ST:DS9 in 2019 : Season 4 (Part 3)

forthecause_233The third and final part of my capsule reviews for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s best season so far, season 4 (1995-1996). See parts 1 and 2.

4×18: Rules of Engagement: “The truth must be won. I’ll see you on the battlefield.”

All of Star Trek‘s episodes focused on trials have been highlights (except perhaps 1×08: Dax), and this one is no exception. Worf is on trial for firing on a civilian ship during a Federation-Klingon battle and killing 441 civilians; the Klingons want to use this opportunity to have Worf extradited to the Klingon Empire. The ship had decloaked suddenly in front of the Defiant and things were done in the heat of the battle. What is examined is whether Worf’s orders were justified; whether he acted in haste or could have been more cool-headed; whether Worf, at heart, is a Klingon warrior who was longing for a bloody battle to channel his pent up rage. The trial is chaired by a Vulcan, T’Lara; Sisko is the defendant, calm but with anger at the whole procedure boiling underneath the surface; Ch’Pok is the Klingon prosecutor, who uses every trick to elicit a reaction from Worf, both with hard evidence and with emotion by appealing to his Klingon side, even resulting in a fistfight. There are no two ways about it: as much as witnesses Dax, O’Brien and Quark might try and help Worf, Ch’Pok corners them and builds an image of someone who has lost his honour in his homeworld and wants to prove to the world that he is not weak. Ultimately, it’s at the very last moment that Odo’s investigation bears fruit and reveals the Klingon manipulation to frame Worf: the civilian ship was empty, the 441 dead were from a recent accident that happened elsewhere. The last scene is particularly well-written, with Worf confessing to Sisko that indeed his behaviour was less than what is expected of him as a Starfleet command officer, and Sisko lecturing Worf abouot the responsibility of wearing that uniform. Worf concludes: “Life is a great deal more complicated in this red uniform.

Ch’Pok’s (played by Ron Canada) methodic dictation and complete confidence of his victory makes him a very memorable guest star. The directing (by LeVar Burton – Geordi himself) is also memorable, with witnesses breaking the fourth wall, staring directly at the camera while remembering events, the camera revolving around them, then shifting to the action as it happened during the same shot. The writing is by the winning team of Ronald D. Moore and DS9 newcomers David Weddle & Bradley Thompson, their first collaboration; all three would be main writers in Battlestar Galactica. One of the season’s highlights!

T’Lara was Deborah Strang, who was the unfortunate genetically predisposed killer B.J. Morrow in The X-FilesAubrey.

4×19: Hard Time: “I’m not your friend! The O’Brien that was your friend died in that cell!”

This was a particularly heavy episode. It’s the annual “Miles must suffer” episode where O’Brien has post-traumatic stress disorder — no time for comedy at all here. On an exploration mission, he was captured for espionage and summarily condemned, with the sentence being nothing more than spending a few hours in a clinic with drugs — but under their influence it felt as if he spent twenty years imprisoned in very difficult conditions. We follow both his subjective point of view during his past imprisonment and his return to the station in the present. He still has visions of his cellmate Ee’char but hides it to everyone else; information is revealed to us progressively, for maximum dramatic effect. We assume that something went very wrong in his relationship with (imaginary!) Ee’char, but before we see it we see how they bonded in their misery during their shared captivity. In the present, Ee’char’s appearances are like ghosts of the past not letting the Chief return to his normal life, remorse he cannot let go of, reminders that under extreme stress he did not hold up to the ideal of how a Starfleet officer should behave. He is distant to his fellow officers, cold to Keiko, a nervous wreck, depressed, but refusing to take a break from work. We ultimately learn that Miles “killed” Ee’char over a piece of food during their forced famine.

Miles will need time to recover from this experience, there are no simple technological solutions here. (I would say the same should have applied to Sisko in 4×03: The Visitor, who also lived a long subjective time while a short objective time passed.) Now, for all its more serialized storytelling compared to TNG, DS9 is still telling relatively self-contained stories in its episodes, so I have no doubt that in the next episodes there might be some passing reference to Miles’ experience but not much more. Still, as a result this individual episode has a much stronger emotional impact than if it were spread thin over a half-year arc; it is a good compromise, serialization can have drawbacks too.
Exteriorly Miles is the same, but the damage is inside, as with all psychological trauma. A very strong case study of psychological trauma; once more DS9 tackles mature themes in a mature manner.

