The third Star Trek TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, entered the television landscape in January 1993. The new entry in the well-known franchise arrived while The Next Generation was in the middle of its sixth season, 24 years after The Original Series began. It began with "Emissary," a two-part episode that set up a very different world for fans. There would be no Enterprise and no leaving what happened on this new space station behind each week, but the show would still boldly go where no one had gone before in new and interesting ways.
The seeds of that were planted in "Emissary," and the excitement for the show began well before it aired. The time leading up to the premiere was exciting for actor Alexander Siddig, who played Dr. Julian Bashir. Siddig told SYFY WIRE he couldn't quite believe it at the time, as his life was changed by the experience of being cast in the role.
"There were thousands of press interviews. I'd never had any press interviews, not one, and suddenly everybody wanted to take photographs and Paramount Studios rolled out its marketing division and the publicity campaign began before we even started the show. Everyone wanted to know what the uniforms looked like, everybody wanted to talk to all the characters on the show and see the set," he remembered.
It was also an exhilarating time for producer and writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who was enjoying his first job and staff writer experience on Deep Space Nine. He told SYFY WIRE it was amazing working with Michael Piller, Ira Steven Behr, and Peter Allan Fields.
"There was some anxiety because, I didn't really know what was typical or not, but typically before a show premieres there's a lot of anxiety because no one has seen it outside of the family. There's always some anxiety about how it will be received," he said. "We knew it was good. We see dailies, we knew the cast was good, and we believed in the stories. We had early missteps, but we were finding our way pretty well so we were cautiously optimistic."
When "Emissary" finally aired, viewers were greeted to a setup familiar to Next Generation fans. Text scrolled on the screen to remind viewers of the fight that took place between the Borg and the Federation at Wolf 359. The face of an assimilated Captain Jean-Luc Picard was the first thing fans saw before the scene moved to the character who would lead us through the next seven seasons, Benjamin Sisko.
What we witness is an event that shapes Sisko into who he is when the show then jumps three years later. That beginning was one of the most unforgettable parts of the premiere to writer and producer Ron Moore, who was working on The Next Generation at the time. Moore, who would join the Deep Space Nine staff later on, told SYFY WIRE that his first reaction when watching the pilot was "Wow, they got a lot more money than we do," because the opening battle looked so spectacular for TV.
In the next two hours, fans were introduced to the space station Deep Space 9 as familiar faces — whether a guest like Picard or one making the move to this new show permanently, like Miles O'Brien — offered a transition from Next Generation to the situation with the Bajorans and Cardassians here. It was a good mix of the two for viewers, with the old neither overwhelming the introductions nor being so relevant that you feel like you need prior knowledge of Star Trek to jump in. It brought all the major players on board without giving too much away about them, as we meet Kira Nerys and Jadzia Dax, Odo and Dr. Julian Bashor, Quark and Gul Dukat.
They achieved a good balance between action and exposition in "Emissary" as well, with a brief standoff between the station and the Cardassians taking place as Sisko meets the Prophets. Through it all you start to get a sense of the complicated politics and the religion that would become central to the series. If the premiere falters at all, it's in the slight overdramatic nature in which Sisko makes first contact with these aliens. But even that eventually finds its footing to become a very deep and very human storyline as Sisko faces his past and realizes he must move beyond it to do what he has to on Deep Space 9.
It's a premiere that truly succeeded in setting the tone for the series, showing that the territory that would be explored on Deep Space Nine would be beyond the subject matter we'd seen before in the franchise while still keeping the familiar aspects that make a show Star Trek.
These characters and the story presented in the premiere also interested Moore.
"I was intrigued by this character Sisko and the fact that they were going right up front into this sort of religious area that Trek and sci-fi tended to shy away from," he said. "I was fascinated with Odo and Quark and thought that's a great relationship from the beginning. It was just interesting that it went right into a complicated sociopolitical environment and it didn't seem to be afraid of anything. It was a fearless pilot, I thought."
The time surrounding the pilot was a bit of a blur to Siddig, who said it's only recently he's started to remember certain things that happened around that time, like the first reviews. Wolfe remembers the show's premiere doing well.
"It's tough, because this is back in the day, obviously before the Internet really, and so what you got were mostly the critical reviews and the ratings. The ratings were very, very good. A lot of people watched it and the critical response was pretty good," Wolfe said. "There were some people who reacted with some initial discomfort because of the stationary nature of the show and of the slightly darker tone, but by and large I think the fan response was pretty good, and the ratings were very strong, so we were excited when it premiered."
According to Variety, the premiere became "the highest-rated series premiere in syndication history" and earned first-place spots in major markets like New York and Los Angeles. It led to the show continuing to have strong ratings with its next one-hour episode and also made such an impact that it raised concerns about affiliates and preemption.
In the Variety review of the show, critic Tom Bierbaum compares the show favorably to The Next Generation, calling it "markedly more cerebral and more affably low key than most of what makes it in the science-fiction and action categories." He describes Avery Brooks' performance as delivering "the requisite intensity and range, though like most of the cast of this and Next Generation, there's a laid-back nature to the performance that sometimes slows down the proceedings."
Bierbaum does say Brooks shines as the show reaches a climax that he calls "brilliantly conceived and executed." Even though it was "protracted and occasionally ponderous," it brought "Sisko's private battles to a head and resolving the main storyline, all the while exploring some fairly daunting philosophical and scientific concepts." What livens up the show to Bierbaum are new characters like Kira, Quark, and Bashir. Even with this overall praise, he does say the script is "a mixed bag."
"Certainly too complex and ambitious at times, but generally admirable in its mix of deft characterization, old-fashioned space opera and sophisticated science-fiction concepts," Bierbaum wrote. "As with Next Generation, the proper balance is by no means always achieved, but when it is, the result is commendable television."
The New York Times review written by John J. O'Connor also had praise for the premiere and especially Brooks' performance, saying he plays Sisko with "a winning combination of authority and bemusement" and his performance alone was encouraging for the show's future. O'Connor also describes the premiere as having "serious moments" and "bits of near camp."
"Traditional Trekkies may object to the grit and occasional flippancy of the cheeky spinoff. The rest of us are likely to feel, at least for the time being, fairly optimistic about the future of 'Deep Space 9,'" he writes.
That optimism would pay off as Deep Space Nine succeeded in exploring areas like politics, war, and religion in ways Star Trek never had before throughout its seven seasons. "Emissary" laid the groundwork for it all as it proved Star Trek didn't need to have an Enterprise to be Star Trek.