"Disappointing" only begins to describe "The Emperor's New Cloak." Words like "a waste," "meaningless," and "boring" also come to mind. I never would've thought DS9's final venture into the alternate universe (which has generally served the series well as good comic-book entertainment) would become the worst episode of the season. (And I hope it remains the worst of the season.) Maybe the title of the episode, a pretty bad pun, should've been a forewarning.
DS9 this season has had a tendency to wander a bit, but at least the writing has been reasonably good in most episodes. "The Emperor's New Cloak," conversely, feels like an episode written by a computer program. The input query: How many mirror-universe characters can we randomly insert into a lame-brained plot, and in what ways can we make everyone less interesting than they ever have been?
These days, a lot of people seem to be screaming "Why?" when we get an episode that doesn't advance us closer to series closure. While I've occasionally been a voice in that collective, I usually judge a show for its entertainment value, not simply its large-scale "relevance." But with "The Emperor's New Cloak," I have to ask: Why this? Why now? And why me?
Far be it for me to dislike a Ferengi episode (naw, come on), but my objection to this show isn't that it's a Ferengi episode. My objection is that everything that happens in this episode was born out of an attitude that seems to say, "We have Ferengi and evil characters; who needs a story?"
And yet it's not the Ferengi that ruined this episode (though Rom and Zek certainly didn't help the cause). What ruined this episode was a total disregard for motivation, continuity, and reasonable entertainment value. Why even use these alternate-universe characters—who have comprised a sort of mini-subplot throughout the series—if none of them are going to remain interesting?
The episode begins with Blatant Contrivance of the Week. Zek has gone missing in the alternate universe and mirror-Ezri has come through to bring Quark a message: Give the Alliance—who holds Zek captive—a cloaking device, or Zek dies. Why does the Alliance need a cloaking device? Because it would give them an advantage to help crush the Rebellion (bwahaha), and there's no cloaking technology in the alternate universe, right?
Wrong. Previous alternate universe episodes have used the cloaking device, but never mind; continuity isn't the name of the game here. I have a better question: Why did Zek even go to the mirror universe? To open new profit avenues, naturally. Yeah, right. And I'm thinking that tomorrow I'll stroll into Kosovo and set up a hot dog stand.
Once mirror-Ezri brings Quark the news, Quark decides the only way to get a hold of a cloaking device is to steal the one from Martok's ship. Quark probably deserves jail time for this little maneuver (theft of military equipment during a war?) but the episode merely treats it as a joke, and not a very good one. One of the show's funnier not-so-funny scenes is a gag where Quark and Rom carry the cloaked cloaking device through the corridors of the station. The "picture this" in question is of Shimerman and Grodenchik carrying nothing, trying really hard to look like they're carrying something heavy. Har har. In these cases, less is more: It might've been funnier if the scene were shorter.
Once we get into the alternate universe, I figured the story would get off the ground and we might be looking at some closure to the things we've seen happen in this crazy place over the past five years. Well, I figured wrong.
Simply put, very little in this plot is worthy of attention. The characterizations are aimless and confused. Everybody's appearance comes off as gratuitous and no one gets any worthwhile dialog. To say everyone in the episode is poorly motivated would be an understatement. Character reactions border on random, thanks to the confines of a shoestring plot. (Just think of all the opportunities for scheming and payback, especially given the volatile nature of the Kira/Garak/Worf alliance. All are put aside for bad comedy.)
I realize the mirror universe has been shallow ever since "Through the Looking Glass," but it always had a zany, madcap appeal. But this time there's no comic-book exhilaration like in "Shattered Mirror" or "Looking Glass," and it isn't remotely thoughtful about its characters' actions and feelings as was "Crossover." At the very least, you would think there'd be some entertaining attitude to find in the material or the performances, but, alas, that's also nowhere to be seen. The sense of omnipresent chaos that characterized previous alternate-universe shows is completely removed this time around. Now it's all routine.
As for the humor, little of it worked for me. Too much of the episode is wasted on stupid jokes; this has to be the slowest venture into the mirror universe yet. First we have to put up with several lengthy scenes of Rom trying to comprehend the nature of the alternate universe (why Behr and Beimler think Rom-the-annoyingly-verbose-idiot is funny is beyond me). Then we get extremely dull use of Zek in what I hope is his final appearance (poor Wallace Shawn; he's been such a good sport)—here he gets to engage in another iteration of the oh-so-tired lobe-fondling gag.
