You Talking Season 5 DS9 to Me? – “Soldiers of the Empire”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 21

Or How Martok Got His Mojo Back

As one-note as Star Trek’s most famous alien race the Klingons may seem on the surface, the various series have squeezed a lot of depth and entertainment out of them. I’ve always been a fan of them – more for what they represent thematicatlly than their superficial concept of “space Vikings.” The Klingons have been on-again off-again antagonists depending on which series (and time period) you’re tuning into, but I think they’re at their best and most interesting when they’re not villains. Humanizing them (as much as you can to a race of murderous warriors) creates for more interesting stories and allows an episode to journey far outside the bounds of what you’d expect from the regular Starfleet heroes. “Soldiers of the Empire” is just that – an extreme Klingon adventure involving the series’ most familiar Klingon and another, newer one.

That newer Klingon? You guessed it – General Martok Stallone. This is the first time we’ve seen the one-eyed galoot since his return in the season’s mid twoparter. From the start Deep Space Nine played looser with its cast of characters – there was a clearly-defined central group, but its recurring secondary characters were just as complex and interesting despite their fewer appearances. It was a wonderful shift and expanded the world of the show by providing a deeper bench of characters and more possible storylines. It’s why Deep Space Nine seemed much more colorful and vibrant a series vs. The Next Generation with its hermetically-sealed cast.

So in his second “real” appearance, Martok joins the ranks of Garak, Dukat, Nog, and Winn as one of the show’s best character additions. And what’s wonderful about all these characters is how nuanced and complex they are outside of a simple “good vs. evil” binary. Even Nog, who’s a pretty virtuous person started out as a troublemaking juvenile delinquent before undergoing a character metamorphosis. Like Garak, Martok is mostly a good guy but does not conform to a traditional human type of “good.” And “Soldiers of the Empire” is a great episode because it leans into that and allows the character some considerable leeway in his sympathies while ultimately re-confirming his status as a good guy. Hertzler is just awesome as Martok and embodies the character so completely. His voice and physicality are pitch perfect and he’s able to nail a wide range of emotions out of a seemingly limited palette.

That ties back into the appeal of the Klingons and how they toe that line of good vs. evil. The Klingons occupy much greater dramatic extremes and although it may push credibility I find that it makes for more fun and wacky stories that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with human characters. I think that’s the basic appeal of featuring aliens in Star Trek – they’re people with completely different cultures and value systems that don’t conform to ours.

Case in point – during the amusing opening which finds Bashir repairing an injury Martok sustained during training, the two of them trade thorny barbs that illustrate the inherent gulf between their cultures. Bashir does that doctor thing where he points out that if the cut had been in a slightly different place, he could have bled out and died. Martok wearily dismisses the human preoccupation with “what might have happened” as tiresome. And I love that small exchange, because as Deep Space Nine so often did, it doesn’t always agree with or prioritize human values. Or at least it holds a critical mirror up to them via a non-human character. Yes, the Klingons seem generally reckless and crazy. But maybe humans are also overly cautious? It just depends on one’s perspective. After all, this is a culture whose engineering guidelines require a secondary backup in case the primary backup fails (and given how many total systems failures we see, it might not even be effective).

“If it had been a few centimeters back and a meter lower it really would have caught you in the ol’ eye of Fek’lhr, ifyaknowwhatimean.”

So I like that it allows a window into how a Klingon views the general outlook of humans that’s more nuanced than them just being weak and feeble. There’s a certain over-thinking, rule-following neuroticism we embody that would no doubt be exhausting to a Klingon. Martok later mentions that he didn’t bother to tell Bashir why he was using real blades in his training, and Worf agrees it’s not something a human would understand. Despite the understanding between the two peoples, there are certain things that just don’t translate.

Bashir goes on to suggest that Martok get his eye replaced (oh, we can do that? Don’t tell Geordi) or at least accept that he has a disability. This would be a normal thing for a human to say, but it sets Martok off and he stops short of gently threatening the Doctor. The two of them struggled together in the Dominion prison camp they were stuck in, and it’s nice to see that they share a bond because of it. Bashir is much more forceful and aggressive than he would normally be, and Martok is very charitable towards him. It ends with Martok begrudgingly thanking him and Bashir barking at him not to get blood all over his carpet (which Martok hadn’t even noticed), and I love the smile that appears on his face after he yells at Martok. He clearly enjoys the banter, and the opportunity to act a bit like a Klingon. It’s a really clever and appropriate way to begin the episode as it moves us away from human values and more into a Klingon headspace, and revels in how fun and liberating that can be.

