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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Valiant (Review)

Valiant is a very bitter and mean-spirited little episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and all the more effective for that fact.

Some of that bitterness is baked into the basic premise. Valiant is an episode about a bunch of plucky young cadets who get brutally murdered for daring to believe in themselves. The final act of Valiant is a brutal piece of television, the camera lingering over the death and destruction on familiar sets, panning across the dead bodies of these promising young recruits. No matter how arrogant or inexperienced Red Squad might be, no matter how eager their participation in an attempted fascist coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost, it is still an unsettling image.

A legend in his own mind.

However, there is something even nastier lurking beneath the surface of this episode. On a superficial level, Valiant suggests that the guest characters fail in their daring mission because they lack the self-awareness to recognise the folly of their plan, but this is disingenuous. Countless Star Trek episodes have been built around far more reckless and audacious schemes, generally paying off the heroes. Valiant does not punish these young cadets for doing something that the main characters would never have attempted, it punishes them for not being the main characters.

Valiant is in some ways a brutal deconstruction of the typical Star Trek storytelling framework, an episode built around a selection of guest characters whose biggest mistake is assuming that they are the stars of the show rather than simply bit players. Valiant comes down hard on these would-be heroes, a reminder that life does not always operate according to familiar storytelling structures.

Hard to pin it on just one person.

Deep Space Nine is closer to the end than to the beginning. The series is approaching the close of its sixth season. There are just over thirty episodes left to air before the show will be retired. In the era of prestige television and ten-episode seasons, that might seem like a long time. In the era of syndication, Deep Space Nine was staring down the barrel of the proverbial gun. The production team were coming to terms with that, as episodes like His Way and The Reckoning consciously moved pieces into position for the end game.

Under the direction of Ira Steven Behr, the writers on Deep Space Nine had pushed the Star Trek franchise further than it had ever gone before. The production team on Deep Space Nine had changed the way that Star Trek could tell stories, embracing long-form storytelling and subversive plot beats while experimenting with a genuinely multicultural perspective. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine had shattered many of the expectations for a Star Trek show, breaking out of the proverbial Roddenberry Box.

Watters under (or beside) the Bridge.

In some ways, the fifth season was so successful at redefining and reworking the Star Trek template that the sixth season struggled to push further. At various points in the sixth season, especially after Sacrifice of Angels, the series seemed to lose its sense of direction. The series had already shattered so many of the norms associated with Star Trek that there was very little left to subvert or undermine. Indeed, the sixth season seemed as likely to brush against unbreakable barriers as it was to push through expectations.

The sixth season featured any number of classic episodes, many of which pushed the franchise in new and interesting directions; Far Beyond the Stars and In the Pale Moonlight are two of the best (and most unconventional) episodes of Star Trek ever produced. However, the series seemed just as likely to discover barriers that it could not break; the cast was the awkward shoehorned into Honour Among Thieves, a brutal execution in One Little Ship was vetoed by the executives, the perfect point to write Terry Farrell out of the show was squandered in Change of Heart.

No filter.

While there was a sense that Deep Space Nine had perhaps reached the limits of what could be done within the framework of a nineties Star Trek series, there was also a sense that some members of staff were already looking beyond the franchise. This was especially true of Ronald D. Moore, who would become perhaps the most influential of the writers to work on Deep Space Nine. While most of the writers on Deep Space Nine would enjoy long and productive careers after the show ended, Moore would leave the biggest pop cultural footprint.

Moore is an interesting case. The young writer had been drafted on to the franchise at the start of the third season to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite the fact that he had no real experience in screenwriting, his script for The Bonding inspired Michael Piller to cast open the production officer to outside (and unrepresented) script writers. Moore would become something of a superstar within the franchise, co-writing the series finale All Good Things… and the feature films Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact.

Jake Sisko, master of the socially awkward lunch date.

Although Moore would move on to Star Trek: Voyager after production wrapped, he would not stay there for long. Moore would spend several years bouncing around mid-tier genre television, observing that his franchise experience counted for very little in the wider world of television production:

The thing that you run into is that if you haven’t generated a lot of other material, you don’t have anything that they’ll read. No one will read a Star Trek script. When you’re going out for other jobs or other shows or you’re pitching something… typically, people will want to read a sample of your writing, but no one will want to read a Star Trek script. They just won’t. They’re like, “Oh, I don’t understand Star Trek.” Or, “Star Trek’s its own particular animal.” You know, it’s just its own thing. Whereas I think if you did, like, ER for 10 years or something, you really wouldn’t run into that. But Star Trek is sort of… No one understands why it’s there. “How does that show work?” And they’re all kind of held back by, “Well, I don’t understand all the science stuff, so I don’t want to read it.” So that’s the problem that you run into. I find it’s more of a positive, because people are just impressed. I mean, I tell people I was at Star Trek for 10 years, and they all kind of do a double-take and they go, “Oh my god! That’s unheard of!”

