Lists

Top 10 Episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Twenty years ago this past January, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered to the confusion of most Star Trek fans.  There was no multi-year mission to explore space and encounter new civilizations nor was there a ship decorated with a disturbing love of earth tones. Instead, there was a formerly Cardassian space station occupied by a Federation commander (Avery Brooks as Commander Sisko) who didn’t want to be there, and staffed by a combination of Federation misfits and Bajoran natives who didn’t want the Federation there (in other word, it was all an allegory for the Bosnian War, with the Federation = U.N., Bajorans = Bosnians).  This sure as hell didn’t feel like like The Next Generation.

What developed over the ensuing 7 seasons and 176 episodes was an increasingly complex and captivating exploration of the Star Trek universe, finally  freed from Gene Roddenberry’s overly idealistic shackles.  In fact, DS9’s multi-faceted exploration of terrorism makes it appear all the more topical in a post-9/11 world.  To me, it is the height of accomplishment among all Star Trek shows.

There are flaws, of course.  The writers reverted to “magic wand” solutions to conflicts one too many times (a problem which followed DS9 writer/producer Ronald D. Moore to Battlestar Galactica), and Avery Brooks’ at times overly theatrical performance and bizarre line readings derails many a fine episode.  Granted, Star Trek’s very foundation is built upon bizarre-but-endearing acting, but in Brooks’ case he quite frequently came off as what medical experts might call “bat shit insane.”  He’s a stage actor with a propensity for expressions and vocal inflections which kill in the live setting but feel out of place on television.

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Sisko and his crazy eyes

Yet Deep Space Nine remains the most rewarding of all Star Trek viewing experiences, with a heavily serialized story-telling style which makes it an perfect candidate for binge-viewing.  It is also the Star Trek show for which I have the hardest time selecting 10 best episodes, partially due to the impeccable serialization.  However, of you want 10 good ones to start out with, you can’t go wrong with any of the following:

(SPOILERS EXIST BELOW. READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL.)

10) “The Quickening” (Season 4, Episode 23)

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A.K.A.: The one where Dr. Bashir and Jadzia Dax encounter a people stricken with a genetically engineered disease known as the Blight.   Bashir attempts to discover a cure, staying behind by himself to do so when Dax has to leave.

  • Dr. Bashir: “There is no cure, but I was so arrogant I thought I could find it in a week!”
  • Dax: “Maybe you were arrogant, but it’s even more arrogant to think there is no cure just because you couldn’t find it.”

The plot has a couple of nice twists and an interesting reflection on the medical ethics surrounding euthanasia, but it mostly appears to be your basic Star Trek “delivering new technology/modern medicine/enlightenment to a disadvantaged people reluctance to accept aid” story.  However, this episode, as was DS9‘s way, refuses to wrap everything up in a tidy bow, instead delivering a righteously bitter ending and fascinating character exploration of Dr. Bashir and his arrogance.  The actions of the episode utterly humble him, forcing him to realize how cruel it is to deliver false hope to a people long since accustomed to a hopeless existence.  Ellen Wheeler’s performance as Ekoria, the native person who refuses to give up hope even after Bashir has, is deserving of considerable praise.

Check out a Trailer Below:

9) “The Sound of Her Voice” (Season 6, Episode 25)

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A.K.A.: The one where the crew interacts remotely with an unseen Captain whose escape pod has crashed on a remote planet following the destruction of her ship.  They plot her rescue while becoming increasingly attached to her as she offers each of them helpful advice.  Plus, there is a fantastically enjoyable B-plot involving Quark attempting to manipulate Odo’s new romance with Kira for his financial gain, and any episode containing a Quark/Odo plot is worth your time.

Thankfully, DS9 never had a counselor around to offer gems like, “I sense great anger in you,” until its final season, and even then they avoided Deana Troi-level uselessness.  However, in “Sound of Her Voice” from near the end of the sixth season we see just how much the crew could benefit from having someone to talk to.  By that point, they were living in war day to day, normalizing the constant loss of friend and co-worker for how else do you cope?  When they find themselves forced to consistently communicate with an insightful woman on a distant planet until they can rescue her, it not only allows the characters to open up in a way they otherwise couldn’t (similar to how the songs in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More with Feeling” function) it also provides them with something around which they can rally.  The ending is devastating, but it feels earned.

