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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Armageddon Game (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a fairly generic “could have happened on any Star Trek episode of Deep Space Nine. So it’s a lot easier to forgive Armageddon Game its simplicity and lack of nuance. This isn’t a story specific to Deep Space Nine. The basic concept could – rather easily – have been tailored to fit Star Trek: The Next Generation or even Star Trek: Voyager, with two crew members on the run for their lives on an alien world.

Armageddon Game is another story idea from Morgan Grendel, a writer who tends towards extremes. The Inner Light remains one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. The Passenger ranks among the worst episodes of Deep Space Nine ever to make it to the screen. Armageddon Game sits somewhere in the middle.

Talk about chemistry...

Talk about chemistry…

According to The Deep Space Log Book: A Second Season CompanionArmageddon Game was originally intended as a character-centric episode for Dax. It makes a certain degree of sense. Jadzia remains one of the ensemble’s least developed players. The two episodes centred around her so far (Dax and Invasive Procedures) treated her more as a talking plot point than a character, so some character focus might be welcome.

It also makes sense that Dax should be the focal point of a plot like this. While having Bashir disarm biological weapons makes a certain degree of sense, you’d imagine a science officer would be better suited to the task. Still, for whatever reason, the decision was made to focus the plot on O’Brien and Bashir. This is a pretty great idea. After all, The Storyteller has already demonstrated that the chemistry between the two is capable of elevating a fairly mediocre concept.

Man of war...

Man of war…

You can sense the have of Behr at work here. Behr has a very clear vision of what he wants Deep Space Nine to be, and how he wants it to differ from The Next Generation. There are several focal points of Behr’s attempts to distance the show from its direct predecessor. The Ferengi episodes are a very obvious example, as is the cynicism evident in scripts like The Maquis. There’s also a very strong desire to push Bashir and O’Brien as two people who becomes more than just work colleagues, but develop into a fully-fledged bromance.

What’s interesting is that Behr seems to relish the idea that neither character is perfect. In the show’s early years, the best version of Julian Bashir is written almost as a brutal parody of Gene Roddenberry’s perfect human. He’s intelligent, sophisticated, arrogant and a little self-centred. Behr also stresses the idea that Bashir is a bit of a cad. His womanising seems more desperate than charming.

I'll drink to that...

I’ll drink to that…

There’s a moment early in the episode where Bashir effectively confesses that he was looking forward to getting laid at the celebratory party after the last disarmament. “You know, I was looking forward to the celebrations on T’Lani Prime,” he confesses to O’Brien. “I don’t know if you’d noticed, but T’Lani women are quite attractive.” We do get a sad little sob story about how he left his one true love, and the implication is that this turned him into the over-eager flirt we know and are occasionally creeped out by.

This is a little too cliché. It’s telling that “Palis Delon” is never mentioned again. Like Bashir’s terribly sad story about joining Starfleet in Melora, it’s just brushed aside by later characterisation, which may not be a bad thing. It’s the kind of Freudian psychoanalysis that the second season of Deep Space Nine is occasionally a little too fond of – in the same way that The Alternate felt the need to justify Odo’s outsider status by giving him an abusive childhood.

Trust me, O'Brien, they're just getting started with you...

Trust me, O’Brien, they’re just getting started with you…

There’s a sense that the show is still struggling to get a read on Bashir as a character, and Armageddon Game doesn’t really do too much to make him seem more interesting or well-rounded of himself. Mourning him on Deep Space Nine, Dax confesses that Bashir lent her his diaries. It’s a little creepy – a little too intimate for a character who has been following her around like a love-sick puppy.

Kira suggests that it will be a superficial list of the women he’s slept with. Instead, Dax counters, “When he gave them to me, he told me that they were about his innermost thoughts, his struggle to graduate top of his class, his dream of a career in Starfleet, his constant fear of failure.” It seems weird that he’d have to tell her that. It turns out she hasn’t read the diary, and it’s weird to hear Bashir’s self-image expressed in such candid terms.

Combat medic...

Combat medic…

Although there’s no doubt that Bashir’s insecure – If Wishes Were Horses… all but confirmed it. It just seemed strange he’d be so honest and open about it. It seems – like the revelations about his romantic history – an attempt to generate sympathy for the character. More interesting, and a lot more subtle, is the idea that Bashir doesn’t really have anybody. It’s suggested by his conversation with O’Brien about family, and also by the fact that Sisko doesn’t seem to have any family details to hand.

