WARNING: Your assignment is to locate spoilers for DS9's "The Assignment". Hint: they're below.
In brief: Well, that was unexpectedly decent...
Written by: David Weddle & Bradley Thompson (teleplay); David R. Long & Robert Lederman (story) Directed by: Allan Kroeker Brief summary: O'Brien greets his wife upon her return from Bajor, only to find that she's been possessed by an alien force -- and that her life depends upon him following the possessor's instructions to the letter.
Based on the preview and based on the concept of the above, I honestly wasn't expecting very much from "The Assignment". Alien-possession stories have been done *to death*, on Trek and elsewhere, and the picture I had in my mind of the show seemed nothing more than a flipped version of TNG's "Power Play" (where a possessed O'Brien was threatening Keiko).
Fortunately, I was wrong. Oh, there were certainly a few moments here and there I could have done without, and pieces of the story that didn't quite hold up -- but on the whole, rather than a simple alien-possession story, we got a tale where O'Brien was left with a choice between his wife and his duty, where he had absolutely no recourse until the end. That's a much stronger way to craft a story -- given that in the end, the possession is likely to be undone, the interest has to come from what its effects are. "The Assignment" dealt more with the effects than with the possession itself, and did a rather nice job with it.
Much of the credit for this has to go to both Colm Meaney, whom I praise all the time, and Rosalind Chao (Keiko), whom I rarely praise. That's not because she's a poor actress -- far from it, based on the evidence I've seen -- but rather because she so rarely has anything significant to do on DS9. On those occasions when she's had relatively meaty material, such as season 3's "Whispers" and especially season 1's "In the Hands of the Prophets", she's been very able.
Here, however, she probably gave her best Trek-related performance to date. Much of my feeling there, I suspect, is due to Keiko not usually being that interesting a character. "Prophets" did a good job because it gave her a role to play beyond that of "Miles' wife", and so did "The Assignment". I've never really seen Chao play cold and remorseless before; she's quite good at it. Her matter-of-fact "how much more damage do you think this body can take?" was a lot more disturbing than any threats she could have made at that time would have been, and her more sadistic "jokes" like asking Miles for a kiss also were quite effective. "Possession" stories need to have a convincing portrayal of the possessed in order to have any chance of functioning, and Chao fit the bill admirably. (My only negative thoughts on this score would be the couple of times Keiko was "dying" -- in the teaser and in the episode's climax. Neither one there quite came off as well as it might have.)
As for Meaney -- well, there's not much to say beyond the usual "yep, superb again." We've seen Meaney do "desperate" before, most recently in "Hard Time", but this was a different kind of desperation. This time, it wasn't anguish at what had been done to him -- it was more of a misery that his loved ones were at risk and there was nothing he could do about it. His reaction to Keiko's casual litany of the rescues he would probably try to attempt summed everything up: his face just fell so far it was barely visible as he realized how badly he'd been out-thought and outmaneuvered. O'Brien's never been one for concealing what he thinks very well, and Meaney used that to the hilt (as did the scripters).
Then there's the story itself. As I already mentioned, it was much better than I expected. I think this is mostly due to two factors: one, by using the "pagh wraiths" and adding to our knowledge of Bajoran mythology (gee, I wonder if Miles would have called it that with Kira around?), the possession managed to keep me interested on the Bajoran culture angle, which has been sorely neglected for about two and a half years; and two, the focus was not on the possession itself. By focusing on what it did to O'Brien, it had a much more character-centered focus rather than some hokey "wait to expose the possession and save everybody" plot, and as such it improved mightily.
This isn't to say there wasn't some plot -- and it, again, was more interesting than I'd anticipated. This was almost entirely due to the use of Bajoran culture as a backdrop, but it was also handled well. We never found out *anything* about the wraith from "Keiko" herself; rather, we had Jake inquiring about whether Keiko had seen anything interesting in the caves, like a wraith. O'Brien didn't already know about the wraiths, and knew absolutely nothing about their legendary history with the Prophets. He, in fact, put next to nothing together; it was only thanks to the combined statements of Jake and Rom that he was able to figure out the truth and concoct a final solution. I like that; it makes O'Brien even more competent as a character to be able to bring new information to bear, as opposed to just knowing everything.
