|Sisko prepares for a vicious assault.|
"Let me tell you something about humans, nephew. They're a wonderful, friendly people as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts; deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers; put their lives in jeopardy over extended periods of time - And those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon."
-Quark assesses the mental state of front-line soldiers with pinpoint accuracy.
The Defiant makes a supply run to AR-558, a planet in the Chin'toka system, which was taken back from the Dominion during Sisko's offensive. AR-558 is home to a communications array, which could be used to intercept enemy communications if they can figure out its workings. That makes this a front-line battleground, constantly under attack by Jem'Hadar under orders to take the array back.
Sisko arrives to a severely depleted force, with less than a third of the original troops still alive. The ones remaining are haunted, angry, and on-edge, left on the front line months past their original rotation date. It's clear they are ready to crumble - And when an unknown number of Jem'Hadar land on the planet, Sisko decides to stay to lead the attackers. His only order is to hold - at any cost!
Capt. Sisko: Clearly recognizes that this unit has been at the front too long, but does not offer any false comfort or reassurance. He's very blunt in telling the acting CO, Lt. Larkin (Annette Helde), that Starfleet's forces are stretched thin and that proper relief may be a while coming. But when the inevitable attack comes, Sisko barely hesitates in announcing his intent to stay. After Nog is injured, Quark bitterly recriminates Sisko for not caring about sending him into harm's way, earning an angry response: "I care about Nog and every soldier under my command. Understood? Every single one!" Quark (wisely) backs off.
Quark: Sent on a fact-finding mission by the Grand Nagus, he provides the perspective of an anti-war outsider. His genuine feelings for his nephew are revealed not by any words, but by his repeated attempts to shield Nog from the battle. When Nog is injured, Quark lashes out at Sisko for sending him into a dangerous situation. He then stays with Nog through the rest of the episode - And finally picks up a weapon and fires on the enemy to protect his injured nephew. Armin Shimerman is superb throughout, and the shift in Quark's attitude - shown through his actions and demeanor, which is much more effective than some "moral of the story" speech - creates one of this episode's multiple compelling through-lines.
Ezri: Bonds with engineer Kellin (Bill Mumy), whom she assists thanks to being able to draw on the engineering expertise of former hosts Tobin and Jadzia. She worries about how she'll fare in battle. She remembers combat from the memories of Jadzia and Curzon, but has never directly experienced it. After she and Kellin are able to uncloak some hidden Dominion mines, she expresses doubts about the morality of turning these weapons against the Dominion, something Sisko brushes aside by pointing out that the fewer Jem'Hadar reach their base alive, the more likely they are to survive.
Nog: Is clearly embarrassed at Quark's presence, all but visibly cringing at his uncle's every act or utterance. He reacts with scorn to Quark's warnings against getting too close to the battle-hardened troops. He's impressed by Reese (Patrick Kilpatrick), who has created a necklace of Ketracel-white tubes taken from dead Jem'Hadar, and generally wants to be accepted by the soldiers. He is almost eager to volunteer for a dangerous scouting mission, and the veterans acknowledge that he "did all right" when he is returned badly injured, but having gathered vital information. He insists to Sisko that he'll be fine, but his face and tone of voice indicate otherwise - Something that I'm very certain will be followed up in later episodes.
The Siege of AR-558 is possibly the darkest Star Trek episode I've seen. The tone is grim, with even Quark's scenes providing not comedy relief, but rather dramatic tension in his unwelcome shielding of his nephew and his clashes with Sisko. It's dark in visual terms, as well, with dim lighting on a planet that appears to live in perpetual night, and the battle scenes are illuminated mainly by the firing of the weapons as the Jem'Hadar attack.
This is the series' big battle episode, and has on more than one occasion been compared to Saving Private Ryan. For all of that, a relatively small percentage of the episode is combat. Most of the running time sees the characters waiting for an attack they know is coming. The battle is inevitable, and many of the soldiers will die even if they win the fight. Nog's dangerous scouting mission gathers intelligence about the Jem'Hadar numbers. Ezri and Kellin make it possible to lay a trap to winnow down the enemy numbers. But the fight is coming, and nothing is going to stop it.
A particularly strong dramatic beat comes just before the final battle. The soldiers are waiting, under whatever cover they can find, guns trained where the enemy has to approach. Kellin flicks the sight of his gun repeatedly open and closed, open and closed, creating a metronome-like tap that could be measuring the seconds or the beats of the soldiers' hearts. This is allowed to linger a moment, before Sisko finally gives the man a look.
The performances are superb all-around, with guest actors such as Mumy, KIlpatrick, Helde, and Raymond Cruz making tangible the psychological situation for the soldiers. Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler deliver yet another outstanding script, with some memorable dialogue for every character, all of whom behave in ways that are entirely convincing. Finally, mention must be made of Paul Baillargeon's outstanding score, which sustains the atmosphere of the episode superbly.
Remarkably effective on all levels, The Siege of AR-558 ranks among Deep Space 9's finest hours. Fantastic television - Far from just for science fiction fans, I would rank this as a "must see" for anyone who enjoys well-crafted, emotionally effective drama.
Overall Rating: 10/10.
Previous Episode: Once More Unto the Breach
Next Episode: Covenant
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