Nutshell: It's chapter one of what's essentially a 10-chapter arc. Can we really even judge yet? This chapter works well on several levels, but is held back by its unevenness.
As we head into the final stretch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the commonly adopted name for this major story arc, "Deep Space Nine: The Final Chapter," looks to be an appropriate one. With "Penumbra," we can see the latest of the groundwork being paved.
And if "Penumbra" is any indication, it's going to be tough to judge these early episodes as individuals until we know more—maybe a lot more.
I liked "Penumbra." I wasn't riveted by a lot of it, but I'm more than intrigued about where these elements will take us.
Going in favor of "Penumbra" is the fact that it revisits so many of the plot lines we need to see over the next eight weeks: Sisko's destiny, Dukat's devious planning, Worf and Dax's relationship, the disease in the Great Link, the Cardassians' role in this mess, and the inevitable connections of all said elements and more. Working against "Penumbra" is the fact these given plot elements are manipulated simultaneously and unevenly in a single episode that feels at times a little too much like a writing staff's calculated strategy. Sure, each plot piece on its own is interesting and plausible given what came before, but there are so many isolated little pieces in "Penumbra." The story's thought processes are disparate; the episode throws a little of everything together into a single stew. As of now, I don't know what that stew is all about.
But, of course, we will find out.
Hence my problem: How do we judge chapter one?
Well, for now, I'm opting to look at the hour's two most prominent storylines: (A) The relationship between Sisko and Kasidy, and (B) the relationship between Worf and Ezri.
The A-story is clearly the strongest aspect of "Penumbra," mostly because it brings with it some emotional resolution. Sisko and Kasidy's relationship is one that's been quietly developed over the span of four years of television production (it first began in season three's "Explorers"), and it's nice to see the makings of a payoff here. My biggest complaint with Trek romances has almost always been that the tired formula brings in some guest character, who then falls in love with a regular character, and then the relationship is terminated before the end of the episode. Sisko/Kasidy has been given time to develop and grow on a more realistic timetable. So now, by this point, we care a lot about the characters and the relationship; it actually means something. And when the time comes that Sisko proposes marriage, it's a truly satisfying moment.
Of course, it also helps to have performances that work. Avery Brooks' performance in his scenes here create a captivating sense of serenity. In the midst of this war and his own difficult journey of self, Sisko seems at peace. Brooks' understated performance brings an internalized understanding of Sisko that's quite spellbinding. It heightens the mood of the scenes in a truly interesting way. And it's not just his love for Kasidy that's apparent, but also his love for the world of Bajor. Sisko's announcement that he has purchased land on Bajor and his intent to build a house on this land are filled with moments of poignancy. Although this will prove most rewarding to the faithful DS9 viewer, it's ultimately Brooks that has to sell the sentiment, which he does extremely well.
Also, I like the implications that "the Emissary's wedding" could have on Bajor. As much as Sisko and Kasidy might want to make it a small event, there's Sisko's "icon status" there to render that all the more difficult.
Of course, the other problem (and what's certain to be a main focus of upcoming episodes), is the fact revealed to Sisko by the Sarah-prophet (Deborah Lacey) that his role as the Emissary conflicts with his intention to get married.
The final Sarah-prophet scene has quite an emotional punch (although Lacey's performance seemed a little too off-kilter in its attempt to be eerie), as we again look into the difficult path of "the Sisko." The Sarah-prophet's assertion that if Sisko marries Kasidy he "will know nothing but sorrow" is probably not at all what Ben wanted to hear, and, as he has in the past—most notably "Tears of the Prophets"—it looks as if he's going to have to make some tough choices between being the Emissary and being a human being.
This of course has me pondering possible tragedy scenarios for Sisko, who was the tragic hero of season six. And I've still not forgotten the statement from the Prophets from back in "Sacrifice of Angels" that "The Sisko is of Bajor but he will find no rest there"—especially considering his current house-building plans. (I could probably go on for hours about Sisko the Emissary, but we must move on.)
