WARNING: Long-abandoned spoilers await for DS9's "Empok Nor".
In brief: Primarily a what's-lurking-in-the-shadows tale, but full marks for atmospherics.
Brief summary: O'Brien leads a team including Garak and Nog to a supposedly abandoned Cardassian station for supplies, but the mission quickly becomes more complicated when it's not so abandoned as they thought.
"Empok Nor" was a rarity for DS9: it was a more-or-less completely standalone story, with no pretensions of being anything deeper than it was or carrying any hidden messages about the characters. It did what it wanted to and then it relinquished the stage. A steady diet of that isn't something I'd really value (bearing too much relation to cookie-cutter television), but it makes for an interesting change once in a while.
Given that, "Empok Nor" is a rather easier show to review than many other shows have been of late. It wasn't trying to do anything earth-shattering with characterization as "Children of Time" did, nor bring back long-awaited characters such as was the case with "Blaze of Glory". Nope -- "Empok Nor" was basically a horror-movie, killer-on-the-loose tale, and as such can be easily broken down into how well it set up the problem, whether the "jeopardy" situations were realistic, and how the resolutions worked.
Unfortunately, even though "Empok Nor" is an interesting change of pace as a standalone story, it's also introducing elements that we really ought to have heard of before. If DS9 has been having a problem picking up spare Cardassian parts, you'd think we might have heard about it sometime in the last five years -- and if there's another station around to cannibalize, one wonders why that hasn't been done at some time in the past as well. The idea of "we need these parts, so let's check out this station over there" is fine, but it felt like a slightly artificially induced situation inviting an artificial solution. Given the situation, however, heading to Empok Nor makes sense, and the makeup of the team felt right as well -- most particularly the necessity of bringing Garak along. The idea that Garak was needed to help disarm Cardassian booby-traps makes a lot of sense, and images of Garak in an environmental suit doing just that helped lend the idea even more credence.
After that, the story settled down into "there's someone else on the station, and they're killing off the heroes" mode. I rather like the way it was introduced -- seeing the soldiers revive, and then Nog happening to be in the right place to see the runabout destroyed. That felt effective, and quietly ruthless in the typical Cardassian fashion. The question of "well, why are these soldiers here?" was a valid one as well, and it was good to see it asked but not entirely answered.
The rest of the "duel against the soldiers" was entirely predictable, unfortunately. I mean, really -- if a team comes on board consisting
of O'Brien, Garak, Nog, and four other people whom we've never seen before, anyone betting on the other four coming out alive is someone with way too much money on his or her hands. In addition, anyone who's even heard of a "killer inside the house" horror movie could pick out the circumstances of most of the deaths pretty trivially -- as soon as someone separates or gets distracted, boom, that's it. As such, about all the middle third of the episode had going for it was atmosphere and what characterization it could give to the cannon fodder.
Fortunately, both of those worked fairly well. Despite their limited screen time, most of the four guests -- engineers Pechetti and Boq'ta plus security officers Stolzoff and Amaro -- had distinct personalities that came across pretty well. (Amaro may have been the one exception; I didn't get much of a sense of what he was like.) In addition, Michael Vejar has always done well with tense, cramped situations, both in several B5 episodes ("Convictions" being an example) and in DS9's "The Darkness and the Light" earlier this season -- and all of that served to distract the viewer pretty well from the fact that the story was in a section it had to get through.
Once the drug-affected Garak stabbed Amaro, however, the last section of the story kicked into gear. To an extent, there's not much of a shift from "team vs. unknown enemy" to "team vs. turncoat enemy" in terms of the plot -- after all, it's not likely that any of O'Brien, Garak, or Nog is actually going to die, particularly O'Brien.
What made this more interesting than the earlier section is that we got to see both sides of the strategizing rather than simply that of the "good guys", and that Andrew Robinson got to play Garak as a bit more twisted than usual (which says a lot).
