The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 7

For previous installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

 

Although I was particular to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is probably my favorite of all the series. According to the A.V. Club‘s article, “Beam me up: A beginner’s guide to the Star Trek franchise“:

Deep Space Nine (or DS9) is the first Star Trek series Roddenberry didn’t have a hand in producing. Created by Berman and Piller, it was showrunner Ira Steven Behr who enriched the show with darker storytelling and heavier serialization. The show never achieved the popularity of The Next Generation and for a long time it was considered the “red-haired stepchild” of Star Trek. However, that reputation has evolved over time. What looked dark in the mid-’90s pales in comparison to the current violent antihero craze. The show nicely balances its exploration of moral ambiguity with the sense of fun and family so crucial to any version of Star Trek.

Indeed, Deep Space Nine is the only Trek series it’s possible to recommend in its entirety without any caveats. The show premiered with remarkable confidence in 1993 and only improved with age. While the previous series followed spaceships exploring the galaxy (and seldom staying to clean up the messes they make), DS9takes place on a space station at the edges of Federation territory. If TOS was “Wagon Train to the stars,” then DS9 was “Gunsmoke in space,” a show set on the fringes of civilization centered on officers who must occasionally bend the rules to get things done. In the excellent premiere, “Emissary,” a wormhole opens a passage to the unexplored Gamma Quadrant and turns DS9 into a crucial trading post. Built up during the first five seasons, a massive war officially kicks off in the season five finale, “Call To Arms,” leading to heavy serialization across the show’s final two seasons.

Deep Space Nine is different not just for its stationary location, but for a cast of characters that features more aliens and fewer white men than any series before. First Officer Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) is a hot-headed former resistance fighter whose Bajoran race is a stand-in for any persecuted religious minority. Both aggressive and spiritual, she’s arguably the best female character in Trek history. Odo (Rene Auberjonois) is a shape-shifting orphan who knows nothing of his background but fulfills his duties as station constable with ornery dignity. He slots into the “outsider” role previously held by Spock and Data. Science Officer Dax (Terry Farrell) is a member of a symbiotic species that changes humanoid bodies with some regularity. The Next Generation Transporter Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) becomes the station operations engineer on DS9 and later develops a friendship with upstart Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig, originally credited as Siddig El Fadil, a British actor of North African descent whose character isn’t defined by a single Arab stereotype). While TNG depicted profit-hungry, big-eared Ferengi as comic villains, DS9 tried (and only sometime succeeded) to give them depth through bartender Quark (Armin Shimerman). In the show’s fourth season premiere, “The Way Of The Warrior,” Worf joined the show where his character found the dignity he sometimes lacked on the Enterprise. While none of the individual Deep Space Nine actors rise to Patrick Stewart’s level, on the whole the show offers the strongest ensemble of any Trek franchise, highlighted in episodes like “Civil Defense.”

At the head of this makeshift family stood Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), the first black actor to play a Star Trek leading protagonist. In addition to his proud New Orleans heritage, love of cooking, and passion for baseball (a forgotten relic in the 24th century), Sisko is also the first and only captain to balance career with family. A widowed single father, Sisko’s relationship with his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) is at the heart of Deep Space Nine. Through their loving connection, the show effortlessly combats stereotypes of absent black fathers. (“The Visitor” is a heartbreaking exploration of the duo’s bond.) Sisko’s fatherly devotion carries over to his leadership style as well. If Kirk is a man of action and Picard is a man of thought, Sikso is a man of emotion. The show’s best episode, “In The Pale Moonlight,” examines the moral compromises Sisko must make in a time of war.

Deep Space Nine engaged with questions of terrorism, occupation, and religion with a more head-on approach than any other Trek series. It deserves to be watched from start to finish, as DS9’s commitment to both character and plot serialization pays off in dividends. The show was equally adept at two-person character dramas (“Duet,” “The Wire,” “Change Of Heart,”), time travel stories (“Past Tense”), and comedy (“In The Cards,” “Take Me Out To The Holosuite”). As it moved steadily into darker territory, the show explored the human sacrifices of combat in “The Siege of AR-558,” and “Nor The Battle Strong.” To celebrate Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, “Trials And Tribble-ations” cleverly edits the DS9 cast into footage from The Original Series. In one of Star Trek’s most groundbreaking episodes, “Far Beyond The Stars,” Sisko envisions himself as a science fiction writer in the 1950s struggling against the racism of the era. Directed by Avery Brooks, the episode is unique for the way it directly comments on racism without the guise of metaphor.

While Deep Space Nine has never reached the iconic level of The Original Series orThe Next Generation, it easily matches its predecessors in quality. Sadly, it’s the last Trek show to earn that praise.

As far as the philosophy of the show, according to the Philosophy Now book review, “The Ethics of Star Trek by Barad & Robertson“:

Deep Space 9 is a remote outpost commanded by Captain Benjamin Sisko who, according to the book, takes a different philosophical direction: “As existentialists, Sisko and his officers presuppose that human(oids) have the power to decide about their lives”. Kierkegaard’s analysis is used to examine Captain Sisko’s religious awakening and to understand his decisions and conduct. In the episode ‘Accession’, Sisko finds he is uneasy having been made the leader of a messianic movement. He is guided by “the Socratic position that good actions can be discerned through reason alone”. By contrast, another episode (‘The Reckoning’) sees Sisko abandon reason and choose to trust in the divine, becoming “a man who exists purely on a religious level.”

Another character in the same series, the shapeshifter Odo, feels attraction to humans, despite their absurd and petty nature. This is compared to Kierkegaard’s attraction to Christianity because of its absurdity. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed true altruism is impossible, “would have found a kindred spirit in the Ferengi”, the alien race that exemplifies capitalism.

There was one cast change that I was not fond of at all. Terry Farrell, who played Jadzia Dax since the beginning of the series, left the show, and was replaced with Nicole DeBoer as Ezri Dax, who had been dubbed “Ally McTrill” by TV Guide.  I honestly didn’t like Ezri Dax, and could have done without her. However, DS9 simultaneously has the most main and recurring characters that I really like for a Star Trek series:

  • Commander/Captain Benjamin Sisko
  • Major/Colonel/Commander Kira Nierys
  • Chief of Security/Constable Odo
  • Chief Medical Officer Julian Bashir
  • Lieutenant Commander Jadzia Dax
  • Jake Sisko
  • Maintenance Engineer Rom
  • Operations Officer Nog
  • Tailer Elim Garek
  • Kai Winn Adami
  • Gul Dukat, Leader of the Cardassian Union, and later, Leader of the Cult of the Pah-Wraiths
  • Legate Damar, Leader of the Cardassian Union, and later, Leader of the Cardassion Liberation Front
  • Weyoun, Second in Command of Dominion Forces in the Alpha Quadrant
  • Female Changling, Founder of the Dominion

 

The Best:

Image in the Sand, Shadows and Symbols, Treachery Faith and the Great River, Once More unto the Breach, The Siege of AR-558, Covenant, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, Penumbra, ‘Til Death Do Us Part, Strange Bedfellows, The Changing Face of Evil, When It Rains…, Tacking Into the Wind, Extreme Measures, The Dogs of War, and What You Leave Behind

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In brief parts:

  • In Image in the Sand, and Shadows and Symbols, following the collapse of the wormhole in Tears of the Prophets, Commander Sisko has visions that will lead him to discover the Orb of the Emissary;
  • Treachery, Faith, and the Great River sees Weyoun-6 defect from the Dominion, contacting Odo for assistance;
  • In Once More unto the Breach, Dahar Master Kor returns, wanting one last battle;
  • The Siege of AR-558 is inspired by the Battle of Guadalcanal;
  • In Covenant, Kira is abducted by Pah-wraith worshipers, lead by Gul Dukat;
  • Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges sees the return of Section 31 operative Luther Sloane; and,
  • The Final Chapter (Penumbra‘Til Death Do Us PartStrange BedfellowsThe Changing Face of EvilWhen It Rains…Tacking Into the WindExtreme MeasuresThe Dogs of War, and What You Leave Behind), a ten-part serial, that concludes many of the long-running story arcs within the series, including the fates of Kai Winn Adami, Gul Dukat, the Founders, Commander Sisko, and the conclusion to the Dominion War.

According to the A.V. Club review of Image in the Sand:

What do you do when you lose your way? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m in the middle of what you might call a crisis. Things have gotten pretty weird in my life over the course of the past year or so, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into, but the weirdest, and worst, part of all of it is that I feel lost. Or stuck, or trapped, or frozen. I’ve had bad times before, but the last time I felt like this was in my mid-twenties, and it’s a scary feeling, because it’s not exactly depression or misery (though there are elements of both). It’s more waking up every day and realizing the center of my world wasn’t where I thought it was. I’m not religious or even particularly spiritual, but for a long while, I could actually feel the course of my life, as though all the good bits and the bad bits were part of a long, singular track. It’s a ridiculous sensation, presumptive and bordering on arrogant, but now that it’s gone, I’m not sure what to do next. That’s bad, the not knowing; and even worse is the growing suspicion that it was all bullshit anyway, or that if it wasn’t, I made the wrong choice and ruined everything; and the future stretches out before me, unmapped, gray, and more than a little empty.

I think nearly everyone has periods in their lives when what had once seemed like a sure thing suddenly falls apart, and you’re left in the darkness. If you want to be optimistic, you can say that’s part of the process of growing up and maturing and becoming wise—to struggle through hard times and realize you can find your own way if you need to. If you want to be pessimistic, you can say that there never was a “way” in the first place, and what I’m experiencing right now is simply the truth in its harshest, most unmitigated form. Either way though, it’s basically a universal experience, which is why Sisko’s struggles in “Image In The Sand” are more than just a plot device to delay his return to Deep Space Nine. Admittedly, most of us don’t have the benefit of visions from wormhole aliens to nudge us forward, but that clear sense of loss that informs Brooks’ performance in the first half of the episode makes sense. Sisko is a passionate, frequently brilliant commander, a man whose livelihood depends on his ability to make bold choices when necessary, trusting in the veracity of his judgement and a fundamental faith in his own abilities. But now that the Prophets have entered his life, it’s no longer a simple matter of doing what feels right. There are forces at work above and beyond him, and, for a while, they helped to guide him; but now that they’re gone, the old faith no longer satisfies.

Which might be why it stings all the more that when the Prophets do re-enter his life (via a vision of Sisko digging through the sand on Tyree and finding a woman’s face), it’s to throw him even more off balance. Mythology-wise, I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Sarah, Sisko’s real mother whom he never knew existed, once had a necklace with Ancient Bajoran written on the back, a phrase which Sisko is able to translate as “Orb of the Emissary.” The idea that Sisko’s involvement with the wormhole aliens might have been something that was set into motion before he was even born is the sort of big artistic choice that writers always seem to fall for late into series when they’re struggling to find new angles. It requires too much coincidence, too much connection, and it transforms one of the more fascinating elements of Sisko’s arc—the fact that he got the job as Emissary apparently because he was just in the right place at the right time—and threatens to turn it into yet another Chosen One saga. I don’t know where this is headed right now, and it could still work, so I’m gonna withhold judgement; but I am not optimistic.

Put aside the future plot-related aspects of the reveal, though, it actually works fairly well. Sisko comes home to Earth with his son (I’m surprised Jake was willing to go along so easily, but he does love his dad) to hang out at Joseph’s restaurant, a supposedly “safe” space; sure, there were Changelings around the last time, but that got resolved, and Sisko’s is pretty far away from the warfront. But three months later, after not figuring out a damn thing, the Prophets send a message that ultimately leads our hero to discovering that his “safe” life was a lie. Finding out Dad had a wife before Mom, and that this wife was your actual biological mother, would hit hard. It’s melodramatic, sure, but it at least fits in with where Sisko’s head is at. Everything he thought he could trust, right down to his own father, isn’t quite what he thought it was, and the problem isn’t going to go away if he keeps hiding. Hell, there are even external threats to go along with the psychological ones, as it turns out there’s a Bajoran cult who worship the Pah-Wraiths, and are determined to stop Sisko whatever the cost. It’s odd that we haven’t heard more from them in the past, but stabbing Sisko multiple times in the gut is as strong an introduction as you’re likely to get, even if it is undercut by the fact that Sisko is completely fine the next time we see him. (The old ways are great and all, but one phaser blast would’ve solved your whole problem, bad guy.)

Back on the station, a newly promoted Kira (she’s a colonel now) is dealing with the fallout from the wormhole collapse, as well as the arrival of a new Romulan contingency. The Romulan storyline introduces Cretak (Megan Cole), an apparent friend who uses honey to catch flies, with mixed results. Then there’s Worf, who’s in a horrible mood even for Worf; he’s gotten in the habit of visiting the Vic Fontaine program, ordering Vic to sing Dax’s favorite song, and then tearing the place apart. This is treated as a bad thing. It makes sense that Worf’s friends would be worried that he isn’t dealing with his grief well, but Bashir and Quark’s horrro over the damage to the holo-simulated nightclub is bizarre. It’s not like that damage can’t be quickly repaired; it’s not even as though Worf was hurting simulated people. The attempt to make Fontaine a regular feature of the series is odd enough, but ignoring basic ideas that have been with the show since the start (ie, there’s no such thing as permanent damage in a holosuite, unless the safety protocols are off for some dumb reason) isn’t the way to go about it.

Still, Worf’s frustration and distance are gratifying in that they refuse to let Jadzia disappear quietly. In jumping three months ahead, the season leaps over what was probably the most intense period of grieving for the characters, but it would’ve been a cheat to just let the loss pass without any lingering impact. Worf is upset because the way Jadzia died supposedly denies her a place in Sto Vo Kor, the Klingon heaven; but really, what he wants (and what Bashir and O’Brien want, I think, and anyone in their position would want) is to give her death meaning. Losing his wife left Worf as lost as Sisko is, only in Worf’s condition, there’s no way to repair the damage. She’s gone, and it’s up to him, without any special message from alien mystics, to find a way to move forward. So, with a little help from his friends, Worf finally gets what he wants: a dangerous mission into enemy territory to give him the chance to win a battle in Jadzia’s name, and ensure her happiness in the afterlife. As solutions go, it’s not elegant, but there’s a practicality to the Klingon approach that’s very appealing. To hell with praying—when in doubt, go kill something.

That’s a luxury Sisko doesn’t have. So he decides to go find a supposedly dead woman instead. “Image In The Sand,” like “Tears Of The Prophet,” feels incomplete, but here, that incompleteness makes thematic as well as textual sense. Our heroes are once again unmoored, through tragedy and the machinations of plot, and beginning a new season means choosing a course and setting out on it. Worf, Bashir, and O’Brien are off to the Dominion War under Martok’s command, while Kira and Odo try and deal with Romulan duplicity; and Sisko, Jake, and Joseph are all off to Tyree, to try and find out more about who Sarah was, why she left Joseph when she did, and what this all has to do with the Orb of the Emissary. Oh yeah, and the new host of the Dax symbiont shows up right at the end. If you ever needed a symbol for an uncertain future, an old friend with a new face isn’t a bad place to start.

According to the A.V. Club review of Shadows and Symbols:

All right: Let’s talk about Ezri Dax.

Maybe we should save this for the next episode, because Ezri doesn’t really get a storyline in “Shadows And Symbols”; the episode focuses on Sisko’s struggles to find the Orb of the Emissary, Kira’s face off against Cretak, and Worf and his crew’s effort to win a glorious victory and ensure Jadzia’s place in Sto-Vo-Kor. There’s not much room for Ezri in all that, although she does get a big scene at the start, and that scene, for better and worse, makes an impression. So let’s get this out of the way right now, because it’s weird and kind of awkward and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

Because why bring the character back? True, Terry Farrell’s departure wasn’t part of a planned story arc, so it could be there were symbiont plotlines the writers had in mind for season seven that they just couldn’t bear to let go of. I doubt it, though; I liked Jadzia Dax just fine, but she was, by and large, more a supporting player than a lead. This could be frustrating, as far too many Dax stories (pre-Ezri) revolved around how other characters felt about her, or about how they wanted to please her or earn her respect, as though her only real value on the show was in serving as an ideal for others to covet. It became especially problematic by the end, as Bashir and Quark started pining for lost love and Worf struggled to prove his was a good father. Either plot could’ve been fine; I’m still not a fan of Bashir’s sudden rediscovery of old feelings, but I can see how it makes sense, and Worf’s efforts were kind of sweet. But coming so soon before the lady’s death, the whole thing reeked of a writing staff incapable of putting themselves inside the head of one of their leads. The only reason Worf, Bashir, O’Brien, and Quark’s quest to ensure Jadzia a place in Sto-Vo-Kor is more palatable is because she’s dead, so it makes sense for the story to actually be more about them than her.

In which case, I ask again: Why bring her back, in any version at all? The whole reason she left wasn’t that large, and if it was a question of needing more female leads (i.e. more than one), is this really the best way to do it? Well, maybe: The symbiont aspect of Dax is fascinating, if difficult to dramatically convey, and there is automatic value in seeing how friends of the deceased deal with a sudden, undeniable reminder of what they lost. That’s especially true if that reminder comes in the form of a person with her own thoughts and needs and what have you. So I guess that also explains why the casting director felt the need to bring in an actress who isn’t an exact copy of Terry Farrell, but is still sort of close, at least in terms of race, gender, hair color, and whatnot. I mean, it’s great to keep that “two women” balance going, but did she have to be pale, pretty, and brunette? Nicole de Boer is shorter than Farrell, and attractive in an elfish way, as opposed to the statuesque thing Farrell had going on. But her casting speaks to a certain lack of imagination that’s both inadvertently funny (“Hey, I think the photocopier is acting up again!”) and a little off-putting.

Still, none of this really matters as much as the character herself, and the actress playing her. And the first impression we get here, after the initial “Gasp, it’s Dax!” wears off is… forced awkwardness? An unconvincing nebbish? To be fair, Ezri isn’t given a whole lot to do in this episode, and she’s more interesting in “Afterimage,” which has time to give her a whole storyline to herself (as well as pair her off for major scenes with one of the series’ best actors). But after explaining who she is to Sisko, de Boer launches into a twitchy, self-conscious monologue in which she attempts to explain both how she came to take on the Dax symbiont and how confused she is about everything that’s happening to her. It is entirely understandable and believable that such a transition would throw someone for a loop. But the monologue is such a distracting, self-conscious bit of writing that it doesn’t effectively convey her fears. De Boer isn’t a terrible actress, but she can’t make this work. Instead of earning our sympathies, the speech draws so much attention to its own artifice that it becomes difficult to take seriously, turning her concerns into a writerly laundry list of faux-neurotic tics.

Thankfully, she more or less sits the rest of the episode out. She’s merely the ineffective voice of reason as Sisko’s quest for the orb drives him to wander through the desert of Tyree, dragging his family behind him. Ezri’s introduction isn’t the only speed bump in “Shadows And Images”: Quark’s sudden decision to go along on the Sto-Vo-Kor mission, and, worse, pick fights with Worf, is pretty irritating. But it does lead to a nice speech from Worf in which he talks about how much he knew they all meant to Jadzia. Sure, Quark spoils it by complaining that he was hoping to find out the dead woman called out his name in her sleep (or something), but it’s fine.

