Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Siege of AR-558 (Review)

The thing that Ira and I both wanted to do, was to make war as gritty as possible. You can make what somebody called the Gameboy wars, the Nintendo War, too clean and too cute. Nobody pays a price. You see ships blowing up, and that is kind of cool. But you don’t get the feeling of what a war is. Everybody said it was our Saving Private Ryan, but we’d come up with it before we were even aware of what they were doing on Saving Private Ryan. It really wasn’t that for us. It was really much more about Starfleet, and what those guys go through, and what it must be like in that time, and how to make that work on a gritty level. Rick Kolbe did a remarkable job directing it. Avery again did a marvelous performance in terms of being the captain in a very difficult situation, and making all of those difficult choices that you have to make under those circumstances.

– Hans Beimler, Cinefantastique

Siege the day.

The Siege of AR-558 is a masterful piece of Star Trek, and one of the finest episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In some ways, The Siege of AR-558 is an episode that has been necessary since the outbreak of the Dominion War at the end of Call to Arms. It is a story that had to be told at some point in the two-year stretch from A Time to Stand to What You Leave Behind. Had the writers and producers on Deep Space Nine opted not to tell a story like this within the framework of the Dominion War, they would have undermined the series as a whole and undercut a lot of the justifications for constructing an epic two-year war arc.

Mumy dearest.

It could reasonably be argued that The Siege of AR-558 is not unprecedented. In many ways, the episode is an extension of a narrative style that had been attempted at various points in the show’s recent history, the familiar “war is hell” story that drove episodes like The Ship, ... Nor the Battle to the Strong and Rocks and Shoals. It is very hard to look at the final three seasons of Deep Space Nine as a narrative glorifying warfare, the series often cynical about such violence.

At the same time, The Siege of AR-558 pushes that idea further than any earlier episode. The Siege of AR-558 is a story that unequivocally confirms that the Dominion War is a nightmarish and existential threat to the Federation with a profound moral and physical cost. While this idea has been reiterated repeatedly in stories like Far Beyond the Stars or In the Pale Moonlight, The Siege of AR-558 frames its argument in more visceral terms. It is an episode not about the abstract concept of war, but of its horrifying realities.

An explosive combination.

The Siege of AR-558 is not a morality play that operates at a remove from the violence. The Siege of AR-558 is not an episode in which war is reduced to a mathematical model. The Siege of AR-558 is not an episode in which important people sit around a table and engage in vigourous debate about plans of attack. Instead, The Siege of AR-558 is a story about the horrifying realities of combat, of the fear and dread felt by those on ground, of the seemingly pointless bloodshed that results from all of this politicking and scheming.

The Siege of AR-558 is a war story.

A shot in the dark.

The Dominion War could often seem more like an abstract idea than a harsh reality. There were a number of reasons for this, most of which were entirely reasonable and defensible. Most obviously, Deep Space Nine had only been the front line of the conflict for six episodes at the start of the sixth season. The regular characters had only really been at the vangaurd for six consecutive episodes, culminating in the epic battle to retake the station in Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels.

After that, the front lines of the conflict shifted away from Bajor and the wormhole, which makes a certain amount of sense for reasons both within and outside the fictional universe. The Dominion War became something rumbling in the background, as the characters got on with their lives in episodes that could easily have been told without needing the backdrop of the Dominion War; the parallel universe romance of Resurrection, the wedding comedy of You Are Cordially Invited…

The Rifleman.

When the Dominion War did come up in the final twenty episodes of the sixth season, it was either small-scale action or an abstract concern. The show often seemed to approach the Dominion War from a strange angle, whether through Worf and Dax embarking on a low-key mission behind enemy lines in Change of Heart or O’Brien infiltrating the Orion Syndicate in Honour Among Thieves. It created a sense of scale around the Dominion War, but it avoided a lot of the meat of the conflict.

Similarly, the episodes that did engage with the Dominion War more directly seemed to treat it as an abstract concept even as they made a point to emphasise the human costs. In Statistical Probabilities, Bashir came to see the war as a complex game of numbers; although he realised the folly of his ways, the show never shook that idea. Second hand accounts of the war filtered in, with Sisko receiving word of a close friend’s death in Far Beyond the Stars and finding himself struggling under the weight of casualty reports in In the Pale Moonlight.

Signal strength.

