"To boldly go where no one has gone before" is the Star Trek motto, and in its fifth season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine continues its foray into uncharted dramatic territory. As DS9 Season 5 opens, the reassuring idea of the Federation as an infallible, and indestructible organization is turned upside down: between war with the unseen and vastly superior forces of the Dominion, and the Klingons breaking their alliance and making a naked move to expand the Klingon Empire, Starfleet's resources are stretched very thin indeed.
That vulnerability is in fact the theme behind many of the episodes in Season 5. I've noted before that DS9 has a darker feel than either Next Generation or the original Star Trek, and in Season 5 we definitely see that mood continuing. DS9 is operating under the shadow of war, and it shows. In "Let He Who Is Without Sin", for instance, we have a fairly minor story focusing on character relationships, as Dax and Worf head to Risa for a vacation; however, this story is interwoven with Worf's involvement with a group that is convinced that the Federation has become decadent and vulnerable to attack by its enemies... and in DS9 those enemies are very concretely the Klingons and the Dominion. DS9 is also subtly opening up Star Trek's view of what it's like to be in the Federation; while in earlier shows we see the Federation as a completely stable society, threatened only by outside attack, here we discover that there is dissent within the citizenry of the Federation as well.
The conflicts established in previous seasons continue to develop in Season 5. In "For the Uniform" and later "Blaze of Glory," Season 4's excellent plot thread involving Commander Eddington and the Maqui is reopened. Major developments also occur in the Dominion war, throughout the season: we get "In Purgatory's Shadow" and "By Inferno's Light" toward the middle of the season, and more developments in the season-ending "In the Cards" and "A Call to Arms." In addition to the major plot-moving episodes, many of the "stand-alone" episodes link up in some way with the larger Klingon/Dominion story arc. For instance, "...Nor the Battle to the Strong," in which Dr. Bashir and Jake Sisko give medical aid to a hospital in a war zone, could easily have taken place on "random planet of the week" with an alien race besieged by another alien race... but it happens on a Federation colony under attack by the Klingons. It's a small detail, but one that adds considerably to the flavor of the episode.
The Bajoran situation, which had been pushed somewhat to the back in Season 4, is brought into the story to good effect in episodes like "Things Past," in which Sisko, Odo, Dax, and Garak are mysteriously thrown back in time to a Cardassian-occupied DS9, as well as "Rapture," "The Darkness and the Light," and "Ties of Blood and Water," with that last episode also linking into other plot threads as well.
DS9 may have a fairly dark tone (for Star Trek) overall, but Season 5 also has the famous comic episode "Trials and Tribble-ations." The episode is a computer-graphics marvel, seamlessly inserting the DS9 crew into actual footage from 1967's original-series episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," and on top of that, the episode works very well as a story. It's a complete riot, starting with the incongruity of seeing DS9 characters in "original Star Trek" uniforms (and hairdos... every little details is hilariously correct) thrown into the futuristic retro look of the original series, and continuing with an assortment of very funny incidents throughout the episode. (The scene in which Worf is questioned about the odd-looking "Klingons" of the time is simply priceless.)
Possibly more so than earlier seasons, Season 5 is best appreciated if you know the background of the situation and characters. For instance, some of the early episodes jump right into the developing relationship between Dax and Worf, which makes a lot more sense in the context of their interactions in Season 4. Star Trek has always been a character-focused series, even at its most adventurous, and DS9 is no exception. In addition to Dax and Worf, we also get a reasonable amount of attention paid to the other characters, including Odo and Chief O'Brien. In the latter case, admittedly one of the weaker sub-plots of Season 5 is the continued "soap opera" of Kira carrying O'Brien's baby, but the writers can't really be faulted for that: they did their best to incorporate Nana Visitor's real-life pregnancy with the DS9 storyline. Minor characters like Jake Sisko or Quark's brother Rom are also given their fair share of character advancement, which benefits the series as a whole.
All in all, the storytelling in Season 5 is extremely solid, continuing DS9's great track record over the past several seasons. The larger story arcs involving the Dominion, the Klingon Empire, Cardassia, and Bajor are compelling, and the individual stories that are told in each episode are very well done. Episodes like "The Assignment," in which Chief O'Brien is blackmailed into becoming a saboteur, show off the way that DS9 can do a great job at telling intriguing, engaging stories week in and week out.
The seven-DVD set is packaged in the same style as previous seasons, in an attractive "book" with each disc on a separate page. It's all made of a sturdy, flexible plastic that looks like it will stand up to wear and tear very well, while taking up a very modest amount of shelf space.
Deep Space Nine: Season 5 continues to look very good overall in its DVD transfer, though I didn't find this season to look quite as stunning as Season 4. The image overall tends to be a little softer than I expected, and very occasionally I spotted a digital artifact. However, these are minor issues that aren't even going to be noticed by the majority of viewers; as a whole, the series looks extremely good. The image is spotlessly clean and free of noise or print flaws, the CGI looks great and is seamlessly integrated into the live-action shots, and colors look vibrant and rich. With the darker mood overall of DS9, we do get more use of shadow and often a darker color and lighting palette, and the image handles the contrast very well under these circumstances as well as in more brightly lit scenes.
DS9's choice of a remastered Dolby 5.1 and the original Dolby 2.0 soundtrack will make everyone happy. While the surround isn't all that aggressive, the 5.1 track has a nice fullness to it that's pleasing to the ear. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, and special effects and music are well balanced and clean-sounding. All in all, it's another very solid audio experience.
The main special features are five featurettes; we also get a photo gallery and a preview trailer for Indiana Jones. The featurettes are reasonably interesting. The episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" gets two segments devoted to it, "United Two Legends" and "An Historic Endeavor," for a total of about 32 minutes. An eleven-minute "Crew Dossier" featurette gives us interviews with Colm Meaney, who portrays Chief O'Brien. On the technical side, the seven-minute "Inside DS9 with Michael Okuda" is an interview with the show's scenic art supervisor, while the latest installment of "Michael Westmore's Aliens" focuses on the makeup design challenges of Season 5. It's not a whole lot of special material, but it's reasonably interesting.
DS9 continues with its user-unfriendly menu design for its special features, which is especially irritating given that the rest of the menus for the set are great. You can't see all of the features at once, so if you're looking for a specific featurette you have to hunt for it with the arrow keys. And then there are the "hidden files." There are ten of these mini-featurettes, and they'd be worth watching if you have the patience to play "hunt the pixel" in the menu screen... but given that they're an exercise in frustration more than anything else, they detract rather than add to the overall appeal of the special features.
Deep Space Nine has done an excellent job from the beginning of telling interesting, compelling, and often exciting stories in one of my favorite science fiction universes. DS9: Season 5 is another great installment in the series, with excellent individual episodes as well as exciting overall story arcs concerning the wars with the Klingons and the Dominion. It's not the best season to jump into if you have never seen any DS9 episodes before, as the story builds on developments from earlier seasons, but once you've seen those earlier seasons, you'll definitely want to continue with Season 5. Highly recommended.