Moore would spend time as a writer on shows like G vs. E, Roswell and Carnivale. However, Moore would make his biggest mark on popular culture as a showrunner on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

Necessary attention.

Although Battlestar Galactica was more than half a decade away at this point, the seeds of Moore’s critically praised reimagining were sewn during the sixth season of Deep Space Nine. Writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle trace the genesis of the series to a single deleted scene from Moore’s rewrite on One Little Ship. Writer Michael Taylor sees the series as an extrapolation of the darkness that Moore brought to bear on In the Pale Moonlight.  There was a clear sense that Moore was reaching the edge of what was possible in Star Trek, but wanted to push further.

At a surface level, there was considerable overlap between Deep Space Nine and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Both were extensions of existing properties that looked to use familiar trappings to explore more provocative (and perhaps darker) ideas. Both were considered iconoclastic to vocal segments of the original fandom for daring to challenge or subvert expectations. Both played with ideas of religion and politics in a way that the original material had largely avoided.

A Valiant effort.

At the same time, Battlestar Galactica went further than Deep Space Nine ever could. There was a legitimate argument to be made that it was the anti-Star Trek, rejecting many of the assumptions that the Star Trek franchise took for granted. As John Hodgman summarised:

If you have seen Battlestar Galactica, which began its second season on the Sci Fi Channel on Friday, you will know that this Galactica only vaguely resembles the ship that previously bore that name, when Battlestar Galactica first flew on prime time in 1978, square in the shadow of Star Wars. And it certainly does not resemble the Enterprise, the Star Trek vehicle that has defined the visual and thematic vocabulary of television science fiction for four decades. On the Galactica, there is no captain’s chair; there are no windows full of stars. The command center is busy and dark, protected deep within the ship the way it would be on an actual military vessel. As the actors move from room to room, hand-held cameras swoop behind them, closing in on them claustrophobically. The characters do not travel heroically from planet to planet, solving the problems of aliens. There are, in fact, no aliens at all.

Even the series bible made repeated references to the Star Trek franchise, largely as a set of counter-examples. Battlestar Galactica was quite consciously “not Star Trek”, a challenge to the franchise’s dominance over the televised space-based science-fiction subgenre.

Nog the battle to the strong.

Particularly notable was the energy that Battlestar Galactica invested in a pseudo-realistic military command structure that existed quite distinct from operations on Starfleet ships. The sets looked more like modern battle ships than the sterile surroundings of the Enterprise, often looking more like a low-budget DIY project than a top-of-line design. Similarly, the command structure was much more rigid and the dynamics more convincing. Discipline was strictly enforced, Adama rarely left the ship, everybody had rigidly-defined roles.

Despite the science-fiction trappings, critics and commentators praised the portrayal of military life on Battlestar Galactica. At io9, Andrew Litak praised Battlestar Galactica for its “stunning array of realistic military tactics.” Writing at Pathos, Joe Carter described Battlestar Galactica as “the best show on television about the military – ever.” At the United States veteran-focused magazine Task and Purpose, Carl Forslong argued that “any veteran will see people from their service coming to life on screen.”

Operations officer in more sense than one.

Part of this was down to Moore’s pet interests. Moore had enlisted in the navy during his youth, serving on the USS W.S. Sims for a month during the summer of his freshman year. Although he did not pursue a career in the armed forces, he remained fascinated by the culture and the trappings:

Ultimately, this is clearly what I was meant to do. But there’s a part of me, yeah… I took a trip out to an aircraft carrier maybe going on 9, 10 years ago, now, and the Navy public relations office in L.A. arranged for me to do a fly-out to the Constellation, and I spent a weekend out there watching them do flight operations, and the whole thing. I got a real charge out of that. I was just like, “Wow.” There’s just something amazing about standing on a carrier deck, watching them fly on and off of it, and thinking of what I could have done. Or stand on the bridge… I don’t know.

There is a sense that Moore brings a lot that interest in the military to his work, particularly on the Star Trek franchise and on the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.

Watters feels like he owes Captain Ramirez a ca-blood-det.

Of course, Moore is far from the first Star Trek writer to be fascinated with military trappings. Gene Roddenberry was a veteran of the air force, and his time in the service undoubtedly inspired his writing. His script for The Savage Curtain luxuriated in the idea that the Enterprise would have a proper set of procedures for welcoming on board the long-deceased head of state of a country that no longer existed, having just stumbled across him floating in space. Star Trek: The Motion Picture spent an inordinate amount of time on the process of the ship leaving dock.

