Space 9 has never shied from putting its characters through the wringer, but Season Six is even more unforgiving to the regulars than previous years. Feeling depressed and powerless, Sisko experiences a vision of life as an African-American writer in the 1950's, getting a taste of true powerlessness. A few episodes later, he resolves to bring the Romulans into the war on Starfleet's side - but to do so means compromising everything he believes in... And at the end of the episode, he decides that the price was worth it.
Meanwhile, Kira learns that everything she learned about her mother as a stalwart member of the Resistance was a lie. The Orb of Time reveals her mother to have been a woman who willingly became Gul Dukat's mistress in exchange for comfort for herself and food for her family. Kira probably only survived her childhood because of her mother's actions - but by her own strict code, Kira can only view her as a collaborator. This is only about half a season after she wrestles with fears that she has herself become a collaborator for urging Bajor not to resist the Dominion.
Odo is not only tempted by the female changeling (Salome Jens) - He gives into that temptation, betraying his friends. He snaps out of it when the female changeling overplays her hand by threatening to execute Kira. But that doesn't change his actions at the time, without which Sisko's appeal to the Prophets would have been unnecessary.
The characters are tested repeatedly through the season, and they don't always pass their tests. Or - as with Sisko's gambit to bring the Romulans into the war at a steep moral cost - it's left open to debate as to whether the choices made were right or wrong... Or wrong but sadly necessary.
"HOPE AND DESPAIR WALK ARM IN ARM": QUALITY CONTROL
Season Six opens with a stunning run of episodes. The weakest installment of the first seven is Sons and Daughters, which suffers from a weak plot, but remains watchable thanks to good character material. So of the first seven episodes - more than a quarter of the season - the weakest episode is "okay," and the remainder vary between very good and outstanding.
It was a given that the entire season wasn't going to keep up that level. Once the Dominion Occupation is resolved, the season returns to the series' normal hit rate - which is still pretty darn good and refreshingly varied even around the central Dominion War thread. The Magnificent Ferengi delivers one of the series' better comedy outings, followed by Waltz's redefinition of the character of Gul Dukat, followed by the enjoyable caper Who Mourns for Morn?, followed by the truly remarkable Far Beyond the Stars. All of these are good episodes, and despite their stark differences in tone and style, they all fit perfectly within the series' framework.
It's become sadly standard for the last third or so of the season to see a sharp increase in filler episodes or episodes that feel like filler, and that trend does continue in Season Six. Change of Heart and The Reckoning should be big episodes, the first doing some important character work for Worf and Dax, the second directly laying groundwork for the season finale... but neither episode fully hits the mark, with Change of Heart feeling small and stagy, and The Reckoning deteriorating into silliness. Time's Orphan is pure filler that feels like something left over from Season Two or Three. And it's made all the worse by coming immediately after Profit and Lace, which may not quite have lived down to its disastrous reputation but was still a pretty bad episode.
Still, if that last bit of the season feels a bit stretched, those weaker installments become easy enough to forgive when you reach a gem like In the Pale Moonlight or Tears of the Prophets. And a quick survey of the scores I awarded this season show that it isn't hard to find gems in Season Six.
"I HAVE TO MAKE THINGS RIGHT AGAIN": SEASON SEVEN WISHLIST
I'll admit: I'm worried about introducing a new Dax in Season Seven. That's not a knock on Nicole de Boer, who is both a perfectly fine actress and a likable screen presence. I just can't help but feel that it's a bit late in the day to introduce a new character - particularly when the series has so many plot and character threads to tie up. I'll keep an open mind, and I'm actively curious to see how Ezri integrates into the crew (I have never seen a single Season Seven episode)... But my instinct is that it's too late in the day to properly develop a new character and that when they killed Jadzia, they should probably have killed Dax at the same time.
Beyond that, it would seem presumptuous to have a wish list for a show that so consistently impresses me. For the most part, Season Six has felt like a series at its absolute apex. I tend to suspect Season Seven won't quite match its heights (though I'm eager to be proved wrong!). Regardless, it is breathtaking to see just how good a Star Trek show can be when it's willing to take risks and follow up on plot and character turns, rather than simply resetting everything on a weekly basis.
Deep Space 9 is more than just a great Star Trek series. This is one of the finest science fiction television sagas I have ever witnessed. I look forward to watching the unfolding of its final chapter.