You know, even my friends who believe that Deep Space Nine is the best of all possible Star Treks often give its pilot episode a throaty 'meh'. And that is totally bananas because "Emissary" is unequivocally the best Star Trek pilot by far. Seriously.
Despite its rocky start, by 1993 Star Trek: The Next Generation became the most popular sci-fi show on television. Deep Space Nine had big shoes to fill, so big in fact that it boldly decided to skip trying to fit the mold entirely and, instead, zig left almost every time TNG would've zagged right.
Deep Space Nine isn't interested in perfect characters gliding through space on a perfect ship, seeking out new life forms with which to put on morality plays. No, DS9 is a show about deeply flawed people trying to navigate an intergalactic ghetto that, thanks to a recently discovered stable wormhole (the only one known), suddenly finds itself being targeted by every other civlization in the universe. And "Emissary" drives that tone home throughout almost the entirety of its 90 minutes.
Rick Berman and Michael Pillar wisely center the pilot's narrative on Avery Brooks' very capable shoulders as the single father, Commander Benjamin Sisko. There's nothing perfect about Sisko. He's a true Moses figure -- he's been chosen to lead, but he doesn't want the job. His wife was killed during the Borg skirmish at Wolf 359 and he's been living inside of that burden for three years. Is he really up to the challenge? You could make a pretty strong argument at the start that maybe he isn't.
So, when Ben arrives on Deep Space Nine, a station completely ravaged by its previous owners, the Cardassians, he is understandably overwhelmed. But he manages to put on a good face, somehow successfully dealing with Major Kira, a resistance fighter who, without her former Cardassian dictators, has become a bit of a dictator, herself, Quark, a Ferengi manipulative casino owner, and Odo, a shapeshifting constable who's used to being the law on this here station. Yes, much like with Voyager, the audience are thrust into a very alien world full of surly, complex non-heroes. But because we're seeing things primarily through Ben's very human and relatable eyes, it's much more managable to navigate.
And that's the tone of most of the pilot. Through Sisko, we get great short hand on who everyone is -- the brilliant but bumbling Doctor Bashir, the ancient but young Trill, Jadzia Dax, and the beliguered Miles O'Brien (finally, Colm Meany gets the meaty stuff he deserved for seven seasons on TNG).
But, perhaps most of all, we learn about conflict. In his meeting with DS9's former leader, Gul Dukat, both we and Sisko learn that this Cardassian's megalomaniacal interest in Bajor and this quadrant are far from over. And when Sisko speaks with Picard, a character basically everyone else loves, the interaction is defined by Sisko's feeling that Picard, despite being under the control of the Borg at the time, is to blame for the death of his wife, Jennifer. Ben, much like Bajor, is surrounded on all quarters by people and things he can't trust.
Even the philosophical elements, which are arguably the weakest parts of "Emissary," are relatable because they're rooted in Sisko's identity. When the alien prophets seek to understand linear, human existence, Sisko is teaching us and them about grief, loss, and how to move on even when every part of you just wants to lay down and die.
"Where No Man Has Gone Before" is seminal, but it ultimately only shows us one ship and only gives us a sense of who Kirk and Spock Are. "Emissary" is about an entire quadrant full of all kinds of alien life. It gives us a solid understanding of Sisko, Kira, Dax, O'Brien, Bashir, Quark, Odo, and Dukat.
And "Emissary" leaves open as many questions as it answers. With this new worm hole, what will be the fate of Deep Space Nine and Bajor? What are these aliens? Are they truly prophets as the Bajoran faithful believe? And what is on the other side of that wormhole?
The pilot is called "Emissary" because Sisko is representing Bajor to the world. But it's also called "Emissary" because he's guiding and representing we human beings in this alien and unfamiliar world.
And for all those reasons that is why "Emissary" is the best pilot that Star Trek has ever produced.