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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Blood Oath (Review)

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

Blood Oath is a pretty fantastic piece of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and kicks the second season back into gear after a few mediocre (although not embarrassing) episodes. While it’s hardly the best episode of the year, and comes with its share of problems and baggage, it’s a tight and well-constructed piece of space opera. It’s a pulpy Klingon adventure, with the show’s best exploration to date of the existential problems of being Dax and a relatively simple (but potent) moral dilemma. It’s also just great fun.

Here's Kor!

Here’s Kor!

Peter Allan Fields has provided some of the best scripts for the show so far, but what’s impressive about Blood Oath is how broad and almost minimalist it feels. We get three Klingon guest stars, which come with their own histories and serve as a fan in-joke, but they are very broadly defined. Kang, Kor and Koloth each represent a particular archetype. Kor, characterised as the most emotional and volatile of the trio, even helpfully sums up his friends’ personalities in a sentence each. “Kang thinks too much. Koloth doesn’t feel enough.”

We never get to know too much about Kang, Kor and Koloth. Those watching without a relatively in-depth knowledge of Star Trek might not even recognise the trio of warriors who bothered Kirk all those years ago. Certainly, with their fancy new cranial ridges, it’s quite possible that even fans familiar with their earlier appearances might have trouble placing each of the bunch. Without the context of their earlier appearances, these could be any three Klingons.

Blade of glory...

Blade of glory…

All we learn about them is that they are old, and that each is dealing with it in their own way. Kang is fixating on his own death. Koloth pretends that it doesn’t bother him. Kor has learned to indulge all his urges. We find out that all three were important figures at one point, and that each had a son who died decades ago. We don’t learn about their wives or their families. It seems that these three have passed through the world with no stronger ties than each other.

Similarly, Blood Oath draws the villain of the piece in the broadest possible terms. He is only referred to as “the Albino”, and he looks like a pink-skinned and white-haired Klingon. That’s never explicitly confirmed here, and the character doesn’t even get a name. Dax describes him as a “depredator”, and he lives inside a castle worthy of a Bond villain, but we get no real sense of who he is. We only glimpse him as Kor, Kang and Koloth storm his headquarters, and our only impression is that he’s angry and violent.

Reflections...

Reflections…

Even Dax’s central dilemma is drawn in relatively broad terms. Does she inherit any obligation from her predecessor? The issue has been raised before. Dax flirted with the idea that Jadzia could be legally accountable for a crime committed by Curzon, but the episode rather awkwardly swerved to avoid offering any insight. In Blood Oath, however, the imperative is more moral or philosophical – can Dax turn her back on a promise made by another host in another life?

Similarly, there’s also the question of how far Dax will go to fulfil that obligation. The other regular characters are pushed to the side here, their use economical. Kira and Sisko are especially well used to explore the question of whether Jadzia could bring herself to take a life to honour an agreement made by her predecessor. How far would you go to keep a promise? And there some oaths that endure beyond legality and beyond death?

Storming the castle...

Storming the castle…

These are grand themes, elegant and sweeping. Fields very cleverly makes sure not to overcrowd the narrative. Despite the promise of Klingon brutality, considerable space is devoted here to introspection and soul-searching. There aren’t too many swerves or twists, but that’s the entire point. There’s something decidedly operatic about all this, and the script is clever not to get too bogged down in particulars. Absolutely everything is on screen, and everything is given room, without being overcrowded.

Director Winrich Kolbe cleverly plays up these aspects of the script. He frames a lot of the shots a wonderfully melodramatic way – two characters, both facing the camera, one is foregrounded while the other is backgrounded, still. There are lots of tight close-ups, and lots of lingering moments where Kolbe is willing to let silence hang in the air. The episode is not cluttered. In fact, it’s surprisingly clean. It’s almost elegant.

Beware the Wrath of Kang!

Beware the Wrath of Kang!

Quoted in The Deep Space Nine Log Book: A Second Season Companion, Kolbe recognised the broad mythic qualities of the story:

It was the closest thing to Beowulf that I ever saw. There was a mythological quality to it and these guys were real heroes. I played Wagner in my mind the whole day and it had a feel that was beyond episodic television. It was really The Three Musketeers on a smaller scale and I loved it.