Another excellent episode by the series second main writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe.

4×20: Shattered Mirror: “I look at Jake and all I see is the son that I’ll never have.”

Another Mirror Universe episode. I appreciate what they are doing with these, building a parallel storyline, visiting it once a year. I’m just not convinced any of it is “necessary”, nor particularly entertaining or entertaining enough. Once more, we catch up with all the events that happened since the last time (3×19: Through the Looking Glass), we get Sisko getting his comeuppance due to his action last time (he gets punched by Bashir and Dax), we get sexy Intendant Kira again, we get another Ferengi being a traitor and meeting his end (Nog), we get our share of surprises with discovering Warrior Worf and his chained pet Garak, and we get action sequences with a Mirror!Defiant attacking the Klingons. The more original parts are that Jake comes along with Ben this time, and Jake develops an immediate friendship with Mirror!Jennifer. Jake seems completely relaxed with the fact that this is not his real mother — I thought psychologically this would be very weird for him, but these 24th century kids are used to everything. By the end of the episode, Ben helps save the rebels once more, and Mirror!Jennifer dies in front of Ben and Jake. Again, this should have major psychological consequences, which will be ignored because at the same time the series is developing Ben and Kasidy Yates‘ relationship instead of Ben still thinking of the past. Oh well.

4×21: The Muse: “The day I met her is the day I stopped being alone.”

Two stories in this episode, each with equal weight (no A/B stories), none with sufficient importance to make a good story.

In one, Lwaxana Troi appears and she is married and pregnant with a humanoid whose culture says that the child is taken from the mother at birth, so she tries to divorce him following that culture’s rules, Odo volunteers to be the one she marries for that, and Odo has to convince everyone of his genuine love for her, which he does. Odo and Lwaxana have a friendship built on mutual respect, you have to wonder here whether Odo has also unrequited romantic love for her. How did Lwaxana get into such a situation? How did the writers come up with such a situation? Why did Majel Barrett push for such an episode to be made? Why was this episode approved? The mysteries of love.

In the other, Jake‘s writing is explored. He encounters a “muse” that gives him techniques for inspiration and writing, involving an addictive massage, but while doing so she “sucks” the “brain energy” out of him like a leech. A lot of magic here — is this still Star Trek? She did that with Earth writers of the past as well, all of whom died young, like John Keats. Jake writes easily, in a stream of consciousness sort of manner, starting the book that we see is his big success in the future of 4×03: The Visitor! A story that could have been more interesting.

4×22: For the Cause: “Nobody leaves paradise”

It’s back to heavy stuff with this one, an episode that that carries just as much importance as a double episode or a season finale, I did not expect as much for a random single episode so close to the end of the season. In short, Kasidy Yates and Commander Eddington are revealed to be Maquis agents, shaking Sisko’s world!

In this episode you can really feel all the world-building set up in previous episodes paying off in satisfying and tragic ways. This episode would not have been possible without the introduction of the Maquis, the macro-politics of a weakened Cardassia, the Sisko-Yates romance, the occasional appearance of Eddington, and enough time passing in-between to make the revelations here carry a lot of weight. Not that everything was planned in advance (I see you, Battlestar Galactica and your Plan!), but surprises come organically. Looking back at the characters of Yates and Eddington, there’s nothing before this episode that lets you think this is where they were headed or that they were hiding their real allegiance. Looking back doesn’t bring any particular satisfaction of connecting any dots. But it’s not spoiling anything either.

The revelations are brought about progressively. We first see that Sisko is very happy and in love with Yates; and that Eddington is working well with Odo and others. When suspicions arise that Yates is smuggling material to the Maquis, Sisko is initially outraged, but he quickly collects himself and takes every precaution necessary to find out if it’s really true; he is in love but takes no chances. While we are made to concentrate on Yates, with the Defiant following her to catch her red-handed, we get the second revelation: Sisko (and the audience) have been duped, Sisko was made to leave DS9 so that Eddington can get his hands more easily on the bigger target, a shipment of industrial-size replicators. (Does that mean that Yates had agreed to be the sacrificial lamb here, or did she expect to escape unharmed, perhaps fleeing with the Maquis?)

