During a field trip in the Gamma Quadrant with Jake and Nog, Sisko and Quark are taken prisoner by soldiers of the Dominion.
Plot Summary: When Sisko offers to take Jake to the Gamma Quadrant to do a planetary survey for school, Jake asks to bring Nog along so that Nog doesn’t drop out, and Quark insists on accompanying his nephew. Sisko isn’t happy about that and even less so when Quark complains about the primitive conditions of the planet they choose, so Jake and Nog wander away from the adults and are not present when a mysterious woman appears, fleeing from a group of heavily armed soldiers who seemingly appear out of nowhere to capture all three of them. The soldiers are Jem’Hadar, and the woman, Eris, explains that they have placed a collar around her neck to prevent her from using her telekinetic powers against the Dominion. Sisko enlists an unhappy Quark’s help to pick the lock on the collar and learns from the Jem’Hadar that the Dominion intends to stop ships from coming through the wormhole. The Jem’Hadar Talak’Talan visits DS9 to convey this message to Starfleet, then transports away despite the presence of force fields. Meanwhile, Jake and Nog discover that their guardians are being held in a cave surrounded by guards, so they return to the runabout, but discover that it will only take their voice commands if they disengage the autopilot. A Starfleet rescue mission searching for Sisko tracks Jake and Nog aboard their runabout, which O’Brien beams aboard to pilot back to the planet where the commander is being held. Quark successfully removes the collar restraining Eris from using her telekinetic powers, and once it is off, she helps Sisko and Quark escape. O’Brien rescues all three of them while the Jem’Hadar fight the USS Odyssey and another runabout, but when the Starfleet ships head back toward the wormhole, the Jem’Hadar destroy the Odyssey in a suicide run rather than let it retreat. Quark tells Sisko that Eris’s collar is a fake and Sisko shares the conclusion that she must be a spy for the Dominion, but before Odo can take her into custody, she beams away, promising that they have no idea what’s begun. Sisko vows to be ready for a Dominion attack.
Analysis: What starts as a rather predictable and boring camping trip soon turns into the start of the finest arc in the history of Star Trek, though no one who saw it when it first aired could have known that “The Jem’Hadar” signaled the start of the Dominion War. (In fact, I’d guess even the show’s writers didn’t know yet, since Eris has telekinetic powers not shared by other Vorta and since she doesn’t react to Odo as a Founder the way every other Dominion member does.) It’s an episode whose flaws are more obvious now than on first viewing, when I assumed that all plot holes would be patched up in the opening episodes of the next season, yet it’s still fairly enjoyable and the characterization is spot-on for all the regulars, though the Federation should warn the crew that when the commander takes his son camping on an unknown planet, it might be wise to equip their vessel with some kind of emergency signal in case things go horribly wrong, and when a big crisis arises, it might be wise to leave at least one senior officer on the station in case everyone else gets killed! I suppose everyone had to go on the rescue mission to create the same sense of hyperbole for the end of the season as blowing up a starship, which seems very wasteful not only because Starfleet must be running out of Galaxy-class ships after the Borg attacks but because the Dominion seems to be showing its hand much too early unless conflict is their primary goal. We’ve been led to believe thus far that the Dominion is primarily concerned with control of trade and commerce, that it sends its soldiers in only when a species won’t cooperate with them, as Eris claims happened to her home planet. Now we’re told that they have destroyed the Bajoran colony in the Gamma Quadrant, apparently without warning or negotiation, and they destroy a Federation starship as it’s retreating. Sisko guesses they’re setting an example, but these are acts of war, and it’s never been clear to me why the Dominion picked this moment to start one.
In retrospect, I’m not sure how logical the Founders are being about a lot of things. Though it makes for good action, Eris didn’t need to fake a fight with the Jem’Hadar if her goal was to spy on Starfleet; she could have appeared wounded and bruised and begged asylum without ever showing Sisko what the scary Dominion soldiers are capable of doing, thus completely shocking the Federation once news of the destruction of New Bajor spread and instilling the terror of an unknown enemy throughout the Alpha Quadrant. Starfleet now knows that the Jem’Hadar admire the Klingons and are willing to commit suicide purely for show, two pieces of information later used to Starfleet’s tactical advantage. I’m not sorry that the Vorta telekinetic powers don’t remain important because they’re gimmicky whether or not they can be controlled with collars, but I’m sorry they aren’t all as charismatic as Eris; with the exception of Weyoun, whom we have years to get to know, the other Vorta we meet seem uncreative and passive, pawns of the Founders whom the Jem’Hadar obey only because they’re programmed to do so. We get hints all along that she’s playing a role, deliberately provoking Sisko and Quark to see how they behave under duress, and she never comes across as a damsel in distress even when she’s pretending to flee in panic. I love her contempt at the end, telling Sisko that the Founders wouldn’t bother with him and warning gleefully that his troubles are only beginning just before she uses the Dominion’s fantastical technology to disappear undetected. Quark’s blathering on about Ferengi superiority to humans because the Ferengi never had slavery makes me cringe – the Ferengi treat their wives as slaves, their behavior toward women is atrocious, so I kind of found myself hoping Eris would kick his butt.
Even though they get soundly beaten, the crew never looks bad facing this powerful new enemy. Sisko keeps his cool with the Jem’Hadar but more importantly he manages never to snap at Quark – well, much – and his relationship with Jake is growing up nicely. So is Nog, who is perhaps more deeply affected by anyone else on the station by the coming of the Federation and then the Dominion War; here, he’s still a boy at risk for dropping out of school, unable to imagine that one day he will be a Starfleet veteran. It’s a shame that the writers never take the same risks with Quark, though there is something comforting, too, about the idea that preaching Federation values simply has no effect on people from different cultures – it’s not that I’m particularly tempted to defend Ferengi values, only that Quark’s right that humans are awfully quick to dismiss terrible things in their own past. (I can’t say I mourned too much over a Starfleet captain who didn’t trust Dax and complained about the lack of combat experience among DS9’s senior staff; we’ve seen such arrogance too frequently from Starfleet personnel.) I’m always happy when Kira gets to run the station for a while and she’s particularly admirable here, questioning Talak’Talan as she comes to realize the superiority of his technology, keeping her cool when she’s shaking with rage about New Bajor, sharing an intense moment with Odo whom she can’t let rush off without a warning to stay safe. Even what look like trivial moments here – Jake and Nog disassembling a runabout computer together, Odo deciding he’d better find Quark while everyone else is rescuing Sisko – become part of the larger tapestry of the series arc and the character relationships. Benjamin and Quark should have gone camping together more often.