Nutshell: A gritty, engrossing, simple, and powerful tale of combat.
Through the war that's been raging between the Federation and the Dominion for a year-plus now, the one thing we rarely get a taste of is the pure intensity of how impending death and daily violence actually feels. Sure, Our Heroes have had their dose of life-threatening confrontations, whether it was all-out space battles in "Sacrifice of Angels" or the man-to-man combat of "Rocks and Shoals," but they've never been neck-deep in death for a prolonged period the way the front lines of the war are likely to be.
"The Siege of AR-558"—essentially a DS9 war movie—is exactly about being neck-deep in the ugliness and impending doom of the front lines.
The plot brings the Defiant on a supply delivery run to an outpost with a Dominion communications array that has been seized by the Federation. (Long-term plot patrol asks: Will we ever hear of this array again, or will its relevance vanish like many other "important" victories attained in episodes dealing with the war?) Stationed on the outpost are Starfleet officers who have been trapped on this front line for five months. They were supposed to be rotated out after three, but Starfleet has been spread too thin in the area to get around to it.
In the meantime, these soldiers have been repelling wave after wave of Jem'Hadar assault to reclaim the array. Two-thirds of the Starfleet battalion has been killed. Then a portion of Sisko's crew finds itself trapped—unable to beam up when a Jem'Hadar ship enters the game and the Defiant is forced to break orbit to locate reinforcements.
The plot is a perfect exercise in simplicity. There's Us, and there's Them. Us is the war-torn Starfleet battalion, of which Sisko takes command. Them is a large squadron of Jem'Hadar soldiers who have beamed down to the planet surface and intend to retake AR-558. The confrontation is inevitable. Lots of people at AR-558 will die. Sisko's order: To hold off the enemy—period.
One thing I really like about "The Siege of AR-558" is that it utilizes the strengths of DS9's current themes. This is the sort of Trek story that could only be told on DS9. I honestly couldn't imagine it on any of the other Trek series; it would be utterly foreign. The tone is unlike any typical installment. Like "In the Pale Moonlight," it reveals the dark side of human reaction—how extreme situations can bring out the part of a moral person that he or she would never have hoped existed.
What's even more frightening is that this dark side must surface, because it's required for survival. It truly is Us or Them—kill as efficiently as possible, or be killed.
I was quite interested in the guest characters, who have been stuck on this rock for months with no end to their hell in sight. Behr and Beimler's story presents us a group who have been worn down by attack after attack. The emotional and psychological scars are more than a little evident. These soldiers have become hardened, short-tempered, even nasty. They're all business.
The presentation of these characters works exceptionally well; from step one we can see that this isn't, as Quark so aptly puts it to Nog, "the Starfleet you know." The emotional instability of Vargas (Raymond Cruz) paints a compellingly bleak picture. He's full of bitterness and resentment for being essentially abandoned by Starfleet—left to die on this planet. And the moment with Bashir when Vargas tells his story of the bandage and his slain comrade ("I couldn't stand the guy") shows him in a state of mental unease that borders on a nervous breakdown.
There's also Reese (Patrick Kilpatrick), who seems to be handling the stress better, though he's certainly become combat-hardened. The notion of his wearing Jem'Hadar ketricel white vials around his neck as a way of "keeping score" of his kills provides a nice touch. The implications are unsettling given the Federation moral scheme, but it's a plausibly gritty idea.
The leader of the battalion prior to Sisko taking command is Larkin (Annette Helde), who also shows an edge of impatience. Probably the only of the guest characters who feels like a conventional Starfleet officer rather than a hardened soldier is the engineer, Kellin (Bill Mumy). Kellin and Dax form a good chemistry in working to solve a strategic technical problem; they come to reveal the other side of the situation—the side that can still think about life rather than impending death. Their discussion on Ezri's search for identity continues to build on the character's central struggle, and works surprisingly well in context. (I'm beginning, however, to wonder if making Ezri a counselor was such a good idea; I couldn't help but wonder why she was even on this mission.)
