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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Civil Defense (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Civil Defense is an episode that really worked a lot better than it should have. The third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine hit a bit of a stumbling block in the early part of the third season. Indeed, Second Skin had been shot from what was pretty much Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s first draft of a teleplay. The Abandoned felt like a good premise pushed in front of the camera too early. Civil Defense was similarly rushed into production, with very little turn around from the production staff.

However, despite these production concerns, Civil Defense turns out to be an enjoyable pulpy adventure. The production team wouldn’t royally screw up until the next episode. The biggest problem with the script is that it feels like we’re seeing it far too late in the show’s run. Civil Defense is a fun third season episode, but it would have been a spectacular first season adventure.

"Free dissident suppression system with every purchase over twelve bars!"

“Free dissident suppression system with every purchase over twelve bars!”

Like most of the episodes around it, Civil Defense was produced on a fairly tight schedule. In an interview with Cinefantastique, producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe notes that conditions were far from optimal:

“We did a really terrible thing to Mike Krohn, who is a seasoned screenwriter. We had bought this story from Mike and kept saying it wasn’t going to be in the first ten episodes. Then we had this stuff fall and told Mike we are going to break your episode and then you’re going to write it and you’ll have about six days. So Mike came in and was a total trooper and he broke the story in two days and he delivered us a draft in a week and then it was in pre-production. I think we all had a hand in that. At one point point Ira and I were in here on a weekend trying to rewrite sections of it. Everybody got involved in that thing, which turned out pretty well.”

To compound these problems, Civil Defense was not an episode being produced by seasoned Star Trek veterans. The episode marked the first (and last) Star Trek teleplay from Krohn and was veteran television director Reza Badiyi’s first work on the franchise.

Team-up time!

“This is just like old times! Only, y’know, without the oppression, torture and systemic murder…”

Badiyi did come back to direct on Deep Space Nine a number of times, but the production process seems like a bit of a nightmare, recalling the production confusion that gripped Star Trek: The Next Generation during its third season. Of course, things weren’t quite as bad as they had been at that point. The production staff on Deep Space Nine were working on a much more stable show that had, to a large extent, already found its groove. Unlike the third season of The Next Generation, these troubles did not culminate in a massive exodus from the writing staff.

Still, it’s remarkable how well Civil Defense turned out. The episode is a rather simple premise that provides an opportunity to throw the cast into peril on (mostly) standing steps, and allowing the actors to play well off one another. There’s some nice tension, some solid action and some nice exchanges. It’s not an intimate character study, but it’s also not a “big” episode. It doesn’t change the status quo or fit within a larger tapestry of Deep Space Nine. It’s just a well-constructed done-in-one claustrophobic thriller.

Personally, I was waiting for the "Dukat terrorist ultimatum blooper reel" to kick in...

Personally, I was waiting for the “Dukat terrorist ultimatum blooper reel” to kick in…

Badiyi’s direction helps a lot, and it’s clear why the director was invited back to work on the show again. Badayi was an experienced and talented television director, having working in the medium since the sixties. In fact, Badiyi cut his teeth directing on Mission: Impossible. His work in television was so prolific and consistent that Monsters and Critics dubbed him “the Godfather of American Television.”

Badiyi’s direction works well here, setting an effective mood. Turning down the lighting on the already dark sets creates a wonderful atmosphere. He shoots the characters well, focusing on the cast trapped within the station. He does an excellent job making the station we’ve been watching for over two years at this point seem less familiar than it really should. In the midst of this crisis, Deep Space Nine itself appears alien and horrible – haunted and otherworldly.

Kira prepares to void the station's warranty...

Kira prepares to void the station’s warranty…

The plot itself is simple, but effective. Taking something that has become recognisable and making it into something threatening is an efficient storytelling device. In fact, Deep Space Nine was quite fond of the trope, constantly reminding viewers that the station was a monument to oppression and cruelty. In Necessary Evil, the show took us back to that period of brutality. In Crossover, the show stepped sideways into a universe where that brutality was still occurring.

