The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 6

For previous installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

For previous installments of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

 

The Best:

A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Sons and Daughters, Behind the Lines, Favor the Bold, Sacrifice of Angels, You are Cordially Invited…, Waltz, Far Beyond the Stars, One Little Ship, Honor Among Thieves, Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, Inquisition, In the Pale Moonlight, The Reckoning, Valiant, Time’s Orphan, and Tears of the Prophets

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In little bits:

  • The Occupation Arc (A Time to StandRocks and ShoalsSons and DaughtersBehind the LinesFavor the Bold, and Sacrifice of Angels) has the Dominion occupying Deep Space Nine and is a personal favorite story arc of mine;
  • You are Cordially Invited… sees Dax having to try to prove herself worthiness to Lady Sirella, General Martok’s wife, joining the House of Martok and marrying Worf;
  • In Waltz, Sisko and Dukat are trapped on a deserted planet together, with Dukat becoming more and more unstable;
  • Far Beyond the Stars is one of the greatest episodes of Star Trek, which addresses race and inequality;
  • In One Little Ship, when the runabout is reduced in size, O’Brien, Dax, and Bashir must recapture the Defiant from the Jem’Hadar;
  • Honor Among Thieves sees O’Brien working undercover for Starfleet Intelligence infiltrating the Orion Syndicate;
  • Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night sees Kira use the Orb of Time to travel back to the Occupation of Bajor to find her mother, lover of Gul Dukat,

  • Inquisition introduces Section 31 and Luther Sloane;
  • In the Pale Moonlight has Sisko enlists Garek’s help in order to embellish the facts in order to get the Romulans involved with the Dominon War;
  • In The Reckoning, after a 30,000 year old Bajoran tablet buried under the city of B’hala is discovered, it’s writings prophesying the reckoning of Bajor;
  • Valiant sees Jake and Nog, after a surprise Jem’Hadar attack, rescused by the rogue ship, Valiant, and the Starfleet Red Squadren Cadets;
  • In Time’s Orphan, Molly O’Brien disappears into a vortex and returns an 18 year old feral woman; and,
  • Tears of the Prophets sees Starfleet Command begin an offensive against the Dominion, of which Sisko is chosen to lead against Cardassia, but the Cardassian-Dominion has reinforced their borders unmanned orbital weapons platforms.

According to the A.V. Club review of A Time to Stand:

The war isn’t going well.

Admittedly, this depends on where you stand. If you’re with Cardassia and the Dominion, like Gul Dukat and Weyoun back on Deep Space Nine, things are pretty much okay. Dukat is lording it over his former enemies, going into full creep mode with Kira, while Weyoun uses smiles to cover steel. They have their concerns: Kira keeps pushing for a Bajoran security force on the station, and Dukat doesn’t bother to talk with Weyoun before saying no; and the minefield Sisko and the others left around the wormhole is still very much in effect, prompting some fundamental concerns about the Vorta’s access to Ketracel White. But overall, the battle is going according to plan. This, presumably, is how the Dominion has always handled conquest. Velvet glove for any race willing to capitulate to their oh-so-minor demands, and iron fist for anyone foolish enough to deny them. Their tactics depend as much on manipulation as they do on combat prowess, which is what makes them so dangerous. The Federation has dealt with brute force, first in the form of the Klingons, and then the Borg. But an enemy who’s willing to engage on multiple levels is, as far as I can remember, pretty much a first, at least on this scale.

So no, the war isn’t going well for our heroes. This puts to rest any lingering concerns that the show would take the status quo shattering finale (Sisko, Dax, Worf, Bashir, O’Brien, Nog, and Garak are off the station; Kira, Odo, Quark, and Jake stayed behind, the first three because that’s where their jobs are, the last because he’s an idiot) and put things back to normal too quickly. The first two episodes of the sixth season are taking the Dominion War very seriously, which gives the rest of the season something to play off. We know the stakes very clearly, and, just as importantly, we know this isn’t a villain that can be quickly and simply defeated. I have no idea how the show ultimately chooses to handle the Dominion threat, and if they take an easy way out (“I found a magic box that kills Vorta and makes the Jem’Hadar love kittens! Okay, they get fiercely protective of the kittens and have launched a genocidal war on dogs, but it’s a process!”), that will suck, and we’ll deal with it then. Right now, though, life is complicated, and complicated is a good place for Deep Space Nine to be.

The best example of this complexity comes from Quark’s first scene in the season. Kira and Odo are having a conversation at the bar, and Quark tries, in his slightly tone-deaf way, to console them. As occupations go, he points out, the current one isn’t so bad: no work camps, no martial law, no summary executions. While he admits he “misses” the Federation (and weirdly, he even sounds sincere), this is hardly the horrorshow it was during Kira’s years as a resistance fighter. Odo can’t help but agree, and even Kira can’t complete deny this is basically the truth. The situation is due to Sisko; in his position as the Emissary, he helped ensure that Bajor would be kept out of the fighting, which created the gray area that everyone on DS9 currently lives in. But while that’s great for the people on Bajor, and has surely saved a lot of strife and bloodshed, it means it’s harder to find where the lines are. For Kira, this is especially problematic, although it won’t become a major issue until the next episode; regardless, while we know who the villains are, some of them (Weyoun) keep resisting clear signifiers. There’s something insidious about how helpful he is, how relentlessly, endlessly polite. It’s the kind of behavior that makes righteous anger harder to maintain. Unlike, say, Dukat, whose creepy, predatory advances on Kira serve as a useful reminder of just how awful Cardassian control can be.

Things are a bit simpler for Sisko and his team. Apart from some concern about Jake (who, as mentioned, decided to stay behind so he could be a better reporter; it’s a choice so dumb I kind of respect it), and Worf’s concern that he and Jadzia’s wedding be as traditional as possible (because, well, Worf), the focus is on winning the war, and, just in case this slipped by you twice already, it’s not going great. Quickly and efficiently, the script (credited to Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler) establishes the odds against our heroes. There’s a minor exchange that serves as a symbol for the whole sorry situation: In the first few scenes we hear concerns about a mystical “Seventh Fleet” that O’Brien, Dax, and the others have set their hopes on. Given the way narrative tends to work, that gives the phrase a certain weight, a certain special importance, so that when Bashir tells Sisko and Martok that only 14 of the 112 ships of the fleet have returned, it becomes a short, short story that tells us what we need to know. This is a disaster. There is no cavalry.

Thankfully, this is the kind of crisis Sisko and the others thrive in, although rarely on such a galactic scale. While the first part of “A Time To Stand” is about establishing the current situation, the second part is a fun mini-adventure focusing on Team Sisko flying a Jem’Hadar ship (last seen in “The Ship”) into Dominion territory to take out a Ketracel White manufacturing plant, making it that much more difficult for the Vorta to maintain control. DS9 can do this sort of episode in its sleep, and everyone here is in fine form, right down to a sharp suspense sequence that serves as the episode’s climax. Garak has become an accepted member of the team, which I’m sure will last right up until it doesn’t, and Dax and Worf are still very much in, um, all right I’ll call it love. (She does jump into his arms at one point, which is weird and kind of hilarious.) The biggest character change? Bashir has stopped “hiding” his genetic manipulations, so we get a lot of Data/C-3P0-esque calculations of odds and what not. It’s a direction I’m not sure I’m entirely on board with, as right now, it doesn’t entirely gel with the Bashir we’ve always know; but it does have a nice pay off when, at the very end, when an explosion destroys the ship’s warp drive, the good doctor is able to rattle off just how long it will take them to get back to Federation space on impulse. (Spoiler: It’s a very long time.)

As premieres go, there isn’t a huge amount of story in this one. While I can see the destruction of the Ketracel White plant having important ramifications (especially given Weyoun’s earlier comments to Dukat about just how important it is to dismantle the mine field), all of the action in the latter half takes place on the bridge of the Jem’Hadar ship, which limits its scope; this feels more like a minor step forward than a major shift in fortunes. This is not a criticism. “A Time To Stand” feels like the show running head on into serialization and embracing it fully, choosing to trust the audience will be satisfied with small steps forward and the promise of things to come. There’s no closure here and even the cliffhanger is specifically focused on our heroes, and not on the larger crisis; there’s no sense that the next episode will see the end of the war and Sisko’s return to the station. Instead, we’re left to appreciate the texture of the world. Like the Jem’Hadar soldiers (actually, that is a redundant phrase) hanging out at Quark’s bar, ignoring his attempts at small talk. Or Kira’s belief that Dukat is looking to get revenge for getting beaten the last time Cardassia occupied Bajor. Or Sisko’s attempts to explain to his father why Jake got left behind. Or Jake’s doomed attempts to get Weyoun to transmit his reporting off the station. Or, and this might be especially important, the fact that the Jem’Hadar ship has no chairs; no food replicators; no med-bay; and no viewscreen. (There’s a device that the Vorta wear that simulates a viewscreen—Sisko tries it, but it gives him an awful headache and Garak takes over.) Or the fact that Sisko is forced to fire on the ship of an old friend. Between this episode and next, we’re given plenty of chances to consider who the Jem’Hadar really are, and what drives them. The genetically engineered race is the source of so much of the Dominion’s power; but they’re also a weakness. They’re victims who have made a religion out of the suffering, and if Sisko can find some way to get past that, it might be the end of all his troubles. Or not. Things aren’t as easy as they used to be.

According to the A.V. Club review of Rocks and Shoals:

The end of season five left a lot of questions unanswered, and one of the big ones was how the show would function with a third of its main ensemble split off from the rest of the group. It’s not the most exciting of mysteries, but it’s something that needed a quick and decisive answer if the show was going to work as well as it had in the past; this is the Trek series with the strongest ensemble, the one which has no real leading man standing head and shoulder above the rest. Sisko is a fine captain, and unquestionably the closest DS9 comes to a specific protagonist, but the writers have always managed to spread the wealth around in the past. And one of the ways they’ve accomplished this is by mixing and matching the cast at every opportunity. By limiting the options of who could be talking to whom, there was always a chance that season six would be handicapping itself right out of the gate. Worse, with all that space between the two groups, any attempt to focus on both could come across as too calculated, and too fundamentally disparate, to work.

“Rocks And Shoals” puts this concern to rest. While the premiere managed to mix in scenes from both settings, events back on DS9 were less of a concrete story than they were a series of moments designed to catch us back up with everyone. (Kira’s desire to get the Bajoran security force reinstated is the closest thing she and Odo have to a plot, but it’s pretty sub.) Here, though, we get two concurrent throughlines, and while Sisko and his team’s face-off against a crashed squad of Jem’Hadar and their injured Vorta leader is the more immediately thrilling, Kira’s struggles with her new role on DS9 is just as impactful, delving more deeply into all that ambiguity the previous episode established so well. Sisko, O’Brien, and the others are fighting for their lives, but they know they’re fighting on the side of what’s right. Their motives, and their hands, are clean. Poor Kira, though, is once again forced to take a reckoning of the woman she’s become, and bear with just how far she is from her revolutionary past. Yet there is something that connects the two groups. It’s something about how belief is what sustains us, and that there are times when the worst thing in the world isn’t a threat on your life, or the possibility of violence, but simply not knowing who you are.

For the planet-bound, this theme manifests itself in yet another complicated confrontation with the Jem’Hadar. The plot is fine, allowing Garak ample opportunities to do his Garak thing (lie convincingly, and then, when his lies are undone by an obvious truth, take the reveal in stride), and reminding us once again that the Vorta are manipulative, self-serving creeps, but there’s also something a little familiar about it at this point; this isn’t the first time we’ve seen our heroes face off against a Jem’Hadar squad on rocky terrain, with a manipulative Vorta trying to force the outcome. And while this is nit-picky, the coincidence of Sisko’s ship crash-landing on the same part of the same planet where another ship had already crash-landed is a bit of a stretch, especially considering the two crashes have absolutely nothing to do with one another. It’s understandable the writers would have trouble coming up with new ways for our heroes to have to deal face to face with the enemy, but hopefully the “let’s all hang out at that one outdoor location we always use for new planets and snipe at each other” hook isn’t one that’s going to dominate the season.

Still, there are enough variations to keep the episode from being a rehash. First and foremost is that Ron Moore’s script largely eschews the traditional sources of suspense. Yes, there are Jem’Hadar, and yes, they theoretically pose a threat, but the menace is never really the focus; this isn’t a thriller so much as a character study, even if it does have some thriller elements. Early in the hour, Nog and Garak get captured by the Jem’Hadar, and there’s a tense conversation in which Garak tries to pretend he’s working for the Dominion, and Keevan (Christopher Shea), the Vorta, sees through his lies. But Keevan is seriously ill, and it soon becomes apparent that his plan isn’t to attack Sisko and the others, but rather use them to save himself from the Jem’Hadar, who are certain to go insane when the meager supply of Ketracel White finally runs out. Once this comes out, the focus of the conflict shifts from physical to moral terms. How complicit is Sisko willing to be to save the lives of his crew? How far is he obligated to go to do honor to a species that was, in a sense, bred and raised to destroy him, along with all other enemies of the Founders?

The few conversations we get between Sisko and Third Remata’Klan (Phil Morris), the current leader of the Jem’Hadar squad, are among the episode’s best scenes. Apart from Kira’s arc, Remata’Klan’s story leaves the largest impression, in part because we never get the complete details of his backstory. Apparently he failed in some way—questioned the Vorta’s orders—and now he is locked into the role of taking responsibility of his men without having the authority or honor of being the First. Relations with Keevan are on shaky ground from the start, and this is a weak spot Sisko does his best to exploit; in part because it’s a good tactic to sow discord among your enemies, and in part because the captain clearly respects the Jem’Hadar and thinks that respect brings understanding. When Keevan tells Sisko and Bashir of his plan to betray his own men, Sisko is disgusted, even though the Vorta’s scheme is maybe the best chance any of them have for survival. And really, any decent person would be—leading your men into slaughter to save your own skin is a despicable act. To Keevan, the Jem’Hadar are a tool. As soon as the tool proves dangerous, it must be discarded. To Sisko, the Jem’Hadar are conscious beings, who deserve the same fundamental rights of all conscious beings; more, he thinks that belief means he can convince Remata’Klan to disobey orders. He’s wrong. The two are able to talk with each other as relative equals, and even share some basic camaraderie. But the Jem’Hadar still walk into the trap, even when they know full well it means their death. This is how they define themselves. Their lives matter less than the terms on which they live them. Maybe Sisko already understands this; but he’ll need to accept it if he wants his side to have any chance of winning.

That leaves us with Kira back on the station. Moore makes a point of showing us her routine: she gets up at 5 a.m., she boards a lift full of Cardassians, she works alongside Cardassians, she meets with Odo. When Jake lets slip that some of the Vedeks are planning a protest against the Occupation (which now includes a group of Vorta going down to Bajora—unarmed, of course), Kira and Odo decide they have to stop it, lest Dukat use the incident as an excuse to clamp down on security. So Kira talks to the Vedek, and the Vedek agrees to change her plans, although she’s not happy about it; and when it comes time for the protest, the Vedek hangs herself.

It’s a tough moment, but a necessary one. Kira has struggled with her role in a post-Cardassian Bajor since the first season, and now that Dukat and the others have returned, her position isn’t immediately clear. Because it’s so easy to rationalize making adjustments. The occupation isn’t so bad. People haven’t been killed. Maybe if you move the goal posts, maybe if you accept a little more tyranny, a few less freedoms, everything will be okay. Maybe if you smile, and if you’re patient, and you do what you’re told—maybe if you wait long enough, someone will come and rescue you. You can’t justify the risk of rebellion, because you’ve got these rules you follow now, and things are complicated, okay? It’s not as simple as it used to be.

Then a priest hangs herself, and you realize that maybe it really was that simple; maybe you just lost sight of who you need to be. I’m not sure if Kira’s plans to oppose Dukat and Weyoun will bear fruit, or if she’s just digging herself into a deeper hole; Odo supports her, but Odo would walk with her into the heart of a star if she asked him. But I’m not sure it matters if she’s “right.” Kira has more free will than the Jem’Hadar, but she’d agree with them on one fundamental point: You decide who you are, and you hold onto that as hard as you can. If you let go, if you weaken in the face of temptation, you’re lost. Remata’klan gave his life for his honor, because without it, he had nothing. Here’s hoping the price Kira pays won’t be as high.

According to the A.V. Club review of Sons and Daughters:

The last time we saw Worf’s son Alexander, he was—um… Hold on a sec, (Consults the Internet.) It’s the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Firstborn,” which had an Alexander from the future travel to the present in order to force his younger self into following the path of the warrior, because in the future, Worf would be murdered, and Alexander would blame himself. Really? And I reviewed it, even. I guess I sort of remember it. What a silly plot. But then, it’s not like the writers of TNG ever really got a handle on the character, or even that there was much of a character to get a handle on. Giving ensemble members children is a risky scenario at best, given that parenting is a restrictive lifestyle; you can’t have someone throwing themselves into adventure when they have a mouth to feed back home. But it’s possible to manage it, and one of DS9’s best relationships is the father and son bond between Sisko and Jake. Worf and Alexander were never that lucky. After TNG ended, it seemed safe to assume that Alexander was gone for good, shuffled off to grow up with his grandparents. There didn’t seem to be any pressing need to bring him back, not even when Worf returned. Yes, in terms of “realism,” Worf was pretty fucking horrible for basically ditching his kid and never looking back, but isn’t that what we all secretly wanted anyway? Isn’t it better to downplay, and eventually write-off, a plotline that isn’t working, rather than try and keep it going for continuity’s sake?

