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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 4

When we last left Deep Space Nine, Season Three had concluded by revealing that the Dominion's shape-shifting "Changeling" Founders were everywhere, thus posing a grave threat to the Federation. Now that threat pulls the 1995-96 season along at a fierce clip — even bringing the danger home to Earth — while raising the stakes higher until the season's finale, which shows us that the situation is worse than anyone imagined. Getting there, though, involves a significant diversion from the planned flow of these 26 episodes. The studio had recommended an addition to the series and a knock-em-dead season opener. A two-part kick-off story accomplished both — this is the year when everyone's favorite Klingon, Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation, joins the crew.

The first story introduces him to the station, which is overrun by paranoid Klingon troops ready to fight alongside the Feds against an imminent Dominion invasion. In terms of story and character development, adding Worf to the regular ensemble paid off enormously throughout Season Four and beyond. He was already a popular character among long-time ST:TNG fans, and his character was one of the few from that series interesting and dynamic enough to shift the interplay between the DS9 characters in engrossing ways. Because the only forces standing, however shakily, in the way of the Dominion are the Klingons and the Federation, the Dominion naturally drives a stake into the Federation-Klingon alliance. So Klingons we get aplenty (a damn near tiresome plenty by the end of it), and the Dominion War arc is moved to the back-burner for several weeks.

But Season Four isn't all creaking leather and bumpy foreheads. Some of the best episodes within the Star Trek canon show up here. We get what is arguably the most moving hour in Star Trek history, two of the best comic eps, and a rare extended look at what Earth in the 24th Century is like (it's quite nice, with great Creole food). The season starts and ends with impressive space battles, and this season's Mirror Universe entry shows us what Worf is like in that counterpoint continuum. All of our continuing characters — Sisko, Bashir, Kira, Dax, Odo, O'Brien, Garak, and Quark — get plenty of strong writing, plots and subplots that impact later stories, good drama and humor, and sharp dialogue. Nog joins Starfleet Academy (where he helps unravel a conspiracy) and Jake saves his dad and becomes a full-fledged writer.

Leeta (Chase Masterson), the babely Bajoran dabo girl, becomes a semi-regular. Other recurring new faces include Gul Dukat's half-Bajoran daughter Ziyal and Vorta middle-manager Weyoun (Jeffrey Combs). The relationships between the Gamma Quadrant's Jem'Hadar soldiers, the Vorta, and the Founders get fleshed out. Both on the station and on Earth, the notion of "white hats" and "black hats" in the Trek galaxy receives some long-overdue graying. This is the series' strongest season so far, and by itself helps raise DS9 above the other titles bearing the "Star Trek" brand name. Plus, Avery Brooks' Benjamin Sisko now not only has a goatee, he's shaving his head too, making him absolutely the coolest Star Trek Captain to ever sit in the big chair.

With 26 eps on tap, quality is bound to vary, but the peak stories more than balance the ledger against the weaker links. Presented here as a single 90-minute "movie," the season's two-parter, "The Way of the Warrior," starts things off with a bang (lots of them, in fact). As the first line of defense against the Founders, the station now boasts a big new arsenal of weapons, including some mighty big guns. By the end, a Klingon attack fleet and the station both take a beating — satisfying our need for wham-bam Trek fireworks while fracturing the alliance between the Alpha Quadrant's two superpowers. Disc One also holds an episode voted among the best Star Trek hours ever by the readers of TV Guide. It's "The Visitor," a moving story about the father-son bond between Sisko and his maturing teenage son, Jake. An unabashedly emotional story that spans decades, with Jake an obsessed old author desperate to undo an accident that separated him from his father decades before, it's one of the best hours of Trek you'll find on a silvery disc.

