“In The Cards” (season five, episode 25; originally aired 6/9/1997)
In which Jake swings for the fences…
One of the things nobody tells you about relationships: When the person you love suffers, you suffer too. In theory, this should be obvious. You care about someone, be it your lover or your best friend or your father, you want them to be happy, and you get bummed when they aren’t. But it’s more insidious than that, because when you watch someone else be depressed or stressed or frustrated, you not only feel bad for them—you feel like it’s your job to do something about it. Even when, as in most cases, just being supportive and kind is enough, you want to find some concrete way of relieving that misery. You’re helpless, because you can’t force someone to be in a better mood, no matter how much you might want to. (With the best of intentions, of course.) When Jake sees his dad all tied up in knots, obsessing over the various angles of the Dominion threat, he gets upset about it, like any loving son would. And when an opportunity presents itself to add a little brightness to Benjamin Sisko’s day, he jumps at it; and he keeps pushing forward, even when common sense (and maybe even a few laws) suggest he should let it go.
But there’s wisdom in his desperation, and it’s the wisdom that pushes us towards the episode’s unexpectedly warm conclusion. “In the Cards” is a “comedic” episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a designation that tends to bode ill for the hour ahead. We talked about this some in the last Ferengi-centric entry, but to reiterate: It’s all about stakes. The problem with intentionally setting out to write episodes that are funny and episodes that are dramatic is that you’re telling your audience from the outset that some storylines count less. I’m not saying drama is more important than comedy; I’m saying that in narrative television, the “serious” entries are usually the ones that have the most story movement, where the big twists happen, where the consequences live. Recognizing the signs of a jokey storyline (and they aren’t that hard to recognize) takes the pressure off, which kills a lot of the comedy. At their worst, “funny” Trek is a waste of time, and it must’ve been a bummer to get some of these episodes when the show was airing week to week. Nothing kills laughter like disappointment.
Thankfully, “In The Cards” is pretty great, largely because the humor rises from deeply serious, even terrifying, concerns. Sisko’s worries over the future of the station, and the threat the combined forces of Cardassia and the Dominion represent, aren’t paranoid fantasy. Slowly but surely, the past season has been tightening the noose around all of our favorite characters’ throats, and now that the end is coming, there’s no more denying the inevitable. There will be war, and if our heroes don’t find a way to fight it, things could go very badly indeed. The Jem’Hadar are a formidable fighting force; the Vorta (Weyoun is back this week, huzzah!) are brilliant diplomats and manipulators; and the Founders themselves have an uncanny knack for planning out strategy multiple moves in advance. This is not something that can be handled in a two-parter and then never spoken of again. Big, bad news is coming no matter what Jake, Nog, or anyone else does.
Almost paradoxically, the seeming pointlessness of Jake’s quest makes it that much more entertaining to watch. Which would seem to go against all that stakes talk I mentioned above (it wouldn’t change much of anything if Jake never got that card), but the thing is, the stakes are still important, even if Benjamin Sisko’s son can’t really do much about them. More importantly, the immediate stakes for Jake are utterly critical. There are dire times ahead, and the boy’s desire to brighten, if only for a few moments, his old man’s day, creates a pressing goal for the story to resolve, one that fits in with the episode’s major theme: How important are the small moments? If it takes this much out of us just to get through the daily business of being alive, how do you find the strength to keep going? What makes this work is how, for all the aliens and forays into mad science, this is a fundamentally simple tale. It’s a bit like one of those point-and-click adventure games: Jake sees something he wants, and then has to go through a series of seemingly random tasks in order to get it. But those tasks, in part because they’re motivated by a sincere desire to make someone’s life better, ripple outward.
So there’s a Willie Mays rookie card at an auction at Quark’s. Jake browbeats Nog into giving him the money to buy it—it’s a nice touch that Jake doesn’t really take his friend’s reluctance seriously, since it’s easy to be selfish when you’re trying to do something nice; besides, Jake grew up without a concept of money, so it’s likely he considers the subject a bit less weighty than a Ferengi would. Not that it matters in the end; Jake and Nog lose the auction when a mysterious human bids exorbitantly against them. So Jake and Nog go to see the human, a scientist named Dr. Giger (Brian Markinson), to see if they can purchase the baseball card directly from him. (The card was part of a larger lot of antiquities.) Dr. Giger rejects them initially, then changes his mind, and gives them a list of items he’ll take in exchange for the Willie Mays. Which is great, except there’s a pretty good chance Dr. Giger is completely mental.