Generally, I’d say yes, but “Sons And Daughters” does a reasonable, if imperfect, job of showing how someone like Alexander can still be a valuable presence, even if he’s not particularly interesting in his own right. While on a fictional, meta level, the character’s disappearance was a relief; I’m sure there were a few fans who noted his absence and were disappointed by it, but he was never that vital onTNG, and seeming to leave him behind completely on DS9 didn’t leave that many questions unanswered. (As some of you noted, Worf said he has “no family” after his brother gets a new life in “Sons Of Mogh,” which, if intentional and not just a writerly lapse, is awful cold, even for Worf.) But on a story level, where we pretend these are all real people—which is totally cool—that is some fucked up shit, right? After an awkward year or two together aboard the Enterprise, Worf sends his son off to leave with his adoptive parents, and then never mentions the kid again. In theory, he could’ve been talking with Alexander regularly, even making trips home, without us knowing about it, but that’s not the impression you get from “Sons And Daughters,” and that doesn’t reflect well on Worf at all.

That’s something the episode does its best to deal with, and while it’s probably impossible to make a unintentional multi-year absence into a strength, writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle do their best. The crux of the hour’s main plot is that since we last saw him, Alexander and his father have grown even further apart, and he’s decided, out of self-loathing and a deeply buried need to prove himself worthy and earn Worf’s respect, to enlist in the Klingon army. He shows up on Martok’s ship one day as one of the replacements sent to fill in for the general’s fallen crew-members, and wastes very little time in proving to everyone that he’s not very good at his job. That’s the most surprisingly aspect of the episode: despite his determination to prove his father wrong, Alexander keeps making mistakes, and not just the obvious ones. The other crewmembers pick on him (in fine Klingon tradition), and when he gets into a fight with the most obvious bully, only Worf’s last minute intervention stops him from getting some knife wounds. (Martok later assures Worf the wounds wouldn’t’ve been fatal, but still.) Even worse, Alexander is a failure on the job, failing to wipe a simulation program out of the system and throwing the entire ship into an unnecessary red alert.

He’s a joke, really, which goes over with Worf about as well as you’d expect. Marc Worden’s performance is sullen, awkward, and more than a little stiff, which is a good fit for the character; you get a clear sense of his resentment and self-loathing, as well as his undeniable connection to Worf. (Both men seem like they’d be no damn fun at parties.) It’s fascinating to watch just how utterly unsuited he is to the role he’s chosen, and between this episode and the his final appearance on TNG, the franchise seems at once trying to establish how inept Alexander is as a traditional Klingon, while still forcing him to take up that mantle. The arc of his plot in “Sons And Daughters” is, in a general way, a positive one. He’s a putz, and he shames himself repeatedly, but Worf finally remembers his duty as a father; and we all know how much Worf loves duty. The episode ends with Alexander being brought into Martok’s family, and Worf’s promise that he’ll give Alexander the instruction he needs to become a true warrior.

This is presented as a happy conclusion, and in many ways, it is. The two have found a way to repair the bonds between them, and hopefully, with Worf’s help, Alexander won’t be locking himself into anymore vents. Yet the assumption than any Klingon can be a good-to-great warrior, and that being a warrior is the only value a Klingon should aspire to, is disappointingly simplistic, especially for a show that thrives on outcasts. Yes, there’s that whole plot from TNG about Worf getting murdered and Alexander needing to be a warrior to stop it, but that’s one of those crazy, final season style twists that’s best left forgotten. One of the few ways Alexander was legitimately interesting was his rejection of many of the values Worf held dear. This came partly from his mother (and Worf’s brusque summary of their relationship to Martok is pretty harsh), and partly from his time on the Enterprise, and it also forced Worf into yet another painful crisis; with all his conviction and beliefs about the Klingon ideal, the child he’d tried to raise was choosing a different path. Here, whatever personality Alexander might once have had is gone, subsumed in paternal resentment, and when that resentment is gone, there’s nothing much left. It’s good to see him happy at the end, because the ending does feel earned (Worf’s warm response after Alexander locks himself behind an emergency door is the most I’ve liked Worf in ages), but it comes at the sacrifice of character. Not a well-drawn character, or a particularly likable one, but still.

Events back on the station are more unambiguously satisfying, even if they do require enduring more of Dukat’s deeply creepy sexual advances on Kira. The Gul brings his daughter, Ziyal, back to the station, and Kira’s happy to see her—until Ziyal invites Kira over to dinner with her and her father. The crux of the subplot is that Ziyal wants everyone along, and that includes forcing Dukat (who’s into it) and Kira (who isn’t) to spend time together. It’s a fine, noble motivation put to an ignoble cause. Because she’s young, and because she loves her father, Ziyal doesn’t understand both the nature of Dukats disturbing attachment the major, and Kira’s fundamental distrust and contempt for Dukat. To her, because she cares for them both, they should both care for each other. (And given that Ziyal’s mother was Bajoran, she might not even be that bothered at the idea of a Dukat/Kira pairing oh it is just gross even to type that.) But regardless of the nobility of her intentions, she’s in the wrong, and it takes Kira, who clearly cares a great deal about Ziyal, to finally draw the line.

Once again, the writers are exploring the potential seductiveness of evil. As with the first two episodes of the season, which had Kira struggling to raise an objection to an invasion cloaked by courtesy, she’s once again put in a position where she has to make noise, where she has to be the “rude” one to protect herself and her sanity. Dukat is, like most great villains, a complicated creature. There’s no question that his love of his daughter is sincere; the fact that he and Kira share this fondness makes it that much harder for her to be openly defiant. Evil that is openly combative, that carries a gun (or a phaser) and tries to push its needs on you with brute force, inspires a simple response: fight or flight. But smiles and warm chuckles and pleasantries put you in a position of doubt. It’s a position many women have been in before, I think—go along with it, and make things easier for everyone. Don’t be the one who ruins it all. Don’t shout, don’t curse, don’t make a scene. Don’t struggle. Just accept that he knows what’s best, and everything will be fine.

It’s horrifying, and it’s impressive that the franchise, which has often had difficulties accurately representing such dynamics in the past, handles this one with such direct honesty. Dukat sends Kira a dress, which is an intimate gift, as well as an attempt to exert a level control over her body, and she realizes she’s gone as far as she’s willing to go. Ziyal confronts her in a hallway, and Kira is open about the situation; and when Ziyal begs Kira not to ask her to choose between Dukat and the major, Kira says, “I’m not. He’s your father.” While it’s sad that this will most likely hinder, or even end, their friendship, it’s the only response she could’ve given. Trying to convince Ziyal that Dukat was a monster, or trying to justify her decision based on their past, would’ve done no good, and it also would’ve put her back in the position of having to defend her right to define her feelings. Sometimes nuance is important. And sometimes, it’s just a way to let someone else tell you what they want to hear.

According to the A.V. Club review of Behind the Lines:

Why does Odo stay on Deep Space Nine? I suppose the question is moot for the moment; with the wormhole mined, there’s no place left for him to go. But assume the mines aren’t there. They weren’t there for most of last season, and they won’t be there again soon, I’m guessing. What keeps him from rejoining his people in the Great Link? He loves Kira. That’s not a bad place to start; he loves Kira, and even if she doesn’t return his feelings, that doesn’t change how much she, and their friendship, means to them. But it would have to be more than that, wouldn’t it? This isn’t just not wanting to move back home to stay close to someone you care about. This is literally rejecting his biological nature. This is refusing to be what his DNA demands. Love is a remarkable, powerful emotion, and unrequited love can drive people to acts of great sacrifice (or selfishness), but there’s something fundamental going on here that that means more than just romance. Odo isn’t simply in love with Kira; he’s in love with the idea of an Odo who is in love with Kira, with the idea of an Odo who works as a sheriff and detective and keeps the peace. That is a role that makes sense. It’s a role where he knows where he stops and everything else begins, and it’s taken him years to establish. But it’s a lonely place to be.

“Behind The Lines” starts out like it’s going to be about one thing, but shifts focus as it goes, building to one of the more unsettling conclusions in the show’s run so far. The cold open shows Kira and Rom (Rom!) teaming up to start a bar right between the Cardassians and the Jem’Hadar at Quark’s; we then jump to Sisko learning about a sensor array in the Argolis Cluster that the Dominion is using to track the movements of Federation ships. If I’d had to guess at this point, I would’ve said the main plot would be Sisko aboard the Defiant, on a mission to blow up the array, while Kira and the others continue to foment dissent back on the station. Both of these stories had potential. Instead, Sisko gets promoted out of field duty, and the Female Changeling arrives on Deep Space Nine. Goodbye predictions.

Still, Sisko’s storyline remains straightforward, albeit in a different direction than I’d assumed. There isn’t a huge amount of dramatic weight to it. First we see Sisko performing a ritual with the rest of his crew involving empty power cells and shouting—it’s very cool and fundamentally dorky at the same time, and seems perfectly in keeping with the naval atmosphere. The main reason we see it, though, is so Sisko’s arc can conclude with Dax leading the same ritual now that Sisko’s off the ship. She and the crew went on the mission to destroy the array; it was dangerous work, but they accomplished their task and came back alive. And Sisko spent the whole time back in a room, reading reports and staring out a window at the stars. He’s so good at his job that he’s no longer doing it; now he gets the less immediately life-threatening but far more important job of making decisions and helping to guide the course of the war. Time moves on. Whenever you think you belong somewhere, it won’t last.

Odo’s is more complicated, in part because it’s not just his story; he and Kira share the focus, and they have very different views on unfolding events. To Kira, the Female Changeling is not to be trusted. She’s used Odo in the past, and betrayed him (even if that betrayal was in the service of upholding Changeling law), and the only reason she could have to return to DS9 is to manipulate Odo in the middle of a war. This is an understandable position. The resistance movement on the station is newly formed, with only a handful of members; Jake talks his way in, and Quark breaks down and joins halfway through the hour, but that’s still only five people against, well, a lot more than five. This is not a good time to succumb to distraction, especially considering the position Odo has on the station. He’s a member of the ruling council and a security chief, and he’s now spending time with one of the enemy’s high command.

Odo’s motivations are more complex. He’s committed to Kira, but at the same time, he’s as lonely as ever, and there’s a subtle need for approval that drives him to reconnect with the Female Changeling. He’s brusque initially, and reminds her of what happened the last time he joined the Great Link, but she shrugs it off, and it’s not soon after that he invites her to his apartment. When Kira reacts with shock—and when she’s even more horrified to learn that Odo linked with the other Changeling—he doesn’t really understand what’s bothering her. And then, despite promising that he wouldn’t link again, he does, and misses an appointment; and by missing that appointment, he allows Rom to get caught by the Cardassians, and arrested on charges of sabotage. Oh, and since Rom’s mission was to shut down the deflector array and stop Damar’s plan to take out the minefield, well, the good guys look pretty well screwed.

What’s fascinating about Odo’s decision to link is that there’s very little obvious motivation for it. He doesn’t see Kira making out with some guy (which wouldn’t make his actions justifiable, but would at least give us a clear sense of what’s going through his mind), and the Female Changeling doesn’t deliver a big speech or put much pressure on him to break his promise. She just laughs and says that Kira is a solid, and doesn’t understand what the link is, and how important it is. So, no dramatic transition, really. But in retrospect, it’s not hard to imagine Odo’s position. Because he’s been lonely and rigid for a very long time; he was a solid, and the loss of one’s fundamental biological self would throw a wrench into anybody’s priorities. Home is a powerful, primal need, and to belong somewhere is a desire not easy to resist, even if giving in means hurting people you care about.

There’s something else, too, something that might just be my imagination. After Rom is arrested, Kira rushes into Odo’s apartment and confronts him. And he’s… fine. He’s not worried or upset or guilty, not even when she finds out he broke his promise and linked with the Female Changeling again. Nothing seems to affect him. Initially, Kira’s insistence that Odo refuse the link seemed a little odd; not jealous, exactly (there may be a little of that in there, the same way anyone would be jealous of losing a close friend to another relationship, but Kira’s a decent person; she wouldn’t let jealousy get in the way of someone’s happiness), but overly paranoid. After all, Odo had assured her that the link wouldn’t reveal the secret of the resistance. But maybe Kira had a point. The link seems glorious and amazing and calming and wonderful, but it also works as a kind of drug. It placates. And while the Female Changeling acts as though she and Odo are equals, she’s the one with more experience in the process; she’s the one guiding it. You push past all that take of communion and one-ness and peace and tranquility, the Founders start to sound less like an enlightened race, and more like a cult. And cults don’t let anyone go.

According to the A.V. Club review of Favor the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels:

Roughly two-thirds of the way through “Sacrifice Of Angels,” there’s a perfect moment of utter despair. Throughout both episodes of this week’s two-parter, the stakes have been very stark, and very clear. The war is going badly for the Federation, and the good guys need a win, so Sisko comes up with a plan to retake Deep Space 9. It’s a bold strategy, and one which involves a considerable amount of risk; not just for the forces engaged in the battle itself, but for territories outside the fight who will be left unprotected. Like, say, Earth. But Sisko’s plan makes sense, because his former home is of vital importance if the Federation wants any hope of winning the Dominion War. The wormhole is the key, and if Dukat and his men are able to disable Rom’s self-replicating mine-field, the Gamma Quadrant can start sending in reinforcements, and an already lopsided conflict will turn into a rout. But if Sisko’s plan works, and they can take back the station, the Federation can protect the mines, and get a much needed boost in position and morale.

The fight for DS9 is the main focus of the two-parter, with “Favor The Bold” setting the stage for the conflict, and “Sacrifice Of Angels” delivering the goods. And the goods are damn impressive; I’m not the best of judge of these things, but I’d say the space battle that takes up much of “Sacrifice Of Angels” is one of the biggest, and best, space battles in the history of the franchise. Sure, it’s a lot of CGI ships swooping around each other in a CGI environment, and it lacks the kineticism and budget of a big screen movie, but it’s still thrilling to watch. Partly because it’s well designed (for once we actually get a sense of just how big these fights can be), and partly because even in the heat of the battle, the narrative is well-defined. Sisko (with an assist from Garak, as Nog stands in for those of us in the audience who aren’t big on tactics) tries to draw out the Cardassians to create a hole for the Defiant and other ships to break through, and Dukat, recognizing Sisko’s ploy, thinks he can pretend to fall for the “trap,” and then turn it back around. It’s not the most complicated strategy, but for a forty minute show that has a number of other subplots it needs to get to, this gets the job done. We know what’s going on, so it’s that much easier to get excited about it.

But I was talking about despair, wasn’t I? Well, much of the suspense of the two-parter hinges on Damar’s plan to destroy the mine-field. There’s a lot of messing about and some near misses and reversals, but Kira and Rom finally make it to the central computer, and Rom tries to—well, it’s scientific, but he’s trying to turn off the system. When he can’t manage that quickly enough, Kira tells him to just turn off the station’s weapons instead; it’s more of a temporary solution, but at least that means that even if Damar successfully manages to prevent the mines from self-replicating, he won’t be able to destroy the ones that currently exist. (Really, any sabotage Kira and Rom cook up is going to be a temporary one, given that Damar’s plan is fundamentally sound.) Rom turns off the weapons—but it’s too late. Dukat has given the order, and the mine-field is destroyed, just as theDefiant, the sole ship to make it through the Dominion lines, arrives at the station.

Admittedly, Deep Space Nine has never shied away from playing hardball, but the way the episode is structured, and the way everything in the sixth season has been building, Rom’s failed attempt to save the mines at the last second is a striking moment of despair. The Federation is losing the war, and has been for a while, but that makes sense, structurally speaking; while a multi-civilization conglomerate with near-infinite resources wouldn’t seem to be a great candidate for underdog status, the first part of this season did a reasonable job establishing just how out-classed our heroes are. The Dominion has been conquering other races for a very long time, while the Federation focuses its efforts on peaceful negotiation. That makes them easier to root for (even when they are a bit stiff), but it puts them at a serious disadvantage against an enemy with genetically engineered soldiers and negotiators. (Okay, the soldiers are probably the important part there.) So, there’s a Goliath, and a David, and we know which side we’re one, and then David comes up with one hell of a slingshot plan. Meanwhile, the, um, other Davids—okay, the metaphor falls apart at this point, but Kira, Rom, Odo, and the others are also engaged in some serious underdogging. By all accounts, Quark’s decision to rescue his brother (with Ziyal’s help), and Odo finally turning his back on the Female Changeling, should’ve sealed the deal; the character arcs were finished, and while the conflict came down to the wire, the heroes still saved the day.

Except they didn’t. It’s a great, shocking moment; not as sad as Ziyal’s death, but arguably more dramatically impactful because it’s been so carefully and thoroughly built to. The writers patiently walked us into a room and then took away the floor. Even the small touches help; before the mine-field is destroyed, Weyoun and Dukat are talking (and they get some great scenes in both episodes), and Weyoun decides that the best way to defeate the Federation will be to eradicate the population of Earth. We already heard in the previous episode that Sisko’s big play is going to leave Earth vulnerable, and to hear Weyoun casually discussing wiping out the entire population just to prevent the possibility of rebellion, means that when the minefield goes down, we are very aware that our heroes aren’t the only ones in the line of fire. Sisko’s plan has failed, but there’s no sense of blame, especially considering that he and Admiral Ross had received intel (a message from Kira sent through Morn)(Morn!) that the mine field was going down. He’d had no choice, and they’d done their best. Hell, the Klingons even made a last minute appearance, like you knew they would. But it was all for naught. The mines are gone, and the full force of the Dominion is on its way.

