In the twenty-second episode of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, I can’t believe this show is real. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
I’ll give this episode props right off the bat: despite that every sign pointed to this mission failing, and despite that my instinct told me that Captain Watters was making mistake, I still wasn’t ready for where this episode went. This is one of the most grim and uncomfortable episodes of the show, and the fact that it’s staffed with teenagers and characters in their early twenties makes it all the more tragic. But I doesn’t exist without a context. Given what we saw of Red Squad the last time they appeared on this show? Yeah, this actually made a lot of sense. The Red Squad didn’t just work as an elite group of cadets; it was a commentary on elitism, favoritism, and arrogance within this specific group. And I think it also works as a criticism of the glorification of war and war acts, too, but I’ll get into that.
This is one of those episodes where I was truly unprepared for how far the writers would take it because… well, it starts out so innocently. To the show’s credit, the younger age of the cast is part of the reason I didn’t think Deep Space Nine would go where they did. Nog and Jake’s rescue from the Dominion ships by the Valiant felt like an interesting story about how a group of cadets were dealing with the Dominion War. And initially? All I saw was competence, creativity, and youthful energy. The Red Cadets had done the impossible: their original crew – all of the actual Starfleet officers who were teaching them – had perished on the first day of the war, and the surviving crew had taken over the Valiant. In their own way, the Red Squad had found out how to fight in the Dominion War and had done so to great success. (Which including masterfully rescuing Nog and Jake.)
Where Ronald D. Moore’ script begins to truly shine, though, is in the increasing ways in which he pulls back the curtain. On the surface, what Watters and the rest of the Red Squad have done is magnificent. But there’s a reason that what we see at the beginning is superficial; there are so many problems that have gone unaddressed in this crew. There’s Watters, his sleep deprivation, and his addiction to prescription pills to keep him awake. Then there’s the way that Watters and Farris work together to snuff out any sign of “weakness.” Specifically, we watch them berate Collins for showing emotion and missing home, which is how the episode also reveals that THE VALIANT HAS NOT BEEN IN CONTACT WITH STARFLEET IN EIGHT MONTHS.
It’s understandable, of course. As the previous captain died, they ordered Watters to take command and continue on the reconnaissance mission to discover the truth about the new Jem’Hadar battleship. Watters was supposed to follow orders because that’s Starfleet protocol, and no group of cadets would be more loyal to Starfleet orders than Red Squad, right? (LOOK AT WHAT THEY DID LAST TIME.) There’s a part of me that wonders if this is the reason Watters never reached out to Starfleet. Did he realize that he’d probably be stripped of his command? Be given orders to return? I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility, given that what we see of Watters in this episode is terrifying. There’s a cult of personality built around him, so much so that no one tries to criticize him or offer a different opinion. And why would you, if you’re treated as Collins is here?
It’s why Jake is viewed as an antagonist to these people. On the one hand, I read this strictly in terms of the characters: Jake is an outsider. He’s not part of Starfleet, so he can’t understand what they’re doing. Never mind that he’s grown up in the shadow of his father or been surrounded by Starfleet protocol his whole life; since he’s not a soldier, he can’t inherently understand. There’s a political commentary in this, too. Many people in the military would see Jake as the enemy because of the dichotomous way in which they view the world. Since Jake isn’t “helping” them, since he’s pointing out the obvious flaws in the plan to go after the battleship, and since he challenges Captain Watters openly, he becomes hostile to these people. They don’t want an outside perspective at all. If Jake is not one of them in every way, he is worthless. He becomes an enemy, so much so that he’s locked up in the brig because of it.
Even then, I still didn’t expect Moore to give me this. For a second, I thought Watters and company had succeeded and that this episode would take a complicated but largely positive turn. Maybe these kids would be able to go home. But instead, they fail, possibly more viciously than anyone else on this entire show. Their plan to destroy the battleship by exploiting a design flaw doesn’t work, and it’s revealed that THEY HAD NO BACK-UP PLAN. Their arrogance was their downfall; they hadn’t failed before, so why would they fail this time? Why even plan for an outcome that didn’t go there way?
And thus, the show kills everyone off except Jake, Nog, and Collins. It is brutal, sad, and massively uncomfortable. In the midst of this awful war, the Federation is dealt a stunning blow. Did any of the recon on the ship survive? Probably not! Despite all of this, Collins still defends the same man who insulted her for missing home. Who led all of her friends and crew mates to their deaths. Who failed so utterly that I can’t even recall someone failing this badly on Star Trek. It’s a testament to her loyalty, sure, but at what cost? Denying the truth? Believing someone was a great man because that’s what you’re supposed to believe?
I’M SO UNCOMFORTABLE.
The video for “Valiant” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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