“What You Leave Behind”
7.25 (aired June 2, 1999)
“To the best crew any captain ever had. This may be the last time we’re all together. But no matter what the future holds, no matter how far we travel, a part of us, a very important part, will always remain here, on Deep Space Nine.”
— Captain Benjamin Sisko
Endings are hard. First, there are the feelings that accompany them, that gentle ache of absence. The place once occupied by that thing is now empty, and every person has to figure out how to fill it. What no one tells you is that, if the absence is of something you truly loved, nothing will ever close that hole. It’s like there’s a scar on your soul that’s never really going away, but like all scars, it will define you. Even a TV show can leave these marks, though they are undeniably shallower wounds than the harsher losses we all inevitably face. Because it’s love that opens the wounds.
For the creators of any long-form story, endings become hard from a logistical place, as well. The best endings are surprising in the moment but inevitable in analysis. The longer a work — whether it’s a TV show, a series of novels, webcomic, marathon interpretive dance, or what have you — the more an audience will speculate on the end. And some of them will guess it. That is unavoidable. The writers have to make peace with this, as sometimes the correct ending is the one everyone figured out. Writers also have to tie up as many lingering threads as they can, while staying within the reality of what came before.
DS9 had a herculean task before it. The show had gone to so many places, dabbled in so many genres, explored so many characters that it was nearly too unwieldy to succeed. Without ten hours of finale, it’s unlikely the show could finish in any satisfying way. Fortunately, it did, as the ending is as good as it could be. Not without its flaws, certainly, but an appropriate way to send Trek’s darkest, strangest, and most challenging entrant into the sunset.
The first hour of the two-hour swan song largely concentrates on the end of the Dominion War, through the lenses of both the invasion force and the Resistance. The Federation, Klingons, and Romulans have assembled a vast fleet to break through Dominion lines, and the Dominion, with its Jem’Hadar, Cardassian, and Breen vessels, is just as impressive. My only gripe is that with Rom’s elevation to Grand Nagus the previous week, you’d think he’d have thrown a few Ferengi Marauders to the good guys’ task force. Sadly, Ferenginar won’t be flexing its long-forgotten military might.
The Resistance has bonded. Garak, Damar, and Kira all treat each other with an affection born of camaraderie. This was a long way to go, as Damar murdered Ziyal, someone Kira considered to be an adoptive daughter, and one of the few people Garak ever loved. Perhaps it’s obvious to them that this Damar wasn’t that Damar. It’s a question of how much of his earlier destructive behavior was the fault of the kanar. In any case, this Damar spontaneously and sincerely expresses his gratitude to Kira for all she’s done for the Resistance, and the way he sweetly flirts with the elderly Mila shows that he has the instincts and the charisma to be the leader Cardassia needs.
The Resistance, and most importantly Damar himself, is a threat to the Dominion, and as any enraged authoritarian will do when they’re tested, they overreach. In retaliation for some sabotage, the Dominion utterly annihilates Lakarian City at the cost of two million Cardassian lives. The Female Changeling believes it will cow the Resistance. Instead, as these atrocities always do, it emboldened them.
The space battle is a fitting finale. The irony is that DS9 got so good at its space battles, they ended up being grander than anything ever seen in a Star Trek movie. The special effects crew were absolute wizards at creating these incredible scenes on a syndication budget, and often re-use shots from other scenes and even a few of the films. There’s a real sense of the ebb and flow of battle, too, with things initially going well before the Dominion is able to turn the tide. And, of course, when a major character is badly injured on the bridge, it’s the Chief, because O’Brien Must Suffer. The good guys are on the ropes when the Cardassians abruptly switch sides right in the middle of the battle, opening fire on their former Dominion allies. It’s the kind of turn that only happens in great fiction and professional wrestling. The betrayal is effective enough to rout the fleet, forcing it back to Cardassia Prime.