Even when the series did grapple with the Dominion War head-on, it tended to treat the war as a grand epic struggle. The Romulans joining the war in In the Pale Moonlight was treated as both a game-changing political event and an individual moral crisis for Sisko, with little focus on the immediate ramifications beyond some exposition at the start of The Reckoning and some politicking in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols. When the Dominion War returned to the fore in Tears of the Prophets, it appeared as a gigantic computer-generated spectacle.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with any of this. Many of these episodes are great pieces of television that engage with underlying moral questions that tie back to politics and warfare. After all, the Star Trek franchise has always been something of a structural framework for morality plays and allegories. Star Trek could engage with big and bold ideas because it operated at a remove from the more charged (and more controversial) real world.

Bridging the gap.

One of the most enduring aspects of the Star Trek franchise has been its willingness to reduce everyday worries down to easy-to-understand morality fables. The Devil in the Dark is a delightfully beautiful story about the irrational fear of “the other”, told in a way that has universal application. A Taste of Armageddon condemned the way that the press handed Vietnam, but without heavy-handed hand-wringing. Errand of Mercy was a scathing critique of the Cold War, but in a way that avoided directly offending more patriotic viewers.

This allegorical and abstract framework has a definite value. It is useful to debate morality and philosophy in the abstract, to try to derive our ideals down to something resembling universal first principles. Deep Space Nine does an excellent job of that with the Dominion War, using a fictional science-fiction conflict to ask the audience to weigh tough moral decisions about what it means to exist in a state of conflict and ambiguity. Many of those stories are even more relevant than when they were first broadcast, like Homefront, Paradise Lost or Inquisition.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

At the same time, it is important never to lose sight that realities exist beyond abstract constructs. Moral philosophy is a vital part of any discussion about warfare and politics, but it can put the audience and characters at a remove from the direct effect of these ideas. With that in mind, The Siege of AR-558 is a vitally important episode because it serves to provide a context for the larger debates unfolding within the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine.

The script acknowledges as much in the scenes that bookend the trip to AR-558. In the teaser, Sisko confesses to Odo that the casualties of war are becoming little more than statistics to him. “When the war started, I read every name. I felt it was the least I could do to honour their sacrifices. But now the names have begun to blur together.” However, his experiences in the episode allow him to reconnect. “That’s a lot of names,” Kira remarks of the casualty report. Sisko responds, “They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.”

Names on the wall.

This was very much the intention behind The Siege of Ar-558. The writers were consciously attempting to provide a sense of the human cost of this vast quadrant-spanning war. As Ira Steven Behr explained in The Fifty-Year Mission:

I was really getting bummed out how everyone kept asking for these space battles, and I realized that violence and war on Star Trek meant nothing, because it was just ships blowing up and we’re killing people, but it has no impact and we’re just as bad as everyone else in terms of making violence just seem like a plot device. Since ships blowing up were cool, we decided to do a war show, and we tried our best to show what war is.

The Siege of Ar-558 repeatedly reinforces this idea across the length and breadth of the episode, outlining the reality of life on the ground during a conflict on this scale. It is a very harrowing watch, but no less effective for that.

A whole new array of problems.

The contrast is underscored repeatedly over the course of the episode. The teaser features a very casual deep space confrontation between the Defiant and a Jem’Hadar ship, handled in a very clean and efficient manner. It provides an effective contrast with the grizzled and dirty combat that follows, affirming the notion that the portrayal of warfare in Star Trek and the on-the-ground realities that soldiers face on the front lines.

This difference is underscored through the contrasting glimpses of the signal relay towards the start and the end of the episode. Early in the episode, when he is being given a guided tour of the communications array by Larkin. Sisko approaches the device from the ground, as a regular foot soldier. At the end of the episode, when Worf arrives to take him home, Sisko is standing on the second level. Sisko is leaving. He will soon be above it all once again. Director Winrich Kolbe reinforces the contrast between these two scenes in how he chooses to frame Sisko.

Homecoming.

Repeatedly, characters have their assumptions challenged about life in the middle of a warzone, about what they think they know about war and the reality of the situation. “According to Starfleet regulations we’re suppose to be rotated off the front lines after ninety days,” Vargas explains to Sisko. “Ninety days! We’ve been stuck on this rock for five months, Captain.” When Ezri talks about her previous hosts’ memories of combat, Kellin responds, “Having someone else’s memories of being in combat is one thing. Living through it yourself is another.”

Indeed, The Siege of AR-558 is structured in such a way as to put the characters with the least combat experience into the heat of battle. Kira, Worf and O’Brien are all veterans of earlier wars; Kira fought in the Cardassian Occupation, Worf served with Kurn in the Klingon Civil War, O’Brien is still haunted by the Cardassian Wars. While Sisko is a veteran of the Tzenkethi Wars, he is joined be the more inexperienced members of the ensemble: Bashir, Ezri, Quark, and Nog.

