“Soldiers Of The Empire” (season five, episode 21; originally aired 4/28/1997)
In which Worf has to lose a battle to win the war…
Worf is a character who depends on context. On his own, he can come across as a stick-in-the-mud, an uptight schoolmarm who just happens to be capable of splitting you in two if he really gets mad. Rule-obsessed scolds can be legitimately compelling, but they need to have some justification for why they behave the way they do; everyone’s more interesting if we can understand where they’re coming from, and, at his worst, Worf is just a helpless, irritable square, useful to bounce jokes off of, but not much else. In context, though, he’s immensely compelling: a tragic figure cast aside by his own people for striving to serve their interests. As goofy as that “My enthusiasm killed a kid” speech was back on the episode we’re not going to talk about again, it speaks to a conflict at Worf’s heart, the struggle that defines the Klingon soul. Battle and honor above all things, but where does that lead you in the end? How do you balance the responsibilities of citizenship against a warrior’s ethos? Worf is fascinating because he’s an example of one of the best approaches to genre storytelling: Take your concepts seriously. Try to figure out what happens next. “Warrior culture” is an okay start, but what does that mean? How does this system work, and how can it be maintained?
On one level, “Soldiers Of The Empire” is an exciting, well-paced underdog saga; a bit like one of those sports movies where a team of losers has to band together in order to triumph, only here the “losers” are a near mutinous crew of Klingons, and triumphing means killing the hell out of a Jem’Hadar ship and its crew. This is a formula, to be sure, but it’s the kind of formula with a basic, undeniable power no matter how many times its re-used. Ron Moore’s script takes the model, and runs with it, building to the rousing climax that’s all the more impressive when you realize we never see what’s typically considered the most important part of the story: the final battle. Martok and his crew finally destroy an enemy ship, but all we get to watch is their triumphant return to DS9. But the story still feels complete, because the B’Moth’s first victory isn’t really what’s at stake. Intentionally or not, this episode is really about trying once more to put Worf in the appropriate context, and undo some of the damage done in the season’s worst moments. Whether or not Martok is able to overcome his self-doubt is important, but what matters more is whether or not Worf can find a solution to his dilemma that will be true both to his own beliefs, and to the needs of those around him.
That said, the Dax/Worf relationship remains frustratingly unthrilling, in a way that makes me question what we should expect out of a TV romance. Putting these two together is both a way to help integrate Worf into the cast, and a potential story generator for future episodes, but while it makes a certain, “opposites -attract”-style sense, it rarely rises above the level of perfunctory. The chemistry is flat, but then, it’s hard to pin down exactly what “chemistry” is supposed to mean in this circumstances. Some couples have a bubbly, live-wire energy that turns their sparring into a prime reason for tuning into a show, but Worf and Dax aren’t supposed to be Sam and Diane, or Nick and Jess, or whatever will-they/won’t-they comes to mind. They obviously would, have, and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. And while the relationship can seem questionable from time to time, well, all relationships can look that way to outsiders. Maybe it makes sense just to accept the two of them together as a done deal, and hope the writers never make the mistake of putting too much drama on the pairing itself.
“Soldiers Of The Empire” is a good example of how to make that work; sure, Dax decides to accompany Worf during his time on board the B’Moth, but while she’s motivated in no small part by her feelings for him, we’ve always seen her hold her own with Klingons before, and this is no exception. While the passion underlying their pairing doesn’t always translate to the screen, it can still make sense, and to the extent that this a “Worf and Dax” episode, they do make sense.
But then, this isn’t really about them: It’s about Worf, ultimately, but to get to that, we have get through Martok and his newly adopted crew, and how both sides represent a study in what happens when you lose your way in a warrior culture. It’s an irony that Martok spends most of the episode alienating himself from the people he’s supposed to inspire, because the reasons that make him so cautious and initially incapable of doing his damn job are at least partly connected to what makes those serving under him so skittish about doing theirs. We’ve seen Klingons struggling to redefine themselves against the Dominion threat, but here we get a sense of what’s really driving them: fear and loathing of the Jem’Hadar. Martok spent long months in a prison camp suffering at their hands, and his new crew have lost battles to them in the past, but if they were just another enemy, like the Cardassians or the Romulans or the humans, such struggles, while difficult, would not sting quite so much. The Jem’Hadar are different, and here’s where we see a fatal flaw in the Klingon way of life.