On Cardassia, the Resistance is captured and lined up to be executed by a joint group of Cardassians and Jem’Hadar, after kicking Mila’s lifeless corpse down the basement stairs. Only then do the Cardassians kill the Jem’Hadar, and their message to Damar is a grim “For Lakarian City.” With this new group, and it’s implied nearly every other Cardassian, the Resistance goes after Dominion Headquarters where the Female Changeling, Weyoun, and their Vichy puppet Legate Broca wait. On the way out, as the Cardassian capital is being turned to ash by the Dominion, Garak pauses. Mila is dead. His house will soon be rubble. The Cardassia he loved is irretrievably gone, and though he knew this intellectually, this is a visceral lesson. Now, he’s only fighting for one thing: revenge. “That works, too,” Kira whispers, her tone suggesting she knows that feeling well.
The Female Changeling’s response to Cardassia’s sudden betrayal is to order the genocide of the Cardassian race. While one might expect a Founder to be chilly, it’s clear she’s becoming unglued: the stresses of a losing war, the disease swiftly killing her, and the challenges of running a murderous totalitarian regime. These things pile up. The solids are a lesser form of life, and an existential threat to her people. Now they’re running amok. Weyoun orders the bulk of security off to carry out this monstrous order, and Legate Broca is similarly hauled off to be executed, protesting his loyalty the whole way. Oh, Broca. We hardly knew ye.
This lapse in security plays directly into the hands of the Resistance. Initially, they’re trapped outside with explosives too weak to make it past the door. Garak, Kira, and even Damar descend into hysterics, giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. Once again, all three characters, three of the most ruthless the series has, are humanized. But then, Legate Broca is pushed out the door and shot, and hey, door’s open now. Broca was finally useful to the Cardassian people. I doubt he’d see it that way, though. Unfortunately, Damar is shot and killed in the first skirmish inside. It’s a stunning and sudden end to a complex character.
The Resistance easily captures Dominion command, and after Weyoun makes an ill-advised comment, Garak coldly guns down the Vorta. The Female Changeling expresses momentary regret, as that was the final clone. “I was hoping you’d say that,” says a smiling Garak. The Founder promises that though the Resistance might win a victory, she will ensure it is so costly it won’t feel like one.
The allied fleet arrives at Cardassia and finds it bristling with defenses. In addition to Jem’Hadar fighters and Breen ships, there are several of the dreadnoughts we saw in “Valiant,” as well as the automated platforms from “Tears of the Prophets.” Basically, all the boss monsters from the rest of the series are orbiting Cardassia Prime and getting ready for hell. This battle will be worse than the first one, if there’s no way around it.
But there is. Odo, who came along on the Defiant, volunteers to talk to the Founder. Sisko reluctantly agrees, and Odo makes his pitch to her. Link with him, and he’ll help her see the wisdom of surrender. She can’t link anymore. The disease has ravaged her too greatly, which shows just how close to death she, and likely the rest of her people, are. Garak pulls a phaser on Odo to stop him, but Kira calls him off. It says a lot about their relationship that Kira trusts Odo enough to link with the Female Changeling, and that Garak will allow himself to be talked down. There was a time when he would have killed everyone with the same chipper grin he had when offing Weyoun, but he likes, trusts, and respects both the colonel and the constable.
Odo links and cures the Founder. She surrenders, even agreeing to be put on trial for her crimes. Thus ends the Dominion War. It’s victory for the good guys, though the cost is undeniably hideous, for none more than the Cardassian people. Garak, perhaps alone among his people, recognizes the irony. These are just desserts for an arrogant and violent history.
True to their bet, Sisko, Ross, and Martok share a barrel of blood wine in the wreckage. Their cups full, the Starfleet men realize they can’t do this. Sisko remarks that he can be pleased that the war is over, but he won’t celebrate carnage. Ross follows the Emissary’s example, leaving Martok to shake his head over how strange humans can be.
There is, of course, a rather large thread still hanging. Dukat, his sight miraculously restored, and Winn have reunited, and we have been periodically cutting back to their trip to the Fire Caves and their magic ritual to bring back the Pah-wraiths. It’s definitely the weakest part of the finale and ends up feeling tacked on, even with the editing threading it into the rest of the action as best it can. Even though the Pah-wraiths are threatening the galaxy, it never has the same weight as the Dominion War. The writers couldn’t walk away from characters as great as Winn and Dukat, and their plots more or less organically led them here. It merely ends up feeling small, though it would be difficult to match the bombast of the earlier scenes.
