How Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War Nearly Wrecked Star Trek’s Utopia

How Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War Nearly Wrecked Star Trek’s Utopia

Star Trek likes to imagine itself as a franchise that is largely above conflict, but it is defined by it: and how its most idealized heroes in Starfleet and the Federation react to, and become shaped by it. While Trek’s history is littered with devastating battles, few conflicts hold a mirror to Star Trek quite like the bloodiest of them all—Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War.

As one of the most legendary moments in the conflict celebrated its anniversary earlier this week—marking the airing of “In the Pale Moonlight”, where Captain Sisko sells his soul to bring the Romulan Star Empire into the war on the Federation’s side—we’re taking a look back at the longest game a Star Trek show ever played in setting up what would become one of its most memorable arcs, and a story that would forever shape its legacy.

Early Days

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Although Federation-aligned and independent powers of the Alpha Quadrant had begun colonizing Gamma Quadrant holdings and engaging in trade with the region’s myriad beings almost as soon as the discovery of the Bajoran wormhole in 2369—the first stable wormhole discovered in the Milky Way Galaxy—it was not Starfleet, the Klingon Empire, the Cardassian Union, or the Romulan Star Empire, nor any of the major military powers of the Alpha Quadrant, that first received intelligence about the Dominion’s existence, but the Ferengi Alliance.

Operating in intelligence secured by the Grand Nagus Zek, the Ferengi successfully entered a trade agreement with a major mercantile faction of the Dominion in the Karemma, in an attempt to secure the Ferengi as a major economic power on the other side of the wormhole. But while their alliance with the Karemma was established, solid intel or interaction with the wider Dominion remained out of reach for the Alpha Quadrant powers beyond intelligence reports from trading Gamma Quadrant species: the Dominion was solidifying its own borders, securing new worlds, and conquering species while lying in wait.

First Contact

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Starfleet’s first formal contact with the Dominion set the stage for the scope of the war to come—but open conflict with the Dominion was still several years away. In 2370, after encountering the military arm of the Dominion in the Jem’Hadar, Commander Sisko, Deep Space Nine’s chief Starfleet administrator, and Quark were held hostage as Jem’Hadar forces destroyed multiple Alpha Quadrant colonies as a warning that the Gamma Quadrant was their territory. In an attempt to make a show of force of its own, Starfleet dispatched the Galaxy-Class starship Odyssey as well as several runabout shuttles on an expedition to recover Sisko.

Although Sisko was rescued, the show of force didn’t work. Immediately engaging with Starfleet, the Jem’Hadar’s technology proved more than a match for the Federation’s, with the Odyssey unable to damage the Dominion attack ships. They were no match for the Jem’Hadar’s ruthless tactics either, when the Odyssey was destroyed in a suicide run during the engagement. Sisko and the survivors were left to return to the Alpha Quadrant with a warning: the Federation had no idea what hell it had just unleashed.

A Cold War Begins

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The destruction of the Odyssey did not mark the beginning of open conflict, but sparked realizations on both sides of the wormhole— a Dominion invasion of the Alpha Quadrant was not a hypothetical, but an inevitability. The Dominion began establishing simulations for how the various Alpha Quadrant powers would react to a potential Dominion encroachment beyond the Gamma Quadrant. Meanwhile, Starfleet entered production on the first explicitly designed warship in its fleets, the Defiant-class escort, stationing the first of its kind at Deep Space Nine, right at the wormhole’s entrance.

Deep Space Nine itself became the center of Starfleet’s plans for an early military footing. The Federation’s presence on the station was increasingly militarized even beyond the Defiant’s stationing there, fortifying the station with increased defenses, and the establishment of a series of relays and listening posts on the other side of the wormhole as an advanced warning system. However, beyond the military might of its Jem’Hadar forces, the Dominion had another trick up its sleeve: a quasi-intelligence branch of changeling agents, preparing to infiltrate branches of each Alpha Quadrant power.

The Fall of the Obsidian Order

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The Alpha Quadrant’s own intelligence agencies attempted to combat changeling subterfuge with increased security sweeps and detection, but the Dominion pivoted its earliest infiltrations at two intelligence targets in particular: the Romulan Tal Shiar, and the Cardassian Obsidian Order. Spurred by the discovery of a plan by Cardassian intelligence to assault the changeling homeworld, Dominion operatives lured the Obsidian Order and Tal Shiar into a joint operation in the Omarion Nebula in 2371—where a massive force of Jem’Hadar ships decimated the Cardassian-Romulan task force.