Ezri does it.

This is an interesting choice, if only for what each inclusion says about the story being told. Ezri is a character who has an academic understanding of war, both in terms of her training as a counsellor and memories from previous hosts. She has no direct experience of combat, no sense of the realities of battle. Ezri is not completely inexperienced in this regard, but her experience exists at a remove from the day-to-day reality of it all.

Ironically, Bashir is the most experienced of Sisko’s subordinates, despite being the most idealistic (and Roddenberry-ian) cast member on Deep Space Nine. Bashir often felt like the most conventionally Star-Trek-y leading character, but he has more direct combat experience than Ezri or Nog, owing to episodes like The Way of the Warrior or … Nor the Battle to the Strong. In some ways, throwing Bashir back into the meat grinder with Sisko serves as a bookend to the first season episode Battle Lines, an episode that played off Bashir’s inexperience and innocence.

Combat medic.

Quark and Nog are an interesting choice to throw into combat. Again, there is a sense of symmetry to all of this, a sense of bookends to larger character arcs. Quark’s observations about the horrors of warfare recall his conversations with Sisko in The Jem’Hadar, debating whether mankind has ever been as advanced as they claim to be. The Star Trek franchise has a tendency to condescend to the Ferengi as greedy capitalists, but Quark dares to ask if this is such a bad thing.

“Let me tell you something about humans, nephew,” Quark warns Nog. “They’re a wonderful, friendly people as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time, and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”

Quark would bet his life on it.

It is a very powerful point, and something that gets right to the heart of Deep Space Nine as a television series. The Star Trek franchise imagines a world in which mankind has evolved past their petty greed and violence, imagining a future without hunger or without want. However, the franchise very seldom explores what that actually means. How did mankind evolve to this point? What politics did they adopt? What sacrifices did they make? Often, the Star Trek franchise seems to take the existence of this utopia for granted, as if it is built on the existence of the replicator.

In contrast, Deep Space Nine retains a lot of the hope and optimism associated with Star Trek, but it clings to the idea that utopia is hard work. A better world does not happen easily, it does not materialise out of thin air. Technology has done little to alleviate mankind’s aggression and violence, instead increasing the scale upon which these vices might be indulged. Deep Space Nine suggests that it is possible for people to be better than they are, but that it requires hard work and commitment. People are not always as good as they could (or should) be.

‘Ear, ‘ear.

“If the Federation had listened to the Ferengi Alliance there never would have been a war,” Quark assures Nog. “We would have reached an accommodation. We would have sat across the negotiation table and hammered out a peace treaty. One that both sides could lived with.” Of course, Deep Space Nine has been fairly unambiguous in its portrayal of the Dominion as an untrustworthy fascist entity, so it is hard to take Quark’s statement at face value.

Even before war is declared, the Dominion were consistently treated as monstrous. They were the source of the refugees in Sanctuary, and responsible for the lost civilisation in Shadowplay. They massacred an entire Bajoran colony without warning in The Jem’Hadar. They punished the Karemma for being seen to do business with the Federation in Starship Down. They afflicted an entire civilisation with a deadly disease for turning them down in The Quickening. There is no indication that the Dominion could ever have peacefully coexisted.

March to war.

At the same time, there is a recurring suggestion that the Federation is in some ways responsible for escalating the conflict. When the Jem’Hadar instruct Starfleet to stay out of Dominion space in The Jem’Hadar, Starfleet responds by sending their first warship on a reconnaissance mission in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II. Bajor and Cardassia are still building Gamma Quadrant infrastructure in Destiny, in spite of this warning. Starfleet is still looking to for natural resources in the Gamma Quadrant in The Ship, and exploring in Children of Time.

Nog is presented as a Ferengi character who has abandoned his Ferengi heritage in order to join Starfleet. Repeatedly over the course of The Siege of AR-558, he venerates the soldiers serving on the outpost. “They’ve been holed up here for a long time, seen two thirds of their unit killed, but they haven’t surrendered,” Nog warns Quark. “Do you know why? Because they’re heroes.” He fetishes Reese’s grim collection of trophies, and he is embarrassed by Quark’s fawning attention over him.

Fer(engi) Beyond the Stars…

J. Emmett Winn argues that The Siege of AR-558 depicts Nog’s assimilation into Starfleet and a rejection of the multicultural framework of Deep Space Nine:

In this episode, Nog leaves the Ferengi values behind. He has not only risked his life but given his leg in an effort that would not profit him financially. Although still a Ferengi, Nog is no longer a devoted member of the clan. He socially casts off Ferengi-ness for the values and behaviours of the dominant culture that detests the Ferengi. Nog continues through the end of the series as a Starfleet officer.

