“Blood Oath” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 3/27/1994)
In which a Trill’s gotta do with a Klingon’s gotta do
Well, whaddya know: After waxing rhapsodic last week about the redemption of Dax, and how much I’ve come to enjoy her presence on the show, we get another episode with our favorite Trill in the spotlight. But while “Blood Oath” gives us Klingons, drunken boasting, oaths of vengeance, and an evil albino, it also brings back Serious Dax, who we haven’t seen in a while. Serious Dax is conceptually fine, and the idea behind the episode— which hangs on just how much obligation Jadzia has to follow through on Curzon’s debts—has potential, but Terry Farrell is better suited to gentle sarcasm, whimsy, and brief fits of melancholy than she is to the sort of internal struggle she has to weather here. Her conflict over honor never plays out with the intensity it requires, and after a certain point, her role in the episode becomes almost irrelevant to the main action; as so often happens with episodic television the real drama is with the one-off guest stars.
And yet, even with all that, “Blood Oath” still works. I’ve got a soft spot for Klingon theatrics, developed back in the trenches of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and while I can’t buy Farrell as a warrior bad-ass, the ballad of Kang, Kor, and Koloth is as gripping as you’d expect. Because so much of the action is focused on non-DS9 characters, “Blood Oath” isn’t as powerful as it could be, and the mournful tone also means the first half is somewhat lacking in energy. Yet it all builds to a gloriously violent climax, along with the expected character ambiguities which have come to be a hallmark of this series.
Actually, we should talk about those ambiguities, because Dax’s decision to join with the Klingons on their vengeance quest, and Sisko’s disapproval of her decision, are the only plot threads in the episode which are relevant to the ongoing series. Dax’s soul-searching is surprising; I assumed she’d have no problem fighting, or killing if it came to that, and for all the hand-wringing she does, it’s not like the Albino (I’m just going to capitalize that from now on, as I don’t believe he ever gets a proper name) is a complex, multifaceted figure worthy of compassion. He’s a child-murdering dick who deserves what’s coming to him, so why the angst? And yet, while the episode doesn’t spend much time on the question, it makes sense to raise the issue, and whether or not Farrell entirely sells her indecision (and she’s not bad or anything) is less important than the fact that it gets attention at all. This isn’t a world of easy good guys and bad guys, and even if the Albino is unquestionably a villain, that doesn’t make the act of murder any less unsettling. While Dax the symbiont has probably killed before, Jadzia hasn’t, and giving her some space to figure out if she’s comfortable with the act deepens her character.
Likewise, though it’s not a major plotline, Sisko’s objection to her ultimate decision is an unexpected but interesting choice. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It seems like an effort to create drama where there doesn’t really need to be drama (Dax wasn’t going to back down, and it’s not like Sisko could’ve fired her or anything), and Sisko’s moral stance wasn’t something I would’ve seen coming. But the more I think about it, the more it works for me. It fits in with Dax’s brief uncertainty about whether or not she should participate in the mission, because it takes an idea we could easily have taken for granted and tries to contextualize it. I’ve seen plenty of movies and TV shows with heroes killing villains, and I’ve cheered when those villains went down, but here, it’s not as simple as “Point the gun, pull the trigger,” or “Swing the Bat’leth, enjoy the blood spurts.” Sisko is angry, and he’s a fighter, but that doesn’t mean he welcomes violence, and the Klingons’ quest puts their desire for glory and revenge above the civilization and law and order which Sisko represents. From a certain perspective, Kang and the others’ quest, in addition to Dax’s need to be included, is foolish risk taking. Even worse, it’s childish and destructive. Which isn’t to say that we need to have lectures whenever anyone on the show picks up a weapon, but Sisko’s perspective on the storyline is valuable even if he doesn’t change much. It’s a reminder that there’s a cost for everything.
