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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – To the Death (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

To the Death continues the late fourth season shift in focus back towards elements unique to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

At the end of the third season, the production team found themselves receiving notes and input from the network, who wanted Deep Space Nine to go in a different direction. The writing staff on Deep Space Nine were willing to compromise, and took some of the network input on board. As a result, The Way of the Warrior added Worf to the cast and brought the Klingons back to the fore. However, it was clear that Deep Space Nine was not particularly interested in telling a long-term story about new hostilities between the Federation and the Klingons.

The Weyoun of the Warrior...

The Weyoun of the Warrior…

Over the course of the fourth season, the writing staff’s original plans and interests began to reassert themselves in an organic and logical manner. A story similar to Homefront and Paradise Lost had originally been planned to bridge the third and fourth seasons; instead, it was pushed back to almost half-way through the fourth seasons. The Bajoran religion was still the focus of Accession. Gul Dukat received a character arc in Indiscretion and Return to Grace. The Jem’Hadar got a focus episode in Hippocratic Oath. Ferengi politics popped up in Bar Association.

However, these aspects of the show really galvanise towards the end of the fourth season, with the production team really focusing on the elements that had been important during the third season and which would become even more important during the fifth season. For the Cause marked the return of the Maquis as a political player. Body Parts focused on Ferengi culture. However, three of the season’s final four episodes focus on the Dominion, working to reestablish the Dominion as the most credible of threats and the show’s primary antagonists.

Boy, does Sisko ever break out the welcome wagon...

Boy, does Sisko ever break out the welcome wagon…

One of the big issues with the third season of Deep Space Nine was the difficulty in keeping the Dominion as a potent looming adversary. The third season opened with The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, episodes that revealed the Founders and demonstrated that the Dominion was a major threat to galactic stability. However, the rest of the season shuffled the threat into the background. There was no constant sense of dread, no anxiety hanging around the show as a new opponent loomed on the horizon.

Third season episodes like The Abandoned and Heart of Stone both featured Dominion characters, but did little to build mounting tension. Stories like House of Quark and Visionary suggested that the characters within Deep Space Nine considered the Dominion to be a major threat, but that threat was not entirely convincing. The Dominion did not become a major player until the tail end of the season, shaking things up with Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast. Even The Adversary provided a level of threat that had been largely absent from the third season as a whole.

"So, tell me more about these 'big plans' for next season?"

“So, tell me more about these ‘big plans’ for next season?”

To be fair, the production team learned a lot from the third season. There is a lot to love about the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, from the deft ease with which the production team improvise around studio mandates through to the creeping sense of continuity and world-building. However, there is also a sense that the writing staff have made a point to study their past mistakes, committing to doing better in the future. A lot of the third season of Deep Space Nine is messy and disjointed, but it can also be seen as a practice run for the year that would follow.

The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II were something a second pilot for the show, reconfiguring the dynamics and the status quo; The Way of the Warrior takes that idea and pushes it even further, providing an episode that flows a lot smoother and is a lot more accessible. Heart of Stone is an awkward episode focusing on Odo’s repressed attraction to Kira; Crossfire hits the same beats in a much more effective way. Destiny is a stilted meditation on Sisko’s role as Emissary, Accession touches on the same themes in a much more interesting manner.

We'll always have Paris. Unless the rebel Jem'Hadar get there first.

We’ll always have Paris.
Unless the rebel Jem’Hadar get there first.

In many ways, this is what distinguishes Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. While Deep Space Nine was trying to learn from its own mistakes, Voyager was unsure how to deal with them. The first season of Voyager was a clumsy and disjointed mess, with a lot of elements that did not work. The second season did not try to fix those elements, but doubled down on the worst possible choices: Neelix and Kes, Tom Paris as rebel, Kazon as threat. When that didn’t work, the third season did not try to learn or improve. It instead retreated to the familiar.

Deep Space Nine is perhaps the most innovative and exciting show in the franchise. Voyager is perhaps the safest and most narratively conservative. This is because both shows learned very different lessons from their failures. Deep Space Nine learned to strip away what didn’t work, and hope to improve upon the next iteration of the same idea. Voyager learned to repeat the first attempt with greater commitment, and then to completely discard the idea in favour of something comfortable and unchallenging.

