Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

"Empok Nor"

**

Air date: 5/19/1997
Teleplay by Hans Beimler
Story by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Michael Vejar

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"He asked me to get a coil spanner for him. I just turned my back for a second."
"That's a shame ... and the worst part of it is this isn't a coil spanner."

— Amaro and Garak, upon the death of Boq'ta

Nutshell: A reasonable setup premise, but it goes off the rails. Too much madness and not enough insight.

I'll give "Empok Nor" one thing—it's effectively photographed, with dark lighting and ominous atmosphere. This episode looks really good. Director Michael Vejar, who also directed "The Darkness and the Light" earlier this season, has shown a talent for utilizing lighting effectively and building intensity with pure technique.

Unfortunately, Vejar does not have the story backing him up that he had in "Darkness and Light." The premise of "Empok Nor," from regular scripter Hans Beimler, built from a story by Bryan Fuller (who also had story credit on "Darkness and Light"), begins on very reasonable terms, but it becomes increasingly inane as it advances. By the last two acts everything falls apart, and not even the actors can survive the lack of decent actions and dialog.

The initial premise is simple: When O'Brien needs parts to make repairs to DS9, he and his salvage team—consisting of Nog, Pechetti (Tom Hodges), Stolzoff (Marjean Holden), Boq'ta (Andy Milder), and Amaro (Jeffrey King)—venture to the abandoned Empok Nor, a Cardassian station with a design identical to DS9's which has been deserted for more than a year. (Quick note: I find it difficult to imagine the given notion that O'Brien can't build the parts he needs because of incompatibilities with Federation technology. You'd think after being on DS9 4¸ years the crew would've come up with workarounds to these sorts of problems, but never mind—that's a trivial complaint.) The danger in O'Brien's mission is that Cardassians booby-trap their property before leaving it, so that others cannot so easily claim it. To circumvent these traps, Sisko bribes Garak into accompanying O'Brien's team as the resident expert on standard Cardassian booby-trap methods. Once upon Empok Nor, O'Brien's crew finds itself hunted by two "Third Battalion" Cardassian soldiers (their motto: "death to all") who are awakened from stasis upon the crew's entering station.

The first half of "Empok Nor" works reasonably well. The trip to the station on the Runabout is quite fascinating, teaming O'Brien and Garak for a meaty dialog scene—a character combination I don't believe we've seen before. Garak prods at O'Brien's past, asking him personal questions about his duty as a soldier during the Cardassian/Federation border wars. This is easily the best dialog in the show. It uses both Garak's personality as a strategist (who very much wants to play a Cardassian strategy game called "Kotra" against the chief) as well as scoring consistency points by bringing up O'Brien's past as a soldier fighting Cardassians. The result is a sensible scene that utilizes the dynamics of each character.

Once Garak, O'Brien, and the engineering/security team reach Empok Nor, there are effective moments of suspense. Vejar adds some very nice directing touches. I like, for example, that the external shots of Empok Nor always show the station at a canted angle. And the lighting effects and production design of the interiors are superb. Even though the sets are obviously the same sets that are used every week, it doesn't feel like the same place—it actually feels like an abandoned station far from reality.

Once the crew finds the abandoned stasis chambers sans Cardassian soldiers, Empok Nor becomes a place crawling with impending doom. I liked the unexpected scene where Nog returns to the docking pylon to find the Runabout floating away ("That's not right," indeed) just before it explodes. Vejar shoots the scene skillfully, and we realize the crew is trapped without a means of escape. (I liked the premise of being trapped, but I don't think I care for the destruction of yet another nameless Runabout—the fourth one this season. It's beginning to feel like the Voyager cliche of of the shuttle loss tally.)

Also, the deaths of Pechetti and Stolzoff when they're attacked by the Cardassian soldiers—despite the obvious inevitability of their demise—were skillfully carried out with a reasonable amount suspense. The setup of the extended quiet and darkness was a calculated attempt to make us jump when the predators attacked—and jump I did.

Garak discovers that the Cardassian soldiers are filled with some "psychotropic drug" that makes them excessively paranoid and gives them violent dispositions. Garak wants to stand and fight, but O'Brien wants to send out a distress signal first, and he needs a team effort to do it. Garak goes off on his own hunt; O'Brien and his remaining team rig the communications.

