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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Civil Defense”/“Meridian”

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Civil Defense”/“Meridian”

“Civil Defense”(season 3, episode 7; originally aired 11/7/1994)

In which the ghost in the machine fights back…

The IMDb lists only two credits for Mike Krohn: the teleplay for the 1995 TV movie Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Lightning, and the script for this episode. I’m not sure why he quit; I don’t know if it was personal reasons, or because his career didn’t pan out the way he wanted. Maybe Lightning was a godawful mess. But “Civil Defense” is a fun, exciting hour of television, and Krohn’s writing is a big part of why it works. It’s well-constructed and beautifully paced, finding ways to escalate the tension and worsen the situation that all stem from the initial premise without ever becoming tiresome. The episode makes good use of the whole cast, and it’s funny as hell; the idea that the Cardassians would not only leave their security system intact when they left DS9, but that said system would have a seemingly infinite number of potentially lethal counter-measures (complete  with Gul Dukat video!) for every possible threat is brilliant, and fits in well with everything we know about the station’s former landlords.

The key here is in the escalation. The plot is structured like a comedy sketch: Our heroes are faced with a not-hugely-serious problem, but when they try and solve that problem, they not only fail, they end up making the original problem into a concern, which then becomes a crisis, which then becomes a catastrophe. Here, the setup has O’Brien and Jake working in one of the station’s old ore processing rooms. Sisko comes to visit to see what’s taking so long, just as Jake, who’s been going through the Cardassian computer system and deleting as much of it as he can, comes across a set of files he can’t access. When O’Brien tries to delete these files, it sets in motion the Cardassian security system. A recording of Gul Dukat pops up on the monitors all around the station, addressing Sisko, O’Brien, and Jake as Bajoran rebels, and ordering them to surrender to the authorities immediately. The doors to the room are sealed shut, and when Sisko tries to fool the program by pretending to surrender, the recorded Dukat responds by releasing toxic gas, forcing the three men to escape deeper into the processor. While this saves their lives, it has the unfortunate effect of throwing the station into full lockdown, the security system now being convinced that the “Bajoran rebels” are loose.

Things only get worse from there. In retrospect, this is a very simple, straightforward pattern. Again, like a comedy sketch, the episode introduces a premise—that the Cardassian security program is both extremely efficient and incredibly paranoid—and then takes up the rest of its time exploring that premise as thoroughly as possible. Which means that each section of the story follows the same arc—discovery, discussion, proposed solution, and oh crap, now we’re even more screwed. But this isn’t a bad structure by any means, and it’s one that, when used well, draws excitement out of viewer expectation as much as it does the actual conflict. There’s a reason I keep mentioning comedy: While the security program is consistently threatening, each subsequent reveal becomes more and more hilarious, creating a darkly comic momentum that carries the hour along as much the life-or-death danger. By the time Gul Dukat himself arrives, to gloat over the helplessness of his enemies only to soon find himself trapped as completely as they are, it’s impossible not to laugh.

Dukat’s entrance is particularly smart, too, because in the buildup to his appearance, the one constant in every discussion has always been that the station’s former commander is the only one who could stop the security program. Dukat is in the videos (in his charming, “We’re all friends here, please excuse the knife” way), and Dukat, presumably, would know the necessary codes to shut the system down. But Kira doesn’t want to contact him, for the obvious reason that he’s a creep, and would almost certainly use his power over her and DS9 to negotiate some kind of long-term advantage. This is, in fact, exactly what he does, telling Kira (in private) that he’ll provide the codes only if she’ll agree to allow a small, permanent Cardassian garrison aboard the station. But when Kira refuses the offer, and Dukat tries to leave to give everyone time to think things over, the program reveals it has an additional subroutine designed by one of Dukat’s supervisors, on the assumption that the Gul might try and escape DS9 in the midst of a crisis. So: We spend the first half of the hour being told that Dukat could fix everything, Dukat shows up (which is a total surprise, by the way) operating on the same assumption, and then the institutional cynicism which put him in a position to lord it over Kira and the others ends up hoisting him by his own petard. It’s tremendously satisfying, as well a great way to keep the viewer hooked—with the obvious answer out of the way, what’s left?