Check out a Trailer Below:

8) “Nor the Battle to the Strong” (Season 5, Episode 4)

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A.K.A.: The one where Jake Sisko discovers the thin line between courage and cowardice when he accompanies Dr. Bashir behind battle lines to offer medical aid to a Federation outpost under siege by the Klingons.

For whatever reason, Stark Trek tends to just assume its characters are courageous and heroic.  The fact that a character might simply run headlong away from danger never seems like a possibility.  What “Nor the Battle to the Strong” does brilliantly is make no assumptions of heroism, and give us a hero who is a coward.  The focus is on Jake, Captain Sisko’s son and aspiring writer.  He is not a soldier nor is he even a member of Starfleet; by his chosen profession, he is an outsider.  When thrust into his first real combat experience he folds, consistently doing whatever it takes to stay alive with no thought to the well-being of others (even Dr. Bashir).  Through his ability as a writer, he is able to articulate the truth of his actions, as everyone had been so eager to assume he had performed in a manner befitting the son of a Starfleet captain.  However, we might identify more with Jake’s need for self-preservation than Captain Sisko’s badass heroism than we care to admit.

Check out a Trailer Below:

7) “Visitor” (Season 4, Episode 3)

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A.K.A.: Jake Sisko copes with the grief of losing his father by devoting most of the remainder of his life to discovering a way to bring him back.

For a show which was so concerned with the on-going conflicts between warring factions, DS9 often dealt with themes of loss and grief.  There is perhaps no finer example of this type of episode than “Visitor.”  In real life, when a loved one dies we might spend the rest of our days wondering if we made them proud, or if there was anything more we could have done.  Now, imagine if that person you lost was caught in a weird sci-fi time loop where they show up wherever you are every couple of years but only stay for a minute or less before jumping ahead in time again.  That…would be torture, and that’s exactly what happens to Jake Sisko, played in young age as usual by Cirroc Lofton and in the older age scenes by Tony Todd (yep, Candyman’s Tony Todd).  Sisko’s continual pleading with his son throughout the years to move on with his life is particularly devastating since we know how impossible a request it is.  The concluding scene has moved many to tears.

Check out the Final Scene Below:

6) “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Season 7, Episode 10) 

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A.K.A.: They one where they did The Best Years of Our Lives with Nog (Aron Eisenberg) and the self-aware holographic lounge singer Vic Fontaine after Nog lost his leg in battle in a prior episode. Think of its as Deep Space Nine: Post Traumatic-Stress Disorder but with a lounge singer.

Remember when Picard was made a Borg on The Next Generation, killed a bunch of people (including Sisko’s wife, as it turns out), was rescued and made human again, and then the next week he went home to his brother’s wine vineyard to have a good cry about it?  Well, the “good cry” part of that equation is what “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is for Nog.  He returns to the crew with a new bionic leg, but a psychosomatic need to walk with a cane and desire to avoid all contact with anyone.   What follows is a character study of post-traumatic stress disorder dropped into the middle of the show’s final and most war-heavy season.  There are no larger plots being advanced.  Nope, it’s just them pausing to reflect on the mental toil incurred by one of its most endearing characters.  The notion of a Star Trek character becoming addicted to the fantasy world of the holosuite had been done before on Next Generation, but having it be a wounded soldier attempting to overcome PTSD and depression made it far more profound.  Roddenberry’s vision for futuristic medicine was such that all maladies could be solved, but “Paper Moon” reminds the Star Trek universe that not even advanced science has an instant cure for well-earned emotional trauma.

Check out a Trailer Below:

5) “Things Past” (Season 5, Episode 8) 

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A.K.A.? The one where Odo, Garak, Sisko, and Dax appear to somehow quantum leap back in time and into the bodies of four rebellious Bajorans on Deep Space Nine when it was occupied by the Cardassians.  We learn that Odo, assumed to be the ultimate outsider above it all, has blood on his hands just like everyone else.

