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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Soldiers of the Empire (Review)

Soldiers of the Empire is a very effective illustration of just how far Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was willing to push the Star Trek franchise.

It is an episode that unfolds primarily on a Klingon Bird of Prey. This is nothing new. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation produced A Matter of Honour in its second season, assigning Riker to serve on a Klingon ship as part of an exchange programme. However, that episode was told primary from a human perspective, the story centring on Riker adjusting and adapting to an alien culture before saving the day. When Worf joined the Klingon fleet in Redemption, Part II, the story kept cutting back to life on the Enterprise in his absence.

"Mahk-cha!"

“Mahk-cha!”

In contrast, Soldiers of the Empire is primarily focused upon the Klingon cast and the Klingon crew. Worf and Dax join the IKS Rotarran to support General Martok in his first command since escaping the Dominion prison camp at the end of By Inferno’s Light, but they are very much bystanders. Although Worf and Dax provide vital narrative functions in introducing the audience to Klingon customs and cultures, the narrative arc of the show belongs to Martok and the crew of the Rotarran. This is not a story about Worf and Dax, this is a story about Martok.

The result is an episode that really pushes the limits of the storytelling possibilities on Deep Space Nine, a reminder that the production team remain as ambitious as ever in the show’s fifth season. Soldiers of the Empire suffers from a few minor plotting issues, but it is exciting and compelling in a way that captures the very best of Deep Space Nine.

A sharp stabbing pain.

A sharp stabbing pain.

When he arrived on The Next Generation, producer Michael Piller set a very clear agenda for storytelling. According to Piller, every episode of the show should be about one of the main characters in some way or another. This was a very simple idea, but it captured a lot of what was absent from the first two seasons of the show. By forcing his writing staff to find ways to focus stories on individual characters, Piller helped to develop the Next Generation ensemble from a collection of archetypes to a bunch of highly likable individuals.

The third season of The Next Generation represented a massive up-turn in quality from the previous two seasons because the crew made a conscious effort to use their scripts to say things about their characters. Booby Trap might easily have been a generic “anomaly of the week” episode, but instead became an interesting study of Geordi’s personal dysfunction. The Enemy was not just a stock space Cold War story, it was a survival thriller for Geordi and a moral dilemma for Worf.

"Okay, but I'm still your favourite captain, right?"

“Okay, you can have the transfer, but I’m still your favourite captain, right?”

It could reasonably be argued that Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise lost track of themselves when they lost sight of that basic storytelling sensibility. Voyager and Enterprise mostly tried to ground their generic science-fiction stories in characters, but in ways that avoided depth or complexity. What does Favourite Son say about Harry Kim as a person, despite being the centre of the story? How does Silent Enemy illuminate Malcolm Reed beyond his love of pineapple? These shows lost interest in digging into the primary characters.

In contrast, Deep Space Nine took that basic storytelling philosophy as suggested by Michael Piller and pushed it outwards. Deep Space Nine stories are often rooted in character beats and developments, but those characters are not always the primary cast. Deep Space Nine is willing to devote entire episodes to fleshing out recurring guest stars and building episodes around them. There are several ways in which the show chooses to tell these stories while still keeping focus on the primary cast.

That's it, use your Nog-in.

That’s it, use your Nog-in.

The most obvious is the delegation of subplots to supporting or minor characters. Most of the development for Rom and Nog tends to come in the background of episodes. Nog’s decision to join Starfleet plays out as a subplot in Heart of Stone, while the primary plot focuses on Odo. Rom and Leeta’s relationship is a secondary concern in Doctor Bashir, I Presume, while the bulk of the episode focuses on the dysfunction of the Bashir family unit. Rom’s proposal to Leeta is the subject of Ferengi Love Songs, while their marriage is a small part of Call to Arms.

However, the show also develops its supporting cast by effectively using its primary players as a window to explore and enlighten. The Wire is very much an episode about Elim Garak that uses Julian Bashir as a prism, while Improbable Cause does something similar with Odo. Waltz will let Sisko witness for Dukat. Weyoun will receive similar treatment in Treachery, Faith and the Great River, embarking upon a roadtrip with Odo. This is not a bad approach to character development.

Disarming questions.

Disarming questions.

Soldiers of the Empire essentially uses this approach to delve into the character of General Martok. Martok is a fascinating character, introduced as a foil in The Way of the Warrior and exposed as a changeling in Apocalypse Rising before the production team decided that they wanted to keep actor J.G. Hertzler around as a recurring player. Hertzler is amazing in the role, perhaps the most archetypal Klingon character in the franchise’s history. It is no surprise that Enterprise brought him back to play another Klingon in Judgment.

Soldiers of the Empire is rooted once again in the production team’s gradual shift towards serialisation and long-form storytelling. This is most obvious in the premise of the episode, which is very much part of a larger march towards an inevitable war. The Dominion arrived in the Alpha Quadrant in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, and episodes like Ties of Blood and Water and Soldiers of the Empire both underscore the sense that this is a game-changer. “The Jem’Hadar attacked a Federation starship near the border less than a week ago,” Martok states. War is coming.

"You're telling me that I can't wire a Wii remote into the viewscreen?"

“You’re telling me that I can’t wire a Wii remote into the viewscreen?”

However, Soldiers of the Empire is also rooted in long-form character development. It is an episode that is rooted in character beats and dynamics from By Inferno’s Light, insisting that neither Worf nor Martok have forgotten the events of the mid-season two-parter, even though it happened more than four episodes earlier. Given that the third season of Voyager seems to have trouble remembering that the crew should be preparing for an inescapable confrontation with Borg, this is no small thing.

There is a certain clumsiness to this attempt at character development, as Worf explains to Sisko why he owes such a debt to Martok. “He saved my life in the Dominion prison camp,” Worf states. Sisko seems surprised by this. “Oh?” he asks. “You didn’t put that in your mission report.” It is a very awkward gesture to the audience, an acknowledgement that Worf is referring to an event that was not put on screen. “It was a personal matter, not something that belongs in an official report,” Worf insists, before offering a slight addition to the earlier script.

The officers' mess.

The officers’ mess.

There is a sense that Soldiers of the Empire is overly elaborate in forging this connection, as Worf goes into great detail about what should have been a major moment (Worf considering suicide-by-Jem’Hadar) that never came up in the episode. After all, it would simply have been enough for Worf to state that he could never have survived in the prison without Martok’s support; that fits easily with the events on screen and leaves room for ambiguity. The detail of Worf’s story just draws attention to the fact that the individual moment was never even suggested on screen.

Martok’s character continuity is much more convincing. Martok is a man suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder following his time as a prisoner of war during which his captors would beat him on an almost daily basis. As Dax observes, he seems like “a man who seems to have left behind more than just an eye in that prison camp.” That sort of experience has to leave a psychological scar upon a person, and it is reassuring to see Deep Space Nine acknowledge it by incorporating it into an episode plot.

Commanding presence.

Commanding presence.

Indeed, the episode’s opening scene does an excellent job of establishing this theme, with Bashir suggesting that he could replace Martok’s lost eye and heal the wound left by the Jem’Hadar. Martok refuses. “I do not want an artificial eye!” Apparently, there were real discussions behind the scenes about whether the character should have two eyes, with Hertzler objecting to the proposal:

“I said not to give Martok the new eye because it wouldn’t be Klingon to get an artificial one. He would rather wear the scars visibly which is why he ended up with one eye. The other reason is that pirates work and secondly I have a bad left eye anyway!”

Hertzler certainly has a point, in that Klingons are essentially larger than life characters and there is no harm in having a major Klingon character who looks a little bit like a pirate. At the same time, Martok’s missing eye works very well as a statement of character. It is a permanent scar, one that he obviously did not have before he was captured. As such, it is a constant reminder of the pain and hurt that he has suffered.

Seeing eye to eye.

Seeing eye to eye.

Star Trek has been (to this point) largely episodic. The trauma inflicted upon characters does not tend to carry over from episode to episode. This might not be a bad thing, given the Lovecraftian horrors that the franchise tends to construct. It might be good that Picard does not dwell too heavily on the events of The Inner Light or Chain of Command, Part II. It is probably for the best that Harry Kim does not ruminate upon what happened in Deadlock or The Chute. Even Miles O’Brien does not deal overtly with the consequences of episodes like Visionary or Hard Time.

There have been exceptions, of course. Captain Picard’s trauma at the hands of the Borg in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II echoes across the character’s remaining appearances from Family to I, Borg to Star Trek: First Contact. However, Deep Space Nine is really the first show in the franchise to really grasp that actions have long-standing psychological consequences. This makes sense, given that Emissary was a story rooted in responses to past trauma, whether the Battle of Wolf 359 or the Cardassian Occupation.

"Thank goodness everybody on this station is so well-adjusted."

“Thank goodness everybody on this station is so well-adjusted.”

Still, it is nice to see that character beat has not been forgotten. It is a very strong storytelling choice to focus on Martok as a character who has clearly been psychologically wounded by everything that he has endured. It helps to ground Soldiers of the Empire in a very straightforward and very relatable character arc. Worf and Dax are essentially passengers in a story that is very much about Martok finding a way back to the man who he used to be. There is a strong emotional hook there.

However, there is something even more fascinating about Soldiers of the Empire. This is a story that is very much rooted in Klingon culture and told from a Klingon perspective. It is not a story about human characters looking in and judging an alien society, it is a story featuring a primarily Klingon cast operating primarily in their own element. Even Dax is a character who has been embraced and accepted by Klingon culture. As such, Soldiers of the Empire does not have a relatable “outsider” character to comment upon Klingon culture from the audience’s point of view.

He never thought be'd so gladzia to see Jadzia.

He never thought be’d so gladzia to see Jadzia.

This is a reminder of how thoroughly Deep Space Nine embraced the idea of a multicultural future. It is the first Star Trek show to really consider what life is like outside of Starfleet, building upon ideas seeded on The Next Generation. As Chris Gregory argues in Parallel Narratives:

It is emphasised that DS9 is a multicultural community in which there will be less focus on the ‘military’ life of Starfleet as seen on TNG’s Enterprise, and in which relationships between characters will be less bound by their rank and position.

This is a Star Trek show where four members of the nine-person regular cast do not wear Starfleet uniforms, where the lead character’s son decides not to pursue a career in Starfleet but to do something else with his life, where the Ferengi are developed from an awful one-note joke into a complex multifaceted society.

Defiant in his will to defy cultural norms.

Defiant in his will to defy cultural norms.

With all of that in mind, it makes perfect sense that Deep Space Nine would feel comfortable enough with the Klingons that it could build an entire episode around a cast of Klingon guest stars on a Klingon ship on a Klingon mission. This was a radical idea in the context of nineties Star Trek, and it is very much to the credit of everybody working on Deep Space Nine that it worked out as well as it did. After all, it says something about the development of the Klingons as a race that they can support an entire episode in this manner.

The attention paid to the Klingons in Soldiers of the Empire provides a sharp contrast to the rather shallow treatment of the race in Real Life. In that Voyager episode, the writers treated the Klingons as a race of violent thugs. Even ignoring the uncomfortable racial subtext, the Voyager writers tend to treat their alien species as generic monocultures. In contrast, Deep Space Nine tends to flesh out and develop its supporting characters in a way that sheds light upon the society from which they emerged.

"... and then Riker sent us all down to an alien sex planet where the only minor on the team was sentenced to death." It's Chief O'Brien, a regular Riker raconteur.

“… and then Riker sent us all down to an alien sex planet where the only minor on the team was sentenced to death for breaking a window.”
It’s Chief O’Brien, a regular Riker raconteur.

Early in the episode, O’Brien returns to the story beat from A Matter of Honour, the cultural tradition that allows a Klingon to assassinate his superior and claim a promotion. This is a nifty concept in theory, but it is hard to imagine it working in practice. “That’s crazy,” Kira observes. “How can a ship function like that?” Dax essentially lays out the nuance of the custom. “It’s not quite that chaotic. The social and military hierarchy of a Klingon vessel’s very strictly enforced. A subordinate can only challenge his direct superior and only under certain conditions.”

This is a great example of how Deep Space Nine approaches alien cultures, understanding that there is generally a sizable gap between the values that those cultures promote as ideals and the people who live within those cultures. Not every Klingon is the perfect Klingon. “The Klingons are as diverse a people as any,” Dax tells her friends. “Some of them are strong, and some of them are weak.” It is a simple idea, but Deep Space Nine‘s understanding of it serves to elevate the series. It is something the show developed from The Next Generation.

"I'm sorry, Chief. But I refuse to believe that Riker was the only rational person left on the crew when they were infected by a drunken promiscuity virus."

“I’m sorry, Chief. But I refuse to believe that Riker was the only rational person left on the crew when they were infected by a drunken promiscuity virus.”

