Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Tribunal”/“The Jem’Hadar”

Illustration for article titled iStar Trek: Deep Space Nine/i: “Tribunal”/“The Jem’Hadar”
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

“Tribunal” (season 2, episode 25; originally aired 6/5/1994)

In which, on Cardassia, the truth handles you

I suppose I should save my thoughts on the second season as a whole for the latter half of this review, but I will say this now: The last few weeks have been one heck of a run. “Tribunal” continues the trend, giving us our first close look at the Cardassian legal system, as well as giving the writers a chance to torment poor O’Brien. The show is getting good at pushing its boundaries, and extrapolating its main ideas until they make sense as a cohesive system. Which is to say, with earlier Star Trek shows, most cultures and conflicts were one-offs. Star Trek: The Next Generation was more aggressive with its continuity, but gave off a constant sense of departure, of problems resolved and left behind. Sisko doesn’t have a spaceship. He has a space station, and that means that even when he beats the Cardassians at whatever game they’re playing—as he does this week—he’ll still have to keep winning again and again and again. I’ve heard that some fans dismiss Deep Space Nine as overly grim, but while the show deals in serious subjects without blinking, I’ve never found it depressing. It’s honest, that’s all. Before this series, the franchise was about the pure utopia of the journey, of constant motion, of seeking and never being entirely satisfied. With DS9, the franchise creates a home, and then sets to establishing the cost of defending it.


There are plenty of reasons to like “Tribunal,” and I’ll do my best to cover all of them, but the one that strikes me most in retrospect is how neatly the episode works to undermine the requirements of its supposed genre. I’m not talking about science-fiction tropes; O’Brien’s arrest, incarceration, and trial all fit neatly into the framework of a courtroom drama, right down to the seemingly friendly prosecution (Makbar turns cold in a hurry, but we’re introduced to her criticizing her colleagues for their poor treatment of their prisoner—she does it because she wants Miles to look good for the cameras, of course), the underdog defense attorney who’s full of well-earned wisdom, and all the expected objections and over-rulings and sudden reversals this sort of story requires. And yet at every turn, these concepts are subverted and mocked. O’Brien and the other people from Deep Space Nine (particularly Odo, who is allowed to serve as the chief’s advisor and de facto defense) continually treat the trial under standard judicial rules, but that’s not how Cardassian jurisprudence works. As we’re informed again and again, when a prisoner is brought before the court on Cardassia, he or she has already been found guilty. The sentence has been decided, and the execution scheduled. The “trial” is pure performance, intended as a way to educate citizens of the importance of obeying the state, and the glory of serving the whole.

This means there’s no outlet for the tension that courtroom drama typically thrives on. At every turn, O’Brien and Odo are thwarted in their attempts to treat the situation in the usual way. No one will tell O’Brien what he’s charged with, no matter how often he asks, and when his attorney, the venerable Kovat (Fritz Weaver, a character actor who, among other things, played a fascist head of state in The Twilight Zone’s “The Obsolete Man”), pays him a visit, all the Cardassian offers is platitudes about how much better everything will be if O’Brien just gives in. O’Brien asks him how many cases he’s won, but even before Kovat answers, the question is moot. The judicial elements of the episode play out like a subtle black comedy, as our heroes behave in ways we’ve come to expect from such stories, and the judges and officials throw them back at every turn. We’ve heard many times before of the horrors of Cardassian law, but this is the first time we’ve really gotten a chance to see it first hand. It’s frustrating in all the right ways, to the point where it almost seems like a flaw in the episode that O’Brien is ultimately released. Sisko comes up with the right solution to the problem (i.e. the truth), but there’s something so permanent and awful about Miles’ situation that it’s hard to shake the impression that he’s doomed no matter what anyone does.

