The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 5

For previous installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

For previous installments of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

 

The Best:

Apocalypse Rising, The Ship, Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places, The Assignment, Trials and Tribble-ations, Things Past, Rapture, The Darkness and the Light, The Begotten, For the Uniform, In Purgatory’s Shadow, By Inferno’s Light, Doctor Bashir I Presume?, Ties of Blood and Water, Soldiers of the Empire, Children of Time, Blaze of Glory,  Empok Nor, and Call to Arms

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Brief pieces:

  • Apocalypse Rising concludes the Klingon-Federation War that began the previous season;

  • The Ship somewhat inspired by the Battle of the Alamo, features a crashed Jem’Hadar fighter which Captain Sisko fights to keep it’s wreckage;
  • Looking for par’Mach in all the Wrong Places is inspired by the play, Cyrano de Bergarac;
  • The Assignment has Keiko O’Brien being possessed by a Pah’Wraith, with a goal of destroying the Celestial Temple;
  • Trials and Tribble-ations is the episode which Star Trek’s 30th anniversary is celebrated, as a tribute to The Original Series;
  • In Things Past, Sisko, Odo, Dax, and Garek are trapped seven years in the past, where a dark secret of Odo’s happened to take place;
  • In Rapture, on the eve of Bajor’s acceptance in the Federation, Sisko locates the ancient city of B’hala;
  • The Darkness and the Light sees many of Kira’s Shakaar Resistance comrades being systematically murdered one-by-one by Cardassian Silaran;
  • In The Begotten, Odo receives a baby changeling from Quark, who upon dying from radiation exposure, gives Odo back his shapeshifting abilities removed by the Founders in Broken Link, meanwhile, Kira gives birth to Kirayoshi;
  • For the Uniform and Blaze of Glory closes the Maquis story arc;
  • In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light sees Wolf and Garak investigate a message suggesting Enabran Tain is still alive. Upon their arrival at Interment Camp 371, they not only find Tain, but also General Martok, and Dr. Julian Bashier;
  • Doctor Bashir, I Presume? reveals Dr. Julian Bashir as a genetically enhanced human;
  • Ties of Blood and Water sees the return of Legate Tekeny Ghemor who is dying;
  • Soldiers of the Empire finds Worf caught between the loyalty to to his commander, and the loyalty to the crew as first-officer of a Klingon Bird-of-Prey;
  • Children of Time sees the Defiant crew investigate a planet with a strange energy field, only to discover their own descendants;
  • In Empok Nor, O’Brien’s team boards the abandoned space station, Empok Nor, or so they think it’s abandoned; and,
  • Call to Arms begins The Occupation Arc through the first six episodes of the next season, in which the Dominion occupies Deep Space Nine.

According to the A.V. Club review of Apocalypse Rising:

It must be fun working for Starfleet. If you’ve got a ship, you can spend most of your time ignoring communications and trying to dodge diplomatic escort missions (which, as gamers know, are the worst missions of all), but when the shit finally hits the fan, somebody’s going to pick up that red phone, and you damn well answer. It’s even worse if you’re stuck on an undermanned space station just on the edge of a warzone. When we left our heroes, Odo had just revealed the startling possibility that Gowron, the head of the Klingon Empire, and the Klingon who kept popping up on viewscreens throughout the episode calling for what sounded an awful lot like open war on the Federation, is a Changeling. “Apocalypse Rising” picks up a week or two after this, with Sisko and Dax finally return back to the station after a meeting with the higher-ups. Their shuttlecraft is in bad shape, but that’s just the beginning. Sisko calls a briefing soon after arriving home, and gives his crew the bad news: Starfleet has ordered them to infiltrate the Klingons’ most highly secure secret base, and with the aid of a special device no one has ever actually tested before, reveal Gowron’s true nature to his own kind. Which sound like fun.

Actually, since the mission involves Sisko, O’Brien, and Odo getting made-up to look like Klingons, it really is fun, with some solid twists and soul-searching sprinkled throughout. High stakes, big risk action stories provide a wealth of ways writers can keep their audience engaged, from the seemingly insurmountable odds to the cavalier quip in the face of certain death, and one of the advantages toDS9’s on-going Dominion War arc is that it’s a plotline that keeps creating opportunities for what happens next. The moderately serialized nature of the show means that an episode like this one, with its pulpy charms, can sit side by side with a still pulpy, but far grimmer hour like “The Ship” without any real issues of tonal whiplash. Both entries come across as the same show, and not just because of they share opening credits and the same cast; the premise is large enough to allow for multiple possibilities. Better still: It practically demands them.

So Sisko, O’Brien, and Odo get made up like Klingons, and with Worf as their guide, they commandeer Dukat’s Bird Of Prey and make their way to Klingon territory. Kira, being pregnant and all, stays behind, which makes for some enjoyable banter between her and Bashir about the frustrations of bearing someone else’s child. (In case you didn’t know, Nana Visitor was actually pregnant for this, and Alexander Siddig was the father.) Plus there’s a bit with Bashir and Jake about how Jake is worried about his father—nothing major, but it’s a good example of how the writers find ways to briefly reconnect with all of the series’ main characters before digging into the main plot. While Sisko ostensibly takes center stage as the episode’s protagonist—he is, after all, the captain, and takes to being a Klingon with a lot more zest than the others. But it’s Odo who serves as the heart of “Apocalypse Rising,” Odo with his unsettlingly solid body, and his newfound doubts about his place on the station.

Obviously the ex-Changeling’s transformation was going to cause some problems for him, but in a way, this latest depression is a manifestation of something that’s been with Odo’s character from the beginning. I’ve gone on at great length in these reviews about what I see as the character’s self-imposed rigidity, his determination to hold to a single idea of himself, and to use that idea to define his purpose in the world. The thing is, that “idea” existed in large part as a reaction to his physical nature; Odo’s obsession with the law, with order and rules, came about because his physiology left him perpetually in flux, a muscle that needed to be constantly flexed. In order for him to maintain his persona, he was literally required to concentrate on maintaining it at all times, which means it’s only natural that he’d come to define himself in such simple, straightforward terms. But now the primary factor which drove his initial development is no longer relevant. It’s only natural that he begins to question the rest of the choices he’s made, and that sort of questioning leads him to the self-doubt that plagues him through much of the episode. When Sisko comes to see him about the mission into Klingon territory, Odo is savoring the bubbles in his drink, and trying to enjoy his new senses. But when Sisko tells him he’s needed, Odo tries to back out. He used to know exactly who he was, and now that’s not true anymore, so he assumes he doesn’t have anything left.

What’s effective about this is that it’s never over-emphasized. We get a couple scenes of Odo acting depressed, but there’s no question of him being included, and when his clumsiness puts the mission in jeopardy, it’s less a matter of ineptitude than it is his insecurity coming to the fore. After some fun Klingon training from Worf (always yell up close, and do not hit another Klingon with the back of your hand unless you want a fight to the death) and a brief, brutal example of Dukat’s combat philosophy (he doesn’t have much problem destroying Klingon ships), our four heroes are beamed over to headquarters, where they join the Klingon party already in process. It’s as crazy as you’d expect, with bunch of warriors (both male and female, although more men than women as far as I could tell) drinking and shouting and punching each other; everyone’s waiting for Gowron to arrive to induct them into the Order of Bat’leth, but as Worf explains, the party beforehand is almost as important as the induction ceremony, because it serves as a test of fortitude for the warriors involved. If you can manage to stay drinking and fighting for hours on end, and attend the next day’s ceremony without missing a step, then you’ve earned your place. Our heroes cheat a bit by taking an anti-intoxicant beforehand, but it’s still a long night, and Sisko manages to get in fight or two while waiting. (The first fight is when he overhears a Klingon boasting about murdering one of Sisko’s old friends; the rest are probably just to keep him awake.)

Odo’s mistake: When it comes time to set the devices in place that are supposed to reveal Gowron’s true nature, Odo inadvertently drops his, and then needs Worf’s intervention to come up with a lie to cover for the drop. The fumble is something that could happen to anyone, but Odo’s terrified expression indicates he’s still having to struggle to convince himself he’s up to this. It’s a quick moment, though, and Odo soon recovers; later, when a Klingon gets in his way, the constable manages to shove the guy aside without too much trouble. Then everything goes to hell when General Martok finally recognizes Sisko, even with his Klingon make-up on. (We last saw Martok at the start of the previous season, leading the Klingon force that ostensibly arrived at DS9 to help in the war against the Dominion.) Everybody gets captured, but some fast talking by Sisko and Odo seems to convince Martok of Gowron’s duplicity. The general helps them escape and leads them back to the hall of warriors, where Worf challenges Gowron to a battle to the death, it being the only way left to expose the Changeling’s true nature.

Only Gowron-as-Changeling seems a bit too simple now, just as it did when the twist was first announced, and it’s Odo, having been held back by Martok before the battle begins, who puts it all together. That’s crucial; not just that Martok is the Changeling and Gowron is not, but that Odo is the one who figures out what has happened, and is able to alert the others before everything falls apart. I’m not a huge fan of twists stacked on top of twists (it’s not a terrible plot trick, but after awhile, the whole thing becomes so top-heavy that you’re more invested in where the next betrayal is going to come from than you are in the actual characters), but this one works well enough. It’s certainly the sort of lie the Federation would believe, and it’s one more way to stick the knife into Odo’s back, by making it even more explicit just how little he knows of his former people.

The real key, though, is that Odo is the one to see through the charade, because he was the one who provided the initial intel that set Sisko and the others on this mission. If someone else had figured it out, or if Gowron had been killed before the truth was revealed, Odo would’ve been wrecked, possibly beyond repair—the shame of mishandling the one positive to come from his time in the Great Link, of being used to betray what are now his only true friends, would’ve been devastating for him, and bordering on sadism from a narrative standpoint. (There’s nothing wrong with making characters suffer for a reason, but too much suffering, and it becomes almost farcical.) Instead, Odo realizes the truth, and forces the fake Martok out in the open, where he’s quickly despatched by Klingon phaser fire. Gowron, pleased at having a traitor removed from his ranks, sends Sisko and the others back home (after praising Odo and getting a few cheap shots at Worf, who totally kicked his ass), and when they’re back at the station getting their faces put back together, Bashir tells Odo he can make him look more human or Bajoran or whatever, if he wants to. Odo stays with his old face. It’s about as direct a sign you could hope for that he once again remembers who he is.

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

People die all the time on Star Trek. The high mortality rate of red-shirted extras in the original series has long been part of franchise lore, but the truth is, it never really mattered what color your uniform was; if you weren’t a main cast member, and a threat needed to be proven, then the odds were against you. It was even worse if the audience was given a chance to get to know you just enough to lend your death dramatic impact. In “Balance Of Terror,” one of the high points of the original series’ first season (and the episode that introduces the Romulans), the story begins with Kirk officiating a wedding between two crew members we’ve never seen before. Then everything goes to hell, and in the course of the hell-going, one of those crew members is killed. It’s the most blatant, obvious trick imaginable, and, as was often the case with TOS, there isn’t a lot of subtlety to the way it’s deployed. But if you can get past the corniness, and the artifice, the trick still fundamentally works. Empathy is a powerful tool, even (and often especially) when deployed bluntly. But even more than that, I think there’s something personal about those broadly drawn corpses. Were we to find ourselves on a star ship or a space station or an alien world, odds are, we wouldn’t last much longer than they did.

DS9 is generally more subtle and complex than its forebears, but in “The Ship,” the writers demonstrate they still know the old tricks, and are more than willing to use them when the situation warrants. In the cold open, we see O’Brien and a relatively new guy (who’s apparently been on the show twice before, although I didn’t recognize him) named Muñiz (F.J. Rio) walking around and looking at the rocks. The two banter, and there’s an obvious affection between the two men that immediately makes you wonder why, exactly, we’re seeing this. Casual conversations pop up on the show all the time, but they’re almost always between main characters, or a main character and a recurring character. Muñiz ribbing O’Brien about getting winded during the hike isn’t just a casual piece of texture before the plot begins in earnest. There are only 40 minutes per episode to tell a story, and that’s not much time at all; every scene counts. (Unless the script is terrible and it’s all padding, of course, but this scene doesn’t come across as padding.) So from the very start, we’re given special reason to notice Muñiz, to care a little about him, and to wonder why we care.

So, yeah: This isn’t subtle. But “The Ship” is an excellent hour, and that directness of intent works very much in the episode’s favor. I’m not saying I knew Muñiz was going to die; I spent a lot of the time really hoping he wouldn’t. But by putting the manipulation front and center, by reminding us again and again of how much Muñiz’s injury and eventual death bothers O’Brien and the others, the script takes the cliché of the doomed guest star and makes its fundamental predictability work in the story’s favor. The point isn’t that Muñiz is going to die. The point is that he isn’t the first good person to die in the Dominion War, and he won’t be the last. For Sisko and O’Brien and Dax and Worf, every fresh face on the station is just another potential liability, another name to add the list in their memory that keeps getting longer. Muñiz and the others who die here are killed not just for the audience’s direct benefit (lucky us), but to show how their deaths affect the characters we’ll be seeing week in, and week out, until the end of the series. It’s not the most organic plot development in the world (it’s not just Muñiz, but another guy on the ground who gets it without an exist line, and a whole shuttle full of fresh faces; good thing this didn’t happen when Kira was piloting, eh?), but the way it’s deployed, and the slow, painful manner of Muñiz’s death, transcends the limitations.

As to the actual story, it’s a good one: While doing a routine mineral survey on a Gamma Quadrant planet, Sisko and his team witness the crash of a Jem’Hadar ship. They quickly investigate, and find the entire crew inside, dead before their ship hit the atmosphere due to an engine malfunction. Before anyone can figure out the best way to get the ship back in the air again, more Jem’Hadar arrive, destroying the shuttle orbiting the planet and trapping Sisko, Worf, Dax, O’Brien, and the severely injured Muñiz inside the ship. A Vorta named Kalina (Kaitlin Hopkins) offers to parlay with Sisko, but it’s just an attempt to distract him long enough for a long Jem’Hadar soldier to beam into the ship, where he’s killed before he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. And he was looking for something. Sisko quickly realizes that Kilana and the Jem’Hadar aren’t after the ship so much as some mysterious cargo that the Vorta refuses to identify.

So now we have a mystery and a siege situation, with a plausible reason for why the Jem’Hadar (who vastly outnumber and outgun Sisko and the others) don’t immediately attack. The mystery won’t be solved until the very end, which means that while we wait, we get to see how these characters hold up under pressure. While they don’t crack as badly as, say, a bunch of strangers holed up in a house against an army of zombies, the strain shows. The Jem’Hadar constantly bombard the ship with explosions that are far enough away not to do any damage, but close enough to make your teeth rattle, and of course poor Muñiz is dying over in the corner, going from conscious and coherent to hallucinating his childhood and the fireworks of Carnival. So things get a bit tense, most notable between O’Brien and Worf. Worf insists that Muñiz be told he’s dying, so that he can face death with honor; O’Brien refuses to accept this, believing that there’s always hope. It’s easier to side with O’Brien, but given Muñiz’s gradual descent into fever and death, it’s hard to fault Worf’s more pragmatic approach. Both philosophies are a way to put meaning into an event that’s fundamental to our existence, but at the same time unfathomable. To Worf, honor comes before all. To O’Brien, it’s hope.

Sisko is having his own problems trying to hold everyone together, and when he finally realizes what the “mysterious cargo” is, it’s too late to do much about it. There was a Changeling on the ship, hiding in plain sight the whole time, and when he or she isn’t able to return to  liquid form in time, it collapses, turning into a pile of ash. I’m not exactly sure why the Changeling didn’t try and escape on its own; if the crash had rendered the creature unconscious somehow, how would he or she have been able to maintain a shape that blended into the ship’s bridge for so long? And if he or she was conscious the whole time, I’m not sure I accept that such a powerful being would’ve been too frightened to contact Sisko directly. But then, there’s no way of knowing how bad the Changeling’s injuries were—and besides, this does speak to one of the truths of the Founders that we’ve known since their introduction: They do not trust the solids. Not even when they have to.

In the end, Sisko gets the ship he wants, and he and Dax tell each other it was worth all those deaths, but that doesn’t make it easier. It shouldn’t. What’s especially painful is how easily all of this could’ve been avoided with a little more trust, a little less paranoia. If Sisko had known there was a Changeling aboard the ship, he would release the creature; at least that’s what he tells Kalina, and I believe him. (They certainly couldn’t have gotten off the planet with the Founder in tow.) And if he’d released the Changeling, Kalina would have let him leave with the ship, which is all he wanted in the first place. But because war doesn’t work like that, a bunch of people are dead who didn’t need to be, and Sisko can’t stop staring at the list of names. And in the hold, O’Brien and Worf sit in guard over Muñiz’s corpse, paying last respects and making sure the body stays safe. They’d done this before. They’ll do it again.

According to the A.V. Club review of Looking for par’Mach in all the Wrong Places:

Dax and Worf have sex. Apart from that, little of consequence occurs in “Looking For Par’Mach In All The Wrong Places,” a title as goofily indulgent as the majority of the script. Unless you were really hoping for Quark to get it together and finally screw that Klingon woman we haven’t seen in a few seasons, this isn’t an hour with much weight at all, but given what comes before and after it in the schedule, that might be a good thing; it’s nice to have a light, silly bit of fluff before we get back to the agonies of war. And overall, this is an entertaining enough attempt at sex comedy, made palatable by Dorn, Shimerman, and Farrell’s efforts to keep things moving, and the Dax/Worf hook-up makes decent sense. The actors don’t have amazing chemistry together, but they do seem to fit together well, forming a connection that doesn’t reduce either character. It’s hard to say at this point just how this pairing will affect the show in the long run, but the signs are promising in that it all seems pretty low-key. Worf didn’t realize Dax was into him, Dax played along for a while, then she finally made her move, and that’s that. No major drama or pining necessary.