Another fine mess hall you've gotten us into.

Another fine mess hall you’ve gotten us into.

The fourth season of Deep Space Nine validates the approach taken by the writing staff. While the third season had struggled to present the Dominion as a credible and recurring threat, the fourth season made a point to explore what did and did not work about the presentation of the Dominion in the third season. For example, the fourth season acknowledged that The Abandoned helped to keep the Dominion in the audience’s mind at the start of the third season, and so made a point to do a similar episode at the start of the fourth year; Hippocratic Oath.

Similarly, the production staff recognised that the Dominion lurked too far in the background for most of the third season. While a two-parter focusing on the Dominion was a good idea, an effort was made to position it earlier in the year. Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast had appeared towards the end of the third season, while Homefront and Paradise Lost appeared before the halfway point of the fourth season. The paranoia of The Adversary was effective, so it was peppered through episodes like The Way of the Warrior, Homefront and Paradise Lost.

The Jem'Hadar cared little for Miles O'Brien's "inappropriate work place contact" memo.

The Jem’Hadar cared little for Miles O’Brien’s “inappropriate work place contact” memo.

The fourth season of Deep Space Nine does a better job of maintaining the Dominion as a clear and present danger, despite the fact that they are not the most immediate threat to the station and its crew. Starting with To the Death, the writing staff put a strong emphasis on the Dominion running through the final stretch of the season as a whole. There is a clear desire that audiences finish the fourth season aware of the fact that the Dominion is the biggest concern going forward. Broken Link even makes a point to have the Dominion subsume the Klingon threat.

Part of the thrill of the fourth season is in watching the future of Deep Space Nine manifest itself. There is a sense that this is the year that the vision of Deep Space Nine finally solidifies. The third season had laid a foundation; the fifth would move the final pieces into play. However, it is the fourth season where Deep Space Nine finally finds the voice that will carry it through the second half of its seven season run. The fourth season does not necessarily slot all the plot points into place, but it does map out the thematic and tonal groundwork.

"Careful, Captain. You don't want the Jem'Hadar riffling around in our stuff."

“Careful, Captain. You don’t want the Jem’Hadar riffling around in our stuff.”

There is a tendency to treat the Dominion War as the defining aspect of Deep Space Nine, as the ultimate expression of what the show actually is at its core. While this is overly simplistic, it is more reasonable to suggest that the Dominion War is the most striking manifestation of what makes Deep Space Nine unique in the larger franchise framework. Deep Space Nine is a show very much about relativism and subjectivism, about the idea that viewpoints do not always align and that conflict is an inevitable result of that.

That aspect of Deep Space Nine really comes to the fore over the course of the fourth season, the idea that conflicts are inevitable but that mankind is best judged in how it responds to conflict. It is telling that To the Death marks the first time that a character all but acknowledges the inevitability of armed conflict between the Dominion and the Federation, an idea that lingered over the third season and becomes increasingly uncomfortable over the course of show’s fifth season.

A phial addiction...

A phial addiction…

After offering to install Sisko as a dictator overseeing the Federation, Weyoun argues that he is merely “building a bridge” between the two galactic powers. “Wouldn’t it be much simpler if the Dominion and the Federation could reach some mutual beneficial understanding without resorting to the unpleasantness of military conflict?” Weyoun asks, almost seeming sincere. However, the fact that the Dominion would consider a Sisko-led military dictatorship of Earth to be the best way of “building a bridge” suggests that a “mutual beneficial understanding” is impossible.

It could credibly be argued that the fourth season marks the point at which Deep Space Nine transforms into a war show. Sure, the actual Dominion War will not begin until A Call to Arms, but episodes like To the Death make it clear that the conflict is unavoidable. However, Deep Space Nine is becoming a “war story” in a more fundamental sense; the fourth season sees the aesthetic and tone of the show shifting so that the series effectively becomes a war show that is just waiting for the war to begin.

"I haven't seen a welcoming party this extreme since the last time one of Sisko's Academy buddies dropped by."

