You Talking Season 5 DS9 to Me? – “By Inferno’s Light”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 15

“By Inferno’s Light” (sick title, brah) is a little unusual as a Best Of Trek entry – I’d say it’s probably my third favorite episode of Deep Space Nine, but unlike other series (and franchise) highlights, it’s not really about anything deep. It doesn’t focus on philosophical themes or contain biting commentary about society. It’s just a great, epic adventure that expertly utilizes its main and supporting cast with high energy and tension throughout. Like many Deep Space Nine second-parters, it ups the ante from the first and jumps off into new dramatic possibilities for both its characters and the increasingly complex universe they live in.

“In Purgatory’s Shadow” had a great hook – against the backdrop of a potential Dominion invasion, Worf and Garak get thrown into an enemy’s prison where they find several other kindred lost souls. The identities of two of them are a medium and a big twist that spells trouble for what’s going on back at DS9. A huge piece of Garak’s past is filled in but that barely has time to sink in before that dreaded invasion pours out of the wormhole. This is all a great self-contained story, but is also just the starting point of what happens during “By Inferno’s Light.”

There’s a huge reveal in the teaser of this episode that could have been dropped at the end of the previous, but I respect the decision of saving it for this one. The sight of dozens of Dominion ships finally coming through the wormhole is a great, nail-biting climax to end on. It’s something that we’ve been primed to be expecting since the beginning of the third season, and it’s to the show’s great credit that there’s been enough interesting material that the wait hasn’t seemed overlong. There was an entirely different war sandwiched into there, which is a crazy and impressive feat. This two-parter could very well have been a season-ender, and the fact that it’s placed in the middle speaks highly of how many aces the show had up its sleeve. I always admired Deep Space Nine’s confidence and willingness to go for broke. And then keep going for more broke.

“You wouldn’t believe the benefits package the Dominion offers, Major. That’s really what tipped it in their balance.”

Kira command the Defiant, ready to meet the massive Dominion fleet head-on, along with Dukat’s Bird-of-Prey and a couple of wimpy runabouts. It sure seems like a hopeless battle, but in a shocking reveal, Dukat joins the the fleet as it heads for Cardassia. He informs Kira that he’s been conducting secret negotiations with the Dominion and that Cardassia has now joined their ranks. Suddenly, Dukat’s grave demeanor in the previous episode clicks into place. “You and me on the same side… it never felt quite right, did it?” Dukat quips to Kira before warping off.

It’s a crazy turn of events, both in terms of galactic matters as well as character-level ones. Dukat’s characterization on the series up to this point had been interesting and complex. He was a villain and occasionally an antagonist in some of his appearances, but seemed to pop up time and time again on the side of the heroes in uneasy alliances. To be clear, none of the characters ever seemed to lose sight of his true nature or soften up on him (notably Sisko and especially Kira), but the show almost seemed to be pushing him towards some redemptive arc.

But his literal deal with the devil here definitively dashes that destiny, as he dishes about his deft designs with the dastardly Dominion. There’s something meta about his line to Kira, and it’s a statement not only from his character, but the producers about who this guy really is and who he’s always been. The character will continue to be an interesting and compelling one for a while in the show despite being backed into the “EVIL” corner here.

“If you look through there you’ll see some loser writing about a show that aired 30 years ago. And maybe even one or two people reading it.”
“My god, I have to rewrite ALL of these image captions to contact the runabout?”

Meanwhile in the Dominion slammer, Garak and Gulag Gang discuss their options. They need to reprogram Tain’s secret transmitter to contact their runabout, which is apparently (and inexplicably) in orbit of the prison. Garak is the only one with the know-how to do so, but they’re interrupted by a get-together of all the prisoners. The camp’s Vorta in charge Deyos announces that Cardassia has joined the Dominion, and informs all the Cardassian prisoners that they’re free to go. Like all Vorta, Deyos is a slimy weasel, but the actor is especially and deliciously weaselly, oozing condescension. As Garak starts to join his fellow people in leaving, Deyos stops him and tells him that he’s the exception to the rule, courtesy of the new head honcho Dukat. Rats!