Really, the whole episode is basically fine. I was a little worried after last season’s finale, but while season seven has some problems baked in (the increased dependence on the mysticism of the Prophets, Vic Fontaine, whatever the hell is going on with Dukat, mixed feelings on Ezri), the show still knows how to pull together an action sequence. The cutting between Sisko, Kira, and Worf does a fine job of connecting three stories which aren’t, on their surface, directly related. It all builds to a climax in which Sisko’s final decision to reveal the orb becomes a triumph that passes on to each separate story. Worf’s mission succeeds, destroying a Dominion shipyard via a manually induced solar burst. Kira’s refusal to surrender finally convinces Admiral Ross to step in and strong-arm Cretak into acceding to the Bajoran government. Oh, and the wormhole opens, which means that Sisko’s place in Bajoran culture just a got a little shinier. The only events directly connected in all of this are the orb and the re-opened wormhole, but it all feels of a piece: our heroes getting a win together, even if they aren’t all in the same place.

Which is cool—wins are good, and everything that happens here is earned, even if it’s in the abstract. Worf and his friends’ determination to pay honor to Jadzia sees them through rough times, Kira’s steel (and Odo’s pessimistic, yet unquestioning, loyalty) shows once again how suited she is to leadership, and Sisko… Okay, Sisko has a vision of himself as Benny Russell trapped in a mental institution in which a seemingly friendly doctor (Casey Biggs, a.k.a. Damar without the make-up) tries to convince him to give up storytelling forever. The whole thing is an attempt by the Pah-Wraiths to keep Sisko from opening the Orb and releasing the Prophet, and it’s a decent homage that neither detracts from, nor adds to, the episode it references. (If I’m reading this correctly, this was the Prophet who took over Sisko’s real mother’s body, only to desert her as soon as Sisko was born, which is fucking HORRIFYING)

But it’s striking how much the series has shifted away from the real causes behind the Dominion War, to focus increasingly on the Prophets’ mystical conflict with the Pah-Wraiths. We haven’t heard directly from the Founders in what seems like ages, and while episodes do occasionally cut to Weyoun and Damar debating strategy (Damar has himself quite the drinking problem, it seems), the main dramatic thrust of last season’s finale, and the start of this season, has been how Sisko gets his groove back, and how the Pah-Wraith Dukat unleashed is defeated. And as with everything relating to the Prophets, the impact of all of this is limited by its inscrutability. We can understand the basics of what just happened, but the Prophets themselves are concepts, not characters; while it’s interesting to see how normal people deal with being pawns of larger forces, that interest only goes so far. Watching Sisko go half-mad as he deals with his visions and unclear messages pretty much works, and his frustration with “Sarah” in their scene together helps add a layer of grounded, understandable emotion to the sequence. Yet if this is the overall direction the series is headed for in its last season (and I can only assume it must be), I’m a little disappointed.

Still, this was pretty good, mixing the necessarily epic with just enough intimacy that the stakes never become too theoretical. Kira and Odo’s romance continues to grow on me, largely because the dynamic between them feels so appropriate to both characters: Kira is the bad-ass warrior, with Odo offering constant support. Neither of them come across as smaller, or even significantly changed, in the wake of their pairing, and it’s gratifying to see Kira with someone who isn’t immediately slotted into a “dull father figure” role. (There’s not a whole lot of physical chemistry between the two, but hey, that’s an intensely subjective criticism.) As for everything else, well, we’ll see how Ezri fits in on the station. I’m just glad to have Sisko back where he belongs.

According to the A.V. Club review of Treachery, Faith, and the Great River:

I recently re-watched Braveheart for the first time in, oh, probably a decade or so. I’ve never had a huge emotional attachment to the film, and seeing it again didn’t change that, although the near-constant hero worship and awe with which the script regards its central figure is fascinating in light of the dissolution of Mel Gibson’s star image. (The actor’s habit of staring grimly forward to express shock, horror, or rage now makes you wonder just what the hell he’s struggling to hold back.) But what struck me, especially in light of seeing this week’s first episode, is how much effort the movie expends to make sure we fucking hate the English. It’s not just that Edward I (Patrick McGoohan at his most peevish) is a despicable lying bastard, or that his son is (homophobia alert!) ineffectual and foolish; it’s that every Englishman Wallace and his men fight have as much humanity as the walking targets in a Call Of Duty game. This is by design; we’re meant to cheer when the heroes trap a group of soldiers in a shed and burn them alive, partly because those soldiers were themselves trying to trap Wallace, and partly because hey, this is just too awesome to worry about the ugliness of war. There’s plenty of bracing violence in the film, but there’s never any sense of the villains as being anything more than obstacles which need to be bludgeoned, stabbed, and flambeed. Which makes sense; it’s hard to get excited about a battle when you’re too busy being sad and worried for everyone.

All of which is why I found “Treachery, Faith and the Great River” such a pleasure to watch. It’s not as though DS9 hasn’t already done a good job of showing both sides of the Dominion War; one of the strengths of the conflict has always been the writers ability to provide clear, and even sympathetic, motivation for both sides without ever losing sight of the “good” and the “bad.” (It’s a trick Ron Moore would pull off equally well with the humans and the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica.) We know what drives the Founders, and how they make their decisions based on decades, maybe even centuries, of abuse and assault by the solids. That doesn’t make their desire to dominate the universe worth rooting for, or even remotely excusable, but it does make them more than just stock monsters waiting for their comeuppance. Same with the Jem’Hadar: fierce, brutal warriors though they may be, they also have an unshakable sense of honor, and their genetically engineered drug addiction means they are as much slaves as they are fearsome enemies.

The same could be said of the Vorta; while they lack the Jem’Hadar’s need for ketracel white, they have been extensively designed and shaped by the Founders into a race of subservient, obsequious toadies, master negotiators with a regal contempt for any race they consider below themselves (which is nearly all of them), but a inbred adoration for their masters. But a few stray moments aside, up until this episode the Vorta have been the easiest of the lot to hate, because we’ve been given little reason to do otherwise. Bureaucrats are always easier to hate, as they do everything in their power to keep their hands from getting dirty, which robs them of even the minor dignity of an opposing military force. And everything we’ve seen so far of the Vorta has not painted a flattering picture, as Weyoun and his cohorts have proven themselves willing time and again to do anything to protect themselves. They’re crafty cowards, and there are few fictional archetypes more inherently despicable.

I’m not sure “Treachery” reverse this, as Weyoun Six, the clone who decides to defect when he realizes the war is wrong, is labeled by his successor as “malfunctioning;” and while Weyoun Seven isn’t to be trusted, it doesn’t really put make the Vorta heroes when their most noble representative to date can be marked down as a kind of genetic mistake. Still, seeing a figure as traditionally slimy and unctuous as Weyoun turned into a martyr for a doomed cause suggests the possibility that the Vorta aren’t as one-sided as they seem to be. In his conversations with Odo, Weyoun Six shows fear, self-loathing, and reverence, even going so far as to have a nightmare about capture while the two are attempting to flee Cardassian space; none of which makes him perfect, but it does make him more complicated, and, given that he sacrifices himself in the end to save Odo’s life, even noble. Combs, given the chance to play someone legitimately likable for a change, rises to the occasional admirably. That final scene between the two of them, as Weyoun Six begs Odo to bless him (which Odo reluctantly does) is moving to a degree I would not have thought possible, given the characters involved. (I mean, I don’t have a hard time getting worked up about Odo, but Weyoun?) It reminds us again of the complexity of the situation, and how even if the Federation wins—which seems pretty likely at this point—it won’t be smiles for everyone.

Weyoun Six tells Odo a story about how his people came to be; how the Vorta were once a timid, weak race long ago, but they protected a Changeling when the solids chased the creature into their forest, and as a reward, the Changelings transformed Vorta into the powerful beings they are today. Odo suggests that this story means the Founders once had great good and kindness in them, and Weyoun Six (inevitably) agrees, but I found the history lesson deeply unsettling. While the Vorta may believe themselves better off now, no longer stuck in the trees and terrified of predators, they are still slaves to a power that will use them and discard them without the slightest remorse.

As well, the Founders have designed them in such a way as to rob much of the joy from their lives; we already know that Vorta don’t have any real aesthetic sense, but Weyoun Six also explains to Odo that they can’t really taste much of anything as well, and their favorite food is still the berries they once ate on their home world, a constant reminder what their origins. (I wonder if it’s subtle sign of Weyoun Six’s “malfunction” that he eagerly samples all of the food from the runabout’s replicator. He does it because he enjoys the textures, and a normal Vorta should really only get pleasure from service.) It’s possible the ancient Vorta might have died out, as helpless as they were. Or maybe they would’ve evolved to something greater on their own. Regardless, the Founders’ gift isn’t really a gift at all; they simply found a potential tool and decided to take advantage of it. Weyoun Six’s unflinching adoration of Odo doesn’t make that face any easier to take.

The Weyoun Six/Odo scenes are the highlight of the episode, but they aren’t the only storyline we follow: there’s also Weyoun Seven and Damar back on Cardassia Prime, and the discovery that Weyoun Five (the Weyoun that Six was activated to replace) was killed in a suspicious “transporter accident” which Damar just happened to avoid. The implication being that Damar is intent on killing the Vorta, whether for bitterness or boredom or some other, more complicated reason. It’s a fun development that adds a nice edge to their scenes together (especially Damar’s repeated insistence that Weyoun even have a drink). Far more important is the brief return of the Female Changeling, whose ragged appearance confirms the most vital piece of information Weyoun Six is able to pass on to Odo before he kills himself: the Changelings are sick, and perhaps even dying. No one knows why, although given that Odo himself is fine, it must have something to do with the Great Link.

This leads to some soul-searching for Odo, and a good conversation between him and Kira about gods and faith and so forth. (Although can you really call what the Vorta have “faith”? It’s hardwired into their brain. There’s no choice involved). While the discovery of the Founders’ illness seems like the sort of thing that deserves an episode of its own, it’s still thrilling to get back to what’s presumably the main business of the season: getting to the end of the war, and witnessing the resolution of a storyline that encompasses the entire run of the series. (The War is comparatively recent, but Odo and the Prophets have been there from the beginning.) Which isn’t to criticize the structure of mixing in standalones with serialized episodes; too much serialization, especially in a season over twenty hours long, can lead to padding and awkward storytelling. But while I enjoyed last week quite a bit, the reminder of what’s going on in the background of all that interpersonal drama is refreshing. It’s especially refreshing when handled this well: Odo wrestles with his identity; Damar and Weyoun almost go against the Founders; and we learn that the Vorta may be irritating and generally despicable, but there is some soul left in them, despite their masters’ best efforts.

According to the A.V. Club review of Once More unto the Breach:

So, at the end of Braveheart—spoiler alert!—the hero gets beaten, hanged, and disemboweled. It’s a weird scene, especially once you take Gibson’s masochistic cinematic history; whatever drives him, he has a tendency to pick projects which end up with him getting beaten half to hell, which suggests all sorts of uncomfortable (and sort of sad, if you can feel pity for a bigoted rich man) psychological conflicts raging inside his head. But even apart from that, it’s just brutal and eerie and almost valedictory, as though the whole sordid scene was just an excuse for Wallace to prove for eternity his love for his land and its people. I balk at this sort of thing, because I balk at any suggestion that extensive, agonizing torture can be endured through strength of character, but I get why its there. Whether or not I agree with the intention, Braveheart is all about creating a legend, and a legend needs a legendary ending. Wallace might have said he dreamed of raising a family and living off the land, but what he really needed was to go out bloody and defiant, a conclusion that offered him one last chance to demonstrate his inestimable worth.

What happens if you live past that moment, though? What happens to old warriors as their body begins to fail them; as their instincts dull and memory fades, and the next generation takes its place in the world. Nothing good, I’m sure; no one wants to see a legend shitting itself and forgetting where he left his teeth. Things aren’t quite so bad for Kor (John Colicos), but they aren’t good, and when he arrives on the station to ask Worf for help, it’s hard not to see how desperate he is. Because warriors aren’t really supposed to get old. Kor’s pride, ambition, and ruthlessness held him in good stead in the prime of his life, but that same ruthlessness also made him any number of enemies; and now that his faculties and his luck are no longer what they used to be, those enemies are more than willing to shut him out. He’s a hero who doesn’t have the resources to go heroing anymore, and who has been forced to sit on the sidelines for what’s probably the last great campaign in his life, the Dominion War.

That’s an awkward position for a man (or Klingon) of action to be in. And it gets more awkward when Worf, being the loyal friend that he is, goes to Martok for help, and finds that Martok really, really, really, really does not like Kor. As is so often the case with this show, it’s a conflict that allows you to invest in both sides without suggesting an obvious “right” answer. Of the two, Martok is the more immediately sympathetic. It turns out that Kor rejected Martok’s application for officer school (or whatever badass word the Klingons have for that) years ago because Martok wasn’t of a noble bloodline. Because of this rejection, Martok was forced to toil as a civilian for years before finally demonstrating his value in combat and earning his command. Unfortunately, his father, whose dream it was to see Martok as an officer, died before Martok finally achieved his goal. Now Martok understandably blames Kor for those wasted years; and there’s a sense as well that Kor has come to represent all of Martok’s doubts about his own abilities, and about his place in the Empire.

All of which paints Kor in a bad light, and he doesn’t come off much better when Worf confronts him with what he’s learned, and Kor can’t even remember rejecting Martok’s application. He doesn’t even pretend that he’d be fine with having a commoner rise in the ranks, which is the sort of old-fashioned bigotry that’s possible to tolerate (in that he’s out of power and will die soon), but not really something to root for. Yet “Once More Unto The Breach” does find ways to make Kor sympathetic. He’s a boaster and full of himself, basking in the adoration of Martok’s crew like a lizard taking in the sun, but he’s also vulnerable, and utterly alone; Worf helps as he can, but Worf isn’t exactly the comrade you visit if you want to get drunk and roar about old times. Kor is a dinosaur in a universe that is doing its level best to push him out the door, but his options for exiting are limited. Either he goes out in a blaze of glory, or he gets relegated to a desk job on the Klingon Empire, an old joke to die in his bed of natural causes. That’s not a fitting end for any legend, and whatever his faults, its not hard to want better for this one.

Even with Worf’s help, Kor nearly ruins everything. There are a few moments of senility early in the episode, but the true crisis comes during an assault on a Cardassian shipyard (or a weapons’ facility; something valuable to the war effort, anyway). When Martok and Worf are momentarily incapacitated during the battle, Kor seizes the moment to take command, and the results are disastrous. He grows confused, and overwhelmed by the adrenaline mistakes the present day fight for a battle from his past. Their forces thoroughly routed, Martok and the others are forced to retreat, and in the aftermath, Kor is ridiculed for his lapse. The brief celebrity he’d held among the crew is destroyed, and Martok finally gets a chance to humiliate the man he’s loathed for so many years. It’s all bitter and ugly and stupid, in ways that make perfect sense, and it wasn’t hard to imagine myself in either characters’ shoes. Martok is the most perfectly “Klingon” Klingon this show has ever produced—passionate, loyal, quick to take offense but (generally) just as quick to forgive, and overall just a enjoyable, life-loving kind of guy. Here, we see him at his absolute worst, and it’s a credit to the writing and the actor that the pettiness of his mockery of Kor doesn’t play as forced conflict, or out of character. (The later scene where Martok complains to Worf that he finally got his revenge and didn’t enjoy it at all is also excellent.)

Inevitably, a situation  develops requiring someone (seven someones, actually) to make the ultimate sacrifice, and while Worf is initially tasked with the duty—it’s his plan—Kor finds out about it, knocks Worf out with a hypnospray and takes the job on himself. (Kor learn’s what’s happening from Darok, Martok’s older assistant, as Darok is himself an old man and has respect for the old ways; what’s really impressive here is how well the actor, Neil Vipond, and Ron Moore’s script manage to convey the sense of Darok as a familiar, lived in character, despite him only being introduced, and only ever appearing, in this episode.) So Kor gets the good death that he wants, and Martok gets a chance to find some peace with this one-time opressor; and we get a reminder that Klingon rituals for the dead involve drinking and look like a hell of a good time.

“Once More Unto The Breach” is an episode that often threatens to become unpleasant to watch; between Kor’s forgetfulness and Martok’s rage, half the scenes in the first act play like set ups to a lot of incredibly awkward embarrassment and slow soiling humiliation. Yet the story avoids the pitfalls of dwelling too much in obvious suffering. The two central figures are shown at their worst and at their best, and in the end, they’re both allowed their honor. Also, Kor blows up saving the day, which is the best end he could’ve hoped for.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Siege of AR-558:

War is hell. Everyone remember that? War is a definitely no good awful very bad thing. There might be people who would disagree with this; I am not one of them. And for the most part, I appreciate the writers of Deep Space Nine’s commitment to making sure we never forget that no one is having fun during the Dominion War. After a brief, weird scene in Vic Fontaine’s holo-club (Rom is auditioning to be Vic’s opening act, because apparently Rom is an idiot who doesn’t realize he’s not a hologram, and Vic doesn’t explain the problem until after Rom sings a terrible version of “The Lady Is A Tramp”), we find Sisko once again reading through the latest casualty reports, explaining that he feels it’s the least he can do; trying to honor the sacrifices of the dead by brushing against their memory. And there you basically have the theme of the whole episode: even as we focus on Sisko and the rest of the regular ensemble, Starfleet personnel are dying, every day, every hour. Sometimes it’s necessary to check in with the grunts in the trenches and remember that all this grand adventure comes at a dirty, irrevocable cost.

“The Siege Of AR-558” works well enough. But there’s something a little familiar about it; DS9 hasn’t done a ton of stories set on the front lines, but even so, there are only so many times we can wallow in the muck of battle before there needs to be a new angle. I don’t want to stress this criticism too much, because there’s enough good here to make up for the familiarity, and because I don’t automatically object to a show tackling the same theme multiple times, especially not if the theme is as inherently powerful as this one is. Yet the familiarity remains. While the tones are vastly different, it reminds me of the Nog subplotfrom last week, the trading storyline that the show has used before. Season seven has been better than I was expecting so far (and, bad spots aside, it’s more consistent than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s final season), but it’s not hard to spot signs of a writers’ room that’s gotten a little comfortable with old routines.

That said, once things get up and running, this turns into a grim but lively adventure story, complete with debate over the ethics of war, a dude who wears ketracel white vials around his neck as trophies (in a way that’s supposed to bring to mind American soldiers wearing ears from the Vietcong, but fails to be even remotely as disturbing, and mostly just comes off as silly), and subspace mines, which appear without warning thanks to the miracle of terrifying science. While not afraid to get heavy, the episode is smart enough to recognize that the constant threat of a Jem’Hadar attack, combined with the Starfleet soldiers’ exhaustion and morale problems, is as much a good story hook as it is a piece of social commentary. You never forget how miserable and unhappy and stressed everyone is, but that doesn’t make it lessing thrilling when Ezri and Kellin (Bill Mumy, former child actor and occasional adult guest star) figure out how to uncover the hundreds of mines floating around the complex; and while half of the characters we meet for the first time here end up dead, it’s still satisfying when Sisko decides to use the newly uncovered mines against the oncoming enemy.

