Normally, this is a good thing. Depth is a desirable quality in writing. Not necessarily for realism’s sake, but to create a larger, more intricate world for your audience to get lost in. The problem is when you create a great, uncompromising villain who bursts into the narrative like a giant Kool-Aid pitcher desperate to quench the thirst for sugar water and violent property destruction. That villain is a force of nature, larger than life. Think of Darth Vader through The Empire Strikes Back. He stalks through his star destroyer as a black-clad revenant, force-choking anyone who does so much as screw up a lunch order.
Then, in Jedi, he’s a sad dad.
Vader would never be quite as scary as he was in that second movie. Sure, now he has a motivation for doing what he’s doing. There’s pain behind the iconic helmet. He’s not just a force-choking monster looking for an excuse to lightsaber everyone square in their oh-so-British faces. Now, he’s looking for his kid, sad about what happened to his wife. He’s even kind of cute in a strange way. It happens across all media. Think of a great villain whose appearances stretched out over more than one movie. Chances are they’ve gotten cuddlier and cuddlier over time. It’s how horror icons end up bothering Abbott and Costello.
The writers of DS9 didn’t want this to happen to the Jem’Hadar. The terrifying shock troops of the Dominion needed more screen time, but it couldn’t come at the expense of their badassery. This week’s episode, “To the Death,” does a nearly perfect job at showing just why the Federation should be collectively thinking about switching to brown pants if armed conflict with the Dominion is unavoidable.
The Defiant was off fighting Breen privateers (presumably given their writ by the Klingons or possibly the Cardassians? Who knows?), and when they return, they find that one of the upper-docking pylons has been turned into so much space dust. The station was attacked by a Jem’Hadar strike team who came in on a civilian freighter, beamed over, killed people, stole technology, dropped off a bomb, and escaped through the wormhole.
Sisko isn’t going to take that for even a second, so he piles everyone into the Defiant and chases the Jem’Hadar back through the wormhole. Along the way he fights a Jem’Hadar ship, badly damaged and adrift. Remembering that the Jem’Hadar they’re looking for were in a civilian transport, they beam the survivors over (cleverly getting rid of their guns mid-transport). Turns out the Jem’Hadar who attacked the station are the same ones who crippled this ship. They’re part of a separatist movement who plan to use Precursor Magic Technology (once they can repair it with that tech they stole from DS9) to eventually take over the universe. This is bad.
So, Sisko and company are forced to unite with the loyalist Jem’Hadar to take out the traitors (and blow up the Magitech) before the doomsday scenario happens. This would be the primary place to find out that the Jem’Hadar really aren’t so bad after all. In another Trek show, that would be exactly what would happen, too. With Roddenberry’s message of universal brotherhood, we have to learn we’re not so different after all. Most of the long-term Trek antagonists eventually got defanged, from the Klingons, to the Ferengi, and even the Borg. Not the Jem’Hadar.
The Defiant’s crew finds that the Jem’Hadar do not eat, sleep, or have anything approaching fun. They’re bred in birthing chambers, and living past age fifteen is considered a rare mark of pride. This leads to a funny scene where a Jem’Hadar learns Dax is over three hundred and reacts with appropriate awe. The Jem’Hadar also have shades of being a proud warrior race, but the truth is they are more soldiers than warriors. They value unquestioning obedience over personal glory, and discipline over ferocity. They are brutal killers who are unleashed, rather than deployed.
This episode also introduces us to the face of the Vorta, the unctuous Field Supervisor Weyoun, played by the great Jeffrey Combs. Though he’s killed at the end of this episode -- never, ever question a Jem’Hadar’s loyalty -- he will make a return in the most Dominiony way possible. Combs plays Weyoun as the consummate salesman, slithering past the social defenses of the crew. He makes a play for Sisko, then laughs it off as “only doing [his] job.” He offers Odo a return to the Great Link, an offer that turns out to be a forcible summons disguised with a velvet glove.
This hour also reveals a few cracks in the Dominion. First, the very existence of renegade Jem’Hadar runs counter to everything we’ve heard. “The Founders’ ability to control the Jem’Hadar has been somewhat... overstated,” Weyoun admits, pointing out the forced addiction to the white as clear evidence of that fact. One of the better scenes in the episode shows the differences in attitude between the two species. When the Jem’Hadar receive the white, it is in the form of a loyalty ceremony. While Weyoun recites his lines in a bored sing-song, the Jem’Hadar speak theirs with quavering sincerity.
The difference between Starfleet and Dominion comes down to a fear of death, which the episode hits on again and again. The Jem’Hadar sneer at the Federation sense of self-preservation. The second-in-command is unceremoniously executed after a simple breach of discipline, and the First believes any mission is a suicide mission when done right. Meanwhile, the humans record messages for their loved ones, O’Brien for Keiko and Molly, Dax (in a nice twist reminding us she’s also Jadzia) for her mother. Sisko even saves the life of the lead Jem’Hadar, Omet’iklan, after the latter vowed to kill him. The incantation that serves as this episode quote is the Jem’Hadar battle mantra, what they say before they go to war. They see themselves as already dead, so anything happening within battle is just fine by then. Chief O’Brien undercuts this with a quick speech to his fellow Starfleet personnel: “I’m Chief Miles Edward O’Brien. I am very much alive, and I intend to stay that way.”
This episode works on nearly every level you want a Star Trek episode to work on. You get a window into alien culture, great character moments for all your speaking regulars, lots of action, and the requisite high stakes. Perhaps most important, is that it returns us from the odd diversion season four has been. For the most part, the Dominion has receded into the background, allowing the Klingons to take center stage. But, this is DS9, and the Dominion are the signature antagonists of the show. It’s good to have them back.
Next up: The Dominion has clearly never seen Highlander.