Well, that was a weird little experience. With the main cast squeezed into inessential cameos at the beginning and the end, this episode played like a backdoor pilot for another spin-off series: Star Trek – Babies.
The set-up is simple: Nog’s on a diplomatic mission to deliver a McGuffin (a secret message for the Grand Negus), with Jake along for the ride but not-so-secretly out for an interview. They bump into a fleet of six Jem’Hadar ships, one of which breaks formation to blast them into atoms, but are saved by the fortuitous appearance of the Valiant, a Defiant-class ship, which teleports then (but not the McGuffin) aboard before destroying the Jem’Hadar ship.
The sting is that the ship’s crew consists solely of cadets, albeit Red Squad cadets, i.e., the best of the best. There were sent on a training mission, to circumnavigate the Federation – this is what you get for trying to betray it, in season 4 – only to get into a fight that kills all the Commissioned staff. Just before he died, Captain Ramirez promoted Cadet Watters to Captain, and Watters has promoted other cadets in that wake.
Like I said, Star Trek: Babies. The cadets appear to be a fully functional crew, loyal, strong, adept. ‘Captain’ Watters certainly seems to be the epitome of a Starfleet Captain, confident, decisive, fully-prepared. He takes advantage of the new arrivals to promote Nog to Lt. Commander, make him Chief Engineer, and appoint him Red Squad.
Nog wavers, but only for a moment. His common sense tells him he isn’t ready, but his ambition, and his Ferengi-ness overrule him. Nog buys wholly into the fantasy of Watters, and his principal lieutenants, “Commander” Farris and “Chief” Collins, and Watters’ determination to fulfil the Valiant‘s last chosen mission, to track and scan a new Jem’Hadar battleship.
Not so Jake. Jake’s there to see things from the outside. He sees how crazy it is. These are cadets, not fully-trained Starfleet officers, by definition unfinished. True, they’re performing to a high level, but these are cadets who’ve been operating behind enemy lines for eight months, without proper command, and without the experience that brings inner resources. Watters may be in full command and looking like a future Kirk or Picard, but he’s not sleeping at night and he’s popping pills like a parka-clad Mod to stay awake. Farris is turning into a paranoid fanatic. Collins breaks down after only a minute’s talking about her home on the Moon. This is not a healthy ship, and Nog’s rapidly turning into one of them.
With Nog’s assistance, the mission is completed. They can all go home. But instead, Watters, who has bought too deeply into being a Starfleet Captain, and into the self-taught myth that Red Squad can do everything, commits the crew to destroying the Jem’Hadar ship. It will be their glory day, it will go down in history.
Only Jake, who is seeing things from a different perspective, demurs. It’s crazy. His Dad wouldn’t attempt this in the Defiant with a full crew and if Captain Benjamin Sisko couldn’t get away with it, nobody could. So he gets slung in the brig, to prevent his defeatism affecting the crew. Oh yes, we’re starting to see the shape of it,aren’t we?
The plan is a rip-off of Star Wars and Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing firing a bomb down a garbage chute or whatever it was. The Valiant takes heavy punishment. Crew are being killed. But the Delta radiation torpedoes hit their mark, the plan succeeds, the mission is fulfilled, all hail Red Squad, see, told you I could do it, ner ner, ner ner, ner.
Only the Jem’Hadar ship doesn’t blow up. They hit Watters’ target but it didn’t do the damage he expected. Watters orders everyone back in, even though it’s now obvious to anyone not sucked up into their own myth of invincibility that there’s not a hope in Hell of achieving anything but everyone getting killed. And the next hit does for him. Farris wants to obey orders but she’s killed too. Suddenly, Nog in senior officer, but he’s snapped out of it and orders Abandon Ship. Only one escape pod escapes, to be picked up by the Defiant. The only survivors are Jake, Nog and Collins.
The episode ends on a sombre debate over how Jake will write this up. Collins maintains that Watters was a great man, and that he didn’t fail, the crew let him down. Nog wants the ship honoured, the crew seen as they were: good, very good, loyal and of the highest quality, a true loss. But he’s seen through the miasma of arrogance and overweening ambition. The truth was, as he tells Collins, that Watters may have been a hero and a great man. But he was a bad Captain.
And Nog hands back to her his Red Squad insignia.
It’s a powerful ending. And I’m indebted to Memory Alpha for telling me that this is more or less the identical plot to the first J.J. Abrams film, except that DS9 is considerably more realistic in having the cadet’s plan fail. Fitting, of course, because DS9 was and is conspicuously better for its darkness, even if that darkness sometimes is only a shade of grey.
It’s nevertheless a bubble story, as opposed to a bottle story. Then again, looking at the outline of the next episode, I might be better off watching this one again. At least it was very well made, and very pertinent.