Still, as cruelly amusing as this all is, it would be difficult to watch a character we care about get put through the wringer if our heroes didn’t put up such a good show. Much of what makes the Cardassian system run is its ruthless and persistent ability to stamp out resistance through bureaucratic force. Arrest someone, humiliate them, and assure them over and over that their guilt has been verified beyond all doubt, and you haven’t just imprisoned them—you’ve gone a long way toward reducing them, convincing the individual that their self-definition is less important than the definition imposed on them by the state. O’Brien, having been raised in a society where being a person matters more than being a cog in a machine, does what he can to stand up for himself. He’s frightened, but he doesn’t back down until he’s forced to, and you never get the sense from him that he’s even considered the idea that the charges (whatever they are) might have merit. Odo turns out to be a major ally, in an unexpected but entirely sensible twist; he understands the Cardassian legal system better than anyone else on the station, and by getting involved in the case, he at least manages to give voice to the obvious problems with process. This hour could’ve been a depressing slog right up until the end, but the way O’Brien, Odo, and Keiko (watching on from the gallery) show a determined, unified face make it more thrilling and frustrating than grim.

As for the actual story, it’s fine—another example of the Cardassians trying to force the Federation presence out of the demilitarized zone via complicated, outlandish stratagem. This time, they surgically alter a Cardassian spy to look like a former Starfleet soldier named Boone, who served with O’Brien on the Rutledge. While O’Brien is rushing to go on vacation, the fake Boone bumps into him on the promenade, they exchange a few words (Colm Meaney does an excellent, “Oh hey, I have to get going, but I really am delighted to see you!"; it’s a small touch that really fits the character), and Boone records them to use as a security code to get clearance into a weapons locker, where he steals two dozen photon warheads. The idea is to make it look like O’Brien was working with the Maquis, this serving as proof of high-level Federation collaboration with the group. It’s the sort of plan you expect Lex Luthor to scribble down in his notes while watching a James Bond film, and its loopiness is especially obvious when contrasted against the rest of the episode. It works fine for what it needs to do—first get the innocent O’Brien incarcerated, then find an easy way for Sisko to both prove his innocence and force the Cardassians to release him—but it demonstrates one of the ongoing clashes on the show: the way standard genre plotting, with its tendencies towards contrivance and reliance on outrageous shocks, can come up against more ambitious characterization and thematic depth.


Science fiction is the language DS9 uses to tell its stories, and that language can occasionally fall short of the show’s ambitions. Yet, when the two dovetail together, it makes for remarkable television. “Duet” and “The Wire” were so effective because of their twists and big ideas—”Duet” was the first time we heard of the remarkable talents of Cardassian plastic surgeons, after all. But those twists stemmed from character in a way the Boone subplot doesn’t. There’s a brief mention of O’Brien’s well-known hatred of Cardassians, but it’s not really relevant, and the fact that the whole thing is a frame job shifts the focus away from what’s really at stake here. The system doesn’t work because it fakes crimes; it works because it makes every person on Cardassia a tool to be used at the government’s whims. O’Brien gets off on what is essentially a technicality. His release may sow some seeds of doubt among the citizens, but it serves as an anticlimax for an otherwise terrific hour. Thankfully, as anticlimaxes go, this one is easy to swallow; it’s not like I particularly wanted to see Miles doomed to a life of hard labor and occasional torture. Although he seems to view getting a do-over on his vacation with about as much enthusiasm.

Stray observations:

  • One of DS9’s smaller, but very welcome, accomplishments so far: O’Brien and Keiko’s relationship. Keiko can come across as harsh at times, but their interaction makes sense, and it makes sense that Miles would be drawn to a tough woman. On TNG, their fights were played largely for laughs, but the more we see of them together on this show, the more I like them both.
  • The episode goes out of its way to inform us, and then remind us, that Cardassian citizens have a molar removed for identification purposes when they’re children. (Poor Miles loses one of his teeth soon after his arrest.) This pays off when we learn Bashir was able to identify Boone as a Cardassian impostor by his missing tooth. Except 1.) the info is cool enough it doesn’t actually need to lead to anything to be worthwhile and 2.) surely there are better ways to determine someone’s species than just checking if they have enough teeth.

