The Enterprise is called on to stop the seemingly unprovoked attacks on Cardassian targets by the starship Phoenix. The Cardassians and the Federation have a peace treaty, but they had military dealings in the past. After a brief battle with a Cardassian ship, the Enterprise takes on three Cardassian officers as they pursue the renegade Phoenix. Turns out Chief O’Brien (Colm Meaney) served under the Phoenix’s commander, Captain Benjamin Maxwell (Bob Gunton, otherwise known as the warden in “The Shawshank Redemption”), and O’Brien has some issues with Cardassians from those days. The Enterprise tracks down the Phoenix and Picard confronts Maxwell, who believes some of the recent actions by the Cardassians are evidence that they’re prepping for military action. Maxwell (convinced Picard is a feckless bureaucrat) finds a Cardassian supply ship that is strangely shielded from scans. He tells Picard he’ll destroy the ship unless the Enterprise boards it to prove his theory. O’Brien saves the day when he finds a way to beam through the Phoenix’s shields and successfully talks Maxwell down. With the Phoenix no longer a threat, Picard tells the Cardassian commander, Gul Macet (Marc Alaimo) that he believes Maxwell was right in his suspicions, though wrong in his actions — and that the Federation will be watching.
Why it’s important
The introduction of the Cardassians — even though they’re a little rough around the edges here, as we’ll discuss — is hugely important. They become major players in the Alpha Quadrant (on par with the Klingons and Romulans) and their decades-long occupation of Bajor is the backdrop for DS9. They become one of Trek’s most interesting species and are the baddies in one of TNG’s best showings, the “Chain of Command” two-parter in the sixth season.
The treaty between the Cardassians and the Federation also spawns the terrorist group the Maquis, which we see in late TNG, throughout much of DS9 and as a major part of Voyager. Essentially, the treaty put some Cardassian planets in the Federation and some Federation planets in Cardassia. When Federation colonists grew angry at the rule of the Cardassians, they created the Maquis to fight back.
For DS9, the Federation’s closest outpost to the border, that opened up stories beyond the Bajoran political strife of the first and early second seasons. The Maquis attacks were later part of the destabilization of Cardassia that led to the decision by series regular Gul Dukat (also played by Marc Alaimo) to have the empire join the Dominion — an aggressive organization from the Gamma Quadrant with eyes on taking over the Alpha Quadrant. Shortly thereafter, the Dominion and the Federation went to war, the central plot of DS9’s final two seasons.
Voyager, of course, was on a mission to stop a Maquis ship (led by former Starfleet officer Chakotay) when it was swept into the Delta Quadrant. When the Maquis ship (also taken to the Delta Quadrant) was destroyed, the Starfleet and Maquis crews merged on Voyager and learned to work together (too easily, but we’ll get to that later).
Back to this episode, it was nice to see Maxwell give Riker some props for, you know, stopping the Borg. It’s a quick moment when Riker meets Maxwell in the transporter room, but it’s a good bit of continuity — the likes of which should have been more prevalent. Riker did, you know, save Earth and likely the Federation with his leadership. Why we don’t see more of this in TNG is really a mystery. If anything, Riker’s place as a hot commodity within Starfleet seems to diminish after “The Best of Both Worlds”. It takes another 12 years, in the last TNG film (“Star Trek: Nemesis”) before we see any indication that he’s offered his own command again. Prior to the Borg incident, he had been offered three ships in a span of like four years!
In this episode, the Borg incident is referenced (indirectly) when a Starfleet admiral tells Picard just how important it is for the Federation to keep the peace with the Cardassians. Essentially, he says that he doesn’t “have to tell” Picard how the Federation isn’t ready for another war. The likely implication is that Picard already knows (from his own awful experiences) that the fleet isn’t at full strength. Of course, this brings us back to the point of whether 40 ships is really THAT big of a dent in Starfleet. TNG would seem to indicate that it is. DS9? Not so much.
What doesn’t hold up
The size and scope of the Cardassian Union/Empire — both labels are used going forward — in this episode doesn’t really match what we see later. Picard has a log entry mentioning the “Cardassian sector.” Based on what we see later in TNG and on DS9, the Cardassians control MUCH more than one sector — even if their empire isn’t as big as the Federation (or, necessarily, the territories of the Klingons and Romulans). The standard Cardassian arrogance that we see in later episodes — a trademark of most Cardassian characters — isn’t quite there yet, either. Of course, it’s possible that not all or most Cardassians act the same.
The look of the Cardassians isn’t quite right yet. The uniforms, particularly the really goofy head gear, aren’t well conceived — and the look vanishes around the time of DS9. That’s not a big thing, except that in DS9 episodes that flash back to events prior to this episode, the makeup and gear is more in keeping with what see in late TNG and DS9. This isn’t unprecedented but it is worth noting. I wonder if the creators originally intended for the Cardassians to continue to be key players or if they were set to be one-off baddies like the dudes in “Suddenly Human”.
Speaking of which, that episode, this one and DS9’s “The Adversary” indicate that the Federation had three pretty substantial wars within the past 20 years (not involving the Klingons or Romulans). That really stands in contrast to the peace-loving stuff we see in early TNG. Plus, it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t have heard of any of these races prior to the episodes referencing the previous wars. More on this point in later reviews.
Lastly, the dialog at the beginning of the episode about the Cardassians is odd. Troi (in reaction to Worf’s standard distrust) says that the Cardassians are Federation allies as a result of the new treaty — and what we see in this episode sort of jibes with that. But, later, the treaty seems more about the ending of hostilities, rather than the establishment of an alliance. Maybe Troi was just confused?
This episode really cements O’Brien — and his wife, Keiko (Rosalind Chao) to a lesser degree — as more than just a background character. His past with the Cardassians set him up to be a natural fit on DS9, which gives us the wonderful Colm Meaney playing a main character for most of the next decade. What would DS9 have been without the annual “O’Brien suffers” episode?
This is also our first look at a Nebula-class starship, a cool design that’s sort of the 24th-century version of the Miranda-class vessels (like the Reliant from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”). It’s a cool look that pops up a bunch in TNG and DS9. And, of course, we see the Cardassian Galor-class warship for the first time, too — though we don’t hear its classification until later.