With the Tal Shiar badly damaged, Romulan planning to the war pivoted to neutrality, staying away from engaging with the other Alpha Quadrant powers. But the destruction of the Obsidian Order crippled Cardassia’s power structure: without the threat of the Order policing dissidence, Cardassia itself was facing a power vacuum prime for the Dominion to capitalize on.

Civil War

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Emboldened by the success at the Battle of the Omarion Nebula, the Dominion moved further into destabilizing the Alpha Quadrant. Infiltrating the upper echelons of Klingon Command under the guise of General Martok, a changeling operative influenced Chancellor Gowron into making public moves to seize Cardassian territories while the Union was distracted by internal conflicts. Drawing condemnation from the Federation, Gowron reacted by shattering a tentative peace between the Empire and the Federation that had lasted for nearly a century by formally pulling out of the Khitomer Accords that had established the Klingon-Federation Alliance.

Given free reign to effectively continue a war of attrition against the Cardassian Union, Gowron’s warmongering provided two advantages to the Dominion: the Klingons badly, badly damaged the Cardassian Union, itself already weakened by the civilian government’s overthrowing of the Cardassian military command’s rule over the world. But the Federation’s distraction by the Klingon powers also gave Dominion agents an opportunity to repeat their successes within Starfleet Command. After a changeling agent bombed a conference in Antwerp, dissident voices in Starfleet Command attempted to stage a coup d’etat—however, it failed after being exposed.

The Dominion’s influence in the Klingon Empire, however, allowed it to attack the Federation even without infiltration from within. The Martok agent convinced Gowron, emboldened by successes against the Cardassians, to begin staking claim on existent Federation territories in late 2372, formally beginning a new Klingon-Federation war.

Invasion and Union

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Although a cease-fire in the conflict between the Federation and Klingons was secured relatively quickly after the exposure of the Martok agent, the ensuing chaos—as well as an attempted Borg assault that vastly damaged Starfleet’s military strength in Sector 001—had primed the Alpha Quadrant for the Dominion. Half a year later in 2373, the Dominion reaped the seeds it had sown in years of infiltration and subterfuge. With Cardassia drastically weakened through internal and external strife, a beleaguered Gul Dukat entered negotiations with the Dominion to formally develop an alliance, allowing the Cardassians to stage key territory retrievals on the Klingon front with Dominion backing. Plans by Starfleet to seal the Bajoran wormhole and cut off any threat of a Dominion invasion were thwarted by an agent posing as Dr. Julian Bashir, DS9’s Starfleet medical chief, who successfully managed to stablize the wormhole’s integrity even further—allowing the Dominion to regularly transport a steady stream of supplies and military power to Cardassian space.

Growing tensions and small border conflicts on the fringes of what was now Dominion-Cardassian territory saw the Federation and Klingons bury the hatchet formally, with the Empire re-entering the Khitomer Accords. But even with one wound patched up, war was now inevitable, and Starfleet launched a plan to mine the space around Deep Space Nine and the Bajoran wormhole, effectively delaying further transport of Dominion materiel into the Alpha Quadrant. A field of self-replicating mines pushed the Dominion into action, sending a message to Captain Sisko and Starfleet at the station: disable the mines, or the Dominion and Cardassians would take Deep Space Nine and do it themselves.

Starfleet made its first humbling gambit: just days later, an overwhelming Cardassian-Dominion force assaulted Deep Space Nine, but not before the mine field was armed—and not before Starfleet withdrew from the station entirely, leaving the Bajoran security forces staged there to welcome Dominion control. In exchange, the distraction caused by the Dominion pressing so much of its Alpha Quadrant forces into action a Deep Space Nine allowed a joint Starfleet-Klingon allied force to invade Cardassian space, destroying a key Dominion shipyard and hampering initial production efforts of Alpha Quadrant-made weaponry.

On stardate 50975.2, the Dominion War turned hot.