The station staff watched as Dukat makes his big debut with a televised speech and promises to restore his empire’s strength by driving out the Klingons and Maquis that are in their space, and to not let anyone else stand in their way as the rightful leaders of the Alpha Quadrant. After getting their asses kicked for the past year and a half, the Cardassians are once again turning to war in order to strengthen their position and fortify their society. Also in bad news, the attempted collapse of the wormhole backfired so spectacularly that – much like my delusions of grandeur – it’s stronger than ever and cannot be destroyed by any means.

“…and their office culture is second to none. They really are just one big family…”

The Changeling Bashir – or “Chashir” as I shall call him – almost eagerly suggests that they start doing regular blood screenings to look for shapeshifting imposters. Dax even questions why he assumes it’s a Changeling, and he replies that it’s who he would send. It’s so dastardly and unsettling that the Changeling is basically calling attention to its presence but in a way that places itself outside of suspicion. Plus we have evidence that blood screenings don’t really work (as much of security theater doesn’t), so it’s an effective distraction and helps put everyone into a false sense of security while the Changeling continues with their evil plan. It also showcases the Founders’ higher level of thinking and strategy, as well as the contempt and sense of superiority they have for solids.

“It’s too bad everyone’s going to be dead soon. I was getting good at that darts thing…

Bashir and Martok show Garak the hidden crawlspace Tain used to access his transmitter. One of the coolest things about the episode is its heavy reference to WWII German prison camps and how its Allied prisoners of various nations had to work together in clever ways to outwit their captors. Humans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassian, Breen… they’re all in this together, and it’s nice to see the natural political barriers between them fall away in order to escape from a greater, shared enemy. In keeping with the metaphor, the prisoners have the elements and systems of their subterfuge carefully worked out – a secret tool, removable wall panel, lookout for guards, etc.

There are so many storylines packed into the episode and it makes for an exciting and multilayered experience that speaks to the complexity of Deep Space Nine. In the prison, Garak and Worf both have their personal struggles they must endure for survival, and they both relate to their overall struggle to escape. While Garak shimmies into the wall and works on the transmitter, Worf faces the Jem’Hadar prison guards in the fighting ring.

From their first appearance, the Jem’Hadar have expressed curiosity (but also derision) of the resident Alpha Quadrant warrior badasses – the Klingons. Aside from Worf’s brief tussle with one in “To the Death” (followed by the entire crew’s all out hand-to-hand battle), it’s been another simmering conflict waiting for some on-screen realization. So much as it appears to be with the Dominion War, we’re arriving at a very teased-out fireworks factory!

“When I beat him to death with his own arm I’ll ask about your eye.”

The Jem’Hadar alpha Ikat’ika explains to his troops that they will soon meet the Klingons in battle, and that they need to pay close attention to Worf in the fight so that they’ll be able to kill the rest of his people better. So the stakes are pretty high for Worf – he’s not just fighting for his own survival/honor, but as a representative of his entire race. He has a tough time beating his opponent but is eventually successful. He gloats, only to be told that his opponent was the weakest and least experienced of the bunch, and that his next one will be stronger. Uh oh.

A fleet of Klingon ships approaches DS9, having been swiftly driven out of Cardassian space by the Dominion (as Dukat promised they would be). Gowron fumes about this turn of fate, and Sisko impresses upon him the need to put the Klingon-Federation War to bed and unite against the Dominion. Gowron once again stubbornly refuses, but after some minimal cajoling, re-signs the Khitomer Accords that ended their war many decades ago and waxes poetic about Bajor and DS9’s critical importance in that blustery Klingon way of his. There’s something a little pat about how quickly this show-changing plot thread is resolved, but it’s a welcome ending to the storyline that had served its purpose.

“Glory to you… AND YOUR TREATY.”

