Stranded on a planet with a small group of Dominion soldiers, Sisko struggles to protect his crew without compromising his principles.
Plot Summary: While attempting to restore their Jem’Hadar warship’s damaged warp drive, Sisko’s crew hides from the Dominion in an uncharted nebula and makes a rough landing on a planet within. While Bashir cares for the wounded Dax, Garak and Nog scout for supplies and are captured by Jem’Hadar soldiers who have also crashed on the planet. The First and Second have died, so the Third, Remata’Klan, takes Garak and Nog to Keevan, their critically injured Vorta. Keevan asks whether the Starfleet officers have a doctor with them and orders Remata’Klan to approach the captain. Though the Jem’Hadar are under orders not to attack, they are short on ketracel-white and have little self-control. After a skirmish, Remata’Klan is sent alone to offer Sisko a trade: the return of Garak and Nog for the aid of Sisko and Bashir. Discovering that the Jem’Hadar has no negotiating skills and is honor-bound to keep his word not to harm them, Sisko agrees, allowing Bashir to save Keevan’s life. But the Vorta has another request: because he has only one vial of ketracel-white, and the Jem’Hadar will soon go insane from withdrawal, Keevan wants the Starfleet officers to kill the Dominion soldiers, in return for which he will surrender his ship and its working communication panel. Meanwhile, some hard questions from Jake and the suicide of a Vedek protesting Dominion control of Bajor spurs Kira to suggest to Odo that they establish some sort of resistance on the station. Disgusted that Keevan plans to slaughter his own crew, Sisko tells Remata’Klan that Bashir can put all the Jem’Hadar into stasis until they can be rescued, but Remata’Klan insists that he must follow Keevan’s orders, as all Jem’Hadar have been bred to do. Sisko’s crew is forced to fight the Jem’Hadar, all of whom are killed. Keevan keeps his word, surrendering the communication equipment that will allow the Starfleet crew to contact their allies.
Analysis: When I first saw it, I thought “Rocks and Shoals” was Deep Space Nine‘s best episode since “The Circle,” also the second installment of a season-opening arc, and it remains one of my favorites, though it’s a very bleak episode in which the only good news is the extent to which war brings out the best in most of the characters. If I love the scene in which Sisko’s crew is debating the ethics of slaughtering the Jem’Hadar until Sisko roars, “This isn’t a vote!”, I love even more the scene in which Jake chattily accuses Kira and Odo of quashing the right to protest. I’m not always comfortable with the way Kira defers to Sisko – she doesn’t put up with any crap from the Starfleet captain, but her devotion to the Emissary can be disturbing – yet they are very much equals now, struggling for the same goals despite thousands of light years separating them, unable to help each other. They both have no idea how to apply their democratic ideals to their current situations. As necessary as Sisko finds it to assert his own authority over his crew, insisting that he alone will make the decision about whether to fight the Jem’Hadar and put their lives at risk, he wants to undermine the Vorta’s authority over the Jem’Hadar, though he knows that the Jem’Hadar are bred and trained all their lives to obedience to the Vorta. He’s capable of laughing with O’Brien over the silliness over worrying that his pants got ripped and joking with Dax to keep her spirits up while she recovers, yet in the end his loathing of the conniving Vorta outweighs even his grief for the crewmember who died in the struggle. Similarly, Kira is capable of smiling at herself in the mirror while working with Cardassians, believing she’s protecting Bajor, until a Vedek commits suicide to make a statement. After that, Kira is less consumed by grief for the woman’s death than by anger and self-disgust.
Although there’s some action in this episode – a space chase, a crash, a phaser battle – most of what happens in it takes place internally, a shift in how the characters think and behave. We see how trapped everyone feels by the conflict, unable to come up with good solutions to their problems, whether they’re small things like the ripped clothing or huge things like being asked to help Weyoun keep the peace. Kira really comes into her own this season, seeing the Occupation and its aftermath from the perspective of the provisional government she has always considered weak rather than from the point of view of a freedom fighter. She knows that if the Cardassians are provoked, there will be bloodshed, Bajorans abused and starved and shot, and at the same time she comes to realize that even during those horrors, Bajorans maintained their integrity, their sense of pride, and a culture they may lose if there’s too much compromising with Dominion demands. She has thus far demonstrated admirable restraint in dealing with Weyoun, Damar, and Dukat, yet I’m not sorry to hear she can’t do it any more. The stakes are monumental – she knows that by placating Dukat, she may be saving thousands of lives – yet though she’s willing to compromise to protect her people, she is also aware that she can’t afford to be seen as a collaborator, not only because she won’t be able to look at herself in the mirror, but because she is a symbol of hope to many Bajorans and she must find a way to lead, not in fatal protest like a Vedek or in compromise like the government. Odo’s dilemma is similar, and he will be more gravely tempted than Kira before this is all over because the Founders are his people. In “Rocks and Shoals” we see Odo and Kira as close as we’ve ever seen them – still not contemplating taking their relationship to another level because they have too much else to worry about, but concerned about one another’s feelings, protective of one another, like-minded on crucial subjects. If that all has to fall apart before they can come together, they don’t know it yet.
The Jem’Hadar confuse me because they have some of the same problems as the Klingons – a deep sense of honor and respect for natural authority alongside naturally combative natures and a tendency to use violence over other problem-solving methods. Look how quickly the Klingon crew that’s now following Martok to the death was willing to mutiny and kill him just a few months ago. Similarly, we have Remata’Klan, who is stuck being Third even though the First and Second are dead because he challenged the Vorta over the choice to enter the nebula, which led to the crash. I assume his reasoning must have been to protect the lives of his men, since he has no authority to question a Vorta’s decision. So why is this same Third willing to sacrifice those same men after Sisko confirms that the Vorta has betrayed them? The Jem’Hadar lives may be Keevan’s to throw away as he sees fit, but if Remata’Klan knows Keevan to be a poor strategist already and has risked his position among the Jem’Hadar to save his men already, why choose noble deaths for them all here? After the battle, a smug Keevan tells Sisko that if he’d had just two more vials of ketracel-white, the Starfleet officers wouldn’t have had a chance, so it would have made more sense for Keevan to kill off only the number of Jem’Hadar to whom he can’t provide ketracel-white for a few more days. Keevan, Weyoun and their ilk seem much less clever on a rewatch. No wonder the female Founder always speaks to them so contemptuously. Sisko sounds much more virtuous arguing with the doomed Jem’Hadar leader, alternately confronting him and trying to sympathize with his position, but in the end he can do nothing to save Dominion lives nor the one of his own who dies in the combat. I didn’t like the way the battle was filmed, with the slo-mo of a cheesy movie charge, but the visuals on the station make up for that, with Kira standing out as the one bright spot on Terok Nor, her red hair and uniform portraying her as a contrast in every way to the grays and beiges of the Cardassians and Jem’Hadar. Even when she can’t look at herself in the mirror, she is all the brightness and kindness we see.