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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Assignment (Review)

The Assignment is perhaps the most conventional episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is also one of the most disappointing.

The Star Trek franchise has long been fond of “possession” and “imitation” stories, dating back through Whom Gods Destroy and Turnabout Intruder to Lonely Among Us and Datalore and Power Play. It is easy to see the appeal of these stories from a production standpoint. An effective possession story can likely be filmed on standing sets and relies primarily upon an established member of the ensemble. For an actor, it provides an exciting opportunity to play against type, which is a great way to keep a weekly television series exciting.

O'Brien must suffer... through a terrible script.

O’Brien must suffer… through a terrible script.

However, it is very much a stock plot. There are only so many variations that a long-running franchise can put on the tried-and-tested formula before it begins to feel a little tired. Deep Space Nine has already had more than its fair share of “out of character” plots, from The Passenger to Dramatis Personae through to Crossover and all the other mirror universe episodes. It gets to the point where “there’s an evil alien inside Keiko O’Brien” feels like a fairly bland iteration of this particular type of Star Trek story.

In a season where Deep Space Nine spends so much time pushing the boundaries of Star Trek, it is frustrating to see the show offer up such a generic installment.

Rom is in a bit of a fix...

Rom is in a bit of a fix…

Deep Space Nine has a somewhat complicated relationship with its elder siblings, which makes a great deal of sense. After all, it is the first Star Trek television show to launch while another was still on the air and the only Star Trek show to share the entirety of its run as one of several Star Trek television series on the air. In many ways Deep Space Nine was always going to be “the other Star Trek show”, existing in the shadow of higher profile (and more conventional) starship-bound siblings.

More than that, every Star Trek show has a unique relationship with what came before. It took Star Trek: The Next Generation quite some time to reconcile itself with the original cast and crew; Ira Steven Behr had to fight tooth and nail to include the name “Spock” in Sarek, for example. In contrast, Star Trek: Voyager almost immediately sought the comfort and safety the formula established by its predecessor. Star Trek: Enterprise tried to strike out on its own, but quickly reverted to pale imitation.

"Don't worry. Nobody will remember this episode by the week after next."

“Don’t worry. Nobody will remember this episode by the week after next.”

The production team working on Deep Space Nine had a strong affinity for the original Star Trek. After all, the writers had conspired to include three classic Klingons in Blood Oath and revisit the mirror universe in Crossover. Even then, Ira Steven Behr had been reluctant to commit to taking part in the big thirtieth anniversary celebrations for the franchise, almost passing on the opportunity to produce Trials and Tribble-ations because he was worried about Deep Space Nine compromising its own identity. (He would later laugh at his own reflexive anxiety.)

Indeed, Deep Space Nine frequently seems quite anxious and uncertain about its relationship to the rest of the canon. Most notably, The Jem’Hadar celebrated the end of The Next Generation by taking the opportunity to destroy a model of a Galaxy-Class starship while Defiant made a point to tie into the release of Star Trek: Generations by featuring a guest appearance from Jonathan Frakes as William T. Riker’s disenfranchised (and rebellious) twin. This is to say nothing of minor tweaks, like the suggestion Jake Sisko is a much more interesting Wesley Crusher.

"We're celebrating your recovery from the Agrathi ordeal!"

“We’re celebrating your recovery from the Agrathi ordeal!”

Even the larger themes of Deep Space Nine demand to be read by reference to the larger context of the Star Trek franchise, with the series best read as a response to (or an interrogation of) many of the underlying assumptions that Star Trek takes for granted. Homefront and Paradise Lost suggested that mankind’s utopia was more fragile than it would first appear. Inquisition would suggest that the Federation was not afraid to get its hands dirty. The entire fifth season is an extended meditation on whether it is possible to construct a Star Trek war story.