As for Quark having to kill to protect his wounded nephew, well, I’m not sure if “satisfying” is the word I’d use. It depends on how you read his arc. Quark can be a deeply irritating character, as he’s the only one on the show routinely at odds with just about everyone. In the right (or wrong) situation, he becomes the dissonant voice in a sea of harmony, refusing to back down or compromise even as his relentless criticism and complaints infuriate everyone around him. Sometimes this can seem forced, like his constant whinging during Worf’s quest to get Jadzia her rightful place in Sto-Vo-Kor. But his criticisms of war, and his frustration over Nog’s unquestioning love of soldiering, are more complex than simple selfishness. Again and again, he raises issues which deserve to be raised, and while I won’t argue his doubts and anger is “right,” exactly, the episode makes the smart move of never entirely coming down on one side or the other. He tells Nog that the Ferengi would’ve settled the conflict with the Dominion through negotiation, and saved countless lives. That sounds like cowardice (an accusation I doubt Quark would care to deny), and who knows if it would be possible to come to an arrangement that both parties could live with, but there is something about the Federation’s do-or-die approach that deserves to be questioned. Quark’s assessment of humanity—we’re nice when we’re well fed and comfortable, but take our toys away and we turn mean in a hurry—is hard to argue with. The fact that even Quark is willing to kill to protect his own is an acknowledgement that anyone will resort to violence under the right circumstances; whether or not you take that as a criticism of Quark’s anti-war stance, an affirmation of it, or simply a way to show that war is a situation which inevitably forces people to make impossible choices, is up to you.

I like that. While “Siege” is never very subtle about its main point (ignoring the aside at Vic’s, the episode begins and ends with Sisko talking about the casualty reports), it withholds judgement on everything else, which makes sense; if we’re supposed to be commemorating all those faceless hundreds who die each week, it’s better to see them as individuals rather than talking points. While the various characters Sisko, Bashir, and Ezri meet aren’t incredibly complex, none of them are set up to prove anything, or punished for their failings. Vargas (Raymond Cruz, aka Tuco from Breaking Bad, all sweaty, angry desperation) is unhinged, raging, and terrified. But he gets a scene with Bashir when we learn how much all the death has cost him, and how much effort it’s taking for him to hold on even as much as he has. Reese (Patrick Kilpatrick), the guy with the trophy necklace, is introduced as a badass, someone Nog instantly hero-worships; but instead of him dying to teach Nog a lesson about the futility of “heroes” in war, he lives, and turns out to be a pretty decent guy. And Lt. Larkin (Annette Helde), the woman in charge of the bunch, is determined, forceful, and competent. Her death is maybe the most surprising, because it just happens, without any major drama—Nog and Reese are too busy trying to survive to mourn her.

That’s really the episode’s biggest strength: while there’s a pall of sadness and strain hanging over the episode, there’s never really time to process any of this—the grief never goes away, and while the names change, the end result is a constant, so there’s no chance to move on. Quark snipes at Sisko over Nog’s injury, and Sisko shouts back that he cares about every soldier under his command, and that’s an impossible position. It’s necessary, but it would drive you insane. TheTrek franchise has always been about smart people doing their best in tight spots, but one of the lessons of Deep Space Nine has always been that this isn’t always going to be enough. There are situations which no degree of compassion, intelligence, and courage can resolve. The unit stationed on AR-558 is trying to protect a captured Dominion communications array. The array could be an invaluable source of information, provided anyone can figure out how the machine works, which is why the unit has been stuck in place for months without reprieve, waiting to be rotated away from the front lines. But the value of the array is purely theoretical. It’s possible no one will ever determine how to hack into it. Our heroes win the fight, but it could all be for nothing; and when Worf tries to reassure Sisko, “This was a great victory. One worthy of story and song,” Sisko can only reply, “It cost enough.” There’s not anything else to say.

According to the A.V. Club review of Covenant:

Some failed stories are so shoddy, so sloppily constructed, so fundamentally misguided and inept that they’re easy to dismiss; you watch, say, a given chunk of the second season of The Walking Dead (which had a few strong episodes but was largely one hell of a slog), and you can see writers struggling to fill time without any good idea of how to do it. But some stories have a strong enough idea at their core that it’s possible to understand how a creative team could’ve fallen in love with them, to their (and our) misfortune.

The last we saw Dukat, he’d communed with a Pah-Wraith, killed Jadzia, and temporarily saved the day for the Dominion. But that wasn’t an end-point for the character, and given how important Dukat has been to the series on the whole, it would’ve been weird for him to disappear without at least one more guest appearance.

What do you do with Dukat, though? He’s been a bureaucrat, a military leader, a rebel; he’s been victorious, and he’s lost, and he’s sworn vengeance numerous times. The Dominion no longer trusts him, and Damar has taken his place as the ruler of Cardassia (a role Damar doesn’t appear to get much pleasure out of these days). Dukat’s arrogance and drive wouldn’t let him turn himself over to the Federation, nor is it possible to see him serving obediently as a minor cog in the empire he once ruled. So he’s gone freelance with the villainy, but that still isn’t quite enough. Dukat has an ego, and an ego requires an audience; he needs a place, a context to establish himself at the center of. Which creates a problem for the writers, because what new context can they introduce which hasn’t been done before? Make Dukat the head of a duplicitous theater troupe? Make him a pirate? (Weird how I went to “theater troupe” before “pirate.”) “Actor” or “common criminal” doesn’t have the right ring to it. Dukat would demand something with bombast, something that would help him maintain his conviction that he is right in all things, and the sooner the universe comes around to accepting that, the happier everyone will be.

Making Dukat the leader of a cult devoted to worshipping the Pah-Wraiths makes sense, then. His constant belief in himself, and his way of shifting the past until he comes out looking like a hero means he’s a man who’s more than capable of the sort of self-mythologizing necessary to bring in the suckers; and his encounter with the Pah-Wraith, and the massive (if temporary) effect that encounter had on Bajoran faith, gives him enough mystique to draw in the vulnerable and the soul-weary. It’s a development that can be justified in terms of logic, and that’s always a deadly spot for writers because once you back yourself into it—and especially once you think you can get a whole good episode out of the idea—it must be nearly impossible to back out. Maybe no one involved even realized it wasn’t going to work. Maybe all the rational reasons for why all of this makes sense made it possible to ignore the rotting, unpleasant truth.

Because “Covenant” doesn’t work, despite being well-acted, fitfully entertaining, and character-consistent. And it’s frustrating to watch because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this fails. Kira squaring off against Dukat is always good for some laughs (and by “laughs” I mean “tense, occasionally skin-crawl-inducing drama”), and it’s not as though Dukat is playing against character here. In a way, it’s fascinating; there’s a line between “religious Dukat” and “conniving bastard Dukat,” but while the latter ultimately takes precedence, it’s entirely possible that the former still exists. For much of the episode, Dukat appears to be at peace with his new place in life, and the Bajorans he’s pulled in to follow his path (the cult believes that the Pah-Wraiths, not the wormhole aliens, are the true Prophets, and all the horrible things which have happened to Bajor happened because everyone was following the wrong gods) are all deeply committed to his cause. That’s not to say the cultists can’t have been fooled—they have been, which becomes imminently clear when the one of them gives birth to Dukat’s baby, and he pretends it’s a sign from the Pah-Wraiths. But there’s a weird sort of sincerity to his selfishness. As ever, he makes monstrous decisions (the climax of the episode has him attempting to convince the entire cult to commit suicide on religious grounds, and using a fake poison to save himself), but those decisions are filtered through a new set of justifications. He’s not just a lusty, vengeful psychotic. He has a mission from the gods—and he, like Sisko, is their Emissary. In one of the episode’s more gratifyingly subtle moments, Dukat uses the e-word only once, but it echoes through the rest of the story. Over and over, Dukat tries to prove himself to be more than he is, and over and over he’s brought down by his worst impulses.

Maybe that’s the problem, then. I have no desire to see Dukat “redeemed;” I don’t think such a thing is possible in light of his crimes, and an arc that has him locked away in a prison somewhere (or executed, although I’m not sure if the Federation even does that) doesn’t appeal much either. He gives good villain, and he was arguably the most interesting when our heroes were forced to deal with him even as they despised him. But this shtick gets old after a while, and this episode, which purports to deal in questions of faith and meaning, doesn’t have much depth. Dukat, for all his changes, is a static figure at his core: to admit just how monstrous he was during the Occupation would mean destroying his entire sense of self, and as much as he’s earned such a painful reckoning, it’s never going to happen. If we’ve learned nothing else about the character, we know that Dukat is a master at self-justification. Seeing him all benevolent and supposedly wise doesn’t change this, and while the discovery that he’s been sleeping around a bit makes for a good joke (that Cardassian baby made me laugh), it’s not dramatically engaging anymore. This is just a new set of clothes on the same old plotline; Dukat acts like he’s not a dick, but he’s still a dick, rinse, repeat.

Still, that could’ve been effective if the Bajorans Kira meets after being beamed away to Empok Nor were compelling in their own right. The main suspense of the story should come not from the chance that Dukat might have changed, or the possibility that Kira might turn her back on her faith (which, c’mon), but from the hope that the cultists will realize the truth before it’s too late. And they do, although it’s a very close call, and not all of them can handle the realization. Vedek Fala (Norman Parker) helps Dukat kidnap Kira off the station, and out of everyone we meet, he’s the most convinced of the righteousness of their cause; so when Dukat turns out to be a sham, and Fala poisons himself anyway, there’s a tragedy to that, especially in light of the fact that, as Kira explains, we don’t know for sure why Fala did what he did—was it grief, or a conviction that his faith mattered more than logic? Ambiguity is good, tragedy is good, but the conflict never gets beyond the shouting stage. Not that Fala shouts, exactly, but his adamant convictions, set against Kira’s own rock-solid belief, making for tedious, pointless arguments.

The only other characters to get much screentime are the victims of Dukat’s unfortunately nocturnal predilections. Married couple Mika (Maureen Flannigan) and Benyan (Jason Leland Adams) are irritatingly devout (at least Benyan is), but then Mika gives birth to a Cardassian, and all bets are off. Again: it’s kind of funny, in a mean sort of way, after everyone is so excited about the birth to see Benyan’s face fall when he realizes what probably happened, but it’s not enough. Neither character gets more than a cursory development, which is especially unsettling in Mika’s case; she has a private scene with Dukat, and he apologizes for his “transgressions” (before trying to smother her in an airlock, such a charmer), but it’s impossible to tell if she willingly cheated on her husband with the “charismatic” leader, or if this was a rape, or somewhere in between. She has no agency at all.

Really, apart from Fala, none of the cultists do, which means the episode quickly turns into waiting game for Dukat to finally betray himself enough for Kira to get the upper hand. There are too many scenes of Kira trying hopeless to talk some sense into the cultists, scenes which nominally attempt to create ambiguity by suggesting that the cultists are, in fact, happy with what they have and with their faith. But since we know from the start they’re wrong, the ambiguity doesn’t have any traction at all. “Covenant” isn’t a complete waste. Nana Visitor is great even in a story that limits her reactions, and Marc Alaimo is so excellent as Dukat that it’s almost worth getting a dud plotline like this just to see how he’ll handle it. But as far as character directions go, there’s little of value to be found here. It’s a bad choice just smart enough to look like a good one.

According to the A.V. Club review of Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges:

I wonder what Bashir would do if he learned the real reason why the Romulans aligned with the Federation in the Dominion War. Bastard that I am, I almost wish the truth would come out, just to see what would happen. “In The Pale Moonlight”probably works best if it’s never mentioned again; part of the episode’s power (which I fumblingly tried to explain in my review) comes from the realization that something terrible happened, and no one will ever know about it. Sisko being forced to live with that secret makes for a more distinct, unsettling conclusion. It suggests a universe in which crime and punishment are not an inevitable pairing, and that’s an unusual argument for a Trek show to make. I wouldn’t want to lose that just to kick off a lot of scenes of people yelling at each other about betrayal. Still, it would crush Bashir, and I’d be curious to see how he’d get over it. If he ever did.

“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” (a quote from Cicero which translates to “In time of war, the law falls silent) features the return of Section 31, and it’s about damn time. Their introduction in last season’s “Inquisition” marked a sharp turn for the series, and suggested a level of intrigue and darkness lurking behind Federation politics that no previous Trek series had before. There had been betrayal in the past, and conspiracies, and the occasional over-zealous asshole, but nothing like this: a secret organization willing to use any means necessary to achieve its ends, without oversight or any clear adherence to the law. Sloan and the others weren’t just spies. They were enforcers, kidnappers, and torturers, and none of them showed even the slightest remorse about their behavior. Especially not Sloan. Sadler is as good here as he was in his first appearance on the show—the actor’s innate brusque authority serves as an excellent to Siddig’s increasingly wounded naivete.

Maybe it’s unfair to call Bashir “naive.” After all, up until fairly recently, he lived in a universe where groups like Section 31 only happened to other races; cabals were a Romulan or Cardassian obsession, not something you’d expect from the clean-cut above board Federation of Planets. The big reveal of “Inter” is that Admiral Ross, the heretofore unimpeachable face of Starfleet’s anti-Dominion forces, is perfectly willing to work with Sloan and his methods if those methods garner the right results. Bashir only realizes this after Sloan pulls off his Romulan-frame job (faking his own death in the process), and it would have to be a painful discovery to learn that the very authority he’d counted on to help him bring Section 31 to justice is, in fact, sleeping with the enemy.

This is a necessary twist. If Section 31 was just some cultish outlier made of deluded psychopaths, the threat they represent would be limited; they’d be dangerous in their own right, but as soon as they could be contained, that would be the end of their story. The point of Section 31 isn’t just that they’re a bunch of scary dudes (and ladies) dressed in fascist black leather (trust me, the cows were all very mean). The point is that they suggest a grim expediency to the supposedly pure and incorruptible idealism of Starfleet. The fight against the Dominion is as much about ideology and it is about practical matters, or at least that’s what our heroes tell themselves. Sisko and the others want to maintain their way of life, because they believe that way of life is morally superior. So do we; while it’s possible to have some sympathy for the Founders, their controlling, dictatorial are just another iteration of the kind of enemy the Federation has always faced off against. The Dominion wants to dominate—the Federation wants to give everyone the chance to go their own way.

At least, that’s the assumption. But Section 31 implies that the “good guys” (the ones in command, anyway) aren’t as ideologically pure as we’d like. For Admiral Ross to ultimately be working with Sloan, and worse, using Bashir to make sure Sloan’s plan comes to fruition (and worst of all, damning an innocent Romulan in the process), is a continuation of the initial fall from innocence. First Bashir discovers there’s a secret sect who claim to be working in the best interests of the Federation; then, after he reports that sect to the proper authorities, those authorities betray him, thus completing the lesson that power corrupts. Actually, the true capper in all of this would be for Bashir to discover the truth about Sisko, thus forcing him to reckon with the idea that even the people he trusts the most can do horrible things for complicated reasons. But as I said, I doubt we’ll ever get that moment, and that’s probably for the best.

On those terms, the episode is a gratifying example of the writers refusing to back off from a challenging premise. As a story, it’s a little less successful, if only because it follows the structural arc of Bashir’s last encounter with Section 31. There’s no holodeck program involved, but the good doctor spends most of the hour with the wool pulled over his eyes—the main difference being that this time, he’s foolish enough to believe he’s one step ahead of Sloan’s plans. Long cons are often entertaining to watch, and there’s a grim satisfaction in Bashir discovering the truth a few hours after it’s possible for him to do anything constructive about it. At the same time, the dynamic of the bad (or gray, if you like) guys being five steps ahead of the hero the whole running time remains the same, so as necessary as certain twists are to the greater story, the overall impact of the episode is lessened compared to Sloan and Section 31’s first appearance. Ross’s betrayal is a big deal, but everything leading up to that is a bit old hat.

The value, then, comes from seeing how far the writers will go to fool the audience (and Bashir), as well as the characters Bashir meets along the way. Koval (John Fleck), the Romulan Sloan and Ross are working to put on the ruling council, is a bit of a wash; entertaining enough as a heavy, with a disdain for humans that’s so obvious you can practically hear his stomach turn at the mere sight of Bashir, Koval’s true identity (he’s an inside man for the Federation) doesn’t come out until after he’s left the episode, which means the subtext of his performance only becomes relevant in retrospect. Adrienne Barbeau’s Cretak is more interesting—as a supporter of the Alliance with the Federation she represents the kind of politician which you’d think Star Fleet would want on the council. And yet, with Bashir’s inadvertent help, Section 31 has her stripped of her powers, and possibly even executed, all for doing what should’ve been the right thing.

Bashir eventually confronts Ross with what he’s realized must be the truth, and it’s a good scene. But it’s strange how almost childlike Bashir’s outrage is; while I agree with the doctor’s objections and passion, his righteousness is oddly disappointing, like hearing a college freshman rant about wage slavery and the capitalist system. Bashir is a smart, smart man, but his efforts to shame Ross seem less about changing anything, and more about getting a chance to show off just how much better a human being Bashir is. Maybe years of more cynical genre television have worn me down, but after a while, I just wanted him to shut up and actually do something about all of this, as opposed to being disappointed and judgmental.

More satisfying is the episode’s final scene, in which Sloan comes to thank Bashir for his help, and Bashir just looks tired. The sequence parallels Sloan’s first appearance in the episode: sitting in a chair in the doctor’s bedroom, watching him sleep. (He’s the vampire Edward of government operatives.) Whereas Ross appeared somewhat abashed by Bashir’s accusations, Sloan has no compunctions whatsoever about what he’s done, and the contrast between the two characters makes Bashir’s moral certainty all the more necessary. “Inquisition” offered the hope that our heroes could band together and remove this temporary anomaly of evil from the otherwise pristine Federation government. “Inter” suggests the blight goes far deeper than anyone wanted to believe. Bashir’s rectitude may sometimes make him hard to take, and it may drive him to despair, but at heart, he’s a good man in an impossible situation. Hopefully he’ll react better than Sisko did.

According to the A.V. Club review of Penumbra:

The final third of DS9’s seventh season is, from what I can tell, entirely serialized; “Penumbra” checks in with some characters, and generates some cliffhangers, but it doesn’t operate as a standalone, and I suspect few of the individual hours leading up to the finale will either. Which puts me in an odd spot. I’ve reviewed my fair share of serialized television, but most serialized TV at least tries to run in episodic format, with a beginning, middle, and end. “Penumbra” is largely beginnings, and it’s constructed in such a way to make it clear that the payoffs will all come later. While I firmly believe any single episode can be judged on its own merits, there’s not a lot I can say about what happens here that doesn’t come with a hefty dose of “We’ll have to see where it goes.”

Sisko and Kasidy, sittin’ in a tree, g-e-t-t-i-n e-n-g-a-g-e-d: Well isn’t this nice. The episode starts with Sisko telling Kasidy about some beautiful land he just bought on Bajor, and while the actual proposal doesn’t happen until their next scene together, he’s clearly laying some groundwork. (Or building up the courage to take the plunge.) Given how long the two have been together at this point, marriage makes sense; I believe this may even count as the longest courtship in the show’s history thus far. (Odo has been pining for Kira for longer, maybe, but they aren’t engaged yet.)

The real meat here isn’t the romance, as nice at that is. What matters is the almost immediate conflict between the life Sisko wants to lead, with a simple wedding and a lovely house on Bajor, and the life fate has planned for him. When he and Kasidy discuss their plans in the Promenade, they both indicate a preference for something low key and intimate—but before those plan can be finalized, a young Bajoran girl approaches them and pleads to be allowed to be one of Kasidy’s 51 dias bearers. Then Sisko realizes he and his fiancee are being closely, reverently observed by the stations Bajoran population. He’s still the Emissary, and the Emissary doesn’t get to have a quiet ceremony. He’s a symbol of something larger than himself, and that demands a certain degree of pomp.

Worse is to come; Sisko gets a vision from the Prophets, this time appearing solely in the guise of his birth mother, Sarah. She flat out tells him that he can’t get married, can’t share his path with Kasidy, and it’s striking how comparatively to the point her warning is. Other times, the Prophets have been mystical to the point of opacity, but here, no matter how Sisko tries to deny, the message is clear. The marriage can’t happen. Given what happened the last time Sisko disobeyed, you’d think he’d pay attention, but that’s the trouble with visions—they’re so eerie and detached from real world experience, they’re easy to ignore. It used to be, Sisko followed the Prophets because their wishes didn’t conflict with his own. But lately they’re demands have seem to stand directly in the way of what he wants, and never more so than now. Something’s being set up here; my only hope is that it isn’t entirely devastating. The last time Sisko went his own way, Jadzia died.