The angle of Cardassian xenophobia and O'Brien's reputation as "the hero of Setlik Three" was an interesting twist to put on it, and certainly gave Garak a good bit of history to toss back in O'Brien's face -- but somehow, given that we haven't heard anything about O'Brien's time there or any sign of hostility towards Cardassians in years, it felt a little forced. (I was also disappointed that during Garak's taunts about O'Brien being a predator and a killer, we didn't get some sort of reference to last year's phenomenal "Hard Time".) The dialogue was top-notch, not surprisingly; Hans Beimler's usually good with dialogue, and it's tough to go too far wrong with both Colm Meaney and Andrew J. Robinson in the same room. Even so, though, I couldn't quite buy into the emotional side of the story, just because O'Brien has proven so often that he's not a killer (such as in "Hard Time").
The practical side of the episode's last third also had a problem, despite being interesting. That problem is Nog. I don't have any problem with Nog being along; he seems fine as an assistant to O'Brien, and didn't seem particularly annoying to either the salvage team or the viewer. No, the problem I have is with Garak's treatment of Nog -- after Garak's brutal killing of Amaro and his general interest in getting at O'Brien, I see absolutely no reason why Garak should take Nog hostage instead of just killing him in front of O'Brien. If he wants to make O'Brien suffer and bring out the urge to kill, revenge is the way to go, not a hostage situation. As such, Nog brought a dose of dramatic silliness to the tension, which I didn't care for. (I would much have preferred that the two of them confront Garak, and that Garak somehow grab or wound Nog then, bringing the final confrontation right on the heels of the abduction rather than having to use the abduction to somehow "legitimize" the confrontation.)
O'Brien's gamble, however, was nice. I'd guessed that he had something like that in mind, given how carefully he laid down the phaser and the tricorder -- even so, finding a way to rig the phaser to explode when properly triggered was an appropriate solution for someone who claimed he wasn't a soldier any more, but an engineer. It's also something that Garak should never have fallen for under ordinary circumstances, but a Garak crazed by blood-lust and convinced that O'Brien was the same way made for easier pickings. I rather liked the final confrontation between them, as a result -- it made it clear that O'Brien was no match for Garak physically, but found a way to out-think him.
The final scene back on the station, despite being a reset-button scene in the sense that there's not really going to be any major fallout from O'Brien's and Garak's attempts to kill each other, nonetheless rang true and made sense. Given that Garak certainly wasn't in his right mind, this is one time when it seems reasonable that there won't be any major fallout in terms of long-range consequences, perhaps not even emotionally. Both O'Brien and Garak seemed to realize that the situation was necessary at the time and doesn't really reflect their true natures, and decided to leave it at that. For once, that's not a problem.
Some shorter notes, both good and bad:
-- Michael Vejar's past work wasn't only noticeable in the "cramped and tense" scenes; the shot of O'Brien and Garak talking to each other in the infirmary through a window strongly echoed a similar Londo/Lennier scene in B5's "Convictions". Even if I hadn't known Vejar directed this show, that shot might have made me guess.
-- A few technical questions. First, I'm wondering how the communicators managed to work, since I believe they're supposed to need a power source. Second, given that it was established earlier that tricorders weren't working, I'm wondering how O'Brien got his to function with the phaser in the final battle with Garak.
-- Garak also refers to the soldiers as potentially being an idea of "the High Command", which strikes me as a very Klingon reference. "The Central Command" makes more sense if you're talking Cardassian authorities.
That about covers it. I'd have to call "Empok Nor" a somewhat more shallow show than has been par for DS9's course, lately -- but if you can accept that and put aside a couple of dramatic necessities (the hostage-taking and the sudden existence of Empok Nor in the first place, for instance), the show works as an hour-long ride.
In sum, then:
Writing: A few standard cliches, and I didn't fully buy into the emotional issues -- but for what it was, it mostly worked.
Directing: No problems at all; I've no idea how Vejar would do with something sweeping and uplifting, but give him something tense and cramped and he's fine. :-)
Acting: Need you ask? It was primarily Meaney and Robinson; that statement is close to sufficient in and of itself.
OVERALL: 7, I think; solid for what it meant to be, but not much more.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"If I'd been any closer to that phaser, it would have killed me."
"Well, don't take this the wrong way, but -- that was the plan."
-- Garak and O'Brien