The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S7E7)’

"Once More Unto the Breach"
7.7 (aired November 11, 1998)

“Savor the fruit of life, my young friends. It has a sweet taste when it is fresh from the vine. But don’t live too long. The taste turns bitter... after a time.”
    -- Kor

There is a tragedy in not dying. Imagine being a great hero. You threw the One Ring into Mount Doom, you blew up the Death Star, you overthrew Immortan Joe and now rule the Citadel with a literal iron hand. Whatever your personal El Guapo was (and in some cases, this might be the actual El Guapo), you have triumphed over it and can now ride comfortably off into the sunset and into legend. Problem is, that sunset doesn’t end.

What do heroes do after their time of travail is finished? The lucky ones die gloriously in the struggle, to be preserved in the amber of memory at their heights. The unlucky ones get to enjoy their victories, becoming old and soft, diminished versions of who they were. DS9 did the service of bringing back three Klingons from the TOS-era (indirectly implying that Klingons could live a long, long time if they weren’t so intent on dying) for a final ride in season two’s “Blood Oath.” Kang and Koloth both died in their attempt to bring justice to the Albino, but Kor, unlucky Kor, survived.

The Dahar master is indisputably a lesser man than he once was. His body has long since gone to fat, and now his mind is going as well. All he wants is to die as a warrior, as a life lived in valor is nothing if the death that follows isn’t in glorious battle. So, he reaches out to Worf for a favor. The two of them drink to a departed Jadzia, and in a nice bit of continuity, open one the of bottles Nog acquired in the previous episode. Kor has no friends or influence left, and wonders if Worf can get him the command of a ship in the fleet. “No problem,” thinks Worf. “This is Kor, who is awesome. Everyone loves Kor.”

Turns out everyone doesn’t love Kor. General Martok has been nursing a grudge against the Dahar master for decades, which comes down to an examination of the class structure of the Klingon Empire. Class is one of the few things that’s entirely taboo to discuss in American society. People are a lot more open with their sexual kinks than the idea that there may be, just may be, a calcifying economic structure creeping in that hinders or even outright prevents social mobility. Science fiction, as per its mission statement, can get around the taboo by talking about spacemen.

Martok was born to humble beginnings. His father, though, believed the boy was capable of greatness and put him up for officer training in the military. Martok did the hard work, got a sponsor for the program, and was on track to improve his lot. In the final stage, what’s traditionally a rubber stamp, he was rejected, not only from being an officer, but of even serving in a combat capacity. The man responsible was Kor. Martok recovered when a chance of fate earned him a battlefield commission, but he never let go of his simmering rage. Martok has hated Kor with a burning passion, longing for the day he can somehow even the karmic scales.

Kor was a member of the aristocracy, and he can’t even understand what Martok’s problem is. It’s an accurate depiction of incredible privilege, with Kor shrugging off Martok’s anger as unworthy of a true Klingon. Kor was born on third base and always assumed he hit a triple (to use a metaphor the Emissary would approve of), and has no empathy for the role he played in Martok’s struggle. In fact, Kor doesn’t even remember the moment he struck Martok’s name from the list, nor why he did it.

Despite Martok’s misgivings, Worf gets Kor named third officer on the same Bird of Prey both he and Martok will be serving on in a daring sortie the general has planned against the Dominion. Five small ships are going on what Sisko astutely dubs a cavalry raid to wreak as much havoc as they can before speeding out to rendezvous with a Federation fleet to mop up whatever follows them out. While the raid starts well enough, with a crew starstruck over the chance to serve with the Dahar master, it turns bad at the first attack. The plan is a good one -- send two ships on a preliminary run to draw out defenders, then hit the base with the other three while the shields are down and repair crews are out. At a critical moment, Martok and Worf are both briefly incapacitated and Kor takes command. He sends the fleet on a second strafing pass, which has the effect of crippling multiple ships and killing their officers. Worst of all, he does this while ranting about the Federation, believing he’s battling Kirk and company.

As the pummeled fleet flees, Worf removes Kor from active duty and chastises himself for allowing a friend to be shamed thus. Martok initially gloats, but he finds little satisfaction. That’s the thing about petty revenge: It’s never as good as you think it’s going to be. The real tragedy is that Kor is a hero of the past, and here in the present, there isn’t much use for him.

Speaking of irrelevancy (How’s that for a segue?), the writers had no idea what to do with Quark in this final season. Though Armin Shimerman is a regular (and remains one of the best actors in the cast), he has less to do with the Dominion War than Rom or Nog. While next episode is a great one (possibly the best of the season), it’s really more a Nog story than a Quark one. Desperate for something, the writers decided to give him a crush on Ezri, and here he tries to talk her out of a relationship with Worf. She blithely informs him that she has no interest in Worf romantically, but she does think Quark is sweet for some of the things he said. The plotline goes nowhere, and while it’s a shame to strand Shimerman in such thankless work, the writers were shackled by the character. Quark wasn’t going to suddenly join the fight, so he’s left back home to be the bartender.

Back in the good plot, the battered Klingons are being pursued by a fleet of ten Jem’Hadar fighters. There’s no way Martok’s ships can get to the Defiant and company before being overtaken, and the Dominion has a piece of technology (never mentioned before and never used again) that can pierce their cloaks. Worf hits on a desperate plan: take one ship out of warp, momentarily scramble the enemy fleet’s sensors, and engage all ten of them in battle. If he can buy just ten minutes, the Klingon fleet will make it to the rendezvous point.

With his skeleton crew in place, Worf heads to the transporter bay to die. There, he’s waylaid by Kor, who knocks our hero out with a hypospray and with a “Long live the Empire,” beams over to the doomed ship. The vessel breaks off and charges into the thick of battle. Martok’s ship watches the fight on sensors until the dogfight is out of range, marveling at this act of heroism. The bridge even breaks into song in honor of Kor, but Martok can’t sing along. He might value the act, he might even respect the man, but he will never let go of the hatred completely.

Kor’s ultimate fate is unknown, as the ships are out of sensor contact before Kor’s Bird of Prey is destroyed. Worf has already summed things up in the beginning of the episode, interrupting an argument between O’Brien and Bashir about what happened to Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Worf sees heroic figures not as people, but as legends, and to him the most important aspect is whether you believe the legend or not. “If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero’s death. If you do not believe the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.”

In his final act of valor, Kor proved he was, in fact a legend, and so he died a hero’s death.


Next up: Nog sees the elephant.

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