This is not to suggest that Deep Space Nine is inherently better or worse than any other Star Trek show, but to demonstrated the complex relationship that exists between it and the rest of the franchise. The simple fact is that Deep Space Nine works a lot better when it is playing off conventional Star Trek storytelling, rather than simply playing into it. This was particularly clear during the show’s first season, when episodes like Q-Less, Dax, The Passenger and If Wishes Were Horses found the series doing a pale imitation of The Next Generation.

"Consider this payback for Power Play."

“Consider this payback for Power Play.”

The major problem with The Assignment is that it feels very much like the kind of generic Star Trek story that is better suited to The Next Generation or Voyager than to Deep Space Nine. After all, this is not the first time that the O’Briens’ marriage has been disrupted by a sociopathic body-hijacking entity. In some ways, The Assignment is a reversal of the dynamic in Power Play; this time around, it is a possessed Keiko O’Brien that holds Miles hostage. (Although pah!wraith!Keiko is at least more subtle than body!jacked!Miles.)

The problem with the premise of The Assignment is in many ways the same problem that haunts a lot of the later mirror universe episodes. The leads on The Next Generation and Voyager are typically presented as unambiguously heroic, so there is some fun to be had in flipping that idea on its head and seeing those actors play scenery-chewing bad guys. On Deep Space Nine, the characters tend to be a lot more ambiguous and nuanced. The Assignment was broadcast directly following … Nor the Battle to the Strong, an episode in which a panicked Jake left Bashir to die.

A sharp drop in quality.

A sharp drop in quality.

As a result, sticking in an “evil alien possession” plot thread feels clumsy and heavy-handed. To be fair, it is great to see Deep Space Nine giving Rosalind Chao something to play beyond “loving wife” or “angry at or disappointed in Miles”, and she relishes the opportunity. However, pah!wraith!Keiko feels too much like a cartoon villain for this episode to work. More than that, the episode hinges on a miraculous technobabble solution to work, with Miles effectively engineering his way out of the problem using “a massive chroniton array.”

To be fair, the story plays reasonably fair. pah!wraith!Keiko has forced Miles to construct a weapon to murder the wormhole aliens. Once Miles deduces that pah!wraith!Keiko is a wormhole alien herself, it is a perfectly logical leap to use the weapon against her instead. Helpfully, pah!wraith!Keiko even cues Miles into the fact that the weapon works fast enough to stop her from killing her host. “The blast’ll last only a fraction of a second. They’ll all be dead before they even see it.” Of course, the wormhole aliens don’t perceive time like that, but let’s go with it.

"There can be only one!"

“There can be only one!”

Still, it feels like an overly tidy resolution to an overly contrived premise. Somehow, pah!wraith!Keiko trusts Miles to operate the weapon even after he has explicitly confirmed that he knows it can kill wormhole aliens. Conveniently enough, it is quick enough that the alien cannot murder its host. Everything ends up neatly filed away, and business continues as usual. Compared to the messy resolutions of episodes of earlier fifth season episodes like Apocalypse Rising or The Ship, it all feels rather safe and bland.

The Assignment is the first script credited to writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, who had contributed the story for Rules of Engagement during the fourth season. The duo would join the Deep Space Nine writing staff at the end of the fifth season, following the departure of veteran Robert Hewitt Wolfe.In some respects, this is remarkable. The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine featured scripts from Michael Taylor, Lisa Klink, Jane Espenson and Bryan Fuller. It seems strange that Weddle and Thompson should end up on staff.

"What's got two ears and a plan to murder the Prophets?"

“What’s got two ears and a plan to murder the Prophets?”

Thompson recalls the constructive and inclusive process employed by Ronald D. Moore when developing Rules of Engagement into a teleplay, and cites it as very helpful in prepping The Assignment for the show:

We heard them take our idea, bend it, twist it, and forge it into what became Rules of Engagement. Ron wrote the teleplay. It came out great. We thanked him, and he sent us copies of every draft. That was where our education truly began, because it was revision after revision — as the writers honed the show into the final shooting draft. Later, on the strength of an X-Files spec we wrote, Ira gave us a chance to try a teleplay, The Assignment. They were impressed with the work and gave us a chance to do another when they bought our story, Business as Usual. At that point, Robert left DS9, and the remaining guys asked us to join them. In the crucible of the next two seasons, Ira, Ron, Rene, and Hans turned us into television professionals.

