Friday, April 12, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Jem'Hadar

After teasing the Dominion throughout the second season, Deep Space Nine finally showed what the hype was for in the season finale, "The Jem'Hadar."

Sisko plans to take his son to the Gamma Quadrant for some father-son bonding. The first complication is relatively benign: Jake invites Nog, and Quark in turn invites himself. The next complication is far more serious: a race of shock soldiers for the mysterious Dominion captures Sisko and Quark. When Starfleet mounts a rescue, they get a terrifying lesson in how powerful these Jem'Hadar really are.

According to staff writer Ira Steven Behr, he first pushed for the series to get a new adversary at one of their regular lunches. His pitch? "Okay guys, we're gonna come up with villains, not one but three sets of villains. And we're gonna make them as scary as any villains you can possibly find." When you think about it, an "evil Federation" is such a logical villain for Star Trek that it's a wonder it hadn't been done before this. Across the original series and The Next Generation, the recurring baddies were always monolithic races (often with rather singular agendas). But the Federation is made up of many alien races. Why not pit them against an alien organization set up the same way?

The writers landed on the classic metaphor of the carrot and the stick. Robert Hewitt Wolfe was chiefly responsible for the "stick" side of things, conceiving a suicidally fierce warrior race. As he put it: "The businessmen, the Vorta, were the negotiators, the friendly guys who show up with the carrot. 'Hey, we're your friends. Have some phaser rifles, or space travel, whatever the hell you want. We'll arrange it. All you'll have to do is owe us.' Then, if you don't toe the line, they kick your ass with the Jem'Hadar."

The Jem'Hadar are presented here almost fully formed. They're full of menace, passing right through shields and force fields, slaughtering an entire Bajoran colony, taking down a Galaxy-class starship (suggesting they could beat even the Enterprise), and sacrificing themselves to fulfill their mission. We even see the tubes in their necks that would become the signature of their drug addiction -- though the tubes here are black, not white.

What's not so well defined here are the Vorta. Their deceit and manipulations are in place, but the character of Eris is presented in this episode as possessing telekinetic powers... a misstep Ira Steven Behr acknowledged and swept under the rug as he took over as show runner in season three. (You could claim that everything about the Vorta's mental powers is faked here, just more of the ruse that Quark ultimately uncovers at the end of the episode.) Despite Kira's prediction that we'd all see Eris again, we never do.

As amazing as the Dominion would turn out to be for Deep Space Nine, and as strong as they're presented here, right out of the gate, they are undermined just a bit by other elements of the episode. The fact that Jake and Nog elude the Jem'Hadar and make it back to the runabout definitely argues against their prowess. Indeed, the comedy throughout this episode is laid on just a bit too thick, with various over-the-top sight gags involving Quark, and the general comedy of errors that puts him on a "road trip" with Commander Sisko in the first place.

Still, Quark's presence in the episode is not a total misfire. He gives a very cutting (and somewhat fair) lecture about how humans are really only accepting of aliens who are like them. He further suggests they don't like Ferengi in particular because of the ways they remind humans of how they used to be. After an abbreviated list of historical human barbarism -- including slavery and concentration camps -- Quark solidly makes the point that Ferengi have never been as bad as humans once were. It's a great statement of Star Trek's "brighter future," from the mouth of a character you'd never expect to deliver it. And, as Ira Steven Behr notes, it helped "lay to rest this long-time feeling that the Ferengi were the 'failed villains' of the Star Trek universe." Indeed, they're not. Nor are they just comic relief.

Other observations:
  • One of the few female directors to work on Star Trek at the time, Kim Friedman, returned here after her success with "The Wire." This episode really shows her range; "The Wire" was a character-oriented drama, while this is more of an action thrill ride.
  • Eris claims in this episode that the Founders are just a myth. But this too can be explained as just part of the elaborate con she's trying to run.
  • Nog is wildly enthusiastic about being aboard a Starfleet runabout, foreshadowing his interest in Starfleet beginning next season.
  • The writers are really beginning to play with jokes about Morn never speaking. He's about to in this episode, when Quark quickly abandons him to talk to Odo.
  • In the first draft of the script for this episode, the writers tried to connect the personal cloaking abilities of the Jem'Hadar with that of Tosk in an early first season episode. It wasn't an organic enough connection to survive to the final script, but at least the similarity was on their minds.
The lighter touches of this episode don't quite work for me, but for the most part I'd say the episode is a success. Certainly it sets up great things to come. I give "The Jem'Hadar" a B.

Season two of Deep Space Nine wasn't a huge step up in quality from season one, but it was still a step up. The show began to play with serialization, and developed many characters and ideas that would stay with it until the end of series. My picks for the top episodes of season two: "Necessary Evil," "Blood Oath," "The Collaborator," "The Homecoming," and "Tribunal."

Next up, the brief window of time when Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek show on the air: the beginning of season three!

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