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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 1

It's 1992. Star Trek: The Next Generation is in its sixth season. The ratings are fine, but it's been a long run and the show's production team can see the photonic discharge at the end of the tunnel. However, Paramount's big kahuna Brandon Tartikoff has already approached Trek's executive producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller about a new addition to the franchise family. Almost thirty years before, Gene Roddenberry sold the original Kirk&Spock series to NBC by pitching it as "Wagon Train to the stars" (westerns being the thing in mid-sixties TV). Next Generation had carried on that tradition with its own starship Enterprise venturing to new life and new civilizations. But the novelty had worn off the "boldly going" angle. Therefore this new series was to showcase an interstellar Gunsmoke — a rough-and-tumble frontier town troubled by hostile natives and ne'er-do-wells, with a stout lawman keeping the peace as best he can in a place where even the local saloon keeper keeps his six-shooter (or phaser) under the bar. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, its Dodge City an eponymous alien space station far from the Federation cavalry, premiered in January '93.

So up through Next Gen's seventh season, two Star Trek series existed side by side. To avoid redundant "same old same old," Deep Space Nine gave the familiar 24th century universe what it needed most — a setting less drycleaned than the Enterprise, some fresh texture added to Trekdom's weekly dramas, and (most crucially) characters who were rougher around the edges, more three-dimensional, and who weren't stuck in the creative straitjackets that had stunted Next Gen's growth throughout its tenure. By the time it reached its own Seasons Three through Seven, Deep Space Nine had become the best written, best acted, most sophisticated and compelling Star Trek of them all. Perhaps it was because the writers seemed to be taking notes while watching Babylon 5, but there were times when Deep Space Nine was so good that it hardly looked like Star Trek at all.

However, it took a while to reach that level. Like its predecessor, DS9 didn't spread its wings until its third season. Nonetheless, right from the get-go it delivered a Year One that stood head and shoulders (that's one ridged, funny-colored head, mind you) above TNG's abysmal first season. Its stories were more character-driven and set within a well-crafted political-cultural background, its new look was a welcome change, and the cast was uniformly strong, perhaps the strongest of any Trek series then or since. Among Season One's 19 episodes, there are few wow! entries — the effortless Murder Mystery or Alien Criminal of the Week slot-fillers flatten the baseline — though several do stand tall and none are outright embarrassing.

Kicking things off to a robust start is the 90-minute pilot, "The Emissary," which introduces Starfleet Commander Benjamin Sisko (marvelous Avery Brooks) plus his sometimes grudging staff and associates. Odo (played by Broadway stalwart Rene Auberjonois) is the gelatinous shape-shifting "constable." At Sisko's right hand is Major Kira (Nana Visitor), an ex-freedom-fighter from Bajor, the nearby world devastated under the military occupation by the series' initial baddies, the Cardassians. Also on board are ex-Next Gen crewman Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney), Science Officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), young gung-ho horn-dog Dr. Julian Bashir (Siddig El Fadil), and scheming Ferengi bartender Quark (Armin Shimerman). "The Emissary" does a fine job revving up the series' engine and establishing its centerpiece in a mysterious, alien-made "wormhole" — a unique hyperdimensional subway tunnel from one side of the galaxy to another — that makes space station Deep Space Nine a flashpoint of interstellar travel, commerce, and of course conflict.

The main characters each receive focused episodes to flesh themselves out, and these are among the best. "Dax" is a taut police procedural exploring the multi-lived nature of Sisko's "old man" mentor who's now his sexy female science officer. In "Vortex," Odo encounters a fugitive who may hold the key to his unknown past and people. The Kira-centric "Duet" is an all-time high point. Not only is it a top-flight script that touches on blind nationalism, prejudice, wartime brutality, and obsessive revenge, it's also a potent character turn (refreshingly, events in DS9 matter later on) and is heightened by guest star Harris Yulin's tour de force performance.

One of DS9's strengths was its acknowledgement that even in this technofuture people can possess important spiritual and (not necessarily synonymous) religious beliefs. That artery is placed at the heart of the show right from the beginning, and the season capper, "In the Hands of the Prophets," takes a powerful look at religious fundamentalism in an age of scientific progress.

In between are episodes offering up the expected stinkers (fairy tales come alive in "If Wishes Were Horses"), the obligatory crossovers (Next Gen faves Q and Vash return in "Q-Less," as does, ugh, Lwaxana Troi in "The Forsaken"), some worthy comedy ("The Nagus"), and the typical plain-Jane eps that go well enough with a bowl of chips and a liter of Diet Coke.

*          *          *

Paramount's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 1 DVD boxed set presents all 19 episodes on five discs plus a sixth disc devoted to extras, all totaling more than 15 hours. The episodes look very good, matching the quality of the later Next Gen discs. The full-frame imagery is clean and vibrant. Audio options are the original stereo DD 2.0 and a new DD 5.1 mix. The 5.1 isn't showy, but it's effective especially when the musical scores spread out around us.

Unfortunately, as with the Next Gen sets, there's still no printed episode guide, so our annoyance is underscored by the thought that it's a ploy to make us go to the official franchise promo site, www.startrek.com, for that seemingly obvious include.

The extras are good, if unsurprisingly no deeper than fanzine material, and are made up of new and archived video material. Deep Space Nine: A Bold Beginning (18 minutes) serves up the production staff's first-hand accounts of the show's conception, gestation, and birth. In Crew Dossier: Kira Nerys (15 mins.), actor's actor Nana Visitor considers her character's development over the seven seasons, including the impact of playing Kira's "evil universe" self and her experiences as a pregnant woman whose condition was cleverly woven into the show. Michael Westmore's Aliens (10 mins.) looks at the makeup work that populated the station with assorted imaginative facial appliances. Senior illustrator Rick Sternbach hosts The Deep Space Nine Sketchbook (5 mins.), a video gallery of production design concept art.

A stills gallery holds 40 images. Two throwaway quickies are Secrets of Quark's Bar (5 mins.), which points a camera at candle holders and other found objects that became galactic Fiestaware, and Alien Artifacts's three minutes with a propmaster who'd rather be elsewhere. Be forewarned that the two Features menu screens deliberately hide their contents, forcing an irksome click-hunt for each title. Ten brief cast video interviews are barely Easter Egg'd as "Section 31: Hidden Files" (thanks to the lack of a convenional menu, woe unto you if later on you want to revisit any particular Hidden File).

The packaging is more compact and practical than the Next Generation cinder blocks. An all-plastic digipak holds the discs in rugged book-hinged trays, and the whole thing is enclosed within a semi-transparent plastic slipcase. It might just outlast us well into the 24th century.

—Mark Bourne



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