The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 2

For previous installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

For previous installments of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:


The Best:

The Homecoming, The Circle, The Siege, Cardassians, Necessary Evil, Second Sight, Sanctuary, Rivals, The Alternate, Armageddon Game, Shadowplay, Playing God, Blood Oath, The Maquis, The Wire, Crossover, Tribunal, and The Jem’Hadar


In small parts:

  • The Homecoming, The Circle, and The Siege sees a political coup by an organization called the Circle take over the Bajoran government, and then Deep Space Nine;
  • Cardassians sees a found Cardassian boy found on Bajor, but there is more than meets the eye;
  • Necessary Evil sees Odo to re-open an investigation into an unsolved murder dating back to the days of the Cardassian Occupation;
  • Second Sight is honestly not that great of an episode, but in some ways I can relate to it with certain guys giving me one image of them (Fenna), when in fact, they are not that image (Nidell);
  • Sanctuary sees boat people coming through the wormhole, looking to make Bajor their new home, and also the second mention of the Dominion is mentioned;
  • Rivals is actually another favorite of mine, even if it seems far-fetched in explanation;
  • The Alternate is not a fantastic story, but enjoyed the focus on the character, Odo;
  • Armageddon Game sees Dr. Julian Bashir and O’Brien help rid two races of their biological weapons, but at a price;

  • Shadowplay sees Odo and Jadzia Dax investigate why a village’s people are disappearing;
  • Playing God sees Dax mentor her first Trill initiative, Arjin, meanwhile a proto-universe threatens to destroy the station;
  • Blood Oath sees three legendarily Klingon figures visit Dax, including Dahar Master Kor, in order to go on a crusade of vengeance;
  • The Maquis sees a Cardassian freighter explode while docked at the station, and as Sisko investigates, it is determined the Maquis, Federation-born colonists and discontented Starfleet officers who organized against the Cardassian occupation of their homes in the Demilitarized Zone;
  • The Wire sees Bashir try to help Garek when it is discovered there is an implant in his brain;
  • Crossover is the first in the Mirror Universe episodes, and by far the best of them;
  • Tribunal sees thr plot of the episode based upon Gul Dukat’s statement of “On Cardassia, the verdict is always known before the trial begins, and it’s always the same” from The Maquis, Part II; and,
  • The Jem’Hadar sees the formal introduction of the Dominion, including the first appearances of the Vorta, and Jem’Hadar.

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

There’s something comforting about “To Be Continued.” It’s a way of saying that the game isn’t over yet; nothing’s permanent, no decisions are final; no matter how bad it looks for the heroes, there will be another episode next week for everyone to come out okay. “To Be Continued” is exiting, too. It usually comes right after a cliffhanger, and even if most cliffhangers are more satisfying in the set-up than in the resolution, they’re still a lot of fun. Plus, a two (or in this case, three) part storyline is a break from the norm. It’s special, and it carries a certain weight, no matter how silly it might be in execution. But there’s something frustrating about this as well. When I was a kid, they used to show Batman reruns on Sundays, which was great. Even better, they aired two in a row. Since everyBatman was part of a two-parter, it should’ve been a perfect fit, except the local affiliate which showed the reruns didn’t really give a crap, and the episodes never aired in sequence. So every Sunday, I’d see Batman escape from death traps and wander into other death traps, without any continuity between the two. It was disconcerting. Nothing ever felt complete or fully resolved. I was always walking in on a story too early to see the end, or too late to know how it all got started.

These days, with internet streaming and DVRs, it’s a lot easier to watch things in order, which I find comforting. But there’s an essential incompleteness to a “To Be Continued” structure, one that pervades even when watching part two is as easy as clicking on the next entry in my Netflix queue. Of the two episodes we cover this week, “The Homecoming” comes the closest to being a full story in its own right. We’re given a clear plot hook, a goal, and, once that goal is accomplished, a decent exploration of the consequences. If it weren’t for the last scene, when Kira loses her job on the station to the Bajoran resistance leader she rescued from a Cardassian labor camp, this wouldn’t even need more than a single episode to play out. And in a way, that promise of continuation does this episode a disservice. Kira getting kicked out so early in the season is a surprise, and while it’s reasonable to assume she’d be back eventually, keeping a certain ambiguity would’ve been a strong choice for the show. Instead, that “To Be Continued…” pops up, and we know she’ll be back in a week or two. In its first season, Deep Space Nine embraced a loose serialization that worked fairly well, throwing out occasionally information but never straining too hard to make sure every episode was directly connected to what came before. At the start of the second season, they’re taking the more direct approach, for good and for ill.

“The Homecoming” doesn’t waste any time catching up. The cold open has Quark and Odo squabbling; Quark gets an earring from an alien hottie who wants him to deliver the item to Bajor; then Quark gives the earring to Kira (without asking for anything in exchange, which has to violate half a dozen Rules of Acquisition), and we’re off to the races. Once again, Kira is confronted by some evidence of her past, in this case, proof of life of a resistance leader named Li Nalas (Richard Beymer, the West Side Story and Twin Peaks alum who isn’t Russ Tamblyn). But while Kira is important to the episode (and even more important to the middle entry of this three-parter), this isn’t really about her struggling to come to terms with the difference between the Bajor that was and the Bajor that is. This is more about Sisko struggling with the conflicts which came to light at the end of the last season. The Bajor that is, is a mess. Many Bajorans still struggle against the Federation presence, and while this is foolish on their part, it makes a certain kind of sense. This is a people who’ve spent decades under the cruel oppression of an outside force. It stands to reason they’re going to be suspicious of any new force that takes the oppressor’s place, regardless of the fact that the Federation is non-interfering and the only thing keeping the Cardassians at bay.

To represent the part of the population that wants Sisko and the others gone, we have the Alliance For Global Unity, otherwise known as the Circle. The Circle doesn’t make an official appaerance until part two, but they make their presence known early on when O’Brien finds the group’s symbol spray painted on a wall in the station. It’s a smart way to let the audience know that despite the general warm fuzziness at the end of “Prophets,” Sisko’s job remains as complicated as ever. This even creeps into his personal life; Jake scores a date with a Bajoran girl, only to have her cancel when her father decides he doesn’t want his daughter making time with Federation folks. This is all fairly heavy-handed, but it’s effective. Again, we see the difference between DS9 and a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation. On TNG, Picard would’ve given a speech (much like Sisko did), and then the Enterprise would have left, leaving us to assume that everything worked out okay after that for whatever planet of the week had gotten into trouble. Everyone on DS9, no one gets to just walk away. It’s a terrific metaphor for the difference between a standalone show and a serialized one. The former has the advantage of freedom and variety; the latter benefits from the sense that every action reverberates, and that no answer is ever going to be as simple as we’d like it to be. (As Doc Manhattan once said, “Nothing ever ends.”)

All of this is mostly background information in “The Homecoming.” The story here is focused on Nalas. Kira and O’Brien spearhead the rescue mission, and while it doesn’t take up a whole lot of time, it’s good TV. I don’t think Kira and O’Brien have spent much time together before, and they play off each other well, largely because of O’Brien’s level-headed refusal to be much upset about anything. With Sisko’s approval, they take a runabout to Cardassia Four and attempt what can charitably be described as a low-fi guerrilla assault, if you can call something with a space-ship and laser guns “low-fi.” Kira pretends she’s a prostitute and O’Brien is her pimp, which is fun (and I hadn’t realized how skinny Nana Visitor was), but the most important part to take away from this sequence is how devoted everyone is to Nalas. One of his fellow prisoners is responsible for smuggling Nalas’s earring off planet, in hopes someone would see it and recognize it; that same prisoner, along with several others, volunteers to give his life to buy time for Nalas to escape. We’ve already heard Kira wax rhapsodic over Nalas’s importance, but now we’ve seen the effect he has on other people first hand.

It’s an effect that Sisko hopes he can use to help strengthen the provisional government, and ease tensions between the Federation and Bajor. Except Li doesn’t act all that eager to jump into a position of command. He appears more tired than anything else, and while it’s not hard to understand why (labor camps don’t look like fun places to hang out), it’s hard to reconcile this man with the fervent devotion his words have inspired. He’s not a bad public speaker, he has a level of gravitas and sincerity, and yet he lacks Kira’s passion, or any apparent desire to re-invest himself in planetary politics. It’s tempting to think his spirit has been broken, but as we learn in a late episode scene between Li and Sisko, it’s more complicated than that. He never really had a spirit to begin with. He got the role of Supreme Rebel Bad-Ass almost entirely by accident, and now that he’s back, he wants nothing to do with authority or leadership or inspiration.

Li’s speech about shooting a Cardassian in his underwear is effective, and Beymer delivers it well. It’s curiously unsurprising to find that yet another one of Kira’s heroes has feet of clay, and while I can understand the idea–the rebellion needed symbols as much, if not more, than it needed actual brilliant leadership–it’s a little too thematically neat all the same. It makes the Bajorans look a bit like the idiots in Life Of Brian, so desperate for a messiah they’ll latch onto anyone, and while I appreciate the cynicism of that, it would’ve been nice if Nalas had been a little more competent. Then again, he doesn’t make any major mistakes between this episode and next, so it could be he’s trying to dodge responsibility by exaggerating his pointlessness; maybe all a leader needs to be really great is some patience, and the ability to say “Yes” to the right people.

“The Homecoming” is solid, if unspectacular. The performances are good, and the episode never feels overly padded, in the way that multi-part Trek episodes so often do. If I had a complaint, it’s that DS9 has proven itself capable of greater complexity last season, and this episode, while rife with difficult situations, never really puts us in the position of having to make difficult choices. The Circle is obviously bad news, and while they aren’t an easy threat to shrug off, there’s no question that Sisko and the others won’t find some way of dealing with them, a way that won’t cost them much in the way of sleepless nights. There’s good drama in this episode, and the sudden appearance of Frank Langella in the last ten minutes, playing the presumably (future self: definitely) malevolent Minister Jaro, is a welcome and completely unexpected surprise. But there’s something missing, some final push of energy to go from “decent” to “Holy #$^.” I think it’s connected with that “To Be Continued.” At the end of the hour, Kira has been replaced by Nalas, and while Li doesn’t appear to be up to anything, Jaro, clearly, has designs. But in case anyone was going to get uncomfortable or nervous or tense, the show reassures us, all of this will be resolved shortly. The eels do not eat the princess at this time.

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

Did we ever have a scene of gloating villains on TNG? We must have, surely, but I can’t remember anything quite as striking as the conversation between Jaro and Vedek Winn which comes near the end of this episode. It’s not a terrific scene, exactly; seeing Louise Fletcher and Langella work with each other is a lot of fun, but the slow, stolid tone which haunts much of the rest of the episode holds them back here, as they renew their terrible, potentially Bajor-destroying alliance. But it’s definitely striking, because it offers something this multi-part epic had been lacking: a glimpse into the villains’ heads, to give us some sort of context in which they aren’t actually the bad guys. For all their ambitions and striving, I’m not sure Jaro or Winn really consider themselves to be evil, and it’s important to get a sense of their plotting beyond the danger they pose to our heroes. And yet, while both actors fill their lines with unspoken nuance and insinuation (these two had to’ve been screwing at some point, right?), I came away from the conversation not knowing much more than I’d suspected going in.

Worse, it’s still difficult to justify either character’s behavior in terms of actual consequences. Winn wants to be Kai, and Jaro wants to rule all, and to accomplish this, both believe they need to get rid of the Federation presence on Bajor. That’s all well and good, but without the Federation around, the Cardassians will come back, and we never get the sense that either Winn or Jaro is planning for that eventuality. It makes them look shortsighted and stupid, and while bad guys don’t need to be super geniuses, it’s hard to believe either of these characters–whose villainy is so clearly based on their talent for manipulation and plotting–would be so blinded by their arrogance. This alone doesn’t kill the episode, and on the whole “The Circle” isn’t bad; it’s a step down from “The Homecoming,” in that it lacks a certain cohesion, but it builds up a good head of steam, and the ending makes much better cliffhanger than last episode’s minor concern over Kira’s job placement. But like the previous episode, there are a lot of shortcuts which undermine the story’s potential for ambiguity.

There are revelations aplenty in “The Circle,” and each one serves to simplify the crisis which threatens to overtake Bajor and the station. Odo, determined to figure out who’s selling weapons to the Circle, deputizes Quark on the assumption that he can get information which Odo doesn’t have access to. And he’s right; Quark quickly determines the Circle is buying weapons from Kressari traders, but when O’Brien searches the Kressari ship, he doesn’t find anything out of the ordinary or weapon-ish on board. Odo does his shape-shifting trick and stows-away after the Kressari leave the station, and learns that they’re buying material from the Cardassians to sell to the Bajoran revolutionaries. This isn’t unbelievable. Assuming the Cardassians still want possession of Bajor (nose-ridge fetishists?), they can’t very well openly make war against the Federation, but they can secretly encourage political strife which will force the Federation to leave. But it’s a disappointing twist, because it simplifies the conflict. The Circle has to be stopped, not just because they’re dangerous zealots, but because they’re the tools of the really, really bad guys. There’s no moral gray area here. Bajor has to be saved from itself.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jaro is the one behind the Circle, a power-hungry politician bent on manipulating an insecure populace to his own ends. This isn’t a new character type, and while it certainly isn’t an inherently awful one, it once again serves to draw obvious lines in the sand between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and it does so in the least interesting way possible. We even discovery Jaro’s treachery via a damsel-in-distress sequence, when Kira is kidnapped from the monastery and brought to the bad guy’s secret underground lair. Jaro gets a gloating speech. Langella makes it work, because Langella doesn’t gloat so much as purr, but it’s disappointing to watch a difficult situation shake out into easy-to-follow solutions. Jaro must be defeated, and the Bajorans need to know that the Circle was supplied by Cardassians in an attempt to undermine their newfound freedom. While the immediate threat is certainly daunting, there’s none of the psychological profundity which the show gave us glimpses of last season. I’m sure Sisko will have to stay up long hours to win this one, but I doubt he’ll be losing any sleep over it.

While “The Circle” is disappointingly clear-cut, it’s not a failure of an episode by any means. As I said, I don’t think it’s quite as well-constructed as “The Homecoming,” but since it serves as the mid-point of a trilogy, that’s to be expected. Kira’s kidnapping is a goofy piece of unnecessary padding (Jaro wants her to tell him what Sisko will do after he takes control of Bajor; surely there are others he might have asked?), but up until then, her storyline had been intriguing, as she tried to find a role for herself off of DS9. There’s a fun scene early in the episode in which every major character on the show except Sisko comes by Kira’s apartments while she’s packing, and demands to know why she’s leaving without a fight. It’s frantic, and too aggressively silly at times, but it does give us a satisfying sense of how close all of these people are. One of the key signs of a strong ensemble is when a scene like this–one which relies on the assumption that the camaraderie is believable–plays without feeling forced, and the affection between Kira and the others here comes off as natural and charming. I’m less charmed by the sudden development of a potential relationship between Kira and Vedek Bareil, largely because Bareil has all the screen presence of a petrified tree stump. I’m not sure if he’s trying to seduce her or lead her to a higher path when he gives her a chance to view her destiny through an Orb, but whatever his reasons, zzzzzzzzz. Kira’s Orb vision was as weirdly suggestive and non-committal as prophetic fantasy sequences always are, and I appreciate how everything we saw (up to and including the nakedness) could either have been a suggestion of things to come, or simply commentary on the issues Kira was already dealing with. Either way, it made Kira’s next scene with Bareil very awkward, and I’m sure she was glad for any excuse to get away, even if it was a kidnapping.

While the episode is mostly about setting up all the pins to get knocked down next week, it never turned into a chore, which I appreciate. I wouldn’t rank either of these hours as highpoints of my DS9 viewing so far, but they work on the fundamental level that stories like this absolutely have to work: I want to know what happens next. And even though I’m disappointed that the conflict became as straightforward as it did, I have to hand to “The Circle” for giving as a cliffhanger which sets up precisely the right sort of expectations. After rescuring Kira from Jaro’s clutches, Sisko learns that his hands in the matter of the Circle vs. Bajor are officially tied. It’s another Prime Directive issue: despite the Cardassian involvement, the Federation can’t take a direct hand in resolving a civil dispute. A group of Bajoran assault ships are headed to Deep Space Nine to take command, and Sisko has resolved to stall as long as he can, in the hopes that he and the others can come up with some kind of solution that will keep them on the station, and Bajor out of Cardassian hands. It’s a dangerous situation, but the danger is immediate and clear, and while the odds are against them, they aren’t impossible. I hope the show expands its ambitions down the road, but for right now, I’m looking forward to a good fight.

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

Let’s get this out of the way first: this ends way too easily. After three episodes of buildup to conflict, after Jaro and Winn’s stratagems, after the Cardassian villainy and guerrilla warfare on the station, all Sisko and his team need to save the day is a ship’s manifest. Kira gets it to the ministers, and with barely an objection, Jaro slinks away, and Winn goes with the flow. It’s abrupt, right up to the oh-so-convenient death of Li Nalas. (Which I totally called, in case you forgot.) This is one of the main difficulties of multi-part stories. You’ve got to shake up the status quo enough to justify the format, while at the same time finding some way to make sure everything gets back to roughly the way it started. That’s a tall order, and the ending is the trickiest part. The details of this particular ending make sense, like Winn’s sudden-but-inevitable-betrayal of Jaro once the wind turns, but it’s something of an anticlimax after all that buildup.