The show would continue to do so throughout its run. Even outside of the recurring trips to the mirror universe, episodes like Empok Nor and Covenant find ways to make the familiar sets seem eerie and unsettling. In Civil Defense, the Cardassian computer reasserts itself, firmly reminding everybody that the station has its own grim history that cannot be evaded or escaped simply because the Federation has turned the lighting up and taken down the fences on the promenade.

Adopting a hands-on approach...

Adopting a hands-on approach…

Civil Defense feels like an episode that would work a lot better earlier in the show’s run. It seems a little surreal that O’Brien hasn’t completely cleaned out the old computer system at this point, or at least installed safeguards to help prevent something like this from happening. After all, one imagines that the Federation would have been eagerly checking the system for booby traps or anomalies as soon as the Cardassians withdrew.

The show would have made a much more effective take on the themes and ideas at the heart of Babel, an early (and mostly forgettable) first season episode in which a Bajoran biological weapon is accidentally activated by the crew. Offering a similar reminder that this wasn’t always a Starfleet star base and reiterating the sense of randomness and isolation of this frontier outpost, Civil Defense also works because it draws in a recurring cast that took too long to establish during the first season.

Quark has a blast...

Quark has a blast…

Garak and Dukat are essential to the story here, and putting them at the centre of a story like this in the first second would have helped foreground them earlier in the show’s run. As it stands, their appearances are entertaining but inessential diversions. Both are fascinating characters played by charming actors, but Dukat is in between two important pieces of character development. The Maquis and Defiant push his character forward in ways that aren’t possible here. Similarly, Garak is always fun, but we’re between Second Skin and Improbable Cause.

That said, there is at least some sense to putting the story at the start of the third season rather than in the first or second. The reminder of how alien the station is works better if we’ve been lulled into a false sense of complacency. “You know,” Bashir notes, “I’ve been here nearly three years and I was just finally starting to think of this place as home.” Kira points out, “Your home was built by Cardassians, Doctor. Don’t ever forget that.”

Setting the ball rolling...

Setting the ball rolling…

It’s worth noting that Bashir is echoing a similar sentiment from Sisko in The Search, Part I. The crew are finally getting comfortable. With the new writers joining the staff from The Next Generation, one assumes the writing staff is feeling similarly at home. The audience might be getting cosy as well. After all, Deep Space Nine was airing in the slot filled by The Next Generation in many markets and was – for this briefest of windows – the only Star Trek airing on television. So it would be easy to take all that for granted, particularly at this point in time.

So upsetting all those expectations is a good thing. Reminding everybody that this isn’t the Enterprise is worth doing. It’s perfectly reasonable to stress the idea that the cast and characters will never truly know the station they inhabit. It’s a very cynical piece of work, but the third season of Deep Space Nine seems to revel in its cynicism. Everything is up for grabs, and nothing can be trusted or presumed to be safe.

The Changeling faceplam of evil...

The Changeling faceplam of evil…

In that context, it’s worth conceding that Civil Defense exists as part of a particularly popular paranoid conspiracy theory of the nineties. Deep Space Nine is a show very firmly anchored in post-Cold War cynicism and paranoia. In many respects, it almost feels like a companion piece to The X-Files, with its shape-shifting alien impersonators, sinister secret plans, and untrustworthy authority figures. Episodes like Whispers and The Search, Part II play into the sort of existential uncertainty that underpinned a lot of the nineties.

Civil Defense does something quite similar. It suggests that the people inhabiting Deep Space Nine are not entirely safe in the world that they have forged. It hints that their warm and comforting home is liable to turn into a trap at a moment’s notice – that everything can change radically and dramatically, with no real foreshadowing or justification. One day, everything changes and the world you live in is not the world that you thought you lived in.

I love how Dukat's recorded rambles are clearly unedited, and particularly how he seems to stop the count-down to give the dissidents a stern talking-to. ("Let me tell you...")

