One of the horrors of war is the effect it has on the children involved. Innocent children who have done nothing wrong but are scarred for life anyway. When the war is over, what happens to the children left behind? In "Cardassians," we have a story that starts out being about that concept. It eventually becomes a Cardassian political episode, but it still brings to light the issue of the many Cardassian children left behind on Bajor when the Cardassians withdrew. It's an outstanding episode with no "good" or "bad" side (except Dukat, of course, who usually has something up his sleeve). I do wish more had been done about the issue itself, but that's a small quibble. The episode also marks the return of Garak (Andrew Robinson) in a wonderful showcase.
Dr. Bashir (Siddig El Fadil) and Garak are having lunch at the Replimat when a Bajoran man and a Cardassian boy walk in. Garak tries to say a friendly hello and the boy, Rugal (Vidal Peterson), responds by biting him on the hand. Very soon after this is reported to Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks), Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) is calling from the Cardassian High Command asking about the incident. Sisko and Bashir investigate if there has ever been any mistreatment of the boy by his adoptive Bajoran parents, and in the meantime Rugal stays with Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) and his family. Bashir and Garak continue their investigations, discovering that Rugal is not a war orphan after all, but the long lost son of a Cardassian politician (Robert Mandan). Why is Dukat so interested in the plight of war orphans? What could it get him? Bashir and Garak have to figure it all out while Rugal gets stuck in the middle of a political power play.
"Cardassians" is an outstanding episode for one basic reason: the acting. Bringing together the likes of Andrew Robinson and Marc Alaimo seems to draw out the best in Brooks and Fadil. Meaney's always good, of course, and the other guest stars do an acceptable job as well. Robinson and Alaimo light up the screen, though. Garak is the ultimate game player, never wanting to reveal his cards too early. He leads Bashir around by the nose and Bashir is hopelessly outclassed. Robinson plays Garak with relish, with an almost permanent smile on his face as if he's enjoying one of the best jokes in the world.
However, he can get a bit uncomfortable, such as when they are visiting a Bajoran orphanage and he's confronted by some real Cardassian orphans. His brusque dismissal of the girl who asks if he's come to take them home shows this. Alaimo, on the other hand, is at his malevolent best, with oily opportunism seeping from every utterance. Considering that all of his scenes except the last one are on the viewscreen, and thus must have been acted against a blue screen of some sort, he does an exceptional job.
The rest of the guest cast do ok, though they aren't stellar. Robert Mandan (of the television show Soap does a remarkable dramatic job, though he does appear to be forcing it a little in his initial meeting with O'Brien before seeing his son for the first time. The same goes for Terrence Evans as Rugal's adopted father. Overall he's fine, but he occasionally goes a little too far, especially when his hatred of Cardassians is being highlighted. Poor Dion Anderson, as the alien who brings Rugal's family to the station, does an ok job with a limited role, but the makeup must not like him. He's doomed to wear the underside of a penis on his head, and it doesn't look good on him.
I have to give credit to the writers as well. The dialogue, especially between Bashir and Garak, is simply wonderful. Granted, some of that is due to the actors, but in this case they don't have to make a bad script look good. There are bits and pieces here that don't work, such as the above mentioned meeting with the orphans that doesn't go anywhere, but overall it's top notch.
The script is at times poignant (such as O'Brien's talk with Rugal about Cardassians and how you can't hate an entire race) and at times funny (when Bashir interrupts Sisko's conversation with Dukat to ask about leaving the orphans behind), with just the right mix. As usual, Garak gets the best lines, though Sisko has a few too. When Bashir wakes Sisko up in the dead of night to ask for a runabout to take Garak to Bajor, and then proceeds to tell Sisko that Garak won't tell him why, Sisko sarcastically says "will one be enough?"
"Cardassians" builds on the mystery of Garak, as it establishes that Garak and Dukat hate each other, but it doesn't tell us why. That's one of the things I love about this series. We're give storylines that won't necessarily be played out in one hour. Boiled down to its basics, this story is about Garak and Dukat, with the Deep Space Nine crew being manipulated into following along. Sisko even admits that he feels this in a log entry. While some crewmembers are heavily involved, it's not really about them. What other Trek show would make a story that's mainly about two guest characters? Very impressive.
There are a couple of quibbles with the episode, but these in no way bring it down in my eyes. First, there is an effective scene that reiterates O'Brien's feelings about Cardassians after fighting them for years. He comes into his quarters and finds out that Rugal and Molly played together, and he's incensed. He makes a vicious comment that Keiko (Rosalind Chao) calls him on. Later, O'Brien is very tender with Rugal trying to get to the bottom of Rugal's feelings about his own people. It seemed like a very quick turnaround to me, despite the earlier dinner scene where they were united in disgust at the Cardassian stew that Keiko made. I realize why the scene was put in (it would have looked very weird not acknowledging his prejudice), but I think the latter scene could have been played better.
The other issue is the orphans. Their meeting with Garak seems to imply that something is going to happen, but the story stays a political story between two Cardassians and the orphan issue is never addressed. I liked the ending of the episode, which shows the Cardassian reluctance to deal with the issue, but it jarred with the way the meeting scene played out.
Overall, this is a massive step up over the last two episodes. These are the kinds of episodes Deep Space Nine did best. Bajoran and Cardassian politics were a rich mine of stories, and when the show played to its strengths, it was a winner. Well-acted, well-written, this episode was one of the best of the second season.
"I believe in coincidences. Coincidences happen every day. But I don't trust coincidences." Garak