The episode’s climax is a speech by Eddington to Sisko via video link. His usual introvert bland self is gone, he is fierce and authoritative. He does not quite explain why he first joined the Maquis, but for him the unfair way the Federation treats the Maquis just because they left the Federation, while treating the Cardassians as potential future Federation members, is reason enough to reject the Federation wholesale. His speech echoes that of Calvin Hudson in the original 2×20/21: The Maquis episodes, with the use of the word “paradise” for the Federation:

We’ve left the Federation, and that’s the one thing you can’t accept. Nobody leaves paradise. Everyone should want to be in the Federation. Hell, you even want the Cardassians to join. You’re only sending them replicators because one day they can take their ‘rightful place’ on the Federation Council. You know, in some ways you’re even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation. You’re more insidious. You assimilate people and they don’t even know it.

With that, Eddington escapes. Yates has betrayed Sisko’s trust however they are still in love with each other despite what happened. They share a last kiss as Sisko has her arrested. “I’ll be back” / “I’ll be here” (almost sounds like “I love you” “I know“): I do expect her to return at some point!

The Federation boasts itself as this peaceful paradise of self-actualization, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations“, but for someone standing outside of it its uniformity and its mere existence as a big powerful bloc can be seen as a menace. If it is so tolerant, why not accept reluctance to join it? (I want to make a Brexit joke here but it’s no laughing matter whichever way you cut it.) That does not mean that this episode justifies the Maquis fully, Sisko still considers them as terrorists due to their methods, but once again DS9 makes a point of inserting subjectivity and relativism in Star Trek‘s worldview. By making the “traitors” as close to home as Eddington and Yates, the viewer is forced to consider the opposite point of view, more than if it had been a guest star of the week. Sure, the episode is good because of its surprising twists, but does this narrative experiment cheapen the Star Trek universe and its belief that utopia is possible? I can see where that argument might come from. DS9 shows shades of grey where TOS/TNG were more black-and-white. However, in the same season, DS9 also affirmed the Federation’s ideals back on Earth (Homefront/Paradise Lost). Presenting a different point of view does not cancel what the Federation is attempting to do; utopia is, after all, a work in progress.

A rich and complex episode, signed by Mark Gehred-O’Connell (who also did… the quite awful 3×08: Meridian!) and the ever-reliable Ron Moore.

Meanwhile! Garak is timidly fascinated with Ziyal, Dukat’s daughter and the only other Cardassian on the station. At times it’s a bit spooky, as if he were a paedophile stalker, but it’s more innocent than that: both outcasts, they are both looking for company. They bond in a holosuite of a Cardassian sauna, lying on heated rocks like lizards.

4×23: To the Death: “Victory is life”

The Defiant crew teams up with a Vorta (Weyoun) and a team of Jem’Hadar on a mission — we have come very far since the Jem’Hadar were first introduced nearly two seasons ago! The episode mainly focuses on the radical differences between how Starfleet and the Jem’Hadar deal with things: maintaining order, following orders from superiors, enforcing punishment for disobeying orders. The Jem’Hadar are super-harsh, even more based on violence and military self-sacrifice than the Klingons — actually they get on Worf‘s nerves for calling everyone weak and Worf gets on a fight, and Sisko has to suspend him for disobeyance (instead of killing him as the Jem’Hadar rule would go). Interestingly, when they prepare for battle, Starfleet are motivated by the hope that they will continue to be alive afterwards; the Jem’Hadar consider themselves dead already and so have to fight for the right to become alive again: “I am First Omet’iklan, and I am dead. As of this moment, we are all dead. We go into battle to reclaim our lives. This we do gladly, for we are Jem’Hadar. Remember, victory is life.