“I haven’t seen a welcoming party this extreme since the last time one of Sisko’s Academy buddies dropped by.”

War is not as tidy as the word might suggest. The conflict is not always measured by the rules of engagement, its boundaries are not always as rigid as people might like. The War on Terror is the most obvious example, and perhaps the War on Drugs or the War on Crime; wars against real threats posed by abstract concepts with no easily identified enemy combatants and not always with clearly demarcated and tangible targets. Similarly, the Cold War demonstrated that the mentality of warfare did not depend on the existence of a formal declaration of war.

The truth is that Deep Space Nine adopts a war mentality long before the first shots are fired in A Call to Arms. As Sisko points out in that episode, even peace can be a conflict to be won or lost if the stakes are high and circumstances are right. Deep Space Nine is a show that has already made a tonal transition. In contrast to Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is a show that has accepted its militaristic elements and which has opted to explore them in the larger context of the franchise.

Right heal, right now...

Right heal, right now…

There are ways in which this more militaristic sensibility is obvious. The Defiant is very much a war ship, and has been since it was introduced in The Search, Part I. Worf is the “strategic operations officer”, a post that suggests a combat mentality. The Way of the Warrior witnessed the eruption of hostilities between the Klingons and Cardassians, but also featured some of the franchise’s most elaborate and impressive combat and fight sequences. Even Starship Down takes the franchise back to the submarine mentality of Balance of Terror.

This war aesthetic very much comes to the fore in To the Death. The episode does not have a budget or shooting schedule that would allow it to compete with The Way of the Warrior in terms of scale or scope. In contrast, the war mentality in To the Death is largely suggested through ambiance and tone rather than action and violence. Early in the episode, Sisko returns to find Deep Space Nine has been attacked. One of the pylons has been destroyed; there are wounded lying in the corridors.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

In some respects, the iconography is not that of a conventional battle. As Kira describes the incident, it sounds more like a terrorist attack. “It was a Jem’Hadar strike team,” she explains. “They beamed aboard from a civilian transport, disabled communications and weapons, set off an explosive device in upper pylon three, fought a number of small skirmishes…” It seems like a tactic that the Bajoran Resistance might have employed. As with Homefront and For the Cause, there is a sense that the imagery is informed by the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Nevertheless, regardless of the form of the attack, To the Death is very much a war story. The teaser features massive loss of life. “Constable, how many casualties do we have?” Bashir asks. Odo reports, “So far, eighteen confirmed dead, thirty one missing and over a hundred wounded.” It is very hard to imagine an episode of The Next Generation or Voyager killing off eighteen crew members before the opening credits. However, this is very much the level at which Deep Space Nine is operating; this is the kind of story that it is telling.

You know the drill.

You know the drill.

The teaser ends with Sisko taking a war ship through the wormhole in pursuit of an enemy responsible for a horrific attack. Militarism drips through the rest of the episode; the armed detachment greeting Weyoun in the transporter room, the battle drills staged using uncharged phaser rifles, the assault upon the ziggurat. This is Star Trek, militarised. To the Death makes it very clear that this is an aesthetic which Deep Space Nine will be employing with increasing frequency as the show continues forward.

To the Death makes it clear that there is a military conflict looming on the horizon. Even when the Federation and the Dominion are forced to cooperate for their mutual benefit, they are still at war. As the title of To the Death suggests, this is not an episode about resolving the differences between the Dominion and the Federation. This is a story about solidifying and cementing those differences. If The Abandoned and Hippocratic Oath were about humanising the Jem’Hadar, then To the Death is about making them seem alien again.

Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

Robert Hewitt Wolfe conceded as much in Cinefantastique, taking the time to praise Clarence Williams III for his portrayal of Omet’Iklan:

“Part of the meta reason for doing the show, other than just having a good time, was to bring the Jem’Hadar to life and we knew that to do that we needed a good actor. We wanted someone who could bring something to the table and really give these guys some depth and all thai good stuff and [Williams] was able to do it. I think LeVar [Burton] talked to him about it and he was up for it. He was excited and did a great job. We were very happy with that.”

