WARNING: Though all the hordes of hell may bar the way, rest assured that there are spoilers for DS9's "By Inferno's Light" should you continue reading this article.
In brief: They didn't fumble the ball ... but they kind of bobbled it around for a while.
Brief summary: As the Dominion invasion of the Alpha Quadrant takes an unexpected turn, Garak and Worf try to escape their captivity.
"By Inferno's Light" was a very odd mix of surprise and familiarity, of suddenness and slowness, and of pleasure and disappointment. While I wouldn't say it was a total disappointment, I would say that it didn't really live up to the promise of its immediate predecessor, "In Purgatory's Shadow."
Now, to be fair, the very first "shocking surprise" was one that I'd already had blown for me. Thanks to glancing at the press releases too early, I knew well in advance that Dukat and Cardassia were joining the Dominion -- so the surprise of the teaser was blunted for me. I hope that didn't alter my opinion of that particular plot development too much, but I know full well that it could have. In any case, the same mixed sense I applied to the episode as a whole also applied here.
On the one hand, having Cardassia join the Dominion seemed too sudden. I don't mean that we should have been privy to the negotiations -- far from it, as they were secret and should have remained so. But we've never seen any indication that the Dominion wanted to convince the Alpha Quadrant cultures to join them; their interest so far has been in sowing division and softening factions up. As a result, this felt a little forced. Similarly, Dukat's time on the outs with Cardassia lasted all of what, two or three on-screen episodes? (We didn't know he was in disfavor until "Return to Grace" last year, and since then he's only appeared in "[[Apocalypse Rising", so far as I can remember.) The dramatic potential in seeing Dukat the former oppressor turn into a person on the run fighting against perceived oppression is way too rich to give up on after only a few minutes -- and yet, that's what this has felt like in a way. So on that level, having Cardassia suddenly return to "we're the bad guys" status felt less like an expected development than it did like Yet Another DS9 Retooling [TM] a la the Defiant and "TNG-izing" of the show early in season 3 and the addition of Worf and the Klingons to the mix in season 4. (Another indication of this is Sisko's line about how he thought Dukat had changed over the years, and perhaps he was just wrong. On some levels, that sounds like a conscious choice to "make Dukat turn bad again, and damn the consequences." Still, a single sentence from Dukat can chill my blood a lot more easily than a whole speech from Gowron, so perhaps that's not an entirely bad choice.)
On the other hand ... the situation with Cardassia and especially with Dukat did make the climate ripe for Dukat to do something arrogant and stupid like this. As I said last week, Dukat's ego has never let him take even small betrayals lightly, and his rage at Cardassia's perceived "weakness" combined with his own desperate straits made it entirely possible that he'd want to find a way to make both himself and Cardassia strong again. (Ziyal's "betrayal" wouldn't have helped either, but it's clear that things were already well underway by then.) It also opens up a lot of avenues for future stories, and that's rarely a bad thing.
On the whole, then, it feels like this latest galaxy-spanning shakeup works on some level in terms of being true to the long-term characterization, but feels too sudden, too abrupt to really work wholeheartedly. That has a lot of echoes to "The Way of the Warrior", so perhaps it's a case of history repeating itself.
Moving on, there's the rest of what was happening station-side. The parts that were dealing with the after-effects of the new Cardassian allegiances, such as the Klingon fleet's return from Cardassian space and Gowron's reluctant agreement to forge a new Klingon/Federation alliance, felt right both in and out of context. I especially appreciate a nice parallelism in Klingon/Federation relations: the false belief in a Dominion takeover of Cardassia brought about the end of the alliance, and the true Dominion takeover of Cardassia brought about its renewal. That gives one a nice sense of closure, somehow. (It is, however, very odd that Sisko has the power to bring about a Federation-wide alliance with only a captain's rank.) So, fallout from the Cardassian situation all felt fine.
The issues surrounding the Bashir Changeling, however, felt substantially more mixed. On the one hand, it's good that he had a mission on the station beyond simply keeping them from closing the wormhole, and the Founders' plot to destroy Bajor, DS9 and the fleet in a single blow seemed sensible enough. On the other hand ... I never got the sense that the Founders needed to take over Bashir specifically, or that his actions needed to be those of a high-level officer. What that meant was that all the shock value got used up back in "In Purgatory's Shadow" when we saw Bashir in prison; now, "Bashir" became a plot complication instead of a character.
Adding to that was the lack of concern anyone showed after the fact. Sure, O'Brien seemed annoyed that he'd hung around a Changeling for a month and not noticed, but you'd think he'd have been more than annoyed that a Changeling was involved with the birth of his son... to say nothing of how Kira would have felt. What's more, Odo (who was very strangely absent this week) should suddenly start wondering a lot of things about the events of "The Begotten"; given that the Bashir who helped take care of Odo's "baby" was himself a Changeling, Odo ought to be deeply suspicious of whether the "miraculous sacrifice" that gave him back his abilities was in fact all a clever test of some sort. I said last week that having Bashir be a Changeling for a while had all sorts of ramifications that I was sure would be followed up; while I still hold out lots of hope that they will be, the near-total absence of them this week has me a trifle concernedabout an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality.
