And so we arrive in season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a mighty powerful start it is: long may it continue.
‘The Search’ is a direct sequel to last season’s closing episode, wasting no time in picking up from the near-cliffhanger left behind from the Federation’s first direct contact with the Dominion, the rulers of the Gamma Quadrant. At least, that’s how it seems when we open with Major Kira conducting a meeting on the senior staff, with pessimistic reports on the results of simulations of how DS9 would perform in the event of a direst attack by the Dominion: two hours, tops. The Chief isn’t even that optimistic and, given that DS9 is a fixed space station with limited power, structural weaknesses and total lack of manoeuvrability, facing a highly mobile fleet of warships, he’s not wrong.
However, this is not immediately but two months later. Sisko has been on Earth, at Spacefleet HQ, undergoing debriefing on the Dominion threat. Now he’s back, and he’s brought with him the ‘Defiant’, DS9’s own warship, and a considerable upgrade on its offensive/defensive capabilities, not to mention a considerable upgrade on the series’ ability to move beyond DS9 itself. It even comes with an on-loan Romulan cloaking device, not to mention an on-loan Romulan, T’rul, to make sure that that loan stays nohow permanent.
For there’s a mission, into the Gamma Quadrant, for Sisko to lead and his entire staff to man: a Peace Mission, to find the mysterious Founders and convince them the Federation is not hostile.
Before that gets under way, there’s a brief but telling scene between Sisko and Jake. Whilst on Earth, Sisko has had all his belongings removed from store and brought with him. Jake recognises, before his father, that Sisko no longer sees his home as being Earth, but rather Deep Space Nine.
What else has changed? Terry Farrell has a new, more complex hairdo, and the coms badges have been redesigned to be bigger. Oh, and Odo gets semi-replaced by Starfleet Security Officer Lieutenant Michael Eddington. Of course, he’s only there for the Starfleet stuff and Odo’s still Head of Security for non-Starfleet station stuff, but it’s still too much for everybody’s favourite prickly shapeshifter and he resigns in a huff, giving the lovely Kira a devil of a job to persuade him to join the expedition to represent the Bajoran government.
For all that I’m making light of things, this first half is a very serious episode, and so it should be. This is the series moving into very dangerous and very serious territory and the episode marks this correctly. Even the presence of Quark on the expedition is a logical, and intelligent step, since the Ferenghi contacts within the Dominion – remember last season’s Grand Negus episode? – are the only initial step on the road to finding the reclusive Founders. And, properly, once he has established an in, Quark drops out.
The trail leads to an unmanned relay station, to which Dominion-bound messages are sent. Dax and O’Brien are beamed down and, with suspicious ease, find co-ordinates that that beam back to the ‘Defiant’, just before being trapped and jumped by the Jem’Hadar. Sisko makes the cold but only practical decision to leave them and pursue the mission.
Meanwhile, Odo is behaving very strangely. He’s not merely his usual antisocial self, he’s completely distracted: obsessed with, fixated upon, drawn irresistably to something known as the Omarian Nebula. So much so that, when the Romulan cloak is penetrated, when the Jem’Hadar cripple and board the ‘Defiant’ Odo gets himself and the injured Kira onto a shuttlecraft and makes for the Nebula, leaving Sisko and Bashir behind, fate unknown.
But there’s a reason for this and a reason why this double-episode is called “The Search”. There’s a single planet, a rogue, in the Nebula. It’s a beautiful, pastoral, lovely world. It also contains a thick, slippery looking lake that reminds us of Odo in his liquid form. As it should when four columnar shapes emerge from it and take on the form of humans, their leader a female twin of Odo. This is the planet of the shapeshifters. This is where Odo comes from. This is his home.
So far, a stunningly good episode. But the second part seemed to be completely off. It started with Sisko and Bashir, escaped from the ‘Defiant’ in a shuttlecraft and trying to get back to and through the Wormhole. They’re picked up by a tractor beam and their rescuers are… Dax and O’Brien, happy as Larry and obviously fresh for a trip to the hairdressers in the former’s case. What? How? And there are big things going on back at DS9.
