This week’s Paramount+ episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, “Caves,” pokes some well-earned fun at the trope of Trek episodes set largely in caves; something that was particularly common in the TNG era. So, I thought I’d take a little bit to talk about what I think were the best cave episodes ever in the franchise.
“Heart Of Stone” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, S3 E14
In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Heart of Stone,” Odo and Kira are stuck in a cave after chasing a Maquis fugitive to a nearby moon. Soon the criminal they were pursuing becomes of little concern. Instead, Odo is focused on saving Kira from some kind of fast-growing organic rock which gradually envelops her entire body, threatening to eventually suffocate her.
“Heart of Stone” proves to be one of the more emotionally potent DS9 episodes. Confronted by Kira’s imminent death, Odo struggles with whether or not to reveal his unspoken feelings for her. At the same time, a surprise is waiting for the Changeling that renders the whole thing a challenge for his detective side.
Besides this Star Trek episode’s cave drama, there is the B story about Nog trying to convince Ben Sisko to sponsor his application to Starfleet Academy, leading to perhaps the most raw and powerful scene shared between the station’s commander and the young Ferengi in the entire series.
“The Devil In The Dark” Star Trek: The Original Series, S1 E25
While many of Star Trek’s cave episodes can be found in the later TNG era, Star Trek: The Original Series got its share of the trope in as well. Coming toward the end of the landmark show’s first season, “The Devil in the Dark” is so good largely because it represents exactly what’s so great about the franchise as a whole.
The Enterprise visits a mining colony to assist in what appears to be a swiftly growing tragedy. Over fifty miners and engineers have been killed by the Horta — a subterranean creature appearing like a moving, sentient mound of lava and rock — and Kirk and co. show up to help stop the beast.
By the end of the episode, we learn that the devil referred to in the title isn’t the Horta at all. This is the best kind of Star Trek story, one that goes so far as to use a faceless cave-dwelling monster to expand the minds of its audience.
“Rocks And Shoals” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, S6 E2
Part of the epic Dominion War storyline, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Rocks and Shoals” takes place largely in two caves: one occupied by the Starfleet survivors of a crash, the other filled with Jem’Hadar soldiers and one Vorta who weathered a similar collision with the uncharted planet.
With their Vorta commander dying and their supplies of ketracel-white running low, the Jem’Hadar kidnap members of Sisko’s crew and use them as bargaining chips to get the DS9 commander’s aid. The Vorta makes a dark bargain with Sisko that would mean the Starfleet crew’s survival, but would also bring them down–morally speaking–to the Dominion pawn’s level.
Both sides are forced to weigh their ideals against the military necessities of war. The military victor is clear, but the real winner depends on your interpretation.
“Future Imperfect” Star Trek: The Next Generation, S4 E8
The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Future Imperfect” is certainly a cave story, but for most of the tale it doesn’t appear that way. Sent on a mission near the Romulan Neutral Zone, Will Riker finds himself in a cave where he’s knocked out by gas. He inexplicably wakes up sixteen years later, in a future where he is the captain of the Enterprise, Data is his first officer, Geordi no longer wears a visor, and the Federation is on the cusp of a historic treaty with the Romulan Empire.
The world Riker is presented with soon makes way for another, though in the end the whole thing proves both more duplicitous and less malicious than you first imagine.
“Waltz” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, S6 E11
Yes, a lot of these Star Trek cave episodes are from DS9. What can I say? It’s a great series.
Few recurring Trek characters evolved quite as much as Marc Alaimo’s Gul Dukat during the course of DS9, and he takes a big step in that growth in the Season 6 episode “Waltz.” After DS9 is retaken by Starfleet, the ship transporting Dukat to trial is shot down by the Dominion, with Dukat and Sisko proving to be the only survivors. The latter wakes up in a cave, with his wounds having been treated by Dukat and his old enemy freed to do whatever he chooses.
Rather than murder the relatively helpless Sisko or prove his redemption to the man he keeps calling his “old friend,” Dukat takes the opportunity to question Sisko like a character witness at Dukat’s own trial. Haunted by visions of phantom allies and enemies, the Cardassian warlord is never more brutal or more pitiable.