The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is the one I remember being my favourite. The characters had settled into their interesting roles. They had their ship. Sisko was captain. Worf joined the crew. Nog goes to Starfleet Academy. The communicators changed shape. After this (in my memory) we start getting bogged down in endless war. While as a teenager I hated the first couple of seasons for being too political and boring, I disliked the latter seasons for being too much about military/mystical battles. Season 4 is the one at the tipping point of awesomeness.
The season’s highlight comes early with The Visitor. The Visitor is my favourite episode of any Star Trek ever, though most of it could be a Twilight Zone episode. Captain Sisko and his son Jake are in the Defiant’s engine room for a freak accident which kills the captain. The story is about how Jake deals with the loss, told from Jake’s perspective as an old man decades later. The key is that Jake’s father isn’t actually dead – he’s trapped in mumbojumboland where time doesn’t pass, and he keeps on reappearing inexplicably for Jake to feel the pain of the loss all over again.
The Star Trekkiness of this episode is basically pure technobabble. There’s an accident that does this weird thing. Jake spends a lifetime trying to figure out how to rescue his father and in the end he does, at the cost of his own life. There are Klingons and Bajorans and starships but the only reason we really need all of those is because they’re the accoutrements of Jake and Ben Sisko’s relationship. We’ve watched three seasons of them being father and son so we know what kind of relationship they have. In the episode itself, Jake says he and his father were close and it doesn’t have to spend scenes depicting that closeness outside the realm of this specific story.
And goddamnit it does a number on the writery part of me. Jake abandons his art and his life to save his father, when the Captain just wanted to see him grow up. It’s sad and hopeful and uses its Star Trekness in exactly the right way.
So yes, The Visitor was great. But this season also has Dax abandoned by another lover she would throw away her traditional life and career for. Worf is on trial for killing a shipload of civilians. Bashir gets to try solving impossible medical puzzles (in both breaking the Jem’Hadar addiction to ketracel white, and saving the people of a planet from a bioweapon plague). That Bashir fails in both of these (though he does get a vaccine up and going for the next generation) shows how the writers are taking things a bit more seriously. Not everything can be wrapped up in a nice little bow in one weekly episode.
But there are the light episodes too. The Ferengi going to Roswell in Little Green Men is fun. The holodeck adventure with Bashir as a Bondian spy is fun (though the reason for it working is ludicrous). Rom forming a union, and Quark standing up to the Ferengi Commerce Association and having everything he owns reposessed are also good episodes.
But the shadows of war episodes are the ones (after The Visitor) I remember most. Homefront and Paradise Lost take us back to Earth and we see the wrongness of security theatre (five years before the TSA turned airports into Orwellian zones). This is the season where Eddington defects to the Maquis and it hurts more than the second season episode where Sisko’s friend defects, because we’d had time to get to know Eddington. Oh, and Dukat becomes a pirate with a Klingon bird of prey. I love that episode.
Watching it all again, I remain convinced that DS9 got better and better to this point. Now we’ll see if my memories of a decline are also accurate.