You Talking Trek to Me? – “Rocks and Shoals”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 6, Episode 2

In keeping with its full commitment to depicting an all-out interstellar war, Deep Space Nine seemed to use the granddaddy of all wars as its metaphorical template – WWII. There were already parallels even before the Dominion rolled around, most notably in the horrific Bajoran holocaust committed by the Cardassians during the Occupation. And now this defeated power has lifted itself up with a new ally and led by an evil despot bent on total domination. We had an exciting escape tale from a prison camp with a bunch of captured allied POWs. “Rocks and Shoals” continues this with the classic setup of marooning the brave heroes on a deserted island who find out that they’re not alone and are forced to continue the great interstellar war on a small scale.

“Rocks and Shoals” is easily a top 5 episode of DS9, and one of the strongest Trek ones ever. I love, love, love this one, it’s crazy good. Its story is very basic, which is a huge contributor to its success. The deadly simple stakes of the situation are combined with a couple of interesting antagonists and seasoned with moral questions and action that make for an iconic hour of Star Trek. It’s SO GOOD. Did I mention that?

“Dax, can you move? I need to do a barrel roll!”

The marvelous main story is complimented by a secondary one that’s very good, as well. Unlike a lot of A/B episodes, both plots have a grave and serious energy and they’re each very disquieting and affecting in their own way. The action that takes place out on the front is exciting, but what’s happening behind the lines on Terek Nor is also gripping.

The action picks up not long after the previous episode, immediately following Sisko and co.’s successful destruction of a key Dominion facility. Their captured enemy ship was badly damaged and things only get worse when some Jem’Hadar ships hunt them down, apparently realizing that they’re not who they’ve disguised themselves to be. O’Brien grumpily tries to get the ship operational while throwing out a lot of “damn’s”; Nog copies him and gets told to watch his mouth. The dialogue has a fun pulpy feel to it that seems like a direct influence from an old-school war flick.

“Ohhh shnikies!”

Sisko orders them into an uncharted nebula to escape, which ends up damaging their ship further and getting Dax critically injured. But there’s a convenient planet nearby for them to crash land on. Garak straps on the personal viewscreen headset only to see the surface of the planet hurtling towards them – I couldn’t help but think of Data’s “Oh shit” moment when the Enterprise crashed in Star Trek Generations. The visual of the flaming Jem’Hadar ship careening downward is cool and brings to mind a war plane getting shot out of the sky.

Unfortunately, we see that a group of Jem’Hadar are also marooned on the planet as their leader Remata’Klan (I love Jem’Hadar names) surveys the shore. He is played by Star Trek veteran Phil Morris, and gives an awesomely unforgettable performance here. As we learn, the first and second of their unit are dead (Remata’Klan is third), their command Vorta is critically injured and they can’t establish communication outside the planet. Remata’Klan speaks of how his challenging the Vorta’s orders has gotten him on his shit list – despite being the highest ranking Jem’Hadar, the Vorta has refused to actually make him the first. Their ship also got trashed by the nebula (thanks to the Vorta’s orders) which is how they got stranded. It’s a needlessly vengeful and petty thing, and already lets us know what kind of guy the Vorta is.

“You were right to question the Vorta’s orders. This beach has the most tourists and the worst tacos.”

Morris imbues Remata’Klan with a serious and professional demeanor who takes the order of command with absolute seriousness, even reverence. It’s consistent with what we’ve previously seen of Jem’Hadar, but Remata’Klan lacks any of the sneering sadism a lot of his kind have shown. Part of it could be the graveness of their situation, but he seems like a very serious person overall. Morris said he drew the portrayal of Remata’Klan from a samurai, and likened his loyalty to the Vorta as that of a warrior to his feudal lord. That’s of course awesome, and that dutiful stoicism really shows and makes the character so memorable. His companion speaks of how Remata’Klan was right to question the orders, but Remmy isn’t having any dissent. His obedience to the Dominion’s strict chain of command is absolute and swears to hold this world for the Dominion until death. Fun!