In a way, Blood Oath feels almost like opera. It’s full of big epic ideas and grand themes.

Another stab at revenge...

Another stab at revenge…

You could even argue that the lyrical nonsense of the episode’s technobabble and gratuitous Klingon is somewhat similar to the lyrics of classic operas – sung in a language that doesn’t need to be understood to appreciate the story. “When we establish a low orbit, we modulate your disruptor banks to bombard the compound with tetryon particles,” Dax advises at one point, the content of her statement obvious even if the exact meaning of each word is obscured.

In the briefing, she states, “If we assume he has adequate defences, a minimum of fifty guards, then we should use a N’yengoren strategy.” Kang counters, “No! I will not sneak into his bedroom and murder him like a kah’plakt.” Nobody in the audience knows what exactly a “N’yengoren strategy” is. Only the nerdiest know the exact translation of “kah’plakt.” However, even the most casual of viewers can understand the purpose of the dialogue, the ideas expressed, the themes being developed.

Daxing stuff, this...

Daxing stuff, this…

A lot of Star Trek is space opera, a particular subgenre of science-fiction that has always had a surprising mainstream appeal. Divorced from high-concept philosophical or scientific ideas, “space opera” is instead preoccupied with the exploring of common themes and concepts in a science-fiction setting. (Of course, Blood Oath is not a literal Klingon space opera, a qualification only necessary because such a thing actually exists.)

The term’s first recorded usage was by writer Wilson Tucker in 1941. He did not mean it as a complement. The turn of phrase came from the pejorative term “horse operas”, to refer to generic westerns. Indeed, quite a few reputable science-fiction magazines refused to publish these stories. The first issue of Galaxy boasted that it would never allocate space to any story that might be “merely a western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet.” Given that Gene Roddenberry famously referred to Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, you can see why Star Trek is sometimes classified as space opera.

Kor values...

Kor values…

However, time has been somewhat more forgiving than Wilson Tucker. Editor Jonathan Strahan argues that there’s a new found appreciation for space opera:

Space opera has evolved from what Wilson Tucker once described as ‘the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’ into sophisticated, often dark, tales of cutting-edge space adventure. We wanted that cutting edge, but we also wanted the colour and energy of space adventure. I think we got that in spades.

There’s also no denying that space opera has a history of resonating with the general public and pop culture in general.

New old friends...

New old friends…

Interestingly, author David Pringle argues in What Is This Thing Called Space Opera? that – despite the fact the phrase is linked with the western genre – it might also trace its roots back to a more traditional operatic tradition:

Whatever he meant by it, why did he choose the phrase “space opera”? The “space” element is obvious: he was talking about “spaceship yarns”, tales involving space flight, set aboard spaceships, stories about spaceships. The “opera” element is considerably less obvious, but Stableford helpfully informs us that “space opera” was coined by analogy with “horse opera” – a term, presumably of the mid-to-late 1930s, applied to routine western films: think of those B-movies of the 1930s that starred the young John Wayne, the kind of thing also know in Variety-speak as “oaters” (indeed, it may well have been one of the ever-inventive critics or subeditors of Variety magazine who came up with the term “horse opera”). So opera, in the Italian, musical sense, had nothing to do with it; or, at any rate, the connection with the stage was tenuous – although it can, in fact, be traced back to its origins through a chain of associations. “Horse opera”, clearly, was a witticism based on another witticism of the 1930s, “soap opera” – a name applied to open-ended, melodramatic domestic serials on American daytime radio. Such radio serials were a new thing in the 1930s, and – although nobody seems to know who came up with the phrase – I would hazard a guess that the scoffing name for them was coined by some newspaper with in 1935 or 1936. I dare to be so precise with the date because in the latter part of 1935 a certain famous musical work had its stage premiere in Boston and New York – George Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess. The term “folk opera” would have been very much in the air then, which is why the euphonious and like-sounding coinage “soap opera”, to refer to serials sponsored by detergent manufacturers, would bave seemed so memorably apt. So, but this devious route – folk opera to soap opera to horse opera to space opera – Tucker’s little witticism can after all be grounded in musical opera, that great tradition which has given us a-hundred-and-one other terms such as opera in musica, opera seria, opera buffa, ballad opera, comic opera, grand opera, ballet opera, light opera, operetta and – much later – rock opera. For the terminological sidestream that led to space opera perhaps we should thank Gershwin.