Weyoun and Damar, the oddest couple: In some other universe, maybe there’s a show that just focuses on Weyoun and Damar squabbling. I would watch that show. There’s little variation in their conversations; Damar drinks, complains, and accedes to Weyoun’s demands, and Weyoun sneers at him with barely restrained contempt. But it’s still delightful to watch. Sitcoms have been built on less.

The big developments here are the return of Dukat, still preaching the Pah-Wraiths, and the continued ill health of the Female Changeling. We’ve seen the Female Changeling suffering from her illness once before, but the effect remains striking. Where before there was unbroken smoothness is now a mess of pockmarks and cracks, suggesting decay and disease in a way that requires no further explanation. (Okay, I do hope there’s a source for this sickness; the idea of it happening entirely by coincidence is a bit much.) When Weyoun visits her, we find out that a team of Vorta has been working round the clock to find a cure, without any success. The Changeling orders Weyoun to eliminate the Vorta team, and bring in their clones, on the possibility that a fresh perspective might jump start the process. Losing cohesion hasn’t made her soft.

Less obviously unhealthy, but just as disturbing in its way, is Dukat’s transformation from Cardassian to Bajoran. It’s nice to see Marc Alaimo (mostly) out of makeup, but there’s no immediate sense of what his plans are. Nothing good, I’m guessing. (It’s fascinating how he was able to pressure Damar into helping him. Damar’s become one of the show’s best villains, even though he rarely gets more than few minutes of screentime each episode; he’s so clearly in over his head, and going from true believer to self-loathing drunk is a fun arc.)

Ezri saves Worf, news at 11: Of everything that happens in “Penumbra,” this was my least favorite development. If anything, the attempts to create chemistry between Ezri and Worf have been even more forced than whatever Jadzia and Worf had; but at least up until now, it was clear that there was no serious romantic feeling between them. That made sense. Ezri needed to be her own character, and for her to jump into bed with a former host’s husband would be far too confusing, not to mention the fact it would be a violation of Trill law. Yet here we are. When Worf goes missing, Ezri decides to find him. Then they argue a lot. Then Ezri slaps Worf. Then they fuck. Then they get captured by the Breen.

That last part has promise, and I have no objections to the first part, either. It’s entirely in character for Ezri to believe she has an obligation to keep Worf alive even when (nearly) all hope is lost. Sisko is maybe too cavalier about letting her steal a runabout and go off to look for him, but people are always pulling that sort of thing, and since Ezri does ultimately find Worf, all should be forgiven, provided they don’t get murdered by the Breen.

But that make-out session and presumed post-make-out sex irks me. The “we’re so mad at each other we just have to engage in physical intercourse” set-up isn’t one of my favorites, although I don’t deny there’s some truth in it; there are plenty of relationships built more on passion than good sense. It just doesn’t make sense with these two characters. Or, to put it more specifically, the only ways it makes sense strike me as deeply, deeply unhealthy. I’m not sure if it’s the actors or the script, but the passion between Ezri and Worf is highly questionable. Most of the time the two are together in the scenes leading up to the kiss, Ezri is needling Worf because he’s reluctant to discuss things, and she refuses to accept his reluctance.

Maybe that counts as foreplay for Klingons, but it makes Ezri look foolish—worse, actively unpleasant. And having them screw around suggests the return of a romance I’d be more than happy to forget. Thankfully, getting captured by the Breen means they have other things to worry about (I’m amazed, utterly amazed, that Worf didn’t propose marriage immediately after coitus), and I’ll just assume for now that this was a one-time, stress-induced, my-last-host-who-was-your-wife-was-abruptly-killed-so-I-really-needed-closure kind of thing. We’ll find out next week.

According to the A.V. Club review of ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows:

For most of the run of Deep Space Nine, Sisko’s connection to the Prophets has been a gift. An often ambiguous, confusing gift, to be sure, and one which has led him down the path of obsession more than a few times, making spiritual demands on him that were rarely simple or easy to accommodate—but a gift nonetheless. Sisko has never been a stupid man, and it would’ve strained credibility to believe he’d hold onto his faith in the wormhole aliens for as long as he has if that faith wasn’t a positive force in his life. But now the Prophets—at least, one of the Prophets—is trying to warn him off of marrying Kasidy. This confuses things.

Kai Winn is a woman who has used the bedrock of her belief to justify decades of conniving, plotting ambition. It’s a self-serving, corrupt approach to spirituality (in that instead of an expansion of the soul, Winn is perpetually retracting, interpreting events and others’ wishes only through the dim, flickering light of her own needs), but her belief itself is real. Winn’s hypocrisy is buried so deeply it barely even qualifies to be described as such. Her conviction in the Prophets’ righteousness is the cornerstone of her identity; but since that identity is also predicated on the assumption that she and she alone should hold the reins of Bajor’s destiny, there’s none of the enlightenment or generosity that we see in, say, Kira’s devotion. Winn comes first, the Prophets just barely second, and the only reason that hasn’t been a problem for her in the past is that the word of the Prophets allows room for interpretation.

Both of this week’s episodes follow Sisko and Winn as they make important decisions, for reasons which fit well with both characters. The results will have to wait until next week; for now, all we have to go on are the journeys that lead them to turn their backs on the Prophets.

Of the two, Sisko’s situation is the most challenging. With Kai Winn, the “right” answer is clear enough; her greed and ambition have kept her at arms length from her gods, and if she really wanted to repent, she’d follow Kira’s advice and step down. That she doesn’t is both inevitable and a little sad, but it’s not as if she’s treading in confusing moral waters. For Sisko, though, life is more difficult. Just at the moment of his greatest happiness, he gets a message from the Prophets that he shouldn’t marry Kasidy. Not because their union is evil, not because Sisko is doing anything wrong, but because the marriage will only end in “sorrow.”

That’s it; no further explanation is offered, apart from the standard boilerplate of vague, indefinite foreshadowing. Which is what makes the problem so difficult. Telling your lover that you have to cancel the wedding because an alien being who can see through time told you that you should is never going to be an easy conversation. But because of the Prophets’ apparent inability to speak in clear, direct language, Sisko has no concrete reason to obey their wishes other than the fact that they’ve done right by him in the past. Winn’s struggle is with the gods who have ignored her; Sisko’s is with gods who pay just enough attention to him to make his life terribly confusing.

What troubles me about all of this, in a way that Winn’s story doesn’t, is that dramatic convention demands that the Prophets’ warning prove correct. Given the seriousness of “Sarah’s” words, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kasidy ends up dead, in some way that can be laid more or less directly at the feet of Sisko’s choice. (Like, I dunno, if Winn decides to try and attack the Emissary, and it all goes horribly wrong.) And if that does happen, and if it turns into a chance to dramatically punish Sisko for going against the Prophets’ will, there’s a cruelty there that doesn’t sit well with me.

Not cruelty from the Prophets themselves—they’re nearly always more interested in observing life than taking action, and everything “Sarah” told Sisko sounded like the words of someone who knows a bad time is coming, not a threat so much as prophecy—but from the writers. There’s something sadistic about putting a character in this position, because there’s no choice he can make that won’t in some way destroy his life. If the warning had something weightier behind it than poetry, the situation would be less torturous; painful, but at least then Sisko might know the reasons why he’s turning away from the woman he loves. As is, right or wrong, his decision to go ahead with the wedding is the only decision he really could’ve made. Knowing that this will almost certainly lead to heartbreak loads down the ceremony (non-Bajoran) with a heavy sense of portent. It’s drama the presents the illusion of choice but which is really driven by inevitability. That can work amazingly well, but right now, it has me sort of terrified.

Winn’s transformation is more straightforward, and more immediately satisfying. I love how so many of her scenes over the course of these two episodes are just her and Dukat, hanging out in her room, all intimate close-ups and flirting. Winn’s choice is the end result of a carefully constructed con-job, but it’s a con which relies on long-established resentments and insecurities to work. Since her introduction to the series, Winn’s self-regard and ambition have always come into conflict with Sisko’s role as the Emissary, and while her star has risen considerably over the years, there’s just enough self-awareness in her to realize that whatever position she achieves, however much power she attains, Sisko will always be closer to the Prophets. He’ll always matter more. Until now, given Sisko’s general detachment from regular Bajoran life, this is a conflict that’s been left on the back burner. To bring it out now, and for the enemies of Bajor to use it against her, is some smart scripting.

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for Dukat—I’m sorry, “Anjohl” and Winn’s burgeoning romance. While Dukat’s turn as a cult-leader hasn’t been the greatest character shift in the show’s history, his manipulation of Winn works well, moving him from the conflicted, “Am I lying or am I not?” confusion of his previous appearance and returning him to full-fledged villain status. There’s a clarity to his behavior now that makes him more compelling to watch, and it’s fun (in a mean sort of way) to see how easily Winn is played; how much her ego makes her vulnerable and open to this approach. Watching this unfold over the course of two episodes, and seeing how cleverly Dukat handles his role, is as exciting as Sisko’s trajectory is unsettling. Both Sisko and Winn are heading for a fall, but only one of those falls will be deserved.

Ezri and Worf in captivity: a non-rom-non-com

Sex or no sex, the odds of Ezri and Worf becoming a romantic couple were slim to none. My biggest complaint was that the actual mechanics of building to that one-and-done night together were hamstrung by cliche and a lack of notable chemistry between the actors. For Ezri and Worf’s irritation with each other to bubble over into sexual desire, there needed to be something like legitimate passion in their exchanges, however corrupt and fundamentally unworkable. As it was, Ezri was snippy and Worf was grumpy, but the attempts to escalate this played more as a conceptual choice than anything stemming from character. For the sex itself to happen after a “I just slapped you, now we have to make out!” scene is just adding insult to injury.

Thankfully, this week’s pair of episodes do the necessary work of getting Ezri and Worf to where they should’ve been all along: friends, without benefits. To make this happen, the two go through some torture at the hands of the Breen, some soul searching, the discovery that Ezri is actually in love with Bashir (which… okay), and the stunning reveal that the Breen is now working with the Dominion, in a move which, we are assured, will almost certainly end the war. Hold on to that last for now: the important bit is that Ezri and Worf are in captivity together for an extended period of time, and that forced proximity allows them to work through some issues.

These issues aren’t exactly surprising. Post-sex, Worf immediately decides that he and Ezri are going to be married; and when he finds out that Ezri has feelings for someone else, he starts accusing her of using him and breaking his heart. Which is very typical for Worf. Ezri, for her part, tells him to back the hell off. While it’s fine to see that she’s not cowed by his stridency, and that Worf in turn is willing to back down and relax once the initial embarrassment wears off, this hasn’t been the most effective of subplots. By and large, switching to prolonged serialization has been a boon for the final weeks of the show. It benefited Winn’s storyline immensely, and gave Sisko’s internal struggles time to breathe. But the conflict between Ezri and Worf was a non-starter, something that made sense when Ezri was first introduced into the cast, but which should’ve been resolved a long time ago. It’s great to see them working as a team, and I’m much happier with where this arc ended up than with where it began, so let’s just move on.

Damar: An Appreciation

For the longest time, Damar was a write-off; a thug, a second-in-command, a drudge who followed orders, loved his homeland, and didn’t have a sense of humor about anything. Working alongside Dukat, Damar was stuck in the necessary, but not especially thrilling, position of head hench. Dukat made the crazy schemes, the big plans, the bold jumps, and Damar ran alongside him, occasionally looking pained, generally just getting the job done. Then Damar killed Ziyal, and it seemed like he might become some kind of psychopath, broken by his inability to reconcile his twin loyalties to Dukat and Cardassia.

That’s not quite what happened. I’m sure at least part of the reason why Damar drinks is guilt over Ziyal’s death, but her murder hasn’t been a topic of conversation for a while, and Dukat didn’t even mention it when he came to visit. What’s really driving Damar to distraction is the deal with the Dominion, and the ways in which that deal has slowly but steadily eroded the pride and identity of Cardassia. Dukat is an opportunist; like Winn, he values himself above his people. Damar, though—Damar is a patriot. And these seem like bad times for a patriot.

All of which comes to a head in the second half of this week’s double feature, in a way that manages to be both unexpected, inevitable, and thrilling. Throughout the season, the writers have been inserting occasional exchanges between Damar and Weyoun; few of these exchanges have lasted very long, and most of them have simply served to show that the two characters aren’t getting along so great. Their relationship, and Damar’s clear rage over his situation, seemed static. Damar was introduced as a follower, not a leader, and when he took over Dukat’s position as ruler of Cardassia, he wasn’t so much getting a promotion as he was transitioning to a new boss. What’s so impressive in retrospect is how all those earlier scenes, which were bitterly comic and sort of casual in their way, work to justify Damar’s big turn.

Not that this week’s episodes don’t do a large part of the work as well. The deal with the Breen is a bad sign for Cardassia; the Dominion is a group designed for victory above all else, and when they start looking to bring in new allies, it’s a sign that old relationships are getting downgraded. It’s a point made well, if not exactly subtlely, by Weyoun’s relationship with Thot Gor, the leader of the Breen. Thot has some ideas on how to run the war; Weyoun loves all his ideas; Damar watches 500,000 Cardassians die and fumes in the corner. With his bounty-hunter-esque mask and electronic voice, Thot’s presence is largely a sight gag, but it’s a good sight gag, and it’s not hard to understand how the Breen’s presence is a tipping point.

So what does Damar do? He helps Worf and Ezri escape. It’s narratively convenient, but it makes sense: an act of concealable rebellion that allows Damar to offer a hand to the only group that can possibly get Cardassia out of this mess. Plus, Worf did recently snap a Weyoun’s neck, which I’m sure raised him at least a point or two in Damar’s estimation. Things are starting to pull together. Winn has gone to the dark side; Sisko has taken a step down a difficult path; the Dominion has allied with the Breen; Worf and Ezri are racing home; and Damar has decided to take a stand. Something’s coming into view. We just don’t know what it is yet.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Changing Face of Evil and When It Rains…:

After a banner double feature last week, this week’s two episodes find Deep Space Nine sinking into something like stall mode. Or not a “stall,” exactly, but the rising action moves through “The Change Face Of Evil” and “When It Rains…” in fits and starts. There are moments of revelation and action, but they sit cheek by jowl with character bits that serve mostly to hold the space before the next big calamity. Some of this works, and yet nearly all of it feels like set-up, as so much of these episodes do. Serialization is great for world-building and establishing relationships, but the drawback is the constant push to move forward. Everything that happens just turns into something that happened on the way to something else.

Basically, too much serialization and episodes start to lose cohesion as individual units; they instead become collections of scenes which only have value when put together with a bunch of other scenes we won’t see until next week, and the week after that. If you’re telling stories on television, you need to use the episodic structure to your benefit. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. Some of it might be more interesting than other stuff, but a show can’t really survive on a few good scenes. There needs to be cohesion—and ironically, that push for cohesion, for a sense of a greater overarching narrative, is what drives writers to serialization in the first place.

But enough empty theory talk, let’s break this down.

This Is How You Lose Me: Winn and Dukat

Oh hey, here’s another subplot I was happy to watch develop which ultimately turned around and bit me in the face. I need to stop doing that.

Look, there are elements to like about Winn and Dukat’s slow, painful falling out. Viewed in broad terms, there’s a certain poetry to Dukat finally being punished for trying to rise above his station; and Winn’s descent into evil is convincing, in that she’s unhappy and frustrated, and then horrified when she learns Dukat’s true identity—but that horror doesn’t stop her from murdering her subordinate and pushing forward with her research into freeing the Pah-Wraiths. All of this seems pretty necessary to happen, in terms of wherever the hell this is going. By which I mean, there aren’t any major character missteps, and I’m guessing the Pah-Wraiths are going to factor into the show’s end game.

But as it plays out, all of this takes much too long, with too many scenes of Solbor fretting over Winn’s infatuation with “Anjohl,” and too many scenes of Dukat trying to soothe Winn with promises that everything will work out fine in the end. A certain monotony sets in, and while Sobor’s death certainly adds a jump, it still doesn’t transform what’s basically just two people sitting in a room squabbling about abstract philosophical concerns. Oh no, the book of evil! Oh no, Winn is turning her back on the Prophets! And so on and so forth. No matter how worked up Louise Fletcher gets (and she does a very good job of showing Winn’s mind shattering and then reforging itself), these are still ideas without, as of yet, practical or immediate value.

The reason that Dukat’s seduction of Winn worked so well was that there was an actual, clear conflict: the struggle for Winn’s soul. You could argue that’s still abstract (I mean what the hell is a soul, anyway), but there was suspense and fascination in watching Dukat strip her of her principles without her knowledge. The tension came from wondering if Winn would realize what was happening before she went too far, and then, if maybe this was secretly what Winn had wanted all along—the chance to forge her own path, her own religion, with presumably herself as a centerpiece.

Technically speaking, “The Changing Face Of Evil” has some of this tension, as Winn doesn’t realize what Dukat is doing until Solbor breaks the news about his Cardassian DNA, and even then, still has the chance to turn things around for herself right up until the moment where she stabs Solbor in the back. (This is one of those semi-forced big turning points where you know what’s coming, and you can see it coming for a long time, and it’s really by the grace of Fletcher, who does this half-stunned, half-terrified thing, that it works as well as it does.) But her decision was essentially already made, and even learning the truth doesn’t alter Winn’s course very much.

It should be freeing, at least initially, to see the Kai embrace her inner villain. And there is some satisfaction to see her turn the tables on Dukat, albeit in a way which is less cleverness on her part than it is taking advantage of a magical mishap. Maybe that’s the real problem here: the “magic.” Once Winn has made her choice, the focus of the story shifts from character to mythology, and that’s rarely an upgrade. Winn spends most of her time in these episodes, when she isn’t murdering people or kicking former lovers who are now blind out into the street, doing research. Research in a “forbidden book,” no less. Forbidden books are always a warning sign, culturally speaking, and this subplot leans far too much on taking what should be a metaphor and making it literal fact.

This might’ve played better if stripped down to a single episode; as is, stretched to two, there’s too little urgency, and we’re allowed to much time to contemplate everything, and wonder if it’s possible for the show to put too much emphasis on mysticism over science. In the past, Sisko’s dealings with the Prophets have straddled the line between the two ideas well enough, but an evil book which zaps someone in the eyes and makes them blind even though there’s nothing medically wrong with them—that’s something else entirely. As great as Fletcher is, Winn just isn’t that compelling enough to justify this much screentime, and regardless of how important all of this will be to the finale, too much of this feels unnecessary and prolonged.

Do you hear the Cardassians sing?

Well, Damar is on one heck of a winning streak. Deciding to take a stand against Weyoun and the predatory grip of the Dominion, the daughter-killing former drunk manages to mount an impressive, if somewhat limited, rebellion. And for one episode, it’s badass. First Damar finds himself a second in command—Damar’s Damar, so to speak—then, with impressive speed and resources, he launches an attack on a cloning facility in Cardassian territory, before announcing to the empire his intentions to beat back the Dominion forces. Whereas so much of these final episodes has been marked by steady, patient plotting, Damar’s actions in “The Changing Face Of Evil” come in a rush, and serve partially to balance the crushing defeat the Federation receives at the hands of the Breen three-quarters of the way through the episode. Everything may be turning to shit, Damar’s speech seems to say, but if the Cardassians can become allies, who knows what might happen?