Martok drops in on Worf (and an exasperated Nog) making modifications to the Defiant’s weapons. Martok informs Worf that he has finally been given command of a ship again. He freely admits that when he was stuck in the Dominion prison, the thought of never setting foot on a Klingon ship again made him weep like an old woman. It’s an awesome detail (aside from the slight sexism) for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this big tough guy is admitting that he actually has feelings – and not the ones most males would brag about, let alone a Klingon warrior. Like in “By Inferno’s Light” where he acknowledged the real impact of Garak’s mental health struggle, Martok is giving credence and weight to emotions. He’s so secure in himself that it doesn’t matter to him to admit that he felt such anguish that he cried. It also conforms to a more a classical sense of manliness and being a warrior (such as ancient Greece), in which weeping wasn’t regarded as weakness, it was simply part of the human condition when you’ve lost a comrade or suffered a great loss. And finally, from a storytelling perspective it illustrates Martok’s dedication to his duty and how much it means to him. He is a military officer first and foremost, and the possibility of never being able to be that again saddened him deeply. They’re all relatable feelings that are filtered through the alien-ness of the Klingon mindset and help endear us (even more) to Martok.

Anyway, Martok’s got a ship and asks Worf to be his second-in-command. It’s cute and furthers the bromance that was at the heart of their last appearance together. There’s a bit of an unnecessary scene where Worf has to justify why he wants to do this to Sisko. I mean, Worf is the most Klingon Klingon to have ever Klinged-on. Of course he’s going to want to fuck off on a Klingon ship with one of his best Klingon buds, Ben. Do you really need this diagrammed out?

The one piece of info we do learn is that Worf feels indebted to Martok because of something that happened in the prison camp. While battling the Jem’Hadar day after day, the toll on Worf almost broke him and he considered letting them kill him to end the torment. But Martok somehow saw that look of defeat in his eyes and without saying a word, bolstered his strength and he was able to go on. It’s a little awkward the way it’s explained, and kind of a dorky way to summarize something quietly epic and relatable (they give it a Klingon name tova’dok, because of course they do). And it does seem like some obvious foreshadowing, but whatever. At any rate, Sisko agrees and puts Worf on detached duty to serve on the Rotarran.

But the Rotarran is not in good shape. Oh, the ship itself is fine. But the crew… is not. The vessel has suffered a string of defeats by the Jem’Hadar recently and its crew morale is at a subterranean level. One of the great things the episode does is widen the emotional range of its Klingons. It’s something that the wonderful “A Matter of Honor” did with Riker’s Klingon crewmates, and “Soldiers” furthers that a bit more here. In keeping with that, Dax gives some info-dumping about how official assassination works on Klingon ships – you can only kill someone directly above you in the chain of command, and only for certain reasons. Including cowardice, which certainly won’t come into play later AT ALL. O’Brien is astonished that a Klingon could be cowardly, and Dax has to spell out for him (AND US) that Klingons are as diverse a people as any. Like with a lot of info-dumping it’s fairly awkward, and kind of unnecessary in spelling out the ideas at play in the episode for our benefit. And it basically telegraphs the whole story that unfolds.

The Rotarran crew are some morose motherfuckers, and at point one of them bitterly proclaims that no other ship in the fleet is as good at running from the enemy as they are. Dax seems concerned for Worf’s welfare and decides to tag along, to his obvious chagrin. I think Dax’s Klingon stuff was way overplayed to the detriment of her character. When she became an item with Worf, she seemed to become that much more of a Klingon appendage to him and I feel that it continued to diminish her as her own person. That being said, I think her presence here is good and adds a lot to the story as a dissenting voice for Worf.

“Here are our glorious high scores for your review.”