Out of everything that happens in “Par’Mach,” the most ridiculous is the brief flirtation between O’Brien and Kira which raises some weird issues, and then gets quickly, and mercifully, dropped. It makes a certain amount of sense that there’d be boundary issues between them. First Kira is carrying “his” baby (and while it gets mocked in the cold open of the next episode, the constant referrals to Miles’ as the owner of the kid get old), and then she’s living with the O’Briens, and now the Chief is giving her regular massages, sampling the medicine Bashir prescribes her, and basically getting involved with every aspect of her life. Inevitably, tensions would arise, and a mutual attraction is certainly less unpleasant to watch than the fighting Bashir and Quark eavesdrop on in the cold open. But it’s just such an unexpected flare up of chemistry between two actors who’ve never seemed all that interested in one another before. So far as we know, Kira’s still in a relationship with Shakaar, and apart from O’Brien’s solicitude and his general Colm Meaney-ness, it’s hard to know what the draw is. And it’s not like O’Brien’s desire is reasonable, either—he’s never looked at another woman apart from Keiko, not even when she was away from the station for months. Pregnancy hormones on the one side, intimate physical contact with a friend on the other… I dunno. It doesn’t really seem to fit either character, and it’s never as funny as it needs to be to justify itself. While the pregnancy swap was a clever way to keep Nana Visitor on the show, it hasn’t lent itself to exciting storylines, and this is no exception. There are a few laughs, but mostly it just doesn’t work.

Thankfully, the main plot, with Worf seeing and immediately falling for Grilka (Mary Kay Adams), a Klingon woman and head of household who we haven’t seen since “The House Of Quark,” is more effective. It’s still wafer thin, but there are some legitimate laughs, and the development of Worf and Dax’s relationship is welcome. The set-up: Grilka arrives on the station with her bodyguard and her maester (or whatever he’s called) in tow, to ask Quark for some help looking over her accounts. The war with the Federation has hit the House of Grilka hard, and she needs to pick up extra cash anyway she can. But this is an almost entirely irrelevant plot detail, introduced at the beginning to give Grilka a reason for being on the station, and then forgotten. It’s worth mentioning only because it’s a reminder how well the show uses it’s big story arc to connect smaller, less important stories together. Quark wooing Grilka has nothing to do with the fight against the Founders, but at least we’re reminded that the machinations the Founders have set in motion effect everything in ways that are impossible to predict.

Worf being Worf, he sets about pitching woo in the appropriate Klingon fashion, ie shouting and picking fights and insulting Grilka’s companions. He’s quickly informed that his attentions are not wanted; given the standing of his house, there’s no way Grilka could entertain a proposal from him without severely hurting her own standing in the Empire. This bums Worf out, and he turns to Dax for comfort, which Dax provides as best she can, all the while politely questioning Worf’s affections for the lady. Which, even if she wasn’t interested in Worf herself, would be a reasonable thing to do. Worf has never so much as conversed with Grilka before he decides she’s his everything, and while that’s necessary for the plot to unfold the way it does, it makes him look like a star-crossed idiot. Maybe if Worf was 15 years-old, this would be reasonable, but he isn’t; he’s been married, and had a kid, and dated other women, so he’s had some experience. It’s possible to hand-wave this as a case of loneliness and over-compensating for exile (Worf is still struggling with being alone, so of course he’d be attracted to someone he sees as representing the highest ideals of Klingon culture), but really, he’s drawn to Grilka so that when Quark comes by looking for some tips on how to seduce a Klingon female, Worf can go full Cyrano on him.

Using plotlines from classic drama is a time-worn tradition on television (and in literature and theater and film), and it often yields terrific results; the only drawback is that it can take a bit of character shifting to make everyone fit into the appropriate roles. Quark really really wanting to have sex with Grilka makes sense from their last encounter, and Dax basically just hangs out in the background, offering advice and occasional sarcasm. (She’s like a living Twitter feed!) But Worf’s infatuation could’ve used a little more justification, given that he’s been so stand-offish and private since arriving on DS9. Which isn’t to say the feelings don’t make sense, or that his desire for privacy indicates some fundamental lack of interest in sex; just that the episode is so eager to get to the loopy, “Worf feeds Quark some info about Klingon mating, and Quark keeps digging himself in deeper” angle that it has to use character shortcuts. Viewed from another angle, this is a sad but ultimately redemptive story about how Worf’s devotion to a culture that keeps shutting him out leads him to a relationship with an actual equal. That it’s largely played for laughs isn’t inherently bad, but it does come across as a bit thin.

There’s also the fact that Grilka barely registers. At one point, Dax takes Worf to task for worshipping an ideal, but given how little we see of the real thing, and how much of her on-screen time is spent responding to Quark/Worf’s overtures, it’s hard to see Grilka as anything but. She got more to do in “The House Of Quark,” so I guess there’s some history established, and it’s not like this episode is really about her, but the idea of essentially finding a way into a woman’s bed through a series of specific, pre-planned gestures blurs the line between romantic engagement and a Leisure Suit Larry game (or just The Game, I guess), and the fact that Grilka simply exists to be coveted makes the whole thing a little on the awkward side. Still, Mary Kay Adams gives her role some winning energy, and it’s clear from the start that she’s doing exactly what she wants to do; Quark doesn’t trick her into sex so much as he works very, very hard to give her a reason to jump him, and when she does, there’s no question who’s the aggressor. In fact, there’s something charming about the way Grilka and Dax’s stories both climax (heh) with women putting the moves on men. In the last scene, Quark, Worf, and Dax all check themselves into the infirmary after violent bouts of love-making, and while in theory this could’ve been disturbing, it’s all played cheerfully, like most everything else in the hour. Worf asks Dax what their hook-up means in the long term, but Dax doesn’t want to commit just yet. Of course she doesn’t. It’s not that kind of episode.

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

Hostage plots are a mixed bag. They’re tempting to writers, because they come with immediate, visceral stakes—“Oh no! My wife/husband/daughter/son/parent/cousin/gerbil has been taken away!”—and, more intriguingly, those stakes force characters to make difficult choices. Not just difficult choices—choices that  run counter to those characters’ established behavior. In other words, you have a hero, it’s pretty easy to predict what he’ll do when trouble arises, because you’ve seen him deal with trouble dozens of times before; plus, just being a hero brings with it certain basic ethical requirements. But if that hero has been coerced into acting in order to protect the wellbeing of someone he cares about, that range of behavior shifts. O’Brien is one of DS9’s most reliable protagonists. Being reliable is, in fact, one of his defining traits. He’s not really the cunning mastermind that Sisko is (although he has his moments); he’s not as idealistically pure as Bashir, or as determined to track down the truth as Odo; and he’s certainly not as morally ambiguous as Garak. He’s just a gifted engineer and stolid “reasonable man” type, someone not destined for high command, but incredibly important when it comes to making sure everything’s working properly. Yet “The Assignment” has him at odds with his closest friends, sabotaging the inner workings of the station, and fighting against an ancient alien race. And it’s all because some idiot ghost being decides to kidnap Keiko.

But I said “mixed bag,” didn’t I? Because as tempting as hostage plots are for the writers, it’s hard to get excited about them as a viewer. The beats are predictable: lots of “I WANT TO TALK TO MY [missing so-and-so]!” and stalling tactics from the hero, and you know the whole thing probably won’t get resolved until the end, which means there’s some uncomfortable lying and nervous tension and whatnot. It’s rarely ever a good idea to tell an audience what’s going to happen next, and then have that happen next, without much variation, and while that’s not exactly what happens in this sort of storyline, the simple act of kidnapping sets up a specific obstacle that has to be resolved. Not just “beat the bad guys” or “don’t die,” but “I have to get my [missing so-and-so] back.” It’s a small difference, but it makes everything a little more tedious. You end up waiting for the kidnapping to be taken care of so the real story can get underway, but generally, the kidnapping takes up the whole running time. In a weird way, the very emotional resonance that makes the plot so tempting also makes it frustrating, because it happens all the damn time. Or maybe this is just because I covered 24 for a few seasons, and that seemed to be the go-to plot twist for stalling out another hour.

Regardless, there is, as mentioned, a kidnapping plot in “The Assignment,” and it’s pretty much the only plot the episode has. Yet it works, and works brilliantly, another fantastic entry to the pantheon of Bad Days for Miles O’Brien. There are smart choices throughout. For one thing, Keiko doesn’t disappear, exactly. When she returns from a trip to Bajor at the beginning of the episode, O’Brien is nervous about telling her her bonsai plants have died (Bashir over-watered them), but within seconds, Keiko casually tells him the real crisis: she’s not exactly Keiko anymore. An alien force has taken over Mrs. O’Brien, and will only release the lady if O’Brien follows that force’s specific instructions. Until this happens, the alien will be running Keiko (who I will henceforth refer to as “Fake-o” because it makes me laugh), and threatening her with a brain hemorrhage if O’Brien gets any bright ideas about rebellion. The back and forth between hero and villain is usually a highlight in this kind of storyline, and here, there’s the added attraction of Fake-o using O’Brien’s very real love for his wife against him in a present and undeniable way. Rosalind Chao has a lot of fun with the part, and whether or not it’s intentional, the fact that Fake-o isn’t that much different from the real Keiko makes the whole thing all the more unsettling.

It also helps that Fake-o is smart, ruthless, and entertainingly pleased with itself; the creature, using knowledge of O’Brien gleaned from Keiko’s brain, is able to stay ahead of the chief for most of the running time, smirking the whole time, which keeps the story moving at a good clip. The important point being, the villain is never dumb just for the sake of expedience. One of the silly parts of hostage plots is that the bad guys aren’t just trying to coerce the hero into committing a crime—they’re using one of the hero’s nearest and dearest to do so, a loved one who has to be close to the hero, or else the whole scheme would be worthless. (“We’ve kidnapped your second grade teacher!” “Who?” “Mrs. Tozier.” “Who?” “The one with the limp.” “Wait, the one who failed me at vocab?” “Hold on, I’ll check… Yes. Yes, that’s her. She says she hopes your cursive improved. Now you must do our bidding!” “Look, I’ll call you back.”) But that also means the bad guys are going out of their way to make sure the hero has a very real, and very emotional, reason to want to shut you down. (Watch Commando if you want to see how badly this can turn out.) But Fake-o has mostly circumvented this problem by putting itself in its victim’s body, thus making it almost impossible for O’Brien to stun or incapacitate the creature before it has time to murder his wife. The threat never becomes distant or removed from the action, and that pressure makes for a better episode.

And of course making O’Brien the center of the action helps to keep everything balanced. As he makes clear from the start, as much as he loves his wife, there is no way O’Brien would be willing to hurt anyone on the station. For most of the episode’s running time, we have no idea what the modifications Fake-o orders the chief to perform are meant to accomplish, which adds a bit of mystery, and helps keep O’Brien’s actions in a sort of moral gray area. Even when his work draws the attention of the main crew, the closest he comes to out and out villainy is punching Odo in the face; which isn’t great, but there are no betrayals here that will linger long after the hour is over. That makes the episode more fun—and make no mistake, as creepy as it sometimes gets, and as upset as O’Brien is (he even breaks a glass in his hand, the classic “I am suppressing a lot of feelings right now” move), this is a fun one. It’s structured like a game. The rules are, O’Brien has to follow Fake-o’s commands, and give no obvious sign of disobedience, while simultaneously making sure his work goes unnoticed by his friends and co-workers and figuring out what Fake-o’s plans are, and how to stop them. It’s a seemingly insurmountable task, especially when you factor in the time restrictions (Fake-o wants the whole thing finished in 13 hours). And that’s where Rom comes in.

Here’s another reason to dig “The Assignment”: The cold open looks like a toss-off, one-joke bit, but it’s actually fairly crucial to the rest of the episode, getting us up to speed with the ups and downs of Rom’s engineering career, and reminding us how eager he is to make friends with his new co-workers. Rom is still stuck on the night shift (working on waste-extraction units, which must be fun; also, is this the first time anyone has ever mentioned “waste extraction” on Star Trek?), but he’s determined to make it work despite Quark’s snide commentary, even to the point of ordering one of O’Brien’s standard breakfast meals. This is a nice piece of business that makes it easy to empathize with both sides. We want Rom to succeed, because he obviously wasn’t having much luck under Quark’s tutelage, while at the same time understanding Quark’s obvious discomfort at seeing Rom try to push aside his own heritage to fit in. The scene is played for laughs, but there’s a complexity to it that makes it linger. Rom is doing what he needs to do to be happy; but that doesn’t necessarily come without a cost.

This all looks like some kind of ill-advised B-plot; while O’Brien rushes around trying to rewire the station, Rom will be doing his thing. This would’ve been a terrible choice. When you’re telling a story as intentionally suspenseful and claustrophobic as a hostage plot, the last thing you want is to keep reminding viewers that there are other people on the station leading their lives. It’s a distraction, especially with a character like Rom, who tends to have more comedic plots. But Rom actually turns out to be crucial to O’Brien’s efforts, in a deeply satisfying way. The deadline Fake-o imposes on O’Brien’s work has him running around like a crazy man, but Rom is the first (and for a while, only) person to notice anything wrong, mainly because he picks up on one of the changes O’Brien made. So O’Brien lies to him, and recruits him for the work. It gets really uncomfortable when Odo starts asking about the changes, and O’Brien is forced to turn over his guileless, eager-to-please assistant to the cops. But Rom keeps quiet, and even better, Rom figures out what O’Brien has been too distracted to put together himself: The modifications Fake-o has ordered are designed to turn the station into a big chroniton laser, aiming directly at the wormhole.

There’s a lot of just-on-the-edge-silliness stuff about Fake-o being a Pah-Wraith (the Pah-Wraiths are supposedly mythical creatures living in the fire caves on Bajor; and that just happens to be where Keiko was visiting during her trip), and the Pah-Wraiths wanting revenge on the wormhole aliens, and so on. It’s never overplayed, which helps to sell the idea; we never see any actual physical evidence of the wraith, and the wormhole aliens don’t make an appearance at the end to thank O’Brien for his efforts. It’s just the barest of justifications for everything that happens, which, in stories like this, is all you really need. In the end, O’Brien saves the day and his wife and daughter, and Rom, for his troubles, gets promoted to the day shift. It’s really just business as usual on Deep Space Nine, and another reminder of the lengths O’Brien will go to to protect his family. He never seriously steps over the line, but he dances with it a bit, and there’s no sense of soul-searching on his part for doing what needs to be done; Keiko and Molly are his life, and it’s great to get such thrilling, ultimately heartwarming proof of that. Here’s hoping Odo doesn’t mind the sore jaw.

According to the A.V. Club review of Trials and Tribble-ations:

“The Trouble With Tribbles” is one of Star Trek’s successful forays into comedy, and while I have a few reservations about it, it holds up well. I mean, they don’t make commemorative plates for Voyager episodes, right? (God, what a terrible way to diet: punishing yourself every time you finish a meal.) William Shatner normally gets stuck playing the straight man whenever wackiness happens, and “The Trouble With Tribbles” is no exception to the rule; he seems to be having more fun than usual with the premise, though, and some of his reaction shots here are Leonard Nimoy-level hysterical. Kirk’s growing frustration and bemusement could’ve come off as smug, but it doesn’t. Instead, he sets the tone for the entire episode; playful, often silly, with just enough of a grounded storyline to keep from floating away com—

Hold on a second. This is starting to sound a little familiar. (And over-written.) Let me just re-adjust my temporal display, and… there. That should do the trick.

“Trials And Tribble-ations” is a confection, a delight, a lark; a standalone episode on a show usually neck-deep in continuity that serves no greater purpose than to pay homage to the past. Produced in part as a tribute to the original Star Trek’s 30th anniversary (speaking of Voyager, it did its own tribute with “Flashback”; anybody know if it’s any good?), the hour has Sisko and his crew getting sucked back in time, where they intermingle with events from “The Trouble With Tribbles” in an attempt to stop the future (well, present) version of that story’s villain from succeeding where his younger self failed. Confused? Don’t be. The plot is barely relevant, serving (with little pretense) as an excuse for DS9’s heroes to wander around the old Enterprise, dressed up in classic costume and even occasionally stumbling into old footage. It’s not tightly plotted, and once the initial rush of nostalgia fades, there isn’t a lot of depth or suspense to replace it. But there are laughs, more than enough to justify the experiment, and the nostalgia never fades away entirely.

The playfulness starts straight off, as two men from the Temporal Investigation Bureau arrive on the station with questions for Sisko about a recent adventure. (If any Star Trek concept cried out for a spin-off, it’s the Temporal Investigation Bureau.) Dulmer and Lucsly (anagrams for “Mulder” and “Scully”) are there to make sure that nothing untoward happened during the Defiant’s trip through time, and Sisko, only moderately irritated by their presence, sets out to tell them a tale—said tale accounting for the bulk of “Trials And Tribble-ations.” Given the number of time travel episodes we’ve seen on the various Trek series (and on film), this is a clever way to distinguish this particular jaunt right from the get go. Usually, time travel is treated like an incredibly dangerous, and possibly universe threatening, mistake. Here, it’s just a goof, and the sort of goof that causes irritating, irritated bureaucrats stacks of paperwork and hours of headaches. Their collective groan when Sisko mentions James T. Kirk’s name speaks to years of aggravating, control freak busywork.

There is, or was, something on the line, though. It begins with the Defiant taking a trip to Cardassia to pick up the Bajoran Orb of Time. (If that name sounds hilariously generic, well, just wait for the scene when Kira casually masters the orb’s seemingly magical properties by just opening and closing its box.) While orbiting the planet, they also pick up an apparent stray, a human named Barry Waddle (Charlie Brill). One terrific gag about Worf’s smell later, and the Defiantfinds itself hurled back to the 23rd century. “Barry,” it turns out, isn’t actually “Barry.” Nor is he a human being. His real name is Arne Darvin, and he’s a Klingon who’s been genetically altered to appear human, all to pull of the scheme that drove the story of the original “Trouble With Tribbles” episode. Why Arne never bothered to get his looks altered back to normal isn’t explicitly explained, but Worf does say his failure to defeat Kirk made him an outcast among his own kind, so… you do the math.