I love how Dukat’s recorded rambles are clearly unedited, and particularly how he seems to stop the count-down to give the dissidents a stern talking-to. (“Let me tell you…”)

This plays to a particular branch of popular conspiracy thinking. The idea that the United States might suddenly morph from a democracy into an oppressive fascist state has been quite popular for a long time – undoubtedly spurred on by revelations about military plans and exercises like Rex 84 or Garden Plot. These ideas remain popular. Consider the popular “truther” movement alleging that the 9/11 attacks were a false flag operation by the military, or the infamous “FEMA Deathcamps” theory that suggests the government is waiting to open concentration camps. (Or even Orson Scott Card’s racist speculative future fiction.)

These sorts of conspiracy theories are particularly old. After all, it has been argued that the American fascination with “the right to bear arms” is rooted in the fear that the British might return and try to subjugate the colonies again or even the fear that slaves might attempt to rise up and overthrow their masters. However, this paranoia about potential oppression and suppression found new life in the nineties, perhaps due to the collapse of Soviet Russia as an external enemy or even George H.W. Bush’s choice to drop the phrase “new world order” into an address to the joint Houses of Congress on September 11 1990.

Getting the shaft...

Getting the shaft…

This fear of an emerging totalitarian dictatorship in the democratic United States became one of the guiding conspiratorial narratives of the nineties. Indeed, one of the most successful plot threads on The X-Files was the suggestion that the United States government was secretly conspiring against its government – a fascist regime simply miming the pretences of liberal democracy so as to better catch the country’s inhabitants off guard. Much of the iconography of UFO lore – black helicopters and men in black in particular – seem to exist primarily as cautionary tales about an oppressive state.

So Civil Defense arguably fits within this storytelling structure. It’s a tale about how our heroes have come to take Terok Nor for granted, and to trust the station. However, it’s discovered that Deep Space Nine is not to be trusted, and that the characters should maintain their guard at all time. Deep Space Nine might look like a flourishing multicultural space station, but that wasn’t always the case. As O’Brien points out to Jake, this used to be a slave labour installation, built on the bodies of Bajoran workers.

Feels like going home...

Feels like going home…

Civil Defense cleverly brings back two of the show’s most enjoyable guest stars. Marc Alaimo is always wonderful as the charismatic Dukat. Civil Defense works as an effective reminder that Dukat isn’t a good guy. Sure, the show might have humanised him in The Maquis, and would continue to develop him in Defiant, but here we are reassured that Dukat is not a nice man. This is most obvious in the counter-insurgency programme itself, where Dukat plans to kill every Bajoran on the station, but also in his visit to the station later in the episode. Dukat tries to barter for assisting the crew, insisting on a foothold back on the station.

Dukat would become an awkward character for the show in its final years. As the show went on, the writers would struggle with conveying the fact that Dukat could be utterly charming and remain a genuinely unpleasant man. It’s a reminder that Deep Space Nine is an artefact of the nineties, and it is limited as such. There was only so much ambiguity the characters could manage with Dukat, although the show balances it all quite well in these middle years. Dukat might be a family man who doesn’t want intergalactic war, but that doesn’t make him a pleasant individual or a decent person.

A gas time...

A gas time…

There’s also an argument to be made that the producers were correct to try to make Dukat less ambiguous and more villainous in his later appearances. While it would seem to condescend to the show’s fans, to suggest that viewers bought too readily into Alaimo’s charming performance and Dukat’s self-aggrandising justifications, there is some basis for this decision. It has been joked that Alaimo considered Dukat the hero of his own show, and there’s something intoxicating about that. Apparently, some of the fans bought into it as well.

After all, Civil Defense introduces the idea that Dukat is romantically interested in Kira. Although never alluded to before, this would become a recurring plot point through to at least Covenant. What is most interesting about this attraction – despite the fact that it is very obviously one-sided within the show itself – is the fact that a significant portion of fandom has latched on to it. It has its own niche among fan-fiction writers, who seem to enjoy the pairing of Kira and Dukat.