Winn attempts one last betrayal of Dukat, “sacrificing” him to the Pah-wraiths, only to have him come back possessed by Kosst Amojan and mildly ticked off that Winn should stab him in the back. During a victory party on the station, Sisko, who has been haunted by persistent visions sent by the Sarah Prophet, gets the urge to go to the Fire Caves. And yeah, it comes off as like, “Oh yeah, I have to hit the Hellmouth real quick.” Which he does, to confront his two most hated foes. It’s a shame the Pah-wraiths couldn’t bring back Michael Eddington, just to make a clean sweep of people the Emissary despises. Winn, ever the pragmatist, attempts to switch sides once again, but Dukat/Space Satan disintegrates her. It’s a fitting end for the religious leader who lacked faith.
Then, to defeat Space Satan and save the entire universe from eternal hellfire, Sisko… tackles Dukat over a cliff. It’s not the grandest, nor most dignified, way to save the universe. It’s even slightly silly, though for the life of me I can’t think of a better version of this particular plot. I’ve always said this has more of a comfortable home on a paranormal action show, a genre that was only just getting off the ground when this episode aired. What does work is the immediate aftermath, where we learn that each man is now with his gods. Dukat is consigned to an eternity of torment with the perpetually imprisoned Pah-wraiths, while Sisko joins the Prophets.
In the original filming of the scene, Sisko was gone for good. This didn’t sit well with Avery Brooks, and he requested it be changed. He believed that a black man leaving his pregnant wife and son contributed to a negative stereotype, and I’m not going to argue with the man. If there’s one thing I will never do, it’s gainsay the Emissary. He has more to do, but first he’s got some stuff to learn. He might return in a year, or he might return yesterday. My money’s on three days, just because he’s Space Jesus.
The last bit involves Odo. He’s leaving for good to cure his people and to teach them what he learned about the solids. He has to leave Kira behind, and in the most effective single image of the episode, Odo, dressed in a tux, wades into the Great Link, one hand out to the woman he will always love. This is the perfect bittersweet note, as Odo, once the outsider, will finally never be alone, though at the cost of the woman he loved.
The station goes on operating from here. Many of the crew leave for new lives, which I’ll discuss in a bit, but some stay behind. The final shot of the series is Jake on the Promenade, watching the wormhole, the Celestial Temple of the Prophets, open and close, and knowing his father is within. Kira joins him, and she puts an arm around the young man. She loved and respected his father like no other, and Jake Sisko will always have a friend in Kira Nerys.
Nog ends the series as a Lieutenant, noting that it was Sisko’s last official act to put the young man up for promotion. He appears to be a happy and well-adjusted young Starfleet officer. It’s a long way from where the Ferengi started, as the station’s resident hoodlum. Even addressing Kira as “sir,” and showing her the respect due her rank would have been unthinkable to the once casually sexist Nog. He’s turned himself into a good man, someone everyone from hardened killers on AR-558 to deeply religious administrators are proud to serve with. In a final nod to his journey, Kira orders him to do a cargo inventory, which was the very first task Sisko had the young man do when he wanted to join Starfleet.
No character has lost more than Garak. Both of his parents (and yes, I’m calling Mila his mother) die, as well as the one woman he loved. He was exiled from his home, kept warm only by thoughts of one day returning to the house he grew up in. Now his world, his race, his culture, and in a final insult, his house has been razed to the ground. It’s hard to see a scenario where Garak isn’t entirely broken by what happened. The way he says goodbye to Bashir, it’s clear the Cardassian has no intent to see any of his old friends again. There is no place for this former spy. No way for him to come in from the cold. I wished some happiness for plain, simple Garak, but he’ll get none. For the humanistic Trek, perhaps those are the rewards for a spy, saboteur, and assassin.
