WARNING: Spoilers await below for DS9's "Soldiers of the Empire". Anyone not wanting to see white-suited storm-troopers had best avoid ... oh, wait, wrong Empire.
In brief: Some early questions, but generally pretty strong.
Brief summary: Worf and Dax join a mission headed by General Martok, only to find that Martok may not be the Klingon he once was.
Heavy Klingon episodes on DS9 tend to make me a little nervous. Their track record is highly erratic: although "The Way of the Warrior" was a good shake-up of the status quo, and there was a particularly good story (wrapped up in some iffy packaging) in "Sons of Mogh" last season, "Apocalypse Rising" felt somewhat by-the-numbers, and the less said about "Rules of Engagement", the better. Add to this the fact that Worf-centered subplots lately have been less than stellar ("Let He Who Is Without Sin..." being high on the list, but there are other examples as well, such as "By Inferno's Light"), and I was a little wary.
Well, the track record's still erratic, but the most recent battle was a clean victory. Despite some muddled setup, "Soldiers of the Empire" kept me more interested than most Worf shows have in quite some time, in part because it put Worf in a realistic bind, and in part because it showed a side of Klingon culture we don't often get to see.
That side would be the side that turns up after a defeat. We've known for most of recorded history (or at least that's how it feels) how Klingons feel about honor, about duty, about victory, and so forth. That leads to an interesting question: what happens to the crew of a ship that's suffered losses -- not just a single defeat, but a whole string of them? "Demoralized" probably doesn't even begin to cover it; as Martok put it, they'll learn to expect defeat, which is very dangerous for a military vessel. Now, given typical Klingon mindsets, Worf's point that all they really need is a decent victory is very likely right -- but if they got one immediately, that wouldn't make for an interesting episode, so we had to wait for that a bit.
As such, Worf winds up in a bind. As first officer, he's supposed to be a reasonable liaison between the crew and the captain. That's not always the most rewarding of jobs under any circumstances -- but when you think your crew's potentially mutinous and you've lost faith in your captain, it's got to be difficult beyond belief. And in a situation where the only way to challenge the captain is to fight a duel with him ... well, that just adds a little spice.
About the only significant problem I had with the show, in fact, was the way we were told so flatly at the start how close a friendship there was between Worf and Martok. I never found it particularly convincing: after all, we've only seen the non-Changeling Martok in one story prior to this, and while he and Worf certainly got along well enough, I didn't get the feeling that there was enough justificationfor this deep commitment we were supposed to accept at the outset of the episode. It's plausible, but not particularly convincing.
Apart from that, the vast majority of the story was Dax dealing with the crew while Worf dealt with Martok, and both of those worked fairly well. Martok's fear of the Jem'Hadar was quite plausible given his past history with them, but the way in which it evidenced itself worked particularly nicely. His initial concerns -- avoiding a trip through a nebula which could easily conceal an ambush, avoiding an unnecessary fight with a Jem'Hadar ship in order to rescue the B'Moth -- were just reasonable enough that you could interpret it either as prudence or as cowardice. It wasn't until later that the audience could get particularly sure that Martok was a problem.
One way we found that out was in his conversation with Worf about avoiding a fight. I don't mean the one where he nearly gets hysterical -- by then, it's really obvious. The one that's somewhat more interesting is the conversation before that, when Martok justifies his decision by noting all the things that might have been. Plausible? Sure, possibly -- but given that he disparaged Bashir's "human concern with what might have happened" at the start of the show, it was a good warning flag to us that all was not well. There's no reason Worf should have caught it, since he didn't see the earlier conversation we did, but it's a good way to alert the audience. I rather liked that touch.
Meanwhile, Dax had to deal with the rest of the crew. One of the problems with Klingon-heavy shows is that it's often difficult to cast Klingons -- they need to have just the right balance between honor and grunting most of the time, and that's not easy. I'm not sure whether casting dishonored Klingons is easier or harder, but it seemed to work quite well in this case.
