Nutshell: A most intriguing revisit to the Cardassian Occupation, and with compelling character implications, too.
I said I was in need of recovery after the truly awful "Let He Who Is Without Sin...", and I meant it. But I must say that "Things Past" makes a great antidote to aid in a speedy recovery. Call it therapy, if you will.
I don't want to see any more lightweight episodes of DS9 for a while. I want to see more shows like this—strong, compelling, character-driven episodes with true substance.
"Things Past" is the best episode of Trek since "Nor the Battle to the Strong." It's a story of one man's repressed guilt and his need to let it escape into the open airs of historical dialog. The underlying theme here is incorporated into a "sci-fi" type of premise, in which Sisko, Odo, Dax, and Garak, returning in a Runabout from a debate on Bajor about the Cardassian Occupation, suddenly find themselves on Terok Nor of the past, run by the menacing Gul Dukat. They are not themselves, however; they're all Bajorans—and, as Odo observes, they're Bajorans who, based on the true events of the past, are about to be wrongfully accused of Gul Dukat's attempted assassination and publicly executed.
But wait. These characters' involvement in these past events is not due to something so simple as time travel. The episode clues us in very early on that it's all due to a peculiar mental state; Sisko, Odo, Dax, and Garak arrive at DS9 unconscious, somehow trapped in a state of subconscious mental activity. Bashir hasn't a clue how or why. So what's really going on here? That's a question that remains unanswered until the final minutes of the show, in a denouement of powerful relevance and realization.
In the meantime, the episode takes an angle of "Necessary Evil" revisited, and I can't say I have any qualms whatsoever with such a notion. "Necessary Evil" was one of the highlights of DS9's second season, and, in fact, is among the best shows of the series. "Things Past" has a similar agenda—it tells its own story while also commenting on the past and showing us effects the Cardassian Occupation had on a number of people. Once again, production and lighting have a powerful effect; the promenade becomes a mining facility for slave labor and the Bajorans are packed into dark, impoverished, unsanitary caged areas.
I liked many of the little details, like the way Sisko "contacts" the Bajoran Resistance by inverting a vase at a promenade shop. And Garak's reaction to this was interesting—it seems just like the type of thing he would find silly and simple. Simple, yes, Sisko notes, but effective. The Quark of this past turns out to be a complete condescending jerk to any Bajoran who is not a paying customer and whom he can exploit. Not an appealing notion, perhaps, but very believable and a nice touch.
Meanwhile, Dax is elected to become Gul Dukat's Bajoran "talk companion." He admits to her up front—he's a lonely man whose job rarely presents him the opportunity to talk to others. A few subsequent long-winded speeches from Dukat prove enlightening. His views on the Occupation prove as fascinating as they do distasteful—here, Dukat reveals himself as a man who thinks he has too much compassion and lenience for a Bajoran planet of "children." It's interesting to note how Dukat, then a murderous, hateful dictator exploiting a race of people for their resources is now an unsung hero in his lone fight against the Klingons. While he's definitely a man of multifaceted dimensions, it's very difficult watching him stage public executions without seeing him as anything but murderer. Yet now he's on "our" side. Strange, the way things change. These are all examples of the subtleties of the Occupation—the "old school" topics of DS9 which I hope to see more of again.
Many of these scenes, while certainly intriguing, don't break a whole lot of new ground. This is where the mystery comes in to add a new element. Odo's predecessor, the head of security from nine years ago, is a Cardassian named Thrax (Kurtwood Smith). But there's a contradiction here: the events leading up to the public execution took place only seven years ago—and at that time Odo was the head of security.
The beauty of the episode is the way it plays on this implication. As history begins to play itself out and Odo, Sisko, Dax, and Garak find themselves in a cell awaiting execution for attempting to kill Dukat, Odo painfully tries to convince Thrax to follow up on his investigation and find the evidence that proves that they're innocents who were caught up in a series of events. It's obvious that Odo is really talking to himself—that he was the man who didn't investigate properly and allowed the three innocent Bajorans to die. And later Thrax turns out to be a shapeshifter—a most telling sign. Yet the teleplay wisely plays these events down and credits the audience with intelligence, allowing us to make the connection ourselves. Very nice.
Dax breaks the four of them out of the holding cell, but their escape attempts prove futile, as they turn a corner only to find themselves back in the holding cell. As the show progresses, the rules of reality continue to bend, trapping the characters into the situation with no hope of escape. LeVar Burton's direction is perhaps his best yet on the series, as he creates some interesting imagery and utilizes cinematography techniques that have jarring effectiveness.
The only escape for the characters is Odo's guilty admission of the truth, which pulls the show together into a powerful piece of work. The final scene is a wonderful mix of truly revealing dialog and compelling imagery. Odo's disclosure is poignant—there he was, one of few people in the middle of the Occupation who was neutral and interested only in justice and order, and he still blew it. He failed to protect the innocent and unintentionally represented the side of the decidedly guilty. This is really good stuff.
Odo's admission ends the flashback charade; Bashir explains that it was caused by residue of some Changeling molecules which tried to recreate the Great Link by reaching out to other shapeshifters, but instead found only Sisko, Dax, and Garak. I wonder about the plausibility of this and some of the other technobabble used to explain it, but I'd say the ends clearly justify the means.
There's also a killer, wonderfully performed final scene between Odo and Kira which parallels the ending of "Necessary Evil" exceptionally. This time, however, the roles are reversed. Whereas in "Necessary Evil" the discovery of Kira's past actions put Odo's trust in her in doubt, this time Odo's actions put her trust in him in doubt. Most intriguing indeed.
Michael Taylor, the writer who brought us the wonderful "Visitor" last year, delivers again. "Things Past" is not quite a four-star installment. (The aforementioned technobabble genesis for the problem and the obligatory and totally unnecessary need to make the flashbacks into an environment that can physically harm the characters, thus putting their lives in jeopardy, are minor but notable flaws that could've been eliminated entirely with a little bit of script tweaking.) But this is a standout episode that approaches greatness.