“Rules of Engagement”
Written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle and Ronald D. Moore
Directed by LeVar Burton
Season 4, Episode 17
Production episode 40514-490
Original air date: April 8, 1996
Station log: Worf has a nightmare in which he’s walking the corridors of the Defiant surrounded by corpses—of both Starfleet personnel and Klingon children—while wielding a bat’leth. He also sees several Klingons cheering and holding their bat’leths aloft.
When he wakes up, we see that he’s in one of Odo’s cells, awaiting a hearing. The Klingon Empire has requested that Worf be extradited on the charge of murder. He is accused of firing on a civilian ship and murdering the 441 people on board, and an advocate named Ch’Pok is making the empire’s request before a Vulcan admiral named T’Lara. Sisko is defending Worf, pointing out that it was a combat situation. The ship decloaked right in front of the Defiant while it was fighting two other Klingon ships.
Ch’Pok’s argument is not so much the facts of the case, but what was in Worf’s heart in battle. His first witness is Dax, whom he calls as an expert in Klingon behavior, trying to get her to admit that he can be overcome by Klingon bloodlust. Dax testifies that she knows he can restrain himself as needs be, based on their holosuite workouts. Ch’Pok comes back with one of Worf’s recreational programs: the Battle of Tong Vey, which ends with Emperor Sompek conquering the city and ordering all the inhabitants killed and the city burned to the ground. Worf last used the program the day before he left on the Defiant.
Sisko’s next on the stand to explain the mission Worf went on. Seven convoys were being sent by the Cardassians to a system that has had an outbreak, and each is being protected by a Starfleet vessel against possible Klingon attack. Sisko assigns Worf to command the Defiant to be one of those escort ships.
Quark testifies that Worf declared in the bar that he hoped that the Klingons would attack the convoy. O’Brien then testifies about the battle itself: one ship engages the Defiant while another goes after the Cardassian relief ships. They’d been doing a cloak-and-run tactic, where they’d cloak and reappear elsewhere. Worf figured out the pattern they were using and, after a ship cloaked, he came about to where it was likely to decloak, and as soon as there was a decloaking detected, he fired. Except it turned out to be a third ship, the civilian transport. Ch’Pok asks O’Brien what he would’ve done if he was in command, and he admits that he wouldn’t have fired on the ship.
During a recess, Ch’Pok approaches Sisko in the replimat. If Sisko concedes, Ch’Pok promises that Worf won’t be put to death, and that he’ll even defend Worf—it’s the battle that thrills him, not which side he’s on. To Sisko, this means he doesn’t want Worf on the stand and, of course, he doesn’t take the offer.
Worf testifies to the battle from his perspective. In his judgment, the chances of a civilian ship appearing in the midst of the battle were remote, and if he had hesitated he would have been negligent in his duty as the convoy’s escort. Ch’Pok then asks how Worf feels about being discommendated a second time, about the House of Mogh being dismantled, about his son living with the shame of being the son of a traitor, and he admits to being angry about it, but that it doesn’t affect his duty. He also says he would never deliberately attack an unarmed opponent. Ch’Pok then tries to provoke Worf by accusing him of not being Klingon, of betraying his son, of killing children to make himself a better warrior. Eventually he gets Worf to attack Ch’Pok in anger, which Ch’Pok says belies Worf’s claims that he would never attack an unarmed opponent. (My first thought was, “He has fists.”)
During a recess, Odo reports to Sisko with good news, as he’s been investigating the civilian ship, and he’s finally found something. Sisko calls Ch’Pok to the stand as an expert on the Klingon Empire. The first thing he testifies to is that there are no formal agreements between the Federation and the empire at present—which, of course, raises the question of what the basis is for the extradition request. Sisko then presents him with a list of people, which Ch’Pok identifies as the casualties from Worf’s attack. He recognizes them right away because their names and faces are seared onto his heart as heroes who were murdered by a coward. Sisko then provides a second list with the exact same names on it: the passengers on another transport that crashed on Galora Prime. They were believed lost, but miracle of miracles, according to the records, they all survived! And then they all got on another transport and got blown up by Worf. In truth, the event was staged, using existing civilian corpses, so that the empire could frame the only Klingon in Starfleet for a massacre.
The extradition request, obviously, is denied. Sisko then has to talk Worf into going to a party in Quark’s that Bashir and O’Brien are throwing in his honor. Worf doesn’t particularly want to go, because the truth is he accepted the mission in the hopes that he would be able to wreak vengeance on the empire for what they did to him. Sisko also upbraids him for firing on a ship without checking it first, but then says he should go to the party even though he doesn’t want to, because part of being in command is smiling for the troops to make them feel better, because your job is to take care of them.
