"The Siege of AR-558" 
Season Seven, Episode 8
TWritten by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Music by Paul Baillargeon
Main Cast:
Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko
Rene Auberjonois as Odo
Nicole deBoer as Ezri Dax
Michael Dorn as Lt Cmdr Worf
Cirroc Lofton as Jake Sisko
Colm Meaney as Chief Miles O'Brien
Armin Shimerman as Quark
Alexander Siddig as Dr Julian Bashir
Nana Visitor as Colonel Kira Nerys

Guest Stars:
Aron Eisenberg as Nog
Bill Mumy as Engineer Kellin
James Darren as Vic Fontaine
Raymond Cruz as Vargas
Patrick Kilpatrick as Reese
Annette Helde as Nadia Larkin
Max Grodénchik as Rom 


The Defiant arrives at planet AR-558 in the Chin'taka system, a world that was taken from the Dominion in the Federation invasion of Chin'taka. They have supplies for the Starfleet garrison posted there. The traumatised soldiers have been up to their ears in death and destruction for months and have lost two thirds of their men. The Jem'Hadar arrive at the planet, attacking the Defiant and beaming down troops to a position near the Starfleet camp. The Defiant breaks orbit and leaves for reinforcements, leaving Sisko's team stranded on AR-558. Sisko, taking command, has only one order: "We hold"...



I'm not quite sure where to begin, so I'll start by telling you how I felt after watching this episode. I was stunned. My face felt numb and my stomach was knotted. Tears were still streaming down my face, having cried my way through much of the last act. To be honest, I was a little traumatised. (So, yeah, it was pretty much the same reaction I had to Profit and Lace. :-)). 

The Siege of AR-558 is an exceptionally powerful, emotionally wrenching war story -- heart-breaking and at times almost unbearably moving. And whilst it's undoubtedly the darkest, bleakest episode of Star Trek ever filmed, it's also one of the best. The outstanding writing, acting, directing and music all come together to form what is nothing short of a masterpiece. As television goes, this is pure dynamite.

Aside from the downright disturbing (but amusing) sound of Rom singing, the episode kicks off rather quietly. We are introduced to the outpost AR-558 which is in the Chin'Taka system, a part of Cardassian territory that was seized from the Dominion during the Federation's invasion of Cardassian space (a reference to events of the sixth season finale Tears of the Prophets). There has been a Starfleet garrison stationed on AR-558, holding off continuous Jem'Hadar attacks for the last five months. AR-558 contains the largest Dominion Communications Array of the sector and they are determined to get it back. Whilst they haven't been successful thus far, they have wrought terrible devastation and killed two thirds of the Starfleet garrison. The survivors are understandably suffering the severe trauma resulting from months of continuous death and destruction.

Something that The Siege of AR-558 does notably well is present its guest characters as reasonably rounded people as opposed to Star Trek's traditional "red shirts" (you know, the soon-to-be-killed security officers that accompanied away missions and rarely outlived ten minutes!). Whilst there wasn't much doubt that many of them (if any of them) would survive the episode, we actually developed quite a feel for them and even began to care about them as people. This is just as well, for if we don't care whether the characters live or die, then where's the drama? Bill Mumy (who played Lennier in Babylon 5 and Will Robinson in the original Lost in Space) gave a strong performance as the engineer Kellin. He was definitely the most likable of the lot and the friendship that developed between he and Ezri felt amiable rather than forced. 

Annette Helde and, in particular Patrick Kilpatrick, did creditable jobs of creating realistic characters that had been scarred by the harsh reality of life on the Front Lines. Whilst outwardly they have a steely determination to fight on to the bitter end, it's nicely conveyed that they have had to detach themselves from their feelings to survive in such awful conditions where death and destruction are a daily fact of life. The only character I wasn't particularly enamoured by was Vargas, and I suspect that had something to do with the actor that played him. Raymond Cruz was more than a little over-the-top, his grunting and growling cringe-worthy at times. I appreciate the attempt to illustrate a man who simply wasn't coping with the trauma as well as Reese and Larkin but I found Cruz's performance overwrought and jarring. Fortunately that's the only complaint I have on the acting front, for pretty much everyone else was superb.