DS9 also delivers one of Trek's best slantwise "issue" allegories in "Rejoined." Directed with explicit passion by Avery Brooks, it's a powerful love story — the fact that the two taboo-breaking individuals involved are Dax and another woman (it's a complicated Trill thing) is purely incidental. "Starship Down" is a good old-fashioned submarine actioner featuring actor James Cromwell back for another stint in alien headgear. A time-travelling poke at the Roswell incident is "Little Green Men," which serves double-duty as a winking pastiche of Cold War sci-fi movie tropes. Then the 1960s James Bond clichés get a nudge in the ribs via "Our Man Bashir," a holosuite-runs-amuck story featuring the dashing tuxedoed doctor playing Secret Agent with a confused Garak. Thanks to a credulity-bending transporter malfunction, the two make-believe spies are forced to fight for real against evil Dr. Noah (Brooks at his Blofeld baldest) and face such femmes fatales as the Dax-like "Dr. Honey Bare" and the Kiraesque "Colonel Anastasia Komononov" (say it slow). Yes, it's silly but it's good fun.

Sisko and Odo pay a grim visit to Earth in "Homefront" and "Paradise Lost." They are summoned to Starfleet HQ to provide data on the Changeling threat, and soon it appears that the Founders are already here and capable of terrorist sabotage on a planetary scale. However, nothing is what it seems, and the threat of a Dominion invasion is overshadowed by the dangers of reactionary fear and paranoia closer to home. In both eps we visit New Orleans restaurateur Joseph Sisko, the captain's father, played by Hollywood great Brock Peters (Carmen Jones). (Originally, before "Way of the Warrior" became necessary, "Homefront" was slated to be Season Three's closer, and "Paradise Lost" this season's first story. Unfortunately, the resulting budget shift to "Warrior" reduced the scale of these two Earth eps.)

This year's fuck-with-O'Brien episode is "Hard Time," in which aliens give the Chief time-compressed memories of a brutal prison experience. Returning to the Evil Alternate Universe in "Shattered Mirror," Sisko helps the Terran rebels maintain their hold of the station against an Alliance fleet headed by, of course, Evil Alternate Worf; meanwhile Jake connects with the woman who would, in our universe, be his dead mother. Sisko and Captain Kasidy Yates (Penny Johnson) have their bedroom time interrupted, perhaps permanently, by a Maquis infiltration drama in "For the Cause." A powerful Bashir story arrives with "The Quickening," and the pregnancy of actor Nana Visitor (via Siddig "Dr. Bashir" El Fadil) prompts a clever onscreen write-around in "Body Parts."

The season closes by ratcheting the Dominion threat up to a new level in "Broken Link." For the crime of murdering one of his own kind, Odo is punished by the Founders, who make him just a "solid" (that's one of us), and Season Five gets a cliff-hanger setup with the discovery of what's really pulling the war-crazed Klingon Empire's strings.

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Paramount's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 4 DVD boxed set presents all 26 episodes plus extras on seven discs, totaling almost 20 hours. 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 ambient sound effects, starship whooshes, and musical scores wrap around our ears.

Old bugaboos remain — no printed episode guide, hide-and-seek Special Features, and each ep's Chapter 1 is coded so that you can't just click past the opening credits without skipping minutes of the story.

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. Charting New Territory (18:24) is a good season overview with producer Ira Steven Behr, writers Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Ronald Moore, Michael Dorn, Avery Brooks, and others discussing "Rejoined," "Little Green Men," "The Visitor," and "Broken Link." This set's Crew Dossier focuses on Worf (14:20). The new episode of Michael Westmore's Aliens (11:10) offers an affectionate tribute to DS9's resident barfly, Morn. A ten-minute Sketchbook showcases John Eaves' work for the series.

A routine Photo Gallery and the Indiana Jones Preview Trailer round off the main features. Ten more "Section 31: Hidden Files" offer very good interview clips, albeit in that annoying Easter Egg manner. As before, an all-plastic digipak holds the discs in book-hinged trays enclosed within a semi-transparent plastic slipcase.

—Mark Bourne

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