Commentary on “To the Bitter End”

Welcome to my commentary on “To the Bitter End” where it all comes crashing down into an apocalyptic final confrontation.

It opens with a look at how the first stone is laid in The Battle of the Three Suns outlined in the Dominion War Sourcebook.  And this is how the folks at Domininon HQ realize that the Feds have come up with a countermeasure to the Breen energy dissipaters in “The Dogs of War”. Essentially, the Allies hit the Dominion in three places–the Chintoka System, the Daxura System, and the Zhamur System. The latter location–according to the Sourcebook–is what’s left of the Dominion hold on the Kalandra sector, the jumping off point for their invasion of Betazed and their efforts to threaten Federation core sectors (“In the Pale Moonlight”, “The Reckoning”, et al.). Oh, and we’re back in the Chintoka System. The prologue takes there, with fleets there handling the Breen with relative ease.  While we do see Admiral Gundersen and his ship again, this is the only time we see the admiral and his crew in action aboard the USS Manchuria (the first of several World War II references). And the first fuse is lit. Moving on…

From the beginning, the whole story has the feel of a big movie where the big story is told from multiple points of view and eventually each group of characters crosses paths.  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for example, started with the crew of the Enterprise, and there’s also Chekov on the Reliant, the scientists on the space station, and then Khan and his followers. The Search for Spock follows the same model, all building towards a big crescendo, a big confrontation between hero and villain. In the case of this story, the big hero-villain confrontation is in the metaphysical sense during the Battle of Cardassia.

The overall story takes place during the last forty days of the Dominion War with stories within the story. “Grey’s Anatomy” took a similar approach with one of its season openers in the aftermath of one of the original characters getting killed off. And it invoked the five stages of grief, whereas “To the Bitter End” uses Biblical allegories. Each day is prefaced with passages from the Bible. Part One includes passages from the Noah’s Ark portion of Genesis, hence my original title being “Surviving the Flood”. Considering how Bajoran prophecies were weaved into DS9’s Dominion War arc, one of the Prophets’ foretellings seemed like an appropriate opening quote. “It will be the end, or the beginning,” was the Prophets’ warning to their Emissary about The Reckoning, the epic battle between good and evil. A good opening theme song then is Nightwish’s “The End of All Hope”. The soundtrack for this whole story consists mostly of songs from Nightwish with the music and Tarja Turunen’s vocals providing an operatic feel to the story. This particular song makes allusions to both the end of all hope and the birth of all hope. That same feeling comes from the end of a competitive sports season. For those individuals or teams vying for a championship, the season can only end either in being crowned the champion or in bitter disappointment. And that’s the sense that comes from the end of a war. These coming battles will determine the outcome of the war, which will mean the beginning of a new era for the winners and the death of everything the losing side has worked to achieve.

The multiple points of view help to convey a sense of desperation and determination on both sides. These four setting, in addition to the Lambda Paz, are a Jem’Hadar capital ship, a Cardassian warship, and another Starfleet ship. A few of the officers on the Seventh Fleet flagship USS Constantinople had been depicted before, but never in this scope. The introduction of certain crewmembers on that ship may have seemed redundant. A lot of them are there just to get killed off while serving on one of the redshirts of starships. The ship is expendable, its most senior officers are expendable, and half its crew eventually perishes. As for the survivors, it’s not fair to just brush them to the side like they never existed after their ship is lost. Ellison will still be around to butt heads with Limis. And the rest will have recurring secondary roles, so not a one-time thing.

The crew of the Jem’Hadar capital ship conveys what’s at stake for them, especially with the Founders facing extinction. That makes them more determined to finish what they started. They may lose the war, but they will not go down quietly. Needless to say, the Jem’Hadar and Vorta go along with it out of devotion to their gods. Of course, there’s bound to be some trouble down the road with the Vorta bending over backwards to accommodate the Breen. The crew of this ship provides some insight into the Dominion hierarchy. The Vorta handle the engineering aspects of the ship, leaving the Jem’Hadar to focus on tactical matters. Not all of the Vorta are clones, as the narrative indicates. Fleet liaison officer Torgroth is one such natural-born Vorta. These Vorta are still products of genetic engineering by the Founders, serving a particular function within their society. Whether clones of Torgroth will be produced after his death will be determined by his service to the Dominion, as this is an honor reserved for their greatest scientists and diplomats.

The Cardassians in this story are basically the “middle ground” with some insight into their culture. Gul Latham is trying to serve “the State” like a loyal citizen. He believes Damar’s actions were not those of a loyal citizen and that Damar is a threat to social order. Order and security are values the Cardassians place ahead of what we may define as individual freedoms. Over time, the reader learns that Latham is willing to take more covert action and is looking for an excuse not to do what he knows needs to be done, but with good reason. He doesn’t want what happened to Damar’s family to happen to his. Overall, he and crew are people with hopes and dreams and families. They know the price of defeat is too high. That message was similarly conveyed in “Balance of Terror” with Romulan counterparts to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

All four groups of characters are determined to fight to the last man, knowing what is at stake. That point was well illustrated in the “Babylon 5” made-for-TV prequel movie In the Beginning, which outlined the Earth-Minbari War. “The humans, I think, knew they were doomed. But where another race would surrender to despair, the humans fought back with even greater strength… They made the Minbari fight for every inch of space… They never ran out of courage, but in end, they ran out of time.” For those who had seen the first four seasons of B5, they knew everything turned out all right in the end for both sides in the war. For anyone who was getting a first look at the B5 franchise through this movie at the time TNT picked up the final season, the Minbari don’t entirely come across as the villains even though their aim is the annihilation of the entire human race.

