After eight solid serialized episodes (reviews here and here), this is it: the two-part Grand Finale of the Final Chapter, of the Dominion War and of the series as a whole! Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 7 (1998-1999) comes to an end. After a review of the finale, I look back at the journey of the entire series.
7×25/26: What You Leave Behind: “You may win this war, commander, but I promise you, when it is over, you will have lost so many ships, so many lives, that your ‘victory’ will taste as bitter as defeat.”
The previous episodes have done so much plot work that it’s impossible to separate this finale from the eight previous parts: the whole Final Chapter is the finale, and this final episode is just its final hour. Many plot events here were predictable from what came before, so the episode is rather low on surprises — which is not necessarily or only a bad thing: plot setup that pays off is a coherent plot.
We are here to see the end of the Dominion War, and this is what we get. Already from previous episodes it seemed like the tide of the war was turning and here things indeed accelerate towards the Dominion’s defeat. The Dominion is caught between a bold attack by the Alliance and a Cardassian insurrection. The space battle shots are Star Trek‘s busiest shots by a long margin, ships everywhere, shots fired all over the place, at times hard to tell which side is which — this is the most like Star Wars that Trek ever was! Sustaining huge losses, especially for Romulans, the Alliance breaks through the Dominion’s defences, the Dominion retreats and a second huge battle happens in the orbit of Cardassia. The decisive moment happens when, in order to contain the Cardassian insurrection, the Dominion has Cardassians executed and the whole of the Cardassian fleet turns against the Dominion in the middle of the battle. Victory comes at a great cost for the Alliance, but an even bigger one for the Cardassians, as the Founder launches an all-out genocide as a form of revenge before finally capitulating.
Damar‘s Cardassian rebellion is thus instrumental for the final win, and seeing the oppressed Cardassians crying “for Cardassia!” while storming their occupiers’ strongholds is truly very emotional. But tragically it comes at the cost of Damar’s life — perhaps the only really surprising death of the finale! Damar will not live to lead a post-War Cardassia. My mind immediately went to Garak, although he is too much a presence in the shadows to be a leader. Garak has waited in exile for so many years to return to his home planet, and now that he has the nostalgia is very bitter. The last we see of him is him lamenting the death of Cardassia, desperate that the war has cost so much. At least Garak killed the last Weyoun.
In a great scene, Sisko, Admiral Ross and Martok walk over the ruins and although Martok is in a typically Klingon celebratory mood, Sisko and Ross are aware that this victory is very sour. Cardassia has paid the price of collaborating with the enemy and switching sides, they will barely manage to rebuild themselves from the ashes, much less rise to their previous glory, and we leave Cardassia without a clear picture of what will happen next or who will lead. A tragic and befitting end, a mix of post-Second World War Germany and Poland.
The capitulation of the Dominion comes only after Odo beams down to Cardassia and links with the Female Changeling there: once he does, the previously stubborn Founder changes her mind instantly, surrendering herself to stand trial before the Alliance. It’s too quick and easy — but I understand that by linking they shared information in a direct and frank way that we solids cannot understand (how awesome would it have been if they had tried to show us what linking looks like from the point of view of Odo!). It also brings to the focus something that has been bothering me for a good two seasons but that I never talked about: that the entire War has been against a single Founder “trapped” in the Alpha Quadrant along with Jem’Hadar & Vorta cloning capabilities, but otherwise entirely cut off from any reinforcements and from the bulk of the Dominion forces in the Gamma Quadrant! Seen like this, the control of the wormhole was even more strategic than what the series ended up doing with it. The Dominion this side of the wormhole capitulates and the Alliance agrees not to invade the Gamma Quadrant, but there’s nothing to prevent the Dominion to invade with its powerful forces from the Gamma Quadrant! We haven’t been in the Gamma Quadrant for a long while and for all we know the Dominion is still very strong there. However, the Changelings have been weakened by their virus and Odo’s return to the Great Link acts as a sort of regime change towards a less belligerent stance.