Really, though, the only reason this is noticeable is that the build-up of “The Siege” is pretty damn awesome. I know enough about future seasons of Deep Space Nineto know that the shit is going to get real somewhere down the line, and viewed as a preview of coming attractions, this episode hits all the right notes to convince me of the show’s ability to convey a wide-scale conflict. There’s a terrific sense running through most of the hour of events escalating out of control, partly because of Jaro and Winn’s manipulations, but also because past a certain point, that’s just what events do. There are a few too many smirking villains here for the conflict to be morally complex, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is an empty battle, driven by a corrupt, power-hungry few who use empty patriotism to achieve their own ends. It’s not good guys versus bad guys. It’s good guys versus a few bad guys and a lot of confused guys, and that takes all the fun out of shooting people with a laser gun.

Well, some of the fun. The conclusion to DS9’s first three-parter is taken up by two main storylines: Sisko and his team’s combined effort to disrupt and throw off a Bajoran-led occupation of the station, and Dax and Kira’s rush to get the proof of Cardassian involvement to the Barjoran ministers. After the long buildup of “The Circle,” this is mostly action, and rousing stuff at that; whatever reservations I have about the very end, there’s no denying that the show does its level best to deliver on the promise of parts one and two, and I can appreciate the effort, even if I don’t always love the results. This is like a series making the first fumbling moves toward self-definition, and it’s all the more remarkable because it’s heading in a new direction for the Star Trek franchise. There is a complex political situation which, easy ending or no, won’t be going away any time soon. These are villains who are powered, in part, by the social unrest which they encourage but did not themselves create.

When we left last week, Bajoran warships were headed to Deep Space Nine to oust the remaining Federation personnel. Sisko has decided to stay, and gives a speech explaining to his crew what “staying” means: it’s dangerous, with an uncertain outcome, and there’s no chance of any Starfleet backup arriving in the nick of time. A small group of fighters remains on the station, while everyone else evacuates (and Quark takes advantages of the chaos to try and make some money), and it’s a sign in this episode’s favor that this sequence works, even though we know the evacuation is only temporary. The whole thing may run a little longer than it needs to, and I’m not sure I really needed another fight between Keiko and O’Brien, but all of the drama over departure works to sell the fact that, whatever those of us in the audience know about the restrictions of episodic television (and those damnable “To Be Continued… ” tags), the crisis is very real for the people stuck inside it. This raises the stakes for the story, and also drives home the unsettling, awful quickness with which events can go awry. Two episodes ago, the Circle was just a group of creeps spray-painting slogans. Now they’ve taken over the government, and supposedly reasonable men are making threats.

This is something that Star Trek: The Next Generation never quite managed to sell. It could give us planets at war, and it could make heavy-handed proclamations about the horrors of conflict, but I can’t think of an episode that demonstrated as well as this three-parter does the surreal speed with which aggressive debate can lead to outright hostilities. It’s not perfect; while this episode does find Kira standing on the floor of the Bajoran government while ministers rage around her, it never really justifies the her vision from “The Circle.” (I’ve already gone into my reservations about the out-and-out villainy of Jaro and Winn.) Plus, while there’s tension and decently high stakes, this is all still comparatively safe. Li Nalas dies, but he’s a guest star, and he had death written on his face from the first time we saw him. And it’s not even death that’s a problem, not really. The reason I criticized the “To Be Continued… ” in last week’s review is because it’s a clue from the show’s writers to reassure us that our view of the show, and of the show’s world, isn’t going to be seriously questioned. This is hand-holding, and that hand-holding pervades this episode. It’s a mark of how high in my estimation DS9 has already risen that I’m entertained but mildly disappointed with a storyline like this one.

Sisko, O’Brien, Bashir, Odo, and a very reluctant Quark stay on the station to fight back against General Krim (Stephen Macht, who we first met in “The Circle”) and his men. This conflict is arguably unnecessary. Kira and Dax have split off from the others with their crucial cargo manifest, and the conflict on Bajor between the Circle and sanity is only resolved after Kira brings the manifest in front of the council. Nothing that Sisko or the others do has much impact on Kira’s mission, but the guerrilla combat on DS9 is enjoyable enough that it’s hard to object. There’s a lot of running around and artful sabotage, and Odo proves once again he’s a good shapeshifter to have in a fight. Hell, Sisko’s team even manages to get right up close to the general himself before the battle comes to a conclusion. Having everyone crawling around the ducts and choking down O’Brien’s beloved combat rations helps create the illusion of danger, and the fact that this comes as the climax of a multi-episode arc gives it more weight than a regular standalone. Boil it down to its essence, there’s not a lot of change here, but it certainly feels epic in its best moments, and that’s something.

What else? Well, Kira and Dax make a great team, with Kira’s gung-ho enthusiasm bringing out a different, more distinctive side to Dax than we usually see. Steven Weber pops up for a guest turn as the venomous Colonel Day, making this maybe the most guest-star heavy run of episodes I’ve ever seen on a Trek show. And I suppose we should take a moment for Li Nalas’s passing, although it’s a death which inspires little in the way of real sorrow. While Nalas’s rescue back in “The Homecoming” started this mess, he’s never been a huge presence on the show; this fit his character, and, in those few moments when he did take center stage, gave him a certain tired gravity. But it also has the unfortunate effect of rendering his demise perfunctory, like the death of a celebrity you thought had been gone for years. Kira’s sorrow over his passing is convincing, and I love Sisko and O’Brien’s chat about the importance of remembering Nalas in the right way. It’s just—he gets taken out by a phaser blast after the battle is basically over. That’s not very deft storytelling, which basically sums up whatever issues I have with this odd little trilogy: an unfortunate lack of deftness. Thankfully, with its demonstrable willingness to explore Bajoran politics and challenge our heroes on their home turf, this episode demonstrates a heartening desire to improve.

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

We’ve seen how the Cardassian withdrawal affected Bajoran politics, leaving ambitious Bajorans the necessary chaos to achieve their ends, while the leaders of the revolution floundered in the absence of a clear enemy. But while Kira has explained the horrors of the occupation effectively enough, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine hasn’t given us a sense of what the new world order means to the average citizen of Bajor. This isn’t a flaw; DS9 isn’t a sociological survey. But it is a possible source for new stories, given the show’s willingness to present the reconstruction of Bajor in a positive-but-still-cynical light. “Cardassians” doesn’t spend a lot of time on the planet, but it does introduce a subject we haven’t dealt with before: the Cardassians left behind in the chaos of the retreat. Specifically, the Cardassian children. On a world where their kind is known primarily as merciless aggressors, these orphans are the victims of forces beyond their control, doomed to a lifetime of apologizing for actions they had no hand in. They’re statistical oddities, points on a graph that don’t fit a standard arc, which makes them excellent fodder for drama.

“Cardassians” delves into this to an extent, and for a while, the episode seems to be about the challenges facing the orphans in the reconstruction. But then the whole thing turns out to be about something else entirely. I’m not sure if there’s a term for this, but it’s something I’ve seen on plenty of genre shows, stories that start off dealing with complex, difficult situations before everything gets simplified into a clear-cut case of “Bad guy messed us up.” That’s not exactly what happens here, as Gul Dukat’s duplicity doesn’t erase the stricken expressions Bashir sees on Cardassian orphans while visiting Bajor; nor does it take away from the fact that Rugal, a Cardassian boy raised by Bajoran parents, is forced to leave the people he knows and loves and return to Cardassia with his biological father. But it softens the blow in a way that undercuts the impact of these facts. The brief courtroom scene at the episode’s climax treats Bashir’s revelations about Dukat as if they were some kind of shocking truth, but these revelations are essentially meaningless in the context of what had, up until then, been the story’s main focus. The issue was, does Rugal belong back at home with his own kind, or should he stay with his Bajoran parents? Dukat’s trickery doesn’t enter into it. Hell, if anything, finding out he was manipulating events behind the scenes makes it seem even more like Rugal should stay with his adoptive parents, given that this most likely means the accusations against those parents were part of Dukat’s scheme.

I almost wonder if the ending was a compromise between what the series was aiming for, and what it could actually achieve. It’s something that happens fairly often on television, especially on a show that isn’t quite sure how dark it wants to get. DS9 had demonstrated its willingness to go grim, but maybe destroying a child’s life was a little harsher than anyone was comfortable with, and so we got the silliness about Dukat and his evil plan. It’s not bad as evil plans go (it shows a remarkable amount of cunning, really), but, again, it doesn’t change any of the issues here. It makes Kotan Pa’Dar look even more the victim, but his connection to Rugal was never in question, and the debate over the suitability of Bajoran parents for a Cardassian child never gets going. The episode goes so far as to give us the standard-issue Trek “hearing,” but, as mentioned, the proceedings are short-circuited by Bashir and Garak’s sudden appearance. By the time Rugal leaves with Pa’Dar, you have to work to remember all the angst that built to this moment. Rugal, who spends most of his screentime making his feelings about Cardassians very, very clear (he’s not a fan), doesn’t even seem all that upset about leaving. At the very least, he’s resigned himself to whatever happens next, and while I completely accept this as a resolution, it feels like we missed a step, in seeing him go from hating his biological dad to being kind of okay with it. All the time we spend with Bashir and Garak, tracking down Rugal’s adoption records and uncovering the secret plot, Rugal is going through drama back on the station—and it’s hard not to feel short-changed.

I can’t criticize the episode too harshly for this, though, because while Rugal is interesting in concept, he is (like so many television teenagers) pretty dull in practice; not that anyone would have an easy time competing with the grand return of Garak. Last time we saw our favorite Cardassian sonofabitch was back in the “Past Prologue.” It’s been too long, but thankfully, Garak hasn’t lost any of his charm. Andrew Robinson is as sharp and sexually ambiguous as ever, and his presence helps elevate the Dukat storyline to a high enough leval that its essential pointlessness loses a lot of its sting. Garak is a rarity in Trek, a character whose motives are never entirely clear; like Bashir, we’re pretty sure he’s on the “good” side, and his actions so far have upheld this, but he’s just mysterious enough to make you wonder what else is going on behind those smiles.

Maybe “ambiguous” is the wrong word. Maybe it’s more that Garak is someone with his own agency, and his own goals, and every so often he wanders into this silly little TV series and livens up our dreary lives. We learn a few things about him we didn’t know before—namely that he and Gul Dukat have a history—but if there’s any substantial change between this episode and “Past Prologue,” it’s that Bashir is much more confident and direct. Generally speaking, this is a good episode for the doctor. He oversteps himself once or twice (and Sisko is hilariously terrifying each time), but his instincts are good, and it’s nice to see him forcing the always slippery Garak to be more specific in his insinuations.

As for the rest of the hour, Rugal’s brief time with the O’Briens is illuminating. For once, O’Brien manages to look less sympathetic than Keiko; the chief engineer makes a derogatory comment about letting Rugal play with their daughter, and Keiko shuts him right the hell down. Then O’Brien spends some time with the kid, and, eventually, time with Pa’Dar, and both scenes work well enough, although Rugal isn’t all that compelling. (His situation is compelling, but as an individual, he’s tedious.) Given the title of the episode and the presence of Gul Dukat lurking around the edges, it’s surprising how little Kira is involved in all of this; I think we see her nodding at some point, and I’m sure she provides exposition, but she stays out of the main action. That leaves O’Brien to represent the “I hate Cardassians” faction, which he does with aplomb. Having him hear Rugal explain why he hates Cardassians and why he doesn’t consider himself a Cardassian—despite having the standard issue corpse-skin and assortment of facial spines—makes for a great contrast.

That’s as far as that particular drama goes, though. While “Cardassians” is entertaining, buoyed by Garak’s charms, a thorny premise, and a mystery which only becomes hollow in retrospect, it entertains issues it has no serious interest in exploring, and that can’t help but be disappointing. In the episode’s defense, the Cardassian orphans aren’t a problem that’s easily solvable, and we’re at least given an ending that isn’t happy for everyone. But this feels incomplete, with too much focus put on the trees while the forest just stands there, staring, asking when it can go home again.

According to the A.V. Club review of Necessary Evil:

I’m pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. It’s a weird thing to know about yourself, and I’m really hoping I never have to prove it one way or the other, because I think that’s the sort of test where you lose either way. But yeah, if it came down to protecting someone I loved, and I had the means, I’d be able to do commit murder. This isn’t a brag, because it’s not something to be proud of, nor is it something that feels particularly unique to myself. If I had to put money on the question, I’d bet most of you could also kill. You know, if you had to. There’s a tendency in movies and fiction to equate that final step as being some sort of moral Rubicon, a line in the sand that only an elect few, for good and for ill, can ever cross, but that’s bullshit. It’s not like pulling the trigger on a gun or stabbing another human being in the gut is a rare act. People get murdered all the damn time. The job, then, of anyone who wants to be moral and just, is to try and avoid situations that force the issue. There’s no magical switch in your brain that ensures you are incapable of evil acts. (Most of us do not come from a frogurt shop.) Every day, you have to decide how far that line goes, not because of some ingrained reflex pushing against you, but because of how easy it is to go too far; because of how quickly seemingly straightforward dilemmas become complex systems of uncertainty. And even when you do your best to not break your own code, even when you’re absolutely convinced that killing was the only choice you had—there’s no guarantee you’re right. There’s no blue-ribbon panel of experts to give you a thumbs up. And even if there was, that doesn’t mean the people closest to you will ever look at you the same way again.

The fascinating, quietly devastating “Necessary Evil” doesn’t look like it’s an episode about Odo and Kira’s friendship. At least, not at first, and even when we realize that Kira’s going to be involved with Odo’s current investigation, there’s no reason to think she’s anything more than a red herring. That’s what I assumed, probably because I was so distracted by all the coolness the rest of the episode throws out. What starts off looking like a fun but almost certainly goofy murder mystery involving Quark, his brother, and some mysterious Bajoran femme fatale quickly turns into a chance for Odo to reminisce about the past, complete with flashbacks to his time on Deep Space Nine during the Cardassian occupation. Those flashbacks dominate the hour, showing a less confident Odo dragged into his first assignment at the order of Gul Dukat. While I vaguely remember seeing glimpses of Kira’s past before, this is the first chance we’ve had on the show to seeDS9 during Dukat’s reign, and while it’s about as unhappy a place as you’d expect, it makes for riveting viewing.

This is, as far as I can recall, the first time any Star Trek series has ever done a serious “how the band got together”-style episode. The original series certainly never bothered with it, because back-story there was created almost entirely on the fly, and continuity never viewed as a primary concern. We found out a few things about Spock (hard-nose Dad, human mom, freaky mating rituals), and every so often Kirk would run into somebody he knew from the old days, but most of this were matters of convenience necessary for the events at hand. The idea of a sustained history created to deepen the characters and the world didn’t really come into play until later—what mattered was what happened on the screen, then and there. TNG expanded on this somewhat, giving us a semi-origin story in the pilot (aka, “This is how most everybody got on the Enterprise and met Q”), some semi-mythology with Data, and “Tapestry,” the great sixth-season episode that has Picard traveling back in time to learn the importance of being stabbed. But while TNG was a lot more serious about continuity than TOS ever was, it still never does what “Necessary Evil” does here. Apart from the pilot, all of TNG’s back-story was fashioned in isolation. When we learned Riker made some dumb choices as a junior officer, or that Picard struggled with his temper, those incidents were about the characters and the characters alone, and didn’t serve to connect either character to the rest of the ensemble, or to the world of the show as we then knew it.

With “Necessary Evil,” we get an episode whose primary focus is to enrich our understanding of certain key figures on the show, as well as slightly recontextualize DS9 itself. Simply showing Odo in the olden days (i.e. before now) would’ve been enjoyable enough, but here, we see him on a version of the station which is very different from the current one, a version which was implied at the start of the series (remember the mess?), but never quite hit home like this one does. Not only that, we see Odo meeting Gul Dukat, and I have to admit, this is probably the first time Dukat ever really took off for me. I’ve read comments talking about what a terrific villain he is and nodded my head, but this may be the first episode Marc Alaimo truly shines. The Dukat who greets Odo in the first flashback is horribly, horribly friendly. The sort of friendly that makes you feel smaller every time he says your name.

Most of what we’ve previously seen of Dukat put him on the opposite side of the power structure; he’s already lost Bajor, and while he’s surely plotting to return, his plots have been deep-cover stuff we only have stumble across at the moment of crisis, when Sisko and Kira and our other heroes turn the tide. Manipulative villains can be great, but because manipulation, when done well, is the subtle act of making others do what you want done without them realizing it, it’s not enough to just say, “He’s out there. Oooooo.” You need to make an effort to demonstrate just how powerful all that manipulation can be. To put it another way, one of the reasons Ben on Lost was such an amazing bad guy is one of the reasons people often cite as proof of Michael Emerson’s genius: the way the character was elevated from a henchman to Grand Vizier only after his first few appearances on the show.

Now, I don’t dispute Emerson is a terrific actor, but it’s worth pointing out that the decision to make “Henry Gale” into a major player wasn’t simply a matter of rewarding talent—it was also a brilliant narrative move. We get to see for a sustained period of time how effective this character was at controlling a situation even when he was nominally at the mercy of his enemies. Ben ran rings around Locke, managing within a few days to zero in on the fundamental crack in Locke’s psychology which had been sitting there, waiting to explode since the fourth episode of the show; but even more importantly, Ben fucked with our heads. He beat us, because we never really knew one way or the other how important he was right until the big reveal. Of course he had to be the main bad guy. Who could ever top that? Gul Dukat pulls off a similar trick in “Necessary Evil.” Meeting with Odo, giving Odo a job to find out the identity of a murderer—well, that’s obviously Bad Guy 101. He’s clearly up to something. But he seems so relaxed and open and charming about it, and he has such good reasons for giving Odo the gig, that maybe… A great manipulator should make you doubt yourself even when past experience has given you every reason to doubt them. This is the first sign that Dukat is in that category.

