With a solid foundation of three successful seasons, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 4 moves forward steadily rather than taking a dramatic leap as it did from Seasons 1 and 2 to Season 3, giving us 26 episodes of highly entertaining and well-crafted science fiction. The writers seem to have appreciated the dramatic depth and potential for good stories in the direction that DS9 has gone in, as well as the merits of having the various episodes in a season more interconnected. In addition to continuing to push forward in the main story arcs, more and more we're seeing a greater willingness in the stories to draw on material introduced in earlier seasons, such as the family life of Quark, Rom, and Nog, the relationship between Sisko and Cassidy Yates, or Worf's ambiguous position between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The result is that the individual episodes fit more into a coherent and evolving whole: while a few of Season 4's episodes could be transplanted into earlier seasons, most are clearly built into the context of Season 4 as a whole. And that's the way it should be.
The season starts off with a bang, with "The Way of the Warrior" introducing both Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) as a member of the cast, and drawing in the Klingon Empire as a new and threatening element in the ongoing story arcs dealing with the Dominion and the Cardassians. This is sure to pique just about any viewer's interest: Star Trek's oldest and most well-developed alien race, the Klingons are always sure to provide a hefty dose of action, intrigue, and conflict. After this double-length episode starts the ball rolling, for quite a while the subsequent episodes don't directly address the main story arcs. However, these seemingly independent episodes have more of a role in the overall story than first meets the eye: in each of them, some new element is added to the back story, whether it's added depth to the Cardassian political and social situation (in "Indiscretion"), an indication of trouble brewing within the Klingon Empire (in "The Sword of Kahless"), or new developments regarding the Dominion (in "Hippocratic Oath").
In addition to contributing to the overall story in some degree, the stand-alone episodes are consistently entertaining; it looks like the writers were relaxing and having some fun with the Star Trek universe by bringing out DS9's versions of time-honored Star Trek tropes. In "Little Green Men," for instance, we get one of Star Trek's perennial favorites, a time-travel episode, but with added twist that the protagonists are the ever-entertaining Ferengi, Quark, Rom, and Nog. Similarly, "Our Man Bashir" is a bit of a homage to the Holodeck episodes of Next Generation. "Starship Down" is very clearly DS9's "submarine episode," and though it's not as successful as it might have been, it's still fun. "Hard Time" shines as one of the most memorable stand-alone episodes of the season, with Chief O'Brien put on center stage once again; like the intriguing "The Visitor," it plays on a theme that was put to good use in Next Generation, but it would be spoiling things if I told you exactly what theme that was.
Toward the middle of the season, we start seeing more episodes that directly advance the most exciting parts of the overall story arc. The paired episodes "Home Front" and "Paradise Lost" face up to the threat of the Dominion's Changeling leaders, "To the Death" brings the Jem'Hadar to the forefront as threats once again, and the season finale, "Broken Link," also focuses on Odo and his Changeling origins. Bajor, which had been the center of attention in Seasons 1 and 2, is no longer in the spotlight, but it's not forgotten, as we see in "Crossfire" and "Accession," both of which deal with the political situation on Bajor.
Most of the cast members have at least one episode focusing on them. Jadzia Dax, who has seemed a likeable but sometimes rather bland character through the first three seasons, seems to be taking on a bit more spark in this season, especially in the Klingon-related episodes like "The Sword of Kahless." As noted earlier, Chief O'Brien gets a great episode to himself in "Hard Time"; late in the season in "Body Parts" we also see some drama with his home life. Worf has a key role in "Way of the Warrior," of course, and also is put on center stage in "The Sons of Mogh" and "Rules of Engagement," while Quark continues to stand out whether he's the focus of the episode (as in "Body Parts") or a supporting player.
DS9: Season 4 appears in the same stylish packaging as the earlier seasons. The seven DVDs are packaged in a "book" with one hard plastic page for each disc. The cover and spine of the "book" are a tough, flexible plastic that will stand up very well to wear and tear. The whole thing fits into a durable, thin plastic slipcase. It's a very compact set, with seven DVDs taking up barely more than a double-wide keepcase.
Paramount has certainly been consistent in its outstanding handling of the Star Trek shows, both Next Generation and now Deep Space Nine, as the DVD release of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 4 continues to impress in the video category. The episodes, which are presented in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1, look superb. Colors are rich and vibrant, and blacks are nicely dark and deep; skin tones are natural; detail is excellent; CGI shots are sharp and clean; and the print is in impeccable condition. The only faults in the transfer are very minor ones: in the darkest scenes, a small hint of noise does appear, and the contrast is a bit too heavy, with dark areas a bit too black. This is a very minor detail, however, in an outstanding transfer.
A remastered Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is provided, along with the original Dolby 2.0. Sound quality is excellent; while the surround isn't very aggressive, the overall sound is clear, crisp, and appealing. Dialogue is always entirely clear and understandable, and it's well balanced with the musical score and the special effects. All in all, DS9 continues to sound great.
Season 4 does offer some interesting special features, but the menu design of the special features menu is still user-unfriendly (as it shows only the title of the currently selected feature, not the others), and Paramount is still missing the boat in presenting a substantial chunk of the bonus material as "hidden files" that are not labeled, and must be hunted for using the arrow keys on the remote.
The visible special features include four decently substantial featurettes. "Charting New Territory" is an 18-minute piece that looks at the new ground broken in Season 4's storylines and characters; "Crew Dossier: Worf" is a 14-minute piece focusing on DS9's newest cast member, with interviews from Michael Dorn; "Michael Westmore's Aliens" takes an 11-minute look at the makeup effects required for Season 4; and "DS9 Sketchbook" is a 10-minute piece that discusses the illustration work done for the show.
Miscellaneous special features also include a photo gallery and a preview trailer for Indiana Jones.
There are ten "hidden files" all told, each one accessed by clicking on a highlighted part of the station. Since they're a nuisance to find, and have no labels to identify them when you select them, these are a hit-or-miss feature with minimal rewatchability. (It was annoying enough to hunt for them once.) That's a shame, since the material tucked away here is reasonably interesting: nine out of the ten files take a look at the making of specific episodes, and one deals with the visual effects of the show. There's about 35 minutes of material spread over the ten files, if you have enough patience to find it. I'd have given the special features a higher rating if this material had been presented normally, but given the fact that the menu design actually acts as a deterrent to watching all features, only two stars are merited.
All told, Season 4 of Deep Space Nine is another solid set of highly entertaining episodes that fans of the series will certainly not want to miss. With the entrance of Worf as a member of the main cast, we also get the appearance of an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Klingon Empire as a major player, along with the continuing threat of the Dominion. The Federation isn't such a safe place to live any more... which makes for great fun for viewers. With the episodes looking and sounding as fantastic as ever, Deep Space Nine – Season 4 is highly recommended.