This is a very simplistic reading of the episode. While The Siege of AR-558 might depict Nog’s assimilation into Starfleet, it is decidedly ambiguous about whether this is meant to be a good thing.

Quick-draw Quark.

Most obviously, Nog loses his leg in the episode. It is a fairly harrowing development, an effective way of underscoring the horrors of war. After all, the contracted regulars are all but assured to survive until the end of The Siege of AR-558. The audience is canny enough to know that guest stars like Larkin, Vargas, Reese and Kellin are living on borrowed time, given that they are unlikely to ever appear in another episode. The big surprise in The Siege of AR-558 is not that Kellin dies, it is that Reese survives.

As such, there needs to be some sense of consequence for all of this. There needs to be some weight to this horror beyond the deaths of a bunch of (admittedly well-drawn) one-shot guest characters. Sisko, Bashir, Ezri and Quark are all protected by their place of prominence in the opening credits. Given all of his character development to this point, it would seem particularly cold-blooded to kill off Nog in such a meaningless way. (It would be a bold choice, but perhaps too bold for Deep Space Nine, even at this juncture.)

He can live with it.

Nog’s involvement with Starfleet ultimately costs him his leg. It leaves a scar that he will carry with him for the rest of his life. Although Bashir suggests that Nog will get a replacement leg, the writers very cleverly and very astutely understand that there must be some lasting consequences. The wound that Nog receives in The Siege of AR-558 then carries to It’s Only a Paper Moon, an entire episode dedicated to Nog’s recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.

With all of that in mind, it seems like a massive oversimplification to suggest that Deep Space Nine thinks that Nog’s assimilation into Starfleet is an unequivocal good thing. Instead, The Siege of AR-558 suggests that it is simply a thing that happened, and that it had fairly profound and long-standing consequences. At one point, Nog asks Sisko whether all of this is worthwhile. “The communications array,” he gasps. “It’s worth it, right?” Sisko cannot promise him that it is. “I hope to God it is.” The best that he can offer is that it might be worthwhile.

Waiting is the worst part.
Apart from all the other parts.

The loss of Nog’s leg was the source of some controversy between the production team and executive producer Rick Berman. Ronald D. Moore explains the disagreement with some incredulity:

I remember one particularly insane argument that Ira and Rick had when Nog was injured and ended up losing a leg, there was this ridiculous extended argument that I was in a room while Ira was on the phone. We had written the draft where he had lost both his legs, and Rick was just appalled. “We can’t lose the character’s legs!” And we were like, “No, we’ve got to. We’ve got to have somebody who’s injured in this war who’s not just a guest star in the background.” It was a very important point. And the argument got to the point where they were arguing about, “Well, does it have to be one leg or two? And is it above the knee or below the knee?” It was just, like, they were negotiating over where Nog was to lose his leg. It was just absurd.

It is a completely ridiculous argument to have, but it speaks to the tensions that existed within the larger Star Trek family over the Dominion War in general.

Fighting the good fight.

Rick Berman had strongly opposed the idea of doing an extended Dominion War arc, for multiple reasons. Most notably, he had wanted the conflict resolved rather tidily early in the sixth season, instead of seeing it extended over two whole years. The writers on Deep Space Nine had repeatedly brushed up against limitations and restrictions imposed on them, most notably concerning the proposed execution of a prisoner in One Little Ship or over the meaningfulness of Jadzia’s death in Tears of the Prophets.

There were multiple reasons why the production team had to fight to realise the Dominion War. Some of these criticisms were pragmatic, with Rick Berman anxious about the show’s gradual creep towards serialisation in its middle season, wary of how that might impact its long-term prospects in serialisation. Some of these criticisms were philosophical, with various individuals objecting to the idea of an extended war arc within the framework of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

Even more than a year into the Dominion War, there was still a lot of lingering resentment among the fan base. Almost twenty years after the series ended, Adam Nimoy still summarised the great debate around Deep Space Nine as “is it or is it not really Star Trek?” Even as the episode aired, Veteran reviewer Tim Lynch argued that The Siege of AR-558 was ultimately “a very decent war film which happens to be under the Trek name, but no more.”  Offering a retrospective analysis, Michell Erica Green reflected that The Siege of AR-558 was still “controversial among original Star Trek fans.”

The Siege of AR-558 is very clearly Star Trek, however uncomfortable its portrayal of violence might be. Humans might have evolved over hundreds of years, but basic psychological truths remain. Throwing people into a meat grinder for an extended period of time, under constant psychological stress and without any reprieve, will take its toll upon them. To suggest otherwise is delusion, unrealistic, fantastical. More than that, such denial enables and justifies conflicts by insisting that the problem is individual weakness that can be stripped out or evolved past.