However, Weddle and Thompson would prove one of the least reliable writing teams on the staff. They produced great episodes like Inquisition and Treachery, Faith and the Great River, but they were also responsible for generic scripts like One Little Ship, Time’s Orphan or Extreme Measures.

Combing the record for clues.

Combing the record for clues.

Indeed, The Assignment demonstrates many of the same problems that haunt Weddle and Thompson’s weaker scripts. It is a generic science-fiction premise, usually hinging on a fairly large plot contrivance and lacking in a strong character hook. It is an episode that could just as easily have been pitched to The Next Generation or Voyager, reliant on technobabble to drive it. There is no emotional core to the episode, which explains why Weddle and Thompson’s two “O’Brien must suffer” episodes are the weakest of the bunch by a considerable margin.

After all, the best “O’Brien must suffer” episodes hinge on the character’s everyman appeal, the charming relatability that Colm Meaney brings to Miles Edward O’Brien. Regardless of the sci-fi high concepts that drive them, episodes like Whispers and Hard Time tap into some very basic and recognisable fears. In Whispers, O’Brien comes to suspect that his friends and colleagues are keeping secrets and conspiring behind his back. In Hard Time, O’Brien is confronted with the prospect that he might be a fundamentally violent man.

Take my wife...

Take my wife…

Both The Assignment and Time’s Orphan flirt with recognisable anxieties. The Assignment would work rather well as an analogy for divorce, for O’Brien discovering that his wife has changed suddenly or that she is not the person that he believed her to be. Time’s Orphan could tap into the fears that all parents face about children growing up too fast and finding themselves alone in the world. However, both The Assignment and Time’s Orphan are ultimately too in love with their crazier concepts to grapple with the more interesting subtext.

To be fair, there is a sense that the production team recognise the problems with The Assignment. Given that Ira Steven Behr had voiced his frustration about the generic nature of episodes like The Passenger, it makes sense that the writing staff would make little tweaks and adjustments to integrate The Assignment into the larger framework of Deep Space Nine. Hinging rather heavily on Bajoran mythology, The Assignment insists rather aggressively that it is not a throwaway episode. The script strains to tie itself back into the world of the series.

Who Prophets?

Who Prophets?

It does this by introducing the concept of the pah wraiths, a concept that will become important to the show as it presses forward. Keiko becomes possessed by the pah wraith while visiting “the fire caves”, a location mentioned in The Nagus and which will eventually appear in What You Leave Behind. In fact, the concept of the pah wraiths dates back to earlier drafts of The Nagus, wherein there was a reference to “watching out for pagh-wraiths” in “the fire caverns.” The spelling is notably different than that employed in their actual appearances.

The introduction of the pah wraiths in The Assignment is another example of the fifth season pushing forward, introducing major new concepts that will be vitally important to the series’ endgame. In fact, given the major impact that the pah wraiths have on the overall arc of the show, it is surprising that they are introduced in such a generic and bland episode. Then again, that is the way that Deep Space Nine works; the production staff very rarely map out the finer points of the show’s future arcs, instead preferring to develop stories organically.

Sleeping with the enemy.

Sleeping with the enemy.

Over the course of Deep Space Nine, a number of vital elements have had rather inauspicious beginnings. Gul Dukat only appeared in two episodes of the first season, Emissary and Duet. Garak only appeared in a single episode of that first year, Past Prologue. Weyoun was killed off in his first appearance, in To the Death. Damar was little more than a named extra in his own debut, Return to Grace. Rom’s early characterisation in episodes like The Nagus and Necessary Evil can be hard to reconcile with his later characterisation.

Similarly, characters who were introduced to fill seemingly important roles in the story were frequently dropped entirely. Shakaar Edon was introduced in Shakaar as a major political force on Bajor, but he only appeared in two further episodes of the series (Crossfire and The Begotten) which emphasised his role as Kira’s boyfriend. George Primmin was introduced as Odo’s Starfleet equivalent in The Passenger and Move Along Home, but never appeared again. It seems clear that the writing staff were not always sure what concepts or characters would work out of the gate.

Looking out for his family.

Looking out for his family.

Despite their subsequent importance to the long-term arcs of Deep Space Nine, the introduction of the pah wraiths in The Assignment feels like a serious misstep. It would be bad enough if this were their only appearance, but the show seems to double-down on the ill-advised decision in virtually every subsequent episode focusing upon them. Covenant is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, and is undoubtedly the episode that makes the best use of the pah wraiths as a concept.

The problem with the pah wraiths is that they are, by their nature, reductive. They make Deep Space Nine more generic and more conventional by their presence. They are the sort of scenery-chewing one-dimensional antagonists that have never really existed on Deep Space Nine to this point. After all, it is impossible to imagine a script rendering the pah wraiths as tragic as The Abandoned or Hippocratic Oath makes the Jem’Hadar or Treachery, Faith and the Great River makes the Vorta.

"He's really phoning it in to these briefings."

“He’s really phoning it in to these briefings.”

Indeed, the pah wraiths serve as the most obvious and blatant signifier of “evil” in the cosmology of Deep Space Nine. They have all the more complexity or ambiguity of the avatars of good and evil that were assembled in The Savage Curtain. More than that, their presence corrupts and taints other characters. Although Deep Space Nine adopts a reductive approach to Gul Dukat in Waltz, it is his flirtation with the pah wraiths that really solidifies the character’s transformation into cartoon supervillain, complete with the murder of a regular character.

The same is true of Kai Winn. For most of the series’ seven seasons, Winn is a fascinating character. Motivated primarily by her own self-interest, Winn is driven by her own sense of self-righteousness. She is quite clearly an antagonist, but one very much grounded in the real world. Winn feels like the perfect embodiment of the self-serving autocrat that embodies everything that Deep Space Nine fears about authorities and structures. However, aligning her with the pah wraiths in The Changing Face of Evil feels reductive.

A whole new array of problems...

A whole new array of problems…

In fact, the introduction of the pah wraiths even serves to undercut the wormhole aliens, by forcing one of the show’s strangest concepts into a much more conventional role. After all, The Assignment frames the pah wraiths in terms of traditional Christian demons, and later episodes run with that characterisation. As William Cassidy reflects in What Evil Lurks Beyond the Stars?:

Keiko’s possession allows us to make specific references to earthly religions, especially Christianity. Any reader of the Gospels of the New Testament is well familiar with the miracles of Jesus. Prominent among them are the exorcisms of demons from human beings. Most of the time the reasons for possession are obscure; it seems that humans are simply comfortable abodes for demons. But these demons are generally understood to be in league with Satan, who tries unsuccessfully to subvert Jesus’ mission by tempting him with earthly glory. But there is a case of possession in which Satan’s plan reflects that of the Pah-wraith: to destroy the good by human interference. The Gospels of Luke and John state that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas is preceded by a possession: “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him [Jesus] to them. Jesus knows that he will be betrayed and identifies Judas as the betrayer. Were these modern writers, we would understand the description metaphorically, but ancient writers lived in a world where people routinely believed in the reality of demonic possession. In some of the Gospels, then, Satan uses Judas as a means to accomplish the death of Jesus. He does this by entering into him and causing him to do evil. Once the act is accomplished, Judas is remorseful and commits suicide (according to both Matthew and Acts). The parallel between these possessions for the purpose of accomplishing cosmic evil is crystal-clear.”

