Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Siege Of AR-558"/"Covenant"

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Siege Of AR-558"/"Covenant"

“The Siege Of AR-558” (Season 7, episode 8; originally aired 11/18/1998)

In which we meet some names...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

War is hell. Everyone remember that? War is a definitely no good awful very bad thing. There might be people who would disagree with this; I am not one of them. And for the most part, I appreciate the writers of Deep Space Nine’s commitment to making sure we never forget that no one is having fun during the Dominion War. After a brief, weird scene in Vic Fontaine’s holo-club (Rom is auditioning to be Vic’s opening act, because apparently Rom is an idiot who doesn’t realize he’s not a hologram, and Vic doesn’t explain the problem until after Rom sings a terrible version of “The Lady Is A Tramp”), we find Sisko once again reading through the latest casualty reports, explaining that he feels it’s the least he can do; trying to honor the sacrifices of the dead by brushing against their memory. And there you basically have the theme of the whole episode: even as we focus on Sisko and the rest of the regular ensemble, Starfleet personnel are dying, every day, every hour. Sometimes it’s necessary to check in with the grunts in the trenches and remember that all this grand adventure comes at a dirty, irrevocable cost.

“The Siege Of AR-558” works well enough. But there’s something a little familiar about it; DS9 hasn’t done a ton of stories set on the front lines, but even so, there are only so many times we can wallow in the muck of battle before there needs to be a new angle. I don’t want to stress this criticism too much, because there’s enough good here to make up for the familiarity, and because I don’t automatically object to a show tackling the same theme multiple times, especially not if the theme is as inherently powerful as this one is. Yet the familiarity remains. While the tones are vastly different, it reminds me of the Nog subplot from last week, the trading storyline that the show has used before. Season seven has been better than I was expecting so far (and, bad spots aside, it’s more consistent than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s final season), but it’s not hard to spot signs of a writers’ room that’s gotten a little comfortable with old routines.

That said, once things get up and running, this turns into a grim but lively adventure story, complete with debate over the ethics of war, a dude who wears ketracel white vials around his neck as trophies (in a way that’s supposed to bring to mind American soldiers wearing ears from the Vietcong, but fails to be even remotely as disturbing, and mostly just comes off as silly), and subspace mines, which appear without warning thanks to the miracle of terrifying science. While not afraid to get heavy, the episode is smart enough to recognize that the constant threat of a Jem’Hadar attack, combined with the Starfleet soldiers’ exhaustion and morale problems, is as much a good story hook as it is a piece of social commentary. You never forget how miserable and unhappy and stressed everyone is, but that doesn’t make it lessing thrilling when Ezri and Kellin (Bill Mumy, former child actor and occasional adult guest star) figure out how to uncover the hundreds of mines floating around the complex; and while half of the characters we meet for the first time here end up dead, it’s still satisfying when Sisko decides to use the newly uncovered mines against the oncoming enemy.

As for Quark having to kill to protect his wounded nephew, well, I’m not sure if “satisfying” is the word I’d use. It depends on how you read his arc. Quark can be a deeply irritating character, as he’s the only one on the show routinely at odds with just about everyone. In the right (or wrong) situation, he becomes the dissonant voice in a sea of harmony, refusing to back down or compromise even as his relentless criticism and complaints infuriate everyone around him. Sometimes this can seem forced, like his constant whinging during Worf’s quest to get Jadzia her rightful place in Sto-Vo-Kor. But his criticisms of war, and his frustration over Nog’s unquestioning love of soldiering, are more complex than simple selfishness. Again and again, he raises issues which deserve to be raised, and while I won’t argue his doubts and anger is “right,” exactly, the episode makes the smart move of never entirely coming down on one side or the other. He tells Nog that the Ferengi would’ve settled the conflict with the Dominion through negotiation, and saved countless lives. That sounds like cowardice (an accusation I doubt Quark would care to deny), and who knows if it would be possible to come to an arrangement that both parties could live with, but there is something about the Federation’s do-or-die approach that deserves to be questioned. Quark’s assessment of humanity—we’re nice when we’re well fed and comfortable, but take our toys away and we turn mean in a hurry—is hard to argue with. The fact that even Quark is willing to kill to protect his own is an acknowledgement that anyone will resort to violence under the right circumstances; whether or not you take that as a criticism of Quark’s anti-war stance, an affirmation of it, or simply a way to show that war is a situation which inevitably forces people to make impossible choices, is up to you.