Deep Space Nine was always known to have been occupied by the Cardassians with enslaved Bajorans toiling away in work camps prior to Bajoran rebellions and the Federation’s intervention.   This meant that for several of the characters (like Odo and Kira) their home, Deep Space Nine, had once been their prison.  This is an area so ripe for dramatic potential the show’s writers threw out multiple flashback (or interactive flashback) episodes.  Among these, “Things Past” just happens to be my favorite.  These episodes tended to function to reveal how new information concerning Kira and/or Odo from their past would inform their present.  In “Things Past,” we are walked through an interesting mystery, and get to see the show’s primary sets redressed to indicate what hell the place used to be for the Bajorans.  The episode’s recurring bit involving Odo’s literal blood-covered hands is regrettably heavy-handed, but  this is a fantastic showcase for Renee Auberjonois’ acting as Odo. The final scene between Odo and Nana Visitor’s Kira?  Gut-wrenching.

Check out a Trailer Below:

4) “Rocks and Shoals” (Season 6, Episode 2)

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A.K.A.: The one where we feel sympathy for our enemies, the Jem’Hadar, and Kira and Odo are cruelly reminded of how easily you can empower injustice by taking the path of least resistance.

DS9’s sixth season opens with a six-episode arc so stellar I wish I could just include it all on here as one single episode, but “Rocks and Shoals” from that arc might be the best.  During this portion of the show, Sisko is plotting to re-take Deep Space Nine after the Federation was forced to abandon it to the Cardassians and Dominion in the season five finale.  However, the Bajorans had to remain behind, officially taking no side in the war as per Sisko’s wishes.  In “Rocks and Shoals,” Sisko and crew get stranded on a planet also featuring stranded Dominion members (a single vorta and his cadre of Jem’Hadar soldiers, whose behavior-controlling nutritional supplement is running out).  On Deep Space Nine, Kira and Odo realize just how gradually they’ve become accomplices to the Dominion attrocities by doing nothing to stop them because that was the most convenient option.  By the end, you come to better understand the Jem’Hadar and admire their nobility while pitying their geneticially engineered inability to question the way things are.

Check out a Trailer Below:

3) “In the Pale Moonlight” (Season 6, Episode 19)

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A.K.A.: The one where Captain Sisko seeks the Cardassian spy Garak’s help in recruiting the Romulans to the Federation’s side in the war against the Dominion.

This one might as well bear the subtitle “moral grey area.”  By the end of the episode which Sisko himself is narrating, he has lied, cheated, and even become an accessory to multiple murders.  He has sacrificed his principles for a greater cause, but successfully turned the tide of war in his side’s favor.  However, the show neither villifies nor vindicates Sisko for his actions.  He ends by proclaiming how he thinks he can still live with himself after everything he’s done, and the audience is left to judge whether or not they feel the same.  Be warned, though, as a Sisko-heavy episode that means there are plenty of over-the-top moments for Brooks, and there is one one deeply, deeply unfortunate and very unintentionally funny reading of the line, “It’s a faaaaake!” from a Romulan.

Check out a Trailer Below:

2) “In Purgatory’s Shadow”/”By Inferno’s Light” (Season 5, Episodes 14/15)

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A.K.A.: The one where Worf and Garak are imprisoned by the Dominion only to discover that Klingon General Martok and Dr. Bashir are also prisoners, meaning the Bashir we had seen for the prior 4 weeks was a changeling impostor.

Ah, Garak.  He was the show’s man of mystery, a Cardassian spy not allowed to return home for unknown reasons and thus stranded on Deep Space Nine to work as a tailor.  Andrew Robinson’s masterful acting turned him into the show’s secret MVP, and this two-parter from the fifth season starts with Garak attempting to flee the station to respond to a coded distress signal.  What follows is a series of huge revelations of just how many people had been imprisoned by the Dominion and replaced with impostors, including our very own Dr. Bashir (which is a cooler twist the less you think about it).  Unlike some other episodes on this list, there are not necessarily any great universal themes being explored in interesting new ways here.  Instead, there is a healthy dose of political intrigue, a thrilling prison escape, equipped with Garak having to hide in the crawl space of a wall despite his claustraphobia, and generally well-done epic action scenes. Sometimes, DS9 could just be a thrill-ride of surprising plot twists and well-executed character revelations, and “In Purgatory’s Shadow”/”By Inferno’s Light” features them doing that at their best.