It's about here that "Empok Nor" completely derails, undermining the successes within the show's first half with an ineffective second half that bears very little scrutiny. One annoyance is the way the plot so murkily handles the reasons and purpose behind the two soldiers' existence on the station. The conjectural dialog between Garak and O'Brien hints at some specific explanations (like a military experiment "gone wrong"), but the episode doesn't seem to know any more than they do. I know, we're not supposed to care about the reasons, we're just supposed to get wrapped up in the suspense—but the way the episode stands, the explanation of the soldiers is either overwritten or it's underwritten. The writers should've said less about the Cardassians to make them more undefined and thus more intimidating, autonomous killers. Or the writers should've made things more clear, so that the reasons for the Cardassian government leaving them behind would be more interesting. As it is, the dialog is just a bit too clear-cut, yet too unfinished to be much more than a distraction.

The really big problem with this episode, however, is that Garak is exposed to this psychotropic drug, which turns him against O'Brien and the remaining crew. Garak's slow but steady personality transformation is handled okay, but once he kills the two Cardassian soldiers and reaches his full state of villainy, it's all downhill. The last two acts of the episode exercise the immortal Trekkian motif of "regular cast member goes insane," as the convenience of the plot hijacks Garak's personality to "bring out the worst in him." He stabs Amaro after phasering the Cardassian who snuffed Boq'ta, leaving behind only O'Brien and Nog.

The way the episode reduces Garak to a raving lunatic doesn't work for a number of reasons. First of all, it takes very careful handling to successfully pull off a ploy where a character changes personalities because of a plot contrivance. Unfortunately, there's nothing special about what happens here. It's pedestrian. Secondly, Garak as a character is most effective when using his pointed humor and sly wit in situations. Turning him into something as inherently superficial as "evil Garak" doesn't really suit his personality—especially the way it's conveyed here. Garak's wit is forfeited in favor of less-than-stellar Die Hard-like mind games where he and O'Brien talk over their communicators about war and killing, etc.

That brings me to the other issue at hand—the attempt by the writers to incorporate into the "battle of wits" the facets of Garak and O'Brien's personalities highlighted in the Runabout scene. I see what they were going for here, with the hints that O'Brien has to "become a soldier again" to battle another Cardassian, and Garak's desire for the "fun" of fighting the war hero in O'Brien. Unfortunately, what might've seemed okay in theory doesn't work in practice. The last two acts, for all their exposition on the violence of the distant past, end up being too shallow and rooted in lackluster plotting to really mean anything. Either you deal seriously with these types of issues, or you don't deal with them at all. What you shouldn't do is set them up for half-attempted scrutiny within such an over-the-top premise.

The rest of the show revolves around the plotting of these games between O'Brien and Garak, few of which work. Garak's kidnapping of Nog (since obviously Nog can't die) is a completely predictable action cliche. Ga. Garak's hanging the bodies of O'Brien's crew along the promenade is supposed to have shocking effects, but doesn't—it's merely glib. Then there's the goofy dialog coming from Garak, who we normally expect to deliver good lines. (Holding a phaser on O'Brien, he says, "I'll admit that I'm tempted to end this right now. But that would be depriving myself of too much enjoyment." Then the two duke it out. Please, give me a break.)

It also doesn't help the episode's cause knowing that neither Garak nor O'Brien will suffer any real consequences of their actions. (Since Garak is acting outside the range of normal behavior, he's not really responsible for anything he does. Nor is O'Brien responsible, for he's forced to defend himself.) And, of course, despite the casual killing of four people earlier in the show, we know that Garak, O'Brien, and Nog will all survive what is supposed to be the "final showdown." O'Brien renders Garak unconscious with a cleverly rigged explosion—which in any other situation would be fatal to the enemy; but here, since it's Garak, is not. It's as arbitrary as the toss of a coin. (And, naturally, once Garak is disabled, there's a cut back to DS9 and everything's fine. No mention of how or when O'Brien and the others were rescued. Blah.)

I suppose in one way, this episode does have one consequence, although it's not one I care for. This battle creates a quiet rift between these characters (as subtly shown in the concluding scene in the infirmary). I doubt O'Brien will easily get over the fact that Garak killed one of his men. Nor will knowing that O'Brien tried to kill Garak make things easier from Garak's view (even though he does understand). There's likely to be uneasy silence between these two (assuming the events here aren't forgotten by next week). Too bad. The possibilities of an open dialog between these two—as effectively demonstrated in the Runabout scene—could've been much more intriguing.

