While on a mission in the Gamma Quadrant (Seriously, guys?), trying to determine if a planet has ore worth mining, a Dominion ship crashes nearby. The crew investigates and finds the entire crew dead, likely the gruesome victims of inertial damper failure. This crashed vessel is a potential treasure trove of intelligence, so they want to get it back home. The runabout they were using (Seriously, guys?) doesn’t have the horsepower to tractor beam the Dominion ship from the atmosphere, so they’re stuck waiting two and a half days for the Defiant to arrive.
The Dominion shows up to claim their ship and are not impressed when Sisko starts talking about salvage rights. When the Jem’Hadar attack, Sisko retreats to the cover of the ship. All the red shirts (Some of them are in blue and gold for variety.) are killed save Muñiz, a young engineer we saw in two previous episodes. O’Brien has adopted him as a protege, and an early scene shows the playful camaraderie between the two men. It helps that Muñiz has been in the background of those two other episodes, even having a pivotal role in “Starship Down” as one of the engineers who successfully jury-rigs a torpedo to take out a Jem’Hadar ship (and teach Worf a valuable lesson about command). Muñiz is hit with a shot from a Jem’Hadar rifle, and though it’s not instantly fatal, it would have been a mercy. The sadistic Dominion includes an anti-coagulant in their weapons, so anyone non-fatally hit gets the luxury of bleeding out.
While the Dominion, personified by the Vorta Kilana, wants the ship back, they are unwilling to risk a full assault. Sisko is rapidly convinced that the ship has something inside of it too valuable to destroy. If he can find it, he might be able to hold off the Dominion long enough for the Defiant to get there. Meanwhile, he, Worf, Dax, O’Brien, and the mortally wounded Muñiz are being cooked alive in this claustrophobic environment while the Dominion shells the area with artillery.
The crew frays each in their own way. Dax resorts to limp wisecracks and judgmental stares. Worf longs for battle and keeps advising O’Brien to put Muñiz out of his misery. O’Brien desperately tries to keep his young protege alive without access to a medkit. (That was on one of the crew members who was killed in the initial assault). Sisko has to deal with a Vorta who proves herself to be completely untrustworthy by lying on their first meeting.
The tension explodes between Worf and O’Brien, with the two of them even slinging racist comments back and forth. Trek characters aren’t often allowed to behave in such a manner, and it’s refreshing to see that these two are, especially as before and since, we see a deep respect between them. At Worf’s trial, both spoke in glowing terms about one another, and Worf did his best to be a friend to O’Brien after the latter’s awful time in mind-prison. Because of those moments, the times the two are at each other’s throats carry far more weight.
Muñiz dies, as was inevitable. While Behr wishes they could have had him around more, in order to make his death even more meaningful, that would have been almost impossible in the mid-‘90s. Just the fact that we had seen him before, that he had a pivotal role in a very good fourth season episode made him more than a simple red shirt, to be used and discarded.
A Changeling was on board the ship the entire time. Grievously wounded, eventually it can no longer hold its shape (as a bulkhead) and dies, turning to ash. Its death scream is somehow loud enough for the Vorta and Jem’Hadar to hear. (It makes no sense, but it leads to a good moment, so I’m giving it a pass.) Kilana contacts Sisko and informs him that her men have all committed suicide after the failure to protect the Founder.
Sisko is confused, hurt, and angry. All of that bloodshed could have been avoided had Kilana only told him what she was after. She, of course, was concerned that the Changeling would be taken as a lab sample. She hasn’t heard, or more likely doesn’t believe, that the Federation is as lawful good as they claim to be. All Sisko wanted was the ship, and all Kilana wanted was the Changeling. A trade would have prevented so much misery. This is the crux of the hour, and what aligns it so closely with Roddenberry’s vision. In essence, had the two warring factions simply trusted one another, everyone wins.
DS9 is considered the “dark one” in Trek canon, and with a lot of justification. But its darkness often opens it up to greater self-reflection. The expendable red shirt is a joke in pop culture, and their deaths don’t provoke much of a reaction. Sisko finishes the episode trying to write letters home to the families of the red shirts, and in dwelling on the darkness, they make the deaths have more meaning. What matters in this context is not necessarily that the deaths effect the audience (although you have to be made of stone not to have a twinge of sadness when O’Brien sees that Muñiz is gone), but that the characters see the price. Sisko even acknowledges that he did the right thing and would do it again, though this does not make the loss any less poignant.
The episode ends with the quote at the top. It’s Worf’s way of making peace with his old friend and colleague. O’Brien sits with Muñiz’s casket, talking to him, unwilling to let the young man’s memory go. Worf comes in an approvingly notes that O’Brien is practicing an old Klingon custom, that of sitting up with a fallen warrior’s body to insure the predators don’t get it. This observation once again links them, showing that O’Brien was honoring a Klingon way without even meaning to, that these two -- both warriors, it should be noted -- are not so different. Worf settles next to him and says this final line. Though he’s talking about the body, he really sums up their struggles. Only together can they keep the predators at bay.
Next up: par’Mach is in the air.