There’s a moment in the opening scene of this episode where Odo realizes Quark might be in love with Dax. Now, the only reason this scene is there is probably because they need to make sure Odo, Quark, and Dax all appear at some point during the course of the episode, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.
No, mostly this one is about Nog and Jake.
Wait, two episodes remembering Jake exists and giving him something to do in a row? I should probably make a note of that somewhere.
Actually, this is the sort of episode that the series might have been working towards without really trying. Red Squad pops up. This is the elite group of Starfleet Academy that Wesley Crusher belonged to when he got into trouble and that Nog held in awe while he was in the Academy. Frankly, it seems like Red Squad is only ever mentioned on a Star Trek series when they’re doing something they shouldn’t be, often while convinced of their own superiority.
That is more or less what happens here. Nog and Jake are flying out to the Ferengi homeworld when they’re attacked by a Dominion patrol. They’re saved by a Defiant-class ship called the Valiant, crewed entirely by Academy Cadets from Red Squad. They had been on a simple training mission, asked to scan a new Dominion warship, when an attack led to the deaths of the officers overseeing them. That left the Cadets of Red Squad to finish the job under a top student who was field promoted to captain. He in turn promoted other cadets to other ranks as needed, and given Nog’s experience with the Defiant, he is quickly and gleefully promoted to Chief Engineer.
Meanwhile, Jake, well, he gets to observe.
Quite frankly, this is a good development for Jake. Nog is blinded to Red Squad’s reputation, and Red Squad is high on its own self-confidence. They’re the best of Starfleet Academy! Why shouldn’t they also be good enough to run missions on their own?
Jake, he knows a bit better. As an outsider, he’s observed his father, and he knows how people are. Even if he’s not in Starfleet, he’s been around Starfleet his entire life. He knows it is perfectly normal for these kids to be homesick or scared. Meanwhile, Captain Watters thinks Jake shouldn’t be doing that because that makes Jake part of the story and not just telling the story. You know, the story Watters (who is popping pills when no one is looking) wants told about how great and heroic Red Squad is.
That scene between Jake and Watters comes from an episode that first aired in 1998. That’s before 9/11 and a host of other things, and I can’t help but feel like that scene means a hell of a lot more in 2022 than it does in 1998.
Oh, and Jake, as a journalist, keeps doing his job to the point where Watters locks him in the brig after watching Jake try to convince Nog that Watters is going to get them all killed since yeah, they accomplished the original mission to scan the ship but then decided it would be totally awesome to blow it up. Nog doesn’t follow Jake. None of the Cadets do. And yeah, Watters’s plan fails utterly and most of the Cadets are killed. The only survivors are Jake, who never fell for Watters; Nog, who realized a little too late that Red Squad didn’t know what it was doing; and one Cadet, a young woman named Collins, who was a little too friendly with Jake for Watters’s taste.
Is it a surprise? No. It shouldn’t be. Jake saw it coming. Doing well in an academic environment is one thing, but there’s a reason that people like Watters aren’t given the position of Captain right out of the Academy. Experience counts. Jake was right: his father would never have tried what Watters did. So, in the end, when Nog and Jake discuss what story Jake should tell, it’s a complicated one. Watters wasn’t a bad man. Collins thinks he was a great man, and the failure is on everyone but Watters…man, she really drank the Kool-Aid. The thing is, Watters was someone who wanted to do more than he was capable of. He was someone who had never really experienced much in the way of failure, told by many over his life how great and brilliant he was, and in the end, well, he wasn’t.
He may, as Nog said, have been a great man, but he was a bad captain.
This episode hits hard. Maybe I would have thought differently if I saw it when it was new when I was in my 20s, but this was an episode where a lot of doomed characters walked into a meatgrinder and didn’t realize it until it was too late. I could see it coming on so many levels, and not just because Jake Sisko was filling in for his father as the moral center of Deep Space Nine.