“The Jem’Hadar” (season 2, episode 26; originally aired 6/12/1994)

In which the Dominion makes its presence known…

So, here were at that the real conclusion of season two, with an episode that starts paying off some impressively subtle hints scattered through the previous 25 entries. On its own “The Jem’Hadar” is pretty good—but as mentioned above, I’d like to at least pay a nod to the second season as a whole before getting into the particulars of the finale. To sum up, then: It’s good. Like, “exceeding expectations” good, and in a way that completely caught me off-guard. In my time reviewing various Trek shows, I’ve grown used to expecting a specific kind of excellence; namely, the episodic kind. In reviewing a season of the original series, or TNG, I judged its success largely based on how many good-to-great hours that season held. That’s not to say I didn’t love both shows for their ensembles and respective worlds, but their main value to me was as a sort of anthology with recurring characters. While TNG flirted with serialization, its focus was still primarily on individual stories, and while I got a good sense of Picard’s Enterprise, and how the principals functioned aboard it, the episodes themselves remained by and large standalone entities.


That’s not how Deep Space Nine works. Those earlier shows followed the more traditional television model; DS9 was part of a gradual move to more long-term narrative persistence that came to define the modern television landscape, for good and bad. Here, luckily, it’s entirely to the good. There are a few standout episodes in season two (“The Wire,” “Tribunal,” “Crossover”—add your own in the comments), but what one really comes away with from watching it all is a sense of an ongoing story that’s just starting to get up to speed. Individual hours don’t matter as much as the way scenes of Sisko and others interacting and dealing with life on the station come together; the season is more than the sum of its parts. Which may be one of the reasons that DS9 never seemed as appealing to me as a kid as the original show or TNG. To get the full effect, you really do have to watch nearly everything, because even the weakest hours inform and build on that sense of continuity. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t just wander into some random episode and have fun with it, but one of the great gifts of this medium is investment over time, and DS9 is making good use of it. I look forward to watching each week in part because I just want to spend time with these people in this place, and that’s a tremendous advantage for any series. The flaws are still visible, but as long as the show maintains a consistency in character and detail, they’re not as damaging as they might be. In summary, I’m a fan, and while I’m excited for my next project, I’m also already looking forward to returning to this particular space station soon.

With that said, let’s focus on “The Jem’Hadar,” which serves to begin the Dominion’s entrance into DS9 in earnest. I’m skeptical of cliffhangers, but this one works well because it sets up story problems which aren’t intended to be resolved immediately in the next season’s première. The finale introduces an opposing force which is presumably meant to be with us for a long time, and here’s where all that stuff I was talking about above pays off: Unlike TNG’s haphazard attempts to lay groundwork for the Borg’s reappearance, the allusions we’ve heard to the Dominion have been both organic and persistent enough to have noticeable effect. When Sisko learns that the race of reptilian soldiers who have taken him and Quark captive are the elite fighting force of the Dominion, this revelation has actual weight to it. I can’t say how effective it would have been if I’d been watching this when it originally aired (I already knew the Dominion was important going into the series), and the episode doesn’t rely on the foreshadowing for most of its dramatic impact. But it still feels like something that’s been planned and built to over time, and that wouldn’t have been possible without DS9’s efforts at continuity.


I wish I could’ve gone into this one without any knowledge about the plot, though, because for the first 15 minutes or so, “The Jem’Hadar” looks like it’s telling a completely different story than the one we end up with. Sisko sees Jake working on a science project, decides the project isn’t ambitious enough, and proposes a planetary survey that could also serve (in Sisko’s mind) as a father-and-son working vacation. Jake’s excited, and invites Nog along; Quark, who desperately wants permission to use the station’s video monitors to sell merchandise, tags along as well in a misguided attempt to earn Sisko’s friendship. All of which means that, for a surprisingly long time, the episode keeps it light. We get a lot of humor out of Avery Brooks's slow burn, and the way Quark’s efforts at ingratiating himself are at odds with his basic loathing and mistrust of the outdoors. But Sisko and Jake get a little time together, and Nog manages to impress the older man. Then a telekinetic alien shows up, knocks Sisko down, and gets him, Quark, and herself captured by the Jem’Hadar.