The way to be a great Klingon, male or female, is to be a great warrior—the greatest warrior, in fact. To be defined by your will to victory, your indomitable spirit, your thirst for righteous violence—it’s basically Manifest Destiny, only nobody’s ashamed about all the killing that comes with it. But here are the Jem’Hadar, built faster, stronger, more able to endure. To a race whose highest ideal is the purity of the hunt, this must be horrifying: a species that has no other purpose than to make war, no desire but to follow orders, kill, follow more orders, and die. It’s unnatural, and Martok and his people try and calm themselves by pointing this out, but that sounds like equivocation. When your way of life has elevated Might Makes Right to a form of art, eventually, you’ll be faced with an enemy who redefines the terms. This isn’t the first time the Klingons have dealt with an opponent that can beat them, but it’s maybe the first time they’ve faced one that can do so on the Klingons’ own terms. That’s got to sting.
Which is why the climax of the story is so appealing. Martok keeps stalling and avoiding confrontations, the crew keeps getting closer to mutiny, and finally, Worf realizes something has to be done. He challenges Martok for leadership, and on a Klingon ship, if the superior officer refuses to stand down in the face of such a challenge, it’s a fight to the death. (We first learned about this in “Matter Of Honor,” from the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Worf and Martok fight, and at a critical moment, Worf lets down his guard, allowing Martok to win. The victory restores Martok’s confidence, allowing him to realize he’s been hiding from his true duties, and when a Jem’Hadar ship does approach, the general is able to lead his crew proudly, neatly resolving the episode’s main source of dramatic tension.
So, Worf threw the fight. On a personal level, this reminds us that Worf is a lot cannier than he sometimes lets on, as he understood the one gesture that might be able to bring about a positive resolution for both of the parties (Martok and the crew) that he needed to serve; he also was willing to to put his own life at hazard, knowing there was no guarantee that Martok wouldn’t take the killing blow when Worf allowed him the opportunity to do so. But on a greater level, Worf’s actions are a reminder of what sets apart the Klingons from the Jem’Hadar, and what makes their philosophy, at best, a noble one. While the Jem’Hadar talk about honor, and clearly have a deep reverence for it, they are ultimately at the whims of their controllers; their actions are stripped of any choice, and those few times we have seen them exert their will have required acts of highly localized rebellion. For Klingons, though, choice is the highest expression of honor, and the willingness to engage, to fight to the last, matters because it always comes internally. Time and again, Worf has demonstrated the best way forward for the Klingon Empire: courage, resilience, and passion driven by wisdom. His fight against the Jem’Hadar earlier in the season (a fight that’s referenced in this episode) showed that it’s possible to defeat even the seemingly invincible, and his actions here confirm it. Martok offering to adopt Worf into his house, and Worf accepting, is a thrilling, moving gesture, and it makes sense: Worf may be a jerk sometimes, but in context, he’s the future. The empire would do well to realize that.
- The chat between Martok and Bashir at the beginning (Martok was injured in a “holosuite program,” which we later learn is a lie to cover a training fight with Worf) is great. I love how Bashir’s refusal to back down first annoys, and then ultimately endears him to Martok.
- There’s a war song we hear twice on the ship: first, when Worf starts it up, and then later when the crew gets it going in response to Martok’s victory, signaling their acceptance of him as their leader. It’s pretty good!
- Not showing us the big fight against the Jem’Hadar is a really smart move, as it makes sure the focus stays on the Worf/Martok fight.
“Children Of Time” (season five, episode 22; originally aired 5/5/1997)
In which Kira learns a truth…
One of the great assets of genre storytelling is that it allows writers to create unique situations that reveal basic truths. There’s no real world analog for the crisis Sisko and his crew face in “Children Of Time”; the closest you can get would be debating whether or not to have kids, and then somehow feeling personally responsible to all the kids you decide not to have, but even that doesn’t come close.
