The 10 best Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes, ranked
The 10 best Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes, ranked
Dylan Roth 20-25 minutes 7/24/2023
For decades, Deep Space Nine was “that other Star Trek show.” It debuted in 1992, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation , the first Trek series to achieve mainstream popularity. DS9 overlapped in first-run syndication with TNG until 1994, and then with Voyager — which ran on primetime network television — from 1995 to 2001. Throughout its seven-year run, Deep Space Nine was never a top priority for studio Paramount or franchise executive producer Rick Berman. While this was a source of frustration for the cast and crew, the studio’s neglect also allowed them to take greater creative risks.
- 10. In Purgatory’s Shadow/By Inferno’s Light (season 5, episodes 14 and 15)
- 9. Bar Association (season 4, episode 16)
- 8. Past Tense I and II (season 2, episodes 11 and 12)
- 7. Trials and Tribble-ations (season 5, episode 6)
- 6. Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast (season 3, episodes 20 and 21)
- 5. Rocks and Shoals (season 6, episode 2)
- 4. Duet (season 1, episode 19)
- 3. The Visitor (season 4, episode 3)
- 2. Far Beyond the Stars (season 6, episode 13)
- 1. In the Pale Moonlight (season 6, episode 19)
Under showrunner Ira Steven Behr, DS9 gleefully subverted the Star Trek formula , pulling open the cracks in the franchise’s futuristic utopia and refusing to be bound by the episodic nature of weekly television. DS9 ’s serialized stories and long character arcs may have made it harder to keep up with when it first aired, but it’s perfect for the modern binge-streaming model, which has introduced it to a whole new generation of fans. Thirty years after its debut, Deep Space Nine is finally receiving the respect it always deserved.
Selecting just ten episodes of DS9 to showcase is a challenge, as many of its most compelling stories are spread out across multiple episodes. Some of the episodes below are totally standalone stories, some are standout chapters in multi-part arcs that can be appreciated on their own, and some are two-parters that we simply couldn’t separate and had to list as a single entry. We hope you don’t mind us bending the rules just a bit — after all, that’s part of what made DS9 great to begin with.
By the middle of season 5, the Federation’s long-simmering conflict with the Gamma Quadrant’s conquering Dominion was nearing its boiling point. In a pair of episodes that mirrors a later entry on our list, shifty Cardassian spy Garak (Andrew Robinson) and surly Klingon warrior Worf (Michael Dorn) embark on a mission that seems inconsequential but turns out to have massive implications on the show’s ongoing narrative. Garak and Worf venture into enemy territory in search of Garak’s missing mentor, only to stumble across a far larger mystery. It’s a top-tier Garak story (and there are no bad ones), but it’s also a shining moment for Worf, who joined the cast of DS9 at the start of season 4 and was continuing to evolve as a character. While Worf had been a fan favorite on The Next Generation , his time on DS9 offered him far greater room for development, and By Inferno’s Light contains what might be his single greatest triumph.
At the same time, this two-parter is a vital turning point for one of Trek’s most interesting characters, dethroned Cardassian despot Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo). Over the course of the series, Dukat’s role oscillates repeatedly between obstacle and ally, depending on what best serves his personal and political ambitions. He’s driven simultaneously by a massive ego and an unquenchable thirst for praise and approval, and his desire to be seen as a righteous man is usually in direct conflict with his actions. In Purgatory’s Shadow is the culmination of years’ worth of development for his character, as the man who presided over the heinous Cardassian occupation of Bajor finally shows us what he’s really made of.
Lest it sound as though this series is all misery and violence, Deep Space Nine frequently offered viewers a respite from the grit and heartbreak in the form of light comedy and hijinks. In fact, until the premieres of Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds , DS9 was far and away the funniest Trek series, thanks to a game cast and an unpretentious writers’ room. While nearly every character gets to participate in the occasional zany misadventure, the center of much of the show’s comedy is the Ferengi, the species who functions as a grotesque parody of modern American greed and misogyny. Within the show’s main Ferengi family resides a dynamic that would be ripe for its own sitcom. There’s Quark (Armin Shimmerman), the amoral businessman who delights in exploiting his workers and hoarding his wealth; Rom (Max Grodenchik), his kind-hearted brother whose weak will and lack of common sense belies an unparalleled technical genius; and Nog (Aaron Eisenberg), Rom’s son, who breaks from tradition to join the ranks of the progressive and egalitarian Starfleet. The relationship between the trio, the Starfleet crew, and lovesick Bajoran bar employee Leeta (Chase Masterson) remains funny year after year.