As with Winn, once Damar makes his choice, the character dynamic shifts from the tension to decision, to all forward momentum. But where Winn’s decision to go full Pah-Wraith was hindered by her doubts, Damar has no such compunctions; there’s a thrilling straightforwardness to him, a clarity that makes him exciting to watch. After a season or two of watching him drink himself into a stupor while Weyoun quips from the sidelines, Damar has finally grown himself a spine, and it’s a development as unexpected as it is exciting.

The excitement pales a bit in “When It Rains…” as the focus shifts from Damar to Kira. Cardassians may be great fighters (at least, I’ve always assumed they were), but they aren’t very good at guerilla warfare, especially not with old bull-in-a-china-shop Damar leading things. Once the Federation makes contact with the Cardassian resistance, Sisko decides they need to send someone into Dominion territory to make contact with Damar and the others and give them a schooling in how to be sneaky terrorists. He decides Kira is the only choice, and orders her off, accompanied by Garak (naturally) and Odo (again, naturally).

Conceptually, this has potential. There’s something almost narratively sadistic about putting Kira in a position where she has to teach her former oppressors how to free themselves from oppression, especially given Damar’s involvement. As Kira reminds Sisko, she considered Ziyal a part of the family, and her death at Damar’s hands is a crime that remains unpunished. Tensions pop up in various places once Kira and the others arrive at the camp, with various Cardassians chafing under Bajoran counsel, especially when Kira explains to them that they’re need to be willing to attack their own people if they want to have any hope of success.

The problem is again one of serialization; all we get in “When It Rains…” is set-up, scenes which establish why both sides would be reluctant to work together, but without any of the necessary pay-off to that reluctance. Either the Cardassian resistance will win a victory thanks to Kira’s advice, or they’ll turn on her. Neither of these have happened yet, so instead of a story with a beginning, middle, and end, we get something that starts and builds but doesn’t really end up anywhere.

Compare that to, say, Damar’s decision to turn on the Dominion. First, we get the great scene of him helping Worf and Ezri to escape; and while that scene sets up what’s to come, it also serves as a conclusion to Damar’s arc with Weyoun. The next episode tells the story of Damar building his rebel army and their first big assault. While that’s a piece of a larger tale, it functions on its own as a coherent narrative. Damar’s speech to Cardassia serves to drive the larger story forward, but it also serves just fine as a conclusion; the break which began in the previous episode is now complete.

Kira’s struggles in the Cardassian camp didn’t need to be as dramatic or as impactful, but there should be at least some sense that things have reached a temporary conclusion, however unstable. Which is something that comes up often in these two episodes, especially the second. It must be challenging to plot out events over so much time, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating to watch decent but middling plots drain away the urgency. Maybe a refusal to provide even an illusion of closure is an attempt to keep building the tension until it peaks in the finale, but right now, that’s not what’s happening.

Goodbye, Defiant.

The Defiant done got blowed up. That was sad.

…okay, I probably say more than that, but really, as much as I liked the stories that ship made possible, I wasn’t particularly attached to it. I liked what it represented, I guess—the show striking outward from its home base, and the greater narrative investment in the Dominion War. But as an actual vehicle, it never really inspired much affection in me. Maybe I’m just not as impressed by the trappings of sci-fi shows as I should be. Kira getting a Starfleet commision mostly just made me realize that she didn’t already have one. Then I promptly forgot about it, until just now.

But hey, the space battle in which the Defiant goes down was great, and it was good to finally get some hard evidence on the prowess of the Breen. This is totally the kind of ending I was talking about above, and it will be interesting to see how the loss will affect Sisko’s place in the final days of the war. Hard to be a captain when you don’t have a ship.

Ezri and Bashir and—oh, I’m sorry, I was going to say more but just happened to be cut off by a painfully contrived convenience.

Seriously, either have them hook up or don’t. This “Bashir thinks Ezri is in love with Worf, and before Ezri can explain otherwise, something something” crap is the worst.

Section 31, Section 31, What Have You Done

They created the virus which is killing the Changelings, for one. And worse (at least from our perspective), they used Odo to do it, infecting him during his last check-up at Starfleet medical, which in turn allowed him to pass on the illness when he linked with the Female Changeling. I’m not sure how the timing of this works out, but if I had to guess, I’d say it seems like Section 31 didn’t have any concrete reason to believe that Odo would be linking with the Founders any time soon. They just made him sick on the chance that they might be able to use him to murder his entire race. Which is cool.

Bashir discovers all this when he finds that Odo actually has the sickness after all; in the good doctor’s efforts to get ahold of Odo’s medical records, he uncovers conspiracy which leads him to deduce a Section 31-orchestrated cover-up. (He works most of this out while talking with Miles in Sick Bay, and since we’re talking spin-offs, I really want a show about Bashir solving medical mysteries, and O’Brien hanging out with him. Like House, only the lead isn’t an ass.) There’s no definitive proof of any of this, but it sounds too plausible not to be true, and we’re getting awfully close to the wire to start introducing fake conspiracies.

This is one of those revelations which I suspect will work better for me in retrospect. There’s plenty to like about it. For one, it has Bashir finally figure something out ahead of the bad guys (at least, I’m assuming that him discovering the source of the Changeling sickness isn’t some epic mind fuck), and it’s nice to see the character get a chance to learn from the past, and not always be the idealist who only realizes the universe is rotten too late to change anything. And this makes sense, in a way a more outlandish or unexpected resolution arguably wouldn’t have. The last we saw Sloan, he was already looking forward to where the Federation would stand after the Dominion War, and while part of that isvjust the character’s inherent arrogance, knowing that he had every reason to believe that the Founders wouldn’t be around much longer helps justify his attitude.

Yet as it stands right now, I feel a little disappointed. There’s something so inevitable about the reveal that it loses a lot of the surprise, and the discovery doesn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know. Section 31 is a bunch of murdering creeps who’ll commit any atrocity if it will help them achieved their perceived goals. Gasp. I’m not even sure Bashir’s discovery is supposed to be surprise; it’s presented straightforwardly enough, albeit with some Kafkaesque dark comedy as Bashir tries to track down Odo’s medical records. Regardless, it’s a perfectly fine twist, and one which it will be interesting to watch play out over the final weeks. Unless Odo dies. I will be very sad if Odo dies.

Sisko and Kasidy squabble a bit because, uh, stuff—hey look, it’s Martok!

No one cares about the Sisko and Kasidy scenes, which are falling into pretty predictable married couple stuff, albeit with the added bonus of Sisko using his power as an officer to try and “protect” his wife in ways she doesn’t want protecting.

Really, though, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Martok, who gets inducted into the Order of Kahless, only to find that Gowron is using the occasion as an excuse to take command of the Klingon fleet. Which is a dick move on his part, motivated by jealousy over Martok’s status in the Empire as the best damn Klingon there is. Like so much else this week, this is set-up without pay-off, which makes it intriguing, but frustratingly unfinished. But at least the fact that Gowron is leading everyone into disaster at a time when the Klingon forces are even more critical than usual makes for a good cliffhanger. That’s probably the best and worst that can be said for this week: lots of plot shifting, some revelations, some fine moments, and a good cliffhanger. Fingers crossed all these dominos start tumbling soon.

According to the A.V. Club review of Tacking Into the Wind:

You want to talk about call-backs? “Tacking Into The Wind” features the semi-resolution of a plotline that’s been a mainstay of the Trek-verse for years; it goes back, in fact, all the way to the first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode“Heart Of Glory.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what happens in “Tacking Into The Wind” had been planned from the start. I highly doubt it had, and the idea that television storytelling needs to have everything set in stone before the first episode begins is a pernicious, harmful fallacy. But “Heart Of Glory,” which wasTNG’s first real attempt to give Worf more to do than glowering, introduced the concept of a Klingon Empire torn between the dictates of its warrior culture, and a slow, inevitable shift towards peace.

This conflict, and the way it allowed for an increasingly corrupt central government (in that Klingons were so eager to believe they could still be their old conquering selves that they’d put up with just about anything from their rulers), defined Worf’s arc through both TNG and Deep Space Nine. And in this episode, it finally peaks as Worf, sick of Gowron’s bad leadership and petty jealousies, challenges the chancellor to a duel to the death.

As arc closure go, it’s more of a “Oh, nice” than a grand operatic conclusion, but it’s still thrilling to see DS9 do its best to close things out on a high note. Worf’s earlier conversation with Ezri (a conversation which inspires him to eventually challenge Gowron after Martok refuses to do it himself) allows the counselor to put as neat a bow on the situation as you might like; and while Ezri’s short summation of the situation could’ve played as an over-simplification, it comes across instead as a gratifying moment of clarity, for both Worf and the audience.

The Klingon Empire is dying. Empires tend to do that, especially if they can’t adapt. As brave and passionate and frequently entertaining as Klingons can be, “adaptation” isn’t their strong suit. After all of Worf’s efforts to hold back the inevitable, Ezri forces him to face the truth. Gowron is a symptom of a deeper problem. Dealing with him, as satisfying as that is, will only delay the inevitable; the Empire needs a leader who is capable of bringing his people together and working with outsiders towards a new future. Martok, with his low-born blood and all-around awesomeness, should fit the bill quite nicely.

The Klingons aren’t the only empire struggling to rebrand itself. “Tacking Into The Wind” also pushes the conflict between Kira and the Cardassians to a head, and the results are more optimistic than one might expect. The episode as a whole shows the benefit of all the build-up that came before it, as for the most part we’re able to cut to the heart of a crisis without needing to spend much time establishing the conflicts. We already know that Martok is frustrated and Gowron is insane, because we saw evidence of that in previous episodes; when Worf decides to take matters into his own hands, it’s a culmination of conflict that’s been around for longer than just this week. Similarly, the tension between Kira and Rusot has been well-established, and while that led to a sort of stasis in previous episodes, it means that when Rusot finally confronts Kira and makes the mistake of laying a hand on her, it plays as inevitable, and not forced.

Also helpful is how this episode establishes the real reason for Kira’s work. Defeating the Dominion is the top priority, and her strategy and advice are key to establishing Damar’s forces as an effective guerilla fighting team. But there’s a question of what happens to Cardassia after the Dominion leaves, a question that hadn’t really come up at all until Garak mentions it. Rusot, with his instant distrust of Kira and stubborn refusal to change, represents the old ways; cleverly enough, most of his objections are understandable (he doesn’t want to risk Cardassian lives, and he’s frustrated when Kira criticizes a successful mission for an obvious mistake), but the contempt which drives them isn’t. In the little we’ve seen of Cardassian leadership (Dukat and the Obsidian Order among others), there’s an investment in domination and control which can’t go forward if the society wants to thrive.

This has all been such an inherent part of the Cardassian culture on the show that it never even occurred to me that it could change. But then, that’s the hallmark of a great plot development, especially one that moves in the direction of optimism over pessimism. Damar’s decision to finally stand up for himself and for his people has sparked a wave of reform in his soul that would’ve seemed utterly impossible a season ago, and it’s impressive just how well the show manages to sell the idea that he might ultimately be able to make things better. It doesn’t hurt that Garak is the first person to mention the idea. The tailor might not be the most trustworthy character on the show, but he knows (and loves) Cardassia as well as anyone, and when he tells Kira that Damar might be the last chance his people have left for a future, the statement carries weight.

Garak’s words come after a short confrontation between Damar and Kira, one which sets up the episode’s climax. After learning that his family has been murdered by the Dominion (he had a wife? Huh), Damar is shocked into wondering what kind of people would give such orders, would target innocents in a perverted attempt to enforce “justice.” Kira, unable to stop herself, says, “Yeah, Damar, what kind of people give those orders.” It’s not a question.

This is the first acknowledgement between the two that Kira still remembers Ziyal’s murder, and even behind that, there’s the memory of all those years of Cardassian occupation behind her words. It’s a tense moment, as even Kira wonders if she may have gone too far, but it’s a necessary one. To fight and win against the Dominion is good and necessary goal, but if there’s a chance for something more than that, it’s worth striving for. Where before, Kira work with Damar and Rusot had seemed more designed to force her into close contact with people she despised, here the episode reveals the true purpose of the arc all along. Kira isn’t there to suffer, or even learn any lessons (unless she’s learning that even someone like Damar can change). She’s there to offer Damar a chance to recognize the mistakes and horrors of the past, and perhaps make it possible for something better to arise.

All of this comes to a head when Kira, Damar, Garak, Rusot, and Odo attempt steal a Breen ship. It’s a well-constructed suspense sequence (predictably, things go well right up until the moment when they nearly fall apart completely) that’s notable for two reasons: one, Rusot’s sudden, disastrous decision to end Kira’s involvement in the cause; and two, Odo’s collapse. The latter incident gives Odo and Kira a few nice moments together, but it’s the former that offers as a decisive a conclusion to Damar’s internal struggles as we’re likely to get. Rusot pulls a phaser on Kira; Garak pulls a phase on Rusot; and Damar, after hearing arguments from both sides, shoots Rusot. “He was my friend,” he explains, “but his Cardassia is dead and won’t be coming back.”

It’s as upbeat as a scene that ends in murder can be, although it’s tied for that status with Worf’s fight against Gowron. After having been such an important (if mostly unseen) part of the Klingon government for so long, it’s a little surprising to see Gowron go down, but it works, largely for the reasons stated at the beginning of this review (you can check if you like, I’ll wait); Worf deciding he has to take a stand is a pay-off that’s been a long time coming, and those few seconds in which he wears Gowron’s robe are thrilling stuff. But Worf has learned some valuable lessons over the years, and his decision to hand leadership over to Martok is also a culmination of a sort. Worf realizes that however much he might want it, he is not the man to bring his people together. Once again, he sacrifices personal glory for the sake of his people. There’s a lot of nobility floating around this week, and it’s notable that DS9 manages to make so much of it authentically inspiring.

According to the A.V. Club review of Extreme Measures:

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention O’Brien or Bashir once in my review of the previous episode. They certainly have scenes in it. And they’re good scenes, too! Very banter-y. But the majority of the Bashir/O’Brien action is in this week’s second episode, which is the closest thing to a standalone that we’ve had in quite some time. Not only does the hour stick with one story, and tell that story largely through the perspective of its two leads, but the whole thing feels rather charmingly old school: a mind-fuck plot about the intrepid doctor and his faithful engineer companion (feel free to reverse this if you like) and their efforts to find a cure to Odo’s disease by linking electronically with the contents of Sloan’s dying brain.

DS9 has run stories like this before. Not this specifically, sure, but the sort of dream logic and mind games Bashir and O’Brien have to endure before finding their way to the truth have a pleasingly familiar ring, right down to the “Wait, what if we aren’t actually out of the program?” twist. In the past, this predictability could’ve been a little tiresome, even with O’Brien and Bashir at the helm. With everything else that’s been going on, giving up so much screentime to two characters could’ve seemed like a waste of time. But it doesn’t come across that way.

Partly this is because the stakes are very high throughout, if not for O’Brien and Bashir (they’re technically in danger of dying if they stay inside Sloan’s head for too long, but c’mon), then for Odo. Along with everything else it did well, “Tacking Into The Wind” did a fine job of establishing just how sick Odo was, and doing it in such a way where it legitimately seemed possible that the constable might die. “Extreme Measures” reinforces this possibility by sticking Odo in what looks like an open coffin, giving him a tearful goodbye with Kira, and then having Bashir telling him he has a week, maybe two, left to live. It can be difficult for a show to try and generate extended suspense from a threat to a major character—spend too long on the threat, and it becomes comical, but end it too easily, and it becomes that much harder a trick to play down the line. But given how close we are to the series finale, it seemed all too possible that Odo might succumb.

That gives us a very good reason to care about what Bashir and O’Brien are doing, and the episode also does a good job of establishing why they have to do it. Bashir’s genetically enhanced brilliance makes him potentially the only person in the universe who might have worked out a cure on his own, but even he needs time to work in, and Odo doesn’t have any time left. So O’Brien comes up with a cunning plan: Bashir can send a message to Starfleet saying he’s found a cure, even though he hasn’t; Section 31, panicking that the cure might fall into the hands of the Changelings and ruin their plans, will have to send an operative to the station to destroy whatever Bashir’s discovered.

It’s devious, and there’s something a tad uncomfortable about how quickly both Bashir and O’Brien latch onto the plan, and how they ultimately carry it out. The episode doesn’t really offer any overt commentary on their behavior one way or the other (outside of Sisko doing his exasperated dad routine), but while I certainly don’t like either character less than I did, I do think it’s intentional that the choices they make be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. We are informed at least twice that the Romulan mind scanners that Bashir obtains to dig the truth out of the Section 31 operative’s brain are illegal; and if you remove the sci-fi trappings, Bashir and O’Brien are basically trying a form of torture, albeit one that keeps their hands largely clean.

That’s the danger of trying to fight someone like Sloan. The tactics he has at his disposal seemingly require you to meet them with similar tactics of your own. It’s very satisfying to see the look on the bastard’s face when Bashir gets the drop on him. (Sloan makes the mistake of trying that appearing-in-the-bedroom trick, and Bashir is ready for him.) Sadler does a good job of showing what it might be like for someone like Sloan to be in a position where the control and detachment he depends on to do his “work” are no longer available. But there’s something pathetic about him too. Not in a way that makes him sympathetic, but he’s at least human. When Sloan chooses to kill himself rather than let the cure to Odo’s sickness fall into the wrong hands (ie not his), he’s operating under the grip of a kind of perverse idealism. He believes in his cause, right up until the end, and that’s what made him dangerous.

The other reason why this episode works, I think, is because it plays a bit like an homage to similar episodes in the past; episodes which were maybe never quite as clever as the writers wanted them to be, but which still, in their silly, dreamy, occasionally twisted, belong to the heart of what Trek is. This is a franchise about exploration, after all, and while DS9 chose to do its exploring from a political and social perspective more than frontier one, it still found time to poke into people’s brains to try and figure out what makes them tick. I’m not sure what’s in store for us in the final (sob) three hours, but it’s entirely possible that this the last real crazy sci-fi premise we’re going to get before the end. Maybe the Breen will turn out to be something special, maybe we’ll get some technobabble; I have no doubt the Prophets will return, and we still have to deal with that Pah-Wraith craziness. But this could very well be the end of a certain kind of loopiness for the show, so that makes me inclined to view it more kindly.

Even if I wasn’t so inclined, it is all pretty clever. The scene of “good” Sloan giving a speech to his extended family about how sorry he is that he let them all down is the sort of thing that takes a good actor to pull off, and Sadler handles it quite well; the twist that Sloan tricks Bashir and O’Brien into thinking they’re out of his mind lasts long enough to be convincing (although the fact that it’s Sisko and Worf who “rescue” them, not Sisko and Ezri, is a good clue); and the final confrontation in Sloan’s brain office, as Bashir tries to collect all the information on Section 31 he can while the walls shake and fall around them, is a fine climax.