That said, the Star Trek franchise has long had an awkward relationship with its military elements. In Peak Performance, Captain Picard insisted that Starfleet was not a military organisation. This was always something of a pretense, as explored in episodes like Chain of Command, Part I, Chain of Command, Part II, Call to Arms and A Time to Stand. The franchise might not have been comfortable with the idea, but Starfleet had always been something of a hybrid between the air force and the navy for deep space exploration.

Don’t harm the brand.

Indeed, during his time on The Next Generation, Moore made a conscious effort to impose a more military command structure upon the series in a variety of low-key ways:

I started referring to watches and bridge officers and being certified as a deck officer. Just all those things I wanted to infuse the ship with because that is how Navy ships run and that is the tradition all the way back to the beginning. It was set up as a Navy command structure and Gene [Roddenberry] always mentioned Horatio Hornblower as one of the inspirations for Captain Kirk and I always thought of the Naval lineage as an important component of Star Trek.

Tellingly, Moore would write both Chain of Command, Part I and Thine Own Self, episodes that made a conscious effort to integrate Deanna Troi into that framework by (respectively) putting her in a standard uniform and making her status as a bridge officer official.

“Okay, so maybe Star Trek is not entirely realistic.”

Still, there are certain aspects of the Star Trek template that make very little sense in the context of a futuristic space-age military. Leaving aside questions of why ships tend to approach one another on the same plane or why combat has not evolved to keep pace with technology like transporters and warp drives, it is hard to justify the way in which Starfleet employs its officers. Senior officers lead away missions on unknown planets and into hostile territory, treating key individuals like the captain or the medical officer as expendable.

More than that, Starfleet seems to reject any notion of specialisation. It seems like Starfleet Intelligence does little more than poach staff from high-profile installations to engage in the sort of dangerous espionage work that should be the domain of experienced field agents. Captain Picard is the commanding officer of the flagship, but he is apparently also the only man who lead a dangerous (and covert) mission behind enemy lines in Chain of Command, Part I. Miles Edward O’Brien is an enlisted engineer, but only he can infiltrate the Orion Syndicate in Honour Among Thieves.

Pour choice.

The lead characters on Star Trek shows spend as much time breaking rules as following them. The original series bible for The Next Generation insisted that away teams should generally be led by the first officer, but Captain Picard gradually evolved into something of an unlikely action hero by the time of Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. More often than not, the characters on Star Trek bring up the subject of the prime directive in the hopes of finding a way to skirt around it, as in The Apple or Pen Pals.

Characters on Star Trek only seem to mention limitations so that they might surpass them. Even the laws of physics were often suggestions to our heroes. Kirk’s Enterprise regularly broke its maximum warp speeds, in episodes like The Changeling, By Any Other Name, That Which Survives, and Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. In episodes like In Affliction, Archer’s Enterprise is traveling at maximum warp and then pushes past it. Star Trek characters regularly travel backwards and forwards in time. Tom Paris broke the transwarp barrier in the Delta Quadrant in Threshold.

Okay, NOW it’s Watters under the Bridge.

Star Trek characters tend to beat impossible odds on a regular basis. In Ethics, Worf successfully lives through a risky medical procedure with only a thirty-seven percent success rate. In Descent, Part II, Geordi survives an experiment with a sixty percent chances of fatality. In Statistical Probabilities, Bashir repeatedly stresses just how unlikely the Federation are to win the Dominion War. In Scientific Method, Janeway gambles on a five percent chance of flying through a set of binary pulsars and wins.

The lead characters on Star Trek shows take massive risks in every episode and they almost always pay off. Even when desperate gambits fail, such as the attempt to seal the wormhole in In Purgatory’s Shadow or Rom’s attempt to stop Duakt from taking down the mines in Sacrifice of Angels, these are not fatal errors. Our heroes always survive to fight another day. As the title of Favour the Bold suggests, fortune tend to smile upon our protagonists, even in the most impossible of situations.

“New Dominion warship you say? Eats Defiant-class ships for breakfast, you say? Count the number of f$%ks I do not give.”

This not unique to Star Trek. As much as fans might like to mock the poor design choices made during the construction of the Death Star, Garth Sundem has suggested that Luke Skywalker had “a 0.0168% or a 1-in-5946 chance of success” when taking that shot at the climax of Star Wars. Quite a few statisticians have tried to crack the math involved in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the odds of finding a golden ticket were somewhere between one in forty two million and five in a billion, but Charlie wins despite only making three attempts.

Of course, the truth is that something other than fortune smiles on our heroes. Storytelling conventions also  favour our protagonists. Audiences expect their protagonists to be exceptional, particularly in epic adventure narratives. Why waste time following an average ship populated by an average crew? Surely the audience deserves an exceptional ship staffed by an exceptional crew? The Next Generation was explicitly about Starfleet’s standard-bearer, but even the misfit crews of Deep Space Nine and Voyager tended to be staffed by hyper-competent experts in their given fields.

Just cruising.

