A changeling tricks Sisko and the crew of the Defiant into taking actions that could start a war.
Plot Summary: At the festivities following Sisko’s promotion, Admiral Krajensky warns Starfleet’s newest captain that a coup on the Tzenkethi home world is threatening nearby Federation colonies. Two days later, Sisko and many crewmembers escort Krajensky aboard the Defiant to check on the colonists, only to discover that a Federation colony has already been destroyed. Problems in the ship’s communications array prevent Sisko from notifying Starfleet, and when O’Brien goes to repair the systems, he hears strange noises and finds Bashir acting strangely in a Jeffries tube. Then he discovers evidence of sabotage. Dax believes she can identify the culprit by scanning for warp particles, but when she scans Krajensky, he transforms into a Founder and flees. The shapeshifter powers the ship’s weapons, activates the cloaking device, and leaves Dax in a coma, putting the ship on course to the Tzenkethi home world, making Sisko suspect that the coup never happened and the entire mission has been a Dominion ploy to start a war between the Federation and the Tzenkethi. Realizing that he will have to self-destruct the ship if the Founder is not stopped, Sisko pairs off crewmembers so that the shapeshifter can’t masquerade as someone else and orders a ship-wide search. Sisko, Kira, Odo, and Eddington are all separated and become suspicious that one of them is the Founder, but Odo explains that it can’t be Sisko because an injury has left him bleeding, whereas a shapeshifter’s blood would revert to a gelatinous state to rejoin the whole. Sisko has Bashir draw blood from all the suspects, with results that show Eddington to be a Founder. But when the crew takes him to the brig, they find the real Bashir imprisoned there, while the doctor who did the tests disappears. The Defiant enters Tzenkethi space and Sisko initiates the self-destruct sequence while O’Brien tries to repair the sabotaged systems. Two changelings arrive in engineering with the appearance of Odo, each trying to gain O’Brien’s trust until the Founder attacks the real Odo. They struggle and the Founder is pinned against the warp core, dying from the radiation after whispering to Odo that the Dominion is everywhere. Sisko regains control of the ship and takes it back to the station to face this troubling news.
Analysis: “The Adversary” is one of the best season finales Star Trek has ever done. While not a traditional cliffhanger – it doesn’t leave a specific character in jeopardy or a major crisis unsolved like “The Best of Both Worlds” or “Scorpion”; instead its ambitions are even larger, suggesting that the whole of the universe as we know it may have been invaded by an enemy who can only be traced using a most personally invasive method, which we see for the first time here. Big things happen as Sisko finally becomes a captain, then gets a chance to test the auto-destruct codes while Odo discovers that he is capable of killing one of his own to protect his friends. Small, intimate character revelations occur as well, as we get to see O’Brien’s fear that Bashir has been compromised and Dax’s curiosity about the progression of Sisko’s romance with Yates. Alexander Singer’s directing is terrific, full of misdirection – we’re positive first that Bashir is a changeling, then that Eddington is a changeling, so that we’re not suspecting Bashir when we should and suspecting Eddington when he’s the best person to get to the bottom of the situation – creating the sort of tension that makes it all too understandable when Starfleet later demands blood tests to check for Founders throughout the Federation and on Earth. So much contemporary paranoia is blamed on 9/11, so it’s refreshing if also depressing to get a reminder that similar sorts of suspicion (and similar profiling and testing) were being discussed before those attacks. Again I’m impressed with the astuteness and prescience of Deep Space Nine‘s writers, particularly rewatching an episode like this one with the hindsight of knowing where these events will lead. I have some minor issues with the plot – I find it hard to believe that in two days of preparation for a volatile mission involving the entire senior staff, Sisko did not speak to anyone at Starfleet Command, not even a casual chat about his promotion, that would have made him suspect there was something odd about the Tzenkethi mission assignment, and it’s very odd that a changeling has such specific access to information about top-secret Defiant systems that one individual can run them single-handedly – but such quibbles don’t make a dent in my enjoyment.
Now the crew knows how easily the Dominion can manipulate them not only into nearly starting an interstellar war, but into distrusting everyone around them. If things got this tense on a starship where most of the people have known and worked with most of the others for years, we can already imagine what it will be like for people on different ships or stations. We know it’s going to be bad news as soon as the ambassador announces plans to go along as an “observer,” the sort of thing that has signaled trouble since Kirk took Fox to Eminiar VII and Picard gave Quinn a tour of the Enterprise. After that unsettling start, we get classic haunted house movie scares – O’Brien hears noises he can’t explain, then finds creepy equipment that seems to be injecting worms into the Defiant’s systems. Soon we learn that there is, in fact, a monster in the house, and worse, no one can recognize him, though Eddington never quite believes Odo when Odo claims that he too can be fooled. It’s the start of terror that will feed the next two seasons of the series, when no one can be sure how deeply the Founders have infiltrated the Federation and no one is entirely certain where Odo’s loyalties will ultimately lie. The same could be said for Eddington, whom it’s quite amusing to watch with hindsight knowing that he’ll be revealed as a Maquis agent before the Maquis become irrelevant, swallowed up in the bigger issue of the war with Cardassia once the Dominion finds an Alpha Quadrant ally. What he wants at this point is unclear except his own promotion, but he’s always been portrayed as somewhat adversarial – trying to take over Odo’s duties, obeying Starfleet orders that countermanded Sisko’s – and the command level officers seem more willing to regard him with suspicion, as an outsider, than they do others. We sit patiently waiting for Eddington to shapeshift first when Dax is scanning everyone, then when Bashir is testing everyone’s blood, so it’s quite funny when it turns out he’s just an ordinary guy. Considering his actions the last time he was aboard the Defiant, it’s even funnier when everyone glares at him as soon as Sisko announces that they have a saboteur aboard. All the suspicion just serves to hide the real villain, who at that point can go to sickbay and make sure Dax stays unconscious.
Odo has been behaving more and more like a solid — we almost never see him solve a crime by shapeshifting these days – so there’s real pleasure in watching a Founder demonstrate the range of his changeling abilities, taking on the forms of humans and inanimate objects as well as moving at remarkable speeds, creating nooses that drop out of nowhere and knives that burst out of hands. Huge changes are clearly in store for Odo, who is involved in life-altering events here, as he takes a life for the first time and definitively rejects one of his own kind in favor of saving his friends and the Federation’s interests, though the changeling attempts to force a link upon Odo in a visually disturbing scene that’s akin to a rape. O’Brien, who has one of his weakest showings since he left the Enterprise, can do nothing in the face of this malevolent power; first he’s afraid of ghost noises, then he looks guilty over Dax’s prone form, then he fails the Garth of Izar test by not realizing that when confronted with two Odos, the smartest thing to do would be to stun them both and sort them out afterward. Dax is unconscious and Quark absent for most of the episode, while Kira spends most of her time congratulating and backing up Sisko, but that’s all right because this is his moment, first becoming a captain, then acting like one. It’s rare for us to see a top officer look genuinely horrified when he or she realizes that destroying the ship (and crew) may be the only option, just as it’s rare for us to see a top officer with a family or in a romantic relationship that develops slowly and realistically. It’s odd that he isn’t more hands-on in the final minutes of the self-destruct sequence – I’d expect to see him either trying to chase the changeling or trying to help O’Brien, at least standing over him asking questions. He’d have been awesome, and probably very intimidating, playing Find the Changeling while O’Brien worked on the engines.