As we take a look at Star Trek Deep Space Nine's penultimate season, it's clear that this series is better than ever in its sixth year. Of course, it's impossible to point a finger and say "This season is better than last season," because what makes Season 6 so outstanding has its roots firmly anchored in Season 5. After all, Season 5 ended with the Federation abandoning Deep Space Nine to the occupying forces of the Dominion and Cardassia, leaving behind Kira and Odo to try to keep things under control while Starfleet regrouped. As the first episode of Season 6, "A Time to Stand," opens, we see that taking back the station has turned out to be a tougher proposition than anyone expected. The DS9 crew is now on board the Defiant, desperately trying to stave off the Dominion threat... and not succeeding.
I praised earlier seasons of DS9 for adding more and more elements of continuity to its episodes; Season 6 takes a bold step forward and embraces a continuous form of storytelling, with the episodes being chapters in a longer story rather than self-contained stories. The first six episodes ("A Time to Stand," "Rocks and Shoals," "Sons and Daughters," "Behind the Lines," "Favor the Bold," and "The Sacrifice of Angels") are a brilliant example of how effective this is, drawing the maximum drama from the efforts of the Federation to take back DS9 balanced with the struggle of Kira, Odo, and the others on the station to deal with the occupation.
One of the dilemmas of episodic television is creating dramatic tension when the audience knows very well that the main cast is going to make it through the crisis just fine. For us to be on the edge of our seats, there has to be the real chance of failure and disaster. DS9 Season 6 takes this lesson to heart with extremely good results: I don't want to give away any of the plot twists, but I'll just say that quite a few things don't quite turn out the way the characters wanted. This energizes the story with a sense of uncertainty and excitement: we really don't know what's going to happen, and we sure want to find out.
The real test for Season 6 is what happens after the continuous story of the first six episodes concludes: does the show revert to stand-alone "filler" episodes, or does it continue forging ahead with the exciting storyline? I'm pleased to report that the latter is the case. Yes, we do switch back to a format where the individual episodes are more self-contained, but they're also very clearly set in the context of the season's larger story arc. "You Are Cordially Invited" focuses on Dax and Worf's wedding, drawing on the build-up for that story event that's been going on in the preceding episodes. "Statistical Probabilities" seems like it's going to be a "filler" story about Dr. Bashir, but it turns out to be quite closely tied to the Dominion storyline, and it's an excellent episode. Even a humorous episode like "The Magnificent Ferengi" fits clearly into the context of the overall Season 6 story. The majority of the season is mostly made up of these independent episodes that nevertheless contribute to the overall development of the plot. Then, as we move toward the end of the season, the pace picks up and we get episodes like "In the Pale Moonlight," "The Reckoning," and "The Tears of the Prophets" to develop the major story arc even further.
To be sure, not all of the episodes quite fit this profile, and there are some episodes that could just as easily have been shown in an earlier season, like "Resurrection," in which Kira meets an alternate-universe Bareil, or "Far Beyond the Stars," in which Sisko appears to be thrown back in time as a science-fiction writer of the 1930s. However, these are in the minority in an otherwise very cohesive season.
But the continuous story arc is far from the only outstanding element of Season 6. The characters have always been a strong point of DS9, and they've continued to grow and change over the course of the show; the events of Season 6 are even more engaging if you've been following the characters since the beginning of the show.
For instance, as the season opens, Major Kira is left on board DS9 still in the role of Bajoran liaison, but this time for the occupying Dominion and Cardassian forces instead of the Federation. It would be a tough spot for anyone to be in, forced to cooperate with the enemy in order to protect Bajor's neutrality, as the Emissary wanted, but for Kira, it's a lot more than that: as a former Bajoran terrorist, devoted to breaking the Cardassian occupation at any cost, she's the last person we'd expect to see functioning in a role that makes her a collaborator. And we know from past seasons that Kira has been very quick to brand others with the label of "collaborator" and traitor to Bajor, for working with the Cardassians during their occupation of Bajor. Five years aboard Deep Space Nine has evidently changed her; the question is, how much has it changed her, and how far is she willing to bend her ideals?
One thing I've admired about Deep Space Nine is its consistent willingness to venture into the gray areas of a variety of situations. The Dominion has consistently been presented as a threat, but as we see them occupy the station in Season 6, it turns out they're not quite the ravening monsters that everyone on DS9 has been dreading for months. As Quark points out, as occupations go, it's not too bad... and in fact, we can see that he's right. Thanks to several flash-back episodes in earlier seasons of DS9, we know very well what the station was like under the Cardassian occupation, and it was far worse than under the Dominion. What does that mean for the inhabitants of the station? Do they try to pick up their lives and continue as though nothing had happened, making the best of it? Or do they engage in active resistance, even if that resistance prompts harsh retaliations that make the situation worse for everyone?
