DS9 S06E16 Change of Heart (3.5 out of 5 stars). Dax and Worf are busy getting busy when Kira despatches them to the Badlands to collect this week’s MacGuffin. They are a very cute couple, and as we spend the usual requisite travel time hanging out with them, their amiable bickering and Michael Dorn’s deadpanning is fairly amusing, even if this all feels a bit like padding. When they get to the jungle planet where the rendezvous is due to take place (full of unusually exotic fauna), they work together very well, which is refreshing, if not super-interesting.

The story begins, very late in the day, when they cross paths with a squadron of Jem’Hadar, and Dax receives a wound in her side, the bleeding from which can’t be stopped for reasons. Dax’s gallows humour quips are devoid of wit and there’s little in this situation which we haven’t seen before, although I do appreciate the specificity which comes from it being this couple in particular, and Farrell and Dorn continue to completely inhabit these roles, with Farrell really selling Dax’s weakened state as the blood loss continues. I can’t help wondering whether this would not have been more interesting if the big strong Klingon was the one having to be left behind with pain meds and the young woman (or so she appears) had to decide between completing the mission and coming back to rescue him. Maybe it’s better the way it is, and maybe that’s a testament to the strength of these characters.

When they return Sisko has the brilliant insight that he should probably stop sending married couples off on missions together. Ya think?

In a rather silly B-plot, Quark is winning at Tongo and O’Brien of all people wants to take him on, so he recruits Bashir to assist, in a sequence which helps itself to all of the usual clichés of the rookie-beats-experts-at-their-own-game trope, and then just stops. Irishman O’Brien hopes to win Scotch whisky from Worf for some reason. Bashir reads and understands every rule of Tongo with one glance at O’Brien’s PADD which is ridiculous even for a meta-human, but still pretty funny.

VOY S04E18-19 The Killing Game (4.5 out of 5 stars). Is this one episode or two? It was planned, written, shot and produced as two episodes – the two parts even have two different directors – and that’s how it appears in the DVD box set. So this isn’t a double-length episode later carved into two for syndication like the two-hour pilots and the TNG finale. But both parts were shown for the first time on UPN as part of a two hour “event”, so we’ll treat it as a single instalment for the purposes of this exercise.

We start, as we so often do on the Holodeck, where Janeway with Klingon ridges is involved in a Bat’leth battle, only for a Hirogen to insist on striking the killing blow before summoning medical assistance. I’ll say this for Voyager – it knows how to get my attention. It seems as if the hunter-folk are in command of Voyager and are able to stick any of the crew they wish into any Holodeck situation they wish. So, let’s have Seven of Nine sing a torch song in a nightclub while we’re at it. (Wait till we get to Bride of Chaotica!) It’s always fun for me to see the regular cast of a favourite show reinventing themselves, so even though this feels like nonsense, it’s pretty enjoyable stuff watching Kate Mulgrew effectively blending Bogart and Bacall, while Tim Russ tends bar and Jeri Ryan croons (with Borg implants but without a microphone).

Even though I haven’t the slightest idea why this race of all-about-the-hunt dudes wants to play Everyone Come’s to Kathy’s (and while I tire of yet another mono-culture alien species) these more cultured, sophisticated Hirogen, who play civilised war games are vastly more interesting than the oafish pulpy versions we saw in Hunters. Herr Kommandant Hirogen even has a duelling scar. Nice. Presumably he is also after The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies.

We also get some very nice location filming as we meet fellow bicycling baker Neelix, joined quickly by communications specialist Torres. All of the details of their smuggling, code-breaking and subterfuge are nicely worked out. I’m just not quite sure what we’re doing here. That’s by design of course, but it’s still perplexing. Herr Kommandant Hirogen gets a big speech about wanting the hunt to be fair, but presumably this Holofantasy is them studying Voyager’s crew in order to be better prepared for the next hunt. But wouldn’t a true challenge (and a fair fight) be a hunt where the hunters knew nothing at all about the prey? And does it really help the Hirogen to understand 24th century Federation space vessels by re-enacting 20th century Earthbound conflicts? Just like last week, we start way after the true inciting incident has taken place, which helps cut down on shoe leather but has its own costs. How did the Hirogen get the drop on Voyager in the first place? Will we ever find out? Does it matter?

I grumbled early on that the Holodeck wasn’t immediately mothballed when conserving energy became a big deal and everyone was put on replicator rations. This was handwaved away as “oh the Holodeck has its own power supply which is completely incompatible with every other system,” and yet here is poor old Harry Kim (who of course doesn’t get to have fun and play dress up with everyone else) diverting power from other systems to the completely incompatible Holodeck. Sometimes you just have to look away.