Which brings us around in a full circle to the decidedly operatic feeling of Blood Oath.

Our fault, dear Kang, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves...

Our fault, dear Kang, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves…

Various Klingon and non-Klingon characters in the franchise have described Klingon opera as one of the culture’s most influential and successful art-forms, and it makes sense. Klingons may have slain their ancient gods, but they love a good mythic struggle. Larger-than-life characters performing larger-then-life deeds, echoing throughout eternity. It’s a romantic notion, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the portrayal of Klingon culture in the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation has been a deconstruction of this romanticism – suggesting that Klingon romantic ideal is quite divorced from day-to-day realities.

As such, it’s a surprise that Blood Oath offers us perhaps our most romantic portrayal of Klingon culture. Sure, Sisko points out that Klingon cultural norms are radically different from those of the Federation, but Blood Oath allows Kang his last chance at glory without any wry irony or subversion. The closest we come to a back-room conspiracy is the revelation that Kang and Albino arranged this one final confrontation.

Fun fact: Koloth uses the same knife for disembowelling and cake-cutting.

Fun fact: Koloth uses the same knife for disembowelling and cake-cutting.

To be fair, it’s not really a surprise. Michael Anasara practically invented the modern Klingon archetype with his guest appearance in The Day of the Dove. Kang was really the first time the franchise dared to suggest that Klingons could be more than just treacherous, torturous and murderous scumbags. Kor was introduced quite ready to engage in mass murder of a civilian population and Koloth planned to poison an entire planet. Kang, on the other hand, was afforded a quiet dignity and a sense of honour.

(That’s probably why Michael Ansara slips most comfortably into his old role here, all grace and poise as Kang. John Colicos does a good job as Kor, but he’s indulging his tendencies towards large hammishness. On the other hand, William Campbell doesn’t really work as a modern Klingon. Which makes sense, when you consider that his wonderful portrayal of the cunning and witty Koloth in The Trouble With Tribbles was pretty far from what would become the “norm” for Klingons in the franchise.)

Quark is Kling(ing)on for dear life...

Quark is Kling(ing)on for dear life…

Indeed, Kang laments the difference between the Klingon mythology (one of honour and duty) and the more mundane reality of day-to-day living. “The old Klingon ways are passing,” he muses. “There was a time, when I was a young man, the mere mention of the Klingon Empire made worlds tremble. Now, our warriors are opening restaurants and serving racht to the grandchildren of men I slaughtered in battle. Things are not what they used to be, not even a blood oath.”

In a way, this is a very revealing look at the world of Deep Space Nine, a truly multicultural future, but there’s also a sense that certain cultural norms will have to get eroded in order for peaceful coexistence to be possible. Thew way Kang talks about the fact the grandchildren of his enemies are now friends sound like a bad thing. Deep Space Nine was a lot more open to multiculturalism than the other spin-offs.

He's got some neck...

He’s got some neck…

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t feel a pang of sorrow for Kang, a man from a warrior society who runs the risk of outliving all his enemies. To quote – appropriately enough – The Fall of Kang, briefly mentioned in Second Sight, “pity the warrior who slays all his foes.” There’s a huge gap between myth and reality, as many people learn. Deep Space Nine is often accused of being an overly cynical version of Star Trek, a reputation I don’t think is entirely fair. Allowing Kang his graceful death is romantic.