In fact, I doubt that DS9 would be allowed to be quite so forthright if it were playing now... It's very clear here that "sabotage" and "terrorism" are methods, not ideologies, and we see saboteurs and terrorists on both sides of the conflict. DS9 is honest enough to treat its characters as real people, not cardboard "good guys" or "bad guys." For instance, Kira is a terrorist, not a "freedom fighter," regardless of the fact that we like her, sympathize with her, and are rooting for her to succeed... although it's not always clear that she's in the right. Similarly, even though the Dominion's middlemen, the Vorta, are currently enemies of the Federation, they're given quite a complex presentation, often being shown as quite reasonable people who happen to have different objectives than the Federation; these are not "bad guys" whom we can blindly hate. Taking this approach means that DS9 treats the issues in a meaningful and thoughtful way, rightfully rejecting the idea that there are easy, clear-cut answers to complex real-world conflicts. You know that Star Trek has come a long way when DS9 can (even subtly) raise the question of whether Dominion occupation is really so much worse than Federation assimilation.
From the beginning, DS9 has been both darker and more realistic than either of the previous Star Trek shows. Season 6 takes this even a step further. Deep Space Nine is under enemy occupation... the Federation is at war... the war's not going so well... and we believe it. There's a sense of genuine tension in these episodes, a sense that this is not the pretty "everything will work out by the end of the episode" world. If you think I'm exaggerating about the darker atmosphere, how about a suicide on the promenade? And we're not talking about a sterile zap-self-with-phaser-and-vaporize suicide, either. In the "shocking" category, we also see character death (and no, I'm not going to say who).
That's not to say that Season 6 is all gloom and doom. In fact, it's very clear that the DS9 writers have an excellent grasp of how to successfully incorporate humor into the episodes. "You Are Cordially Invited," for instance, has a light tone and some very funny moments, and "The Magnificent Ferengi" is a full-blown comedy episode that's completely hilarious. As the title suggests, it's a takeoff on The Magnificent Seven, as Quark and Rom mount a rescue mission to save their Moogie from the Dominion... and it's brilliant. Who would have thought that the Ferengi would end up being such great characters? I certainly would never have expected it, but now Quark, Rom, and Nog are some of the best characters on the show. Even the serious episodes have the occasional deftly handled comic moments (particularly the interchanges between O'Brien and Nog).
Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Season 6 is packaged in the same very attractive and sensible packaging as the previous 5 seasons. The seven DVDs are each on a hard plastic "page" which is bound into a tough, flexible plastic "book" that in turn fits into a tough plastic slipcase. It looks nice, it's remarkably slim for the number of DVDs inside, and it's easy to access the DVDs.
Season 6 continues to look as good as it did in the previous season. The image is clean and crisp, with minimal edge enhancement and only a faint hint of grain in darker scenes. The print is free of any flaws or dirt, as we'd expect from a fairly recent show. Colors are clean and bright, looking vibrant and natural, while blacks are appropriately dark and rich. Overall, the show looks great. It's presented in its original television broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
Again, no complaints on the audio front. Viewers have the option of the original Dolby 2.0 track or a remastered Dolby 5.1. The 5.1 track sounds excellent, with an overall clear, full quality. Dialogue is always completely sharp and clear, and is well balanced with music and special effects.
The seventh DVD contains all the special features for the set: five featurettes and some minor supporting material. In terms of running time, it's not that long, but the material is interesting.
Two of the featurettes focus on specific episodes. "Mission Inquiry: Far Beyond the Stars" (9 minutes) takes a look at the episode of that name, and "24th Century Wedding" (11 minutes) at the Klingon wedding that's the central point of "You Are Cordially Invited." Each includes interviews with the principal actors involved as well as the writers.
Two "Crew Dossier" featurettes focus on individual characters. The first one (14 minutes long) takes a look at the character of Julian Bashir, with Alexander Siddig discussing how the character began and took shape over the course of the entire show. The second featurette is a 16-minute look at the character of Quark; Armin Shimmerman reveals that he was responsible for the original comic presentation of the Ferengi (in The Next Generation) and took on the role of Quark with the objective of creating a three-dimensional character with greater depth than the stereotyped Ferengi we'd seen before.
Finally, we get a 9-minute piece called "Sketchbook: John Eaves," in which Eaves shows us various pieces of conceptual art for the episodes in Season 6, with commentary. Wrapping up the special features are a photo gallery and a trailer for the Indiana Jones set. Lastly, if you enjoy playing hunt-the-pixel (I sure don't) you can also watch the ten "hidden files," which are short mini-featurettes that can only be accessed by clicking on selected parts of the space station image in the menu screen, which means they're a real nuisance to watch.
Here's where I put in my obligatory complaint about the special features menu. While the DS9 menus as a whole are very well done, with an easy-to-use interface that's happily free of spoiler images, the special features only appear one at a time as you click through them with the remote. It's really much nicer to see the whole selection at once... menu hunting is not fun.
Believe it or not, I wasn't a Deep Space Nine fan before I started reviewing the series on DVD. I'd seen a few episodes here or there, but never enough to form much of an opinion. From the first season, DS9 has shown itself to be a solid show, one that is willing to strike out into territory that Star Trek has never ventured into... such as genuinely putting the Federation into danger, and even showing some of the cracks in the "we're all happy in the Federation" fašade. Season 6 of DS9 brings together all the show's strengths: its excellent storytelling, here brought together into a cohesive story arc; its well-developed, three-dimensional characters; and its willingness to face up to all the shades of gray involved in tough ethical issues. For fans of DS9, this is a must-buy series, even if it means holding off on some of the earlier seasons for a while. For viewers who haven't had a chance to see the top-notch storytelling of this science-fiction show, then Season 5 and Season 6 are a great reason why you should start watching Deep Space Nine.