It seems we’re approaching an impasse.
We’ve already arrived.
– Kilana and Sisko sum up the fifth season
The fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pivots over its mid-season two-parter, In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. That two-parter changes everything, effectively paying off a plot thread that has been building since the first time that the Dominion had been mentioned in Rules of Acquisition and setting up a status quo that would propel the show through the second half of the season and towards the finale A Call To Arms, which would in turn set up the final two seasons of the series.
While In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light give a clear shape and structure to the second half of the season, they also provide a context for everything leading up to that point. The writers on Deep Space Nine never planned especially far in advance, particularly when it came to mapping out the finer contours of their fictional world. This is how Joseph Sisko can go from somebody about whom Sisko talks in the past sense in The Alternate to a living, breathing character in Homefront. Nevertheless, it is clear the writers knew where they wanted to go.
In some ways, Deep Space Nine had always been a show about war. Sisko was introduced in the opening moments of Emissary as a man widowed during the background of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. Kira struggled with her place as an agent of lawful authority rather than a terrorist in episodes like Progress or Shakaar. O’Brien struggled to define himself as an engineer rather than a soldier in episodes like Hippocratic Oath. It is fair to say that trauma, and the recovery from trauma, was a recurring motif.
However, the fifth season finds Deep Space Nine transitioning from a show that is about war and trauma into a show actively depicting war and trauma. It is no coincidence that Kira and O’Brien are once again forced to confront their military pasts in episodes like The Darkness and the Light or Empok Nor, made to relive those particular traumas. There was a war coming, and the characters would have to be ready for it. As would the show itself. A lot of the fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine could be seen as a dress rehearsal for what comes next.
This is quite apparent in episodes like The Way of the Warrior or To The Death, stories that depicted combat (whether in space or on the ground) in a more visceral manner than any earlier episodes. Nor the Battle to the Strong… would continue that trend, in many ways feeling like an antecedent to later episodes like The Siege of AR-558. During the early stretch of the fifth the season, there is a sense that the production team are well aware of what is coming. This is true even beyond the prophetic visions that haunt Sisko in Rapture.
What is most striking about the first half of the fifth season is how calm it all seems. There is a sense of relative peace and tranquility hanging in the air, barring the events of Nor the Battle to the Strong… Barring the exposure of changeling!Martok and the reveal that the Dominion were stoking tensions between the Klingon Empire and the Federation in Apocalypse Rising, the Dominion are relatively quiet. In fact, The Ship is the only episode in this stretch of the season to feature the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta, who will become bigger players in the second half of the year.
Interestingly enough, the original pitch for The Ship came from outside the writers room. However, according to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the original pitch was quite distinct from the finished episode:
The premise for the episode was pitched to Hans Beimler by freelancers Pam Wigginton and Rick Cason. “It was the notion that we capture a Jem’Hadar ship,” Beimler says. “The contents of the pitch were quite different from the final show, but I remember being excited the minute I heard ‘Jem’Hadar ship.’ I knew that was a show, so I sent it to Ira and he agreed.”
It is a great example of the production team incorporating a pitch into the story that they wanted to tell, finding a way to tailor story ideas from outside the writers’ room into stories that informed and enriched Deep Space Nine.
Watching the show with the benefit of hindsight, The Ship appears to be a formative episode of Deep Space Nine. In keeping with the theme of recurrence that plays out across the run of the show, The Ship finds itself reflected in Rocks and Shoals; the second episode of the fifth season mirrored in the second episode of the sixth season. In both episodes, Sisko and his crew hole up inside a Jem’Hadar ship (the same Jem’Hadar ship) in the Soledad Valley. They stand against an encroaching Jem’Hadar platoon. Both episodes end in what amounts to mass suicide driven by religious belief.
History does not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. The Ship is effectively a combat episode, something of a rarity in the Star Trek canon to this point. However, The Ship is a very different sort of combat episode than the war stories of the fourth season. The Way of the Warrior and To the Death seemed to thrill in combat, reveling in the opportunity to stage gigantic space battles and exciting hand-to-hand combat as part of a Star Trek episode. Those episodes seemed like an attempt to demonstrate that action on such a scale was technically possible.
