Deep Space Nine kicks off its third season with a sensational cliffhanger installment. Possibly a turning point for the series, "The Search" brings about some notable changes to the show and may be as significant to DS9 as "The Best of Both Worlds" was to TNG. In any case, it's the best Trek cliffhanger, season ender or not, since the aforementioned two-part Borg outing.
A continuation of "The Jem'Hadar," this one takes place three months after the Dominion's introduction into the Trek encyclopedia of villains. Sisko returns from debriefing on Earth with a new mission and a secret weapon.
The mission: To search for the Founders of the Dominion and open diplomatic talks in hopes of working out a compromise for peace. The weapon: A small, stealth-like Federation warship appropriately named the USS Defiant. Originally designed to fight the Borg, the prototype Defiant is small and maneuverable, and the Romulans have even equipped it with a cloaking device for the mission. (Trivial aside: The Defiant bears the registry NX-74205.)
It's definitely one of the most gripping hours of DS9 to fall into the adventure category so far (packed full with action and suspense elements) yet remains true to emphasizing the characters with some meaty dialogue and interaction.
The titular search is set against the subplot of Odo coping with Starfleet Command's decision to replace him as DS9 security chief involving Starfleet affairs. Apparently, they've had enough of his disrespect for the chain of command. Consequently, Odo's mood becomes atypically angry and on-edge, demonstrated by his scene with Quark that doesn't end with the usual laugh but rather an unsettling display of Odo's fury. Furthermore, he takes on a bizarre interest in a mysterious nebula while in the Gamma Quadrant.
Meanwhile, Kira's energy makes for a great scene where she confronts Sisko regarding Starfleet's unjust decision. "Can I speak freely?" she asks. "What the hell is wrong with Starfleet? How can they do this to him?" There's also a good Kira/Odo scene where she tries to find out why he's acting so strangely, further stressing the trusting bond shared by these two characters.
The addition of T'Rul (Martha Hackett) as a Romulan consultant for the Defiant's cloaking device gives the episode a fresh feeling of diversity, while Starfleet security chief Eddington (Kenneth Marshall) will definitely be the source of future conflict for Odo, provided he remains aboard as a regular guest star.
"Search I" appears to be aiming for large audience pleasing, displayed by its emphasis on danger and adventure settings. Most of the story takes place in the Gamma Quadrant on board the Defiant, something Executive Producers Berman and Piller have stated in interviews is part of their season three campaign to draw in larger audiences.
The technical aspects are absolutely top-notch. The episode culminates with a tremendous battle (on the "exploding set" level, it's one of the series' best yet) in which Jem'Hadar ships attack the Defiant and then board it, getting into some mega-fisticuffs with the DS9 crew. Here, Jay Chattaway's musical score displays some atypically exciting energy. His score also adds suspense and provides a fascinating cinematic feel to an earlier scene where the Jem'Hadar look for the cloaked, dead-playing Defiant. Why in the world don't we get music like this more often?
Lastly, "Search I" ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger and a major character development, where Odo and Kira escape the Defiant (whose fate, along with Sisko and the others, remains a mystery until part two) and land on a mysterious planet inhabited by morphing liquid creatures that resemble Odo. One walks up to him and says, "Welcome home." Admittedly, that's where this episode shocked me. As I mentioned in my review of last season's "The Alternate," I thought the DS9 writers would refuse to commit backstory about Odo's origin, just as the TNG writers would never give Data emotions. Well, they proved me wrong. Season three for DS9 may be an explorative season of taking risks...