I’ve spent the last few weeks discussing the various final episodes and films across the Star Trek franchise. This week, we have reached “What You Leave Behind,” the final episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), which aired in June 1999 at the end of the series’ seventh season.
To be honest, when I first came up with the idea for this series of posts, I knew this was going to be the problematic one. How the hell can I talk about this episode on its own? Sure, it’s the final episode of DS9, but it’s also the culmination of a nine-episode arc tying up not only the main cast and many of the recurring characters that have become prominent over the show’s run but also two plotlines that have been going for multiple seasons.
In short, this IS NOT a standalone episode. As such, you absolutely should not watch it unless you’ve seen the episodes leading up to it. And by “episodes leading up to it,” I mean pretty much the entire series. Sure, there are a few in the first couple of seasons that you could skip (Let me know if you need a list), but DS9 spent years developing the characters and plotlines that “What You Leave Behind” deals with.
Much of that is due to the nature of DS9’s situation. Unlike any Star Trek before or after it, DS9 was set in a single location. Sure, the USS Enterprise or USS Voyager are locations, but each week they are somewhere new. Space Station Deep Space Nine is in Bajoran space near the Cardassian Empire. It has a history predating the series, when it was Terok Nor, a Cardassian station in use when the Cardassians conquered and ruled over the planet Bajor. As of the pilot episode of DS9, “Emissary,” the station is situation at the entrance of a wormhole leading thousands of light years away to the Gamma Quadrant (Star Trek’s Milky Way galaxy is divided into four quadrants. The Federation and Klingons are in the Alpha Quadrant.).
The crew wasn’t just going to swoop in, have an adventure, and then move along to the next star system. They were there dealing with these species week in and week out. As such, Captain Sisko and his officers had many encounters with Gul Dukat of the Cardassians, or Winn Adami of Bajor, or the Vorta Weyoun, or the “simple tailor” Elim Garak. The final episode had to resolve all of these stories (Fortunately, the lead up episodes had wrapped certain other characters, such as Rom and Leeta.).
Also, unlike the final episodes of the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, “What You Leave Behind,” which was written by showrunner Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler, is truly an ending. Storylines are resolved. Some characters leave. Others die. By the time its runtime as completed, everything has changed.
Ok. I just spent several paragraphs explaining why it is hard to talk about this episode. So what can I say? It’s a satisfying finale with space battles on a scale that TOS and TNG could only dream of, emotional moments, and excellent performances. In some cases, its reach exceeds its grasp, since it’s trying to show a galactic war on a television budget. Some areas, particularly scenes on Cardassia, suffer from the show’s inability to stage large sequences.
I would also argue (not that I think there’s much of a counter-argument) that the two main plotlines “What You Leave Behind” is wrapping up mesh particularly well. Most of the episode is dedicated to one story, and when it cuts to what two other characters are doing far removed from everything else, it feels more like an annoying interruption. Get me back to the important stuff! And then after the main plot is resolved, getting to that second seems almost like an afterthought. Oh wait. I need to go over here now and do this totally unrelated thing.
Still, even having not seen the episode or any of the ones leading up to it in years, I was quickly sucked back in. I know most people argue for Kirk or Picard as their favorite captain, but for me it is Avery Brooks’ Captain Benjamin Sisko. He was an excellent commanding officer, but also possibly more human than any of his counterparts. He was a husband and father and had so much more to his character than his Starfleet career.
Rewatching “What You Leave Behind” also instantly reignited the crush I had on Nana Visitor’s Kira Nerys through much of the 1990s. While he doesn’t get as much to do in the episode as some of his others during the run, but Jeffrey Combs, who plays Weyoun, is perfect in every scene he’s in. He’s so good at being awful.
Near the end of the episode is a montage sequence showing the main characters getting ready to move on to the next phase of their lives. It’s incredibly sappy, but it absolutely works. It is to this day one of my favorite sequences in all of Star Trek.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can be a little tough to get into. The first two seasons have some solid episodes and some…ehhh…ones as the series establishes its setting and characters and finds its way. But I recommend DS9 whole-heartedly. It’s well worth the time investment and has some of the best character and storyline work in the entire franchise.
“What You Leave Behind” is a worthy and satisfying conclusion to DS9, but you really need to take the entire journey to appreciate it.
- Alan Decker
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