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30 Years Ago, Star Trek Revealed the Most Complex Villain, Ever

With 'The Jem'Hadar,' just when you thought it was safe to go back to the Gamma Quadrant…

Triptych featuring the Vorta Eris, the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant, and the Jem'Hadar Talak'talan from 'The Jem'Hadar'

On June 12, 1994, Star Trek fans were nervous about the Enterprise.

Three weeks prior, on May 23, The Next Generation series finale "All Good Things…" had shown the beloved Enterprise-D sailing off, safely, into the cosmic sunset. But, a preview trailer for the Season 2 finale of Deep Space Nine showed a ship that looked exactly like the Enterprise getting totally blown apart. What was going on?

Following a run-in with a Jem'Hadar fighter, the U.S.S. Odyssey explodes in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

With "The Jem'Hadar," the conclusion of its second season, Deep Space Nine changed everything. The ship we saw in that preview wasn't the Enterprise, but rather the U.S.S. Odyssey, a different Galaxy-class starship. Still, with this episode DS9 had clearly raised the stakes, and pivoted the Star Trek franchise into a more complex storytelling structure with the help of an incredibly multifaceted villain.

Whispers of the Dominion

A close-up of the soldier Talak'talan in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

The introduction of the Dominion was a very slow burn in DS9's second season. While most fans probably view the introduction of the Defiant in Season 3's "The Search" as the true start of the Dominion arc, the truth is, ominous mentions of the Dominion were seeded subtly, starting with the second season's "Rules of Acquisition." Ira Steven Behr, who would go on to become what we now think of as the "showrunner" for DS9 wanted the Dominion to help define the rules of the Gamma Quadrant more clearly, and to set the series apart as not being planet-of-the-week type storytelling. "What's on the other side of the wormhole?" he wondered. "Is it just more space?"

For the DS9 writers' room the answer to that question was — a dangerous organization known as the Dominion, who ruled this part of space with an iron fist. Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe described the conception of the Dominion as "a sort of unifying anti-Federation," meaning there wouldn't be just one monolithic species representing the whole group. The Federation has various species and member planets, why not the baddies, too? And so, at the end of Season 2, when Benjamin and Jake Sisko think they're going on a nice little father-son camping trip, they instead meet two of the three major alien species that would ruin their lives forever.

Introducing a New Kind of Star Trek Villain

On a M-class planet in the Gamma Quadrant, Sisko kneels between Jake and Nog as they analyze soil samples in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

"The Jem'Hadar" is a masterclass in Star Trek storytelling, mostly because the whole reason Sisko encounters the titular soldiers in this episode is because Jake needs a material for a science project and Nog is about to flunk out of school. While it's reasonable to assume Starfleet would have encountered the Dominion and its Jem'Hadar muscle at some point, the fact is the reason it all happens the way it does is totally innocent and innocuous. Sisko is looking forward to a good old camping trip with his son, which Jake turns into a friend trip with Nog, which Quark turns into a tag-along-trip to butter-up Sisko about letting him sell more junk on the promenade. This would be a little like if Jean-Luc Picard had first encountered the Borg while still wearing his swim trunks, in "Captain's Holiday," instead of the super-dramatic way Q forced that introduction in "Q Who?" in The Next Generation's second season.

The point is Sisko is on a break, and isn't even in uniform for most of this episode. This is a small, but subtle detail, but it helps shatter the coziness of the Gamma Quadrant. The episode sneaks up on you, mostly because if you didn't know "The Jem'Hadar" was the season finale, the set-up is still a pretty solid Star Trek episode. The basic conflict, at first, seems like an episode about two families working out their political and cultural differences for the sake of their kids having a good time. (Quark is Nog's uncle, but you get it.)

While held captive on a M-class planet, Sisko and Quark quarrel in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

Sisko is openly frustrated with Quark's transparent business tactic, but he also wants to be tolerant of Ferengi culture. If the Jem'Hadar had never shown up, this would still be a great Trek episode; one that uses the allegory of different alien species as a way to talk about tolerating extreme political differences, all for the sake of making your kid's friends feels safe, and being a consummate professional. Once again, in parenting lessons and leadership lessons, Sisko is simply the GOAT.