As for the Klingon half of the episode, it’s all about honor and glory, which is basically the only things these Klingon stories are ever about. The Albino (and for real, you could do a drinking game with the number of times that word comes up, always with a hissing, impassioned hatred; it’s weird before we get the back-story, because for a while, it sounds like “albino” is somehow an inherently despicable trait, like “Nazi” or “zoologist”) killed each of their first-born sons as retaliation for them trying to stop his wicked ways, so now they’ve sworn to get their vengeance, only they aren’t as young as they used to be. The first one we meet, Kor, is a drunken buffoon bashing his brains out in one of Quark’s holosuites; then Koloth, the gray-haired intellectual, shows up; and finally Kang arrives, the leader of the group and the one who brought everyone together for one last score. These are archetypes, and while Koloth suffers a bit from being less bombastic then Kor and less conflicted than Kang, all three still serve their purpose. Kang is the most complex. Late in the episode, Dax discovers that the Klingon was lying about how he learned of the Albino’s whereabouts; the murderer actually contacted Kang himself, ostensibly because he wanted a clean end to all the running, more probably because he wanted to lure his foes into a trap. Because Kang isn’t an idiot, he realizes he and his friends are marching into their doom (which is why he tries to stop Dax from tagging along), but a good death is better than an empty life. At least it is until Jadzia convinces him that it’s still worth trying to survive.
Sadly, Kang dies anyway. That’s the kind of story he and his friends are in, and however much Dax tries, there are rules for this sort of thing. Koloth gets gutted, and the Albino gets the drop on Kang, although the latter is still able to find enough strength to kill his enemy before Dax is forced into doing it herself. In a way, that saving throw is representative of the conclusion as a whole. Kang wanted a clean death, and despite betraying his friends, that’s what he gets; sure, he earns it by telling the truth before the final fight, but it’s still something of a let down after all that buildup to see the fight play out exactly as expected. The action is more than we usually get on the show, and there’s definitely something to be said for watching Dax and a trio of senior citizens running roughshod over a bunch of anonymous stormtroopers. But after all Dax’s soul-searching, when faced with the big decision—to kill or not to kill—the choice is conveniently taken out of her hands. (She might have killed one of the guards earlier, but they were all wearing face masks, so they don’t count.) The Klingons go in expecting to fight and most likely die, and that’s exactly what they get. The closest we get to a ragged edge is the silent exchange between Dax and Sisko when she returns to the station. He’s still not happy with what she’s done, but he’s not going to punish for her it; it’ll just lay there between them, a part of their friendship they’ll never entirely be able to get beyond. “Blood Oaths” works on the basic level an hour of DS9 needs to work. It tells a story with consistent internal logic, and, surprising or not, the Klingons’ arc does what it’s supposed to. (I especially liked that Kor is the only one of the trio to survive. That just makes sense.) But it’s too formal and too solemn to really rouse up the blood, and the most intriguing aspects of the plot are put to the side in favor of keeping things as straightforward as possible.
- It’s fun to see Michael Ansara (who plays Kang) on the show. To me, he’ll always be a faux Native American from The Manitou and Day Of The Animals.
- We also get another glimpse into Curzon’s past: He met Kang while serving as a negotiator, and he was smart enough to know the best way to a Klingon’s heart is to piss them off.
- Several commenters have pointed out that I managed to overlook arguably the coolest angle of the episode: the three Klingons were all first introduced as villains in the original Star Trek. Kor (John Colicos) is from "Errand Of Mercy"; Koloth (William Campbell) is from "The Trouble With Tribbles"; and Kang is from "Day Of The Dove." This is definitely something I should have caught, and I apologize for missing it; my only excuse is that the episode doesn't really give any indication that the characters have a history beyond what we learn from Dax, and it's been a few years since I watched the earlier episodes. As to whether or not this changes my take on "Blood Oath," that's trickier to parse. While I can see the argument that bringing back old bad guys (played by the same actors who originated the roles, no less) makes the trio more complicated than I initially assumed, this is really more of a clever nod to fans than it is an effective storytelling device. Kor, Koloth, and Kang were fun on TOS, but each only appeared in a single episode, and old Trek wasn't particularly concerned with establishing continuity or strong character arcs. If this hour had been more concerned with establishing its ties to the past, well, that would be one thing. As is, while knowing the back-story helps me like the episode a little more, it doesn't change a good outing into a great one.