I particularly liked David Graf's Leskit, the helmsman. Once I got past the first five minutes of saying "wait, wasn't he the weapons buff in the Police Academy movies?", I realized that Graf was doing a good job of being insolent in subtle ways. In particular, I liked his swagger whenever he turned from facing Worf to going back to his post. Apart from that, as the one who got to make the most jabs at the Rotarran's reputation, he had a fairly easy job, but one that felt convincing. (I also liked the fact that he pronounced "Jem'Hadar" differently from everyone else, for no particular reason apart from a little diversity.) His mocking point that the Jem'Hadar were the future because "they can break us" is probably at least a little bit true, which I rather like -- sure, now that everyone's gotten their victory the statement will probably be forgotten for a while, but it's not entirely false either. (The other guest cast were fine, but had less to do. I did like Sandra Nelson's Tavana, the one female Klingon with any lines. She and Dax made for a good pair.)
As for the resolution ... in general, I like it, primarily because it did involve Worf having to make a choice and take a risk. I'm glad that the duel between the two wasn't a setup, and that there wasn't a Jem'Hadar attack in the middle of the duel to bring everyone together. Instead, Worf had to make a choice: kill Martok, or deliberately let Martok win in the hopes that Martok wouldn't kill him. The latter choice is perhaps marginally less daring from the show's point of view, but certainly daring on Worf's part -- and given that the crew doesn't know Worf as well as Martok does, it's plausible that they wouldn't realize he dropped his guard deliberately.
What's also interesting is the emotional fallout from this episode. Worf's been a "man without a House" for nearly two seasons now, and he's basically accepted that. Now, to have someone he's come to look up to as a mentor offer him membership in a new House has some interesting ramifications. My only concern here, as is virtually always the case, is that we see some actual repercussions. Let's have Worf act a little prouder around other Klingons, or speak with pride of his House, or something like that -- there needs to be something recognizable, or else it's just words. (Yes, people could always point and say "see, he's wearing the new emblem" -- but unless there's feeling behind it, that counts for about as much as the uniform change after "First Contact".)
Some shorter points:
-- Even though Michael Dorn's played a Klingon for a decade now, and Avery Brooks has at least played someone masquerading as one, it's interesting that no one says "Qapla'!" quite as convincingly as Patrick Stewart. :-) (On the other hand, Dorn may have the better singing voice: I liked the Klingon sea-shanty we heard a couple of times.)
-- I liked the touch of the necklace made of Cardassian neck-bones: a grisly idea, but also a good way to show the spoils of war.
-- It certainly seemed at times that Dax made a better Klingon than Worf did, in terms of integrating herself into the crew. That's not necessarily bad; she probably has a bit more experience with it than he does...
-- One particularly "off" moment during the duel: Tavana's "tactical alert! tactical alert!" while everyone else was chanting felt very staged. Bleah.
-- The CGI shot of the Rotarran turning around to engage the Jem'Hadar was absolutely lovely.
-- Bashir's lament about the life of an intelligence officer was really a lot of fun.
There's not much left to say, really. The show was almost entirely Worf, Dax, and Martok; we saw the rest of the regulars for a scene or two at most (if generally entertaining), and Quark not at all. "Soldiers of the Empire" was a pretty good example of what can be done with the Klingon culture, just as "Business As Usual" was a good example of what can be done with Ferengi. Let's hope for more.
So, wrapping up...
Writing: A little bit of the "telling instead of showing" curse at the outset, but a strong idea generally dealt with well.
Directing: Claustrophobic -- which was generally the idea.
Acting: A false note here and there, but only here and there.
OVERALL: 8.5, I think; quite nice.
A taste of things to come?
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"How's the intelligence business?"
"Oh, I can't talk about it. All I can do is read these fascinating reports, and analyses, and analyses of analyses, and then keep it all to myself, because no one else has a need to know. So, I have to walk around this station feeling like I ... you don't really care, do you?"
-- O'Brien and Bashir