Nutshell: Another mixed bag. A nice, claustrophobic setup, but the plot can't deliver the goods in the end.
Keiko O'Brien returns from Bajor to reveal to Miles that she is, in fact, an entity who has taken possession of Keiko's body. Threatening to kill her, the entity forces O'Brien into a position where he must help her by modifying the station's equipment in ways that even he can't understand the reasons behind.
Given the basic premise, there's a reasonable amount that can be said about "The Assignment" and some of the effects it has. The idea of an alien body snatcher is certainly nothing new, and it's quite often a premise that can come off more corny than anything else (Voyager's "Cathexis" comes to mind). The mild silliness factor evident in Keiko's "convincing" of O'Brien that she's, well, not really Keiko—her trick of "killing" Keiko very briefly and then bringing her back—had me somewhat apprehensive from the start. Fortunately, the story begins to find a solid direction once it gets going, and is fairly effective to a point.
The best thing about "The Assignment" is the way it puts its central character into the toughest of binds, leaving him virtually no option but to do exactly what the alien wants. The Keiko-alien comes right out and tells him from the start—help me or else your wife dies... period. And she has O'Brien completely figured out—she possesses all the knowledge the real Keiko has, and she has already thought of every solution that initially comes to O'Brien's mind and lists them off, telling him not to even bother trying them. If he does, Keiko will die.
This is a great situation for inducing frustration and claustrophobia. What do you do when the most valuable person in your life depends on your carrying out actions with consequences you are not at all certain of—which could very well be disastrous? That's the real hook in "The Assignment," as we follow O'Brien around the station wondering what he's going to do to get out of this mess.
The episode's opening acts successfully convey the sense that O'Brien is completely trapped and helpless. In a scene set in his quarters, O'Brien must pretend (at his own birthday party with a dozen guests, no less) that he's having a good time and things are perfectly normal, when, in fact, his wife is a very skillful alien who makes a more convincing Keiko than Keiko herself. O'Brien's tension builds and builds, yet he has to maintain a cool surface to avoid arousing suspicion. (He breaks a glass in his bare hand—a rather nice touch to display his stress.)
There are a number of nice touches here that punctuate the tension. Take for example, the scene where the Keiko-alien refuses to let Miles sleep on the couch. When Miles wakes up the next morning with his hand on Keiko's thigh, his smile quickly turns to an appropriately hateful look. And the subtle scene where the Keiko-alien calls Miles on the viewscreen while brushing Molly's hair—and pulls Molly's hair intentionally to send a message—is a rather potent little highlight. The alien displays plenty of subtle villainy through the episode, and most of it works pretty well.
And, as usual, Meaney's performance is stellar work—convincing and even-handed, projecting the right amount of emotion without going overboard.
Much of O'Brien's frustration mounts from the fact that the Keiko-alien constantly leaves him in the dark. She simply gives him an ultimatum and expects him to perform, without telling him what will happen next or explaining why he's doing what he's doing. She asks him to reconfigure some communications equipment. He does. Then she tells him it was all just a test to see if she could trust him. Hell, I'd be mad.
No, O'Brien's real task is a massive engineering feat. And after considering his options and deciding he can't risk carrying out the alien's demands, he reluctantly goes to see Sisko. But as he's walking down the promenade on his way to see the captain, the Keiko-alien promptly throws herself over the promenade's second level. Keiko's injuries are not life-threatening, but the implications are; the alien simply knows Miles too well to be fooled, and if he doesn't agree to be honest and conforming then Keiko will suffer the consequences. So the Keiko-alien gives O'Brien a 13-hour deadline to complete a 36-hour job. ("You're resourceful," she tells him. "I know you can get it done.")
An interesting dilemma seems to want to surface here—the idea of "how far would you go?" in order to protect a loved one. What if it meant putting the deaths of others on your hands? At first Miles tells the alien that he will not agree to anything that will jeopardize the lives of anyone one the station, but I'm not so sure. As the show progresses and O'Brien finds his back completely against the wall, it seems that he might be capable of anything to get this alien to surrender his wife. One interesting scene with Dax shows O'Brien trying to subtly talk himself into believing that what he's done isn't really sabotage—it's just "an unexplained variance" in the systems.
This could've been truly powerful material. O'Brien is a good, honest man, but who is to say what he could be capable of with his wife in such grave danger—or, for that matter, what any of us would be capable of? It's not an issue to be taken lightly.