So we get to see Dukat in his element, and we get to see a humble, half-terrified Odo trying to figure out his place in the world. We get to see the station full of starving refugees and laughing Cardassians, and everything’s in a low light and miserable-looking. And we get to see Kira with long hair, meeting Odo for the first time. This might be the single most important aspect of the episode, because it expands Odo’s memories beyond just himself. Dukat is just an intermittent bad guy—Kira is a regular presence, and by having her pop up here, we get to understand the character more in the same way we’re getting to understand Odo. And we’re seeing how these two came together, which is a big deal, because it enriches their relationship. We knew they had a history, but now we’re seeing it in action, so it becomes, in effect, part of our history with the show. From now on, when we see them, we’ll have this memory in the back of our heads, and we’ll know that they have that same memory, and it means their interactions are more than just ways of meeting immediate plot demands. A similar thing happens when Odo meets Quark for the first time; the back and forth between the two of them helps to explain how they deal with each other in the present. Plus, it’s just fun to watch. It’s like seeing a friend hanging out with other people you don’t know, but he does. You’re seeing a different side to someone you assumed you knew.

Then there’s the ending, when we learn that Kira, who Odo (and me, and I’m assuming most of the audience) dismissed as uninvolved with the murder, actually killed Mr. Vaatrik. Vaatrik was a Bajoran working with the Cardassian government to betray the Bajoran underground, and he had a list of other Bajoran spies in his shop. Kira went to grab that list, Vaatrik caught her, and she killed him. This is understandable, and it fits with the episode’s title; killing is wrong, but compared to what would’ve happened if Vaatrik was allowed to proceed, one life is arguably worth sacrificing for many. But the title has multiple meanings. The “necessary evil” here isn’t just Kira killing Vaatrik. It’s Kira lying to Odo about what she did, banking on his trust and compassion to get away with it. She uses the knowledge that another Bajoran freedom fighter had been assigned to sabotage the station the night of the murder as an alibi, putting her at Odo’s mercy in such a way as to distract him from the whole truth. By confessing her role in the rebellion, Kira gives Odo just enough of the truth to make him trust her, but holds back enough to let him let her go without violating his own code of ethics. When Dukat comes calling, Odo can both protect Kira, and, he believes, be completely honest when he tells the Gul that Kira had nothing to do with Vaatrik’s death.

It’s understandable that Kira is nervous when Odo finally learns the truth. Their friendship is one of the touchstone relationships of the show. It’s not usually the main focus of any given hour, but it’s been there since the beginning, and Kira values Odo’s opinion of her. Kira is a woman perpetually in the act of proving herself, and Odo is the most perfect arbiter of character-worth: he’s an outsider, he’s detached, but he’s just sympathetic enough not to be a complete dick about it. And now she’s failed him. The murder was bad enough, but she betrayed the most important aspect of their friendship, their trust, and she never told him about it until she was forced to by circumstance. That puts her in a sketchy position, and even though it’s entirely possible to see where’s she’s coming from, it still makes sense that the episode ends on an ambiguous note. Given the nature of his existence, Odo has spent his life apart from other sentient beings, and, seeing where he ended up, it’s reasonable to assume he has a somewhat cynical view of them. He expects people to let him down; he expects that we can murder each other for reasons beyond comprehension. That Kira could kill couldn’t have been a surprise, but the way she tricked Odo—however good her intentions were—was. She showed him that his best, most noble impulses, could be used against him. That’s not a lesson anyone wants to learn from a friend, no matter how necessary it is.

According to the A.V. Club review of Second Sight:

I started getting a bad feeling when Captain Sisko’s potential new love interest, a beautiful woman named Fenna, disappeared before they finished their first conversation. As Fenna kept popping up, and Sisko became more and more infatuated with her, my bad feeling got worse. It didn’t take me long to realize why; “Second Sight” feels like a Troi episode. If you’ve seen enough Star Trek: The Next Generation, you know that Deanna Troi wasn’t one of the show’s strongest characters. Marina Sirtis did what she could with the role, and she had her moments, but the premise of a ship’s counselor who could sense the feelings of others (through a telepathic link that only functioned when the narrative required) was flawed. Worse, Troi-centric episode were almost universally horrid, and tended to use the character’s questionably useful gifts to get up to all sorts of nonsense. It sometimes felt as though every other week Troi was being seduced by some creepy ambassador who wanted to drain her life force or getting knocked up by a twinkling light so an alien could have a humanoid experience. These stories forgot about thoughtful character work or smart science fiction in favor of insipid, unpleasantly creepy camp, and while Sisko’s conversations with Fenna are certainly pleasant, there’s a definite vibe of, “Oh, looks like someone lit the candle tonight, eh?” (Which is a joke about “Sub Rosa,” which is a Beverly Crusher episode, not a Troi episode, because basically TNG had problems doing stories for its female leads.)

What it comes down to is a twist with no meaning beyond being a twist: Sisko’s falling in love with the psychic projection of a woman in an unhappy marriage. This sounds like it could be fraught with drama, but it isn’t. There are dramatic moments, sure, and the husband’s decision to sacrifice himself for his wife’s sanity is an interesting turn, but all we ever know about the wife (who’s named “Nidell” when she’s awake, and played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield in both forms) is that she’s unhappy sometimes, and other times she’s not. She is pure gimmick, right down to the bone, which means Fenna’s scenes with Sisko are generically pleasing—and little else. She asks him the right questions, she wants him to show her the station and take her on a picnic, which is all very nice, but there’s nothing to her beyond the presentation of an attractive and desirable romantic partner. Nidell has barely a handful of lines as “herself”; her husband, Professor Gideon Seyetik (Richard Kiley) delivers her back-story while she’s lying unconscious in the other room. She’s a device, and, presumably, we’re supposed to be so impressed by the reveal that Sisko’s new lady friend is a “psychoprojective telepath” (oh that old saw) that we don’t notice that’s basically all she is. Abilities or gimmicks should reflect character or enhance it; they can’t work as a basic substitute.

That’s what happens here, which raises all kinds of problems. For one, despite the lovey-dovey scenes with Sisko and his eventual heartbreak, this episode is all about Gideon. He’s the forceful, gregarious one, a terraformer with a huge ego who spends as much time telling others about his ego as he does telling them about his accomplishments. Given the nature of the character, it’s not surprising that Gideon would dominate every scene he’s in, and Kiley is fun to watch, depending on your level of tolerance for this sort of thing. (It’s also fun to watch the various crewmembers’ reactions; Kira can’t stand him, and Bashir is clearly entertained.) He goes off about how wonderful he is and how much everyone, especially his wife, loves him, and he’s just funny enough for it to not be the worst thing ever. And as characters go, he’s not bad at all. His behavior makes sense, fits his job, and is consistent throughout the episode, even up to the point when he decides to sacrifice himself to save his wife from ennui. He’s the hero of the story in his mind, and if he can find a way to do a good deed while ensuring that he’ll never have to worry about topping his previous successes ever again, that’s what he’s going to do.

This works on a character level, but it doesn’t work for the story as a whole, because we never get Nidell’s side of what’s going on. We get Gideon’s version of Nidell’s side, and yeah, he doesn’t paint a sympathetic portrait of himself (again, this makes sense; egotists often get a lot of mileage out of constantly pointing out their most obvious flaws, in the service of controlling their own message—even criticism is part of the act), but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still the one doing all the talking. Even when he’s sort of a monster, he makes the right decisions, and we never hear enough from Nidell to understand why this is such a big deal; why, in fact, their marriage is apparently so awful it threatens to kill her. Even at the very end, when Nidell is free, she doesn’t say anything for herself.

She’s a cipher, and in addition to throwing off the episode’s balance, her fundamental lack of character reduces the supposed emotional center of the hour to an empty exercise. More than anything else, this cripples “Second Sight,” turning it from an intermittently entertaining but ultimately forgettable hour into a betrayal of a character we care about. Sisko makes a point of mentioning in his log at the start of the episode that he’s had trouble sleeping lately, and he thinks it has something to do with the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death. So he’s in a vulnerable mood when he starts wandering around the station, staring out windows, and that’s where Fenna finds him. At first, this looks to be, at least in part, an exploration of Sisko’s grief. He hasn’t had any serious romantic relationships since Jennifer, partly because he’s sad and busy, and also (and I may be inferring), he’s an intense dude. Unless they have goatees and cool glasses, intense dudes don’t always have the easiest time with the ladies. Mostly, though, it’s his mourning. Then he meets Fenna, who seems like the ideal woman to help him move on from his grief, and for a while, he’s really happy. Then everything turns to shit.

Sisko’s excitement over a new relationship is great, especially when you notice that he (unlike Troi or Dr. Crusher) never completely loses his common sense. There’s a great scene when Jake tells him, “I just want you to know, if you’re in love, that’s all right with me,” which lets you know that whatever else happens, Sisko is doing a good job raising his son right. And seeing Dax push him for info when things with Fenna start taking off is another fun glimpse into their friendship, because it’s just so normal; if you can get past the fact that Sisko is hanging out with a young woman who’s serving as the host body for a slug that once lived inside (and took up half the brain of) one of Sisko’s best friends, this is just the sort of stuff friends do.

Unfortunately, once the main plot takes over and we learn Fenna’s horrible secret (is psychoprojective telekinesis useful in any way? From what we see, it’s just a very elaborate way for her to commit inadvertent suicide), Sisko’s story takes a backseat. Obviously he’s frustrated and disappointed when he learns he’s being unintentionally used, but that’s how anybody in his situation would react. He tries to handle the situation as rationally as possibly, but he’s basically irrelevant to what’s happening, a witness to a situation he can barely understand, let alone change. This is bad storytelling, using a strong idea—Sisko’s lingering sense of loss—in order to trick us into caring about a plot that has nothing to do with that loss. In the end, Gideon is dead and Nidell is saved, but she doesn’t remember anything about being Fenna or the time Fenna spent with Sisko. It’s the inevitable reset button that shows just how little the writers of this episode (all four of them) cared about making this matter. There’s nothing wrong with a one-off story that lacks long-term implications, but if you do that, maybe you shouldn’t start by reminding us about the hero’s dead wife.

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

If “Second Sight” is an episode that started with an interesting idea (Sisko and the dead Mrs. Sisko), “Sanctuary” starts with what seems like a generic premise and builds up steam as it goes along. We’re a little under halfway through Deep Space Nine’s second season, but the hook of having some strange new alien pop out of the wormhole and cause havoc on the station is, to put it kindly, old hat. This makes complete sense. The Star Trek franchise was built on the idea of exploration, with a vehicle that made it possible to have adventures on a new planet every week. Setting the new show on a space station would presumably limit the ensemble’s mobility, but the wormhole, at least in theory, makes a perfect substitute for a warp drive. But theory only goes so far, and the more the show uses this particular trope, the more obvious it’s going to be as a workaround. You change your storytelling approach, you need to follow through; otherwise, people are going to notice the strings.

So, after some station business, “Sanctuary” gets down to business when Sisko has O’Brien beam a group of strangers out of a dying ship which, you guessed it, just popped out of the wormhole. These strangers are so new that the Universal Translator needs some time to start decoding their language, and we’re treated to a not bad, slightly silly sequence of scenes as Kira leads the group out of Ops, through the promenade and Bashir’s office, and then to their new room. The aliens—basic humanoid design, although they’ve got rough skin and loopy hairdos—grab at everything, spout gibberish at the clothing shops, and act generally goofy, until the UT finally catches up, and the leader of the group, a female named Haneek, reveals that she and her people are running from their homeworld, and they believe that the wormhole fulfills part of their search. Now, they just need to find Kentanna, the sanctuary world that will serve as their new home. Oh, and by the way, there are 3 million more where Haneek came from, just the other side of the wormhole, looking for a way to come through.

This episode has all kinds of warning signs; Haneek’s hairdo is really ridiculous, and the way she and her fellow pilgrims act before the UT kicks in make them look like a bunch of clowns. Then there’s the revelation, fairly early on, that Haneek’s people (the Skrreeans) live in a matriarchal society. The men, Haneek tells Kira and Sisko, are simply too emotional to be entrusted to positions of power, although, of course, they love their men. Matriarchies are difficult concepts to pull off, because the temptation to make them unsubtle satires of the way women are too often politically (and otherwise) marginalized in this country is strong, and those satires come off as lectures or worse. And in the process, it looks less like satire and more like a way of pointing out that the idea of ladies running anything is so ridiculous that how could anyone possibly take it seriously? (Remember “Angel One”? Better yet, don’t.) I wasn’t sure by this point in the episode where things were headed, and it was easy to get worried that the comedy would get more ridiculous, or we’d watch Kira teaching Haneek the joy of life with the Federation, or Haneek would start ordering guys on the station around just because.

Thankfully, things didn’t go any of those ways. The comedy disappears, as does any serious talk about matriarchy. Though Kira and Haneek’s friendship proves important to the episode, “Sanctuary” is more about how difficult it is to go from being helpful to being willing to put up with the challenges of forming long-term bonds. Soon after Haneek explains the plight of her people, the rest of the 3 million Skrreeans come through the wormhole, and some of them (presumably the most important ones) invade the station. They’re noisy and dirty and they get in everyone’s way; as Quark points out later, they clog up the shops but don’t have the money to buy anything. Nog, presumably after hearing his uncle complain about the newcomers, sprays one of the boy-men who came with Haneek with a “stink spray,” and the talks sort of break down from there. None of this is handled with much subtlety, but the episode does a decent job of showing how even the best intentions can beget chaos. Yeah, Quark is a jerk about it, and it’s a little convenient that the only person to have any problem with the Skrreeans at all is the character in the ensemble who tends to represent all the least-pleasant aspects of our own natures. But while he’s wrong, it’s difficult to suddenly have a place you consider your home overrun with strangers. In a situation like that, it can be hard to maintain your basic decency.

Case in point: Haneek decides that Bajor is actually the sanctuary the Skrreeans are searching, and she wants to move all 3 million of her people to the planet at once. The Bajoran government politely, but firmly, rejects her request, claiming they already have enough mouths to feed, and despite Haneek’s repeated assurance that her people would never ask for government assistance, well, the Bajorans feel they would simply be obligated to help in time of crisis, and then where would everybody be? It’s a bit of politicking, designed as much for the Bajoran’s own sense of decency as it is for Haneek, but it boils down to, “We don’t want you, because we’ve got our own problems.” Even that’s probably finessing it the truth; the Bajorans, as we’ve already seen, are gunshy and on edge and prone to pushing away outsiders, for the simple fact that they finally have a chance to establish their own place in the universe, and they’ll be damned if a bunch of wart-faced zealots try and claim Bajor as their homeworld.

Haneek is understandably disappointed about all of this, and one of the things that makes “Sanctuary” work is that the episode never pretends that she’s unreasonable or demanding in her disappointment. Yeah, she says some harsh things to Kira at the end, thus demonstrating that friendships and governments don’t really mix, but it’s not hard to see where she’s coming from. As she says, she and her people are farmers, and they might have been able to help Bajor with its current food crisis. (Although maybe not; that’s basically a dig against the farmers already on Bajor, as though the Skrrreeans have some special touch that would allow them to grow crops more readily than the natives who’ve been doing it for years.) She’s not likeable, really, but maybe that’s important; maybe it serves as a reminder that just because someone isn’t exactly likeable doesn’t make them wrong, especially when one of the reasons we’re not fond of them is that they remind us of our own failings.

“Sanctuary”’s biggest drama comes when a frustrated Tumak decides to take a ship and fly to Bajor on his own recognizance. The Bajoran fleet is under strict orders not let any strangers land, there’s a confrontation, and despite the efforts of everyone involved, Tumak’s ship explodes. It’s a well-handled sequence, showing better than anything else in the episode the way bureaucracy can mangle good intentions, and how fast a problem can turn from a minor irritant to an outright tragedy. If more of the episode had managed this feel—a mix of urgency and almost blackly comic chaos—it might have been more gripping. But the setup is too easy. Tumak is the only Skrreean who takes action after the Bajoran decision, and he’s literally the only Skrreean we meet who is anything but polite and nonviolent. Which supports Haneek’s comment about emotional men, but it also makes his death both surprising and weirdly convenient. Once Tumak is gone, everyone else is willing to leave without a fuss. Haneek manages a parting shot at poor Kira, and that’s the end.

That’s what keeps this episode from being more than basically good, I think. It raises a number of interesting issues, but raising interesting issues doesn’t necessarily lead to great drama, especially when you don’t have much in the way of followthrough. Haneek and her people show up, they receive some back-story, they annoy some strangers, and then they move on. The only consequence is a dead kid (who, let’s be honest, was kind of a dick), and Kira has one more scratch on her conscience. “Sanctuary” is more complex and satisfying than “Second Sight,” but too much of it feels like a civics lesson instead of a story.

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

Sometimes you get bad TV which fails because the tone is off, or because the script spells everything out, or because familiar characters are behaving in contradictory ways. Sometimes, you get bad TV that screams its badness in your face, the visual equivalent of biting on tinfoil, scratching Styrofoam, listening to “Revolution 9.” And sometimes, you get bad TV that shrugs.

For most of its running time, “Rivals” is passable. The main story, revolving around guest star Chris Sarandon and a strange alien artifact, is silly and routine, suffering most of all from the fact that it spends too much time on a character we’ve never seen before. The B-story isn’t half bad, hopefully moving us one step closer to a full on Bashir and O’Brien friendship. And it all builds to a big finish, and then just sort of stops. The main plot has an ending which manages to resolve all major questions without managing a satisfactory sense of closure; the secondary plot is distracted by something shiny, wanders off, and never comes back. This is a bad hour of television. It’s not egregiously irritating or offensive (unless you find sloppiness offensive—which, okay, I kind of do). It’s just sloppy, and serves to point out the importance of structure in narrative, even if that structure can sometimes seem overly familiar.