In contrast, The Ship is more low-key. It was obviously an expensive episode, unfolding largely on new sets and involving the construction of a crashed Jem’Hadar ship upside down in the middle of the desert. However, from a technical perspective, there is very little that Star Trek hasn’t done before. This is a story that Star Trek: The Next Generation could easily have told, had the series had the inclination. It is not too difficult to imagine a sixth or seventh season episode built around a similar idea as a one-shot.
From a technical perspective, The Ship is nowhere near as audacious as The Way of the Warrior or To the Death. There are no big hand-to-hand fight sequences, with the biggest action sequence occurring as the Jem’Hadar rush the ship early in the story. Similarly, the destruction of the runabout is depicted through a quick shot of debris burning through the sky. Once the actual siege sequence starts, the potentially expensive aspects are shunted off camera. The Jem’Hadar shelling is conveyed through sound effects and the Jem’Hadar suicide takes place out of view.
The Ship is not about demonstrating that computer-generated imagery and television production have reached a point where it is feasible to tell a science-fiction war saga as part of a monthly television series. The Ship is largely about demonstrating that the writing staff are able (and interested) in constructing stories that explore the idea of warfare in Star Trek. At its core, The Ship is just as much a psychological war story as Nor the Battle to the Strong…, a proof of concept demonstrating that Star Trek can be used to explore these themes.
Early in the episode, O’Brien and Muñiz examine the crashed Jem’Hadar ship. They discover an access point on the belly of the ship. O’Brien effectively tests Muñiz on the point, daring him to think about the ship from the perspective of the Jem’Hadar. “So my young friend, what do you think we’re looking at?” O’Brien asks. “An airlock? A maintenance hatch?” Of course, it is not an airlock or a maintenance hatch. This is not a ship of exploration. “Maybe,” Muñiz reflects, “but this is a warship, and on a warship you want a big access point on the belly to land troops.”
That small exchange between O’Brien and Muñiz hints at what is really happening during the fifth season. The Starfleet crew (and the show around them) will need to look at the universe in a completely different way. Deep Space Nine‘s crowning accomplishment was in finding a bold new perspective from which it might interrogate and examine the Star Trek mythos. Part of that approach involved pushing Star Trek outside of its comfort zone, asking how these concepts and characters would react if they found themselves pushed into a different type of story.
Even the ship itself is presented as something relatively alien within the larger context of Star Trek. The franchise has been around long enough that certain conventions have been established about how the universe operates. The very idea that ship as large as the Jem’Hadar warship could be designed to land on a planet seems counter-intuitive. Outside of the Klingon Bird of Prey in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, only shuttle craft and runabouts are supposed to land on (and lift off from) planets.
Perhaps the most striking departure comes in the layout and design of the bridge. The ship runs counter to the unspoken rules of Star Trek design. “No viewscreen,” Dax observes. “No chairs.” Even Romulan and Klingon (and Cardassian) ships have viewscreens and chairs. Even the technobabble is wrong, with O’Brien reflecting, “No EPS conduits, no microfusion initiators. No power converters, at least none that I can find.” There is a sense that this ship is supposed to exist outside the crew’s frame of reference.
The production team have at least some idea of what is coming, even if they never planned ahead in great detail. Deep Space Nine will soon be telling stories like The Ship on a regular basis, dealing with the consequences of war and the psychological toll that it exacts. Knowing that it is possible to tell those kinds of stories within the framework of a Star Trek series is pretty important, particularly given that the production team will be committing more than fifty episodes to the premise. Star Trek: Voyager would have done well to try something similar with its own premise.
Discussing how the Dominion War came about, Ira Steven Behr treats the conflict as something which the production team had carefully considered and into which the show had to grow:
Well, we had talked about it for years, the thought of, “If only we could be more serialized.” Look, we were drunk on wine and women. No. I felt the end coming. Obviously, we all did. We knew it’d be seven years and out. It was just, “Look, what do we want to do? Whatever it is, we should do it now.” Someone asked me on the last day of shooting why I was hanging around so long and I think the line I said was, “I have the rest of my life not to be here. So while I’m here, I’m going to stay until the end.” So it was the same thing. “What do we want to do?” One of the things we wanted to do was experiment with serialization and with the kind of space-opera war that spoke to a lot of the mythologies the show had built up. I thought we could do it. I knew we could do it.