However, there are also production realities at play. The primary characters tend to do everything because the show is consciously built around them, Picard and O’Brien are recruited for Starfleet Intelligence missions because they are already paid to appear in the episode and because the audience has a pre-existing emotional connection to them. Regular characters beat unlikely odds because they have to return for the next episode, with the standing sets intact. The characters can never fail spectacularly, because that would break the show.

(Indeed, when the characters do lose badly, there tends to be some concession to these production realities. When Voyager is destroyed in Deadlock, there just happens to be an exact replica staffed by duplicates of the crew to continue the journey home. When the Defiant is destroyed in The Changing Face of Evil, it just so happens that Sisko is issued a replacement Defiant-class ship in The Dogs of War, because it allowed the production team to recycle the existing sets without have to budget for an entirely new collection of standing sets in the penultimate episode of the series.)

Defiant ’til the last.

In some ways, Valiant feels like a brutal subversion of these narrative conventions. It could be read as a reminder of just how privileged the characters are by their position in the narrative, of just how favoured they are by the expectations of the plot. The crew of Deep Space Nine often pull off a one-in-a-million shot. Valiant plays very much like a story about what happens the other nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand, nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times. It is certainly not pretty.

Valiant feels like a brutally subversion of the Star Trek format, a reminder of why no military organisations behave like those presented in the franchise. The episode demonstrates why real-world institutions seldom gamble on convoluted high-stakes plans, instead relying upon the security of experience and technique. Valiant is essentially a story about a bunch of eager young recruits who presume to act like a bunch of Star Trek characters, only to realise their folly. Battles fought by soldiers behaving like Star Trek characters tend to be battles that are lost.

A nice warm cup of “I told you so.”

To be fair, Valiant makes a few slight nods to the idea that Red Squad are effectively doomed by their inexperience. “You all probably know who my father is,” Jake warns the crew. “Benjamin Sisko. So you know I’m not exaggerating when I say that he’s considered to be one of the best combat officers in the fleet. And I’m telling you right now that even with the entire crew of the Defiant with him, my father would never try to pull off something like this. And if he can’t do it, it can’t be done.” However, that seems somewhat disingenuous.

Sisko has taken massive risks in the past. Although his hand was forced, he rode the Defiant into the wormhole in Sacrifice of Angels to stare down the Dominion fleet without a back-up plan. In In the Pale Moonlight, Sisko concocted and executed a plan that could easily have pushed the Romulans into the Dominion camp and effectively doomed the Federation. The lead characters on Star Trek shows take these sorts of risks all the time. After all, as Kirk asserted in By Any Other Name, they earnestly believe that “risk is [their] business.”

Too Farris?

Valiant repeatedly draws attention to the fact that the cadets are essentially role-playing as Star Trek characters. The episode plays up the parallels. The Valiant is identical to the Defiant. This is obviously a budget-saving measure, but it invites comparisons between the two. Similarly, the Valiant even inherited the Defiant’s original name. As Ronald D. Moore explained to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, he was asked to name the ship in The Search, Part I:

“One of the first things I had to do, as I started working on the episode, was come up with the name for the ship, which they’d graciously left to me,” says Moore. “And my first choice was Valiant, after one of the original series starships.” But the producers nixed the name because it was too close to Voyager. “They didn’t want another ‘V’ name,” explains Moore, who quickly came up with the name of a different ship from the oridinal series: Defiant, a vessel that had been swallowed up by interspace in The Tholian Web.

Indeed, writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens had incorporated this piece of background information into their work on The Art of Star Trek, asserting that the Defiant was in fact “a Valiant-class starship.” This was obviously explicitly contradicted by later episodes, including Valiant itself, but it does suggest the strong thematic connection that exists between the Defiant and the Valiant, even beyond the reuse of the sets.

Quark is a glass half-full kinda guy.

The young cadets seem to desperately trying to emulate the more iconic Star Trek characters, hoping to recreate the mythic valour associated with Starfleet officers. Watters explains the crew’s back story to Nog in mythic terms, “We had lost main power and we were adrift, but the Cardassian cruiser was no better off. So it was a race against the clock. The ship that got main power back online first would have a decisive advantage. The Captain, he was amazing. He directed the entire damage control effort with a punctured lung and massive internal injuries.”

Similarly, Watters is prone to spout familiar clichés, lines that could easily have been cribbed from the motivational speeches of Picard or Sisko or Janeway. “You can do this, Mister Nog,” he assures his newest recruit. “Just have faith in yourself, faith in your shipmates, and everything will be fine.” He tries a similar line on Jake, promising, “This ship is special, Jake. This crew is special. And whatever fates guide this universe, they’ve have chosen us to achieve some purpose in this conflict. I know that.”

Watters even tries his best Picard face palm.