What Sisko does next isn’t exactly surprising; nor is it a shock when the Federation doesn’t ultimately lose the fight. But before we get there, it’s worth going back and picking out the threads underline the two-parter, the less exciting bits which nonetheless lend the action sequences the depth they need to succeed. As exciting as Sisko’s plan is, and as great as it is to see the whole team (minus Kira and Odo) working together on the Defiant, “Favor The Bold” and “Sacrifice Of Angels” get most of their mileage from events on the station. It’s neat; it only lasts for a few episodes, if that, but Kira, Odo, Quark, Rom, Weyoun and especially Dukat become the central ensemble, as though the station itself were the show’s real main character, and most of our attention is focused on whoever is living inside. Kira’s crisis is clear, and her scenes are pretty straightforward. Once she decided to give up on appeasement and return to her revolutionary roots, her emotional conflict was largely resolved. There was anger over Odo’s betrayal, but she moves in a straight line, and as thrilling as events are, she’s in a good place to deal with them.

The situation with Odo is more unstable, although the two-parter sees it resolved, at least for the moment. Maybe the biggest stunner here is the revelation that Odo and the Female Changeling have actual, physical intercourse, most likely because the Female Changeling was curious, and because she wanted to establish one hold on his soul. The idea of two shapeshifters fucking like us normal solids is weirdly disturbing, like if Silly Putty made porn, but it’s the right choice to make, creatively. We know Odo can have sex, because he’s had sex before, and that means there’s no reason the Female Changeling couldn’t have sex. Mimicking the behavior of solids serves to underscore just how different the world the Female Changeling offers is from what Odo has always known. The appeal is obvious—few of us are as outcast from our environments as Odo is, but it’s hard to imagine anyone refusing a chance to go someplace where everyone understands and welcomes you; where you can just close your eyes and belong. Sure, Odo can have sex, but it’s not the same natural physical need that drives us, and sharing it with the Female Changeling is only a reminder of the artificiality of the act.

It’s also a reminder of just how little the Female Changeling understands and cares about the needs of solids. Most of her screen-time is spent with Odo, and with him, she strikes a caring, slightly condescending tone; a teacher trying to impart an important lesson to a wayward, but highly valued, pupil. But her brief scenes with Weyoun and Dukat show someone colder, and more disdainful. She’s rarely openly contemptuous, because in her eyes, there’s no need to be. The solids are barely worth of notice, let alone disdain. She talks of “breaking” them the way you might break a horse. But she’s capable of intense emotion, which we see when Weyoun dares ask her why she expends so much energy on Odo. To her, and presumably to the rest of her race, bringing Odo back to Great Link is more important than the entirety of the Alpha Quadrant. In addition to clarifying her presence on the station, that reveal also serves as a reminder of just how untouched the Founders are by all of this. Our heroes are fighting for their lives; the Female Changeling is engaged in seduction, and she has all the time in the world.

Which might be why she subtly pushes Odo into betraying her. Maybe the Female Changeling realized that there was no way she could talk Odo out of being in love, and instead decided to let the situation play out, only to pick up the pieces later on when the inevitable (to her mind) occurs. Or it could just be that she doesn’t realize the depth of his devotion to Kira. Either way, her decision to have Kira executed (one of the nicer touches here is that after Rom’s arrest, no one in the high command has any doubt as to the rest of the conspirators, although it takes them time to move on this knowledge) forces the constable to take action. While it’s great to see him rushing to save the day with the rest of the Bajoran security force, the plot resolves a little too quickly for my taste. The triumphant return to the station that marks the end of the episode is also somewhat abrupt (a few more episodes of Sisko trying to get back home might’ve been nice, although it’s not hard to see the stories running out), but it’s earned. Odo first succumbing to the dark side and then turning his back on it is disappointingly muted, especially seeing how so much of his decision rests on his love for Kira. There’s complexity here if you work at it, but the writers seem comfortable with just settling on easy answers.

We have a better sense of Weyoun now, and he’s yet another favorite secondary character to add to the pile. The most unexpected reveal: the Vorta have no sense of aesthetics whatsoever, because the Founders didn’t bother to give them any when the race was genetically engineered. Weyoun’s wistful, “Though sometimes, I think it would be nice to be able to carry a tune” is really the most sympathetic the character has ever been; as slimy as the Vorta can be, there just as much prisoners of circumstance as the Jem’Hadar. The difference is that their obsequiousness is engrained, and not controlled by drugs, probably because it would be hard to design an effective warrior that didn’t have a bit of an edge to him. The Founders don’t have allies, just tools, which is something Dukat and the Cardassians might want to remember.

Speaking of Dukat, the Gul is one of the lead figures in the episodes, as we follow his transition from conquering hero (in his eyes) to maddened, grief-stricken fool. Marc Alaimo delivers one of his best performances yet, and it’s impressive how subtlety the two-parter lays in arc of his tragedy. In “Favor The Bold,” he and Ziyal fight over Rom’s captivity and scheduled execution; their father/daughter interactions are one of the more fascinating relationships on a show full of fascinating relationships, because both characters legitimately care about it each other, but their personalities are fundamentally incompatible. I suppose in theory, Ziyal’s fundamental decency and compassion could’ve slowly worked to warp her father’s will, but Dukat’s worldview bends in all the wrong ways. He doesn’t listen to her, or even really respect her; he indulges her. And yet his love is entirely sincere. The Gul is a fantastic villain, because he’s so complex that he’s not really a villain at all—just a character, who is also a monster. Talking with Weyoun, he tries to convince the Vorta that killing your enemy isn’t the right approach. “A true victory,” he says, “is to make your enemy see they were wrong to oppose you in the first place.” His entire philosophy is based on an unwavering conviction of his own righteousness. It’s not “Might Makes Right.” It’s Might IsRight, but only if he’s the one wielding the fist.

And then everything falls apart. That moment of despair I mentioned is Dukat’s last moment of pure victory; the final few minutes of believing he’d finally, and utterly, won. Then Sisko disappears into the wormhole and when he comes back, everything goes to shit. The sight of Dukat racing through the station as the Cardassian and Dominion forces evacuate is nifty visual of how fast the tide can change, and his final scene with Ziyal is, if not exactly heartbreaking, intense and unsettling. Dukat demands Ziyal come with him, she refuses and explains that she helped Kira and the others. So now Dukat has nothing, but even that’s not far down enough, so Damar shows up and, having heard Ziyal’s confession, decides the best course of action is to kill the boss’s daughter. It’s not a hugely devastating moment; Ziyal was nice and likable, but not exactly essential. But Alaimo’s reaction sells it. Even if he didn’t have his daughter with him, he still had her love—but now she’s dead, and he has nothing. He offers forgiveness, as though that would change anything.

It’s good that there’s some cost for all of this, because otherwise, the intervention by the Wormhole Aliens would be a little too convenient a resolution. Oh, there’s a suggestion that Sisko will have to pay more later on, given that the Prophets basically say (in their particular idiom) that the captain is not going to be “of Bajor” as he so clearly wishes to be. This connects to the scene in the previous episode when Sisko tries to sell Admiral Ross on Bajor’s beauty, before talking about how he plans to build a home on the planet someday; clearly, by deciding to help in this conflict, the aliens have made some other decisions as well, which will involve some kind of painful dramatic irony down the line. But there’s no follow through for that yet. The Defiant enters the wormhole with Sisko having every intention of making it a suicide mission (thus fulfilling the prophecy O’Brien and Bashir made when they started quoting from “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” at the start of the battle; maybe pick something more cheerful next time, guys?); the aliens snag Sisko and argue with him a bit about his plans; he yells at them; they make a decision; and the next thing we know, the Dominion fleet has disappeared.

As climaxes go, it’s an odd choice, even if it is something that’s practically built into the series’ DNA. As soon as Sisko heads the ship towards the wormhole, it’s obvious what the resolution was going to be, and surely on some level he must have hoped that the Prophets might contact him. He had been reading all those ancient text after all. But dramatically speaking, it can’t help but feel like a cheat, even though it does take a few minutes for the aliens to decide to intervene. The rest of the two parter is strong enough that this isn’t a huge issue, and, again, it’s not like the aliens hadn’t been a presence on the show before. And maybe a big exciting victory wasn’t really the point. When Sisko and the others arrive back on the station, there’s a lot of cheering and hugging, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ziyal is dead in the infirmary, and that Garak will never get to find out why she loved him. The season was structured to build to this moment, to restore order to the show and get everyone back where they belong. The underdog one, and Goliath is dead, or at least temporarily stunned. But there’s always a cost. That moment of despair forced Sisko to make a deal he still doesn’t know the consequences of, and as Ziyal could’ve told him, on this show, there are always consequences.

According to the A.V. Club review of You are Cordially Invited…:

So, Worf and Dax are getting married. Huh. I guess that makes sense? I mean, they’ve been dating for a while, and Worf did propose, and Dax did say yes, so, well. That’s that, really. Hurrah for them. Had to happen eventually, or whatever.

It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for the nuptials of a relationship which has never been entirely believable. Terry Farrell and Michael Dorn do their best, and the constant attempts to hammer home that these two characters are deeply committed to, and deeply passionate about, each other has at least managed to make the couple vaguely plausible. Dax is into strong, stern types who give her someone to bounce off of while keeping her grounded; Worf digs a woman who can love him and poke fun at his self-seriousness (which actually makes sense, given the little we know of his romantic history). Sure, I’ll buy it. I’m not exactly happy about it, and the two of them sucking face in a corridor is never going down in the history of TV’s steamiest scenes, but everybody knows that one couple that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, but ends up together anyway. It doesn’t seem like a tragedy, but it also isn’t a connection that can sustain a lot of dramatic weight. It’s character wallpaper. If the writers want to make it happen, fine, but I don’t want to stare at it.

Which means I was understandably nervous about watching a wedding episode specifically centered on the Dax and Worf nuptials. Thankfully, there wasn’t much to worry about. “You Are Cordially Invited…” keeps things light throughout, and with enough character moments and subplots that the script (by Ronald D. Moore) never gets overly bogged down in needing to be romantic or passionate or anything all that serious. As some of you noted, there’s some fine O’Brien and Bashir banter. Martok continues to be the ideal Klingon. The Odo/Kira story moves forward in a small, but satisfying, way. And while sure, there’s a plot about Dax trying to impress her prospective mother-in-law that gets mildly intense, it all ends up happy without a whole lot of fuss. After six intense episodes of war and betrayal and sacrifice, it’s good to have something pleasant to remind us the show has settings other than “despair” and “hard-fought, mildly ambiguous victory.”

Really, it’s just great to see everyone back on the station where they belong. Sisko is especially pleased; his charming/slightly awkward conversation about how glad he is to be back sets the tone for an hour of people not quite seeing what the other person is getting at, but going along with it anyway. The most obvious pay-off for this comes in the hour’s most obvious joke. Haha, Worf invites his friends to a Klingon bachelor party, and we all know what that means! If you guessed, “deprivation and physical suffering in the name of elusive symbolism dedicated to Klingon history,” then yeah, that’s it. Everyone else, including Bashir and O’Brien, seem to expect some kind of crazed drink-and-fuck party. While I get that Klingons can have a great time when they want to, you’d think somebody in the group would do some research before the actual event to get an idea of what they were in for. Worf is not exactly the crazy-bachelor type.

But that would’ve spoiled Bashir and O’Brien’s reaction, and since thinking you’re going to have a good time and getting a bad time instead is one of the tried and true comedy scenarios, it seems poor sporting to nitpick. The scenes are well-handled, too: They convey the idea without focusing too much on the particulars (the highlight being Bashir’s decision that he needs to kill Worf while he and O’Brien are hanging over a pit of, I want to say lava?). This storyline also brings back Alexander, who has settled in nicely to a routine of being kind of a klutz, but not hating himself about it. He’s more likeable now that he’s eager, and Worf seems to clearly value his son again, without judging him for his imperfections. It’s a surprising choice. Normally, I would’ve expected Alexander to make sudden miraculous improvements in skill level, and to see Worf be proud of how far the young man has come. Instead, we get a well-meaning, but not particularly adept, young warrior, and Worf is cool with it. This isn’t stressed or underlined, but it makes both characters come off better.

Dax also comes off well in this episode, although maybe not in quite the way the writers intended. In order to marry Worf, Dax needs to be accepted by Worf’s adoptive family; Martok is fine, but Martok’s wife Sirella (Shannon Cochran) has some basic objections to inter-species relationships. She’s also the classic stiff-backed, shout-centric Klingon woman, which goes with Dax’s more laid-back approach to life about as well as you’d expect. The whole thing comes to a head at Dax’s bachelorette party, where everyone is having a hell of a time right up until Sirella storms in and demands Dax put an end to the festivities. Which, it soon becomes clear, is basically what Dax is going for; she has second thoughts about the wedding, she doesn’t want to change, she still thinks of herself too much as Curzon, that sort of thing. Sisko tells her to shape up, reminds her she still loves Worf, and makes way for the happy ending.

What’s interesting about this sequence is that Dax is at her most compelling when she’s fighting back against Sirella’s demands. It’s not even a simple matter of an underdog showing her teeth. The whole relationship with Worf has been a constant run of Dax having to adapt herself to Worf’s values and needs; he dictated the course of the wedding, he makes the demands. Admittedly, Dax has chosen to accept this, and there’s no sense that he dominates her, or that he’s somehow forcing her to accede to his wishes. Dax is, in a sense, the older and more experienced of the two, and the symbiote has been married a number of times before. In terms of basic decency, I don’t think this is some kind of ugly pairing based on sublimated abuse. But in terms of narrative, and in terms of Dax’s presence on the show, she’s been swallowed up by Worf. Either she’s reacting to him sarcastically, she’s demonstrating her love for him, or she’s in the background. It’s not a total disappearance, and hopefully the marriage will get her some autonomy again, but the few times she stands up for herself, even if it’s ill-advised—well, at least it’s something.

Other than that, there’s little to report. Jake “sold” his first book of short stories—i.e., he’s getting a book published, but since the Federation doesn’t have money, he’s not getting a thing in return for it but pride. Martok gives good relationship advice. And Odo and Kira are, after a brief period of awkwardness, speaking with each other again. The last is a slight storyline, occupying no more than a handful of scenes, but it’s worth taking the time to make sure these two characters are able to put the events of the recent past behind them. To pretend they could simply ignore what had happened would be dishonest, but to imply that their friendship was beyond repair would’ve been needlessly melodramatic. The station was saved, Rom wasn’t executed, and in the end, Odo did the right thing. There’s nothing that happened that a night spent talking in a closet can’t fix.

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

How do you solve a problem like Gul Dukat? Former Gul Dukat, actually; I doubt he still retains his position post breakdown and capture. (Maybe he does. I’m not an expert on Cardassian bureaucracy/power structures.) But the point isn’t his title: the point is figuring out what to do with a character who’s had the most dramatic rises and falls of anyone on the series. Dukat has been a commandant, an officiant, a father bent on murder, a revolutionary, a dictator, and, lately, a man with a broken mind, tormented by the simultaneous loss of his daughter (who, let’s remember, he was once determined to kill) and his thorough beating at the hands of anti-Dominion forces. When we meet him at the start of “Waltz,” after a long introductory voice-over from Sisko explaining the current situation—Dukat’s been in therapy, and is now heading to the Federation for some preliminary legal proceedings—he seems well enough. But over the course of the hour, we learn that Dukat is a deeply damaged individual, fractured and tormented in ways that are very likely irreparable. After spending time with the Cardassian under unusual circumstances, Sisko draws certain conclusions, solving Dukat as neatly as Alexander solved a certain knot: the enemy is an evil man, and Sisko is determined to stop him.

While there’s no question Dukat has evil in him, I’m not sure I agree with Sisko’s line in the sand pronouncement. It makes sense from a character perspective; Sisko is a smart, determined fighter, but he’s always been more warrior than philosopher, and in situations where something he cares about is threatened, he’s not going to quibble too much about details. Sisko reacts to crises emotionally as much as intellectually, and that passion typically serves him well. His decision here, after seeing Dukat rant and rave for days before swearing to destroy all that Bajor is, is the sort of decision that DS9 handles better than any other Trek series before it: an in-character beat that is perfectly satisfying (if maybe a little over-the-top), but that doesn’t necessarily line up with our own view of the situation. Dukat doesn’t come across well in “Waltz,” and his final speech is a few screams shy of a Batman villain rant, but the fact that we get to see the demons he’s fighting against make him more complex than Sisko’s determination allows. The final shot of Dukat as he closes the shuttle’s rear door, with the trio of phantasms crowded behind him, is telling. He is a man haunted by his crimes, but incapable of understanding what’s haunting him. The only response left is to double down on villainy, and while it’s necessary to condemn such a choice, I find it hard not have some pity for the fool who makes it.

“Waltz” is a tricky episode, using a set-up that we’ve seen before—namely, characters alone together in less than ideal circumstances (it’s sort of what happened with Kira and Dukat in “Indiscretion”)—and a gimmick with a high chance of failure, ie “let’s visualize my madness through the power of imaginary people.” There are plenty of ways this could’ve gone wrong, and the crazed intensity of so much Marc Alaimo’s performance throughout regularly borders on camp, but it works. This is playing-at-the-edges stuff, trying to understand what drives Dukat without softening him or making that understanding too simplistic. Having phantom versions of Weyoun, Damar, and Kira appear at various times to allow Dukat’s inner turmoil external expression is a clever idea, but not an automatically effective one. At times, it threatens to make the various crises he’s struggling with too obvious. Weyoun appearing in a scene the first time we see Dukat alone is a heck of a shock, but once it’s clear that he’s just an imaginary friend (albeit one Dukat doesn’t realize is imaginary), his presence loses much of its impact. Weyoun and the others can’t effect events; they can only inform us of Dukat’s character, like how Dukat has doubts about whether or not he should keep Sisko alive, and how he also judges himself harshly for his failures. All of which is good information to have, but doesn’t in and of itself justify the gimmick.

