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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Adversary (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.

The Adversary is a strange little episode. In many respects, barring the last line, it really doesn’t feel like a season finalé. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine typically eschewed the season-ending cliff-hangers that came to define Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, the last episode of a given year typically ended with a major shake-up to the status quo. They may not have ended with the promise “to be continued…”, but they usually carried a great deal of weight.

In contrast, The Adversary feels like a fairly standard episode of Deep Space Nine. It doesn’t radically alter anything. Although Odo’s last line hints at the shape of things to come, it’s not much more than what Lovok assured us in The Die is Cast. The episode is well-executed, well-constructed and it’s distinct enough from a standard Star Trek episode that it works, but The Adversary feels like it’s not really positioned to close out the year.

There's blood on the Defiant's floor...

There’s blood on the Defiant’s floor…

This is, of course, because it wasn’t intended to close out the year. The third season of Deep Space Nine was quite troubled. While not anywhere near as troubled as the third season of The Next Generation, it was a year where plans were constantly changing and scripts were frequently written on the fly. It seemed like the writers were constantly struggling against deadlines while trying to keep track of all the moving pieces.

Second Skin was filmed from little more than a first draft; Improbable Cause was extended into a two-parter at short notice. Scripts like The Abandoned looked like they needed a bit more work before being put in front of the camera. Shows like Meridian, Facets and Life Support seemed stitched together out of desperation. Indeed, The Adversary was produced at only a week’s notice. It’s to the credit of the episode – like Second Skin before it – that it holds up remarkably well.

There won't be blood...

There won’t be blood…

There’s a whole host of gossip and discussion about The Adversary and the end of the third season of Deep Space Nine. For example, the documentary The Dominion and Beyond has Ira Steven Behr argue that the decision to close the season on an open-ended episode rather than a cliff-hanger was a conscious choice made by the production staff:

From Jem’Hadar onwards, I always wanted the last episode of the season to propel us into either a mystery or something interesting for the next season. It didn’t have to be a cliffhanger, because – again – cliffhangers had been done. And with Best of Both Worlds, they’d been done really, really well… y’know. Really well. But I always wanted the end to look towards the beginning of the next season.

This fits quite comfortably with the general attitude adopted by the production staff towards Deep Space Nine. The third season had really tried to distinguish the show from its direct predecessor, and refusing the temptation to emulate The Best of Both Worlds makes a great deal of sense in this context.

Crawlspace...

Crawlspace…

However, according to The Deep Space Nine Companion, the decision was not made at that level. Instead, it seems like the edict came from the studio:

“We had been talking about this big, very political two-part story with shape-shifters,” recalls René Echevarria. “We’d decided that the scariest thing would be to set the story at home, with people we care about.” That idea quickly evolved into a story that involved “meeting Sisko’s dad, seeing his restaurant, and learning that shape-shifters were on Earth and had infiltrated the very heart of…” Echevarria pauses. “That was the cliff-hanger ending.”

But for some reason, the studio didn’t want a cliff-hanger that year. To say that this initiated a change of plans is putting it mildly. “We had to find a premise!” Ira Steven Behr says. “We had one week to actually write a script before preproduction started.”

It seems like the bridge between the third and fourth seasons was a little awkward for Deep Space Nine, with the studio directly involving itself in the running of the show.

I like to believe that the idea of featuring TWO Julian Bashirs was a rather pointed response to the studio's uncertainty around the character...

I like to believe that the idea of featuring TWO Julian Bashirs was a rather pointed response to the studio’s uncertainty around the character…

Ronald D. Moore has talked quite extensively about the freedom that the studio afforded Deep Space Nine, arguably down to the fact that the show was the “forgotten stepchild” of the franchise. However, the end of the third season and the start of the fourth season were points where the studio seemed to get actively involved in the show’s production. Robert Hewitt Wolfe (in Charting New Territory) has suggested that the studio’s involvement was prompted by what they saw as declining ratings.

Whatever the reason, it marks one of the points in the run of Deep Space Nine where the writers were forced on the back foot. It’s telling that the original plan for the end of the third season – the story that would evolve into the two-part Homefront and Paradise Lost – wasn’t just moved from the end of the third season to the start of the fourth. Homefront aired at the midpoint of the following season, almost half a year later than planned.

The status quo shifts...

The status quo shifts…

It is worth noting that the ideas originally planned for the end of the third season were instead spread across the first half of the next season. A Federation Civil War, Changelings on Earth and Sisko’s father were all incorporated into Homefront and Paradise Lost. However, the original plan for the third season finalé would have featured Vulcan seceding from the Federation. This was ultimately incorporated into The Way of the Warrior – replacing the idea of Vulcans leaving the Federation with Klingons withdrawing from the Khitomer Accords.