Elsewhere, an exhausted Nog swims to shore and an ominous shadow appears over him belonging to Garak, who negs him about lying down on the job. I love the tone of the episode – it’s serious, but with enough gallows humor to make it compelling and not goofy. It’s the perfect balance.

“Everybody remember where we parked.”

Sisko and the rest of the crew make it to shore; in the background we see a really cool shot of their ship slowly sinking into the ocean. The location shooting and SFX combine to bring an epic feel to the episode. They’ve made a makeshift life raft to ferry the injured Dax to shore and they’re heaving and hoeing to make the final push onto dry land.

Once there, O’Brien cries out in anguish, and Sisko gasps what the problem is. O’Brien whines that he tore his pants, and Sisko can’t help but laugh. O’Brien realizes the absurdity and chuckles, “I guess I’m really in trouble now!” Everyone else has an exhausted laugh over it. Again, the gallows humor is great and injects some entertaining humanity into the situation. They’re as fucked as can be, and O’Brien focusing on his pants is a silly but human moment. Or perhaps they’re lucky to still be alive, and that’s something to laugh about.

“What I wouldn’t give to be fighting with my wife right now.”

On the station, Kira is woken by her alarm and goes about her day. The focus on her comfortable daily routine is really fascinating, and stands in stark contrast to the chaos of Sisko and his people. She looks in the mirror, smiles, and gets going. The Jem’Hadar and Cardassians have been the bogeymen of the series, and seeing her casually riding the turbolift with them to start her shift makes for a very surreal sight. It emphasizes what her life has actually been like these past few months and it’s such a great direction. She sits down at her station in Ops as a Cardassian subordinate hands her her coffee. The normalcy of it all is purposefully bizarre and there’s an uneasiness to the comfort Kira seems to have with the enemy.

“Oof, which one of you lizard necks whited in here?”

In a cave on the planet (lol of course it’s a cave), the Vorta Keevan talks with Remata’Klan about their situation. He’s injured and lies on the rock while Remata’Klan gives him the bad news that it’s going to be at least 10 days until they can repair their communication equipment and send a distress signal. Remata’Klan reminds him that it’s time to give them the ketracel white that they need to survive. We’ve seen the ritual that the Vorta and Jem’Hadar perform in giving the white and it’s repeated here. It emphasizes how structured the Dominion chain of command is, and there’s an almost religious adherence to how the exchange is performed.

Keevan only gives out one vial and one of the troops cries out about it. Remata’Klan immediately barks to maintain discipline as Keevan’s large, haunting eyes dart around nervously. He tells them that he’ll be distributing the white judiciously in order to ensure their survival, but it’s clearly a bluff meant to assuage any anxiety about the extremely dire situation. Keevan smiles weakly and assures them that he will protect them, and there’s absolutely nothing reassuring about it.

“Don’t worry, you’ll never see my inevitable betrayal coming.”

Having made camp in another cave (you better believe it), the Starfleet personnel dry their wet clothes as Sisko and Bashir tend to Dax. Sisko attempts some cute lighthearted banter, but Dax is in real pain. He immediately drops the humor and promises her that he will get her off this planet alive. It’s a nice moment.

Nog and Garak go out scouting, and Garak notices that the cadet keeps stopping so Garak can’t get behind him. Annoyed, he demands to know if it has anything to do with the time he went cray-cray and tried to kill him and everyone else. Nog says he’ll never let Garak out of his sight again. Garak can’t help but be impressed by his tireless suspicion. LOL.

“You try to kill me again, I’ll take offense to that.”