As the episode notes, not everybody gets to go out with a bang. Surprised to find Jadzia Dax on the station instead of Curzon, Kang asks, “Tell me about my friend Curzon. Did he die an honourable death?” Rather candidly, Dax admits, “He died in a hospital room yelling at doctors and friends who were trying to keep him alive for one more miserable day.” That’s a very bleak and ordinary death, something almost mundane. It’s very real, unlike the heightened opera of Blood Oath. “That’s a pity,” Kang notes. “He was a good man. He deserved to die in battle.”

Or as Kor calls it, a hard day's work...

Or as Kor calls it, a hard day’s work…

Blood Oath is a sad variation on a familiar song, the story of those washed up who realise that legend might not be waiting for them after all. When we first meet Kor, we’re informed that he is trapped reliving past glories. “He’s been in there for three, fighting the Battle of Klachdachbrach or some such thing over and over,” Quark informs Odo. Odo informs the barkeep that “the Battle of Klach D’kel Brakt was a legendary Klingon victory over the Romulans almost a century ago.” However, Kor can’t even get that right. “Well, he’s been losing it all afternoon and he says he’s not coming out until he wins.”

Similarly, Koloth finds the main use for his daggers is chopping up food. Oddly enough, William Campbell was apparently the hardest of the three actors to find after all those years. Apparently he had retired to been working on a cruise run by Star Trek convention organisers. As such, the decision to unite these three veteran actors to play these three older characters lends the episode an almost poetic quality – a celebration of three old guest stars who each contributed a lot to the franchise in their own way.

He's gone pale!

He’s gone pale!

Blood Oath is also a Dax episode. On the surface, it seems like one of those “Dax as a plot device” episodes from earlier in the show’s run. Something from Dax’s past has come back and caused all manner of complications – enough complications to drive an episode of Star Trek. However, while Blood Oath isn’t as keenly focused on Jadzia as Playing God, it hinges more on her as a character than Dax or Invasive Procedures did.

It’s worth noting that Blood Oath feels like a holdover. Dax’s characterisation here is solemn and relatively stoic. It’s a far cry from the free-spirited “try anything once” approach we’ve seen since Rules of Acquisition. Of course, Curzon’s close bond with the Klingons alludes to Dax’s willingness to embrace other cultures, and the murder of three children is hardly a joking matter. Terry Farrell seems a little over her head here, after settling into the more casual and relaxed version of the character from Playing God. The script puts the thirty-year-old Farrell opposite three far more experienced character performers, and there are moments when Farrell struggles to hold her own.

Spot the difference...

Spot the difference…

Still, Peter Allan Fields does give us a nice character hook for Dax. What hold does her own past have over her? She has died and been reborn, so is she held to every oath and promise? “I know about the Trills during my long friendship with Curzon,” Kang tells her. “And I know that each new host has no obligation to past commitments.” This is the first time we’ve really got a sense of how Trill culture deals with that sort of baggage, laying thematic groundwork for Rejoined, another exceptional “Dax as a plot device” episode.

More than that, though, Blood Oath toys with the idea of genuine cultural relativism and what that actually means. Dax is being asked to hunt down and murder somebody. Sure, the Albino is a villain. He killed children. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy. But Dax isn’t chasing him to bring him to justice. There will be no trial here. She is going to help the three Klingons find him and kill him. That’s the way Klingon culture works, and that’s what respecting their culture and traditions entails.

Things get a bit dark...

Things get a bit dark…

That’s the flip side of the kind of cultural imperialism  many would associate with the conduct of James T. Kirk in the original television show. If we accept that Kirk was wrong to impose an American view of the universe upon other cultures, then we must accept the customs and traditions of those cultures no matter how brutal or abhorrent they might seem. It’d be nice to hope that all viewpoints can be reconciled completely to allow for perfect harmony, but occasionally values clash.

To be fair, this is nothing new on Star Trek. Ronald D. Moore covered similar ground in The Enemy, when Worf refused to conform to the norms of the Federation and help a dying Romulan. Picard was as repulsed by that decision as Sisko is here. “I never understood this,” he protests, the confrontation driven as much by concern for Dax as anger over the betrayal of principles he holds dear. “I mean, whatever else Curzon was, he did have a fundamental morality. He wouldn’t condone murder any more than I would, and yet he swore to kill this Albino and now you plan to go out and kill in his name. What about the laws of the Federation?”

She's carrying a lot of baggage...

She’s carrying a lot of baggage…

Blood Oath is economical in its use of characters, but Avery Brooks and Nana Visitor do phenomenal work in their short scenes. In particular, the short scene between Kira and Dax in Ops is wonderful. There’s a beautiful little moment after Kira deflects Dax’s interest in her murderous past, only to release that her friend and colleague is being completely serious. Visitor was always one of the stronger members of a pretty fantastic ensemble, and that one scene is a beautiful moment for Kira. There’s a sense of regret at the lives she had to take (“too many,” she offers when pressed for a figure), but also a clear sense that she wouldn’t change her decisions.

As befitting the operatic mood of the episode, Dax’s character struggle is primarily internal, articulated in the most angsty manner possible. She’s meditating and contemplating the notion of duty and honour in a way that spans decades. “They say I have no obligation to them,” she tells Kira, but framed in such a way that it could just as easily be a theatrical soliloquy. “But I do. I know it, I feel it. If not to them, I owe it to Curzon.”

Kor was very happy with the episode's ending...

Kor was very happy with the episode’s ending…

And all of this is without even touching on the geekish fanboy pleasure of reuniting the three most memorable classic Star Trek Klingons. The Next Generation often had a difficult relationship with its own past, despite guest appearances from Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. Ira Steven Behr is fond of recounting how difficult it was to slip the word “Spock” into the episode Sarek, an episode featuring a guest appearance from Spock’s father. Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore remember the harsh restrictions imposed on the use of Kirk in Star Trek: Generations.

Deep Space Nine already feels much more comfortable with the original Star Trek than its elder sibling ever did. The show has embraced the “space western” aesthetic of the classic television show. Second Sight included a rather gratuitous link to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In a few episodes, we’ll see Peter Allan Fields write another story relying on elements of the original Star Trek. (Although it should be noted that the classic references here apparently came from Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who suggested using these three Klingons.)

Butting foreheads over Jadzia's involvement...

Butting foreheads over Jadzia’s involvement…

Rather notably, the episode introduces the three Klingons with their distinguished cranial ridges, throwing some more fuel on the fires of speculation about the ridges that had suddenly appeared on the species in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Deep Space Nine would tease and engage with the rather dramatic make-up change again with Trials and Tribble-ations, but the decision to use three existing Klingon characters with more modern make-up seems intended to draw attention to a distinction the show had – to this point – refused to engage with on-screen.

It’s easy to imagine some of the producers being wary of drawing attention to the ridges. While fans had speculated about their origins for quite some time, and various creators and producers had offered their own theories, it was something ignored in the show itself. Fans could believe what they wanted – separate species, the ridges were always there, genetic modification – without clogging up the narrative. Bringing back three previously smooth-headed Klingons and giving them ridges rules out some of that fan theories, and emphasises the distinction.

Oh happy daze...

Oh happy daze…

It represents a willingness on the part of Deep Space Nine to play with the history of the classic show, and to engage with it, embracing aspects of it that don’t necessarily fit comfortably with the rest of the broad Star Trek canon. Kor would go on to become a recurring character over the run of the show, and the mere presence of John Colicos in the show’s expansive recurring roster seemed to give the series a bit of weight and prestige.

Blood Oath is a rather wonderful piece of television, and it represents the start of a dramatic upswing in the quality of these episodes approaching the end of the second season.

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

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8 Responses

  1. Peter, I am doing some research and came across an episode you co wrote for StarTrek The Next Generation called half a life. I’m curious if you based this episode on any particular religion’s ethics and values themes? I’m also curious about what is the rationale behind the name half a life for this episode as there does not seem to be any reference in the episode but it makes sense if a religious reference was behind this. I would appreciate if you could add any insight into your thoughts behind these questions. Thank you.