(It is nice that at least one aspect of that planned episode remains part of The Adversary. Discussing his recent promotion with Dax, Sisko explains, “I barely had time to send my father a transmission.” This is the first time that the show has acknowledged that Sisko has a living father. The way that he talked about his dad in The Alternate, it seemed quite likely that Sisko’s father had passed away. This reference seems to have made with a view to foreshadowing Joseph Sisko’s subsequent appearances.)

Ashes to ashes...

Ashes to ashes…

However, with all these bits and pieces taken from what had been planned for the end of the third season, the result is a fairly standard adventure. The Adversary doesn’t offer any seismic twists or revelations on par with A Call to Arms or Tears of the Prophets or even Broken Link. It doesn’t even bring the season to a close in the same way that In the Hands of the Prophets did way back during the first season. There’s nothing in The Adversary that changes the rules of Deep Space Nine or stuns the audience.

It is interesting to see the Changelings in action. It is certainly an effective thriller about paranoia – much more effective than Cathexis over on Voyager. But it ultimately feels just a little bit insubstantial. As of The Die is Cast, we already know that the Founders operate in this manner. Lovok’s boast at the climax of that episode means that something like The Adversary is expected. If anything – like the rest of the third season of Deep Space Nine – it really should have happened earlier as a way of keeping the threat of the Dominion prominent.

Injecting a little excitement into the show...

Injecting a little excitement into the show…

At the end of the episode, Odo reveals what the dying Founder told him. “He said, you’re too late,” Odo reveals to Sisko. “We are everywhere.” This is treated as a major reveal, but it really shouldn’t be. The Founders have had a considerably advantage over the Federation; the Federation only recently discovered the Dominion, and there’s no real sense that they are taking the threat seriously. Of course the Founders have infiltrated the Alpha Quadrant. Our heroes have been incredibly complacent. This isn’t a shock to the audience, and so the finalé feels a little light.

That said, The Adversary does serve as an effective wake-up call to our characters. It’s a nice touch that the word “Dominion” until after Krajensky has revealed himself. It isn’t until the crew actually see Krajensky change shape and escape into a duct that they realise what is going on. Even after O’Brien finds the alien devices on the Defiant, and even after Julian reveals that he wasn’t actually in the Jefferies Tube, nobody in the crew puts it together until the bad guy turns into a giant tentacled monster.

What goes where?

What goes where?

The wonderful smug sense of charm with which Krajensky submits to examination (“ambassador, if you please?” “certainly”) makes it seem like the Founder is taking a great deal of pleasure in how slow the senior staff are on the uptake. Despite all the warning signs – including a fairly explicit threat made as the Dominion crippled two major Alpha Quadrant powers – there’s a sense that the Federation is still woefully bad at recognising potential threats. Which, sadly, feels like an entirely accurate portrayal of a major political power.

The Adversary is a delightfully paranoid piece of television, with the Defiant sets feeling decidedly more functional and utilitarian (and combat ready) than the sets used for The Next Generation or Voyager. For really the first time since Balance of Terror, it seems like Star Trek can do a credible submarine thriller. The lighting and set design add a lot to the oppressive atmosphere of The Adversary. More than on the Enterprise or Voyager, you can imagine the crew dying on the Defiant.

It's behind you!

It’s behind you!

In many respects, The Adversary is a product of mid-nineties paranoia. As with quite a lot of Deep Space Nine, the film was inspired by Ira Steven Behr’s love of classic cinema. In this case, it was the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World, an adaptation of of Joseph Campbell’s classic science-fiction horror story Who Goes There? While the story was also adapted by John Carpenter as The Thing, and Ronald D. Moore worked on a prequel, Behr and Wolfe drew most heavily from the classic film adaptation.

(This is perfectly in keeping with Behr’s style. As much as Fascination draws from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it draws from a very particular film version of that play. While Meridian is based on the musical Brigadoon, Behr cites the 1954 MGM film adaptation as his primary influence. Behr is a writer deeply fascinated with classic Hollywood cinema, and The Adversary is yet another example of how the producer approached the show.)

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

And yet, despite the fact that The Adversary is drawing on source material rooted in the Cold War and post-nuclear anxiety, the episode feels very deeply anchored in nineties paranoia. After all, writer and director John Carpenter had transposed many of the core themes of Who Goes There? into the eighties for his acclaimed adaptation, The Thing. Much like Carpenter’s script for The Thing, The Adversary modifies and tweaks the source material to make it feel much more contemporary than something like Cathexis.