“The Maquis, Part I” (season 2, episode 20; originally aired 4/24/1994)
In which old friends and old enemies switch places
It must be exhausting to be Benjamin Sisko. He’s stuck in an impossible situation; as a representative of the Federation, he has to try and keep open relationships with the Bajoran and Cardassian governments, two races which, at best, cordially detest each other, as well as offer what support and assistance he can to Bajor without directly interfering. His space station is situated next to a wormhole, which means he and his staff have to deal with a constant influx of dozens of different species with different needs, expectations, and appendages. The people work for him all basically like him, but they have their own goals, and when they disagree with him, they aren’t afraid to share their feelings. He’s raising a son as a single parent, and while Jake is a good, trustworthy kid, he’s also a teenager, and that means hormones and rebellion and Dabo girls. And as if that weren’t enough, he’s also a central figure in a religion he barely understands, a Chosen One who, had he a choice, would’ve very much preferred not getting picked. It’s no wonder he’s often short with people; it’s remarkable he doesn’t spend his whole day shouting.
“The Maquis, Part I” isn’t really about how lousy Sisko’s job is, but it’s hard to ignore all the plates he has to keep spinning throughout the episode. The plot, which centers on a potential rift between Cardassian and human settlers, is fairly complicated, and we won’t find out the truth of what’s really going on until next week; for right now, the biggest impression I walk away with from this episode is just how much it can suck to be Sisko. But while it’s no fun for him to be running around the galaxy with Gul Dukat, as well as discovering one of his oldest friends just might be a traitor, it’s great that we get another chance to see the man in action. Admittedly, he doesn’t truly succeed here, and he spends most of the hour struggling to keep his irritation in check, but while that lacks the drama of his stand in “Paradise,” it has its own pleasures. And it’s not all frustration, either. “The Maquis” introduces Calvin Hudson (the great Bernie Casey), a pal of Sisko’s, and allows the two men a couple of scenes to just sit around and chat about how the time keeps flying. Generally, Sisko saves his moments of warmth for his son, so it’s nice to see him relaxing with someone else. Sure, the real reason for these scenes is to give the reveal at the end (Calvin is the leader of the Maquis, the revolutionary group responsible for the attacks that catalyze this story) more weight, and that’s the oldest trick in the book. But there’s something to be said for a reminder of the day-to-day lives of characters we generally only see in moments of crisis. The two actors have good chemistry together, and I’m looking forward to seeing the fallout of Calvin’s betrayal.
Unfortunately, “The Maquis” is split between two focal points. On the one side, the good side, we have Sisko running around trying to figure out what’s really on going on and what he needs to do to stop it, and on the not really good at all side, we have Quark trying to seduce a Vulcan woman who wants to buy weapons off him. Sakonna, the Vulcan, is part of the Maquis; we first see her exchanging significant glances with the man who plants a bomb on a Cardassian ship at the start of the episode, and later, she helps kidnap Gul Dukat. So knowing that the Maquis are buying lots of weapons for their fight is useful, sort of, but for the most part the scenes between Quark and Sokanna are padding, done to help ensure that this episode is long enough to justify the two-parter status. If these scenes were entertaining, or at the very least passable, I wouldn’t object too much; unlike a lot of TNG two-part episodes, “The Maquis” is taking on a story, and a situation, complex enough that it deserves some breathing room. It’s just that Quark’s lechery has never been one of the character’s best traits, and the Ferengi comes off as a creepy perv, in a context where he’s clearly supposed to be seen as winningly roguish. The whole sequence is off-putting, and, despite Shimerman’s efforts, Quark is the reason why.
Enough of that. While Calvin is the big guest, “The Maquis” also sees the return of one of the show’s recurring players, Gul Dukat. Dukat arrives on the station after a Cardassian freighter is destroyed under suspicious circumstances. He lets himself into Sisko’s room unannounced, starting their conversation off on the wrong foot (it’s hard to get more wrong than, “Where’s my son? Did you do anything to him?”), but the two manage to work together long enough to turn their plot into a short, delightful, buddy comedy. Dukat insists that Sisko come with him to the colonies which are the source of all the trouble, and Sisko agrees, although he makes sure Dukat doesn’t get access to the controls of the runabout. The more we see of Dukat, the more I appreciate his presence; he’s smart and ruthless and charming, and that makes him a formidable foe, and a great tool for the writers. He and Sisko play off each other well, and what makes their relationship work in this episode is the way Dukat is more or less telling the truth. A team-up between two unlikely allies is always a good starting place for drama, and while Dukat tends to dominate the scenes they share together (mostly because he has more information, and his nature allows him to be more flamboyant than Sisko), the dynamic is an exciting one, and helps get us through what amounts to a lot of place-setting.
