“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is kind of the black sheep of “Star Trek.” A morose, misanthropic, pessimistic sheep that insists upon inserting some damn realism into the 24th century. DS9 always strove to maintain Trek’s idealistic nature, but acknowledge that there would be hard realities in Federation society just like everywhere else.
In setting its story on the edge of Federation space and often at odds with neighbors, DS9 provided endless opportunities to explore the dark side of the frontier. Here are 15 of the darkest parties DS9 ever invited us to — it’s to the show’s credit they’re not all either Dominion War or Cardassian Occupation-based. Several are just depressing AF standalones. Grab something to cuddle and saddle up.
15. HARD TIME
In a stroke of extremely bad luck, Chief O’Brien is falsely convicted of espionage and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In a nifty and efficient twist, the Argrathi simply implant 20 year’s worth of prison memories as opposed to forcing him to serve actual time. But O’Brien doesn’t bounce back right away — far from it, in fact.
The time O’Brien endures is completely real to him, so he may as well have actually spent 20 years in prison. Think the Mirror Universe version of TNG’s “Inner Light.” The memories don’t fade like a dream would, and O’Brien has to reconcile life in prison, including the murder of his cellmate, before he can return to a normal life. He manages to overcome his demons, but things get very dark and suicidal before he does. Understandable, considering he’s endured a nightmare that feels inescapably real, and he can’t take solace in the fact that he woke up. It’s a pretty wicked middle finger to the infamous Trek Reset Button, though.
14. …NOR THE BATTLE TO THE STRONG
In this episode, Bashir and Jake are traveling back from a medical conference when they answer a distress call from a nearby outpost under siege by Klingons. Jake naively gets excited at the prospect of the story he might get out of the experience, but to one’s surprise, the reality isn’t anything like he expected. His illusions are shattered over and over, and the audience gets a front row seat for the adorable Jake Sisko to really grow up.
He comes face-to-face with not only the horrors and ravages of war, but also his own cowardice in the face of danger. He abandons Bashir when the two are attacked by Klingons, and the two get separated. Jake comes across a dying soldier and reveals what happened. The soldier condemns Jake harshly before dying, and Sisko’s son is wracked with guilt. Bashir doesn’t think twice before forgiving Jake, citing the boy’s lack of training, but it doesn’t make much difference. At the end of the episode, Bashir may have forgiven Jake, but it’s clear it’ll be a long time before Jake forgives himself. If he ever does.
13. THE ADVERSARY
Things start off “normal” enough. Sisko gets promoted to captain and is immediately ordered to take the Defiant to investigate an apparent coup on the Tzenkethi homeworld. Depending on the outcome, the Federation could be facing a war with the Tzenkethi, spreading their reserves thin. Along the way to finding out, various crew-members hear inexplicable noises and simultaneously, it becomes clear the situation on the planet is not as it seems. Turns out, there’s a changeling on board who’s been manipulating the crew from the beginning.
From that point on, the episode is a cat-and-mouse game that rapidly turns eerie and chilling. The crew attempts to hunt the shape-shifter, but it’s not long before they start suspecting each other and trust between them evaporates. What makes this episode so dark is that it’s basically a small-scale representation of what the Dominion has in store for the Federation. They’ll continue to infiltrate and destabilize the Federation from the inside, priming it for an easy takeover. When the changeling is finally cornered and killed, he almost gleefully whispers, “We’re everywhere.” This season finale isn’t a cliffhanger, it’s a terrifying glimpse at the most formidable enemy the Federation has faced since the Borg.
12. THE WIRE
This episode is as chilling as it is heartbreaking. Garak winds up in sickbay as result of an implant in his head malfunctioning. Turns out, it was placed there to release endorphins into his brain should he have ever been captured and tortured while an Obsidian Order operative. But Garak’s so miserable in exile aboard DS9, he’s been using the implant 24/7 and is now addicted to it — hence the malfunction from overuse. He goes through extreme pain and discomfort before Bashir can remove it and bitterly opens up to the Doctor about his past. Bashir and the audience take a disturbing tour of the Obsidian Order’s history and even get to meet Garak’s old boss turned nemesis, Enabran Tain.
“The Wire” introduced audiences to the Obsidian Order and it didn’t pull any punches. If Garak’s harrowing recollections weren’t enough, the end of the episode reveals none of it may have been true. Garak was so deeply and happily embedded in his life as a spy, he’s literally incapable of telling the truth — a fact that becomes incredibly tragic when we realize just how total and lonely his exile really is.
11. THE QUICKENING
In case anyone was under the impression there was anything redeemable about Dominion rule, don’t forget how much they love biological weapons. Bashir, Dax and Kira come across a world that’s spent two centuries as victims of a virus inflicted upon them by their would-be conquerors. The disease is known as the Blight, and once it “quickens,” victims have very little time left. Bashir is not only horrified by the lengths the Dominion will go to to subjugate their enemies, but also the practice of assisted suicide that exists on the planet in the face of real medical treatment.
