“Just don’t be surprised if the uneasy alliance on this station starts to show a few cracks.”
— Dr. Julian Bashir
Ira Steven Behr, the eventual showrunner for DS9, had something to say about this episode that shines a bit of light on the process of creating longform serialized fiction. “It was a third season show we had the nerve to do in the first season,” he said in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. What he’s saying here is that before you do an episode in which you mess with your characters’ personalities, you need to have done the grunt work of establishing those personalities, something that generally takes a couple seasons. For a network ensemble show, this is usually done by the third season. Think of when other genre shows showed alternate versions of characters or played with the personalities at their core: Buffy did “The Wish” in the third season, Supernatural had “It’s a Terrible Life” in the fourth, and Deadwood did “Merry Christmas, You Hooplehead C–ksuckers” in the third. Okay, I made one of those up. Not to mix a metaphor or anything, but before you go messing around in the kitchen, it’s a good idea to put on some pants first.
It’s probably a little ironic that I think this episode doesn’t quite work for the very reason Behr likes it so much. I do value audacity in my fiction — how else could I write a book that featured a transvestite zombie hunter or a character named Ugoth the Castrator — and in that my hat is off to the man. The central problem comes down to DS9’s strength: that sprawling cast I’m always yammering on about. While in today’s landscape, where a thirteen-episode season is not just usual, it’s almost preferred, it seems strange to say that after sixteen episodes we haven’t laid enough pipe to understand these people, but, in this case, it’s true. For one thing, there are eight regulars. That’s a crazy amount. For another, this is a Star Trek show, so character moments often take a backseat toward solving the problem of the week. This is the early days of serialization, and the bugs haven’t been worked out just yet.
So, what’s got everyone’s brains all scrambled? Short answer is Star Trek. The longer answer involves a Klingon Vor’cha attack cruiser (No, I did not have to look that up, and yes, I am married somehow.) coming out of the wormhole and instantly exploding. Someone tried to beam off at the last minute, and thanks to O’Brien’s transporter wizardry, they beam this survivor to Ops. It’s a mortally wounded Klingon who breathes one last word, “Victory,” before dying. First weird point: the Klingon appears to have died of weapon burns, and this ship was going to the Gamma Quadrant for a biological survey. Second weird point: why are the Klingons using a Vor’cha attack cruiser as a science vessel? Actually, no. That’s not weird. Klingons only have warships.
Every speaking character on Ops, with the exception of Odo, starts acting weird. Sisko seems bored with the task of commanding, opting instead to spend his time making a clock. It’s possible the clock is a metaphor. It’s also possible it’s just weird. In any case, it’ll remain a background prop for the bulk of the series. Kira, who began the episode angry about an arriving Valerian freighter (The Valerians ran weapons-grade dolamide for the Cardassians during the Occupation, and if you think I giggled and pictured Rudy Ray Moore every time they said “dolamide,” you know me too well.), starts openly plotting to remove Sisko from command or just assassinate him. O’Brien becomes a hardline Starfleet partisan, openly suspicious of his Bajoran hosts. Bashir gets really into politics and is consistently ready to switch sides. He comes off like Littlefinger, if Littlefinger had the attention span of a six year old after eating a whole pillowcase of Halloween candy. Lastly, Dax gets really spacey, and all she wants to do is reminisce about the good, old days.
Odo figures out something is dreadfully wrong fairly quickly, but the way he solves the problem is pretty ingenious and gives the audience some insight into what he’s doing here. Instead of adopting any hardline stance, or playing Cassandra, Odo plays along with everyone’s delusion, reassuring whoever he’s with at the time that he’s on their side. Pretty soon, it became abundantly clear that this is exactly what he did during the Occupation. Remember, Odo was the security chief for the Cardassian Union back when DS9 was Terok Nor and somehow retained that job under the Bajoran Provisional Government. That takes a level of politicking that’s astounding, at odds with the laconic blob of goo we all know and love. Yet here, we see that not only is Odo completely capable of walking this tightrope, he excels at it, expertly manipulating the entire hyper-suspicious crew.
It’s possible his race just has a knack for deception.
Using the mission log salvaged from the destroyed ship, Odo determines that the Klingons were infected by a telepathic archive of an internal power struggle that destroyed an entire race. Odo, lacking a humanoid brain, was immune. The archive got the Klingon ship, and when the dying man beamed over, it infected DS9. Odo then persuades Dr. Bashir to create a cure (reassuring the doctor that this will give them an edge in the nascent civil war) and manipulates Sisko, Kira, O’Brien, Dax, and Bashir into a cargo bay to get the brain globs out of their heads.
The weirdest part of the episode only comes into focus if you’ve seen the entire series. The Toh’Kaht, that Klingon ship, was going through the wormhole to get a weapon “that will make the enemies of the Klingon Empire tremble.” This hints that the Klingons knew about the archive somehow — perhaps told by someone with an interest in bringing the Klingons down with some infighting — and were planning on using it. Considering what we know about Gowron and the later actions of the Empire, it seems like this might have been the first shot in a coming war.
Next up: Kira has a conversation.