|Garak menaces Chief O'Brien's engineering crew!|
The station's plasma conduits are breaking down, leaving the staff in a bind. With Cardassia having joined the Dominion, there is no source for replacement parts, and no ability to replicate those parts. The only reasonable possibility is Empok Nor, a Cardassian space station that was abandoned a year earlier, during the Klingon/Cardassian conflict. Chief O'Brien assembles a team to scavenge the station. Knowing the Cardassians' tendency to leave booby traps, Sisko orders one addition to the team, someone with extensive experience with Cardassian sabotage: Elim Garak!
Garak proves his usefulness almost immediately, disarming a device that would have turned Empok Nor's airlock into a deathtrap. Once aboard, the engineers begin searching for the needed parts. But Garak makes two disturbing discoveries: a bio-gel that he finds only when he makes skin contact with it, and two empty stasis tubes that housed members of the Cardassian First Order, a group that is violently xenophobic even by Cardassian standards. Their statis tubes were apparently set to wake them as soon as the station was breached.
Now they are hunting the Starfleet intruders. Garak's skills as a spy and assassin seem to offer the best hope for combating them... but Garak is sliding ever further into xenophobia himself, turning gradually against the very people he was sent to protect!
Capt. Sisko: When O'Brien suggests scavenging parts from Empok Nor, Sisko barely hesitates. He does take a moment to verify that the salvage team won't be likely to run afoul of the Dominion, however, and he bribes Garak into going along to help protect the engineers, both of which show a level of caution not always typical of Sisko.
O'Brien: The strongest character material of the episode is when Garak brings up O'Brien's military service during the Federation's war with Cardassia. Garak remarks on O'Brien's audacity at the Battle of Setlik III. This battle was first brought up in the TNG episode The Wounded (the show that introduced the Cardassians), and we saw there how uncomfortable O'Brien was with the things he had to do to survive the conflict. He is similarly uncomfortable here, insisting that he is no longer a soldier but an engineer. But as his men begin to die around him, O'Brien steadily returns to the soldier role, particularly when he is pushed into a battle of wits with Garak... a battle the engineer ends up winning.
Nog: Remains highly enthusiastic about his Starfleet career, to the point that his eagerness to volunteer for every duty available can become slightly annoying at times. His respect for O'Brien is entirely genuine, both from his own observations of the man's hard work and from hearing his father talk about how the chief can fix anything.
Garak: "Lately I've noticed that everyone seems to trust me. It's quite unnerving." It's good to see that Garak - and the writers - are aware that he has become too "safe" as an ally. Part of what makes Garak such a satisfying character is that you can never fully trust him, and that edge has diminished a bit over time. This episode might have served as a reminder that he remains dangerous and unreliable... Except, of course, that Garak does exactly what he was sent to do, right up until the bio-gel makes him "turn bad." And by turn bad, I mean turn into a stock psycho who is vastly less interesting (and less fun) than normal Garak is. Before that turn, we do get some good moments between him and O'Brien, a previously unused character pairing. The scene in which Garak needles O'Brien about his war service is a particularly strong one, leaving me wondering how much better this episode might have been had he gone to the station with a secret agenda that would put him at odds with O'Brien, with no evil bio-gel required.
Empok Nor is a story of two halves. The first half, in which the engineering team goes to the abandoned station and eventually finds itself being picked apart by Cardassian commandos, is very good: Tense, well-acted, with good character material and meticulous direction by the ever-reliable Michael Vejar. The second half, in which Garak goes crazy and Andrew J. Robinson recreates his "Gemini Killer" persona from Dirty Harry, is rather weak and silly, derailing an episode that had been on track to become a fine, spooky piece.
The performances by Colm Meaney and Andrew Robinson are terrific, as expected. The guest cast is undistinguished but perfectly adequate. What keeps this episode from hitting the mark is the script, which never quite finds a proper focus. The subplot with the Cardassian First Order never receives an adequate payoff; this strand is simply and conveniently cut off at the exact moment Garak becomes homicidal. Nor does the "evil Garak" material particularly work. Unlike Garak's nastiest moments in The Wire, his behavior in this episode doesn't seem to stem from his own personality - It's forced upon him, effectively turning him into a different character. The two halves don't really gel, and there's no sense that the events of this story will have any repercussions whatever.
I would also like to raise the question: Why didn't the DS9 crew make sure to have backup supplies of Cardassian equipment? There was a lengthy period, from the end of Season Three through to the first part of Season Five, in which the Federation appeared to be on good terms with the Cardassians. Surely using that opportunity to stock up on parts that could not be obtained from other sources would have been a simple matter of common sense? Had this been addressed with even a throwaway line ("Dukat sabotaged our spares right before leaving the station to join the Dominion), then I'd be fine by it. Instead, it appears to be a situation that exists solely because the plot requires it.
I will say that this is a quite watchable episode, with some good moments. The O'Brien/Garak pairing works extremely well, with the series' most straightforward character forced to interact with the series' least straightforward one, to amusing effect. The scene near the beginning, in which Garak prods O'Brien about his military background, is excellent character material. Also very good is the closing scene, with O'Brien's admission that he was actively trying to kill Garak all the more effective for being underplayed. It's just a shame that these moments and performances are stuffed into an episode that's otherwise unworthy of them.
Overall Rating: 5/10.
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Next Episode: In the Cards
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