Episodes like The Abandoned and Hippocratic Oath could have been argued to “soften” the Jem’Hadar, presenting them in a sympathetic and tragic light. In contrast, To the Death is intended to make them threatening again.

Trees in our time.

Trees in our time.

Part of this shift in emphasis comes through the way that their loyalty to the Dominion is addressed. In The Abandoned and Hippocratic Oath, considerable stress was put on the importance of ketracel-white, the designer drug to which the Jem’Hadar are addicted. It was suggested that these strong impulses had been genetically engineered into the Jem’Hadar, and that they were unable to escape their violent instincts and combat mentality. In Hippocratic Oath, Goran’Agar suggested that the Jem’Hadar might be decent if freed of their addiction.

This emphasis on the ketracel-white has the effect of rendering the Jem’Hadar almost tragic. The knowledge that they are slaves, controlled through drug addiction, makes it possible to pity them as much fear them. (Although, it should be noted, not quite as much as the tragic aftermath of the Kazon transporter experiments in State of Flux undercut their credibility as a threat.) It the Jem’Hadar could be freed of their addiction, Hippocratic Oath suggests, then they might become peaceful and independent.

"Dictator for life has a nice ring to it, eh?"

“Dictator for life has a nice ring to it, eh?”

Early on, To the Death plays with this idea. When Sisko asks why the Founders don’t just order the renegade Jem’Hadar to surrender, Weyoun seems to suggest that the ketracel-white is the real method of control for the slave race. “The Founders’ ability to control the Jem’Hadar has been somewhat overstated,” Weyoun acknowledges. “Otherwise we never would have had to addict them to the white.” There is an implicit suggestion that perhaps freeing the Jem’Hadar of their addiction might free them of the other aspects imposed by the Founders.

However, To the Death also makes a point to reject this reading of the Jem’Hadar. There is a sense that Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe are trying to give the Jem’Hadar some extra bite. The renegade Jem’Hadar in To the Death are certainly not as peaceful as Goran’Agar; they seem to have little interest in peaceful coexistence. “If the Jem’Hadar seize control of the Dominion, there’ll be no stopping them,” Weyoun observes. “Would you care to see our projections of Federation casualties?” Off the leash, the Jem’Hadar are terrifying.

Defiant 'til the last...

Defiant ’til the last…

Even beyond that, To the Death suggests that the Jem’Hadar are more than just an army of conscripted drug addicts. Despite Weyoun’s suggestion that the ketracel-white keeps the Jem’Hadar in line, the script suggests that most Jem’Hadar are true believers. Although Weyoun conspires to keep the existence of the Iconian Gateway a secret from Omet’Iklan for fear that his men might mutiny, Omet’Iklan makes it clear that they are motivated by their faith in the Dominion.

“You think you have to lie to us and use the white to ensure our loyalty,” Omet’Iklan remarks to Weyoun. “But the fact is, we are more loyal to the Founders than the Vorta ever will. It is the reason for our existence. It is the core of our being.” There is a sense that To the Death is consciously sidestepping the softening of the Jem’Hadar in episodes like The Abandoned and Hippocratic Oath, trying to offset the sympathy that viewers might have for a slave race of addicts by demonstrating how pure their fanaticism actually is.

"This new ship-sharing scheme is off to a rocky start."

“This new ship-sharing scheme is off to a rocky start.”

To the Death suggests that Jem’Hadar do not compromise. There can be no negotiation, no peace. Even the renegade Jem’Hadar remain loyal to their culture of violence and brutality. Omet’Iklan is a fanatic in spite of the horrors inflicted upon his people; he might have been genetically engineered to believe in the Founders as deities and controlled through dependency on a drug only they can provide, but that does not invalidate the purity of his belief. If anything, it makes that belief all the more terrifying.

That said, there is a sense that the emphasis on loyalty and pride does dilute the Jem’Hadar somewhat. In many respects, it seems like the Jem’Hadar are a more traditional “warrior race” in the grand tradition of the Klingons. The Jem’Hadar may not talk about honour, but the emphasis that To the Death puts on dignity and fidelity suggests an implicit connection. While The Abandoned and Hippocratic Oath suggested a very different take on the warrior culture archetype than that associated with the Klingons, To the Death pushes the Jem’Hadar into a familiar mould.