This episode should've just stuck with its original simple premise—that of hunting the enemy—instead of suddenly taking on the conjured twist of a "fighting one of your own" motif. The atmosphere could've made the simpler premise work.

Ultimately, I suppose the latter passages of the show ride on whether or not you buy Garak's psychotropic drug-induced state of dementia, and if you think it creates results that work dramatically. I don't buy any of it for a second—it merely creates weak drama based on zany, ineffective dialog exchanges.

"Empok Nor" definitely had its moments, and, as I said, I liked the look of the episode. But you can't get everywhere on looks alone.

Previous episode: Blaze of Glory
Next episode: In the Cards

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24 comments on this review

Daniel - Tue, Dec 11, 2007 - 3:10am (USA Central)
This episode really isn't great, but it's hard for me to hate anything with Garak involved. Probably would've given it 3 stars just for that.
Tex - Tue, Mar 2, 2010 - 1:22pm (USA Central)
I second that, Garak always commands the screen, even in a mediocre episode!
Nic - Mon, May 3, 2010 - 8:15am (USA Central)
Garak is now probably my favorite character in the entire Trek canon, but I still didn't like this episode. Even early on in the Runabout scene I was 100% sure that all four "new" chaaracters would die. And as you said, what's the point of having Garak go crazy if it doesn't have any consequences? Psychotropic drug or not, murder is still murder.
Carbetarian - Thu, Aug 26, 2010 - 11:51pm (USA Central)
I like that this episode is at least referenced again next season in Rocks and Shoals (I think that's the name of the episode... It's the one with Kevan, the vorta who is willing to sell out all his Jem Hadar soldiers in order to get medical help) when Nog tells Garak that he can walk next to him, or in front of him; but he'll never let him out of his sight again.

Also, this episode actually managed to freak me out the first time I saw it! It was very low budget horror movie the way it was played out. It wasn't exactly stellar, but I thought it was entertaining enough.

And finally, I concur with all of the above statements about Garak! I love both Garak and Nog, actually.
Carbetarian - Fri, Aug 27, 2010 - 11:39pm (USA Central)
I just wanted to add one other thing to my last comment. That little scene in the beggining where Nog and O'Brian are fixing whatever they're supposed to fixing at Quarks is pretty hilarious, only because it kind of comes out of nowhere. I didn't see it coming the first time, and I forget that it's there on repeat viewing. So, it always gets a bit of a chuckle out of me.
Neil - Mon, Jan 31, 2011 - 12:54am (USA Central)
My only complaint to add to Jammer's accurate observations is this: Garak and O'Brien had that conversation about O'Brien's heroic soldiering, on the runabout a long time before Garak was under the influence of any drugs.

But his attitude at that point was very antagonistic toward O'Brien, and while I know Garak is always playing mind-games when he talks about people's pasts, in this case it was way more aggressive and just plain mean than normal, and I don't think O'Brien's done anything in DS9 to make Garak hate him more than anyone else.