As with The Thing, there’s a pretty heavy AIDS subtext to The Adversary. The Changeling gains control of the Defiant using a series of nodules “spreading through the system like some kind of parasite.” These devices then turn the ship’s systems against itself – mirroring the sort of attack that HIV makes on an organism. Much like HIV spreads by overwriting white blood cells and using the body’s own defence mechanisms against it, the Changeling seeks to use the Defiant’s systems as a means of attacking the Federation.

Talk about exchanging bodily fluids...

Talk about exchanging bodily fluids…

Even the climactic confrontation between Odo and the Founder is framed in a manner that is sexual. The Link is defined by Deep Space Nine as a sexual experience, the mingling of bodily fluids – something made explicit in Behind the Lines, but something that has been implicit from The Search. After all, Jay Chattaway titled one of his music pieces “The Ultimate Handjob.” The way that the Changeling stabs at Odo is also suggestive, as is the fact that this Changeling is coded as male (played by a male actor and identified as male by Odo) despite the fact that his costume resembles the dress of the Female Changeling as opposed to Odo’s more masculine attire.

However, other aspects of The Adversary make it clear that the episode is playing to the nineties rather than attempting to evoke the fifties. Though the Changeling is an alien monster, it arrives on the show in the form of an authority figure. It is in the guise of an outsider – impersonating an important ambassador we’ve never met before – that the Changeling is able to set events in play. It lies to Sisko about the threat of war to help ensure his cooperation. “So anything Ambassador Krajensky told us could have been a lie,” Bashir reflects. “The Tzenkethi coup d’état, increased tension along the border, the threat of an attack.”

Bowling over a Bolian...

Bowling over a Bolian…

This fear and mistrust of authority distinguishes the paranoia of the nineties from the Cold War variety. As Ronnie D. Lipschutz explains in Aliens, Alien Nations and Alienation, the nineties was more focused on the threat posed by those in authority than outside agencies:

With respect to state power, the alien films of the 1950s differ from those of the 1980s and 1990s. During the Eisenhower years, the state was still the ultimate repository and defender of values held dear by Americans, and patriotism went unquestioned as the cover value of all citizens. There might be Communists in the State Department, but the armed forces remained loyal. By the 1990s, the seat of American government was not only infested by aliens and under their control, it had itself become something of an alien space. The X-Files articulated not only skepticism about the good intentions of the U.S. federal government, but also suggested that no good could come from trusting its agents (aside from Mulder and Scully, of course).

In that respect, much like Whispers or even Shakaar, The Adversary is very focused on the need to be suspicious of those in positions of authority and responsibility. Krajensky’s suggestion that the Defiant should “show the flag” is ultimately little more than an attempt to lead the Federation into a war with the Tzenkethe.

It doesn't phase him...

It doesn’t phase him…

The choice of the Tzenkethe is interesting. They are a species that has never been mentioned prior to The Adversary. Although they are alluded to in a few subsequent episodes, they never appear; they never become major players in Star Trek politics. As such, the threat of a war between the Federation and the Tzenkethe (as well as the mention of “the last Federation-Tzenkethi war”, suggesting that there has been more than one previously unmentioned war) is an interesting choice.

As with the Talarians and the Cardassians in the fourth season of The Next Generation, there’s a sense that the writers are trying to shift the Federation from a portrayal of an idealised United States into a slightly more nuanced metaphor for the United States. Star Trek dealt with the end of the Cold War in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but the end of that era plays out in other ways.

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

While classic Star Trek typically portrayed intergalactic warfare as something unfolding between two evenly-matched adversaries, the nineties shows offer a more nuanced view. The fourth season of The Next Generation suggested that the Federation could be embroiled in border wars and skirmishes with relatively minor powers – wars that weren’t apocalyptic in scale, and were so standard that they weren’t even alluded to before the episodes in question. (In The Wounded, it is even suggested the conflict was on-going behind-the-scenes during earlier seasons.)

The Federation-Tzenkethi wars are another example of this sort of approach. This feels like a very clear attempt to emulate American foreign policy in the late eighties and nineties. The major power made a conscious effort to avoid getting embroiled in large-scale territorial disputes, steering clear of long-term entanglements like Korea or Vietnam. In contrast, United State military intervention in the nineties tended to be precise and calculated and relatively minimal. Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and even the First Gulf War exist on a smaller scale than Vietnam or Korea.

"Now that I'm captain, I can facepalm whenever I please..."