A Sacrifice of Angels

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Although the sacrifice of Deep Space Nine in exchange for mining the Bajoran wormhole was a key early victory for the Federation-Klingon alliance, it was pretty much the only one in the opening months of the war. Klingon and Starfleet forces were regularly pushed into retreat on all fronts, overwhelmed by the Dominion’s sheer numbers and their superior technology. Morale began to plummet—especially after a devastating battle in the Tyra system all but destroyed Starfleet’s Seventh Fleet, losing nearly a hundred ships and thousands of officers in a single engagement.

But while large scale conflict was going badly for the alliance, small-scale operations and individual skirmishes played to its military strengths. Small task forces managed to infiltrate Dominion space and successfully destroy significant amounts of the Dominion’s supply of Ketracel-White, the drug that sustained the Jem’Hadar as an effective fighting force, creating a supply crisis, while others sabotaged major sensor arrays to stem the flow of Dominion intelligence.

The War Digs In

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The Dominion kept pushing, encroaching closer and closer to core Federation worlds like Vulcan and Bolarus. And as efforts back in the Bajoran system to disable the minefield around Deep Space Nine began to bear fruit, Sisko realized the Federation needed a win to steady morale and to avoid what was increasingly looking like a devastatingly swift loss to the Dominion: take back the station where the war had first begun in the first place.

Despite initial resistance from both the Empire and Starfleet Command, Operation Return was put into action in late 2374, securing an overwhelming victory for alliance forces. Although the mine field was ultimately destroyed, Deep Space Nine was retaken, and nearly 3,000 Dominion warships traversing the wormhole were mysteriously vanished away by the entities—believed by the Bajoran people to be their spiritual pantheon, the Prophets—that called it home. Having withdrawn ships from various fronts to defend DS9, Dominion advances on Federation and Klingon space were stalled throughout the Quadrant, and Gul Dukat, broken by the death of his daughter during the attack on DS9, was captured by the alliance, leading to new leadership in the Cardassian wing of the Dominion under Damar.

A Pale Moonlight

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The third major battle for Deep Space Nine lead to a slowdown in the overall arc of the Dominion War, as both sides consolidated forces and territories. Formal peace talks even began between the two sides, but eventually stalled out. With direct access to the Gamma Quadrant now barred by the wormhole’s inhabitants, the Dominion ramped up direct production in its Alpha Quadrant holdings, stemming the Ketracel White shortage crisis through a trade agreement for a version of the drug developed by the Son’a. Its strength restored, the Dominion launched a surprise assault that put the Federation on the precipice: distracting alliance forces, an invasion fleet from the Kalandra sector managed to occupy Betazed, the homeworld of a major Federation member, in just 10 hours, successfully repulsing multiple Starfleet attempts to retake the world.

Through Betazed, the Dominion was on the doorstep of the heart of the Federation—attacks on Vulcan, Bolarus, Andor, Tellar, Alpha Centauri, and even Earth were now on the table. Once again on the back foot and with the war ramping up again, the alliance needed a win. As presented in one of the finest hours of all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine, “In the Pale Moonlight,” Captain Sisko, working with the Cardassian tailor Elim Garak, successfully managed to stage a deception for the Romulan Star Empire, assassinating a Senator carrying forged evidence of a Dominion plan to invade Romulan space. The Romulans took the bait, formally entering the war on the side of the Alliance—and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer.

Turning Tides

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The opening of the Romulan front gave the Federation opportunity and space to reach out and secure diplomatic ties with smaller besieged powers in the Alpha Quadrant, to gain access to further staging grounds and material support. Bolstered by the significant military power Romulus brought to the table, a clear pathway to the end of the Dominion War was laid out by alliance command: a direct invasion of Cardassia, the heart of the Dominion’s stronghold in the quadrant.

As 2374 came to a close, the Alliance began striking its first major offensives into Cardassian space, taking the highly contested Chin’toka system as well as Kalandra—which would eventually lead to the liberation of Betazed months later. Consolidating the new flashpoints on their fronts, the Klingons successfully managed to launch several deep-strike raids into Cardassian territory, destabilizing military infrastructure even further. Section 31, the secret intelligence wing of Starfleet, also successfully developed and laced the changeling homeworld’s great link with a morphogenic virus, greatly destabilizing their security and ability to conduct sabotage and intelligence gathering operations.

