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.