As a power struggle develops between Bajor’s government and a group of dissidents, Kira rescues Bajoran resistance hero Li Nalas and brings him to Deep Space Nine.
Plot Summary: Quark receives a Bajoran earring from a freighter captain who lately visited Cardassia IV. He shows it to Kira, who recognizes it as belonging to iconic resistance fighter Li Nalas and asks Sisko to borrow a runabout to rescue the revered Bajoran. Sisko hopes that Li can unite the factionalized Bajorans, a group of whom have started calling themselves the Circle and vandalizing the station with xenophobic symbols. He insists that Kira take O’Brien on the mission, where the engineer poses as her pimp to get her inside the Cardassian security force field. Li is shocked to learn that a fellow prisoner smuggled his earring off the planet and refuses to leave without the other prisoners, but they demand the honor of assisting in the rescue. While Li receives medical attention on the station, Dukat calls Sisko to express shock that the prison camp still existed – a violation of treaty – and to say that all the other prisoners will be sent back to Bajor. Li is uncomfortable being hailed as a savior of Bajor, but allows Bajoran Minister Jaro to offer him a public welcome before a thrilled crowd. Jaro thanks Kira for her bravery but warns her that by provoking the Cardassians, she has made enemies in the Bajoran Ministry. When Quark is attacked by members of the Circle, Li learns about the social unrest on Bajor. Kira suggests that Li could unite the Bajorans, but a few hours later, Sisko learns that Li has tried to stow away on a ship headed to the Gamma Quadrant. In private, Li explains that his legendary bravery actually consisted of shooting an unarmed Cardassian in his underwear; he did not even recognize the brutal Gul Zarale, and his fame is based on stories that sprung up after that incident. Li insists that he is not worthy to be a leader, yet Sisko says the Bajoran people need a legend far more than a soldier or politician. Sisko points out that in Li’s brief speech before the crowd, he already revealed an aptitude for inspiring people. Li agrees to take on the role Jaro offers, but he is startled when along with his new title, he is made the Bajoran liaison to Deep Space Nine…replacing Kira, whom Jaro recalls to Bajor.
Analysis: When they aired in 1993, I saw “The Circle” before “The Homecoming”; during the hour of Deep Space Nine second season premiere, I was giving birth to my older son (who would have been named “Kira” if he’d been a girl). It should tell you something about my attachment to this show that while I was in labor, I was worrying about missing the first new episode in months. I thought back then the five-installment arc from “Duet” through “The Siege” was the best sustained storyline in the history of television, and I have modified that opinion only because the stories that grew out of this foundation in later seasons, when we knew more about the characters, the history of Bajor, and the spiritual stakes of the struggle – not to mention the ties to Starfleet, the Cardassians, and the fate of the Dominion – were even more satisfying. Nearly twenty years later, nothing that developed on Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica or Doctor Who comes close for me to the brilliance of DS9. The acting, the characterization, the pacing, even the special effects hold up marvelously. So there’s my bias: I utterly love this show, and my postpartum brain never allowed the sort of nitpicking I can perform on nearly all other shows I’ve seen. Moreover, no one is ever going to convince me that Kira’s not the greatest female character in all of genre television, even up against Xena and Ivanova and Roslin and Sarah Jane Smith. Oh yeah, and Janeway, too — she may have been the captain, but she spent too much time listening to no one’s advice but her own, while Sisko’s willingness to confer with Kira (and Dax, O’Brien, Odo, et al) is precisely the reason he’s the one I’d pick out of all the Trek captains to serve under.
Look at Sisko here, caught in his dual role as commander of a Starfleet station and the Emissary to the Bajoran people, raising a son open to dating Bajoran girls who in turn think they should be with one of their own. As Kira keeps telling Sisko, the Circle and the fate of Li Nalas are Bajoran problems, not even Sisko’s business except when there’s vandalism of his station or a need for Starfleet equipment to rescue a hero, but Sisko doesn’t see it that way; he tells Li that the quest for Bajoran unity is his own problem, something that Li can help him with. His concern in loaning Kira the runabout has to do with provoking the Cardassians, not with whether she’s right about the prison camp or whether she can do the job, but when he decides it’s worth it, he insists on taking the further risk of sending a Starfleet pilot to make sure the quest succeeds. He’s rather shocked when, as Dax predicted, Dukat offers an apology instead of a condemnation for Kira’s incursion into Cardassian space, yet rather than feigning a gratitude he doesn’t really feel, he invites Kira in and risks provoking Dukat by making him tell her personally how “surprised” he was to learn that there were still Bajoran prisoners being held in the Cardassian system. He follows Kira’s lead in treating Li Nalas like the hero everyone’s been told Li is, but when he realizes that that tactic is all wrong, he tries first letting Li get some rest, then giving Li the pep talk he needed in the first place (given that the man spent ten years in a labor camp, I’m surprised no one expects him to have some form of post-traumatic stress right from the start). Sisko’s confidence never wavers until the very end, when Jaro pulls the rug out from under him by simultaneously demanding that Sisko babysit Li, who’s both a security risk and a threat to Jaro’s ascendancy, and taking Kira away from the station and from Sisko.
Sisko looks like he’s ready to go to war right then, and who can blame him? Kira is at the top of her game here. Instead of running off to do her own thing, this time she asks for Sisko’s permission and help, though she also makes sure to enlist all of Sisko’s usual Starfleet allies in her cause, getting Dax and O’Brien both to back up her request. She talks her way around a Cardassian checkpoint and plays a role that must be distasteful to her, a Bajoran prostitute who services Cardassians, with real relish – largely because she knows she can and will get to kick the butt of the Cardassian security officer whose interest in her breasts distracts him from the knee she’s about to slam into him. She isn’t any happier about leaving Bajorans behind to rescue Li than is Li himself, but she knows where her duty lies and gets her prize to safety. She manages to let Jaro know how indignant she is that anyone on Bajor would question her actions even as she’s showing him the respect due a Bajoran minister, and she keeps a suspicious eye on him when he uses Li as an excuse to make a speech for his own purposes. I understand why Li feels that he can only tell his story to a non-Bajoran – he doesn’t have any sense of Sisko as the Emissary – but I think Kira would have understood the weight of outrageous expectations and dealt with that, too. Despite everything that she’s been through, she is simultaneously a realist and a great optimist, and she’s managed to keep her sense of humor about the absurdities of life. Of course Sisko doesn’t want to let her go!
It’s hard to talk about the rest of the episode without spoiling what’s to come in the rest of the opening trilogy, but I must note Frank Langella’s brilliant uncredited performance as Jaro (a role he did for love of the franchise and his children, not for credit). He manages to be vaguely sinister and oily without any over-the-top foreshadowing – a consummate politician. Richard Beymer’s turn as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is terrific as well. Having seen the conclusion, it’s hard not to note that the theme of following one’s instincts about not trusting former enemies even when they do you favors kicks off the very beginning of the story, with Odo wondering why Quark tipped him off to a smuggler (Quark cites the 76th Rule of Acquisition, “Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies.”).