Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Retro Review: Star Trek Deep Space 9 'The Siege of AR 558'

Plot Summary:  Captain Sisko takes a small team aboard the Defiant to bring supplies and medical aid to the planet of AR 558.  Sisko is accompanied by Worf, Dax, Bashir, Nog and Quark, who has been sent along by the Grand Nagus on a fact-finding mission on the war for the Ferengi government.  When the senior team (minus Worf) beam down onto the surface of AR 558 they find a group of starfleet officers who have been under siege from Jem'Hadar for five months as they try to maintain control of a potentially important Dominion communications array.

Bashir treats a number of the wounded and tells Sisko that both the physical and mental state of the soldiers is precarious.  The troops, first numbering 150 but now down to less than 50, have seen their captain and commander killed, were supposed to have been taken off the planet two months before and are under constant threat of attack from both enemy troops and subspace mines that can appear at any time.

When a Jem'Hadar ship attacks Sisko orders Worf to take the Defiant out of orbit to safety.  The Dominion lands ground troops, forcing Sisko to take command of the situation on the planet and engage with the Jem'Hadar troops.

Sisko sends Nog on a recon mission with two of the personnel stationed on AR 558, but when the group is attacked one of the team loses their life and Nog is injured, resulting in Bashir having to amputate his leg.  Meanwhile Dax is able to make the subspace mines visible and is able to reprogramme them to be used against the Jem'Hadar, who are approaching their position.

The mines manage to kill many of the Dominion troops, but dozens still make it through to the Starfleet camp, resulting in a bloody battle that costs many lives on the Starfleet side.  Sisko manages to lead his troops to victory and they hold out until reinforcements arrive, but it leaves Sisko, and several others, wondering if the victory was worth the price they payed.

Analysis:  'The Siege of AR 558' has been called one of the best episodes of Deep Space 9, and one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever, but it's divided many fans, as some feel that it's too dark in tone and shows the horrors of war in a way that is far removed from Gene Roddenberry's optimistic and peace loving vision of the future.

Deep Space 9 took a brave approach to the Star Trek franchise, it gave us a space station instead of a ship, meaning that events unfolded over the course of multiple episodes and seasons and decisions had lasting consequences, rather than the shows usual adventure of the week format.  They also took the incredibly risky step of showing a darker side of the Star Trek universe, one that dealt with oppression, terrorism and war.

The Dominion War was one of the most impactful story lines in the Star Trek universe, and no other episode in the whole Star Trek catalogue goes as far to show the horrors of war than 'The Siege of AR 558'.

In the episodes leading up to this point we'd seen huge space battles, secret missions behind enemy lines and even prisoner of war camps, but we hadn't seen the reality of the ground troops during the Dominion War.  For a television show of the time when DS9 was made to put their main cast in genuine risk and actually kill them off was virtually unheard of, so this kind of episode couldn't be done with just the main cast, which is one of the main reasons for the introduction of the troops on AR 558.  It gives the episode disposable characters to kill.

Despite being made purely for this episode, and made to be expendable, the four main characters found on the surface of AR 558 are all surprisingly well rounded and represent different effects of war on soldiers.  Larkin is the junior officer forced to step up to command responsibility when her commanding officers are all killed.  Reese is the hardened veteran who takes trophies from dead Jem'Hadar, yet turns out to have surprising depth and compassion.  Kellin is the quiet and almost peaceful engineer working in an impossible situation.  Vargas is the damages soldier who has seen too much war and is close to breaking point.

They're all stereotypes and tropes we've seen before, but the way they are used is fantastically effective.  From the first time we see him Vargas is made out to be an antagonist.  He's angry, he's quick to violence and he resents the crew of the Defiant because they get to leave.  When Doctor Bashir treats him though that we get to see why he's the way he is as he breaks down telling Bashir how a man he hated patched him up and saved his life moments before he was killed in front of him.  We see the conflicting emotions of that moment for Vargas, the relief that a guy who annoyed him by constantly talking finally shut up, the anger at himself for not feeling sorry for the loss of a fellow soldier, the pain of having someone save you but not being able to save them, but above all you see that this man is seeing horrors every single day and doesn't know when they will end.  It's a shocking moment, and has impact because you never expected something like that to come from the most closed off and aggressive person.

As much as you grow to like the four characters in a relatively short space of time they were created to be killed off, and three of them do die, with each death serving a purpose.  Larkin is killed in an ambush, the same one that costs Nog his leg, but because Reese is so busy trying to save himself and the injured Nog there's no time to make anything of it.  It happens and then it's moved on from before you can even register it.  It shows that in war death isn't always a big, dramatic or emotional scene, it just happens.  It comes out of nowhere and there's nothing others can do except pick themselves up and carry on the fight.

