Two-Year Mission says: More like “Empok Noir,” amirite?
Nah, not really. Even though this episode is drenched in darkness and anxiety, it’s not really noir. More like horror, at least at first, and then it turns into something completely different. The big plot hook goes all the way back to the early days of Deep Space Nine, when DS9 itself felt alien and hostile. It’s a big, happy Federation waypoint now, of course, but the crew’s excursion to sister station Empok Nor serves as a reminder of where the show began — and the characters, too.
Although the writing here tends to broadcast its intentions a little broadly for the genre-savvy, I can’t really fault that in a continuity-heavy serial television context. When Cardassian expat Garak jokes around about how weird it is that everyone trusts him now, you can just tell that something’s going to happen to challenge that comfortable relationship with his stationmates. And when O’Brien, Garak, and Nog head off to Empok Nor with a whole lot of support staff we’ve never seen before, you can feel comfortable wagering against those background cast members never making it back to DS9 in one piece.
But, OK. It’s genre TV. The question is, what does “Empok Nor” do with the familiar pieces it constructs its plot from? And the answer turns out to be: Quite a lot.
Once the DS9 crew — the three foreground characters named above and the Federation equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers — sets foot on the eponymous abandoned Cardassian station, things immediately start to go bad. Garak leads the way to defuse booby-traps that have been left behind, keyed to activate in the presence of non-Cardassian DNA, but even so he can’t prevent a pair of literal sleeper agents from activating. They’re the Caradassian equivalent of the Special Air Service, flinty killers who stalk silently through the dim corridors of the station to take out the intruders.
Wow, that’s pretty bad! Right? Yes, it is, but it turns out that Garak is much, much worse. The sleeper agents are hopped up on Cardassian goofballs that heighten their drive to kill, and Garak accidentally stumbles into the bio-agent that set his estranged fellows on their murder spree. He makes short work of them, then kills off a few unarmed Federation agents for good measure, and tops off the day by abducting Nog in order to force O’Brien — whom, you will recall, spent time as an enlisted man killing Cardassians in the trenches of planetary combat before adopting a life of ennui in the Enterprise transporter room — to go face-to-face against him. For a second I though Garak was going to take down O’Brien and force Nog to go full Wesley Crusher, but no; in the end, O’Brien proves that he’s left the life of a soldier behind by winning the day with cunning.
It’s a compact, tense episode that does something interesting with O’Brien for once. He’s usually such a stick-in-the-mud, but here, he genuinely shines. Maybe Garak (who’s never once been in a bad episode, so far as I can recall) is the tide that lifts all ships. Anyway, this episode stands apart through the strength of a different look than usual (so dark, so moody), a self-contained script that plays on established character plot lines, and lots of great little details. Things like the way Empok Nor hangs at an odd angle in space — which of course makes no sense logically. Why would a derelict station be listing? What even is “listing” in space? But you know, you always kind of just assume ships and stations in Trek align themselves with, I dunno, the galactic or local solar plane. The idea of “cosmic north” has become such a given (kind of like artificial gravity) that when you see something violate that standard, it really causes it to feel unsettling and alien. Much like an abandoned Cardassian outpost, in fact.
Image source: Memory Alpha