"Dammit. I thought this wouldn't be an issue now that we dressed them in mauve."

“Dammit. I thought this wouldn’t be an issue now that we dressed them in yellow.”

This is apparent in a number of ways. For example, Omet’Iklan’s speech about how “victory is life” harks back to some of the pop culture clichés about ancient samurai warriors. Consider William Scott Wilson’s translation of Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, outlining the best way to live as a samurai:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim.

We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

Omet’Iklan evokes this philosophy, ordering his men to approach the battle as if they are already dead. However, the Klingons have also drawn from pop culture depictions of Japanese samurai. “Bushido” quite literally translates as “the Way of the Warrior.” Ronald D. Moore has described the Klingons as a cross between “samurai and Vikings.”

"You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off..."

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off…”

Although Omet’Iklan does not mention the word “honour”, it is clear that he has some sense of the concept. He is clearly affected when Sisko risks his life to block an attack from a renegade Jem’Hadar. “I threatened to kill you, but you were still willing to sacrifice yourself to save my life,” he reflects. The implication is that this gesture earns Sisko the respect of his Jem’Hadar ally and leads Omet’Iklan to spare Sisko’s life. It very much recalls Kirk’s interactions with Klingons like Kor and Kang in Errand of Mercy and The Day of the Dove.

This sense of honour is only reinforced in later episodes focusing on the Jem’Hadar. Ikat’Ika’s behaviour towards Worf in By Inferno’s Light only builds upon the portrayal of Omet’Iklan, suggesting an inate dignity and integrity to the Jem’Hadar. Sisko’s encounter with Remata’Klan in Rocks and Shoals perhaps pushes this idea to its logical extreme, demonstrating that even the attempts to make the Jem’Hadar scary can ultimately circle back around to rendering them sympathetic once again.

"I brought snacks!"

“I brought snacks!”

To be fair, these comparisons between the Jem’Hadar and the Klingons are not a huge problem. For one thing, the show is keenly aware of the obvious point of comparison. In The Jem’Hadar, Talak’Talan laments the fact that he did not get to encounter a Klingon; there is a sense that their warrior natures might be simpatico. In To the Death, Worf and Toman’Torax have a recurring disagreement over which of the two cultures is more warrior-like, involving a whole bunch of macho posturing.

It also helps that there are clear differences between the two cultures as well. Worf and Dax lament the sheer lack of joy in the daily existence of the Jem’Hadar. Jem’Hadar culture lacks the same level of performance or jockeying that defines Klingon culture. More to the point, episodes like House of Quark and The Way of the Warrior have suggested that the Klingon Empire is largely hypocritical; that it does not truly adhere to principles of honour. In contrast, To the Death suggests that the Jem’Hadar are nothing if they are not honest.

"Looks like we've already used up the show's phaser allowance. Hand-to-hand combat it is."

“Looks like we’ve already used up the show’s phaser allowance. Hand-to-hand combat it is.”

However, while To the Death represents a clear effort on the part of the production team to clarify and refine their existing portrayal of the Jem’Hadar, it also marks a big moment for the Vorta. To the Death represents the first appearance of a Vorta character in almost two years, since Dennis Christopher played Borath in The Search, Part II. In contrast, both the Founders and the Jem’Hadar have appeared multiple times across the third and fourth seasons. In that respect, To the Death is very much a milestone.

The Vorta were only broadly defined in The Jem’Hadar and The Search, Part II. In fact, both episodes featured Vorta characters misrepresenting themselves, suggesting that little of what was established about the species could be taken at face value. In The Jem’Hadar, Eris claimed to be a fugitive while actually positioning herself as a spy. In The Search, Part II, Borath claimed to be a Founder while actually running a complex psychological test upon the survivors of the Defiant. As such, the only consistent character trait for the Vorta was that of deception.

"So, I hear ketracel-white's got quite a kick to it."

“I know working together’s tough, but we have to try Hadar.”