Although Worf is by no means the central character in Soldiers of the Empire, he helps to underscore this point. A recurring theme of Worf’s character arc (especially on Deep Space Nine) is the idea that Worf is a character who has internalised the Klingon ideal to a ridiculous degree. Worf is more Klingon than most Klingons, because he has learned about the culture from books and stories rather than practical experience. This has been a key part of Worf’s arc dating back to stories like The Emissary or Sins of the Father, but it really comes out on Deep Space Nine.

When Worf assumes the role of Martok’s second-in-command, it is almost as though he is role-playing at being a Klingon officer. It is akin to a stage performance. “I am Worf, son of Mogh,” he declares. “I now take my place as First Officer. I serve the Captain, but I stand for the crew. Who brings the record of battle for this ship?” His passionate delivery is contrasted with the muted response. “I, Kornan son of Shovak, weapons officer of the ship Rotarran, present the glorious record of our honour and hope that you may find us worthy of your leadership.”

"Well, it could be worse. This could be Barge of the Dead."

“Well, it could be worse. This could be Barge of the Dead.”

There is an interest contrast there, and it is enough to build an episode around. As Ronald D. Moore explained in Hidden File 06, his original pitch for the episode was quite different and that it was eventually whittled down to the concept of doing a crossover episode with an imaginary spin-off:

Soldiers of the Empire was originally going to be this big kind of episode, where Worf was on the Bird of Prey to do a mission and they come to this planet and there’s a bunch of Klingons gone missing and they beam down and… there’s just this abandoned outpost and there’s a river and there’s a boatman who comes and throws coins. And it was very sort of like… you’ve almost found Sto’Vo’Kor. You’ve found the entrance to the land of the dead. Which is fascinating. But it was too much to put in one episode. So eventually that idea sort of lived in Voyager and became the night of… Barge of the Dead, they turned that into.

But with Soldiers of the Empire, what Ira wanted to do – which I thought was great, was “Let’s do an episode of Star Trek: Klingon! What would an episode of Star Trek: Klingon look like? Just go on the Klingon ship and tell the whole thing with them and never leave.” And that was great. That gave it a texture and a richness. And I wanted to see how a Bird of Prey actually operated. Because you’d just seen bits and pieces in the movies, and in the series to see little bits of how the bridge would work and all these sort of bizarre honour rules. But what would it really be like to be aboard the ship and work there every day? Have these sorts of characters?

Once again, it is worth singling out the commitment from every member of the production team to make a story like this happen. Soldiers of the Empire is a very strange episode of television in the context of nineties broadcast television. It might not be as odd as something like X-Cops or Hush or Who Monitors the Birds?, but it is ambitious.

Who worfs the worfs?

Who worfs the worfs?

Given the narrative conservatism of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, it is remarkable that the episode got made in the first place. After all, the third season of Voyager is packed with all sorts of clumsy creative compromises that hobble otherwise interesting ideas. Macrocosm was originally supposed to be a silent episode of Voyager, before it was smothered in pointless exposition. Darkling was supposed to be a psycho-sexual thriller before it was reworked into something a lot more generic. Real Life squandered an interesting premise with a techno-babble subplot.

In the nineties, television was generally regarded as rigid and formulaic. Television series had established formats, and part of the appeal of a weekly television show was the reliability of that format. Audiences tuning into a show generally knew what to expect from that show; they knew the primary cast, the premise, the location, the structure. While throwing all that out the window for a week does not seem like a big deal in the era of “peak TV”, it was a bold choice for a late nineties Star Trek spin-off to do something like this.

A fun shoot for all involved.

A fun shoot for all involved.

Soldiers of the Empire feels almost like a glimpse into a parallel universe where there is a weekly Star Trek show centring on a bunch of Klingon characters on a Klingon ship. Even director LeVar Burton gets in on the act, framing and composing shots in ways that consciously evoke the stock televisual language of the franchise. As J.G. Hertzler explains in Hidden File 09:

LeVar directed Soldiers of the Empire, which was one of the great ones. For me, I mean. Ron’s writing, LeVar’s directing. You know, LeVar is such a great director – and he’s such a great director for Star Trek – because he’s walked in the shoes for so long, both as an actor and as an actor on Star Trek. So he knows what it’s like from the other side, big time. And he brings a great understanding for the actor, as well as vision from the director’s side, to what he does. You speak in shorthand after a while on the show, and he said… I was sitting in the captain’s chair and LeVar’s down there and he says, “This is going to be your basic command chair shot. The captain’s chair. The Enterprise. Y’know.” And I said, “Thank you, LeVar, for giving me that shot. I appreciate that.”

