“Captive Pursuit:” Predation and the Prime Directive

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.


Captive Pursuit” is an episode I remember quite well, but I doubt preteen me quite grasped the nuances in this episode. The Prime Directive is a tough concept, and Trek’s often contradictory handling of it doesn’t help. However, “Captive Pursuit” gets it absolutely right, and it does so in such a way that could only occur on Deep Space Nine. Navigating different cultural mores requires a deft hand, and both O’Brien and Sisko demonstrate exactly the right skill-set for it here. Between them, they strike a perfect balance between respecting a foreign culture and setting boundaries for themselves.

Plot Ahoy!

The wormhole opens unexpectedly, and a damaged ship emerges. Commander Sisko orders that the ship be hailed, but despite the imminent danger that the ship will explode, the reptilian-appearing pilot seems unusually suspicious. O’Brien uses a tractor beam to tow the ship into a docking bay. Sisko orders him to investigate not only what repairs the ship might need but also to find out why their guest seems so skittish.

O’Brien enters the ship but finds no pilot, though the computer informs him that the pilot is still present. He nervously goes to work, explaining to the unknown pilot that he plans to repair the ship. The pilot fades into view behind him, startling O’Brien. The alien introduces himself as Tosk, though he does not make a distinction as to whether that is his name or species. He and O’Brien discuss the ship, and as it turns out, repairs will take some time. O’Brien escorts him to his temporary quarters, and upon O’Brien’s departure, Tosk asks the computer for the location of the station’s weapons.

While technicians repair Tosk’s ship, O’Brien attempts to introduce him to Federation and Starfleet customs, including taking him to Quark’s bar. Tosk seems puzzled by the amount of “downtime” the station inhabitants seem to enjoy. O’Brien clearly develops a feeling of friendship for Tosk and stands up for him to Sisko, but Sisko does ask Odo to keep an eye on Tosk. Later, Tosk attempts to do access a weapons locker, and Odo captures him using forcefields. He takes Tosk into custody. In the station’s equivalent of a brig, O’Brien and Sisko press Tosk to tell them why he wanted weapons, but Tosk staunchly informs them that he cannot speak of it. He refuses to say anything more except to ask O’Brien to allow him to die with honor.

A larger ship with ion signatures similar to Tosk’s emerges from the wormhole, and the ship’s crew forces their way onto DS9. Odo puts up a great deal of resistance, but the aliens make their way into the Brig where they track Tosk, despite Tosk being invisible. The leader removes his helmet and berates Tosk for his incompetence, promising to drag him back to their homeworld in shame. The leader demands that the newly arrived Sisko release his prisoner, and Sisko refuses pending an explanation. As it happens, the aliens are hunters, and Tosk is their prey. A horrified Sisko debates the hunter regarding the morality of hunting a sentient being, but the hunter insists that the hunt serves as a crucial aspect of their culture. The hunter concedes that the anomaly, meaning the wormhole, will be out of bounds for the hunt, and Sisko agrees to release Tosk into their custody.

O’Brien protests, and Kira suggests that should Tosk ask for asylum, the situation will change. O’Brien goes to Tosk to beg him to ask for asylum, but Tosk explains that avoiding the hunt would violate the most fundamental of his beliefs. He declines to request asylum. O’Brien sits disconsolately at Quark’s bar, and Quark attempts to offer a sympathetic ear. While talking to Quark about Tosk’s situation, O’Brien has an epiphany.

O’Brien intercepts the hunting party on their way to return to their ship, and a scanner’s power grid overloads, shocking the hunters and allowing O’Brien to lead Tosk into the bowels of DS9. He and Tosk make their way to Tosk’s ship, tussling with hunters on their way. Tosk asks if O’Brien wishes to come with him, but O’Brien demurs, citing his wife and daughter. Later, Sisko dresses him down quite severely for interfering, and O’Brien accepts it. However, he does note that Sisko and Odo should have found them well before they reached Tosk’s ship. Sisko comments, “I guess that one got by us.” O’Brien leaves Sisko’s office, and the episode closes on a shot of Sisko with a slight grin on his face.