“Now that I’m captain, I can facepalm whenever I please…”

Air strikes were the preferred tool of foreign policy for the Clinton administration, wary of direct or protracted engagement and the possibility of bloodshed. As John Dumbrell noted in America in the 1990s: Searching for Purpose, this was very much the foreign policy of the Clinton administration:

Clinton emerged as an enthusiastic and frequent user of small-scale military force. Iraq was attacked from the air in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. In 1994, the USA launched what was to be a virtually bloodless invasion of Haiti.

The Adversary plays into this idea, with the Federation serving as a relatively stable galactic body in the midst of the political turmoil afflicting the smaller powers.

Last stand-off...

Last stand-off…

The Tzenkethi themselves are a relatively minor player in the larger Star Trek franchise. They are only mentioned again during the Homefront and Paradise Lost two-parter in the middle of the fourth season. However, these unseen aliens have generated a great deal of attention from the writers of various tie-in novels – clearly latching in the imagination of those tasked with fleshing out and developing the shared universe.

A Lost Era novel was commissioned around the same time as Christopher L. Bennett’s The Buried Age. Editor Marco Palmieri tossed out ideas with novelist James Swallow about the possibility of setting a story covering Sisko and Leyton’s service during the wars. While that idea didn’t pan out, it’s interesting that the Tzenkethi remain so popular among tie-in writers. They have featured prominently in the Typhon Pact novels – particularly Rough Beasts of Empire – and David R. George III has written another Lost Era novel – One Constant Star – featuring them.

"So, now that I'm captain, I can shave my head, right?"

“So, now that I’m captain, I can shave my head, right?”

The similarity in name between the Tzenkethi and the Kzinti from Star Trek: The Animated Series, led many to speculate that the Tzenkethi might be feline in nature. (For example, the short story Infinite Bureaucracy described a Tzenkethi as a “feliform biped.”) Despite this, producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe stated that he never intended this similarity. Instead, the name was possibly a reference to Larry Niven’s work, which had been adapted for the Kzinti in The Animated Series:

Errr… uh… damn. I can’t freaking remember. I mean, yeah, I basically made them up. And yeah, I named them. But I can’t remember if I was making a purposeful homage to Niven or not.

If I had to guess, I suspect I did my usual and combined a couple things. Probably Kzinti and Tsankth.

But when I picture them in my head, they weren’t big cat people. I thought of them as more like the Hakazit.

Still, it’s a nice nod towards other genre work. This sort of cross-referencing is a nice way for Deep Space Nine to acknowledge diversity in alien biology while operating within the constraints of nineties television. (The show was also fond of making reference to the Tholians, Captain Boday’s transparent skull and the weird biology of the Breen.) While the show never had the CGI available to Star Trek: Enterprise or even Star Trek: Voyager, it was a nice way of reinforcing the idea that not all aliens were strictly humanoid.

I do love how the spanner appears exactly when needed...

I do love how the spanner appears exactly when needed…

The Adversary also works quite well as a character-driven thriller. The show devotes a considerable portion of its runtime towards character moments and development. The teaser features Sisko finally receiving a promotion to Captain. In a way, along with allowing Avery Brooks to grow a goatee earlier in the season (and shave his head between this and The Way of the Warrior), there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine is well and truly comfortable with itself.

While light on plot, The Adversary is overflowing with wonderful character touches – reflecting a lot of the third season as a whole, and acknowledging that Behr and Wolfe had a wonderful handle on the characters even when struggling with the plot. Sisko is practically giddy at opening his first “Captain’s Log.” Kasidy Yates is mentioned in the second consecutive episode, making it clear that the show has decided to keep the character around, even if she has yet to reappear.

"This never happened to Picard..."

“This never happened to Picard…”

Even during the opening scene, most of the cast are given small moments that feel perfectly in keeping with what we know of them. Kira jokes about being confrontational. Odo is polite if a little aloof. Quark hides his affection behind a cynical facade. Dax is proud. Interestingly, O’Brien gets to call Sisko “the newest and best captain in Starfleet” – a toast that seems quite pointed given that O’Brien was a recurring character on The Next Generation and thus served with Captain Jean-Luc Picard. In a way, this feels like Deep Space Nine is cheekily tweaking its old sibling’s nose.

(It is strange, then, that Bashir is virtually the only member of the ensemble who doesn’t get a small moment of interaction with Sisko. In fact, he waits until Sisko returns from an aside with Ambassador Krajensky to politely (and silently) shake hands with Sisko. Given how the script goes out of its way to give every member of the cast something to do in this small scene, including two guest stars, it does seem a little strange.)