The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine can largely be seen as the show proving (to both itself and its audience) that it is capable of telling these stories, from both a technical and storytelling perspective.
In fact, it could legitimately be argued that The Ship plays out the final few years of Deep Space Nine in a microcosm. The crew trapped in a confined space while madness rages around them, in many ways capturing the sense that Deep Space Nine is physically removed from the war for most of the final two years, yet still defined by it. The crew are pushed to the very edge by the realities of warfare, much like Sisko will be in In the Pale Moonlight and Bashir will be in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. The crew deal with losses, in episodes such as It’s Only a Paper Moon.
Indeed, Sisko and Kilana all but sum up the entire fifth season in a simple two-line exchange. When Kilana suggests that they are “approaching an impasse”, Sisko responds that they have “already arrived.” That is the recurring theme of the fifth season as a whole, the sense that war between the Dominion and the Federation is inevitable. Sisko’s conversation with Kilana mirrors his conversation with Weyoun in A Call to Arms, a pantomime of diplomacy that neither side truly believes and which merely serves as a prelude to conflict.
There are other moments in The Ship that play out the show’s theme in miniature. During his final conversation with Kilana, the Vorta wonders aloud whether Sisko and the Federation can understand her worship of the Founder. “There are things I believe in,” Sisko responds. Kilana suggests that perhaps they are not so different. “Duty? Starfleet? The Federation? You must be pleased with yourself. You have the ship to take back to them. I hope it was worth it.” In a way, The Ship is the story of two soldiers paying tribute to their gods.
However, there is an irony in all that. Much as The Ship ends with Kilana’s gods reduced to ashes and dust, so must Deep Space Nine end with Sisko’s gods destroyed. A recurring arc across the run of Deep Space Nine demolishes Sisko’s faith in Starfleet and the Federation. Sisko’s disillusionment in these institutions plays out across the run of the show, seeded in episodes like The Maquis, Part I, The Maquis, Part II, For the Cause and Far Beyond the Stars. Like many of the characters on Deep Space Nine, Sisko comes away with a skepticism of the large-scale organisations.
In some respects, this is a big recurring theme across the run of Deep Space Nine. Repeatedly over the course the show, characters find their faith tested. Sisko and Bashir come to doubt the Federation. Winn turns away from the Prophets. Garak and Damar lose faith in the Cardassian government. In Homefront, Worf suggests that the Klingons killed their gods because “they were more trouble than they were worth.” That seems to be something the show truly believes, with many characters seeing the object of their faith turn to piles of ash and dust, broken against the universe.
Deep Space Nine frequently chooses to put its faith in people rather than in institutions. In many ways, the Dominion War is presented as an extension of this idea. It is a conflict that results from two competing ideologies, the collision of two interstellar empires on opposite courses. The Dominion’s urge for conquest and militant isolation thrown against the Federation’s expansionist tendencies. There is a sense that the nature of these large institutions made such a conflict inevitable, which is a tragedy for those caught in between.
As much as the cold war of the fifth season reflects the ambiguity around late twentieth century warfare, it is also informed by the march to war in the late thirties. Historians are still somewhat divided about the extent to which the Second World War was inevitable. Still, one of the dominant narratives of the conflict suggests that such a brutal war was all but assured. As P.M.H. Bell outlines in The Origin of the Second World War in Europe:
The idea of an inevitable war has taken different forms. There was a widespread belief that another war was implicit in the situation which followed that of 1914-18. The long-standing Marxist view that wars are the inevitable result of capitalism was applied to this war as to others, notably in East German works designed to show that Hitler was the instrument of capitalists and industrialists seeking to maximise their profits by controlling the markets and resources of Europe. Other historians have noted that to contemporaries, ‘ from a certain time – earlier for some, later for others – war appeared inevitable; there never was a war which caused less surprise when it began.’
