In the eighth episode of the seventh season of Deep Space Nine, I wasn’t ready, and that’s honestly what the tag line for the show should be. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of warfare, death, and PTSD/trauma.
Deep Space Nine went there. Then they set up camp, created a whole village, then burned it down. I hurt.
I respect this episode just as much as I am numb from its intensity. War is not something that Star Trek as a whole delves into. Which is understandable! It’s not that kind of science fiction, despite that much of the canon retains a heavy military influence in other ways. Much of what we’ve seen is singular: either it’s a one-off episode about another culture at war, or we’re dealing with the aftermath of a war from long ago, or the Federation narrowly avoids war. Yet here, on Deep Space Nine, war has become the main serialized plot. Not only does that allow a deeper look into what it means for the Federation to be at war, but this show’s willingness to commit means that “The Siege of AR-558” can even exist.
Just… what do you say about something like this? To call it “grim” feels like an understatement. To call it “realism” implies that much of this show has avoided portraying stories in a believable light. If anything, this story is just another chapter in a long line of Deep Space Nine episodes that takes us to a brutally uncomfortable place. The Dominion War is not something that’s happening in the distance; it’s not something that has no repercussions for the main characters. Instead, we see how deeply integrated it has become into their lives.
Well, some of their lives. I thought it was smart to keep Kira, Worf, and Odo out of this story; we’ve seen a lot lately from the show in regards to the Dominion War. I admit that I’m still scratching my head in regards to the justification for Quark’s presence on this away mission. However, I wouldn’t remove him from the story; he’s integral to “The Siege of AR-558” because he highlights the sheer absurdity and cruelty of warfare. So… okay, the Nagus wanted him there for reasons! Let’s just skip over that and talk about how everything in this episode hurts. All four of the guest cast members – Raymond Cruz, Annette Helde, Patrick Kilpatrick, and Bill Mumy – are brilliantly used to portray a Federation outpost that has suffered the unthinkable. For months, they’ve lost two-thirds of their squadron in repeated Jem’Hadar attacks. The shows demonstrates this through grit: the soldiers are filthy. Their wounds are unhealed. Their minds are filled with paranoia and pessimism. There is nothing here to make anyone feel good, and it honestly felt shocking to witness. At no point did the writers try to uplift the audience’s spirits with twists of hope or promises of victory.
And why is that? There is a victory at the end of this episode, but it’s a Pyrrhic one. If anything, that is the meaning of this episode. How can war be a good thing if the cost is so high? How can you celebrate a victory when everything feels like a failure? Look no further than the four AR-558 characters for evidence of that. Vargas is traumatized by what he’s experienced defending the communications relay. (His monologue about the bandage on his arm is still chilling to me as I’m writing this.) Reese has developed a method of coping with the amount of killing he’s had to do by collecting containers of ketracell white from the bodies of Jem’Hadar he’s killed. Kellin is bored by the challenge of trying to figure out the communications array, not because it’s too easy, but because the experience is so difficult and hellish. And Larkin, thrust into the roll of leader of a band of exhausted Starfleet members, has lost all patience. Who can blame her? Who can blame any of these people?
Thus, it’s easy to remember that Quark has rarely, if ever, seen violence and dejection on this scale. Again, his presence is necessary because he’s the one most detached from war. He even says so! He’s profited from war, but only at a distance. Up close, it’s all a nightmare, and he never shies away from stating it outright. He tries to convince people to leave. He tries to get Nog to stop idolizing people like Reese. He tries to appeal to Nog’s upbringing as a Ferengi.
And when he fails, he discovers that sometimes, the cost of war is the people you care about most. I understood Quark’s fury towards Sisko, even if it wasn’t Sisko’s fault that Nog got shot or lost his leg. (More on that in a second.) To Quark, there was no reason not to assign blame here. Sisko knew the risk of sending anyone out on that recon mission, and yet he sent Nog anyway. The mission was, of course, necessary for survival, but does that vindicate the death of Larkin? The loss of Nog’s leg?
In the end, there’s no way to quantify such a thing, and it’s perhaps the most distressing part of this story. There are no easy answers. Nog will forever be changed by the events of “The Siege of AR-558.” How the hell is this show going to deal with that? Look, I’m so used to magical healing on Star Trek that the choice to keep Nog’s amputation feels… shocking, honestly. I expected people would die, but I was still pained to watch Vargas and Kellin in that final battle. Of course, the show has to make one of the most intricately staged and chaotic fight scenes even more upsetting with the choice of music. It’s never once painted as something heroic; the music makes it clear that this is all a somber affair.
In the end, everyone loses, even if the battle is won. Despite that AR-558 is still in Federation hands, 1,730 people still died. Nog will have to adapt. Ezri held Kellin as he passed away. This war is a nightmare, and Deep Space Nine won’t let us forget that.
The video for “The Siege of AR-558” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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