We meet Martus Mazur (Sarandon) in the cold open, trying his best to run a con on a sweet old lady who happens to be widowed, wealthy, and waiting for it. Odo catches him in the act and throws him in a cell, where he meets an alien with a purple egg, and that, as the saying goes, is where his troubles begin. Sort of. This is a setup with a very clear arc: A just-charming-enough-to-be-sympathetic bad guy is tempted by a too good-to-be-true offer; he accepts after some initial reservations, briefly succeeds beyond his wildest dreams; then, at the moment of his greatest triumph, everything falls apart in the worst way, and the bad guy suffers a suitably ironic comeuppance. That’s solid stuff, and the episode follows it note by note, right up to the underdone conclusion. But solid or not, it doesn’t really work. Sarandon is a fine actor (See also: The original Fright Night; he makes a terrific vampire), and he’s appropriately oily and charismatic as Martus, but this isn’t someone we have any investment in. Which is problematic, since the character dominates the first half of the episode. While it can be rewarding to have an outsider come and give us a new look at the same old surroundings, that’s not what Martus is here for; apart from reminding us that Quark doesn’t like competition and that Odo has a tendency to arrest criminals, he barely interacts with the main ensemble. I would guess that Martus exists so the narrative can have a one-off character who can suffer or succeed however much story needs him to—but nothing happens to the guy. He ends the episode in roughly the same place he started it, and if this is the introduction to a recurring guest star, it does a lame job selling the idea. I have little to no interest in seeing this character again, and I like Sarandon.

Then there’s the fact that Martus’ story doesn’t fit in the Trek-verse. There’s the fact that the device he finds is established for much of the episode’s running time as a magical, vaguely threatening thingy, without any real history or clear purpose. The device’s last owner tells a story straight out of the Twilight Zone—he didn’t just make some bad financial calls, he believes the device itself destroyed his life through vaguely supernatural means. Any time a Trek show tries to muddle about with the vaguely supernatural, the results are dicey. It’s a fine line, but as silly as all those tech-babble explanations are, they help create the illusion that everything in the show exists in a specific universe. Trying to cheat that by throwing in ghosts or cursed objects is only going upset everyone, even when the episode tries to come up with some realistic justification. Take “Sub Rosa,” a terrible hour of TV for many reasons. Beverly Crusher has sex with a ghost, and it’s terribly uncomfortable and weird, and then we find out the “ghost” is actual some strange form of alien life that works as a succubus for the Crusher family DNA. Something like that, anyway; my point is, none of this suddenly made everything leading up to the explanation make sense. You can’t Scooby-Doo this sort of thing, because the damage is already done. I’m sure there examples of this actually working (none spring to mind, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist), but it’s very difficult to pull off well. “Sub Rosa” doesn’t come close; despite it’s somewhat scientific ending, “Rivals” doesn’t really try.

The other reason Martus doesn’t fit is more difficult to parse. We’ve talked about how Deep Space Nine is a darker show than the previous two Trek series. I doubt we’ve plumbed the depths yet, but in its first two seasons, DS9 has struggled with grimmer themes, and the show’s premise—which forces the cast to the same location week in, week out—means that even fairly closed-off episodes have a lingering impact. But the darkness of DS9 is complex, driven primarily by the complications of war and social upheaval. The show generally avoids simplistic morality, and that’s all Martus’s story really is: he’s selfish and greedy, he gets in over his head, and he pays the price. Again, this is Twilight Zone-esque, with a little Tales From The Crypt thrown in. I spent much of the first half of the episode wondering what Martus’ inevitable downfall would be, and just how bad things would go for him. Considering the last owner of the purple egg died holding it (right after saying, “I won!” which is not promising at all), anything seemed possible. We don’t learn anything about Martus, we don’t get any reason to care about what happens to him. We just hang around waiting for dropping shoes, and for the amount of screen time he’s given, that doesn’t work. It’s Aesop’s Fables on a show that’s been giving us a fair approximation of Dostoevsky.

Thankfully, while Martus is getting up in Quark’s business, O’Brien and Bashir are off playing space racquetball, and experiencing some difficulties. Despite the fact that the two men appeared to be getting on well enough at the end of “The Storyteller,” O’Brien has clearly gone back to disliking the younger man on sight, and when he finds Bashir hanging out in the special court O’Brien himself built for his favorite game, things get a little awkward. They get even more awkward when the two have a match together and Bashir turns out to be the superior player. This isn’t a huge surprise; as Keiko (who is pretty great in this episode) points out, O’Brien isn’t as young as he used to be, and no amount of stretching and jogging is going to turn him into a 25-year-old. But O’Brien is furious and insecure, while Bashir is embarrassed. As he explains to Dax, he doesn’t want to humiliate the Chief or drive him to a heart attack, but the more he tries to beg off, the more aggressively O’Brien pursues a rematch. It’s a fine set-up for both characters, as it’s easy to be sympathetic to either side. Sure, O’Brien is being unreasonable, but no one wants to be beaten at something they love, and it can be hard to accept that, for some things, you’re best days are already behind you. And sure, Bashir has that whole callow youth vibe going on, but he honestly does care what O’Brien thinks of him, and really does want to find a way out of the situation that won’t make the other man feel worse.

While none of this is life and death, I was more invested in O’Brien and Bashir’s story than I was in anything to do with Martus, not even after Martus manages to replicate and embiggen the purple eggs and use them to start his own gambling club. But then everything goes off the rails. Quark, desperate to drum up business, forces O’Brien and Bashir to hold a public rematch, and during the game, Bashir starts losing. Not just losing; he’s bombing, and bombing hard, while O’Brien is playing the best game of his life. The two men quickly realize that something is wrong, and stop the match. They bring in Sisko and the others to observe the phenomenon, and it’s just as well, since other strange things have been happening all over the station: minor accidents, small catastrophes, and lots of tripping. Turns out that Martus’ devices have some weird affect on probability, and now—oh, you wanted to know what happened with O’Brien and Bashir? Yeah, so did I, but unfortunately, it’s never resolved. Martus loses his devices (and falls for a con), but he finds his way off the station to freedom in the end, which means the writers basically chickened out on giving him the sort of downfall they’d foreshadowed at the beginning, which in turn means his whole tale just comes off as pointless. It’s worse for O’Brien and Bashir, because as enjoyable as their scenes together are, they’re all just a slightly more sophisticated version of padding. No one had any intention at providing a resolution. Normally I appreciate it when a story resists an easy ending, but no ending at all is, well…

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

I don’t think either of my parents have ever read any of my reviews. I’m not absolutely sure of this—I suppose it’s possible that Mom or Dad is scanning this sentence right now and preparing a friendly but appropriately scathing e-mail about assumptions and telling tales out of school and would it kill me to call, even a little—but I’ve never asked them to, and I don’t think they’d be all that interested in this kind of work. If I was 10 years old, I’d be upset about this; but I’m not, so I’m not. As a kid, I was a big one for showing off report cards, essays, short stories, and I made sure some representative of parental support would attend every show I ever had a line in, ever chorus concert in which I ever sang a note. But then I went off to college, and then I got older, and at a certain point, Mom and Dad’s approval stopped meaning so much. Well, that’s not quite right; it’s more that I started to resent how much I needed their approval, because the need, I thought, represented a part of my life that was now officially over. I was my own man, which meant I got to decide what mattered and what didn’t in my own life. While the resentment faded (thank goodness!), the knowledge behind it didn’t. I love my parents, and I hope they’re proud of me, but it works best when we don’t get hung up on the details.

And hey, at least I’m not a shape-shifter who spent the first four years of his conscious existence in a lab. In “The Alternate,” Odo reunites with Dr. Mora (James Sloyan), the scientist who first studied, then essentially raised Odo in his early days. It’s a difficult situation for both men, although Dr. Mora doesn’t recognize the difficulty at first; Odo obviously has mixed feelings about his time on Bajor, and at times, this almost feels like an abuse story, albeit one that is far more subtle and less painful then those stories so often are. Throughout the hour, scenes with Odo and Mora together manage to capture a variety of emotions from both characters, as Odo is by turns embarrassed and uncomfortable to have such a clear reminder of his old life on the station, even while he works to win Mora’s approval; for his part, Mora is proud of how far his old charge has come, but he’s more than a little confused at just what Odo is trying to accomplish. If Odo, despite his protestations, views Mora as a father figure, Mora seems to have trouble separating the son from the experiment, which leads him to make the common parental mistake of assuming what you think is best for someone was, is, and always will be the only real option.

I have this theory that plot always works best when it’s an extension, or expression, of character. This is more a general idea than a rule, but one of the reasons genre fiction so often struggles for critical acceptance is that so much of it is more about things happening to people than it is about people making things happen (whether they want to or not). You have your heroes, they’ll be going about their regular lives, and then some monster will show up and cause havoc; the heroes run and fight and work together to slay the beast; and then everything goes back mostly to the way it was before, although we’re kind of sad now that the janitor is dead. There’s nothing wrong with this: when done well, it can be terrifically exciting and great fun. But the heroes themselves in this scenario are largely irrelevant. We need someone there to create conflict and have someone to root for, but most of the time, they aren’t directly connected to the monster, and the monster doesn’t say much about who they are. A good writer will try and change this up, but unless they manage it just right, characterization and human interaction becomes secondary to the thing with claws that’s bumping off your supporting cast. There are genre stories which transcend this structure with aplomb (Night Of The Living Dead springs to mind), but when they do, their writers know that the more character drives events, the more effective the storytelling. (For an example of how not to do this, watch Super 8. It’s a lovely, terrific movie about a group of kids hanging out and making movies and falling in love, right up until the monster arrives and everything turns to shit.)

How does this apply to “The Alternate”? Well, the plot of this episode is, in its way, nearly as lazy as “Rivals.” There’s more of an effort to tie everything together under the guise of pseudoscience, but the third act is both very dramatic and creepy, which helps distract from the fact that it’s also pretty ridiculous. After all the setup about the potential discovery of Odo’s home world just beyond the worm hole, and the discovery of an artifact and a small pile of organic material that shared genetic similarities with the constable, this all turns into an excuse to spray poor Odo with some alien gas, and make him go a little evil. While there’s a much more definite, and powerful, conclusion to the hour than there was in “Rivals,” there’s still the frustrating sense that too much of the episode is a distraction from the real story. All that time spent studying the new life form and the artifact doesn’t pay off in any significant way; maybe we’ll come back to them later, since Odo’s search for his past is an ongoing story, but for this episode, these details feel like the distraction part of a parlor trick, and that’s too bad.

Yet “The Alternate” is a better episode overall because its main story—the whole “Odo turning into a monster” thing—is driven by the relationship between Odo and Dr. Mora. The gas is just an excuse for that relationship to become more heated. Throughout the episode, Mora makes repeated comments with intentionally or unintentionally dismiss Odo’s new position as little more than a game; then he starts in trying to persuade Odo to come back to the lab. There’s something a little sinister about Mora from the beginning, and Sloyan does a fine job hitting the balance between warmth and presumption. It’s not that he’s a mad scientist determined to exploit Odo to serve his own purposes; it’s just that he’s so convinced in the validity and importance of their work together that he can’t comprehend anyone might say no. Worse, he doesn’t seem quite convinced that Odo’s personhood is anything more than a parlor trick.

Very little of this is dealt with directly over the course of the episode, which is a big reason why it’s so effective. There’s enough honest discomfort and honest affection in Odo and Mora’s scenes to convey their relationship handily without ever giving us the comfort of having one of them be the bad guy. To be honest, I expected Mora to show his true colors eventually, which made the reveal that Odo was the monster which had been terrorizing the station all the more striking. It doesn’t work, exactly, because it turns Odo himself into a kind of object—even though his resentment and frustration against Mora are what’s driving him to act, he’s still unaware of what’s happening, which makes him a passive victim for the last 10 minutes or so. Worse than that, there’s something goofy about putting all of this on some magic gas. It plays like a too-easy way to force the conflict between Odo and Mora to its head, and the Alien-esque scenes of the creature “stalking” various characters don’t really fit the rest of the episode’s attempt to take the surrogate father dynamic seriously.

But that dynamic saves “The Alternate” from being a complete write-off. The way the episode shifts its focus from Odo to Mora in the final act is a good way to help us see things from his side, and it leads to a couple of unsettling sequences: The first—in which Mora realizes Odo is the monster and goes to confront him with this knowledge, driving the shape-shifter to literally melt before his eyes—is horrifying, while the second—in which Mora uses himself as bait to tempt monster-Odo out of hiding, and then watches his former lab rat getting repeatedly zapped by a force-field—makes the doctor’s ultimate conversion and heartfelt apology to Odo ring true. Really, this serves best as an example of how strong characters can overcome uneven writing. While “Rivals” short-changed its best storyline in favor of a guest star, “The Alternate” knows where its real heart is. Odo’s justifiably proud of the life he’s made for himself, and while he wants Mora to share that pride, he can’t bring himself to admit the desire. Thankfully, all it takes is some alien substance and a few Hulk-outs to bring them both around.

According to the A.V. Club review of Armageddon Game:

This week, we get two episodes about warring alien civilizations; everybody’s looking for peace, but by the end of each episode, it doesn’t look like anyone had much luck finding it. O’Brien keeps getting the short end of the stick, because no one suffers quite so entertainingly as Colm Meaney. And both episodes demonstrate how the show is working towards more ambitious and morally complex storylines, without quite knowing how to handle them. Of the two, “Armageddon Game” is the most straightforward, as O’Brien and Bashir are inadvertently sucked into a peace-motivated massacre, barely escape with their lives, and have to struggle for survival while Sisko and everyone back on the station believe they’re dead. For the most part, it plays out as you’d expect: Bashir and O’Brien squabble a bit, O’Brien gets sick and Bashir tells a story about his past; meanwhile, Keiko doesn’t believe her husband is dead, and Sisko trusts her judgment. Things only get strange when we learn the motivation behind all the death. This is a plot that plays out on traditional lines while trying to experiment with twistier themes, and the effect, of a series which wants to be better but isn’t quite sure how to get there yet, is one that’s been coming up fairly often this season.

There’s nothing seriously wrong with “Armageddon Game.” There are strong character beats, some fine suspense, and a fun pay-off at the end; if I tuned in looking for some fun, low-expectation Trek, I would have been completely satisfied. The only sour note is the reveal that this whole thing came about because the two races which brought Bashir and O’Brien in to help are now trying to kill anyone with knowledge of the super biological weapon they needed aid in destroying. The Kellerun and the T’Lani governments have teamed up to ensure that their newfound peace will be sustained, and they’re going about it in the worst way imaginable, sealing their treaty with blood. This is Trek in its social-commentary mode, and while the story never goes full lecture, neither Ambassador Sharat of the Kellerun, or E’Tyshra of the T’Lani are more than one-note antagonists. They want to bury the past by eradicating the evidence, as though that would ever work for long. It’s a complex idea, and would’ve been better served by an episode that was more willing to embrace the complex. What we get instead are two bad guys who do the exact same bad guy things we’ve seen bad guys do in countless shows before, only they’re doing it to, in their minds, protect the future of their respective civilizations.

There’s a certain amount of sense in that, I guess; it’s not a smart plan, but it has a certain blind arrogance to it that makes its own kind of sense. They don’t like their past, so they’re just going to erase it. That’s pretty old school Trek, and I’m surprised we didn’t find out computers were somehow responsible for the whole mess. The situation gets more complicated with Starfleet personnel involved, though, to the point where it stops being a dark satire of extremism, and starts being pretty damn stupid. Bashir and O’Brien are outsiders, and while neither are huge names in the Federation, their deaths will be noticed. The cover-up for the mass-killing isn’t bad, but it’s a huge, and unnecessary, risk. If they’d just waited until Bashir and O’Brien had left, the T’Lani and Kellerun might have gotten away with their plan. It’s not as though anyone from DS9 was going to keep checking in. Sharat and E’Tyshra insist that Bashir and O’Brien have to be killed along with everyone else with knowledge of the Harvesters. This despite the fact that both men have access to a universe full of unthinkable weapons through their various Federation contacts. Is the worry that the doctor and the engineer are going to sell back what they know? And it gets even more ridiculous once Sisko and Dax manage to beam their erstwhile colleagues onto a runabout. Instead of accepting that the battle is lost (at this point, Sharat and E’Tyshra could’ve just stonewalled any Starfleet investigation), they decide to fire on the runabout, effectively making a direct declaration of war, for no real reason. Yes, people make bad decisions in the heat of the battle, but the villains in this case are so archetypal in their vehemence that there’s not enough character to hang their behavior on. By the end, they seem to be pursuing our heroes simply because heroes need to be pursued. If their reasoning had been more overtly selfish, this would’ve been understandable; but because they’re ostensibly driven by a need to save lives, we need more justification for their willingness to take them.