The story could have stopped there! Everybody gathers at Vic‘s lounge to celebrate in a quite long scene, and the camera lingers over every face as if it were the last we were going to see of them. But here, the odd structure of this finale comes back to bite it, in a way that feels much more tacked on than the scouring of the Shire at the end of the The Lord of the Rings (which at least was very meaningful thematically). The Pah’wraith/Dukat revenge storyline returns with force, with Sisko leaving Vic’s, boarding a runabout and arriving at the Bajoran fire caves all in the space of ten seconds — a very sudden mood change! We switch from pure scifi and politics to pure fantasy: ancient books, incantations, drinking from chalices, magic fire spirits, everything is there. Dukat and Winn awaken the Pah’wraith, Sisko arrives to stop them, Winn is consumed by the fire, Sisko and Dukat fist-fight and fall over the cliff to their death (very strong Lord of the Rings Mount Doom vibes here, mirroring Gollum and Frodo), Sisko is “saved” by the Prophets while falling. The Prophets still have mysterious tasks for Sisko to accomplish, in the future or in the past, but he is not to return to his present any time soon…but why would such powerful beings need him? Let’s just say that I didn’t like any of this. Not this end, and in retrospect not the entire Emissary/Prophets storyline altogether. A lot of fantasy tropes, a Manichean good vs evil battle, constant teases of Sisko’s significance for ultimately just being put there to push somebody over a cliff. Because of this storyline, characters like Dukat lost their complexity, and so did the depiction of Bajoran religion. The series would have been better off without this, keeping the Bajoran religion as it was in the earlier seasons and stop using Dukat after his arc was complete (end of the six-episode arc in season 6).
After this, we get the true ending of the series, with a series of montages showing us the past of each character and their destiny after these seven years. Appropriately, it’s very bittersweet, and very sentimental even for this hard-to-satisfy fan! Julian and Ezri are a happy couple together, finally Julian gets in a stable relationship. (No images at all of pre-Ezri Dax in these flashbacks, I guess Terry Farrell didn’t give her permission?) The O’Briens leave for Earth and Miles is separated from Julian. Worf becomes Federation ambassador to the Klingon Empire, close to Martok (similar to his future in the TNG finale 7×25/26: All Good Things). Nog is promoted to Lieutenant. Quark is Quark, the only thing that stays the same. Odo leaves Kira in a very emotionally charged scene to cure his people and remain with them for an undetermined amount of time, presumably bringing about change in the Changelings’ perception f the world (thus fulfilling his namesake’s revolution, the Odo from Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed?). Kira is in charge of the Station. Kasidy is pregnant, alone. Jake looks out the Station windows, hoping to see his father return at some point in the future (interestingly, directly echoing the future that never came to pass from 4×03: The Visitor!), and we pull out.
The tragedy and hopes of the individual and of the society. These past seven years have resulted in a terrible war but also in changes that will make the Quadrant into a better place, and life goes on. It’s a great ending to an ambitious series, although with some elements I didn’t like.
Seven seasons (of however many episodes per season) should be an upper limit for how long a series should run; there have been well handled series with less, but hardly ever with more. Seven is a good number, which allows for enough growth, experimentation, plot points and conclusions. DS9 had the wisdom not to last more than than.
However, DS9 did have two distinct periods: one where it was about different races learning to live together in the mutual respect of their differences (approximately the first two seasons); and one where it was about how a utopian society is tested in the face of war by external forces (approximately from the second season finale, when Ira Stephen Behr takes over as showrunner). The finale is definitely a finale to the second half, focused on the Dominion War (and the Pah’wraith…); I do feel that some of the earlier storylines were abandoned over time (the Maquis, the politics/religion interaction on Bajor, and more generally the reason why a Starfleet Captain was there, to judge how Bajor progressed or not as a potential member of the Federation). But even as the main plot focused more on the War, DS9 remained the most diverse Trek series around (and I’m not just talking about the Black Captain): there were many storylines and scenes that involved exclusively alien characters, no Humans involved at all (like Kira’s last mission on Cardassia), which is not surprising until you start comparing with how much TNG was Human-focused.
After I watched (a best of) TNG, I wanted to watch DS9 because I was attracted by its reputation for experimenting with long-form storytelling. The hybrid stand-alone/continuing episode format worked really well for the series. It allowed continuous world-building over several stories that develop in parallel (an episode focused on each character, or each culture…), while still offering mostly self-contained and very varied stories — and so not suffering from over-determination, like the tightly focused fully serialized series of today. It is a mix that was quite new in television in the 1990s, a format shared by The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and of course Babylon 5. With its mix of light-heartedness and serious matters, DS9 served as a predecessor for series that followed, from Stargate SG-1 (similar to DS9, mix of light-hearted and simple drama more geared towards a younger audience) to Battlestar Galactica (more mature and geared towards adults). Many times over I saw seeds of what Ron Moore would do in his BSG a few years later, from general concepts (like in opposition to Star Trek let’s try something without these dated humanoid aliens) down to some specific plot details (like the alien race genocide, the enemy that has cloning facilities, the inner workings of military duty).