Watters seems to see himself as the heir to the mantle of Picard or Sisko or Janeway, the literal next generation. “You’re Benjamin Sisko’s son?” Watters asks of Jake, suddenly taking an interest. “I’ve heard a lot about your father. I see you’re not following in his footsteps.” Watters finds that hard to imagine, almost as if Jake has squandered his potential. As the Valiant prepares to make its attack run on the new Dominion war ship, Watters even offers his best impersonation of Picard. “Engage.”

Like the protagonists of these stories, Watters believes that he can somehow do everything. “I heard you were on the bridge during the midwatch again last night,” Farris remarks at one point. “You haven’t been getting much sleep lately, sir.” However, in order to keep pace with the demands of doing everything, Watters has to resort to using stimulants. According to Jake, who heard it from Collins, Watters has been helping himself to cordafin stimulants for the previous two months.

Of course Watters doesn’t understand how the military works. He’s been watching too much Star Trek.

When Watters decides to go after the new warship, he concocts a plan that could easily have been lifted from Star Wars. Using date from a probe, Farris identifies one key structural weakness in the enemy cruiser. “We’ve found a flaw in the design of their antimatter storage system,” she states. “The primary support braces are made of viterium.” She explains, “A single torpedo rigged with a radiogenic warhead could reduce those braces to the consistency of wet pasta.” It’s a nice plan, recalling the fatal design weakness in the Death Star.

Once again, Watters is following familiar narrative beats and trying to fill a familiar narrative role. No matter how strong the opponent, Star Trek heroes always figure out a way to outwit or outmanoeuvre them. Picard, Data and Riker weaponise the Borg’s “sleep” command in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. O’Brien figures out a way to get the Cardassian weapon platforms in Tears of the Prophets to fire upon their own power generator. In Shadows and Symbols, Worf and company figure out how to use a sun to destroy a Dominion shipyard.

All fired up.

This is how these stories tend to go, with a plucky intelligent crew out-thinking a much stronger opponent. On paper, the plan in Valiant seems sound. In fact, it seems more than likely that it would have worked if executed by Picard, Sisko or Janeway. However, in practice, the plan goes horribly wrong. One of the more delightfully clever (and mean-spirited) aspects of Valiant is its refusal to explain how or why the plan failed. There is no exposition that neatly explains what part of the process failed. As Farris reflects, “It just… it didn’t work.”

There are any number of reasons why the attack might not have worked. Maybe Farris missed the target with the torpedo. Maybe Nog did not properly calibrate the radiogenic warhead on the torpedo. Maybe the data returned from the probe was incorrect. Maybe the data returned from the probe was misinterpreted. Maybe the tactical weakness on the enemy ship was identified and corrected between the return of the probe and the launch of the attack. Valiant is quite consciously ambiguous on where everything went wrong, declining to provide any easy answers.

“… it all blew up in their faces.”

Even the closing scene acknowledges this ambiguity. To be clear, Watters is ultimately responsible for the failure of the mission by virtue of his position as commanding officer, and the episode is very clear that the correct course of action would have been for Watters to follow the orders given by Starfleet Command and retreat back to Federation space with the scans of the new enemy warship. However, the episode pointedly refuses to offer a clear-cut answer for why this plan failed for Watters when it would have worked for Picard or Janeway or Sisko.

“What do you think I should say?” Jake asks Nog as they sit together in sickbay. Nog responds, “That it was a good ship with a good crew that made a mistake. We let ourselves blindly follow Captain Watters and he led us over a cliff.” However, Collins objects to this charactersation. “That’s not true. Captain Watters was a great man.” She states, “If he failed it’s because we failed him.” Nog doesn’t fight the point too hard. “Put that in your story too. Let people read it and decide for themselves.”

Feeling sick about it.

Valiant provides any number of reasons why the mission might have failed; Watters was reckless, his crew were incompetent, the ship was unlucky. Ultimately, though, it seems like the biggest error that Watters makes is to assume that he occupies a position of privilege in the narrative, to assume that he is a Star Trek captain rather than a military officer. He is a guest star who is stuck down for daring to claim the spotlight. In the grand tradition of tragedy, Watters’ original sin is one of sheer and unbridled hubris.

Valiant repeatedly emphasises how destructive and self-centred these characters are, about how so many of their problems are rooted in the characters’ mistaken belief that they are the most important (and most special) people in the universe. In response to Jake’s critique of their daredevil plan to destroy a prototype enemy warship, Watters simply responds, “We’re Red Squad and we can do anything.” The group’s response to anything that contradicts their belief in their own cosmic importance is to simply chant “Red Squad!”

Sometime, you don’t know what goes through that Nog-gin.