According to Rom’s summary of the Bajoran religion, “the Pah-wraiths used to live in the wormhole. They were part of the Celestial Temple.” Then “they were cast out of the Temple, exiled to the caves where they were imprisoned in crystal fire cages and forbidden to ever return lest they face the wrath of the true Prophets.” In short, they are very much “fallen angels” in the tradition of Christian belief.

Food for the soul.

Food for the soul.

The pah wraiths are not only a clumsy and simplistic idea of themselves, they have the effect of making the Prophets seem a lot less interesting. With the pah wraiths cast as demons, the Prophets are cast as more traditional religious deities. From around this point in the show, the Prophets are more firmly tied to Christian iconography and concepts. They provide Sisko with prophetic visions of looming apocalypse in Rapture. They provide a twist on the parting of the Red Sea in Sacrifice of Angels. Sisko is cast as Jesus in Shadows and Symbols.

This is all very conventional, and this is without getting into the generic “good versus evil” dynamic that informs the conflict between the Prophets and the pah wraiths that bubbles through the rest of the show, most notably in the apocalyptic fight for Bajor’s future in The Reckoning and in the definition of Sisko’s function as Emissary in What You Leave Behind. The pah wraiths are defined as monsters and demons, which leaves the Prophets to be cast as gods and angels. It is a very hokey (and pseudo Christian) slant on the show’s mythology.

Crawl good, baby. Crawl good.

Crawl good, baby.
Crawl good.

It also erases a lot of the more interesting aspects of the Bajoran religion on Deep Space Nine. In some ways, the Bajoran religion could be seen as an expression of Michael Piller’s contemporary fascination with New Age theology and spirituality, an obsession that would infuse his later work like Tattoo or Star Trek: Insurrection. However, Deep Space Nine never felt quite as condescending or patronising (or even awkward) in its handling of Bajoran spirituality. Although the religion seemed vaguely eastern in aesthetic and style, it also felt unique.

The Prophets were part of this. The Prophets were much more interesting in the first four seasons of the show, existing as aliens who existed outside of time and beyond concepts of good and evil. There is a very strong sense of the Prophets as “other” in the larger context of Deep Space Nine, as something looming beyond mankind’s capacity to comprehend. After all, there is something horrific about their casual manipulation of Grand Negus Zek in Prophet Motive, all for the crime of offending their sensibilities.

Plenty of Rom in the holding cells.

Plenty of Rom in the holding cells.

More than that, the first four seasons thread an interesting line with the Prophets, wondering whether the Prophets are simply sufficiently advanced aliens or whether they are actually gods. One of the more interesting aspects of Deep Space Nine is the show’s willingness to accept that both possibilities might be true, that “god” might just be a label assigned to concepts that exist beyond human comprehension. It was a dynamic that was distinct from any other in the Star Trek franchise, the Prophets existing apart from characters like Trelane or Q.

The Assignment brushes all of that away in a casual manner, all for the sake of a throwaway “alien possession” story. Whereas earlier episodes suggested that the Prophets were neither good nor evil, the presence of the pah wraiths slips the balance. Not once does Deep Space Nine explore why the pah wraiths were cast out of the celestial temple, which might have made for an interesting Miltonian twist on the narrative. Never does Deep Space Nine suggest a motive for the pah wraiths beyond seizing the wormhole and killing the wormhole aliens.

A heartfelt reunion.

A heartfelt reunion.

If the pah wraiths are to be cast as unambiguously evil, as The Assignment makes clear, then the Prophets are slotted into the role of “unquestionable good.” It feels like an simplistic moral distinction in a show that favours ambiguity. While the Dominion are very clearly constructed as an evil empire, Deep Space Nine still affords them some sympathy and nuance. The show demonstrates that the Founders have good reason to fear “solids”, and that the Federation is itself not above clandestine operations and biological warfare when the chips are down.

