Nutshell: Wow. A brilliant start. Extremely dark and compelling.
When "Call to Arms" aired and the Federation lost DS9, my one real hope was that they wouldn't get the station back in a single episode. I hoped this situation would be around for awhile, and that we would see how the change in administration on Terok Nor—that is, with Dukat and the Cardassians along with Weyoun and the Dominion now in charge—would play out.
"A Time to Stand" delivered on all my hopes, and then exceeded them.
Anyone looking for huge, on-screen space battles and firefights had better look elsewhere. While "A Time to Stand" is most definitely about the hell of war, it isn't, for the most part, an exercise in special effects or tactical sequences.
Like the best of DS9, "A Time to Stand" is about its characters and their responses to the radically altered situations—although that probably shouldn't come as a big surprise. In a big way, this premiere demonstrates how differently the opening stretch of season six is sure to be. The formula we're accustomed to is currently null and void; anything can happen. Watching this fresh, interesting circumstance play out is and will continue to be a big part of the fun.
Over the summer I became aware that Sisko's loss of the station was not going to be resolved in one episode, and a big part of my anticipation for this season was in seeing how the shows themselves would be structured. "A Time to Stand" whets the appetite by laying the ground rules. I particularly appreciated the opening station log by now-reestablished Terok Nor prefect Gul Dukat; it was so refreshing and enjoyable to hear his perspective of how the war was going, and how it is "a good time for Cardassia." It sets the stage wonderfully.
Still, "fun" is probably not a word that generally describes "A Time to Stand." In fact, this episode instantly plunges into the depths of darkness and even despair—darkness that, really, is atypical on Trek, even in the midst of DS9's most serious storylines.
The war is going badly for the Federation. "Three months of bloody slaughter," O'Brien calls it, and the Federation has nothing to show for it. The Klingons and Federation have taken some terrible losses. One fleet of 112 ships went to face an enemy strike. Only 14 returned. The situation is stern, serious, and grim.
The episode's tone is reminiscent of the tone in TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise." In that alternate reality installment the Federation was losing a war with the Klingons, and the tone was perhaps one of the darkest I can remember in Trek's record. In "A Time to Stand," the tone is equally dark—except this time it's real, not a reversible time anomaly.
The characters have an edge to them here that I've never before seen on DS9. The performers' portrayals of their characters is nothing short of brilliant. Particularly, the war seems to have taken its toll on Bashir. This guy used to be the most manic and enthusiastic of DS9's bunch; here he barely smiles once in the course of the episode. He's sullen, serious, laconic, and reserved. While it's true that Bashir has been mellowed over the past few seasons, here it's almost disquieting to see the difference.
And Sisko knows how badly things are going. When news arrives that the seventh fleet has been decimated, Sisko is frustrated, angered, and saddened by the tragic losses; the look on his face when he slams his fist down upon the table—cracking the glass in the process—says it all. It's quite a riveting moment.
Pretty much everything about this episode's attitude conveys a similar sense. Some of the moments are subtle, like the weariness in Dax's voice when she mentions that the entire crew could use some sleep. And a moving scene between Sisko and his father Joseph (Brock Peters reprising his role from fourth season's "Homefront") is phenomenal. The two Siskos discuss how Jake has been left behind on DS9, and how the war has taken its toll on the fleet. The quiet glances exchanged in this scene display a depression and vulnerability that is unflinchingly real—something truly rare and captivating. There's a pretty good joke in here (Ben: "How's the restaurant doing?" Joseph: "All right. It's been three weeks since I've poisoned anyone."), yet it's interesting to observe that neither Sisko has the spirit to laugh much at it.
I'm not saying I'd want Trek to always be like this, because I wouldn't. This is typically not what Trek is about. But dark drama can make good drama, and "A Time to Stand" is some great drama—very powerful in style, theme, and execution.
Omnipresent in the episode is the sense that despite the characters are doing everything within their power, the situation is one that more or less resides outside their control. All they can do is play it day by day, hoping that by doing their respective bests they'll be able to make a difference in the long run. That's not a pretty theme, but it is a potent one. This is war, and war is ugly. And such ugliness can also tell you a lot about how characters act when their backs are up against a wall.
This theme is vividly demonstrated by Kira and Odo back on DS9—or, rather, Terok Nor. These two are virtually powerless. Bajor is out of the fighting as the non-aggression treaty guarantees, but the station remains occupied. Odo and Kira sit in Quark's discussing the frustrating political bureaucracy. The dialog is fascinating, but what's even more interesting is how low they keep their voices—almost as if they fear being heard talking about the Federation. Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonois' portrayals of two nearly helpless people are utterly terrific; "helpless" isn't a characteristic one would normally assign either of these characters, yet here it sits.