Dax immediately befriends a female member of the crew in the weirdest way possible, because of course Curzon maybe banged her grandmother or whatever. Jesus, this guy. And again, the Klingon stuff diminishes Dax as her own character. Jadzia is awesome enough on her own, it’s a shame that her Klingon gal pal couldn’t just befriend her on the basis of her personality, they have to loop in Curzon’s very storied history with the Klingons. These two women can’t bond without the dramatic assistance of some unseen dead guy’s divine penis that can apparently bring species together (which didn’t make the final cut of The Undiscovered Country, unfortunately).

The Klingon crew has some notable personalities and makes for a fun time – their appearances are noticeably diverse and was an intentional design choice to make them more individualistic. We see a blond Klingon for the first time! And other hair colors and uniform styles. The attention to detail is great and helps further the episode’s themes.

“Unhand me, dudette! My board is waxed and there is an epic swell off the coast they will sing songs of!”

Worf accepts the crew’s pathetic battle record from an incredibly unenthusiastic crewmember (Dorn’s impatience is hilarious), which I guess is a thing on Klingon ships. Their mission is a search and rescue for the vessel B’Moth that disappeared three days ago. Martok takes command and immediately earns the ire of the helmsman for wanting to chart a course to avoid Jem’Hadar patrols. Worf attempts to enervate the crew with a rousing song, but his enthusiasm is not returned one bit. Getting off to a good start here!

Later in the mess hall (it wouldn’t be a Klingon story without a scene in the mess), Dax tosses a guy who was sitting in her seat and sits down to a pathetic meal. But being the true party girl she is, casually reveals that she brought several barrels of blood wine for the crew, who hasn’t had any in six months. After some drinking and requisite Klingon joshing around, the young Kornan ruins the mood by darkly proclaiming that the ship is cursed. The ship’s battle alert goes off, and before dashing off, he forbiddingly warns Dax that either death or dishonor will visit them this day. Fun!

“Yeah, we’ve lost about every battle we’ve been in. We even lost a contest for the biggest loser crew in the Empire. That one still really smarts, and is more confusing than anything.”

On the bridge, the crew spots a Jem’Hadar ship on patrol while the Rotarran remains cloaked and undetected. Martok decides not to attack, proclaiming that their priority is to find the B’Moth, not get into fights and attract unwanted attention from reinforcements. The crew (including Worf) is taken aback by this, and the enemy ship slips away. Dax quietly brings up to Worf how easy and useful such a victory could have been for the crew, but he isn’t hearing anything bad said about his bud. Dax warns him that a dangerous situation is developing on the ship.

Worf speaks to Martok in private about his avoidance of engaging the Jem’Hadar, and Martok is offended that Worf isn’t backing him up and somewhat condescendingly tells him that he doesn’t know the enemy like he does. But it quickly becomes evident that Martok is wary of engaging the Jem’Hadar.

“I don’t wish to insult someone who brought me blood wine, but… what’s with your face?”

In the mess hall, Leskit, the most annoying and outspoken (but not wrong) crewmember compares the Jem’Hadar and the Cardassians. Specifically, his experience in fighting both. He actually speaks highly of the Cardassians and admires them for their craftiness and how it made killing them a real honor. He also acknowledges that like the Klingons, the Cardassians fight for something – their people, their homeworld, etc. It’s some great writing and a good window into the Klingon’s mindset. However, he drips with disdain over the Jem’Hadar who are just genetically programmed killing machines who have no heart. But things take a turn when he proclaims that’s why they’re better than Klingons and will inevitably beat us. Whoa! Dax tells him to shut up, but Leskit is on a drunken roll. He knows that the Jem’Hadar will break them, because they broke Martok. He’s afraid to fight them and Leskit works himself into a bitter and self-pitying lather until Kornan loses his shit and attacks him. Dax ends the fight with a phaser, but the conflict is far from over. She later emphasizes to Worf that the tension is only going to get worse if the crew doesn’t release their aggression on the enemy.

Indeed, battle lines among the crew are being drawn. Dax’s friend thanks her for saving her boyfriend’s life during the fight and tells her to stay with her when the real fighting breaks out. Yikes!

“Psst, Worf. It’s been like 40 minutes since you’ve either killed someone or got your ass beat. Let’s pick up the pace here.”