That’s the only major flaw, really. The episode even uses a trope I normally dislike—everyone grieves over protagonists we know very well aren’t dead—to satisfying, and at times moving, effect. While Bashir and O’Brien are struggling planetside, Sisko gets the news the two have died in an apparent radiation blast, triggered by O’Brien’s own mistake. (This, by the way, is also kind of dumb. Did they decide to blame O’Brien in order to throw off suspicion?) We get the expected arrangement of various cast members mourning the (not really) dead, but it doesn’t come off as a waste of time or some kind of padding. Keiko’s reaction is understated and sad, and Kira and Dax’s conversation about Bashir’s journals is a sweet, revealing conversation. Hell, Quark gets in on the act, delivering a toast to the fallen which is both character appropriate and strangely moving. There’s the voyeuristic thrill of imagining what it would be like to pull a Tom Sawyer and eavesdrop on your own funeral, but there’s also a great sense of how close this ensemble has come together over the past season and a half. None of this comes across as over-stated or forced sentimentality, and it helps to reinforce our own sense of connection with the ensemble.

And then there are the scenes between Bashir and O’Brien on the planet. The two are still struggling to come to terms with each other; O’Brien still finds the doctor annoying, and Bashir is still eager to please. They have some good moments of connection in this episode, as O’Brien gets infected by a Harvester and is forced to rely on Bashir to do the necessary repair work to get them back home. They discuss marriage; Bashir has his doubts (and he expresses some audience concerns when he mentions how Keiko and O’Brien sometimes seem less than delighted by each other’s company), and O’Brien settles the score on why his family means so much to him, despite the difficulties that might arise between them. Bashir even gives some backstory about the only woman he ever loved, a dancer he gave up when he decided to commit to a full-time career in Starfleet. There’s a charming honesty to these conversations, well played by both actors, and while there’s little surprise in the way they bond by the end, surprise is not the issue here. It’s just enriching to watch characters we like grow to tolerate each other, as it means from now on, whenever they’re together on screen, we know they share this history, and whatever harsh words pass between them, the history will remain.

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

“Paradise” is a classically structured television episode. By which I mean (he said, hoping no one would check his academic credentials), it’s a script that could’ve played out roughly the same on the original series. There’s one story, and all the characters who appear in the episode revolve around it. Once that story runs its course, there’s no sense any of the events in the episode will have an impact on the rest of the season. This is focused, operating on a standard genre arc—we get a mystery (Who are all these strange people dressed like hippies?) and a conflict (How will Sisko and O’Brien get back to their ship?), the answer to the former feeds into the latter, until everything comes to a head and our heroes resolve the issue at hand and go about their way. It’s efficient, and neat, and gets the job done.

“Shadowplay” has a similar structure. The difference being, in “Shadowplay,” that structure is only part of the overall whole. The story which gives the episode its title follows Dax and Odo doing some exploring. They find strange omnicron particles, land on the planet with the apparent source to investigate, and find a small town where some of the locals have been disappearing. All the expected, familiar stuff here, and it’s not too hard to imagine this sort of set-up taking over the entire hour. Except it doesn’t. The Dax-Odo section of the episode has the most screentime, but the amount isn’t so large as to overwhelm the adventures back on DS9. This is an hour driven by the ensemble, even though the ensemble is never all in the same place at the same time; this is an attempt to tell a bunch of small tales which add up to a picture of life going on much as it always does. Star Trek: The Next Generation tried this more than once (“Data’s Day” comes to mind), but DS9 is better suited to the idea, since it’s more willing to embrace serialization than TNG ever was. There are things which happen in this episode which will carry over as the show goes on. Not many of them, but still—Kira hooking up with Bareil isn’t going to be forgotten the next time the credits roll around, whether we’d like it to or not.

If I give too much emphasis to the structure here (and it’s not like “Shadowplay” is the first time DS9 has ever played around with the form), it’s because there isn’t a whole lot to get into with the meat of the episode itself. Which is an odd response, when you consider the hour gives us apparent artificial intelligence, a major romantic relationship, and Jake’s decision to forego Starfleet and find his own path. And sure, I liked all of these elements. There’s a soothing, affable vibe to the episode as a whole, and while no grand theme connects these disparate threads (at least, none that I could find), all the stories are unified by a sense of low-conflict entanglements. When Dax and Odo arrive in the new town, the local sheriff (Colyus, the Protector, played by Kenneth Mars) points a gun at them. But once Dax and Odo explain who they are and why they’re visiting, any danger disappears. Hell, Odo makes it a point to demonstrate how easy it would be for him and Dax to leave at any moment. Unlike Sisko and O’Brien in the previous episode, they’re under no pressure to solve any mysteries. They hang out because they’re curious, and because Odo is defined by a need to restore. This makes sense from a character perspective, and the low-key approach is a nice change of pace, but it doesn’t exactly create much drive.

The same could be said for events back on the station. With Odo gone, Kira is on the warpath, determined to catch Quark (who is in full-blown Ferengi-creep mode) in the act, and while there’s certainly some tension as to just how he’ll escape this time, her surveillance is largely left in the background. She asks Bashir to spy on Quark for her, and Bashir is puppy dog eager to use some of the tricks Garak has taught him, but he doesn’t accomplish much. Most of Kira’s time in “Shadowplay” is spent dancing the awkward dance with Bareil, forming a romantic bond based on their genial discomfort around one another. It culminates in a face-rolling session which is roughly a quarter as hot as the one you’re imagining right now. Jokes aside, it’s not a cringe-inducing development, but it’s no reason to cheer, either. It simply exists. Then Kira realizes Quark got Bareil onto the station to distract her, and she goes off to tell Quark how foolish he was, even thought you’ll notice she still doesn’t actually arrest him, despite her clear desire to do so.

Before my apathy overwhelms my writing, the other big plot on the station, which has Jake joining O’Brien for his very first job, is quite neat. For one thing, it’s a pay-off to a conversation Sisko and O’Brien had in “Paradise,” which demonstrates that even in its closed-off episodes, the show is working to create a textured, persistent world. Plus, I just love the idea of Sisko’s kid working on O’Brien’s crew. But the real point of interest here is Jake’s confession that he doesn’t love Starfleet the way Sisko does, and has no interest in following in the old man’s footsteps. O’Brien tells a story about his own past (I really want to see him playing a cello now), and urges Jake to tell his father the truth. Jake does, and Sisko is supportive. Again, low stakes, low drama, but it’s a wonderful look at people just being basically decent to each other, and it helps to strengthen our connection to these characters. And it’s just cool to see a father-son bond on television that isn’t fraught with painful, humiliating conflict.

That leaves us with Odo and Dax back in the town with the mysterious disappearances. This would be the most obvious place for conflict. A strange place, creepy goings on, and a town elder who’s hiding a secret? Add some thunder, lighting, and a few feet of coiled rope and you’ve got yourself a show. Only it doesn’t play out that way. Colyus introduces our heroes to Rurigan (the great Kenneth Tobey), the town elder, and Odo quickly realizes he has something to hide. Rurigan’s dying, too, which makes him the prime candidate for malfeasance; nothing left to lose, wanting to leave your mark before leaving this mortal coil, etc. But the solution is entirely benevolent. All those omnicron particles Dax was registering come off the generator which makes the town real. The whole thing is just a big hologram, and the reason people are disappearing is that the generator is malfunctioning. Dax and Odo explain this to the townsfolk, and ask their permission to turn off the system for long enough to fix it; when they do, all the buildings and people disappear except for Rurigan. He’s the only real creature in the area; he came to the planet after the Dominion (there’s that name again) took over his home and changed everything. So Rurigan recreated what he lost the only way he could.

This is all like a far less guilt-ridden induced version of “The Survivors” from TNG. There are implications which are only partly explored; Odo gives a passionate speech about how the people in the hologram are real enough to matter, and there’s some question about just how sentient they are, but you get the impression that no one involved with the episode really wanted to go much further than that. And for what it is, it works. Odo’s bond with a young girl who lost her mother is sweet, and there’s something effectively melancholy in how it ends; Rurigan is still going to die soon, after all, and once he’s gone, it will just be these imaginary/real people, wandering around, waiting for the generator to finally collapse.

There are good ideas and strong moments spaced throughout the episode. They just don’t build to anything. The writers of DS9 were experimenting and working towards a new kind of Trek, but they’d yet to find a way to match the demands of episodic storytelling with the needs of season-long arcs. The cast remains strong, and their world has become impressively rich. Now it’s just a matter of finding the best way to use all these wonderful toys.

According to the A.V. Club review of Playing God:

I haven’t talked about it very much, but I’m starting to be quite fond of Dax. I never had huge problems with the character; I thought the first major episode focused on her wasn’t very good, but it certainly was her fault. It’s just, she hadn’t quite come into focus in the same way that Sisko and Kira and the others had. (The only other character to suffer from this level of indeterminacy is Bashir, and he’s gone through as much clarification as Dax has in the past season or so.) Everyone else had strong conflicts to play off. Sisko had a dead wife and a son to raise, Kira was dealing with her people’s struggles and her own adjustments to a Cardassian free world. Odo’s nature forced him to define himself as a matter of simply existing, and O’Brien was familiar from his time on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Quark was a scoundrel. Hell, even Bashir fit a type: naive, arrogant genius trying to make his way in a world far more complicated than he’d expected to find. But Dax, apart from the whole worm thing, was just a nice, pretty lady who sometimes made fun of Sisko. She wasn’t actively unpleasant, but there was potential, and every time a story would try and bring her center stage, that potential never came to fruition.

Although it suffers from a distinct lack of John Glover, “Playing God” is arguably the best Dax episode we’ve had so far, because her character arc is the strongest part of the hour. She takes in a potential candidate, Arjin, for joining, to assess his value as an initiate and, hopefully, push him in the right direction towards improving his chances. Jadzia went through this process years ago with Curzon Dax, and she hadn’t enjoyed it; she’s determined to make sure Arjin’s experience is a more pleasant one. And yet, she has doubts about him, and that’s where the main character conflict of the episode arises. Tempers flare, but never get as far as broiling, and Jadzia is able to find a solution that makes everybody happy. It’s a little on the easy side, and the weakest part of the episode is the fact that it builds and builds and then just kinda stops, but it’s very cool to see Dax figuring things out for herself, and improving both a stranger’s life and her own without having to compromise her ideals.

For this to work at all, though, Dax actually has to have ideals, and a philosophy, and part of what makes “Playing God” so refreshing is the discovery that Dax’s personality has been developing nicely for quite some time now, all without me even noticing. At the start of the episode, Arjin is shocked to find his prospective mentor gambling with Ferengi, wrestling before breakfast, and singing songs with Klingons. None of which should come as a surprise to us; we’ve been seeing Dax ingratiate herself into station life from the beginning. But Arjin’s horrified, Church Lady-esque reaction helps to clarify just what Dax is doing, especially in terms of her relationship to the symbiont. She’s not partying or being irresponsible or disrespectful of the worm inside her (having a worm, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the greatest gifts a Trill can receive; we learn at the beginning that there are currently 5,000 applicants for the procedure, and only 300 symbionts available). She is, instead, fulfilling her part of the bargain, enriching both “Dax” and her own life experiences by embracing all the possibilities available to her. This is what makes the character interesting: she is, in her way, the most perfect expression of the original Star Trek ethos, the joy and wonder of exploration and discovery. Sure, she’s not on a starship, but the station’s proximity to the worm hole offers potential for science and cultural study, and what to outsiders may look like screwing around is—well, okay, part of it is just screwing around. But it’s great to spend time with someone who has the requisite inner peace and patience to know the value of a rich, diverse life. Because of the experience of the symbiont, Jadzia’s shyness and drive are mitigated, just as her youthful ambition and passion help, in turn, to enrich the Dax entity’s journey. Plus, she clearly enjoys messing around with her friends. She’s just cool. I dig that.

The episode follows two storylines. The adventures of Arjin and Dax are a good chance for Dax to do her thing, and for us to like her more; it also has a decent arc for a one-off character. Arjin isn’t hugely memorable, but he gets the job done. This storyline is, in most respects, a predictable one. We could’ve seen Dax ultimately reject Arjin’s candidacy, we could’ve seen him flame out, and we could even have seen Dax failing to live up to her wish to distinguish herself from Curzon. Any or all of these approaches could’ve worked, but the semi-familiarity of how things play out works to the episode’s benefit. Sure, something more complex could’ve given the episode greater depth, but it works well enough that I’m not complaining.

Things get significantly stranger in the episode’s other storyline, a sci-fi hook which introduces a Very Big Idea but then fails to scratch more than the surface. It’s not really bad, per se, just a weird left turn in an otherwise highly traditional hour of television. One minute, we’re watching Dax talk with Sisko about her difficulties with her new trainee; the next, she and that trainee manage to bring a bit of space detritus back through the wormhole, and before you know it, the detritus is a proto-universe and has started to rapidly expand, threatening to take the rest of the ship along with it. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, Dax discovers evidence that the growing universe has intelligent life. Which puts the station’s already precarious position even into even further difficulty. Do they have the right, as Kira argues, to destroy a threat before it destroys them? Or do they have a responsibility, as Odo says, to protect potential intelligence, even when there’s no immediate way to determine that intelligence exists? We started this episode with a character-specific conflict (Dax vs. the trainee), and while that conflict is still relevant for the whole hour, all of a sudden we’re also dealing with great power versus great responsibility. There’s an effort to make an abstract conflict more personal, seeing as how Kira and Odo’s respective positions make perfect sense based on what we know of who they are. Odo, with his uncertain status in the world, wants to defend life for life’s sake, while Kira, who has spent her whole life defending her home against aggressors, jumps immediately to the nuclear option.

These aren’t terrible starting points for a debate, but given that they don’t come up until over halfway into an hour that’s far more focused on other subjects, it’s hard to get too worked up about them. I’m not complaining that “Playing God” doesn’t feature more hard-hitting genocidal debate; it’s fine for what it is. But there’s something unintentionally funny about casually throwing such a big topic into an otherwise unrelated episode. The crisis which eventually allows Arjin to show his stuff could’ve been just about anything. This show comes from a franchise with a history of tossing out just-plausible-enough technical crises to put its characters in danger. Hell, “Playing God” already has just such a crisis; the station is overrun with (ugly and charmingly fake) voles, a holdover from the Cardassian occupation. They’re responsible for futzing around with the force field holding the proto-universe in check, but they could’ve easily chewed up some cord or gotten stuck in an engine. Instead of a final act where Arjin pilots a runabout to save the day, we get a final act where Arjin pilots a runabout to save the day while escaping from a rapidly expanding universe. It’s not precisely bad, but it is distracting.

In the end, though, what matters most about this entry is how much it reveals about Dax—and how much of that revelation is understanding that she’s basically doing fine. We’ve got our angsty characters, we’ve got our comic relief. Dax is somewhere in-between. Not because she’s indistinct or problematic. She’s just cool. That may not always lead to high drama or big laughs, but it’s good to have around.

According to the A.V. Club review of Blood Oath:

Well, whaddya know: After waxing rhapsodic last week about the redemption of Dax, and how much I’ve come to enjoy her presence on the show, we get another episode with our favorite Trill in the spotlight. But while “Blood Oath” gives us Klingons, drunken boasting, oaths of vengeance, and an evil albino, it also brings back Serious Dax, who we haven’t seen in a while. Serious Dax is conceptually fine, and the idea behind the episode— which hangs on just how much obligation Jadzia has to follow through on Curzon’s debts—has potential, but Terry Farrell is better suited to gentle sarcasm, whimsy, and brief fits of melancholy than she is to the sort of internal struggle she has to weather here. Her conflict over honor never plays out with the intensity it requires, and after a certain point, her role in the episode becomes almost irrelevant to the main action; as so often happens with episodic television the real drama is with the one-off guest stars.

And yet, even with all that, “Blood Oath” still works. I’ve got a soft spot for Klingon theatrics, developed back in the trenches of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and while I can’t buy Farrell as a warrior bad-ass, the ballad of Kang, Kor, and Koloth is as gripping as you’d expect. Because so much of the action is focused on non-DS9 characters, “Blood Oath” isn’t as powerful as it could be, and the mournful tone also means the first half is somewhat lacking in energy. Yet it all builds to a gloriously violent climax, along with the expected character ambiguities which have come to be a hallmark of this series.

Actually, we should talk about those ambiguities, because Dax’s decision to join with the Klingons on their vengeance quest, and Sisko’s disapproval of her decision, are the only plot threads in the episode which are relevant to the ongoing series. Dax’s soul-searching is surprising; I assumed she’d have no problem fighting, or killing if it came to that, and for all the hand-wringing she does, it’s not like the Albino (I’m just going to capitalize that from now on, as I don’t believe he ever gets a proper name) is a complex, multifaceted figure worthy of compassion. He’s a child-murdering dick who deserves what’s coming to him, so why the angst? And yet, while the episode doesn’t spend much time on the question, it makes sense to raise the issue, and whether or not Farrell entirely sells her indecision (and she’s not bad or anything) is less important than the fact that it gets attention at all. This isn’t a world of easy good guys and bad guys, and even if the Albino is unquestionably a villain, that doesn’t make the act of murder any less unsettling. While Dax the symbiont has probably killed before, Jadzia hasn’t, and giving her some space to figure out if she’s comfortable with the act deepens her character.

Likewise, though it’s not a major plotline, Sisko’s objection to her ultimate decision is an unexpected but interesting choice. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It seems like an effort to create drama where there doesn’t really need to be drama (Dax wasn’t going to back down, and it’s not like Sisko could’ve fired her or anything), and Sisko’s moral stance wasn’t something I would’ve seen coming. But the more I think about it, the more it works for me. It fits in with Dax’s brief uncertainty about whether or not she should participate in the mission, because it takes an idea we could easily have taken for granted and tries to contextualize it. I’ve seen plenty of movies and TV shows with heroes killing villains, and I’ve cheered when those villains went down, but here, it’s not as simple as “Point the gun, pull the trigger,” or “Swing the Bat’leth, enjoy the blood spurts.” Sisko is angry, and he’s a fighter, but that doesn’t mean he welcomes violence, and the Klingons’ quest puts their desire for glory and revenge above the civilization and law and order which Sisko represents. From a certain perspective, Kang and the others’ quest, in addition to Dax’s need to be included, is foolish risk taking. Even worse, it’s childish and destructive. Which isn’t to say that we need to have lectures whenever anyone on the show picks up a weapon, but Sisko’s perspective on the storyline is valuable even if he doesn’t change much. It’s a reminder that there’s a cost for everything.

