It’s rare that a series does its best work in its first episode and then never equals it again. DS9 The Emissary isn’t an extraordinary ride, but it’s a glimpse of what Deep Space Nine might have been.
The Emissary’s opening tells us that we’re going to a dark place. So does the fight sight of DS9. But then the Bajorans show up and the show begins to die.
The Bajorans are Ds9’s true nemesis. They drag the show down with displays of self-righteousness and magic superstition. Like the Kazon, they’re a race that would ordinarily show up in an episode and be forgotten, that takes up entire seasons. Voyager was able to fly away from the Kazon, but Deep Space Nine could never leave the Bajorans behind.
There are stunning elements in The Emissary. A Borg attack that devastates a starship transitions to a devastated space station and a quest for communication and understanding with an alien race. There’s all that, and there’s the magic Bajoran priests and Kira delivering her “I’m just a Bajoran” speech.
The Emissary shows us how close to a powerful series DS9 could have been. It had the Wild West elements. A distant trading post under siege. The exploration of alien life in a distant part of the galaxy. There were other reasons that DS9 never came together, but the Bajorans took the wind out of its sails. Instead of the Wild West, DS9 became a Neo-Tibetan retreat. It could never be the show it should have been because it was too busy getting its ears felt up.
The producers might not have been able to predict that the Bajorans wouldn’t work on screen, but they could have hedged their bets. Turned Bajor into a concentration camp planet for the Cardassian Order where a dozen slave races were housed. And then focused on the race that works best. That mix of races and complicated problems would have made for a much better series.
Bajor as we know it was surplus to requirements. It was there because the producers wanted to leave Star Trek behind, but they could have done it much better with a genuinely interstellar trading post, than a Bajoran station.
But the Bajorans aren’t all of it. The Emissary had one of DS9’s few bold and big ideas, but within a few episodes, the series that gave us a captain communicating with aliens by using his personal experiences (a concept that Voyager tried and failed to pull off) was giving us magic alien hopscotch and a crude evolution debate.
Captive Pursuit was the closest that first season DS9 came to matching its potential. And it did that because it left the Bajorans at home and told a story about the weird and wild galaxy out there passing through the station.