Apparently, this continues well into the 24th Century. Hardly surprising, considering that rule of fiction hasn’t really changed all that much in the previous centuries. The thirst for triumphant underdog stories isn’t going to go away just because we get spaceships and replicators. Somewhere, the young men and women of Red Squad believed those old stories, and because this is DS9, it will cost them.
Red Squad, for those unfamiliar, is an elite group of Starfleet cadets. They’re the top of the class, singled out for special duties and training. They were introduced in TNG and appeared in DS9 during the Homefront/Paradise Lost two-parter. In fact, one of those Red Squad members, Riley Shepard (who supported Admiral Leyton’s attempted coup), shows up here. Whenever Red Squad appears in any Star Trek show, the message appears to be that they’re elitist and unnecessary. Every Red Squad story is about how their overweening arrogance leads them into destruction. At this point, I have absolutely zero idea why Starfleet Academy lets these chuckleheads exist. Except that they make the writing staff’s jobs easier.
The episode begins with Jake and Nog on a diplomatic mission. It’s not as insane as it sounds. Sending the only Ferengi in Starfleet to the Grand Nagus (who’s also dating that same Ferengi’s grand-moogie) with alliance overtures is a decent move. Jake tags along because he’s doing the reporter thing, much to Nog’s annoyance. The relationship between Jake and Nog is one of the most rewarding and real things about this show. They are profoundly different young men, but both have grown into admirable individuals, and their friendship has always been stronger than their differences. That friendship was initially resisted by everyone in their lives, but they stuck together. Now, there isn’t a Jake without Nog, or a Nog without Jake. First Ferengi in Starfleet, and the first human and Ferengi best friends.
Jake and Nog (in the doomed runabout Shenandoah), are leaving a starbase right as the Dominion attacks. They flee, but unfortunately for them, head right into Cardassian space with a Jem’Hadar fighter on their tail. When all seems lost, the Defiant comes out of nowhere and utterly annihilates the Dominion ship. Only it’s not the Defiant. It’s another vessel of the same class: the Valiant. (Weird side note: The writing staff originally wanted to name the Defiant “Valiant,” but the brass refused to let them use a V name because of Star Trek: Voyager. I think we win, because Defiant is a much better, and far more badass name.)
When they’re beamed aboard, Jake and Nog discover a Lord of the Flies situation. The Valiant was originally on a training mission with seasoned officers overseeing a Red Squad crew, but when the Dominion attacked, the officers were killed and the Valiant was stuck behind enemy lines. Its warp drive was crippled as well (or, perhaps this is partially the fault of the Defiant’s famously temperamental engines), keeping its top speed at Warp 3.2. The last action of former Captain Ramirez was to promote Red Squad star pupil Tim Watters to captain. Watters followed suit and promoted his classmates to other positions.
Watters has decided that, instead of heading home immediately, the mission Starfleet command gave to Ramirez now belongs to him: obtaining sensor scans of a brand new Dominion battleship. Problem is, with only being able to reach Warp 3.2, that battleship could stay stubbornly out of reach. When Jake and Nog come on board, Watters recognizes a good officer when he sees one, and makes Nog chief engineer.
Jake pretty much instantly sees that this is all a terrible idea and everyone needs to fly home. Nog, however, doesn’t. Ferengi are a culture focused on the acquisition of profit. To Nog, latinum is no longer profit; advancement in Starfleet is. Nog is basically handed everything he ever wanted on a latinum platter by a group he has already been established to almost worship. Of course, he goes along with it.
Jake bonds with one of them, Dorian Collins, a young woman who basically has Chief O’Brien’s position. It’s a nice callback to the time when Jake was O’Brien’s apprentice, before the young man decided to go his own way. One of the best scenes in the episode is Collins’ sweetly homesick monologue about growing up on the moon. That monologue gets Jake in trouble when Watters warns him to stay away from Collins. To be perfectly honest, I’m a little disappointed Collins never showed up again as a love interest for Jake. The two of them were pretty cute together.
In a surprising turn, the mission is actually successful, and Red Squad gets the sensor data they need. But they also detect what looks like a weakness in the vessel, essentially an exhaust port just above the main reactor kind of thing. Granted, they have to practically gut a torpedo and precision fire it at point blank range using manual targeting for the plan to work. Watters has absorbed the underdog stories, he’s drunk on Red Squad arrogance, and he’s popping pills, so he thinks he has a shot in this. He wants to attack the battleship and be a hero. Jake tries to talk him out of it, pointing out that his father (a man Watters knows of and respects, because come on, how can you not?) would never do this. But Watters sees no chance of failure. He is Red Squad, and they can do anything.
Well, they can’t. This isn’t reality, but this is DS9, and, sometimes, the good guys fail. Even worse, they actually manage to pull off the one-in-a-million shot, but the battleship shrugs it off like it was nothing and proceeds to take the Valiant apart. Only Jake, Nog, and Collins make it off the ship.
The episode is structured extremely well, stranding the viewer inside the Valiant for the bulk of the running time. Only the cold open, which establishes Quark’s romantic feelings for Dax for no real reason, stands out as terrible. The rest is wonderfully tense, with the characters all making the wrong decisions for the right reasons. Jake Sisko is the voice of reason here, the outsider capable of seeing things clearly.
The ending, when the three Valiant survivors discuss Captain Watters, Nog shows how much he’s grown. Captain Watters, he concludes, was a good man but a bad captain. It’s easy to conflate the two things, and in the minds of children, they are one and the same. But Watters wanted to be a hero more than he wanted to be a captain. He wanted to live up to all the stories he’d heard. Problem is, the Dominion never heard those kinds of stories.
Next up: DS9 fails on every conceivable level.