In a story like this, character work is usually secondary to the twists and turns of the plot, but while “Civil Defense” never stops too long for serious discussion, Krohn still finds ways to give most of the cast their moments to shine. Sisko, Jake, and O’Brien make a fine team, and it’s great to see Jake getting a chance to prove himself; in the climax of the episode, he first insists to be included on the possibly suicidal run to the reactor, and then disobeys his father in order to save O’Brien’s life. In the command room, Garak makes an appearance, which is always welcome. The third season has already managed to integrate him more fully into the show than the first two seasons did, and for once, his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of Cardassian secrets prove inadequate to the task at hand. Garak first came across as a fascinating, mysterious figure of untouchable guile and brilliance, but now, while he hasn’t lost his flair or his ability, he’s more complex, and more capable of weakness. His open contempt for Dukat is both highly entertaining and unsettling; Dukat is an imminently hiss-worthy villain, but Garak’s self-control keeps slipping bit by bit, which makes you wonder what’s lurking underneath.


Kira also gets to be, well, Kira, much as Bashir is Bashir and Dax is, er, wounded. There’s a funny moment when Dukat seems to be flirting with Kira, and Garak calls him on it, but apart from that, everyone behaves as you’d expect, with Kira holding everything together as best she can, and Bashir hanging out in the background until someone needs doctoring. The most pure character scenes in the episode come from Odo and Quark, trapped together in security. The two spar a bit, as Quark complains and rolls his eyes, but once again, the show finds the balance of two adversaries who’ve been at each other for so long they’re basically best friends. Quark insists on staying with Odo because he knows that’s the safest place on the station to be; Odo tells Quark he’s the most “devious Ferengi” he’s ever met; Quark complains that Odo’s always reliable integrity is going to get them killed; and then Quark learns that Odo was lying about the “devious” stuff, which gives us a perfect conversation on which to the end the episode.

All told, this is a fine hour of television, an example of how to put together a thrilling, intelligent story which satisfies genre expectations while still working to confirm and expand our notions of the show’s “world.” It’s a pity the writer never returned to DS9; if this script is any indication, he would’ve made a good fit.


Stray observations:

  • It really, really sucked to be a Bajoran miner during the Cardassian occupation, huh?
  • Out of curiosity, I checked Memory Alpha after writing the bulk of this review, and it turns out that while Krohn got the screenplay credit, his original draft was reworked by the entire writing staff; apparently, this was not a pleasant process. So maybe not such a good fit after all.
  • Memory Alpha also mentions the Kira/Dukat moment, and mentions that Nana Visitor objected to Dukat’s attraction being treated in a comedic vein. While I liked the joke, and I think the episode was moving too fast at that point to really stop work out the ramifications of such an attraction, her point is a good one: Kira would never, ever find Dukat’s interest amusing.

“Meridian” (season 3, episode 8; originally aired 11/14/1994)

In which Dax falls in lurve…

Let’s not mince words: This is a terrible episode, and the fact that nearly everyone involved recognized it as such in retrospect does little to dull the pain. It misuses and misunderstands Dax; it relies on a contrived premise; and the romance which drives the plot is tepid, unconvincing, and often actively tedious. After establishing a high standard in the first quarter of the season, DS9 dips back into the dregs of late period Star Trek: The Next Generation, with a tale of thwarted passion which is supposed to be tragic, but isn’t. I don’t think it’s the worst episode of the show I’ve seen, but it’s up there, and it’s a frustrating stumble for a series which had finally hit its groove.


Sisko, O’Brien, Bashir, and Dax are traveling through the Gamma Quadrant in the Defiant, when the come across an anomaly. They investigate, because that’s what they do (it’s been so long since I reviewed TNG, I forgot what it was like to have an episode spin off from the heroes’ need to poke stuff), and find an entire planet with a severe Brigadoon complex. In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Brigadoon is a musical about a Scottish village which appears for only one day every hundred years. In this case, we’ve got a world which phases in and out of corporeality, because of crazy made-up science. As soon as the planet appears (and it’s something of a coincidence that Sisko et al. just happened to be floating through space at the right time, huh?), Sisko makes contact with a group of villagers who’ve just come into being for the first time in about 60 years. The DS9 team beams down, learns about the locals’ situation, and Dax starts hooking up with a guy who likes her face dots. Ah, love.

