WARNING: Spoilers for DS9's "To the Death" lurk below.
In brief: Not top-notch, but mostly engrossing except for the final act.
Brief summary: Sisko and the Defiant are forced to fight along a group of Jem'Hadar in order to prevent other, renegade Jem'Hadar from gaining access to technology that could make them nearly invincible.
I wasn't expecting all that much from "To the Death". The two-fold premise seemed to promise lots of action for action's sake, and lots of Jem'Hadar. I'm not a big fan of the former, and find the Jem'Hadar a pretty boring villain -- so as a result, I came in really not anticipating very much.
Perhaps as a result of that, I was pleasantly surprised. "To the Death" certainly wasn't the most gripping or hardest-hitting or most interesting show DS9 has had this season, but it wasn't the clunker I was dreading either. Aside from a lackluster fifth act, most of it managed to be carried along by the performers well enough to work.
From a writing standpoint, it's awfully difficult to make the Jem'Hadar interesting. A race genetically engineered to be superb killers may be sound tactics, but it makes them such automatic "black hats" that plots involving them tend to be cartoon-like. And even unlike the Borg, who lack even what little individuality exists among
the Jem'Hadar, the threat isn't personal beyond the simple threat of death -- with the Borg, at least the threat is of a life where your own sense of self has been stripped away.
"To the Death", however, did a reasonable job of making the Jem'Hadar ... about as interesting as they can be given their premise. I'm still not particularly fond of them, but at least a few details were given that fleshed them out a little bit -- mostly about their loyalty. For them to have loyalty to the Founders but not, necessarily, to those between the Jem'Hadar and the Founders on the Dominion food chain does establish some potentially interesting precedents.
The main thing that worked, however, was the reaction of Sisko, O'Brien and the rest of the Defiant crew to the Jem'Hadar presence on their ship. Unlike the Maquis, there was very little here to make the Federation officers question their own beliefs -- but Sisko's ever-present attempts to make the barely-apt "teams" function without
internal warfare worked just fine. The inevitable disparagement of fighting styles and the comparison of ship's discipline styles weren't exactly surprising -- but they were effective, which is the more important thing.
I also appreciated the nod given to TNG's "Contagion" as the plot unfolded. It's not all that feasible for the Dominion to be referring to most Alpha Quadrant races, given their location -- but the Iconians and their "gateway" technology are one of the few races that it would make sense to know. It's been a long time since I've seen "Contagion", so I don't remember whether the Iconians did all their conquering from a single gateway on their homeworld or not; the situation we got, though, made a whole lot of sense, and certainly made the time pressure entirely appropriate.
Jeffrey Combs's Weyoun was probably the most interesting (or at least interestingly presented) guest character. We're starting to see a pattern develop of the Vorta being used as Jem'Hadar "overseers" (at least, I think we are -- I seem to recall references to them being used that way before), and just that simple consistency makes the Dominion seem at least marginally more realistic. More interesting, though, was
his attitude given that fact: while he was acknowledging the help that Sisko and the rest of the Federation could be, he was still seeing them primarily as tools, just as he clearly saw the Jem'Hadar. With Odo, he was somewhat more conciliatory -- but even then, he tried to manipulate things a bit (as his "do you want to come home" conversation made clear, in a beautifully-lit series of close-ups). His "just doing my job" refrain to Sisko when Sisko rejected his "offer" did a good job of making us realize that he never really stopped trying to use everyone. That attitude eventually cost him his life, but it's plain as day that he had no idea there was any problem with his attitude at all -- and that was nice to see. (This was also a very welcome relief from the last couple of times we've seen Jeffrey Combs, when he played Brunt in the Ferengi-themed "Family Business" and "Bar Association". Ugh.)
The main story didn't really do much more than that for me -- suicide missions and statements about dying in battle aren't my cup of tea -- but there were a lot of nice character moments and dialogue snippets in passing to bring the episode up to the enjoyable level. Many of them centered around O'Brien: his sardonic "followed by a get-to-know-you buffet at 1930" in response to Sisko's mention of a joint briefing, his mimicking of the Jem'Hadar battle oath, and especially his scene with Dax about "goodbye" messages. O'Brien's always been the most down-home character, and he's one of the few you expect automatically to record a message like that (the other one being Sisko, for Jake); to see him worry about it publicly with Dax and her calmly reassure him that one, he'd live to be 140, and two, everyone records them, made for one of the best scenes of the show. (A few other moments didn't fare so well, the "you're in Worf's seat" opening scene and Dax's "no sleep, no food, no women -- no wonder you're so angry" scene being the two weakest.)
That leaves the battle sequence comprising the fifth act. Here, I was pretty much yawning straight through. Admittedly, this time we actually got some casualties (a whopping two of them for "our" side, so far as I know) -- but given that Our Heroes were fighting a hand-to-hand combat with blades against a foe that had them outnumbered, knew the territory better, knew they were there, and both genetically and by training are likely to be vastly superior in tactics, for no one of the main strike force to even get bloodied apart from Dax is absolutely mind-bogglingly unbelievable. This wasn't real violence -- this was a cartoon, and if you're dealing with major hand-to-hand combat like this you can't afford to do that, especially if there's been a lot of soul-searching about dying in battle beforehand. The final scene, involving Weyoun's death and "next time, we'll be enemies", worked okay, but the last act as a whole left me pretty cold.
That makes "To the Death" a generally "okay" episode -- not superb, but pretty much involving for the majority of the show. That makes it a comparative weak spot for the season, but certainly not awful.
Some short takes:
-- I appreciated the lack of technobabble. When they beamed down and discovered that their weapons were useless, we didn't get two paragraphs -- just a quick "oh, the gateway much be damping them somehow". Works for me (even if that was a fairly obvious thing to spring on the team.)
-- Tactically, it was explained why the whole site couldn't simply be blown to oblivion from orbit -- but why not send down a few torpedoes to take care of all the Jem'Hadar except those in the actual complex? It would lower the odds, I'd imagine.
-- The Omet'iklan/Sisko "I'm going to kill you -- but later you saved my life, so now I won't" arc was entirely by-the-numbers. Anyone not seeing that resolution coming must actually have been born yesterday.
-- "It is not for us to accuse a god of betraying heaven." That was an interesting line -- we know the Founders are more or less considered gods by the Jem'Hadar, but it's still an intriguing way to look at it.
That should do it. So, wrapping up:
Writing: Some nice character interaction and a little deepening of the Dominion. Not much of a plot, though.
Directing: Nice work for most of it, aside from the final battle.
Acting: I still think Brooks is overplaying a bit, but most everyone else was fine -- Colm Meaney and Jeffrey Combs in particular.
OVERALL: 7, I'd say. Reasonably good, but not stellar.
A Dominion-induced plague.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"I am First Omet'iklan, and I am dead. As of this moment, we are all dead. We go into battle to reclaim our lives. This we do gladly, for we are Jem'Hadar. Remember, victory is life."
"I am Chief Miles Edward O'Brien. I'm very much alive, and I intend to stay that way."