One more season of DS9 comes to a close, and by all metrics, this is the best season of DS9 so far. Even when not dealing with the Dominion and Klingon arcs, this season seemed to have real momentum. More than anything, the show really seems to have found its own voice in its stories, rather than falling back on trying to tell a story using TNG's episode model as a guide.
Jake-O... time to visit Garak's shop for some new duds.
The numbers will bear this out, but I think this is the best season of DS9 so far. I think this is for a few reasons. First, this season has, and more importantly, maintains a real energy, almost all the way through. There's a few stumbles, but I don't think there was ever a stretch of yawners that made you wonder if they were dusting off TNG scripts to fill in the back half of the season. The season starts out with a big story with "The Way of the Warrior," and the premier succeeds in both setting a tone for the season that it largely lives up to, but managing to solidly justify the addition of Worf. We're all adults and we know that it was motivated in no small part as a ratings grab, but that's doesn't mean they didn't succeed in making the story work. Worf is actually the perfect choice from the TNG to join. Worf's entire arc is about walking the line between Federation and non-Federation values, so a show about doing the same is a good fit, and even in his first season of episodes, we get see the character grow a little, and that's always fun.
Second, I think the show has really found its voice, as a distinct entity from TNG. Episodes like "Hard Time" really exemplify this. Aside from the time honored trope of putting O'Brien through the wringer, it's really interesting to see Star Trek explore how advanced humanity has become, and on this occasion, came up wanting. "Homefront" and "Paradise Lost" are another highlight of the season in the same vein. We not only get to see the Earth of Roddenberry's vision, we get to see how it responds to pressure. My favorite part of the series overall are the moments when the show really stretches the Star Trek ethos to see if and when it snaps.
Third, far fewer episodes suffer from the extraneous B-plot that derailed many earlier episodes, another sign the show has happily stopped aping TNG's episode format. As I said in a review some weeks back, it just makes less sense that all these people's days would overlap the same way, so the B-plot really has to do more work to not feel tacked on. The real upside is that good A-plots get the space to breathe that they need.
I'll get into more analysis when we look at some episodes and the numbers, but overall, there's a focus and an energy this season and the result is a season that aside from being numerically better, really feels like a unique contribution to Trek cannon.
I am in agreement that an unrelated B-plot need not be a bad thing. Except the majority of them prior to this season were so bad on their own terms, which becomes extra aggravating when, as you say, an A plot is left sputtering and anemic. Excising them definitely allowed for stronger A plots. "The Visitor" and "Homefront/Paradise Lost" were obvious beneficiaries, but episodes like "The Quickening" and "Hard Time" really benefited, too. I think perhaps this is an indication of Ira Steven Behr and Ron Moore taking the reins from Michael Piller, who was an advocate of the B-story structure (referred to affectionately by the staffs of both TNG and DS9 as "Piller Filler"). I think B stories just don't work as well on DS9, because as Kevin said, the cast is so disparate. I also think the show lends itself to deeper investigations of "darker" themes, which takes time.
And that development is really representative of the improvement in season 4 in general - the creative staff seemed to become more confident in letting themes develop, telling "particularly DS9" stories, and breaking the format established by TNG. What was even more impressive about this is that they did it while integrating a TNG cast member in Worf into the show so naturally, without being tempted to just repeat Worf stories from that show.
Another big element of this season's success is a greater reliance on serial storytelling, and development of the Dominion as an omnipresent foe - TNG would have villains as a one off, not in long arcs. DS9 Season 4 doesn't reach the level of serialization that its later seasons do, but it's a marked departure from previous seasons.
Overall, DS9 Season 4 is actually fun. I personally haven't been able to say that about previous seasons. I think the new story focus has really livened things up, and taken some of the pressure off of the characters and their respective actors to sell themselves, which was always going to be a tough task following TNG.
Kevin: I'm going to single out "The Visitor" as both my personal favorite and best of the season. The science fiction is a novel twist on a time travel story, and the emotional gut punch can't be beaten. Tony Todd turns in a performance that should have won him an Emmy.
The "Homefront/Paradise Lost" two-parter is certainly right up there, isn't it? It's an interesting, and eerily prescient look at how a free society responds to a security threats. I liked that both sides of the issue got a fair hearing, and that via the wonderful addition of Brock Peter's Joseph Sisko, the debate was anchored in some really great character stories.