Dukat spent the entire series wanting to be Sisko, craving the adulation and success the Emissary seemed to gain effortlessly. In the end, Dukat wanted to be Sisko so badly, he went and found his own gods to serve. Appropriately enough, they turned out to be demons. For a character like Dukat, mere corporeal suffering probably wouldn’t be enough to balance out any karmic debts he had incurred. While I’m not the biggest fan of the Pah-wraith plot, I do like that his ultimate fate is once again a mirror of Sisko’s.
Though Cirroc Lofton is credited as a regular throughout the entire series, he’s not in a majority of the episodes. While I like the character of Jake Sisko and think he adds valuable aspects to the show and the franchise, I continue to be happy the writers didn’t feel the need to shoehorn him into every episode. Jake was a vital connection to humanity for Sisko and the series, he was a good kid who turned into a good man who nonetheless had no desire to join Starfleet. Ironically, his fate is similar to his series-best episode, “The Visitor.” He remains waiting for his father, though this time Sisko will return without a sacrifice from his son. It’s only a matter of time.
Quark has one of the smallest roles in the finale, though one of the best scenes. His goodbye to Odo highlights the early years when they were the only two actors who truly gelled, and any scene with the two of them crackled with the energy of a duel. Quark is the true constant of the station. He ran the bar under the Cardassians, ran it under the Federation, Bajorans, and Dominion. He’s not going anywhere, running his petty cons, still hustling for a buck even while the universe leaves him behind.
I’ve already alluded to my general dissatisfaction with Dax’s ending. Jadzia’s death was a blow, but the truth was, the writers never really figured her out. They had a better handle on Ezri, but having her be paired off with Dr. Bashir betrays her arc. She should have been finding out who she is as an individual, not jumping into a relationship. Of course, Bashir has a track record of dating people who aren’t truly ready for it.
While I dislike the relationship from Ezri’s side, it is a fitting ending for Bashir. He spent the series aggressively and futilely pursuing love and specifically Dax. While I don’t like the implication that Ezri might be a consolation prize, I like that he’s finally ready for the love he desperately sought. Now he’s grown, understanding the universe as a dangerous place, but with his optimism unsullied. He too remains on Deep Space Nine, the best spot for the Federation’s leading expert on the medical aspects of the Dominion.
O’Brien spent the entire series suffering for the sins of all mankind, but his arc was truly his relationship with Bashir. It was such an important part of the character, that in the final montage each main character gets, reminiscing about their various adventures, all the clips are him and Julian. None are him and Keiko. O’Brien gets the perfect job for him: teaching engineering at Starfleet Academy. He and Keiko will to return to Earth where she can do all the botany she wants, and Chief can finally relax without worrying that he’s the universe’s punching bag. The separation from Bashir, though, shows that this is truly the end of an era. They will now be with the women they love rather than the men they like a little bit more.
Worf’s ending makes so much sense it annoys me that they ignore it the later Trek movies. There is a single Klingon in Starfleet, and he has, through a series of unlikely yet awesome events, become a member of the House of the Klingon Chancellor. Worf becoming the Federation’s Ambassador to the Klingon Empire is the kind of thing they should have been preparing from the start, because, I mean, of course that’s what happens to Worf.
The true irony with Odo is that the Founders’ plan worked too well. They sent off a generation of infant Changelings to learn about the solids. By a twist of fate, one of them slipped through the wormhole and wound up in the Alpha Quadrant, where he learned, just as he was supposed to. He learned about the flawed but ultimately well-meaning utopia that is Starfleet. He fell in love with a Bajoran patriot. His race’s obsession with order was turned into the positive lens of a preoccupation with justice. The Founders accidentally turned Odo into a good man, one who refuses even to step on ants. And thus, when he returns to the Great Link, with love in his heart and a cure in his nucleotides, Odo will reshape the Changeling race in his image.
Kira, much like Quark, ends where she started. Before Sisko arrived, Kira was sent to run the station as a way to get the firebrand Major out of the way. Now, with Sisko gone, the station has been given to the now Colonel Kira. And unlike the beginning of the series, Kira is truly ready to command. She is an even-handed, intelligent, experienced commander who knows precisely when to use force and how much to use. Her crew, Starfleet and Bajoran, respect her, and she is comfortable with her Starfleet personnel.