The Rotarran picks up the B’Moth’s distress signal. They report being attacked by the Jem’Hadar and need assistance. In private, Martok gets increasingly agitated talking about the Jem’Hadar and what they represent – soulless killing machines – and gets himself worked up ranting about how the Jem’Hadar view them only as targets to be destroyed. As discussed in “By Inferno’s Light,” the Klingons and Jem’Hadar are both warrior races but beyond that are diametrically different peoples. The Jem’Hadar have cold and dead hearts, and there’s something clearly disturbing to Klingons about that. Much in the same way that the mindless Borg zombies are unsettling. Worf gently interrupts him to say that they should probably hold up on making any unfounded assumptions. Martok agrees and backs down, and there’s something unnerving and uninspiring about the way he softly says “dismissed.” It’s not the voice of a Klingon.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make a twosie. For the empire!!!”

They see that the ship drifted into Dominion space and Martok is suspicious that it’s actually a trap, coming up with a litany of excuses not to cross the border to rescue them. Worf and the crew object, but Martok outright refuses to complete their mission. They’re probably all dead anyway, he assumes. Martok threatens anyone who disagrees with insubordination and as he leaves the bridge, Leskit laughs bitterly and Worf has to bark several times for everyone to man their stations. Things seem one Fu Manchu mustache hair away from unraveling completely. The extent to which the episode makes Martok unlikable is a big risk, and it seems like it’s setting up his inevitable death at the hands of Worf.

The crew seem to agree, and they forcefully approach Worf about killing him (“Martok must die,” Kornan simply says hilariously). Worf toes a perfect line between not capitulating to their will, but at the same time acknowledging that it needs to be done. Before a fight can break out among the crew, he orders the ship to battle alert and to rescue the B’Moth. A confused Martok enters the bridge, and is greeted by Worf who proclaims him a coward and challenges him for command of the ship. The two draw their knives and battle it out on the bridge as the crew cheers. Worf appears to have the upper hand, but after a noticeably long eye lock, Martok soon sticks him in the belly and raises his arms in victory as the crew chants his name.

They’re interrupted by the approach of a Jem’Hadar ship, and Martok – his belly now filled with courage and bloodlust – proclaims that they will rue the day they fucked with the Klingons. Dax hauls Worf to his feet, who waits to hear the crew’s voices raised in triumphant song as they fly into battle. The fact that the battle isn’t shown at all is an interesting choice but the correct one. There’s no question that they will win, so it’s not something we need to see. The real battle that needed to be fought was the one between Martok and his own fears, via Worf. And that’s the one we see played out and won. Interestingly, Martok previously spoke about the greatest enemy being one’s own fears, but it’s something he was temporarily blinded by all the same.

“God, I love you.”
“Right… back at you!”

The Rotarran later docks at DS9, and Martok boasts of the rescue of the B’Moth and its crew. He orders several barrels of blood wine be waiting for them to celebrate. Later, he meets Worf at Quark’s and proclaims that the Klingon High Council was very pleased with the results of their mission. He tells Worf that he thought he was a traitor when he challenged him, but realized he was only trying to remind him of his duty and graciously thanks him. Worf simply says he was returning a favor and turns to leave. Martok notes that Worf is still wearing the crest of the House of Mogh. Worf admits it’s a sentimental gesture, and Martok suggests he replace it with his family’s crest and that they become literal bros.

It’s such an insane turn of events that take place in this episode, and it absolutely could not have happened with human characters – unless they were under the influence of some alien force. But then it wouldn’t have meant anything. However, with Klingons much more is possible because they’re so extreme in their emotions and actions. Martok turns into a total coward, Worf tries to kill him, and Martok almost kills him back. But not only is Martok totally cool with him after the fact, but is so grateful for it that he brings Worf into his family. It’s all nuts, but makes 100% sense in the context of Klingon culture. And Hertzler really sells it, it’s so great. It all somehow loops back to being heartwarming as Worf holds the crest of the House of Martok in his hand. Without a word, he slaps the new one on and seems to have finally found a Klingon home for his Klingon ass.

“Worf, son of Mogh. Will you take my bloody hand in bro-ly fratrimony?”