Chashir is right there witnessing it, and even encourages Gowron to ally with the Federation. Siddig’s performance here is pretty great – there’s a flatness to his portrayal of Bashir, and gives the impression of a being that’s pretending to be him but not possessing any of the humanity or spark of life he has. The fact that the Founders now want the Federation and Klingons back together (after driving them apart in the first place) is unsettling and creates tension. Chashir then visits one of the runabouts to reconfigure its systems for some nefarious purpose.

Worf continues to battle one-on-one against the Jem’Hadar, and gives his latest opponent a satisfying neck snap for his troubles. Martok boasts to Ikat’ika about his five straight victories, who coldly bids them adieu until tomorrow. “I’ll be waiting!” a bloodied Worf bellows. Bashir tends to Worf’s injuries as best he can, but tells him that his broken ribs will put him at risk for death and urges him to not fight. Worf of course refuses, and simply says that death is fine, but he sure as shit isn’t backing down.

“RAWR X3 UWU!!!”

Garak is in the wall enduring his own battle of sorts against his own mind. The crawlspace is cramped and dark, illuminated by a single set of glowing wires. Talking to himself and trying to maintain his grip on his sanity, he vows to escape if only so that Ziyal won’t have to suffer yet another disappointment in life. There’s something sweet and quietly heroic about that – she’s been let down by everyone else in her life, and he doesn’t want to do that to her. But then the light goes out.

The others start hearing banging from inside the walls, and fear that the guards will hear Garak. Bashir calls to him, but has to go in and physically pull him out. In a frenzied state, Garak barely seems to notice him. Bashir then realizes that the poor Cardassian suffers from claustrophobia, and marvels at how long he lasted in the nightmarish crawlspace. Unfortunately, he’s the only one who can modify the circuitry, so their escape plan seems to be ruined.

“He has an acute fear of screenshots. I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did.”

The station crew notice evidence of the Changeling’s actions, but he’s covered his tracks too well for them to figure out what he’s doing. Sisko orders Klingon troops to provide additional security, and Kira remarks on the weirdness of Klingons protecting Deep Space Nine now. I love how quickly the episode barrels through these plot points while still making them believable and organic developments.

Dukat contacts Sisko and gloats about his new status as head of the Cardassian Union. He magnanimously offers Dominion membership to the Federation, which Sisko refuses. He promises to retake the station, as it was Cardassian property built by Cardassians. “Funny, I thought it was built by Bajoran slave labor,” Sisko wonderfully skewers him with, and tells him he’s welcome to try.

Worf returns to their cell, having beaten seven opponents in a row. Martok is overjoyed and it’s cute to see how much of a cheerleader he is for his new bro. He’s so stoked that he vows to commission the greatest Klingon songwriter to spin a musical yarn about the adventure, and mentions that he’ll put Bashir in it as the healer who bound the warrior’s wounds. As I mentioned about the previous episode, there’s a wonderful egalitarian camaraderie about Martok that makes him such a cool guy. He just wants to fucking party, and everyone’s invited.

“There is no greater foe than one’s own relationship hangups. I had a fear of intimacy but after training with the finest therapist on Qo’nos I slew him with an emotional bat’leth made of self-reflection and communication.”

Worf isn’t nearly as joyous, and bellyaches about the toll these fights are taking. We’ve seen Worf get his ass kicked a paradoxically high number of times (so much so that it’s become a trope), but we haven’t seen him this consistently beat down. He’s a warrior through and through and is kicking a mountain of ass, but there’s only so much he can take. It’s wearing on him both physically and mentally, and for once he’s had enough of fighting.

The prisoners start to brainstorm another escape plan, but Garak sits up from his resting and states that he just needs to finish what he started. He wouldn’t want to ruin Martok’s song, who playfully agrees. As the others open the crawlspace for him to enter, he stares in fear at the dungeon awaiting him. Martok quietly observes that there is no greater enemy than one’s own fears, and Worf agrees that it takes a brave man to face them. Rather than being a dick as we’d expect a Klingon to be, Martok is in awe of Garak’s fortitude and recognizes his mental health struggle as a real, actual battle. It’s probably the most progressive thing any Klingon has ever said. This character was just engineered in a lab to be the coolest.