Listening post.

The Siege of AR-558 is very pointedly an anti-war story in the style of A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy, but it expresses this anti-war sentiment by candidly acknowledging the damage that war inflicts those called to serve. Still, it was controversial even within the production team. As The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion acknowledges, the title of the episode feels like a wry nod to the battles fought behind the scenes to get it made:

Certainly Production #558 caused the most discussion behind the scenes at the studio. “A lot of people didn’t want us to do the episode, and a lot of people were unhappy as it was being developed,” says Ira Behr. “But I felt that we needed to do it. War sucks. War is intolerable. War is painful, and good people die. You win, but you still lose. And we needed to show that as uncompromisingly as possible.”

As an aside, it is worth noting that many of the the episodes over which the Deep Space Nine production team clashed with the studio went on to become classics; the six-episode arc opening the sixth season, In the Pale Moonlight, The Siege of AR-558. In contrast, the episodes on which they compromised had a decidedly more mixed legacy; One Little Ship, Tears of the Prophets.

Navigating a potential minefield.

It should be noted that The Siege of AR-558 arrived towards the middle of Deep Space Nine‘s final season. This is the point at which most television shows are on relative autopilot, the production team hoping to coast gently into an impressive finale. At this point in its final season, Star Trek: The Next Generation was having long-absent (and even previously unknown) relatives crawl out of the woodwork in episodes like Interface, Dark Page, Inheritance, Homeward and Sub Rosa. Star Trek: Voyager was producing Nightingale at this point in its final year.

The seventh season of Deep Space Nine would produce its share of dud episodes in the middle of the season, particularly the run of episodes including Prodigal Daughter, The Emperor’s New Cloak and Field of Fire. However, it moved with a tremendous sense of purpose. The Siege of AR-558 is a reminder of just how hard the production team were working on Deep Space Nine, just how eager they were to offer something new and compelling to viewers, to push the Star Trek franchise even further.

The best laid plans.

Guest star Bill Mumy recalls that The Siege of AR-558 was an extraordinarily demanding production for all involved:

The crew was running on fumes. I probably had five forced calls on that episode, and we’d never had even one on the entire five years of B5. A day on DS9 was a long one. They all treated me really great. But, I was blown away at how you couldn’t vary from the printed script, not even a “well…” or one syllable… It was like Shakespeare! If you varied at all, they had to get approval from a committee. That was a bit weird. But like I said, everyone was really nice to me.

That commitment undoubtedly paid off.

A Quark of fate brought them all here.

The Siege of AR-558 draws from any number of sources in creating its twenty-fourth century ground war. As with the Dominion War in general, there is a sense that the creative team are drawing from a popular conception of warfare rather than from one single conflict. The Dominion War often feels like an amalgamation of familiar ideas and concepts drawn from across the length and breadth of history to fashion something resembling an archetypal conflict, as if distilling the essence of war.

The style of the episode owes a lot the First World War, with its grime and its dirt evoking the brutal trench warfare that many viewers associate that that conflict. Deep Space Nine had already evoked the First World War in episodes like In the Pale Moonlight, treating the assassination of Senator Vreenak as a moment akin to the sinking of the Lusitania or the plans for a Dominion invasion of Romulus as a twenty-fourth century Zimmerman telegram.

Inconsolable.

According to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the production design of The Siege of AR-558 was clearly intended to capture the tone of the trench warfare from the First World War:

Director Rick Kolbe thought of a different conflict as he prepared for the episode: World War I. “The images you see from that are trenches of churned-up direct,” he says. “The battleground always looked like there was absolutely nothing there that anyone could ever want. Yet people were blowing each other to smithereens over this land. I wanted AR-558 to be that type of battleground, a totally non-descript piece of real estate that didn’t deserve one drop of blood to be shed for it. It shouldn’t say anything to the eye or the mind except that we were there because somebody had decided to put a relay station on this rock.”

There is a definite sense of folly to the conflict, particularly to the sense that these soldiers have been stationed on the rock for five months and accomplished nothing beyond “holding.”

Intermittened transmitting.

However, there is a lot of the Second World War in the mix. This makes a great deal of sense, given that the Second World War is effectively the cornerstone of the Star Trek universe, both as the root of “the American century” in the real world that led to the Kennedy-era liberalism that informed so much of the franchise and also as a temporal lynchpin within the universe in episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever or Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II.

