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NEW AND IMPROVED `DS9' IS THE ONLY TREK IN TOWN

As the only "Star Trek" on the block right now, you might think "Deep Space Nine" could take sort of a breather.

No more "Next Generation" to be compared to. And the fourth series, "Star Trek: Voyager," doesn't debut until January.But "DS9" is reinventing itself as it enters its third season. Or at least rethinking itself a bit.

The most obvious is the addition of a new starship - the USS Defiant - to supplement the action on the space station that gives the series its name. But there are other changes as well - the most notable of which involves Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks).

In the show's first two seasons, Sisko has been distant, remote and the most unemotional "Star Trek" regular since Spock. This season, he's going to lighten up and gain some of that missing emotion.

"Sisko was created as a man with a past, a man who had a tragedy that he had to overcome in order to go on with his life," said cre-ator/-executive producer Michael Piller. "And that echo from the pilot has been coloring a great deal of what we've done with Sisko over the first two years.

"We believe it's time that he no longer live in the past, but in the present. And that we see what his agenda is, what he . . . wants to accomplish in this sector and in the Gamma Quadrant. So we're going to be really emphasizing his role as a hero this season."

(For the uninitiated, Deep Space Nine is located next to a wormhole - a shortcut through space that takes ships from the Alpha Quadrant, where the Federation is located, to the Gamma Quadrant on the other side of the galaxy.)

The new emphasis on Sisko's

character begins in this week's season premiere (Saturday, 6 p.m., Ch. 13). An energized Sisko returns from a visit to Earth with both a new ship - the Defiant - and a new attitude.

It's a nice touch when Sisko and his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton), realize that Deep Space Nine is now their home. As a matter of fact, all of the characters are feeling more at home these days, both with each other and with the audience.

And the addition of a new starship of their own only helps this steadily improving series.

The ship itself is very different from those Trekkers have become accustomed to. Sisko tells his crew it includes "no families, no science labs, no luxuries of any kind. It was intended for one purpose only - to fight and defeat the Borg."

But with the threat from the Borg largely neutralized back on "Next Generation" - and because of some design flaws - the Defiant was mothballed.

Those design flaws? "To put it simply, it's over-gunned and over-powered for a ship its size," Sisko says. However, "She may have flaws, but she has teeth."

The addition of the Defiant will allow "Deep Space Nine" to expand its horizons - literally.

"We've spent a great deal of time setting up what our role is as the administrators of Deep Space Nine on the edge of the Gamma Quadrant at the wormhole," Piller said. "What will happen this season is a lot of stuff is going to be happening in the Gamma Quadrant that's going to take us through the wormhole into this unexplored region of space. And quite a few surprises are in store."

Those surprises also begin on Saturday. At the end of last season, the Federation had suffered a major loss at the hands of the Jem'Hadar, the mercenary army of the mysterious Dominion.

Rather predictably, Sisko and his crew take the Defiant through the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant, where they hope to make peace with the as-yet unseen Founders, who control the Dominion. But once there, almost nothing goes as you might expect.

As a matter of fact, this first of a two-parter raises far more questions than it answers, and will leave fans biting their nails until the conclusion airs next week.

But don't expect "Deep Space Nine" to become another starship show. Berman said the Defiant will appear in only about a third of this season's episodes.

"We're not going to have people who are going to leave Deep Space Nine for three or four adventures in a row while someone else is back minding the space station," he said. "This is just going to enable us to have a new piece of hardware and be able to get people out."