The Cardassians depicted in “To the Bitter End” are not depicted as villains either. They’re just people trying to survive a destructive war. For them, the major antagonist is Diralna, the Vorta assigned to keep an eye on Latham and his crew and make sure they all stay in line. Diralna’s not like most Vorta. She’s more like Kilana from the DS9 episode “The Ship” with longer hair and wearing a low-cut top. Diralna was willing to use sex as a means to control Latham, although he has spurned her advances up to this point, and in response, she reminded him that he already shares a bed with a woman other than his wife, even threatening to reveal his extracurricular activities to his spouse.

Another underlying theme throughout the story is that life that doesn’t always go as planned. That is illustrated through the war and through the characters’ lives. The Starfleet veterans, of course, know that the Dominion has trick up its sleeve where only a Cardassian garrison is present. But knowing exactly what that trick is doesn’t always seem possible until it’s being implemented. And the less experienced junior officers know to expect the unexpected on an intellectual level. All that mantra really does is remind the troops not to expect an easy victory simply because an enemy stronghold is only protected by Cardassians (or because Barry Zito is pitching for the opposing team or Charlie Whitehurst is the quarterback). The Dominion has a way with hidden mines, whether they’re “Houdinis” on AR-558 or these so-called viral mines that emit almost no energy signature and draw power from a target vessel (in much the same way a virus is dependent on host cells to replicate). They don’t know they’re there until they’re exploding. On the other side, the Dominion didn’t expect the Romulans to be able to improve their cloaking technology to compensate for all the gravimetric and magnetic distortions in the Daxura System. So now, Yelgrun has his engineering teams work to adjust to their adjustments. That ends up taking Limis and company by surprise, leading to one of the more climactic moments.

On the personal level, there’s Limis trying to punish herself for various missteps in her life, even if that means taking matters into her hand and unnecessarily risk her own life. That’s one of her most visible Kathryn Janeway characteristics of being overly tenacious to an almost obsessive level, along with habitually pulling all-nighters and an addiction to coffee (but in keeping with this series’s DS9 roots, raktajino is her preferred brew).

This obsessiveness has an almost fatal side-effect when Limis decides to make up for being outmaneuvered by seeding thermonuclear explosives, as is later established are being used against the semi-organic hulls of Breen fighters, on asteroids and detonating them to take out a considerable number of enemy ships. The events leading to that decision mirror the sequence of events from In the Beginning that earned John Sheridan the nickname “Starkiller” among the Minbari and “Nuke ‘em” among Bruce Boxleitner’s castmates. His disclaimer to his crew was this plan had a slim chance of working out, and even if it did, the explosion would take their ship with the enemy flagship.

That has become a plot cliché in the Star Trek universe where the captain has a bold plan to save the ship, and someone says, “That could blow us up.” And the captain says, “If we do nothing, we’re all definitely going to die.” The rest of the bridge then agrees, at that one time out of ten thousand still takes place (from Kirk’s plea to Spock in “The Naked Time”: “We’ve got to take one in ten thousand chance!”). This particular instance, we get a little of bit of both success and failure. They take out a large number of ships, but now they can’t get out of the asteroid field before the surrounding radiation reaches lethal levels.

Also in the category of life not going as planned, Logan never planned on rolling warships off the assembly lines. So he gets a little touchy about the other engineers messing up “his” ships too much. Morrison had never planned on getting stuck in a corridor with his ex-girlfriend and her current lover. Sh’Aqba had never planned on getting pregnant. She just wanted a more casual relationship with Tarlazzi while at the same time flipping off Andorian marital customs. She had been betrothed to three “bondmates” (since Andorian marriages often involve groups of four). And because, she’s a shen, a go-between in Andorian mating, she cannot carry this baby to term. During this shipboard crisis, she probably saw a chance to end all the burdens she was carrying by trying to manually close an emergency bulkhead before the forcefield temporarily sealing a hull-breach fails. She seals the bulkhead and saves the ship, but she passes out from the thinning atmosphere and the increased radiation levels.

