Nutshell: Pretty strong. A little stilted at times, but a nice story with some interesting opposing arguments.
"Valiant" is an effective episode about the virtues and values of the Starfleet officer, and what happens when those values are misapplied. It works through many subtle and well-conceived moments, and capitalizes on some of the current aspects of war.
The story brings Jake and Nog into a situation that they've been in many times before—that is, the "in over their heads" paradigm. But this is a more serious side of the Jake/Nog pairing, which puts them into a truly dangerous setting under motivations very unlike the comic antics of something like "In the Cards."
En route to Ferenginar in a Runabout, the two encounter a wing of Dominion fighters. Their Runabout is chased into Dominion territory and attacked, but the two are rescued in the nick of time when beamed aboard the USS Valiant, a Defiant-class starship that has been trapped behind enemy lines for the past eight months.
The crew of the Valiant isn't your typical crew. It's a crew of Starfleet cadets—more specifically, the elite group known as Red Squad. Ah, yes—Red Squad. We've heard about this group before, back in fourth season's "Homefront"/"Paradise Lost" two-parter. Nog had always wanted to be a member of this special squad. Now he gets that chance.
The Valiant crew is something of an unintended experiment. They were supposed to run the starship under the supervision of commissioned Starfleet officers, but during a Dominion attack, the captain and the other officers were killed. Just before the captain had died, he gave command of the ship to Tim Watters (Paul Popowich), a 22-year-old cadet—presumably the most capable leader of Red Squad. Now Watters intends to finish the job that his captain had started months ago: to locate and gather intelligence information about a new, powerful Dominion battleship, which Watters knows to be in the area. Unfortunately, they haven't been able to approach near the battleship, because their speed has been limited due to technical problems. Within minutes, Watters gives Nog the role of chief engineer, giving him a field promotion to lieutenant commander and the assignment of repairing the warp engines.
Meanwhile, Jake finds himself out of his element, surrounded by people his own age, but people who hold very different opinions. In essence, the Valiant crew is a pack of very young soldiers, who are very aware of the war around them. Being trapped behind enemy lines, these cadets have been forced to improvise, learning how to perform for real, long before anyone would've expected them. Jake, always the observant type, looks around him to see a crew that is probably a little cockier and fearless than it has any right to be—and probably feels much more invincible than it truly is.
Captain Watters, as performed by Popowich, is mature, and he knows how to deal with people. As he tells Nog, the officers of the Valiant must "rise to occasion" in order to overcome difficult obstacles, as Watters himself as obviously done. The way Watters handles Jake—who obviously doesn't agree with most of Watters' outlooks—is an interesting display of leadership. He's calm and clear in his intentions, but very respectful, diplomatic, and reserved. (His chat with Jake, telling him to "tell the story of the Valiant and her crew" was particularly well written.) At the same time, however, Watters also shows that he is inexperienced, and that he puts too much faith in his own ability to overcome limits. The fact that he has been popping pills to stay awake for hours on end serves as a good foreshadow of his self-destructive potential.
The thing I liked most about this episode was its ability to balance the two extreme, opposing attitudes—namely, Jake's and everyone else's. From the very beginning, Jake is utterly skeptical of the Valiant's crew and their perspective of the situation. I can certainly see where he's coming from; Watters is in way over his head and should know it, but consistently refuses to call it quits. And even though Jake has the prudence to realize that Watters and his crew have a tendency to go too far—refusing to accept the grim reality of a hopeless situation—does that mean the crew of the Valiant is truly a group of "delusional fanatics looking for martyrdom," as Jake labels them in his argument with Nog? I think that's an overstatement.
Nog's retort, as he speaks on behalf of the Valiant crew, as well as anyone else who "wears the uniform," is well put, taking offense at Jake's extreme view. Given how Nog has always bought into the idea of "Starfleet duty," his lines here are very believable. But at the same time, Nog's own view is biased. He believes in the idea of something "bigger than himself," allowing that belief to cloud his own judgment.
