Another starship captain, Benjamin Maxwell of the Phoenix, has inexplicably attacked an outpost belonging to the Cardassians. The Federation has only recently secured a peace treaty with the alien race, and Captain Picard is tasked by Starfleet to preserve that peace at all costs. Soon the Enterprise is hunting down one of its own, working with the Cardassians themselves, and using insight from one of Maxwell's former crewmembers, Chief O'Brien.
This episode marks the first appearance of the Cardassians in Star Trek. I can't imagine the writers knew at the time that they were creating one of the major villains of their next spinoff series. But they definitely knew they were building a recurring alien race. The makeup and costumes of the Cardassians were far more elaborate and expressive than the many one-off aliens that had appeared over the years. (Even though the goofy helmets they wore here never appeared again, thankfully.)
There was also a good chunk of the budget devoted to new spaceship designs. In addition to the Cardassians' signature ship, the Galor, this episode marked the first appearance of the Nebula-class starship. This finally gave the series another recurring Federation ship besides the Excelsior and the Oberth style ships -- a Next Gen original that wasn't borrowed from one of the Star Trek movies.
The story here is a take on the plot of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, a tale of a decorated military leader going rogue. But moreover, it's a story about bigotry and the emotional costs of war. Maxwell is presented as a character who can't let go of his hatred of an enemy he fought. It's actually a rather immoral situation for a Starfleet character.
The morality of Miles O'Brien is more interesting still. I suppose it's possible the writers had seen something in actor Colm Meaney, and had decided to give him something meaty to play here. But I imagine it's also likely that they were hedging their bets. In this episode, O'Brien comes off as less than squeaky clean. He's basically racist against Cardassians, and initially is blind to his own bigotry. To his credit, he realizes later what he's done, and confronts a Cardassian about his feelings. (In the episode's most powerful scene, in fact.) But there was a real risk of the character at the center of this story coming off a bit ugly, and I wonder if the writers didn't want to chance doing that with one of the major characters. (Although I suppose they had previously allowed Worf to be similarly racist toward a Romulan -- and he didn't even buy that back later with a conversion or apology.)
Where O'Brien may come off briefly as less than noble, Picard stays firmly on the high ground. Patrick Stewart is excellent in the scene where the two captains finally meet face to face. Picard is aghast at Maxwell's feeble justifications for his actions. But then, at the episode's end, he also puts the Cardassian leader, Gul Macet, in his place. Picard actually believes Maxwell's accusations (dispelling any doubt that may have been in the mind of the audience), and tells Macet as much.
This episode benefits from some solid guest stars. First, of course, there's Colm Meaney (O'Brien still only being a recurring character at this time) and Rosalind Chao (already returning as Keiko after just being introduced). Veteran character actor Bob Gunton, perhaps best known for The Shawshank Redemption, is solid in the role of Ben Maxwell. Marco Rodriguez plays one of the secondary Cardassians, racking up his second Star Trek appearance.
And then there's Marc Alaimo. It's fitting that he appears here as Macet, the first Cardassian. (His character's strange facial hair here helps distinguish him from his later, major role on Deep Space Nine as Gul Dukat.) With this appearance, Alaimo tied the then-record held by Mark Lenard for playing the most aliens in Star Trek. (A record Vaughn Armstong would later demolish through future Star Trek spinoffs.)
- We get a taste of how married life is going for Miles and Keiko, after their wedding in the previous episode.
- There's some particularly painful technobabble that allows O'Brien to beam aboard the Phoenix while its shields are up, but it's a truly necessary conceit so that the episode's pivotal scene between O'Brien and Maxwell can happen face to face.
- Several elements of back story introduced here would recur throughout Deep Space Nine. The massacre of Setlik III was one. More significantly was the song "Minstrel Boy." The song even shows up in the Deep Space Nine series finale, during the farewell montage for the major characters.
- The Blu-ray set for this season includes a number of deleted scenes from this episode, but they mostly amount to simple line deletions to streamline it for running time. Nothing really feels like a major loss.
- The director of this episode, Chip Chalmers, made an interesting observation about it in a later interview. He noted that this story is about doing anything and everything to avert a war, yet it aired at the beginning of 1991, at a time when (as he put it) "the United States of America was doing everything it could to start a war." (The Gulf War.)