Check out a trailer below:

1) “Trials and Tribble-ations” (Season 5, Episode 6)

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Which one is it? The one where the DS9 crew is spliced into the classic Original Series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” in a time-travel plot that sees the crew charged with stopping a Tribble-shaped bomb from going off.

For the 30th anniversary of Star Trek in 1996, both DS9 and Voyager did homage episodes, with the latter involving a guest turn from George Takei as Captain Sulu.  However, DS9 pulled off Star Trek fantasy camp by using Forrest Gump/Back to the Future 2-style trickery to have its characters interact with Original Series characters.  Honestly, this isn’t really the best DS9 episode, but for any Star Trek fan it is undoubtedly the most essential.  Come on –  you get to see the DS9 cast wear the old 1960s uniforms, walk through recreations of the old sets, and even appear as if they are interacting with Original Series-era Kirk.  Nerdgasm achieved.  In fact, this episode adds an extra layer of tension to the “The Trouble With Tribbles” from the Original Series, whose ending can now be viewed while knowing just how dang close Kirk came to getting blown up by a Tribble.

Check out a DVD Extra Featuring the Cast Discussing the Episode:

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is available to stream through Netflix, Amazon (free to Prime members), and Hulu.

Those Are Mine, Here Are Some Others:
Check Out Our Other Top 10 Lists for Stark Trek TV Shows:

So, what do you think, guys? Are you a fan of our picks, or are there other episodes you think should have made the cut? Let us know in the comments!

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9 comments

  1. Not knowing any other Trekkie fans, I found this site to be an absolute joy. I gave up early on DS9 but now aim to binge. Your Next Generation picks and comments were spot on although Deanna did bring tonal change to each episode. I thought Next Generation was masterly with the exception of Striker and his jumper. Patrick always managed to pull his back into shape with minimal fuss and some elegance but Striker never achieved this considerable feat. In fact, he really was the show’s weakest link, and unfortunately his awkward jumper pulling at key moments nearly sunk some exciting episodes. I agree that Patrick was always superb and quite often he was completely unaware of plot development, apparently, so relentless was his filming schedule.

    I also thought the film Generations deserved a very honourable mention, not least for the very welcome addition of Malcolm Macdowell. This was surely the best “guest” role in any Star Trek episode or film. He is one of the most undervalued actors of the last 50 years. Yearning is an unusual, potent and captivating emotion on film and he yearned like no other.

  2. It seems a shame not to include episodes that expand on the Klingon and Ferengi cultures, or critical plot twits with the Dominion War. The Way of the Warrior 4:1; The Sword of Khalees 4:09; Rules of Engagement 4:18, The Magnificent Ferengi 6:10; The Begotten 5:12 to name a few.

    1. You are not wrong. The problem with those really important Dominion War episodes and DS9 in general is that it is so serialized it makes picking individual episodes a tad difficult. So many of them are simply part of a larger piece in a way that Star Trek had never real done done to that point. There are several Dominion War episodes in my top 10 that I have shown to DS9 newbie fiends before, each time having to explain so much of what is happening and who’s who because you need to have seen so many prior episodes. That does not necessarily make those types of episodes unworthy of a Top 10, but it is something I thought about.

  3. This is a pretty good list. I’m glad you included It’s Only a Paper Moon, The Sound of Her Voice, Rocks and Shoals, and By Inferno’s Light.

    I would add Duet (one of my favorite DS9 episodes and it has almost no special effects, all character-driven), For the Uniform (Eddington vs Sisko conflict played very well), Way of the Warrior, Part I & II (epic things happening that makes a space station setting exciting, great story of the Klingons and intro to Worf), and The Maquis, Part I & II (excellent personal conflict mirroring the grander conflict), with an honorable mention for Return to Grace.

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