DS9 has brought back cast members from the original show before, and Brill’s appearance is a canny way to give the whole hour a feeling of continuity; conceptually, it’s even more effective than the use of digitally altered footage from the original episode. Strangely, though, the script doesn’t make all that much use of him. He’s only in two scenes, and while Brill does fine by the dialogue he’s given, the character has about as much depth as the orb that starts all this nonsense in the first place. It’s not a major flaw, but it does show how much the episode is depending on our good will towards its premise. If you don’t particularly care for the original series. If you don’t like watching the modern cast goofing around and playing hooky from all the seriousness of the Dominion War, you aren’t going to find much else to occupy your time.

Thankfully, I dug it. As a critic, I wouldn’t have minded a tighter script, but as a fan, I was mostly just enjoying the goofy grin on my face from beginning to end. The homage is played lightly; there are a few comments about how great Kirk is, and Sisko makes a point of meeting the captain before he and his crew travel back to the present, but this isn’t some breathless eulogy for a bygone age. When Dax expresses enthusiasm for an old tricorder design, there’s a joke built into the tribute. “Trials And Tribble-ations” is as much about fandom as it is about time travel. For the run of the episode, Dax and Sisko and the others are as much breathless, captivated enthusiasts as they are protagonists with a job to do, and that sense of shared joy easily overcomes the plot’s minor inadequacies. Dax gets to speak rapturously about Spock’s devastating attractiveness and mention how she slept with McCoy in a previous life. Plus she loves the uniforms. It’s hard not to cheer for that.

As for the effects work that blends new characters into the old, it works well enough. Sometimes you can see the seams, especially in the close ups, but perfection in special effects is never as important as our willingness to accept the illusion; and the enthusiasm that drives all of this makes the occasional fuzziness easy to ignore. The bar fight is as fun as it was in its original form, and the few times we see Kirk, Spock, and others (and if I’m remembering right, all of the main Enterprise crew from “The Trouble With Tribbles” is on screen at some point, even if our heroes don’t interact with all of them) make sure all those shots of long corridors and rebuilt sets seem utterly authentic. And hell, the attention to set design and detail is terrific. This is the bright side of fan-service, folks; briefly indulged with care, wit, and craft.

In the end, everything turns out as it should. Arne’s plan is foiled when Sisko and Dax are able to find the tribble with a bomb inside, and the Temporal Investigators are appeased that nothing drastic was altered or brought back to the present. There’s only one slight drawback. As befits an episode that looks to mimic TOS, “Trials And Tribble-ations” ends with a button joke, this time in the form of a promenade full of the small, furry aliens which give both episodes their names. When the Defiant returned to the present, there was a tribble on board, and now the aliens have infested the station. And so we end with a shot that gives you something you didn’t even know you wanted: Quark, frowning stoically, surrounded by small, cooing balls of fur. And he thought root beer was bad.

According to the A.V. Club review of Things Past:

We want to believe in people. We want to find someone and say he or she is a hero, a symbol of all that’s good in the world, someone we can put our unquestioning faith in; here is someone who will always do the right thing. This is a natural, understandable impulse. It’s also a bad idea, and it’s the sort of bad idea we’re rarely willing to confront. The ideas of “good” and “evil” are abstract concepts, and people are not abstract, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise. It might hurt a little to realize that our idols had selfish thoughts at some point, that they fucked around from time to time, that they could be mean or dumb, but if we’re unwilling to accept this, we’re setting ourselves up for injury down the line. Being inspired by someone can and should be powerful, but worshiping them requires turning a blind eye to the vagaries of human behavior. It means pretending that an individual can stand up to an ideal; and then, when the pretense fails, acting as though it’s the individual’s fault, and not an inherent flaw in our way of thinking.

Odo isn’t the sort of person to feel comfortable on a pedestal, but apparently, that’s where the Bajorans have decided to put him. It’s only mentioned briefly in the episode’s cold open, but it drives the rest of the story, leading to a devastating final scene between Odo and Kira back on the station. Odo, it seems, is seen as a voice for pure, undiluted justice. Even though he served as security chief on the station during the Cardassian occupation, his time there is viewed as above reproach—the Cardassians may have been vicious bastards, but Odo served a higher purpose. At least, that’s what the Bajorans want to believe. It’s such a nice idea, really. Even with the shifting political situation, the corruption, the fascism, the forced mining, the Kafkaesque legal system, the hopelessness, Odo was was a constant. He stood for something apart from the petty infighting of the mere solids around him. And even with the Cardassians gone, Odo is still on the station, still doing his job. It’s a comfort to think there are some things can exist outside of politics.

Except, that’s not really true, and “Things Past” once again puts Odo through the ringer to show even he can be compromised. And this time, it’s not his Changeling family running the torment, but a minor plasma storm that just happens to set off the few Changeling cells still lingering in Odo’s system. (“Lingering” may be bad choice of words here; Bashir doesn’t suggest that Odo is going to return to his former self anytime soon, but the revelation that he isn’t completely solid does have some hope to it.) It’s a great explanation, because it means there’s no conspiracy or guiding mind behind what happens beyond Odo’s own guilt—the storm zaps the cells, the cells try and create a Great Link, and they simply latch onto whomever happens to be nearby. In this case, that’s Dax, Sisko, and Garak. Sure, as justifications go, it’s a bit of a hand wave, but it’s plausible enough to accept on face value, and it makes sure the dramatic center of the episode stays where it should be: on Odo, and his guilt.

Narratively, that guilt doesn’t come into focus until late in the hour, but Odo’s horror at finding himself back on Terek Nor makes it clear from the start that he’s hiding something. That’s another reason to enjoy “Things Past.” Typically, time-travel stories deal in practicalities: don’t change the timeline, how do we escape, etc. But while Sisko immediately starts looking for a way out of their situation, it’s obvious straight off that this isn’t a typical time-travel adventure. For one thing, none of our heroes actually look like themselves in the past. To others, they appear as Bajorans, and even more critical, they appear as specific Bajorans. Garak’s able to hack into the station’s security system, and he discovers that each one of them has an identity corresponding to a specific, presumably historical, individual. Garak ID’s Sisko and himself, but Odo knows his “own” name before needing to be told. Which, right there, tells you a lot. Especially when they learn that Thrax (Kurtwood Smith, always a treat), the current security advisor, shouldn’t actually be on the station at the time they traveled to. Odo should be in charge, but the past Odo is nowhere to be seen.

To be honest, Sisko and Garak should’ve figured out what was happening sooner. (Dax spends most of the episode chilling with Gul Dukat, so she has an excuse.) But that’s another asset to the story’s design: It’s just as easy to argue that none of them, apart from Odo, were able to think very clearly. The Great Link isn’t something non-Changelings are designed to experience, and while none of our heroes show any obvious signs of muddy thinking, it’s not unreasonable to assume their powers of perception are a bit off. “Things Past” starts off like a typical time-travel tale, but everything is just a little skewed, and that skewed quality is exaggerated as the story progresses. The tension here isn’t “Will Sisko and the others escape?”, although the script maintains that illusion for a good part of the running time. The tension is whatever Odo’s keeping hidden, and even that’s not exactly a secret. This episode isn’t really about suspense or present conflict. It’s just a very clever, effective way of delivering a flashback, and reminding us (and Odo) of how the past is never as far away as we’d like it to be.

There are flaws, though. Given the static nature of the situation, it makes sense that Odo is going to be the center of interest; the episode tries to hide this as long as it can, but that doesn’t make the non-Odo scenes easier to take. Watching Bashir poke around uselessly in Sick Bay isn’t particularly illuminating, not even the feint toward a threat when we see that Garak’s nose in the “real world” is bleeding after he gets struck by a Cardassian guard in the past. Simply staying in the past until the end of the story would’ve been far more effective, given that the disorientation and mystery of what was happening are the main initial hooks. Every time you see everyone lying unconscious on the station, it reminds you that this is all in their heads, and that erodes the immediacy. But then, if you got rid of the Bashir scenes, you’d have to find more for Sisko, Garak, Dax, and Odo to do on Terek Nor, and that has its own difficulties. As it is, Dax’s scenes with Gul Dukat are fine, but far from essential. It’s strange to have her sidelined from the action for so long, especially since Dukat isn’t relevant to Odo’s story. He brings Dax back to his quarters because he wants a friend, they chat a bit, Dax is nearly killed in an explosion targeting Dukat, and then she knocks Dukat out in an escape attempt. Sure, Dukat’s speech about considering the Bajorans as his “children” is creepily in-character, but it’s not anything new. Mostly, these scenes exist to try and distract us from Odo’s increasing desperation. It’s a trick, and not a very effective one.

Dosn’t really matter, though. The last act, as Odo finally comes to terms with what he’s being forced to relive, is powerful enough to overcome the minor padding. The story is fairly simple: While Odo was serving as security chief on Terek Nor, there was an assassination attempt on Dukat’s life. In his rush to judgement, Odo accused a trio of recent Bajoran arrivals on the station. The Bajorans were executed on the Promenade, and it was only later than Odo discovered he’d been wrong; they were innocent, and he was responsible for their deaths. Given how much value Odo puts in upholding the law, it’s no wonder that he’s kept this a secret from the others, and you have to wonder how much of it was just rash assumption, and how much of his mistake was driven by a need to fit in, to deliver what the Cardassians wanted him to deliver. His desperation as he argues with Thrax is all the more affecting when you realize he’s essentially arguing with himself, and that it’s an argument he can never hope to win. What’s done is done, no matter how much he regrets his actions, and no matter how much shame they cause him in the present. And now his sins are exposed to everyone.

Which brings us to the last scene, which helps to bring everything into focus. As much as Odo values his own self-confidence, Kira’s opinion of him must mean nearly as much, if not more; and her belief in his goodness, his righteousness, is shaken by the truth. Odo has ostensibly given up his romantic feelings for Kira, but she’s still arguably his dearest friend, and the idea that he’s hurt her must be deeply painful for him. It’s partly her fault, really. As she tells him, she wanted to believe that he was something better than the rest of them, someone who didn’t get his hands dirty during the Occupation, and that means she’s bound to be disappointed when he turns out to be more than just a symbol. But then, it’s partly Odo’s fault too. He’s compromised, but more than that, he held himself up as a that symbol Kira wanted so much. We want to believe in people. But just as dangerously, we want people to believe in us.

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

I’m bipolar. Very mild case, not a big deal, and I’ve been on the same level of medication for years now. But I notice every few weeks or so, the world suddenly gets a lot sharper. I make connections easier, and I come up with more ideas; the sentences I write come to my fingers almost fully formed. Which is great, but the longer this goes on, the faster those connections come, and the more irritated I get with the outside world. Everyone around is me slow, or a distraction. Worst of all, at some point, the speed is so much that I can’t match it with my methods of expression. This is a minor version of manic behavior, and if I weren’t medicated (or if my illness was more severe), I’d mostly likely find myself hugely over-confident, shouting a lot, and generating work that would seem brilliant in my head, but make absolutely no sense to an outsider. But I don’t get that bad. I just get a little wound up, until I start to think I almost have everything right, that I can make the whole world make sense. And then it slips away.

I thought about this some watching “Rapture,” which details Sisko’s efforts to find the fabled lost Bajoran city of B’Hala. For most of the episode, Sisko is in the grip of that sensation that gives the episode its title, providing him with a sort of transcendental clarity and helping him achieve his goals. I’m not the human contact for an ancient alien species (that I know of), and I haven’t been zapped by a holosuite at any point in recent memory, but it’s not hard for me to relate to Sisko’s attempts to describe what he’s feeling. And, much as I love rattling on about myself, I’d bet most everyone has had a time in their lives when they felt, however briefly, that they could find the sense in the universe. It’s just an intensified version of inspiration after all, and while hopefully none of us ever had to deal with the health problems Sisko struggles with, it’s not difficult to empathize with his passion, even as his experience moves beyond us.

I’ve expressed reservations about Prophet/Emissary-centric episodes before, but this is a good one, I think; the mysticism is grounded enough in practical terms to give the story clear stakes, while still allowing for a sense of the ineffable. It helps that all of the philosophizing comes from Sisko, a character sensible and present enough that, when he starts going off into flights of fancy, those flights have more weight to them then they might otherwise have had. The story is, Sisko becomes entranced with a millennia old painting depicting the lost city of B’Hala. (Dax’s polite but uninterested reaction to Kira and Sisko’s excitement in the cold open is great.) The painting has a pillar in it with symbols which supposedly map the city’s place in the cosmos, but because of the angle of the pillar, half the symbols are missing. But Sisko catches a reflection, and gets an idea, and starts to work in one of Quark’s holosuites. Then he gets zapped by the holosuite’s computer system, and his brain is “polarized.” (Bashir says that word a lot.) Suddenly, his work is easier, and he makes great leaps forward; but he also starts getting these terrible headaches.

If you’ve ever seen Phenomenon, you may have some idea where this is going. The “polarization” grants Sisko amazing insight and peace; instead of avoiding Kasidy Yates when she returns to the station (after serving six months for her work with the Maquis), he embraces her when she comes to see him. It’s a small touch, and never underlined, but it’s telling. Over and over, Sisko tells people how he’s able to understand how everything fits together, how everything matters—which means instead of being bogged down by uncertainty or resentment, he’s more willing to reconnect with his loved ones. He seems more at peace, although his determination to find B’Hala borders on obsession. It’s good that he’s in a positive frame of mind, since the word has come through the Federation is finally going to allow Bajor to sign on, and yet Sisko doesn’t seem to care that much. He’s reaching for something greater.

Inevitably, conflict arises. As Sisko works on finishing the hat, he spends less and less time at his duties, to the consternation of Admiral Charles Whatley (Ernest Perry  Jr.). That’s the problem with inspiration: it’s almost impossible to explain to the people around you why what you’re doing is so important, because so much of what you’re experiencing is intuition and passion. That doesn’t change the fact that Sisko has a very real job to do, and even after he uncovers B’Hala, he’s still putting aside his duties and spending his time staring at the remnants of the city, reaching for something he can’t articulate.

The situation only becomes more dire when the headaches get worse, and Bashir determines that Sisko could very well die if he doesn’t get treatment for his condition. Sisko refuses the treatment, which upsets Jake and Kasidy. This isn’t the most exciting conflict, but the actors manage to sell it. Mainly, it works because of Avery Brooks, who does a fantastic job of selling Sisko’s sudden transition from levelheaded station captain to galvanized prophet. Sisko’s moments of quiet reflection, and his bursts of passionate, almost-there revelation come across equally well, and intentionally or not, the episode manages to put us more on his side than on the side of his family and friends. While they want what’s best for him, it’s impossible to watch Brooks speechify about his visions without wanting to see him follow through, risk to his health be damned. The tension in “Rapture” comes not from concerns over Sisko’s safety (it’s not like the writers were going to kill him off), but from hoping he’ll be able to hold out long enough to get what he needs from his dying brain.

“Rapture” doesn’t have much in the way of subplots. The possibility that Bajor will finally join the Federation is one of those things that sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is, even before Sisko’s revelations put an end to the proceedings. It’s a nice bit of ongoing serialization, though; while Bajor has been interested in signing on since the start of the show, applying for Federation membership is presumably a long, tedious process, so it makes sense that most of it would’ve happened behind the scenes.

The signing ceremony also means the return of Kai Winn, whose her usual sunshiny self. There’s some effort made in the script to try and, well, not redeem her character, exactly, but at least make her less horrible. She apologizes to Kira about having once doubted Sisko’s role as the Emissary, and later, she gets a monologue about how much she suffered during the Cardassian occupation, accusing Kira and her fellow revolutionaries of not taking Winn’s struggles seriously. Louise Fletcher is excellent as always, and she delivers the monologue well, but it doesn’t land; like Worf’s dead-soccer-boy speech, it’s too obviously a ploy meant to make us react a certain way. I doubt any of the writers really believed Winn’s complaint would make her totally sympathetic, but there is the sense that the anger she shows to Kira is a righteous anger, and that doesn’t really play. It’s too simplistic, and too late.

Ultimately, Sisko decides to commune with the Orb of Prophecy, and in doing so, he gets what he needs: the understanding that the visions he’s been seeing are a warning that it’s too soon for Bajor to join the Federation. So he stumbles into the ceremony and manages to block the signing. Then he collapses, passes out, and Jake gives Bashir permission to perform the surgery, much to Sisko’s eventual dismay. The despondency in Brooks’ voice when he wakes up and realizes what has happened is very convincing, and helps keep this from being too neat and tidy. At first, it seems odd that Sisko disrupts the entrance ceremony without any repercussions from the Federation, but as the Admiral points out, the Bajorans value their Emissary so highly, it’s not like Starfleet could replace him without serious repercussions. It’s still a little neat and tidy, especially for a storyline with such cosmic ambitions, but honestly, I’m just relieved to have Sisko back to normal again. Whenever I find my thinking has slowed back down, and the work comes a bit harder, I’m disappointed. But it’s still good to know where the ground is.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Darkness and the Light:

Way back in the first season, Kira was the go-to character for complex dramatic storylines. As a former resistance fighter with an ambiguous relationship with Sisko and the Federation he represented, Kira allowed for commentary on the violence of the past, the cost of progress, and how some scars will never be healed. It didn’t hurt that Nana Visitor took to the role with gusto. But as the show developed, and its ensemble came into its own, Kira became less of a focal point; and while that was a good sign overall, I find myself missing her storylines, and wishing she had more to do than hang out in ops, or serve as back-up on a raid. Admittedly, Kira’s surrogate pregnancy hasn’t helped much, as her condition severely limits her mobility and the amount the writers are willing to put her in danger. (At least, that’s what I assumed, although this episode goes some lengths to pretend otherwise.) That might be the whole reason for her fading into the background, though. Maybe the writers have run out of things to say about the occupation, the resistance, and what comes next.