Unfortunately, "The Assignment" chooses not to follow through with this issue. Instead, it decides to slant away from character and go straight for plot. That in itself isn't something I have any objections to. There's a bigger problem here, and its name is Rom.
Not only does Rom further affirm himself here as DS9's most needlessly annoying character, but his role is to provide the comic relief to a story that should not have such comic relief at such inopportune times. "The Assignment" should be a thoroughly gripping, intense story, but the writers choose to put some of the plot's most pivotal moments in the hands of such a silly character, and, as a result, the tension is sabotaged at key moments. And that's too bad.
A big part of the problem is that Rom is so pointlessly stupid. Are we supposed to believe that anyone could honestly buy the story O'Brien uses when he recruits Rom to help him complete the engineering job? ("It's a top-secret project that Sisko and the others know about but have to pretend they don't." Uh-huh.) Rom buys it in a heartbeat, either because he's the biggest chump on the station or because he's a world-class suck-up trying to score points with the boss (or both). Neither option is particularly appealing.
At one point in the story Rom asks O'Brien, "I have to stay here and play the idiot?" At this point, perhaps O'Brien should've clued Rom in that he is an idiot. Forgive my Rom-bashing, but I'm irked the way the writers have taken this character and reduced him to nothing I want to see. The fact that he's completely atypical as far as Ferengi go doesn't help him the way I would expect it to, because the comedy he's provided with instead of the usual "Ferengi are greedy so they're funny" is the "Rom is dumb so he's funny." No, thank you.
Once Dax stumbles upon the rigging of the station, Sisko begins looking for the saboteur. O'Brien suddenly finds himself involved in an investigation where he's supposed to hunt down himself (sort of like Kevin Costner in No Way Out). So in order to buy himself more time, he feeds Odo Rom, his partner in crime.
This provides O'Brien with just enough time to finish the tech work, but he still isn't sure what the results of his job will be. As Odo's interrogation of Rom proves unsuccessful, he grants Rom permission to talk with O'Brien, resulting in plot revelations that are uncovered a tad to bluntly for my tastes. In this sequence, Rom reveals to O'Brien that the modifications to the systems will cause a focused beam that when directed into the wormhole will kill the wormhole aliens. Further, it would seem that the alien holding Keiko hostage is one of several "false prophets" who were expelled from the wormhole centuries ago—and is using O'Brien to destroy its enemies so it can reclaim the wormhole for itself.
So will someone tell me when Rom suddenly grew a brain? How can he be such a dullard in one scene, yet able to figure out the entire episode's problem—which even O'Brien couldn't solve—in the next? I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. It strains the confines of my credulity. Even if I did buy it, I would still object to the way the plot and motivations are all completely explained in a single dialog-heavy scene.
The ending doesn't exactly have the finesse I could've hoped for, either. Once O'Brien finds out what he's dealing with, the anticipation of how O'Brien will outsmart and thwart this clever alien then becomes the driving force behind the episode's hopeful success. Unfortunately, the ending's plot workings are less than what they could've been. Sure, the confrontation between Odo and O'Brien once Odo figures out O'Brien is the mind behind the apparent subterfuge is adeptly written and works well enough, but the primary showdown between O'Brien and the Keiko-alien, on the other hand, is underwhelming. O'Brien merely contacts her on his communicator and tells her to meet him in a Runabout so they can finish the job, the intentions of which he has now figured out. But one thing bothers me about this: How is it that the alien only selectively knows O'Brien's intentions? I find it hard to believe she would know with such certainty that O'Brien intends to go inform Sisko earlier in the episode, yet doesn't know that he's lying when he says he "doesn't give a damn about the wormhole aliens." In retrospect, the alien seems pretty silly for trusting O'Brien to take her into such an obviously vulnerable position.
The way the plausibility level shifts by the end of the episode makes O'Brien's solution to his dilemma too easy. And, unfortunately, these plot manipulations are simply not clever enough to be very interesting or to overcome the fact that they're ultimately implausible. It's a shame to see such a potent setup reduced to such a standard conclusion. And the initial question of "how far would you go?" ultimately becomes a non-issue.
As a quick aside, let me note that "The Assignment" is a staff effort by a writers/director team with names I haven't seen in the series' credits very many times—some never before. Composer Gregory Smith (whose score was pretty good, might I add) is also unknown to me. "The Assignment" isn't a bad episode by any means. This group's work is solid, entertaining, and effective for the most part. If only they had wrapped things up better and used Rom more effectively (or not at all) then they could've had a real winner here.