With the amount of time the episode spends trying to build up mystery around Tosk’s situation, his active participation in the hunt feels as though it’s meant to be a surprise twist. However, that’s not really the story’s focus. “Captive Pursuit” is fundamentally a story about the Prime Directive and respecting another culture, even when their cultural values conflict drastically with your own. Sisko expresses our own disgust at the idea of hunting another sentient being, but once the dust settles, he can do nothing but respect their hunt practice. Sisko realizes that his authority extends only as far as keeping the station safe, so while he finds the whole issue distasteful, he puts up only a token protest. That determination sets “Captive Pursuit” apart as a uniquely DS9 story.

The TNG version of “Captive Pursuit” would never have ended with O’Brien helpfully liberating Tosk only to send him on to his death. Rather, Captain Picard would have dreamed up a solution that at least allowed Tosk to escape if it didn’t demonstrate to the hunter culture as a whole the error of its ways. Picard and the Enterprise crew exist in a space completely controlled by Federation values. The ship itself acts as a roving microcosm of Federation values because those values unify the people aboard. Sisko and the Starfleet personnel aboard DS9 are beholden to those values, but they occupy a much less secure position. Starfleet’s role on DS9 is one of oversight and support, not governance. Thus, Sisko must navigate competing interests in ways Picard never does. Here, Sisko demonstrates a keen awareness of those competing interests and finds an interesting middle ground. He opts to delay action in order to give O’Brien time to ensure Tosk’s escape. He toes the letter, if not the spirit, of the law while still serving his own conscience. It’s a very savvy move.

That said, O’Brien is the episode’s standout character. Colm Meaney and Scott MacDonald play off of each other beautifully, and had they not, the episode would have failed. The O’Brien/Tosk dynamic forms the backbone of the episode. The episode must inspire an emotional buy-in by viewers because viewers have to care about Tosk for the episode to have the intended impact. Colm Meaney gives us an emotionally involved O’Brien, so we become emotionally involved as well. O’Brien’s decision to free Tosk to seek an honorable death therefore hits much more powerfully, elevating “Captive Pursuit” to one of the first season’s best episodes.

As the other half of the episode’s key dyad, Tosk is interesting because he exists as both an individual and as a mythic figure, as the hunter explains, representing all that is best in that culture. While I’m not sure I can entirely wrap my mind around that assertion, I find it fascinating that Tosk’s entire existence is wrapped up in this hunt. Tosk has no real individual identity, and what we initially take for cultural awkwardness is really Tosk’s inability to conceive of a life beyond the hunt. The hunt is his entire raison d’etre, which is why he rejects the offer of asylum so strongly. The episode hangs on Tosk’s agency in accepting his role, but I do wonder if he really does possess that agency. The hunter culture bred Tosk to be hunted and used ritual and training to indoctrinate him. Is he therefore capable of making a choice here? I don’t know the answer to that question, and the episode never addresses that point. Had it done so, we would have had a much different episode and maybe an even more interesting one. Still, “Captive Pursuit” remains a solid exploration of the ramifications of the Prime Directive and well worth a watch.


A solid triple

Stray Thoughts From the Couch:

  1. We never get a name for the hunters or their homeworld, and we really don’t need one. Gerrit Graham’s hunter is just enough of a jerk to persuade me that we don’t really need to revisit that planet. It also helps to get both the audience and Sisko to side with Tosk.
  2. Much like MacGuyver, Odo refuses to use weapons.
  3. Can we all just agree that the hunters’ costumes are terrible? Those jumpsuits are ridiculous.
  4. Judi Durand provides the computer voice for the station rather than Majel Barrett Roddenberry to distinguish DS9 as being of Cardassian construction.
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