This episode still makes me tear up in two different places every single time I watch it. Which has got to be like two dozen times by now.
A description of the events can be found at the Wikipedia...but...watch the episode, folks. These words don't do it justice.
If an entire series was done with the same tone and stylistic approach that this episode possessed, it would bomb. It might do well at first, but eventually, it would wear on its audience as badly as Battlestar Galactica did by the end of its third season. We look to television to give us what we need to make our lives a little better. Sometimes we want to think, or to dream about the implausible, or to escape the painfulness of the world, or just to laugh. But generally, what we need is to have fun and to feel better about ourselves and the world. If that's what you need today, you should not watch the Siege of AR-558. I would argue that this masterpiece does indeed give us something we need - a sense of perspective when compared with the traditional heroic depiction of war that dominates science fiction. Let me be clear, I am not saying that the heavy realism of Siege is superior to the full-throated patriotism of, say, Stargate SG-1 or the lighter, more family-friendly depiction seen on GI Joe. Some in fandom will tell you that...I won't - I think that is intellectual bigotry . What I am saying, however, is that I think balance is important in what we view in our entertainment, because our culture develops its expectations based on what we watch. I think the Siege of AR-558 was the most important thing DS9 ever produced because sometimes, you shouldn't get what you want out of TV - sometimes people die and all the time in the real world, war sucks, and it's VITAL that we remember this when we think about war in our real lives.
With that opening statement out of the way - why is Siege so effective? What makes it the sensational expression of the heroism and brutality of combat on the front lines that it is? Passion. All of the directorial, technical, and professional choices of the cast, crew and producers of the franchise involved in this episode took it as a personal mission and focused their minds on every key decision made in framing the story. A few examples:
- A decision was made early in the teleplay drafting to focus the episode on Bashir, Quark, Ezri and Nog because they were the least experienced members of the cast with front line combat. O'Brien never appeared in the episode, Kira was used as a dramatic foil in the final scene, and Worf exited the battlefield with the Defiant because all of them would be seasoned combat officers who would be less affected by this particular mission. The four characters that formed the core of the script were meant to be different versions of "us" - the viewers who have little concept of what combat is actually like - he civilians in the crowd. This worked BEAUTIFULLY and each of the four characters chosen here contributed something completely unique and powerful to the story. Quark provided his most valuable asset - his outsider perspective and heart of gold - pointing out that war turns good people into killers even as they do heroic deeds. Nog was a necessary casualty - losing a limb not only affected his future character development (he was always gung-ho and eager to prove himself...he needed perspective), but also was a direct blow to the audience. Ezri conveyed our vulnerability (as did Quark, especially in the beginning when the Defiant is being shot at and he is left alone in the mess hall and at the end when he picks up a phaser to defend Nog) and our sense of smallness in the face of the massive scale of war. Bashir was a sort of grim logical influence - focused on just what lengths they'll need to go through to survive.
- In war, our reactions to extreme stress and loss can vary. The show chose to portray four guest characters - each of them different. Vargas - the man suffering PTSD and coming apart under the pressure, Kellin - the gentle soul placed way out of his element and heroically soldiering on (to his eventual death), Reese - the battle-hardened and darkened soul who has shut out the world in order to cope with his tragic environment, and Larkin - the natural leader who speaks for her men and women and leads their most dangerous missions. Not only that...but they spend time developing each and every one of those characters so that we feel like we know them...and then kill three of them (!) in the siege or the prior scouting patrol (that also costs Nog his leg). The varying perspectives on what it's like to live under these brutal conditions for months on end and face constant threat of death give all of us cause to think about how we'd react and make us appreciate just how miraculous and difficult battlefield sacrifice and heroism must be.
- A conscious choice by the director (Winrich Kolbe) was made to place the episode on a moon with no defining landscape features, no signs of beauty, and no obvious turf worth fighting for. The communications relay is the only reason people are dying on this wasteland and we're left to wonder whether the relay is really worth it. People who have fought on the front lines always come home marveling at how ugly and worthless the land on which their fights took place seemed to be. The shots were also filmed through a grey filter and dirt and dust were piled onto the set and give the air a constant filthy look and feel and coat every surface.