To the Death suggests a rather novel solution to the difficulty of defining the Vorta. Simply cast Jeffrey Combs. Combs is one of the franchise’s most valuable recurring players, and Weyoun is perhaps his best role. Combs recalls being specifically head-hunted to play Weyoun:

It’s all Ira. It’s all Ira. I did not know that Ira had been a fan of my work. He told me a story once. He said, “Even before you were on DS9, I saw you in a supermarket.” I said, “Well, did you come up and say hi?” He said, “No, no, no, I didn’t, but I saw you?” I was like, “Why didn’t you do that?” But it’s Ira. Bless him, and bless him again. I remember the day that I was standing on the sound stage in full Brunt makeup and Ira came up to me and said, “You know, we want to use you as another character, where we’ll see more of your face.” I said, “Oh, wow. That’s great. Thanks.” But I didn’t really believe it. It’s Hollywood. People say stuff. But Ira is a breed apart. He means what he says. And out of that came Weyoun. Of course, they killed Weyoun at the end of the episode, but the writers realized afterwards, “Wait a minute, this is a character we find interesting.” So that’s how Weyoun could be cloned at the drop of a hat. Problem solved.

It is absolutely perfect casting, to the point that it made perfect sense to have Combs reprise the role in Ties of Blood and Water despite the character’s demise. Combs is so good that he establishes a Nimoy-like template for the species; Keevan from Rocks and Shoals and Yelgrun from The Magnificent Ferengi are just variations on a theme.

The scheduled "mingling" evening did not go as planned.

The scheduled “mingling” evening did not go as planned.

The Nimoy comparison is quite apt. If the Dominion is to be treated as a warped reflection of the Federation, then the Vorta are very clearly meant to be twisted stand-ins for the Vulcans. This is reflected in their biology, with their pointy ears and their limited (and vague) psychic powers. However, it is also reflected by their role within the Dominion, as the most distinctive “alien” species operating within the organisation’s hierarchy. Just as the Vulcans are essential (albeit secondary) within the Federation, the Vorta are within the Dominion.

However, there are obvious marked contrasts between the two. A popular piece of fanon (albeit one credited Spock in Court Martial) insists that Vulcans do not lie; of course, there is a lot of counter-evidence (including a significant portion of Star Trek: Enterprise) to undermine that claim, but the generalisation is common. As such, it is ironic that the Vorta should be such consummate liars. While the Vulcans work hard to bury their emotions, the Vorta exaggerate and distort their own so that they can feign laughter and cheer around even their staunchest opponent.

"Now that you mention it, these weapons are a lot less intimidating."

“Now that you mention it, these weapons are a lot less intimidating.”

Despite the fact that Weyoun was not the first Vorta to appear on screen, he is the archetypal iteration of the species. Jeffrey Combs has talked about how the character came to him, manifesting itself as soon as the make-up was complete:

Once I looked in the mirror, I realized that he’s a very refined gentleman. He’s very fluid, very good at what he does. He tries to put people at ease. The voice sort of comes along with his intent – to lull you, to let you have a false sense of security before the eight daggers go into your back.

Jeffrey Combs is a fantastic performer. He is great, even in episodes that are not. Combs does impressive work in all of his recurring roles across the franchise – including Brunt and Shran. Even allowing for all that, Weyoun is a striking creation. There is a lot to recommend To the Death, but Combs’ performance is right up there.

"Klingon to your ego, Mister Worf."

“Klingon to your ego, Mister Worf.”

Again, this plays into the recurring sense that Deep Space Nine is truly defining its own identity at this point in its run. The fourth season introduces a host of major players, many of whom will be essential to the show’s end game three years down the line. Damar first appears in Return to Grace. Weyoun makes his debut in To the Death. Although it could be argued that Martok does not appear until In Purgatory’s Shadow, J.G. Hertzler plays the role in The Way of the Warrior. The show’s ensemble has been growing for years; but it is almost complete.

An added benefit of the focus on the Vorta through Weyoun is the fact that To the Death can hint at the internal politics of the Dominion. This is the first time that the crew (and the audience) have been afforded the opportunity to watch the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar interact on a day-to-day basis. The fact that there is a tension to their relationship is quite clever, allowing for some conflict that really brings out the contrast between the Vorta’s cynicism and the Jem’Hadar’s fanaticism.