They are together for a mission, but it’s very clear they have nothing in common and will be just as glad remaining apart. This is not the sort of mission that ends up opening options for a large anti-Founders alliance. Indeed, even an alliance with a rebellion of the Jem’Hadar seems out of the question. The common mission is to eliminate a rebel group of Jem’Hadar, who are trying to repair a newly discovered Iconian gateway (the Stargate-like ancient portal discovered in TNG 2×11: Contagion). With the gateway, they would be a threat to the Dominion and, given their genetically programmed violent nature, a threat to the Federation as well. The final act of the episode develops very quickly, with the attack on the rebels, the destruction of the gateway and the tense separation of the group. The Jem’Hadar execute the Vorta too — the hold the Dominion has of them is full of tensions. Even after this mission, they will still be enemies. A solid episode further developing many things on the Jem’Hadar we knew already.

The second Jem’Hadar is Brian Thompson, none other than the Alien Bounty Hunter in The X-Files (and, among other roles, The Terminator‘s first victim)!

4×24: The Quickening: It’s even more arrogant to think there isn’t a cure just because you couldn’t find it.”

This one is an story that is as stand-alone as it can get, and DS9 rarely does one of those any more. I found it was one of the series’ best episodes, so despite all of DS9‘s efforts to tell interconnected stories there’s still a lot to say in the defense of the stand-alone story!

The first part of the episode is like your typical Star Trek: visit planet, encounter problem, try to solve problem. Dr. Bashir tries to find a cure for a plague that is decimating an entire planet; the plague is an artificial virus that is punishment for the planet rebelling against the Dominion (the Dominion has a lot of viruses and genetic experiments, that was a general trend in 1990s science fiction!). He doesn’t manage yet still tries, and one could expect the episode to end like that, on an uncertain note, just celebrating how good a Starfleet officer Bashir is, working for the greater good.

But it’s the second part, or rather the last act really, that elevates this episode. Bashir tries and fails and tries again. People die on him. People accuse him of being a charlatan, and turn to the local euthanasia expert. Bashir’s doing this not only because of his Starfleet training but also because of his bruised ego: how could he not find a solution in a few days? Months pass (cool that he could take time off from DS9 so easily!). The scope of the episode has a cinematic quality to it. And ultimately, his attempts bear fruit: the first cured person is the newborn baby of the woman that has been with him since the beginning of the episode, who dies at childbirth. Bashir’s cure will work for the next generation, but anyone living is still condemned to die. It’s a bittersweet victory and Bashir doesn’t quite feel he has done his best, although in the long term he will have made a difference. The episode is like a summarized illustration of the scientific process: long, tortuous efforts, slow progress, small individual contributions that drive long-term change, no easy heroes. Excellent! Written by Naren Shankar, TNG/DS9‘s science advisor, and future showrunner of The Expanse!

One of the patients is Dylan Haggerty, who will later be the trans-dimensional serial killer Lukesh in The X-Files4-D.

4×25: Body Parts: “For a man who wants to kill himself you are strangely determined to live”

A Ferengi episode that had some good laughs but was not exceptional. Quark gets news that he has a terminal illness and tries to raise capital by selling his body in pieces, as Ferengi customs go. It turns out Quark is not dying but it’s a ploy by that slimy Ferengi bureaucrat, Brunt, to put Quark in a difficult spot: suicide to honour the contract of selling the body parts, or break the contract and thus be ostracized from Ferengi society. Quark hesitates, even has a dream where the first Grand Nagus explains to him that the Rules of Acquisition were rather Suggestions and can be broken. Already with the union episode earlier this season (Bar Association) Quark has been through so much; he breaks the contract. His bar is closed, all his possessions are taken away from him. Like so many other DS9 denizers, Odo, Worf, Garak, he has become an outcast from his society. His DS9 “friends” show solidarity and in a sentimental scene all gift him new furniture and drinks and everything necessary for him to start his bar going again — because of course this had to happen. It’s nice and cute, but altogether a bit too artificial and forced here.

Meanwhile! One of DS9‘s most ludicrous stories. A shuttle accident results in Bashir transferring Keiko‘s unborn baby…into Kira. Yes, that was simpler than a) losing the baby; b) put it in an incubator, since he removed it from Keiko anyway; c) having an in vitro gestation, surely within the technological reach of 24th century medicine; d) if you have to transfer it, transfer it at least in a human woman, or even a human man (Junior had come out two years before this episode), any human would be much more compatible that an alien. Since this was done in order to accommodate the real-life pregnancy of Nina Visitor, I expect this will continue to be a story, but for me it must be the most WTF moment in all Star Trek.

