Sisko and several crewmembers choose to remain on an embattled outpost during a grisly battle with the Dominion.
Plot Summary: Sisko leaves on a mission to deliver supplies and medical aid aboard the Defiant with Worf, Dax, and Bashir, along with Quark, who has been sent by the Nagus on a fact-finding mission about the war. When the senior crewmembers beam down to the barren surface of the planet AR-558, they find a group of decimated, demoralized Starfleet officers in the midst of a months-long standoff with Jem’Hadar troops trying to recapture a Dominion communications array that the Federation desperately wants to use to decode Dominion Dominion transmissions. Bashir treats the wounded and warns Sisko that both the physical and mental health of the soldiers is precarious. Lieutenant Larkin, forced to take command when her captain and commander were killed, explains that invisible subspace mines they call Houdinis have shattered her crew. When the Jem’Hadar attack, Sisko orders Worf to take the Defiant to safety so that the DS9 crew on the ground can fight. After the Jem’Hadar send holographic soldiers to assess Starfleet’s strength, Sisko sends Nog on a surveillance mission with Larkin and sends Dax to work with the engineer Kellin on disarming the Houdinis. Nog’s exceptional hearing allows him to find the Jem’Hadar camp, but the Jem’Hadar discovers the scouting party, killing Larkin, injuring Nog. Once Ezri and Kellin make the Houdinis visible, Sisko asks them to devise a plan to use them as weapons against the Jem’Hadar. Bashir is forced to amputate Nog’s leg, enraging Quark and making the younger Ferengi wonder whether the communications array is worth it. The Houdinis cut down many Jem’Hadar, but others wound Bashir and Sisko, who returns to consciousness to find Dax holding the body of Kellin, who died protecting her. The Starfleet officers have triumphed, yet Sisko refuses to leave aboard the Defiant until new troops arrive. Worf calls the battle a great victory, but Sisko, who can name all the casualties, says only, “It cost enough.”
Analysis: Like many of Deep Space Nine‘s best episodes, “The Siege of AR-558” is controversial among original Star Trek fans who find the focus on the horrors of war and the horrifying behavior of humans in such situations to be in opposition to the optimistic, peace-affirming view that Gene Roddenberry espoused. Though the most bitter perspective is voiced by Quark – who’s never been an objective observer of humanity, and who’s always insisted that a compromise-riddled treaty would be more profitable than a war – it’s hard to argue with the Ferengi assessment that while humans may be friendly as long as their bellies are full, they can become as violent as bloodthirsty Klingons when faced with the privations and brutality of combat. Another non-human, Dax, becomes the person to speak up when Sisko decides to use a weapon considered too awful for Starfleet to have developed against Jem’Hadar soldiers. Meanwhile Bashir laments that although he joined Starfleet to save lives, he can use a phaser rifle as well as a combat specialist, and Sisko, who appears to have heeded the lessons of “In the Pale Moonlight” – another controversial episode which rationalizes assassinating a few pawns in the hope of saving many more lives – insists that they will stay alive and protect the communications array no matter the cost. Directed by Vietnam War veteran Winrich Kolbe, the visuals are unflinching and unusually bloody for Star Trek in portraying the pain and misery of the fight for a planet that looks like a forbidding hunk of rock. As a viewer, it’s easy to hate the war and forget the bigger picture, just as these Starfleet officers seem to have done: that without this conflict, without breaking the Dominion’s soldiers and its communication codes, most of the inhabitants of the Alpha Quadrant could lose their freedom. It’s left to viewers to wonder, like Nog, whether this particular battle is really worth it.
I can’t decide whether strengthens or weakens “The Siege of AR-558” to have borrowed from so many movies and television shows about contemporary warfare. Do images and character types taken not primarily from the Battle of Guadalcanal (on which the story is loosely based) but from Apocalypse Now, The Guns of Navarone, and a number of other award-winning pop culture reference points reinforce the horrors of war for viewers? Or do they turn them into what seem more like required storytelling tropes than reality? Particularly when the Cardassians are out of the equation, the conflict between the Dominion and the Federation is easy to see as a black-and-white struggle by valiant if fallible heroes against an implacable enemy. Even when the war looks like hell, the idea of negotiating a truce brings to mind 1938 in Munich, an event mythologized in much of the western world as a symbol of placating evil. Many of us learned more about the Korean War from M*A*S*H than we ever learned in school; I’m in my 40s and was too young to understand the Vietnam War while it was happening, so I assume that viewers younger than myself probably identify even less with the people who fought it. As for the more recent wars fought all over this planet, we’re increasingly aware of how not just governments but vast media empires with financial and political stakes in the conflicts bias our perception of when armed conflict is being used to try to protect a larger peace versus when the greater good is being cited as an excuse to grab land, resources and power. Because the Dominion has such absolute control of its genetically engineered soldiers and strategists, no such propaganda is required in this fictional scenario, but it would have been so interesting to see an episode showing us the Dominion War from the perspective of inhabitants of one of the Dominion’s member worlds, locked in an alliance not wholly of its inhabitants’ choosing, yet being presented with the Federation as a foe so ruthless that no rebellion from within seems to have been considered, though surely planets in the Gamma Quadrant were chafing as much as Betazed to be rid of the Dominion.
Given that the Federation requires the full commitment of so many disparate elements to fight the Dominion, it’s interesting who Sisko does and does not bring to this battle. Not Odo, whose very existence demonstrates that biology is not destiny for everyone created by the Founders; not Kira, whose childhood fighting the Cardassians made her a focused and fearless fighter; not Worf, trained as a warrior from two cultures. Instead he has Bashir, trained to heal; Nog, who’s still a novice; Quark, who hates the whole bloody thing; and Dax, who’s still figuring out who to be this time around. I love when we get to see Ezri realize that she can do things she never imagined because of the symbiont, but it’s a little odd that her internal conflict seems to be between counselor and engineer, not counselor and warrior; I realize that she’s no longer Jadzia, but Sisko was accustomed to asking her the questions he’d once have asked Curzon and this is a situation where I’d think a Dax’s input might be welcomed, even if it’s just for comfort. We really get to see how isolating command is for him, though, beginning and ending with reading casualty lists, beginning and ending with a quarrel with Worf first over whether he should stay for the battle then over whether victory constitutes glory. He’s challenged twice by outsiders – the foot soldiers who’ve been defending AR-558 and Quark, each of whom doubts he can really understand what it’s like to be in the line of fire – Quark spitting that Sisko wouldn’t have sent Jake out, which leads to the nuanced, complicated ambivalence of Sisko’s reply that Jake is not a Starfleet officer. Really, though, despite the shock of Nog’s wounding, a storyline that won’t disappear next week, the most memorable moments come from non-regulars: Larkin, who’s one of the toughest women we ever see in the franchise, Reese, unrecognizable to himself after months of war, and Vargas, who has a devastating monologue describing the death in battle of a man he hadn’t been able to stand in life. Vic Fontaine has what looks like a throwaway comic moment with Rom at the start, yet his character sings a version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” that ends up working as the Jem’Hadar attack like Good Morning Vietnam‘s battle montage to “What a Wonderful World.” There’s a possible outside reference that’s note-perfect.