Nutshell: Interesting, with some genuinely good moments, but the "big action" ending proves utterly inconsequential.
"To the Death" is a show that proves quite intense and absorbing in its premise for a majority of the episode, but then the creators drop the ball with a painfully routine conclusion based solely on mindless action scenes that don't have any real consequences.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The Defiant returns from defending a Bajoran colony to find DS9 damaged and with some reasonably heavy casualties. The damage is significant: Sisko calls his crew to the bridge of the Defiant to "have a look" at DS9—part of one of its upper pylons has been destroyed. By destroyed, I mean gone—kind of like an arm severed at the elbow. It's quite a surprising sight, and when Sisko finds out the Jem'Hadar are responsible, he orders an immediate re-departure of the Defiant to hunt down the attackers.
By this point, the episode had my attention. At last, we were going to have a Jem'Hadar show that would have impact on the series.
In the Gamma Quadrant, the Defiant comes across a damaged Jem'Hadar fighter floating dead in space. Sisko beams the crew aboard (under heavy security, of course). The Jem'Hadar are led by a soldier named Omet'iklan (Clarence Williams III), but they also have to obey a Vorta official named Weyoun (Jeffrey Combs) who controls their supply of white, the addictive drug that keeps the Jem'Hadar on a short leash by the rest of the Dominion.
Weyoun informs Sisko that both DS9 and the damaged Jem'Hadar fighter were victims of a group of renegade Jem'Hadar soldiers who are working on a transporter device that could make them invincible if they complete it. Weyoun believes that if they complete the "gateway," they will recruit other Jem'Hadar squadrons and could possibly take over the entire Dominion within a year. After that, there would be little to stop them; even collapsing the wormhole would not protect the Alpha Quadrant from the gateway's reach. There's no time to waste—Sisko and his crew must ally themselves with the Jem'Hadar squadron in a battle effort to stop the renegades themselves.
This is quite interesting. The threatening nature of the Dominion is intimidating enough, but the idea that the Dominion is not as stable as the Founders would like it to appear—that the Jem'Hadar could take it over under the right circumstances—is not something to be taken lightly. Also, I very much appreciated the creators' notion of bringing back Iconian technology—something from way back in TNG's second season episode, "Contagion." I found the Iconians interesting then, and the way "To the Death" reintroduces their technology into DS9 lore as part of a Jem'Hadar threat is something that really sparked my attention.
With this as a starting point, the remainder of the show mostly focuses on the pressure cooker that the Defiant becomes en route to the target due to the clash between Starfleet officers and Jem'Hadar fighters. Part of this clash is caused by the different methodologies. The Jem'Hadar are extremely hard-core soldiers, and they place very little value on their own lives. Only victory is important. They see the Federation as weak and effete because they place too much value on life, and not enough value on winning the battle.
Then there's the hatred factor. Have no doubts—Sisko's crew and the Jem'Hadar squadron do not like or trust each other, and they don't put much effort into hiding it. The "enemies turned allies" angle my not be particularly new, but "To the Death" handles this part of the show with reasonable success. The brawls between short fuses Worf and Toman'torax (Brian Thompson) certainly work well. There's also a humorous and intriguing scene between Dax and Virak'kara (Scott Haven) that proves just how emotionally impenetrable a race of all-male 24-hour soldiers who don't eat or sleep can be—yet the scene still manages to give Virak'kara personality. Through all of this is Sisko, whose commanding authority keeps the balance over a delicate situation of perpetual mistrust.
There are some good performances here, particularly from Avery Brooks and Colm Meaney. But, surprisingly, Clarence Williams III is somewhat disappointing. True, he's limited to the low-key responses of a Jem'Hadar role, but his line delivery is generally annoying; there are entirely too many unnecessary pauses between his phrases. Part of this may be due to Burton's direction—while he handles some of the show marvelously, he doesn't seem to have Williams III under control. This is too bad—I've seen Williams III deliver energetic performances in films like Deep Cover and Against the Wall. Here he just seems too restrained. (On another director's note, I didn't think the use of extreme close-up in the Odo/Weyoun scene worked very well at all. The entire scene felt redundant in any case—I find it difficult to believe that the Founders still want their rogue Changeling to come home, but that's another story.)
Despite this effective set up, the episode does nothing much with it—nothing, at least, that has any real lasting impact. The final act of the show is one of those rushed, "big-scale" action scenarios where the heroes get into stylized physical fights with the villains. I didn't find this conclusion very interesting because almost every element of it was routine. The Defiant crew beams down only to find out that their phasers don't work for contrived reasons: the gateway is generating a dampening field (darn, I hate it when that happens).
Consequently, the battle becomes a hand to hand affair with deadly blades. We've seen this done before—and better (e.g. "Way of the Warrior"). The sound effects are nicely done, and the stunts are okay, but there's no real creativity here in terms of story or action. Jay Chattaway's adventure score is completely typical of him—uninspiring except for perhaps one or two brief instances. The whole battle feels like a predetermined exercise, unlike "Way of the Warrior" which effectively produced an increased pulse rate. Sure, Sisko loses a few men—but, naturally, they're all expendable characters in gold uniforms who we've never seen before. And the destruction of the gateway strikes me as particularly underwhelming.
What's most troubling is that none of this really matters. Even Omet'iklan's threat of killing Sisko after the battle becomes a non-issue because of the all-too-obvious ending. (Omet'iklan's dialogue to Sisko, "There's been enough killing for one day, but next time we meet, we'll be enemies," is so recycled and familiar that it falls flat.) Omet'iklan's phasering of Weyoun for questioning his squadron's loyalty isn't particularly shocking either. Omet'iklan vows to stay behind on the planet and wipe out the remaining renegades. Ho-hum, the series' status quo remains painfully intact. None of this will have political ramifications in future shows, and that's depressing.
I also didn't care for the way the episode ended so abruptly. It literally ends within seconds of fight's end—taking no time for considering future consequences of the Iconian rediscovery.
It's really too bad this show is ultimately pointless. It had so much potential—the characters, the backstory, the premise, the interaction—and it chose to do nothing with the ingredients except bake up some routine, brainless fight scenes. The Dominion will not remain interesting or intimidating if the writers shove all consequences under the carpet every time they choose to use them for a story. Here's hoping the season finale (again centered around the Dominion I'm to understand) will mean something to the series.