Suddenly, the two of them are ambushed by the Jem’Hadar and taken prisoner. Back in their cave, Nog does that Starfleet thing where he robotically gives the interrogator his name, rank, and serial number, but Garak tells him to shut up. He proceeds to spin a lie about how he was a captured prisoner aboard the Centaur, but Keevan holds up the Starfleet combadge he had on him, much to Garak’s chagrin. Keevan then simply asks if their unit has a doctor, and I like how Garak’s mental gears turn before he answers in the affirmative. Keevan is obviously in need of one, and Garak realizes that revealing it is strategically advantageous. Nog chastises him, but Keevan tells him he just saved their lives by admitting it. He sends Remata’Klan to scout and asses their numbers but not to engage.

On the station, Jake interviews Kira and Odo about some 400 Vorta administrators who will be setting foot on Bajor to asses its needs. Having been cut off from Federation aid, they have no choice but to turn to the Dominion for assistance. Jake then questions if Odo feels his presence on the station council validates the Dominion occupation, who says that they’re already here, they’re already queer, and they’re not going anywhere (actual dialogue). Jake mentions that a Vedek Yassim will be holding a protest on the Promenade over it and they grumble about putting a stop to it. To which Jake asks Kira if peaceful protests are no longer allowed, at which point she ends the interview. I love Jake here – he’s been a journalist for a while now, but I like seeing him ask tough questions and challenging all these adults he’s grown up around. Even though Weyoun is still blocking his transmissions, he still takes his role seriously and is factoring into the plot. It’s what I love about this whole arc – every character gets stuff to do and it’s all great.

“Jake, would you quit being right about everything? It’s annoying the crap out of me.”

Sisko and some of his people are out on patrol looking for Garak and Nog as they are being watched by the Jem’Hadar above them. One of them is very agitated over his lack of white and starts shooting, kicking off a fire fight between the two sides. Remata’Klan demands to know who started it, and demotes the guy on the spot. He orders everyone to “shroud” themselves (this is apparently what they call their invisible Predator move) and withdraw, but his men are apparently too white-starved to do that. It’s an interesting detail, and as they retreat Sisko and the others notice their apparent inability to camouflage. The demoted Jem’Hadar expresses his regret about breaking rank, and it’s a small moment of almost humanity.

“I can no longer pookie myself!”

Back in the cave, Keevan is furious about his orders to not engage being disobeyed and demands to know who fucked up. Remmy refuses to tell him, citing that even though the Vorta command, he is in charge of the men and is the one to discipline them. It’s the order of things, he reminds Keevan, who almost seems impressed and drops the issue. He has another assignment for Remata’Klan.

Kira tries to talk some sense into Vedek Yassim, telling her that this occupation isn’t like the Cardassian one, and fighting isn’t the answer. She’s echoing the sentiments of Captain Sisko, who wanted to keep Bajor out of the fighting. But Yassim can’t accept that, accusing Kira of being a defender of the evil the Dominion represents. Kira realizes she can’t reach her and says she just doesn’t understand. Yassim tells her that maybe tomorrow they both will. Surely nothing horrific will result from that foreboding statement.

[insert tasteless caption here, I had so many]

An unarmed Remata’Klan approaches Sisko’s cave and the two speak. He asks that him and their doctor come to their base in exchange for Nog and Garak, after which they’ll be free to go. Sisko points out the folly of exchanging two low level prisoners for two more valuable ones, and Remata’Klan doesn’t argue with the illogic of it. His admitted lack of finesse is a little comical, and he admits he’s just delivering the message, not negotiating. Sisko demands to speak to the Vorta in charge instead, and/or the Jem’Hadar first. He cleverly susses out that the first and second are both dead, and that Remata’Klan has been denied either of those titles. The dialogue here is pretty great.

Sisko then launches into an anecdote that recalls the events of “To the Death,” in which his crew had to cooperate with Weyoun and his unit of soldiers to stop a renegade group of Jem’Hadar (“Before the war, of course,” Sisko clarifies). He speaks admirably of the Jem’Hadar, but talks shit about how duplicitous Weyoun was, and how he was murdered by his own first. Remata’Klan admits that yeah, shit happens bro. Sisko is trying his best to plant a seed of discord between Remata’Klan and the Vorta, but he doesn’t seem to take the bait. Demanding Remata’Klan’s word that they won’t be harmed, Sisko agrees to the prisoner exchange.

