Two-Year Mission: “Soldiers of the Empire”

I’m not sure what the most impressive thing about Deep Space Nine has been for me, but the rehabilitation of the Klingon storyline ranks way up there. I realized, watching this episode, that what used to be one of the most interminable facets of Trek — one that always made me groan with dread when it appeared on my queue — has become somehow interesting and exciting.

Klingons never really seemed to have a place in The Next Generation; nor, for that matter, did Worf. A race that had long been treated as a metaphor for Cold War Russia struggled to find meaning in a show dedicated to embodying the height of the Pax Americana after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And while the idea of Worf was great in the abstract — wow, a prominent Klingon officer on the Enterprise! — he always felt adrift, lost in bad storylines and abused by the writers’ tendency to puff up the threats-of-the-week by having them punk the poor guy. I was pretty skeptical when he joined the cast of DS9, but he’s turned out to be far more at home here than he ever was on TNG… despite initially being aloof to the point that he lived on the Defiant rather than the station. And the Klingons, it turns out, work best as uneasy allies to the Federation when they actually have something to be allied against.

“Soldiers of the Empire” shows off DS9‘s (and, maybe more to the point, script writer Ronald D. Moore’s) understanding of both Klingons and Worf. The episode opens by making a deliberate point of it, as O’Brien regurgitates stereotypes about the miserable brutality of military service on a Klingon cruiser (much of it traced from the outline of Riker’s experience on TNG‘s “A Matter of Honor”)… only to be slapped down by Dax, a character who has far deeper ties to Klingon culture than anyone else on the series (arguably even Worf). The entire episode adds texture to the Klingon race. Nuance, even.

The premise for “Soldiers of the Empire” builds on the recent two-parter, as the Klingon general whom Worf helped liberate from the Dominion (General Martok) recruits him to serve as his first officer on a mission to determine what happened to a K’tinga warship believed to have come under fire by the Dominion. Unfortunately, Martok’s two-year ordeal in a prison camp have enervated him, which doesn’t sit well with his crew. Worf (and Dax, who tags along to play her usual role of leavening Klingon plotlines with an outside yet informed perspective) has to walk a difficult tightrope between his respect for Martok and the growing discontent of the Bird of Prey’s crew.

Ultimately, the episode ends with Worf being defeated once again in combat. But his loss doesn’t feel cheap like it always did on TNG. That’s because his loss is his choice. He throws the fight, subtly and at great risk to himself, in order to improve Martok’s stock among the crew and reignite the general’s bloodlust. This really gets to the heart of what makes Worf as a character unique when used by a strong writer: Adherence to Klingon honor mitigated by the compassion and selflessness that embodies the best ideals of the Federation. It’s easily one the strongest stories Worf has ever enjoyed, made all the better by the fact that the episode doesn’t telegraph or broadcast his loss. It happens quickly, and it’s only once other characters comment on his choice to throw the fight that it becomes clear that he stoically took a knife for the sake of a man he admires. And I have to admit, I actually got a little choked up at the end, as Worf’s seasons-long tale of familial dishonor finally arrived at a happy conclusion. In short, a brilliant episode that a few seasons ago I would have dreaded.

Image credit: Trek Core