It’s nice to see DS9 continuing in the fine Star Trek tradition of presuming women will be seduced by any man who stares at them long enough and then makes weird, invasive comments. I’ll say this much for Deral (Brett Cullen, who will always be “that guy from Lost” to me); he’s not hiding a dark secret, and he really is legitimately passionate about Jadzia. It’s just, in the brief time we see the two together, that passion is never expressed in anything by the most generic terms. They flirt a bit, then he takes her for a walk in the woods, and then, presumably, they have sex. A few scenes later, Deral is talking about a house he wants to build for Dax when they finally get the planet-shifting problem solved; he’s not proposing marriage, but it comes off as more than a little intense. A few scenes after that, Deral is offering to leave his people to come be with Dax, and then, when Deral decides he can’t possibly abandon his culture, Dax offers to stay with him instead. When they end up parted by the episode’s end, it’s supposed to be so powerfully upsetting that Dax can’t bear to talk about it, as though she’s lost something vital to her life that can never be replaced.


In the right hands, this sort of tragedy can be immensely moving; the thought of finding someone who fits you so well you can’t imagine life without them, only to be separated from them through some strange twist of circumstance, is difficult to sell, but potentially heartbreaking. “Meridian” never sells it. It never even comes close. Cullen isn’t a terrible actor, but Delar and Dax never come off as anything more than a pair of eHarmony customers struggling through their first date. And the lack of chemistry makes the damage to Dax’s identity even more bizarre. Deral can’t possibly leave his people—why would Dax be so eager and ready to leave hers? She has a career in Starfleet, and a symbiote to develop and protect. I guess jumping ahead 60 years would certainly offer the slug in her stomach a few new life experiences, but this isn’t even discussed or considered. She goes from being excited that Delar might come back to DS9 with her, to being completely and unquestioningly willing to stay with him instead, with the only justification being her supposed devotion. Which, again, is never satisfactorily demonstrated. Trying to create a believably deep love affair in the space of about 20 minutes can’t be an easy task, but it’s the only way this episode could’ve possibly worked. If Dax had found something in Delar she’d never found elsewhere, or if the script and the actors could have found a way to believably, intensely crazy for one another, that might have saved everything. I don’t need to believe Dax was acting in her best interests. I just need to believe she thinks she is, and that never comes across. Instead, the Dax we know seems to disappear, to be replaced by some half-visible nobody eager to do what anyone tells her. In the end, she doesn’t even make the choice that puts her back on the Defiant; her presence on the planet “destabilizes” the something or other, and she’s force to beam back to the ship, to mourn the loss of a man we’ll all forget in a week.

Oh, and there’s also a creepy subplot about an alien (played by Jeffrey Combs, one of my favorite actors, here making his Trek debut) who wants to fuck Kira, only Kira’s not interested, so the alien asks Quark to make a holosuite program in which he (the alien) fucks Kira. The character behavior is more consistent than in the main storyline, and the cold open scene, in which Kira pretends that Odo is her lover to scare the alien off, is terrific. Hell, it even makes sense that Quark would be willing to help, as it’s a shady deal which stops short of being outright evil. Combs manages to make the alien look like a disgusting pervert just by breathing a certain way, and Kira and Odo team up to make sure the jerk gets the comeuppance he richly deserves. But as always, I find myself thinking too much about the implications of the holosuites and holodecks, and how inevitably such machines would lead to psychotic breaks. Some of us have a hard enough time telling the difference between dreams and reality; can you imagine if your dreams were in 3-D? And talked back? Ugh.


Anyway, that’s not really the point. I’m not a huge fan of Kira-as-object as a storyline, but she got her revenge, and Quark didn’t get anything, so that worked out okay. Plus, every second on DS9 meant a second away from the Planet Of Boringness, which was a relief. I like the Defiant, and I like the way it opens up the show’s possibilities, but if this is the result, maybe everyone should just stay home.

Next week: We spend more time on the “Defiant,” and Lwaxana Troi returns in “Fascination.”