“Once the Vorta has gotten your opinion on his cave’s floral arrangements, you’ll be free to go.”

Dax, who has just been chilling in the background wonders if Sisko’s attempt to divide them will work. Sisko darkly notes that without Nog and Garak they’re outnumbered almost two to one, and so any possible advantage has to be attempted.

On the Promenade, people have gathered for the protest but there is no sign of Yassim. Jake meets Kira and Odo, and he confirms that it’s going to happen as per Yassim. Suddenly, she appears at the top level with a noose around her neck. “Evil must be opposed!” she cries out before leaping. It’s a shocking and arresting scene, artfully composed and shot in slow motion. Kira begins to dart forward, but can only watch in horror as the rope snaps and ends Yassim’s life in front of everyone. The camera lingers on her shocked face before cutting away. It’s indeed one of the most hushed and disquieting scenes of all of Star Trek – the lack of any sci-fi tech involved in the suicide makes it that more grounded and impactful. The brevity of it also adds a punch; it just flies by and ends before you can even process it.

Sisko and Bashir enter the Jem’Hadar cave to find the injured Keevan. Before getting into their talk, Bashir immediately starts to perform surgery. The Jem’Hadar immediately crowd around; Bashir mistakes it as protectiveness, and Keevan specifies it’s just curiosity about what a Vorta’s insides look like. There’s something almost childlike about their wonder, if they weren’t, ya know, big killing machines.

Afterwards, Sisko sardonically asks Remata’Klan how the show was, who replies that it was informative. As I’ve noted before, the Jem’Hadar were consistently portrayed as being ruthless killers as a result of their genetic programming. Despite Star Trek’s predilection of softening their villainous races, it did so very, very sparingly with the Jem’Hadar. They’re very limited people (by design), but they are people and do have individual personalities. The small touches in the episode help to endear us to them in a small but welcome way without betraying their scariness.

“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor. So when I make his gaping gut wound talk like it’s a little mouth it will be in a medical capacity, I swear. S’all right? S’all right.”

Keevan sends all of his troops out so he can speak with Sisko and Bashir alone. He reveals that he is almost out of the ketracel white he needs to control his men. After it’s gone, their agitation and aggression will take over and they’ll kill everyone and eventually turn on each other (as we’ve seen before). Keevan tells him that he’s ordering them to attack Sisko’s side, but offers to reveal the plan so that they can kill them all – at which point he’ll surrender himself and his communication equipment so that they can be rescued. Bashir bitterly notes that Keevan will get to live out the rest of the war in a Federation prison while his men rot on the planet, to which Keevan agrees without a trace of sympathy.

He seems especially slimy and repugnant even by Vorta standards. Christopher Shea’s performance is unnerving, and he wears this empty, glassy smile as he explains his horrible gambit. There’s something foppish and rankling about him, and he has the demeanor of a spoiled member of the French aristocracy right before the revolution. His gigantic pale eyes are also disturbing and there isn’t a shred of humanity to be found – he’s pure, self-serving evil. He emphasizes that his men are coming tomorrow whether Sisko agrees or not, and there’s a weird gleefulness to it.

“When this single vial of Gogurt runs out, the Jem’Hadar will experience high-fructose corn syrup withdrawal and we’ll all pay the price for it.”

It thus becomes the kind of moral quandary that Star Trek loves so very much. The dead simplicity of the situation is compelling and it has the quality of a morbid “what if” philosophical question. Back at their base, the Starfleet people argue about their course of action. The idea of just shooting the disadvantaged Jem’Hadar down seem unpalatable to some of them – the heat of battle is one thing, but the premeditated quality of the situation pushes it more into murder territory. Of course, the absurdity of war is that it’s state-sanctioned murder. Soldiers don’t go to prison for killing people (unless it’s done in an especially heinous way) – that’s literally their job. Neeley and Gordon are two yellowshirts who are along for the ride in this episode, and the presence helps add a little more diversity to the group beyond the main cast. He’s reluctant to kill them, but she replies that the Jem’Hadar wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to them.