I'll wrap up my list with "Rejoined." The love story at the center of the story is solid and interesting and compelling. These three episodes really typifies something Matt and I have talked about a lot here at Treknobabble, the best stories are the ones the nail both character and science fiction elements. All of them are dramatic and compelling and find a way to use an interesting science fiction angle to tell them.
Matthew: I personally think "Homefront/Paradise Lost" might end up being the highlight of the whole series, not just this season. It's just so exciting, so relevant to our concerns as an audience, and so expansive of the universe. I am most certainly in agreement on "The Visitor" as well.
"Hard Time" recycles a bit of the plot elements of some TNG and VOY plots (see the review for details), but it really goes to interesting places with its depiction of PTSD. It shows how flexible the Trek format can be.
"Little Green Men" should be terrible. Previous DS9 shows in which we go to Earth of the past for no apparent reason really sucked. Well, this one injects some much needed levity into such a serious show, and it does it with characters besides the deadly unfunny Kira and Sisko. It's a showcase for Armin Shimerman. That's really almost all that needs be said right there.
Kevin: "Shattered Mirror" is the low hanging fruit on this tree. The Mirror Universe is just not an interesting place where interesting things happen. Enough said.
"Sons of Mogh" hurts me that it is on this list. I love Kurn. (Hello again, Mr. Todd. You're awesome) The ending is so ridiculous and, for Worf and Bashir, tantamount to character assassination that what could have been a fun and interesting look at the consequences of Worf's actions turns into one of the weaker offerings of the season.
Matthew: "The Muse" is a mess. Blissfully, it is our final Lwaxana episode. I shouldn't have to feel this way about her appearances. But I do. She had her ups and downs in TNG, but her DS9 stint has just been one big low patch. She's simply not a fit for this show. Add to that the thrill of watching someone write in longhand for minutes on end... yeah.
"The Sword of Kahless" is a really aggravating show. "Blood Oath" was just so good, and this one was kind of an unfocused thing that went awry near the end. Absent some sort of mystical or science explanation, Worf simply should not have been so devious and ambitious with regard to the Sword.
I'm not even going to comment on "Shattered Mirror." I'm done talking about DS9's vomitous Mirror Universe shows for a while.
Kevin: This season comes in a mere .05 behind TNG's season 6 and ahead of Seasons 1, 2, and 7, and that sounds about right. It's doesn't have the repeatedly flawless execution of the Golden Age of TNG's 3, 4, and 5, but does net a series high three 10's, a record only exceed by those three seasons of TNG. I'll go on record as saying I think a few of those 5s should be 6s, but overall the charts for both of us show a decided right-ward tilt, certainly compared to previous seasons.
Matthew: I'm sure Voyager will see episode that I think you should have rated higher. Really, for me, it comes down to characters. I love the characters in TNG and Voyager so much, that it turns what otherwise might be twos into threes. I think you feel the same way about DS9, while I don't. I just don't think the creators did a very good job of making sure each character was interesting and relateable in their own right. That's not to say the show and its characters aren't improving with each season, but there are just going to be character spotlight shows that sink or swim based on their particular focus (I'm looking in your direction, "The Muse"...). By the same token, TNG and Voyager often have stronger sci-fi stories to rely on, as well, whereas DS9 can get bogged down in relatively uninteresting political stories ("Accession" springs to mind).
Kevin: Like I said, this is the best season so far because it has energy and focus, and finally manages to find several episodes that give a voice to what I think is DS9's unique point of view and contribution to Star Trek. With a blessedly small number of stumbles, this season fires on all cylinders and makes me eager for Season 5.
Matthew: The stumbles were more slight, and the highlights were more copious. That's pretty much the story of DS9 Season 4. The writers finally nailed the themes and style that really suit this milieu and set of characters, successfully developed an interesting villain and complicated it by reintroducing an old one (the Klingons), and the annoying things that bogged down prior seasons (extraneous B plots, boring and annoying Prophet scenes, recycled TNG ideas) were de-emphasized. I'm resigned to the fact that DS9 is never going to light the fires of my imagination the way TNG did, but at least now I'm excited about what comes next. It took its sweet time, but DS9 has finally arrived.