A similar moment in Home Front would convince Ronald D. Moore to write Doctor Bashir, I Presume?, and it’s interesting that this absence is the aspect of Bashir which carries over most consistently to his later characterisation. After all, he’s one of the very few characters on the show who exists in an absolute vacuum. Necessary Evil suggested that Quark, Odo and Kira share a history. Emissary confirmed Sisko and Dax are old friends. We know O’Brien from the Enterprise. Bashir is the only blank slate without any real ties to an earlier life.

Star Gazing...

Star Gazing…

(This is, I suppose, another way in which Bashir feels like a fairly cynical parody of the first season characters on The Next Generation, where it seemed like the cast might as well be complete strangers with only the occasional reference to earlier events suggesting a history, and – with the pointed exception of Crusher and Picard or Riker and Deanna – none of those events really shared between them. However, Bashir’s blank slate past isn’t treated as a default stage as it was with the cast of The Next Generation. Instead, it becomes a distinctive feature.)

Pairing Bashir up with O’Brien is an inspired move. As discussed in The Storyteller, the two contrast well. Bashir is English, O’Brien is Irish. Bashir is an upper-crust “career officer” while O’Brien is the franchise’s only working-class regular. Although this is never discussed, it’s quite pointed that O’Brien’s impression of Bashir amounts to little more than a dodgy upper-class British accent.

It's all very formulaic...

It’s all very formulaic…

Armageddon Game also plays up the other contrasts. Bashir is a lone adventurer novice medic, romantically obsessed with the frontier, despite his lack of experience. O’Brien is a veteran soldier who knows what the world is like out there and is quite happy to work a mundane nine-to-five job. Bashir refuses to be tied down because it would hold him back. O’Brien seems primarily concerned with his family.

Early in the show, when Keiko is having difficulty settling in, O’Brien did offer to transfer back to the Enterprise, suggesting that he only took the job because it was a promotion and offered more stability. When the pair finish up their work with the Harvesters, Bashir loves the idea of a celebratory party, while O’Brien is just tired and wants to go home. “Yes, it’s set for tonight, but the Chief is quite anxious to return back to the station,” Bashir politely informs Sisko, prompting O’Brien to offer, “It’s been a long week.”

Last stand...

Last stand…

While Bashir romanticises his time in space, O’Brien is just working his hours. While Bashir waxes lyrical about the weapons he’s attempting to destroy, O’Brien sips his coffee patiently. “It feels like we’ve been working more than a month,” Bashir moans when his initial attempts to disarm the weapons fail. O’Brien responds, “Doctor, start the sequence or we will be here a month.” O’Brien isn’t the guy interested in the majestic wonder of the universe, he’s a guy doing his job.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that O’Brien’s ideal, like Odo’s ideal, isn’t perfectly in line with Starfleet expectations. He’s on his own journey, describing marriage as “the greatest adventure of them all.” It’s not quite exploring the cosmos, encountering strange new species, but it is its own reward – and it represents a viewpoint in obvious contrast to that of Bashir. It helps that Siddig El Fadil and Colm Meaney work well together.

Damn it, he's a doctor, not a soldier!

Damn it, he’s a doctor, not a soldier!

We also get a nice sense of O’Brien as a soldier, as a man of war. He handles the initial ambush quite well. On the planet, he’s smart enough to advise Bashir against making reckless decisions. “The Cardassians used to rig the supplies they left behind with pressure grenades,” he recalls, a reminder that he’s far more experienced in these matters than Bashir, whose sole engineering education comes from an “extension courses.”

There’s also the impression that O’Brien is pretty far from the ideal Star Trek protagonist that Bashir so gently mocks. There’s the indication here that he might be just a little bit racist, or – at least – a lot less into the whole “different cultures” thing than most Star Trek leads. It is, of course, understandable. His most extended contact with another species came during the Cardassian conflict. And – as we’ll see in the next episode – if any Deep Space Nine character should be afraid of strange phenomenon or aliens, it’s O’Brien.

Surviving by the skin of his teeth...