The strongest character work was by far that of our regulars, and that's exactly as it should be. Behr and Beimler basically throw Sisko and co. into hell and explore the consequences. Not to suggest that our crew haven't been in mortal combat before, for they have many times, but the situation has never been quite as bleak as this. The episode opens with Sisko looking over the latest casualty list. He tells Odo that when the war started he would read over every single name, feeling it was the least he could do to honour their sacrifice. He doesn't do that any more. Over time the names have started to blur together. 

By the end of the episode, having been to hell and back, he arrives home only to be greeted by another casualty list. "They're not just names," he realises with sobriety. "It's important that we remember that. We have to remember..." We maybe didn't need this spelled out quite so clearly, but Sisko's little character arc was nicely handled and suitably poignant, bolstered by an understated, compelling performance by Avery Brooks. Recently Brooks has been more "external" with Sisko, which is fine, but his more introverted approach here was particularly suitable given the demands of the story. Some very solid work here.

As for Ezri, her friendship with Kellin was nicely handled and the two developed nice rapport. There was certainly enough resonance to make the sight of Ezri holding Kellin's lifeless body nothing short of heart-wrenching. I do have one piece of advice for young Ezri, however -- hey, Miss Counsellor, it would have been nice if you had at least tried to help those poor soldiers who were in very definite need of a shrink. Poor Bashir was evidently lumbered with the lot of them. Speaking of which, the good Doctor was a little under-utilised aside from Kellin's pointed remark that it was obvious that he had loaded a phaser rifle before. Bashir notes the irony that he joined Starfleet to save lives.

You want to know something almost unbelievable? Some of the strongest character moments involve...the Ferengi! Yup, although the Ferengi are primarily used as comic relief, some of the best character work in The Siege of AR-558 involves Quark and Nog.

Nog is representative of the lost innocence of youth. He starts off determined to prove himself as a soldier and earn the respect of his superiors. He's the naive kid that displays the gung-ho patriotism and eagerness to achieve glory that I imagine is typical of many young men heading off to war. From what I remember learning about the Second World War in school, the young soldiers that went off to fight were full of grandiouse notions about the glories of fighting for one's country. Given this set-up I had a pretty good idea that Nog was in for a rude awakening and was bound to come away from this a changed man. And I was right.

Quite against expectations -- and despite a very shaky excuse for being aboard the Defiant -- Quark proved a major asset to the story. Whilst I didn't entirely agree with his opinions, he provided some very interesting insight into war and us hew-mons. Quark certainly isn't here for light relief and the questions he raises are both thought-provoking and intelligent. His extreme nervousness around the soldiers prompts him to explain to Nog that while humans are generally a friendly, wonderful people if you take away their creature comforts and endanger their lives they are capable of becoming "as nasty and as violent as the most blood-thursty Klingon". Which could well be true. This is a matter of survival. You either shoot or are shot. It's odd that he doesn't seem to think that the Ferengi would react the same way. When a Jem'Hadar attacks him and Nog later on in the story, he does not hesitate in raising his phaser and killing the intruder. 

What's interesting, though, is that Quark can see through the Federation's "we are superior" veneer. Now, no one loves Roddenberry's concept of humanity evolving more than I. I truly believe that we are still evolving (if you don't believe me, just look how we have progressed in the past century alone). But quite often in Trek -- in every series except DS9 -- the concept is presented in a way that verges on sanctimonious. You know, the "let's pat each other on the back because we're so highly evolved" idea and the "we look down you lesser species". That, I don't like. 

Quark sees through the hypocrisy and emphasises that when the situation gets grave enough, humans will react in the only way they can in order to survive. Remember that Earth is a paradise. "It's easy to be a saint in paradise," Sisko once said. But we're not in paradise any more. We're at war and it's a matter of survival. Humanity may have evolved but war is still war -- either you kill or you are killed. Now that's probably one of the darker messages you're ever likely to see on Trek, it may even be a little cynical but it's an honest one. And by humanising your characters, presenting their flaws, it makes it far easier for the audience to relate to them than a group of flawless cardboard heroes put up on a pedestal. Yes, boys and girls, we're big enough and old enough to handle a little moral ambiguity -- and DS9 has proven that Trek is, too.