Trek shows are often filled with wonderful, bordering on magical technology; it’s a tool to make certain kinds of stories possible, and it also adds to the escapist vibe all these shows share, the suggestion of a remarkable place you’ll be more than happy to spend hours visiting. But just because the future is apparently full of all kinds of wonderful toys (warp drive, replicators, the mindfuck that is the holodeck) doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to have everything they want. There are still going to be people pushing the boundaries of accepted knowledge, and some of those people are going to be crackpots, even if they’re right. Dr. Giger’s “cell entertainment is the key to immortality” theory is loopy. It’s possible it’s true (the episode never confirms this one way or the other, although I’m leaning towards “no”), but the idea is so fringe-level goofy it’s hard to take seriously. And Giger himself doesn’t help, as he rails to Jake and Nog about the dangers of the “soulless minions of orthodoxy” (band name!) he believes are working to destroy him. The guy’s a nut, and it’s refreshing to see this kind of batshit science on a show that reveres the pursuit of knowledge when it isn’t preaching the heaven of agrarian, rural utopias.
By the end of the hour, Jake gets his baseball card, although it takes some doing to get there, including a completely ill-advised attempt to strong arm Kai Winn (for a kid who works as a reporter, he’s weirdly naive), and a confrontation with Weyoun that almost, but not quite, turns into a total disaster. Winn and Weyoun are on the station to discuss a possible non-aggression pact between Bajor and the Dominion, a possibility which raises still more potential problems for Sisko, but in the episode’s closing moments, he’s smiling. Partly because Jake gives him the card, and partly because so many members of his staff seem a little happier, due in large part of Jake and Nog’s willingness to do favors. Too often, good intentions lead to bad news, but just this once, a sincere desire to make someone else’s life better managed to have a larger, more positive effect than intended. The key, I think, is recognizing that even when you can’t fix everything, the desire to help the people you love is a noble one. And hell, maybe Dr. Giger is on to something after all. You can’t stave off death forever—but if you can keep yourself entertained, you'll better enjoy the time you get.
- The Mays card Jake works so hard for is, I think, a 1951 Bowman; do some poking around, and you’ll see that the picture used in the episode matches up with the picture on the actual card. Which is very cool. I wonder how the future treats collectibles—is there some sort of barter system in the Federation for getting a hold of obscure stuff? Because part of the value of a collectible is its history; a replicated version wouldn’t have the same appeal.
- Best mini-quest: Nog has to steal Bashir’s teddy bear back from Leeta. (Seems odd she would’ve kept it. Also, why the hell does Nog take it while Leeta is sleeping with the bear in her arms?)
- Louise Fletcher does terrific work as Kai Winn, but I won’t lie, I shudder every time she appears in an episode, and it’s not a fun shudder.
- So, so glad Jake’s time-travel cover story fell flat. I think if Weyoun had believed him, it would’ve killed the episode.
- I continue to love Weyoun’s relentless smarminess. He keeps trying to put the friend moves on Sisko, no matter how many times Sisko puts him off (“You see, I really like Deep Space Nine, and I like you.”), and he even tries to work his way into the Kai’s good graces, with equally unsatisfying results. But while I wouldn’t go so far to say he’s a likeable guy, “In The Cards” shows him in a slightly different light; his decision to give Jake the baseball card is clearly political, but it’s still a nice move, and his open-minded interest in Giger’s project suggests a kind of curiosity that makes him more than just a stooge of the evil empire.
- Michael Dorn directed! Did a fine job, too.
“Call To Arms” (season five, episode 26; originally aired 6/16/1997)
In which the Dominion War begins…
Well, the big day has finally arrived. After a few episodes of hemming, hawing, and sitcom-like plotlines, Leeta and Rom are getting ready to tie the knot once and for all. The small arguments remain; in traditional Ferengi weddings, women don’t wear anything, and Leeta isn’t really keen on Rom’s subtle attempts to encourage her to pick a more revealing dress. Garak’s fed up about their indecisiveness, the way only Garak can be fed up, but Ziyal offers encouragement, and presumably they settle on something everyone can live with, because Rom asks Sisko to perform the ceremony. It’s all charming enough, in a light, can-we-get-on-with-this kind of way, only the charm changes once the rest of the story kicks in. All of a sudden, goofy relationships don’t seem so goofy anymore. When Rom and Leeta finally wed, there’s a somberness to the proceedings. Because war isn’t coming anymore. It’s here. And everything’s changing.
By now, DS9’s attempts to tell a long, serialized story over the course of its run have become integrated enough into the show that they no longer seem exactly novel. You know going into a season that there will be some standalone hours, and some plot-moving hours, and that the main thread—the encroaching threat of the Dominion—will come that much closer to our heroes’ doorstep. It’s a compromised, imperfect approach to narrative that always leaves us feeling imperfectly satisfied, hungry for the next tidbits, positive we’re missing some important development this week just because the camera decided to follow Worf and Dax on holiday. But then, intentional or not, that’s not a bad take on how life tends to unfolds. The picture is never as complete as we’d like it to be. Sometimes important events happen too fast, sometimes they take years to unfold, and when they actually do arrive, they’re pale shadows of our expectations, over too quickly without leaving a mark.
“Call To Arms” serves as a payoff to the season-long buildup to the Dominion War, and it does not disappoint, giving us some rousing action, some moving emotional beats, and concluding with a dramatic, and, from my perspective at least, completely unexpected shift in the series’ status quo. It’s the sort of sudden shock that made me fall in love with Battlestar Galactica: forcing characters into different roles, different context, and tearing apart the show at its very foundations, until we’re forced to question what brings us here in the first place. Is this a show about a group of people working together on a space station? Or is there something more underneath that? The last scene has the cast spread out across the universe, gearing up for war, facing down their oppressors, and more than a little lost. It’s a bold move whose boldness only becomes clear in retrospect. In the moment, everything that happens makes sense.
That’s why it’s so brilliant. This isn’t a cheat. I can’t imagine what it was like in the writers room, and I don’t know how far in advance this change was planned, but there must’ve been some temptation to play things safe. That’s what TV shows do, right? Especially shows going into their sixth year. Surely someone must’ve have floated an idea that would’ve left Sisko still in charge of DS9, would’ve kept Dukat and Weyoun away, would’ve managed to stall out, or compromise a solution to, the Dominion/Cardassian threat. But that’s not the direction the story was heading, and to have cheated out of the more organic conclusion would’ve been to rob the show of its potential greatness. (Potential future greatness, I mean. It’s already pretty great as is.) I don’t know where this is going. If season six has everybody back on the station by the third episode, I don’t know how that will play, or if it will undercut the power of this episode’s final scenes. But man, if the show pulled this off, it’s impressive as hell.
But before we get there, it’s worth showing how smartly the script sets the stage for its climax. Things are getting worse. The Dominion has been sending fleets of Jem’Hadar ships through the wormhole, and while those fleets all head immediately to Cardassian territory, the message is clear: The enemy is marshaling its forces. This puts Sisko in a tight spot. Peace is great, but this isn’t going to last forever. Sooner or later, the Dominion is going to decide it’s built up a strong enough presence in the Alpha Quadrant, and then they’re going to strike. If Sisko waits until this happens, he’ll almost certainly lose the war before it even really gets going. Allowing your enemy to choose both the time and the place for the assault is bad enough, but the Federation isn’t sending out any corresponding reinforcements to protect DS9. The captain is on his own, and the longer he lets the Founders call the shots, the more powerful the hit will be when they finally pull the trigger.
So he makes a tactical move and mines the wormhole. It’s the perfect sort of passive aggression, drawing a line in the sand that forces the other side to take the first step. At the same time, he gets in touch with Bajor, and he tells them to sign the non-aggression pact first mentioned in the previous episode. While we can quibble over whether or not the stalling was necessary, this is still a brilliant choice, and its brilliant in a way I’ve come to think defines the series at its best. Because it’s fucking complicated. While the war does have a “good” side and a “bad” side, there are layers to this shit. Although he still has hopes he might be able to force the Dominion back, Sisko’s role as the Emissary means it’s his responsibility to make sure Bajor doesn’t have to suffer another occupation before all of this is resolved. This isn’t just a fight. It’s a conflict that involves political maneuvering and long-term planning as much as it does quick reflexes and tactical genius.
While all this is going on, “Call To Arms” also takes the time to remind us why we’ve connected with these characters, checking in with everyone, if only briefly, to show us why their fate—and their place on the station—matters. Odo addresses the tension between him and Kira, promising her he has no intention of asking her to dinner until the war is over. It’s a promise that’s made to protect him as much as her, and I wonder how long he’ll be able to keep it. As the mines draw the attention of Dukat and Weyoun, everyone else is getting ready for battle, working on station equipment, preparing Sick Bay for an influx of casualties, making nervy jokes about the future. Rom and Leeta finally take the plunge, but everything’s too far gone for it to be a joke anymore; and while it’s still hard to care too much about their nuptial vows, the symbolism is hard to ignore. Hold your loved ones close, and be ready to make a stand, because time has become very short indeed. Everyone starts saying goodbyes. Soon after they’re married, Rom basically orders Leeta to Bajor for her own protection, and others are following suit. Ziyal and Garak say goodbye, and to comfort his friend, the tailor tells her his story; it’s something we’ve heard before, but this framing is a reminder of how much of a survivor Garak truly is. How unstoppable he can be when he puts his mind to it. There’s a resilience to all these characters that makes the final scenes triumphant, even as they represent a retreat. DS9 is a place for outsiders, but outsiders endure. And when they pull together, they create a force to be reckoned with.
So yes, it’s painful to see the cast split and thrown to the four winds. Sisko’s plan is as desperate as it is gutsy. Staying on the station just long enough to make sure the mine field is made operational, he abandons his post in the Defiant with Dax, O’Brien, Garak, and Bashir, heading to rendezvous with a massive Federation fleet in a different quadrant. Kira, Odo, and Quark stay behind on DS9, to work for the station’s new owners and, presumably, undermine their authority; Jake, foolishly, bravely, moronically stays with them, because he wants to be a reporter, and this is where the action is. Worf is on General Martok’s ship, after learning that Dax has finally decided she’s willing to marry him. Nothing is what it used to be, and when we begin the sixth season this fall, we’ll find the show in a place its never been before, on the run and ready for action.
But like I said, this is triumphant. You throw people like Sisko and Kira and Odo and the rest up against the wall, and they have this way of smiling that means everything can change. Sisko made sure Dukat wouldn’t have an easy time of things, wrecking the station’s computer network before he made his exit. And he left his baseball on his desk for Dukat to find. As Dukat notes, it’s a message. This isn’t over yet.
- This week’s pair of episodes work really, really well together; they almost feel like an informal two-parter, with the former’s light tone gradually leading into the latter’s intensity.
- “We’re losing the peace, which means a war could be our only hope.”—Sisko, in a weirdly Nixonian kind of way.
- Quark, ever the pragmatist, makes sure to get in a huge supply of yamok sauce, a Cardassian delicacy. His approach to a crisis is refreshing in its directness. (That said, the scene between him and Rom is legitimately sweet. Quark even kisses the back of his head, which is not something I can remember him ever doing before.)
- The space battle, as the station and Martok work to hold back the Jem’Hadar fleet long enough for Dax and O’Brien to set up the minefield, is a smart way to both give the audience something visceral and allow a thwarted climax. After all, this isn’t a definitive conclusion; the war is just starting. But as cool and thrilling as that is as a writing choice, it’s nice of the writers to throw in some explosions to tide us over until the next season starts.
- “You’d shoot a man in the back.” “Well, it’s the safest way, isn’t it?”—Maybe the most Garak line ever.
- That final shot of the Defiant joining the Federation fleet is a “Fuck yeah!” moment if I ever saw one.
- “And I promise I will not rest until I stand with you again, here in this place where I belong.”—Sisko. Excuse me, I have a little something in my eye.
Next week: We say goodbye to Deep Space Nine until the fall. Please join me next Thursday as I dive into the second season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.