444. The Siege of AR-558
FORMULA: Nor the Battle to the Strong + Valiant + The Ship
WHY WE LIKE IT: The music. The direction. The strategies.
WHY WE DON'T: Vargas.
REVIEW: The cast goes to the front to experience some wartime horror first hand in an episode that seems to take its cues from the Vietnam conflict. The people at AR-558 have been holding out too long, have lost two thirds of their numbers and suffer from precarious mental health. Sisko decides to stay and help, driven by circumstances, but also by the anguish he already feels vis-à-vis the war. In an odd turn, Quark is there to act as the outsider, commenting on the situation. The point he makes about humanity being civilized so long as our bellies are full is a valid one that justifies his presence. It's also nice to see him care for someone other than himself (i.e. Nog), and he'll get his hands bloody as well.
The Siege itself features some pretty smart strategies on both sides which certainly keep the conflict interesting. Though the basic set-up would now inevitably be compared to that of the Spartan 300 ("THIS. IS. AR-558!"), there's the idea of projecting holograms to make the enemy reveal their position, nasty subspace mines ("Houdinis"), and then of using the Houdinis against their makers. Music is used effectively, first with a practically ironic Vic Fontaine song while the soldiers wait, and then the use of a moving new theme - used throughout - to underscore the action. This isn't exciting so much as it's tragic and melancholy. Sisko's POV as he passes out is as tense a moment as any. Great direction all around.
And since this is about the horrors of war, we perhaps shouldn't be surprised most of the guest characters don't make it. As the sympathetic main guest star, you'd think Bill Mumy's Kellin would survive, but shockingly, no. Most poignantly of all is Nog's loss of a leg, showing that even "our" characters aren't safe. Though Quark is an annoyance to Sisko most of the time, here it's harder for the captain to shoo him away when he becomes the righteous parent. It also relates to the final moments when the troop replacements arrive and are just "children". "Not for long," Sisko answers. War as a maker and destroyer of men.
Where the episode falls down is with its use of stock characters. We've seen these types in war movies before and in Vargus' case, it's way overplayed. Even Kellin, sympathetic as he may be, is just that "sympathetic engineer" who befriends the crew and does well, but that we're sad to see die. Reese is probably the better character - not by virtue of his special knife and ketracel tube necklace, which hardly packs the punch of Cardassian neck bones - but because he seems very much part of this gritty, desperate world, and yet, writes it off as soon as he leaves. When he abandons his knife, he abandons this part of his life. You get a sense that he'll never speak of it again. Reese tells us more by saying less.
LESSON: Vic Fontaine can't spot a comedy act when he sees one. (Check out Rom's audition.)
REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: In an episode where we're reminded that the dead aren't just names and numbers, but real people, I'd have liked to see them better fleshed out generally. However, AR-558 is still powerfully scored and directed, with real consequences for one of the cast.