And speaking of battles, Worf has to face yet another. Although he’s bruised and bloodied, Worf boastfully wonders aloud if there is no one left to face him. Deyos is disgusted by the Klingon’s barbarism, but Ikat’ika seems to feel different. Deyos reminds him that the Jem’Hadar are designed to be warriors, while the Klingon chooses to be a violent savage. Ikat’ika seems impressed by that, as if recognizing that the Jem’Hadar’s fighting prowess is an unfair, artificial cheat – he was given his ability and thirst for battle by genetic programming, but a Klingon has matched it by virtue of his own grit and determination. The Klingons fight with heart and zeal, but the Jem’Hadar heart is cold and dead, which is bolstered by (recurring Trek actor) James Horan’s icy portrayal of Ikat’ika. The brief exchange between the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta underlines the fundamental contempt these two species have for one another.

Ikat’ika tells Worf that he’s found him a worthy adversary as he steps into the ring with him. “Victory is life,” he states, and Worf replies with “Today is a good day to die.” Battle of the catchphrases! I love the contrast of the two warrior race’s credos. We saw a longer version of the Jem’Hadar warrior philosophy in “To the Death.” They believe that they’re already dead when they go into battle, and fight to achieve victory and earn life. It’s a fascinating and revealing point of view, and goes along with their brutal lifestyle. Life isn’t something that is given or even deserved by everyone, it’s a state that you have to kill your way into attaining. Ikat’ika hasn’t lifted a finger this whole time, and has just watched the fights from the sideline. What’s the meaning in that?

“This is BORING. Can we fire up the cotton candy machine? I want some blue and maybe a little yellow.”

Whereas Klingon’s dream of an honorable, noble death. They’re very much alive, and party like animals to savor and celebrate the thrill of existence. They crave meaning to their struggle, and yearn to make their deaths count for something. A life without death has no purpose. Worf is fine with dying here because it would mean something – that he never gave up, and never yielded to the Jem’Hadar.

“I got wok to do and today would be a good day to fry.”

Garak continues to work and struggles to shove his fears aside, but shit hits the fan when guards come into their cell and demand to know where he is so they can kill him. Bashir feigns ignorance, and the guards start busting heads and vaporize one of the no-name prisoners. They find their tool and open up the crawlspace to look inside. Suddenly, the Breen who has been sitting on their ass the entire time yoinks one of the guards’ guns and takes him out and another while dying in the process. It’s awesome. Bashir and the female Romulan take out the remaining guard – Bashir takes the cover off the tool and shanks the guy in the neck, brutal! The Doctor has certainly come a long way from the annoyingly green young guy that first came to the station, and it’s cool to see him more grizzled and able to hold his own against the Jem’Hadar.

“If you wish to live, you will explain that Rita Hayworth poster.”
“My people have several other sayings about the Breen, but they’re pretty damn racist. We’re… not the best.”

The injured Worf is no match for Ikat’ika, who gives him a beatdown. After getting knocked down, Martok urges Worf to stay down, but he refuses. Ikat’ika knocks him down again, and as Worf struggles to get back up, the Jem’Hadar stops him. “Enough, Klingon. You’ve proven your worth.” It’s a crazily magnanimous thing for a Jem’Hadar to say, and Martok agrees. But Worf stubbornly refuses to yield, and Deyos urges Ikat’ika to end it. But Ikat’ika clearly does not want to kill Worf, having come to respect his warrior spirit and fighting prowess. Plus it must be very disappointing to him to beat Worf in this state – the Klingon is not at his best at this point, and there isn’t any honor or satisfaction in victory over an injured opponent.