Less effective, but still okay, is the B-story involving Worf having gone missing after a Jem'Hadar attack that destroyed a Klingon ship he was aboard. The Defiant is forced to abandon the search, but Ezri decides to steal a runabout to go after him—simply because she can't stand the alternative of just waiting and doing nothing. ("She's a Dax. Sometimes they don't think; they just do," Sisko notes, sympathetically.)
There are strong feelings buried here that obviously are vying to come to some sort of resolution (preferably before the series ends). For Ezri, those memories are all still there. In a scene that might seem to utilize a soapish tactic but comes off as surprisingly effective nonetheless, Ezri walks through Worf's quarters as the voices from her previous life come back to her—driving home the realization that she has to help him. Her subsequent trip into the Badlands to track Worf down is nicely executed. But the important part is what this all means once she finds him.
Jadzia's death last season wasn't easy for Worf, but probably just as difficult was Ezri's appearance in "Afterimage." Worf and Ezri have done a good job of staying out of each other's way as much as possible since then, but they've long been headed for a collision. That collision comes here. Worf has never been one to easily let go of his feelings, and that's still the case here; he finds it easier to ignore Ezri than to face her.
Unfortunately, I think the writers feel it's easier to use a forced situation than to wrestle with the characters inside this confined runabout. Which is why, of course, the cliches come crawling out of the woodwork, as a Jem'Hadar attack leads to the abandonment of the runabout, leaving Worf and Ezri stranded on a planet with nothing to do but talk. Well, okay, but I was hoping for some really interesting and heartfelt dialog—a breakdown of the friction in the interests of understanding—but what we get here is disappointingly trite: a big, cliche-ridden argument that ends with Worf and Ezri clinched in each other's arms in standard romantic comedy fashion. (Sigh.)
I don't object to the Worf/Dax relationship being rekindled—not at all—but I hoped it would be more gradual and not so sudden and "spontaneous." Given Worf's attitude through every moment leading up to this one, the spontaneity comes off as way too forced. I also think the whole issue of the Trill "reassociation" taboo is just a little too easily brushed aside on Ezri's part. I'm look forward to seeing this all dealt with in the upcoming episodes, but here it proves widely variable, ranging everywhere from "the ring of truth" to "downright false."
Almost immediately following the big clinching moment, Worf and Ezri are taken prisoner by the Breen, which caught me so off guard that I'm not sure what to even make of it. How in the world do the Breen figure into all this? We've never even seen a Breen ship until now. (In fact, the only time we've ever seen a Breen was in the Dominion prison facility two years ago in the "Purgatory"/"Inferno" two-parter.) Just what are the Breen doing out here, and who are they? Are they going to be part of the bigger plot? Hmmm...
Other tidbits of the Big Plot Game are here, but I don't know what I can say about them yet beyond merely mentioning their presence. The disease infecting the Great Link (established in "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River") is still a problem that Weyoun and the Vorta are researching, but so far with no success. The Female Shapeshifter makes her appearance, asking for secure communication equipment for her quarters (the long-term plot patrol awakens), and then ordering Weyoun to terminate all the Vorta currently working on the vaccine and to activate their clones as a way of instituting "a fresh perspective." (Pretty cold, lady.)
Damar is hopelessly useless these days, stuck under Weyoun's thumb, although little of this conflict is new. He's still drinking in nearly every scene, and he's still "entertaining female guests" in his quarters. The war doesn't often seem to be much on his mind, but he does take exception to the fact the Cardassians are absorbing huge losses for the Dominion. Is this a preliminary hint of possible internal conflict? (Long-term plot patrol goes on full alert.)
Then, of course, there's Dukat. He's still espousing the Paghwraiths, and now he comes to Damar so that he may be surgically altered to look like a Bajoran. What's he up to? Where is this going? Who knows?
"Penumbra" is a solid start to various elements of "The Final Chapter." I most certainly was not bored. The Sisko stuff is top-drawer. Unfortunately, the Worf/Ezri material suffers from one (or eight) too many cliches. And the rest of the plot snippets comprise little more than an interesting extended teaser. Probably every scene here is ultimately necessary. But not all of it is effective—at least, not yet. Fortunately with DS9, we can be fairly confident the payoffs are somewhere down the road. The anticipation is probably a good percentage of the fun.
Next week: Chapter two.