I like that. While “Siege” is never very subtle about its main point (ignoring the aside at Vic’s, the episode begins and ends with Sisko talking about the casualty reports), it withholds judgement on everything else, which makes sense; if we’re supposed to be commemorating all those faceless hundreds who die each week, it’s better to see them as individuals rather than talking points. While the various characters Sisko, Bashir, and Ezri meet aren’t incredibly complex, none of them are set up to prove anything, or punished for their failings. Vargas (Raymond Cruz, aka Tuco from Breaking Bad, all sweaty, angry desperation) is unhinged, raging, and terrified. But he gets a scene with Bashir when we learn how much all the death has cost him, and how much effort it’s taking for him to hold on even as much as he has. Reese (Patrick Kilpatrick), the guy with the trophy necklace, is introduced as a badass, someone Nog instantly hero-worships; but instead of him dying to teach Nog a lesson about the futility of “heroes” in war, he lives, and turns out to be a pretty decent guy. And Lt. Larkin (Annette Helde), the woman in charge of the bunch, is determined, forceful, and competent. Her death is maybe the most surprising, because it just happens, without any major drama—Nog and Reese are too busy trying to survive to mourn her.

That’s really the episode’s biggest strength: while there’s a pall of sadness and strain hanging over the episode, there’s never really time to process any of this—the grief never goes away, and while the names change, the end result is a constant, so there’s no chance to move on. Quark snipes at Sisko over Nog’s injury, and Sisko shouts back that he cares about every soldier under his command, and that’s an impossible position. It’s necessary, but it would drive you insane. The Trek franchise has always been about smart people doing their best in tight spots, but one of the lessons of Deep Space Nine has always been that this isn’t always going to be enough. There are situations which no degree of compassion, intelligence, and courage can resolve. The unit stationed on AR-558 is trying to protect a captured Dominion communications array. The array could be an invaluable source of information, provided anyone can figure out how the machine works, which is why the unit has been stuck in place for months without reprieve, waiting to be rotated away from the front lines. But the value of the array is purely theoretical. It’s possible no one will ever determine how to hack into it. Our heroes win the fight, but it could all be for nothing; and when Worf tries to reassure Sisko, “This was a great victory. One worthy of story and song,” Sisko can only reply, “It cost enough.” There’s not anything else to say.

Stray observations:

  • What I love about thae exchange between Worf and Sisko is that Worf’s comment doesn’t come across as facile or shallow; the Klingon has seen his share of battle and loss, and he justifies those experiences with a faith in the value of a “great victory.” It’s just not a faith Sisko shares.

  • Every time the casualty reports come up, I remember “In The Pale Moonlight.” Still impressed how the show has never mentioned that again.

  • Sisko and Quark spar a lot, but while in another other situation, Sisko would have the clear moral authority, here, things are murkier. “I bet you wouldn’t send Jake out there,” Quark tells him. “Jake isn’t a Starfleet officer,” Sisko tells him, which is, and isn’t, an answer.

  • “Captain. The kid did all right,” Reese tells Sisko. It’s about Nog, and it’s a little troubling how good that kind of praise feels.

  • Oh, and Ezri once again talks about her multiple past lives. I realize she’s a Trill, and that Dax has been through a lot, but I’m not sure this is the best way to build a character.

“Covenant” (season 7, episode 9; originally 11/25/1998)

In which Dukat is in the corner, in the spotlight, building his religion...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Ah, so this is why everyone was complaining about where Dukat ended up.

