When O’Brien, Garak, Nog and a salvage team are stranded on a Cardassian station, Garak begins to act like a different person.
Plot Summary: Deep Space Nine’s plasma manifold suffers a critical failure, and because it dates back to the station’s Cardassian origin as Terok Nor, O’Brien tells Sisko that the best hope for a replacement is to salvage one from an identical station. Sisko agrees, so O’Brien puts together a team of engineers to retrieve the equipment from the abandoned Empok Nor, which is identical in design to Terok Nor. He also brings Garak to thwart any Cardassian security measures guarding the deserted station. When the team accesses the systems on Empok Nor, two cryogenic chambers in the infirmary begin to power up, and soon two Cardassian soldiers are assassinating the Starfleet engineers as well as blowing up their runabout. When Garak kills one of the assailants, he discovers that the dead Cardassian has been infected with a chemical that makes him extremely aggressive and violent. Then Garak kills the remaining Cardassian combatant, who is threatening Starfleet officer Amaro. Upon discovering that Amaro is using the wrong equipment, Garak becomes enraged and kills the Starfleet officer. O’Brien, who has been trying to get a signal to Deep Space Nine for help, realizes that Garak has been compromised by the same drug that affected the two dead Cardassians. Because O’Brien killed Cardassians at Setlik III, Garak considers him a worthy opponent and abducts Nog to force O’Brien into combat. The Cardassian wants to fight hand-to-hand to draw out the struggle, but O’Brien rigs a small phaser bomb and knocks Garak out, enabling him to signal Deep Space Nine for help and finish the salvage operation. The plasma manifold is retrieved successfully, Bashir purges the drug from Garak’s system, and Garak asks O’Brien to apologize to Amaro’s widow, saying that he is prepared to face an inquest for his actions.
Analysis: The things that set “Empok Nor” apart from similar horror-movie-type Star Trek episodes where ships, equipment, or aliens turn on the crew are also the things that make the proceedings feel very un-Star Trek-like. Apart from playing Garak, the role for which Andrew Robinson is most famous is that of the killer in Dirty Harry, and one gets the impression that someone on the writing staff wanted to find a way to make him reprise the part of a psychotic murderer. It’s interesting to ponder the question of whether Garak admires or dislikes O’Brien for his actions on Setlik III, an incident we’ve known about since The Next Generation episode “The Wounded,” which showed us that O’Brien carries more prejudice against Cardassians than most Starfleet officers, a resentment that’s come up a few times during Bajoran-Cardassian conflicts as well. But that’s an issue that should have been brought up before and explored in a storyline in which both characters act like themselves throughout. From the moment we see Garak come in touch with the weird sticky gel on Empok Nor, we know something bad is going to happen, so apart from one brief early discussion about O’Brien’s lack of skill at Cardassian games and Garak’s curiosity about O’Brien’s role in the historical massacre, every conversation they have can be dismissed because Garak is slowly losing his mind. What’s left is the equivalent of a haunted house story in which scary Cardassians jump out from behind things and attack people. We know there’s a Dominion War coming and we know the Cardassians are being reconstructed as villains after a brief period during which even Dukat seemed to gain some sympathy, yet it’s disturbing to see them reduced to “Spoonheads” even by Starfleet officers who are supposed to be above that sort of racial bigotry.
In order to keep the focus on O’Brien vs. Garak, some plot holes have to be created from the start. Sisko may agree to send an engineering team to an abandoned station for a piece of equipment critical to Deep Space Nine, but if it’s so important, why does he send only a few junior security officers and not Worf? Or, if he needs Worf on the station, why not send his top scientist (Dax) or someone familiar with sneaking around Cardassian security (Kira)? Even Rom has been tinkering with the Cardassian systems on DS9 longer than the redshirts sent off on this mission. And there’s no backup plan in case something happens to the runabout or the crew. Since Sisko either blackmails or bribes Garak into coming, depending on whose version of events seems more plausible (Garak claims it was a favor to get a bigger space for his shop), one would think the captain would have asked specific questions about the kinds of problems the crew is likely to encounter, so he can take steps to mitigate the risks beforehand. Maybe the plan is to show us O’Brien in command, having to make the security calls himself and deal with the awful situation of having to order Garak’s death if necessary, but we don’t get to see the one thing O’Brien is ostensibly an expert at, the very reason he leads the mission at all: his expertise as an engineer. The solution to the crisis ends up requiring the willingness to take a punch plus the ability to rig a phaser to explode, something we’ve seen dozens of other officers do, so O’Brien doesn’t end up looking particularly clever. He keeps saying that he’s an engineer, not a soldier, but that’s not what we’re witnessing.
And considering that a couple of weeks ago, he was freaking out at the idea of losing his wife while stranded in the past in the Gamma Quadrant, he’s awfully quick to forgive Garak’s committing gratuitous murder then asking the Chief to apologize for him to the man’s widow. Maybe O’Brien should take a wartime command, because he sure doesn’t seem to care if he loses people for whom he’s responsible. Nor does Garak suffer visible remorse. We’ve seen him turn psychopath before, under the influence of the Cardassian device in his mind in “The Wire,” so I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect a bit of character development to come out of it. One by one the nameless new characters fall while Garak talks to O’Brien about how many Cardassians he killed, sounding like Marritza talking to Kira in the much better “Duet,” yet I have no idea what the message is supposed to be: that peace can be as dangerous as war? That Cardassians are not to be trusted whether abandoning stations or offering to lead salvage missions? That Garak’s equivalent of a chess endgame, using the sustained metaphor of the game of Kotra which he keeps mentioning, isn’t nearly as impressive as Kirk’s? Well-honed performances by Robinson and Colm Meaney, who are both always reliable, can’t make up for the horror-cliche directing and a screenplay that never makes sense. We don’t even get any Ferengi humor out of Nog. I might have forgiven much for a discussion of why Garak really doesn’t like O’Brien, which has nothing to do with Setlik III and everything to do with what’s mentioned only in passing: that Garak’s close friendship with Bashir has suffered because Bashir spends so much time on the holodeck playing games with O’Brien. Bashir’s seeming lack of horror about his two best buds nearly killing each other may be my biggest disappointment of all.