As for the Klingon half of the episode, it’s all about honor and glory, which is basically the only things these Klingon stories are ever about. The Albino (and for real, you could do a drinking game with the number of times that word comes up, always with a hissing, impassioned hatred; it’s weird before we get the back-story, because for a while, it sounds like “albino” is somehow an inherently despicable trait, like “Nazi” or “zoologist”) killed each of their first-born sons as retaliation for them trying to stop his wicked ways, so now they’ve sworn to get their vengeance, only they aren’t as young as they used to be. The first one we meet, Kor, is a drunken buffoon bashing his brains out in one of Quark’s holosuites; then Koloth, the gray-haired intellectual, shows up; and finally Kang arrives, the leader of the group and the one who brought everyone together for one last score. These are archetypes, and while Koloth suffers a bit from being less bombastic then Kor and less conflicted than Kang, all three still serve their purpose. Kang is the most complex. Late in the episode, Dax discovers that the Klingon was lying about how he learned of the Albino’s whereabouts; the murderer actually contacted Kang himself, ostensibly because he wanted a clean end to all the running, more probably because he wanted to lure his foes into a trap. Because Kang isn’t an idiot, he realizes he and his friends are marching into their doom (which is why he tries to stop Dax from tagging along), but a good death is better than an empty life. At least it is until Jadzia convinces him that it’s still worth trying to survive.

Sadly, Kang dies anyway. That’s the kind of story he and his friends are in, and however much Dax tries, there are rules for this sort of thing. Koloth gets gutted, and the Albino gets the drop on Kang, although the latter is still able to find enough strength to kill his enemy before Dax is forced into doing it herself. In a way, that saving throw is representative of the conclusion as a whole. Kang wanted a clean death, and despite betraying his friends, that’s what he gets; sure, he earns it by telling the truth before the final fight, but it’s still something of a let down after all that buildup to see the fight play out exactly as expected. The action is more than we usually get on the show, and there’s definitely something to be said for watching Dax and a trio of senior citizens running roughshod over a bunch of anonymous stormtroopers. But after all Dax’s soul-searching, when faced with the big decision—to kill or not to kill—the choice is conveniently taken out of her hands. (She might have killed one of the guards earlier, but they were all wearing face masks, so they don’t count.) The Klingons go in expecting to fight and most likely die, and that’s exactly what they get. The closest we get to a ragged edge is the silent exchange between Dax and Sisko when she returns to the station. He’s still not happy with what she’s done, but he’s not going to punish for her it; it’ll just lay there between them, a part of their friendship they’ll never entirely be able to get beyond. “Blood Oaths” works on the basic level an hour ofDS9 needs to work. It tells a story with consistent internal logic, and, surprising or not, the Klingons’ arc does what it’s supposed to. (I especially liked that Kor is the only one of the trio to survive. That just makes sense.) But it’s too formal and too solemn to really rouse up the blood, and the most intriguing aspects of the plot are put to the side in favor of keeping things as straightforward as possible.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Maquis, Part One:

It must be exhausting to be Benjamin Sisko. He’s stuck in an impossible situation; as a representative of the Federation, he has to try and keep open relationships with the Bajoran and Cardassian governments, two races which, at best, cordially detest each other, as well as offer what support and assistance he can to Bajor without directly interfering. His space station is situated next to a wormhole, which means he and his staff have to deal with a constant influx of dozens of different species with different needs, expectations, and appendages. The people work for him all basically like him, but they have their own goals, and when they disagree with him, they aren’t afraid to share their feelings. He’s raising a son as a single parent, and while Jake is a good, trustworthy kid, he’s also a teenager, and that means hormones and rebellion and Dabo girls. And as if that weren’t enough, he’s also a central figure in a religion he barely understands, a Chosen One who, had he a choice, would’ve very much preferred not getting picked. It’s no wonder he’s often short with people; it’s remarkable he doesn’t spend his whole day shouting.

“The Maquis, Part I” isn’t really about how lousy Sisko’s job is, but it’s hard to ignore all the plates he has to keep spinning throughout the episode. The plot, which centers on a potential rift between Cardassian and human settlers, is fairly complicated, and we won’t find out the truth of what’s really going on until next week; for right now, the biggest impression I walk away with from this episode is just how much it can suck to be Sisko. But while it’s no fun for him to be running around the galaxy with Gul Dukat, as well as discovering one of his oldest friends just might be a traitor, it’s great that we get another chance to see the man in action. Admittedly, he doesn’t truly succeed here, and he spends most of the hour struggling to keep his irritation in check, but while that lacks the drama of his stand in “Paradise,” it has its own pleasures. And it’s not all frustration, either. “The Maquis” introduces Calvin Hudson (the great Bernie Casey), a pal of Sisko’s, and allows the two men a couple of scenes to just sit around and chat about how the time keeps flying. Generally, Sisko saves his moments of warmth for his son, so it’s nice to see him relaxing with someone else. Sure, the real reason for these scenes is to give the reveal at the end (Calvin is the leader of the Maquis, the revolutionary group responsible for the attacks that catalyze this story) more weight, and that’s the oldest trick in the book. But there’s something to be said for a reminder of the day-to-day lives of characters we generally only see in moments of crisis. The two actors have good chemistry together, and I’m looking forward to seeing the fallout of Calvin’s betrayal.

Unfortunately, “The Maquis” is split between two focal points. On the one side, the good side, we have Sisko running around trying to figure out what’s really on going on and what he needs to do to stop it, and on the not really good at all side, we have Quark trying to seduce a Vulcan woman who wants to buy weapons off him. Sakonna, the Vulcan, is part of the Maquis; we first see her exchanging significant glances with the man who plants a bomb on a Cardassian ship at the start of the episode, and later, she helps kidnap Gul Dukat. So knowing that the Maquis are buying lots of weapons for their fight is useful, sort of, but for the most part the scenes between Quark and Sokanna are padding, done to help ensure that this episode is long enough to justify the two-parter status. If these scenes were entertaining, or at the very least passable, I wouldn’t object too much; unlike a lot of TNG two-part episodes, “The Maquis” is taking on a story, and a situation, complex enough that it deserves some breathing room. It’s just that Quark’s lechery has never been one of the character’s best traits, and the Ferengi comes off as a creepy perv, in a context where he’s clearly supposed to be seen as winningly roguish. The whole sequence is off-putting, and, despite Shimerman’s efforts, Quark is the reason why.

Enough of that. While Calvin is the big guest, “The Maquis” also sees the return of one of the show’s recurring players, Gul Dukat. Dukat arrives on the station after a Cardassian freighter is destroyed under suspicious circumstances. He lets himself into Sisko’s room unannounced, starting their conversation off on the wrong foot (it’s hard to get more wrong than, “Where’s my son? Did you do anything to him?”), but the two manage to work together long enough to turn their plot into a short, delightful, buddy comedy. Dukat insists that Sisko come with him to the colonies which are the source of all the trouble, and Sisko agrees, although he makes sure Dukat doesn’t get access to the controls of the runabout. The more we see of Dukat, the more I appreciate his presence; he’s smart and ruthless and charming, and that makes him a formidable foe, and a great tool for the writers. He and Sisko play off each other well, and what makes their relationship work in this episode is the way Dukat is more or less telling the truth. A team-up between two unlikely allies is always a good starting place for drama, and while Dukat tends to dominate the scenes they share together (mostly because he has more information, and his nature allows him to be more flamboyant than Sisko), the dynamic is an exciting one, and helps get us through what amounts to a lot of place-setting.

Really, that’s what most of “The Maquis” is: making sure the audience understands the situation and everyone’s in the right position before lighting the fuses. As such, and as is so often the case with two part episodes, it’s hard to judge exactly how well this one works on its own. But while it’s clear that the main point of the hour is building up a conflict in order to get us to the cliffhanger, with Dukat the captive of the Maquis and Sisko realizing Calvin knows a lot more about all of this than he’s let on, there’s still enough excitement to keep this from being a complete drag. As mentioned, The Adventures Of Sisko And Dukat is terrific, and arguably more impactful than Sisko’s conversations with Cal. The latter creates a temporary bond, but the former works to strengthen a working relationship which will presumably last for seasons to come. The other highpoint of the hour is the “discussion” between the human and Cardassian colonists in the demilitarized zone. Both sides are looking to force the other around to their point of view, and it’s fun to watch how thoroughly inappropriate the Cardassian approach—which is to lecture and condescend your foes into submission—is in these circumstances. At one point, the head Cardassian busts out a video recording of a man confessing to the bombing that starts the hour, as though this somehow resolves the issue. Sure, those of us in the audience know that the confessor is the guilty man (hell, even the people hearing the confession know this, despite their outrage), but the assumption that being “right” will somehow resolve the issue is oddly naïve for such a calculating people. It makes perfect sense, though. The Cardassian colonists are operating from a position of assumed power. They’re so used to having control and the necessary power to enforce it, that the idea that their word might not be good enough cause to end the discussion is probably a foreign concept.

Best of all is that, as arrogant as they are, it looks like Sisko is going to have to end up defending the Cardassians from terrorist forces. That’s great conflict right there, and while it won’t make Sisko’s day any easier, it means we have something to look forward to next week. In terms of cliffhangers, nothing that happens at the end of this episode is all that concerning. I doubt Dukat is going to die (if they were going to kill him, they’d have done so immediately), and Sisko, Bashir, and Kira don’t appear in any real danger at the hands of the Maquis. Plus, Cal’s involvement with the group means we’re going to have a lot of justification monologues next week, and lots of slippery moral justifications for excessive behavior. But we also know Sisko is going to have to find a way out of this that doesn’t start a war. Seeing how that plays out is something to look forward to.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Maquis, Part Two:

Through both parts of this story, I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m not more invested in the outcome. This has all the elements I tend to pick out out for praise: complex world-building, a morally challenging conflict, high stakes, and characters forced into conflict with people they care about. And yet, all of this lacked the energy and passion of the show’s best early episodes (one of which is coming up next). This could be due in some part to my own predilections; while I admire ambition, I tend to lose interest in stories in which the conflict is overly abstract, as it is here, despite the efforts to personalize the issue with the presence of Sisko’s old friend. But I think it comes down to a desire to tell bigger, more impactful stories without a willingness to entirely follow through. As two-parters go, this serves its purpose, and the second half has some excellent moments. It’s just, without any real consequence, the struggles we watch come off as slightly toothless. No one we care much about dies, or even changes their position. I understand why Calvin was brought in, but the reveal that he’s working with the Maquis doesn’t exactly sting, especially in comparison to Ensign Ro’s ultimate decision in “Preemptive Strike.” The politics of Sisko’s situation are fascinating, but only if the show can find a way to translate concept into tangible reality. As it is, we see a bunch of humans running around in generic Trek clothing acting aggrieved and shouting at each other, and then they lose. It’s hard to get all that worked up over their plight.

Sisko is troubled by it, though, and his inner turmoil is one of “The Maquis, Part II”’s highlights. It’s easy to listen to the various grievances on the Cardassian and human sides and not care a whole lot; Cardassians are evil dicks, and we only see the humans after they’re past their breaking point, so they’re already stuck in a feedback loop of self-righteousness. But it gets to Sisko, and the fact that it bothers him means it matters more to us. As seems to happen in these big two-parters, external crisis helps serve to clarify and strengthen our understanding who Sisko is and what he stands for, and Avery Brooks is always excellent when the material gives him the opportunity. Last week, he spent most of his time seething and trying to get caught up on events as a problem threatened to spin out of control. This week, he’s still angry, but now he’s going to do something about it. He rescues Gul Dukat from his captors, he forces an agreement to stop weapon shipments to the Cardassian colonists, and he prevents a major Maquis attack, all of it through his own initiative and will. There was never any doubt that Sisko was right for his job, but after watching him get mocked by Dukat and fooled by his friend in the first part of this story, it’s gratifying to watch him make things work out in the best way he can. Not that any of it makes him feel much better. The show has given us situations without easy solutions before, and it always makes for effective drama; not only is it more realistic (which isn’t necessarily a good thing), it also leaves room for a more complicated response. Sisko sets out to prevent a war, and he accomplishes his goal. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. He sympathizes with the Maquis, and the fact that the episode’s climactic battle has him clashing with the colonists (as well as with his old friend) can’t feel right. As always, Starfleet is no help (Star Trek: The Next Generation fans will recognize the steely uselessness of Admiral Nechayev in her brief guest appearance), and, apart from Kira, no one is all that impressed at how ably Sisko balances the demands of his conscience and circumstance. But it gives us a reminder of just how suited Sisko is to the role which has been forced upon him. He can give impassioned speeches about the plight of the Maquis in one scene, and then face them down without blinking in another. He is not to be fucked with.

The other highlight of the hour is once again the presence of Gul Dukat. Can I make a confession? I really like the Cardassians. I’m not sure I’d want to share a planet with them (or under them, as it were), but I’m a lot more fascinated by Cardassian politics than I am by the Bajorans’. When it comes to Bajor, the joy is in the individuals. Individual, really: Kira is terrific, and while she hasn’t had as much to do this season as she did in the first, she remains a vital, exciting element of the show. But the rest is, if not awful, then at least not all that thrilling. I’ve enjoyed the government squabbles and Vedek maneuvering, but at the same time, when Bajoran-centric episodes pop up, it sometimes feels like I’m being forced to eat my vegetables.

This is the not the case with the Cardassians. Not every Cardassian storyline has been gold, but their culture is more clearly defined (Bajor tends to be “sort of religious”), and, because they’re the bad guys, they get to be more aggressive and trickier and, on the whole, more fun to watch. Garak is the show’s best non-ensemble character (and one of the show’s best characters period), while Dukat continues to blossom into a reliably fascinating opponent, and even the incidental Cardassians we’ve run into have been striking and creepy as needed. While Bajor struggles to rebuild and find its voice, Cardassia gets to run around forming secret plots to undermine the Federation and manipulate its old enemies, while operating under a government which could charitably be referred to as “strict.” If either of these places were real, I’d know which one I’d want to visit (hint: it’s the one without oppressive restrictions of personal freedom and enforced devotion to the state), but they aren’t, and that means I’d much rather hear about Cardassian aggression than Bajoran passivity.

Thankfully I’m in luck, because Gul Dukat gets, if anything, even more screen time in part two than he did in the first half of the story. First we see him mocking his captors for their basic inability to torture information out of him (Sakonna tries for a mind-meld, but Dukat manages to block her). Then, when he learns from Sisko that the Cardassian government has thrown him to the wolves, he teams up with the DS9 personnel to help find a resolution to the situation that won’t end in outright war. As entertaining as the Gul is throughout, the real fun here is watching him and Sisko play off each other again, and the smart way the episode uses Dukat to both demonstrate Sisko’s cunning, and show where he draws the line. After watching the Cardassian run rings around him last week, Sisko is able to force Dukat to do his bidding this time around; the Cardassian government (in the form of Legate Parn) attempts to pin the weapon shipments on the kidnapped Dukat, which means the Gul doesn’t look quite as sharp as he once was. Add to this the fact that Sisko goes out of his way to rescue the man, in a situation where, were their positions reversed, Dukat would’ve almost certainly left him to rot, gives Benjamin a curious sort of edge. It’s easy to mistake decency for cowardice or weak-will, but Sisko demonstrates how committed he is to maintaining his own ideals by sticking to them as much as possible. He rescues Dukat (which is part a diplomatic coup, but also just the right thing to do), and, when faced with his old friend Calvin, chooses to let the other man go after preventing him from reaching his objective. Dukat views this as a weakness, because of course he would; to a Cardassian, the only good enemies are dead ones, and the only good friends are the ones you haven’t caught yet. But Sisko is in an impossible position, and while Cal himself never registers all that strongly, the grief his betrayal inspires does. Sisko’s decision not to kill his friend feels earned; he makes the decision, one suspects, as much for the sake of his own soul as for Cal.

It’s too bad, then, that the rest of the episode doesn’t live up to its best moments. As usual in the second season, there’s nothing embarrassing; in reuniting Quark and Sakonna, the hour even manages to partially redeem the pair’s creepy encounters in “Part I,” as Quark uses logic to point out to Sakonna the inherent stupidity of her choices. Yet Sakonna isn’t much of a character, and as fun as it is to see Quark turn Vulcan logic against her, it’s hard not to wonder just what the point is. Including a Vulcan with the Maquis should have some kind of meaning, but it doesn’t, and we never get a strong sense of how she got caught up in all this mess. A small criticism, to be sure, but it’s relevant to the episode as a whole, because it’s with the Maquis themselves that the show’s ambition fumbles. We’re told the Federation colonists are suffering under Cardassian rule, we’re informed that this suffering drove a section of them to form a group capable of fighting back, but none of this back-story ever lands. The episode gives us Calvin as a sort of all-purpose symbol, figuring both as reminder to Sisko of his Starfleet past and his duties, as well as giving us a supposed emotional connection to the Maquis. But it’s not enough, and Calvin himself is never more than a generic figure of betrayal. The biggest sin this story commits is spending too much time telling us to care instead of forcing us to. It avoids being a slog because it has some good ideas and good performances, but it’s hard to escape the malaise of a missed opportunity.