Aside from this, we also see another side of Quark that is rarely on display. We see that he genuinely cares about his nephew and this has never been more in evidence than here. Of course, like any youngster, Nog is embarrassed by his uncle's attention and is more interested in making himself look like a competent officer. When Sisko sends Nog on a dangerous mission to scout the enemy Quark's objection is perfectly understandable, particularly as someone outwith the military chain of command. "He has his orders, Quark," Sisko tells him. Nog has been assigned to the mission because his strong hearing is an asset. Nog, of course, jumps at the chance to prove himself. "That's easy for you to say," Quark responds. "But I bet you'd never send Jake out there". Sisko's response is that Jake is not a Starfleet officer, but you are left to wonder -- what if he were?

I did have foreknowledge that Nog was going to lose his leg, but it was no less shocking when it happened. Quark, of course, vents his anger on Sisko. "If you cared about Nog in the first place you never would have sent him out there," he growls. Sisko, who has obviously been under the immense burden that must come with leadership under such precarious life-and-death situations, angrily tells him, "You listen you me, Quark, because I'm only going to say this one time. I care about Nog and every soldier under my command. You hear me? Every one."

What's interesting is that Nog seems more concerned with reassuring Sisko than anything else. It was obvious that the fact he had lost his leg simply hadn't sunk in. When it does, I think we'll see a vastly different Nog to the eager young boy that we saw at the begining of this episode. I haven't seen It's Only a Paper Moon yet, so I can't really comment on that yet. Needless to say, it's all very powerful, emotional stuff. While we've had characters injured before, the situation and even the injury itself has never felt quite this dire. Kudos to the writers for taking a chance and showing the very real effect of war upon these characters. Up until now, with the exception of Sisko, we've not actually seen any real, tangible evidence that the war was taking it's toll. But now it's hard to imagine that any of the characters left on the planet during this episode can ever be quite the same again.

Anyway, things are masterfully built up to the almost overwhelmingly powerful final act. Throughout the episode it was clear that an all-out confrontation between both sides was inevitable. That it is built-up so effectively is an example of excellent storytelling on the part of Behr and Beimler and, of course, director Winrich Kolbe. As rich as the material and performances are, it is Kolbe that brings the episode to such vivid life in what must surely amount to his best directorial effort yet. With the episode set largely in darkness and the sets quite limited, the episode could have been somewhat restrictive and unappealing visually. But Kolbe makes absolutely excellent use of the sets and the lighting. He builds a very tangible atmosphere of foreboding doom and desperation. The Siege of AR-558 is an intensely visceral episode, effortlessly drawing us into the screen and forcing us to experience the events as they transpire. I was totally caught up in the episode, totally mesmerised by it. Which made the final act all the more painful.

As I said before, the lead-up to the final act was very well done. The nervousness of the officers as they await the imminent attack was very effectively conveyed. Hell, I was nervous as well. But the real stroke of genius was Vic Fontaine's beautiful rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You". It came as a big surprise to hear such lovely music just moments before the inevitable carnage but it worked a treat and James Darren performed the song absolutely tremendously. While I've sometimes found Vic's cameos a little jarring and intrusive this was just perfect. Of course, it's only a momentary respite, for within seconds the "Houdini" anti-personnel mines positioned in the path toward the camp start detonating, meaning only one thing: the Jem'Hadar are coming. Silence for a minute. Vargas wonders whether the mines killed all of them. His question is answered by the cries of the enemy as they race toward the camp. Sisko yells "Fiiire!!" and all hell breaks loose.

I must again heap the praise on director Kolbe, as the ferocious, bloody, violent fight that takes place is very, very well done. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen combat sequences as well-directed and masterfully edited before on Trek. But it was much more than just a case of nice visuals. For it carried a huge emotional wallop and I just wish I'd had a box of Kleenex at hand. The sight of our people, fighting for their lives -- and dying -- was simply heart-breaking and almost unbearably powerful in effect. For whatever reason, the cutting back to Quark who is caring for the unconscious Nog was particularly wrenching. The look on Quark's face as he hears the screams of the dying spoke absolute volumes -- kudos to Armin Shimerman who gives what is, in all likehood, his strongest performance yet. He manages to imbue a single look with layer upon layer of emotion and feeling in a way that would make Rene Auberjonois proud. There's little doubt about it, the battle scenes are easily the most haunting, disturbing and painfully moving moments of television that I've seen in a long, long time.