But, of course, this is Star Trek, so even when it’s silly, it’s in the service of saying something interesting. In Bar Association , the employees of Quark’s Bar, Grill, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade get fed up with their low pay and terrible treatment and do something that is outright forbidden in Ferengi culture: They unionize. Inspired by the words of Karl Marx and the long history of workers’ movements on Earth, Rom risks his job, his family, and his standing with his own culture to win the economic justice that his friends in the Federation take for granted. The episode is light and funny, but it’s also the most explicitly socialist episode of the franchise to date, making it a beloved favorite amongst Trek’s progressive fanbase.
Multiple live-action Star Trek series feature an episode in which our descendants from the utopian future are flung back in time to our present, usually resulting in some fish-out-of-water comedy and light social commentary. DS9 writers Robert Hewlett Wolfe and Ira Steven Behr took a different approach, dropping three of their characters into the audience’s near future for a harrowing drama about economic inequality and the American public’s apathy towards the poor and unhoused. Past Tense, Parts I & II beams Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks), Lt. Dax (Terry Farrell), and Dr, Bashir (Alexander Siddig) to 2024 San Francisco, where the poor are swept off the streets and confined to “sanctuary districts” so that the wealthy don’t have to think about them. When the trio materializes in the past with no money or identification, Sisko and Bashir (who are Black and Middle Eastern) are tossed into the ghetto, while Dax (the pretty white lady) is offered shelter by a rich entrepreneur. Inside the sanctuary district, Sisko realizes that they have arrived on the eve of a historic uprising and that it may be his fate to die there.
Past Tense was a projection of economic disparity 30 years in the writers’ future, but it became prophetic before it was even broadcast. During the filming of the episode, Los Angeles’ Mayor James Riordian proposed a strikingly similar initiative that would relocate the city’s homeless to a camp in an industrial park. The real-life “sanctuary district” never came to pass, but Wolfe and Behr’s depiction of the harsh divide between haves and have-nots in 2024 doesn’t skew too far from reality. But, importantly, Past Tense is not merely a portent of doom, but a call to action. One of the two-parter’s messages is the value of passionate, unruly, even violent activism in an environment where civility only benefits those in power. Asking the disenfranchised to quietly wait their turn for generation after generation doesn’t solve anything, and no one ever built a better future by smiling politely.
Star Trek’s 30th anniversary in 1996 happened to coincide with what could be considered the franchise’s peak in popularity, with two concurrent TV series on the air, the hit Star Trek: First Contact in theaters, and mountains of merchandise on sale. Both Deep Space Nine and Voyager produced special anniversary episodes celebrating Trek’s long history, and while Voyager ’s was the mostly forgettable Flashback , DS9 went all-out with a joyful and ambitious time travel adventure that used technology developed for the movie Forrest Gump to splice the cast into a beloved episode of The Original Series . In Trials and Tribble-ations, Sisko and company are sent back to the 23rd century to keep a disgraced Klingon agent (guest star Charlie Brill) from assassinating Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner, via archival footage). It’s a nostalgia-soaked tribute in which the DS9 crew tries (and fails) to avoid interacting with the TOS crew.
For all that Trek traditionalists criticized this spin-off for breaking from the franchise’s format and challenging its long-held values, Trials and Tribble-ations is proof positive that the cast and crew of DS9 absolutely adored classic Trek. It’s an exercise in pure joy, reflecting the nostalgia of fans without ever feeling cheap or exploitative. (This was decades before every new piece of Trek was expected to contain constant nods and Easter eggs in order to satisfy the demands of die-hards.) It’s no wonder why the episode is such a favorite, not only among DSNiners, but Trekkies who otherwise don’t care for this particular show’s take on Star Trek.
