War is one of the most uniquely awful things a human being can ever experience. According to veterans, it is such a singular travail that it’s impossible for civilians to truly understand. It’s certainly something I hope I can never comprehend. The problem is, when putting war on screen, it’s hard not to make it entertaining. Television and movies are, first and foremost, entertainment, so the temptation is often overwhelming, and when a show or film doesn’t succumb, it can feel perverse.
Science fiction warfare is even more sanitized. Instead of people hacking one another apart with broadswords or being mowed down by machine guns, now the enemy can be felled with a colorful beam of light, leaving an aesthetically pleasing burn mark in the center mass, the victim looking like they’re sleeping. In space, it becomes even more divorced from the human cost: Starships explode in pretty blossoms of fire with nary a sign of the terrified dead and dying floating through the void.
DS9, never tired of earning that “darkest Trek” honor, wanted to make war look as wasteful, as violent, as damaging, and as futile as it possibly could. The show comes back to this theme again and again, both with the doomed sieges depicted in “The Ship” and “Rocks and Shoals,” then with Jake’s crash course in what war really is in “Nor Battle to the Strong.” It was never quite as unflinching as it was in this hour, “The Siege of AR-558,” which was directed by an honest-to-god Vietnam vet bringing his own experience in combat to this story.
I’ve learned later that this is one of the most controversial episodes, as it deviates quite dramatically from Roddenberry’s vision of utopia, especially with regards to what humans can become. As I said last week, I regard this as the best of the season, and one of the finest hours the show ever produced. It has a level of authenticity the indoor world of Star Trek often lacks, and a depth of character to the guest stars that most one-offs can’t match.
The Defiant heads off to the Chin’toka system (the one our heroes captured in “Tears of the Prophets” at the cost of Jadzia’s life) to bring supplies to the besieged outpost AR-558. This is a Dominion communications relay and thus a vitally important strategic location for the war effort. The planet itself is hellish, a rocky landscape shrouded in perpetual night. Winrich Kolbe, one of Trek’s regular stable of directors, was adamant that the piece of land the Federation and Dominion were fighting over look like nothing. A rocky patch of ground that was as ugly as it was worthless. In his experience as a veteran, this was authentic.
The Starfleet personnel are steadily going mad. While regulations state that troops need to be rotated off the front line every 90 days, these men and women have been in place for five months. The Dominion keeps landing ground troops for suicide attacks of Jem’Hadar. Even worse, the entire compound is seeded with “Houdinis,” anti-personnel mines that hang out in subspace and appear at random to kill and maim. They have proven impossible to clear, and no place can be made safe.
The guest characters have all found differing ways to cope. Commander Larkin, the leader, is grim but maintains her air of Starfleet professionalism. Vargas, one of the ground troops, is a twitching mass of PTSD. Kellin, the engineer, whose thus-far futile job of clearing Houdinis and understanding the relay have kept him occupied, is still recognizably Federation, albeit bone weary. Lastly, there’s Reese, who surrendered his humanity on this rock and never looked back. He carries a Jem’Hadar knife he likes to use in close combat, and wears a necklace of ketracel-white tubes as grisly trophies.
When Sisko sees what these people are up against, he stays. He does this because Sisko is, at heart, two things: a builder and a father. Starfleet needs the former for victory and the men and women on the ground need the latter to survive. He brings with him Ezri, Bashir, Nog, and Quark (present because the Grand Nagus wanted him on a “fact-finding mission”). The writers chose these characters because it’s not interesting watching how someone like Kira, or Worf, or O’Brien react to combat. Those three are veterans of many actions (in Kira’s case going back to her childhood), and would learn nothing new about the nature of war.
Ezri is an interesting case. Jadzia, Curzon, and apparently Torias were all veterans, so she has memories of being in combat and how that felt. She doesn’t truly understand it, as the Ezri half of her has never had the experience. She bonds with Kellin, using Tobin’s engineering expertise to assist with the Houdinis. Her breakthrough allows them to pull all the mines from subspace at once. It’s a chilling scene as these little globes, looking a bit like the torture droid from Star Wars, appear everywhere. These devices felt too ruthless, too brutal for anyone but the Dominion, but the Starfleet personnel repurpose them, moving them to the ravine through which the Dominion has to pass to attack. While Sisko has already proven he will cross lines in the name of realpolitik, this is a new bridge for Dax.
Nog begins the episode admiring the Starfleet troops. It’s an easy impulse to understand. Ferengi are small, physically weak, and largely considered to be cowards. Small wonder they might have an inferiority complex and look up to the big, bad humans. Nog, as we know, is no coward, which is why he retains the grudging respect of General Martok. What Nog is not, is experienced. He doesn’t truly understand what combat does to most people, and what it has done to these men and women. He sees them closer to how Worf might -- battle is still about bravery and glory. It’s not about a desperate, ugly battle for survival while fear eats you piece by piece. On a scouting mission, Nog -- thanks to his lobes -- locates the Jem’Hadar encampment, but on the way back, they’re ambushed. Larkin is killed, Nog grievously injured. Reese, the psychopath, gets the horribly wounded Nog back and tells Sisko, “The kid did all right.” That is the kind of praise that once would have made Nog glow. Now, he can only writhe in agony. The Ferengi will end up losing his leg in this action, along with whatever innocence he had remaining.
Bracing for the inevitable attack, the beleaguered Starfleet troops line up behind makeshift barricades. To calm them, Bashir plays one of Vic’s songs over the PA, his silky-smooth rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The camera moves over the haunted eyes of the defenders as they check their weaponry for one last time. As the song’s eerie beauty dies, the Jem’Hadar attack. First, the explosions of the Houdinis herald their pass through the valley of death. Then, the mad charge into the teeth of Starfleet’s phasers. Sheer numbers overwhelm the defenses, and the battle turns quickly to a vicious hand-to-hand affair.
A unique cruelty of war is deciding who it takes. Vargas, the man terrified for his life, is killed. Kellin, the decent man, also dies. Only Reese, the dead-eyed killer, survives. The man who, in many ways, is already dead is the only one to beam out with Sisko and the others. His last action is to throw his knife in the dirt. He no longer needs it.
War stains whoever it touches. Even Quark, who lectures his own on how brutal human beings can become, has to kill a man before he can leave. A single Jem’Hadar makes it to the infirmary, and Quark shoots him with the same phaser he used to carry on that freighter (and referenced in “The Way of the Warrior”). The difference is, Quark sees no profit in the act. It was just a waste.
This is the culmination of DS9’s exploration of one of my favorite tropes in science fiction: the idea that humanity is fundamentally a race of warriors. The fascinating part is, we deny it, but when the chips are down, we prove it. The Klingons, a race whose entire culture centers around war, had to sign a treaty with us or be annihilated. The Borg, a terrifying race that destroyed countless cultures, was turned back by Starfleet. Now, the Dominion is learning the same. Thanks to World War III and the Eugenics War, there’s a good argument to be made that humanity was so good at war we had to quit or we’d destroy ourselves. We don’t really glory in it. We don’t sing songs. So, perhaps we’re not a race of warriors.
Maybe we’re a race of killers. Sisko, though, finds another lesson. He had grown weary of reading the names on the casualty lists. Now, he once again gives them his complete attention. The dead deserve to be remembered, and we all have to hope their sacrifice will ultimately be worth it.
Next up: Dukat finds religion.