It really felt like he was already on the drugs before they entered the abandoned station, which of course was impossible, but the writers seemed to get Garak's personality *completely* wrong in that initial discussion.
jon - Fri, Feb 4, 2011 - 12:02pm (USA Central)
One of the things about this epsiode was Andy Robinson take on Garak and how it is similiar to his portrayal of Scorpio in Dirty Harry
Jacob Sisko - Wed, Feb 9, 2011 - 4:59am (USA Central)
I personally thought this episode was worse than "Let he who is without sin", although that one was quite bad. But at least that episode had some attractive women in swimsuits. This episode's premise is completely ridiculous. In addition to what Jammer has mentioned, I just couldn't get past one particular conversation between Pechetti and Stolzoff. How can a Starfleet officer with several years of training point her rifle at an ally casually, then respond to his "Do you mind not aiming that at me" with a "Don't worry, safety's on". An engineer no less, who should know that all machines can and will fail at some point. Lazy writing in a lazily done episode with no real consequences. I'll pass.
Aaron B. - Mon, Sep 5, 2011 - 5:11am (USA Central)
Neil, I thought that conversation gave a nice bit of insight into Garak. He's lived on the same station with Chief for five years, but he's never shown any antagonism toward him. Yet Garak, despite being exiled, is a patriot and cares about his fellow Cardassians, and Chief is famous for killing himself a whole bunch of "Cardies." Garak rarely exposes how he really feels about things, but here you can see how he resents that and would like to match himself up against O'Brien and get a little payback -- if only in a board game -- for his people.
Krysek - Sun, Oct 30, 2011 - 6:01pm (USA Central)
It could have been good as a spookhouse episode but really once the drug came into play, it was downhill. I guess it gives the writers a chance to have Garac murder someone and get away with it just to annoy people, who don't go for those excuses. Also, without redshirts, I guess the new tip-off is blue people; if there is a blue in your crew, you probably won't make it. And I think Garac just antagonizes O Brien early just because he is getting tired of people trusting him or liking him, I don't think he really cares about anything but him.
Matrix - Mon, Nov 7, 2011 - 7:11pm (USA Central)
Echo much of the above comments but surprised no one yet has mentioned the spoonhead remark made by one of the yellowshirts. I liked it, it felt very in the moment and an evolution of the chief's cardies remarks throughout the series (and a nod to thing's past).
Grumpy - Wed, Aug 15, 2012 - 3:01pm (USA Central)
I had misremembered this episode, thinking much of it was spent in the (First Contact surplus) spacesuits, when only one brief scene uses one. I was also mistaken as to its overall quality: like Jammer at the time, I thought it was hollow and pointless, but upon reviewing I like it more.

As a "screw with O'Brien" episode, this is more revealing than, say, "Whispers" or even "Hard Time." That angle would've been lost if the antagonist hadn't been someone who knew the chief well, which is why Garak had to be the bad guy.

Between this and "The Ship," it's clear Beimler enjoyed showing O'Brien's interaction with regular joes. (Might've been better if the security and engineering joes had been more clearly delineated, but that's the original series' mistake of putting them both in the same color shirts.)
John - Thu, Sep 13, 2012 - 7:49am (USA Central)
I thought this one was alright.

Not great but good action entertainment.

Would have benefited from a better musical score.
William - Thu, Dec 6, 2012 - 8:29pm (USA Central)
Jammer, I'm usually with you, but I liked this one better than and most of the others. It's not great DS9, but it's good. 3 stars.
DavidK - Wed, Jan 2, 2013 - 5:09am (USA Central)
This one is sort of a guilty pleasure for me. It's not very deep, but I do enjoy it.

Also re: Grumpy's comments about engineering and security staff wearing the same colour, that always bothered me, but it really stuck out in this episode. Science and medical I can sort of understand, the line between the two can be quite flexible. Engineering and security though is just confusing. On top of that, you've got the vague position of Operations Officer for Data and Harry Kim, a posting that seems to require both science and engineering, yet is also yellow. And another sidenote, flight controllers like Ro, Wesley and Tom Paris wear red, I suppose because it loosely falls into the "administration" side of command, as Memory Alpha points out.

None of this is inconsistent, but it's not very clear. A couple more colours would have been nice! In fact the TOS-era movie uniforms had a good array of department colours, although that patch was much less obvious.
Grumpy - Wed, Jan 2, 2013 - 2:02pm (USA Central)
Starfleet divisions, it seems to me, parallel divisions in real-life space programs. Command is the equivalent of NASA's pilot astronauts (who steer spacecraft and command missions); Sciences the mission specialists (NASA's first group of scientist astronauts included MDs as well as geologists); and Operations is like Russia's engineer cosmonauts. If the series had been more conscious of this parallel -- or even of the naval distinction between engineering and gunnery! -- we wouldn't have seen bilge rats wearing security guard uniforms. Or maybe it's vice versa.
Cail Corishev - Thu, Feb 21, 2013 - 1:55pm (USA Central)
I enjoy this one, though I concede most of Jammer's objections. On the conversation on the Runabout at the beginning: it made me realize we've never seen Garak and O'Brien interact much on the show before, which is interesting. Both men have become close to Bashir over the last 4-5 years, but not to each other. Why? Maybe because of what leaked through in that scene: Garak resents Chief's reputation as a Cardie-killer, and Chief still isn't particularly comfortable around Cardassians.
Sean - Tue, Jul 30, 2013 - 2:01am (USA Central)
This one's mindless action. Good mindless action, but not much to it. They brought along redshirts to die, of course. That much was obvious. One of the reasons I don't like this one or The Ship is because of that. When there's redshirts, the episode is usually not very good. DS9 usually avoids redshirts, which is one of its strong suits, but sometimes we have episodes like these.
Kotas - Sat, Oct 26, 2013 - 4:33pm (USA Central)

A decent episode, although I wish they didn't kill off all of the young engineers.