There’s also time (a lot of it) for Bashir and O’Brien to banter, which is just fine by me. As great as the story has been these final weeks (and whatever my complaints, it has been great), the characters are what I’m going to miss the most. That’s always the way it is with the shows we love the most. It’s not grand opera or tragedy, but Bashir and O’Brien arguing over whether or not O’Brien likes Bashir more than he likes his wife.. that’s just kind of perfect, y’know? Section 31 remains at large, though Sloan is gone for good, and that’s not really a surprise; organizations like Section 31 don’t ever stay down for long. But the ending is hopeful nonetheless. Odo is saved (and that shot of him returning himself was delightful), and Bashir and O’Brien are still best friends forever. That’ll do just fine.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Dogs of War:

It was the best of episodes, it was the worst of episodes. It was the tale of Damar’s rebellion finally reaching the people of Cardassia; it was the tale of the Ferengi and the Grand Nagus and a whole lot of nonsense. It was the—okay, you get the point. “The Dogs Of War” has two storylines and one subplot, and it is, by my rough estimate, about half a classic. Which is great, because half a classic is better than nothing, but the difference in tone and quality between Kira’s adventures on Cardassia, and Quark’s delusions of grandeur, are distracting at best, infuriating at worst. Even viewed as a whole, this isn’t close to a bad hour of television. It’s just, after the heights of last week, it’s disappointing to see the writers fumbling so close to the finish line.

It’s not hard to understand why certain mistakes were made, though. As DS9comes to the end of things, it’s only fair to try and give every major character on the show their own story before the end; not a send-off, per se (as I assume we’re saving those for the finale), but a tip of the hat to Sisko, Odo, O’Brien, and the rest, a way to reference and remind us of how much we’ve come to care about these characters, and how sorry we’ll be when they go.

Quark deserves this as much as anyone. Armin Shimerman is a terrifically talented actor, and he’s managed to make some of the show’s lousiest Ferengi-centric episodes work; over the run of the series, he’s ensured that Quark’s struggles have always come from a believable, centered place, even when those struggles were openly absurd. Comedy tends to work better when the fictional people inside of it don’t realize they’re supposed to be funny, and no matter how implausible or foolish the situation became, Shimerman nearly always found some sort of truth in it. (We are going to leave “Profit And Lace” out of this, because the script was so fucked from the get go that not even great acting could save it.)

So I don’t begrudge Quark getting one last chance to freak out over Ferenginar politics. And at least none of this was openly hateful or cruel. It’s just pointless, and to give up so much episode time to it, while Kira, Damar, and Garak are fighting for their lives (and the Dominion War rages around them) only makes the nonsense that much more irritating to watch. I’ve read commenters complaining about this as a general problem in the final two seasons, but I’m not sure it’s ever bothered me as much as it does in this episode. I can accept the occasional detour. Life goes on even in war-time, and I honestly prefer a series that mixes serialization alongside the occasional standalone, especially in a season this long. This, though…

The problem is that the whole premise is so dumb that you spend the entire time waiting for the other shoe to drop. Quark receives a transmission from Grand Nagus Zek informing him that Zek is retiring; Zek also seems to say that he’s naming Quark as his successor. This is obviously not going to happen. Quark being falsely promoted to the Grand Nagus position is a premise the show has used before, and because the offer happens at the beginning of this episode, it’s painfully clear that there’s some twist we aren’t seeing. (The twist: Zek thought he was talking to Rom.)

That’s bad. Worse is that Quark is immediately and unquestioningly convinced that his dreams are about to come true. He’s never been quite as clever as he thinks he is, but Quark is also not an idiot, and to watch him spend most of the hour preening about how rich he’ll be, before getting upset when he learns of all the changes Zek has made in Ferengi law, is immensely frustrating. It’s never a great idea to have an audience be this far ahead of a character, and the fact that no one in Quark’s group of friends and relations even briefly questions what’s going on is just dumb. Also, why the hell is Brunt there? Is he tapping into Zek’s communications?

The real gag here is how Quark resists the progressive developments in Ferengi civilization, developments which, to any sane person, are clearly positive changes. This is a joke the show has done before, and Quark’s “The line must be drawn here!” speech (which references Picard’s speech in First Contact; I guess it’s intended as parody) is well-delivered and decently funny.

But none of this has any real place to go, and as theoretically delightful as it is to learn that Rom has become the ruler of his entire civilization, it’s not worth the time it takes to get there. The joke that Quark is getting all inspired to defend brutal, unrepentant capitalism and everyone-for-himself corruption is played out, and Zek and Moogie have lost their charm. Amusing as it is to see Brunt (two Combs for the price of one) toadying up to Quark, these are just old routines, without any bite or purpose. Even Quark’s discovery that he really isn’t going to be the Grand Nagus has no spark to it. There’s just no story left to tell here, and while the actors give it their all, and there’s no obvious incompetence (it’s even fairly well paced), the whole thing is a drag.

Everything else is quite good, thankfully. There are the little things, like Odo learning the truth about his infection—who caused it, and why. He’s understandably upset, and the episode doesn’t try to deny or put aside the intensity of his anger. As ever, the multitude of perspectives shines through: you have Bashir, understandably proud of finding the cure, but not quite able to face Odo’s frustration; you have Sisko, who orders Odo not to bring the cure to the Founders for reasons that are both horrible and make perfect sense; and you have Odo, faced with the idea that he inadvertently provided the means by which Section 31 could commit genocide. It’s possible to sympathize with everyone here, and that sympathy puts the viewer in the uncomfortable position of not immediately knowing what the “right” choice is, a DS9 hallmark.

There’s also the resolution of the Ezir/Bashir arc; it’s inconsequential (in that it’s entirely cliche), but takes up considerably less time than, say, Quark’s complaints about taxation. Bashir’s giddiness throughout is fun to watch, and O’Brien and Worf’s observational commentary is funny. And really, it’s just good to get this all over with.

Finally, there’s the real heart of the episode: the apparent destruction of Damar’s rebellion, followed by a triumphant rise from the ashes. If I have any criticism to make, it’s that the whole thing goes down very quickly. We start with Kira, Garak, and Damar visiting Cardassia to meet with new potential recruits, only to find the whole thing was a trap. The three escape, but their getaway vehicle is shot down. Garak finds a safe house in the basement of Mila, Enabran Tain’s old housekeeper, and he and the others watch in horror as Weyoun announces the annihilation of all 18 of the Cardassian resistant cells.

It’s a great set-up for a story, but given how much of its time the episode spends on DS9, it sometimes feels like we’re getting the “greatest hits” version of everything that follows. But that’s a minor nitpick, and one that I’m not even entirely is convinced is valid; at this point, the show doesn’t have the room to give us a long, drawn out ground rebellion, and besides, we’ve already spent a considerable amount of time watching Kira work with Damar and the others. The seeds have been planted. Now it’s time for them to bear fruit.

And do they ever. After hearing from Mila that Damar has become a kind of folk hero to the masses (Weyoun claimed that he was killed, but no one on Cardassia appears to believe him), Kira decides that there’s still a chance: if they can exploit Damar’s status, and inspire the people to rise against their Dominion oppressors, the rebellion can still be won. She comes up with a plan to bring Damar back into the limelight, and after some suspense with a pair of Jem’Hadar guards, our intrepid band of freedom fighters blow up a Jem’Hadar barracks. Damar, after first killing one of the Jem’Hadar guards and then shielding some civilians from the blast—hero stuff that doesn’t actually come across as calculated or forced—he gives a rousing speech. Then he and Garak are swept away by the triumphant crowd as Kira disappears into the shadows.

There’s a lot to love about this. Damar’s transformation from dull flunky and murderer to a man of deep principle and vision is complete, and it all made sense, every step of the way; a character arc which almost certainly wasn’t planned from the start, but which flows naturally from beginning to end. Other characters have changed over the course of the series, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one who’s changed as substantially as Damar has. Dukat went through a number of different roles, but his core remained corrupted and self-focused throughout. Damar, on the other hand, has developed an actual soul. The fact that so much of this played largely in the background of the final seasons just makes it all the more powerful. It catches you off guard. I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds of oafish seconds-in-command in my years watching genre shows and movies, and they’re always the first ones to get shot when the dying starts. Damar survived, and what’s more, he learned from experience.

But while Damar is the most impressive accomplishment of this penultimate hour, Kira’s arc is critical as well. The point was never to force Kira into a painful, and potentially deadly, situation. The point was to give her a chance to do for Cardassia what she’d done for her own people, and, in the act, transcend some of the horrors of her past. None of what happens with Damar will alleviate the violence and suffering of the Cardassian occupation, but there’s a power to Kira first helping the Cardassians fight against their own oppressors, and then offering an example that reminds their new leader that the stakes are higher than mere freedom. While she’ll probably never get the credit for it, Kira essentially sets the course for Cardassia’s future (assuming that Damar’s rebellion is victorious, which I’m guessing it will be), and that’s fantastic. (Meanwhile, Garak, after a lifetime in the shadows, is getting pushing center stage next to the man who killed the woman he loved. Life, y’know?)

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Sisko and Kasidy, but the final scene of the episode drops a bombshell. A nice bombshell, to be sure, but one with some unsettling implications. Kasidy is pregnant, and while I’m still leery about the Prophets and their vague warnings, Kasidy’s utter terror at the thought that “the path of sorrow” might mean danger for their child helps to make an esoteric concept into something present and frightening. Any potential parents worry about the safety of their offspring, after all. Knowing that time-adjacent aliens have promised dark times ahead isn’t going to make that worry easier to handle.

As we head into the series finale, only a handful of major plot threads remain open. The Dominion War is still ongoing; the Founders are still dying; Kai Winn is presumably still working on a way to release the Pah-Wraiths; and something something Sisko and the Prophets. That’s a lot of material left to work through and still have time for a satisfying conclusion. But I have faith. Also, a lot of crossed fingers.

According to the A.V. Club review of What You Leave Behind:

When I was younger, I thought of life as a series of immovable objects. Here was home. Here was my bedroom. Here was my mother, my father, my sister; here was the school I went to, the backyard I played in, the books I read, the shadows at night, and the light in the morning. These were not passing fads. These were as solid as stone, and good and bad, they belonged to me. And yet at some point, the stone started to crumble. I can’t remember when that was, exactly. High school, maybe, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. One day the world was a series of unshakable truths, and the next, I was looking to college and fighting with Mom, and my sister and I didn’t speak the same language anymore. One day, home was a place that would always be there. The next, I was leaving.

And now I’m leaving again, just like all of us.

“What You Leave Behind” is an imperfect series finale. Most series finales are. Writers and actors and directors go to great lengths to create a TV world in which each story folds neatly into the next one, and to suddenly have to shut everything down in a way that provides closure to multiple seasons worth of character and plot development isn’t easy. So we grade on a curve. If not every story twist works, if not every beloved cast-member gets the send-off they deserve; if some scenes lean a little too hard on easy emotions; if it’s not exactly what we’ve been dreaming of for however many years it took us to get to this point… we let it go. If enough is right, you let the rest of it go, with the understanding that sometimes, there are things more important than perfect grades.

There are definitely some bumps in this road, though. The end of the Pah-Wraith saga is functional without being in any way good. Winn and Dukat get their just desserts, but neither of their fates are thrilling or insightful. Winn gets burned up after doing the last semi-decent thing of her petty and miserable life (she yells at Sisko to go after the magic book, Pah Wraith Dukat’s only real weakness; the helpfulness of this act is undercut somewhat by the fact that she’d earlier sacrificed Dukat and freed the Pah Wraiths herself), and Dukat is dropped into a firey pit, where he’ll presumably hang out with the demons he loves so dearly until hell freezes over. Given all the build-up, this wasn’t much of a resolution. Just some cheesy special effects, some mustache-twirling villainy, and a final confrontation about as morally complex as a Mighty Mouse cartoon.

But then, this was a plot thread that was never going to deliver, mostly because it didn’t really belong on this show. Deep Space Nine, for all its Prophets and visions and prophecy, was always more interested in the complicated ways that people fit together than it was in god fights and prophecy. By the end, Dukat, Winn, and the Pah-Wraiths were bad guys out of a pulpy fantasy novel. In retrospect, Dukat really died when Ziyal did, when he was broken and conquered and all he’d fought for was lost. Everything that came after was a struggle to find relevance for a character who had reached his natural conclusion. As for Winn, she was compelling primarily when the writers were able to balance her hunger for power against her faith. Once that tension was lost, the doomed Kai had no place left to go.

Thankfully, Marc Alaimo and Louise Fletcher are both talented enough that their scenes together still have some spark, and what happens to Sisko after his confrontation with Dukat is pretty damn important—but put that aside for a second. There are things to do right now, so let’s just move past the bumpy parts and focused on what worked. Because god, the road is so short, isn’t it? Looking back now, it’s like it’s hardly there at all.

The Dominion War is over. It’s over by the three-quarters mark of the finale, and the whole thing is both a tremendous victory and a horrible disaster, which is probably the most you can hope for from a war. The start of the episode has everyone gearing up to join Sisko on the new Defiant, for one last big push into Cardassian territory. It’s a nice way to check in with the ensemble before the fireworks begin, and for a while at least, the finale does a fine job of being an ending without expending too much effort in reminding us that the end is coming. Sure, we find out that O’Brien has been offered a teaching job back on Earth, and that he’s going to take it, which is very much a finale sort of thing to have happen. But there’s no real conflict in this discovery, just O’Brien’s reluctance to tell Bashir. Most everyone else is focused on the problems at hand: winning the war and surviving.

There isn’t much in the way of grand speechifying or shocking twists, either. The writers even tweak our noses with some faux foreshadowing from Kasidy: “Reports of my death have been exaggerated… but not by much,” she tells Jake, and it plays like an in-joke after all that worry over the Prophet’s earlier warnings. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Kasidy died, ha-ha. But c’mon. She isn’t going to die. DS9 had its darkness, but it was never the kind of show that would kill off a pregnant woman, especially not in the last episode. There’s a strange sort of peace that runs throughout the finale, and Kasidy’s comments fit into that peace. Almost like the writers were playing at being Prophets themselves, leaving us clues to comfort us that things may get bad, but they won’t be hopeless. So hold on and enjoy, and maybe bite your nails a bit when things get suspenseful—but no one’s going to break your heart. At least, no more than necessary.

Okay, let’s get on point here: our heroes win the war. And that’s good, right? The final space battle is a doozy, and the finale manages the neat trick of pushing victory back as far as it can go without turning it into a loss. It wouldn’t have made sense if the Federation had lost the war now; it would’ve been a lousy ending for the series, and narratively speaking, given how much Sisko and the others have given to win, failure just wouldn’t have worked. Yet there were moments here and there when a win seemed nearly impossible. The new Defianttakes heavy damage, and the combined might of the Breen, Jem’Hadar, and Cardassian fleet appears unstoppable. It’s a neat trick to put a sure conclusion in doubt, but the show manages it, so that when victory finally does arrive (with the Cardassians turning on their former allies), it’s all the more satisfying.

Not completely satisfying, though. If Sisko and the others’ struggles in space are gripping, Kira, Damar, and Garak’s fight on Cardassia comes perilously close to despair. There are a handful of deaths in “What You Leave Behind,” but Damar’s is the only one that really stings. I was sure that he’d survive the whole mess, survive and end up being the one to raise the flag of a new Cardassia out of the rubble of the old. But he gets shot down in a firefight as his small band of rebels is breaking into Dominion headquarters. It’s sudden, although not so sudden that we don’t realize he’s gone. A season ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but I was sad when he died. It’s an earned death (he did murder Ziyal, after all), but still nothing to cheer about.

But then, there’s not a lot to cheer about on Cardassia even once the Female Changeling surrenders and the war finally ends. The damage starts early, when Weyoun has a Cardassian city leveled in order to punish Damar and the rebels for standing up to the Dominion. Two million gone, just like that, and it’s a drop in the bucket by the end; before Odo merges with the Founder and she calls off her troops, the Jem’Hadar manage to murder over 800 million Cardassians, most of them civilians. It’s a level of destruction that robs the victory of any sweetness. (Not that this bothers Martok. Man, I’m gonna miss Martok.) In his final scene with Bashir—and his final scene of the series—Garak can barely control his rage and sorrow over all that’s been lost, from his beloved Mila to an entire way of life. It’s possible to believe what Bashir tells Garak, that the Cardassians will recover and rebuild, but it’s fitting that Garak’s last act is to remind us that optimism only goes so far. 800 million dead is a number so staggering that no good faith or hope can really defeat it.

Like I said, though, this isn’t a downer finale. In the end, somehow, Odo finds a way to reach the Female Changeling, and convince her to stand trial for her crimes. If we weren’t still squinting, I’d say this reversal was a little too easy; the Founder had spent every appearance in this last season insisting with ever increasing fury that the Dominion would win the war, even if she had to kill everyone in her path to do it. In linking with her, Odo somehow reversed every major position she had, almost instantaneously, and she seems somehow different in her final scenes—not in a creepy way, but at peace with everything. The only other times we’ve seen her at peace was when she was trying to convince Odo to turn his back on his friends.

So maybe that’s why she finally gave in. The war was lost anyway, and here was Odo, with a cure for the sickness that was killing her people, and a promise that he would return to the Great Link. Maybe that was enough to change her mind. The fact that it all happens so quickly, and with such seeming ease, makes it a curiously deflating resolution. All this time, the Female Changeling had been the biggest boogeyman in an army of boogeymen. Her defeat should’ve been spectacular, cathartic; it should’ve allowed Garak the chance to satisfy his vengeance, at least. Instead, it’s more like a sigh.

It’s okay, though. It’s not really what’s important. What matters more is Odo’s decision to return to his people, and his final goodbye to Kira. I’m still not sure what to feel about Odo leaving the solids behind. (I do know that I never stopped thinking “solids” was a silly term.) There’s something so forlorn about it, so limiting and, from a certain perspective, weirdly defeatist; it’s like watching someone escape a cult, build his own life, and then ultimately give up everything he’d built and retreat back to the womb of assimilation. But the event itself is treated in a positive, if bittersweet, light, and somehow, the fact that Odo’s bringing his people the cure that will save them all makes the whole thing easier to take. I’m not sure why Odo suddenly decided that he could live without Kira, but their final moments together are lovely. You could read this as an over-simplification of all of Odo’s time on the station, an easy answer to his quest for identity, and I couldn’t argue with you. I think it works, though. I don’t even have to squint that much. In the end, sometimes you just want to go where you belong.

I said we were going to talk about Sisko’s fate, right? Because I was not expecting that. It’s abrupt, and, on terms of plot, it feels perilously close to a cheat. Sisko gets everything he wants, but then finally realizes his purpose is to shove Dukat over a cliff; he does this, and wakes up in the white zone (for loading, unloading, and spiritual education), with some vague promises from Prophet Sarah that he has much more still to do. Later Sisko appears to Kasidy in a vision, to assure her that he isn’t dead, and that he will probably definitely return at some point, “maybe a year from now, maybe yesterday,” which, as scheduling goes, isn’t even enough for an eVite. It’s odd, and more than a little like the writers threw up their hands and said, “Fuck it, let’s do some mystical shit,” and tossed their protagonist into the ether.

Yet emotionally, it works, because it’s ambiguous and uncertain and you just don’t know what happens next. It’s not hopeless; Sisko seems reasonably confident that he’ll come back to Kasidy eventually. (According to Memory Alpha, this was at Avery Brooks’ request. The original filming script left Sisko dead, never to return, and Brooks didn’t like the idea of a black man leaving his wife pregnant with his child.) But when he does return, it will be different. In technical terms, you can think “Sisko died, and he’s a ghost, and that’s that,” and it’s not much of an ending. But if you think of it as something that’s still happening, something that will, on a day we’ll never see, become something new… It’s not bad. Sisko was an angry man for a long time, but he doesn’t look angry in his final scene. He looks like a man about to embark on some great new journey. So ignore the details that don’t work, and go with what matters to you. Hold on to it tightly, and hope that it lasts.

