As it started its 1994-1995 season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine moved from sharing the stage with its predecessor, Star Trek the Next Generation, to being on center stage in the Star Trek universe. In Season 3 we see the series grow and stretch in its new role, taking advantage of the new freedom to develop long-term, dramatic story arcs; this season builds on the already well-established foundation of the show to create an even more interesting and thoroughly entertaining series.
It's interesting to note how Deep Space Nine has been getting progressively darker, both in story and in artistic style. In contrast to the earlier seasons, and especially to the brightly lit Next Generation with its largely pastel color palette, we now see in DS9 a much greater use of shadow and contrast, along with a generally darker palette of colors and a more brooding look to its cinematography. The overall appearance, then, is moodier and darker... which fits in with the trend of the story overall. While it shares the essential optimism of the Star Trek universe in general, DS9's willingness to take on more complicated, potentially darker story arcs means that a lot of interesting story territory is opened up for exploration.
Season 3's episodes very quickly establish that the status quo has changed at DS9. The wormhole, previously seen as a wondrous opening into a whole new quadrant to explore, is now a two-edged sword. On the other side lies the Dominion... and after the concluding events of Season 2 and the opening episodes of Season 3, it's clear that the Dominion is a threat. The Federation is nervous; it doesn't want to face a repeat of the calamitous Borg situation (one of the highlights of the Next Generation episodes). But other problems aren't fading into the background, either: the Cardassians remain a thorn in DS9's side, and the Bajoran situation is far from settled.
One of the interesting things about DS9 is how readily it tackles complex ethical issues, without resorting to black-and-white categorization. Take the issue of terrorism, for instance; I'm willing to bet that it wouldn't get as thoughtful or balanced treatment in a show airing now. "Terrorism" is a method, not an agenda, and in the DS9 universe we have two well-established terrorist groups who are portrayed sympathetically. First we have the Bajoran "freedom fighters" who are referred to as "terrorists" by the Cardassians... as indeed they were. In their efforts to win free of the Cardassian occupation, the Bajorans indeed used terrorism and any other tactics they could get their hands on. In Major Kira (Nana Visitor) we have a character who is starting to gain a sense of perspective on her terrorist/freedom fighter background: on the one hand, she fiercely defends the rightness of her actions and those of the other Bajoran resistance fighters; on the other hand, we see her starting to recognize that the Cardassians are far from the monolithic "evil empire" that made it so easy for her to justify any action against them.
Also in the background we have the Makee, who are also a terrorist group against the Cardassians; Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) himself has mixed feelings about them, respecting their desire to maintain autonomy in the demilitarized zone created by the Federation-Cardassia treaty, but feeling that their actions aren't justified by their ends. Again we see "terrorism" as the muddy ground that it really is: depending on your point of view, is it an acceptable tool to preserve (or obtain) freedom, or is it always inexcusable (even when the alternative is to accept genocide)?
Into this complex situation, in which DS9 has already established its willingness to explore the many shades of gray between black and white, the threat of the Dominion becomes even more interesting. The Federation has been generally portrayed as the "good guys," but this has been bolstered by the fact that they're the ones with the big ships and the high technology. Faced with a superior enemy, will the Federation's ideals stand up to the test? Episodes like the two-part sequence of "Improbable Cause" and "The Die Is Cast" and the concluding episode, "The Adversary," show that DS9 is solidly developing this great story arc, with excellent results.
The individual characters also show interesting development, within the overall direction of the story. In "The Search" and "The Abandoned," the character of Odo (Rene Auberjonois) in particular moves significantly forward, as his quest for his origins that was begun in Season 2 bears fruit... although not what he expected. Major Kira continues to play a substantial role, as the Bajoran situation continues to be a source of conflict even while the Dominion threat takes center stage; episodes like the enjoyable "Second Skin" and later "Shakaar" continue to develop the Bajoran side of the DS9 story. And we can't forget the irrepressible Quark (Armin Shimmerman), always looking to turn a profit, even if it shakes things up a bit in the process.