In requisite Star Trek fashion, the bad guy is revealed as having some honor and decency. The creators were adamant about maintaining the toughness and scariness of the Jem’Hadar, despite the franchise’s propensity to humanize its villains. And overall throughout the series, they did this with the Jem’Hadar. I do like and appreciate when the villains get their redemptive reversals, but the Jem’Hadar were consistently ruthless and never cuddly. The few honorable ones we see are only so in a very narrow, limited way. They’re still bad guys, but if you’re good enough at fighting or killing, you can earn their respect (as Sisko and his crew did in “To the Death”). It gives them just enough complexity to be interesting.

“Worf, broski. Probably not the best time, but what were you thinking for dinner, bud? I got a nice batch of bloodwine I’ve been making in the toilet that will go good with the shredded newspaper they give us to clean ourselves.”
“Enough, Klingon. You’ve overcome your TV tropes entry.”

Instead, Ikat’ika himself yields, proclaiming that he cannot defeat the Klingon, only kill him. A disgusted Deyos orders both of them shot, and he just drips with contempt over the whole ordeal as he turns away. The other Jem’Hadar, not missing a beat, aim their rifles and fire just as Garak finishes his work and everyone beams out. Ikat’ika get vaped, while Worf escapes. The Dominion chain of command is absolutely brutal, and we’ve consistently seen how any insubordination is an immediate death sentence. This makes Ikat’ika’s refusal to kill Worf that much more meaningful, knowing that he has chosen death for himself.

Aboard the runabout, they set a course for the wormhole and hurry back. Worf tells Garak that he did well, and Garak returns the sentiment. There’s genuine respect between the two for each of the battles they had to go through that allowed them to collectively escape.

“Garak… I love you.”
“Thanks, but my heart belongs to another dear doc… uh, person.”

The station prepares for a Dominion assault as they detect their fleet entering Bajoran space. The Defiant and the runabouts deploy, and we see that Chashir is piloting the Yukon, having taken out the crew. In addition to the Klingon and Starfleet ships, a fleet of Romulan vessels decloak and request permission to join the fight, to which Sisko jubilantly agrees. With the crazy amount of stuff that’s happened in these two episodes so far, there still appears to be a crazy big battle about to happen. Oh boy!

“I really should have come up with a genocide playlist. Oh well, next time.”

But although they can detect the Dominion ships, they don’t see them and can’t target them. They get a signal from Bashir and realize who the infiltrator is. Sisko connects the dots and orders the Defiant to destroy the Yukon at any cost, which is heading directly for the Bajoran sun. Turns out it’s armed with a bomb to destroy the sun and wipe out the entire system, station, and combined Starfleet-Klingon-Romulan fleet. Kira orders them to go to warp to intercept it, which is apparently a no-no, but she does it anyway in that wonderful “Fuck it” way she has. The Yukon is tractored away from the sun, and I love the confused/annoyed look of Chashir right before his ship explodes and he dies.

Next stop: the sun, asshole!
“Did I remember to clear my browser before I left?”

The Dominion ship readings disappear, and their crafty plan is clear. They used fake readings and were almost able to deliver a killing blow without firing a shot. Sisko tells the fleet to stand down, proclaiming that “Armageddon will have to wait for another day.” All of Brooks’ line reading here are great, with just enough ham to make it tasty. He takes an interestingly reactive role to everything happening here as he observes each development from Ops and scrambles accordingly. Despite the big battle not happening, it’s still an exciting climax and I enjoy the misdirection and subverted expectations. The Dominion are an endlessly crafty and unpredictable foe.

Garak returns to Ziyal, and she’s overjoyed as she rests her head on his chest. Garak is clearly uncomfortable, which is kind of funny. O’Brien is horrified that he’s been hanging out with a Changeling for the past month, which yeah, you should be. This whole plotline really depolarizes my shield bubble, so it’s just as well it gets resolved with a wacky shrug.

“You know, if you were a little taller and had a medical degree…”

Sisko and Gowron agree to have a contingent of Klingon officers stay aboard the station, and Sisko nominates Martok to be the commander of them. Martok graciously accepts and this grizzly mountain of a man makes a home at the station, and… in our hearts.

He escaped a Dominion prison camp, but he can never escape our hearts. A Klingon general will learn what it’s like to have a family in… Martok in Charge.