That last sentiment seems particularly applicable to the Dominion War on Deep Space Nine. To the characters living in the world, war becomes increasingly inevitable over the course of the season as a series of dominoes fall. The Ship suggests that the die is already cast, and both sides have effectively committed to conflict. That is why Sisko wants the ship, after all. Dax assures him, “Those five deaths may save five thousand lives, or maybe even five million.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the Dominion War is the recurring sense that Starfleet is in someway as responsible for what happened as the Dominion. Of course, the first act of aggression was the Dominion’s senseless slaughter of the inhabitants of New Bajor in The Jem’Hadar, but Deep Space Nine has repeatedly suggested that the Federation has paid little attention to the Dominion’s desire for isolation; the installation of a communications relay in Destiny, covert deals with the Karemma in Starship Down, repeated sojourns into the Gamma Quadrant.
Given the way that “solids” have historically reacted to the Founders, not to mention the fact that the information gathered by the Federation in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II was used to orchestrate an attempted genocide by their allies in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, it would make sense for the Federation to behave towards the Dominion with a great deal of care and consideration. Instead, there are suggestions that the Federation is keen to increase its presence in the Gamma Quadrant.
Even in The Ship, the cast are introduced scouting for a mining quality in the Gamma Quadrant. They are well aware that this would involve a substantial increase in activity. “Strategically,” Worf states, “the planet’s location would make it difficult to maintain adequate supply lines, but not impossible.” Admittedly, the script makes it clear that Starfleet is not intentionally encroaching on Dominion territory. “What’s a Jem’Hadar ship doing all the way out here?” Sisko wonders when the ship crashes. “We’re at least three weeks from the nearest Dominion outpost.”
To be clear, the Dominion are unequivocally the bad guys here. The Founders have two genetically-engineered slave races, use biological weapons to punish their enemies, have massacred entire planets, and are responsible for destabilising the entire political structure of the Alpha Quadrant. More than that, they are explicitly militaristic and fascistic, eager to impose their sense of order upon the entire galaxy if it would make them feel even a little more secure. Deep Space Nine never has too much pity or compassion for them.
After all, how are the Federation supposed to react to a belligerent foreign power? Star Trek is a franchise that is very much rooted in the Second World War. Many of its key creative figures served in the conflict. It is tied to American identity in the wake of the conflict. This connection was rendered literal as early as The City on the Edge of Forever and which will become apparent in the way that the production team frames the Dominion War. As such, it seems fair to suggest that appeasement would not be a practical long-term solution.
Is Starfleet supposed to completely give up exploration of the Gamma Quadrant in order to appease a bunch of paranoid xenophobes? Even if Starfleet stopped sending ships through the wormhole, could they trust the Dominion to stay on their side? Does the Dominion have any right to insist that the Federation refuse to deal with the Karemma? Could there be any moral justification were Bashir to refuse to meddle in Dominion affairs by trying to cure the Jem’Hadar of their addiction in Hippocratic Oath and the Teplan of their blight in The Quickening?
(At the same time, the show suggests that the Federation’s hands are not clean in all of this. The series has some measure of sympathy for Eddington’s criticism of the Federation in For the Cause, his suggestion that the Federation is an expansionist power motivated by a desire to impose its own values on other cultures. Later on in the show’s run, When It Rains… suggests that certain elements of the Federation had deployed a genetically-engineered weapon against the Dominion as early as in Homefront.)
Of course, neither The Ship nor Deep Space Nine ever lose sight of the idealism that defines Star Trek. For all that Deep Space Nine is criticised for being the darkest and most cynical instalment of the franchise, it is still very much a humanist television show. The inevitability of war is treated as a tragedy that exacts a heavy toll from all involved, one that results from compounding misunderstandings and mistrust. The Ship does not find much glory in what Sisko does; it lacks the visceral thrill of The Way of the Warrior or To the Death.
Instead, the warfare in The Ship is presented as horrific. As with The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor later in the season, the trauma of war is coded in the language of horror cinema. The sets are dimly lit; smoke billows from broken tubing to obscure vision. The bodies of the crew are shown to be hanging from the ceiling, like cuts of meat suspended on hooks at the back of the butcher’s shop. When the Founder on the ship finally reveals itself, it dies howling in agony like the monster at the end of a horror film.