The 26 episodes in Season 3 are of an impressively high quality overall, with very little unevenness. One major factor in this is that many of the episodes contribute to the overall story arc in some way, but even the more basic "stand-alone" episodes are solid. That's not to say they're all outstanding; "Civil Defense," for instance, is an example of a cookie-cutter episode where there's little real tension (Hmm, will the major characters really get killed? I think not.) Even here, though, some nice touches are included. But the less substantial episodes are far overshadowed by more solid fare; in addition to the major episodes mentioned earlier, we get others like "Life Support" that develop the Bajoran-Cardassian story as well as the characters on DS9, not to mention highly entertaining stand-alone episodes like "The House of Quark." Season 3 shows that DS9 has definitely hit its stride.
Paramount continues to produce the DS9 season sets in very nice packaging. The 26 episodes are spread across seven DVDs, with four episodes on each disc except for the seventh, where the two final episodes share space with the special features. The discs are held in clear, hard plastic "pages" that are bound into a "book" with a tough, flexible plastic cover; the whole thing slides into a flexible plastic cover. The whole set is nicely put together and will be highly resistant to wear and tear.
Deep Space Nine Season 3 continues the excellent video quality shown in the earlier seasons. Colors are strong and natural-looking, edge enhancement is entirely absent as far as I can tell, contrast is handled well, and the image is clean and free of both noise and print flaws. The image is certainly far superior to anything you'd see on its television run, and all in all, is an example of a television show handled well for its DVD transfer. Watching these episodes is a pleasure.
The first two episodes are oddly slightly lower in image quality than the remainder of the set: contrast seems off, with the image looking darker and less detailed than it should at times, and there's some grain apparent in the image. Fortunately, this clears up immediately with the third episode, and the image quality remains high after that.
All the episodes are presented in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
Deep Space Nine features a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack as its default audio selection. The sound overall is very good, with a clean, natural feel to it for both dialogue and sound effects as well as music. The surround channels aren't put to as much use as they could be, but the remastered track does provide a more immersive, well-distributed sound environment than the 2.0 track. Purists (and those without 5.1 capability on their systems) will be pleased to know that the original Dolby 2.0 track is also included, however. English subtitles are also available.
Five short, mildly interesting featurettes are included here, featuring conversations with the actors, writers, and other members of the crew.. "The Birth of the Dominion and Beyond" is an eleven-minute piece on the ideas behind the dominant villains in Season 3. "Michael Westmore's Aliens" is a twelve-minute continuation of the featurettes seen in earlier seasons, with the makeup artist commenting on the challenges faced in creating the specific alien designs in Season 3. "Crew Dossier: Odo" is an eleven-minute set of interviews with Rene Auberjonois and others, discussing the casting and development of the character. Finally, two short featurettes focus on the creation of specific episodes: "Time Travel Files" offers six minutes on "Past Tense," and "Sailing Through the Stars" spends five minutes on "Explorers."
One thing I'm very pleased with is the menu design for Deep Space Nine. The episode selection screens are very easy to navigate, and there are no spoiler images anywhere in the menus. Very nice...
... that is, except for the special features menu. Come on, Paramount, what's with "hide the special features from the viewer" game? Rather than displaying all the featurettes at once, as a normal menu does, the DS9 menu only displays one featurette title at a time. Sure, if you watch them in order all in the same sitting, it does automatically select the next featurette for you... but if you are interested in watching one specific featurette, you have to hunt through two separate sets of hidden menu items to find what you want.
And that's not even getting into the "hidden files." I gritted my teeth and tried to make the best of it in the last DS9 set, but honestly, it's gotten to be a bit much. These "hidden files" are short mini-featurettes, usually around two minutes long and featuring short interview clips with cast and crew; what's frustrating is that in order to see them, you have to hunt around with the arrow buttons to find little hidden spots on the outline of the space station in the menu. These aren't labeled even when you find them, so good luck ever finding a specific one again once you've seen them.
Let's face it: special features are fun to watch, but wasting time and frustration on just trying to find the special features in the first place is decidedly not fun. The annoying menu design makes it much more likely for some viewers to skip the special features entirely, and definitely cuts down on the likelihood that I'll ever watch them again, so at this point it warrants reducing the "extras" score to reflect this.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has definitely been growing on me, and it has been very enjoyable to see its development as a solid series in its own right. Season 3 takes a step forward from the already strong basis of Season 1 and Season 2, developing a darker, grittier feel and exploring more daring storylines. Paramount has also continued to offer high production values with the video, audio, and packaging of this set, though the special features are nothing to write home about. I'll confidently give DS9 Season 3 a "highly recommended" rating.