Chakotay and Paris show up eventually (I can’t say I missed them) as the liberating Americans while Kim and the Doctor conspire to insert Seven back into the simulation under her own mental control, whereupon she is able to free the Captain. Then the Americans show up and everything goes to hell, including a simulated explosion exposing three decks of Voyager, which is a pretty nifty bit of surrealism for nineties prime time television. With holo-emitters throughout the ship, pretty soon the whole place is awash with ferocious Holodeck characters and mind-controlled senior staff. What has happened to the other members of Voyager’s crew is not clear. Kim has a plan to blow up the Holodeck, but the Kommandant wants the technology preserved (and those who know how to repair it – as luck would have it). In fact, this character is something of a benefit and a drawback. Once more, introducing a cuddly instance of an implacable foe adds depth to the species, but dulls their overall impact.

In Part II, things slow down a little. Are we supposed to a) take it seriously and b) be interested when Paris and Torres reminisce about events in their romantic past which never happened? But when Janeway leads the assault (Chakotay stumbling along uselessly in her wake), it becomes a bizarre mismatched Boys Own war story, with the resistance fighters charging through Voyager’s gleaming corridors firing pistols.

Janeway doing a peace deal is a bit soggy, but the Holographic Nazi talking the Hirogen number two out of the ceasefire is a great twist and a nice use of available resources.

As usual, everybody on every side speaks English throughout, except for a few token “bonjours”, until Torres starts briefly talking German to a passing Lieutenant. B’Elanna Torres’s resistance alter ego is pregnant, which is handy so because so was Roxann Dawson when this was filmed. Don’t think too hard about how a Holodeck manages to manifest a foetus which can kick you from inside your belly.

DS9 S06E17 Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night (3 out of 5 stars). Exotic alien duo Worf and Dax who once were part of a fascinating alien culture have now been reduced to a sitcom couple, who squabble about social engagements. Similarly Gul Dukat was once a superbly nuanced political operative, who is now being rendered as a one-dimensional ranting villainous lunatic, torturing Kira just for kicks. I think we’re past the DS9 peak, sad to say.

Kira reacts to Dukat’s taunting by generally being a dick to everyone she works with, and even Odo can’t get through to her. Only the Bajoran flashback boxes can give her peace of mind – and lo! she gets to wander through her own infant past during the occupation, venturing wisdom such as “Why are we fighting each other? We should band together and fight the common enemy.” (To which the answer is presumably “Yes – the Bajoran People’s Front!”) Kira and her mum are both selected to be “comfort women” to Gul Dukat which does seem to match the tale he told adult Kira.

As ludicrous as this all is, once Dukat assembles his harem onboard “Terak Nor”, the story does generate a certain amount of grim power. There is something weirdly, horribly invasive about the Cardassian healing Kira Meru’s scar without her permission and Leslie Hope (Mrs Jack Bauer from 24) plays the moment with real feeling.

We don’t cut away from this time line until the end, so this is all about Kira, her mum and Dukat. It’s great to see Nana Visitor with some decent material again, but the whole structure of this story makes this feel like a doodle in the margins, rather than a major piece of the story. Ultimately, it doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Major or the occupation.

VOY S04E20 Vis à Vis (2 out of 5 stars). What would you do if the precarious life-raft you were in had a magic room onboard which could create the perfect illusion of any scenario imaginable? Tom Paris pretends to be 1960s car mechanic, like we all would. He’s supposed to be studying with the Doctor, who is as confounded as I am. I’ve moaned often enough about Paris’s stubborn lack of character development. His relationship with the far-more-interesting Torres is the best thing that could have happened to him – so why do we see them together so infrequently?

Instead, we get a reprise of the Chakotay-reading-him-the-riot act interactions which turned out to be a feint back in Season 2. When Paris and Torres do share the screen together, it’s routine bickering and he refuses to tell her about his holographic hot-rod. She wants answers and he calls her hysterical, which is kind of a dick move. He’s sleeping on the couch tonight and rightly so.

Pretty soon, Voyager’s station wagon is being buzzed by a muscle car fitted with a snazzy new coaxial warp drive (shortly to be replaced with the even snazzier SCART warp drive). In theory, drives of this kind can fold space and cover huge distances instantaneously. So, we’re back to telling this-could-get-us-home-in-no-time-wait-oh-no-never-mind stories it seems. But for now, the HDMI drive is bust so it’s greasemonkey Paris to the rescue (because repairing a novel form of propulsion requires a top pilot rather than an experienced engineer like Torres). And – you’ll never guess what – the mysterious pilot isn’t telling the truth about everything. His computer tells him that he has only three hours before his DNA reverts to its previous form – and then we cut to him and Paris the next morning and he still looks the same. But, the plan it seems is to fix the drive and send the pilot on his way without even attempting to use it to get the Voyager crew home.

As well as barely making sense, this is all pretty dull stuff, failing to resonate on a character level or engage on a plot/adventure/jeopardy level and it isn’t seasoned with any of Voyager’s trademark structural games or loopy high concepts, unless you count the age-old body-swap routine. It’s resolutely ordinary nineties Trek, designed to get the show one episode closer to the end of the season and that’s it. If it has a message, it seems to be that a passing alien con-artist can Tom Paris better than Tom Paris can, which is a pretty sad indictment on this thinnest of regular characters. Also, weirdly Janeway is hardly in this one, which is not ideal. And the rape of Torres is treated with little more than snide chuckling.