“The Darkness And The Light” will not disabuse anyone of this notion. It’s not terrible: Visitor is her usual excellent self, the mystery is compelling, and there are the usual small but welcome character touches that help make the station feel like a home. But the script is sloppy, and the central point—that Bajoran rebels who fought against the Cardassians weren’t always judicious in picking their targets—feels like something we’ve seen before. There’s something a little tired, a little familiar about the whole thing, and here, that familiarity isn’t to the episode’s benefit. If you ignore Worf and Kira’s bulging belly (and, okay, the herbs Kira is taking for her pregnancy that save her life), there’s nothing here that would’ve been much out of place in the show’s first or second seasons. In that context, this could’ve been a minor classic, or at least another promising sign ofDS9’s upward swing. In the fifth season, it’s decent, but disappointing, squandering a couple of minor characters and moderate suspense for nothing in particular.

A minor, but nagging problem: the plotting of this is off, as though the writers keep forgetting the show exists in a larger universe. Kira learns from Odo that Latha Mabrin, one of the members of her resistance cell during the occupation, has been killed while in prayer. She then gets a garbled, untraceable recording of a voice saying, “That’s one.” Very creepy, but all right, there’s no need to jump the gun and assume some sort of conspiracy. But Latha’s death was only the beginning. Trentin Fala, a servant who used to pass information to the resistance, contacts Kira to tell her she’s afraid for her life, and Kira sends Dax and Worf to go beam her off Bajor. Unfortunately, the assassin saw this coming, and planted a small device on Trentin’s skin that causes the transporter to rip her to pieces. Some time later, Kira gets another garbled message, this time on a padd Quark found in a shipment of Saurian brandy: “That’s two.”

At this point, the sensible choice would be to contact the remaining members of the cell and warn them of the danger. At the very least, Kira might consider getting in touch with her boyfriend Shakaar (I wasn’t sure if they were still dating, but he pops up in the next episode). She doesn’t do this. She gets upset, she accepts the additional security from Odo, and she waits, brooding over her inability to save her friends’ lives. It’s a small omission, and one that could’ve been fixed easily enough, but the lapse makes the episode feel strangely weightless. Fala’s death is shocking, but the only characters to die who have any meaning for the audience are Lupaza and Furel, whom we first met last season when Kira was trying to negotiate for Kai Winn. The two show up on the station, bust into Kira’s quarters, and offer their help, before getting sucked into space off screen. Neither character was hugely important to the series, but without any visceral connection to their execution, the loss is empty, a forced attempt to generate pathos. Kira’s shock and horror over what happens makes sense, but the audience doesn’t get to relate to her emotions, which robs the story of much of its power.

It also leaves more time to question how much all of this makes sense. Even looking past Kira’s (and Odo’s) refusal to warn the rest of the potential targets, or make any kind of concentrated effort to ask the others who might be trying to kill them, “The Darkness And The Light” is shaky. The assassin’s ability to target his prey borders on omniscient, but hey, this is a science fiction show, and it’s good to have a bad guy (or seriously tormented murderer) who can pose a severe threat. Far more irritating is the ease with which Kira tracks the killer down. Now, to cut everyone some slack, it makes sense that the Cardassian responsible for the attacks (a horribly maimed ex-servant named Silarin Prin) would want Kira to track him down eventually. He’s doing this in part to torment her—which, come to think, I’m not sure why that is. Apart from the fact that Kira is a main character on the show, what sets her apart from Shakaar and the others? It’s not like Lupaza and Furel were getting creepy messages. But still: Prin is trying to mess with Kira’s mind, and the end game is her death. So, theoretically, he could’ve made himself easier for her to track. But this isn’t mentioned. Instead, we get a (very cool) scene of Kira beaming herself in to Odo’s office, stealing his list of suspects, and then just stumbling on the right one on her first try. Sure, she eliminates three people before she finds Prin, but Odo said the list was 25 names long. This isn’t episode-killing, but it is some half-assed plotting, and something that wouldn’t have been at all difficult to fix.

But putting aside all the holes and the nitpicks, the reason “The Darkness And The Light” never gets beyond “decent” is that the premise never makes the necessary step beyond the obvious. Kira’s terror at watching the people she cares about die is well done, and her monologue about the first time she joined the resistance is well done, and beautifully staged. (She’s in the infirmary, lying on her side, after Lupaza and Furel’s deaths; Odo comes in to speak with her, and she just starts telling him about how she grew up wanting to help, and how scared she was that when the time came, she’d let everyone down.) That speech also ties in with Prin’s accusation that the resistance didn’t care who was hurt, as long as they were Cardassian. Kira talks about firing and firing because all that mattered to her was doing her part, and who knows if she took the time to think about what she was doing, or if she looked that closely at who she was aiming at.

But there’s just something missing here, and none of Prin’s crazy monologues and attempted torture really makes up for it. Yes, the work of Kira and her friends wasn’t always clean, and she had to commit herself completely or else she wouldn’t have been able to do what she felt needed to be done. This is ground we’ve covered before, but it still has some potential. It’s just that this story ends when things are about to get interesting, at least from a character perspective. Prin actually has some justification for his crimes, and while that doesn’t make him a hero, it at least prevents this from being a simple case of black and white. But just as we learn this information, just as we realize Prin was driven mad by his injuries, and his losses, Kira escapes his trap and kills him. There was tension in the earlier murders, but tension is just a starting point. A great hour of DS9finds ways to warp that tension around, and force you to question who you’re rooting for, and what you’re rooting for. “The Darkness And The Light” never gets there. It’s possible to read Kira’s grim expression at the end as either a refusal to admit any culpability, or horror over the echoes from her past. There are questions worth investigating. But the story’s over before anyone has a chance to ask them.

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

This shouldn’t work. It’s soon, for one thing. Odo has been a solid for all of twelve episodes, and while the season has spent some time establishing what it’s like for the former Changeling to deal with his new status, there’s still more room to explore. Losing his ability to shape shift is the sort of huge, painful transition that could change a character’s entire bearing, and Rene Auberjonois and the writers have done an excellent job indicating all the small ways Odo is adapting (and struggling to adapt) to his new circumstance. He smiles more now than he ever used to, I think, and he drinks more. He’s a bit more visibly emotional, a bit more depressed, probably a bit more self-loathing. These are changes that make sense, and I was looking forward to seeing how those changes would deepen over time. There was always the possibility that Odo would be restored to his former self, but I assumed we’d have more time. But at the end of “The Begotten,” the injured baby Changeling Odo has been caring for is dying, and as its final gift, the creature merges with its adopted father and gives Odo back himself.

This shouldn’t work. But it does.

Maybe the writers decided there was only so much material to be gained from Odo-as-a-human. (After all, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of solids on board DS9 already.) Maybe they decided to subvert expectations and give the poor constable a win after so much losing. Whatever the reason, “The Begotten” is a lovely meditation on parenting and learning to accept the flaws in your own upbringing. The final twist is at once completely unexpected, and fundamentally sound, and while it’s easy to wonder at what might have been if Odo was forced to put on his pants one leg at a time just a little bit longer, it’s hard to begrudge such a satisfying, moving resolution. The most important factor in justifying Odo’s “cure” was that it felt earned, and not just a factor of the writers deciding they missed all those cheesy morphing effects. This passes that test, with flying (heh) colors.

Of course, that’s not the only storyline in “The Begotten.” Kira finally gives birth, which turns out to be a complicated process involving lots of gonging and relaxation rituals. This is played for laughs, and, thankfully, doesn’t take up a lot of the running time; the biggest joke is how Shakaar and O’Brien keep squabbling for their place in the delivery room. O’Brien thinks he has every right to watch the baby crowning, and Shakaar is uncomfortable at another man seeing his girlfriend’s vagina, which you’d think would be more Kira’s decision, but I guess she’s busy being chill. (Bajorans have to be completely relaxed to give birth, which sounds terribly stressful.) It’s all very sitcom-esque, provided you overlook the fact that the mother-to-be is giving birth to a baby of a different species that was transproted into her womb after an awful space ship crash. Shakaar barely registers, and there’s no real emotional pay-off to the delivery, just another generic, “Oh, the miracle of life!” moment in the middle of a lot of goofiness. (The goofiness isn’t all that funny either.) The only real emotional beat in the whole arc is Kira telling Odo at the end how much she wishes she’d been giving birth to a child of her own; it makes you realize how little the writers have been interested in getting into the reality of this experience, especially since Kira’s confession largely exists so she and Odo can bond over the dead Changeling child.

But hey, at least that arc is over. The really important part of “The Begotten” has Odo buying a sick Changeling from Quark, who found the thing in its bottle as part of a shipment of Saurian Brandy. Still struggling with his current biological stasis, Odo takes to the creature at once, asking Bashir’s help in curing it (radiation poisoning), and then showing the “baby” around the station. Grumpy characters who melt in the face of children (literally in this case) are an old idea, but Odo’s enthusiasm and warmth are a joy to watch. It’s rare to see him so utterly open, and it points to yet another justification for his usual stoicism: deep down, Odo is just a big softy, and softies have to put up a good front to avoid injury. But now that he’s found someone who truly understands what it was like to grow up as a shape-shifter, someone who allows him the opportunity to re-engage with a part of his life he thought lost forever, Odo is just a big old puddle of goo. Figuratively speaking, of course.

His discovery doesn’t go unnoticed, however. The Dominion War is still brewing, so as soon as Sisko learns about the new Changeling, he reports the information to Starfleet. The word gets back to Dr. Mora, and in spite of Odo’s wishes, his old mentor/tormentor/surrogate father arrives on the station, excited to assist in the new Changeling’s upbringing.

The show has dealt with Odo’s resentment towards Mora before, and it is a potent subject. Children often grow up to resent their parents, particularly when those parents are excessively demanding or borderline abusive. Odo is no exception, and given that he spent his early years in a lab, being poked and prodded by a scientist who didn’t initially grasp that the substance in the beaker was a life-form, he has some cause for resentment. And yet Mora refuses to apologize for his behavior, and what makes the conflict so compelling is that the script doesn’t take a side. It’s easier to agree with Odo, given that he’s a main character, and also given that he’s so intent on a no-shouting, nurturing form of parenting; but while Mora’s use of pain as a motivator makes him appear cold and clinical, he’s undeniably passionate about his work, and clearly fond of Odo. More, he has a point. The Changeling needs a push, a reason to start forming shapes. Otherwise it’s content to simply bask in Odo’s warmth. But while Odo eventually gives in to Mora’s advice, it’s clear that his own approach to bonding with the creature also helped in the baby Changeling’s development. The balance between the two men was necessary to achieve progress, and recognizing that balance allows Odo to accept, and even forgive, how he himself was treated.

Even past the philosophical implications, the education of the baby Changeling is pretty damn delightful; while Odo has talked about his process as a shapeshifter before, this is the first time we’ve seen that beginning steps of that process laid out in concrete terms. It’s a different kind of tension than the show usually goes for, because the stakes aren’t that high: will the goo become a cube isn’t life-or-death. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, both in terms of deciding which parenting method “works,” and simply because we want to see Odo get his wish. We want that baby to succeed. The creature doesn’t get much in the way of a personality, but that isn’t detrimental to our emotional investment. There’s something alien about the process that still feels familiar, even universal: struggling to make a connection to a creature that isn’t yet capable of returning the effort. And when the Changeling finally does begin to shift, and even goes so far as to mimic Odo’s face, the payoff is tremendous. On an intellectual level, it’s not hard to realize that the baby will have to respond eventually, but emotionally, that puddle of goo (at one point, Odo’s carrying it around in a mug, which seems like it could lead to a horrible confusion) is just, well, goo. When it finally transforms into a visibly living being, the surprise is nearly as strong for us as it is for the characters.

And then the poor thing up and dies. It’s a potentially unbearable bleak twist, especially in the face of Odo’s joy; after he and Mora’s first success, the constable gets drunk and even spends time in Quark’s bar after hours, while Quark struggles to understand what’s going on. It’s no secret that Odo has been on a bit of a bad streak of late, and to see him finally happy, only to have the source of that happiness taken away, would’ve gone past drama and come perilously close to the realm of narrative sadism. At the same time, I’m not sure keeping a Changeling baby around on the station would’ve worked long term; the creature’s presence would’ve required a significant shift in focus for Odo’s character, and those can be difficult to pull off. And having Starfleet take the child off Odo’s hands would’ve been a tough sell, because it’s hard to imagine Odo willingly letting the baby go. So it was reasonable to expect there’d be some kind of permanent conclusion to the storyline, but when the news came out that the Changeling baby was dying (the radiation damage was too severe for Bashir to have cleansed all of it), I figured Odo would make a trip into Dominion territory and try and return the creature to its home.

Instead, the Changeling absorbs itself into Odo, and Odo gets his powers back. It doesn’t feel like a cheat either. The moment is a complete surprise, and that helps; there was no telegraphing that this was even possible before it happened, and yet, given what we know about the Great Link, in retrospect it doesn’t seem like that much of a stress. More importantly, the shot of Odo utterly astonished, shifting out of his clothes and flying across the Promenade as a hawk is so intensely powerful that I’m tearing up a little even thinking about it now.

Plenty of drama writers have realized the effect that misery and suffering can have on an audience; forcing characters to make impossible choices is one of the cores of great storytelling, and giving those choices extremely high stakes is critical. But few dramas realize that darkness and grit can also serve to make the light shine all the brighter when it finally breaks through the clouds. Odo has lost his people, has lost his love, has lost some of his most basic physical abilities, and these tragedies have formed a crucible, refining him to the purest essence of his character, and making his love him all the more. And then, suddenly, in a moment of his utmost despair, to get something back—something he never expected, but which he utterly earned—is quite simply transcendent. It’s the kind of moment that reminds you why you engage in art in the first place: to care and endure and be taken aback by joy.

So maybe it shouldn’t have worked. And maybe in the weeks to come, I’ll be disappointed to see Odo revert to his old self, and I’ll wonder what might have been. But for right now, the writers, and the actors, have earned this.

According to the A.V. Club review of For the Uniform:

It’s hard to sell complexity in fiction. It’s hard to sell complexity anywhere, really, because the whole world is full of that shit and who wants to pay for more? But with stories, especially stories that seem to fall in the easily graspable confinement of genre, that uphill battle turns into more a straight up climb, one with few clear hand-holds, and a lot of distance to the bottom. Escapism is arguably the first, and easiest, goal of narrative: life sucks most of the time, so you give your audience a place they can go to where things make a basic kind of sense, where cause and effect holds sway, the bad guys suffer, the good guys win out. And if that doesn’t satisfy, maybe the good guys aren’t so great, and the bad guys are sympathetic; maybe you blur the lines. But the further that goes, the harder it is to pull off, partly because there are more moving pieces to account for, and partly because it’s unsettling to see heroes turn monstrous. Unless this was a stated intention from the beginning, it feels like a violation of some sort of promise. We’re supposed to be able to root for these people—if we can’t root for them, if the whole idea of “rooting” is called into question, what then?

“For The Uniform” puts Sisko in an impossible position, and then proceeds to nudge him into making a seemingly unthinkable choice. It’s an odd fit for a Star Trek episode. Captains in the franchise have made tough calls in the past, but Sisko’s decision to play the villain in order to force Eddington’s hand feels distinct, a kind of bar-raising that is at once thrilling and more than a little disconcerting. The whole episode seems designed to push our comfort zones, especially when it comes to its leading man; Sisko is an angry man, but in the past, that anger has been directly proportional to the level of offense that inspired it. In this case, though, the balance is a bit off. Eddington’s actions deserve censure and justice, no question, but Sisko’s raging need to catch him goes beyond simple law and order. Something in what Eddington has done offends Sisko to his very core, and the story depends on how much you’re willing to accept the explanation for his fury. I think it works, but the episode’s climax depends on a kind of behavior that changes a lot of my assumptions about Sisko. It clarifies him in interesting ways, but those ways will only really work if the clarification lasts. This is the sort of twist which can pay off down the line, but if forgotten or ignored, looks cheap in retrospect; a shock without regard to consequence.

But before we get there, “For The Uniform” is often a very fun piece of work, in spite of all its sturm und drang. At its heart, the episode is a basic chase story, and it makes the smart choice of creating a seemingly uncatchable villain. I never thought much about Eddington while he was a Federation officer—given the nature of the show, I suspected him vaguely, but never had any serious expectations until his sudden betrayal of our heroes. But while we may never see the character again, this hour gives Ken Marshall plenty of opportunities to show why turning traitor was the best choice the writers could’ve made for his character. Regardless of why it happened, outlaw Eddington makes for a terrific opponent, and Marshall’s clipped, calm delivery makes the character’s various taunts throughout the episode all the more infuriating. It’s not hard to understand at least some of Sisko’s anger. If I had to deal with that smug, condescending bastard mocking me at every turn, I’d be pissed off too. (I mean, the dude emails him a copy of Les Misérables, and then takes the time to explain the incredibly obvious reference. Goddamn rebel hipster lit critics.)

Another reason the episode is a pleasure to watch is the effort the writers take to put Sisko at a disadvantage. During a chase sequence at the start of the hour, Eddington sets off a “cascade virus” (no idea if this is real or not, but as technobabble goes, that’s top-shelf material; the phrase is at once poetic and suggestive of collapse) in the Defiant’s computers that wipes the ship’s memory banks, effectively setting them back weeks of repair time. Given how long Eddington was on Deep Space Nine before revealing himself, he had plenty of opportunities to install viruses and other forms of sabotage into the station’s systems. Odo finds at least two viruses lurking in the system already, and he was only able to recognize those because they matched the virus on the Defiant. So, Eddington thinks ahead, which raises the stakes; but what’s also neat is how, when Sisko ultimately decides to take the Defiant back out on the chase before the ship is completely repaired, the show finds a way to make space travel look challenging again. That’s not something you see a lot on Trek, and since part of the appeal of the franchise is fabulous future technology, that’s not a flaw. But it’s still nice to, every once in a while, remind us of the machinery and effort it takes to fly between the stars. (The earlier episode with Jake and Sisko flying an old Bajoran designed craft did a good job with this; some of the battle scenes in “For The Uniform” also reminded me of Star Trek II: Wrath Of Khan.)

