The Star Trek franchise's treatment of women has varied over the years. Sometimes the show gave in to sexist tropes, while at other times it provided outstanding portrayals of complicated women during eras of television that didn't give such characters much consideration. The most radical of these women appeared on Deep Space Nine, Star Trek's darkest, most complex (and best) offshoot. While whole dissertations could be written on the merits of each one, from Keiko O'Brien to Kasidy Yates, Jadzia Dax might be the most memorable and most beloved, which made her unexpected death so jarring.
Jadzia Dax, a Trill with many past lives who served as the station’s science officer, was an accomplished scientist and warrior who boasted friendship with the Klingons. Though she could hardly be called fragile or weak, Dax was also compassionate, a good listener, and a loyal friend to her colleagues, especially Benjamin Sisko. There was no questioning her skills as an officer, and yet she had a goofy, playful side (cavorting on Risa, or playing Tongo with Quark). Not only was she assertive, opinionated, and fearless, but she had sexual agency, an uncommon trait for fictional women in the '90s. In other words, watching her on a mainstream television show felt like a revelation, especially when I was a kid. It's fair to say that 26 years after the premiere of Deep Space Nine, her character is still progressive.
Dax was a well-rounded female character who was treated like a person, not an object, by her colleagues (for the most part — Quark, and even Bashir, crossed the line a couple of times). For geeky young women like myself, who longed to be scientists and space travelers, she was the ultimate role model. So, when the show's producers killed her off at the hands of a Pah-wraith-possessed Gul Dukat at the end of the Season 6 finale, the shock was almost too much to bear. It was a WTF moment for the ages — so deeply misguided that it forever altered the electric chemistry between the cast that made the show such a success.
At that moment in the show, the Federation is struggling to survive an all-out war against the Dominion by convincing the Romulans to join the fight. Convinced that the only way to defeat the Dominion in the Alpha Quadrant is to invade Cardassia, Sisko hatches a plan to destroy their weapons plants and shipyards. There are serious risks involved, not least of all that he’ll have to leave the station with most of the Defiant’s crew. The Prophets warn Sisko not to abandon Deep Space Nine, but he plows ahead with the mission.
Meanwhile, Dukat, who has become totally unhinged, thinks he’s found a way to defeat Bajor and its Federation protectors once and for all: by cutting off their connection to the Prophets. He acquires a Bajoran artifact and allows himself to be possessed by the Pah-Wraith contained within it.
While all this is happening, Dax and Worf contemplate their future interspecies baby. Fearing that they'll have trouble conceiving, they confer with Doctor Bashir, who promises to help them. Later, in a moment of heartbreaking foreshadowing, Worf tells Dax that she'll always be with him in his heart before departing on the Defiant with Sisko and the rest of the crew. Dax, now in charge of Deep Space Nine, reports back to sickbay, where Bashir informs her that she'll have no problem getting pregnant after all.
Elated, she goes to the Bajoran temple to say a prayer thanking the prophets. Dukat, now possessed by the Pah-Wraith, emerges from the shadows and murders her with an energy beam, then transfers to an Orb. Outside the station, the wormhole collapses and seals itself shut. It's a moment so unearned and unexpected that you might have thought you hallucinated it at first.
Bashir is able to save the Dax symbiont (leaving space for a replacement to enter the picture in Season 7), but make no mistake: Dax dies. The tragedy prompts Sisko to ditch Deep Space Nine, and he flees to Earth, where he can contemplate his life's purpose in relative peace. Worf is, of course, distraught; to snatch away his and Dax’s dream of having a child seems especially cruel and unnecessary.
Behind the scenes, actress Terry Farrell reportedly had contract disputes with the producers of the show, in particular Rick Berman. Farrell had been offered a part on Becker (which she took and played for four seasons), and, by her account, tried to negotiate with Berman over her contract, eventually asking to be "let out" of the show. Farrell would later accuse Berman of misogynistic behavior on set (she said he repeatedly commented on her appearance). One crew member would later report that she cried between takes of her last scene on the show.
No matter what went down between Farrell and Berman, the producers of Deep Space Nine should have known how valuable Dax was to the show. She inspired and uplifted so many young women, making their hopes for themselves and for the future seen and understood. Taking her away so suddenly and violently still feels like a grave injustice. More than 20 years later, it remains one of the strangest, most disturbing choices Star Trek ever made.