When the evil mirror characters are allowed to talk, their dialog is surprisingly trite, even for a comic book. Andrew Robinson, in only his second appearance of the season, is completely wasted. Once a fountain of charged dialog, mirror-Garak has become such a bumbling persona that I felt sorry for Robinson, who was apparently told to overplay his part so far as to make him simply look like a fool.
Nana Visitor is not in much better a situation. I can see what they were going for with some of this; Intendant Kira's bipolar instability has her switching on a dime from sweetly condescending to violently angry. But like Garak, it's way overdone. It exists to feed itself and not any strong story direction. I'll freely admit that Nana Visitor in tight leather is always nice to look at, but that alone can't carry an hour. The reason she was so compelling in "Crossover" is because there was a tortured character underneath all the posturing. And in later episodes like "Looking Glass" and "Shattered Mirror," there was good chemistry with Sisko, Garak, and Jennifer Sisko.
Of course, there's also Regent Worf, who yells a lot, which is not interesting in and by itself unless there's good dialog behind it, which there generally isn't. (Although, the show's biggest laugh has to be when he tries on a glove, then tells one of his crewmen: "You, come here. Your regent needs you!"—and then punches the guy in the face to test his new glove. That's the sort of clever goofiness we needed more of.)
The real core of this episode, if there is one, centers on Ezri's unknown loyalties. She's in cahoots with the evil Alliance, but her business partner, Brunt, doesn't like the Alliance. There's a friendship between Brunt and Ezri that displays a promise of depth (as well as paralleling the unexplored feelings Quark has for the Ezri of his own universe). Brunt comes off as the story's most sympathetic character—which of course means he's Dead Meat. In keeping with the established tradition of Intendant Kira killing one mirror-Ferengi per mirror-universe episode, Kira stabs Brunt because she's convinced "he was going to betray me."
What's disappointing is the amount of confused uncertainty in the Ezri/Kira relationship. Ezri and Kira have apparently been lovers, but the relationship is sketchy and undefined, and at the end when they part ways with some sort of understanding, it feels flat. Of course, the relationship probably wasn't meant to be taken seriously; it all but shouts, "Look how hip we are—we have LESBIANS! Lesbians are cool!" I have nothing at all against homosexual overtones. "Rejoined," if you choose to call it a homosexual episode per se, was one of fourth season's highlights. And the Intendant's narcissism and lesbian overtones were particularly interesting in their subtle ways in previous mirror-universe shows, particularly "Crossover." Here? It's half-baked and trivialized, taking back seat to the cloaking device plot, as if we actually cared. What's worse is the pointless walk-on of mirror-Leeta at the end, which is played for a cheap laugh that seems to buy into the "lesbians for the sake of looking hip" mindset. Thanks, but I'll pass.
Another aspect of the story I found annoying was that all the villains are just so blatantly stupid. Once they get their hands on the cloaking device, what do they do? Prepare to execute the Ferengi! But, oops! They suddenly realize they can't install it without Rom's help, so the executions are delayed. Rom installs the cloaking device. What next? Prepare to execute the Ferengi! Do they suspect for a moment that Rom had the brains to sabotage the cloaking device? No, because that would require characters smarter than Rom. It's almost as if Behr and Beimler had an oversized, flashing red button on their word processor that randomly inserted [PREPARE TO EXECUTE FERENGI] into the script, and, dang it, the button was just so inviting, they couldn't help but push it a few times! Garak eventually goes to execute the Ferengi and ends up the victim of one of the most predictable and unsatisfying death scenes imaginable.
About all I can think to do here is gripe about how hollow, forced, and lifeless the characterizations were. That's a shame, because this universe has never been lifeless. Given that this was the final alternate-universe show, you'd think they'd find room for closure. They don't. All the potential was doomed from the moment the decision was made to center the plot around the Ferengi. Sisko should've been the catalyst for this story, not silly Ferengi hijinks. It's a cheat, and, frankly, I hope such cheats don't indicate a pattern for what lies ahead.
But even if I hadn't been expecting closure, this episode would still be a loser. There's not nearly enough thought invested in any aspect of the story for it to work on its own terms. Shallow is okay, but shallow still has to be done entertainingly, otherwise it's just a waste of time.
Next week: Homicide: Life on the Station.