The Ship focuses on the human cost of this misbegotten mission. Sisko and Kilana are portrayed as individuals trapped in service of higher institutions that care little for the consequences of such a conflict. Towards the end of the episode, Sisko appeals to Kilana, “Muñiz, the runabout crew, your soldiers, they’d all still be alive if we had trusted each other.” It is important that Sisko shares the blame in this. This is not a case where the Dominion are entirely and completely in the wrong.
How would Sisko react if the Dominion attempted to annex a crashed Federation ship? “This is our ship,” Kilana states simply. “We want it back.” Sisko simply refuses. “Was your ship. Now it’s mine.” Sisko makes reference to “salvage rights”, but it seems more like a convenient justification than an honest application of principle. The irony, of course, is that Sisko simply cannot back down. Even if he wanted to, he could not trust Kilana’s offer of safe passage. “If you think I’m going to deliver my people into your hands without a fight then this really must be your first mission.”
This is the sad truth of The Ship. All the suffering and loss might easily have been avoided if Sisko could trust Kilana and if Kilana could trust Sisko. It works both ways, of course. “All that mattered to me was the Founder,” Kilana confesses. Sisko responds, “Then you should have told me about him.” Kilana reflects, “You might have killed him or made him a hostage.” Sisko simply states, “No.” The audience knows Sisko well enough to accept that this probably the truth, but it is still an incredible amount of faith to put in the hands of a stranger during a siege.
(That said, The Ship does weight the argument rather heavily against the Dominion by having Kilana’s troops murder the crew of the runabout and open fire on the away team immediately. It is interesting to wonder whether things might have unfolded differently if the runabout crew had survived, or if Kilana had taken them hostage. Then again, eliminating the runabout crew immediately streamlines the narrative, even if it does undercut the climax’s attempts to suggest an equivalence between Sisko and Kilana.)
Still, most of The Ship seems to be building towards the scenes after the siege has concluded. On the journey home, the characters weigh the consequences of what has happened. Sisko wonders whether a battered Jem’Hadar ship was really worth it, while O’Brien keeps watch over the body of Muñiz. These are images to which the show will return time and time again in the years ahead; Sisko getting casualty reports in In the Pale Moonlight, Sisko standing over the coffin at the end of Tears of the Prophets.
In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, writer Hans Beimler suggests that the episode began with those closing scenes in mind and worked backwards:
“It’s amazing that in all these years of Star Trek no captain had ever sat down and talked about those consequences,” he says. “In the Star Trek universe, where we blow up people cleanly with phasers, war seems almost antiseptic. But I think it’s nice to periodically remind ourselves that the casualties and real people, and that when our characters discuss them, they’re talking about people who exist for them. That, to me, was one of the most important moments in that episode, and a great moment for the series.
To be entirely fair, there is a sense that Beimler is exaggerating somewhat. After all, there have been a number of episodes touching on these themes, from The Bonding through to Lower Decks. Still, they are themes warranting further examination.
The emotional crux of The Ship is the death of Muñiz. The death of a guest character or background extra is something that Star Trek can take for granted; after all, consider all the security guards shot in The Way of the Warrior. As such, it is nice to have that acknowledged. More than that, the death of Muñiz works relatively well because he is a character who has been around quite a bit. Like Eddington during the show’s third and fourth seasons, Muñiz is part of the texture of the show. He is a background character who is recognisable to even casual viewers.
Despite its reputation as the most brutal and cynical of Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine was never particularly bloodthirsty. Relatively few major or recurring characters get killed off over the seven seasons of the show. Many of those who do, like Weyoun or Martok, end up coming back. The show does make a point to offer a sense of finality to various arcs in the closing episodes of the seventh season, but most of the show’s major players are relatively safe for the bulk of the run; Enabran Tain and Michael Eddington are perhaps the most obvious exceptions.