Damn, I thought we put security in yellow to stop things like this happening...

Damn, I thought we put security in yellow to stop things like this happening…

In fact, The Adversary is notable for being the point at which the show seems to figure out the character of Eddington. Initially introduced as a possible replacement for O’Brien to cover for Colm Meaney, the character of Eddington has felt a little purposeless and superfluous up until this point. While The Adversary doesn’t point towards the specifics of Eddington’s later character developments, it does develop his character in a way that makes those later twists logical and sensible.

In keeping with the sense that Deep Space Nine is a show that attracts somewhat dysfunctional characters, Eddington is portrayed as a mid-level officer whose career has stalled. To be fair, The Best of Both Worlds suggested that something similar had happened to William T. Riker, but at least Riker was happy and fulfilled. Here, it’s suggested that Eddington has just found himself stuck in a dead-end job, despite the fact that he once held more romantic aspirations.

Double trouble...

Double trouble…

“People don’t enter Starfleet to become commanders, or admirals for that matter,” he tells Sisko, generalising from his own personal experience. “It’s the captain’s chair that everyone has their eye on. That’s what I wanted when I joined up, but you don’t get to be a Captain wearing a gold uniform.” There’s a sense of faded optimism in his voice, as if Eddington is trying to pretend that this isn’t really a big deal.

When Sisko offers the stock answer in this situation – Eddington could always transfer to command and pursue his dream – Eddington pragmatically points out that there will always be dead-end jobs that need doing. “Then who would protect the Ambassador?” he muses, wryly. It’s a joke, but there’s a grain of truth to it. Not everybody gets to be a captain, just as not everybody gets to the top of their profession. Some people just get stuck in the middle of the pack.

A vial deception...

A vial deception…

It’s a nice character moment in its own right – a reminder that Deep Space Nine unfolds in a more pragmatic and slightly less idealised world than The Next Generation. However, it’s also a conversation that feels a lot smarter in hindsight. In light of Eddington’s subsequent character arc, the scene makes a lot of sense. It’s the moment that Eddington really stops being “Primmins, Mark II” and starts being a character in his own right.

The Adversary doesn’t quite end the third season of Deep Space Nine with a bang. It lacks the weight or impact of the season-ending episodes that would follow. However, in a way, it is perfectly aligned with the rest of the third season. While the third season doesn’t rank among the best that Deep Space Nine has to offer, it did devote considerable effort to developing and building its world. The focus wasn’t necessarily about immediate pay-off and satisfaction, but about setting up things that might pay off later.

Barely holding himself together...

Barely holding himself together…

The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine rank among the best seasons of Star Trek ever produced, and they end on much stronger notes. However, they would not have been possible without all the work put in during the troubled third season. In a way, The Adversary is part of that. As Ira Steven Behr notes in The Dominion and Beyond, it was a moment at which the show committed to something that had been obvious (but unspoken) since The Search:

The Adversary was the first one where we realised we were starting to get the ‘s’ word. Serialised. Just a tad. In spite of all the finger wagging and knowing that we weren’t supposed to. Just a little bit. A little bit.

It wasn’t a leap or a bound into serialisation, but a careful step. “We’re everywhere” isn’t a major plot revelation. It makes a great deal of sense, and the audience has probably know this since at least The Die is Cast. However, it does signal that the show intends to deal with that. While is a pretty big deal.

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

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4 Responses

  1. The Founders could have infiltrated the Alpha Quadrant over the course of the first two years when traffic to and from the Gamma Quadrant was constant. If this had ended on a true cliffhanger, no doubt it would have been the Defiant about to open fire on the Tzenkethi, but I would have preferred if it had been a Klingon target, instead of a race we’ve never heard of before. The devices on the Defiant always remind me of the similar ones that took control of the Enterprise in the TNG episode Emergence. Did Lawrence Pressman also play the Founder in the engine room? Why didn’t DS9 have the CGI that Voyager and Enterprise had? I think Dax is giddy mentioning and Sisko talking about Kassidy Yates because how often does a captain in a Star Trek show get a relationship, much less marry them?

    • I think Pressman played the Founder in the engine room, but I can’t cite a source off the top of my head.

      With regards to the relative lack of CGI on DS9, I think that was down to timing. The show’s first two years overlapped with TNG, and so they did a lot of the effects in that way. But the final two years of the show would not have been possible without advances in CGI during the mid- to late-nineties.

  2. Vulcan would “secede from the Federation” rather than “cede”. To cede is to give something up, to secede is to formally withdraw from an organization.

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