This isn't to say I haven't a few objections to bits of the show. Rom, surprisingly, was only one of them part of the time. Several of his scenes (the "bookends" starting and ending the episode being cases in point) were ones I'd file under "okay, I can see why these were done, but they did nothing for me" -- I'd put the Rom-goes-to-the-swing-shift scene in that category as well. His scenes with O'Brien, however, really clicked; it's one of the rare occasions that I truly *believed* the writers' claim that Rom isn't really an idiot. He can be over-enthusiastic and annoying, yes; but he often does know what's going on. His reaction of "I'm Quark's brother; I know the role!" to O'Brien's insistence that Rom continue to play the idiot for a short while spoke volumes. Forget "Rom-building" shows like "Bar Association"; you can work well with Rom using much better material than that, as I think this demonstrates.
[I have to point out, however, that this is the third time in four episodes we've had someone refer to "waste extraction" -- two times out of three it was Quark. I do have to ask if there's some reason we're dwelling on this concept. :-) ]
I also had a bit of a problem with the solution to the plot. I liked the wraith's scheme in general, and the way O'Brien found out about it -- but after all this, I'd have thought that the wraith would have been bright enough not to anticipate O'Brien nailing the runabout instead of the wormhole. If she's truly waited for centuries, surely she could wait a few more minutes to make sure things are secure or put herself in a force-field or something. Most of the incidental moments in the plot -- Keiko throwing herself off the balcony, Odo finding O'Brien out and getting cold- cocked for it, Rom taking forty minutes of interrogation to even admit to his name :-) -- worked just fine, but I couldn't buy the solution.
Apart from that, my only real problem with "The Assignment" is that it was far more of a fantasy story than a science-fictional one. I'm not a stickler for 100% hard SF by any means -- if I were, I'd probably have bailed on Trek a long time back -- but I like having *some* rational basis for things. The Prophets have a wonderful ambiguity about them -- but the wraiths really don't at present. That's something that could be fixed at some point, perhaps, but at present this was impossible to treat as anything other than an "assault on heaven" story.
That covers the main points, I think. So, a few smaller ones.
The Bashir/O'Brien scene with the ruined bonsai seemed to click fairly well. I loved Molly's simple "you're in trouble" to her father. (I do have to wonder about Bashir's "I've seen you handle your wife thousands of times," though; ahem.) Quark: "...or you could be here, staring at half-naked Dabo girls." Me: "Yes, class, let's remember our demographic." :-) We were never given an actual reason for the tight time schedule. There are a host of plausible reasons: my guess is that she was simply trying to make sure Miles didn't have time to think about what he was doing. Anyone else have a different assumption? Given that the wraith knows everything Keiko knows about Miles, I wonder if that means there was a grain of truth in his "I don't give a damn about the Celestial Temple" claim towards the end. My guess is that there is, and that he used the countermeasures he did because he figured he and Keiko were dead anyway if he didn't. (Either that, or he just wanted the satisfaction of killing the wraith; I could understand that, given the consequences.) This was a new week for the production team, it looks like. Neither the name of the director (Allan Kroeker) nor that of the composer (Gregory Smith) seemed remotely familiar to me. (On the writing side, however, both sets of people were familiar: Weddle & Thompson provided the story for "Rules of Engagement" last year -- quite a step up this year, I'd say -- and Long & Lederman had the story credit for "Improbable Cause". That pretty much does it. So, wrapping up:
Writing: An old plot on the whole and a questionable solution, but a lot of good depth and good twists. Directing: A few scenes had moments I'd rather have done without, but the desperation came through loud and clear. Acting: High praise to Chao and Meaney. OVERALL: 7.5, I think. Solid work.
NEXT WEEK: Small, furry, flightless objects.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) firstname.lastname@example.org <*> "I know what you're planning, but don't worry. I don't give a damn about the Celestial Temple or your noncorporeal feuds; I just want my wife back." -- O'Brien Copyright 1996, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.