The Blight is nasty business. Nasty. DS9 doesn’t flinch from showing us the horrors of biological weapons or a society fully embracing mercy-killings. On Teplan, no one has a real future, and everyone lives their lives in a kind of Purgatory, waiting for their death sentences to be sped-up by the Quickening. There’s no social advance, no goal-setting, no real living. Bashir does manage to create a vaccine for the disease, but that still leaves an entire generation of Teplan condemned. The episode closes on his continued, futile efforts to find a cure.
10. THINGS PAST
Odo, Sisko, Dax and Garak are telepathically joined and transported back to one of Odo’s memories from his time on the station during the Cardassian Occupation. They quickly get falsely accused of planning a terrorist act and imprisoned. As the rest of the crew on DS9 attempts to figure out how to break the link, the four that are joined try to stay alive and puzzle out what’s happened. As it turns out, Odo was responsible for a gross miscarriage of justice and it’s not until he admits it that the link is broken.
We rarely see a flustered and frightened Odo. He prides himself on being in control at all times. He also prides himself on his sense of justice and commitment to thorough investigation. When we see him lose his composure and admit to sanctioning the execution of three innocent people, it’s heartbreaking. The final scene between Odo and Kira sees the Bajoran trying to understand how her friend could’ve committed such an act. The two simply decide to move on because there’s no other choice, but the episode proves that while the Occupation is over, it’s still very much present.
When Dukat and Sisko are stranded on a planet, they’ve got a lot of time to hash things out. During the scenes that follow, we see Dukat move from mental balance to fractured mania, ultimately losing the battle with himself. What always made Dukat so watchable was the capacity for redemption that seemed to lie just around the corner. But after the death of his daughter, his darkness and rage consume him, and “Waltz” gives us a front row seat to his transformation.
Once Sisko realizes Dukat is 100% not sane, he tries to keep the Cardassian talking long-enough for the Defiant to arrive. We watch as Dukat attempts to justify his treatment of the Bajorans and feel his rage at their continued defiance and hatred. His desperate desire to be loved and the loss of Zial have pushed him past the point of redemption. Like Sisko, the audience can’t help but feel a mixture of fear and pity watching the man break with sanity before us. He winds up leaving Sisko on the planet to die, and as the door to the runabout closes, we glimpse his demons — figments of Damar, Weyoun and Kira — surrounding him.
8. THE DIE IS CAST
This is the second half of a two-parter surrounding Enabran Tain’s ambitious attempt to coordinate the destruction of the Dominion homeworld in a joint effort between the Obsidian Order and the Romulan Tal Sh’iar. Garak and Odo uncover his intentions, and as a reward (for that and for surviving an assassination attempt), Garak is welcomed back into the fold. His first task? Torture Odo for information.
Here’s where it gets rough. Not only has Garak already shown signs of balking at returning to Obsidian Order-level sadism (Tain wants to kill his kindly housekeeper and Garak goes all, “Maybe sleep on that?”), he knows and we know that Odo has already given up every bit of information he has on the Dominion. Faced with continuing his exile and torturing his friend for absolutely no reason, Garak reluctantly chooses torture. We watch as Odo goes from steely constable to helpless child and as Garak goes from unflappable operative to self-loathing peon. Both of them make it out alive, but each having seen the worst of the other.
7. FOR THE UNIFORM
As captains go, Sisko is one of “Star Trek’s” grouchiest, and “For the Uniform” pushes him damn close to straight villain. This episode finally puts to bed his rivalry with Maquis leader, Michael Eddington. Sisko has major beef with this guy because Eddington was a Maquis agent right under Sisko’s nose. There’s a lot of whining on Sisko’s part about how Eddington betrayed Starfleet and whatnot, but it’s really hard to swallow that this isn’t largely about Benjamin’s wounded pride. That makes the lengths he goes to capture Eddington not a little effed up.
The Maquis have a legitimate reason to fight back — the Federation presided over the redistribution of their homes and they weren’t happy about it. In an effort to flush out Eddington, Sisko unleashes a barrage of biogenic weapons that destroy the atmosphere of a planet inhabited by a bunch of innocent people. The plan works, but Sisko goes way into the dark side and leaves the audience feeling mighty conflicted about the Federation’s stance on the Maquis.
6. WRONGS DARKER THAN DEATH OR NIGHT
In perhaps one of the sickest late-night phone calls in all of “Trek,” Gul Dukat rings Kira the night of her mother’s birthday to tell the Major that he used to bang her mom. Oh, and it’s totally true. Kira uses the Orb of Time to investigate what happened, and discovers that while her mother was initially forced to become a comfort woman, after a while, she really started to enjoy the whole “not starving” thing that came along with being Dukat’s mistress.
Poor Kira. This would be like if your mom had a long-term relationship with your boss who later went on to sexually harass you. It is beyond disgusting that Kira has to live with the fact that a member of her own family was Dukat’s lover, and it’s even more-so when you remember that Dukat actively hit on Kira so, so much. This is all not to mention the fact that Kira finally gets to meet her mother in person, only to have the woman shatter any illusion Kira may have had about her. It’s six years after the Occupation has ended, and Kira Nerys still can’t escape.
