WARNING: Everyone expects the spoilers for "Inquisition." (Okay, so it's obvious...)
In brief: A questionable fifth act, but a riveting first four.
"Inquisition" came as quite a relief to this viewer. After side trips into pasts real and imagined, mob infiltration, and film noirish dead barflies, DS9 has finally gotten back to a story dealing more directly with the present day -- and not a moment too soon.
One of the biggest strengths of the show is turning past weaknesses into strengths. For instance, when last season's "By Inferno's Light" aired, a lot of people wondered how the Dominion could possibly be so stupid as to leave Garak's runabout in orbit where it could be used for an escape attempt. "Inquisition" suggested a reason: Sloan's suspicion that they'd left it there specifically to let an operative escape turned out not to be true in this case, but it certainly fits with past Dominion strategies (such as having Eris escape in "The Jem'Hadar" all those years ago). I'd feel better if I'd known the earlier holes were deliberately left there to be exploited later, but making good use of them later is definitely a lot better than nothing.
"Inquisition" also struck up a good sense of mood from the very start, thanks both to some solid writing and a great directing job from Michael Dorn. Even the initial scene, with Odo noting Bashir's late hours, felt vaguely sinister -- and, in keeping with the idea that we're never supposed to trust a Trek investigator, I doubt there's anyone out there who felt that Sloan was on the up-and-up for even a moment. Little details, like Bashir getting the wrong breakfast ("I hope you're enjoying my scones, Worf") and the evidence that people had gone over his quarters served to put both him and us ill at ease.
Eventually, of course, the accusations began flying -- and despite the usual tradition that investigators are up to no good, Sloan made a startlingly good circumstantial case. Rather than directly questioning Bashir's conscious loyalty, which would have made it obvious his case was going nowhere, he suggested that Bashir was a Dominion agent but had compartmentalized that little fact away -- in effect, that he was an unconscious Dominion plant. That felt eerily plausible; even though much of Sloan's evidence predated Bashir's abduction by the Dominion, his pointing out that Bashir has lied all his life was on target (and strong), and he made good use of events ranging from Bashir's treatment of Jem'Hadar in "Hippocratic Oath" to his work with the genetically enhanced mental patients in "Statistical Probabilities" earlier this season. Sloan's arguments didn't convince me outright that Bashir was definitely an agent for the Dominion, but he did plant a worm of doubt, which is often all that's needed, both for strong-arming people and for good drama. I had enough doubt that as the episode went from bad to worse for Bashir (leading even Sisko to wonder if Bashir were an unwitting agent), I started to wonder if Thompson & Weddle were actually going to take the least expected route of all, and show that Bashir actually was an agent.
When Bashir was abruptly beamed out of prison and taken aboard Weyoun's ship, I wondered the same thing. Weyoun seemed so sincere (well, by his standards, anyway) and so sure of himself that if Bashir weren't an agent the only other option was that the abduction had been staged. We were kept guessing for quite a while, particularly with Weyoun serving and mentioning Bashir's scones -- but once Kira and Worf rescued Bashir in mere minutes, it seemed fairly clear that the whole thing was a setup to make Bashir doubt himself further. While interesting, that sort of mind-altering game is also something we've seen a few times before (most notably in TNG's magnificently done "Frame of Mind"). Although the way in which Bashir figured out his shipmates weren't real was nicely handled and nicely foreshadowed, I wondered just a little if we were going to be stuck with an episode that in the end meant nothing.
The fifth act, as is perhaps befitting Sloan's true nature, neither confirmed nor denied my suspicions -- it did, however, leave me rather disquieted in a whole host of ways. The eventual revelation that Sloan was an operative of "Section 31", an autonomous behind-the- scenes Starfleet division conducting black projects, was a very mixed bag to me. On the one hand, as Odo says, it would be a little surprising if the Federation didn't have such an organization, as it seems to have survived in the face of every other power having such a beast. Sloan was also a marvelous example of the ends-before-means attitude that is so typical of many conspiracy stories.