Dukat calls Sisko again, and bemusedly muses how close they all came to getting killed – as if it was his ingenious plan, and not the Dominion’s. Sisko quickly points out how his daughter would have been one of the billions of casualties. Dukat coldly responds that she chose her fate, and as far as he is concerned, she’s no longer his daughter. It’s fucked up, especially considering his heel turn next season when he performatively re-embraces being her dad again. This fucking guy.

Dukat brags about the statue they’re building of him outside, and Sisko makes a meta statement that he thought Dukat had changed over the past five years, but clearly he was wrong. Dukat says that although he’s escaped destruction today, he’ll get him next time my pretties, etc.

“Whew, I really gotta cool it with the arch-nemeses. Three is way too many.”

And so the whirlwind adventure ends. I’d say it’s the most eventful two-parter Star Trek has ever had and it’s a rich stew of character drama, fisticuffs, and intergalactic intrigue. It completely changes the paradigm of the series and sets up many more adventures that would fill the remaining 2.5 seasons. “In Purgatory’s Shadow” and “By Inferno’s Light” is an epic sci-fi opera tale that shows how entertaining and multilayered a world Deep Space Nine had built and ran with. It’s a universe with a lot of big, exciting stuff happening and full of great and memorable characters that inhabit it – what more could you ask for?

Stray Observations:

  • The whole legality (if you can call it that) of Dukat taking ownership of the Cardassian Union and handing it over to the Dominion is nutty. At this point, Dukat is an outlaw to his own people and has no authority in the government whatsoever. Perhaps there was actual communication between the Cardassian government and the Dominion and Dukat acted as a go-between, but that wasn’t mentioned. It’s just weird that this random renegade military officer signs up his entire civilization for Dominion membership and they all have to go along with it. Of course, that is generally how coups operate, but they usually have more than one person involved with the takeover. And Cardassia isn’t in any position to resist the Dominion if they wanted to, anyway.
  • The protomatter/trilithium bomb is a reference to the planet/star killing substances featured in The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek Generations.
  • The altercation between the runabout and Defiant is kind of odd. They hit it with weapons first, which don’t work because of whatever modifications Chashir made. Which is crazy on its own. But they can’t use a tractor beam because they’re too far away? How are they close enough to fire at it but not enough to grab it?
  • We learn here that warping to points within a solar system is dangerous, which makes sense. Kind of like going freeway speeds in the suburbs, I suppose. Although I’m a little surprised that hotshot pilot Dax seems afraid to do it. It seems like the kind of thrilling and reckless thing she would live for.
  • Bashir is able to send a signal to the station from the Gamma Quadrant, despite all the listening posts being destroyed in the previous episode. Sure hope someone got replaced by a Changeling for that blunder.
  • Never turn your back on a Breen indeed!
  • So obviously, the fact that the runabout is just sitting outside the prison is insane. Not only that, but once they get onto it they’re home free? The prison itself has no spacecraft of its own to give chase? This is overall such a wonderful and well-crafted episode but this plot hole is a huge ball drop. You could perhaps blame it on the occasionally glaring overconfidence of the Dominion. It’s such a conspicuous turn of events that Sloan even mentions that they must have wanted Bashir and the others to escape. Which would have been a clever explanation and does fit in with how the Dominion operates, but it’s never followed up on.
  • I never noticed until rewatching the episode recently, but Odo isn’t in this one. He’s mentioned several times by Kira, but his absence is conspicuous once I was aware of it. Especially since there’s another Changeling around. Apparently this one was much better at hiding his contempt for Odo than others.
  • Martok’s comment about one’s own fears being the greatest enemy will be the thematic basis for his own storyline in “Soldiers of the Empire.”
  • I love the idea of Dukat just ringing Sisko up every so often and them blustering and threatening each other until it devolves into just complaining about their days to each other.
  • The way Marc Alaimo says “Dominion” irks me (DOH-MIN-EEYON). He’s like the only one in the show who pronounces it that way.