5. INTER ARMA ENIM SILENT LEGES
This cerebral episode follows Bashir as he’s tapped by Section 31 to help them undermine the Romulans (now Federation allies) at a joint conference. Bashir attempts to maintain his integrity and resists working for the rogue agency, but the conspiracy, which includes murder, goes much higher than he expects.
If Bashir had any idealism left, he lost it here. Hell, if the audience had any left, we lost it, too. Starfleet is in on this whole thing up to their eyeballs, and Bashir freaks out that his entire society might be entirely full of it. Thing is, they kind of are. The episode gives the audience exactly zero assurances the Federation isn’t a giant sham at the highest levels, but able to operate more freely because their populous is blithely unaware of what’s going on. What we are left with is the certainty that there are people in the Federation like Bashir — people who will at least try to hold the powers that be accountable. The operative word there is “try.” Feel better?
4. IN THE PALE MOONLIGHT
During this episode, a series of flashbacks reveals the desperate lengths Sisko is willing to go to in otrder to ensure the Romulans join the Federation in the Dominion War. Said war is not going well, and Sisko is getting seriously depressed by the casualty reports he posts every week. When Betazed falls to the Jem’Hadar, the elephant in Ops is that everyone better start learning Dominionese right quick because the end, she is nigh. Sisko realizes his only hope is to provoke the Romulans to break their non-aggression pact with the Dominion.
So, he works with Garak to fabricate evidence of a Dominion plot to attack the Empire. But fabricating such evidence is easier said than done. Little by little, Sisko compromises his integrity for the good of the cause until he’s an accessory to murder. The Romulans join the war, but the episode asks, “At what cost?” If the Federation must sacrifice its core principles to survive, is that even survival? We aren’t provided with an easy answer, and Sisko ends the episode questioning whether he’ll ever be able to live with himself. Where TNG never would’ve questioned the ultimate goodness of human nature, here, DS9 does so unflinchingly.
3. ROCKS AND SHOALS
The Defiant crew, lead by Sisko, crash-land on a planet and find themselves bunking with a bunch of Jem’Hadar and their wounded Vorta. In need of a doctor, the Vorta asks to meet with Sisko and Dr. Bashir. During te meeting, the Vorta reveals that there is no more ketracel-white left and soon they’ll all be at the mercy of a bunch of berserker soldiers going through narcotics withdrawal. So, the Vorta… sells out his own team and becomes a POW, telling Sisko when and where to ambush their group.
Things is, the Jem’Hadar know this is the plan and they know it’s shady AF. But they have a code, so when Sisko offers to make them some kind of better deal as opposed to the raw one they’re getting, they refuse. They stick by what they believe in,even though it means they’ll quite literally walk into an ambush. They’re slaughtered to a man, and when it’s all over, the Vorta gingerly steps over their lifeless bodies just thankful he has his own skin. The Jem’Hadar’s enemies appreciate them more than their own leaders.
2. SIEGE OF AR-558
This is DS9’s “war is Hell” episode, and it doesn’t disappoint. Sisko and company, along with Quark, discover the imperiled AR-558 outpost on a supply run. They discover the outpost outgunned and under attack by Jem’Hadar, so the Defiant crew decides to stay and help, despite the risk to themselves.
What makes this episode so resonant and chilling aren’t the soldiers at the end of their ropes or even the outcome of the battle (the odds are not in Starfleet’s favor). It’s the hard look at humanity through the eyes of… Quark. Terrified for his nephew, Nog, who is infatuated with the Starfleet officers and the romance of heroism. Quark tells him that humans have a seriously depraved side when they’re denied their creature comforts. The’s not wrong. Later, when Nog is seriously injured and the crew is wigging out all over the place, Quark takes Sisko to task for the questionable decision of jumping into the siege in the first place. This episode forces the audience to question whether or not the Federation’s high-minded ideals don’t sometimes just straight get people killed.
This was the first episode of DS9 that dealt directly with the horror of the Bajoran Occupation. The atrocities committed by the Cardassians are put under a microscope, as are the lasting repercussions of said atrocities. It’s a brilliant and harrowing hour of television that promised DS9 wouldn’t be like any Trek we’d seen before. Kira questions a supposed Cardassion war criminal — Gul Darheel, the leader of Gallitep, an infamous Bajoran labor camp. Eventually the Cardassian is provoked into admitting his identity, and in doing so, provides graphic details about what happened in the camp. He does so with such glee that you can’t help but be appalled, and frankly, nauseated.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it turns out this is all a ruse. Darheel is not Darheel at all, but instead a file clerk at Gallitep named Amon Marritza. Marritza was so guilt-ridden over his own inability to stop the horror, he had himself surgically altered to look like Darheel in the hopes of posing as the Gul so that someone would admit to and pay for Cardassia’s crimes. “Duet” revealed that the tragedy of the Occupation was more far-reaching than even the Barjorans knew.
As you can see, DS9 knew very little chill (unless you count its chilling themes). What were some of your favorite harrowing moments?
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