Deep Space Nine benefits greatly from its mixture of serialized and episodic formats. The Next Generation would habitually mix an important two-part episode into the middle of a season, but this would always be telegraphed by the opening title card. Deep Space Nine , on the other hand, used a model closer to that of The X-Files , in which a viewer might not know whether they’re watching a “monster of the week” story or an essential chapter in the ongoing mytharc until 30, even 40 minutes in. Improbable Cause starts out as a murder mystery in which shapeshifting Constable Odo (René Auberjonois) must figure out who tried to murder Cardassian expatriate Garak. This turns out to be an on-ramp to a much larger story with galactic implications, leading directly into The Die is Cast, an essential early chapter in the series-spanning Dominion War storyline. (According to the official Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion , even the decision to make Improbable Cause into a two-parter was a last-second twist, as no one on staff could think of a satisfying way to resolve the plot in forty-eight minutes.)
At the heart of this twisty conspiracy story is a compelling character drama between Odo, a stiff and order-obsessed policeman, and Garak, an unpredictable secret agent whose conscience is frequently out to lunch. Garak makes an excellent foil to nearly any member of DS9 ’s ensemble, but there’s a particular chemistry between Garak and Odo as two diametrically opposed figures who share a common pain — they’re both isolated from their people, the only one of their kind aboard a station that their kin aims to conquer. The drama between them brings out series-best performances in both Auberjonois and Andrew Robinson, and neither character is ever quite the same again.
At the end of season 5, Deep Space Nine launched its most ambitious storyline yet, a seven-part saga that totally disrupted the status quo of the series. During the “Dominion invasion” arc, open war finally breaks out between the Federation and the Dominion, forcing our heroes to surrender Deep Space 9 itself to enemy forces. The station’s crew is divided, with Starfleet officers like Sisko, Dax, and O’Brien (Colm Meaney) fighting on the new, contested border and Bajoran nationals Major Kira (Nana Visitor) and Odo remaining to subvert the Dominion’s occupation of the station. The entire storyline is a series highlight, as each character is pushed to their limit in the effort to restore their home, but the third chapter, Rocks and Shoals , is the episode that stands out the most and is the installment that functions the best as its own, individual work.
Rocks and Shoals begins with Sisko and his Starfleet crew crash-landing on a barren planet, only a few kilometers from where an enemy vessel has, likewise, run aground. Both the Starfleet and Dominion camps know that their fate depends on which of their fleets comes to their rescue, but neither is equipped to send a distress call on their own. Can these opposing armies hold a truce long enough to save all of their lives? How do the Federation’s strict ethics survive the trials of war? The story also offers an inside look at the life of the Jem’Hadar, the Dominion’s genetically-engineered soldiers who are smart enough to know that they’re cannon fodder, but programmed to obey anyway. Meanwhile, on the station, Major Kira comes to grips with her new role as a tool of a fascist regime, and whether she can — or even should — keep the peace with the new Dominion leadership. Rocks and Shoals is about the tragic nature of war, and the sad truth that there is no such thing as a “fair fight” between mortal enemies.
Since Deep Space Nine started airing before the end of The Next Generation , creators Michael Piller and Rick Berman aimed for the new spin-off to have its own unique perspective on the Star Trek universe. Where TNG ’s crew traveled the galaxy in a beautiful starship and encountered a new civilization every week, DS9 ’s would be pinned to a single location, a space station with an ugly history overlooking a planet recovering from a brutal occupation. Characters like Major Kira Nerys, who hail from said planet, cannot warp across the galaxy to escape their baggage. The story of the once-peaceful Bajorans and the cruel, colonizing Cardassians may not be the focus of every episode, but it’s never far away, and each time it’s revisited, our understanding of its horrors gets a little bit deeper.
In the first season episode Duet , former resistance fighter Major Kira comes face to face with a wanted Cardassian war criminal who presided over one of the occupation’s most horrific labor camps. From opposite sides of a detention cell force field, Kira and the Cardassian (played by guest star Harris Yulin) interrogate each other about their actions during the occupation, the lives they’ve taken, the crimes they’ve committed, and the guilt — if any — they hold onto from their experience. How does one justify genocide? How does one justify terrorism? In a “bottle episode” with no new sets or special effects, Duet proves the potential of a Star Trek that goes boldly inward rather than outward.