What makes Dukat’s hallucinations work, I think, is how they build. Individually, Weyoun, Damar, and Kira are entertaining but unnecessary. Weyoun is Dukat’s loathing of his “weaker” self, while Damar is Dukat’s Cardassian pride speaking out; Kira is his complicated relationship with Bajor, manifesting both as a symbol of what he can never have, and proof that his enemy was always looking to misinterpret his actions to serve their own needs. They give the script a way to illuminate Dukat’s mind without resorting to simple monologues, but it’s such an obvious device that it’s a little distracting to watch. But once the figures start popping up while Dukat is arguing his case with Sisko, things get interesting. While the episode is often ostensibly through Dukat’s eyes (after all, we can see things that he sees, even when Sisko can’t), the primary tension comes from figuring out just why the Cardassian was willing to save his off-and-on nemesis, and what that decision means for Sisko’s immediate future. As Dukat’s desperation to win an ideological discussion with Sisko intensifies, the harbingers of his madness grow stronger; we’re privy to the interjections from Dukat’s psyche, but Sisko is not, which creates a fascinating, and unsettling, back and forth.

So why does Dukat save Sisko? He does it more than once, first saving his enemy when the ship they’re in is attacked, and then building Sisko a cast for his broken arm (Dukat claims he can’t use the bone regenerator device, which could very well be true; it could also be true that he wants to keep his edge). At the end of the episode, Sisko briefly gets an advantage over Dukat, only for the Cardassian to tackle him and beat him before fleeing in a shuttle. Dukat’s behavior in those final moments is, if anything, even stranger; before there was a sense that he was trying, in his fundamentally broken way, to justify himself, but his final speech is a declaration of war and he still lets Sisko live. (He even contacts the Defiant to let them know where the captain is.) Admittedly, Sisko has to live; between the two, Dukat is the only potentially expendable one, and it seems the writers still have stories they want to tell about him. But there’s also a decent in-story reason for why Sisko doesn’t die, and it’s something that works to keep this more complicated than a simple bad-guy-takes-good-guy-hostage scenario.

Ostensibly the conflict of the episode comes from Sisko’s attempts to contact a rescue ship, attempts which are first stymied by Dukat sabotaging the emergency beacon (I love the fake out when we think the Defiant finally got the signal; I also love how visibly disappointed everyone is when they beam two survivors aboard who aren’t Sisko), and then by Dukat’s decision to vaporize the beacon entirely. But while this conflict makes for solid suspense, it’s not really the heart of “Waltz.” The heart is Dukat’s increasingly deranged attempts to convince Sisko of his righteousness, attempts which ultimately only serve to push the two characters even further apart. These attempts fit in well with what we know of Dukat from the past, a man who once told Weyoun that the most important victory was in beating your enemies so thoroughly that they are forced to admit your inherent superiority. Something in him can’t just be satisfied with winning, the way, say, Damar would be satisfied. He needs to be acknowledged.

This is an odd quirk to have, although (credit to the writers and Marc Alaimo, who is never short of excellent) it’s one that always makes sense even if it’s difficult to grasp where it’s coming from. If Dukat really is a psychopath through and through, it’s curious that he would so desperately need the reassurance of others that he wasn’t. It’s especially curious that the people he turns to for that assurance—Sisko in this episode, Kira in the past (yes, he’s romantically interested in her, but a large part of the attraction comes from how much she loathes him; seducing her would be just another way of proving his point)—are the people least likely to accept his overtures.

This may be what turns Sisko so sharply against his enemy in the end: not just Dukat’s big villain speech (which is spectacular, although we’ll see how it plays out), but the manic determination with which Dukat demands his behavior be accepted as just. Because if Dukat can go this crazy in wanting his enemies to accept him, surely there’s some part of him that realizes what he’s done is wrong. He states repeatedly that the Bajorans are inferior to Cardassians, and yet it’s Bajorans—and a representative of Bajoran culture—whom he turns to to reassure him that he’s right. Which implies that deep down, in some small miserable part of himself, he must he recognize his error, and that recognition is what drives him mad. Sisko’s decision to turn on Dukat, to make their contest a him-or-me scenario, is probably the only choice he could make under the circumstances. But for us watching on the outside, it’s still possible to feel some kind of pity. Dukat is doomed by circumstance, culture, and his own brutal ambition. He’s a monster, but what made him?

According to the A.V. Club review of Far Beyond the Stars:

Metaphors are fine. Metaphors are, in fact, perfectly lovely and useful and amazing tools when it comes to telling stories. I love a good metaphor, because it’s poetic and just plain fun, coming at your brain sideways in order to trick you into understanding an idea by making you think about something else. A metaphor can be a kind of code, a form of subversion that ostensibly secrets a powerful message inside a seemingly harmless framework. Want to talk about the horrors of war without mentioning a specific conflict? Throw on some fake ears and foley in a few laser blasts, and call the whole thing The Battle Of Kanak’Kar or something. Want to discuss sexual orientation and gender issues? Put everything on another planet, with aliens who look just like us but are slightly different, and have a ball. The metaphor becomes not just a tool inside the text, but the text (or visual medium) itself. It creates a cushion of distance between the subject and the presentation, and that distance allows everyone to contemplate potentially divisive or explosive topics from a remove. Maybe you can’t change minds by tricking them, but it’s a start, and it’s better than staying silent, right?

Sometimes, though, a metaphor isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to scream—not talk about screaming, not have someone scream in some different, made-up language that nerds will obsess over for years to come; not couch a scream in diffidence or bury it in poetry. Just scream. Maybe then, someone will hear you.

Star Trek has a long history of using science fiction tropes to deal with social issues. We did a semi-jokey Inventory on the subject four years ago, and it’s always been a symbol of the franchise’s noblest aims—to be more than just an adventure show, to have ambition beyond nifty monsters and star fields. But as admirable as that aim is, it’s too often a clunky, heavy-handed way to moralize. Check that Inventory more closely, and you’ll realize that while most of those episodes (and films) are fun, few of them rank in any of their respective series’ best. Using a metaphor to tackle a controversial issue is an approach that reeks of putting message before story, which can easily turn into an excuse to lecture an audience; after all, most messages come with a specific moral value attached, which means there’s little room for ambiguity or mystery. Force-feeding is rarely an effective means of storytelling or lesson teaching. At the time, it lets everyone pat themselves on the back for being progressive and clever; decades later, it looks pedantic, trite, and more than a little campy.

This isn’t always the case. Star Trek: The Next Generation managed to do issue episodes better than the original series, and some of its attempts are very strong stuff. But even then, the metaphor works best when it deals in broad terms.“Darmok” is a fascinating examination of the difficulties of communication between cultures, and the challenge of finding common ground. You could apply it to any number of disastrous encounters between different races of humankind, but there’s no need to. The fundamental truth transcends the specific. Something like “The Outcast,” which has Riker falling for an androgynous alien from a society where gender distinctions are harshly censured, succeeds, in part, because its soul isn’t just about the persecution of the homosexual or the transgendered. If you want to, you can take a powerful statement on the importance of tolerance and respect for all sexual orientations from the episode. But you can also look on it as a critique of totalitarian governments. Or just a tragedy about Riker losing a friend. By tapping into the universal concepts underlying specific cultural problems, TNG was able to get their point across without being anchored to one view. It’s a potent use of metaphor, and yet there’s a distance to it. The separation between our world and the ones we see on screen means that commentary comes at a remove. The remove makes the criticism easier to take, but it also diminishes its impact. This isn’t personal, the metaphor allows us to believe. We’re only observing. We’re not a part of this.

“Far Beyond The Stars” takes the metaphor and turns it inside out. It is not a subtle hour of television. It has its gimmicks, but the gimmicks are in no way relative to its effect. The double-casting—seeing familiar faces in different roles, seeing actors out of make-up, seeing Michael Dorn smiling—is fun to watch, but there’s something sad about it, too; something lost and awkward and lonely. This is not an episode which holds back. There is no happy ending for its hero. Instead of using the illusions of fiction to cloak or obscure painful realities, writer Benny Russell (Avery Brooks) attempts transcendence. There is no comforting distance between us and his situation, no camouflage for his pain. Even the time (Benny is in 1953 America) isn’t all that far away. There is no protection for an audience eager to cling to its illusions. This is a desperate man’s effort to cling to sanity, to speak and be heard in a place which demands his silence. The metaphor is not there to teach us a lesson about the suffering. The metaphor is there so that the suffering might rise above.

In case the four paragraph preamble to a point didn’t tip you off, I’m not entirely sure how to approach this one. It’s exceptional in a way that makes me nervous about dissection or critique. I’m used to writing silly things about reversed polarity and Cardassians and what not. Racial injustice is not something I feel qualified to discuss. I can’t quote you specifics on the struggles of African American pulp fiction writers from the 1950s, nor can I offer a personal anecdote in any way relevant to the matter at hand. To do the latter would be obscene; not because the episode is some holy, sacred object (I liked it a lot, and it’s grown on me since watching it, but it’s kind of crazy and clunky at times, sort of like this review), but because I, in my limited experience, cannot speak to Benny’s plight. When it’s Sisko, or Bashir, or Odo, or Kira—I get that. That’s easy. But actual systematic prejudice? I’ve had the biological and geographical luck to have been spared such a thing, and while I can empathize (great art makes empathy easier), I’m also reluctant to speak with any kind of authority on the subject.

Part of the value, then, of an hour like this (and yeah, it’s not all set in the past, and the way the script and Avery Brooks’ direction chooses to integrate the “reality” of the show with the “reality” of Benny’s world is quite striking) is by presenting a different perspective from the sort that usually gets center stage in popular entertainment. It’s true that Brooks is the first black lead of a Trek series, and it’s true that Deep Space Nine (much to its credit) has never tried to downplay or ignore this. Yet DS9 takes place in a comparatively utopian future. It’s a more pessimistic show than TNG, but that pessimism doesn’t take away from the fact that the Federation—the dominant “good guy” force—doesn’t discriminate based on race or, one would hope, gender or sexual preference. To the audience, Sisko’s blackness is an important step forward for the franchise, indicating a broader acceptance of non-white protagonists. In the context of the show, though, it’s just another part of who he is; it matters, but it doesn’t define him in the eyes of those around him. There’s something refreshing about that, of the fantasy of a future which has so many different kinds of people (human and otherwise) that you’re too busy trying to keep up to hate any of them. (Unless you’re a Cardassian. Things are pretty easy then.)

At the same time, though, there’s a lie in that fantasy, the same lie people tell themselves when they talk about “post-racial” America. The future is a lovely place to imagine, but we don’t live there, and in the present, things are more complicated, more frustrating, and quite often more awful. Today, diversity in television and film remains a pressing issue, because by clinging to narrow definitions of “protagonist”—by insisting that audiences are ready to see onl certain genders or ethnicities in certain roles—we are robbed of the width and breadth of experience that fiction is supposed to provide. Worse, many of us are robbed of a voice in that fiction. So the simple fact that “Far Beyond The Stars” tells a black story with a black hero and his black girlfriend and their black friends means something. What happens to Benny has, like “The Outcast,” resonance that goes beyond one person’s pain, but no matter how deep or far you go, Benny is still standing at the heart of it. It’s telling, and upsetting, to realize that it’s still unusual to see even an hour of television which doesn’t give us a white audience surrogate, that doesn’t have some square-jawed Caucasian strolling into a situation, taking its measure, and saving the day. There are white folks in “Far Beyond The Stars,” and some of them are quite nice, but even the nicest of them is fundamentally ineffectual. They can apologize, they can sympathize, they can even protest, but that’s as far as it goes. Benny tries and he fails, and even when the metaphysics take over, they can’t deny that simple fact. Anyone who’s watched enough TV has seen a story about a black man or woman being told what they can and can’t do, but for once, there’s no outsider standing to the side, shaking his head sadly. There’s just Benny and us.

That’s wrenching to watch. Strip away the sci-fi elements, and this is a straightforward tail of prejudice, with barely enough meat on the bones to carry it through an entire hour. Benny wants to write stories about a black captain; his editor, Douglas Pabst (Rene Auberjonois, who looks older than I was expecting), refuses to publish those stories because he doesn’t think the public is ready for them. They come up with a compromise—the stories will all turn out to be “dreams”—but the owner of the magazine pulps the issue, refusing to accept Benny’s work. Benny loses his job and collapses. He isn’t beaten to death (although his friend Jimmy, played by an amusingly unconvincing Cirroc Lofton, is shot and killed by the cops) or framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He just loses a chance to do what was most important to him, for no better reason than bigoted stupidity. Brooks spends most of his time as Benny playing it quieter than we’re used to seeing him. This is a man who keeps his head down, and then one day he raises it, and suffers for the effort. Benny’s big monologue is half-crazed poetry, the sort of broken heart madness that Brooks is so good at. He risks absurdity, but it’s earned. The hour manages its racism casually and oppressively, like getting the color of the paint on the walls right. Even Jimmy’s death is just something that happens, with no surprise at all. When the hero finally breaks under the pressure, it snaps the scene into focus. These aren’t just indignities. This is a constant battery of mental and physical abuse.

Brooks’ performance dominates the episode, which is for the best; the rest of the cast turns in work that’s varying degrees of successful. (Anyone wanting to get a clearer sense of everyone’s relative abilities would do well to watch this; apart from Brooks, I think Auberjonois, Penny Johnson, and Armin Shimerman come out the best). But even in the worst performances, there’s enough of a sense of the actor, and of the character we’re used to seeing them play, that it works. As for the metaphysics, well, it has its moments. Sisko’s transition from being stressed over his job and worried about the future to seeing visions of Benny and his world is defiantly odd, refusing to offer a simple, easy explanation for what’s happening. It’s not just a hallucination; Bashir determines Sisko’s neural patterns are spiking or whatever, much the same way they were spiking or whatever back when Sisko was getting visions from the Prophets. You could say, then, that this is the underlying truth of the entire series—it’s all just Benny’s fantasy—and I won’t say you’re wrong. But I’m not sure Benny’s world is ever solid enough to make that qualification mean anything. What we see is defined enough to make this episode work, but it doesn’t have the history or the breadth of the series as a whole to make the “It’s all in a writer’s head!” argument more than just a fun thing to speculate on in comment threads.

In terms of the character doubling, some choices are obvious: Dukat and Weyoun as asshole cops isn’t a huge surprise, and even though Cassie doesn’t have the same ambitions Kasidy does (for understandable reasons), her relationship with Benny is as strong as Kassidy’s is with Sisko. Other connections are subtler, like, say, O’Brien turned into the Isaac Asimov stand-in Albert Macklin, who loves machines much like an engineer would. Jimmy isn’t exactly like Jake (Lofton’s performance is endearingly forced, and he is, I think, the only actor to ever say the n-word on a Trek show), but his relationship with Benny is of the sort where you can imagine the writer trying to come up with something better for both of them, a situation in which the older man can impart some much needed knowledge to the younger. Seeing Odo as Pabst might be the coldest cut of all, as Pabst’s placating approach to his work is similar to Odo’s behavior during the Cardassian occupation: a shape-shifter who only chooses the form that will please his masters.

Yet Odo, our Odo, rose above this, and if you accept, for a moment, that Benny really did write everything we’ve been watching over the last six seasons, there’s something beautiful in how he tried to find ways to turn ordinary people into heroes. The writing staff at the magazine became a brave crew with complicated histories and passions; more, they became a family, one in which Sisko is first among equals. Cassie got a ship and adventure. Willie Hawkins, the lady loving baseball player became a warrior (a somewhat humorless and stiff-necked warrior, but when a guy keeps hitting on your girl like that, you gotta take revenge where you can find it). The asshole cops get justice as villains who will, in the end, be defeated. And Benny? Benny gets a space station and a loving father and a loving son. He gets the respect of his peers and the voice of the gods.

A metaphor—a secret lesson, a code to slip past the guardians of culture—that can do some good. It can be necessary, and useful, and just. But a metaphor can also be all that you have left. It can be a way out. A way free. “Far Beyond The Stars” succeeds because it does have universal concerns: the desire for respect, to be free to aspire without constraint. But by refusing to cloak those concerns in pure symbol, by reminding us that these things do happen, are, in fact, still happening every day, the episode escapes the trap of message and commentary and creates something unique. Maybe somewhere, Benny Russell is dreaming. And maybe someday, he won’t need those dreams.

According to the A.V. Club review of One Little Ship:

A show’s genre qualifies our expectations of it. I wouldn’t expect to see zombies wandering through the background of Mad Men, as awesome as that would be; conversely, I’d be shocked to find rich characterizations and thoughtful commentary about the shifting of cultural norms on The Walking Dead. (Zing!) Over time, a show develops a niche, creating expectations that define it even when set against other shows of a similar type. Those limits establish what stories the writers can tell, creating limits which in turn help to ground the reality of what we’re watching. There is no actual rule that says a witch can’t show up at the front door of Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce at the start of next season, but it would be a terrible idea. It would break the reality of the show, and the fact that the show has no real fundamental reality makes that reality even more necessary to protect. This is delicate business, and television is littered with examples of showrunners overstepping invisible lines and threatening to knock everything over for good. (Ask a Friday Night Lights fan about Landry and season 2, but only if you have a few minutes.)