  2. Hi, new here. Really enjoying your reviews on Trek and Who.

    It’s hard to fathom that Bashir was so unpopular when the weakest link was clearly Dax. I like Terry, it’s great that she’s finally doing conventions and her huge ovation at FedCon (which moved her to tears) was great. But the character was a misfire. It wasn’t until “The Way of the Warrior” that she found a foil in Worf, and became more tomboyish and fun. It’s not fun to see Jadzia reciting oaths and being diplomatic. It is fun to see her shotgunning Ferengi whiskey and slugging her mother-in-law.

    • I think Terry Farrell was lucky that Dax was an interesting character in her own right. On paper, Dax is fascinating. A person who has lived seven lifetimes and who knew our lead in a different body. It becomes a problem when you have to write for her, though. Then you realise that you’re generally writing Dax as a plot object that is an interesting thing rather than a compelling character. Dax had a lot of trouble carrying her episodes in the first two years, but she worked well in the ensemble, I think. I think Dax’s best character stuff came with other characters. As you said, she and Worf worked well together.

      Bashir, I think was just a tougher sell, conceptually. As a character, he’s really just a member of The Next Generation cast from the first two seasons who wandered into Deep Space Nine. He’s arrogant, self-righteous, self-centred; confident that he knows everything about anything. Like Dax, he played very well in the ensemble – the best Bashir episode of the first three seasons is The Wire, for a reason – but I think his problems as a character were more obvious without a cool “hook” to distract from them.

  3. Shame about Kang, died as a fool, fighting in a burning building.
    And shame about Kor, unable to relive his glory in the Battle of Klach D’kel Brakt. Maybe he should have tried something a little easier in his old age, like The Great Tribble Hunt. Now there’s a Klingon Opera I’d love to watch!
    I think I have to agree with Ed Zane, Terry Farrell seems really out of place in this episode. She doesn’t seem to have any Klingon personality in her, so her tagging along is really awkward. It’s like if Ensign Kim went along with a bunch of Klingons in the cause of vengeance, he just wouldn’t belong. As Ed said, she’s just not tomboyish enough at this point, she seems unable to strike up any chemistry with these Klingons, it all feels forced. Nana Visitor would have done better, I could buy that she’s strong enough of a character that she wouldn’t feel pressured to grab a Bat’leth or eat the heart, revenge is enough for her. Dax however, comes across as the nerdy Klingon wannabe. She’ll get better, but even when she goes questing with Kor and Worf for the sword, she still feels like the odd girl out (only to a lesser degree). It’s sort of like in the episode of Playing God, it feels like the writing is trying too hard to make Dax larger than life, a real renaissance woman, but Terry Farrell just can’t pull it off.

    • I dig the quote reference!

      I think Farrell is, by no small margin, the weakest member of the DS9 ensemble. I think the show becomes a more comfortable fit for her around the fourth season, and I think that Farrell is still stronger than the other weak links in the franchise cast; Wheaton, Sirtis, Wang, MacNeill, Beltran, Montgomery, Park. But I also think DS9 has the most talented ensemble, pound-for-pound. If Farrell is your weak link, you’re not doing too badly.

  4. I do not know… I always had a hard time to really enjoy the Klingons, despite me being a kind of obsessive Trek-nerd. I just do not like their culture, especially when it is reduced to warrior ethics and Stovokor. TNG, ENT, and partly DS9 did diversify the species/culture a bit, but this strikes me as not such a good example. I agree that there is a lot of intersting material here, especially the Klingon conservatism confronted with the “neutralising liberalism” of the Federation, and I like the struggle within Dax and between her and Kira and Sisko… But still, the whole show seems kind of bland. The filming location was interesting, but the whole fight and the Albino really stroke me as kind of underdeveloped. Maybe this was part of the message: A stupid suicide mission, which despite the horrible crimes of the Albino was a far fetch from any glorious battle, far removed from the publicity of a great battle. Still this ranks kind of low for me overall.

    • Yeah, I can understand the Klingons being a “mileage may vary” thing. In particular, given how over-exposed they are in the Star Trek mythos. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a Klingon-centric story.

      That said, I like TNG/DS9’s handling them, and the post-Judgment handling of them on Enterprise.

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