The plot of course documents the battles, injuries, deaths, and the final assault. But the way it all unfolds is engrossing. There's an interesting polemical theme centering around, of all people, Quark, who ends up stuck on the front lines along with the battalion. The circumstances surrounding Quark's presence on this mission strain credulity, but I don't really care; the use of Quark turns out to be one of the story's assets. What Quark has to say is interesting—as he follows his Starfleet nephew around offering his unsolicited point of view.
And contrary to what it initially seems, this is more than a matter of Quark simply being cowardly or petty. The story strongly suggests that Quark is opposed to this war raging on and on ("The Ferengi would've hammered out an agreement"), and objects to the soldier mentality that he sees all around him. I was particularly interested in his view on human vulnerability, where he tells Nog how a human subjected to long-term violence and deprived of food, sleep, and comfort can become as nasty and violent "as the most bloodthirsty Klingon." It seems Quark believes Ferengi wouldn't turn vicious even under such extreme circumstances. Whether that's the truth is debatable, but the point is still interesting, and I like it as a statement that questions the moral basis of the war. Is the human resistance to the Dominion worth all the death it leaves in its wake? The human answer may be obvious, but Quark's Ferengi view brings forth an interesting way to reanalyze it.
I also thought the use of Nog was particularly adept. Nog has that youthful naivete, and here it's manifested through a sense of respectable courage and duty. He doesn't want to hear his uncle's interpretation of things, which only further irritates Quark. He's a Starfleet officer, and he intends to carry out his orders even if it means dying in the process. At the same time, he has a youthful desire to please and earn the respect of Sisko and the other soldiers—a notion that rings true.
In the middle of everything is Captain Sisko, who serves as a bona fide leader for his soldiers. He fights alongside them, he cares about every one of them, he considers the mission's problems and attempts to help solve them ... and, of course, he orders his officers into situations that could get them killed. Because that's also part of it.
Quark's objection to Sisko sending Nog on a scouting mission with Larkin and Reese also seemed like an understandable "civilian" objection; the fact Sisko could so "casually" send Nog—Jake's best friend, no less—to his own death is something that I could see might be hard to understand. Interestingly, when Nog is shot by the Jem'Hadar on this hike and Bashir must amputate his leg (!), Nog was more bothered by the fact he "failed" Sisko than that he was almost killed. Sisko's subsequent scenes with Nog work well, striking some poignant notes.
A great deal of the success of "AR-558" deserves to go to Winrich Kolbe, whose direction is nothing short of virtuoso. The episode is a triumph of mood and atmosphere, which is as crucial to the story as any other element. This was a deeply textured episode that drew me in and captured me on a visceral level. A big part of the experience is in feeling the events unfold as they happen on the screen.
The little details make a huge difference, whether it's Reese's knife, which Nog subtly observes as not being "standard Starfleet issue," to the anticipation and building adrenaline conveyed through the simple gesture of Kellin nervously flipping his phaser sight up and down—which conveys human realism through its simplicity.
Other powerful details: A recording of Vic Fontaine singing "I'll Be Seeing You" plays from the infirmary as the soldiers wait for the rapidly approaching assault. Bashir reloads his phaser, and Vargas notices that he has obviously "done that before." The mine trap Sisko's unit had set for the Jem'Hadar alerts us of the imminent approach, as a series of bombs explode just over the rocks. The Jem'Hadar screams gradually become audible as they charge in for the kill. All of it borders on the surreal, with consequences that are all too real.
When the attack finally arrives, lots of people die, but for once, the deaths feel more like people than statistics. We can see elements of sacrifice, heroism, futility, and desperation. And the simple fact that there are so many Jem'Hadar ensures the chances are exactly zero that we'll kill all of Them before they can kill plenty of Us.
With the subtle but striking visual and spoken nuances, I could understand and feel how this group faced an intense situation. The message voiced by Sisko in the show's closing scene is that those who die are more than just names—a fact that shouldn't be forgotten. That may be a fairly obvious statement, but an episode like "The Siege of AR-558" helps get us in better touch with the feelings behind the words, rather than leaving us in the position to take the words at face value.
Next week: Kira confronts a Bajoran cult affiliated with her worst enemy.