The parallels to the Dominion War suggest themselves, with Dominion often feeling like the embodiment of totalitarianism. Emissary had suggested that the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor was a crime on the scale of the Holocaust, while By Inferno’s Light suggested that the Cardassian government had become a twenty-fourth century Weimer Republic. More than that, the Dominion War is more about genocide and extermination than mere industrialisation and mechanisation.

Putting all the pieces together.

According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the writers were inspired by the horrors of one particular battle when crafting the battle for AR-558:

“My father fought with the Marines at Gaudalcanal,” David Weddle says, referring to the famous World War II battle. “Ira wanted to do tragic warfare,” Weddle notes, “so I said, ‘Why not make it like Gaudalcanal? The soldiers had to hold on to an area because it was strategically important. It’s one of the greatest heroic stories of World War II. Those men and women stopped something incredibly evil,” he states proudly, “and when they came back, there was no talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome or therapy groups. They won, but it changed their whole lives. Ira and Hans really tried to capture the essence of that conflict.”

That battle was fought over six months on a five thousand square kilometre island in the middle of the Pacific between August 1942 and February 1943.

Hell in the Chin’toka System.

It has been argued that the Pacific Theatre represents one of the “lesser known” facets of the Second World War, perhaps because it lacks the clear cut narrative that defines the European Theatre and perhaps because of the shadow cast by the dropping of the atomic bomb. Even in pop culture, the European Theatre seems to occupy a more prominent place; one need only compare the profile of Saving Private Ryan as compared to The Thin Red Line or Band of Brothers as compared to The Pacific.

Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that the Pacific was a harbinger of wars to come. While the geography of countries like the Netherlands and France made it tough to mount successful guerilla campaigns against occupying forces, the geography of Pacific lent itself to that warfarethe Americans actively encouraged and supplied guerilla groups in the Philippines. Indeed, the American government actively supported and supplied Ho Chi Minh during the Second World War, allowing him to solidify a power base that he would use to wage the Vietnam War.

Darkest hour.

“The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we’ve seen ever since, a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions,” Tom Hanks argued when discussing his work on The Pacific. Certainly, the imagery evokes that of Vietnam, which is arguably part of the reason that it has been so eclipsed in popular culture. “For my generation, the jungle war was Vietnam,” Peter Richmond reflected of the Guadalcanal Campaign.

Even to a casual observer, it is easy to trace a line between the imagery associated with the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War to the combat realities of the Vietnam War. Ralph Morse captured that brutality and horror through his photography, perhaps most iconically in the picture of the severed head of a Japanese soldier dangling from a disabled tank. There are echoes of these horrors in the work of Eddie Adams or Nick Ult in documenting the violence of the Vietnam War.

Navigating a potential minefield.

Notably, The Siege of AR-558 was directed by Winrich Kolbe, who had direct experience of that conflict. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Kolbe drew on that experience in portraying the combat in The Siege of AR-558:

A Vietnam War veteran, Kolbe also saw parallels to the Battle of Khe Sanh, said to be the most ferocious siege in that war. “I left Vietnam before my division went to Khe Sanh,” he says, “but it was another one of those godforsaken places that had strategic value.”

The Siege of AR-558 certainly captures the sense of pointlessness that many associate with the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Deep Space Nine never reveals whether the communications array on the rock proves of any strategic use. The Dominion would retake Chin’toka in The Changing Face of Evil.

Homecoming after The Siege.

The Siege of AR-558 has obvious parallels with Vietnam that extend beyond Kolbe’s direction. Some of these references are arguably rooted more in the cultural memory of the Vietnam War more than the reality of the conflict. This is arguably most obvious in the character of Reese, who often plays like a collection of Vietnam war movie clichés. He even channels Platoon at the end of the episode, reflecting on the fresh-faced recruits landing on the rock. “Children,” he observes, mirroring Chris Taylor’s own reaction to his replacements at the end of that movie.

Reese also has a chain of broken ketracel white containers dangling around his neck. “He took them off the bodies of dead Jem’Hadar,” Nog tells Quark. “Jem’Hadar that he killed. It’s his way of keeping score.” It is a familiar piece of war iconography, although the trophies dangling from the necklace tend to be a bit more grizzly. Dolph Lundgren wore a necklace of human ears in Universal Soldier, perhaps the most prominent shorthand for the depravity and brutality of these sorts of prolonged conflicts.

War-n down.