Eddington’s lingering effect on DS9 serves another purpose as well: It gets to the heart of what’s driving Sisko out of his mind. In a great scene between him and Dax, he rants to her about what’s really getting to him: Eddington is human. Not a Changeling, not some Cardassian spy, not some super genius alien, but a regular old person, a person who worked with him in plain sight for months on end, and of whom Sisko never suspected a thing. That’s what really galls. He’s mad because Eddington has betrayed Starfleet, and pulled a fast one on Sisko himself, but what sticks in the deepest is the way the anonymous, friendly balding man has forced the captain to question his ability to do his job. This is personal when it shouldn’t be personal, and that depth of frustration colors everything Sisko does, and makes his decision to poison a Maquis planet all the more difficult to parse. He crossed a line, but was his action necessary? Eddington wasn’t showing any signs of backing down, and the poison idea came from him; he was using biogenic weapons to poison Cardassian-settled planets in the D.M.Z. with material that would make them uninhabitable for the Cardassians. Capturing him was a high priority, especially after he was able to gut the Malinche.

And yet, there’s a line. There has to be a difference between Sisko and Eddington; it’s right there in the episode’s title. Acting on behalf of Starfleet, doing something “for the uniform” means protecting the honor of an institution that deserves defending, and Sisko’s willingness to cross the line, to embrace Eddington’s concept of their conflict, is both intensely clever, and hard to reconcile. The captain realizes that, if he’s Javert, then Eddington must see himself as Valjean, the noble hero who gives his entire life to the protection and well-being of others. Anyone with that kind of strong, idealized self-image is vulnerable to attack, and Sisko decides on the weak point: By giving in to his obsession, he forces Eddington into a position where it’s either sacrifice himself and save the rest of the colonies, or watch the people he’s given up everything to protect lose their last remaining sanctuary.

It’s a bold move on Sisko’s part, even though the episode makes an effort to minimize the damage. The torpedoes he fires don’t directly kill anyone; they just make the planets unlivable for Bajoran settlers. After the dust clears, the Cardassians who were evicted from their home by Eddington take over the planet Sisko forced the Maquis to abandon, and vice versa. So no harm done, and I do respect the show’s willingness to follow through on Sisko’s intensity without overtly condemning him for his behavior; as with Kira’s time in the resistance, we’re left to judge for ourselves if Sisko’s actions were appropriate. His decision to embrace his inner villain presages, in a small way, the current run of TV antiheroes, and the attraction of characters that make strong decisions, morality be damned. But lingering doubts remain. For one, it’s strange to end the hour with Eddington still able to cling to his delusions of heroism. For all Sisko’s determination to make the other man pay, Eddington’s self-esteem is intact. And even though Sisko’s actions weren’t exactly evil, something is lost in making them. Some small piece of integrity. Maybe that’s the point, though. You fight so long against an enemy you never see, something has to give eventually.

According to the A.V. Club review of In Purgatory’s Shadow:

There’s a lot to talk about in this episode, but let’s get this out of the way first: How long has Bashir been a Changeling?

This season hasn’t really had a Bashir-centric storyline. Looking over the run to this point, I’d have a hard time believing the Bashir we saw in “Trials And Tribble-ations” wasn’t the real thing; a Changeling would have a hard time keeping up the O’Brien/Bashir chemistry. I doubt the Bashir who broke up with Leeta (or whom Leeta broke up with, or who mutually agreed to end a relationship with etc.) was a phony, and the Bashir of “Things Past” was too invested in Odo and the others’ fate to not be himself. But I can’t be sure about that one, and after that point, all bets are off. Maybe the writers have confirmed one way or the other, but there’s a brilliant creepiness to Julian popping out at the Jem’Hadar internment camp without any significant setup or foreshadowing. Sure, the fake Bashir had been acting a little sharper than usual back on the station. While the Changeling’s ability to see through Garak’s lie wasn’t surprising, his clear, smug pleasure at catching the Cardassian wasn’t like the doctor we’ve come to know and love; and there was a certain arrogance to the way he carried himself, a certain “God, you idiots are so easy to fool” subtext under his few lines. But this is all in retrospect. At the time, the reveal that the station’s Bashir wasn’t the real thing blew my freakin’ mind.

But back up a bit, because “In Purgatory’s Shadow” isn’t really about Bashir. After a few weeks of character dalliances, time travel, and vacation spots, this episode returns us to what’s presumably the season’s over-arcing plotline: the incipient war with the Dominion. And where earlier stories about the buildup to the war have contented themselves with conspiracy theory and suggestion, this one dives straight in. By the end of the hour, Garak, Worf, and Bashir are trapped in Internment Camp 317; the fake Bashir has managed to short circuit DS9’s one hope at closing off the wormhole; and Sisko and the others are staring at a fleet of Jem’Hadar warships. As cliffhangers go, this is pretty swell. Not Locutus of the Borg level, maybe, but the Dominion threat is a more integral part of DS9’s design than the Borg ever were in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This plays like the start of a long awaited pay-off, and even if it isn’t, even if the writers find someway to walk this back (and they’ll have to find something, as we’re barely past the season’s midpoint), the status quo has been changed. The Founders have once again demonstrated their intent and raised the stakes of the entire series.

This is a two-parter, though, and as is so often the case with two-parters, the first half is less a story in its own right than a bunch of scenes setting up part two. Compare/contrast this with “For The Uniform.” In the former, we spend most of the hour onboard the Defiant; the focus is on Sisko, and his hunt, and there’s very little in the script that doesn’t involve him or reflect back on him. In “In Purgatory’s Shadow,” there’s an adorable cold open with Kira helping Odo resettle his Changeling furniture; then we find out about a Cardassian code signal from the Gamma Quadrant; then Garak interprets it, lies, tries to go off by himself, gets caught; Sisko decides to let Garak go after the signal anyway, but only if Worf goes with him; aaaaaand 20 minutes later, they leave.

Well, maybe not 20 minutes. I didn’t have a stop-watch. But it takes half a dozen scenes before Worf and Garak are on that shuttle together, and it takes a few scenes after that before they get picked up by the Jem’Hadar. Most of these scenes are solid enough, character-building exchanges that remind us of/work to establish relationships, but they don’t move the plot forward much, and there’s a kind of drag to the first half of the episode that can be a little frustrating at times. Garak and Ziyal’s friendship (which may be something more) is interesting, and Gul Dukat’s anger at discovering that friendship could lead somewhere, but it doesn’t tie into what we really care about. The fact that Ziyal ultimately turns on her father, and disobeys his order to leave the station, is moderately satisfying (it’s always fun to see someone say no to Dukat), but given everything else that’s going on, it’s a small blip on the corner of a very busy radar a screen.

Then again, it’s hard to really say how any of this fits together before we get to next week’s second half. I doubt Worf and Dax’s exchange about goodbyes and Klingon opera is going to matter all that much, but it was a decent conversation between the two of them that made their relationship seem not completely horrible, so there’s that. One relationship that does pay off in this episode is one that I’d long thought closed for good: Garak and Enabran Tain. After Tain’s disappearance in “The Die Is Cast,” it seemed plausible enough that the former head of the Obsidian Order was dead, victim to his own hubris and inability to recognize the true nature of the Dominion threat. This assumption was neither confirmed nor denied when Garak asked for information from the female Changeling; she told him Tain was dead, but by her logic, all Cardassians were dead. They just hadn’t realized it yet. The transmission Garak translates at the start of the story is supposedly a message from Tain, but that could mean anything. The Founders are tricksome, and when Worf and Garak stumble across the Jem’Hadar fleet, it looks like they’ve fallen into another trap.

Garak and Worf haven’t hurt the Dominion invasion in any substantial way, but their discovery of the threat wasn’t planned. Tain really did send the message, and he’s trapped in the same Internment Camp that Garak and Worf are sent to. I’ll allow it, although it’s convenient—especially considering that General Martok is there to, getting beat up by Jem’Hadar soldiers. (Sorry, that was redundant.) But it’s worth the convenience to see Garak struggle once more with failing to live up to the expectations of his former boss; after all, it’s doubtful Tain sent a message purely for the pleasure of the tailor’s company, and Worf and Garak don’t seem to be doing so great on the “rescue” front. It’s hilarious to watch Garak complaining to Bashir about Tain’s attitude, given that Tain is dying, and Bashir has been stuck in hell for a month now. And then the final reveal, as Tain slips away: He’s Garak’s father. Their connection always made sense, but now it just clicks into place a little clearer, just as Garak himself comes a trifle more into focus.

Really, that’s the main non-plot effect of the episode: bringing things into focus. It’s a reminder of the complacency of the past few weeks, as our heroes have struggled with their own personal demons while forgetting the big hulking threat still lurking the next galaxy over. That’s how the show tells its stories, but that’s also how life tends to work: The darkness on the horizon is terrifying, but without form, the terror fades away, turns into acceptance. The Changelings want everyone dead, but hey, there’s a station to run, debts to be repaid, lives to lead. We’re only really as a capable as the immediate crisis demands of us. Everything else is just background.

“In Purgatory’s Shadow” is mostly about setting the table for the meal to come, but it offers up some quality silverware, and the smells coming from the kitchen have my mouth watering. (Yeah, that metaphor isn’t great, but it was one of those “I’m in this now, and I’m going to keep being in this until we get through it together” moments.) The sight of the fleet coming through the wormhole as Sisko’s last ditch attempt to stop them fails is shocking enough, but the more intimate questions are the ones that attract the most interest. Like, is someone on the station going to figure out who Bashir is before it’s too late? (Or too late-er, I guess.) And what will the Changelings make of the fact that Odo got his mojo back? What’s Sisko going to do next? And back in the Internment Camp, how are Garak, Worf, Mortak, and Bashir going to escape? That last has me especially excited, because I’m a sucker for great escape stories, and also because Garak now has a very specific reason to hate the Changelings. He once tried to murder their entire race. That probably isn’t an option right now, but he’s not someone you want for an enemy. There are plenty of ways of changing your shape. Also, Worf is, really good at punching things. That should probably come in handy.

According to the A.V. Club review of By Inferno’s Light:

Turning Bashir into a Changeling—not the real Bashir, of course, just the one we’d been seeing on the station for the past few episodes—was a great twist. It used information that was readily available to us, and didn’t cheat to make the plot work; while you can argue over some aspects of the fake-Bashir’s behavior, the fundamental truth is, we knew the Changelings were capable of this sort of behavior, and there’s every reason to believe they’d want someone on DS9, even before we learn what their ultimate plan is at the end of this episode. It’s smart, engaging writing. But it also has a limited impact. By the end of “By Inferno’s Light,” the real Julian is back where he belongs, and the impostor is dead, having died in an attempt to basically blow up an entire solar system. While the paranoia levels for the audience have been raised, there’s no real sense that this is going to be something we’ll return to in the future. And even if we do, it’ll most likely be a one off episode, or a line from Bashir about how much he doesn’t care for the Jem’Hadar.

This isn’t a criticism. It was cool idea, and a well-executed one. But for my money, the most thrilling development in an hour full of pretty terrific “Fuck yeah!” moments is the discovery that Gul Dukat has been working on secret negotiations between the Cardassian government and the Dominion; and what’s more, the end result of those negotiations has managed to leave Dukat as ruler of his home planet. While Dukat isn’t a member of the show’s main ensemble, he’s always hung around the edges, and this sudden reversal of fortune, from Klingon-hatin’ guerrilla fighter to ruler of a planet, is both remarkable and just plausible enough to work. It makes those scenes I groused about last week between him and Ziyal much more interesting in retrospect (although I don’t retract my mild criticism), and it helps to kick off this hour with a tremendous sense of energy. We find this out in the cold open; at first, there’s shock at the arrival of the Jem’Hadar fleet, and then seconds later, the fleet sails off and Dukat goes with it, saving time for one final “Screw off” for Kira before he goes.

The Bashir reveal is a great piece of showmanship, but the transition for Dukat is the more impressive piece of writing. It makes sense to me; it’s curious that the Founders have seemingly reneged on their seemingly intractable hatred of Cardassians, but we don’t know the full extent of their plans, and besides, they seem like the kind of folks that would be willing to put their hatred aside if it furthered their goals. Given how much Dukat’s rage has been directed at Klingons the last few times we’ve seen him, the whole thing has a manipulative panache to it—for all his arrogance, Dukat has basically set the stage for turning his homeworld into another occupied Bajor. He believes he’s canny enough to use the situation to his advantage, and this false assumption could potentially ruin everything. It’s masterfully done, and the more I think about it, the more it impresses me. Not just because it fits, not just because of what it tells us about the Founders and Dukat, but because it once again shows how willing the writers are to change the status quo without losing that central conflict. First there was the Founders; then there were the Founders and (unwittingly) the Klingons; and now it’s the Founders and Cardassia. The players shift, but the stakes remain high. It’s a sequence of moves which could have seemed like stalling, but instead play like a clarification of just how deadly an enemy the Founders are. This isn’t the Borg. They don’t simply smash through resistance. They plan, bide their time, and keep changing the field until it suits their needs.

And this isn’t even the focus of the episode! “By Inferno’s Light” has two main plots: Garak, Worf, and Bashir’s efforts to escape the prison camp, and Sisko’s reaction to the shifting Dominion threat back on DS9. The former takes precedence for most of the hour, and it plays like the more urgent of the two, even though the fate of the station, and Bajor, would seem like a much bigger deal. Partly that’s because we know Bashir needs to get back to DS9 and warn everyone about the impostor, but it’s also a factor of how cleverly the writers turn the screws on the characters in the camp.

First, there’s poor Worf, stuck fighting against Jem’Hadar soldiers as a training exercise. This plays a bit like a 10-minute apology to the character for all those YouTube compilations of Worf getting his ass handed to him, and I mean that in the best possible way. He makes it through one fight mildly scathed but ready for more, and by the end of the first day, he’s got a few broken ribs, and he’s still not beaten yet. And this goes on, in a facility with severely limited access to medical resources (to put it mildly): Worf goes out, kicks some ass, and comes back so Bashir can wave his hands around and look worried. Most of the fighting takes place off screen (given how much else is going on in the hour, this makes sense), but the damage is evident, and it’s thrilling to see Worf finally live up to the high standard he’s set for himself. Most of the time, Worf’s warrior ways are restricted to the holodeck, or to his piloting the Defiant. Here, he’s forced into meeting the enemy on the most restrictive field imaginable, and he rises to the challenge admirably.

And it pays off. After Worf has defeats every warrior sent to fight him, the captain of the Jem’Hadar steps into the ring. Worf is severely injured, and most likely exhausted, and the captain makes short work of him—except Worf refuses to stand down. Every time he falls, he rises, and the captain is so impressed by his resilience that when the Vorta warden of the camp orders Worf killed, the captain refuses to pull the trigger. This decision dooms them both (although Worf manages a last second escape), but both suggest a common ground between the Jem’Hadar and the Klingons that might be useful down the line. And really, it’s hard to imagine anything more awesomely Klingon than staving off defeat by willpower alone.

Willpower is a bit of a running theme this week, as while Worf is off playing Space Rocky, Garak is stuck in the hidden area where Tain programmed his distress signal, working to reprogram the system to contact their runabout. This storyline is a bit clunkier than Worf’s; Tain’s death from last week is largely to one side, as Garak is forced to deal with a sudden attack of claustrophobia, and the results are a little forced. Andrew Robinson sells the hell out of it, and his monologues inside the wall are compelling enough, but for the phobia to strike him all of a sudden smacks of convenience on the writers’ part, as though they realized they needed some way to add tension to the sequence but didn’t want to add anymore plot. It also makes the Jem’Hadar a lot less formidable when “hide a guy behind a wall” is a viable escape strategy. Still, Garak’s struggles work on the basic, nerve-ending level, and his decision to go back into the hole after suffering a severe panic attack enriches his character and earns him the respect of the hard-to-please Worf. Clunky or not, that last moment between the two is immensely satisfying.

Also satisfying: The deft way the episode cuts between events at the prison camp, and the increasingly tense stand-off back home. Cross-cutting is an old tradition in film and television (he said, lacking the historical knowledge to back this up at all), but it’s difficult to do well. Too often, jumping between exciting plot lines means sacrificing pacing to create the impression of simultaneous action; it’s also a way to make an episode’s structure appear more dynamic.

It works beautifully here. DS9 has had exciting hours in the past, but I’m not sure I can remember a climactic 15 minutes as thrilling as this one, and that excitement is due in large part to the way the two stories play off each other. In the camp, things go from bad to worse as Worf struggles to stay alive, Garak struggles with his sanity, and the Jem’Hadar guards finally wise up (i.e., they get orders from Dukat) and stop by the cell to execute the tailor. As that explodes, back on the station, Sisko is juggling his options as a deadline approaches. Dukat has declared war on DS9, and things look bleak until Gowron and his Klingons show up—there’s no reason for the Federation and the Klingons to be at war anymore, so Sisko arranges a quick reinstatement of the Khitomer Accords, and waits for the Jem’Hadar fleet to arrive. Warp signatures hit the computer from all over, but no one can find any ships to shoot at. Suspense mounts—Garak finally succeeds in hacking the computer, saving everyone at the last possible second; the group races back to Alpha Quadrant, and Bashir sends a message about the impostor; Sisko gets the message, pieces together what’s happened, and that’s when we realize the true plan. Dukat has no real interest in DS9. The Changeling posing as Bashir intends to sacrifice himself to set off a charge in the system’s sun that will wipe out all life in the system.