That leads into Doctor Markalis believing sh’Aqba suicidal. At the same time, Aurellan is trying to cope with life not going entirely as planned, in the form of becoming CMO of a Starfleet warship. While she has prided herself on “bringing order to chaos” (excuse the Borg slogan), all the suffering and death is wearing on her. She’s now falling down the same path as most drug addicts. It starts with “just this once.” Then the second time becomes the last time, then the third, then the fourth, and so on. One thing working in her favor is a greater self-awareness–that she can’t be one of those people who hits rock bottom before embarking on the road to recovery. The big wake-up call for her is a dream where an evil persona takes pride in having caused so much death. Deciding to quit comes fairly easy, but that’s not entirely the end of the road. She’s on a program to wean herself off the tranquilizers she’s been overdosing on. As a side effect to pain medication taken after a skirmish with the Breen, she has this bizarre dream about the world of Benny Russell in 20th century New York. Various Trek novels have been ambiguous as to whether that alternate reality was “real”. In this scenario, this other realm is just a strange allegory to Aurellan’s real life.

I first started the writing the character of the EMH-Mark III with Hugh Laurie in mind, but speaking with the American accent he did as Doctor Gregory House for eight years. As an inside joke about that, the EMH’s 20th century alter ego is British. I randomly came up with Leo Houseman (Leo Tompkins being Laurie’s character on the TV mini-series “All or Nothing at All”), while taking a quick look at Laurie’s IMDB page, for his 20th century persona, and hence the name Aurellan gives her holographic lover. I juggled the idea of having the doctor with Asperger’s Syndrome in a relationship with a holographic doctor, mostly out of disappointment that Doc (more generically known as the EMH-Mark I) and Seven of Nine never got together, right around the time “The Big Bang Theory” introduced a female version and possible love interest of the asexual and Aspie-ish Sheldon Cooper, who have now evolved into one of the most unconventional sitcom couples. A lot of the so-called “Sh-Amy shippers” agree that Sheldon is in love with Amy Farrah Fowler even though he hasn’t actually said it. He’s demonstrated it through his actions and his state of mind around her and when he can’t get in touch with her. Similarly, EMH-Mark III/Leo demonstrated a devotion to Aurellan greater than that between colleagues or even platonic friends. He showed he cared for her by checking on her when she was having that weird dream rather than sending a nurse to her quarters. He put her ahead of everyone and everything else in his life rather than the sappy lovey-dovey stuff.

Another way I made Leo/Aurellan an unconventional couple was that relationship didn’t have a sexual component. That’s become something of a cliché, even employed in this particular series with the other couples, where a couple starts regularly having sex after just the first or second or third date. In the previous story, Aurellan was adamant in not wanting to go along with that particular trend. But in seeing all that was going on around her with so many people dying, she wanted to be spontaneous while still standing up to her own personal beliefs. After the events of Chapter 17, she knew he was that special someone with whom she wanted to consummate.

For this group of characters as the story draws to a close, they see plenty of incentive to live for today as if there is no tomorrow because there might not be. People will continue to watch colleagues, friends, and even loved ones die. As the final battle looms, some see their last chance to tell a colleague they butt heads with how much they respect and admire them or for someone who keeps an emotional distance from others to make a gesture of friendship. Tarlazzi says to sh’Aqba he wishes they could have just five minutes alone before it all hits the fan in the same way a kid asks for five more minutes when it’s time to come inside or go to bed. They all still know what needs to done, and they’re going to throw everything they have at the enemy.

As battle rages on, we see the horrors war. The Jem’Hadar act on their orders to wipe out the entire population of Cardassia Prime, and that even includes old men, walking wounded, and even children. These are the same tactics the Cardassians employed on the Bajorans, and now the karmic wheel has spun back in their direction. The Cardassians didn’t seem like a very religious race, but Garak’s speech at the end of “What You Leave Behind…” and Aamin Maritza’s reasoning for masquerading as his former commanding officer, would suggest a belief consistent with the modern-day interpretation of karma. In a just world, doing evil things will eventually come back to haunt a person. Gul Latham summed it up when he said the Cardassian people got exactly what they deserved. While not endorsing the indiscriminate killings of civilians and other horrible atrocities committed in recent wars, that’s a Cardassian way of thinking. After the horrible things done to the Bajorans and other subject races, they’re now on the receiving end. The Dominion massacre was their World War III. Latham sees what his people’s imperialistic ambitions cost them, and so they have to strive for change if their race is to survive.

The war made for a lot of awesome looking space battles, but it all came down to the individuals fighting in it. Many of the characters have their own way of coping with losses of friends and loved ones. Some of them try to avoid feeling their feelings, yet find they can’t when the reality has fully sunk in. They all mourn the dead, first as a group, and then individually. Sh’Aqba sees Tarlazzi’s sacrifice as both selfless and selfish. Not only did he give the fleet a better chance of defeating a set of automated weapon satellites, but he also left sh’Aqba to care for their child on her own. Neeley goes back to a former lover for comfort and Markalis trivialize her own loss.

In any case, life goes on for the survivors. They’ll have plenty of new challenges before them in year three and beyond. One of the aphorisms emphasized in Lambda Paz is that we try as best we can to shape our own lives and our futures even when all doesn’t go as planned. That’s basically the gist of “The Creationist”, which, again, does not endorse creationism. The characters in this series will be facing further challenges in their lives and in interstellar affairs. So hope you enjoyed “To the Bitter End” and stay tuned for year three.