Vargas and Kellin both die during the final battle with the Jem'Hadar.  Kellin dies in a moment where he protects Dax's life, but it leaves him open to attack from behind and it costs him his own life.  Whilst his death was possibly the most predictable, the fact that the last time you see both him and Dax on screen in this episode is with her cradling his body leaves a lasting impression.  Vargas is killed in one of the bloodiest moments of the episode, being stabbed in the back by his enemy.  His body hits the ground with the blood covered blade still sticking out of his back.  It's one of the more openly violent and bloody moments in any Star Trek episode, and shows the level of bravery that this episode took in pushing the boundaries of what was normally acceptable for the franchise in order to tell a truer and impactful story.

Whilst the troops on AR 558 were the only ones to die, the DS9 crew didn't come out of the episode unscathed.  As stated before, Nog ends up losing his leg in this episode, and it's something that the show would go on to explore in subsequent episodes as we see the physical and psychological impact that the loss of a limb had on the young man.

What's not as obvious at first glance though is the mental effect that this episode, and the war in general, has on a number of our main characters.  During the course of the episode Bashir talks about how he joined Starfleet to save lives, whilst field stripping and readying his phaser rifle without having to even look at it.  Ezri Dax opens up about how she has the memories of battle from her previous lives, but hasn't any firsthand experience on the battlefield herself.  The episode shows her with a strange mix of confidence and level headedness that we've come to expect from the previous Dax, yet a timidness and fear of someone who is still fairly inexperienced.  Dax is definitely forced  to mature during the course of the episode, with the trauma of the battle clear on her face at the end.

Most surprisingly it's Quark who has the most to say about war during the episode, as he continually questions everything.  It's not unusual for Quark to be at odds with most of the other characters, and in most situations he's used as an opposing voice to just about anyone, even if it's right or wrong.  In this episode though all his views have weight to them and come from a very valid place, and not one of selfishness or a quest for wealth.

Quark raises criticism of the choices Sisko makes that he sees as putting Nog in more danger than some of the other soldiers, and he constantly questions Nogs unquestioned love of soldiering and the admiration he feels towards the veterans.

The questions Quark raises, about the sense of going to war over trying to negotiate, of people fighting without questioning the reasons why or the effect it could have, they're all valid points to raise, and none of them are completely right or completely wrong.  There's no one view in this episode that's right or wrong.  It's not a pro-war or anti-war, it raises arguments on both sides of the debate without saying whether they're right or wrong.  It leaves those decisions open.

Quark also raises a point about humanity in this episode that Star Trek rarely likes to highlight, that despite how civilised and progressive humanity is every single human has the capacity to perform terrible deeds.  This fact is highlighted in this episode when Sisko has the option to turn the subspace mines against the Jem'Hadar.  A weapon that up until that point they all said were horrible and evil to use suddenly becomes acceptable when it can be used to their benefit.

War forces people into positions where they have to make impossible choices, where people have to chose whether or not they will compromise their morals and their ethics in order to survive horrors.  Sisko has to make that very choice himself, and whilst he may dislike using the very same technology that killed so many Federation troops, he has to weigh that option against losing even more troops.

No one is immune to these tough choices and having to cross lines that they wouldn't normally, even Quark who is so against the war and against fighting is forced to draw his weapon and kill a Jem'Hadar soldier in order to protect his nephew.  It's the first, and only, time Quark kills during the entire seven season run.  He doesn't want to kill, he doesn't want to be a part of the war, but he crosses that line to save his family.

There's an air of sadness and strain hanging in the air throughout the episode, there's pain and anger and no time to process any of it.  There's no glory in any of the fighting, there's nothing in this episode to take away as being enjoyable.  It's just grim and dark in a way that Star Trek has been unable to capture in their other episodes.

Perhaps part of this is down to the director, the late Winrich Kolbe, who himself lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war.  Once you find out that the director lived through war himself suddenly the episode begins to make a lot more sense.  The ambiguity as to whether war is right or not, the different effects it has on soldiers, crossing lines you don't want to.  This might be fiction, but it's using sci-fi to tell a very real story.

I can see why some people will turn around and say that the episode goes against the vision of the future that Roddenberry created, and you can't argue with the fact that no other episode is so much a polar opposite to the original series than this one, but I believe that it tells a very important story for the Star Trek universe that makes a statement on real war.  No matter how enlightened a society we have, no matter how much we advocate peace and cooperation there is always a capacity for war amongst any civilisation.

'The Siege of AR 558' is not only a great episode of television, but an example of just how amazing Star Trek can be.


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