Some failed stories are so shoddy, so sloppily constructed, so fundamentally misguided and inept that they’re easy to dismiss; you watch, say, a given chunk of the second season of The Walking Dead (which had a few strong episodes but was largely one hell of a slog), and you can see writers struggling to fill time without any good idea of how to do it. But some stories have a strong enough idea at their core that it’s possible to understand how a creative team could’ve fallen in love with them, to their (and our) misfortune.

The last we saw Dukat, he’d communed with a Pah-Wraith, killed Jadzia, and temporarily saved the day for the Dominion. But that wasn’t an end-point for the character, and given how important Dukat has been to the series on the whole, it would’ve been weird for him to disappear without at least one more guest appearance.

What do you do with Dukat, though? He’s been a bureaucrat, a military leader, a rebel; he’s been victorious, and he’s lost, and he’s sworn vengeance numerous times. The Dominion no longer trusts him, and Damar has taken his place as the ruler of Cardassia (a role Damar doesn’t appear to get much pleasure out of these days). Dukat’s arrogance and drive wouldn’t let him turn himself over to the Federation, nor is it possible to see him serving obediently as a minor cog in the empire he once ruled. So he’s gone freelance with the villainy, but that still isn’t quite enough. Dukat has an ego, and an ego requires an audience; he needs a place, a context to establish himself at the center of. Which creates a problem for the writers, because what new context can they introduce which hasn’t been done before? Make Dukat the head of a duplicitous theater troupe? Make him a pirate? (Weird how I went to “theater troupe” before “pirate.”) “Actor” or “common criminal” doesn’t have the right ring to it. Dukat would demand something with bombast, something that would help him maintain his conviction that he is right in all things, and the sooner the universe comes around to accepting that, the happier everyone will be.

Making Dukat the leader of a cult devoted to worshipping the Pah-Wraiths makes sense, then. His constant belief in himself, and his way of shifting the past until he comes out looking like a hero means he’s a man who’s more than capable of the sort of self-mythologizing necessary to bring in the suckers; and his encounter with the Pah-Wraith, and the massive (if temporary) effect that encounter had on Bajoran faith, gives him enough mystique to draw in the vulnerable and the soul-weary. It’s a development that can be justified in terms of logic, and that’s always a deadly spot for writers because once you back yourself into it—and especially once you think you can get a whole good episode out of the idea—it must be nearly impossible to back out. Maybe no one involved even realized it wasn’t going to work. Maybe all the rational reasons for why all of this makes sense made it possible to ignore the rotting, unpleasant truth.

Because “Covenant” doesn’t work, despite being well-acted, fitfully entertaining, and character-consistent. And it’s frustrating to watch because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this fails. Kira squaring off against Dukat is always good for some laughs (and by “laughs” I mean “tense, occasionally skin-crawl-inducing drama”), and it’s not as though Dukat is playing against character here. In a way, it’s fascinating; there’s a line between “religious Dukat” and “conniving bastard Dukat,” but while the latter ultimately takes precedence, it’s entirely possible that the former still exists. For much of the episode, Dukat appears to be at peace with his new place in life, and the Bajorans he’s pulled in to follow his path (the cult believes that the Pah-Wraiths, not the wormhole aliens, are the true Prophets, and all the horrible things which have happened to Bajor happened because everyone was following the wrong gods) are all deeply committed to his cause. That’s not to say the cultists can’t have been fooled—they have been, which becomes imminently clear when the one of them gives birth to Dukat’s baby, and he pretends it’s a sign from the Pah-Wraiths. But there’s a weird sort of sincerity to his selfishness. As ever, he makes monstrous decisions (the climax of the episode has him attempting to convince the entire cult to commit suicide on religious grounds, and using a fake poison to save himself), but those decisions are filtered through a new set of justifications. He’s not just a lusty, vengeful psychotic. He has a mission from the gods—and he, like Sisko, is their Emissary. In one of the episode’s more gratifyingly subtle moments, Dukat uses the e-word only once, but it echoes through the rest of the story. Over and over, Dukat tries to prove himself to be more than he is, and over and over he’s brought down by his worst impulses.