Close-up of the Vorta Eris with an inhibitor collar around her neck in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

But, despite getting settled into a camping trip in which Quark complains about nature predict full-on Carrie Bradshaw behavior in the 2001 Sex in the City episode "Sex and The Country," nobody is allowed to enjoy Sisko's jambalaya for long. A mysterious woman named Eris arrives, who says she's being chased by the Jem'Hadar. Soon, she, Sisko, and Quark are captured by Jem'Hadar soldiers, and have to team-up to escape.  

A crucial detail in this escape is that Eris possesses a kind of telekinetic power, which has supposedly been inhibited by a collar placed on her neck by the Jem'Hadar. After Quark deploys his lock-picking aptitude to remove the collar, Eris uses her power to take down a force-field and the trio escapes. Jake and Nog are okay, too. But not as all as it seems. 

Deep Space Nine Levels-Up

At DS9, Captain Keogh of the U.S.S. Odyssey informs the crew Bashir, Kira, O'Brien, and Dax that traffic through the wormhole is disabled until they can investigate the level threat the Jem'Hadar threat poses in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

The climax of the episode sports two major revelations, back-to-back. By the time Sisko, Quark, and Eris escape the Jem'Hadar — who are self-described soldiers of the shadowy Dominion — Starfleet was sent in the calvary in the form of the U.S.S. Odyssey, commanded by Captain Keogh. The rest of the DS9 crew, including Kira, O’Brien, Odo, Dax, and Bashir tag along in three runabouts, as a kind of back-up squadron of Starfleet fighters. And although the Jem'Hadar ships are whooping both the Odyssey and the DS9 squad, Sisko has been rescued, so everything's okay, right? Well, no. Even though the Odyssey is in retreat, one Jem'Hadar ship rams it anyway, destroying the ship utterly. Sisko knows this is a message. The Jem'Hadar — and by extension, the Dominion — are not messing around. They'll even blow-up their own ships to keep Starfleet out of their sphere of influence.

On DS9, Quark raises a discrepancy in the Vorta Eris' story as he addresses the crew in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

Back at the station, we get the final twist. Eris is one of the Vorta, another species that is part of the Dominion, and she was never in danger, and was lying to everyone to test the weaknesses of the Federation and to gather information. Still in his camping clothes, with phaser drawn, Sisko is powerless to stop any of this. And so, at the end of the episode, with the camera centered right on his face, Sisko promises that when the Dominion returns, "I intend to be ready for them."

Sisko keeps his promise, because when Season 3 debuted, on September 26, 1994, Deep Space Nine, in some ways, became a totally new show. The U.S.S. Defiant became the crew's second home away from the station, and the struggle with the Dominion ended-up occupying nearly everything about the rest of the series. At the end of Season 2, we still didn't know who the "Founders" of the Dominion were, nor what they looked like. And, no one could imagine that this conflict would take a Star Trek show through five more seasons.

On a camping trip in the Gamma Quadrant on a M-class planet, Sisko, Jake, Nog, and Quark huddle around a campfire at night eating a meal in 'The Jem'Hadar'

"The Jem'Hadar"

Essentially, in 1994, very serialized storytelling on television was uncommon, and was particularly uncommon for Star Trek at the time. Today, all the modern Star Trek series, from Discovery to Strange New Worlds, and Lower Decks to Picard, greatly benefit from the advent of this kind of big, epic story plotting. Discovery heavily featured the Breen, a species who would become allies of the Dominion later in DS9, in its fifth season, while both the final seasons for Picard and Discovery relied heavily on the continuity of the Dominion War to create very specific, and impactful plot details and twists.

But, none of it would have happened, or existed quite the way it does without "The Jem'Hadar" happening first. Thanks to Jake, Quark, Nog and Sisko's little camping trip, the rest of Star Trek became more interconnected, more gripping, and overall, even more epic in scope than ever before.