the story: Kira is targeted by a vengeful Cardassian.
what it's all about: When this originally aired I wasn't terribly impressed with it, thinking someone tried a little too hard to play up the drama of the scenario. Then I started thinking of it as more of a horror experience, which is rare enough in Star Trek. I can think of fewer chilling scenes in franchise lore than the Cardassian preparing to carve Kira up to take the baby growing inside out of her.
The baby, of course, belongs to O'Brien, and his wife! which is an extremely odd creative solution the producers came up with at the end of the previous season to explain why Kira looks pregnant even though she doesn't seem the type, because Nana Visitor was and short of dropping even temporarily one of the show's best characters, this seemed like a good idea. Except for this episode, it's actually a pretty lousy idea, one of the worst the series ever had, but a pregnant Kira ratchets up the drama of this particular story considerably. It contrasts nicely with the notion that she finally has to confront an innocent Cardassian who became a monster because of things she did during the Occupation.
"Things she did" means that Kira was a terrorist. In the '90s being a terrorist was an acceptable thing to be for a character who was supposed to be unambiguously a good guy. That's why Voyager had all those Maquis terrorists, too. Post-9/11, this is hugely inconceivable, of course, and as a result these are creative decisions that continue to be the unspoken elephant in the Star Trek room. In fact, until "Darkness" there had really been no question as to whether or not Kira's prior actions were justified. The more I thought about this, the more I realized just how important this episode really is.
The Maquis, when they debuted, had a thousand reasons given to them, and all the moral ambiguities spelled out. The Bajorans were given the relatively simple story of the Occupation, and the need to reclaim their world from the Cardassians, at any cost. As Star Wars has shown, and especially Rogue One, selling terrorism as entertainment isn't as hard as you'd think, even after 9/11. It's called resistance when it's the good guys, right? Well, innocent people still die, and that's still tough to deal with.
The messy Bajoran/Cardassian past was something Deep Space Nine used to great creative success from the very start, including the acknowledged classic "Duet," in which Kira meets a Cardassian who pretends to be a war criminal just so someone among his people will be punished for their crimes. And yet, as late as the third season, "Shakaar" glorifies the "resistance group" Kira belonged to and never considers for a moment that some evil was done, too, regardless of whether or not it was for the greater good.
This is the moral ambiguity of the series in a nutshell. Kira's group is targeted by a Cardassian played by Randy Oglesby. He'd later portray one of the key Xindi in Enterprise's 9/11-themed season, the one who makes the big moral breakthrough in that arc, deciding it's not worth supporting his people unconditionally no matter how evil he's been told humans are. In "Darkness" he's a Cardassian who was scarred in one of Kira's acts of terror, and wasn't even a soldier but civilian. Kira still tries to argue that he played a part, that basically because he was Cardassian...he was guilty anyway.
All this plays beautifully into the rest of the series. Presenting a Cardassian who seems to be evil with a capital E is in some ways a preparation for the looming entrance of the Cardassians into the Dominion, and thus the start of the Dominion War. But even the enemy can't be clear-cut in this series, since Odo's people are the Founders, who run the Dominion, and every appearance of the Jem'Hadar to this point had presented them in a sympathetic light (although this changes in a few episodes), despite their debut marking the definitive villainy of the Dominion...
This is a hugely complex episode, and it reflects extremely well on the complexity of Deep Space Nine itself. It's a classic that reflects the past and future of the series, and you can't ask for much more than that.
- franchise - The difficult subject of terrorism enacted by main characters examined for the first time.
- series - Reflects backward and forward.
- character - One of the truly necessary Kira spotlights.
- essential - Uncomfortable in all the right ways.