LeVar Burton is easily one of the franchise’s most underrated directors, perhaps because he tends to be more highly regarded for his work with actors rather than his technical or mechanical expertise. Still, Burton has produced a number of memorable visual episodes. He tends to work well when playing with familiar iconography, like evoking The Searchers in Indiscretion. So in Soldiers of the Empire, he treats the Rotarran like the Enterprise.

A cut above.

A cut above.

Ronald D. Moore was the most logical choice to write this script. Moore is one of the most influential writers in the Star Trek canon, but one of his earliest contributions was in redefining the Klingons during the third season of The Next Generation. At the request of Michael Piller, Moore drafted a memo on Klingon culture. He also wrote Sins of the Father, which represented the franchise’s first trip to the Klingon home world. Although writers like Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe would also write big Klingon episodes, Moore will always be “the Klingon guy.”

Soldiers of the Empire is packed with clever little touches, demonstrating the ease with which Moore approaches these characters in this world. Worf casually alludes towards “tova’dok”, which is a word with no direct translation. When Sisko inquires about it, Worf explains, “There is no human word for it. It is a moment of clarity between two warriors on the field of battle. Much is said without the need for words.” It is a small touch, but is a very Klingon concept relying on a ridiculously heightened masculine brotherhood.

"Actually, I believe you humans have a word for it. Bromance."

“Actually, I believe you humans do have a word for it. Bromance.”

Moore’s sensibilities lend themselves to Klingon storytelling. His scripts have a very heightened theatrical quality to them, even in smaller character pieces like Doctor Bashir, I Presume. There are points at which Soldiers of the Empire feels positively Shakespearean. As characters, Klingons are naturally prone to emotive overstatement. “This ship is made for tears, not laughter,” Kornan advises Dax. “This ship and all the souls within its hull are cursed. Death and dishonour walk these corridors like members of the crew.”

That dialogue would seem ridiculous coming from a human character, but it works because Klingons have a natural “larger than life” quality to them. If the entire Star Trek universe has a very theatrical quality to it, even just based on the casting, Klingon characters seem to understand this. LeVar Burton plays into this stage sensibility. At one point, Worf dramatically crosses the bridge to whisper to Martok; however, it is ultimately a stage whisper loud enough that the camera can hear him from several feet away.

"I could easily have conveyed this information at this volume standing halfway across the room, but it would not have looked as impressive."

“I could easily have conveyed this information at this volume standing halfway across the room, but it would not have looked as impressive.”

Positioned as an episode of a non-existent Klingon-centric Star Trek spin-off, Soldiers of the Empire represents a very clear challenge. Moore has to effectively build what amounts to a new primary cast within forty-five minutes without clumsy exposition while still telling a satisfying story. This is a very difficult task. Voyager frequently has difficulty establishing and defining guest characters in episodes like Rise. It involves a delicate balance between over-stuffing the script with heavy-handed on-the-nose dialogue or populating it with cardboard cut-outs.

None of the new characters are especially memorable. However, Soldiers of the Empire takes the time to define each member of the crew in relation to one another. Leskit is loud and cynical, Kornan is quiet and depressed. There are hints of complex interpersonal dynamics at play even before the established characters join the crew. “I want to thank you for what you did in the mess hall,” Tavana states. Dax inquires, “Is Ortakin your par’Mach’kai?” None of these beats are innovative or groundbreaking, but they suggest that Moore has put effort into this imaginary spin-off.

Par'Mach Time.

Par’Mach Time.

To be fair, there is a certain amount of sense in building an entire episode around life on a Klingon ship. The Klingons are among the most iconic aliens in the Star Trek franchise. A Matter of Honour is one of the best episodes of the first two years of The Next Generation. While the Borg were the focus of the franchise’s first season-bridging cliffhanger, the Klingons were chosen to anchor the franchise’s second season-bridging cliffhanger. They are among the most recognisable aliens in popular culture. Of the franchise aliens, only Spock can really compete with them.

The Klingons hold fandom’s interest. Their minor appearance in Star Trek Into Darkness was treated as a pretty big deal. Keith R.A. deCandido has written an entire series of books (IKS Gorkan) set on board a Klingon ship. Robert O’Reilly headlined the game Star Trek: Klingon in May 1996, which invited the player to step into Klingon society. In fact, the anthem from that video game becomes part of the Star Trek canon in Soldiers of the Empire. It has even been suggested that Star Trek: Discovery might have a recurring focus on a Klingon crew.