Really, that’s what most of “The Maquis” is: making sure the audience understands the situation and everyone’s in the right position before lighting the fuses. As such, and as is so often the case with two part episodes, it’s hard to judge exactly how well this one works on its own. But while it’s clear that the main point of the hour is building up a conflict in order to get us to the cliffhanger, with Dukat the captive of the Maquis and Sisko realizing Calvin knows a lot more about all of this than he’s let on, there’s still enough excitement to keep this from being a complete drag. As mentioned, The Adventures Of Sisko And Dukat is terrific, and arguably more impactful than Sisko’s conversations with Cal. The latter creates a temporary bond, but the former works to strengthen a working relationship which will presumably last for seasons to come. The other highpoint of the hour is the “discussion” between the human and Cardassian colonists in the demilitarized zone. Both sides are looking to force the other around to their point of view, and it’s fun to watch how thoroughly inappropriate the Cardassian approach—which is to lecture and condescend your foes into submission—is in these circumstances. At one point, the head Cardassian busts out a video recording of a man confessing to the bombing that starts the hour, as though this somehow resolves the issue. Sure, those of us in the audience know that the confessor is the guilty man (hell, even the people hearing the confession know this, despite their outrage), but the assumption that being “right” will somehow resolve the issue is oddly naïve for such a calculating people. It makes perfect sense, though. The Cardassian colonists are operating from a position of assumed power. They’re so used to having control and the necessary power to enforce it, that the idea that their word might not be good enough cause to end the discussion is probably a foreign concept.
Best of all is that, as arrogant as they are, it looks like Sisko is going to have to end up defending the Cardassians from terrorist forces. That’s great conflict right there, and while it won’t make Sisko’s day any easier, it means we have something to look forward to next week. In terms of cliffhangers, nothing that happens at the end of this episode is all that concerning. I doubt Dukat is going to die (if they were going to kill him, they’d have done so immediately), and Sisko, Bashir, and Kira don’t appear in any real danger at the hands of the Maquis. Plus, Cal’s involvement with the group means we’re going to have a lot of justification monologues next week, and lots of slippery moral justifications for excessive behavior. But we also know Sisko is going to have to find a way out of this that doesn’t start a war. Seeing how that plays out is something to look forward to.
- If you’ve been following my Trek reviews, you may remember we’ve seen the Maquis before, in TNG’s “Preemptive Strike.” I quite liked that episode, which was one of TNG’s few forays into the sort of moral gray area DS9 calls home; surprisingly, it aired after this two-parter, which explains why everyone seems so surprised that the group exists.
- Sokanna has never heard of the Rules Of Acquisition, which makes her not very bright for a Vulcan. (Also, she keeps mentioning how logical her behavior is. Maybe she’s hiding something, or maybe the writers just want to make sure where Vulcans fall on the Alien Characteristic Chart.)
- Cardassians consider joy a vulnerability. Dukat on Sisko: “Of all the humans I’ve met, you strike me as the most joyless and the least vulnerable.” (I wish more of the episode had focused on the two of them hanging out. Dukat is just delightful.)
- There’s a scene late in the episode with the show’s main ensemble standing around in Ops, sniping at each other over the crisis. It’s the kind of scene I can imagine people who took issue with the show’s darkness objecting to, as it has our heroes trying and failing to work effectively as a group. (There’s also an argument between Sisko and Kira, but it’s not like that’s a surprise.) Maybe I’ve been spoiled by far colder dramas, but to me, the shouting just shows how tightly bound these people really are to one another. They’re a family, and families fight.
- Next week: We need to talk about Calvin in “The Maquis, Part II,” and walk through the garden with “The Wire.”