It's a log to handle...

It’s a log to handle…

To the Death is packed with fantastic scenes, but the scene where Weyoun dispenses the ketracel-white in the mess hall is particularly striking. It is very well framed and shot by LeVar Burton, and very well performed by Jeffrey Combs and Clarence Williams III. To the Jem’Hadar the ceremony is a devout religious experience, embraced with the utmost sincerity. In contrast, Weyoun intones his part of the ritual with all the commitment of a priest who is only a year away from retirement.

It is a beautiful portrayal of organised religious experience, one that feels instantly familiar to anybody who has ever attended a mass held by a priest who would rather by anywhere else and attended by worshippers who are intensely devoted to the ceremony. It is a fantastic scene. Deep Space Nine embraced religion in a manner more thorough than any of the other spin-offs. While some of the main plot beats could get heavy-handed, the real meat could be found in small scenes like that; those little personal snippets of religion experience buried amid the aliens in the make-up.

This team-up is a hard (na)celle...

This team-up is a hard (na)celle…

Director LeVar Burton does great work on To the Death. In discussion of television, particularly older television, there is a tendency to dismiss the contributions of directors to episodic production. This is largely rooted in the perception that the director is largely a hired hand assigned a single episode while the writing staff are tasked with overseeing an entire season. While the situation has improved slightly in recent years, there is still the strong sentiment that the televisual auteur is the writer rather than the director.

While this makes a certain amount of sense, it is easy to overlook what a director brings to an individual episode. During the nineties, shows like The X-Files were pushing television in an extremely cinematic direction, thanks in no small part to directors like Rob Bowman and David Nutter and Kim Manners. While the Star Trek franchise was more stylistically conservative, the fourth season of Deep Space Nine and the second season of Voyager collectively make a strong case for the work of directors in realising the franchise.

Armed and dangerous.

Armed and dangerous.

James L. Conway and David Livingston do great work across this season of television. Conway overseeing impressive action and mounting tension in episodes like The Way of the WarriorPersistence of Vision, Little Green Men, Death Wish and For the Cause. David Livingston did tremendous work bringing The Visitor, Manoeuvres and Deadlock to the screen. LeVar Burton developed into one of the franchise’s best actor-focused directors with episodes like Indiscretion, Dreadnought and Bar Association.

Burton proves a nice fit for To the Death. Despite the fact that this is essentially an episode building to a very blood finalé, the bulk of the episode is taken up with dialogue scenes and conversations. The majority of To the Death is given over to the odd couple team-up of the Defiant crew with their Dominion guests. Burton gets great performances out of his cast, communicating a great deal beyond even the dialogue itself. At the same time, Burton skilfully maintains tension across what is effectively a half-hour commute.

Warped priorities.

Warped priorities.

To the Death serves to add a lot of texture and nuance to the Dominion. The Dominion was established two seasons earlier, but has spent a lot of that time lurking in the background. To the Death finds a way to invite the show (and the viewer) inside the Dominion in a way that makes the organisation seem more complex and more nuanced than a monolithic evil empire, but without undermining or undercutting its credibility. As the fourth season begins to wind down, To the Death is a reminder that Deep Space Nine still has its eye on its own long-term plot threads.

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

13 Responses

  1. This episode also has the beautiful touch, pun not intended, when Weyoun transmits the infection to Odo that will force him to return to the great link.
    Weyoun is just another reason why I wish the whole sixth season, rather than just the first six episodes, had been about Dukat, Damar, and Weyoun ruling Deep space Nine.

    • Weyoun slipped him the poison? I didn’t know that. Which scene?

      • The scene in which he tries to convince Odo to return to the link. He grabs Odo’s arm at one point.

      • Yep. I think I bring it up in Broken Link, but the script to To the Death explicitly mentions it. Although Burton frames the shot so it’s hard to see and Ronald D. Moore has since suggested that this was just a “rumour.”