The Sisko is of Bajor: Sisko gets to defend Worf for reasons the script never makes clear. “The Measure of a Man” made it clear that starbases have Judge Advocate General offices, and the only reason nobody was available to serve as counsel (forcing Picard and Riker into the roles) in the TNG episode was because it was a new JAG office. You can even use that same excuse for why Sisko was pressed into service as a lawyer in “Dax,” as the station hadn’t been up and running as a Federation starbase for very long. But DS9 has been operational for more than four years now, so there’s really no reason for Worf to be defended by a non-lawyer…
Don’t ask my opinion next time: It’s completely unclear why Kira is on the Defiant for Worf’s mission.
The slug in your belly: Ch’Pok calls Dax as an expert in Klingons, but she demurs, saying her previous host was an expert, she’s just someone who knows a lot.
There is no honor in being pummeled: Worf admits to Sisko at the end that he shouldn’t have taken the assignment to escort the convoy because he wanted to engage Klingons in battle after his discommendation in “The Way of the Warrior.”
Preservation of mass and energy is for wimps: Odo saves the day, as his dogged investigatory skills turn up the fact that the civilians whom Worf allegedly killed were actually already three months dead.
Rules of Acquisition: Quark testifies to Worf’s state of mind before the mission, though his reliability as a witness is called into question, when he can’t remember which dabo girl Bashir was talking to, and then recalls that it was Morn, not Bashir, who was chatting up a dabo girl.
For Cardassia! The Cardassian military is stretched thin defending themselves against the Klingons, which is why the medical convoys are protected by Starfleet ships.
What happens on the holosuite stays on the holosuite: Dax and Worf are still working out on the holodeck, bat’leth vs. mek’leth, and it’s still probably not foreplay. She says that they’ve both injured each other, and she broke a finger once. Worf also brought a holographic re-creation of the Battle of Tong Vey over from the Enterprise.
Keep your ears open: “Life is a great deal more complicated in this red uniform.”
“Wait till you get four pips on that collar—you’ll wish you had gone into botany.”
Worf musing on the vicissitudes of command, and Sisko assuring him that it’s only going to get worse.
Welcome aboard: Longtime character actor Ron Canada, last seen on Trek as the hardass security chief in TNG’s “The Masterpiece Society,” plays Ch’Pok; he’ll next show up on Voyager as a Malon in “Juggernaut.” Deborah Strang creates no impression whatsoever as T’Lara.
Trivial matters: Ira Steven Behr invited David Weddle to tour the set after Behr read Weddle’s If They Move…Kill ’Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, and during the tour Weddle asked if he could pitch to the show. Along with his writing partner Bradley Thompson, they pitched this story, which led to a position on the staff, with the duo writing or co-writing a dozen episodes all together. Thompson and Weddle have gone on to work on Battlestar Galactica, CSI, Alphas, Falling Skies, and Defiance. So basically, Weddle and Thompson have become major players in the SF TV world and they owe it all to Behr being a huge Peckinpah fan.
The story—which originally had Sisko on the hot seat instead of Worf—was inspired by the 1988 incident in which the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger flight.
In the first hearing scene, Worf is wearing his baldric, but he doesn’t wear it for any of the other scenes. In a bit of dialogue that was cut, Ch’Pok requests that Worf not wear it in the hearing as it offends him, echoing Duras’s words when Worf challenged the High Council’s ruling against Mogh in TNG’s “Sins of the Father” (also co-written by Ronald D. Moore).
Morn almost gets a line of dialogue as part of Quark’s testimony, but Ch’Pok interrupts him.
The character of T’Lara appears twice as a younger person in fiction by Christopher L. Bennett, once as an ensign serving on the Enterprise in the time of Kirk and Spock in The Darkness Drops Again, part of the Mere Anarchy storyline, and again as a JAG officer during Picard’s court-martial following the destruction of the Stargazer in The Buried Age. Your humble rewatcher had her appear nine years after this episode retired and consulting for a cultural exchange program in A Singular Destiny.
Ron Canada was one of the finalists for the role of Martok, but he lost out to J.G. Hertzler.
Walk with the Prophets: “I’ll see you on the battlefield.” What an unholy mess. Absolutely nothing in this episode works.
We start with the very premise, which can’t actually have happened. The Klingons withdrew from the Khitomer Accords in “The Way of the Warrior,” which means the treaty between the Federation and the empire that would be the basis of the extradition has been abrogated. To make matters worse, Ch’Pok himself testifies to this fact in the hearing, so the script itself comes out and says that there’s no legal basis for the extradition request. And why would the Federation even entertain such a request, much less call for a hearing and put one of their decorated officers in a holding cell?
