WARNING: Spoilers for DS9's "The Siege of AR-558" lie just beyond the next ridge.
In brief: A decent war movie, but is it Trek?
Brief summary: Sisko and company temporarily join the front lines to help hold a Dominion communications array against the Jem'Hadar.
"The Siege of AR-558" was a very odd episode. While it managed to be quite powerful in brief moments (particularly much of the final act), the episode also left a lot of its points unresolved and changed its players around quite a bit. It left the distinct impression that Behr & Beimler created a very decent war film which happens to be under the Trek name, but no more.
"The Siege of AR-558," as you might guess, concerns itself with a planetoid in disputed space called AR-558. Our heroes make a supply run there, and then Sisko decides that they're going to stick around to help the platoon ride out another Jem'Hadar assault. In the early stages of the episode, we meet four of the platoon's major members: commander-of-the-moment Lt. Nadia Larkin (Annette Helde), soldiers Reese (Patrick Kilpatrick) and Vargas (Raymond Cruz), and Kellin (Bill Mumy), an engineer who's been working on decoding a Dominion communications array for a while.
As a setup for a crisis, I've definitely seen worse -- but there were a lot of moments which felt so familiar as to be stereotypical. One of them is Reese's necklace. It's made from tubes of Jem'Hadar 'white' taken from Jem'Hadar Reese killed. Now, that's certainly a valid image -- but we've seen almost exactly the same thing from DS9 before, namely in the person of a Klingon who wore a necklace made of Cardassian neck bones. A slightly different motif might have been nice here.
Then, there are the four soldiers. In terms of writing, only two characters even attempted to rise above their stock characterizations: Reese and Kellin. Vargas was the typical "swaggering Marine who's really terrified and wants to go home," and was played so amazingly over the top that I was really cringing most of the time he was on screen. Larkin wasn't actively unpleasant, but she made no real impression on me at all. Reese and Kellin were definitely better, quite possibly because I was familiar with and like the work of both actors -- even there, though, there were too many moments which telegraphed what lay ahead. (For instance, Kellin and Ezri strike up a friendship, and the conversation turns to Ezri's lack of combat experience. Kellin tells her very seriously, "You'll do fine." In war-movie terms, that's basically holding up a sign saying "One of Us is Going to Die.")
By far, the most interesting scenes on a character level were those involving Quark. As the sole non-Federation and viewpoint on AR-558, he had a very different perspective on the whole situation, and one which was interesting to see. I particularly liked his point to Nog that "if the Federation had listened to the Ferengi Alliance, there never would have been a war" because the Ferengi would have found a compromise which would have suited everyone. Nog's response that things weren't that easy is undoubtedly true, but it makes sense that Quark would see things in terms of negotiations and not battle, and his complete distaste for all things military made an interesting counterbalance for how gung-ho Nog was being.
The odd thing, though, is how little actual resolution there was, and I don't get the feeling that it was because ends were intentionally left loose. There was no real character resolution at all, with the possible exception of Sisko. Think about it: we get several intense conversations between Quark and Nog, and also between Quark and Sisko. In both cases, Quark is adamantly opposed to what he sees as needless brutality and sending his nephew into dangerous missions, while Sisko and Nog try to convince him that it's just the military life. All well and good. But after the battle is over and the dust has settled, did we get any sense that opinions have shifted at all, or even that any of the Quark/Sisko/Nog triad thought about what other members were saying? So far as I can tell, everything was just dropped: there wasn't even any scene with dialogue between Quark and Nog after Nog's wounding, and after Sisko harshly tells Quark how much he cares for his soldiers the two never have a scene together. I certainly don't think there needs to be any huge shift in viewpoint after a battle, but I got the sense that the dialogue wasn't even heard by anyone but the viewer. That's a shame.