That brings us to the prison camp. As with the station, this was a mixed bag. This mixed bag, however, was weighted down with a lot of ... well, let's say "conveniences". Those include:
-- the fact that the Jem'Hadar have the runabout in orbit around the same prison where they keep its previous occupants. If that's standard practice, there ought to be a whole hell of a lot of ships in the area -- and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't just destroy the runabout outright.
-- the fact that the Jem'Hadar didn't disconnect Tain's transmitter. They must know he got a message out somehow; with Bashir's double on DS9 hearing of it, I can't imagine he wouldn't inform them. As such, they ought to be turning the place upside down, and certainly keeping a watchful eye on Tain's son Garak. (Consider the blow to their infallible reputation if someone were to escape from their prison; for those reasons alone, they should make sure no one ever has the slightest opportunity.)
-- the fact that no one keeps an eye on where the prisoners are. Being free to move around the compound is one thing; being free to smuggle sharp objects into the prison cell and go into the walls without any guards investigating is quite another. (I won't even go into the silliness of having the Jem'Hadar guards not cover everyone while searching a room.)
Could all of this just be arrogance on the part of the Dominion? Perhaps ... but if so, we ought to see something indicating that they're aware of the problem and have dismissed it as irrelevant. ("Star Wars", for instance, managed to sum up the entire Imperial mindset in a single line of Tarkin's: "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances.") As it is, the whole escape plan seemed to succeed more because the Dominion was stupid than because Our Heroes were clever. Even such issues as Garak facing his claustrophobia (about which the only objection I have is that, as with many other things, this came up out of the blue) were blunted because I couldn't buy into the situation. (However, they had their moments; Garak's "If you'll excuse me ... my dungeon awaits" spoke volumes.)
There's also the "Worf and Martok Show", which did nothing but stride over ground that's been well traveled already. I've seen the "Worf struggles against incredible odds and achieves a moral victory in the face of death as others accept his honor" story before -- it was interesting the first few times. This time? Just about everything had been done before, and it was all easily callable in advance. Worf getting more and more injured but refusing to yield? Check. Ikat'ika yielding rather than killing Worf? Check. Garak succeeding in getting everyone beamed out just as Worf is about to be killed? Check. It was filler -- not unpleasant filler, but not anything that provoked any response either.
My overall sense of "By Inferno's Light", then, is not "Yes!" or "Ugh." but rather a "Yes, *but*..." A lot of the show was engaging at the time, and once again we've seen a willingness to change the political structure of the quadrant, both of which are definitely good things. BUT ... at the same time, a lot of corners were cut to get there, it felt less like a natural consequence of events than it did like a sudden decision to change the circumstances, and I'm not sure how much things are going to get followed up.
A few short takes:
-- Something about Les Landau's direction of "Bashir" in the runabout really made me sit up and take notice. I don't know if it was the lighting, the expressions he managed to get out of Alexander Siddig, or some of the camera choices, but something about it got across a real sense of unreality.
-- Another consequence we need: now that the false Bashir's been exposed, Sisko & co. ought to know that blood screenings don't work.
-- Although Quark's throwaway scenes often bug me, and Melanie Smith's performance as Ziyal underwhelmed me last week, the two together worked fine this time. Quark's glumness that neither the Founders nor the Jem'Hadar eat, drink, or have sex seemed oddly appropriate, and Ziyal's suggestion that the Vorta might brought a smile.
-- Sisko's reaction to the Romulans' arrival mirrored my own: "I'll be damned." Nice to see them back in action, for however brief a time it may be.
That's it, so ... time for a summing up.
Writing: It's hard to say. Most of it either worked in the long term or in the short, but not both.
Directing: Claustrophobic when needed; the Garak and fake-Bashir scenes did the job best.
Acting: Kudos to Robinson (of course) and to most everyone else.
OVERALL: A 6. I said at the start of my review of "In Purgatory's Shadow" that DS9's setting forced it to be a show about consequences, and that it provoked a strange dual attitude in me whenever I thought of the show. I said, "what impresses me about DS9 is the willingness to establish that requirement, and the fact that DS9 has been better about showing consequences than any other Trek series ever made. What always frustrates me about it is that it doesn't do it nearly often enough."
"By Inferno's Light" has made me more convinced of that duality than ever.
Aw, c'mon ... Bashir needs a break. He just got out of prison, and now he's harboring another dark secret? What's a fellow to do? :-)
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"This would make a wonderful interrogation chamber. Tight quarters, no air, bad lighting, random electric shocks ... it's perfect."