"I'm telling you guys, that Captain Worf spin-off is still happening."

“I’m telling you guys, that Captain Worf spin-off is still happening.”

However, there is an interesting subtext to Soldiers of the Empire. Repeatedly over the course of the episode, the crew of the Rotarran contemplate their place in the universe. This existential crisis is prompted by the arrival of the Jem’Hadar in the Alpha Quadrant. It frequently seems like the Klingon characters are facing their own obsolescence, grappling with the thought that they have been displaced from their long-held spot at the top of the Star Trek franchise “warrior race” pyramid.

“They have no honour,” Ortakin protests. “You’re right,” Leskit agrees, embracing nihilism. “That’s why they’re better than us.” When Dax tries to shut him up, he cuts across her, “The Trill doesn’t want you to know the truth, my young friend, but you deserve to know the Jem’Hadar are smarter, they’re faster, and they’re stronger than we are!” Martok affirms this point later, “They’re soulless creatures, Worf, fighting for no goal, no purpose except to serve the Founders. They take no pleasure in what they do. Nothing is glorified, nothing affirmed.”

He's had it up to his neck (bones necklace)...

He’s had it up to his neck (bones necklace)…

It sound like dialogue lifted from a crime film, as older gangsters ruminate on the young blood that has risen up to replace them. The Klingons speak fondly of their campaigns against the Cardassians, even if Leskit has fashioned himself a necklace from Cardassian neckbones in a costuming choice that harks back to the iconic images of the Vietnam War and forward to The Siege of AR-558. The Jem’Hadar are presented as something different, as harbingers of a grim and hostile future without any of the values the Klingons hold dear.

This existential anxiety makes a great deal of sense. After all, the Klingons and the Jem’Hadar have a lot in common. They are both warrior species, that old science-fiction archetype. Both the Klingons and the Jem’Hadar draw heavily from western interpretations of samurai culture. The script for The Jem’Hadar even singled the Klingons as a point of reference, warning that “unlike the Klingons, they have no interest in honor or glory.” When the Jem’Hadar first appeared, vocal on-line fans even dismissed them as “lame Klingon rip-offs.”

Winner (Mar)toks All.

Winner (Mar)toks All.

The Jem’Hadar and the Klingons share a similar conceptual space. Actor Phil Morris even discussed those similarities and distinctions when asked about playing a member of each species in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:

Phil Morris had experienced the same thing when he was cast as a Klingon in Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places, but he found the Jem’Hadar he played in Rocks and Shoals was an entirely different animal. “Klingons are formally type-A personalities,” he says with a grin. “That’s how it was explained to me when I auditioned. They’re macho. They talk about how bad they are. But the Jem’Hadar are the baddest boys in the bar, so they don’t need to talk about it.”

There are obvious differences between the Klingons and the Jem’Hadar in terms of culture and society, with the Jem’Hadar disinterested in concepts like honour and the Klingons having overthrown their slave masters a millennia ago. However, the share a similar conceptual space in the Star Trek canon.

Engineering a mutiny.

Engineering a mutiny.

As a result, it makes sense that the Jem’Hadar would be presented as philosophical and existential threat to the Klingon Empire in a way that they are not considered to be to the Federation. The Klingons look at the Jem’Hadar and see a younger, leaner and meaner version of themselves. After all, characters like Goran’Agar in Hippocratic Oath and Remata’Klan in Rocks and Shoals feel very much like the spiritual descendents of the original Klingons like Kang in Day of the Dove and Kor in Errand of Mercy.

Of course, the reality is that the Klingons are far too popular to ever be supplanted by the Jem’Hadar. Deep Space Nine will never be the most iconic Star Trek series ever produced, even if it might be the most quietly influential. The Jem’Hadar are a fantastic creation, but they are a blip within the larger framework of the Star Trek universe. They only appearance outside of Deep Space Nine is as background extras in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Ferengi leave a big footprint in terms of the later series, in episodes like Inside Man or Acquisition.

"Nice try, Doctor. But you are still not theatrical enough to serve on the Rotarran."

“Nice try, Doctor. But you are still not theatrical enough to serve on the Rotarran.”