Even the Big Event of the show, Nog's loss of his leg, falls victim to this lack of focus. There's plenty of emotion about his loss for the first scene or two after he's wounded -- Quark's anger, Sisko's mixed emotions, and so on. However, after that, all any viewer coming in would know is that he's wounded. Is there any sense that Nog has been affected by this apart from the physical? No. Did Nog's loss change the situation or the characters in any way? As with some of the debate in the show then, I almost get the sense that this was put in because something had to happen, and this would have substantial shock value. I'd hate to think Nog was injured only for shock value, but there was so little examination of the issue after the fact that I'm worried that's exactly what we got.
There were certainly plenty of things I did like about the show, but they were more SF trappings than they were essential to the point. The Dominion's mines (aptly named "Houdinis," since if you find one you disappear) were an interesting idea, and the moment in which Kellin and Ezri expose them all was one of those "now that is cool" situations we come to expect on occasion. The final battle with the Jem'Hadar was handled extremely well, particularly the cuts to Quark, the music, and Sisko's vision wavering in and out as he's about to lose consciousness. Despite all of my problems with the show, most of that last act is a must-watch.
In the end, though, I'm left to agree with Quark. He tells Nog early on, "This isn't the Starfleet that you knew," and he's right. We've seen this side of Starfleet before, most particularly in "Nor the Battle to the Strong" two years ago. The difference is that "Nor the Battle..." dealt with Jake's reaction to combat and the line he drew between courage and cowardice. There, at least one character learned a great deal from the experience. Here, so far as I can tell, no one did -- we just got a war story, with questionable tactics and no lessons learned. (Yes, Sisko says that he has to remember the dead aren't just names -- but he's learned that lesson before, most notably in "The Ship.") While "just a war story" can be interesting on occasion, given the series to date I've come to expect a lot more.
-- I had problems watching Bill Mumy as Kellin. After five years of watching Mumy play Lennier on B5, I was hearing Lennier most of the time. The phrasing was different and the body language was very different, but Mumy's voice just sounded too familiar.
-- It was nice to see Patrick Kilpatrick again. He's played one-shot but significant roles in four different SF shows now (Voyager, DS9, B5, and the late "Nowhere Man"), and he's always interesting. This is, incidentally, the first time of the four that he's played a non-villainous role; must be the heavy brows.
-- The final Jem'Hadar assault seemed odd on two different fronts. First, I wonder why they didn't shroud themselves; it seems an obvious weapon to use. Second, we have never, ever, heard Jem'Hadar yell before or during a battle before; that's part of what makes them effective soldiers. Perhaps it added to the war-movie atmosphere, but it sure didn't strike me as the Jem'Hadar we knew.
-- For once, I thought Vic Fontaine's music was put to a good use late in the show. (As Lisa put it, "Listening to Vic is guaranteed to whip people up into a battle frenzy!") I could absolutely have done without the Vic scene at the beginning, though -- particularly anything involving Rom singing.
-- I was thinking about the ending, with Reese the only major player from the platoon to survive. It seems a bit cliched, but I'm trying to figure out what wouldn't be at this point. If they all die, it's been done countless times; if none of the majors die, it's a cheat; if just one token character dies, it's been done; what's left? (Maybe if they went half and half, but this is starting to get silly.)
-- I liked the final scene with Reese a lot; for some reason, seeing him watch the troop replacements coming in seemed powerful.
That about covers it. If you like war for war's sake and typical war-movie messages, "The Siege of AR-558" is definitely one for you. If not ... well, it has its moments, but not enough to feel right.
Writing: Lots of interesting issues in spots, with absolutely no resolution of any kind. Hmph.
Directing: Compelling in places, particularly the final battle -- no real complaints anywhere.
Acting: Cruz was way over the top; Kilpatrick was quite good, and most of the rest were reasonable.
OVERALL: Call it a 6 for what is said and done; the rest is frustrating, but what's there is worth a 6.
We finally see what Dukat's been up to all these months.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"He has his orders, Quark."
"That is so easy for you to say -- but I bet you wouldn't send Jake out there."
"Jake is not a Starfleet officer."
-- Sisko and Quark