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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “The Search”

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“The Search, Part One” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 9/26/1994)

In which Sisko and crew go looking for the Founders…

Previously on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—the Jem’Hadar! The Dominion! The Founders: do they exist? Nice psychic lady with wrap-around ears! Space battle! EXPLOSION! (That was a ship.) Escape, suspense, struggle, betrayal. Nice psychic lady with wrap-around ears is secretly EVIL. And poof, she’s gone. Sisko wants to make a stand, but can even he stop what’s coming?


It was a good note on which to end a season, ambitious, shocking, and purposeful, serving as a pay-off to a number of previously dropped hints, and suggesting a clear direction for the show’s next year. Sisko’s final, grim speech is the best kind of cliffhanger for serialized television, or at least the easiest sort to follow up, because it presents a sense of danger without creating specific narrative expectations. Turning Captain Picard into a member of the Borg may sound like a good idea—and sure, it resulted in one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s best episodes, and one of the most memorable season finales in the history of television—but it’s a hard act to follow, especially when you give your audience a full summer to parse out the various ways the story can resolve. DS9’s second season ended with the implication that the shit was about to hit the fan, but there’s no direct idea of where it’s going to come from. There are powerful folks out in the Gamma Quadrant. They have plans. And that’s all we know.

Which leaves the two-part third season première with a bit of wiggle-room. The show could’ve chosen to put the Dominion threat on the back-burner for a few episodes, and give the audience a chance to get re-acquainted with Sisko, Kira, and the rest. Instead, “The Search, Part One” jumps headlong into the fray, with our heroes deciding to get proactive in the face of seemingly impossible odds. This is exciting for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s a new narrative tack for a Trek show, given that previous crews have been more reactive than proactive when it came to danger. Given the lack of proper serialization on the original series, it’s not surprising that Kirk and friends only get involved when there’s some kind of clear and present danger, but even Picard’s Enterprise only finds a crisis when they stumble over it in their explorations or are ordered there by Starfleet. Sisko isn’t having any of that, and while he is working under Starfleet’s instructions, he’s also pushing to go back into the Gamma Quadrant and confront the Dominion directly, so they can try and forge some kind of alliance before everything goes to hell. It changes the feel of the show. Instead of waiting around dreading bad news, the folks on DS9 are getting their shit together and trying to save themselves before it’s too late.


That’s the other reason this is so exciting, though: it may already be too late. I wasn’t kidding about the “seemingly impossible odds.” The first part’s cold open is basically Kira and the others clarifying just how screwed they’ll be if the Dominion decides to attack, given that the station is the first line of defense outside the wormhole. The answer? Pretty damn screwed. This isn’t surprising, but the thoroughness of the scene effectively sets up stakes that will last us for a long time. TNG managed to make the Borg terrifying by creating a threat which could circumvent the Enterprise’s impressive technology. The Jem’Hadar are undeniably impressive, having taken out an Enterprise-class ship last season, but just as importantly, Deep Space Nine is in no way equipped to handle any serious threat. The station has O’Brien, and it has its defenses, but it can’t escape via warp drive if conditions become untenable, and it’s not built to withstand a prolonged attack. The Dominion isn’t just a bad guy the crew can bump into, yell at, and then flee. The Borg are effective because they manage to get under Star Trek’s usually unshakeable sense that everything will be fine if we all just sit down and talk about it, because the Borg aren’t interested in a dialogue. But here, we’ve got villains who are perfectly willing to talk; they'll just go ahead and do as they like regardless of whatever anyone else says.

Sisko is already playing the angles, of course. When “The Search” begins, he’s curiously absent from Kira’s crew briefing, making a surprise appearance at the end in a brand new ship, the Defiant. It’s a warship, of a kind the Federation isn’t generally known for; as Sisko explains later, when Starfleet realized the threat posed by the Borg was going to need a stronger response. Thankfully the Borg War ended shortly after it began, but the Defiant, a prototype of the fast-moving, well-armed vessel that might make the difference in a significant battle, was still floating around. It has its problems—a slight tendency to shake itself to pieces when pushed to full throttle, for one—but it’s something, at least, and it comes with a Romulan-loaned cloaking device (along with a Romulan operator named T’Rul). Sisko intends to use the ship to make his first move: finding the Founders, and convincing them that the Federation doesn’t represent a threat. It’s not the boldest play, but options are scarce, and going by simulations and basic common sense, a treaty looks like the only way the good guys are going to walk away from this with their heads attached.

Of course, the trip is a horrible failure, but we don’t really see the fall out until the next episode, apart from the smoke, fire, and screaming which make up the climax of “The Search”’s first hour. This opening half is more about reiterating the stakes, and getting the team together for one big adventure, of the sort we hardly ever see on DS9. It’s exciting too, as Sisko lays out his plan, starts making preparations, and even browbeats Quark into coming along for the ride. Admittedly, Quark doesn’t absolutely need to go on the trip. From a writing perspective, he’s there mostly to pad an hour that doesn’t have enough plot on its own, given that it needs to end on a sudden, doom-laden, attack. But he’s enjoyable enough—and the idea of the whole crew going along for an adventure is so fun—that I feel like a poor sport for being nitpicky.