As such, it seemed highly unlikely that any major character was ever going to be rendered a casualty of war, although the show would eventually brush up against that idea with Jadzia Dax and Nog. Part of this is down to the reality of television production at the time, where series regular was pretty much guaranteed to make it to the end of the hour and there was a general resistance to large cast turnover; Deep Space Nine could never be Game of Thrones or even The Sopranos.
However, part of that was down to the fact that Deep Space Nine is nicer (and more optimistic) than its reputation would suggest. As such, the death of Muñiz in The Ship serves as perhaps a line in the sand. Barring some contractual complications in the sixth and seventh seasons, this is the edge case. This is about as hard at the Dominion War will hit, killing off a supporting character who had a handful of lines in a handful of episodes but that the audience is highly unlikely to actively miss.
The Ship suffers slightly from this. After all, this is only Muñiz’s third appearance on the show. While there was some warmth to his interactions with O’Brien in Hard Time, there is also a sense that Muñiz is more of an extra than a character. As a result, the efforts made to develop the dynamic between O’Brien and Muñiz early in the episode feel particularly clumsy. Their banter back and forth feels like a transparent attempt to develop Muñiz into a character whom the audience care about right before killing him off, effectively fattening the lamb for the slaughter.
In many ways, this is a reminder that Deep Space Nine is still relatively new to concepts like serialisation and long-form storytelling. The show has figured out how to use serialisation to flesh out characters like Gul Dukat and will use it quite well in the second half of the season, but there is a sense that the writers are still approaching such storytelling retroactively, using past stories as guideposts to help tell new stories instead of figuring out where the show needs to go and how best to get there.
There are quite a few examples of this, demonstrating that a lot of plotting on Deep Space Nine was still being done on the fly at this point in the run. When Thomas Riker uncovered a secret Cardassian fleet in Defiant, even the writers had no idea about what to do with those ships until they wrote Improbable Cause. When Odo exposed Gowron as a changeling at the climax of Broken Link, the writers did not decide that it was a clever double-bluff until late in the writing of Apocalypse Rising.
To be clear, there is nothing particularly wrong with this style of plotting. In fact, the production team’s flexibility and on-the-fly use of established continuity to tell new stories was a boon in the fourth and fifth seasons, allowing for a great deal of improvisation and innovation when confronted with unexpected developments like the suggestion that the show should feature more Klingons. It certainly feels more organic than the awful plot-driven serialisation that Michael Piller tried to introduce during the second season of Voyager.
However, there are certain shortcomings to this approach. Most obviously, this style of storytelling makes it easier to tell new stories than to satisfactorily conclude old stories. It also means that plot and character beats are not always organically set up before they are paid off. The death of Muñiz in The Ship would work a lot better if the character had been properly seeded and developed in the season leading up to the episode. Instead, the fact that Muñiz appeared in a couple of episodes before The Ship feels incidental. He is ultimately a really well-developed red shirt.
That said, the scenes work well enough in context. F.J. Rio and Colm Meaney play very well off one another over the course of the episode, whether bantering over the “gently sloping hills” of Ireland or discussing the finer merits of “kissing up” to senior officers. These sequences demonstrate Colm Meaney’s strengths as an actor. While Meaney struggled against his Klingon makeup in Apocalypse Rising, he works very effectively in these smaller human moments. O’Brien is perhaps the most human character in the Star Trek mythos, and he adds a layer of relatability to the tragedy.
As much as Deep Space Nine isn’t comfortable enough with long-form storytelling yet that it can land Muñiz’s death, it still makes for affecting drama. Certainly, Muñiz’s death over the course of The Ship is more affecting than the brutal slaughter of recurring crew members over the course of Voyager‘s second season. Muñiz’s death is certainly more affecting than Jonas’ death-by-Neelix in Investigations or Hogan’s snackification in Basics, Part II. Muñiz’s death might be something of a cliché, but it is a well-executed cliché.
In some respects, that is The Ship in a nutshell. It is an episode that exists largely as a proof of concept, demonstrating the show can tell these sorts of stories. The plot beats and set-up are fairly standard war movie fare, but there is a lot of novelty and excitement in seeing them applied to the Star Trek template.