It felt completely wrong. Indeed, most of the entire episode, or the parts set at DS9 at least, felt off, strange, not quite there. Dax and O’Brien, we were told, had been taken to the Founders, who had accepted that the Federation only wanted peace, and negotiations were going on at the station for a Peace Treaty, led on one side by Admiral Nechayev (she may not have been young but Natalija Nogulich always did look good) and on the other by Borath (Dennis Christopher), a Vorta, like Eris in the previous series, who claims to be one of the Founders.
I’ll admit to not being sure whether we were being set up to learn that this wasn’t really happening, or whether the show was just being bloody lazy again and not being bothered to work out a convincing way Dax and O’Brien could have escaped. Even when things got more and more improbable, and the evidence kept mounting up in a way that, retrospectively, looks overwhelming, I still couldn’t be sure that this was the equivalent of a dream scene. Until Garak was killed. Then I knew.
I should have realised much earlier, because things really are badly out-of-kilter at the station. A massive alliance of all the Alpha Quadrant groups – including the Cardassian Empire, but excluding the Romulan Empire, over which T’Rul is threatening war – has come together to negotiate with the Dominion. Sisko is hailed as the man whose mission has brought the two sides together, but he’s excluded from participation in very secret talks. When he protests Romulan exclusion, and the prospects of their response, the Admiral and Borath are smugly boastful about how ineffectual they will be against an alliance with the Dominion.
Things go too fast. There are Jem’Hadar all over the station. One picks a fight with O’Brien (who else?) and beats him up so badly he winds up in the infirmary whilst Eddington intervenes to ensure the Jem’Hadar go untouched. Dax gets reassigned as Science Officer on a Federation starship. When Sisko protests he finds himself jumped to Captain, and told everyone will be re-assigned: the Federation are abandoning the sector: Bajor will be a Dominion planet in future.
It’s all going to custard. T’Rul is killed by the Jem’Hadar, Sisko imprisoned for fighting back. Garak leads Sisko, Dax and the Doctor on a mission in a pre-prepared runabout, loaded with photon torpedos. He is killed, but, in an act of direct mutiny, Sisko fires the torpedos into the mouth of the Wormhole, collapsing it…
But there’s another story going on betweenwhiles (or is it another story?), and that is Odo coming home. His fellow shapeshifters, or Changelings as they call themselves, adopting the pejorative ‘solids’ use against them as blacks But he is ‘damaged’, isolated: he knows nothing of the ‘Great Link’, where everyone liquefies and there are no longer separate bodies and nor are there separate minds. The female Odo partially merges with him, shows him the edges of it.
They don’t like solids though, they have learned to fear and hate them for their aggression. That’s why they retreated to this planet, where they can control, and that’s why a hundred infants were sent out, to learn about the universe outside. Odo is the first of them to return – about three hundred years ahead of schedule.
Kira is delighted for her friend, but also saddened at the thought of losing him. Her efforts to get back to the Federation, find Sisko and Co, are being hindered by a field generated from underground, from a chamber secured by a heavy door. But what need have Changelings for doors?
It depends what’s behind it, and the stories merge when Odo opens the door to reveal the Jem’Hadar. And Borath. And everyone from the ‘Defiant’, including Dax and O’Brien. They’re all under sedation, ‘dreaming’ a Dominion simulation, designed to test the resilience to invasion. Starfleet will not be pushovers, exactly as Borath warned.
Odo is immediately in horror that his people work for the Dominion, but it’s worse than that: the Changelings are the Dominion: they are the Founders. A Universe of order, a universe under control. A Universe that can never hurt them again. That is their goal. They propose to extend this to the Alpha Quadrant.
For Odo there is a choice to be made. He has found his kind, his people. But he is already too far removed for them. He believes in Order, yes, but in Justice, not control. He already has a family. The experiment is ended and everybody returns to DS9: Odo is already among his own.
What a magnificent pair of episodes, probably the best so far since Deep Space Nine was first conceived. I hope that this standard can be maintained. From a very cursory, and unwilling, glance at the next few episodes to come, I suspect it won’t.