Meanwhile, Jake represents the polar opposite, going so far as to admit that he only cares about "Jake Sisko," and whether or not he's going to be killed by these "delusional fanatics." Both Jake's views and Watters' actions are examples of extremes that carry merit somewhere within the ideas behind them. Reality, I think, is somewhere in between.
The episode doesn't clearly side with either view. Jake passes some black-and-white judgments upon the situation, many of which can be validly argued against. Simply put, Jake's view is only one side of the story, and a great merit of "Valiant" is the way the story doesn't automatically accept Jake's interpretations of the events. It refuses to dismiss the other side, and using Nog as the voice to argue that other side is extremely sensible, and allows the story to unfold in a way which the viewer can decide (which is even spoken in dialog in the episode's intriguing closing scene).
Of course, the fact that Watters decides that, having once located this Dominion battleship, the Valiant crew should go so far as to attempt destroying it all by themselves goes a long way to showing how blind faith in a leader can be a very bad idea, leading, as in this case, to the demise of the whole. The audacious technical plan hatched by Watters and Farris is ambitious and exciting, and it's this excitement and the vie for greatness, combined with the crew's lack of experience, that leads them to follow Watters (as Nog later admits) right over a cliff.
About the only thing that didn't quite work for me in "Valiant" was some of the execution. Michael Vejar's direction, while usually quite good, couldn't come close to touching his effort earlier this season with "Rocks and Shoals." A few scenes in particular didn't fully resonate, although they were reasonable in the grand scheme of the story. I wasn't all that impressed by the "preparing for battle" montage. It was a little on the obvious and cheesy side, and it struck me as filler more than anything else. I don't think it was intended as filler, as this story certainly had enough substance to carry itself for an entire hour, but something about it seemed a little off-kilter.
Of course, there were a few other stilted moments, like the surprisingly obvious scene where the crew of cadets start chanting "Red Squad, Red Squad." It seemed a bit excessive considering the subtlety in much of the rest of the story, but I think it works in context nevertheless, especially when juxtaposing Jake's reaction during the event, as he stands amongst the crew with an expression that borders on disgust.
Performance-wise, Lofton, Eisenberg, and Popowich were all effective, but Courtney Peldon's turn as Commander Farris was surprisingly one-note and wooden. I can see that she was obviously intended as a character who was supposed to be skeptical of Jake and Nog from the outset, but most of her scenes were not very impressive.
On the other hand, I was impressed by Ashley Brianne McDonogh as Chief Dorian Collins, a probable example of the typical Valiant crew member. She's young, inexperienced, and like most of the crew has managed to rise to the occasion—but there's still the simple fact that she is not totally ready for the realities of war. The scene early in the episode where Jake and Dorian discuss home was nicely performed, showing where the true vulnerability of the Valiant lies: in its crew's uncertain ability to cope.
Of course, I must also mention the obligatory scene on the station that opens the episode—which struck me as a complete waste of time, intended for no other real purpose than to make sure all the starring cast members appeared in a scene. As for the dramatic intent of this scene—to show that Quark still has some sort of buried feelings for Dax—I don't buy it. It's a notion that strikes me as completely unnecessary at this stage in the series. Besides, we've been there, and done that.
On the technical side, pretty much everything was exemplary, particularly the painfully convincing destruction of the Valiant. Seeing the Valiant getting shellacked—bombarded by torpedo after torpedo—had me wincing, and did a fair job early on of making it obvious the ship would not survive. (And the shots of the Dominion destroying unarmed escape pods were particularly fierce.) My only technical complaint is in regard to Paul Baillargeon's score during the battle scene—music which was understated and severely lacking in punch.
But all in all, "Valiant" is a solid and engaging episode with some interesting things to say. It doesn't pull too many punches, seeing that the entire youthful crew of the ship, save three people, are killed in its destruction. As an episode within the Dominion War storyline, it works, and holds some fresh perspectives.
Next week: Moogie, Zek, Quark in drag, and a title with the word "profit" in it. I feel sick already...