The fact that DS9 is a science fiction show—and a semi-fantastical one at that—means that the writers have a lot of wiggle room before they’d be in any risk of going too far. Maybe if a vampire showed up (I’m on a Halloween kick today), without any accompanying pseudo-scientific explanation, that would break something. Who knows. I’ll say this much, though: shrinking three major characters to the size of thumbtacks is about as close as I hope we’ll ever get to zombies on the bridge. It’s so silly that it threatens to become absurd in unintentional ways. Yet “One Little Ship” is charming, and fun, enough to justify the risk. Maybe that’s the only real guideline: the bigger the chance you take, the stranger or more potentially distracting the twist, the harder you have to work to earn it.

“Hard work” isn’t the first phrase that pops to mind when it comes to describing this episode, which follows the adventures of a miniaturized Dax, Bashir, and O’Brien as they fight to save a regular-sized Defiant from the clutches of the Jem’Hadar; this story succeeds because it keeps things light. it’s not a comedy, exactly, although there are funny bits. The situation is played straight, even as the characters throw jokes at each other to try and keep their spirits up. But it is fun, which is pretty much a requirement with such an inherently goofy idea. This is an adventure, pure and simple, with menacing bad guys and determined heroes, and there’s no intense moral questions or dire tragedy to force us to take the premise more seriously than we should. If there was, the shots of a tiny Rubicon floating through the Defiant’s engine room and various corridors would strain credulity to the breaking point. Because things are briskly paced and engaging, it’s much easier to just enjoy the ride without questioning the particulars. The “hard work,” then, comes in the polished, well constructed script by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, and the surprisingly convincing effects work. The writers wisely keep the shrunken heroes inside the Rubicon for most of the running time, and it just looks—well, it looks kind of adorable. In a good way!

So, bottom line is, this is nifty bit of television, another highlight in a season which has so far been impressively full of such highlights. This wouldn’t be DS9, though, if there weren’t some subtleties to discuss. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was missing some good old fashioned Bashir/O’Brien banter, and “One Little Ship” is full of the stuff; O’Brien’s response to a crisis is to worry and work on the problem, while Bashir’s response is to mock O’Brien’s concerns, a dynamic which somehow doesn’t make either character come off poorly. The highlight is their trip inside a computer system to do, well, it’s very complicated and technical and involves them needing to release the bridge controls to the engine room so Sisko can take control of the ship, but all that really matters is that the set looks cool, and it gives the two chums a chance to work together, which they do quite well. Dax, meanwhile, is an excellent leader of the trio, and while it makes sense that she’d be in charge, given her rank and her experience, it’s still nice to see a woman in command without anyone even considering questioning her role. (It never even occurred to me to notice this until just now, and I’m still probably over-stressing it, so good job, show.)

Sisko, Kira, Nog, and Worf’s efforts to defeat the Jem’Hadar are solid; I especially like how Nog’s become an important member of the team, even coming close to bonding with Worf. Or at least helping to cover for Worf when the Dax and the others try to embarrass him, which is about the same. But the really interesting details in this episode come from what we learn about a new development with the Jem’Hadar soldiers. Because of Sisko’s successful return to Deep Space Nine (and the Prophets helpful “Oh, we’ll just take care of that for you” gesture), the Vorta have had to breed a new group of Jem’Hadar on this side of the wormhole. This new group are called “alphas,” and there is definite tension between the non-alphas and their apparent replacements. This tension is demonstrated by the strained relations between the group’s First, Kuduk’Etan (Scott Thompson Baker), an arrogant alpha, and the Second, Ixtana’Rax (Fritz Sperberg), an old schooler with more experience in the field. Throughout the hour, Ixtana’Rax repeatedly gives Kuduk’Etan the sort of advice that would’ve made this a very short (and sad, for our heroes) episode, and the First angrily tells him to hold his tongue.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Jem’Hadar is how their innate subservience to the Founders and their aggressive natures work against each other in unexpected ways. From what we see here, there’s little doubt that Kuduk’Etan and his fellow alphas are as driven and focused on victory for their leaders as earlier iterations of the Jem’Hadar are, but that drive manifests itself as a reckless self-confidence, and a need to prove themselves unique (and thus better, and more honorable, than their predecessors) leads to potentially disastrous blindness. Even a seemingly perfect system, one which relies on servants genetically engineered to do one’s bidding, has its risks. In creating the Jem’Hadar, the Changelings sought to build the perfect warrior: fanatical, physically gifted, and stripped of all excess concerns. But sentient life will always find ways to justify its existence, and if the only avenue for that justification is a deeper commitment to the honor of battle, and a pride in service, you’re creating a race of super powerful killers who live perpetually on the borders of madness. The white keeps them in check (although note how Kuduk’Etan subverts the usual ritual; he distributes the drug amongst his own, and assures them there’s no need to recite the usual oaths, because their deeds are what defines them), but the balance won’t last forever.

This is all very under the radar for right now, though; the writers want us to be aware that shifts are happening, and I’m sure those shifts will eventually have some sort of pay-off down the line, but “One Little Ship” resolves without much in the way of moral complexity, and is all the better for it. The Rubicon helps to save the day, everyone’s restored to their normal size, Worf makes a funny (a really good one, too), and Odo and Quark team up to mock O’Brien and Bashir. It’s hard to ask for much more than that.

According to the A.V. Club review of Honor Among Thieves:

Of all the things I was expecting from a mid-season episode of DS9, a Donnie Brasco riff was not one of them. In fact, I was so not expecting it that it took me maybe half of “Honor Among Thieves” to realize what was going on. In my defense, the homage (we will be polite and label it as such) doesn’t really get cooking until O’Brien visits Liam Bilby’s apartment, and realizes what a friendly sad sack the old bastard really is. Up until then, the story is a typical enough “let’s go undercover with the mob!” plot, as O’Brien uses his technological know-how to ingratiate himself with a trio of low rent crooks who run jobs for the Orion Syndicate. But once we get a better sense of who Bilby (Nick Tate) is, the reference point becomes impossible to ignore. Colm Meaney may not be the world’s most convincing stand-in for Johnny Depp, but he fits quite nicely into the role of a good guy pretending to be a bad one to catch some real villains. And Nick Tate may not be Pacino, but he does a great job as a decent guy who loves his family a whole lot, and has a pet cat named Chester, and oh yeah is also a crook who’s willing to kill people.

I don’t know as DS9 needed a mob episode. The show is always willing to poke around different cultures and try and figure out what makes them tick, but a cartoonishly evil criminal organization doesn’t strike me as a topic that’s ripe for study. Halfway through the episode, a Vorta shows up in the company of Bilby’s Orion contact, and there’s an effort made to tie this all back into the season’s main plot; Bilby gets a mission to murder the local Klingon Ambassador, but to do it in such a way as to frame Gowron for the crime, thus creating strife in the Empire, strife that will help the Dominion in its war against the Federation.

That’s a clever way to pull everything together, and it’s a good example of how the show’s attention to serialization pays off even in minor episodes. The Vorta’s appearance demonstrates just how far the Dominion War has spread, and keeping the season’s threat present even in a story that isn’t necessarily dedicated to moving the big picture forward. But it doesn’t really explain why O’Brien has been sucked into this situation in the first place. His Starfleet contact, Chadwick (Michael Harney, who I think is going for low-key but mostly ends up being very, very boring), tells him how multiple other undercovered operative have been killed trying to get inside the Syndicate, which is a necessary gesture to establish the stakes, but also serves to underline how inappropriate O’Brien is for this kind of work. He was a soldier, and I can imagine him doing reconnaissance, but out of all the people available, is the Chief Engineer of what might be the most important space station in the universe really the best guy to call when you want to get a bead on a bunch of crooks? He succeeds, because that’s what O’Briens do best, but it seems like a misplaced application of a very important tool.

Maybe “Honor Among Thieves” is another entry in the Hard Times For O’Brien signature series, although it doesn’t really come off that way. He’s deeply troubled by the end of the episode, and for good reason, but there’s little of the physical and mental torment he’s endured in the past. The crux of his dilemma here is that the more he gets to know Bilby, the more he gets to like him. And that inevitably leads to a horrified moment when he realizes that in order to do his job, he’s going to have to send his friend to his death. Not just betray him, not just doom him to spending the remainder of his years in a Federation prison; actually set him up to be killed. And since it’s Klingons who will do the killing, it’s not going to be an easy death. That is a rough spot to be in, and to its credit, the episode treats it seriously, even if it never really rises above the mafia-in-alien-clothing trappings. The last scene between Bashir and O’Brien suggests that this incident will haunt the Chief for a long time. (It also inadvertently reminds us how long it’s been since we’ve seen Keiko on the show.)

This conceit wouldn’t work if we, too, didn’t fall a bit for Bilby, much like Donnie Brasco wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it didn’t feature one of Al Pacino’s best performances in years. Nick Tate does a fine job, and while Rene Echevarria’s script tips its hand a little too much in making him sympathetic, the actor makes that sympathy feel earned regardless. It’s a gratifyingly complex view of criminality from a show that tends to make bad guys of this sort into either comic relief or heavy-handed thugs. Bilby is neither. Admittedly, no one around him is offered the same respect; Krole (Carlos Carrasco) and Flith (John Chandler) are pretty much your standard henchmen, all cowardly cringing and ineptitude. The impression that the three criminals are getting near the ends of their various ropes is obvious, and that makes them a little more interesting, but for the most part, Bilby’s the show. His constant exhortations about the importance of family make him more than just a bully with a gun, and the clear shine he takes to O’Brien suggest a desperately lonely man who wishes he had someone to talk to who had more on his mind than cadging free meals from a computer system. As character studies go, it’s not bad, and Tate and Meaney work well together.

It’s just, once you spot the movie connection, it’s distracting how indebted Rene Echevarria and Philip Kim are to their unacknowledged (at least officially) source. Bilby takes a shine to O’Brien because he’s lonely, and also because he needs someone competent in his organization to impress the bosses with; he’s down on his luck and could use a boost. He even buys O’Brien clothes to wear. In the moment that basically dooms him, Bilby vouches for his new protege to the boss, Raimus (Joseph Culp), which means that if O’Brien fails live up to the Syndicate’s high standards, both men will be punished. All of this is familiar to anyone who’s seen Donnie Brasco, and while the arc is a familiar one to undercover stories, the specifics are needlessly, well, specific.

Or maybe it’s just this isn’t really a story that suits the show all that well. O’Brien is the nominal protagonist, but O’Brien is a quiet man, and his time undercover isn’t long enough for him to get a really good case of angst going. Which means that Bilby dominates the episode, and as solid as Tate is, the character’s journey isn’t really compelling enough to justify the spotlight for this long. “Honor Among Thieves” is far from a bad episode, and the fact that it follows through in the end, and Bilby does die, means its moving in its small way. But even with the Vorta’s presence, events are so detached from the parts of the show we really care about that the whole thing comes off like an odd, unnecessary detour. When it comes to fiction, steal if you need to; but if you steal, you better make sure to make what you take your own.

According to the A.V. Club review of Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night:

We’re all compromised. Some of us more than others. Here I sit in a comfortable room, in a comfortable house, with two jobs, a lot of high tech toys, and the confidence that I know where my next meal is coming from; plenty of people don’t have that, and there are multiple ways I could be trying to help, and sometimes I do. Mostly I don’t, though. Mostly I ignore the charity drives and the e-mails and the twinges of conscience, because if I didn’t, they would take over my life, and I’m selfish. I want my life for myself. While I don’t know you, or your struggles, I can assume that, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably benefited at least a little from the suffering of others. Doesn’t mean you chose it, doesn’t mean you hurt anyone directly. But we live off the backs of the less fortunate, and no amount of atonement can alter this fact. The best you can do is find your level of necessary appeasement, and hope that’s enough to sleep at night.

Kira, though? Kira has spent her whole life with the firm conviction that her morals are beyond reproach. She is passionate, dedicated, and whole in a way that makes her, at times, difficult to like, the sort of person who’s constantly telling people about her time with the Peace Corp; not because she’s bragging, but because she thinks the value of the organization is so self-evident that simply by discussing it, she’ll win more converts. Kira is a believer to the core, but she’s not really arrogant about it. She’s earned her beliefs, and her scars, and she remains the rare example of a fictional revolutionary whose enthusiasm never makes her tiresome. Six seasons in, and I still want Kira to keep winning. The show has thrown most everything it can at her (but not, to the best of my recollection, rape, so good job everyone), and she comes out swinging every time.

“Wrongs Darker” doesn’t break this trend, but it does present a complex situation, one that pushes at the limits of Kira’s moral compass. The downside to her passion is a certain tendency towards binary thinking. Something is evil or it isn’t; there is no real gray area. This is an understandable tack to take when one is fighting a revolution to free one’s people from enslavement and genocide. Such circumstances don’t really allow the time it takes to parse out situational ethics, and even if they did, the sheer effort of risking your life day in and day out to fight a seemingly undefeatable foe means you can’t waste a lot of emotional energy on internal debate. But now that the Cardassians have left, and Bajor is free once again, life has gotten back to be tricky in different ways. This episode has her traveling back in time to find out exactly what relationship her mother (Kira Meru, played by Leslie Hope, who also played Jack Bauer’s wife in the first season of 24) had with Gul Dukat. In a sense, she’s going back to the old days, when life was simpler: rebels versus the evil empire. But nothing’s simple, really. Not the way we want it to be.

Okay, so let’s get the Orb of Time stuff out of the way first: It’s a very odd idea, and while the show has used it in the past, the fact that Kira can basically just take a vacation from her job and pull a Marty McFly is on the silly side. Sure, she had to get Sisko’s permission before she goes, and she explains that she’ll only get what she wants if the Prophets wish it, which helpfully cuts off any possibility that the Orb of Time does this sort of thing on the regular. But, again—silly. And what are the rules, exactly? Kira uses the Orb, wakes up in her own past, even meets herself (briefly), and then follows her mother around for a while, briefly becoming a “comfort woman” for the Cardassians on Terek Nor. When she finds the truth about Mom (or a truth, anyway), she starts plotting revenge, even planting a bomb inside Meru and Dukat’s quarters. How does this work, exactly? Is she really in the past, or in a vision of it? If her efforts had been successful, could she have killed Dukat a full decade or more before the series even began?

I don’t know. And in all honestly, while I have fun wondering about it, I don’t think it matters that much. In some episodes of DS9, time travel, and the restrictions it places on our heroes, is an important element in the plot. Here, it’s simply a device to allow Kira to face off against her mom directly even though her mom has been dead for some time. I’m a little irked at how casual this has become—we don’t need time travel to become an every-other-week type event on the show, thanks. But in the context of “Wrongs Darker,” it’s basically fine. The only real complaint is that questions about causality (seriously, what would’ve happened if Kira had decided to blow up her mom and Dukat? And why was she so cavalier about the whole thing?) distract from the more important issues at hand.

That issue being Kira Meru, her relationship with the Gul, and what the relationship means to her daughter. This show has always been good at offering difficult scenarios and then refusing to give us easy answers, and “Wrongs Darker” does not disappoint in this regard. The story kicks off when Kira gets a message from Dukat on her mother’s birthday. Dukat claims to have been in a relationship with Meru for years, and provides personal information that seems to corroborate his assertion. This upsets the hell out of Kira, for obvious reasons, and she travels to the past determined to prove Dukat wrong.

But of course he isn’t wrong, and that’s where things get tricky. We already knew that Bajorans under the occupation were in a miserable state, and the episode quickly confirms this: Kira’s family, along with the other families in their camp, are slowly starving to death. When a Bajoran collaborator comes to the camp looking to select some of the ladies as prostitutes for the Cardassian garrison, Meru goes along. She doesn’t really have a choice; none of them do. But while it’s entirely justifiable that the women would try and make the best of an awful situation, Meru seems to take things a step further. Dukat takes a special liking to her, and she accepts his advances. More, she responds to them, and this enrages Kira. Her worst fears are confirmed: her mother slept with the enemy, and enjoyed it, betraying everything Kira stands for.

Except it’s not that simple, as Meru tries to explain. In a way, Kira is approaching her own past from a position of privilege. From her perspective, the fight against the Cardassians was a noble battle that ended in victory. She had a choice, and her choice was the right one, so she can feel pretty solid about everything. Meru’s situation was more complicated. She had a family to protect, which meant that it would’ve been more difficult for her to get involved in the revolution. And maybe she didn’t have a particularly revolutionary frame of mind. From what we see of her in this episode, Kira’s mother was a decent, deeply sad woman who was trying to make the best of an impossible situation. She doesn’t have Kira’s fire, or her commitment. She’s just trying to survive in a miserable, ugly world. Going along with Dukat means that her family is protected and cared for; it means that they have a future (which means that Kira herself will get to grow up to do all those bold things she’s so good at doing). The pleasure she gets from Dukat’s gifts, and whatever she feels for the Cardassian himself—well, how can you blame her?