Odo, meanwhile, plays a more important role in this two-parter than his nominal nemesis, although his story doesn’t get going until the second half. In this episode, he gets pissy when he finds out his authority is once again being challenged by Starfleet personnel, a plotline that keeps coming up on the series but never really seems to pay off. It’s not like Odo is really going to quit at this point, and while the idea that Starfleet is constantly trying to interfere with him fits in with the series’ on-going tension between the station and the external bureaucracies, it’s gotten to the point where it’s just white noise. This time, though, it serves as a reminder of just how distant and separate Odo often feels from those around him, so that’s to the good, although that only really becomes clear in retrospect. (Come to think, the already good scene between Odo and Quark in the Defiant’s crew quarters, which ends with Odo snapping at Quark before turning into his liquid form, serves the same purpose. So maybe I was a little too quick on the “padding” comment.)


Odo is reluctant to go on the mission, but Kira talks him into it, and soon he’s staring at a nebula on a star chart, convinced that it’s calling to him and is driven to return to it as soon as he can. Which turns out to be a lot sooner than anyone expected, as Sisko’s trip goes from “fine” to “godawful” in under five minutes. These two episodes have some revelations, and some twists, but deep down, their most impressive accomplishment is in underlining the message of that cold open, and of the episode which ended last season: the Dominion and the Founders are bad, bad news. “The Search, Part One” ends with the Defiant under attack, after Dax and O’Brien beam down to a relay station and inadvertently set off an alarm. Sisko is forced to abandon his people on the planet below, but it doesn’t do him much good, as the Jem’Hadar break his cloak and beam aboard his ship almost immediately.

Oh, and the first big twist/revelation moment happens here: Kira, after the attack on the Defiant, wakes up on a shuttlecraft with Odo. He seems strange, and when she asks him what happened, there are certain blanks in the conversation—the shapeshifter doesn’t know where the others are, or what happened to the ship. As the symbol of law and order on the show, it’s unsettling to see Odo overcome by his impulses; he flies to the Omarion Nebula like a being possessed. Which, in a way, he is. He and Kira land on a Class M planet, where they find a lake made of a substance that looks a lot like Odo looks in his liquid form, and for good reason. It’s a a sea of other shapeshifters, and one of them, a woman who appears to share Odo’s difficulties with wears and faces, tells him what he’s been wanting to hear since the show began: “Welcome home.”


Which has to be good news, right?

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back, everybody! I hope some of you followed me over to the Monty Python’s Flying Circus reviews, and if you didn’t, well, I hope you didn’t get any unfortunate tattoos this summer.
  • Sisko manipulating Quark into coming along on the Defiant makes for an interesting scene, and one which seems to have more significance than Quark’s ultimate (and relatively minimal) contribution to the mission. It’s a way to remind the audience that Sisko isn’t like other Trek heroes: he isn’t afraid to play dirty. (Oh sure, Kirk would say he’d play dirty, but Sisko seems to actually like it.)
  • The fight aboard the Defiant against the Jem’Hadar is great; there’s no real expectation that any of the heroes will die (although I guess the Romulan exchange student could’ve), but it still plays as messy and nigh on catastrophic.

“The Search, Part Two” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 10/3/1994)

In which Odo and Sisko find what they were looking for, and what they were looking for finds them…


So, Odo is home. And everything is very nice and peaceful, right up until Kira pokes her nose into a mysterious door, and we find out that the shapeshifters are actually the Founders of the Dominion.

As twists go, it’s a doozy, although I have to admit I find it more intellectually interesting than emotionally so. Odo’s search for his origins was always static; he looks mournful, he pokes around some relic, and then we move on. At least when we learned about his time in a science lab, there was some tension as he struggled to resolve his relationship with one of the scientists who studied him. When it came to the parts of his backstory which weren’t obviously connected to the rest of the show, it was all pretty conceptual. Odo the orphan being struggling to establish his place and purpose in the universe is powerful, and often richly moving. Odo muddling through clues and instinctual longings, somewhat less so, and while the turn here at least means that his progenitors are going to be important as more than just a character conflict, it’s hard to get a visceral sense of the betrayal the changeling must feel. Right now, it’s cool because it’s unexpected, and because of what it might lead to down the line. In and of itself, it lacks the drama of, say, Garak’s various origin stories from “The Wire.”


It doesn’t help that the shapeshifters are, up until that final reveal, really, really boring. There’s no question that it would be difficult to imagine how a civilization full of shapeshifters might be different from our own, but the second half of “The Search” doesn’t even try. These aliens spend most of their time hanging out in the big pool Odo and Kira found them in at the end of the last episode—either that or they take on the shapes of other creatures and inorganic materials in order to better commune with nature. This is all fairly generic “enlightened species” stuff, and while it works to make the episode’s twist all the more of a surprise—they’re so peaceful and kind, and they have such a history of being wronged!—it doesn’t help to personalize Odo’s struggle. As cool as the twist is, and as much as I look forward to seeing it play out in the weeks ahead, it steals Odo’s story away from him, turning his personal and private search into something bigger—and, I’d argue, less moving.

