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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 3

Okay, now we're cooking with plasma! Like the now-concluded Star Trek: The Next Generation, this middle child in TV's galaxy-spanning franchise found its strong footing in its third year. The 1994-95 season brought big, beneficial changes to a series that was already shaping up to become Star Trek's most wholly satisfying standard-bearer. First among these upgrades is the addition of the Defiant, a "unique little warship that was overpowered and overgunned" — elements that the writers exploited quite well throughout seasons Three through Seven. A Starfleet prototype originally designed to go toe-to-toe against the Borg, the Defiant is enlisted in the first episode to add much-needed defense against the Dominion, the threat that explosively announced itself at the end of Season Two. Suddenly the series is no long as confined to the space station and everyone involved is freed up to add that famous boldly-goingness to DS9's weekly lineup.

Speaking of that ineffable Trekness, Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks, who just gets better and better) is promoted to Captain in the closing episode, and throughout the season his character shows that between seasons he apparently received injections of Captain James T. Kirk's DNA. Sisko becomes more of a man of action, less a sit-down talker than Next Gen's Picard, including an impressive amount of Kirk-like bedroom time (in the ep "Through the Looking Glass" alone he becomes the idol of het male viewers everywhere). His relationship with his growing teen son Jake also has some good screen time (Star Trek had not previously done child-rearing well; Google up "Wesley Crusher" and "Worf's son" for evidence).

This was also a big year for actor René Auberjonois. His character, the angst-ridden shape-shifter Odo, is by now the one fans want to know more about, so several top-flight stories contribute to his developing character arc (ultimately perhaps the best in all Trekdom). Odo finally discovers where he comes from and reconnects (in a very literal way) with his people, though this fulfilled dream only creates greater conflict for the gruff, loyal constable. Auberjonois also sat in the director's chair for the first time with the Ferengi fests "Prophet Motive" and "Family Business." (Veteran director Brooks helmed "The Abandoned," "Fascination," and "Improbable Cause.")

Moreover, Season Three makes it clear that the series is becoming a serial, ramping up to long story arcs that unfold over multiple episodes and eventually entire seasons, building layers of backstory and character as it goes. The result is that our front-line heroes — Sisko, Odo, Major Kira, Dax, Dr. Bashir, Miles O'Brien — and even some intriguing not-quite-heroes (Quark, Rom, and especially the Cardassian "Tailor of Panama" Garak, whose skeletons come tumbling out of his closets in these eps) aren't the same people at the end of the season that they were at the beginning. It's a refreshing anomaly in the Star Trek universe.

The season fires its opening salvo with a two-parter, "The Search." Sisko returns from a Starfleet consultation in the Defiant, which takes him and his crew into the Gamma Quadrant to find the mysterious Founders, the Dominion's quasi-mythical masters. Odo, compelled by an instinctive drive he cannot fight, discovers something there of intense personal importance. Another key episode in the Dominion War arc is this season's finale, "The Adversary," a taut monster-among-us inspired by The Thing and wherein we discover that it's too late for the Federation — the shape-shifting Changelings have already infiltrated "everywhere," a threat that will become the spine of Season Four. One of the best-remembered standouts is a take on Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki adventure, "Explorers" — Sisko and Jake share a father-son experience after Sisko hand-builds a spacefaring sailing ship from ancient Bajoran designs. This is also where Sisko gains his cool goatee, Jake reveals his desire to be a writer (a thread well-tugged in future stories), and the B-plot delivers one of the great scenes flowering from the Bashir-O'Brien friendship.

"Improbable Cause" and its sequel, "The Die Is Cast," heat up not only a massive Romulan-Cardassian preemptive strike against the Dominion (with DS9's first kick-ass space-fleet battle scene), but also dig up Garak's complex past working the dark side of military ops. His grisly interrogation of Odo is especially memorable. Between those two titles lies "Through the Looking Glass," this season's crossover to the Mirror Universe, with Sisko kidnapped to take his dead disreputable counterpart's place as the leader of the rebellion to free humans from slavery. The sexed-up alternate Jadzia Dax will inspire much use of freeze-frame buttons across the land.

Speaking of Dax, Star Trek's only unoffensive hot female lead gets several stories, namely "Equilibrium" (Dax returns to her homeworld when her Trill union is endangered), "Facets" (a Trill rite manifests the personalities of Dax's previous hosts in her crewmates), and a couple of weaker entries, "Meridian" and "Fascination" (sporting the inevitable return of both Lwaxana Troi and the strange-malady-strips-away-everyone's-hidden-feelings trope). In "Defiant" Jonathan Frakes makes a welcome comeback as Thomas Riker, Will Riker's transporter duplicate — now a Maquis outlaw — introduced in Next Gen.

Eps centered around Quark (Armin Shimerman) and the Ferengi greed-is-good philosophy are usually fun, and two of the best are "Prophet Motive" (Wallace Shawn's Zek undergoes a New Economy zap from the wormhole aliens) and "Family Business" (Quark's mother dishes out some overdue Women's Lib). Klingons, including Gowron, creak their leather in "The House of Quark." With those stories, Max Grodénchik's Rom starts becoming more than just a comic sidekick.

This year's screw-with-O'Brien story is "Visionary," with the Chief coming unstuck in time and witnessing the station's destruction. Nana Visitor's Major Kira takes the spotlight in "Heart of Stone" (while trapped in growing rock, her warming relationship with Odo likewise crystallizes) and "Second Skin" (the definition of identity is explored when Kira finds out that she may actually be what she despises most, a Cardassian).

One of Star Trek's best time-travel dramas is also one of the sharpest "issue" pieces — in "Past Tense" Parts 1 and 2, Sisko, Bashir, and Dax end up back in 21st Century San Francisco, and the commander must become a crucial historical leader in a pivotal event exploding from the U.S. government's draconian policies against the homeless.

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Paramount's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 3 DVD boxed set presents all 26 episodes plus extras on seven discs, nearly 20 hours of Trek goodness. The episodes look terrific — clean and sharp with excellent color. Audio options are the original stereo DD 2.0 plus a new DD 5.1 mix that's especially nice when the musical scores wrap around our ears.

There is still no printed episode guide, which grates.

The Special Features — brief featurettes and other snippets assembled from new and archived video material — are similar in look and feel to what's found on the previous sets. In The Birth of the Dominion and Beyond, producers Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr, with writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, highlight the conception of the Gamma Quadrant's "anti-Federation." This set's Crew Dossier focuses on Odo via a good interview with affably pretentious actor Auberjonois. In Michael Westmore's Aliens - Season Three, the show's makeup master pulls the skin off Kira's Cardassian transformation, Bashir's aging in "Distant Voices," innovations in Ferengi physiology, and Odo's dramatic physical traumas. Behr, Wolfe, Avery Brooks, and Colm Meaney discuss "Past Tense" and its socially conscious underpinnings in Time Travel Files, and we peek at the production design behind the interstellar sailing vessel constructed for "Explorers" in Sailing Through the Stars: A Special Look at "Explorers."

For a third time the two Special Features landing screens play hide-and-seek with their contents, Easter Egging every damn thing there, most annoyingly the otherwise nifty brief cast/crew video interviews known as "Section 31: Hidden Files."

As before, the all-plastic digipak holds the discs in book-hinged trays enclosed within a semi-transparent plastic slipcase.

—Mark Bourne

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