In “Children Of Time,” the Defiant checks in on a planet surrounded by your standard plot-bearing plasma field, and meet a small but thriving civilization of about 8,000 people. To their shock, the people of this civilization recognize Sisko and the others, right down to the first names and personal habits. But the worst is yet to come. There’s time travel here, and the basic gist is, due to the plasma-whatsit surrounding the planet, when Sisko and the others try to leave, they’re going to crash; and more, it’s a crash that will send them and their ship 200 years into the past. In the past, the survivors of the crash (and not everyone survives) will found a colony that will eventually flourish and lead to the 8,000 people that we see in the present. So, now that they know what will happen, Sisko, Kira, O’Brien, and the rest have a choice to make. Do they recreate the crash, and spend the rest of their lives marooned two centuries away from their families? Or do they avoid the anomaly, and wipe an entire history of lives from existence?
It’s an impossible question, really, and while impossible questions often serve as the source of great drama, what’s interesting here is how the characters react, and not the why the issue itself resolves. Because, resolution-wise, there aren’t a lot of options. The show’s main ensemble (minus Quark) is not going to get stranded 200 years in the past; for a while, there’s some hope that the present day Defiant will be able to create a kind of quantum duplicate as it leaves, thus allowing the characters to be in two places at once, but that solution turns out to be a lie cooked up by Yedrin Dax, a descendant of Jadzia’s and current host for the Dax symbiont. And really, it would have to be a lie, wouldn’t it? Watching everybody hang out with their potential descendants for a while before leaving everything just the way it was would be a cheat, making a situation too easy and robbing it of its potential effect. The possibility of a happy ending lets the writers delay the inevitable for a little while longer, but once that possibility is taken off the table, it all comes down to why you make your choices, and not what those choices are.
It’s possible to see this in the design of the community on the planet. This is just one more in a long line of agrarian Star Trek utopias, where a small group of respectful individuals join together for the greater good. There are some tweaks here and there; as mentioned, Dax is still around (Bashir and his children must’ve gotten really good at Trill biology), and there’s a group of warriors who stand apart from the rest of society, vowing to follow the Klingon way as the future-past version of Worf once set down. But for the most part, if you’ve watched enough Star Trek: The Next Generation and DS9, this is familiar, and not all that distinctive.
Not that it needs to be. Maybe the ending of the episode might’ve had more impact if the people we ultimately lose were more distinctive, but I’m not sure that’s possible; the ending is shocking as it is, and it’s powerful because of what it reveals about the people (particularly one person) who will be staying with the show for the duration. As it is, the people of the settlement are as interesting as they need to be. There are some lovely scenes showing how the main ensemble grows attached to these fleeting figures, like Sisko meeting a baby, or the planting sequence which serves as a sort of inadvertent farewell, but by and large, the community remains a symbol, a sort of narrative sacrifice. They’re here to be lost.
So that leaves the regular cast to shoulder most of the weight of the episode. The script does a good job of giving everyone a moment or two. Dax, whose eagerness to explore the uncharted world is at least partly responsible for creating this whole mess, has to face what her shortsightedness has led to, both good and bad, and how her actions have shaped the Dax symbiont; Yedrin is so desperate to make up for his past mistakes, and to protect the people he cares about, that he’s willing to betray everyone Jadzia loves. (Actually, that’s pretty defensible; when you’re given a choice between “8,000 people cease to exist” and “48 people are stranded,” it’s not a tough call. The major mistake on his part is not being up front about the situation.) O’Brien discovers that his future-past self remarries a year or two after the crash. When it comes time to make the ultimate decision, he’s the only member of the crew dead set against staying behind; he’s got a wife and two kids to worry about, after all. But when faced with the depth and warmth of the people he’d be effectively erasing from reality, he can’t bring himself to go through with it.
None of them can, really, which makes sense. In a way, that arguably cheapens the drama of the question, because no person in good conscience could be expected to turn their backs on 8,000 people, especially when doing so meant not just killing them, but negating them and everyone who came before. This is where the dramatic value of genre fiction can get tricky, because this is the kind of dilemma that’s almost too one-sided to really debate. Sisko and O’Brien pay some lip service to the idea that no one can force them to make this choice, but “force” is beside the point. If any of our heroes had really been willing to commit this level of temporal genocide, it would’ve been hard to accept. On DS9, characters often make hard-to-accept choices, but this is beyond the pale.