The Dominion, however didn’t go down without a fight. As the Alliance encroached further, Dominion command entered an alliance with the Breen Confederacy—something it had kept secret from its Cardassian allies, promising the Breen several Cardassian systems in exchange for their loyalty. As the Dominion ignored the Cardassian’s requests for support against the Federation and Klingons, fractures began to grow between the two entities. But the Breen’s surprise entry into the war in 2375—by launching an unprecedented shock bombardment on Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, the first hostile assault on Earth in centuries—as well as the use of powerful new weaponry that allowed them and the Dominion to almost completely eradicate Alliance forces holding Chin’toka to put the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans on the defensive.

A Revolutionary End

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Another lull in the war’s grander momentum after the second battle of Chin’toka allowed the Alliance to recover its lost military power and develop a counter to Breen weaponry—but it also gave the increasingly disenfranchised Cardassians a chance to undermine the Dominion from within. Left ignored after the Dominion’s pact with the Breen, Damar staged a rebellion against their former allies—one that, while swiftly put down, managed to put the Dominion and Breen on the back foot, withdrawing from much of their holdings to consolidate power directly around Cardassia.

Although Cardassian dissidence had been largely quelled, however, it wasn’t eradicated—with the Alliance sending operatives to help Damar respark a popular revolution on the world, distracting the Dominion long enough for the Alliance to gather its forces into one final effort, the plan that had been its dream the year prior: the invasion of Cardassia Prime.

The Final Battle

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With the local uprising successfully putting Cardassian under a power blackout, Alliance forces entered Cardassian space in late 2375, engaging Dominion, Cardassian, and Breen forces. A Jem’Hadar attempt to quell rebellion on Cardassia, killing millions of civilians in targeted bombings, saw the Cardassian fleet break away from the Dominion and Breen, fracturing their tentative defensive lines and giving the Alliance direct access to the planet.

Forced to accept terms of surrender—in exchange for a cure for the morphogenic virus now ravaging the changelings and their homeworld—the Dominion stepped down, and several days later, its leadership signed the Treaty of Bajor on Deep Space Nine, formally bringing an end to the Dominion War. The remaining Dominion forces retreated back into the Gamma Quadrant, and Deep Space Nine’s Bajoran security forces officer, the changeling Odo, returned with them to deliver the morphogenic cure directly to his people’s homeworld.

The Legacy of the Dominion War

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Meanwhile, while most perfunctory borders of space occupied by the Alpha Quadrant powers prior to the Dominion’s invasion in 2373 were restored by the Treaty of Bajor, the quadrant had undergone a significant rebalancing of power that would impact interstellar events for decades to come. The near-total destruction of the Cardassian Union created a power vacuum in its former territories, while the Breen, albeit humbled by the Dominion’s retreat, had established its expansionary goals as well as its significant military threat. The aftermath of both its initial war with Cardassia and then as part of the Alliance diminished the Klingon Empire’s own status as a major power in the quadrant for the next decade, as it looked internally to reconsolidate and rebuild—leaving the Romulan Star Empire and the Federation as the defining players in the Alpha Quadrant.

Although the Dominion War had brought with it a sense of uneasy diplomacy that was unprecedented in either faction’s history for centuries, tensions between Romulus and the Federation would renew shortly after—amplified first after the Reman commander Shinzon staged a military coup in 2379, attempting to attack Earth in the process, and then six years later, when a secret sect of the Tal Shiar dedicated to the destruction of synthetic life staged a terrorist attack on the Utopia Planitia shipyards at Mars, largely destroying a Federation taskforce intended to aid with evacuation efforts intended to save the populations of Romulus and Remus before their system’s star went supernova. After the attack the Federation decided to formally halt attempts to help the Romulans and Remans, leading to the near extinction of both sibling species when the Romulan star went supernova in 2387.

Although major conflict on the scale of the Dominion War would not return to the Alpha Quadrant for many years to come, its scars lingered for decades, especially as the Federation and Klingon Empires became the de facto remaining powers by the turn of the 25th century. For now, it remains what we know to be the bloodiest conflict in Star Trek’s history—one that challenged the very ideals of its entire utopian dream to their very core.

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