Still, even in a seemingly hopeless situation there's room for hope. In one of his patented, rare moments of depth, Quark mentions that "as occupations go, this one isn't so bad." Strangely, he's right. The Bajorans may not have a say in the operations of the station, but there are no Dominion troops on Bajor, nor is Bajoran death and despair lingering on the station's promenade. Times are not nearly so bad as they were during the Cardassian Occupation.
However, Odo and Kira do want a Bajoran security detail put back on the station, and Dukat will have none of it. He wants the Bajorans "in their place"; he sees his role in the situation as the same as when he was prefect five years ago. As a countermeasure to Dukat's hunger for complete control, there's the ever-presence of his superior, Weyoun. As I had hoped, the friction between Dukat and Weyoun first evident in "Call to Arms" has survived the summer hiatus and returned with an authority. Weyoun wants a cordial relationship with Bajor, but Dukat won't trust a single Bajoran for a second. The conflict here is engaging, and it's almost certainly going to come into play in the future.
The setting also takes an interesting turn when Odo reluctantly decides to go to Weyoun, using his stature as a "Founder" to manipulate Weyoun into doing a favor for him: reinstating the Bajoran security officers that Dukat so opposes. There are a lot of neat character dynamics present here—plenty of compelling relationships between these various people with such clashing, disparate motives. Even the Bajoran "victory" resulting from Odo's meeting with Weyoun is difficult and ambivalent in its implications; Kira begins wondering if it was a good idea at all.
Turning to matters that are less subtle, there's a confrontation between Dukat and Kira that exhibits so much tension that it nearly defies belief. Dukat is drunk off his own power; he thinks he has already won the war and the entire Alpha Quadrant. He's convinced he is a hero to Cardassia for saving it when it was "on the edge of an abyss." And his overconfidence has gotten the better of him. He's set on building an "intimate relationship" with Kira. When Kira is angered, Dukat makes a gesture that infuriates her further. "I'm a patient man," he notes smugly. The look of utter contempt that Kira gives Dukat as she leaves the prefect's office is unforgettable; I don't think I've seen so much barely-restrained rage inside Kira since "Duet." Marc Alaimo is equally convincing, and his true motives are open to speculation. Is he doing this out of revenge? To prove his power? Because he's truly deluded? The possibilities are endless.
The episode's official "plot" is quite reasonable, yet it's probably the least important aspect of the show. In this story, Sisko and the Defiant crew are reassigned to take a Jem'Hadar fighter (the one salvaged in "The Ship" last season) on an undercover mission into Cardassian space to destroy a crucial supply of ketracel white—the drug that keeps the Jem'Hadar alive. This mission is described by Admiral Ross (Barry Jenner) as one of the last chances for the Federation—short of surrender, that is.
We've seen the "undercover crew" plot before, but "A Time to Stand" handles it with some panache, throwing the crew into a Jem'Hadar ship that's even less user-friendly in its design than the Defiant. This is the only ship I can remember that doesn't have a viewscreen.
There's a moment when Sisko is forced to exchange fire with a Starfleet ship—a captain he knows—because he can't risk blowing his cover. The scene is taut and full of suspense, because the episode is structured so dark up to this point that I honestly considered the possibility that Sisko might end up accidentally destroying this ally.
The actual mission is handled pretty well by the story, although the usual implausibilities of such a situation are still present (you'd think a ship that was stolen a year ago would be flagged by the Dominion for instant destruction, yet Sisko's ship is never so much as hailed). On the technical end, the planting of the bomb at the ketracel facility is handled decently, and director Allan Kroeker builds some genuine suspense that prompts the crew to think on their feet.
But it's not the plot that makes "A Time to Stand" the classic that it is; it's the attitude in the performances, the writing, and the directing. It's an attitude that knows exactly what it hopes to convey, and it conveys it with a power that I've seen only within the best moments of Trek. This episode made me feel for a plight. But this time the plight wasn't some unknown race with an arbitrary problem that was introduced a mere ten minutes earlier. The plight here is the Federation itself and the characters we have known since the series began. The stakes are high, and a final solution to their problem doesn't lie anywhere on the visible horizon. This war is happening.
"A Time to Stand" shows every sign of being one ambitious step in a huge, epic, multi-episode storyline in the Trek universe. The individual thread involving the mission to destroy the storage facility may be completed by show's end, but the saga and the war both have a long way to go, and the next installment will take us in a new direction.
Yes, this season looks very promising indeed.
Next Week: Sisko and his crew are stranded on a planet with a squadron of Jem'Hadar soldiers. Is it "The Ship, Part II"?