Surviving by the skin of his teeth…

Here, he’s quite curt about his combat rations preference. When Bashir offers him some, he declines. “Why not, Chief?” the doctor asks. “I thought you loved military rations?” O’Brien curtly clarifies, “Federation rations. I’ve had enough T’Lani food this past week to last me a lifetime.” There’s an undertone to that exchange which suggests that O’Brien isn’t in Starfleet for the exploring of these strange new worlds. He’s a man with his own tastes.

You could also argue that, coming one episode before Whispers, Armageddon Game welcomes us to the world of “O’Brien must suffer.” The trials of the station’s resident Irishman became a running gag for the writer and producers, with the show typically managing at least one episode per season where the engineer would be put through an incredible amount of pain and suffering.

Toast of the station...

Toast of the station…

In Armageddon Game, he’s affected by a biological weapon, which is nothing but a tremor on the O’Brien Richter scale. As he shivers and sweats inside a dirty old blanket, it’s hard not to see Armageddon Game as something of a prelude to the show’s obsession with putting the engineer through hell on a regular basis. The second season would have two more episodes in the mold of “O’Brien must suffer”, with Whispers demonstrating that even duplicate O’Briens inherit his bad luck gene, while Tribunal traps the character inside 1984.

In contrast, Armageddon Game seems relatively tame. The story’s focus isn’t even O’Brien. He seems to get infected so the script will give Bashir something to do, and to allow him to finally offer Bashir some of the validation he so sorely needs. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t happen to any other character in the franchise. Then again, what makes the philosophy of “O’Brien must suffer” so fascinating is not any individual instance, but the sheer volume of suffering directed at the character. Armageddon Game is but a taste of things to come.

At least he has a pleasant floor-side manner...

At least he has a pleasant floor-side manner…

There’s a reason that these sorts of plots tend to gravitate towards O’Brien, and it’s the same reason he’s such a unique character in the franchise. As Ryan Britt argues, O’Brien might just be the most relatable character in the franchise, so it’s easier to empathise with him:

But another important reason why O’Brien’s various plights seem particularly relatable is because there are actual stakes for his character. Unlike a lot of other Trek regulars, O’Brien has a family, and fairly “normal” one at that. When things on the Enterprise or Deep Space Nine go pear-shaped, it feels really scary for O’Brien. Sure Sisko has a family too, but his son Jake is a little older and savvier. Miles’s daughter Molly is just a little kid!

There’s also something to be said for the fact – as discussed above – that he’s the member of the cast who treats this exploring millarky as a job rather than a passion, so it’s particularly cruel that the universe turns around to bite him as often as it does.

"Well, at least next week I'll have it easy, right?"

“Well, at least next week I’ll have it easy, right?”

Of course, it could also be something of a wry twist on O’Brien’s Irishness. It could be a dark version of the already ironic “luck of the Irish”, or the characteristic Irish stoicism – a stereotype so prevalent and enduring that even the New York Times has been defining Irish reaction to financial crisis in reference to it. It’s certainly not the worst cultural stereotype that the writers could have used to define O’Brien’s Irishness. Given that If Wishes Were Horses… originally featured a leprechaun, we should thank heaven for small wonders.

Still, the dynamic between Bashir and O’Brien powers what would otherwise be a fairly generic script. This is a story that could easily be done on any of the other Star Trek spin-offs with any two random characters. It seems a bit weird, given how much the show has tried to define its own identity so far this season. Still, the Bashir and O’Brien helps prevent the story from becoming as hopelessly generic as The Passenger.

Waking up and smelling the coffee...

Waking up and smelling the coffee…

I also like the nice twist at the end, where it’s revealed that Keiko’s hunch was completely wrong. Her claim that Miles never drinks coffee in the afternoon turns out to be complete nonsense. It is a rather cruel final gag, suggesting that Bashir and O’Brien are only alive because of how little his wife actually knows him. It makes for a rather brutal subversion of the standard clichés in a story like this. It turns out Keiko was right that the recording was fake, but her reasoning was faulty. It turns out widows don’t make the best investigators. Who would have thought?

The episode struggles a bit with the whole “grieving” subplot. We know that the two men aren’t dead, so it’s hard to get caught up in the expressions of grief on the station. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that this is going to be a two-parter, so we know that Sisko will be reunited with his missing crewmembers by the end of the episode. The “not really dead” thing is such a cliché in episodic television (great way to isolate your hero!) and especially on Star Trek, so it’s hard to invest too heavily.