“Kill them all? That’s what they want us to do!”

Garak reminds his idealistic human companions that there aren’t any rules in war, save for winning. It’s in line with the brutal survivor logic that’s always been a part of persona. Before the debate can go much further, Sisko barks that it isn’t a vote and reminds everyone that given the choice between us and them, there is no choice. I like the duality of the scene, as it showcases the idealistic, philosophical humanism that’s endemic of Star Trek crashing against the cold, hard reality of the war they’re in. Being a nice person is all well and good, but there’s only so far you can take that before it gets you killed (and the rest of the Federation along with it). Sisko sends everyone out before bidding adieu to the injured Dax. Privately, he drops his bluster with her and hopes that he can find an alternative to the situation.

Kira’s alarm goes off the next morning, but she’s already awake and in a disturbed mood (no smile in the mirror). As she gets onto her morning turbolift commute, she seems to be seeing her Jem’Hadar and Cardassian co-workers in a new light, more in line with how us the viewer sees them. Upon receiving her cup of coffee in Ops, she bolts from her station.

Odo later finds her on the Promenade, standing where Yassim leapt (yikes) and lost in her thoughts. Kira is in disbelief that she was about to stop a fellow Bajoran from protesting the enemy, an enemy that’s trying to take over the quadrant while she sits and does nothing. She expressed her self-loathing in “A Time to Stand” about how there are people fighting and dying out there for her freedom, and she seems to have reached a level of disgust she can’t ignore anymore. Because she’s become a collaborator – the thing she despised the most when she as a resistance fighter. Odo grumbles that he’s not having a great time as part of the station council, helping Weyoun and Dukat fight the Federation. But Kira emphasizes that she doesn’t hold any ill will against him, this is about her and being able to… look at herself in the mirror. LITERALLY.

She vows to not help the Dominion anymore and Odo implores her not to fight. She cuts him off and says she doesn’t want to fight him, but she will if she has to. Seeing her determination, Odo suggests they meet privately to plan their new resistance.

The Jem’Hadar march towards Sisko’s position, who is stationed at the top of a canyon looking down at them all. He pops out and calls to Remata’Klan to talk, who agrees. Meeting face to face at the bottom, Sisko points out how fucked they are. Remata’Klan reveals that he knew Keevan led them into a trap, and proclaims that the Jem’Hadar are always one step ahead of the Vorta. Sisko offers them a chance to surrender – Bashir can put them into stasis so that they can survive until rescue. Remata’Klan refuses, as he wasn’t given permission to negotiate or surrender by Keevan.

Sisko emphasizes that Keevan betrayed them, and that he doesn’t deserve Remata’Klan’s undying loyalty. Remata’Klan replies that his loyalty to the Vorta is a birthright that he has no say in. It’s the order of things. His honor is completely unassailable, with a heavy amount of tragic nobility. At the end of his rope, Sisko looks around aimlessly, as if searching for a meaning to it all and any way out of the stalemate. He asks if Remata’Klan is simply going to give his life (and his men’s) for “the order of things.” Without any hesitation, Remata’Klan says that it’s not his life to give, and it never was.

The staging of the scene is fantastic, and the way their heads fill the frame heightens the intensity of their debate. It’s a battle of ideals between two peoples that could not be farther apart – one who values life and freedom at all costs, and the other that prizes death and strict obedience to authority. Despite the intelligence and honor on both sides, it makes any sort of agreement or understanding impossible, and the two of them part ways knowing exactly what will happen next.

Returning to their positions, they each prepare for the battle. Upon learning that they’re going to fight, Meaney gives this great little “Ah shit” reaction as he hangs his head. As the guy who’s probably seen the most combat on their side, O’Brien is uniquely aware of how much it sucks to kill anyone. The slow motion reaction shots of O’Brien, Nog and Garak are all so great. This really is one of the best shot episodes of Trek, and this sequence has the visual flair of a very grim western.