There’s more to talk about—those goofy flashbacks that don’t so much tug on the heartstrings as they do rip them out of your chest; Quark’s scene with Vic while he waits nervously for his friends to come home; Quark and Odo’s final goodbye, which manages to be unsentimentally sentimental in a way that suits both characters perfectly; Worf becoming the Federation ambassador to Kronos, which is, all things considered, the best place in the world for him; Ezri and Bashir heading off to the Battle and Thermopylae; and so on. That’s the thing about leaving, though. You keep grasping at reasons to stay for just a little longer, because it’s dark out there, and a little colder than you were expecting, and what if we forget something. What if there’s a moment or a performance, or a smile that we don’t acknowledge, what if we leave out the one piece that would keep us warm for the long road ahead.

But it’s time to go. So here: I cried watching this. I’m a soft touch, so that’s no surprise. What is surprising is what made me cry. Out of everything—Damar’s death, Odo and Kira, the end of a regular Thursday gig, whatever the hell happened to Sisko—what hit me the hardest was Bashir and O’Brien saying goodbye. It’s such a small thing, comparatively. Nobody’s dead, and they’ll see each other again, I’m sure. It matters, though, and there’s something remarkable in that; how in the midst of all the catastrophes and conclusions, something as minor as two friends letting each other go was important enough to make me weep. I mean, we’ve watched these guys meet and not really like each other, and then like each other and be kind of dorky about it, and was never epic, y’know? It was never something you’d sell in sweeps week, or put on a commemorative plate. Yet  in all the extravagant chaos, this is the part that made the most sense: people spending time together until it’s circumstances change. Because this happens all the fucking time. You find people, and you get to know them, and you love them a little. Hell, you love them a lot. And then, sooner or later, you go east, and they go west, and what you had is gone, and there’s no way to get it back.

That’s what this finale is about to me. Not the end of the war, or the death of some bad guys, but the reminder that there are so many stories that go on without us. Sisko, with the Prophets. O’Brien as a professor. Kasidy raising a child. Kira running the station. Jake staring out the window. Garak surviving. Quark hating change, running his bar, running his scams. Bashir and Ezri maybe getting married, or maybe just having a lot of great sex and burning out on each other. We won’t know what happens next, because it’s all made-up anyway; but really, we won’t know because that’s what life is. Life is the best friend from high school whose last name you can’t remember. Life is the ex-girlfriend who kept a piece of your soul, and it burned until you realized there were so many pieces left you didn’t miss it anymore. Life is the cousin who dies and maybe you saw her at Christmas that one year and maybe you didn’t. Life is the status updates you don’t understand, the phone calls you forget to return, the coffee dates that don’t lead to anything more than a caffeine high. Life is knowing that however hard you try, however wide you open your arms, in the end, you’ll leave everything behind you. Life is always leaving. And always leaving means that every friend you make is just one more goodbye.

It’s worth it, though. In the end, little else is.

 

The Worst:

Afterimage, Take Me Out to the Holosuite, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Prodigal Daughter, The Emperor’s New Cloak, and Badda-Bing Badda-Bang

vulcansball

In bits:

  • Afterimage sees Ezri Dax’s formal introduction, and integration into Deep Space Nine;
  • Episodes like Take Me Out to the Holosuite, which include both the holodeck and baseball definitely ranks low because I’m not a sports person;
  • It’s Only a Paper Moon sees Nog go through escapism on the holodeck after receiving a biosynthetic leg replacement following the events of The Siege of AR-558;
  • Prodigal Daughter sees Ezri visit her family, whom have a dark secret;
  • The Emperor’s New Cloak remains my least favorite Mirror Universe episode out of the DS9 Mirror Universe episodes; and,
  • Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang sees the crew help Vic Fontaine his lounge.

According to the A.V. Club review of Afterimage:

So let’s talk about Ezri Dax.

What? I—dammit. I should plan this better.

After clearing away the plot detritus lying around from last season, “Afterimage” feels like the proper beginning to the show’s final year, a standalone episode that puts aside questions about time-shifting aliens and the war for some necessary character building. The story revolves around Ezri: the effect her arrival has on the people on the station who loved Jadzia, as well as her own struggle with what she wants to do next. The latter makes for some familiar “Oh, I’m not staying”/”Hey look, I’m staying” conversations, as it’s doubtful that the show would go to the lengths of finding a new actress to fill Dax’s shoes, and then discard her at the first convenient opportunity. But it’s nice that the writers at least pretend Ezri might not want to take over the life of her previous host, and, even better, the way they choose to justify her sticking around involves multiple scenes with Garak. “Multiple scenes with Garak” will improve just about anything.

The other conflict is harder to pin down. Both the issues “Afterimage” deals with in regard to Ezri are important for establishing her place on the show. Her work with Garak is designed to convince us that she can be an effective counselor, despite her insecurity and relative inexperience. That’s standard new cast member stuff, creating a space for an outsider to transition from guest star to regular. How she deals with Bashir and Worf (and, to a lesser extent, Quark) is more important to this specific situation. Most shows, when they bring someone new in, even if that someone is basically designed to replace someone who left, don’t have this kind of baggage. I’m not entirely convinced of the necessity of bringing the Dax symbiont’s new host back to the station, it does make for some fascinatingly loaded scenarios, particularly between Ezri and Worf.

I’m not sure how you could handle it: Your wife dies, you do your best to honor her memory and move on with your life, and then this new person shows up who has all of your wife’s memories and probably some of her personality, and things get all confusing again. Ezri’s weird inability to understand this is frustrating, and not entirely believable. While she’s young and inexperienced, she is a Trill, and she grew up in a society that must be constantly negotiating difficult situations like the one she’s in now. It’s especially odd considering we already know that Trill society strictly forbids former lovers from reuniting in different hosts. (Sisko even mentions this when Ezri comes to see him, and she says, “But there’s no rule against him talking to me!” as if she has no concept of his feelings whatsoever.) Plus, if Ezri has all of Jadzia’s memories, shouldn’t she have a better idea of how Worf might struggle with something like this?

The show has gone out of its way to establish that Ezri is a bit up a creek with her new role, though, so maybe it’s best to sort of shrug off her confusion. It’s a natural effect of feeling alienated from someone she has very strong, very positive memories of. And watching Worf struggle with her presence helps to keep Ezri’s arrival (and subsequent decision to stick around) from playing too much like a clumsy attempt to paper over an actress’s departure. The scene between Ezri and Bashir is cute, even if I’m not sure I buy Ezri’s comment that, if Worf hadn’t come along, Jadzia would’ve married the doctor. It doesn’t really fit with the Bashir/Jadzia relationship, which always played better as a “guy learning to be friend with woman he hit on a lot” arc than a romantic one. But it does lead to Worf freaking out on Bashir in the infirmary, and while that scene doesn’t do much for making Worf more likable (at this point, you enjoy his stuffiness and temper or you don’t), it does help clarify what’s bothering him. At first it seems like a weird strain of jealousy, but the real issue here is that, for him, the process of grieving has very clearly defined steps, and the public element of those steps should be finished. He won the victory, Jadzia is in Heaven, and that should be that. Now here’s this weird, friendly, small woman expecting to chat about the past.

Worf eventually comes to terms with her, but it’s clear it’s going to be a process. Which makes sense; grief isn’t something that just disappears once you decide to face it. The episode’s other plotline works towards a more definitive conclusion, and while I’m not convinced that Garak would be able to overcome his attacks of claustrophobia quite so neatly as he does here, I think the writers do enough of the necessary back and forth for his recovery to be acceptable. Psychological problems are rarely as neatly schematic as they are on television series, but Garak’s distress, and the resolution of that stress, are necessary for two reasons. Those reasons matter more than accuracy of how his mental problems are handled, and I only mention it here because I do think it might’ve been handled a bit more deftly. At the same time, I think it worked well enough as is that I wouldn’t hold that too much against the episode.

Right, I should probably explain what those reasons are. Well, the first one is what I mentioned earlier: We need to have a justifiable reason for Ezri to want to stay on the station, and ideally, that reason should be based around finding her a place within the show’s ensemble. At this point in the run, every character has a basic function, and bringing in someone new isn’t going to work if she doesn’t fill a space we hadn’t realized was empty. Dax was sort of a catch-all smart person who spent most of her work time doing, well, smart person stuff that O’Brien wasn’t qualified for—scholar stuff, like translating and whatnot. (I’m mostly remembering her last few episodes here; I’m not sure her role was ever rigidly defined or anything.) It makes sense not to shove Ezri into that sort of work, because she needs a chance to be her own character. Therapist isn’t a choice I’m delighted about, given the franchise’s history with the occupation, but DS9 has earned a considerable benefit of the doubt at this point. Plus, it’s definitely true that the station does not have a qualified therapist aboard, at least none that we know of. While this inadvertently suggests it doesn’t really need one, there is a war going on, and all the stress with the Prophets and the wormhole, so hey, it couldn’t hurt.

While her work with Garak doesn’t demonstrate what I’d call a tremendous amount of authority or tact, she does help him. It’s not even all that unbelievable that her clumsy, sincere, Nancy Drew approach to brain-fixing works: Garak is a brilliant, incisive ex-spy, with a mind contorted by decades of subterfuge, trickery, and deceit. Any therapist looking to help him who showed even the slightest hint of guile would arguably get nowhere, because a large part of his training (both the stuff he received from his father and the Obsidian Order, and the stuff he’s done to himself) has been designed to protect him from any kind of questioning. Ezri fumbles and runs into a few walls (psychologically speaking), but she’s determined and utterly without defenses. In one of the episode’s most brutal (and effective) scenes, Garak basically rips her to shreds, and all she does is stand there. That kind of vulnerability can, in the right circumstances, be utterly disarming, and while I won’t say the episode entirely sells Ezri’s big insight, I think it comes close enough to pretty much work. It’s like Garak’s relationship with Bashir, only Bashir would, eventually, have gotten angry. Ezri just takes it.

The other reason this is important is a less obvious one, given how much the episode revolves around Ezri. But whether or not the show’s writers ever thought about Garak’s internal conflict before deciding to use it in “Afterimages,” it makes so much sense in retrospect. Garak’s devotion to his home and his people has always been one of the cornerstones of his character; even when he disapproves of the direction Cardassia is headed in (which is often), he still wants what he thinks is best for his race. And right now, he’s effectively turned traitor in his efforts to end the Dominion War by aiding the Federation. It’s all too easy to see Garak decoding Cardassian transmissions for Starfleet and be happy that he’s on the “good” side, but the revelation in this episode that his position is leading to severe panic attacks reminds us that everything he does just places him farther away from what he once was. Garak remains one of the show’s tortured, fascinating figures, and the brilliance of Andrew Robinson’s performance has always been that the tortured part is hardly ever on the surface. For the most part, he’s glib and sarcastic and friendly in a way that you can’t quite pin down. As much as his trauma in this episode served to convince Ezri she did have a place on DS9, it also enriches our understanding of Garak. It reminds us how complicated and difficult these characters lives will always be, even when they try to make the “right” choice. In other words, it’s a DS9 episode—and a gratifyingly solid one at that.

According to the A.V. Club review of Take Me Out to the Holosuite:

Losing sucks. This is not a revelation, but allow me to repeat with emphasis: Losing really, really sucks. And not only does it suck to put all your energy and your passion into something and fail at it, it also sucks that there’s somebody who gets to claim, with immediate and undeniable evidence, that they are your superior; that you both tried your best, and your best was not as good as theirs was. If that wasn’t bad enough, you’re supposed to act gracious about it. You must now accept your inferiority as though it were a gift.

Sisko isn’t great at this. That’s not a slight against his character—the captain is an intensely emotional, deservedly proud man, and he wouldn’t be the same Sisko if that passion didn’t occasionally slip out in less than neat and tidy ways. And in his defense, the source of his wounded prided in “Take Me Out To The Holosuite” is aggravating enough to drive anyone nuts. Solok (Gregory Wagrowski), the Vulcan captain of a Federation ship docked at Deep Space 9 for repairs, has a history with Sisko. When they were both cadets together, Solok’s arrogance inspired a drunk Sisko to challenge him to a wrestling match, which Sisko lost—badly. In the years since then, Solok has taken every possible chance to rub his victory in Sisko’s face, using Sisko’s “emotional” reactions as proof of his theory that Vulcan stoicism is superior to humans and their sloppy, petty feelings. With his arrival at the station, he’s brought a new challenge: a baseball game in the holosuite, Solok’s team against Sisko’s.

So Sisko has a chip on his shoulder, and now he’s finally going to get a second chance to prove who’s the better, um, humanoid. “Holosuite” is corny as hell and all the more fun for it, and part of why the episode works is that it sets up one expectation, only to deliver on another. We’re not privy to the reasons behind the Sisko/Solok feud at first. There’s clear tension in their initial scene together, but that tension goes unexplained until later in the hour, when Kasidy basically forces Sisko to tell her what’s going on. (I really like Kasidy. I may have expressed ambivalence about her before, but I like her a lot, and wish the writers could give her more to do.) As a general rule, it’s not a great idea to hide the motivation behind a character’s actions from the audience for an extended period of time. But it can work well in the context of an hour of television, especially if, as in this case, it sets us up with certain assumptions, and in doing so manages to make the truth all the more resonant.

What I’m getting at is that for a while, the episode plays like an old-fashioned underdog story. You’ve got a determined coach (Sisko) saddled with a group of inexperienced players facing an opposing team of greater resources and physical strength (as Kasidy reminds Sisko, the Vulcans are three times stronger than a human, and while not all of Sisko’s team is human, you can still feel the difference). You’ve got a ragbag team of misfits studying to figure out the rules of an archaic game. You’ve even got the hopeless loser who can’t seem to do anything right, who you just know will come through in the clutch. Rom—good old well-meaning, kind-hearted, eager to please Rom—is so bad at baseball he makes me look like Babe Ruth. (Context: I hated playing Little League because I was terrified every time I had to go up to bat.) Every underdog story has its biggest loser, and that’s always the guy (or gal) we root for the most.

Until Sisko kicks him off the team and throws everything to hell.

What I like about that scene is that it’s not immediately, definitively clear that Sisko’s making a bad call. Because, again, Rom is freaking terrible. He can’t field and he can’t bat, and hey, if this game is so important to Sisko, it’s not asking that much to have the Ferengi sit this one out. The problem lies in the way Sisko rejects him. After watching Rom fail at batting for presumably the umpteenth time, Sisko storms over and excoriates him in front of the entire team. Even if you can justify not having Rom play, there’s no reason to make him feel even worse about it than he clearly already does. Afterwards, the other team-members show solidarity for Rom and offer to quit in his name, but Rom won’t hear of it, because he’s just that damn nice. But all of this isn’t to remind us who Rom is—it’s to start the shift from “underdog triumph” over to something a little more grown-up.

In yelling at Rom, Sisko loses his temper, which means he’s taking what is, at heart, a very silly game far more seriously than he needs to. The real arc of the episode isn’t the captain pulling everyone together and overcoming insurmountable odds. It’s Sisko realizing that sometimes the only way to win is to accept losing and not give a damn about it. There was no way in hell the Niners (the name of the DS9 team; it’s embarrassing how long it took me to get where that came from) were going to beat Solok’s team. Apart from Jake, Sisko, and possibly Kasidy, none of them had ever played baseball before, or even understood the basics of the game, while Solok and his crew have had ample opportunity for training. More than that, from what we know of Solok, it’s obvious that the only way he would enter into a contest like this at all is if he was certain he would win.

Yet he does lose; just not in the way you’d expect. Trying to subvert the underdog scenario is tricky because you risk disappointing your audience, regardless of their savvy or the purity of your intentions—the desire to see the losers win is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to be satisfied when they don’t, even when the lesson is there’s more to life than winning. “Holosuite” manages to have it both ways. For a more traditional triumph, there’s Rom finally getting his chance at bat. He helps bring a run in by accident, when O’Brien (who coaches the team after Sisko gets himself kicked out for poking Odo, the umpire, in the chest) realizes that the best chance they have for success is a bunt; Rom doesn’t understand the symbols everyone throws at him, but he does manage to stick his bat out just far enough to knock the ball forward a few feet. It’s dopey, but sweet, and the immediate outpouring of support from the rest of the team makes it as big a victory as Robert Redford smashing the stadium lights out in The Natural.

But Rom’s big play only results in a single runner (Nog) getting to home plate. The Vulcans still win the game by a landslide (10-1, unless I missed a shot of the scoreboard at the end). That’s where the other triumph comes in, the one that really counts: Sisko realizes that the only way he’ll ever “beat” Solok is to learn how to lose well. It’s satisfying to see someone accepting that failure is a part of life (finding joy in that knowledge all the while), because it’s such an unexpected resolution for this kind of story. For any kind of story, really. It’s a little childish maybe, right down to the way everyone rubs their happiness in Solok’s face at the end, but that fits. Sometimes it’s important to remember the reason you fell in love with a game isn’t to win or to crush your enemies, but for the joy of play and teamwork. Y’know, kid stuff. I’m sure next week we’ll get back to death and despair and moral complexity, but every once in a while, it’s nice to remember what you’re fighting for.

According to the A.V. Club review of It’s Only a Paper Moon:

I love big novels. Thousand-page plus ones, the sort that give you back problems from lugging them around all day; the ones you have to figure out how to read in bed, because they’re so big you can’t just lay back and prop them up, and it turns into this negotiation with your arms and physics that means you’re always just a little uncomfortable. I love it when I read a review of a video game and find out it’ll take over 40 hours to play through. I love buying full seasons of a TV show, and knowing I have it there for me, waiting, even though I also know I’ll probably never get around to watching the whole thing. I love getting lost in safe places. And while I’ve made fun of the concept before, and criticized the writers for all the soft science behind it, I would dearly love a holosuite of my own. I’m sure most of us would. Putting aside the troubling psychological implications and the near impossibility of the technology, who wouldn’t want a machine that can take you anywhere, let you do anything, and keep you absolutely safe at the same time? (Forget, for a moment, the fact that so many holo-stories hinge on safety protocols collapsing.) It’s pure fantasy. And pure fantasy is hard to walk away from.

“It’s Only A Paper Moon” has some problems. Once again, we have a holo-program whose parameters and flexibility are mind-boggling, a fact that no one in the episode seems to regard with much more than passing curiosity. Nog spends days—weeks, maybe—living inside a program that, as Vic tells it, was never supposed to be running for more than six or seven hours at a time; and while it’s plausible that the programmers designed the system so that it would be capable of self-sustaining, it’s hard to imagine the resources and foresight that would be required to make something like that work. But really, that’s more a “just go with it” kind of problem. Either you accept that a holosuite program can pretty much simulate a world (at one point, Vic mentions his and Nog’s plans to go to Tahoe, because I guess they can do that?), or you don’t. It’s the future, so I’ll roll with it.

That’s harder to do when it comes to Vic Fontaine, a character who I like (he’s pleasant and no fuss, which is cool) but am still suspicious of. His supposed self-awareness is raises any number of complex issues, but the show hasn’t been interested in addressing any of them. His consciousness was accepted as a simple fact, and while that’s easy to overlook when he’s doing occasional cameo appearances, the more a storyline focuses on him, the weirder it gets. One of the subtler arcs of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” deals with how Vic reacts to being “on” more than he’s used to; the longer the program runs, the more of a life Vic gets to lead apart from his duties as a performer, and the more he gets a taste for existence. Which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense if you think about it. I mean, you could hand wave the whole thing as the program adjusting to Nog’s demands, and providing him with the escape hatch he so desperately needs by simulating a more fully realized Vic, but the strong implication here is that Vic himself (itself?) is experiencing an expanded consciousness. It’s why he goes along with Nog’s need to hide for so long—partly because he’s built to please, and partly because he’s getting into Nog’s plans for a new casino, and enjoying having a life. Everyone on the station who talks to him is fixated on Nog’s well-being, and while that’s understandable, Ezri treats the program (who actually contradicts her advice) as a kind of vaguely benevolent deity; not something she worships, but also not a piece of tech to be ordered around and ignored. (Though she does attempt to force the issue, and it’s Nog who insists on staying.) To really enjoy this, you need to turn your brain off, or at least the parts of it that get caught up on story logic and philosophical implications and whatnot, and that’s not something I’m a fan of. Hell, I don’t even think it’s possible.