Kira can, of course, because at her worst, Kira is very good at blaming anyone who fails to live up to her standards. Although really, it’s understandable in this instance, since this is her mother; the mother who Kira thought died when she was a little girl. It’s not hard to imagine Kira spending her whole life building up a woman she never met, and to find out that not only are your assumptions wrong, but that this person you’ve loved your whole life without ever knowing is actually representative of everything you despise, has to be hard. Time travel logic aside, Kira’s decision to blow up Meru and Dukat make sense. It’s not a good decision, exactly, and it’s not one the episode necessarily agrees with, but it’s what she would do; just as her impulsive decision to save Meru and Dukat at the last moment makes sense. This is a sign of good drama: that a character can behave in ways that we ourselves wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to, but that that behavior still fits in with established patterns.

In the end, Kira doesn’t forgive her mother for her weakness; that’s a bold choice, because the script (by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler) does what it can to make sure we feel some sympathy towards the lady. Kira tells Sisko she decided not to blow up Mom because, well, Moms is Moms, so to speak. It’s a nice sentiment, but I’m not sure it’s enough. Maybe that’s because admitting what she was really feeling—that her hatred of collaborators might not be as perfectly justified as she’d like—was too painful to admit. We’re all compromised. Even her.

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

Look, we’re all friends here, right? Of course we are—there’s no need to reply, I already know what you’ll say. And because we’re such good friends, and because we both care about justice, decency, and apple pie, we can be honest with each other. Things aren’t going well. There are threats coming at us from all sides, monstrous enemies with the power to wipe out our way of live if our resolve falters even for an instant. We are strong fighters and determined strategists, but this war never seems to end, and we are capable of mistakes. Worst of all is the possibility that some few of us might be working for the enemy. I know. I know! It’s a horrifying thought. But the enemy is cunning, even seductive; they are capable of shrouding themselves under cover of friendship, and even infiltrating our highest ranks. We must be ever vigilant. Ever watchful. Also, completely random here, but what have you been up to lately? You know, in general. Oh, no reason. I just notice you’re not saying much. And that makes me… curious.

Maybe the most shocking aspect of “Inquisition” is that it’s not very shocking at all. Strip away the science fiction elements and the big twist, and the fundamental story is so distressingly familiar as to be practically banal. A man with a past which happens to make him an easy target for suspicious minds (Bashir’s time in the Dominion prison camp, plus his genetically engineered brain, set him apart; there’s also his skin color, which, while technically irrelevant in the context of the show, raises some uncomfortable echoes in our present) is taken without his consent, questioned without understanding the charges, and tortured in order to determine the depth of his “innocence.” That the torture is almost entirely psychological, and conveyed through the fun trickery of made-up technology, is a relief to be sure, but the story remains what it is. Apart from vague suspicions, there’s no reason to accuse Bashir of committing a crime. Deputy Director Sloan (William Sadler, who is excellent) never gives any solid evidence proving his case; it’s all innuendo, a mental fishing trip largely designed to see what, if anything, he can catch. Maybe that’s the most disturbing part. After the charade is revealed, Sloan bears Bashir no hard feelings, and has no regret or guilt over his actions. He’s not even bothered that Bashir is innocent. It’s just a day’s work, really.

But then, if we’re looking for shocks, the discovery that Sloan is part of a mysterious security organization known as “Section 31,” an organization which, while not officially condoned by the Federation, is not officially denied by it either—well, that’s a stunner. The utopian future has been a key part of Star Trek since the original series, and while the ideal has been questioned and tweaked since the days that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy first debated ethics, it’s never been entirely abandoned. The franchise has had its share of bullheaded officials, and for most of the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it seemed like the only qualification necessary to be promoted to the rank of admiral was “being an arrogant asshole.” You watch an episode like “The Offspring,” in which a Starfleet officer tries to take away Data’s newly created daughter, and it’s hard not to draw certain conclusions about the organization, how its bureaucracy allows (and even encourages) stultified thinking, protecting the egos of its ranking members to a degree that they retain the illusion that their judgment is unquestionable. (See also “The Drumhead.”) And Sisko has always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the ruling body back on Earth.

Yet these developments, while frequently unsettling and, when well-handled, thrilling to watch, also suggested a certain base level of outlier status. Conflict arose between our heroes and the powers that be, but those conflicts were ultimately resolved, and even if the resolution didn’t leave everyone satisfied, it at least felt that the fundamental systems themselves were not inherently corrupt. Any large governing body is bound to have flaws, because people have flaws, and while admitting that means giving up on Roddenberry’s dream of perfection, well, it was a sillly dream to begin with. (And it’s not like Kirk didn’t have to deal with his fair share of jerkwads.) The central principle—that the Federation was a powerful institution whose aims were solely for the benefit of all sentient life (okay, all sentient life that was a member, or might be a member in the future, but basically), and if the means they used to achieve those aims weren’t always perfect, the decency remained. These were the good guys. Sometimes it was necessary to make them assholes so that our good guys had someone to shout at, but ultimately, everyone was on the same side.

The existence of Section 31 doesn’t completely destroy this assumption. But it does put it on some very shaky ground. In our era of Homeland Security and seemingly omnipresent surveillance, the idea that a secret agency working inside the government to ferret out threats to national security might exist doesn’t sound like a long shot. That’s the present, though: the messy, irritating, cynical, non-fictional reality. Star Trek is supposed to be above that sort of thing. It represents an ideal we strive for, and its institutions should, one would assume, reflect that ideal. By creating Section 31, the writers of DS9 have decided to muddy the water even further than they have in the past, and while right now, the organization is more of a threat than anything specific, it casts a shadow over everything. As a member of Starfleet, Bashir has always considered himself to be on the right side, the side that protects truth and justice and due process, the side that would never ever kidnap people in the middle of the night to try and break their brains open through trickery and deceit. But now that belief has been tested. And while no serious physical damage is done—while Bashir is able to use the standard “Wait, a previous event established a condition which pokes a hole in your seemingly perfect scenario!” out that so many Trek episodes have used in the past to save himself—the doubts remain. Because what if O’Brien hadn’t injured himself without Sloan’s knowledge? What if the simulation had been perfect? What if Sloan had decided to dig deeper?

The grimmest implications of “Inquisition” are held off until the end of the episode. Until then, the plot follows Dr. Bashir through the interview process, charting each step of Sloan’s attempts to first win his trust, then unnerve him, then put him on his guard, and then make him doubt himself. Over the course of the interrogations, Sloan reveals himself to be very, very good at his job; Sadler is a reliable heavy, conveying an almost palpable contempt for his adversaries even when he’s pretending to be their friend, and the script by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle makes great use of Bashir’s past, throwing seemingly unconnected incidents back into the doctor’s face and treating them as some great pattern which leads inevitably to betrayal. And when it comes time for Sloan to go on the attack, he twists the accusation in a way that allows Bashir to confess a sin without accepting any guilt for it, a brilliant bait and switch that seems to offer sympathy even as it tightens the noose. “Engramatic dissociation” is an obscure phrase, but the meaning is simple. What if the Dominion broke Bashir so thoroughly that he doesn’t even remember being broken? He can be a double agent without needing to give up his concept of himself as a good Federation officer. It’s not his fault. It’s just his brain.

This is a clear tactic on Sloan’s part. Once he can get Bashir to admit that culpability is possible, he has a foothold, and can press further, uncovering whatever secrets remain hidden. (I don’t know if Sloan honestly believes Bashir has divided mind; I don’t think he cares very much either way. Morality rarely enters into the equation for people like Sloan.) But Bashir stubbornly refuses to take the bait, and it’s a measure of the effectiveness of the episode that even I found myself doubting him. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for Bashir to actually be working for the Dominion, even if it did turn out to be inadvertent. For one, we’ve already done the “Bashir is evil!” plot, and even if this time it would be the actual real Bashir committing the crimes, that’s still needlessly redundant writing. For another, it wouldn’t make much sense to introduce a creepy, invasive security force which also happens to be completely right. Dramatically speaking, that would be one hell of a bummer, and not in a particularly interesting or exciting way. Still, I couldn’t help wondering, right up until the moment when Weyoun beams Bashir aboard his ship.

It’s not really Weyoun, but the episode does such a good job of disorienting the viewer nearly as much as poor Bashir that for a few minutes, it seems like all of this might actually be happening. And a few minutes is all it takes. There’s something comforting in that last twist, the discovery that Bashir has been on a holodeck, and that much of what we’ve seen (all of it?) has been constructed specifically to break him. Because at least a holodeck gives us some distance from what’s happening. It’s a construct, and after all that uncomfortable dialogue and questioning, after seeing even Sisko begin to doubt Bashir’s honesty, a fun, clever construct that gives Bashir a chance to outsmart his captors puts us firmly back in the land of fiction. The final scene has Bashir retelling his adventures to Sisko, Kira, and Odo, and none of them question the need to learn more about Section 31; there’s a clear sense that the good guys aren’t bowing out in the face of such malevolence, institutional though it may be, and that’s a relief. Because in real life, there are no clever tricks, no easy to exploit mistakes, no way to turn the tables and escape. Sloan is wearing a leather uniform in the end. I imagine the blood washes right off.

According to the A.V. Club review of In the Pale Moonlight:

When I was 18 years old, my family took a vacation. I stayed home, because it was summer and because I had a job; I was trying to put away some money before I went to college in the fall. I’d just passed my driver’s test, and my dad left me the truck, a big blue monster of a Ford that didn’t turn so great and wheezed when you changed the gears.

One afternoon I was running low on cereal and toilet paper, so I took a trip to the grocery store. The parking lot was three-quarters full, but I found a space not too far from the entrance. It was narrow, but I was sure I could make it, and I’d never had any problems parking before. But I didn’t make it. As I turned, there was a crunch and a popping sound, and I looked down just in time to see fragments of orange plastic flying out where the truck’s bumper had knocked out another car’s tail light. A stranger’s tail light.

I froze. In the 10 seconds before I made my next move, I had options, but all I knew was that I was a bad person, and that everything was ruined. So when my 10 seconds were up, I drove away. For the next two days, I was convinced that the cops were going to find me, that someone had seen me, that someone had written down my license plate number. But nothing happened. There wasn’t even enough damage to the truck for my parents to notice when they finally came home.

I love stories, and I love them because they have reasons, and consequences, cause and effect. They have meaning. But this story made no sense. I wasn’t one of the good guys anymore, but it didn’t matter. No one cared. I got over it.

There’s nothing in my life comparable to Sisko’s actions in “In The Pale Moonlight.” The episode goes to great lengths to establish the ongoing cost of the Dominion War, the captain’s personal sense of responsibility, and the frustrated rage that drives him. He does what he does because he tells himself there are no other choices he can make, and life keeps finding reasons that seem to confirm this. There’s no real accident here, and certainly nothing as silly as the anecdote I just described; Sisko’s course might have saved the entire Federation. My cowardice just screwed somebody out of a tail light. But for me, what matters most about “In The Pale Moonlight” is what happens at the very end: nothing. Oh, some ambiguity, a little uncomfortableness. It’s possible the death of the Romulan ambassador might someday land on the captain’s doorstep, and there could very well be consequences. But for right now, he gets away with it. He drives off, and if he has a hard time sleeping, he’ll get over it.

Star Trek is built on the vision of an ideal future; a tomorrow in which so many of the wants and hatreds that drive us today have been put aside. No money, no starvation, and if politics still seem as sniping and childish as ever, well, maybe there are folks who prefer it that way. The fundamental assumption is that problems can be solved. That with enough technology, enough goodwill and time, eventually humanity will work through its differences and grow the fuck up. Sure, there will still be the occasional criminal or malcontent, and sure, contact with other species can bring with it a whole host of new problems. But the fundamental optimism remains. With patience, the stalwart and true heroes of the world can save the day by sticking to their principles. It’s a nice idea.

In the years since Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars” first debuted, that idea has been poked and prodded by the Star Trek franchise, but it’s never been entirely discarded. Jean-Luc Picard had some dark moments on theEnterprise, but there was never any question about his moral fortitude; the worst thing that happened to him—being captured and assimilated by the Borg—was something that was done to him, not a personal failing or momentary lapse. The integrity of Picard, and of all his crew, was one of the hallmarks that defined Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the show’s best, these were good people doing noble work. They struggled from time to time, and they weren’t perfect, but they didn’t compromise themselves.

The same can’t really be said for Deep Space Nine. It’s a show built on compromise, and most of its cast have experienced this first hand. The events of “Moonlight,” the slow sickening build of bad choice stacked atop bad choice, are simply the natural evolution of a principle that has been with us from the beginning. Life is not neat. It is messy and strained and frequently uncomfortable, and staying clean isn’t always an option. The shock here isn’t that Sisko is capable of following a course of action that ends in murder. The shock is the realization that this isn’t that shocking. It doesn’t destroy our idea of Sisko, it doesn’t break any established rules, and it doesn’t shake the foundations of the series. All it does is twist things. Slightly. The good guys are still going to win, and the evil Dominion will be cast aside (or maybe there will be negotiations, I don’t know), and all it cost was, well. Not that much, right? A few lives, and a blotch on a good man’s soul. That’s a comparatively small price to pay.

Putting aside thematic concerns for a moment, “Moonlight’”s framing device, which has Sisko wrestling with his actions as he narrates what happened to his personal log, helps to establish this as being as much about character as it is about plot. Not that there’s ever any danger of us losing sight of that plot. If I have a criticism of the episode, it’s that it works a little too hard to make sure we understand exactly why Sisko does what he does, with Dax making comments like, “Boy, we definitely need the some help now!” at just the right moment. These reminders are distracting and unnecessary, although it’s not hard to figure out why they were included. DS9 has always been an accessible series; for all its moral ambiguity and technobabble, it rarely makes us struggle too hard to understand where its characters are coming from. Its genius is in using that accessibility to force its audience to confront uncomfortable truths. Another show might have gone to lengths to make sure neither side in the Dominion War was, strictly speaking, right; here, while it’s possible to sympathize with the Jem’Hadar, and even the Founders, there’s no real question. But that doesn’t make what happens to Vreenak (the always terrifying Stephen McHattie) any easier to take.

“In The Pale Moonlight” shifts the status quo for the series’ biggest ongoing storyline, but Sisko’s musings, self-recrimination, and self-doubt are the heart of the story. The episode turns the entire Dominion War into an opportunity to consider what lengths a man might be willing to go to try and do the right thing—and how the “right thing” can cease to lose its meaning past a certain point. In that respect, the hour plays like a miniature film noir, full of big gambles and shady creeps; you can even, if you squint, see some of the antihero signifiers that would become so important to modern television drama. Sisko takes shortcuts, offers bribes, works with criminals, and keeps the truth from his friends, and he does it all with, as he himself notes, the best of intentions. He does it for a cause greater than himself, but the sins still stain.

The escalation is elegant, all small steps from here to here to here, and then suddenly you look back to where you came from and you can’t see home anymore. This isn’t the most fun I’ve had watching a DS9 episode, but it is fun, and like those antihero shows, there’s a lot of excitement to be had in bending and breaking the rules. With Garak around, nothing ever gets too heavy or grim, except when you think about it; even Vreenak’s death doesn’t leave much of a mark. He was an interesting character, and he probably didn’t deserve to die, but it’s not like we’re going to miss him. Mostly this is just clever and well-paced and exciting, and each new setback adds to the suspense. Sisko’s plan, which seemed so simple (if basically impossible) keeps running into roadblocks, and each roadblock requires Sisko to lower himself just that much more. There’s plenty of entertainment value to be had in watching the captain negotiate a pay-off with Quark. Besides, Quark isn’t so bad, is he? And Garak, hey, Garak’s had his issues, but he’s such a charming, fascinating figure, he surely has everyone’s best interest at heart.

Here’s the thing: from a certain perspective, Garak does have everyone’s best interest at heart. At least, he has right people’s best interests. While the script (teleplay by Michael Taylor, from a story by Peter Allan Fields) may hit some notes too hard, it never overplays Sisko’s deepening sense of crisis, to the point where it’s entirely possible to watch the whole episode and think not much of importance has happened at all. It’s not as though Sisko murdered Vreenak himself; it’s not as though he records his log with blood dripping from his fingers.

Questions of right and wrong are often presented as simple binary decisions in fiction. Even in complicated scenarios, the choices characters make within those scenarios, from our outsider’s perspective, are basically straightforward. Sometimes doing the right thing is incredibly, almost impossibly, difficult, but we still know what that right thing is, and woe betide anyone who fails to follow it.

But here, nothing’s easy. You can say, it’s wrong that Sisko asked for Garak’s help, because surely he must have known Garak would take whatever steps necessary to ensure the plan would succeed. You can say, after Vreenak’s death, it was Sisko’s responsibility to turn Garak over to the authorities, and confess to his part in the crime. Yet the guilt of the former is outweighed by those endless casualty reports, by wave after wave of meaningless deaths, by the very real possibility that the Federation might lose the war; and the responsibility of the latter is cast aside by the simple fact that it’s too late, and any attempt to find justice would just make everything that much worse. So all that’s left is an empty feeling in the pit of one’s stomach and the slime left behind by all those moderate capitulations. And the corpses, of course.