Again, we see the Founders machinations are never as straightforward as they appear; and again we’re reminded of how much they dislike direct combat, choosing obfuscation and long cons over the brute force of war. Which isn’t to say they won’t crush their enemies if they’re forced to, but look at how things worked out with the Cardassians. A race they ostensibly despised has now provided them with a foothold in the quadrant, with defensive outposts and bodies on the ground (so to speak). Sure, their plan here fails, stymied in the last minute by Garak, Sisko’s clever thinking, and Kira’s willingness to push the Defiant to extremes, but they still end up in a better position at the end of the episode than they did at the start. The biggest downside is that Sisko now has the Klingons and the Romulans on his side. But there’s time left. The Founders have proven they can kidnap DS9 personnel, arrange private negotiations that shift the political situation an entire sector, and came within 10 seconds of killing millions. Sisko and his team have proven that they can save in the day at the last possible moment. Sounds like a fair fight to me.

According to the A.V. Club review of Doctor Bashier, I Presume?:

“Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” has us shifting gears, although not nearly as much as the first half of the episode would suggest. After the intensity of the new threat from the Dominion, we get a pair of smaller stories, focused on a handful of characters. In the subplot, Rom struggles to find the courage to express his feelings to Leeta, while she waits patiently for him to ask her on a date; and in the main plot, Bashir learns he’s been chosen as the model for a holographic medical program. The tone is light, exemplified by a guest star turn from the always welcome Robert Picardo. By this point, Star Trek: Voyager had been on the air for a couple years, and Picardo’s character is one of the only two people on the show to have ever made any impression on me; I’m going to make a small jump and assume he’s a fan favorite, because it’s Robert Picardo. He does excellent work here, playing an arrogant, mildly nebbishy scientist who seems like a creep at first, but then turns out to be not really so bad once you get past his irritating exterior. So, the Picardo specialty, really.

But Zimmerman (Picard’s scientist character) isn’t the focus here; he’s more of a catalyst that forces the real stories into motion. In Rom’s case, it’s simple enough. Leeta keeps giving Rom a chance to ask her out, he can’t work up the courage to do it, and then Zimmerman forces the issue by giving Leeta a great reason to leave the station. It’s not a particularly deep conflict, and it’s watchable because the actors are game and the characters endearing; Picardo manages to make Zimmerman’s infatuation with Leeta surprisingly un-creepy, and it’s sweet to see both Rom and Leeta find happiness together. But I’d still be happy if I never had to see this particular sort of silliness ever again. Rom’s shyness is a forced obstacle that’s mostly just frustrating to watch, and Leeta’s weird refusal to actually ask him out her own damn self is kind of infuriating. Sure, you can say there’s some Bajoran philosophical reason that holds her back, but nobody mentions it, and that would still sound pretty dumb. She knows he likes her—she literally says she does. The whole thing isn’t painful for anything, but it’s good when it’s over.

Much more compelling, and a bit heavier on the melodrama, is Bashir’s story. What starts off as a fun excuse to let another Trek actor guest on the series turns into something a lot more complex when Bashir’s parents show up on the station. Zimmerman is there to record Bashir’s image, and construct a hologram program based off his looks and personality to use at Starfleet locations that can’t necessarily afford the space for medical personnel. Basically, it’s like the Doctor from Voyager (a program Zimmerman created and based on himself, naturally), only this program is designed to be more long term. So there’s some fun stuff with O’Brien throwing out some jokes, and a goofy exchange between the Bashir hologram and the Zimmerman hologram, and then Zimmerman starts interviewing people on the station about Bashir. Bashir begs the scientist not to contact his parents, but Zimmerman goes against his wishes, and that’s when things get interesting.

At first, it’s a lot of funny-and-uncomfortable gags about sons resenting their parents. Brian George and Fadwa El Guindi as Richard and Amsha Bashir are convincingly loving but just a little off; Richard in particular comes off as a charming, but slightly shiftless, dreamer, the kind of fast-talking, genial con man who’s less a villain than a guy whose reach is perpetually exceeding his grasp. This helps to justify the episode’s big twist: Bashir was genetically enhanced when he was 6 years old, to give him exceptional intelligence and physical abilities. I’m assuming this wasn’t planned ahead of time, but as retcons go, it’s pretty cool, and it’s introduced smoothly here. Suspicions are raised when Bashir asks Zimmerman to leave his folks out of the project, but there’s the foreshadowing doesn’t really kick in until mom, dad, and Julian are having dinner, and Bashir starts alluding to this “secret” between them. Up until then, the episode plays like a goofy fun. Even the reveal is sort of silly: Richard confesses his sins to the Bashir hologram, mistaking the program for his son like this was some kind of nutty sci-fi farce.

Things get serious after that, though, and that seriousness helps change the addition to Bashir’s backstory. It’s a little over-the-top in places, but the actors sell the idea sincerely, and Bashir’s resentment isn’t all that different from the resentment most gifted children feel towards their parents eventually; that deep-rooted, illogical certainty that Mom and Dad only really love you for your abilities, for the positive impression you can lend to their legacy. In Bashir’s case, the fear/anger is especially acute, given that he has seemingly irrefutable evidence that his parents weren’t satisfied with his real self. The argument between father and son is a raw one, rawer than we’ve maybe ever seen Bashir get on the show, and it helps distract from some of the sketchier aspects of the twist—like the fact that Bashir has significantly better reflexes than a normal human being. The doctor has been good at sports in the past, but he’s never beenthat good, and presumably there were times over the run of the series when his super smarts and skills would’ve been useful. Yet, nothing springs immediately to mind, which means it gets a pass. Besides, it helps explain how Bashir survived a month in a Jem’Hadar internment camp with nothing worse than a dirty face and some bad memories.

The drama between the doctor and his folks works out okay; Richard is a stand up guy, and when the secret comes out, he does the right thing and reports himself to the authorities. He’ll be going away to a minimum security prison in New Zealand for a couple years (they must put on awesome Lord Of The Rings cosplay), and Julian gets to keep his job. It’s good that there’s some consequence for all this, and that Bashir doesn’t have to pay for his parents’ mistakes. But while I’m glad to meet those parents, and I always enjoy a good angst-shedding squabble, what mostly interests me about “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” is how it will affect Bashir’s character down the line. I doubt he’ll start leaping tall buildings in a single bound or anything like that. We know who Julian is by now: a dedicated doctor, determined to do the right thing. There’s no reason for that to change. But I like how this means he’s just one more misfit toy, hiding in plain sight. Even if the genetic alterations are never mentioned again, we’ll know they’re there, and we’ll know that deep down, he’ll always be that 6-year-old boy, struggling to keep up with his peers, knowing he’ll never be good enough.

According to the A.V. Club review of Ties of Blood and Water:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the pleasures and perils of binge-watching television. Like so much of what we talk about on the Internet, it’s never something I’ve really thought about before; I’ve gone on runs of shows from time to time, but it’s always felt like a private, almost shameful thing—what kind of a messed up shut-in can spend three days of vacation plowing through Slings And Arrows in its entirety? (Hand raised.) But now everybody’s doing it, and everybody else is worried about it, and like anything, there are advantages and disadvantages. I don’t binge-watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; I stick to the schedule, two episodes a week, and while that means I often miss on foreshadowing, it’s fun to not know what’s coming. Still, sometimes the grind kicks in, and this week got me to thinking about how that grind can affect how I watch the show, which, in turn, affects how I write about it.

“Ties Of Blood And Water” is another not-terrible-not-classic hour, with some excellent acting from the cast, Nana Visitor especially. Avery Brooks directed; it’s an old saw that actors-turned-directors get strong performances out of their casts, and this episode doesn’t dispute that. And the script’s… fine? I want to say fine. It’s better than the last Kira-centric episode, and there’s some legitimate pathos mined in the episode’s more overtly sentimental moments. Plus, Jeffrey Combs makes his triumphant return as the not-quite-dead Weyoun (it’s a clone thing), Gul Dukat is an ass, and Sisko gets to talk some smack.

On the downside, “Ties Of Blood And Water” feels perfunctory. But “perfunctory” is a questionable criticism, relying even more on eye-of-the-beholder assumptions than normal. There comes a point in the weekly-reviewing biz (he said, sipping a latte and idly fingering a pile of cocaine) when “good enough” isn’t really good enough. It gets hard to dredge up interesting commentary, so you start to nitpick, and that doesn’t make anyone happy.

Whining aside, let’s focus on what works. The premise: Back in the third season’s “Second Skin,” Kira was kidnapped by the Obsidian Order, made to look like a Cardassian, and stuck in the house of a prominent Cardassian official under the pretense that she was the official’s daughter, back from a long undercover mission on Bajor. After a lot of shouting, Kira figured out that the Order didn’t have designs on her, but was instead using her to discredit Tekeny Ghemor (Lawrence Pressman), the official who mistakes Kira for his missing child. That episode had a happy ending, and this sort-of sequel picks up with Ghemor returning to Deep Space Nine. Kira wants him to run a Cardassian government in exile, in opposition to Dukat, but Ghemor is dying. He offers to give up everything he knows about the Cardassian political system, and Kira agrees to depose him. But she’s got some memories of her own to deal with—specifically, her own father’s death, and how she handled it.

Kira stories work best when they have a clear emotional center, and it’s hard to get much clearer than, “I abandoned my father because I couldn’t face losing him.” The Kira/Ghemor relationship seems willed into existence for the purpose of this story, but Visitor and Pressman sell what they’re given, and the straightforward, undeniable sense of loss that runs throughout the episode is hard to deny. Ghemor gives Kira some sold intel on the Cardassian government (and Dukat’s enemies), but none of it changes the fact that the dead are gone and the dying are going. Nor does it reunite Ghemor with his missing daughter, or kick Dukat out of his leadership role, or do anything but give our heroes some helpful tips, and allow Kira a chance at  imperfect closure. The drama in the episode is muted, and that’s all to the good; the power here comes not so much from tension (although there is one source of suspense), but from watching people we’ve come to care about accept once more the inevitabilities of their universe. Of all universes, really.

While Kira and Ghemor take center stage, “Ties Of Blood And Water” also brings back Weyoun, the magnificently smarmy bastard last seen in “To The Death.” Funny thing: Weyoun was vaporized by his own troops at the end of that story, but here he is at Gul Dukat’s side, snarking on the action and seemingly amused by everything. When Sisko, serving as an audience surrogate, acts surprised, Weyoun explains that the Weyoun Sisko saw killed was actually a clone—version four, to be exact, and the version we see in this episode (who survives the hour) is version five. This is the first we’ve heard of the Vorta’s cloning procedures, but it makes enough sense to work, and Weyoun is such an excellent character that I’m grateful for any excuse to have him back. He and Dukat stick largely to the sidelines; they’re on the station because Ghemor knows where some bodies are buried, and Dukat wants to bring the dying Cardassian back home. Sisko, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give a damn what Dukat wants, which means we get some fun, snippy exchanges between the two of them. Plus, Weyoun looks like he’s having a hell of a time, commenting on the action as it unfolds without really caring how things work out. Dukat is all barely restrained contempt and veiled threats, but Weyoun, apparently, doesn’t give a shit. Which makes sense. For the Vorta, Cardassia is just one more planet full of suckers to put up with. They’re the mid-level bureaucrats, the just-following-orders managers. It’s refreshing to see Weyoun enjoying himself in the middle of all this angst, and it also makes you wonder what will happen if he ever has to get serious.

So what doesn’t work? As good as the actors are, Kira and Ghemor’s relationship feels forced. Over and over we’re told how Ghemor is like a second father to Kira, and that Kira is the only “family” he has left, but this is a character we haven’t seen in two seasons; we haven’t had sufficient time to build up an investment in the relationship. And it’s not like Kira spent that much time as Ghemor’s daughter. While the performances are good, their emotional impact is blunted by the lack of grounding, by the impossible to ignore sense that this entire situation has been contrived to generate the most pathos possible. DS9 has never been one to shy away from melodrama, and maybe my reaction here is just needlessly harsh; maybe the show’s rhythms have grown too predictable for me and I need a break. This is not a caveat I’ll be using again in these reviews (because c’mon), but there were points watching “Ties Of Blood And Water” where I wondered if my already deeply subjective perspective hadn’t completely lost sight of what mattered.

Because the story of Kira’s father does work. Ghemor and his sudden death may be a means to an end, but that end is striking in its directness. Kira’s father was fatally injured in a Cardassian attack, and instead of staying with him as he died, Kira went out to get revenge. When she learned her dad passed away while she was out shooting dudes, she left to shoot some more dudes. I appreciate the unforgiving simplicity of that, the way it implicates Kira without blaming her, and shows us yet another piece of what drove the Bajoran resistance: not just rage, not just a desire for justice, but the need to keep moving, to give yourself something to do in the face of loss. That’s a strong, rich theme to work from, and maybe what really hurts is this episode has nothing do with my assumptions, or anything about me. Maybe it’s simply that the Ghemor framing device, even though it gives Kira a small chance to make up for the past, is never as effective as the idea it was created to support. Kira’s dad is even more of a cipher than Ghemor, but he’s less important than what he represents, and it’s too bad there wasn’t a more effective way to bring this all together.

According to the A.V. Club review of Soldiers of the Empire:

Worf is a character who depends on context. On his own, he can come across as a stick-in-the-mud, an uptight schoolmarm who just happens to be capable of splitting you in two if he really gets mad. Rule-obsessed scolds can be legitimately compelling, but they need to have some justification for why they behave the way they do; everyone’s more interesting if we can understand where they’re coming from, and, at his worst, Worf is just a helpless, irritable square, useful to bounce jokes off of, but not much else. In context, though, he’s immensely compelling: a tragic figure cast aside by his own people for striving to serve their interests. As goofy as that “My enthusiasm killed a kid” speech was back on the episode we’re not going to talk about again, it speaks to a conflict at Worf’s heart, the struggle that defines the Klingon soul. Battle and honor above all things, but where does that lead you in the end? How do you balance the responsibilities of citizenship against a warrior’s ethos? Worf is fascinating because he’s an example of one of the best approaches to genre storytelling: Take your concepts seriously. Try to figure out what happens next. “Warrior culture” is an okay start, but what does that mean? How does this system work, and how can it be maintained?

On one level, “Soldiers Of The Empire” is an exciting, well-paced underdog saga; a bit like one of those sports movies where a team of losers has to band together in order to triumph, only here the “losers” are a near mutinous crew of Klingons, and triumphing means killing the hell out of a Jem’Hadar ship and its crew. This is a formula, to be sure, but it’s the kind of formula with a basic, undeniable power no matter how many times its re-used. Ron Moore’s script takes the model, and runs with it, building to the rousing climax that’s all the more impressive when you realize we never see what’s typically considered the most important part of the story: the final battle. Martok and his crew finally destroy an enemy ship, but all we get to watch is their triumphant return to DS9. But the story still feels complete, because the B’Moth’s first victory isn’t really what’s at stake. Intentionally or not, this episode is really about trying once more to put Worf in the appropriate context, and undo some of the damage done in the season’s worst moments. Whether or not Martok is able to overcome his self-doubt is important, but what matters more is whether or not Worf can find a solution to his dilemma that will be true both to his own beliefs, and to the needs of those around him.

That said, the Dax/Worf relationship remains frustratingly unthrilling, in a way that makes me question what we should expect out of a TV romance. Putting these two together is both a way to help integrate Worf into the cast, and a potential story generator for future episodes, but while it makes a certain, “opposites -attract”-style sense, it rarely rises above the level of perfunctory. The chemistry is flat, but then, it’s hard to pin down exactly what “chemistry” is supposed to mean in this circumstances. Some couples have a bubbly, live-wire energy that turns their sparring into a prime reason for tuning into a show, but Worf and Dax aren’t supposed to be Sam and Diane, or Nick and Jess, or whatever will-they/won’t-they comes to mind. They obviously would, have, and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. And while the relationship can seem questionable from time to time, well, all relationships can look that way to outsiders. Maybe it makes sense just to accept the two of them together as a done deal, and hope the writers never make the mistake of putting too much drama on the pairing itself.

“Soldiers Of The Empire” is a good example of how to make that work; sure, Dax decides to accompany Worf during his time on board the B’Moth, but while she’s motivated in no small part by her feelings for him, we’ve always seen her hold her own with Klingons before, and this is no exception. While the passion underlying their pairing doesn’t always translate to the screen, it can still make sense, and to the extent that this a “Worf and Dax” episode, they do make sense.

But then, this isn’t really about them: It’s about Worf, ultimately, but to get to that, we have get through Martok and his newly adopted crew, and how both sides represent a study in what happens when you lose your way in a warrior culture. It’s an irony that Martok spends most of the episode alienating himself from the people he’s supposed to inspire, because the reasons that make him so cautious and initially incapable of doing his damn job are at least partly connected to what makes those serving under him so skittish about doing theirs. We’ve seen Klingons struggling to redefine themselves against the Dominion threat, but here we get a sense of what’s really driving them: fear and loathing of the Jem’Hadar. Martok spent long months in a prison camp suffering at their hands, and his new crew have lost battles to them in the past, but if they were just another enemy, like the Cardassians or the Romulans or the humans, such struggles, while difficult, would not sting quite so much. The Jem’Hadar are different, and here’s where we see a fatal flaw in the Klingon way of life.

The way to be a great Klingon, male or female, is to be a great warrior—the greatest warrior, in fact. To be defined by your will to victory, your indomitable spirit, your thirst for righteous violence—it’s basically Manifest Destiny, only nobody’s ashamed about all the killing that comes with it. But here are the Jem’Hadar, built faster, stronger, more able to endure. To a race whose highest ideal is the purity of the hunt, this must be horrifying: a species that has no other purpose than to make war, no desire but to follow orders, kill, follow more orders, and die. It’s unnatural, and Martok and his people try and calm themselves by pointing this out, but that sounds like equivocation. When your way of life has elevated Might Makes Right to a form of art, eventually, you’ll be faced with an enemy who redefines the terms. This isn’t the first time the Klingons have dealt with an opponent that can beat them, but it’s maybe the first time they’ve faced one that can do so on the Klingons’ own terms. That’s got to sting.