However, this anxiety makes a great deal of sense in the larger context of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine‘s approach to (and interrogation of) Klingon culture. One of the big recurring themes of the Rick Berman era is the sense that Klingon culture is rotting slowly from the inside. Heart of Glory suggested that there was no place for warriors within the Klingon Empire. However, later scripts like Sins of the Father and The Way of the Warrior questioned whether the Klingon Empire had ever resembled the self-image it had so carefully cultivated.

In that sense, Soldiers of the Empire is very much part of a larger ambivalence towards Klingon culture. The crew of the Rotarran find themselves confronted with another warrior species that represents a much purer distillation of their core values without pretending to be bound to concepts like honour. It is fascinating to see this aspect of the episode play out, even though no Jem’Hadar actually appear in the episode. There is only a fleeting glimpse of a Jem’Hadar ship on a viewscreen at one point in the story.

"It was totally awesome. But you'll just have to take my word for it."

“It was totally awesome. But you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

This might be the biggest issue with the episode. Soldiers of the Empire abridges Martok and the Rotarran’s redemptive arcs by cutting away from Martok’s defeat over Worf to their triumphant return to the station. The script tries to argue that the actual battle with the incoming wave of Jem’Hadar ships is ultimately inessential, but the decision to cut around the combat sequences feels like more of a cost-cutting measure. After all, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine has been a very expensive season of television.

Episodes like Apocalypse Rising and Trials and Tribble-ations cost a lot of money early in the season. There are any number of episodes late in the year with expansive guest casts, special effects requirements and new sets. Even Soldiers of the Empire has the look of a very expensive episode of Star Trek. Even if most the Rotarran sets could be taken out of storage and reassembled, the episode still features a very large supporting cast. Trying to budget a climactic battle sequence on top of that might have been too great an expense.

Like any sane captain, General Martok pauses to ask "what would Archer do?" He then does the exact opposite.

Like any sane captain, General Martok pauses to ask “what would Archer do?”
He then does the exact opposite.

Still, while the decision to cut away from that confrontation makes sense in terms of budget and can be justified in terms of narrative, it does mean that the climax of Soldiers of the Empire ultimately feels underwhelming. It feels as though the episode is missing a story beat, that the ending arrives too quickly. It throws the entire tempo of the episode off a bit. It is telling that when the show returns to life on a Klingon ship in Sons and Daughters and Once More Unto the Breach, the show is careful to include some sense of combat and battle.

That said, Soldiers of the Empire is an impressive episode of television and a reminder of Deep Space Nine‘s willingness to take creative risks. The episode has endured relatively well and seems to have been appreciated by the cast and crew. The production team were satisfied enough with the concept to return to the Rotarran once in each of the show’s final two seasons for Sons and Daughters and Once More Unto the Breach. Had Soldiers of the Empire come earlier in the run, the Rotarran might easily have become a fixture like the mirror universe or the Ferengi.

"I mean, it could be worse, Worf. Alexander or Kor could be here."

“I mean, it could be worse, Worf. Alexander or Kor could be here.”

Frequent Star Trek guest star Rick Worthy singles out his appearance in Soldiers of the Empire as one of his favourite memories of working on the franchise:

I loved that episode. I love the Klingons. They’re warriors with a code. They live for battle, honor, the taste of victory. I remember thinking, “This is so f—ing cool! I’m playing a Klingon, one of my favorite characters, on Star Trek DS9, one of my fave series, in an episode that’s all about Klingons!” We all had to learn the Klingon battle anthem, and to this day I can still sing it. I have some friends in Prague who arranged a tour of the National Theatre of Prague and the woman who gave us the tour allowed me to get up on stage and sing the Klingon battle anthem. It was awesome! To an audience of 5, but still awesome!

Given the popularity of the Klingons within Star Trek fandom, it makes sense that Soldiers of the Empire would be appreciated for the glimpse that it offers into the day-to-day realities of their lives.

A banner year.

A banner year.

Michael Dorn has also singled out Soldiers of the Empire (along with Once More Unto the Breach) as some of his favourite episodes of the franchise:

Well, there were two episodes in Deep Space Nine that I just thought, when it comes to Klingons and Worf, that I thought were just fabulous which were Soldiers of the Empire and Once More unto the Breach with Jon Colicos. Those were just brilliant, brilliant episodes, wonderfully written episodes. I think Ron Moore wrote the episodes and they were just brilliant, just brilliant. There were a bunch of episodes on Star Trek that dealt with Worf, I think that The Redemption part one and part two are great episodes, but I really loved the feel of those last two. We were actually on Klingon ships, we were in the Klingon Empire. They were fantastic, I think they were my two favorites.

