It was something strange, I could not look away — I had to be there, I wanted to go.
I find myself having difficulty as I try to shift gears and write about Deep Space Nine. Where Voyager — and really, even DS9 up to this point — has a compact, episodic structure, this season of DS9 has been more or less a continuous storyline so far. There are stopping points every 45 minutes, of course, but even when an episode doesn’t end with “To Be Continued…,” that promise seems implied. So, I’m going to write about this block of episodes as a single unit, because they don’t really work well as standalones.
Another issue I’m having is that the tonal shift to a genuine war drama seems weirdly out of keeping for Star Trek. I’m trying to frame these episodes in the context of seeing them in the late ’90s, when they were produced. They would have read differently then. But a couple of years after these episodes aired, America’s leaders decided that the thing to do would be to embroil the country in perpetual, costly, unwinnable conflicts with grave consequences. It’s become hard for me to see much appeal in romanticizing war, especially in my utopian escapism.
And finally, this arc in particular ended with a lot of strangely abrupt developments that bother me more the longer I think about them.
All of this isn’t to say these episodes were bad! They were quite involving. I just have a lot of mixed feelings about them.
Anyway, this trio of stories basically exists to bring the Federation to the brink of disaster… then hand DS9 back to the good guys. The stakes keep getting higher. The Dominion sends a changeling to (literally) seduce Odo back to the Great Link, weakening the Federation’s allied remnants on DS9. Jake Sisko is unharmed, working as a neutral reporter, but Weyoun refuses to let him transmit any articles back to the Federation due to “unsuitable” language, e.g. referring to the Dominion forces on the station as “the occupation.” The Federation continues losing ships and personnel and wants to remove Sisko from Defiant so he can shuffle papers as an adjutant on Starbase 375 (or Starbase Imanok, if you prefer). And, finally, the Dominion has finally worked out how to deactivate the minefield at the mouth of the wormhole, meaning their military presence in the Alpha Quadrant is about to double.
Oh, but it gets worse: When the station’s resistance moves to prevent the Dominion from nullifying the minefield, Odo gets distracted by the lady shapeshifter and allows Rom to be captured attempting sabotage. Rom is sentenced to death, and as the hour draws near for the mines to come down, all the other Good Guys™ are put in detention as well to prevent any last-minute surprises. Meanwhile, Gul Dukat continues to use his daughter Ziyal as a lever to manipulate Kira. And the Cardassian second-in-command, Dumar, lacks Dukat’s sentimental streak, which creates an undercurrent of danger that runs beneath the thin veneer of congeniality Dukat maintains.
There’s a lot of talking and thinking for the first two-thirds of this episode block. The shift to a martial atmosphere is made striking through both the overt scenes (the Defiant crew cheering as yet another expended weapons battery is added to their mess hall trophy rack) as well as minor details (Sisko and his commanding admiral doing the traditional walk-and-talk through the Defiant‘s corridors, which unlike the Enterprise or Voyager‘s halls are not quite wide enough for two men to walk through comfortably side-by-side).
This all leads up to the final episode of the Dominion occupation arc, which sees Sisko and Defiant leading an all-out assault on DS9 in order to prevent the minefield from being taken offline. And I can sincerely say the conflict here is like nothing yet seen in Star Trek. A franchise in which space combat mostly consists of ponderous ships moving slowly and shooting beams at one another suddenly becomes an all-out engagement between dozens of on-screen ships, all mixing things up in a massive fracas involving both large-scale capital ships (e.g. Galaxy-class cruisers like the late, lamented Enterprise-D) and tiny assault craft. It’s more like something out of Star Wars, albeit less excitingly choreographed. But for an episode of a weekly television series? Impressive.
I’m not extraordinarily happy about the way the conflicts resolve themselves here, though. On the plus side, Quark finally overcomes his craven sense of self-preservation to help free Rom and the others from prison, which leads to a surprisingly convincing scene in which Quark goes mildly catatonic after gunning down two Jem’Hadar soldiers — he’s not a killer by nature, and his horror at his own actions rings true. The shapeshifter losing her hold over Odo by miscalculating the depths of his love for Kira is also a nice touch; she’s so confident in her righteousness and Odo’s conversion to the Founders’ way of existence that it doesn’t seem to occur to her that threatening to kill Kira is an extraordinarily self-defeating idea.
On the other hand, the Federation only manages to break through the Dominion lines because of yet another Klingon incursion out of nowhere — which is something like the fourth or fifth time that’s happened. Heck, this arc begins with Defiant luring two Jem’Hadar fighters to set them up for a surprise attack by Klingons. It’s getting a little predictable.
Despite all of this, including Rom finally having a chance to shut down DS9’s offensive capabilities, the Dominion collapses the minefield. Ultimately, Sisko saves the day with a literal deus ex machina: While attempting to make a last stand against about 3000 Dominion ships in the wormhole conduit, the “Prophets” speak to him and forbid him from dying here. He pushes back and insists they stop the Dominion, which they do — erasing the entire fleet from existence. It’s very convenient and not 100% convincing, because we’ve never really gotten a sense of what the wormhole aliens actually want. Sisko factors into their grand designs somehow, yes, and they punish him for his pushiness by somehow cursing him so that he’ll be unable to follow through with his plans to retire on Bajor (which we only heard about for the first time here). Maybe this will sit better with me once we have a better understanding of the wormhole entities and their ambitions, but for now, it feels like a cheat.
Equally frustrating is Ziyal’s final fate. As expected, her story doesn’t end well: Dumar guns her down in cold blood (in front of Dukat’s eyes, which seems like a reallllly bad idea) for her treachery. What does end up as a surprise is Dukat’s reaction to her death. A few months after threatening to kill the daughter he barely even knew existed for her refusal to evacuate DS9, Dukat is somehow rendered catatonic by her death. Sure, he’d been a doting papa these past few episodes, but the leap from “proud of her artwork” to “gibbering pathetically and heedless of being taken prisoner by Starfleet” is just a bit too much here — the show hasn’t quite done enough work yet to sell it. It’s an interesting shift in the status quo to have Dukat suddenly removed from the picture as the primary Dominion collaborator, and I honestly don’t know where his storyline will be going from here. But Ziyal was too good a character to be reduced to an implement for creating unearned man-pain, in my opinion.
So, an interesting set of episodes that doesn’t entirely work. I’m curious to know where DS9 goes from here, but I’m hoping it won’t all be melodramatic war saga from this point.