the story: A small crew visits an abandoned Cardassian space station identical to DS9, where things spiral out of control and Garak is turned into the enemy...
what it's all about: This is one of those episodes that have so little to do with the arc of Deep Space Nine itself, and that can be enjoyed almost entirely on a visceral level, that general Star Trek fans will probably find it accessible, while fans of the series itself will probably consider "Empok Nor" ultimately inconsequential.
And don't get me wrong, all of that is as true of the episode as anything else you could say about it, which is why I'll try to make a case for series fans to consider it in a different light, too.
Clearly a "bottle episode," using standing sets to tell a story to save some money, in this case the station minus even most of the extras (somewhat reminiscent of "Distant Voices" from the third season because of that), "Nor" quickly introduces another station that won't factor into the series again until the seventh season, and even then as something Starfleet apparently never considered drafting into the war effort, a failure of storytelling logic that makes its existence kind of pointless...But it becomes the setting for a story that is so completely disconnected from the Dominion arc around it, or anything else for that matter, it's the last time this season, and in the series, where episodic nature of the classic Star Trek tradition exists in Deep Space Nine, and so there's a dubious distinction to celebrate on that score. It's also a horror story, and in that sense mirrors the later Enterprise episode "Impulse." Actually, there's a distinct Enterprise flavor to the whole episode (giving further credence to my personal opinion that Enterprise was always envisioned to follow the Deep Space Nine model).
But Cardassians appearing as generic villains, entirely unconnected from the recent revelation that they've joined the Dominion and are literally two episodes away from the start of a war...is a really questionable creative decision, and again reflective of so many such calls throughout the season. Also unwieldy is the decision to pair up O'Brien and Garak. These are characters who literally had no past or future together. As much as it made sense to have O'Brien in the story itself, clearly Bashir should've been in there somewhere, too.
It's Garak, however, who redeems the episode. This is the one episode of the whole series where he has an opportunity to be the villain he always seemed he might turn out to be. Other than his cartoonish shenanigans in the Mirror Universe episodes (he's one of the best elements in them because of that, actually), Garak had a similar chance in the third season (making this another of the fifth season's callbacks to that season) in "Improbable Cause"/"The Die is Cast," in which he seems to defect back to the Cardassian side, only to realize he simply doesn't have the stomach for it anymore. In "Nor" he has no such freedom, as he finds himself coopted by a psychotropic element, and thus reverts to his base instincts. We finally get to see what he's capable of when all the stops are let loose. Thank goodness he's on our side!
The episode is really a reward for the character, acknowledgment of the fact that he's become so important to the series over the years and especially the last few seasons. While it doesn't really say anything new about him, "Nor" allows Garak to have a little fun, which is to say, behave like just another member of the cast. In the Mirror Universe he's just another of the egos running wild. Here Garak is the center of attention, merely because he's a memorable personality. I suppose if anyone had to deal with this side of him, it'd be the perennially hard-luck O'Brien...
- franchise - A horror story any fan could appreciate.
series- Strangely pulls away from everything else that'd been developing.
- character - A nice spotlight for Garak.
essential- Because it lacks any real context it can seem to be pretty throwaway.
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)