Dorn might be a little biased, given that both episodes feature Worf heavily. However, as the credited regular with the most appearances in the franchise, his vote should count for something.

Klingon Drinking Songs proved far more popular than Ferengi Love Songs.

Klingon Drinking Songs proved far more popular than Ferengi Love Songs.

Soldiers of the Empire is not perfect, but few episodes are. Instead, it a fascinating change of pace that takes the time to focus its energy on a compelling recurring guest and one of the franchise’s most iconic alien species. It is an ambitious piece of television and a bold piece of Star Trek, and its very existence is a credit to the production team’s willingness to push themselves outside the franchise’s comfort zone in interesting ways.

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

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6 Responses

  1. A slight correction: Martok’s ship in “Once More Unto the Breach” wasn’t the Rotarran, but the Ch’Tang.

    That can be explained easily enough in-universe as the Rotarran being in for repairs or something like that, but for the life of me, I have no idea what writer Ron Moore’s real world reasons for using a different ship in that episode were. (I hope it wasn’t simply a case of forgetting the name).

    • Thanks for the correction, Todd! That should be up to date now.

      It is a strange choice. Particularly since it seems like the kind of thing that Moore wouldn’t have forgotten.

  2. “Hertzler is amazing in the role.” He is indeed. Before Martok, I had never really cared for the Klingons. I really didn’t care about their obsession with honor and so many of Worf’s episodes in later seasons of TNG were about Alexander who I hate as a character, so I have never really had a chance to warm to the Klingons. Martok, and Hertzler’s performance, however, presented a Klingon that I could actually like and whose motives were always understandable.

    “Star Trek has been (to this point) largely episodic.” What’s interesting is that Worf has had the most continuity, and through him the Klingons, paid to him. I mean there is a mini arc with him and the Klingons that runs from Sins of a Father up through Redemption. True, it’s not like you have to see the preceding episodes, but it is, if I recall correctly, Star Trek’s first real attempt at long term story planning.

    • You’re right about Sins of the Father.

      Apparently Moore and Berman had a big fight over it. And I think that, as with a lot of what really worked on DS9, you can see TNG dipping its toe in the proverbial water. It’s easy to forget how TNG pushed against those sorts of expectations as well, albeit in a much less bombastic and iconoclastic way than DS9. (As far as Klingons go, TNG is more the Worf to DS9’s Martok.)

  3. I hadn’t realised until I read your review what an atypical episode Soldiers of the Empire is. But it was quite bold to do one that barely features DS9 and most of the main cast (and nothing of Quark at all). But it works extremely well, and Voyager would pull off something similar with the upcoming Distant Origin, a rare example of both shows on the same page for once.

    The crew of the Rotarran are quite entertaining and while we have Worf and Dax along for the ride to remind us that this is still an episode of DS9, it’s General Martok and the Rotarran crew that anchors Soldiers of the Empire. JG Hertzler has already assimilated into the Star Trek universe but this is the episode that really consolidates him as a formidable presence as Worf must force Martok to overcome his cowardice and rekindle his warrior’s spirit. It’s hard not to be swept away by the crew’s enthusiasm as they go into battle against the Jem’Hadar while singing the Warrior’s Anthem (and that’s difficult for the cast to sing a song written in complete gibberish and make it sound like it means something stirring but they succeeded).

    Was Hertzler’s character in Judgment General Martok’s ancestor like Colonel Worf in Star Trek VI? The Dominion arrived in the Alpha Quadrant at the end of In Purgatory’s Shadow and not By Inferno’s Light. Darkling linked me with Real Life. Worf is describing a bromance to Sisko, but I don’t think that word was going in the 90’s (or “I love ya, man”). Who are the slave masters the Klingons overthrew? Wasn’t it the Kazon that overthrew the Trabe? The Rotarran destroyed one Jem’Hadar ship at the end (and it’s disappointing it resorts to Voyager’s trick of telling rather than showing).

    • Ha! You’re right. klingons had a word for bromance before humans did.

      Those corrections are made now. The implication seems to be (although it’s probably more fanon than canon) that the Hur’q invaded and occupied Qo’nos. Sword of Kahless phrases it in such a way that it could be similar to Viking raids, and avoids using language like “occupation”, but it does seem like the Klingons were (at least temporarily) conquered.

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