Sisko represents Worf at a hearing to determine whether the latter is guilty of savagely destroying a Klingon civilian ship.
Plot Summary: Worf wakes from a nightmare in the brig, reminded by Odo that his hearing starts in a few hours. Klingon Advocate Ch’Pok is on the station to represent the Klingon demand for Worf’s extradition after Worf ordered the Defiant to fire upon a civilian freighter, killing hundreds of innocent Klingons, including children; he has agreed to accept Starfleet Admiral T’Lara’s ruling. As Worf’s defense counsel, Sisko argues that the destruction of the freighter was a tragic accident, since the ship materialized in the middle of a battle when several Klingon warbirds tried to stop the Defiant from leading a relief convoy to treat a Cardassian plague. Dax is reluctantly called upon to testify that in a holosuite battle, Worf ordered the killing of Klingon civilians; O’Brien is reluctantly called upon to testify that if he had had to take command even in the middle of battle, he would not have fired on a decloaking ship until he made certain that it had hostile intentions. Quark reveals that Worf had said he hoped the convoy would be attacked, presumably so that he could experience the glory of battle. Ch’Pok tells Sisko that if Worf concedes without taking the stand, the Klingons will spare Worf’s life. After Sisko refuses, Ch’Pok enrages Worf by telling him that he and his son Alexander are not true Klingons, goading Worf into punching Ch’Pok though Worf knows that the other Klingon is unarmed. Meanwhile, Odo investigates the destroyed freighter, first to determine whether the captain might have had a grudge against Worf’s disgraced family, then to learn whether any of the passengers might have committed sabotage. Odo discovers that every passenger who supposedly died on the freighter was initially reported killed in a transport crash a few months earlier, though the Klingon records were later changed. Once Ch’Pok must admit that it is possible someone staged the freighter’s destruction to destabilize Klingon relations with the Federation, the charges against Worf are dropped, though Sisko berates him for firing a shot that could indeed have killed civilians.
Analysis: When a series needs to do a bottle show to save money, Star Trek often defaults to the courtroom drama. Since much of the story can be told through flashbacks and the action, such as it is, requires only a judicial looking set-up, all that’s really required are actors who can make the material convincing and interesting, which many of the actors on Deep Space Nine could do with a dramatic reading of the phone book. So even though “Rules of Engagement” is a bit of fluff disguised as a mystery – it’s only a tiny piece in the Klingon-Cardassian conflict with no long-term consequences, it’s only a rehash of Worf’s Klingon dilemma from “Sons of Mogh” with no long-term consequences, it’s only a whiff of character development in terms of Worf’s relationships with Sisko or Dax with no long-term consequences – it holds the viewer’s interest even though it shows its hand much too early, when Sisko gets Ch’Pok to admit that the Klingons hope to annex Cardassian space while the Federation is doing damage control. It’s obviously a set-up, with the only question being how it was carried out. Worf’s nightmare at the very start of the episode is a red herring, suggesting that he might have been drugged or otherwise manipulated, when in fact Worf is of sound mind when he gives the order to fire and his nightmare stems from his guilt at the deaths of so many civilians, even though he maintains that he would make the same decision again until Sisko bites his head off, reminding him that he and everyone on his ship took an oath to Starfleet to protect the civilians who might have been traveling in the shipping lanes even in the midst of a firefight. I won’t even ask when Klingons started putting cloaking devices on civilian transports, nor why they’d plausibly send warships to shoot at a Federation convoy in open shipping lanes with their own transports trying to pass peacefully. That’s just one of the little plot holes we’re apparently expected to ignore. The bigger question is why, after Worf confesses to Sisko that he shouldn’t have accepted a mission that might bring him into such conflict with Klingons, Sisko doesn’t smack himself for not having stopped Worf from accepting it in the first place.
I’m more concerned with bigger plot questions, the ones with implications beyond this single storyline. First, why Worf? The very fact that Ch’Pok wants him to admit that his Klingon instincts drove him into an attack on defenseless people means that Ch’Pok is likely wrong that everyone in the quadrant will become hostile to the Federation – they’ll blame a Klingon for acting like a Klingon, shooting other Klingons in a game of who’s-the-most-Klingon, which is why Worf has a holosuite simulation in which he’s supposed to be killing civilians in the first place. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that anyone in Starfleet would think that a self-defined proud Klingon warrior would be the ideal person to bring supplies to the Cardassians, who may not take the time to realize that because this Klingon is in a Starfleet uniform, they don’t need to worry about being at war with him. The first time I saw this episode, I thought that Worf must be more important to the Klingons than Gowron had ever let on, like Odo to the Changelings, because otherwise framing any other Starfleet officer would seem to make more sense. Worf most often commands the Defiant, so maybe he’s the easiest person to set up, but someone really needs to explain the Defiant chain of command to me, because even assuming Sisko had some good reason for not putting the scientist Dax or the doctor Bashir in charge of an errand to help treat a plague, sending O’Brien as the second-in-command into what everyone acknowledges to be a good place for an ambush by the Klingons is entirely irrational. I get that Kira is not allowed to command the Defiant because she’s not a Starfleet officer and it’s a Starfleet ship, even though she now says “Oh my God!” instead of “Prophets!”…but then what’s she doing there at all? If the Bajorans are taking part in the mission of mercy to the Cardassians, shouldn’t she be serving primarily as the liaison with the Bajoran ships instead of working at a tactical position on the Defiant?
It seems ridiculous to me that an engineer with almost no command experience could be called upon to take over the bridge in the middle of a battle when Deep Space Nine’s combat-trained first officer is sitting right there, apparently qualified to die for Starfleet but not to captain anything bigger than a runabout. At least we get to see Odo looking entirely competent, though I wonder how he got so many contacts among the Klingons. And Sisko comes across very well, both intimidating a Klingon in the courtroom (and impressing a Vulcan judge) and telling Worf what he thinks Worf needs to remember if he is going to become a Starfleet captain. Brooks and Dorn, as well as guest star Ron Canada, are terrific speakers, so any episode in which they both get to talk a lot has that in its favor. I also think the past-tense narration device makes the show more dynamic than other courtroom episodes of the franchise have been, though for pure drama it’s hard to top “The Measure of a Man.” But having Dax behave more like Worf’s understanding girlfriend than like the heir to Curzon she became with Kang and Kor around, shooting him concerned looks when she should be holding her head up as she did very early on when Jadzia was on trial for a crime committed by a previous Dax host, is just plain annoying, and I remain mystified why the station’s doctor is not a key officer on a mission to stop a plague. Of anyone I’d think would have been speaking out in Worf’s defense, insisting that getting to dying Cardassians took priority over protecting Klingons in the middle of an unprovoked attack on a humanitarian mission, it would be Bashir. But now that Worf’s supposedly severed all ties to the Klingons, I guess the writers need to come up with things for him to do…even if Worf himself can’t seem to figure out what that might be.