6/10
K'Elvis - Thu, Dec 19, 2013 - 12:45pm (USA Central)
O'Brien has gone from someone who hated Cardassians to one who, if he doesn't necessarily like them, can see them as people. Garak likes to get under people's skin, needling them to see how they react. I don't think he was seriously disturbed by O'Brien's war record, Garak just saw this as a soft spot to poke. By observing reactions, he can see who is a potential enemy or a potential friend, and under what circumstances they might be friend or enemy. Essentially, Garak was asking "I'm a Cardassian and you've fought Cardassians. Where do I stand?"

Under the effect of the drug, Garak's needling is morphed into seriousness. When people are whipped up into a frenzy, any excuse will do. Garak was going to start attacking non-Cardassians either way, he just clutched at whatever was the nearest excuse. There is a point where he observes that it felt good to kill the Cardassians. If he had realized at that point that he was under the influence of a drug, he might have been able to control himself.

It just seems that events are glossed over too easily. Even if Garak was not held accountable for his actions, it seems implausible that he would have been able to go on with his life on the station normally.
William B - Thu, Dec 19, 2013 - 1:46pm (USA Central)
@K'Elvis, I agree, but I think O'Brien's history may account for why he is so forgiving. a) he know what it is like to be, essentially, possessed (TNG's "Power Play"); b) he knows what it is like for a *loved* one to be possessed ("The Assignment"); c) he knows what it's like to have his personality altered in a damaging way that is not actually his fault ("Hard Time"). And in general, I'm reminded of what he said in "The Wounded": "I don't hate you, Cardassian. I hate what I've become." The episode's concept is that Garak encounters a substance left over from the war (or, the past, at least) which renders him xenophobic and a killer-soldier, and so part of the story is "about" the way hatred from wartime doesn't go away but can be reawakened. O'Brien is sympathetic to what Garak goes through, because it reminds him of his own difficulty dealing with what he did in the war, and the part of him that was permanently changed by the war. Some of what Garak did is based on traits that are actually in Garak, and so it makes sense that he feels bad (and that, SPOILERS Nog doesn't trust him in "Rocks and Shoals"), but ultimately he is a victim of forces greater than him, and O'Brien understands that very well by this point. I think O'Brien would probably put a word in in Garak's defense, and as the leader of the team I think this would go a long way.

Now, Garak getting like six months imprisonment for *attempted genocide* in "Broken Link" is another story....
easrwest101 - Sat, Jan 25, 2014 - 7:22am (USA Central)
I agree with Jammer on this one, the setup dialogue, sets, lighting etc in the first half are all great but are all wasted with a poorly scripted 2nd half that spirals down a predictable, pedestrian, gruesome and frankly "by the numbers" crew member goes insane path, a waste of the actors time and also seemed to lose all the tension and momentum from the first half. Would be interesting to hear what happened to the script and shooting process to see what happened.
Vylora - Sun, Mar 2, 2014 - 4:22pm (USA Central)
This episode is asymptomatic of a mostly recurring theme of the fifth season. That theme seems to be to start with a great idea and then falter in the execution story-wise. Whether its the whole episode or smaller plot details.

I suppose this was fairly entertaining enough. Andrew Robinson and Colm Meaney are always reliable in their respective characters. Of course simply enjoying a performance can't save an episode from itself. I can't help but feel the drug-induced angle to the plot could've been much better utilized in terms of overall plot. The way it's handled here leaves me with the sense that Garak was made to be evil for evils' sake.

Good potential with great directing, reliably good performances and absolutely no follow through on premise. Entertaining but ultimately disappointing.

2 stars.
Josh - Sun, Mar 2, 2014 - 7:44pm (USA Central)
You mean symptomatic?

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