Nutshell: An interesting setup premise, but the ending, despite having some depth, is underwhelming and quite overwrought.
While Sisko and his crew scout the surface of a Gamma Quadrant planet for resources, a Jem'Hadar warship unexpectedly falls into orbit and crashes. Sisko decides to investigate. Upon entering the ship and finding the entire Jem'Hadar crew dead, Sisko claims the ship for Starfleet and sends for the Defiant to assist in the excavation of a great strategic find.
Before the Defiant can arrive, however, another Jem'Hadar crew arrives, led by a Vorta official named Kilana (Kaitlin Hopkins). They promptly blow the orbiting Runabout out of the sky, killing four of Sisko's officers, and then they demand Sisko return their ship. Sisko has no intention of simply giving it back to them. He and his crew hole up inside the downed vessel and prepare for an attack. The Jem'Hadar do not attack, however; for some reason, they cannot risk destroying what is on board the ship.
"The Ship" is a mixed bag if I've ever seen one. It has an intriguing premise and it features our heroes in a tough position where they are going to get dirty before it's all over. It even goes so far as to have dissension among Sisko's officers—something rarely seen on Star Trek. But countering the freshness of the gritty elements is a host of standard plot machinations and an overwrought ending with only marginal effectiveness.
The nature of "The Ship's" plot is conducive for repetitive scenes. For example, early in the episode, Ensign Muniz (F.J. Rio) is injured by a Jem'Hadar weapon blast. As the show progresses, there are a number of scenes between Chief O'Brien (who has sort of taken the kid under his wing) and young Muniz. There's a lot of sarcastic camaraderie here—and most of it works. But there are so many derivations of the same sequence that it begins to feel like the show runs out of things to say about its situation.
Still, another way of looking at the repetitive nature of the story is that it allows us to feel what these characters are feeling; after being trapped in this ship for so long with Jem'Hadar explosions going off outside, it's easy to see how and why tensions continuously rise. The rise in tensions parallels right alongside Muniz's deterioration, as his condition descends from fair to bad to worse (his hallucinations and sudden breaking into speaking Spanish prove to be an effective and foreboding way of conveying his condition).
One thing I really like about this episode is how the mounting tensions begin to get the best of the crew. "The Ship" is definitely not catching the DS9 crew at their best. At one point in the fourth act, emotions build up until there's irritable dissension unlike anything seen on the series. There's enough attitude in the room to cut with a phaser. Worf's hardly-helpful comments about Muniz's condition ("He will not see tomorrow") anger O'Brien to the point of throwing punches. Meanwhile, Dax's sardonic sarcasm begins to annoy everyone (Sisko: "Maybe you didn't notice Dax, but no one's laughing"). I particularly liked Sisko's response to the situation to get his officers back in line; Avery Brooks shows his usual energetic authority. A good commander knows what he has to say and when.
Another aspect that is very commendable is the production. At no point during this episode did I get the feeling that I was anywhere but trapped inside this close-quartered ship. The sets are outstanding, and Kim Friedman's lighting and photography techniques are very nicely executed.
One thing that does not work in "The Ship," however, is the Kilana character. Kaitlin Hopkins appears very uncertain in the role—seemingly miscast—and most of her negotiation scenes with Sisko (many of which do not have much of a point to begin with) are further sabotaged by her lackluster performance. She delivers far too many mid-line pauses in her dialog to be convincing, and something about her entire demeanor just...annoyed me.
Also holding back the episode are the plot workings. Given the premise, the way the plot resolves itself is hardly impressive. Once Sisko realizes it's the cargo that the Jem'Hadar really want, Kilana agrees to let him keep the ship if he allows her to remove the item. Sisko doesn't trust her, and I don't blame him. He instead begins searching the ship for this mysterious cargo, but with no success. I was hoping the item would be something new, compelling, fascinating, or the like. Nope. Turns out that the item is a Changeling hiding on the ship, disguised as part of the floor. It dies (for reasons I'm still not certain of), and turns into a pile of ashes.
Once the Founder dies, the Jem'Hadar kill themselves for allowing one of their gods to die. With the damage done, Kilana beams on board and reveals everything to Sisko.
This is where the episode's Big Sweeping Message is revealed, and in a way that leaves much to be desired. While I appreciated the fact that the writers tried to make this adventure outing add up to something dramatically relevant at the end, I did not appreciate the bluntness of the lesson or the logic behind it. Sisko's statement, "The Runabout crew, your soldiers, Muniz... They'd all be alive if we had just trusted each other!" falls completely flat, and feels so spoon-fed that it borders on the pretentious. This line literally had me groaning, it's so overwrought. While the idea of a tragedy based on a lack of trust is certainly relevant material, "The Ship" does not have the depth or emotion it needs to pull it off successfully.
One glaring inconsistency in the plot is how Sisko refers to the loss of his Runabout crew as a direct result of not trusting the Jem'Hadar when the Runabout was in fact destroyed from orbit before the Jem'Hadar even beamed down to confront Sisko. It's not as if Sisko traded these officers for the strategic value of the crashed ship (as he terms it in a closing scene)—they were dead before he even saw one Jem'Hadar soldier, and there wasn't a single thing he could've done to prevent it. For that matter, even Muniz was shot in the Jem'Hadar's initial assault, long before negotiations had started. I suppose there's the possibility that he could've survived had the crew hammered out a compromise with the Jem'Hadar in enough time to get him real medical treatment, but even that is a bit of a stretch under the story's circumstances.
The big picture "The Ship" tries to get across, and not so subtly, is the analysis of death in the line of duty. This is not the first time Sisko has lost someone under him; nor will it be the last. It seems odd, then, based on the episode's events, that he would blame himself on this particular mission, especially given the extreme circumstances. A lot of Sisko's argument with Dax in the final scene seems somewhat unfounded when one considers the way the episode unfolded. This is not the first time we've seen this theme, nor was it particularly effective this time around. If the show really wanted to be about Sisko feeling guilt for losing officers under him, it might have been better if they had actually died as a result of his decisions or orders.
With a reworked ending and a more surprising "mysterious item," "The Ship" could've been much more effective. This is one time I wish the creators had pushed for a straight action show over a story with a message, because as it is the drama here is both not enough and too much.
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