As I insisted on calling him throughout the show’s run, Benjamin Sisko was Space Jesus. He had to die. Or, more accurately, he had to enter that nebulous place saviors go to that’s between living and death. The writers made the point that the fandom sees the captains as gods, so they decided to make their captain literally a god. If you ask me, he got there the instant he knocked Q on his ass with a single punch, but literally ascending in the final moments of the series is the perfect swan song.
It’s even more important that Sisko is a black man. When the series was originally coming on the air, Sisko’s ethnicity was widely promoted. I didn’t understand the importance at the time, because I didn’t truly understand how much representation matters. I still don’t think I do, simply because I’ve never had to want for it. So, Sisko being not just African American, but proudly, defiantly black, in touch with the suffering of his ancestors, and refusing to whitewash history, is profoundly important to the franchise as a whole. Only one captain ever truly became a god, and it was the black man. I can’t help but think this is at least in part why a certain subset of Trekkies have never embraced the series.
DS9’s diversity extends from there. Kira is a woman, and the authority figure next to Sisko. She’s also deeply religious, and as the show acknowledges, was responsible for some terrible things in the Occupation. The finale of the series organically positioned her as an expert in a specific type of warfare, and admirably followed through. DS9’s feminism extended to the character of the Daxes, both atypical examples of the stereotypical “strong female character.” Jadzia was unapologetically sexual, a trait that is still rare for women in fiction, while Ezri was allowed to be vulnerable and inexperienced, complicated rather than merely brash. Bashir remains the only major character in any incarnation of Trek from a Middle Eastern background. And of course, the Daxes and Odo were the closest the franchise ever got to dealing with its persistent squeamishness over the LGBT community.
These points are often lost, especially by those eager to dismiss DS9 as a dark show where no one goes anywhere that deviated too far from Roddenberry’s vision. This ignores first that, though the show was often dark, this darkness allowed the light to shine all the brighter. DS9 never wallowed in its misery, instead testing its characters and finding them better for it. Think of Sisko refusing to celebrate on Cardassia Prime, or the humanistic treatment of Nog’s and Garak’s mental illnesses, or Kira’s rejection of her fire-forged racism and embrace of a Cardassian as a surrogate father. The list goes on. Darkness was always a tool, but never the point.
DS9 came along at an awkward time for its commitment to serialization. DVRs and streaming hadn’t yet come about, so if you wanted to make certain you wouldn’t miss a show, you had to learn to program a VCR. Nuance and context could be easily missed if an episode fell through the cracks, and it would be easy to simply throw in the towel if you missed too many. Now that this technology is in place, continuity is demanded in modern entertainment. The purely episodic nature of the other Treks is a thing of the past. It is partially for this reason that DS9 has aged as well as it has, welcoming new generations of fans into its strangely carpeted world.
I’ve been a fan from the beginning. When it came on the air, I made the quixotic decision that this would be my Trek, and stubbornness and occasional glimpses of greatness made me stick with it for the rocky early years. Nothing makes me happier than DS9’s continually improving reputation in fan communities. Once it was largely dismissed as the oddball of the Trek family. Now, whispered articles about how it is the best the franchise has to offer grow increasingly common.
And that’s it. I’m finished. A project I started three and a half years ago largely on impulse, covering 173 episodes in sometimes exhausting detail, is done. Some of you were with me from the start. Some joined partway along. Some of you might find this later and wonder what kind of obsessive maniac devotes his life to a show that’s been off the air for the better part of twenty years. I’ll tell you what kind: a fan. A fan that wants others to join him in his fandom. DS9 remains underrated, challenging, entertaining, and at times even hilarious. Perhaps most importantly, it retains its relevance, serving as not only the bridge between episodic and serial television, but as an exploration of issues that are only beginning to be recognized in popular media.
And anytime I want to return, and I will often, Deep Space Nine will always be waiting for me, floating on the edge of forever.