4×26: Broken Link: “Oh, poor Odo.”

It’s back to the Dominion “mythology” for the season finale. Odo gets very sick and starts losing his form, to the point where the crew sees no other way than to take him to the world of the Founders for a cure. It turns out this happened for a reason: Odo was “recalled” in order to be tried for his murder of a Changeling exactly a season ago. The trial happens inside the Great Link “sea” of liquid Changelings, where amazingly they do keep their individuality somehow. The sentence: Odo is ostracized, and turned into…a solid! He has lost all connection the Great Link, but has gained the ability to do all the things humanoids do that he never could, like eating, or exploring sex.

There’s the teasing of a romantic relationship for Odo with a human woman, introduced to him by Garak. It’s a bit awkward, I guess writers were thinking that they have to give Odo something now that Kira is taken once more. In general, romance in DS9 is often shoehorned in and not very thought out, with the exception of the Sisko-Yates relationship.

There’s also a whole sub-plot with Garak emerging from his humble tailor role to an attempt to become a martyr by bombing and annihilating the Founders — as always, Andrew Robinson is awesome and gets the best lines.

It’s a surprising fate for Odo, now he is truly an outcast. It’s the sort of sharp change for a character that this season has been doing a lot, taking bold irreversible decisions that are not what TNG had accustomed us to. It’s also a bit magical, in a sort-of reverse Pinocchio way. (Can the Founders also convert Data into a real boy?) Apart from the surprise in itself, it’s also a weird decision in general: Odo has been “downgraded” to a human and loses that special status he had of being the only Changeling in the Federation’s side, thereby losing his significance in the larger story that DS9 is telling. From a character point of view it’s an interesting change but from the macro-story point of view I wonder where they will take this.

This wouldn’t be a cliffhanger without the very last scene: seeing a video of Gowron announcing more Klingon belligerence, Odo recognizes him as one of the Founders! This confirms some of my suspicions in how Klingons accused Cardassians of being corrupted by the Founders back in 4×01/02: The Way of the Warrior! So, next season: will the DS9 crew be able to weed Gowron out? Will the Klingon Empire survive this revelation? Not the season’s best episode but a very good season finale.

Overall, season 4 of DS9 is way better than season 3, which was already a vast improvement over seasons 1-2. There are some missteps: all the Kira romancing, and again with Kira’s pregnancy — too bad I mention Kira twice here because Nina Visitor‘s acting has improved a lot since the beginning! Sure it has many excellent episodes and few stinkers, but it’s really the overall quality of the writing and the tone that has improved, consistently in all episodes. Surely, all this is linked to the impetus of new showrunner Ira Stephen Behr and to his group of writers, like his right-hand-man Robert Hewitt Wolfe, TNG recruits Ronald D Moore and René Echevarria, and new recruits such as Michael Taylor, Bradley Thompson and David Weddle (all future staff writers for Battlestar Galactica!). It’s also the season of the actors behind the camera: many episodes are directed by LeVar Burton, René Auberjonois, Avery Brooks. This increase in quality did not translate in higher viewership, however. Meanwhile! VOY was in its second season and TNG movies continued with the release of First Contact right after this 1995-1996 season.

The writing is better, but how about that long-running comparison with Babylon 5? B5 season 3 aired simultaneously with DS9 s4, and if there was every any doubt that B5 was better planned out than DS9 then this season completely, undeniably proves it. DS9 has developed its own world and explores it at its leisurely pace with what are essentially semi-independent episodes included in an evolving macro whole (for example the Homefront two-parter). B5 season 3, all of it written by a single individual, went all in in the war with its equivalent of the Dominion and paid off the build-up of season 1-2. Apparently, much of the increased focus on Klingons in DS9 s4 was brought about by the studio in attempts to spice things up and increase viewership, like a “diversion” from the main Dominion storyline. So, certainly B5 “was there first”, but that’s all fine especially since DS9 s4 turned out so well! On to s5 then.


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