There is sense that Red Squad are driven by a powerful sense of superiority. Notably, although it is not discussed in the episode itself, Red Squad appears to be comprised primarily of human cadets, with a few token Vulcans in non-speaking background roles, a rejection of the diversity that the Federation is supposed to embody. Within Valiant itself, all of the major Red Squad characters are white, which positions both Nog and Jake as outsiders. The human-centric nature of Red Squad was also suggested in Homefront and Paradise Lost through Nog’s social anxiety about joining them, but it remains a through-line in Valiant.

It may be possible to read this as another commentary on something that the Star Trek franchise has taken for granted, the repeated suggestion that mankind are somehow special and unique in the wider cosmos. At certain points, most notably early in The Next Generation with episodes like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us, the Star Trek franchise seems to suggest that humanity are inherently better any other species. While this human chauvinism makes some sense in that Star Trek exists for a human audience and Klingons don’t exist, it can still be suffocating.

No need to get bent out of shape about it.

While perfectly understandable, this human-centric approach to science-fiction can be quite unsettling. As Duncan and Michèle Barrett outline in The Human Frontier:

As with most science fiction television, Star Trek tends to present us with ‘good’ aliens who look more or less human (Vulcans, Betazoids and Bajorans, for example) and ‘bad’ aliens who look ugly and disorienting (such as the Jem’Hadar, the Borg, and the disease-ridden Vidiians). The contrast is drawn most starkly in the film Insurrection, in which two groups of aliens who turn out to be from ‘the same race’ are visibly marked very differently: the peace-loving, gentle Ba’ku look entirely human, while the film’s villains, the Son’a, through extensive plastic surgery and skin-stretching, have turned themselves into hideous monsters.

Battlestar Galactica would attempt to address this trope head on, by asking the audience to accept the alien Cylon culture as having equivalent value to that of humanity. Of course, given the series opens with the Cylons attempting to commit genocide against humanity, mileage may vary.


This idea is reinforced in Valiant through an early conversation between Jake and Collins. Jake is intrigued to discover that the operations officer was born on the moon. “Oh, a Lunar Schooner,” he teases. When she remarks that she hadn’t heard that in a long time, Jake explains, “I picked it up from my granddad. Of course, he still calls Luna the moon like it’s the only one or something.” It is a nice way to draw attention to how subtly human-centric our thinking about the universe can be, the fact that mankind believes that the moon orbitting Earth must be the definite article.

Valiant feels like a cynical deconstruction of a standard genre narrative – of a standard Star Trek narrative. It is an exploration of what happens if a character acts like the hero of a given narrative without the structural protections afforded to the hero of that narrative. It is a demonstration of how rarely Star Trek characters act like officers in a military organisation, and a reminder of how catastrophically that can go wrong. The climax of Valiant is brutal, with its dead teenagers and the destruction of three-out-of-four of the ship’s escape pods.

Jake torpedoes their plan.

There is a sense that Valiant is the culmination of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, of the series trying to push past the few remaining barriers that exist around it. Episodes like A Time to Stand and In the Pale Moonlight really pushed past expectations for what a Star Trek series could be, but Valiant somehow pushes even further by essentially shredding the expectations of a Star Trek episode. There is a sense that Ronald D. Moore, perhaps even more than the other Deep Space Nine writers, has reached a point where he needs to move beyond the franchise.

A cynical observer might argue that this was a necessary development for Ronald D. Moore as a writer. It is a cliché that writers should “kill [their] darlings”, but it makes a certain amount of sense in the case of Ronald D. Moore. Moore had been a huge Star Trek fan growing up. His first career in television had been as a writer for The Next Generation. He would work on the franchise for more than a decade, contributing to three television series and two feature films. By the time that Valiant was broadcast, Moore did not have a single credit outside of Star Trek.

Just the right mix.

Indeed, Moore seemed aware of this tendency. Although he co-wrote Generations with Brannon Braga under the supervision of Rick Berman, Moore conceded that it had been his idea to kill off the character of James Tiberius Kirk:

Killing the Big K was, in fact, my idea. I’ve gone over my reasons and thoughts on this subject several times by now, so I won’t go into the details again, but I will say that the reports of Rick and Brannon’s supposed animosity toward TOS being the source of Kirk’s death are wrong. And if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see that there’s no real reason why they would want to damage or harm TOS or the Trek franchise in any way. We were trying to make a movie, and we were trying to make the best movie we could.

Even years after the fact, Moore was still trying to figure out what his decision to kill Kirk meant to him, as somebody who had grown up idolising the character. “He was my childhood hero, and I killed him. What does that mean? What does that say about me?”

A bloody disaster.

Valiant is an episode that takes the conventions of a standard Star Trek plot and just blows them, refusing to offer any easy answers along the way. It is a genuinely unsettling piece of television, and an episode that plays with the audience’s expectations before brutally undercutting them. The sixth season has repeatedly suggested that Deep Space Nine has pushed Star Trek as far as the constraints of nineties genre television will allow. Valiant just blows it all up.

