“Emissary” launched Deep Space Nine with one great moment after another.
“Emissary”—the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which first aired 30 years ago last week—is arguably the finest pilot episode Star Trek has produced. No other pilot episode so clearly delineates the setting, stakes, and character relationships that define the ensuing series.
The Deep Space Nine creative team didn’t have all seven seasons mapped out. And they ultimately abandoned this episode’s all but explicitly stated, natural end point for the show: bringing Bajor into the United Federation of Planets. But so many other elements from “Emissary” successfully stuck, it is the indispensable first chapter in a masterfully crafted saga.
From its thrilling and devastating opening moments amid the Battle of Wolf 359—a template, perhaps, for the similarly exciting and gut wrenching opening sequence of Star Trek (2009)?—to its final pull back from the most alien-looking space station the franchise has yet scene, “Emissary” is full of key moments.
For my gold pressed latinum, here are the five best.
1. Major Kira welcomes Sisko to Deep Space Nine with skepticism.
When Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) first meets Major Kira (Nana Visitor), he tells her, “The Federation is only here to help.” With a scoff, Kira replies, “The Cardassians said the same thing sixty years ago.”
The moment puts viewers on notice: This series will not be an unquestioning, uncritical celebration of the vaunted humanism and optimism of Star Trek. In the first act of “Emissary,” we have a comparison between “good guys” and “bad” that can’t easily be ignored or dismissed, because it comes from someone who has been caught in the crossfire.
2. Sisko refuses to hide his anger from Captain Picard.
Patrick Stewart’s cameo in “Emissary” occurs in a scene that cleverly turns a scene from “Encounter at Farpoint” on its head. (Picard even uses similar tall, Starfleet teapots in both.)
In the scene from The Next Generation’s pilot, fresh-faced Commander Riker was eager to impress Captain Picard. But in the scene from “Emissary,” an emotionally scarred Commander Sisko isn’t afraid to show Picard the damage of Picard did at Wolf 359 as Locutus of Borg runs deep.
TNG broke new ground for Star Trek by showing us, occasionally (“Family” and “I, Borg” come to mind), how Picard’s trauma affected him. “Emissary” showed us how Picard’s trauma continued to traumatize others. Deep Space Nine emphasized consequences for characters, even this early.
3. Doctor Bashir wants to practice “frontier medicine” on Deep Space Nine.
In his first scene, Doctor Bashir (Siddig El Fadil, later Alexander Siddig) enthusiastically anticipates practicing “real frontier medicine” in “the farthest reaches of the galaxy,” “where the adventure is” and “where heroes are made.” Major Kira then punctures the doctor’s egotistical dreams of medical glory with the same phaser-like precision she showed Sisko earlier.
The scene is another long-overdue inversion of Star Trek’s standard operating paradigm. As Earth’s real-life history shows, one people’s “final frontier” is often another people’s home. Romanticizing exploration can perpetuate a colonizing mindset Kira reminds Bashir the injured people the Cardassians left behind on Bajor need healers, not heroes.
4. Odo disabuses Bashir of his naive notions about rationality.
As I recently wrote in this space, Odo is the Spock of Deep Space Nine, supplying insightful commentary about human foibles and failings we are usually too close to ourselves to be able to see. In “Emissary,” Odo’s most cutting observation is sparked by a Cardassian’s behavior, but it applies to more than one human being.
When Bashir thinks Gul Dukat will “surely listen to reason” and avoid entering the newly revealed wormhole, Odo says with a snort, “Doctor, most people in my experience wouldn’t know reason if it walked up and shook their hand.”
One can’t help but think Spock would have agreed. What a shame Leonard Nimoy never got to guest star on Deep Space Nine to play a scene opposite René Auberjonois!
5. The Prophets show Sisko his grief is not linear.
The extended surreal sequences in the last acts of “Emissary,” in which Sisko meets the wormhole aliens—Bajor’s Prophets—contain provocative and stirring statements of Star Trek’s central philosophy. Sisko speaks of expiration very differently than Bashir did:
"We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you either with weapons or with ideas, but to co-exist and learn."
Sisko’s learning from the aliens begins in these moments, as they show him his grief for Jennifer is “not linear,” as Sisko claims humanity’s experience of time is. His unresolved trauma has left him on the Saratoga at Wolf 359, where he was forced to leave behind his wife.
When Sisko returns to Deep Space Nine he is ready, thanks to the Prophets, to do more than begin his assignment. He is ready to start what Kai Opaka told him is “the journey [he has] always been destined to take.”