I don't think I've yet mentioned Paul Baillargeon's beautiful score. Although I've often considered Baillargeon's distinctive style a little wishy-washy and sometimes inappropriate, this was one of the most beautiful and strikingly effective musical scores the show has ever been graced with. Nowhere is this more evident than the last act. His soft, emotive tones were a stark contrast to the horrific, violent images flashing across the screen -- which made it all the more moving. Really, top marks to Baillaegeon, whose work really added a *lot* to the impact of the episode.

But, before I go, I feel it's my solemn duty to point out the one or two things that I wasn't as happy with. I suppose you could be forgiven for experiencing a slight pang of deja vu when it comes to the message and themes of this episode. For a good few years now, the writers have evidently tried to come up with as many different ways as possible to convey the same "war is bad" message. Let's see, some prime examples include The Ship, Nor the Battle to the Strong and Rocks and Shoals, all of which presented the same themes albeit in different ways. That's fine but part of me feels that we've been there, done that and should be moving on. We know that war is hellish and that people die horrible deaths, but there must be more to say on the subject than that. How about exploring the reason behind the war -- in essence why we're fighting and whether it's worth it. There's no reason to think that war is a black-and-white issue. 

At one point Quark tells Nog that "If the Federation had listened to the Ferengi Alliance there never would have been a war...We would have reached an accomodation. We would have sat across a negotiations table and hammered out a peace treaty." I appreciated this interesting view, one which is obviously at odds with any views held by the Starfleeters. But, as Nog says, "you make it sound so simple." I can't help but feel this statement could be leveled at the writers. It's all very well to make a statement that war is hell and that it can be avoided with diplomacy. But what happens when diplomacy fails? Should we be willing to fight for what we believe in? I almost feel that the message is that "nothing ever justifies war-fare". I respect that opinion naturally and I myself am, by nature, a pacifist. But what happens when you cease to care enough about a cause to be willing to fight for it? What if, because no one wanted to endure another war, people had simply stood by and let Hitler take over the world? Can you imagine it? I'm sorry, but sometimes you simply have to fight for what is right. 

Or, to cite the recent Balkans conflict, could we really have stood idly by and watched as the Serbs basically perpetrated a Holocaust in Kosovo? I was appalled by the number of people that claimed that we should not intervene and that it was not a matter that affected British or American affairs. I believe that those that turn a blind eye to the suffering of others when they are in a position to help are as guilty as the perpetrators. I guess that's why I've always hated Trek's Prime Directive. Anyway, before this turns into a completely off-topic essay about foreign affairs, I think I've made my point. War is not a clear-cut issue. Obviously it should be avoided at all costs, but as much as it pains me to say it, some things have to be fought for and that's something that I would have liked to have seen addressed at this point in the series. I feel that having already had several looks at the "physical" affects of war, that we are more than ready to explore the moral and ethical issues. That is not actually a direct criticism of this episode, but more an item on my "wish list" that I would like to see before DS9 ends. Alas, I don't think it's something we're ever likely to see (certainly not when there are a dozen different Ezri stories you can tell!! :-{ ) which is something of a missed opportunity.

Oh well, that aspect of it did leave me a little uncomfortable upon thought, but I can gladly say that it does nothing to diminish an absolute powerhouse of an episode. The fact that it is thought-provoking is in itself a triumph -- particularly as I so often despair about the sheer superficiality and hollowness of so much of the dross on television. No doubt about it, for what it is, The Siege of AR-558 is simply superb. It's an engaging, fiercely intense and visceral story which raises some challenging, mature questions and is beautifully brought to life by some truly outstanding directing, acting and production. It's definitely not an episode for the faint-hearted and I suspect that Trek purists will be riled by the sheer bleakness of the issues it explores -- but it's nevertheless an amazing, brave piece of television that ranks very highly among the show's best episodes.

Rating: 10

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