All fired up...

All fired up…

So the scenes on the station do feel a little too much like padding. Sisko, Keiko and even Dax’s grief don’t add too much to the plot. The nicest moment comes from Quark of all people, with the script allowing Quark to express what appears to be genuine grief by reference to his own cultural practices. He’ll miss O’Brien and Bashir as customers, as agents involved in financial transactions.

Death (and the reactions to it) has always been a nice way for Star Trek to develop its alien species, as Odo suggested at the start of The Alternate, so it’s nice that Quark is allowed to grieve for O’Brien and Bashir in a way that seems genuine (he gave Dax and Kira free drinks!) but also completely alien. “We may have had our differences, but I’ll say this for them, and it’s no higher tribute I can think of. They were good customers. They always paid their bar bills on time.” It’s almost touching. Sadly, it doesn’t quite redeem the time we spend on what we know to be pointless grief.

Well, his plans just got shot to hell...

Well, his plans just got shot to hell…

The show had originally been developed as something of a chase movie, reflecting some of Deep Space Nine‘s experimentation with genre during its second year. That said, it isn’t as if Star Trek has never done a chase story. Only two months earlier, The Next Generation had aired Attached, a story about Picard and Crusher on the run on an alien planet. The difficulty with Armageddon Game is that the show didn’t have the budget to film in multiple locations, so it became, to quote Ira Steven Behr from The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, “It became a chase movie on one set.

The script also leans rather heavily on the technobabble. To be honest, technobabble was never as severe a problem on Deep Space Nine as it would become on Voyager. However, as with any Star Trek show, there’s occasionally a little bit too reliant on gibberish to either provide convenient plot devices (woot! jamming communications also masks short-range sensors, allowing Sisko and company to beam to the other runabout!) or even just to pad out lines (Bashir waxing lyrical about how he’s “never seen a nanobiogenic weapon so resistant to broad spectrum radiation” and it’s “just a matter of finding the right combination of muon frequencies”).

It's a runabout in one spot...

It’s a runabout in one spot…

There’s also the fact that the plot is a tad… convenient. It seems a bit weird that these paranoid aliens would invite Bashir and O’Brien to disarm these weapons, knowing that they’d have to kill them afterwards. The “destroy all weapons and all knowledge of the weapons” is a nice hook, and the plan to kill all their own scientists make sense – it’s easy to cover up crime when you are the government – but it seems strange that these aliens would be too concerned about outsiders. You reckon the risk-versus-reward balance tips a bit at that point. After all, one imagines that Starfleet doesn’t need the Harvesters to destroy their cultures. It just seems a rather simple way of setting up a conspiracy to get Bashir and O’Brien on the run.

Michael Westmore has been doing some pretty great work for the second season of Deep Space Nine. The show’s premise and setting (a multi-cultural melting pot) provides the make-up artist with the opportunity to develop an exotic alien species and designs. Although the episodes might not have been spectacular, his designs for Melora and Sanctuary were wonderful, and Odo’s physical transformations in The Alternate were suitably striking.

Everyday is a bad hair day...

Everyday is a bad hair day…

However, his designs for the T’Lani and the Kelleruns here seem a little vanilla. It’s nice that they aren’t just generic “forehead aliens”, but I’m not sure that weird hairstyles and pointed ears make for a particularly convincing alien race. Still, Westmore’s contributions to Star Trek are often overlooked, but I really think that that he shone on these early Deep Space Nine episodes, where it seemed like he was given a lot more freedom. (Fittingly, the design for the eponymous aliens in the season finalé, The Jem’Hadar, remains one of my favourite Westmore designs.)

Armageddon Game is far from exemplary Deep Space Nine. The second season has been populated by relatively experimental shows trying to take advantage of the show’s format and premise, while Armageddon Game feels consciously generic. Still, it’s a long way from the suffocating dullness of The Passenger, and it is a reasonably well-constructed episode from an admittedly bland central premise. It’s not radical or novel or adventurous in the way that so many of the season’s previous episodes have been, but it is well-made and charming on its own terms.

You might be interested in our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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