- The score throughout the episode is extremely powerful and well done - particular during the siege and the denouement in Sisko's office - and the director and sound mixers/composers made a very wise choice not to prefer the ugly sounds of combat over the mood-evoking score during the siege. BSG frequently played out battles with very underwhelming music to let the silence of space or the brutality of combat fill your ears, but I actually think that is more likely to close the mind of the viewer than open it. The Walking Dead sometimes takes the horror of walker combat a little too far for this reason IMHO (I've had moments where I've had to cover my eyes and ears for a half a minute because it was too much). If you want to present something tragic, the most effective way to reach your audience is with a tragic score and a little less obvious gore in the visual/audio presentation.
- For an episode about a siege and the grisly horror of war, there's a stunning lack of action here. You might even say that this episode is slow in pace, but it's not slow for the viewer because every. single. conversation has meaning. Seriously...you can't find a single wasted line of dialogue - not even Rom's audition for Vic Fontaine (needed for a little humor and because we needed a reminder of who Vic is when his music plays a pivotal roll in the pre-battle hours). Every word is carefully selected and fits perfectly. What's more...the slow pace of the story gives the characters time to breathe, to reflect on what they see, and to develop. We don't usually get to do that in Trek - develop non-regular characters just for the purpose of killing most of them and allowing us to feel that loss. If they did this routinely, it wouldn't work, but it works very well here.
And ultimately, what I like about this episode is that - despite (evidently) the motivations of the show's creators - this terrible battlefield truth does not convince those involved that no war is just (or that there aren't sides who are backed by morality vs. sides who are not). The invention, for example, of Houdinis, most of us would consider repugnant. Mines that kill at random and can't be traced without a lot of clever engineering...horrible devices indeed. But Sisko makes the choice to use them anyway, because in the end, we didn't invent them and never would and that's why we're on the correct side (which gives us a reason to use any means at our disposal to survive). The staff who produced this show are on record as saying they wanted to convey that no one comes out clean in war - this is absolutely true! But the great thing about this episode is that no leap is made from that truism to the false correllary frequently drawn by pacifists...that there aren't good guys and bad guys in war. Just because all parties in a fight are dirtied by it doesn't mean all sides are equally right. And that point sticks with us on DS9. We aren't allowed to celebrate our victory the way we normally would in sci fi...but it is recognized as "a great victory, worthy of story and song" and the moral differences between the Jem'hadar and the Federation are made clear.
Nonetheless...even if you win in war...you lose. That much is guaranteed (and I'm paraphrasing more quotes from the show's production team). And it IS important that we remember that...because when we forget, we're on the path to becoming the Dominion - the enemies who long ago forgot the value of life and began to focus exclusively on the outcome of battle for meaning. And that's what this episode communicates so well...that's why the Federation is morally superior (why we're the good guys). If I tried to highlight this episode, I'd just be copying 85% of the entire transcript to this post and I don't think that does it justice anyway, so you won't find highlights here. You will, however, be encouraged to view the episode yourself and see what I mean in this review.
As noted above, not a single word is misplaced in this episode and every scene resonates. On top of that the direction, musical accompaniment, staging and editing of the episode is just brilliant...with signature shots from wall to wall - this is a deeply atmospheric episode and a work of art.
Acting: 9.85 (heh)
If I had one teeny tiny complaint with this one...it would be the acting of Raymond Cruz (Vargas) who sometimes plays his PTSD a little to overzealously (his need to say every line through gritted teeth gets kind of distracting, e.g.). Otherwise, the acting here is absolutely sensational. Avery Brooks does none of his usual scene chewing (in fact, in the final scene, he absolutely blows you away with how understated and yet how emotional his reaction is to the casualty report) and Armin Shimerman (who has multiple times said this episode was the best thing he ever did as an actor) and Aaron Eisenburg were jaw-droppingly good. Seriously...the look on Quark's face as the battle starts outside and the siege music quiets momentarily will bring a tear to your eyes instantly if you have a soul. Not to be overlooked, Nicole DeBoer does some phenomenal work with Bill Mumy (who is always awesome!) as well. This would be the "perfect 10" episode if not for Vargas.
Message: 10.0 with a BULLET
Realizing just how savage and destructive war is should not blind us to the reality that sometimes it's necessary when faced with an enemy that lacks a proper moral foundation and doesn't respect life the way they should. This episode manages to focus our attention on the miracle that is battlefield heroism, remind us of the tragic cost of any such heroism, and yet not lose sight of why wars are fought. This is a very hard balance to strike that would be impossible with any other Trek franchise. BRAVO!!