Also distracting, while still being pretty darn cool: Sisko, O’Brien, Bashir, Dax, and T’Rul’s trip to the land of Make Believe. After Sisko and Bashir are rescued by a seemingly unharmed Dax and O’Brien, they return to DS9 to learn that the Dominion has agreed to sign a treaty with the Federation. Which is all well and good, only something strange is going on, because the Federation is playing awfully nice as the Jem’Hadar run roughshod over the station; Starfleet is also apparently trying to keep the Romulan Empire out of the negotiations, which would almost certainly lead to interstellar war. Sisko tries to stop it, and we run through a gamut of familiar faces from Admiral Nechayev to Garak (it’s a short gamut) as the situation goes from promising to catastrophic. Eventually, Sisko gets himself arrested for fighting one of the Jem’Hadar, and the others break him out of his cell, determined to blow up the wormhole and end negotiations with the Dominion for good, or at least the next 70 years or so.


It’s all a fake, although it takes roughly the entire episode before the reveal that the whole scenario is part of a Dominion attempt to see just how far Sisko and his crew will go to fight back. (The answer is, unsurprisingly, as far as it takes.) I love a good mind-fuck storyline, and since the Sisko plot seemed suspicious from the moment Dax and O’Brien busted into Sisko and Bashir’s escape pod, it’s a relief to have those suspicions confirmed in the end. Partly because hey, I like being right, and partly because if this had been real, it would’ve been some terrible storytelling. It’s nerve-wracking to watch an episode of a show you love, feeling certain that it hasn’t gone off the rails, but not being absolutely sure, and that’s what’s kept me watching through most of “The Search, Part Two”’s running time. Trek has played the kind of game before, and it would’ve been ludicrous of the show to cram this much story into a 20-minute space, but I wasn’t sure until the final scene, and it made for a fun ride.

Again, though, it takes away from Odo’s story, and it makes his ultimate decision to leave the Founders behind less a strong statement of character, and more the inevitability of the show’s dynamics. Of course Odo wasn’t going to turn evil all of a sudden, and of course such an important character to the series wasn’t going to disappear in the second episode of the third season, but that’s not what I should have been thinking when Odo made his decision. It’s possible to play conflict like this, even when the outcome is preordained, in a way that has an impact. That’s not what happens here, though, and it’s hard not to be disappointed. Discovering that what you’ve been searching for all your life isn’t what you wanted after all is a familiar, but potentially rich, theme, but while a fair amount of the episode is given over to Odo trying to fit in with the others, and only intermittently succeeding, it’s hard to get too worked up about his struggles while you’re trying to parse what exactly is happening back on DS9.


Still, I think the episode works on the whole, especially when taken in context with the first part of the première. While Odo’s discovery isn’t as intense as I’d like it to be, it’s still a strong step forward for the character, and one which may have some important ramifications in weeks to come. More importantly, the conclusion of the story initiated in previous hour doesn’t offer much in the way of hope for our heroes. This isn’t one of those tales of hopeless odds faced and defeated. It’s more a story of a bunch of people who realize they’re screwed, really hope they aren’t screwed, take a tentative step towards unscrewing themselves, and fail completely. This is a two-parter which resolves a cliffhanger by having the good guys lose. You can qualify that: Nobody died, which usually counts as a small victory, and at the end of the episode, everything goes back to roughly the same way it was before. Only Odo is, at the very least, disillusioned, and despite all their plans, our heroes accomplished roughly nothing.

At first, I was disappointed by the easy out the conclusion seems to represent; Borath (another wrap-around ears alien) and the shapeshifting Founders release their captives as easily as if they were just waiting for someone to use the magic word. But while it’s a bit of a story cheat (because I’m still sure Sisko and company are going to make the Dominion wish they’d killed them), it also serves to establish the depth of the threat the DS9 crew faces. The Founders get the information they want—Sisko is willing to blow up the wormhole if he believes the Dominion is enough of a threat—but they aren’t concerned. He’s not a danger, just an irritant. He’s so insignificant that they’ll release him as a gesture of goodwill to Odo. In the two-part opener of Deep Space Nine’s third season, the good guys try the only plan they can think of to stave off destruction, and they fail. It’s a grim way to start a war, but a brilliant way to start a season.


Stray observations:

  • Okay, there is one unqualified victory: Odo deciding to stay with this friends is important, although it’s hard to get too excited about it, in the fact of everything else.
  • The most emotionally resonant aspect of Odo’s storyline is his relationship with Kira. She’s the only person Odo really trusts, and it’s fitting that she’s the one with him when he finally finds his way home.
  • The irony of a race which prides itself on its ability to empathize with other creatures creating something like the Dominion has a lot of potential.
  • “We will miss you, Odo. But you will miss us ever more.” Yeah, that’s not passive-aggressive or anything.

Next week: Things get back to normal as we visit “The House Of Quark” and hope Dax rediscovers her “Equilibrium.”