Next we have Ch’Pok, who’s actually well played by Ron Canada. It’s fun in the abstract to see a Klingon lawyer (the second we’ve seen, after Michael Dorn playing Worf’s ancestor in Star Trek VI; we’ll see two more great ones played by J.G. Hertzler and John Vickery in Enterprise’s “Judgment”), but Ch’Pok comes across as spectacularly incompetent. He is making a case before a Vulcan admiral, and so chooses an emotional argument. He seems to be trying to get a rise out of Worf, but Worf isn’t the one making the decision, T’Lara is, and not a single point Ch’Pok makes speaks to logic or rule of law. Of course, as we just established, there is no real rule of law here, so there’s no basis for a logical argument, either. He uses Worf’s engaging in a recreational holosuite program with a predetermined end as (incredibly flimsy) evidence of his bloodlust, and then tries to use O’Brien—a noncommissioned officer who may have been involved in more than two hundred combat operations, but was never in command for any of them—as a viable alternative to Worf—a career officer who has been in command of Starfleet’s flagship on multiple occasions. The only testimony that really helps Ch’Pok’s cause is Quark’s, speaking to Worf’s state of mind before the mission—but Quark can’t even remember who was in the bar that day, so his testimony is less than reliable.
And finally we have the cherry on top of the whole thing: Worf didn’t do a single thing wrong. Sisko’s upbraiding of him at the end is total nonsense. While this isn’t necessarily a representative sample, every single person I know who a) served in the military and b) saw this episode said that the episode was ridiculous because there was no question that Worf did the right thing, given the situation.
Worf said two things when he testified that really put paid to the entire notion that he did anything wrong. The first was his statement that he would do the same thing again because to hesitate in that situation would be a danger to the very convoy ships he was there to protect. Which is important—he’s in a firefight, trying to protect a humanitarian convoy. Hesitation in battle is incredibly risky and dangerous.
The second was that he estimated the chances of a civilian ship just showing up on the field of battle as being “remote,” which, if anything, undersold it. As Douglas Adams once reminded us, space is big—really big. The chances of a ship that isn’t supposed to be somewhere randomly showing up in that exact spot in front of the Defiant when it’s in a battle situation are so infinitesimally small, so incredibly close to zero as makes no mathematical difference. The only way it makes any kind of sense for that civilian ship to be at that site was if it went there on purpose to join the battle (a line of investigation Sisko asks Odo to pursue, but the constable finds no evidence to support it). The only sensible response to a ship decloaking in the middle of that firefight was that it was a participant in that firefight. To pause to scan the ship is a hesitation that he can’t afford, and the only reason to make that hesitation is in order to account for a possibility that is so remote as to be ridiculous. (Also: why is a civilian ship travelling around cloaked, anyhow? It’s a very important question that no one asks.)
Sisko telling Worf he screwed up is absurd, a bizarre sop to the ghost of Gene Roddenberry. Later in life, Roddenberry kept trying to insist that Starfleet wasn’t a military organization, despite the fact that it has a hierarchy, a rigid rank structure, and polices its own via courts-martial, which is the textbook definition of a military organization. In his early life, Roddenberry served in the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the Air Force) and was a police officer; he should damn well have known better. (In “Peak Performance,” Picard would have been better off saying that Starfleet wasn’t a militaristic organization—but it very much is a military, and to deny that is to deny what the word military means.) Sisko’s criticism of Worf is especially hypocritical given actions that Sisko himself will take later, notably “For the Uniform.”*
*You probably thought I was going to mention “In the Pale Moonlight,” but that’s a case where the Federation is in a state of war. They aren’t at war in this episode, nor are they in “For the Uniform” when Sisko orders an inhabited planet to be bombarded with trilithium resin. We’ll talk about that more when we get to that fifth-season episode…
The episode has its good points. While it makes no sense for Sisko to be defending Worf, Avery Brooks does well in the role of defending his officer. And both scripter Ronald D. Moore and director LeVar Burton do an excellent job with the device of having the witnesses speak to the camera during the flashback reenactments of their testimony, which avoids numerous cuts back to the courtroom.
But ultimately it’s an episode with an entire plot that makes no sense and should never have happened.
Warp factor rating: 2
Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at LI-Con 1 in Rockville Center, New York this weekend, alongside fellow authors Jody Lynn Nye, C.J. Henderson, John Grant (a.k.a. Paul Barnett), T.J. Glenn, Roy Mauritsen, Paul Levinson, Anatoly Belilovsky, and Alex Shvartsman, voice actors Kristen Nelson and Amy Howard Wilson, editor/packager Bill Fawcett, science writer/editor John Rennie, game publisher Oscar Rios of Golden Goblin Press, and bunches more. His schedule can be found here.