Dan Butler (Bulldog on Frasier) plays the mysterious pilot. Holodeck oil and grease stays on Paris’s face when he walks onto the bridge.

DS9 S06E18 Inquisition (4 out of 5 stars). Bashir is off to a sunny resort to deliver a paper at a medical conference, much to O’Brien and Odo’s sneering dismay. But he doesn’t get to go, because Death from AC-12 (I mean, William Sadler as Sloan from Internal Affairs) turns up and accuses the entire senior staff of being Dominion spies. This sort of paranoid, anti-corruption, who can you trust storyline is not new to Star Trek – it’s not even new to Deep Space Nine – but the mood of this series being generally bleak and its habit of painting in shades of grey means that it works best here, compared to sunny TNG or goofy TOS.

Sloan’s MO of going back over old episodes and picking holes even recalls Remmick’s behaviour in Coming of Age, back in TNG Season 1. And true to form, the DS9 version is grimmer than any of the earlier goes at this storyline. Bashir’s genetic enhancement makes him a target of an investigator consumed by hatred due to a personal tragedy. The presumption of guilt not just from him but from his security guards is chilling, and Alexander Siddig rises ably to the challenges the script sets him. Back on TNG, Remmick was all “Not only are you not guilty, I want to be just like you when I grow up.” Here, Bashir is beamed out by Weyoun because – it seems – everything that Sloan said was true. He was turned while in captivity and then brainwashed back into being a loyal Starfleet officer until he was needed.

The trouble is, once you start playing these games, the story trains the audience to disbelieve everything. So it’s fortunate that the script doesn’t try to sustain the fake rescue team for very long, as I suspected the truth almost immediately. The revelation that virtually the whole episode had been a fantasy was harder to spot. Michael Dorn as director brings a nicely tense and claustrophobic atmosphere to proceedings, so even if this isn’t revolutionary, it’s a nice introduction to Section 31 and a fine examination of the eternal moral quandary – who watches the watchers?

There’s barely anything here for Dax, which is a shame, given that I know what’s coming at the season’s end. She and Worf are excluded from the final conference.

DS9 S06E19 In the Pale Moonlight (5 out of 5 stars). Here it is. This is the big one. When the conversation turns to best-ever Star Trek episodes, the same few episodes keep coming up. From TOS, it’s The City on the Edge of Forever, Amok Time, Arena, Balance of Terror, The Devil in the Dark. From TNG, it’s The Best of Both Worlds, Yesterday’s Enterprise, Darmok, Chain of Command, The Inner Light. And from DS9 it’s The Visitor, Duet, Trials and Tribble-ations, Far Beyond the Stars – and this one. And for some people, this is the best episode the franchise has ever produced.

It begins with a seemingly shell-shocked Sisko having to confess what sound like appalling crimes to his log. One of his wartime duties has become posting weekly casualty lists every Friday. There’s always a familiar name for somebody. Bringing the neutral Romulans into the war seems like the only way out – but as Dax points out, why would they get involved when they can just sit back and watch their rivals annihilate each other? The two officers role-play the negotiations and it kind of backs Sisko into a corner. Where can he find the evidence that it would take to get the Romulans to alter their position? Answer – he probably can’t, but maybe Garak can. Or one of Garak’s old friends? While he makes some calls, the Dominion takes Betazed. Everyone Garak contacts is murdered within hours of the call. So, the human and the Cardassian decide that if they can’t find the evidence they need then they should Deepfake some.

The master forger that Garak introduces to the station turns out to be violent and a drunk, which means Sisko has to pony up a substantial bribe to prevent Quark pressing charges and creating a record of this guy’s presence on the station. (Quark thinks much more highly of Sisko after this, which is very neat.) Any doubts about the wisdom of his course are swept aside next time he posts the weekly casualty list. And to complete the deception, Sisko has to provide quantities of bio-memetic gel, a substance which the Federation closely controls.

It’s the centring of Sisko which really makes this work. Unlike Picard or Janeway, the lead of this series has tended to be fixed point around whom other characters orbit, and upon whom responsibilities are heaped, as opposed to a complex character with his own foibles and arc. Here we dig deep into his convictions, moral compass and willingness or not to compromise. It’s a compelling portrait and a wonderful performance by Avery Brooks. The Romulan commander thought he’d be taller. He also uncovers Sisko’s deception, proclaiming the evidence to be a fake. Days later, the same Romulan’s ship is destroyed and the Dominion are seen to be to blame. This was Garak’s true plan, and it might just work. Grimly, horrifyingly, Sisko thinks he can live with it. Can’t he? Computer. Erase recording. Wow.

Trekaday #087: Far Beyond the Stars, Hunters, One Little Ship, Prey, Honor Among Thieves, Retrospect
Trekaday #089: The Omega Directive, His Way, Unforgettable, The Reckoning, Living Witness, Valiant, Demon