It’s an abrupt shift, although it’s not as though the tone suddenly goes full Schindler’s List. The alien, who calls herself Eris, tells Sisko that the Dominion conquered her home world, and her monologue on the subject is the first real attempt to distinguish the Dominion as baddies: apparently, they first invite new civilizations to join their ranks, and if that doesn’t work, it’s on to brutal domination. Time will tell just what drives them to conquer, but it’s already intriguing how much this sounds like the dark side version of the Federation’s handshake-and-hugs approach. In the ideal future of Star Trek, everybody can eventually be friends provided we’re all patient and understanding, and friendship means unification. It’s a lovely thought, but an optimistic one, and I like the idea that the Dominion could show how such a program could be twisted into, well, assimilation. (Come to think, the Borg are also a spin what the Federation does. Hopefully I already thought of that during my TNG reviews.) While we ultimately learn that Eris is a Dominion spy, pretending to be captive just to get a sense of Starfleet’s power and intentions, there’s no reason to believe that the story she tells isn’t true, and it’s doubtful that the Federation, or anyone else, will be able to find a peaceful means for resolving the conflict that doesn’t mean absolute surrender.


We also learn in this episode that the Dominion has been getting pissed off about the Federation’s intrusions into its territory via the wormhole, and that they’ve been planning their response for a while, which gives them an edge. Sisko only gets a chance to speak with one of the Jem’Hadar, an arrogant thug who expresses disappointment that Sisko and Quark aren’t Klingons; the makeup here is impressive, but we’ve had warriors on the series before, and time will tell just how bad these dudes actually are. What’s more intriguing is the way the hour drives home just how little our heroes know and understand about their potential enemy. We don’t even know what the Dominion is, exactly. The Jem’Hadar makes reference to the “Founders,” and while Eris claims those are just a myth, Sisko theorizes in the end that she herself was one of them—but what exactly does that mean? This helps increase the sense that the DS9 crew is about to face off against a threat that may have them significantly outmatched, a sense which is multiplied a hundredfold during the final space battle. After Sisko, Quark, and Eris (who’s still pretending to be a victim) are rescued, the group, along with the Odyssey, a Federation ship which became involved once the Jem’Hadar notified everyone whom they’d captured, head for home. But even though the good guys are retreating, one Jem’Hadar ship does a suicide run directly into the Odyssey (a much bigger ship, by the way), destroying themselves and it instantly. To sum up: Our heroes are about to face off against an enemy with powers they can’t understand, a social structure they know nothing about, and resources they can only imagine. And that enemy is willing to sacrifice itself to kill, simply to make sure they’ve left the right impression.

Well, it worked. I don’t know what happens next, but things look bad for Sisko, Kira, Odo, Dax, Bashir, O’Brien, Quark, and the rest. But that’s very, very good for us.


Stray observations:

  • Quark’s arguments with Sisko follow the “he’s a dick right up until he says something that really makes you think” model, which always annoys me a little. But Quark sells it well enough; his point that the Ferengi were never as bad as humans in their capitalist phase isn’t a bad one, and, while it doesn’t make up for him being such an irritant for most of the episode, it’s hard to completely dismiss his arguments. Plus, without his greediness, Sisko would never have realized Eris was a fake, so that’s a point for the large-lobed gentleman.
  • Jake and Nog’s efforts to operate the runabout by themselves were cute, but came across a little like padding. Also, I’m surprised Sisko didn’t have some kind of fail-safe built into the autopilot that would could return the ship back to the station without him in the case of disaster. I get that he wouldn’t want Jake joyriding with the thing, but would it be that hard to give him a safe way to return home if Sisko wasn’t around?
  • I’m going to assume Eris got some info off the station’s computers before she beamed away (and how frightening is it that O’Brien can’t track where the transporter signal comes from?), because otherwise, it seems like she gives Sisko a lot more information about the Dominion than she gets from him about the Federation. But maybe that was the point all along.

Next week: Happy day after the Fourth of July! We’ll return to Deep Space Nine in the fall, but I hope you’ll join me when, starting July 12th, I laugh myself to death with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter