“Little Green Men” (season four episode seven; originally aired 11/13/1995)
In which Quark disapproves of smoking, among other things…
This is cute. The time travel idea is cute, the quick reference to American UFO mythology is cute, the semi-homage to science-fiction films of the 1950s is cute—really, the whole thing is pretty damn adorable, if you overlook the scene where Nog asks the nice Earth lady to give him a ear-job. But the best thing about “Little Green Men” might be everything else: the character moments, the world-building, the tone. The episode’s premise is attention-grabbing, but it’s a shallow, silly riff that exists mostly to get in some decent gags about how a Ferengi might see 20th century American culture. The concept is a grabber—Quark, Rom, and Nog wind up on an Air Force base in the US in 1947—but there’s barely any plot to speak of, and none of the sort of twisty storytelling that time travel tales so often indulge in. It’s a lark, and the pleasure of a lark is largely defined by the quality of one’s company. Ultimately, that’s the real selling point for this hour: getting to hang out with Quark, Rom, and Nog (and, briefly, Odo). Because why the hell not?
Nog is heading to Starfleet, and, as is customary when a young Ferengi male leaves home for the first time, he’s selling all his possessions to raise the necessary collateral to go out on his own. Rom explains all of this to the patrons of Quark’s bar with barely restrained delight, while various crewmembers eye Nog’s stuff. (Dax buys Bashir a holosuite program that, by its description, has to be porn; Worf is initially skeptical, but then gets super keen when he finds Nog’s old tooth sharpener.) The scene establishes that Nog is finally leaving the station, but it also serves as a chance to show off the relationships between the episode’s three main characters. Rom is still incredibly proud of his son; Nog is nervous about leaving, and excited, and determined to be the best he can be; and Quark just can’t believe any of this is happening. It’s the sort of triangle that raises all kinds of possibilities for confrontation and drama, and while we probably don’t need to see Rom reading the riot act to Quark in order to protect his son again, it’s actually a little disappointing the way this all disappears once the time travel kicks in. Oh, everyone still behaves consistently, and they all get some good lines (Quark especially), but there’s no real thematic resonance to the brief adventure in the past. This may be the first time in the history of these reviews when I’ve actually complained an hour had too much sci-fi goofiness and not enough character work, but while the complaint is a minor one, I do think the second half of “Little Green Men” is more hollow than those first 10 minutes. Nog arriving at Starfleet Academy, saying goodbye to his father, maybe Quark showing just the slightest bit of emotion—that could’ve been something.
Instead, we get what we get. Which is perfectly fine, and it’s my job to critique the episode on the screen and not the one in my head, so I’ll let this go. It’s just a weird split, and worth mentioning as still more evidence of how good DS9 has gotten at treating its characters right.
So after the usual techno-babble setup (leavened here by the fact that Quark’s cousin’s attempt to murder him via spaceship is basically the MacGuffin), our heroes find themselves under guard at the aforementioned Air Force base, studied by the military (including Charles Napier as General Denning) and Professor Wainwright (James MacDonald), who just happens to be engaged to the base’s Nurse Garland (Megan Gallagher, doing her Megan Gallagher thing). There are sly nods to the culture of the past: everyone’s smoking cigarettes, for one, and they all get really interested when the Ferengi bring up the Russians. There’s also some miscommunication between the Ferengi and the humans, as Quark, Rom, and Nog’s Universal Translators go on the fritz due to the proximity of an atom bomb. The best joke has Quark and the others hitting his head to try and jar the Translator back into place; the humans think this is some kind of greeting, and hit their own heads in turn. Less funny is that whole “misunderstanding” with Nog’s ears. Look, you can have fun with the idea that the Ferengi’s lobes are erogenous zones, but when that fun involves tricking people into going to second base without realizing they were up to bat, it gets icky. Say positions were reversed, and you had a guy tricking some alien lady into groping his crotch and moaning. That is a very different kind of TV show right there.
Still, this is largely harmless, and Quark’s sudden decision to make the most out of these new customers, with an eye towards traveling to the Ferengi homeworld and jumpstarting their space program, gives Armin Shimerman a chance to add some edge to the proceedings. Nog objects to Quark’s plans; there’s a clever reference early into the hour to the Bell Riots, with Nog recognizing Sisko’s picture in a guide book, which serves as a reminder of the dangers and responsibilities of walking through history. Yet after he makes his initial complaints, Nog never gets into the issue again. He and Rom pretty much roll over for Quark’s ambition, and if it weren’t for the fact that the American government is far more venal and prone to violence than even Quark was expecting, who knows what might have happened. It’s one of the problems with the script, really. Events keep happening to our heroes, and most of the decisions they make have no significant effect on those events. Yes, Nog’s lies do provide the others with a chance to bust out of the interrogation room (and represent a very quick bit of thinking on his part; that boy’s going places). And sure, Quark’s attempts to maneuver himself into a position of power probably got him and the others into an interrogation room a little faster, but I don’t doubt they would’ve gotten their eventually, whatever they said. It turns out Odo snuck a ride on the trip, convinced that Quark was using his nephew’s trip to Earth as an excuse to smuggle goods (he was), which means there’s somebody to come to the rescue when things get physical. And while it’s Rom who comes up with both the initial time-travel glitch and the right way to get them all back home, he’d be screwed if they hadn’t conveniently crash-landed at the right time and place for a massive energy surge, i.e. an atom bomb test. It’s a little like the lightning strike in Back To The Future, but since Marty travels through time and not space, the luck doesn’t seem quite so much a stretch. Plus, getting the 1.21 gigawatts out of that bolt of lightning is a huge pain in the ass, whereas here, the only real challenge Quark and the others face is escaping the base, which they do fairly easily.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled. I’ve seen plenty of time-travel stories, and I’ve even seen time-travel stories which specifically reference this place and moment in time (right down the tossed off Roswell reference); I’m sure if I hadn’t seen any of them, I’d better appreciate what “Little Green Men” accomplishes. As is, it’s far from bad, but depends too much on its premise to do most of the heavy lifting. Wainwright and Garland, while perfectly pleasant, aren’t well developed, which makes their sudden decision to help Quark, Nog, and Rom escape seem as much a matter of plot necessity as character choice. (Their final kiss also comes across as padding, considering how long the camera lingers.) A clever idea can only get a script so far. This episode is good-natured, and it’s not hard to see why it would be a fan favorite, but it mostly just seems like the writers came up with a hook, and forgot to reel us in.
- Great scene between Jake and Nog early on, as they say goodbye to their favorite sitting spot. The show’s continuity really pays off in moments like this; you can feel the time passing, just like the characters do.
- “All I ask is a tall ship, and a load of contraband to fill her with.”—Quark
- Quark leaves Morn in charge of the bar. Morn!
- “We will kill all your males and take your females for mating.”—Nog, warning of an alien invasion. (The cut to Nurse Garland right after he says this made me laugh; she looks weirdly melancholy about the whole thing.)
“The Sword Of Kahless” (season 4, episode 8; originally aired 11/20/1995)
In which Worf tries to game his fate…
The story begins, as these stories so often do, in Quark’s: Kor (who we last saw in season two’s “Blood Oath”) is regaling the customers with tales of derring-do and violence. While the crew doubts the veracity of Kor’s claims, they’re all enjoying themselves, except for poor Worf, who’s sitting at the bar, nursing a drink and wondering when he can conveniently slip away unnoticed. Dax isn’t about to let this happen, though, and, doing her Dax thing, forces Worf to admit what’s bothering him: While he’s a big fan of Kor’s work, he’s worried his current status with the Klingon empire (i.e., “traitor”) would bring them both shame if they were introduced. But Kor doesn’t seem that put off at all by Worf’s presence. It helps that Kor isn’t a fan of Gowron, Worf’s greatest enemy. The two share some drinks, and almost immediately, Kor spills the beans. He’s not just hanging around Deep Space Nine to get drunk (although that is on the itinerary). He’s found a clue that just might lead him to the most precious of all Klingon artifacts, a weapon destined to bring together the Klingon people and usher in a new era of prosperity for the empire: the sword of Kahless.
This isn’t a bad way to start an episode. Kor even gets attacked by a mysterious alien who demands to know more about his quest, thus setting us up for some suspense down the line. And yet, while the opening scenes have all the hallmarks of a great adventure story, “The Sword Of Kahless” isn’t so much interested in Klingon honor as it is in Klingon rage. And, unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of that. “Blood Oath” was a straightforward “rage against the dying of the light”-style story, about old men looking to recover lost glory in one final burst of violent vengeance. This story is a bit more complicated.
Not at first, though. Once Worf realizes what Kor is onto, he wants in; and Dax decides to go along for the ride herself. Getting permission from Sisko is surprisingly easy, and while the captain only appears in one scene in the episode, his brief comments are a reminder of just how canny he is, as he immediately grasps that sending a pair of Starfleet officers to help recover such an incredibly important Klingon artifact might go a long way toward repairing relations between Gowron and the Federation. From there, it’s some light detective work to get to a planet in the Gamma Quadrant. Gowron got a piece of cloth from a team of Vulcan scientists, and a quick trip in a borrowed shuttlecraft later, the three are standing in the ruins of the Hur’q civilization. The Hur’q are a race (their name is literally the Klingon word for “outsiders”) that ran rampant on the Klingon home world a thousand years or so ago. They stole Kahless’ sword (which, it must be said, can’t be all that magical if somebody can just up and steal it), and after some poking around and lock-futzing, Dax, Worf, and Kor find the vault where the sword has waited all this time to be rediscovered and returned to its home.