Which is why the climax of the story is so appealing. Martok keeps stalling and avoiding confrontations, the crew keeps getting closer to mutiny, and finally, Worf realizes something has to be done. He challenges Martok for leadership, and on a Klingon ship, if the superior officer refuses to stand down in the face of such a challenge, it’s a fight to the death. (We first learned about this in “Matter Of Honor,” from the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Worf and Martok fight, and at a critical moment, Worf lets down his guard, allowing Martok to win. The victory restores Martok’s confidence, allowing him to realize he’s been hiding from his true duties, and when a Jem’Hadar ship does approach, the general is able to lead his crew proudly, neatly resolving the episode’s main source of dramatic tension.

So, Worf threw the fight. On a personal level, this reminds us that Worf is a lot cannier than he sometimes lets on, as he understood the one gesture that might be able to bring about a positive resolution for both of the parties (Martok and the crew) that he needed to serve; he also was willing to to put his own life at hazard, knowing there was no guarantee that Martok wouldn’t take the killing blow when Worf allowed him the opportunity to do so. But on a greater level, Worf’s actions are a reminder of what sets apart the Klingons from the Jem’Hadar, and what makes their philosophy, at best, a noble one. While the Jem’Hadar talk about honor, and clearly have a deep reverence for it, they are ultimately at the whims of their controllers; their actions are stripped of any choice, and those few times we have seen them exert their will have required acts of highly localized rebellion. For Klingons, though, choice is the highest expression of honor, and the willingness to engage, to fight to the last, matters because it always comes internally. Time and again, Worf has demonstrated the best way forward for the Klingon Empire: courage, resilience, and passion driven by wisdom. His fight against the Jem’Hadar earlier in the season (a fight that’s referenced in this episode) showed that it’s possible to defeat even the seemingly invincible, and his actions here confirm it. Martok offering to adopt Worf into his house, and Worf accepting, is a thrilling, moving gesture, and it makes sense: Worf may be a jerk sometimes, but in context, he’s the future. The empire would do well to realize that.

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

One of the great assets of genre storytelling is that it allows writers to create unique situations that reveal basic truths. There’s no real world analog for the crisis Sisko and his crew face in “Children Of Time”; the closest you can get would be debating whether or not to have kids, and then somehow feeling personally responsible to all the kids you decide not to have, but even that doesn’t come close.

In “Children Of Time,” the Defiant checks in on a planet surrounded by your standard plot-bearing plasma field, and meet a small but thriving civilization of about 8,000 people. To their shock, the people of this civilization recognize Sisko and the others, right down to the first names and personal habits. But the worst is yet to come. There’s time travel here, and the basic gist is, due to the plasma-whatsit surrounding the planet, when Sisko and the others try to leave, they’re going to crash; and more, it’s a crash that will send them and their ship 200 years into the past. In the past, the survivors of the crash (and not everyone survives) will found a colony that will eventually flourish and lead to the 8,000 people that we see in the present. So, now that they know what will happen, Sisko, Kira, O’Brien, and the rest have a choice to make. Do they recreate the crash, and spend the rest of their lives marooned two centuries away from their families? Or do they avoid the anomaly, and wipe an entire history of lives from existence?

It’s an impossible question, really, and while impossible questions often serve as the source of great drama, what’s interesting here is how the characters react, and not the why the issue itself resolves. Because, resolution-wise, there aren’t a lot of options. The show’s main ensemble (minus Quark) is not going to get stranded 200 years in the past; for a while, there’s some hope that the present day Defiant will be able to create a kind of quantum duplicate as it leaves, thus allowing the characters to be in two places at once, but that solution turns out to be a lie cooked up by Yedrin Dax, a descendant of Jadzia’s and current host for the Dax symbiont. And really, it would have to be a lie, wouldn’t it? Watching everybody hang out with their potential descendants for a while before leaving everything just the way it was would be a cheat, making a situation too easy and robbing it of its potential effect. The possibility of a happy ending lets the writers delay the inevitable for a little while longer, but once that possibility is taken off the table, it all comes down to why you make your choices, and not what those choices are.

It’s possible to see this in the design of the community on the planet. This is just one more in a long line of agrarian Star Trek utopias, where a small group of respectful individuals join together for the greater good. There are some tweaks here and there; as mentioned, Dax is still around (Bashir and his children must’ve gotten really good at Trill biology), and there’s a group of warriors who stand apart from the rest of society, vowing to follow the Klingon way as the future-past version of Worf once set down. But for the most part, if you’ve watched enough Star Trek: The Next Generation and DS9, this is familiar, and not all that distinctive.

Not that it needs to be. Maybe the ending of the episode might’ve had more impact if the people we ultimately lose were more distinctive, but I’m not sure that’s possible; the ending is shocking as it is, and it’s powerful because of what it reveals about the people (particularly one person) who will be staying with the show for the duration. As it is, the people of the settlement are as interesting as they need to be. There are some lovely scenes showing how the main ensemble grows attached to these fleeting figures, like Sisko meeting a baby, or the planting sequence which serves as a sort of inadvertent farewell, but by and large, the community remains a symbol, a sort of narrative sacrifice. They’re here to be lost.

So that leaves the regular cast to shoulder most of the weight of the episode. The script does a good job of giving everyone a moment or two. Dax, whose eagerness to explore the uncharted world is at least partly responsible for creating this whole mess, has to face what her shortsightedness has led to, both good and bad, and how her actions have shaped the Dax symbiont; Yedrin is so desperate to make up for his past mistakes, and to protect the people he cares about, that he’s willing to betray everyone Jadzia loves. (Actually, that’s pretty defensible; when you’re given a choice between “8,000 people cease to exist” and “48 people are stranded,” it’s not a tough call. The major mistake on his part is not being up front about the situation.) O’Brien discovers that his future-past self remarries a year or two after the crash. When it comes time to make the ultimate decision, he’s the only member of the crew dead set against staying behind; he’s got a wife and two kids to worry about, after all. But when faced with the depth and warmth of the people he’d be effectively erasing from reality, he can’t bring himself to go through with it.

None of them can, really, which makes sense. In a way, that arguably cheapens the drama of the question, because no person in good conscience could be expected to turn their backs on 8,000 people, especially when doing so meant not just killing them, but negating them and everyone who came before. This is where the dramatic value of genre fiction can get tricky, because this is the kind of dilemma that’s almost too one-sided to really debate. Sisko and O’Brien pay some lip service to the idea that no one can force them to make this choice, but “force” is beside the point. If any of our heroes had really been willing to commit this level of temporal genocide, it would’ve been hard to accept. On DS9, characters often make hard-to-accept choices, but this is beyond the pale.

But that leaves the story in a tough spot, because to wrap all of this up with some kind of deus ex machina would kill be to kill its power; there’s tragedy built into this model, but in order for it to land, someone needs to make that impossible choice. Which is why we have Kira and Odo. Kira is injured during the initial pass through the plasma whatsit, and while she looks and feels fine, Yedrin explains that in the community’s history, Kira died a week or so after being marooned on the planet; the shock she received earlier damaged her neural pathways severely enough to prove fatal. It’s not something that Bashir can cure without equipment he has back on the station. That means the problem Sisko and the others face has more of a bite to it: are they willing to sacrifice Kira to save the others? But it’s still a question with only one morally justifiable answer. If Kira hadn’t been willing to die, then we might have had something (because really, who could blame her?), but after some soul searching, she decides that her death is the will of the Prophets. She can accept that; and as terrible as it would be to die, at least she can go knowing her sacrifice will save thousands.

Then there’s Odo. After a cold open which has Kira revealing she’s broken up with Shakaar, and Odo being stunned by the news, the shapechanger gets dumped in a jar for most of the rest of the episode. It seems like a bizarre choice; why even include him at all, if he’s just going to be written out for vague science-fiction reasons. Turns out there’s a reason for that. While everyone else is hanging out in the community, meeting their great great-great-great-(etc.)-grandchildren, Kira is accosted by another, much older Odo. This is the Odo who survived the crash, the sole remnant of that crew still alive on the planet, and time has changed him. He’s gotten better at shape-shifting, for one; he looks more like Rene Auberjonois now, and the effect is both marvelous and unnerving, like running into a visitor from the uncanny valley in real life. More importantly, the centuries, and the loss of that other Kira so long ago, have changed him profoundly. He seems more at peace with himself, and with his feelings, and a few minutes into his first conversation with our Kira, he lets go of the secret the present day Odo has seemingly devoted his life to keeping: He tells her he loves her.

It’s a shocking moment, and it reveals something fundamentally curious about the future-past Odo, something the episode goes to great pains to neither condemn nor praise. This Odo’s lack of restraint and apparent self-confidence are gratifying in a way, but there’s a sense that he’s lost perspective on the being he used to be, and, in doing so, has lost what little connection he had left to the living people around him. It’s subtle, and it may not even be intentional, but we only ever see the future-past Odo with Kira; he’s never mentioned by the other members of the community, and we never see him interacting with them or the rest of the crew. As warm and vibrant as this society is, Odo is on the outside, like he always was. Without Kira, there’s nothing to tie him down. Maybe after she died, he was so grief-stricken he left the others behind, wandering the planet on his own, changing shapes and forgetting who he was; and when he returned, all the others he’d know were dead, and there were just strangers, and he couldn’t bear the thought of caring for them.

Whatever the reason, he’s apart, and so, when he realizes the Defiant is going to crash voluntarily, and Kira is going to die again, he takes action, changing the flight path, and sending the ship back out into space. It’s an act so immense, so apparently monstrous and yet deeply personal that it’s almost impossible to judge. He erased himself, and all those 8,000 souls, for one woman. Because he loved her. There’s something terrifying in that kind of love, something that asks for so much it can’t possible be returned, or ignored. All that time on his own, dealing with loss, shaping his feelings and knowing that one day, Kira would come back, and that when she did, he could see her again, and maybe even save her… it changed him. And our Odo, present day Odo, the guy who’s been stuck in a jar this whole time, who’s struggled to do the right thing and protect himself and uphold the law, is forced to relay the news to the person who’s opinion of him matters to him the most. That’s what really stings: future-past Odo wanted Kira to know what he was willing to do to keep her alive. And now they both know.

According to the A.V. Club review of Blaze of Glory:

Did Eddington have to die? From a story perspective, I’d say no, not really; while his betrayal of his duties and decision to join up with the Maquis was shocking, it wasn’t such a wrenching horror that it needed a fatality to balance the equation. Sisko’s obsessive pursuit ended up putting the man behind bars, and that would’ve been a perfectly reasonable place to leave it, with Eddington jailed and forced to watch as his former friends are hunted down and killed. The character was a good one (a bit of a cipher, but his sudden heel turn made him much more interesting), but not so memorable as to require a more definitive resolution than “He lost.” Structurally, he was used most effectively as a goad for his nemesis, a way to show Sisko in a determined, slightly less flattering light. Basically, he was never the main character of this tale, and not even a show-stealing secondary figure like Garak. He had a function, and he served it, and no more was required. I even feel like this paragraph explaining things is getting redundant.

But psychologically speaking? Yeah, he had to go. While it’s a trait that was only really established in “For The Uniform” and this episode, Eddington was someone who had molded his life to fit a very specific kind of arc. Sisko used this against him in their previous confrontation, reasoning that Eddington had a deep, unshakable need to be the hero; exploiting that need made him vulnerable. It’s a nifty concept, made all the more intriguing by how little the show seems to judge him for his apparent narcissism. Sisko is dismissive of Eddington’s political beliefs, and we usually trust Sisko, but this case is a cloudy one; the captain’s judgement is questionable, if only because it’s obvious that Eddington drives him up a fucking wall. Eddington is a self-righteous twerp, and yet, while I’d be willing to bet that the writers were much more sympathetic to Sisko’s point of view, Eddington gets to fulfill his self-assumed destiny. He gets to play the tragic hero, doomed to see much of what he loves destroyed, but able in his last moments to save some small remnant of that which he strove to protect. And then he gets shot a lot and dies.

It’s all built on a twist that plays with our expectations of how cold opens work; the real meat of the episode is the verbal sparring between its two leads, but it’s clever how long the episode is able to string us along with what turns out to be utter bullshit. In the opening scenes, Martok brings an intercepted communication to Sisko, a video message addressed to “Michael” from an apparent Maquis member, telling “Michael” that the missiles have been launched. As Martok explains, the Klingon Empire had briefly teamed up with the Maquis to try and use them against the Cardassians, giving them cloaking devices which could have potentially been attached to weapons, making those weapons impossible to detect as they soared through space. With what Sisko already knows about the Maquis’s equipment, he realizes it would be possible for the group to launch an unstoppable attack on Cardassia, killing millions of civilians, and almost certainly pissing off the Dominion enough to start a war.

This is all fake, a ruse concocted by Eddington and his people to give them a last chance out should things take a turn for the worse. As a reveal, it happens a little too quickly to be more powerful than a “Oh. Huh,” moment, but it’s impressive in retrospect how obvious the phoniness of that “missile” story really was. There was just enough plausibility to ensure that Sisko had to get involved, and that he had to contact Eddington (Michael Eddington, to be sure), and that he had to then take Eddington to where Eddington needed to go without realizing what he was doing. But when you think about it, a single intercepted communication can mean just about anything. With Martok’s reveal about the cloaking devices (a nice, casual reminder about just how confusing all of this can be; your friends were once your enemies, your enemies may know your friends), the whole situation becomes critical even though there’s really no concrete reason to believe that message was telling the truth. The Maquis have gone to extremes before, but they aren’t monsters, and they aren’t fools. But Eddington manages to create a story that makes it look like they could be.

The middle of the episode is a chunk of screentime with Sisko and Eddington stuck on a runabout together, bantering back and forth and threatening to kill each other as you do. Both actors have a heightened performance style, with Sisko’s off-beat theatricality playing against Eddington’s Agent Smith-like over-enunciation in ways that, while a little exhausting, are nonetheless entertaining to watch. As with their previous conflicts, the psychological depths of these exchanges is less important than the energy with which both sides rant. Sometimes, outside perspectives can offer fresh insight on recurring characters, but here, Eddington’s assumptions about what drives Sisko come across as one more smoke screen, one more layer of narrative trickery. Sisko’s remarks—about how Eddington’s ego helped destroy the Maquis, by promising them more than they could hope to achieve—seem a little more dead on, although even then, it’s not like anyone could’ve seen the Dominion/Cardassian team-up coming. (Well, apart from Sisko in his magic prophet dreams.) But mostly, this just plays like theater. Sisko’s the tough cop who needs help from the crook he helped put away; Eddington is the crook, still seething over the injustice that landed him behind bars. Even Eddington’s promise to kill Sisko once their partnership concludes plays feels rote.

But maybe that’s just another part of the fake plot; Eddington so clearly relishes his role as a real life Dungeonmaster that it’s not hard to imagine him trying to embellish the script with a few touches he picked up off of old pulp fiction. “Blaze Of Glory” works best as a farewell to a character who only became interesting when he decided to reshape his own plotline, a working drudge who barely registered on audiences until the writers decided to let him re-invent himself. While there’s some tragedy here—Eddington’s wife (he has a wife) looks very sad at the end, and there are a lot of dead Maquis in that Jem’Hadar infested base—the tragedy doesn’t land as hard as that feeling of meta construction, of an end built out of the spare parts of a dozen similar bad-ass conclusions. I doubt Eddington went to rescue his friends and loved ones with the intention of sacrifice himself for their safety, but notice how quickly he’s willing to stay behind after getting shot. Sure, he’s probably right. He probably would’ve slowed the others down. But like so much of the rest of the episode, that choice was made long before the situation ever arose. Eddington knew his story, and he stuck to it. In a way, he won, although that doesn’t make him less dead.

According to the A.V. Club review of Empok Nor:

Here’s another episode whose set up, in broad outlines, could easily have been used on a different Trek series (just off the top of my head, I can remember Next Generation turned Worf into a monster in “Genesis”), but is helped considerably by the choice of characters involved, the history they share, and the history of the show in general. A stalk-in-the-dark horror/sci-fi piece with a surprisingly high body count, “Empok Nor” is creepy, thrilling, and horrifying by turns; the script’s only real failing is in a refusal to go much deeper under the surface of its premise than tension requires. This is, if you can get past the murders and the reminder of the lengths the Cardassian government will go to get the most out of its soldiers, a simple story. Expecting to find a station full of booby traps, O’Brien and his team find, instead, a science experiment gone wrong, one that inadvertently turns Garak from secretive but largely trustworthy ally into a homicidal monster. That’s pretty much it, and, give or take a few deaths, it unfolds about as you’d expect.

About those deaths: fans of the original series know that the franchise has a long history of killing off expendable grunts in order to make the main threat seem more, well, threatening. This practice was eschewed somewhat for TNG, but DS9has been more than willing to kill for the sake of good storytelling. The main difference being, this show puts a bit more effort in to making sure the soon to be dead have just enough personality to trick you into thinking they might not die. This works especially well in “Empok Nor,” or at least it did on me; no one in the group O’Brien takes to the abandoned Cardassian space station is a familiar face, and none of them get much more than a quick sketch of personality, but watching them get taken down one by one is still a shock, leading up to the moment when Garak, having taken out what appeared to be this week’s monster, turns into the monster himself. This is almost too much, especially considering the pains the writers had gone to earlier in the season to establish. There’s little to separate Pechetti, Stolzoff, Boq’Ta and the rest from the usual grist to the mill; they are essentially cannon fodder. But that little difference is enough to change the tone of the episode, especially the final exchange between O’Brien and Garak which, rather than make any of the story’s themes explicit, simply serves as a reminder of what’s been lost.

Still, as sad as it is to see all those nearly nameless warm bodies get murderalized, the real heart of the episode is the sparring between its two leads. This is where the script comes close to getting past the surface premise. O’Brien is doing work in Quark’s bar, when he discovers he needs a special kind of equipment to finish his repairs, and the only real place to get that piece of equipment is from Empok Nor, a nearby abandoned Cardassian station. Because Cardassians typically booby-trap their stations before leaving, Sisko convinces Garak to go along for the trip, on the assumption that the tailor will be able to dismantle any serious threat O’Brien and his team discover. Not a bad way into the meat of the plot, although it does raise the question of just how important that particular piece of equipment O’Brien needed was. Given how bad things got the last time someone stumbled over a Cardassian trap, it would’ve been nice to have a little more pressure on O’Brien to come up with the necessary fix.