Maybe that’s the problem, then. I have no desire to see Dukat “redeemed;” I don’t think such a thing is possible in light of his crimes, and an arc that has him locked away in a prison somewhere (or executed, although I’m not sure if the Federation even does that) doesn’t appeal much either. He gives good villain, and he was arguably the most interesting when our heroes were forced to deal with him even as they despised him. But this shtick gets old after a while, and this episode, which purports to deal in questions of faith and meaning, doesn’t have much depth. Dukat, for all his changes, is a static figure at his core: to admit just how monstrous he was during the Occupation would mean destroying his entire sense of self, and as much as he’s earned such a painful reckoning, it’s never going to happen. If we’ve learned nothing else about the character, we know that Dukat is a master at self-justification. Seeing him all benevolent and supposedly wise doesn’t change this, and while the discovery that he’s been sleeping around a bit makes for a good joke (that Cardassian baby made me laugh), it’s not dramatically engaging anymore. This is just a new set of clothes on the same old plotline; Dukat acts like he’s not a dick, but he’s still a dick, rinse, repeat.

Still, that could’ve been effective if the Bajorans Kira meets after being beamed away to Empok Nor were compelling in their own right. The main suspense of the story should come not from the chance that Dukat might have changed, or the possibility that Kira might turn her back on her faith (which, c’mon), but from the hope that the cultists will realize the truth before it’s too late. And they do, although it’s a very close call, and not all of them can handle the realization. Vedek Fala (Norman Parker) helps Dukat kidnap Kira off the station, and out of everyone we meet, he’s the most convinced of the righteousness of their cause; so when Dukat turns out to be a sham, and Fala poisons himself anyway, there’s a tragedy to that, especially in light of the fact that, as Kira explains, we don’t know for sure why Fala did what he did—was it grief, or a conviction that his faith mattered more than logic? Ambiguity is good, tragedy is good, but the conflict never gets beyond the shouting stage. Not that Fala shouts, exactly, but his adamant convictions, set against Kira’s own rock-solid belief, making for tedious, pointless arguments.

The only other characters to get much screentime are the victims of Dukat’s unfortunately nocturnal predilections. Married couple Mika (Maureen Flannigan) and Benyan (Jason Leland Adams) are irritatingly devout (at least Benyan is), but then Mika gives birth to a Cardassian, and all bets are off. Again: it’s kind of funny, in a mean sort of way, after everyone is so excited about the birth to see Benyan’s face fall when he realizes what probably happened, but it’s not enough. Neither character gets more than a cursory development, which is especially unsettling in Mika’s case; she has a private scene with Dukat, and he apologizes for his “transgressions” (before trying to smother her in an airlock, such a charmer), but it’s impossible to tell if she willingly cheated on her husband with the “charismatic” leader, or if this was a rape, or somewhere in between. She has no agency at all.

Really, apart from Fala, none of the cultists do, which means the episode quickly turns into waiting game for Dukat to finally betray himself enough for Kira to get the upper hand. There are too many scenes of Kira trying hopeless to talk some sense into the cultists, scenes which nominally attempt to create ambiguity by suggesting that the cultists are, in fact, happy with what they have and with their faith. But since we know from the start they’re wrong, the ambiguity doesn’t have any traction at all. “Covenant” isn’t a complete waste. Nana Visitor is great even in a story that limits her reactions, and Marc Alaimo is so excellent as Dukat that it’s almost worth getting a dud plotline like this just to see how he’ll handle it. But as far as character directions go, there’s little of value to be found here. It’s a bad choice just smart enough to look like a good one.

Stray observations:

  • Not sure what to make of the scene of Odo saying he wished he had faith in the Prophets, so he could attend services with Kira. It’s sweet of him, but dude, it’s okay if you don’t spend every waking minute together, y’know? 

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