Pew, pew, pew!
This seasons marks a few important milestones for the series. First, it introduced truly serialized storytelling to the series, and it explores an ongoing war, a story that TOS and TNG were unable to explore. How successful was the effort? Let's discuss...
This season is definitely the best so far, and I'm going to say that before I look at the numbers. I know we rated the individual components of the opening six-part arc as average individually, together, they certainly combine to make some really interesting, and at the time, fairly unique television. I can only think of the X-Files as the only other science fiction show telling serialized stories at the time. The was years before Battlestar Galactica and binge watching, so I think the show deserves some credit for taking some real risks.
Also, the war idea itself is one I think they mined fairly well overall. The opening scene of the limping Federation fleet instantly tells the viewers this not merely a skirmish. It's been discussed at length that Roddenberry would not sign off on a long term war story, but I have to say I'm glad they did it here. It gives the show an opportunity to do what I think it does best, put the Star Trek philosophy through the wringer to see how it holds up to stress.
And sure, there were some missteps which we'll get to, but overall, this is a great season to watch and one I point to in my enduring love of this show.
Personally, I think the Dominion War was not mined effectively. There were so many stories that could have been told, and not just war stories. How does the war affect the ethos of the culture? Betazed was conquered for crying out loud. Betazed! Could we not have seen stories of refugees? Partisans? Quisling conspirators? Political fracturing?
So, to my mind, while the principal Dominion episodes are enjoyable and interesting, and represent some of the best and most ambitious Trek storytelling to date, everything else comes off as distracting at best, boring and irritating at worst.
Some of the broader themes developed in this season include the relationships between Worf/Dax and Kira/Odo, the introduction of Vic Fontaine, the moral grayness required of various characters by the war, the return of Gul Dukat, the introduction of the Pah Wraiths, and the evolution of the Emissary's role and expectations by the Prophets. Now, the Dukat, Pah Wraith, and Emissary stuff will bear fruit in the final season. The things that are more fully developed in this season are the relationships and the moral cognitive dissonance that the war demands of our characters. The relationships... were not good. Not really at all. Worf has not really recovered from his character assassination in the previous seasons, and comes off like a jerk. Kira and Odo simply have no chemistry, whether as characters or as actors.
As far as delving into the darker sides of the Trek universe, this season mostly succeeds. Whereas TNG only rarely (but not never) put its characters into difficult moral quandaries with the potential to sully their "goodness," DS9 tackles issues as diverse as murder, prostitution, strategic losses and collateral damage. All in all, it's bracing and refreshing - when they stick to it.
Kevin: I think the best episode of the season, and maybe the best the show has done period is "In the Pale Moonlight." The episode builds its drama incredibly well and does a great job of nudging Sisko closer and closer to acts he would have thought himself incapable of even days before. Top it off with a bravura performance from Andrew Robinson, and you really get a great episode. By the same token, "Waltz" remains a high scorer and a personal favorite. I think in almost any context, "Marc Alaimo in a one act descent to madness" has to be a good time.
I like "Far Beyond the Stars" a lot, too. The narrative arcs aren't the most explicit, but between its visceral depiction of racism and it's love letter to the science fiction writers of the fifties, I am left with an episode that was at a minimum super interesting to watch and thought provoking.
Lastly, I know we only gave it a 7, but I really liked "Rocks and Shoals" and think of it as probably the best single episode in the war arc-opener. It just has a real sense of tension and energy combined with a killer use of outdoor sets, and it manages with a light hand to discuss similar themes as Moonlight, what actions become justified in wartime.
Matthew: One of the very best things about "In the Pale Moonlight" is the way it dramatizes the morally repugnant decisions that war thrusts upon otherwise good people. Throw in some crackerjack character writing, and you have an unadulterated winner.
I adore "Statistical Probabilities." It's such a paean to nerds - referencing Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and giving us an interesting science fictional dilemma - is the reduction of suffering worth letting an empire fall?
Kevin: "Profit and Lace" is definitely the nadir of...well, everything. It trades on lazy gender stereotypes, makes sexual harassment a running gag, and ultimately is just not funny, in any way. At all.
"Honor Among Thieves" was just a snoozer. It makes no sense that O'Brien would be tapped for this mission and the claustrophobic, murky brown setting just reinforces the haze that kind sits on this episode.
Matthew: As a parent, I want to single out "Time's Orphan" for my ire. The actions and decisions of the O'Briens are so frankly unbelievable that they derail the episode entirely. What should have been an interesting sci-fi dilemma ends of being an exercise in yelling at the screen. Only some decent acting saved this from a 1.
"His Way" also irritates the bejeezus out of me. It brings the horrendous Kira-Odo romance into its full, awful glory, and it does so in a way that both disrespects Kira as a person, as well as calls into question various aspects of holodeck and computer AI logic.
Kevin: Now, the numbers here actually fascinate me, because like I said at the top, I think back on this as a better season than 4 or 5 which both scored higher. We talked about how the war arc was more than the sum of its parts, and maybe that explains it. We agreed, if memory serves, that the opening six episodes collectively would get an 8 if they were a single opus, but only one individual episode scored that high. Doing some very nerdy math, if each of those episode had score an 8, the average would jump to 6.5. I'm certainly not suggesting "Sons and Daughters" merited an 8, but still, I think more so than any other season, the numbers don't tell the complete story. I get Matt's critique of the individual components, but placed in their larger arc, one they were part of by design, I feel comfortable thinking of this season as stronger than its average would indicate. I'm now curious how Season 7's finale will look both individually and collectively in our analysis.
Matthew: I was wondering if I was being a curmudgeon, statistically, and bringing down a great season unjustifiably. But my ratings are not all that far off of yours. There is, of course, the malign influence of stinkers like "Profit and Lace," "Time's Orphan," and the like on the overall numbers. And I think that tells the story of the numbers overall - when the season focused on the Dominion, stories tended to be average or greater. When the focus strayed to filler episodes, ratings tended towards mediocrity or worse. Starting with "Honor Among Thieves," things get really inconsistent. The first 14 episodes average 6.57. The last 12 average 5.58.
Kevin: I remember being, and remain excited by this season. I was thrilled with the ways they were pushing the story in the opening, and "In the Pale Moonlight" remains one of my favorite hours of television. I think it safe to say that whenever they abandoned the war story, the show faltered this season, but still, I can't help but enjoy coming back to this one.
Matthew: The good parts of this season were really good. The mediocre parts were crushingly mediocre. It's really something that's plagued DS9 from the beginning - it doesn't know whether it wants to be a continuing epic or a series of one-offs. In the past, the one-off episodes received a fair amount of attention. Now, it seems like the creative energies are going to the epic installments, to the detriment of the self contained stories. Anyway, the Dominion War is a cool story line that would have benefited from even more sustained focus.