Nutshell: There's lots of story, and most of it's very good.
"Shadows and Symbols" keeps the saga, as I'm inclined to call it these days, flowing well. It doesn't draw absolute conclusions over everything it says (there are more follow-ups in store, we presume), but it does tie up a chapter or two from last season and supply us with some answers that have fascinating implications.
There's plenty to digest with this week's installment, and I liked pretty much everything I saw. Naturally, I want to see more of what was set in motion, but the saying to observe these days, I believe, is "All in due time." For now, this is easily the best offering since "In the Pale Moonlight."
So far, the smaller details suggest that DS9 is planning its story moves carefully, thinking ahead. Within the plot of "Shadows and Symbols" are indications of things to come, some of them subtle and uncertain in scale, others likely to play into the grand scheme of DS9's end.
Case in point (for the "subtle and uncertain in scale" side of things, that is): we've got the ongoing exchanges between Weyoun and Damar as they continue to plan the war effort from Cardassia. Fairly routine—except that these days Damar just doesn't seem to care much about the war. In the scenes he's had so far this season, he's drinking. Or bringing would-be girlfriends to the command center. His attention is wavering. Is he sick of the war? Sick of Weyoun? Sick of being, as Sisko once called Dukat, a "Dominion puppet"? I'm not sure, but Weyoun is without a doubt taking notice. Where this goes from here is anyone's guess. Could this be the infant stage of serious problems between Cardassia and the Dominion? The long-term plot patrol awakens...
But let's talk about this week, shall we?
The story picks up each of the threads from last week's three-tiered structure. In story A, three generations of Sisko (Ben, Jake, Joseph), along with the new Ezri Dax, go to the desert on Tyree to search for the Orb of the Emissary. In story B, Kira risks a violent showdown with the Romulans by setting up a blockade to the Bajoran moon Durna, preventing the Romulans from delivering what might be vital components for a weapons system. In story C, Worf & Co. embark on a suicide mission to destroy a Dominion shipyard near a star, in order to assure Jadzia a place in Stovokor.
Lost? I wasn't. One key to the story's success was its ability to balance these three plot lines without overburdening the narrative or sacrificing cohesion. In fact, the balance was handled so well by director Allan Kroeker that I was caught up almost equally by each piece of the story. In this case, unlike many episodes with multiple plots, one didn't "interrupt" the other; each interruption was a continuation of something worth watching.
That's not to say I didn't have my preferences. The desert-based Sisko story was by far the most interesting, probably because it contains a much more vital and pivotal piece of DS9's larger scheme. There's a grandness to a quest with such intriguing possibilities, particularly because those possibilities are so personally important to the central character and his past. (Trivial coincidence note: For the past three seasons, the second episode—"The Ship," "Rocks and Shoals," and now "Shadows and Symbols"—was shot primarily in the desert.)
The high point of the story for me was in revisiting Benny Russell (the 1950s writer from "Far Beyond the Stars") through a vision Sisko has when he uncovers the orb. I had always hoped "Far Beyond the Stars" wouldn't be the end of what Benny Russell meant to Benjamin Sisko. Here we have proof that it wasn't. This time around Russell is in a mental institution, writing his Deep Space Nine stories on the wall. He's completely insane by nearly every possible standard—his behavior, his speech, his obsession—yet perhaps sane for one reason: because he's completely right. Everything he writes is true, so far as Ben Sisko is concerned. And Ben Sisko is Russell's dream. Or as "Far Beyond the Stars" put it, he's both the dreamer and the dream. But does this statement apply to Benny Russell, Benjamin Sisko, or both? My interest is definitely piqued.
Sisko's vision, admittedly, turns out to be a false vision from the paghwraith to mislead him. But I don't think that really matters. One could argue that the visions are manifested completely by something buried in Sisko's mind—or even his past. The point is that he has and likely will again experience Benny Russell plight, which will be significant to Sisko's character and the DS9 saga as it unfolds.
The way "Shadows and Symbols" conceives Sisko's insights is exceptional—both visually and emotionally. The mystical aspects of DS9 are quickly becoming the series' most compelling elements. In this episode, we have particularly good use of Sisko's baseball as a constant symbol; and the mysterious echoes of Doctor Wykoff (played by Casey Biggs), who is constantly being paged to isolation ward 4, are simultaneously eerie and wondrous.
Furthermore, once the crisis is averted and the Orb of the Emissary's power is released (bringing back the wormhole and casting out the paghwraith), the Prophets enlighten Sisko about his mother, Sarah, who actually was possessed by a prophet in order to conceive Ben Sisko. The implications of this revelation are staggering, setting off dozens of possible arguments, and even more questions. I won't go into such theories, but what Behr and Beimler have come up with for Sisko's arc is, in my opinion, very elaborate, neat stuff.
My one notable complaint is that Sisko's reaction to it all is a little too serene and accepting; he even smiles after closing the orb box. I don't think that's the right reaction; he should be disturbed at uncovering such a deep secret to his existence. Hopefully future episodes will deal with this aspect.
Of course, there's also Ensign Ezri Dax. I hate to slight her (there's just so much else going on here), because I liked what I saw. If this week is any indication, Nicole deBoer is going to work out very well as Ezri, the new incarnation of Dax. We learn that Ezri was joined with the symbiont as an emergency; she wasn't prepared for it. This puts a fresh spin on the relationships Ezri has inherited from Jadzia, while providing Ezri with a psychological inner struggle with all the symbiont's previous personalities. And deBoer throws herself into the role wonderfully: confusion, nervousness, charisma, trepidation, compassion, unexpected confidence—they're all here, and all well-utilized. I'll wait until next week (a Dax-oriented story) to say more, but I like her already.
As far as the B-plot and C-plot go, there was nothing particularly special about them in and by themselves, but they were nicely executed.
The station-based plot utilized Kira's no-nonsense mode very well (someone's gotta take a stand against the Romulans' encroachments). I'm glad the writers wisely decided not to throw away the Federation/Romulan alliance, but I'm also disappointed that we apparently won't see a Romulan presence aboard the station—it could've been a worthwhile endeavor. And as much as Admiral Ross didn't seem to be on Our Side this week (not being able to give Kira any help, and all), I could still understand his situation. He was stuck in the middle, as Kira and Sisko themselves have been. Ross didn't like the prospect of leaving Bajor to fend for itself, but let's face it: The Romulans ultimately are more important to the war effort. Sometimes common sense is simply unfortunate.
Worf's plot was the least of the three, but still entertaining. While I think the bickering between Quark and Worf was a little excessive and overly obvious in nature, it was true enough to their characters. Quark can be a selfish whiner and Worf can be an insensitive jerk, but they both have the ability to rise above those qualities and come across as reasonable, and both do in this case. As an action piece, this was completely predictable but perfectly okay—and I got a big thrill out of watching the Dominion's shipyards engulfed in a massive solar flare-up.
The suspense between the storylines is thoroughly milked as the episode cuts between the culmination of each thread, whether it's Sisko deciding to open the orb box, or Kira's time running out before the Romulans come charging in, or Martok's ship being pursued by Jem'Hadar fighters.
But ultimately, "Shadows and Symbols" is a winner because it's true to the primary focus—Emissary Benjamin Sisko—and because it tells its story confidently while still having plenty of questions to ask and answer. If season seven can stay on this track, we'll be in great shape.
Next week: Ezri Dax rediscovers Jadzia's life.