Awkward!

Awkward!

This, rather naturally, glosses over the rather uncomfortable subtext to Dukat’s interest, as Nana Visitor herself noted in The Deep Space Nine Companion:

“I would have liked my character to make the point that only a few years earlier, Dukat’s wanting me would have meant that he would have had me, and I wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it,” says Visitor. “So it shouldn’t have been seen as a ‘cute’ moment. It was actually a horrifying moment, one that would make Kira feel disgust and panic.”

The series never quite allows Kira to make that point. Indeed, when the series does delve back into the sexual politics of the Cardassian Occupation in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, the series somewhat glosses over the institutionalised sexual assault that takes place during these sorts of military occupations.

Opening a door...

Opening a door…

For Visitor’s part, she remained consistently and publicly opposed to any hint of a romance between Kira and Dukat throughout the show’s run:

“It will never change,” affirms Visitor adamantly, “and I will never ever let it. Just as an actor, just as someone responsible for playing something, it will never be a sexual tension. It’s not that. This is someone who – gosh, it’s kind of the way a mother would feel about a child molester. More and more she has to deal with him. She has to, because she is first officer of a station where it’s necessary to negotiate alongside him sometimes, but she will never ever for a moment let herself forget who and what he is.”

Although Civil Defense glosses over the whole “what Dukat would have done if this was during the Occupation” subtext, the episode at least has the good sense to recognise his posturing as distasteful. “And you, a married man!” Garak remarks, dismissively. Particularly given how Dukat cynically used the importance of family for his own ends to ruin a rival in Cardassians.

A tailor tinkering...

A tailor tinkering…

That exchange between Dukat and Garak is interesting because it seems to foreshadow quite a lot about both characters – undoubtedly accidentally, but in a way that is absolutely fascinating. After all, it seems – in context – a bit much for Garak to jump from “Dukat is a pompous ass” to “Dukat is a pompous ass because he wants to sleep with Kira”, even factoring in his disdain for Dukat. The recorded messages in the episode betray a Dukat who is in love with the sound of his own voice, and who desperately wants to be seen to be a reasonable and beneficent leader. His conduct in Ops is in keeping with that self-image.

However, in hindsight, Garak’s accusation seems quite astute. As a former Obsidian Order operative with a history that involves Dukat’s father, it makes sense for Garak to keep an eye on the Prefect of Bajor. Given that later episodes like Indiscretion and Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night or Covenant suggest that Dukat has a “thing” for Bajoran women, Garak would most likely be aware of Dukat’s tastes and leanings. As such, his barb is wonderfully pointed and well-observed, even if it only feels that way in retrospect.

Bashir really isn't too great at this whole action hero thing, is he?

Bashir really isn’t too great at this whole action hero thing, is he?

Similarly, the remark – and the delivery – seem somewhat out-of-place for Garak. The former spy is normally polite and dignified to a fault, while it seems that his snipe at Dukat’s romantic interest in Kira is driven by frustration. It is hardly relevant to the matter at hand, as Bashir seems acknowledge when rebuking the tailor. “Garak, this isn’t helping.” It seems like a surprisingly petty exchange for the sophisticated tailor, even if Andrew J. Robinson does his best to convey that Garak is feeling rather stressed.

Again, this is something that make a lot more sense in hindsight. With the lights turned down, the self-destruct ticking down and his passcodes no longer valid, one can imagine Garak’s claustrophobia kicking in. It’s a character trait that would not be confirmed until the show’s fifth season, but his quick temper and frustration here fits remarkably well with that aspect of Garak. After all, the other members of the senior staff are dealing with a similar amount of pressure, but keeping their heads. It’s a nice example of how something the show articulated later on actually enhances a viewing of an earlier episode.

Apparently there is a legal limit to how much O'Brien can suffer...