Look: that taillight story? That’s a stupid story. I’ve done worse things in my life, and I’m still walking around, but even those worse things aren’t comparable to the subject at hand. But that minor accident, that lousy mistake that probably ruined (or at least inconvenienced) someone’s day, was the first time I can remember doing the wrong thing, and it not mattering. There was no punishment, no effect, no anything. If it were possible to work out some equation that expressed Sisko’s behavior in “Moonlight,” a way to balance out the millions of potential lives lost, and the very strong possibility that he’d helped to win the war (a war that Vreenak accuses him of starting, no less), against the immorality of the lies and murder it took to get him there… I don’t know. Maybe it would come down to little more than a busted taillight, and the knowledge that this is what we are capable of. This is how we are weak. Sisko can console himself with the thought that life demands impossible decisions, and it could just be that sometimes you have to do something awful to save the day. But he’ll always know that there are virtuous, heroic, and noble people in the universe, people who always take the high road, people who don’t run away or let their desperation drive them; and whatever else happens, if Sisko is among them, it will always be with an asterisk. You can live with that, though.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Reckoning:

This is absolutely ridiculous, but I’m not going to lie: I kind of loved it. Oh, it doesn’t really fit the show, but then, neither did “His Way.” Two weeks ago, we had a hero who was willing to allow murder and forgery to go unchallenged in order to get what he wanted. Now, it’s digitized lounge singers and ghosts having wizard fights on the Promenade. The moral complexity has been shoved aside in favor of broad, crowd-pleasing comedy and loopy genre mysticism, and if you’re a fan of the series who disliked one or both of this week’s episodes, I sympathize. But while I had reservations about “His Way” (although I didn’t hate it), I found “The Reckoning” marvellously entertaining, and a nice change of pace from the show’s more serious arc stories. Oh sure, there’s a lot of grim portent about Bajor’s future, and Kai Winn is once again an unlikable (if understandable) killjoy, but the episode ends with a wizard fight. A wizard fight that is cut short by the Kai’s jealousy and cowardice, which means that the evil Pah-Wraith is still out there somewhere, which means there’s a chance of another wizard fight down the line. This is the best!

As long as I’m doing the honest thing: despite having taken notes and paid attention to every episode I’ve seen so far (which is every episode up to and including this one), I don’t have a great grasp on Bajoran mythology. I’m not sure if that’s the show’s fault or my own. When everyone started talking about Pah-Wraiths, I recognized the term, and knew it had been brought up before, but that’s about all I could remember. A simple Google search could clear up the confusion (although i just did a search to see if there was a hyphen between “Pah” and “Wraith,” and I think I inadvertently stumbled over a spoiler, so none of that, thanks), but I’m also not convinced its necessary. The trappings of mythology are there for people who enjoy them, but they’ve never been the main reason to watch a show. If you care about where the Cylons came from on Battlestar Galactica, more power to you, but that’s not really what makes Starbuck and Apollo and Adam and Roslin’s story so great. Drama comes from what happens in the moment, contextualized through history, but that history only really has an impact if we get to see it. So, a ten minute monologue explaining which Cylon model came from where and why is a lot less compelling than, say, Starbuck and Apollo beating the shit out of each other in the boxing ring while we flashback to their reasons for being upset with one another. One is recitation, the other is something that’s actually happening.

There is definitely stuff happening in “The Reckoning.” Bajoran archaeologists find a tablet with Sisko’s “name” on it (there’s a symbol for the Emissary), and Sisko, after getting a vision from the Prophets when he touches the thing, takes the tablet back to DS9 for study. There’s some squabbling with Winn over property rights, but ultimately, Sisko breaks the tablet, and Kira is possessed by one of the Prophets. Then Jake is possessed by a Pah-Wraith, and the two begin the “reckoning,” a conflict whose outcome will decide if Bajor is destined for 1000 years of peace and prosperity, or something much, much worse. So it’s not just people delivering monologues. And yet the details blur together. Why to the Prophets need to fight this specific Pah-Wraith? Why will this have any effect on Bajor? And why has Bajor been thrown into chaos before the fight begins? Winn claims it’s because Sisko removed the tablet, but given that the Prophets wanted him to break the damn thing, I doubt they cared much about where he did it.

Maybe the Pah-Wraith itself is responsible for the earthquakes and floods. Although that wouldn’t explain the ghostly shapes that come out of the tablet when it shatters. Maybe all of this will be explained at a future date. But I prefer not to know, because I don’t particularly care. The Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths are ill-defined creatures, operating on planes of existence we can barely glimpse, let alone comprehend; they are concepts, not characters, and their motives, even when defined, remain abstract. And while DS9 has done some interesting work in trying to balance religious viewpoints against the franchise’s science-fiction based perspective, the more events which are explained by “Eh, some gods did it,” the closer we are to the original Trek, with all its nutty godlike beings and half-assed causality. That worked fine back then, but this show needs a certain foundation of reality. The less we know about these Prophets, then, the better; their occasional strained interactions with “the Sisko” work best when they could be explained by either logic or, for want of a better word, magic, and too many details makes the balance harder to maintain.

As neat looking (and, okay, silly) as the battle between Kira and Jake is, it’s a sideshow; the real battle is what goes down between Winn and Sisko, and how Kira attempts to deal with both sides. Winn remains one of the show’s more effective villains. Louise Fletcher’s perpetually calm line readings give the kai a sort of infuriating invulnerability; any argument anyone tries to make, she can simply retreat behind a wall of stoic, barely discernable disdain. Whatever side she is on, that’s the side of the righteous, and the righteous are impossible to argue against effectively. The big challenge is in trying to make her more than a one note enemy. For her first few appearances, Winn’s self-centered ambition and ego were enough to justify her actions, but as the show goes on, she needs a few more shades. Not to diminish her impact or make her less threatening, but to prevent her from becoming one-note and tedious. On the whole, the writers have managed to make this work, although to a certain extent, Winn always stays removed.

That doesn’t exactly change in “The Reckoning,” but she’s… well, I don’t want to say sympathetic, exactly, but for her first few scenes, I did almost find myself agreeing with her. The problem is that Sisko decides to take the tablet from the burial site without consulting Winn or the Bajoran government. Presumably the monks on the site who brought the find to the captain’s attention weren’t bothered by him bringing it back to DS9 (at least, we don’t get a scene of Sisko, Kira, and Jake shooting a bunch of unarmed, but angry, Bajorans), but it’s still a breach in protocol. Besides, while Sisko is the Emissary, which presumably gives him a certain leeway, he’s also a representative of the Federation, and there’s something decidedly off-putting about an interstellar conglomerate casually removing priceless artifacts from planets when the mood takes them. We understand Sisko does what he does with the best of intentions, but his justification—he felt that this is what the Prophets wanted him to do—isn’t going to reassure anyone who’s in the mood to question his motives.

Which isn’t to say that Winn herself is operating from a position of purest moral authority. As Kira reminds Sisko (and us), the kai has been in a tough spot ever since Sisko arrived on the scene. His existence, and on-going relationship with the Prophets, forces her to question her heretofore unshakable conviction of her own divine value. It’s a bit like Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus, only here, the Amadeus figure isn’t a guy who crawls around making fart jokes in between composing the most beautiful music in the world. If Sisko exists, then Winn isn’t as important as she thought she was; because Sisko is the Emissary, and that means the Prophets were looking to choose someone, and that means they didn’t pick her.

While this back-and-forth between Winn and Sisko (and, for a couple of scenes, Winn and Kira) isn’t as immediately pleasurable as all those special effects, it gives the episode a story that has more relevance than some pyrotechnic antics between immortal (or seemingly immortal) beings. The Prophet/Pah-Wraith fight has supposed consequences, but even though the spirits possess the bodies of people we care about, the sequence is less like a conflict and more like a sudden tornado; potentially life-threatening, but a fundamentally external event which robs our heroes of the complexity of their responses. There’s only so much you can do when a tornado’s coming, after all. But Sisko’s refusal to leave the station, combined with his faith in the Prophets, is interesting in and of themselves, especially considering that his faith remains strong even after Jake is possessed. It tells us something about him that will be important even after the current crisis has passed.

And Winn gets the most important moment of free will in the whole hour, deciding in the heat of the battle to flood the Promenade with chroniton particles, forcing the Prophet and the Pah-Wraith (coming this fall to ABC!) to flee the station. It’s a completely unexpected choice, as it seemingly contradicts Winn’s early conviction that the prophecy must be allowed to unfold without interference—yet it makes sense. There’s a moment when Winn offers herself to the Prophet, desperate to be a part of the history unfolding before her, and the Prophet ignores her entreaties; and for all that Winn has done, and for all that her decision might lead to, it’s still possible to feel some pity for her. She’s a selfish monster who has devoted her life to the conviction that she understood her gods better than anyone. Then she met God, and It didn’t recognize her. That would ruin anybody’s day.

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

According to the A.V. Club review of Time’s Orphan:

According to the A.V. Club review of Tears of the Prophets:

To be fair, Jadzia Dax’s death was probably never going to fit no matter how the writers handled it. This is, after all, a show at the end of its sixth season, a show which, in its entire time on air, has never killed off a member of its main ensemble. A few guest stars bought it, the occasional tedious recurring character was sacrificed (so long, Vedek Bareil and poor Tora Ziyal), but nobody really major, and no one whose absence seriously threatened the integrity of the series’ core. Deep Space Nine has had its share of significant plot shifts and political upheavals, but Sisko, Kira, Odo et al have remained present and accounted for throughout, even when they aren’t in the same place. That creates a strong sense of continuity, and if you’re going to break that kind of continuity, you need to earn the destruction. Even though Jadzia’s death was dictated by external forces (Terry Farrell decided she wanted to leave the show to do Becker), in context, it needed to have weight and meaning. The writers manage the weight, but the meaning is iffy; and, still being fair, there was probably no way to avoid that.

But as far as picking and choosing the right moment, “getting zapped by a Pah-Wraith-possessed Gul Dukat while she’s visiting a Bajoran shrine to pay respect to the Prophets for making it possible for her to have a baby” isn’t really going to make anyone’s top ten. That’s not a heroic death; it’s not even a particularly heartbreaking one. You can argue that it has a certain didn’t-see-that-coming verisimilitude with most real life fatalities, but that’s an argument that only goes so far. Getting murdered by a lizard man with red-eyes via the power of, what, magical-non-burning flame is a far cry from a heart attack of a brain aneurysm or, hell, a suicide. The whole point of reminding us that death can come at any time is for that death to be fundamentally banal—a mystery in the “why” department that never bothers much with the “how.” Jadzia’s death is an anomaly in the history of the series, a bad luck moment in a universe where such bad luck has never affected our heroes so mortally before. What happens is striking, and memorable, because it’s unprecedented, and because it has consequences. But it’s also airless, an event of great sorrow that plays out like an old joke.

The effort to make the death more poignant before the fact—namely, Dax and Worf’s desire to have a baby—just looks forced in retrospect. There was some build up to the idea, which is smart, but having a kid in the middle of a war in which both parents are active participants is an odd choice; and even if you accept that (which, sure, why not), it just doesn’t really fit in with anything we know about Jadzia. Or Worf, although at least with Worf I can believe some idea of wanting a kid for tradition, or to finally erase Alexander’s existence from our memories once and for all. But Dax? She’s all about adventure and exploration and new experiences, and while I can completely see her wanting to have a baby eventually (pregnancy and parenthood being, in their way, an adventure with exploration and new experiences), her sudden obsession with the idea is just too programmed, too clearly established for pathos.

“Tears Of The Prophets” is an odd episode, and not just because it marks the departure of a major cast member. The plot, which has Sisko leading the first step of an invasion into Cardassian territory, sounds like standard season finale material, with its big space battle and shift in the overall paradigm; but there are strange variations throughout, as the writers attempt to move the Prophets and their war against the Pah-Wraiths to the center of the action. It doesn’t quite work. Earlier forays into mysticism were charming in a sort of “I don’t get what any of this means but it sure is wacky!” kind of way, but Gul Dukat’s decision to unearth a Bajoran artifact for a team-up is more a Lex Luthor type move than anything else. And not the good kind of Lex Luthor move, either. I mean, he breaks a statue and a glowing spirit invades his body, and his eyes go red. It’s basically Super Friends; all that’s missing is a laughing purple monkey.

More interesting is Sisko’s struggle when a vision warns him not to leave Bajor. The conflict between the captain’s role as a Starfleet officer and his duty as the Emissary has been a consistently compelling one since the start of the series, because it’s a question that can never have a definitive answer. There is a version of Sisko who, when forced to define himself, would have rejected the spiritual calling of the Prophets; and there’s a version of Sisko who would have given up his professional career entirely once the visions started. But neither of those are the version of Sisko we have. Our version (“The Sisko,” you might say) wants earnestly, and at times desperately, to satisfy both vocations, so that when he tells Admiral Ross about his vision, and about the bind he feels he’s in, it’s not an empty complaint. And when he decides to go on the mission anyway, the choice marks the first time I can remember that he’s explicitly gone against the will of the Prophets, which helps to make everything that follows (including Dax’s death) just a little more tragic.

Only a little, though; while Sisko’s quest to find the meaning in his life becomes more important at the start of the next season, here the various pieces don’t fit together all that well. It’s possible Sisko being on the station might have prevented Dukat from killing Dax and releasing the Pah-Wraith to taint the orb (apparently almost all the orbs, which is impressive), but the circumstances are too random and over too fast to really feel like an event which could’ve been prevented or stopped regardless of who was there to see it. The closure of the wormhole is a big deal in theory, but it’s the sort of twist whose impact isn’t immediately felt—truth be told, the wormhole hasn’t really been an important part of the show in quite some time, and it’s loss isn’t half as surprising as the loss of Deep Space Nine was last season.

Season finales don’t need great shocks to succeed, and there are effective elements throughout “Tears Of The Prophets.” The space battle for control of the Chin’Toka system is thrilling, and it’s always great to have Garak hanging around. (I like how there’s no obvious change in the way Sisko treats Garak—I’m not sure the two of them exchange a line of dialogue, which may be important in and of itself, but there aren’t any obvious awkward glances or vague threats. What’s done is done; and the more the show refuses to follow up on “In The Pale Moonlight” in any way, the more powerful that episode becomes.) And hey, Weyoun and Damar sparring is never not funny, as it’s been too long since we’ve heard from either character. But this plays like the first half of a two-parter, and that’s not really what it is. The premiere of season 7 is an interesting (and better, I think) hour than this, but it doesn’t make “Tears Of The Prophets” more coherent in retrospect. This episode just tries to accomplish too much, and in doing so, shortchanges almost everything. There are possibilities here, but few that generate real excitement; and death, when it comes, leaves everything looking hollow by comparison.

 

The Worst:

Resurrection, Statistical Probabilities, His Way, and Profit and Lace

resurrection5

In kibbles and bits:

  • Resurrection sees the Mirror Universe Vedek Bareil arrive on Deep Space Nine seeking refuge;
  • Statistical Probabilities has within it the possibility for a good story, but fails short with “stereotypes about the mentally ill” (see Good Will Hunting or Smallville Season 2 for similarities);
  • His Way sees Odo consult the holographic singer, Vic Fontaine, on his relationship with Kira; and,
  • Profit and Lace is both incredibly homophobic, transphobic, and sexist, all at once. You can miss this one, and you may be better off doing so.

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

I’ve made all the objections I can think of to the show’s ongoing interest in the Mirror Universe. It’s a fun idea that has run its course. There’s little dramatic investment in characters we only occasionally see, regardless of who’s playing them. The whole concept of a mirror universe is difficult to sustain, especially since the more we see of it, the more the “good guys” have to win, which goes against the whole point of thing in the first place. It’s awful to watch writers you trust latch on to a bad idea and refuse to let go, and the one shining light in all of this is that no one working behind the scenes on DS9 has let this get completely out of hand. Every once in a while, we get a MU episode. They tend to get worse as the show goes on, but it’s not like there’s a saga or anything. In a way, it’s a bit like Lwaxana Troi’s once-a-season visits to the Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sometimes they’d be entertaining, and if they weren’t, well, you just accepted the sacrifice and moved on.

So I’m hoping against hope this will be the last we see of the MU this season, even if we don’t actually see the universe itself at any point in the hour. Getting it out of the way early is a relief. But man, did it have to be so boring? Of all the people to bring back, of all the regulars and secondary characters and guest stars to give the spotlight to, who the hell thought Bareil would be a good idea? To his credit, writer Michael Taylor at least tries to give the other Bareil a more interesting past than the dead Vedek had; this new version is a rogue in the Han Solo vein, and makes his entrance by beaming into Ops and taking Kira hostage at disruptor-point.

But Philip Anglim isn’t suited to the lovable rogue type. He tries his best, but his performance largely consists of mumbles and strained smiles. More than anything, he reminded me of the scientist-hero-forehead-delivery-system of the 1956 B-movie The She Creature. If you get a chance, look it up on YouTube; I saw it through the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, and Mike and the bots’ mockery of the lead’s acting style ran through my head this entire episode.

That made it difficult to take anything seriously, but to be honest, there isn’t much of anything that deserved the attention in “Resurrection.” The central conflict: Kira sees the new Bareil (who I’m just going to refer to as “Bareil” from now on, since the Vedek is dead, and this version isn’t a Vedek), is confused, then slowly but surely ends up falling for him—and he for her. But it’s all a ruse because he’s there on orders from Kira’s crazy double, the Intendant. (Does she even have her old job anymore? I can’t remember.) The other Kira is also on DS9, presumably having beamed over at the same time Bareil did in order to cover her tracks, and she’s still all campy and kind of evil and pretty much insane. She wants Bareil to steal the Bajoran’s Orb so they can bring it back to their reality. Which I guess makes sense if you think of her as a floating ball of malevolence, which is basically what she is at this point.

I used to like the Intendant. I used to think it was fun to watch Nana Visitor go all sultry and wicked and what-not. But it gets old, like caricatures are wont to do, but the character is embarrassing now—forced and needy and pointless. I don’t know if Visitor’s performance has gotten worse, although I don’t think that’s it; there’s just no core threat behind her anymore. Outside the context of her universe, she’s just a goofball playing dress up and wanting to fuck everything that movies. Which, hey, bully for her, but it’s like watching someone try and keep the party going after everyone else has left. There’s no menace, no allure, no mystery. She’s just an easily betrayed twerp who doesn’t seem capable of learning lessons from her past.