One of the many traits that distinguishes Captain Benjamin Sisko from his peers in the Star Trek franchise is his role as the adoring single father of a teenage son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Where Kirk, Picard, and Janeway have no room in their lives for family, Sisko makes room, and this is an essential part of his character. Jake may not be central to many episodes or storylines, but he’s always the most important thing in Ben’s life. The Visitor puts that relationship through unimaginable strain when Captain is seemingly killed in an accident, leaving Jake an orphan. However, rather than being allowed to heal from this traumatic loss, Jake discovers that his father has become unstuck in time, reappearing every few years for mere minutes at a time. Ben is forced to miss huge spans of his son’s life, while Jake lets his own time go to waste by obsessing over saving his father.
The Visitor is the most heart-wrenching time travel episode in a franchise well-known for heart-wrenching time travel episodes, boasting one of Avery Brooks’ most compelling performances and a memorable turn by frequent Trek guest star Tony Todd as the adult Jake. Brooks nails the complexity of Ben’s ghost-like state, mortified at the time he’s lost while still treasuring every precious moment he gets with his son, who’s grown visibly older every time they meet. Meanwhile, Tony Todd embodies Jake over the course of decades, and even behind the layers of age makeup, he never stops being a wounded teenager who misses his father. The Visitor was even nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Make-Up Design, which it lost to the Star Trek: Voyager episode Threshold — ironically, one of the worst episodes of that series.
Though Deep Space Nine ’s more serialized structure allowed for greater complexity in its characters, the series also retained the flexibility offered by weekly episodic television. On a given week, DS9 might advance its ongoing narrative, or it might digress into a standalone genre experiment. The greatest of these experiments is Far Beyond the Stars, in which Captain Sisko experiences strange flashbacks to the 1950s, where he lives out the life of science fiction author Benny Russell (also portrayed by Avery Brooks). While Sisko is getting swept away by these glimpses of the past, Russell is transfixed by visions of the future , one in which a Black man can be the hero of an epic space adventure, and he struggles to get his apparent imaginings published at the magazine where he works. Both of them feel as if they’re going mad, but which one of them is real? Which of them is the dreamer, and which is the dream?
While Star Trek has never been shy about the subject of racism, the franchise has usually approached it through the protective veil of science fiction allegory, with alien beings standing in for both the oppressor and the oppressed. In Far Beyond the Stars, the audience does not get to detach themselves from the conflict — this is the story of a Black American facing both passive and violent oppression at the hands of the white establishment. The only distance the episode offers is time — the notion that this sort of thing couldn’t happen in the 1990s or the 2020s — but even that doesn’t hold water. Instead, within the context of a Star Trek episode, the viewer is placed directly into the indignity of being a second-class citizen in the United States, and it hits hard. Avery Brooks’ performance (which he also directed) is so explosive that it dares you to call it hyperbolic, but in the face of constant danger and disrespect, how can any reaction truly be overstated? Far Beyond the Stars is a testament to the power of fiction as an empathy machine, one that allows us to express our experiences and codify our dreams in a way that makes each of us a little more human.
Outside of the streaming era, In the Pale Moonlight might be the most divisive piece of Star Trek canon. Star Trek is, by nature, an aspirational show about human beings who have grown beyond our modern hang-ups and prejudices and been rewarded with lives of excitement and enlightenment. Deep Space Nine puts that utopia in jeopardy and, in so doing, questions whether or not it ever existed in the first place. While this is a prevalent theme throughout the series, the issue comes to a head late in season 6, at the height of the Dominion War. The Federation is losing, and their only chance of survival may be to draw their old rivals, the Romulan Empire, into the conflict. Since the Romulans won’t side against the Dominion without evidence of an impending attack, and no such evidence exists, Sisko enlists Garak to help him to manufacture some.
In the past, when a Starfleet hero was confronted with the choice to either do something unconscionable or die, said hero has chosen oblivion, only for the circumstances of the story to offer them some way out of the dilemma. That’s a fair decision for an individual to make, or even for a Captain to make on behalf of their crew, but what about when an entire civilization is at stake? Can the moral integrity of one person really be measured against billions of lives? In the Pale Moonlight breaks the Star Trek mold by not offering Captain Sisko a way out. There is no third option, no saving throw, no deus ex machina. For once, right and wrong do not align with positive and negative outcomes. It’s an entirely atypical, deeply uncomfortable Star Trek episode, and not coincidentally, one of the franchise’s greatest hours.
All seven seasons of Deep Space Nine are streaming on Paramount+.
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