But that leaves the story in a tough spot, because to wrap all of this up with some kind of deus ex machina would kill be to kill its power; there’s tragedy built into this model, but in order for it to land, someone needs to make that impossible choice. Which is why we have Kira and Odo. Kira is injured during the initial pass through the plasma whatsit, and while she looks and feels fine, Yedrin explains that in the community’s history, Kira died a week or so after being marooned on the planet; the shock she received earlier damaged her neural pathways severely enough to prove fatal. It’s not something that Bashir can cure without equipment he has back on the station. That means the problem Sisko and the others face has more of a bite to it: are they willing to sacrifice Kira to save the others? But it’s still a question with only one morally justifiable answer. If Kira hadn’t been willing to die, then we might have had something (because really, who could blame her?), but after some soul searching, she decides that her death is the will of the Prophets. She can accept that; and as terrible as it would be to die, at least she can go knowing her sacrifice will save thousands.
Then there’s Odo. After a cold open which has Kira revealing she’s broken up with Shakaar, and Odo being stunned by the news, the shapechanger gets dumped in a jar for most of the rest of the episode. It seems like a bizarre choice; why even include him at all, if he’s just going to be written out for vague science-fiction reasons. Turns out there’s a reason for that. While everyone else is hanging out in the community, meeting their great great-great-great-(etc.)-grandchildren, Kira is accosted by another, much older Odo. This is the Odo who survived the crash, the sole remnant of that crew still alive on the planet, and time has changed him. He’s gotten better at shape-shifting, for one; he looks more like Rene Auberjonois now, and the effect is both marvelous and unnerving, like running into a visitor from the uncanny valley in real life. More importantly, the centuries, and the loss of that other Kira so long ago, have changed him profoundly. He seems more at peace with himself, and with his feelings, and a few minutes into his first conversation with our Kira, he lets go of the secret the present day Odo has seemingly devoted his life to keeping: He tells her he loves her.
It’s a shocking moment, and it reveals something fundamentally curious about the future-past Odo, something the episode goes to great pains to neither condemn nor praise. This Odo’s lack of restraint and apparent self-confidence are gratifying in a way, but there’s a sense that he’s lost perspective on the being he used to be, and, in doing so, has lost what little connection he had left to the living people around him. It’s subtle, and it may not even be intentional, but we only ever see the future-past Odo with Kira; he’s never mentioned by the other members of the community, and we never see him interacting with them or the rest of the crew. As warm and vibrant as this society is, Odo is on the outside, like he always was. Without Kira, there’s nothing to tie him down. Maybe after she died, he was so grief-stricken he left the others behind, wandering the planet on his own, changing shapes and forgetting who he was; and when he returned, all the others he’d know were dead, and there were just strangers, and he couldn’t bear the thought of caring for them.
Whatever the reason, he’s apart, and so, when he realizes the Defiant is going to crash voluntarily, and Kira is going to die again, he takes action, changing the flight path, and sending the ship back out into space. It’s an act so immense, so apparently monstrous and yet deeply personal that it’s almost impossible to judge. He erased himself, and all those 8,000 souls, for one woman. Because he loved her. There’s something terrifying in that kind of love, something that asks for so much it can’t possible be returned, or ignored. All that time on his own, dealing with loss, shaping his feelings and knowing that one day, Kira would come back, and that when she did, he could see her again, and maybe even save her… it changed him. And our Odo, present day Odo, the guy who’s been stuck in a jar this whole time, who’s struggled to do the right thing and protect himself and uphold the law, is forced to relay the news to the person who’s opinion of him matters to him the most. That’s what really stings: future-past Odo wanted Kira to know what he was willing to do to keep her alive. And now they both know.
- Okay, so it’s an “energy barrier with quantum fluctuations,” not a plasma whatsit. Doesn’t really matter.
- That ending really is stunning. It gives us what we want (yay, our heroes are leaving the planet! Yay, Kira lives! Yay, Kira knows Odo loves her!) in the worst way possible.
- Continuing the Worf Is Awesome theme, the scene when he tells his followers to help the other villagers with the planting is great. “Time is there enemy. We should help them defeat it.” Really, that whole sequence is wonderful, and manages to do in a few minutes what most of the rest of the episode struggles with; just the sight of these people calmly, even joyously, going about their work while many of them know it will all vanish soon, makes them matter.
Next week: Sisko has to team up with an enemy in “Blaze Of Glory,” and the Cardassians mess with everyone’s life in “Empok Nor.”