To be fair, there is some evidence that this sort of behaviour really happened with American troops stationed in Vietnam. As Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant related in Wallace Terry’s Bloods:

Well, these white guys would sometimes take the dog-tag chain and fill that up with ears. For different reasons. They would take the ear off to make sure the VC was dead. And to confirm that they had a kill. And to put some notches on they guns. If we were movin’ through the jungle, they’d just put the bloody ear on the chain and stick the ear in their pocket and keep on going. Wouldn’t take time to dry it off. Then when we get back, they would nail ’em up on the walls to our hootch, you know, as a trophy. They was rotten and stinkin’ after awhile, and finally we make ’em take ’em down.

The infamous “Tiger Force” was alleged to have taken such trophies from their fallen enemies. It is no wonder the horrific imagery soaked into the popular consciousness.

Drink it all in.

There is something to be said for this approach to the Dominion War, treating the conflict as a patchwork hypothetical future war that draws not only from the historical record, but also from the popular imagination. In some respects, the Dominion War is a stand-in for the very idea of war within the larger Star Trek canon, an archetypal construct cobbled together from imagery and iconography associated with warfare. The Dominion War is almost an abstract conceptualisation of warfare, a backdrop against which the classic Star Trek morality plays might be told.

After all, twenty-fourth century warfare would probably look radically different from contemporary warfare, much like more asymmetrical warfare is different from the standard combat seen in the Second World War or like the horrors of the First War were radically different from the conflicts of earlier centuries. Society and technology change dramatically over time, in a way that radically alters the way in which people interact with the world. Concepts like internet and personal phones have radically altered the way society works within an individual’s lifetime.

Holo hopes.

As such, war in Star Trek should be radically different than war as the audience understands it. In a universe with faster-than-light travel and replicators, the face of warfare should be completely alien to modern viewers. There has been plenty of great science-fiction written around the concept, from Ender’s Game to The Forever War. Even within the set up of The Siege of AR-558, the audience might wonder why the Dominion never just set off all the cloaked mines simultaneously or why they never attempted to destroy the site from orbit, invalidating the episode’s premise.

The truth is that The Siege of AR-558 resembles contemporary warfare because it is intended as a commentary upon warfare as most viewers understand it. Any attempt to extrapolate how twenty-fourth century combat works would ultimately distract from that. Falling back on old warfare (and even war movie) standards works in the context of The Siege of AR-558, because they provide a clear framework for audiences to understand the episode. Like Vic Fontaine’s cover of I’ll Be Seeing You, it’s a familiar tune that still has power.

Vic’s story is life.

Indeed, the use of I’ll Be Seeing You within the episode provides a nice opportunity for the writers to justify their reliance on the familiar tropes and clichés of classic war narratives. “These songs are four hundred years old,” Vic tells Bashir. “You sure the troops on the front lines want to hear them?” Bashir responds, “The songs may be old, but when you sing them, they sound brand new.” Most of the audience watching The Siege of AR-558 are familiar with war movie clichés, but have never seen them through the lens of Star Trek.

After all, many of the issues broached by The Siege of AR-558 are still relevant in the twenty-first century. Conflict still takes a massive toll on soldiers; roughly twenty veterans commit suicide every day, while suicide within the service rose dramatically between 2004 and 2009. Divorce rates have also climbed. In 2007, the United States military extended tours of duty from twelve months to fifteen months. The reported use of steroids in the armed forces has doubled during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nog the battle to the strong.

With all of this going on, there is an obvious value to having stories like The Siege of AR-558. As veteran Thomas Zeller explained in The Fifty-Year Mission, there was something very useful in having Star Trek explore the idea (and trauma) of warfare in a manner that was relatively removed from the modern world:

During this time I’ve obviously had many disturbing thoughts and feelings. Hard memories and loss. I started watching DS9 again and amazingly found an outlet that was truly helpful. Long before America or I became well associated with religious extremism and suicide bombers we saw that on DS9. We saw the toll of battle and the casualty figures coming in on the faces and the feelings of the characters. And we saw them in the midst of deep desperate battle and the loss of limbs and the struggle to recover. Episodes like The Sacrifice of Angels and The Siege of AR-558 resonate in my consciousness. They are familiar, certainly, but because they take place in an imaginary future far, far from here they are not too close, but just close enough to be cathartic and helpful without tearing me apart.

In its own way, this is the perfect distillation of what Star Trek does (and has always done) with big controversial issues like race or religion or ideology. The franchise takes these ideas out of their heated current context and explores them as a set of abstracted principles, at a remove from high-stakes immediacy.

“We’re all ears.”

The characters in The Siege of AR-558 are all archetypes, but they are no less effective for that. In particular, Behr and Beimler make a point to parallel various characters with the rest of the ensemble in order to create a storytelling shorthand that establishes these one-shot guest stars quite effectively. For example, Vargas is a character consciously designed to evoke Chief O’Brien. He is a conflict veteran who seems worried that he has been transformed by his experiences, a working class stiff who has seen horrible things in the line of duty.