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

I tend to take people at their word. It’s not because I’m honest or because I’m a better person or whatever. It’s because, for me, the idea of expressed self-identity is so crucial to how I view myself in the world that I can’t imagine someone pretending to be someone else. I can understand the concept; I can understand trying to cover up a crime or trying to make yourself look better. But intentional, generalized obscurity will always surprise me. In real life, this can be painful; in fiction, it can be superb. Although even then, the balance is tricky, because fictional characters whose motives shift too often expose themselves as tools of the writers, useful primarily because they fit any narrative hole. This happens on TV shows a lot, although I’ll be damned if I can come up with a specific example. (Much as I loved the series, half the cast of Battlestar Galactica seems to fit in this category at various times.) Character complexity is a welcome, and frequently powerful, concept. Character convenience is not. Which is just one of the reasons I’m so impressed by “The Wire,” which is just plain terrific. The episode hinges on Garak, and, more to the point, the multiple layers of deceit and obfuscation Garak has built up around himself over the course of his life. By the end of the hour, the details of the former (?) spy’s past are present, but obscure, like words read in a dream. This could have been immensely frustrating, and yet, as it’s handled, it’s entirely consistent with what we do know about Garak as an individual. More, even though I can’t say for sure how he was exiled from his home planet, you get enough of the story that you feel like you know the important parts.

Another great angle to the episode, this one slightly more subtle: it gives Bashir something worthy of his talents. I mentioned before that Dax was the closest thing to a problem character the show had (but she’s great now), but Bashir gets off on a technicality. While poor Dax had to suffer through supposedly character-centric episodes which had no idea what they wanted to say about her, or what she was supposed to be, Bashir is mostly on the sidelines. He’ll get screentime, but I don’t think we’ve had a specifically Bashir-centered hour on the show; or if we have, it’s never done much to define him. He’s a smart doctor who loves the ladies, he’s maybe a little too earnest, and he wishes O’Brien would like him more. Oh, and for a while, he really wanted to sleep with Dax, but he seems to have accepted that probably won’t happen. Nothing wrong with any of this, but compared to the rest of the group, he needs some kind of push, some more active choices to render him specific. For a while, Bashir seemed to be on the show because the station needed a doctor, so why not. While that explains his presence from a plot standpoint, he needs more to do, something to distinguish him so that when he’s in a room with other characters, he’s not just someone speaking necessary expository dialogue. (“The Maquis, Part II” is a good example of this function: Bashir pops up in staff meetings and on away missions, but unless he’s providing medical commentary, his lines all sound like anyone could have said them.)

Bashir’s friendship with Garak has always been one of the most interesting things about him, and “The Wire” uses that friendship to great effect. In the past when we’ve seen the two of them together, Garak has always served as the wiser, more powerful figure. He knows more about what’s going on than Bashir, and his guidance is necessary to keep the doctor moving forward. Their roles are somewhat reversed in this episode, however. In the cold open, the two are wanting to have lunch together when Garak is overcome by an attack of—something. Bashir expresses concern, and Garak puts him off, but the doctor isn’t fooled. Displaying the sort of pushy benevolence which appears to be common practice among Starfleet personnel (it must have something to do with the sense of entitlement that comes from not needing money to do anything), Bashir starts asking questions and looking into Garak’s medical records. He and Odo spy on Garak making arrangements with Quark to try and purchase some high level, classified Cardassian bio-technology. Finally, when the attacks become too severe, Bashir confronts the tailor, and that’s when things get really interesting.

It’s also why this episode is a great one for Bashir. I wasn’t a huge fan of his early aggressiveness, if only because the idea of someone forcing you to accept their tender care always makes me uncomfortable; but viewed in another light, he’s just doing what Garak would have suggested, had the situation not involved him directly. Regardless of the ethics of the doctor’s initial investigations, by the time the true nature of Garak’s problem becomes clear (or as clear as it ever gets), Bashir has demonstrated just what kind of man he really is. Like McCoy on the original Star Trek, Bashir is a doctor, and treating the sick takes precedence over everything else. This may seem like a simple (and obvious) bit of characterization, and unlike what we learn about Garak, “The Wire” offers no huge surprises with regard to Bashir’s soul. Yet his determination, patience, and perseverance help establish his place on the show. We’ve seen signs of these qualities before, but they seem especially important in the face of the endless permutations of Garak’s lies, and Bashir’s steadfast approach helps provide the episode with its emotional core. No matter what the revelations, only one thing matters to him: healing the sick. The simple, unshakable morality helps to explain why Garak (who is tricky and clever and not to be trusted) puts so much stock in Bashir’s opinion of him. Late in the episode, Garak asks Bashir’s forgiveness, even without entirely confessing what he wants absolution for—and the gesture comes across as one of the few purely sincere ones the Cardassian makes in the entire hour. It also serves to define Bashir. No one else on the station could’ve offered Garak the forgiveness he craves, not without caveats or anger or incomprehension. Yet Bashir takes his friend’s hand, and accepts it all. He even risks his life by going out to meet Garak’s former spy boss to get some crucial information. (That the boss is entirely pleasant and helpful makes perfect, deeply creepy sense.)

As for just what he’s accepting… “The Wire” is my favorite episode of DS9 since “Duet,” and it shares with that earlier entry a series of shifting understandings. Comparatively early, we learn that Garak has an implant in his brain, so we think, like Bashir, it must be some sort of punishment device. But that’s not exactly right; Garak explains to the doctor that he received the implant when he was given a certain piece of information during his work for the Cardassian spy organization known as the Obsidian Order, information so crucial that he needed to be able to absolutely guarantee he would not reveal it to others, not even under torture. The wire in his brain is designed, in moments of great stress and suffering, to send waves of endorphins into his brain, literally translating pain into pleasure. This renders any “enhanced interrogation techniques” ineffective, but it also gives him access to a potentially addictive substance locked into cerebral cortex. Garak is a creature of discipline and focus, but his exile from Cardassia has become more and more agonizing for him, turning his time on Deep Space Nine into daily sessions of misery and despair. So he started triggering the device in his brain to help him get through the day, and that helped for a while, only he had to use it more and more often, and then it went haywire and now he’s hooked on something that will kill him, and soon.

It’s a brilliant concept, one that manages to subvert our expectations while at the same time living up to them. Garak has a wire in his head? Oh, it must be some sort of evil Cardassian punishment—but it isn’t. It’s something worse. Just the idea of modifying one’s neural chemistry to turn agony into ecstasy is unsettling, and it fits in beautifully with all we know about Cardassia and its ways. Everything comes down to control; everything is about reducing weakness, and conforming the individual to the needs of the state. If something as fundamental as the body’s way of warning itself of injury can be changed, even reversed, there’s no real limit to what they can do next. Eventually, 2 + 2 really will equal 5.

The episode doesn’t end there, either. Garak tells Bashir he was exiled for destroying a passenger transport with a high-level Cardassian official’s daughter on bored, almost daring Bashir to leave in disgust. But the doctor stays on, convincing the tailor he needs to go cold turkey or die. This gives Bashir another chance to prove his worth, first defending Garak against Odo’s curiosity (since Garak was part of the Obsidian Order, Odo assumes he’s either responsible for some unsolved murders on his books, or else he knows who was responsible), and then standing by his friend as he suffers through the agonies of withdrawal. Garak doesn’t make this process easy, either. We learn another version of How I Got Exiled From The Only Home I’ll Ever Know, only this time he says he allowed some Bajoran children to escape during an interrogation, because he couldn’t bear to see them suffer. Later, he’ll suggest he tried to frame this decision on an aid named Elim, except it turns out that Elim is, in fact, Garak’s first name, so what does all of this mean? Is he a murderer? Well, yes, he’s a murderer, but was killing the wrong person the reason he was sent away? Or was it some momentary show of compassion that doomed him?

I’m not exactly sure, and yet, it’s not hard to understand just who Garak is after watching this. The details matter less than the way he tells them, the self-loathing so thick in his voice it drowns out his trademark chirrupy sarcasm. Imagine you’ve spent your whole life in a totalitarian state, and you’ve devoted that life to advancement, obedience, and devotion. And also imagine you are very, very good at your work. You rise in position, you find a coveted role in the halls of power and you are groomed to one day rise to be the highest in the land, and every day, you feel something like a conscience warning you to stop. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re so committed to the glory of all that you don’t have time for morality or decency or implications. Only one day, something happens. Some mistake, some slip in your otherwise perfect control, and that’s all it takes. Or maybe you’re not even the one who makes the mistake; maybe it’s a co-worker. Either way, it’s the end of your rise, the end of your golden-child status, and without apology, you are sent on your way, so despised by the mentor who once loved you that he hopes you live a long, miserable life. You’re sent away to a place where half the people hate you, and the rest don’t trust you, and you brood as the hours and days pass, because you can’t understand what happened. The behavior which threw you into exile is the one thing you ever did that the people around you would praise you for, and yet embracing it, embracing that minor miscalculation of mercy, would mean abandoning everything in your life which has meaning. So you’re crafty, and you’re a little wiser than you were, but you’re still trapped, because you’re compromised no matter which direction you turn.

That’s probably not exactly it. At the very least, the revelation that “Elim” never existed (at least not in the way Garak describes) shakes up the narrative. I think that’s the spirit of it, though, and the idea that the Obsidian Order outcast is screwed coming and going makes sense to me. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get a clearer picture of why Garak is in the position he’s in, but either way, I’m happy. We know enough about his past now to know why his smiles always seem just a little too wide, and to get a sense of who’s hiding behind all that casual conversation.

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

“Mirror, Mirror” is one of the best episodes of the original Star Trek. While it lacks the emotional weight of “The City On The Edge Of Forever” or the nail-biting tension of “The Doomsday Machine,” the story of Captain Kirk’s trip to an alternate reality where Everything He Knows Is Wrong hits the perfect sweet spot between high concept and camp. It should be ridiculous: the crew of theEnterprise is evil! Superior officers enforce obedience via torture! The agony booth! Spock has a goatee! To be honest, the episode is ridiculous, which is also why it’s so fun. There’s a crazy energy to the episode that the original series so often had, combined with just enough sincerity and genuine creepiness to keep it all from being a joke, and it all culminates in a surprising, and yet entirely explicable, twist: Evil Spock isn’t actually evil. At least, he still operates on the basis of logic and deduction, and by the end of the hour, Kirk is able to convince him that it would be better for Evil Spock and the rest of his kind if they tried to murder each other just a little bit less. Kirk and his friends then return home, comfortable in the knowledge that in their brief time on the other side, they’ve managed to make a difference, and even if they didn’t, it’s not like those people are going to write them or anything.

The Mirror Universe is never mentioned again in TOS, nor does it ever come up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The concept is striking enough to be memorable, but so outlandish that I wouldn’t have expected it to return, because it seems so difficult to sustain. Parallel universes, sure, but a parallel universe in which all the characters we know and love are bondage fetishists? That’s a bit much. The idea of the TNG cast trying to maniacally laugh their way through an homage makes me very uncomfortable. (Imagine an entire planet populated with Lores.) But “Mirror” is well-constructed enough that its apparent absurdities have surprising depth, and “Crossover” makes good use of those depths, giving Kira and Bashir a chance to visit a place where up is down, black is white, and cats and dogs co-sign the lease. And while it takes a little stretching to buy into all of this, the effort is worth it. This is a cast just aching to get nasty.

Well, except for poor Bashir, who spends most of the episode doing hard labor. Maybe it’s punishment for his obnoxious behavior in the cold open, where he seems hellbent on undoing all the growth he’s managed in the past season or so. Regardless of the reason, this is a Kira episode, as is the other half of this week’s double feature, “The Collaborator.” Where that entry goes the usual (and rewarding) route of forcing Kira to deal with Bajoran history and present-day politics, here, Kira mostly watches in horror at the terrifying new reality she and the good doctor discover. Their method for arriving in The Other Place is the usual sort of hand-waving mumbo-jumbo; in “Mirror, Mirror,” Kirk and the others got caught in a transporter accident, here it’s a glitch in the wormhole caused by a plasma leak. The means don’t really matter. All that matters is one minute everything is fine, and the next, Bashir is being dragged away to work for the Other Odo, while the Other Kira takes our Kira to her office for some light exposition.

One of the reasons this episode is so much fun is the fact that the Other Kira recognizes where our Kira came from almost immediately. She explains that Kirk’s visit to this universe is an important part of their history, and in his efforts to help make life better for Terrans (humans and Vulcans), he actually made everything much, much worse. The Other Spock was successful in his goal to bring about peace and prosperity for his people, but in doing so, left them open to attack from an alliance between the Klingons and the Cardassians. The Bajorans, recognizing a good thing when they saw it, joined up with the aggressors, and now the Other Kira is running Deep Space Nine, oppressing poor humans like the Other O’Brien, and generally being all villainous and sexy and so forth.

It’s a depressing reveal, at least at first glance: one of the most satisfying elements of “Mirror, Mirror” is the way it recognized that even a seemingly “evil” place might be improved if the right ideas were spread around by the right people, and “Crossover” undermines Kirk’s actions almost immediately. It’s not just that his efforts were useless—he actively made things worse for the humans, just by trying to help. That’s a grim twist, although it plays fair with the rules, and certainly fits latter-day Trek, with all its obsession with the Prime Directive and attention to the unpredictable fallout of one’s actions. Besides, part of the entertainment value of an episode like this is seeing just how bad a different reality can possibly get. The writers aren’t going for subtlety. And if we wanted to get really deep, we could also see how this version of life plays to Kira’s fears about her role on the station as an enabler and appeaser. Her need to assert her legitimacy as a defender of her people is twisted back in her face, as the Other Kira and the Other Bajor sold their souls for a good deal.

Admittedly, this never has huge thematic relevance, as this episode isn’t designed to teach Kira an important lesson about who she might have been. The point is mostly to say, man, wouldn’t it be weird Odo was a bad guy, or if Sisko was a rogue, and then run with that. And it works. The second season keeps sneaking up in unexpected ways, from effective character development, to the tossed-off mentions of the “Dominion”; what strikes me most about “Crossover” is its confidence. Deep Space Nine isn’t knocking every ball out of the park, but it has been hitting solid doubles and triples for some time now, and this episode banks on that consistency to pull an over-sized concept into its carefully constructed, semi-realistic world. “A dark parallel reality” shouldn’t have a place on a series worried about politics and consequences and enslavement, and yet it does; everything else is solid enough by now, we’re willing to take high concept in stride.

That’s one of the reasons I love the Trek franchise. Last week, we dealt with exile and addiction, next up we have betrayal and traitors, and right here, we’ve got a lady who seems to be very much hitting on herself. And just as “Mirror, Mirror” gave the original series’ cast an opportunity to let loose (more than usual), “Crossover” is about providing actors with an escape from the normal restrictions of their roles. Avery Brooks is all self-loathing and cunning, Armin Shimerman is all quiet and tragically noble, Andrew Robinson goes full-on villain in the role of the station’s second in command. Nana Visitor has a chance to do her best femme fatale imitation, and is unsurprisingly tremendous. Colm Meaney is, well, the same; O’Brien is O’Brien no matter what universe you visit.

This episode makes use of the show’s backstory, both with the original Trek and the history of the Cardassian/Bajoran conflict, to help shore up the reality of its premise, but it’s also, for all the death and despair, something of a lark. Our Kira takes in everything with the solemnity of someone who knows the horrors of unfettered force all too well, and her relationship with the Other Kira is complex and strangely sad. While the episode never manages the delirious camp of “Mirror, Mirror” (a shift in the mines is no replacement for the agony booth), it gets a lot of mileage out of Kira’s soulful expression, and her wiliness in arranging for her and Bashir’s escape. There’s even a chance that she and the doctor have the same potentially positive effect on the locals as Kirk did in his time, although who knows how badly that will get corrupted once our heroes are gone. Regardless, the very nature of the premise prevents us from getting too worked up. The Other Quark is executed; Bashir shoots the Other Odo, which causes him to explode; and the Other Sisko finds his spine after some prompting from Kira, and he and the Other O’Brien flee the station, presumably to go have adventures. It’s all thrilling and neat, and in the end, Bashir and Kira make it back home safe and sound. “Crossover” is a fine example of what a show can do when it’s willing to loosen up a bit, paying homage to TOS while still managing to strike its own unique tone.

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

I suppose I should save my thoughts on the second season as a whole for the latter half of this review, but I will say this now: The last few weeks have been one heck of a run. “Tribunal” continues the trend, giving us our first close look at the Cardassian legal system, as well as giving the writers a chance to torment poor O’Brien. The show is getting good at pushing its boundaries, and extrapolating its main ideas until they make sense as a cohesive system. Which is to say, with earlier Star Trek shows, most cultures and conflicts were one-offs. Star Trek: The Next Generation was more aggressive with its continuity, but gave off a constant sense of departure, of problems resolved and left behind. Sisko doesn’t have a spaceship. He has a space station, and that means that even when he beats the Cardassians at whatever game they’re playing—as he does this week—he’ll still have to keep winning again and again and again. I’ve heard that some fans dismiss Deep Space Nine as overly grim, but while the show deals in serious subjects without blinking, I’ve never found it depressing. It’s honest, that’s all. Before this series, the franchise was about the pure utopia of the journey, of constant motion, of seeking and never being entirely satisfied. With DS9, the franchise creates a home, and then sets to establishing the cost of defending it.

There are plenty of reasons to like “Tribunal,” and I’ll do my best to cover all of them, but the one that strikes me most in retrospect is how neatly the episode works to undermine the requirements of its supposed genre. I’m not talking about science-fiction tropes; O’Brien’s arrest, incarceration, and trial all fit neatly into the framework of a courtroom drama, right down to the seemingly friendly prosecution (Makbar turns cold in a hurry, but we’re introduced to her criticizing her colleagues for their poor treatment of their prisoner—she does it because she wants Miles to look good for the cameras, of course), the underdog defense attorney who’s full of well-earned wisdom, and all the expected objections and over-rulings and sudden reversals this sort of story requires. And yet at every turn, these concepts are subverted and mocked. O’Brien and the other people from Deep Space Nine (particularly Odo, who is allowed to serve as the chief’s advisor and de facto defense) continually treat the trial under standard judicial rules, but that’s not how Cardassian jurisprudence works. As we’re informed again and again, when a prisoner is brought before the court on Cardassia, he or she has already been found guilty. The sentence has been decided, and the execution scheduled. The “trial” is pure performance, intended as a way to educate citizens of the importance of obeying the state, and the glory of serving the whole.

This means there’s no outlet for the tension that courtroom drama typically thrives on. At every turn, O’Brien and Odo are thwarted in their attempts to treat the situation in the usual way. No one will tell O’Brien what he’s charged with, no matter how often he asks, and when his attorney, the venerable Kovat (Fritz Weaver, a character actor who, among other things, played a fascist head of state in The Twilight Zone’s “The Obsolete Man”), pays him a visit, all the Cardassian offers is platitudes about how much better everything will be if O’Brien just gives in. O’Brien asks him how many cases he’s won, but even before Kovat answers, the question is moot. The judicial elements of the episode play out like a subtle black comedy, as our heroes behave in ways we’ve come to expect from such stories, and the judges and officials throw them back at every turn. We’ve heard many times before of the horrors of Cardassian law, but this is the first time we’ve really gotten a chance to see it first hand. It’s frustrating in all the right ways, to the point where it almost seems like a flaw in the episode that O’Brien is ultimately released. Sisko comes up with the right solution to the problem (i.e. the truth), but there’s something so permanent and awful about Miles’ situation that it’s hard to shake the impression that he’s doomed no matter what anyone does.

Still, as cruelly amusing as this all is, it would be difficult to watch a character we care about get put through the wringer if our heroes didn’t put up such a good show. Much of what makes the Cardassian system run is its ruthless and persistent ability to stamp out resistance through bureaucratic force. Arrest someone, humiliate them, and assure them over and over that their guilt has been verified beyond all doubt, and you haven’t just imprisoned them—you’ve gone a long way toward reducing them, convincing the individual that their self-definition is less important than the definition imposed on them by the state. O’Brien, having been raised in a society where being a person matters more than being a cog in a machine, does what he can to stand up for himself. He’s frightened, but he doesn’t back down until he’s forced to, and you never get the sense from him that he’s even considered the idea that the charges (whatever they are) might have merit. Odo turns out to be a major ally, in an unexpected but entirely sensible twist; he understands the Cardassian legal system better than anyone else on the station, and by getting involved in the case, he at least manages to give voice to the obvious problems with process. This hour could’ve been a depressing slog right up until the end, but the way O’Brien, Odo, and Keiko (watching on from the gallery) show a determined, unified face make it more thrilling and frustrating than grim.

As for the actual story, it’s fine—another example of the Cardassians trying to force the Federation presence out of the demilitarized zone via complicated, outlandish stratagem. This time, they surgically alter a Cardassian spy to look like a former Starfleet soldier named Boone, who served with O’Brien on the Rutledge. While O’Brien is rushing to go on vacation, the fake Boone bumps into him on the promenade, they exchange a few words (Colm Meaney does an excellent, “Oh hey, I have to get going, but I really am delighted to see you!”; it’s a small touch that really fits the character), and Boone records them to use as a security code to get clearance into a weapons locker, where he steals two dozen photon warheads. The idea is to make it look like O’Brien was working with the Maquis, this serving as proof of high-level Federation collaboration with the group. It’s the sort of plan you expect Lex Luthor to scribble down in his notes while watching a James Bond film, and its loopiness is especially obvious when contrasted against the rest of the episode. It works fine for what it needs to do—first get the innocent O’Brien incarcerated, then find an easy way for Sisko to both prove his innocence and force the Cardassians to release him—but it demonstrates one of the ongoing clashes on the show: the way standard genre plotting, with its tendencies towards contrivance and reliance on outrageous shocks, can come up against more ambitious characterization and thematic depth.

Science fiction is the language DS9 uses to tell its stories, and that language can occasionally fall short of the show’s ambitions. Yet, when the two dovetail together, it makes for remarkable television. “Duet” and “The Wire” were so effective because of their twists and big ideas—”Duet” was the first time we heard of the remarkable talents of Cardassian plastic surgeons, after all. But those twists stemmed from character in a way the Boone subplot doesn’t. There’s a brief mention of O’Brien’s well-known hatred of Cardassians, but it’s not really relevant, and the fact that the whole thing is a frame job shifts the focus away from what’s really at stake here. The system doesn’t work because it fakes crimes; it works because it makes every person on Cardassia a tool to be used at the government’s whims. O’Brien gets off on what is essentially a technicality. His release may sow some seeds of doubt among the citizens, but it serves as an anticlimax for an otherwise terrific hour. Thankfully, as anticlimaxes go, this one is easy to swallow; it’s not like I particularly wanted to see Miles doomed to a life of hard labor and occasional torture. Although he seems to view getting a do-over on his vacation with about as much enthusiasm.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Jem’Hadar:

So, here were at that the real conclusion of season two, with an episode that starts paying off some impressively subtle hints scattered through the previous 25 entries. On its own “The Jem’Hadar” is pretty good—but as mentioned above, I’d like to at least pay a nod to the second season as a whole before getting into the particulars of the finale. To sum up, then: It’s good. Like, “exceeding expectations” good, and in a way that completely caught me off-guard. In my time reviewing various Trek shows, I’ve grown used to expecting a specific kind of excellence; namely, the episodic kind. In reviewing a season of the original series, or TNG, I judged its success largely based on how many good-to-great hours that season held. That’s not to say I didn’t love both shows for their ensembles and respective worlds, but their main value to me was as a sort of anthology with recurring characters. While TNG flirted with serialization, its focus was still primarily on individual stories, and while I got a good sense of Picard’s Enterprise, and how the principals functioned aboard it, the episodes themselves remained by and large standalone entities.

That’s not how Deep Space Nine works. Those earlier shows followed the more traditional television model; DS9 was part of a gradual move to more long-term narrative persistence that came to define the modern television landscape, for good and bad. Here, luckily, it’s entirely to the good. There are a few standout episodes in season two (“The Wire,” “Tribunal,” “Crossover”—add your own in the comments), but what one really comes away with from watching it all is a sense of an ongoing story that’s just starting to get up to speed. Individual hours don’t matter as much as the way scenes of Sisko and others interacting and dealing with life on the station come together; the season is more than the sum of its parts. Which may be one of the reasons that DS9 never seemed as appealing to me as a kid as the original show or TNG. To get the full effect, you really do have to watch nearly everything, because even the weakest hours inform and build on that sense of continuity. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t just wander into some random episode and have fun with it, but one of the great gifts of this medium is investment over time, and DS9 is making good use of it. I look forward to watching each week in part because I just want to spend time with these people in this place, and that’s a tremendous advantage for any series. The flaws are still visible, but as long as the show maintains a consistency in character and detail, they’re not as damaging as they might be. In summary, I’m a fan, and while I’m excited for my next project, I’m also already looking forward to returning to this particular space station soon.

With that said, let’s focus on “The Jem’Hadar,” which serves to begin the Dominion’s entrance into DS9 in earnest. I’m skeptical of cliffhangers, but this one works well because it sets up story problems which aren’t intended to be resolved immediately in the next season’s première. The finale introduces an opposing force which is presumably meant to be with us for a long time, and here’s where all that stuff I was talking about above pays off: Unlike TNG’s haphazard attempts to lay groundwork for the Borg’s reappearance, the allusions we’ve heard to the Dominion have been both organic and persistent enough to have noticeable effect. When Sisko learns that the race of reptilian soldiers who have taken him and Quark captive are the elite fighting force of the Dominion, this revelation has actual weight to it. I can’t say how effective it would have been if I’d been watching this when it originally aired (I already knew the Dominion was important going into the series), and the episode doesn’t rely on the foreshadowing for most of its dramatic impact. But it still feels like something that’s been planned and built to over time, and that wouldn’t have been possible without DS9’s efforts at continuity.

I wish I could’ve gone into this one without any knowledge about the plot, though, because for the first 15 minutes or so, “The Jem’Hadar” looks like it’s telling a completely different story than the one we end up with. Sisko sees Jake working on a science project, decides the project isn’t ambitious enough, and proposes a planetary survey that could also serve (in Sisko’s mind) as a father-and-son working vacation. Jake’s excited, and invites Nog along; Quark, who desperately wants permission to use the station’s video monitors to sell merchandise, tags along as well in a misguided attempt to earn Sisko’s friendship. All of which means that, for a surprisingly long time, the episode keeps it light. We get a lot of humor out of Avery Brooks’s slow burn, and the way Quark’s efforts at ingratiating himself are at odds with his basic loathing and mistrust of the outdoors. But Sisko and Jake get a little time together, and Nog manages to impress the older man. Then a telekinetic alien shows up, knocks Sisko down, and gets him, Quark, and herself captured by the Jem’Hadar.

It’s an abrupt shift, although it’s not as though the tone suddenly goes fullSchindler’s List. The alien, who calls herself Eris, tells Sisko that the Dominion conquered her home world, and her monologue on the subject is the first real attempt to distinguish the Dominion as baddies: apparently, they first invite new civilizations to join their ranks, and if that doesn’t work, it’s on to brutal domination. Time will tell just what drives them to conquer, but it’s already intriguing how much this sounds like the dark side version of the Federation’s handshake-and-hugs approach. In the ideal future of Star Trek, everybody can eventually be friends provided we’re all patient and understanding, and friendship means unification. It’s a lovely thought, but an optimistic one, and I like the idea that the Dominion could show how such a program could be twisted into, well, assimilation. (Come to think, the Borg are also a spin what the Federation does. Hopefully I already thought of that during my TNG reviews.) While we ultimately learn that Eris is a Dominion spy, pretending to be captive just to get a sense of Starfleet’s power and intentions, there’s no reason to believe that the story she tells isn’t true, and it’s doubtful that the Federation, or anyone else, will be able to find a peaceful means for resolving the conflict that doesn’t mean absolute surrender.

We also learn in this episode that the Dominion has been getting pissed off about the Federation’s intrusions into its territory via the wormhole, and that they’ve been planning their response for a while, which gives them an edge. Sisko only gets a chance to speak with one of the Jem’Hadar, an arrogant thug who expresses disappointment that Sisko and Quark aren’t Klingons; the makeup here is impressive, but we’ve had warriors on the series before, and time will tell just how bad these dudes actually are. What’s more intriguing is the way the hour drives home just how little our heroes know and understand about their potential enemy. We don’t even know what the Dominion is, exactly. The Jem’Hadar makes reference to the “Founders,” and while Eris claims those are just a myth, Sisko theorizes in the end that she herself was one of them—but what exactly does that mean? This helps increase the sense that the DS9 crew is about to face off against a threat that may have them significantly outmatched, a sense which is multiplied a hundredfold during the final space battle. After Sisko, Quark, and Eris (who’s still pretending to be a victim) are rescued, the group, along with the Odyssey, a Federation ship which became involved once the Jem’Hadar notified everyone whom they’d captured, head for home. But even though the good guys are retreating, one Jem’Hadar ship does a suicide run directly into the Odyssey (a much bigger ship, by the way), destroying themselves and it instantly. To sum up: Our heroes are about to face off against an enemy with powers they can’t understand, a social structure they know nothing about, and resources they can only imagine. And that enemy is willing to sacrifice itself to kill, simply to make sure they’ve left the right impression.

Well, it worked. I don’t know what happens next, but things look bad for Sisko, Kira, Odo, Dax, Bashir, O’Brien, Quark, and the rest. But that’s very, very good for us.


The Worst:



Melora actually is an episode with a great idea behind it, to have a character present with a disability, but unfortunately, the message within the episode is “a little unclear” because she “doesn’t have to change her disability, but she does have to change her attitude,” (justifying paternalism towards her) as well as her “inspirationally disadvantaged” position she takes in the episode (justifying patronizing attitudes towards her). This means the intent of the overall idea of the episode was in the right place, but certainly not the script, and it’s execution.

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

Whatever reservations I have about “Cardassians,” it’s miles above the second half of this week’s double feature, a mediocre slog weighed down by an irritating guest star and some cheesy, grating romance. I’m not sure if I’d say this is the worst episode of DS9 I’ve seen yet, but it’s easily in the bottom five and its biggest crime is that it’s annoying in a boring way. This has all the hallmarks of an original series Star Trek episode, without any of the camp or Leonard Nimoy to take the edge off; there’s a woman constantly picking fights with anyone she thinks is trying to hold her back, there’s a regular ensemble member having a supposedly deep relationship with someone we know we’ll never see again, and a guest star flirts with a major life choice in a way that makes it obvious she’ll never actually go through with it. It’s so “blah” I’d completely forgotten about it by the time I sat down to write this review, and I watched it two days ago. There’s a Quark subplot which is mildly amusing, and not every part of the main storyline is absolutely awful, but “Melora” is as disposable as they come.

The biggest problem is Melora (Daphne Ashbrook) herself. An Elaysian ensign working her way up the Starfleet ranks as fast as she possibly can, Melora comes from a planet with a very low gravity level, which means she needs special equipment and modifications to get by in a standard gravity environment. That raises a question (and you’ll pardon the digression, but there’s little about this hour to talk about otherwise): What constitutes “standard gravity” in this reality? I mean, I basically just made up that phrase for the sake of context, as it’s not something that’s ever really discussed at length in any of the Trek shows. The Federation spans far enough you’d think that this amount of differentiation would come up on a somewhat routine basis—and, it should be mentioned, Bashir handles the challenge without acting like it’s completely beyond his abilities. And yet he and O’Brien treat this as something new. (Also, one of Melora’s defining traits is her isolation). It’s always funny when a Trek show takes a scientific idea it normally ignores, like, say, different atmospheres, and highlights it for a single episode. In a way, it’s like how Melora is hugely important to Bashir for this hour, even though we’ll never hear about her again.

Sigh. I guess I should talk about Melora, then. I wasn’t much impressed. Characters with disabilities, when they’re presented poorly, tend to go one of two ways: Either they’re of the helpful, friendly, “it’s okay if you feel awkward around me, I’m here to teach you life lessons” variety that I’m sure popped up on a half-dozen episodes of Full House; or else they’re the angry, chip-on-the-shoulder type that picks fights to prove they can “take it.” Melora lands in the latter category, and as soon as she arrives on the station she’s poking at everyone around her, obsessed with taking umbrage at the slightest hint she’s not capable of performing her duties. This makes her hard to take right from the start, especially considering she’s a stranger to us, a stranger who introduces herself by yelling, for no justifiable reason,  at characters we’ve come to care for. Later, the episode tries to soften Melora by first showing how her condition makes her vulnerable—she can fall and not get up—and then demonstrating how her struggles with adversity have driven her to remarkable achievements, like a talent for ordering food at a Klingon diner we’ve never seen before. Oh, and Bashir is totally into her, and we like Bashir, so that obviously means we should give a hoot about whatever Melora’s deal is.

I didn’t, though. I’m not sure how much is the actress’ fault and how much the writing; I suspect it’s a combination of both, but as written, I’m not sure the part is really playable. There’s a flaw that crops up whenever a writer tries to write about a character who has certain innate traits the writer can’t, for whatever reason, empathize with; to compensate, that writer will focus on constantly drawing attention to those traits. Like, if a clueless male writer wants to create a woman, you can expect a lot of talk about physical features and menstrual cycles, since, obviously, being a woman means you think about your boobs and your period all the freakin’ time. That’s the concern with the two aforementioned modes for dealing with so-called disabilities. Yes, being stuck in a wheelchair because you don’t have the muscles or skeletal structure to handle an environment with harsh gravity would be a big deal. But by making it the centerpiece of Melora’s characterization, it ensures she barely exists at all. People don’t tend to go around constantly remarking on aspects of their lives which have been with them for years. Melora is simply an expression of an idea, a symbol made irritating flesh, and, since she’s the one supposed to do all the dramatic heavy lifting here, that gives the episode no place to go.

Like I said, Quark’s plot is fun, although it exists largely so we can have a climax in which Melora uses her magical ability to navigate low-gravity to defeat a bad guy. At least the threat on Quark’s life gives us a scene with Odo, who is sadly missing from most of the festivities this week. (Maybe he and Kira were off having a “Zeppo” moment.) The main story, however, never manages to get off the ground. Bashir sees through Melora’s prickly surface nature (in a conversation which doesn’t play as condescending at all, no sir), the two fall for each other, they float for a while in the low gravity of her apartment. Then he comes up with a “cure,” and she immediately latches on to it, somehow never thinking to question if she really wants to do something to her body that would make it impossible for her to ever visit home again. After having her big moment on the runabout, she decides to forgo Bashir’s miracle treatment, because the ability to float reasonably well is too damn important for her to lose.

Plot summary is the last recourse of the reviewing damned, but I can’t even work up the energy to properly snark this. We did get some back-story from Bashir, which was unsurprising but well-delivered (he played tennis for a while because he watched a girl die), and, um, I mentioned Odo, right? Yeah, let’s move on.



The next in best and worst is Season 1.


6 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 2

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

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