the story: The crew hunkers down as they try to protect their claim on a crash-landed Jem'Hadar ship...against the Dominion itself.
what it's all about: It's funny, because an episode later in the series, during the Dominion War ("Rocks and Shoals"), is very much like this one. So it's very significant that "The Ship" is the first episode that feels like part of the Dominion War arc, in hindsight. It's also an episode that absolutely needed to happen.
Three episodes from the third and fourth seasons ("The Abandoned," "Hippocratic Oath," and "To the Death") tried to do the same thing as this one, which is to finally present the Dominion as something other than outright villains, but "Ship" is where it finally happens, the trademark of the series, finding gray areas in all the wrong places. This was something the original series often did, but mostly in conversations between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, who would debate the ethics of what they were doing or how their missions conflicted with Starfleet's seemingly clear-cut Prime Directive. It wouldn't be until Enterprise that such storytelling showed up in Star Trek again. But it was woven so deeply into the fabric of Deep Space Nine it made fans uncomfortable.
And yet, it was largely absent from the portrayal of the Dominion, except in this brilliant episode, which goes out of its way to downplay its significance right up until the end, when Sisko loses it over the meaninglessness of his having just had to treat his Vorta and Jem'Hadar counterparts as the enemy when they could just as easily have worked things out peacefully.
The one-sentence summary leaves out what might be considered a spoiler, but this was aired twenty years ago, and anyone could find out what the Dominion really wanted: not the ship, but the Founder hiding in it. The conflict that persists throughout the episode goes on so long the Founder dies, which to the Vorta, to the Jem'Hadar, regardless of whether or not it's literally genetic engineering that breeds the devotion, is heartbreaking, because to them the Founders are gods. This is another level of the series subverting franchise expectations where it comes to religion. Normally Star Trek is cynical in this regard. In Deep Space Nine no belief is mocked.
So we spend the episode with the crew in a war-time situation, and an officer played by F.J. Rio in enough episodes where he's earned audience awareness, dies. To the Starfleet characters, it's just as devastating, especially since O'Brien is there to guide our reaction.
It's ironic that this preview of the war comes at a time when the war seems to have taken forever to develop, even though at this point it's really just around the corner. It's more ironic that it's an episode that asks fans to care about the enemy. It's damn clever storytelling, and it sets a new standard for the series, one the season in its best moments justifies. Things get darker from here...
- franchise - The finest Star Trek tradition of refusing to believe rhetoric at face value.
- series - A preview of the Dominion War.
- character - This is Sisko embracing his command responsibilities as never before.
- essential - Every bit as compelling as "Balance of Terror."