Remata’Klan reminds his men that their death is glory to the Founders and they charge forward. Sisko’s people fire back and it isn’t long before they drop all of the Jem’Hadar. The smoke clears to reveal all of them dead. Looking to his own, Sisko sees Bashir scramble to check a fallen Gordon. Checking his vitals, Bashir gives a pained head shake. It punctuates the absolute insanity and pointlessness of the situation. Even with the decisive advantage, they still lost someone. Such is the chaos of life and war, where nothing is assured except death.

O’Brien directs Sisko’s attention to the battlefield, where a recovered Keevan casually strolls towards them. Casting an empty glance downward at the dead body of Remata’Klan, Keevan steps over him and continues walking. It’s such a brutal detail; Keevan could not give less of a shit about this guy who died (and got all of his men killed) in his name – simply because Keevan told him to, knowing full well he set him up. There’s an unspeakable depravity to it, and the truly monstrous thing is that Keevan forced all the upstanding Starfleet officers to participate in it. He played everyone, and won.

Keevan grins and notes that if he had just a couple more vials of the white, Sisko’s side wouldn’t have had a chance. It’s such a fucked-up thing to say, essentially gloating that he just as easily could have killed all of them if the circumstances had been a tiny bit more in his favor. It was all just a sick game to him, and he can’t help but rub it in Sisko’s face.

Almost losing his temper, Sisko orders O’Brien to get him back to base and to get started on repairing the comm unit. He orders Neeley to start a burial detail. As Keevan smiles maliciously, Sisko stares off, understandably disturbed by what’s taken place. The episode ends on that empty bleak note. It’s one of Trek’s best endings, and I recall how much of a gut punch it was and the dead silence of its finality. The decision to end it at this moment and not include the inevitable rescue is a brilliant one.

Trek loves its Kobayashi Maru scenarios, and “Rocks and Shoals” provides a grim illustration of the no-win situation. Keevan’s sneering, self-serving evil is laid bare for both sides to see. Sadly, it’s their adherence to each of their own sets of principles that force them to come to blows as per his devious wishes. It’s a sickening turn of events, but such is the often infuriating nature of true evil. As we saw played out (albeit much more goofily) in “The Savage Curtain,” evil’s complete lack of scruples is a difficult thing to contend with. Sisko does his best to negotiate his way out of bloodshed, but Remata’Klan’s unyielding nobility puts a shiv into that plan. He is a good and honorable man in his own way, and pays the ultimate price for it.

It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s another Trek examination of the inherent absurdities of war. As Sisko attempts to point out, the battle serves no purpose and yet it happens anyway. The two leaders’ obstinate positions are immovable objects that cannot be reconciled. It’s only a twist of fate that provides an advantage to one side and decides the outcome. “Rocks and Shoals” features a small, stark morality play set against the tides of a larger war. True to its title, there’s something hard and brutal to it, as there is to all wars.

Stray Observations:

  • So of course Keevan will be back and is hilariously served some very fitting karmic justice in the most undignified way possible.
  • I like Keevan speaking of the famed reputation of Starfleet engineers. He’s no doubt greasing Sisko’s wheels in that slimy way that Vorta do, but you really can’t beat those Starfleet engineers!
  • The whole “addicting your soldiers with a drug only you can provide” really seems like more of a drawback than a viable strategy. Or at least the “they go insane without it” part. What if they were designed to just get very sleepy and pass on quietly instead? It’s not as if the white gives them their violent tendencies; those are already built in.
  • I’m sure this is the first time Nog has killed anyone, and he really doesn’t seem pleased about it after the fact. Eisenberg really sells the moment.
  • Sisko’s uni looks so hot. He’s got on like 18 layers of wool.
  • Presented without context:
“I want my pants well done, rock boy.”