It’s a great story with a lot of twists and turns and takes some daring risks. The unseen Jem’Hadar are the villains superficially, but the episode pushes Martok into the role of antagonist, and even the crew. It’s a similar trick pulled in the “The Sword of Kahless” episode, with Worf and Kor’s animosity for one another reaching a boiling point where they outright try to kill one another. Just as in that episode, there’s no science fiction Macguffin that’s causing any of it, it’s just them.

That would be an impossible pill to swallow for human characters, but as I’ve mentioned, the more extreme nature of the Klingons makes it more believable. Martok abandoning his duty out of fear and leaving people to die while threatening anyone who questions him is pretty extreme for someone who was so likable at the start. Similarly, the crew being ready to kill him (and/or each other) over their stress is also shocking. All of these conflicts are solved when they focus their collective aggression on the Jem’Hadar. It’s wacky, but it works. And lest we forget, we’ve seen that even civilized humans can start to break down when they’re pushed too far. This theme would be emphasized even more in Season 7’s dark “The Siege of AR-558.”

We all have a breaking point, and the Klingons’ seem to reach theirs before humans do (and for different reasons). That the Klingons can flip polarity from villains to heroes so believably is a credit to both the writing of this episode, and all the groundwork that’s been laid throughout this series and The Next Generation. Star Trek has dedicated a lot of screen time to the Klingons and broadened their initially limited qualities. “Soldiers of the Empire” shows that as outlandish as they are, the Klingon heart is as intricate and diverse as any human’s.

Stray Observations:

  • So of course poor ol’ Kurn missed out on the House of Martok train. And Alexander too, of course. But that goes without saying! Martok won’t even find out that Worf has a son until next season, so Alex definitely isn’t fathered into the new family at this point. Worf’s parenting is just inexcusable. This fucking guy.
  • As I complained about with “Sons of Mogh,” the details and individuals of that house are so frustratingly vague. It was implied that there were more people beyond just Worf and Kurn. What happened with all these people? Joined/married into other houses? Sold for parts?
  • The original idea for the episode is insanely awesome and as much as I love this episode, feels like one of the biggest missed opportunities in Star Trek. Basically, Martok and Worf respond to a distress call from a colony, but find a nearby lake blanketed in fog. A Klingon on a boat takes them across and it turns out to be a ferry to Gre’thor, Klingon hell. They would meet other dead Klingons including Worf’s father Mogh.

    It’s about the most metal episode of Trek I’ve ever heard of, and I so lament it never happened. I can imagine how atmospheric and eerie it could have been. It would have been cool to see Mogh at least once. There were several reasons it didn’t come together, and ultimately the idea would be recycled for Voyager in “Barge of the Dead,” which isn’t bad. But man, imagine Martok and Worf crossing the river S’Tyx and journeying to hell? Awesome.
  • Should a general be commanding a ship? Generally (heh) we see captains doing that. And even if one did, should it be a dinky little Bird of Prey?
  • Worf’s sash is one of those ever-present details that’s never, ever been given a canon explanation. Dax makes what is probably the first reference to it ever, when she notes that Worf isn’t wearing it with his Klingon uniform. So is it just to denote that he’s Klingon? As if the forehead isn’t enough? Or is it Worf just being extra (as Worf is wont to do)? We’ve seen other Klingons with sashes before, but none that’s the same metal one Worf wears. We learn that it does carry the crest of his family, which I had never noticed before. And somehow it doesn’t violate Starfleet uniform code?
  • This is the second time that Worf serves on a Klingon ship, the first time being when he was on Kurn’s ship in “Redemption, Part II.” It’s a little surprising that with all the extraneous explanations in this episode, that wasn’t mentioned.
  • Rick Worthy, who plans Kornan here, played many roles on Star Trek, including the Automated Unites in Voyager’s “Prototype” and one of the evil-ish members of the Equinox crew.
“Hey, sorry if I freaked you out with that ‘We’re all gonna die stuff.’ It was metaphorical. But it also will happen.”
  • I think Worf and the head of the Enterprise-E’s security shared a moment of tova’dok in First Contact. Picard gives the reckless order to continue fighting the Borg hand to hand, and the poor guy gives Worf this “help me” look, at which point Worf challenges Picard’s orders.
“I was hoping for more of a death by snu snu situation, not whatever the hell this is, sir.”
  • Presented without context:
“With this controller I will take our saved states to new high scores!”