Putting that can of worms aside, there’s also the frustrating fact that Vic is the one who finally forces Nog back out into the real world. This is a mixed blessing. If you can overlook the terrifying possibilities of Vic’s existence (he’s a program who can turn himself off and turn himself on! Here’s hoping he doesn’t ever decide to start messing with life support), it’s nice to have the seductive nature of the holosuite fully realized. Of course Nog wouldn’t want to leave such a comfortable, insulating world. Who would? But turning Vic into the world’s most unflappable life coach makes Nog almost a passive figure, someone whose grief and terror are so overwhelming that he becomes incapable of making the best decisions for his own well-being. If he’s refuses to leave the holo-world of his own free will, what’s to say he’ll be able to function back in reality when he’s forced to do so? The episode takes the shortcut approach to psychological discovery, spending so much time building up Nog’s problems while keeping their underlying causes secret, that when the reveal finally comes, the act of confession is intended to function as a kind of cure-all. Nog is troubled; Nog hides for a while; Vic forces him out; Nog breaks down and monologues about how scared he is; everything’s fine. I realize the limitations of television, even the serialized kind, and that this sort of approach is typically meant as shorthand for a longer therapeutic process. And hey, I’m just grateful and impressed that the writers were willing to spend as much time as they did on something which could just as easily have been shrugged off entirely. But trying to combine Nog’s story with Vic’s awakening shortchanges both stories.

Yet I wouldn’t say this is a terrible hour of television, or even a mediocre one. More than any other holosuite/holodeck episode I’ve seen this captures the pure pleasure of hiding in fiction, of detaching yourself from the concerns of the real world and embracing the lie for as long as possible. Nog’s post-traumatic stress has some real edges to it, and some aspects of it should be familiar to anyone who’s suffered a period of severe depression; the uncomfortableness around others, the sleeping, the fixation on a certain song or film (or book; I tend to reread stuff, usually by Stephen King, when I’m feeling awful). That familiarity gives Nog’s eventual decision to move into Vic’s program extra resonance. Fiction serves any number of purposes—enlightenment, increased empathy, helping you out with the ole vocabulary—but one of its more maligned, and I think most important, functions, is as a way to disrupt the frequency of real life, an opportunity to disengage and be alone with the dreams of our innermost selves.

In a way, the fictional world Nog inhabits for a brief time is too well-realized; not because it’s unbelievable, but because the distinction between “real” and “fake” is so thin that it threatens to take the episode in directions it has no interest in going. One of the creepier aspects of holosuite tech is trying to figure out just what would happen if it became available in the real world, and how quickly people would just disappear into the machine, growing more and more fixated on an existence where there were no coincidences, no failures which didn’t just lead to greater successes, and no heartbreak. This is troubling stuff with no easy answers, and Trek has always shrugged it off in the past. Here, the question comes to the forefront, and the answer is merely, “You’re better off living in the real world because it’s real,” with no other justification. Sure, Rom and Leeta miss Nog, but it’s not like he isn’t easy to visit; the most explanation we get is Vic saying, “You should live your life because I really wish I had one.” It would’ve been nice to see some sort of limitation inherent in the simulation, to show Nog missing the reality he temporarily abandoned, and watch as his homesickness fought against his fear until he was finally motivated to face his problems on his own terms. Instead, he hangs out in the Garden of Eden until God pulls the plug. Or the snake does. Or maybe it’s an angel. Anyway, this episode is decent, and the central idea is actually quite cool—I just wish the writers hadn’t taken the easy way out in the end with the magical all-knowing computer program.

According to the A.V. Club review of Prodigal Daughter:

To sum up: Ezri’s mother is a controlling, judgemental twit, one of her brothers is kind of a doofus, and the other one is a sensitive soul driven to commit murder by his mother’s never-ending judgements and expectations. Ezri has been avoiding going home for a long time, but when Chief O’Brien goes missing while on the hunt for Bilby’s missing wife (remember Bilby?), and Ezri’s family has connections in the area where O’Brien disappeared, well, you do the math. It all ends sadly, and Ezri is back on the station with a few more pounds of guilt on her back, and not much else.

That’s it, basically. Strip away the plot complications and a Sisko rant (he’s not happy when O’Brien disappears), and that’s your episode: a so-so family drama about people we will almost certainly never see again. It’s bitter and loaded with subtext, and the actors are fine (Kevin Rahm, best know ‘round these parts as Ted from Mad Men, is great as the wounded, vulnerable, and murderous Norvo), but it’s hard to get much worked up about any of it. This is slow motion tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that’s largely designed to paint Ezri’s mother (Leigh Taylor-Young) as domineering and destructive without ever bothering to give her a character beyond those terms. I’ll give them credit: Yanas’s cruelty is psychologically convincing, and it’s believable that, intentionally or not, she’s mentally beaten two of her children into the shapes she wanted for them. But the coldness the episode shows to her, the complete indifference towards giving her even the slightest justification for acting the way she does, makes her into a caricature of an abusive parent. She’s not a human being, she’s a monster, and that makes her family’s story significantly less interesting.

And really, it needs all the “interesting” it can get. Pull away the sci-fi elements (of which there are hardly any to speak of), and this is an old, old plotline, something that could’ve easily showed up on an episode of The Incredible Hulk back in the day. The family owns a once powerful mining company, and the Orion Syndicate has been trying to muscle in on their profits; without anyone else in the family realizing it, Janel (Mikael Salazar), the eldest son, borrowed money from the Syndicate when the company fell on hard times, and is now struggling to maintain autonomy in the face of increased pressure and sabotage. As part of the payback deal, Janel hired a woman named Morica for the Syndicate—she didn’t do a job, exactly, but she did get paid. But then she started asking for more money, and wouldn’t you know it, she ends up dead, murdered by Norvo in an attempt to make us overlook his goofy name and see him as more than just a drunken failed painter.

There’s nothing compelling about any of this. The best bits are Ezri’s conversations with Norvo before the truth comes out; the two actors have decent sibling chemistry, and there’s a growing sadness to their scenes together as it becomes increasingly obvious that despite Ezri’s wishes, her brother is just not going to be able to save himself from whatever trap he’s fallen into. But otherwise, the relationships and conflicts are so obvious and shallowly rendered that they never get beyond the perfunctory. Norvo’s confession is sad, but it’s not so sad that it justifies the time it took to get there. These people and their problems are not enough to warrant the investment of an entire episode. And without any cool hook or twisty premise, it’s mostly just a slow slog to a painful conclusion.

O’Brien’s involvement certainly doesn’t help. He’s as reliable as ever, but by using his efforts to rescue the wife of an old friend as an excuse to force Ezri back into orbit with her upsetting family, the episode leans heavily on coincidence (the dead woman, Morica, is Bilby’s ex; small universe, huh?), and reduces an unseen corpse to a plot point. That isn’t offensive or anything—Morica is barely even a name—but it does make the investigation of her murder a lot harder to give a damn about. O’Brien, the only person with any emotional investment in her death at all, spends most of the hour on the sidelines, demanding answers as Ezri tries to fix people who were broken years ago. The only urgency to the case is in finding out how far the damage goes, and even the final reveal plays more like an afterthought than a devastating discovery of rotten lives.

Which means the only possible point of any of this is to tell us more about Ezri. This is probably the most successful aspect of the episode, although that isn’t saying much. We know by now that she’s a bit nervous and over-compensating and eager to please, but much of that could’ve come from the mental disruption and anxiety brought on by the Dax symbiont. After meeting her family, though, it’s clear that Ezri’s insecurities come from years of criticism and emotional abuse from dear old Mom. These patterns start to cycle up again as soon as she returns home, but Ezri has more backbone and experience now (at least in part thanks to Dax), and she’s better able to stand up for herself. She tries to get Norvo to do the same, but it’s too late for him.

That, then, is the sum total of our gain from “Prodigal Daughter”: we know Ezri is the way she is because she had a difficult childhood. Which sucks for her, but sucks more for us, because we had to waste time when there’s a war going on, and genetically engineered super soldiers, and shape-changing aliens, and Jeffrey Combs, and time-warping wormhole pseudo-gods, and, ugh, literally just about anything would’ve been better than this..

According to the A.V. Club review of The Emperor’s New Cloak:

God, even the title is stupid. It’s a pun on the fairy tale and the fact that Grand Nagus Zek begs Quark and Rom to seal a cloaking device to save him from the mirror universe, but the actual plot has no parallels with the original story, and, oh who gives a damn. Clearly the writers did not. “The Emperor’s New Cloak” isn’t as awful as “Profit And Lace,” and it has a few funny bits scattered through its running time, but there’s no reason for it to exist. Now, to be fair, there are 25 episodes in Deep Space Nine’s final season, and the episode order existed before the writers sat down to come up with storylines; they’re filling a space, not creating the space as they fill it, and that inevitably means some episodes are going to be more obligation than inspiration. But the trick is to hide that lack of vitality as well as possible. Mashing together a Ferengi-centric episode with a Mirror Universe episode has a certain economy to it, no question, and it’s true that the Mirror Universe has become tired enough that about the only approach left is the sort of broad, slightly dark comedy Ferengi storylines usually deal in, but, well…

If I could leave a review as an ellipsis, it would be this one, but I doubt that would go over well with my editors. I think I’ve harangued about the problems with repeat visits to the Mirror Universe so many times by now that my complaints are almost as tiresome as the dimension itself. It’s just hard to care about the long-term problems of a setting that was initially created solely to offer a startling contrast to the “normal” reality of the show. The more the Alliance and the Rebellion take on shape, the more the shock wears off and the thinner the characters become; and the refusal of the writers to decide on a consistent philosophy for the setting (as Rom keeps pointing out, in one of the episode’s best, most telling, jokes) means that the fun of spotting the differences gets lost in a lot of metaphysical confusion.

For example: Other Bashir isn’t well-developed enough in his own right for me to care about him. He’s interesting only in the way he reflects back on the regular Bashir. But since that reflection has been established numerous times, and since this Bashir is, while aggressive and violent, still basically working for the “good” guys, the comparison has lost any real value. It’s neat that the other O’Brien and the other Bashir seem to be chums, but that’s as far as it goes. (I do still think O’Brien’s fundamental consistency over all universes is a nice character beat.) By trying to turn what is essentially a one-note conceptual punchline into a sustainable reality with a consistent mythology, the writers robbed the Mirror Universe of its vitality and danger. It’s just a place people sometimes go now, with no cost to the transit, and no real spark.

Sure, “The Emperor’s New Cloak” tries to create a sense of danger: Zek is being held by the Intendant (a character whose shtick has grown so old her lines must be read off bumper stickers), and needs Quark and Rom to bring him a cloaking device to rescue him, but it’s all a trap planned by the Intendant and other Ezri, and so on and whatever. There are just enough threats and violence to keep characters from floating off into the space, but the urgency is lacking throughout. The closest we get to a surprise is other Brunt’s sad death, and while it’s amusing to see the Mirror Universe episode continue its tradition of murdering Ferengis, other Brunt’s doomed friendship with other Ezri just isn’t enough to hang all of this on.

Maybe that’s the real reason we get one last Mirror Universe story before the end (I’ve been informed that this is the last one; if this person was lying to me, I will hunt them down and not leave until they apologize). Not the death of other Brunt, who is friendly and loyal to a fault, but to give Ezri a chance to show off her dark side. Which is fine, I guess? Nicole de Boer isn’t exactly threatening, although she does all right. There’s an intimate moment between other Ezri and the Intendant about half-way through the episode, a twist to show that Quark and Rom are even more screwed than they’d initially realized, and it’s pretty cheesy exploitation-wise, although it makes sense that the Intendant would be willing to use sex to get what she wants from anyone. I mean, that is literally her entire character. Ostensibly, there’s a throughline about Quark having “feelings” for the regular Ezri (who is currently getting closer to Bashir, a potential relationship I know I should have feelings about one way or the other, but mostly just seems fine to me), and how he bonds a bit with other Ezri, although thank god that doesn’t go anywhere.

What struck me the most this time through the MU was how much the place had taken on the tone of some cheesy ‘80s action cartoon, full of shouting, ineffectual villains, goofy twists, and no real consequences whatsoever. Take away the sex stuff (which becomes less and less present with each iteration) and the body count (other Brunt does die), and you could put this between the originalTransformers and G.I. Joe and nobody would bat an eye. It’s amusing enough to see Worf rant and complain like some second rate Megatron, but Garak’s one note Starscream routine gets old fast, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about an Andrew Robinson performance. The actor tries, but there’s just not a whole lot to do.

The only time any of this works are the few moments when the MU actually serves its original function: as a way to contextualize the characters we actually give a damn about. Rom’s endless nitpicking is both a funny way to hang a lampshade on some half-assed writing, and a character bit perfectly in keeping with his regular level-headed approach to life. Where everyone else just rolls with what’s happening, Rom is convinced he’s stupid, and so he actually puts the time in to try and understand the contradictions, even though you really can’t. And as unappealing as other Garak has become, the scene of Quark, Rom, and Zek getting the better of him by rubbing in just how much craftier and smarter non-MU Garak is is enjoyable enough, if only because it’s fun to hear anyone try and describe the greatness of our Garak. Also, other Garak dies horribly at the end, so I suppose that’s something.

On the whole, this was too jokey and disengaged to be anything but a chore. Zek’s decision to try and branch out into the Mirror Universe sort of makes sense, in that the Nagus is always looking for the next untapped market, but “sort of making sense” doesn’t mean that anyone desperately needed to see what would happen if he did. Besides, that’s just an excuse to get Zek into the MU where he can get captured and held for ransom, which in itself is really just an excuse to get Quark and Rom involved, which in itself is really just an excuse to fill an episode slot, which is really just an excuse to get us that much closer to the series finale. And now I’m sad. Thanks a lot, stupid television show.

According to the A.V. Club review of Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang:

First, a promise: I’m not going to complain about holosuite technology, partly because we’ve been down that road enough, and partly because “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” doesn’t offer me much to complain about. Sure, Vic is as magically conscious as ever, but the episode explains just as much as it has to, and no more. Frankie Eyes (Robert Miano) and his thug Cicci (good old Mike Starr, who I’ll always think of as the guy Gabriel Byrne punches in Miller’s Crossing) are a “jack-in-the-box” program hidden inside the simulation, designed by Felix, the programmer, to make sure things stay lively. O’Brien can’t just delete them or reboot the system, because that would mean Vic losing all the memories he’s established in his time on the station. And since no non-holographic person’s life is actually in danger, it makes perfect sense that our heroes would go to extreme lengths to save their friend.

This is an ideal set-up for a holosuite story: the stakes exist (if they lose, Vic gets “buried in the desert”), which means there’s legitimate tension, but the situation isn’t so dire that it has you questioning why anyone would allow such a machine in a place where people could use it. “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” isn’t a great hour of television. The main flaw is the pacing; far too much of the episode is sluggish, including a big chunk in the middle which gives us a fantasy version of how the heist is supposed to go down—a classic expository device, to be sure, but here, without any visual trickery or snappiness to it, the sequence just dies on-screen. The plan—emptying the count room long enough for Odo and Nog to clean out the safe, thus ensuring Frankie won’t have the skim money earmarked to pay his mob boss—isn’t so complicated that it desperately needs a visual aid, either.

Apart from pace, the whole thing has that usual community-theater-ish feel that Trek so often gets when it attempts to homage genres it’s not really conversant in. There’s authenticity, and there’s the imitation of authenticity. This is more like one of the writer’s saw a caper movie one time as a kid, and then another writer watched the trailer for The Godfather, and viola. You need to get past a certain amount of chintziness. Although, since the whole thing is already a simulation designed to entertain people who have no idea what the actual deal would be like anyway, maybe that isn’t so bad. It’s dopey, but dopey is part of the point.

But I was trying to get all my criticisms out of the way before stunning you with the reveal that I actually enjoyed the episode (sorry, spoiler alert)… Well, I’m not quite sure what to make of Sisko’s issue over the fantasy element of Vic’s period version of Vegas. Structurally, it makes for a fun reveal when Sisko finally does join up with the gang. But it’s such an odd, discordant note to strike early on—he’s offended because in the actual history of Vic’s time, black people weren’t treated so great in Vegas (to put it mildly), but the holosuite program doesn’t have a setting for racism. Given the space of time between the Vegas of Vic’s and Sisko’s present, there’s something charmingly nerdy about the captain’s objections, like a Scotsman getting pissy over the inaccuracies in Braveheart. Yet the awkward intensity of his anger seems to be covering something else that we never really deal with. Kasidy talks some sense into him, he calms down, and ultimately forms an integral part in the final caper. If I had to guess, I’d say the writers just wanted something to create tension in the middle of the episode, and decided Sisko’s heretofore absence from the program (and maybe his time as Benny Russell?) would work well enough.

Okay, I think that covers all of my main objections (and that last isn’t so much an objection as a curiosity); on the whole, I liked this. Didn’t love it, but there’s a certain inherent adorability to the whole thing that won me over by the end. I like all of these characters, and with most of them (excluding Ezri and Vic because they’re such recent arrivals), I’m invested in them; I’ve spent a year or two watching their adventures unfold, and there’s something to be said for the occasional adventure that doesn’t require a lot of soul searching or terror or death. This is a playful hour, from the title on down, and there’s something so charmingly guileless about that playfulness that I couldn’t get annoyed with it.

I don’t even mind Vic at this point. I mean, I don’t think I ever really minded him, but his presence never made a lot of sense to me. And hell, to be honest, it still doesn’t; he feels more like a character introduced for a potential spin-off series who got stuck on this show when his spin-off didn’t pan out. But I don’t shudder when he appears, and watching everybody (except Worf) band together to try and save him and his club was more sweet than annoying.

Yes, Kasidy’s assertion about the importance of sticking up for a “friend” is a little forced, and it would’ve been nice if the episode had leaned less on sentiment, and more on the obvious fact that all of these people (with their very serious lives) were relishing a chance to go on a mission that wouldn’t involve a body count. But it never got cloying, or overly sappy, y’know? Everyone got a fun bit or two (Kira seducing a hologram! Sisko as a big spender! Nog figuring out a safe!), and the heist itself, including the inevitable collapse that threatened to blow the whole thing apart, was pleasantly staged. Not, like, nail-biting or anything, but I was impressed at how long they dragged the time out. In a way, it felt like an homage to the original series, all seat-of-your-pants plotting and no one worrying much about plausibility.

Really, you can sum up the entire episode’s appeal in the fact that Sisko sings “The Best Is Yet To Come” with Vic at the end. This is wildly indulgent; the only tenuous justification is Sisko’s earlier reluctance to join in with the others. Now that he’s come around, he’s going to commit, dammit. But even that doesn’t justify playing out the whole song. It’s cool, though. Avery Brooks sounds fantastic, the whole cast is grinning like loons, and it has the fun feeling you get right after a production—the fine satisfaction of a job well done. This isn’t the great story ever told. But it ain’t a bad one.

 

onelittleship

The next in best and worst is Season 6.

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11 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 7

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