On the other hand ... First, it left unexplained all the very things that had been so well raised to link Bashir with the Dominion (particularly the runabout silliness in "By Inferno's Light"), thus letting those old frustrations rise back up again. Second, it's been done to death: as my wife put it, "Hey, let's hop on the conspiracy bandwagon!" Third, there were aspects of Bashir's incarceration that feel weird if they were entirely staged -- Sisko's revelation about Sloan's son, for instance. Fourth, it also felt like the easy way out, there being so many interesting stories that could come out of Bashir actually having worked for the Dominion.
Fifth and foremost, however, this may finally have sounded the death-knell to the original Roddenberry idea of a Federation which has outgrown all the problems humanity currently faces. Many of Roddenberry's ideas, particularly late in life, were far too contrived to work (such as the idea that people in Starfleet could never disagree with each other), but the basic idea of the Federation being "the good guys" who have limits is, in my opinion, one of the core tenets of Trek in any form. Saying "well, there's also this group over here that's been setting independent policy for 200 years" is well in line with a lot of current conspiracy-minded series (B5, X-Files, etc.), but strikes me as pushing Trek a little further than I'm prepared to take it. (Among other things, the eventual goal and/or result of Our Heroes discovering said conspiracies is usually to bring down some or all of the government, and I can't see DS9 showing us a huge revamp of the Federation.)
This does not mean, though, that I'm dead set against the idea. Trek has done marvelous work in the past dealing with various people in Starfleet who considered themselves above the law (TNG's "The Pegasus" coming to mind as an obvious example), and it's entirely possible that DS9 will do so again in the next year-plus. My real concern, I think, is that this adds another gigantic ball to the myriad of balls already in the air. With only a little over a year left to go in the series, I'm left to wonder if this is going to be dealt with well, or even at all. Yes, the last scene certainly suggests further developments will come along in due time -- but so have all kinds of last scenes in Trek over the last eleven years or so, many of them without much if any followup. (Examples? Hmm, let's see ... TNG's "Conspiracy" is one of the biggest examples, but more recent ones include Sisko's illegal behavior in "For the Uniform" last season.) I'm hopeful that we will get to see more of this (particularly if they can get back William Sadler, who was terrific), but just as hopeful that it'll be done right, because it's all too easy to do conspiracy stories badly.
-- I appreciated seeing Bashir's bear Kukalaka again; he even got to be a plot point this time. :-)
-- Bashir's search under the couch for his pen certainly made him look a little suspicious to Sloan's aide right at the outset -- or at least, it would have had she been legit.
-- "Wait, let me think ... was I alone in solitary?" Nicely sarcastic there.
-- Lots of nice incidental dialogue here; the discussion about lost friends was good, for example, as was Bashir's description of what the river was really saying to O'Brien.
-- Alexander Siddig felt just a little off in a few spots, particularly in lines like "You have no right to do this, Sloan!" Perhaps that was just in comparison to William Sadler, who was marvelously understated.
-- Minor directing goof: when Sloan is getting ready to take Bashir away, it looks suspiciously as though his aide hands him the same padd twice. :-) (It's possible that she handed him two different ones, but I thought he was only holding one when he turned away...)
-- I also rather liked Sloan's final point to Bashir that those patients he saved wouldn't agree about the ends not justifying the means. On some levels, he's right -- at least in that case.
All in all, then, "Inquisition" had a compelling first four acts and a fifth I'm just not at all sure about, and may not be for quite some time. It's certainly the most interesting show we've had on DS9 since "Far Beyond the Stars", and has more potential for wide-reaching consequences than anything since "Waltz". Here's hoping.
Writing: I don't know if Sloan's final revelation is an easy out, too big a challenge, or something really good -- but the setup for it was usually very nice. Directing: No major complaints at all; a lot of nice imagery and atmosphere. Acting: Sadler was wonderful; Siddig was usually good.
OVERALL: 8.5, for now -- depending on how the implications are dealt with, it might come up later.
Sisko has to make some hard choices.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) email@example.com <*> "How many lives do you think you've saved in your medical career, Doctor? Do you think any of them give a damn that you lied to get your medical license?" -- Sloan, on ends vs. means Copyright 1998, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.