More to the point, Vargas’ relationship with (the unseen) McGreevey is consciously designed to evoke that between O’Brien and Bashir. Like O’Brien, Vargas is dressed in the gold of the command division. His colleague McGreevey appears to have been a science or medical officer, based on the colour of the bandage that he fashioned for Vargas. While Vargas is clearly not a character afraid of a little grime, the implication is that McGreevey was a little more fastidious. “McGreevey put this bandage on me,” Vargas explains. “He ripped up his own uniform to make it.” He seems almost surprised.

Not phased in the slightest.

However, the dynamic between Vargas and McGreevey feels more familiar as Vargas describes it. “He was a jerk. I couldn’t stand the guy. He wouldn’t shut up. Yap, yap, yap, yap. He thought he was the world’s greatest authority on everything. I know, he’s dead and I should have more respect, but God I hated him. One moment he’s tying the bandage around my arm, talking his head off, and the next minute he’s lying flat on his back with a hole in his chest. And I just sat there and I looked at him. That was so great. He was so quiet. One time in his life he’s quiet.”

In many ways, this consciously parallels the relationship between O’Brien and Bashir, dating back to The Storyteller or Armageddon Game. O’Brien is the stoic working class guy with the rolled-up sleeves, while Bashir is the chatty young officer with an opinion about absolutely everything under the sun. Vargas’ anger towards McGreevey is ultimately a more hardened and extreme expression of O’Brien’s occasional frustration with Bashir, as demonstrated during his near breakdown in Hard Time or even in his difficulty admitting his platonic love for Bashir in Chrysalis or Extreme Measures.

A (Var)gas man, indeed.

Kellin is more of a stock character, particularly notable for being played by Bill Mumy. In his own way, Mumy represents a weird strand of science-fiction utopianism, having played the child Will Robinson in the classic Lost in Space television show. Casting Mumy, only to brutally kill him off in a war episode, feels like a very pointed swipe at sixties utopianism. As Bill Mumy acknowledged, Ira Behr was aware of the power of that image:

Dying in Nicole deBoer’s arms? That was fine by me. Of course, it would have been sweet if he’d stuck around for several more episodes, but dying heroically on TV is cool by me. I’ll tell you a funny story about that… When we were shooting my death scene, Ira Behr was on the stage. Once it was in the can, he announced very loudly to the entire crew, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Star Trek just killed Will Robinson!”

In some respects, this feels like Deep Space Nine indulging its more irreverent impulses, like Garak’s jab about Earl Grey in In Purgatory’s Shadow or the destruction of the Odyssey in The Jem’Hadar or the quite pointed choice of having O’Brien recognise Sisko as the best captain in Starfleet in The Adversary. At the same time, it is a powerful image couched in genre terms. Even actors associated with iconic roles in parallel to classic Star Trek are not safe.

I want my Mumy.

The Siege of AR-558 is a fantastic piece of Star Trek, and a necessary part of Deep Space Nine. It is a story that follows the idea of the Dominion War to its logical conclusion, offering a glimpse of the grounded and horrific cost of warfare in a way that truly pushes the franchise forward. It could reasonably be argued that it was the last truly groundbreaking piece of Star Trek produced during the Berman era, with the possible exception of the hugely ambitious ten-part series finale.

The Siege of AR-558 is a genuine triumph, and a testament to everything that the production team working on Deep Space Nine have accomplished.

 

 

Advertisements

2 Responses

  1. If you guys haven’t already, check out Mumy’s interview on youtube about this episode. He ‘ad-libbed’ by mistake and brought production to a standstill.

    Also, there’s a funny story about Nicole getting into a spat with the director because “nobody beams in crouching down”, when in fact Kirk and Spock already did that in, I think, “The Corbonite Maneuver”.

    Funny how a little logical fallacy can get embedded into a show like that. (The Defiant crew beams down in the usual manner: way out in the open in a standing position with no cover!!!)

  2. Can we also say something about this music in this episode? I had to look up the name: Paul Baillargeon. It’s significant because, as Darren has noted time and again, Berman no interest in unique pieces of music, preferring his malleable “elevator music.” The music of “Siege of AR-558” really stands out – I can hear it in my head even now, 2 years since I last watched this ep. The final charge of the Jem’Hadar would have been a lot less dramatic with any of the expected Trek music filters.

    Darren, Vargas as an O’Brien stand-in is a killer analysis. Well done you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: