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A commentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5: Part 1 - Changelings

The fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine begins with an interesting development in the characterization of the Dominion. Unfortunately, it lacks follow-through.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on 22 January 2019

The fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine begins with rising tensions between the Federation and the Dominion, their Gamma Quadrant equivalents. In “The Ship” (5X02), a conflict erupts between the Dominion and a Starfleet crew over a crashed ship belonging to the Jem’Hadar (the warriors of the Dominion) because neither side is able to trust the other.

The conflict is framed not quite as an avoidable mistake – at the end of the episode, DS9’s Captain Benjamin Sisko claims that he would make the same decisions again – but nor is it something inevitable. It is the result of deteriorating relations between the two powers, one of which at least tries to approach all whom it meets with respect. It would perhaps be a more powerful message had the Dominion even been presented as a potential ally, rather than a made-up danger to generate tension and action.

An interesting element of this conflict, however, is an aspect of the Dominion that is revealed here and in conjunction with the previous episode, “Apocalypse Rising” (5X01). In this episode, DS9’s security officer Odo identifies a Changeling spy in the Klingon Empire not through the usual science-based tests, but because the Changeling has failed to understand the Klingons’ strong feelings regarding honour. In “The Ship”, the Vorta in charge of the Dominion forces, Kilana, knows many facts about Sisko, but doesn’t understand that the Federation/Starfleet would definitely have negotiated for a wounded enemy. They know a lot about their enemies, but they do not understand them.

These elements could potentially have led to an interesting conflict between the Dominion and the Federation as expansionist powers. On the one hand, the Federation proceeds with caution and always puts the effort in to understand even very different civilizations (see Star Trek: The Next Generation 5X02 “Darmok” for the platonic form of this ideology). On the other, the Dominion seek out all the information they can regarding their enemies, but fail to understand their motives and their culture.

But by the middle of the season, this thread seems to have been abandoned. In the episode “In Purgatory’s Shadow” (5X14) it is revealed that DS9’s doctor, Julian Bashir, has been replaced by a Changeling spy. When the original Julian is discovered in a Dominion prison, he is still wearing the Starfleet uniform replaced several months earlier – in terms of episodes, we appear to have been watching the Changeling for at least five episodes with no indication that this was not the Julian Bashir we know and love. Confusion over when the Changeling replaced Bashir indicates that this doesn’t even seem to have mattered to the writers. Even Miles O’Brien, Bashir’s beloved friend, had no idea he was playing darts with a Changeling – who even delivered his son.

This development could be seen as the Dominion really getting to know their enemies and become adept at infiltrating their ranks. But it also feels like a missed opportunity to portray the different value systems of the opposing organizations: one seeking to understand other cultures, the other simply seeking to dominate them.