Interestingly enough for an episode that hinges on such a key part of the Bajoran religion, Kira Nerys is entirely absent. Her absence is particularly conspicuous during the obligatory exposition scenes at the birthday party, when Miles comes to realise exactly what has taken up residence inside his wife. Without Kira present, it falls to Jake and Odo to first mention the concept of the pah wraiths, which is a rather odd character choice. It is hard to imagine Odo gossiping about Bajoran folklore to Jake, for example.

A wife hangs in the balance.

A wife hangs in the balance.

The reason for Kira’s absence from the episode is quite reasonable, as is the somewhat clumsy way that the story works around it. Actor Nana Visitor had actually gone into labour on the set, as she recalls in Hidden File 04:

I’m of the era that… “Actor, you’re lucky to be able to have a baby and keep your show.” And they didn’t… they didn’t put me in the background. They didn’t just have me holding things in front. I was pregnant. They wrote it in. What a gift that was, that I could just keep doing interesting work that whole time and I didn’t have to feel like I was hiding.

However, I took it to an extreme. I became… “No one is going to feel the fact that I am pregnant. I am not gonna let this affect anyone.” As a matter of fact, if someone brought me a chair, I’d say, “No, no, no. That’s okay. I can stand.” I was in labour on the set, hunched down. “Are you okay?” “Yeah, let’s keep going.”

I really played it too tough on myself. I took two weeks off to give birth and then went right back to work. And it was physically really punishing. It was really hard. I wouldn’t do it like that again.

That shows a phenomenal commitment to the show, which is a huge credit to Visitor as a performer. It is also a credit to the production team, whose top priority was finding a way for Nana Visitor to stay involved in the production of the show.

The wraith of pah(n)...

The wraith of pah(n)…

The birth of Django would keep Visitor away from the set during the production of Let He is Without Sin…, which ultimately meant that Visitor had the good fortune to miss out on the fifth season’s two weakest episodes.

8 Responses

  1. I think the central problem in this episode is the use of Rom. Specifically, that he is in this episode at all. The key to the success of all the good torture O’Brien episodes, Whispers, Hard Time, etc, is that O’Brien usually feels very isolated from everybody, and initially this episode continues on this trend, but then about half way through he and Rom begin to share the spotlight, which wrecks the tension, as all the claustrophobia evaporates. That said, I do like some aspects of this episode. The music in this episode is quite good for the Rick Berman era, and foreshadows the excellent music to come in episodes like Call to Arms and Sacrifice of Angels. I also really like Rosalind Chao’s performance in this episode, especially the scene where she calls O’Brien while combing Molly’s hair.

    • I should confess that I rewatched Warlord shortly after writing this.

      A significant section of my Warlord review is spent insisting The Assignment isn’t THAT bad.

      • I’m going to assume that means you found Warlord truly terrible. The main thing I remember about it is that it gives Jennifer Lein a chance to act like she is in the mirror universe.

      • Oh, it is truly spectacular terrible. Lien is trying, though. (And she’s far from the weakest member of that cast.) A lot of my issues are basic scripting problems, and a reminder of how good the DS9 writers’ room was that even their subpar effort worked a lot better than Voyager’s riff on the same basic concept.

  2. I like the Pah’Wraiths, and some of my favorite episodes center around them. Then again, I like practically everything about DS9 minus the Bajoran politics that was featured in the first two seasons, aka “DS9 The Boring Years”

    • On a totally esoteric nerdy note, the Pah-Wraiths look like the Ori from the last two seasons of Stargate SG-1, just not totally lame 😛

    • I’d respectfully disagree. I much prefer the early Bajor stories to the later ones. The pah wraiths just make everything much simpler.

      • I’m admittedly with the popular opinion here that I geniuenly dislike most of the first two seasons of DS9, it’s all incredibly boring, esp most of the early Bajor, which afaik is why they ditched that focus

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