Apparently there is a legal limit to how much O’Brien can suffer…

Indeed, it’s not too hard to believe that Dukat’s interest in Kira and Bajoran women was inspired by this exchange – leading to retroactive plot developments that would validate the scene even more. Similarly, it’s quite possible that the writers looked at Robinson’s delivery here and decided that Garak really should be a little afraid of enclosed spaces. Of course, it’s equally likely that this was all just a happy coincidence – a bit of writing that happened to be retroactively validated by later work on the show.

Another nice little touch with Dukat’s visit is the way that he seems disappointed not to be dealing with Sisko. It’s quite clear that Dukat has already constructed his own fantasy narrative where Sisko is his “worthy opponent”, and clearly imagines that Sisko feels the same way about him. “Where’s Commander Sisko?” Dukat asks the senior staff. “I trust he wasn’t vaporised while asking for one of those… raktajinos he’s so fond of.” The way that Dukat makes a point to drop in a personal detail (Sisko’s preference for Klingon coffee) is particularly creepy, as if Dukat has been making notes about Sisko and wants to prove how attentive he’s been.

"I also know what after shave he likes to wear and the secret ingredient to his jambalaya..."

“I also know what aftershave he likes to wear and the secret ingredient to his jambalaya…”

In fact, the filmed insets of Dukat trying to address the rebelling Bajoran slaves are something of a highlight of the episode, revealing a great deal of how Dukat sees himself. He seems to cast himself as a stern father figure trying to deal with an unruly child. There’s the firm tone, but the assurance that everything will be okay. At several points, Dukat alternates between trying to appear like an ally to the Bajorans and a firm commanding presence, alternating between compassionate pleas not to escalate the situation and heavy threats. One almost expects Dukat to say something like “I’m doing this for your own good.”

This is consistent with Dukat’s portrayal in later episodes – particularly when he discusses the Occupation in Waltz. Dukat clearly sees himself as a superior being who is trying to help a less advanced culture. They only rebel because they don’t realise how much they should love him – they don’t appreciate the sacrifices he makes for them, the protection he affords them. Sure, he might leave a legacy of slavery, brutality and murder, but he’s helping teach them an important work ethic and making them part of something greater. Those fools simply can’t appreciate it. Those inserts give a clear picture of Dukat’s paternalistic internal narrative.

The tailor's got this covered...

The tailor’s got this covered…

There are lots of other nice exchanges as well. The pairing of Quark and Odo is hardly surprising, but there’s a reason that the show keeps coming back to the two of them. Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman play very well off one another, and their odd-couple relationship is decidedly charming. As ever, Quark is the first of two to admit a grudging fondness for his rival, readier than Odo to acknowledge their personal relationship.

As with The Search, Part I, Quark stresses how much he respects the Constable. “There’s something very wrong going on and this is the safest place on the whole station. I think I’ll stay right here.” To be fair, Odo does repay the compliment later on, even if he backtracks once the pair are out of danger. One of the more consistently fascinating aspects of the relationship between Quark and Odo is that way that writers allow the least likeable and scrupulous of the two to be the most open and honest about their dynamic. There’s a sense that Quark is more aware of their friendship than Odo, and that Odo might even be hiding it from himself.

"Maybe next time we should run a virus scan on that identified file before playing with it?"

“Maybe next time we should run a virus scan on that identified file before playing with it?”

Civil Defense is a well-constructed little episode, even if it’s not necessarily exceptional. It’s a fairly stock plot that feels like it has arrived a little too late on the show, even if it has some wonderful fun with the cast. In a way, it’s a very clear forerunner to Starship Down in the following season and a successor to Disaster from The Next Generation. Given the difficulties unfolding behind the scenes, it’s impressive that the episode was at all watchable. That it ended up highly enjoyable is a wonder.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I saw this episode today, and noticed an awesome tiny character bit from Dukat.
    When he’s threatening/negotiating with Kira, he doesn’t believe she’ll “let thousands of people die because you hate m… us” he doesn’t even make the m sound, but you can see he had to stop himself saying it. He can never admit that someone could hate him, it’s always because of something else, the system, he was amazing but they made him look bad.

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