Watching someone get foiled again by yet another duplicitous lover isn’t the most fun way to spend an hour, and “Resurrection” also makes the strange mistake of downplaying Kira’s experience with Bareil over Bareil’s experience of becoming a (slightly) better man. This is partly because a good third of the episode has Bareil and the Intendant plotting and Kira being none the wiser, which limits the amount of time we can spend on Kira wondering if she’s making good life choices. But there’s still Bareil’s slow spiritual shift, and his struggle between normal amazing Kira and rabid sex kitten Kira, and who really cares about that? It would be one thing if Anglim was charismatic or fun to watch, but he isn’t, really. He’s as dull as he was back when he played the Vedek—but then, his stillness was supposed to indicate a kind of inner peace. Here, it’s just a lot of nothing.

Which is unfortunate. Kira-centric episodes don’t happen every week, and this one is a waste of everyone’s time. The romantic relationship at the center never digs into the creepiness that drives it: How much is she hooking up with Bareil because she’s interested in him, and how much is it just the fact that he looks like the dead man she once loved? If Kira had started going full Vertigo on Bareil, then we might have had something. Additionally, the actual plot stalls early and often. What used to make the Mirror Universe episodes so exciting was their sense of scope; a whole other setting to play in where everything was almost, but not quite, completely different than it ought to be. But over time, that scope has narrowed to the point where where it’s almost painful to watch. It’s time to close the door on this particular concept for good. (I know the show won’t, though.)

According to the A.V. Club review of Statistical Probabilities:

Ever since the Truth About Bashir was revealed last season, the writers have struggled to find a way to deal with it. Well, maybe that’s presuming too much—maybe they didn’t really give a damn. But post-reveal, the good doctor has been reduced to a handful exchanges about statistical probabilities, and some of the usual great banter with O’Brien. Nothing wrong with the latter, and the former has been largely minimized, just a touch of character to remind us that the situation has changed. Still, he comes across as less friendly than he used to, less charming and aggressively eager to please. There’s something fundamentally sad about Bashir these days, and it’s a choice I’m not sure what to make of. Maybe it’s the war, maybe it’s the stress of having to be “himself” in front of people who probably don’t look at him the same way they used to, but the guy has turned into a bit of a bummer. This is a shame, really, because it’s been so one-note so far. Outside of “You Are Cordially Invited…,” Bashir has spent his time this season looking like a man in the grips of an ongoing depressive episode. In real life, I’d ask him what was wrong; in fiction, either he needs to cheer the hell up, or he needs a focus episode that explains what has him in such a bad mood.

“Statistical Probabilities” isn’t exactly that episode, but it’s close enough. The focus is on a group of genetically engineered super geniuses who have spent most of their lives institutionalized; they’re “enhancements” left them so unstable that they were unable to simulate normal behavior at a young age, which led to them to being identified and locked away. It’s easy to feel sorry for them—unlike Bashir, who could keep his improvements secret until it became dramatically convenient to reveal them, these kids (adults now) had their lives fundamentally altered by their parents in a way they have no control over whatsoever. But it becomes clear very early on that while this is a group of victims, the laws that put them away aren’t entirely to blame. Jack, Lauren, Patrick, and Sarina are fractured, deeply damaged individuals, and while they have intellectual abilities far beyond normal humans, they also have certain trade-offs that limit their functionality in polite society. Jack is aggressive, fast-talking, and perpetually on edge; Lauren is—well, okay, all we ever really get from her is that she’s seductive-ish, but since this never impacts the narrative in anyway at all, I guess we should just assume she’s some kind of sex/power addict and move on? Patrick is childlike and easily insulted. Sarina doesn’t talk.

As crazies go, this isn’t exactly One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In terms of depth, the four guests are little more than cliché, and the pathos of their situation comes mostly from Bashir’s discussions with the rest of the crew about how guilty he feels about them. Yet that’s enough, really. The story here isn’t the plight of a group of thinly sketched oddities who we’ll most likely never see again (and if we do see them again, chances are there will be more time to get to know them better); this is Bashir coming to grips once again with his gifts, and trying to find a way to make up for his own good fortune by helping people like him who were less lucky in their circumstances. Instead of focusing on Bashir’s efforts to “cure” anyone, the episode introduces the idea that the group might actually be able to contribute meaningfully to society by having them demonstrate their uncanny knack for deduction. This makes more sense than any kind of therapy would have, given that therapy isn’t really Bashir’s job (or something he’s been trained at, as far as we know); it’s also more dramatically interesting. While the metaphor is never explicit, these people are largely interesting for the way they represent paths Bashir might have gone down, had fortune not smiled on him as it did. In helping them, he tries to atone for his luck, and assuage his guilt.

Their abilities manifest in two ways: The group is highly sensitive to body language and vocal cues, which allows them to intuit secrets and motives people wish to conceal; they are then able to take that knowledge and use it to extrapolate far out into the future, via mathematical models of probability. The former knack for interpolating subtle, and unintentional, psychological “tells” is taken as a given, although the contrast between the characters’ insight into others, and their apparent inability to use that insight to better balance their own lives is a minor tragedy. It’s the sort of tragedy we’ve gotten used to through years of movies and television shows about geniuses incapable of living “normal,” healthy lives, but while the concept has become a cliché by now, there’s still some truth to it. Most regular interaction doesn’t benefit from extensive analysis. When a co-worker asks you “How are you?”, if the answer takes you ten minutes to come up with and involves an extensive monologue about how a difficult relationship with your siblings has left you with a fundamental distrust of group settings and potlucks, you are doing it wrong.

But while Jack, Patrick, Lauren, Sarina are given opportunity to demonstrate just how poorly they’d do at dinner parties, the real heart of the episode comes from their second gift, that uncanny knack for foresight. Well, maybe “uncanny” is too far, given that we don’t see any of their predictions come true, but they seem pretty confident, and Bashir trusts them. He trusts them so much, in fact, that’s he’s willing to bring their ultimate vision of the future to Sisko, with the hope that he’ll pass the idea onto Starfleet: the Dominion is going to win the war, and it’s in the Federation’s best interests to surrender.

That goes over about as well as you’d expect, and it’s Sisko’s reaction, and Bashir’s grasp of reality, that leads to what happens next. But what’s really cool about all of this is that even though no one applies a specific name to the process, what the group of crazies is doing is basically a form of psychohistory, a term invented by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series. The Foundation books follow the course of a civilization formed in the waning days of the Galactic Empire; mathematician and all-around smart guy Hari Seldon charted the future of that civilization (and provided various recorded messages to serve as warnings/advice for each major crisis) through a process he’d perfected that used statistical probabilities and information on crowd psychology to project the behavior of groups of people on a large scale. The central point is that societies are easier to predict than individuals, and that the behavior of individuals can rarely influence society substantially enough to affect significant change.

That’s pretty much the message of this episode, although the resolution is more humanistic than Asimov’s. When the Federation rejects their “surrender” proposal, Jack and the others decide that the only way to move forward is to talk to the Dominion directly. Now that Dukat has been deposed, Damar has risen to take his place, and he and Weyoun are on the station to negotiate a temporary truce (which the crazies realize is just an excuse to get access to a planet that will allow them to manufacture more white). Even as a Gul, Damar remains a secondary figure, serving more to fill an absence than out of any real ability of his own, a fact that Weyoun isn’t going to let him forget any time soon. When Jack (or one of the group; Jack comes off as the leader, so let’s just say it was him) contacts the pair with an offer of Starfleet secrets, he couldn’t have picked a better time. Where Dukat might have been (needlessly) suspicious, both Damar and Weyoun are eager to prove themselves, and the result would almost certainly been disastrous.

Instead, Sarina saves the day; given that she’s the only member of the group who doesn’t have any lines, it’s not entirely surprising that she gets left behind when the others go to meet Weyoun, and it’s also not a huge shock that Bashir is able to talk her into letting him go. Masters of spycraft, these folks are not. Bashir tries to sell Sarina’s behavior as proof of the flaws in the group’s predictions, but in truth Jack and the other’s own behavior is proof enough; if they’d succeeded in bringing information to Weyoun and Damar, then the three of them would’ve single-handedly changed the course of the war. Admittedly, that change would’ve mostly been about shortening the duration of the fight, and not altering the outcome, but it’s still a substantial change, and the fact that none of the group seemed to realize the holes they’d poked in their own theory is the proof of the fallacy of their reasoning. After all, their whole lives have been in an institution; while they are understandably arrogant about their intellects, their perspective on the universe is narrow and academic. They trust their judgment because it is often all they have left. Which doesn’t mean that they should be ignore or marginalized; just that they need to learn the valuable lesson of taking their conclusions with a few grains of salt. (It would also be helpful if they had a better understand of how others would react to their findings.) And hell, the war isn’t over yet. They might even turn out to be right.

According to the A.V. Club review of His Way:

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll have reason to say it again: Nana Visitor is a terrific actor. At the start of the series, when even Sisko was floundering a bit, Kira Nerys was the constant that held everything together. Her struggles to reconcile her revolutionary past with her bureaucratic present, combined with the inevitable edginess that comes from working for a stranger who just happens to be your version of Moses, gave texture and depth to an otherwise standard genre show. And even when Deep Space Nine found confidence with the rest of its cast, Kira (and Vistor’s performance) remained rock solid. This is the first fully realized female lead a Trek show has ever given us. That’s no knock against Gates McFadden or Marina Sirtis (or Nichelle Nichols, for that matter), all of whom did fine work with the material they were given. But Visitor is something else. Sisko is the lead, but if you squint just right, it’s not at all difficult to imagine things from Kira’s perspective. That’s valuable.

It’s also the best and worst part of “His Way,” a good-natured attempt to resolve the Odo/Kira romantic tension that doesn’t work as neatly as it thinks it does. Well, not as neatly as the writers think it does; I don’t think episodes have consciousness. (Actually, I have no idea what the writers were thinking. I’m terrible at my work.) The focus of “His Way” is on Odo’s efforts to woo Kira via the advice and counsel of a self-aware holosuite program based on a 1960s lounge-singer/Vegas type named Vic Fontaine (James Darren). This isn’t as entirely ridiculous as it sounds, and the fact that it works even remotely is a testament to the actors and the script (by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Bemler). I mean, there are full scenes of Odo pretending to play the piano as Vic sings to a room of entirely made up people. That could’ve been a disaster in so many ways, but it’s sort of charming and sweet, provided you don’t think about it very long.

If there’s one thing that “His Way” is good at, it’s in encouraging us not think about anything for very long. You have to take each development at face value. Sure, Bashir got a holosuite program that he’s so excited about, he wants to share it with his friends. Sure, the program’s centerpiece is the aforementioned lounge-singer, who is, again, self-aware; and sure, Bashir mentions this fact casually, as though it’s the least-important thing in the world, even though it raises huge questions about artificial intelligence, servitude, and consciousness. Sure, Odo, lovelorn at the thought of Kira going to Bajor to spend time with Shakaar, decides that his best chance is to consult Vic about his problems. (Actually, I do buy this. Vic’s “amazing” insight about people isn’t all that impressive, but when you’re someone who doesn’t understand the social processes that everyone else seems to take for granted, you’ll turn to anything for answers, provided that “anything” doesn’t mean you have to risk embarrassment in any way.) Sure, Vic will fixate on Odo’s woes, first giving him tips on self-confidence, then operating as a kind of digital pimp. Sure, Vic will be so determined to make Odo’s dreams come true that he’ll break into the computer system, find a holographic image of Kira, and use it to create a Kira-double to give the changeling some time to relax. Sure, Vic will trick Odo and Kira into their first date. Sure, Kira will somehow be okay with this; and sure, the whole thing will end with Odo and Kira making out on the Promenade.

It’s nuts—so nuts that I just gave you an entire episode summary, and I hardly ever do that (remember that time Betazed got invaded and I didn’t even mention it because I was talking about a car accident? Good times). The storyline repeatedly threatens to float off into the clouds, a goofy, dorky chunk of wish fulfillment both for Odo and whichever writer was still in love with the Rat Pack. Remember “The Outrageous Okona” from Star Trek: The Next Generation? That’s the episode in which Data has the holodeck create Joe Piscopo to give him comedy tips. It’s a dumb, dumb scene. But it’s a subplot in the episode, whereas here, Vic Fontaine is the main show. Darren is a hell of a lot more effective than Piscopo (who wasn’t god awful or anything), and “His Way” never becomes as cringe-inducing as Data’s doomed attempts at stand-up, but it’s still a weird way to tell this particular tale. Vic becomes the main moving figure in the action, when by all accounts the focus should be on Kira and Odo. Instead of “two people finally recognizing the depths of their feelings for each other,” it’s “shy guy uses technology to get laid.” That’s a crappy ‘80s teen comedy, not the premise of a smart, challenging show like this one usually is.

But it’s not unbearable, because the actors find some degree of authenticity buried under the foolishness. Rene Auberjonois is his usual reliable self, and he basically sells Odo’s fright and his loneliness; things get a little strained during his dinner date with Kira, but that’s probably because his gentle, loving approach kept giving me flashbacks to the Odo from “Children Of Time.” Regardless, he’s in character throughout, and his behavior makes sense. Darren is good in an utterly unexamined role. For all anyone cares, he could’ve just as easily been a genie from a bottle Odo confiscated out of one of Quark’s smuggling operations. The “holosuite” touch means he technically fits into the world of the series, but the lack of interest anyone seems to have in understanding just what the hell he is, and what he means, transforms him into a plot-mover; charming enough, but singularly distracting. If the writers really wanted to use tech to help Odo get over his cold feet, why does the tech have to be self-aware? This story shouldn’t be about him. It shouldn’t even really be about Odo learning to lighten up.

The heart of all of this is Odo feeling’s for Major Kira, and whether or not she reciprocates those feelings in a way that could lead to a romantic relationship. Odo’s ability to fake play a piano and flirt with computer programs are irrelevant, and they speak to a very frustrating blind spot on the part of the show’s writers. As good as DS9 is, its track record with convincing relationships is mixed at best, and this has all the hallmarks of a creative team deciding on an ending, but then being completely unaware of the legwork required to get there. Yes, being charming and relaxed in real life is generally a better way to meet people, but Odo isn’t trying to meet people. He’s not trying to seduce Kira, or even tell her how he feels about her. He just needs to ask her out, and then deal with whatever happens next. As light and basically harmless as so much of this episode is, too much of it comes from the same mindset that gives us “pick-up artists” as an actual term; people (men) who think romantic relationships aren’t about communication, trust, and mutual attraction, but a series of tricks designed to manipulate your “target” into fucking you. Vic’s approach is nowhere near this crude or overtly misogynistic, but the angle of the episode misses the heart of its own story, so that the moments of honesty and legitimate connection are few and far between.

Most of those moments come from or around Kira herself. She spends too much of the episode on Bajor hanging with Shakaar, but when she returns, Visitor manages to sell Kira’s changing attitude towards Odo so convincingly that it’s almost possible to believe in that final kiss. Her warmth, tentativeness, and frustration are complex and easy to relate to, which makes it all the more frustrating that the script treats her like a secondary figure, a prize to be won, instead of the character who is facing the most difficult decision of anyone. Kira’s choice is the one that matters here, not Odo’s. We already know where Odo stands when it comes to dating, re: Nerys. It’s up to her to decide if this is something she wants to move forward with, and yet the script falls to justify or ground that decision in any meaningful way. There’s some vague hand-waving about Kira “not seeing” this side of Odo before, but it’s not enough. If she wanted to pursue a relationship with him, why wouldn’t she? There’s been plenty of time. I could believe in a willingness to let things go on as they always have, and the idea that both parties would need some sort of push to move to the next level, but as is, it’s just Odo taking cool guy tips and Kira going, “Gosh!” and telling Dax about her moments of clarity.

Visitor sells this well, so well that there were moments when the hour nearly transcended its limitations; there were beats during their dinner date when Kira would look at Odo a certain way, or say a line just so, and it was possible, however briefly, to accept the fantasy. And the final shouting match between the two of them that leads to the big kiss is better than all the forced romanticism leading up to it. But Visitor is so good I found myself questioning her behavior throughout; not because the actress couldn’t keep the character consistent, but because she seemed so much more thoughtful and real than the situation allowed. Kira’s allowed a few moments of agency, but they largely serve to underline how badly the writers have handled her various romances. Apart from some vague daddy issues, there’s no sense of what Kira is looking for, and pairing off with Odo, as gratifying as it is for anyone who’s suffered the pangs of disprized love, isn’t entirely justifiable. Whether or not you accept it, this still feels like fantasy. Worse, it feels like a one-sided fantasy. Odo gets what he wants, and I guess Kira wants it to, but it would be nice to not have to guess.

Stray observations:

According to the A.V. Club review of Profit and Lace:

To sum up: Quark threatens to fire an employee unless she grants him sexual favors. Then we spend a whole 40 minutes on Quark eventually kind of sort of learning to appreciate the female species, or something. Then he finds out Aluura is actually into the “oo-mox” thing (???), and while he’s briefly kind and apologetic to her, he immediately recants and, presumably, the fuckery commences in earnest. No one learned anything, no one changed, no one grew. Nothing meant anything. Glad we could share this together. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a wall that needs staring.

 

byinfernoslight273

The next in best and worst is Season 5.

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10 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 6

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