25 Responses

  1. >Notably, although it is not discussed in the episode itself, Red Squad appears to be comprised exclusively of human cadets, a rejection of the diversity that the Federation is supposed to embody.

    No, there are two Vulcans visible in the crowd.

    With all that we’re talking about (or tweeting about, in your case) populism, there’s an interesting reading to be had about Red Squad’s cult of personality around Watters. Were it written today Farris would have objected to stories about Watters’ use of stimulants as “fake news” and Jake would have been led to the brig with a chant of “lock him up!”

    I do kind of love this episode for being such a brutal assault on Trek’s familiar tropes. I love that the impressive-sounding technobabble solution fails. I love how Nog is proud to be a chief engineer under Watters – when in reality he outranks the captain! This might be the best Jake-centric episode. It’s a wonder it wasn’t rewritten to be about his dad. 🙂

    • >Jake would have been led to the brig with a chant of “lock him up!”

      So basically Crimson Tide.

      “If someone asked me if we should bomb Romulus, a simple ‘Yes. By all means sir, drop that fucker, twice!'”

      >rewritten to be about his dad

      I like how Jake is simultaneously in awe of his dad and aware of his limitations. “If he can’t do it, it can’t be done” should have raised alarm bells for the cadets but they’re too sealed in their bubble.

    • Thanks for the spot. I didn’t see the Vulcans, but I’ve corrected the text.

      I think it’s totally in character for Nog not to usurp command from Watters, particularly given how important Red Squad was to him while he was at the Academy. Moore actually cited naval precedent for Nog not taking command, but I don’t think that’s strictly necessary. Valiant is in some ways about the cult of heroism and personality, and I can see Nog falling under that sway. (And that’s why Jake can stand outside it.)

  2. I think another key episode that ties into your argument about Ronald D. Moore’s desire to make Starfleet more military is The First Duty. Here, Roddenbery’s idea of vunderkind children only attending the academy is taken apart, as instead Wesley Crusher and his other classmates are not the best and the brightest, but rather teenagers who are much more like people that actually attend military schools. Thus, I think this episode fundamentally changed the dynamics of what Starfleet academy was. Now, it seemed as if anyone could join, such as Nog, which made it feel more like a military school, whereas before there were many complicated tests to get in which made it seem more like an elite IVY league school.

    • Yeah, I think The First Duty is very much a companion piece to Valiant, to the point that you can easily imagine the kids from The First Duty doing the exact same thing, while Nick Locarno casts himself in the Watters role.

      • And Boothby even said Nova Squadron would follow Locarno off a cliff, much like the Valiant crew did with Watters. Nog even gets to say the same line.

  3. The setting reminds me of the very first episode of Japanese anime series Ga-rei Zero, in which a bunch of named characters are introduced as specialty cops with amazing supernatural power, and ending up being infested by the things they’re battling with, eventually being killed by the real main characters. Quite a way to burn the budget and leave audience gaping and gawking.
    I’m wondering if you play Valiant to someone without a knowledge of anything of DS9, what will they react? Will they think it’s resulted from the system’s (Starfleet/Starfleet academy) failures in nurturing its youngling into mature officers , or just over-confident teenagers being over confident?

    • Yeah, the default reading of Valiant seems to be that the kids screwed up because they were inexperienced, which is probably true within the universe of Deep Space Nine, metatextual reading aside. A lot of the privilege afforded protagonists can generally be accredited to experience. “Of course Sisko knows exactly what to do, he’s done this like one hundred and fifty times by now!”

  4. Fascinating review.

    I agree that on a meta level ‘not being the main characters’ is what trips up Red Squad, but I think there is another aspect you touched on briefly Darren: luck.

    Napoleon supposedly once said: “I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one.”

    The concept of good luck – as in being chosen by providence – has fallen out of favour in modern society, but there is a very long tradition of assigning good luck as a virtue itself, a kind of attribute remarkable men and women attract that helps them out. The kind of notion that remarkable people are lucky because they are remarkable rather than vice versa.

    There is a great moment in the historical novel ‘Fortune’s Favourites’ by Colleen McCullough where the brilliant (and real) Roman general Sertorious suddenly realises that for all his very genuine gifts he has never been beloved by the goddess Fortuna. Sure enough he isn’t the main character of the book – Sulla, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar are. Whatever that intangible ‘something’ is he didn’t have and neither did Red Squad.

    • That’s an interesting concept, and it fits rather neatly with what we see. The one-in-a-million chance where we finally get to see one of the nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine outcomes.

  5. DS9’s longstanding tradition of skepticism towards Starfleet really pays off in this episode. The big difference between Sisko and Watters, aside from the inexperience Watters was unable to admit to, is that Sisko isn’t a drug-huffing cult leader captaining a ship to feed his own ego. This was such a good episode because it invites so many questions about Trek’s world.