    • I find it interesting how much love the sixth season of DS9 gets. I mean, I like it a lot, but it’s nowhere near as consistent as the fourth or fifth seasons. The first two thirds are great, and then the final third kinda drops off a cliff. (That said, it has a number of “franchise best” episodes, but also a number of “franchise worst.”)

      I suspect extending that opening arc would have strengthened the run.

      • Season Five was terrible. Year Six is chock full of Worf-Dax episodes, which I and others happen to enjoy. Season Seven is more contentious, with the Pah Wraiths and Ezri Dax.

        The preference for season six is natural and I happen to share it. 🙂

      • Interesting. I’d assumed my fondness for seasons four and five would reflect fandom, even if I knew my frustrations with season six were very much my own. I’m always surprised to encounter conventional wisdom on my journey through the franchise, if only for how close I come to it at points and how randomly I diverge in others.

  2. It’s funny to hear Brian Thompson disparage the Klingon Empire since he’s played a Klingon twice before. Although he gets typecast as heavies and thugs, I think he possesses more then a modicum of acting ability, like his performance as Klag in A Matter of Honour. And don’t forget he was the first person to die at the hands (or fist) of the Terminator.

    DS9 arguably has the highest death count of all the Star Trek shows, and while TNG and VGR would never consent to that, in the TNG episode Contagion (coincidentally also about an Iconian gateway), the entire crew of the Yamato died before the opening credits, including their families.

    First Contact succeeded in making the Borg threatening again after I, Borg and Descent softened them. To the Death succeeds in making the Jem’Hadar a threat while also exploring more of their culture, like the way we see the Dominion have a religion all their own.

    Are the Ocampa the VGR equivalent of the Vulcans with their pointy ears and telepathic abilities? That might explain why Tuvok and Kes get along so well.

    In VGR episodes State of Flux and Hunters, Tuvok gives some differing accounts to Chakotay and Seven of Nine about whether Vulcans can lie or not like “defined parameters” and lying in the line of duty.

    I wonder what Jeffrey Combs would have been like as Will Riker since he tried out for the role all those years ago. I imagine he would have been a more slimy Riker.

    Another director who did great work recently was Marvin Rush, who was perfectly suited to the VGR episode The Thaw. One of the few times where everything in that show combined into a seamless vision.

    And I think Worf wants a baccarat rematch with Bashir in that scene in the Mess Hall.

    • On the fifth season DVD, there’s a great interview with Jeffrey Combs where he just talks through all his work on DS9. And he touches on auditioning for Riker in a way that is very self-deprecating, essentially saying that there is no way that it would have worked, and he’s old enough to realise that now. Frakes has enough difficulty balancing Riker between “charming” and “jackass”, so I worry at how incredibly vicious Combs’ interpretation of the character would have been. (Just imagine him delivering that “blind man teaching an android how to paint…” line.)

      • It’s like when Jim Broadbent was offered the role of Del Boy and couldn’t commit to it. It’s difficult to think what he would have been like in the part but they later found a character for him he was better suited to, DI Roy Slater.

      • That’s a great example, actually. Can;t imagine how different Only Fools… would have been.

  3. Both the Klingons and Jem’Hadar have aspects of the samurai, but I would argue that they’re separated by the time period they’re supposed to represent. The Klingons represent the samurai in the feudal era of Japan, what with feuding clans and a complex system of honor where the will of the individual carries great weight.

    The Jem’Hadar, however, represent the Japanese samurai ethos in the industrial age, specifically World War II. The individuality of the feudal-age samurai disappears, to be replaced by homogeneity of thought and action. And, much like the popular image of the Japanese soldier during WW2, they’re defined by their fearlessness of death and willingness to die. Note how in their very first appearance, they engage in a kamikaze attack on a Federation starship.

    I think this is simply another part of the difference in how DS9 portrayed war. Previously on ST, combat between starships was portrayed like combat between individual Napoleonic ships of the line. in DS9, starship combat is shown as a massed naval battle a la Jutland or Leyte Gulf. It’s the difference between the 19th century and the 20th century.

    • That’s a very good point, actually, in terms of the difference between the Klingons and the Jem’Hadar as aliens clearly influenced by archetypes of Japanese culture.

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