In the big B5/DS9 comparison, I have trouble calling clear winners (also because I saw B5 well over a decade ago). The common points between the two really are too many to ignore, not just in the initial setting (meeting point space station with wormhole) but also in the development (without getting too spoilery: pact with the enemy of a race that wants to restore its former glory, Earth falling prey to authoritarianism, shady dealings of a branch of government, mystical fate for a lead character…). B5‘s run is entirely contained within the run of DS9: the two essentially started together in early 1993, B5 ran over five seasons and aired its finale during DS9 season 7. In terms of main plot development, thematic focus and coherence, I think it s very tough to beat B5 and only more recent series have managed to reach its level of meticulous planning and execution (The Expanse, for instance, benefits from being based on previously published books). By comparison, DS9‘s main plot was mostly in the background and often resurfaced for big “event” two-parter episodes; writers seemed to plan character growth and macro plot a half-season ahead, at most. When DS9‘s writers inserted hints at forthcoming developments less than ten episodes away (e.g. Sisko’s visions of Dominion ships crossing the wormhole), B5 was answering its mysteries sometimes three or four or five seasons after introducing them; when DS9‘s writers fought with the studio to give them permission to do their ground-breaking six-episode arc in early season 6, B5 was some 40 episodes deep into its continuous big plot (written by a single individual)! But it’s not just a matter of “who got there first” — when it was engaging, DS9‘s main story was really excellent and stands with the most riveting Star Trek out there.
Much of DS9 was improvisation and building on top of previously established episodes. There were certainly some weird choices (Kira carrying Miles’ child…) or choices that didn’t really go anywhere (the whole Emissary plot). But even things that at the beginning I didn’t think would work or that appeared too bizarre ended up working for the series’ benefit: the not convincing Odo-Kira relationship gave us the tension of the final episodes; Bashir being genetically enhanced gave us the Section 31 episodes; the Worf-Jadzia cringiness gave us Change of Heart… Throwing stuff on the screen and see what sticks: it’s not necessarily bad (after all, The X-Files proceeded in the same way and turned out great…until it didn’t). But this experimental form of storytelling has all but disappeared today.
DS9 really stands out for its characters and world-building. Many characters grew a lot (Bashir, Kira), some mostly stayed the same but we got to know them much better (Miles, Quark). So many secondary characters became as endearing and interesting as its main cast — Nog, Rom, Garak, Dukat, Damar, Martok, Kasidy Yates… We know so many details of the Star Trek universe, it’s as if we have lived there, definitely a much stronger feeling than after having watched TNG: we know that Bajor’s day lasts 26 hours, we know that 2309 is the best vintage for Klingon bloodwine, we can quote some Rules of Acquisition, we can order raktajinos or kanar or many other drinks… DS9 took a not very well-defined world from TOS/TNG and fleshed it out fully.
Now, does it stand the test of time and would I recommend it to a 2020 audience? It’s actually a tough question, it’s not for everyone! Don’t get me wrong, I liked DS9 quite a lot (I wrote so much text about it!). But it is dated, and I’m not just talking about the special effects. Although there are some absolute classics in the early seasons (Duet, Past Tense), the picture quality and film-making craft overall gets better around season 4. The directing is quite basic, you can tell it’s TV in the 1990s. Its gender politics are definitely of the 90s (despite efforts to have “strong” female leads), and there are many references to 1940s-50s-60s films, as a result of the 1990s writers growing up with them when they were young. As with any series with so many episodes per season there were many so-so episodes, but even in bad episodes there was some parts that were good. The structure of DS9 was such that it worked by accumulation, getting to know the world and the characters through everyday problems, so it’s difficult to select a best of like for TNG: if you see it, see all of it. It is a big engagement, but the payoff is a feeling that is quite unique!
What has not aged is the heart of DS9 rather than the plot details: the warm humanism, the care for characters that are not perfect, the conviction that we can work it out. All the elements that make it Star Trek instead of any other space-based futuristic science fiction — and actually elements that more modern shows should embrace more often instead of being too dystopic or grim.
Together with TNG, we have accompanied this universe over some twelve continuous years of tumultuous history of the Alpha Quadrant: as part of a franchise, DS9 is bigger than just itself. TNG and DS9 are very complementary. Space anomalies vs world-building; self-contained episodes vs evolving storyline; plot vs character; perfect human idols vs crew of buddies; politics vs politics. Although I haven’t watched the rest of Trek, I get the impression that the two are the best Trek has to offer. All in all, I am really glad I took this journey, from TNG to DS9, two truly historic series!
Now, I’ll let things rest a bit in my mind and watch the documentary What We Left Behind!