These plots open up a whole can of worms, though, depending on the genre of your show. Star Trek is science fiction, but it’s in the context of a military or at the very least a paramilitary organization in Starfleet. There’s a clear command structure and something close to military discipline. Star Trek never really touches on the dangerous areas of romance between two people of different ranks. It’s there, but they never quite acknowledge the fact that consent becomes that much more difficult with a power differential. It’s not that kind of show, fundamentally. This week’s hour touches on another difficulty that all this romance can bring on: What do you do when the needs of your spouse conflict with the needs of the mission?
Really, it’s a terrible idea right off the bat, but Starfleet sends Dax and Worf into the Badlands together to get intelligence from a Cardassian spy. This spy has incredible information: the number, location, and mission of every Changeling in the Alpha Quadrant. That’s the kind of information that wins wars. He’s also convinced the local Vorta is onto him, so it’s time to defect. Dax and Worf have no time to go back to base, so it’s up to them to take their runabout into Dominion-controlled space, trusting this spy to keep the Jem’Hadar patrols off their back.
So, granted, Starfleet didn’t know that this simple rendezvous for an intelligence transmission was going to turn into an armed extraction. And the episode establishes that the Defiant is elsewhere. Still, though. Do you really send a married couple on a mission like this? Both are exceptional officers, sure. You can’t get more badass than the only Klingon in Starfleet whose favorite hobby is killing genetically-bred super soldiers with his bare hands and a three-hundred-year-old genius who collects martial arts like other people collect decorative mugs. If you had to pick two people, these two would be high on your list.
...okay, I’d take Kira and Garak, if I had the choice, but they’re not Starfleet personnel. Still, those two know how to sneak around in Cardassian-held territory, and Garak wouldn’t be shot on sight just for being there. Anyway.
While Dax and Worf go down onto the planet to rendezvous with the spy, they initially treat it lightly. It’s that jokey, casual danger dialogue that defuses the tension of a situation. Normally, I’m not a fan of that, but here, I like it. Why? Because it bites them in the ass. Dax and Worf are joking around when a Jem’Hadar patrol gets too close. In the ensuing fight, our two killing machines ruthlessly annihilate the three Jem’Hadar, but Dax is wounded. In a nice callback to the wound that claimed Muñiz in season five’s “The Ship,” the blast contained the same anti-coagulant. Dax gamely presses on, but pretty soon it’s clear that she’s dying. This leaves Worf with a choice: the mission, or his wife.
This is the real reason the two were chosen for the mission. To the credit of the writers, they wanted to present a situation for which there is no clear right and wrong. The information had to be so valuable that Worf had to at least be tempted by it. Every Changeling in the Alpha Quadrant would immediately remove one of the Dominion’s greatest weapons and, due to the nature of the Vorta and Jem’Hadar, give a massive amount of leverage in the ensuing negotiations. Additionally, Worf has always been shown to be a man for whom honor and career are everything.
He chooses Dax, of course. If he had left her to die, he would have lost the sympathy of a huge swath of the audience. Worf has always been prickly, and we love him for it. Earlier in the episode, when he defends his alleged sense of humor, it’s as winning as we’ve ever seen the big lug. It’s a huge choice for him, and one that costs him dearly. This is what I love about the episode. There are consequences to this decision. In other shows, they would have cheated. In going back for Dax, Worf would have run into the spy, thereby having his cake and eating it too. Here, the spy is executed and Worf’s career irrevocably damaged. Sisko, while dressing Worf down, expresses doubt that Worf will ever get his own command. He also states that he understands, and one can’t help but wonder if he’s not the slightest bit grateful that Worf saved the life of the Old Man.
Behind the scenes, the episode gets strange. Terry Farrell had already made the decision to leave the show, which she would end up doing at the close of this season. While she didn’t want the character to die, when she saw this script, she thought that, if they were going to kill her, this would be the spot. I agree. It would have been a hard choice for Worf, but it’s one I understand. Maybe that’s because I know what they do to the Dax character, which for me, is the one flaw in what I regard as the best complete seasons Trek ever produced.
The B-plot is even stranger, reminding Dr. Bashir of his former infatuation of Dax. It’s framed in a lighthearted story about O’Brien and Bashir attempting to end Quark’s stunning tongo winning-streak. (The best scene of that is the opening, when Worf and O’Brien playfully bet a bottle of their favorite spirits on the outcome of a game.) This reminder is to a Bashir I never liked, undermining a Bashir that I’d grown to love. The writers knew the B-story didn’t really fit in with the rest of the episode, as it wraps up about halfway through, leaving the rest of the show to the far stronger story of Worf’s decision.
The fascinating thing about this hour is that it’s fundamentally a tragedy. Almost everyone will agree that Worf did the wrong thing, prioritizing Dax’s life over the millions, or even billions, that will die in a war that could be ended with the information in the spy’s possession. Yet almost everyone would make the same decision he did in the moment. In this episode, Worf’s resolve was tested, and he learned what he truly valued. In the end, at least he is content.
Next up: Kira's backstory somehow gets darker.