The back and forth between Garak and O’Brien starts friendly enough, but as is so often the case with Garak, things get complicated. Even before he’s affected with the psychotropic drug that turns him into a killing machine, Garak is needling O’Brien about his time as a soldier, in that playful way Garak has where you can’t be entirely sure how much he’s kidding. This sets up subtext that turns deadly later on: the way war turns soldiers into unquestioning killers, and how certain kinds of behavior are permissible in combat that would not be acceptable in polite society. While Empok Nor has a few traps waiting for the engineering team, it’s biggest trick is the two frozen Cardassian soldiers lying in wait, heavily dosed with a substance that makes them into violent xenophobes. Even more than usual, even. It’s a freakishly plausible idea: the Cardassian government, looking to make their armies even more effective, developed a way to rise their hatred of the enemy to an almost blinding rage. While the episode doesn’t explicitly reference it, if you remember, O’Brien did have a bit of a history of hating on Cardassians just for being Cardassian. He’s mellowed in his years on the station, but there’s still that lingering uncertainty between him and Garak, and this crisis just brings that uncertainty out into the open.

And yet, as much as I dig, I can’t help but feel there really isn’t all that much going on in this one. The stalk and kill sequences are spooky enough, although having seen hundreds of similar sequences before, the bloom is off the rose by now for me. The episode does make great use of the eerie, underlit corridors of Empok Nor, a place that looks a lot like DS9 but is just off enough that you keep wondering where all the corners are, and who might jump of them. Garak’s transition from his chipper, duplicitous self to someone much grimmer and kill-happy is effectively done, and while the cause of his transformation is pretty obvious (that blue goo his sticks his hand on early in the hour, in a kind of “Oh, I guess this doesn’t mean anything” way that you know is going to come back later), it isn’t underlined. Garak’s craziness develops in ways that are subtle enough to make you feel clever for catching on to them, like how he starts sweating, and rubbing his neck, and loses his cool. And the moment when Garak finally goes from suspicious to outright villain is surprising, because it’s such a definitive, hopeless kind of reversal. Yay, the danger is gone! Oh no, now it’s something worse and I’m dead!

Garak’s fight against O’Brien is mildly disappointing, though, if only because it’s so prosiac. Garak kidnaps Nog, and O’Brien rigs his equipment to explode during their mano a mano confrontation, and that’s everything. I’m glad Garak survived, and I appreciate that nod I mentioned earlier to the hard facts of what happened; when O’Brien visits Garak in Sick Bay back on Deep Space 9, both men are clearly uncomfortable, but Garak asks O’Brien to send his condolences to the widow of the man he killed. In what is, for the most part, a minor but solid entry, that’s a good bit of realism, reminding us that just because we won’t think about any of those dead folks again, in the world of the show, they will be missed. Oh, and when Garak thanks O’Brien for not killing him, O’Brien admits (a little abashed, but not ashamed of himself) that the plan was to kill him, to which Garak can only nod understandingly. Maybe the only real message here is that in battle, survival is all that matters, so it’s a good idea to try and avoid battle as much as possible.

According to the A.V. Club review of Call to Arms:

Well, the big day has finally arrived. After a few episodes of hemming, hawing, and sitcom-like plotlines, Leeta and Rom are getting ready to tie the knot once and for all. The small arguments remain; in traditional Ferengi weddings, women don’t wear anything, and Leeta isn’t really keen on Rom’s subtle attempts to encourage her to pick a more revealing dress. Garak’s fed up about their indecisiveness, the way only Garak can be fed up, but Ziyal offers encouragement, and presumably they settle on something everyone can live with, because Rom asks Sisko to perform the ceremony. It’s all charming enough, in a light, can-we-get-on-with-this kind of way, only the charm changes once the rest of the story kicks in. All of a sudden, goofy relationships don’t seem so goofy anymore. When Rom and Leeta finally wed, there’s a somberness to the proceedings. Because war isn’t coming anymore. It’s here. And everything’s changing.

By now, DS9’s attempts to tell a long, serialized story over the course of its run have become integrated enough into the show that they no longer seem exactly novel. You know going into a season that there will be some standalone hours, and some plot-moving hours, and that the main thread—the encroaching threat of the Dominion—will come that much closer to our heroes’ doorstep. It’s a compromised, imperfect approach to narrative that always leaves us feeling imperfectly satisfied, hungry for the next tidbits, positive we’re missing some important development this week just because the camera decided to follow Worf and Dax on holiday. But then, intentional or not, that’s not a bad take on how life tends to unfolds. The picture is never as complete as we’d like it to be. Sometimes important events happen too fast, sometimes they take years to unfold, and when they actually do arrive, they’re pale shadows of our expectations, over too quickly without leaving a mark.

“Call To Arms” serves as a payoff to the season-long buildup to the Dominion War, and it does not disappoint, giving us some rousing action, some moving emotional beats, and concluding with a dramatic, and, from my perspective at least, completely unexpected shift in the series’ status quo. It’s the sort of sudden shock that made me fall in love with Battlestar Galactica: forcing characters into different roles, different context, and tearing apart the show at its very foundations, until we’re forced to question what brings us here in the first place. Is this a show about a group of people working together on a space station? Or is there something more underneath that? The last scene has the cast spread out across the universe, gearing up for war, facing down their oppressors, and more than a little lost. It’s a bold move whose boldness only becomes clear in retrospect. In the moment, everything that happens makes sense.

That’s why it’s so brilliant. This isn’t a cheat. I can’t imagine what it was like in the writers room, and I don’t know how far in advance this change was planned, but there must’ve been some temptation to play things safe. That’s what TV shows do, right? Especially shows going into their sixth year. Surely someone must’ve have floated an idea that would’ve left Sisko still in charge of DS9, would’ve kept Dukat and Weyoun away, would’ve managed to stall out, or compromise a solution to, the Dominion/Cardassian threat. But that’s not the direction the story was heading, and to have cheated out of the more organic conclusion would’ve been to rob the show of its potential greatness. (Potential future greatness, I mean. It’s already pretty great as is.) I don’t know where this is going. If season six has everybody back on the station by the third episode, I don’t know how that will play, or if it will undercut the power of this episode’s final scenes. But man, if the show pulled this off, it’s impressive as hell.

But before we get there, it’s worth showing how smartly the script sets the stage for its climax. Things are getting worse. The Dominion has been sending fleets of Jem’Hadar ships through the wormhole, and while those fleets all head immediately to Cardassian territory, the message is clear: The enemy is marshaling its forces. This puts Sisko in a tight spot. Peace is great, but this isn’t going to last forever. Sooner or later, the Dominion is going to decide it’s built up a strong enough presence in the Alpha Quadrant, and then they’re going to strike. If Sisko waits until this happens, he’ll almost certainly lose the war before it even really gets going. Allowing your enemy to choose both the time and the place for the assault is bad enough, but the Federation isn’t sending out any corresponding reinforcements to protect DS9. The captain is on his own, and the longer he lets the Founders call the shots, the more powerful the hit will be when they finally pull the trigger.

So he makes a tactical move and mines the wormhole. It’s the perfect sort of passive aggression, drawing a line in the sand that forces the other side to take the first step. At the same time, he gets in touch with Bajor, and he tells them to sign the non-aggression pact first mentioned in the previous episode. While we can quibble over whether or not the stalling was necessary, this is still a brilliant choice, and its brilliant in a way I’ve come to think defines the series at its best. Because it’s fucking complicated. While the war does have a “good” side and a “bad” side, there are layers to this shit. Although he still has hopes he might be able to force the Dominion back, Sisko’s role as the Emissary means it’s his responsibility to make sure Bajor doesn’t have to suffer another occupation before all of this is resolved. This isn’t just a fight. It’s a conflict that involves political maneuvering and long-term planning as much as it does quick reflexes and tactical genius.

While all this is going on, “Call To Arms” also takes the time to remind us why we’ve connected with these characters, checking in with everyone, if only briefly, to show us why their fate—and their place on the station—matters. Odo addresses the tension between him and Kira, promising her he has no intention of asking her to dinner until the war is over. It’s a promise that’s made to protect him as much as her, and I wonder how long he’ll be able to keep it. As the mines draw the attention of Dukat and Weyoun, everyone else is getting ready for battle, working on station equipment, preparing Sick Bay for an influx of casualties, making nervy jokes about the future. Rom and Leeta finally take the plunge, but everything’s too far gone for it to be a joke anymore; and while it’s still hard to care too much about their nuptial vows, the symbolism is hard to ignore. Hold your loved ones close, and be ready to make a stand, because time has become very short indeed. Everyone starts saying goodbyes. Soon after they’re married, Rom basically orders Leeta to Bajor for her own protection, and others are following suit. Ziyal and Garak say goodbye, and to comfort his friend, the tailor tells her his story; it’s something we’ve heard before, but this framing is a reminder of how much of a survivor Garak truly is. How unstoppable he can be when he puts his mind to it. There’s a resilience to all these characters that makes the final scenes triumphant, even as they represent a retreat. DS9 is a place for outsiders, but outsiders endure. And when they pull together, they create a force to be reckoned with.

So yes, it’s painful to see the cast split and thrown to the four winds. Sisko’s plan is as desperate as it is gutsy. Staying on the station just long enough to make sure the mine field is made operational, he abandons his post in the Defiant with Dax, O’Brien, Garak, and Bashir, heading to rendezvous with a massive Federation fleet in a different quadrant. Kira, Odo, and Quark stay behind on DS9, to work for the station’s new owners and, presumably, undermine their authority; Jake, foolishly, bravely, moronically stays with them, because he wants to be a reporter, and this is where the action is. Worf is on General Martok’s ship, after learning that Dax has finally decided she’s willing to marry him. Nothing is what it used to be, and when we begin the sixth season this fall, we’ll find the show in a place its never been before, on the run and ready for action.

But like I said, this is triumphant. You throw people like Sisko and Kira and Odo and the rest up against the wall, and they have this way of smiling that means everything can change. Sisko made sure Dukat wouldn’t have an easy time of things, wrecking the station’s computer network before he made his exit. And he left his baseball on his desk for Dukat to find. As Dukat notes, it’s a message. This isn’t over yet.

 

The Worst:

Ferengi Love Songs

Ferengi Love Songs

In Ferengi Love Songs, Quark discovers that his mother and Grand Nagus Zek have fallen in love.

According to the A.V. Club review of Ferengi Love Songs:

Well, at least this one warns you straight off in the title. It’s hard to think of a more unpromising combination of words; the cheeky reference to a terrible Paul McCartney song, the threat of another Ferengi-centric storyline so soon after the last one, the knowledge that Trek nearly always struggles when it tries to focus on romance. Who knows why it was necessary to tell this story, but at least the writers give you a chance to opt out early. Save yourself! Maybe there’ll be an Odo story next week.

I don’t have this luxury, so let’s push up some virtual sleeves and get to work. And the thing is, while I complain about the Ferengi, every hour we’ve spent with them is so, so much better than it could’ve been. I’m not a fan of “Ferengi Love Songs”; it gets better as it goes, but the first half has a lot of unfunny gags and really irritating over-scoring. But this isn’t as agonizing as some of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s comedic hours, and there’s a third-act twist I didn’t see coming that at least partially redeems what came before it. More importantly, Armin Shimerman is one of the show’s best actors, and he keeps finding ways to add a sense of stakes and reality to even the most outlandish concept. By now, DS9’s ensemble has settled into each other and their characters with gratifying effectiveness, but Shimerman has to work a little harder than others; he’s playing a character type that’s never been a regular on a Trek show before, his character’s race is one of the least endearing in the franchise, and he often has to shoulder the burden of the writers’ weakest comedic impulses. Sure, René Auberjonois is fantastic, but he regularly gets amazing material to work with. Shimerman is too often stuck with the dregs, but he always makes the most of it.

For a while, he’s the only reason worth watching “Ferengi Love Songs.” There’s a Rom/Leeta subplot, and it’s cute and everything, but like the last Rom/Leeta subplot, it’s all based on character stupidity, and that shit gets old. At least this time around, it’s all Rom’s fault; and, better still, Rom’s stupidity actually has something like a cultural and psychological basis. To whit: After a conversation with Dax and O’Brien, Rom decides he needs Leeta to give up all her property rights (a Ferengi tradition) before they can get married. Leeta is understandably upset about this, and the wedding is temporarily off, but after Rom does some soul-searching (and gets some friendly advice from O’Brien), he decides to give up everything he owns to prove his love for Leeta, and so on and whatever. If you’re invested in this relationship, this story is cute enough, and it’s nice to see nice people being all nice and everything—but while I don’t begrudge either character their happiness, the only real fun I had with this is watching Dax and O’Brien plant the seeds of Rom’s downfall in his head at the beginning of the episode. It’s almost as though the ostensibly good-natured heroes of the show like to spend their downtime fucking around with the heads of their employees.

All of that aside: Quark is once again struggling to keep his business afloat, and while the series typically uses this as an excuse to get laughs or to drive the character into questionable business arrangements, there is a definite empathy for his frustration and loneliness here, even when it’s used as a punchline. While character-centric stories can be disappointing when you don’t get the character you want (Lost fans: remember Kate episodes?), they do serve the invaluable purpose of enriching a show’s multitudes of perspective. Most of the time, Quark is a secondary figure, a background irritant that occasionally gets in the way of the more serious plots. When we shift to Quark’s perspective, some of the inherent prejudice against the character stays with us; I’d love a rich, dramatic hour focusing on his struggles to forge a new life, but I’m not holding my breath. But there’s still the realization that he’s got his own stuff going on, and that stuff matters to him, even if it doesn’t directly relate to the Dominion War, or Odo’s love life, or Bashir’s genetic engineering. Empathy is one of the most important aims of art, and as clumsy and frustrating as the Ferengi stuff can be, it’s still possible to appreciate that the writers are trying to accomplish.

At Rom’s suggestion, Quark decides to return to Ferenginar and spend some quality time with his mother. As a character choice goes, this is pretty nifty; after all his complaining over her rebellious ways (clothes-wearing, profit-earning, that sort of thing), he still knows she’s the best person to turn to in a crisis. And the fact that she’s actually busy working on her own thing when Quark shows up is a nice touch as well. Kids want their parents to be available when they need them, and invisible when they don’t, and Quark is no exception. The fact that his mom is still clearly wearing clothes and making money is awkward, but her willingness to provide a much needed hug is not. But then Quark finds out that Mom has a new boyfriend, and that boyfriend is the Grand Nagus Zek, and everything goes to hell.

Andrea Martin originated the role of Ishka in the third season’s “Family Business,” but Cecily Adams takes over for her here, and the switch is disappointing. Martin brought a warmth and energy to the part that Adams can’t match, and that makes the character’s scenes with Quark less affecting. Wallace Shawn is back in the makeup as Zek, but the romantic business between Ishka and the Nagus isn’t anywhere near as funny as it needs to be to make the middle of this episode work. Their relationship makes the Ferengi home world seem smaller than it was before. Admittedly, this is just how TV shows tend to work: Quark is a main character, so if Zek is going to hook up with a woman, it’s just more convenient that he hooks up with Quark’s mom, thus generating more story possibilities in the process. And we know that Ishka is a strong, smart woman, which, Ferengi culture notwithstanding, is bound to attract a powerful man. (Plus, there’s Zek’s fading memory, but we’ll get to that.) But the whole thing just seems so tossed-off, designed more to make Quark suffer than to enrich the show’s universe. If this whole thing turned out to be a bad nightmare of Quark’s, I wouldn’t have been surprised; Brunt’s arrival just seals the deal.

A pileup of awfulness can work, but there’s no rising tension to any of this, or comedic momentum. The problem comes down to a lack of stakes. While Shimerman does a good job selling Quark’s misery and loneliness, the writers never seem to take his financial troubles all that seriously; intellectually, we can understand that a Ferengi without wealth or a way of getting wealthy is in a special kind of Hell, but given how much of the Trek franchise is dedicated to painting material greed as inherently corrupt and valueless, it’s hard to know what to root for. In a way, this is part of what makes Quark fascinating—he’s someone we like whose values are completely at odds with the values the rest of the show espouses. But it kills the comedy in stories like this, because there’s no weight to any of it. Brunt getting Quark to break up his mother and the Nagus is a plot out of a TGIF sitcom, and while Quark’s immediate willingness to go along with the plan is a nice reminder that he’s no goody two-shoes, the whole arc is as weightless as Rom and Leeta’s temporary estrangement. There’s a sense that none of this needs to be taken seriously, and, counterintuitive or not, that kills the comedy dead. If the writers are just dicking around for 40 minutes, why should we care?

As I said, the story picks a bit in the last act, largely because it takes a turn I wasn’t expecting: Instead of leaning heavy on Ishka’s sadness over the broken-up relationship (which would then have forced Quark to act on his conscience and do the right thing), the story finds the Grand Nagus struggling to remember key details about the Ferengi economy. Quark soon realizes that Zek’s memory is slipping, and that the only reason the whole system hasn’t collapsed in recent months is that Moogie has been picking up the slack. While this twist doesn’t suddenly turn the episode into a meditation on the fragility of consciousness, it does give us enough plot to push through the final 15 minutes with minimal scarring. The whole thing goes from unfunny and tedious to fleet and—okay, still not really funny, but the fleetness helps a lot. The big resolution is anything but: The climax happens offscreen, with Quark using Ishka’s advice to help Zek defeat Brunt’s F.C.A. questioners. (This whole thing is a Brunt plan to take over the Nagus position, which could be fun if it keeps happening.) Then Quark reunites Zek and Ishka, and everything’s fine. Again, like Rom and Leeta, the drama is really just a matter of a protagonist realizing he has to stop being an idiot, but at least Rom gave up all his money. In the end, Quark gets his business license back, and he gets his action figures back, and we get the end credits, which is pretty much all I wanted.

 

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The next in best and worst is Season 4.

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9 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 5

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