  6. The premise demands a lot of suspension of belief actually, but I can live with that as well. A very decent and endearing episode. The last scene especially is very melodramatic but still manages to stay believable. And there is, retroactively at least, a sense of foreboding regarding the loss of a Dax.

  7. Valiant is another example of DS9 brutally eviscerating Star Trek’s utopian universe. Scheduled slightly earlier, Valiant would have capped off a perfect trilogy with Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight.

    It begins deceptively on Deep Space Nine with some light filler scenes involving Quark (much like The Quickening and Empok Nor) before Valiant becomes another extremely dark S6 episode.

    After being pummelled in a Runabout by a Jem’Hadar fighter, Jake and Nog are rescued by Red Squad, the elite group of Starfleet cadets that tried to overthrow the Federation two years back. They’ve been placed in command of the USS Valiant and have spent the last eight months behind enemy lines trying to collect data about a formidable new Dominion battleship.

    Valiant quickly dispels the notion that these cadets are a bunch of Wesley Crushers. They may be the best the Academy has to offer, but they’re not blessed with Wesley’s prodigious brainpower. They take it upon themselves to not just gather intelligence on the Dominion’s latest weapon, they opt to destroy it…and the results are disastrous.

    It may not be readily apparent, but Valiant is very much another case of DS9 gleefully trashing the utopian universe that Gene Roddenberry invented. We’ve seen examples of that already this year, but other than Jake and Nog, the regulars take a backseat to the crew of the Valiant. DS9 had great success with that approach in Soldiers of the Empire and it works well (perhaps even better) with Valiant.

    I liked what you said Darren that the Valiant crew see themselves as the stars of they’re own show. This isn’t Star Trek: Valiant but the guest cast act like it might be. Captain Tim Watters fancies himself as another Picard or a Sisko (he likes grandiose speeches) while conn officer Riley Shepard from Paradise Lost (excellent continuity) could be this ship’s Wesley Crusher. With her harsh hairdo (and even harsher demeanour) Karen Farris could be another Seven of Nine.

    Valiant also makes an excellent companion piece with Nor the Battle to the Strong. We saw in that episode Jake Sisko panic in the heat of Klingon attack, and he tries to appeal to the crew of the Valiant that retreat from a superior force should not be seen as cowardice. But they’re dead set on being the heroes of they’re own narrative (Jake’s outsider status is another example of how humans who have no desire to be in Starfleet are looked down upon in the 24th century) and that’s exactly what it gets them…dead.

    They believe they’ve come up with the perfect plan to destroy the Dominion battleship. The final act is particularly skilful the way it sets up the crew for a fall. After confining Jake to the Brig for spreading trouble (speaking the truth), the episode shows them getting ready for battle (with even a heroic montage) before they take on the might of the battleship. They manage to target the braces that are supposed to be this ship’s Achilles Heel, they fire upon it, it goes up in a massive fireball, the crew start to celebrate…and then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the battleship emerges completely unscathed and launches a brutal counterattack.

    It’s interesting that Ronald D Moore fails to elaborate on why the attack failed. If it were VGR or TNG, there would have been a whole section of exposition here. The heroes always have to be vindicated on those shows, but the crew of the Valiant are not heroes and they’re not martyrs either. They’re youthful inexperience is what led to they’re downfall. They couldn’t perceive they’re arrogance for what it truly was.

    It’s all summed up in the final scene in the Defiant’s infirmary, with Jake, Nog and the crew’s only survivor, Dorian Collins. Even though Dorian witnessed the destruction of the Valiant and the loss of all hands, she’s still fiercely loyal to Watters. Words are banded about like “hero” and “a great man”, but Nog now sees Watters for what he actually was…”a bad captain” (and a pill popper to boot).

    Valiant shows how far DS9 has travelled this season. It may be set away from the station aboard a state of the art Starfleet vessel, but Valiant again shows how DS9 has become the very antithesis of what a Star Trek show is meant to be about. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

  8. Great essay, been watching through DS9 for the first time and found your site trying to find info on one of the episodes. Saw this last nite and didn’t even saw the meta-commentary of the franchise, I saw it a bit more literally. Red Squad mirrors the kind of nationalist, prideful mentality conservative teens/young adults have when they sign up for the military. More like signing their deaths…

  9. The thing that strikes me about Valiant is that the crew is entirely made up of Wesley Crushers — a character I would dearly have loved to see shoved out an airlock.

    All of them are perfect geniuses as cadets. Insufferable and cocksure. I read this episode as not just blowing up Star Trek convention, but as an absolute repudiation of Wesley.

    It probably wasn’t what the writers intended but that’s how I’m experiencing it this time around and it is delicious.

    • This is an interesting way of looking at the episode, actually. There’s probably something to it, given that Moore was one of the writers who chafed against the Roddenberry Box.

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