Their moment of triumph is interrupted by the arrival of Toral, one of Worf’s old enemies from the House of Duras. Toral is responsible for the alien (a lethean, which, come to think, is the same kind of alien that tormented Bashir back in “Distant Voices”) who attacked Kor earlier, and he’s determined to claim the sword for himself, in order to bring honor back to his disgraced family. So there’s the expected fight, and we get to see once again how Dax can more than keep up when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. (Later, we see Toral’s men have phasers, but they’re apparently reluctant to use them in the first fight. Wouldn’t be sporting, I guess.) The fight lasts long enough for our heroes to escape, and it looks like we have the basis for the plot which will get us through the rest of the episode’s running time. Worf, Kor, and Dax have the sword, but they’re blocked from getting back to their shuttle by a jamming frequency from one of Toral’s men. So now they have to outthink and outfight their enemies in the caves surrounding the dig site, outnumbered and presumably outgunned.
Only, that’s not really what happens. Toral and the others represent an ongoing threat, but they’re really just an excuse to make sure Worf and Kor can’t escape just yet. Because the real point of “The Sword Of Kahless” is how quickly the two Klingons turn on each other when they achieve their sacred goal. Kor goes first, reasoning that, since the sword is destined to bring his people together, and since the Emperor is a clone and Gowron is an idiot, he should be the one to lead the Klingons forward. Worf isn’t a fan, so Kor starts taunting him about his past, insinuating that his time in Starfleet has made him soft, and not a true warrior. Worf responds by deciding he’s the one who deserves to use the sword. Things go downhill from there.
I spent a good portion of the episode wondering if the sword wasn’t somehow tainted in a way that would raise the ego and paranoia of anyone who held it; this isn’t true, and while that means showing Worf in a fairly unsympathetic light, it also gives the story a more dramatic, and honest, edge. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre-type plots, in which a small group of adventurers get their hands on some riches, and immediately begin to mistrust and even loathe one another in their determination to keep what’s theirs, are always good fodder for drama, because they offer a chance to push familiar characters out of their comfort zones. With Kor, this isn’t much of a revelation. He’s been likeable in his two guest spots on the show, but with a certain edge, and to find that he can be even more self-aggrandizing and arrogant than he initially lets on is exciting—and useful for the plot—but not really illuminating.
Worf, though… Anyone who’s seen a fair amount of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or, y’know, every single episode) knows Worf’s history. A Klingon orphan raised by human parents, struggling to find his place in the world, living his life by the ideals he read in books, only to discover that those ideals rarely matched how life actually worked. It’s a good backstory, and it’s one that makes Worf seem a little tragic, a little alone, even if his parents are loving and supportive, and even is he has managed to find a kind of home in Starfleet. Yet few, if any, earlier episodes about Worf’s past ever touched on the anger, the desperation which must drive him; the need to believe that his life, and all the suffering and loss it brought him, has some greater purpose. He tells Dax the story of his first visit to the Klingon homeworld, how he was mocked by others his age, and how he fled to the forest and hid in a cave, where he had a vision of Kahless. The vision (which I can’t remember if Worf has ever brought up before) told the young orphan that he would one day do something no Klingon had ever done. Like joining Starfleet, Dax says hopefully, but Worf has his sights set on something bigger. The site of Kahless’s sword has focused the frustration, the humiliation which has defined so much of his life, and he wants to use it to become the greatest of all Klingons. And if that means dropping anyone who gets in his way off a cliff—well, sacrifices and omelettes and all that.
The fact is, while Kor blusters and hurls insults, Worf’s the one who commits the most violence toward his fellow travel hunter, almost choking him at the end of the episode before Dax decides she’s had enough and stuns them both with her phaser. The story has a relatively happy ending: post-stun, Worf realizes the error of his ways and decides that neither he nor Kor were truly destined to find the sword. Also, the Klingons aren’t ready for it yet, or something—it’s the kind of boilerplate “Let us never speak of this again” exchange that tends to happen when people, Klingon or otherwise, realize they’ve been behaving like fools. It’s also maybe a little too easy after the violence we saw earlier. While I understand the show wasn’t going to make Worf into a bad guy, and while I definitely wouldn’t want that to happen, the intensity of his conversation with Dax, and his willingness to go to absolute lengths to do what he believes needs to be done, suggest an aspect of his character we’ve never seen before, one that deserves more attention than a quick cut and three minutes of friendliness. Hopefully, we’ll come back to this soon. It reminds me a little of my favorite moment in The Avengers, when Captain America tells Bruce Banner it’d be a good time to get angry, and Banner says, “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” Worf seems like such a gruff, stoic stick-in-the-mud so much of the time, but maybe that’s a choice he makes. Maybe it’s better to be a bit stiff, a bit awkward and weird and obsessed with the rules. Otherwise, he might start tearing off limbs.
- I love the shot of the sword floating through space. It’s hard to doubt Worf’s commitment to destiny; only someone with deep faith could believe that sword will ever be found again.
Next week: We have a bit of fun with “Our Man Bashir,” and then things get serious with Sisko on the “Homefront.”