Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Adversary: The End of the Beginning for Deep Space Nine

Season three of Deep Space Nine closes with one of the show's most famous lines; "You're too late; we're everywhere."

Easily topping Sisko declaring that the station would be ready for a Dominion attack a year earlier in The Jem'Hadar, The Adversary is one of the most significant year-ends of the entire franchise. A lot of fans will now be citing Call to Arms or The Best of Both Worlds as other examples but hear me out on this one - and then give me both barrels.

Let's quickly  place the episode into context first. It's 1995 and Voyager has just launched. First Contact is in production and the franchise is hitting the pinnacle of what I've previously termed it's "Golden Age". Everything is in place and running smoothly. Time to take it up a notch with a stronger presence for the intended Big Bad of the show.

The Adversary is the traditional kick-in-the-teeth story we would expect from a season finale but it's build up was quite muted. The Dominion took something of a backseat for the majority of the third season, popping their heads above water on a couple of occasions to cause a few inconvenient challenges for the crew of Deep Space Nine but nothing more. That conspicuous presence is what helps push this episode into the realms of the show's key moments.

These 44 minutes mark a step up in the activities of the Dominion in the Alpha Quadrant. They barely broke a sweat obliterating the Obsidian Order and Tal'Shiar in The Die is Cast but here we see their first major attempts to destabilise the Federation by starting a war with the Tzenkethi. While they become one of the show's infamous "unseen enemies" (effectively replacing the Breen in this role), it's the importance of this change of tactics which drives the shift that would encompass the whole show from the beginning of the fourth series.

Aside from the magnificent late season two-parter, the Dominion only grace the screen in The Search, The Abandoned and Heart of Stone while the impact of their existence is alluded to several times elsewhere.  The Way of the Warrior just an episode later (opening season four) is a great example of just that - the paranoia of the Dominon soaks every scene however they are never seen. In this sense The Adversary more than paves the way for seasons four through seven, replacing the pioneering, adventurous spirit that we've taken in week after week with a very real sense of concern and impending darkness. We've known this moment would come but it's been an underplayed build up over two years. The tension oozes through the deckplates of the Defiant as suspicion reigns and even Bashir becomes the victim of changeling attentions - not for the last time either. 

While Deep Space Nine has never been a cozy, comfortable place with everyone the best of friends, here the cracks show as the lack of trust increases the nearer they potentially come to war with their unseen foe. The Defiant effectively becomes a microcosm for the Federation and we can see within this handful of characters what the meddling of the Changelings could do to the fabric of all that we know about Star Trek. While the Borg had one singular goal and went on the offensive from Q Who, the Dominion are just as happy to play the long game and use all the tricks in the book and not necessarily using the heavy hand of the Jem'Hadar. In fact in The Adversary blood tests and phaser sweeps play a larger part than blasting away at their shape-shifting enemy. 

The build up to inevitable war here has, significantly, not taken a whole season. Yes there were the suggestions that season three would be the turning point back in The Jem'Hadar and with the arrival of the Defiant in The Search, Part I but the real rolling stone only started gathering moss after The Die is Cast. There were milestones to reach in season three which led to the next tipping point in a cascade style while with the previous season there was one thread in that the Dominion existed and waiting for their appearance was what drove the bulk of that batch of episodes. Perhaps there is one theme which does complete a season-long arc here in that Odo does indeed harm another changeling. That notion was borne in The Search and resurfaced in Heart of Stone as well as from Commander Lovok in the final scenes of The Die is Cast. There's a sense of inevitability that only the security chief could play out with such style.

Nor can we ignore Sisko's promotion in the teaser. It is a huge moment not just in the fact that a commanding officer is given an extra pip but in that it effectively shows the closing of a chapter in the life of the show. All the elements to prep the show for the imminent war are there (except Worf) and the phase of building bridges and preparing Bajor to enter the Federation are coming to a juddering halt. All of the threats that have been faced so far have been done and dusted in one or at least less than a handful of episodes. 

The Adversary emphasises that the two year build up is over and the greatest threat since the Borg is now knocking on the door. The less concerning opposition from the Romulans and Cardassians has been removed and all their attention is now turned to the Federation and, as we get to see shortly hereafter, the Klingons. The comfort blanket of the station too is removed, placing the action in the confines of the Defiant and two new standing sets (mess hall and engineering), heightening the tension to a level we've never experienced. There is a very real terror amongst the characters here with everyone from Sisko down to his Bolian crewman (Jeff Austin) second-guessing each other at every step. I think that Bolian should have come back in season four without a doubt even if it was just to help bump up the psychosis levels for a few episodes.

The usual "make you think" story is totally overridden with the hunt on board the Defiant as everything else takes a backseat to the impending threat of war with the Tzenkethi. There isn't even a "B" story here to allow you a breath outside the confines of the tough little ship. The teaser point of Sisko's promotion is soon forgotten once he starts his captain's log after the titles and Krajensky starts hacking into the Defiant. In the case of the faux ambassador come Changeling infiltrator we can all guess there's going to be something major involving him from the off and once Dax starts scanning crew it's not hard to work out who is responsible for the sabotage. In that respect The Adversary is definitely not a "whodunnit" or leaving anything hanging. The threads of the episode clearly lead from start to finish with action and  suspicion at the forefront.

The removal of the "B" story is a departure from the norm again it does signal the change in tack that we will come to see in the next four seasons as well as the harder edged Sisko who will go all out to keep the peace - or drag another party into a war as we will later experience.

Now I know The Adversary for many is not one of the greater moments of Deep Space Nine especially when you take into account the bulk of seasons five and six which are some of the greatest Star Trek ever committed to the big or small screen but at this time, at this point in the history of the franchise it was a major game-changer. The events here and the notion that all is not well nor has it been well for some time sparks some of the best episodes we would ever see The Way of the Warrior, Call to Arms, Sacrifice of Angels, In the Pale Moonlight and more. OK so it doesn't deal with any of the Bajoran elements raised from Emissary et al but all those have to be placed on a backburner to some degree. This threat actually does help that section of the show in that Sisko has a commitment to defend the Federation and Bajor from the Dominion when (not if) they choose to go on the offensive.

Episode 26 of season three ends the dream and begins the hard reality that the Dominion are no longer confined to their section of the galaxy. Season four in counterpoint is darker and more cynical. The optimism of the first three years as the relationship between the Federation and Bajor grew becomes subdued and guarded while the threat of the Gamma Quadrant's major power grows rapidly. Episodes such as Hippocratic Oath, Homefront, Paradise Lost, To the Death and Broken Link hammer in the nature of the opposition before the main event. If you look through the run of season four in comparison to the previous year the stories are less hopefully, more insightful and a harder take on the crew than before - and it suits. While not a particularly Odo-heavy finale, the big payoff from this episode would take another year to come to fruition and does close the door firmly on the possibility of Odo returning home for the foreseeable future. The Adversary ends the exploration, introduction and establishment of the show and from here on in it's personal.

Did you think The Adversary was key to Deep Space Nine? Is it one of their game-changing episodes? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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