I’ve read a bunch of retrospectives about Deep Space Nine over the last couple of years. They agree that it’s the best of the Star Trek series, and have various reasons why it’s superior. They usually point to either the grittier tone, the use of serialization, or the Dominion War as the main reason for the show’s success.
But I think what really sets DS9 apart is its exploration of alien cultures. Towards the end of the series, there were entire scenes and near full episodes that didn’t feature a human character. Whether it was Dominion Headquarters on Cardassia Prime, Worf and Dax on the Rotarran, or Kira’s resistance cell, the viewer was immersed in character exchanges that didn’t place human, Starfleet values at the center. It was fun to see Dumar and Weyoun poke at each other without some self-righteous Starfleet officer getting in the way.
By the end of the series, I felt like I really understood the Jem’Hadar, Vorta and Founders. The show expanded on the Cardassians, Klingons and Bajorans in meaningful ways. The show placed the Federation in a constellation of competing ideas and cultures and allowed the others to take center stage often.
It was that level of depth that made DS9 stand out. We got some of the best characters in Trek from the show: Martok, Weyoun, Dukat, Garak- and all are nonhuman. It’s a testament to the expansiveness that Trek really can be when it’s not so narrowly focused on humans.