“Playing God”(season 2, episode 17; originally aired 2/27/1994)
In which Dax has to teach another Trill to seize the carp
I haven’t talked about it very much, but I’m starting to be quite fond of Dax. I never had huge problems with the character; I thought the first major episode focused on her wasn’t very good, but it certainly was her fault. It’s just, she hadn’t quite come into focus in the same way that Sisko and Kira and the others had. (The only other character to suffer from this level of indeterminacy is Bashir, and he’s gone through as much clarification as Dax has in the past season or so.) Everyone else had strong conflicts to play off. Sisko had a dead wife and a son to raise, Kira was dealing with her people’s struggles and her own adjustments to a Cardassian free world. Odo’s nature forced him to define himself as a matter of simply existing, and O’Brien was familiar from his time on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Quark was a scoundrel. Hell, even Bashir fit a type: naive, arrogant genius trying to make his way in a world far more complicated than he’d expected to find. But Dax, apart from the whole worm thing, was just a nice, pretty lady who sometimes made fun of Sisko. She wasn’t actively unpleasant, but there was potential, and every time a story would try and bring her center stage, that potential never came to fruition.
Although it suffers from a distinct lack of John Glover, “Playing God” is arguably the best Dax episode we’ve had so far, because her character arc is the strongest part of the hour. She takes in a potential candidate, Arjin, for joining, to assess his value as an initiate and, hopefully, push him in the right direction towards improving his chances. Jadzia went through this process years ago with Curzon Dax, and she hadn’t enjoyed it; she’s determined to make sure Arjin’s experience is a more pleasant one. And yet, she has doubts about him, and that’s where the main character conflict of the episode arises. Tempers flare, but never get as far as broiling, and Jadzia is able to find a solution that makes everybody happy. It’s a little on the easy side, and the weakest part of the episode is the fact that it builds and builds and then just kinda stops, but it’s very cool to see Dax figuring things out for herself, and improving both a stranger’s life and her own without having to compromise her ideals.
For this to work at all, though, Dax actually has to have ideals, and a philosophy, and part of what makes “Playing God” so refreshing is the discovery that Dax’s personality has been developing nicely for quite some time now, all without me even noticing. At the start of the episode, Arjin is shocked to find his prospective mentor gambling with Ferengi, wrestling before breakfast, and singing songs with Klingons. None of which should come as a surprise to us; we’ve been seeing Dax ingratiate herself into station life from the beginning. But Arjin’s horrified, Church Lady-esque reaction helps to clarify just what Dax is doing, especially in terms of her relationship to the symbiont. She’s not partying or being irresponsible or disrespectful of the worm inside her (having a worm, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the greatest gifts a Trill can receive; we learn at the beginning that there are currently 5,000 applicants for the procedure, and only 300 symbionts available). She is, instead, fulfilling her part of the bargain, enriching both “Dax” and her own life experiences by embracing all the possibilities available to her. This is what makes the character interesting: she is, in her way, the most perfect expression of the original Star Trek ethos, the joy and wonder of exploration and discovery. Sure, she’s not on a starship, but the station’s proximity to the worm hole offers potential for science and cultural study, and what to outsiders may look like screwing around is—well, okay, part of it is just screwing around. But it’s great to spend time with someone who has the requisite inner peace and patience to know the value of a rich, diverse life. Because of the experience of the symbiont, Jadzia’s shyness and drive are mitigated, just as her youthful ambition and passion help, in turn, to enrich the Dax entity’s journey. Plus, she clearly enjoys messing around with her friends. She’s just cool. I dig that.
The episode follows two storylines. The adventures of Arjin and Dax are a good chance for Dax to do her thing, and for us to like her more; it also has a decent arc for a one-off character. Arjin isn’t hugely memorable, but he gets the job done. This storyline is, in most respects, a predictable one. We could’ve seen Dax ultimately reject Arjin’s candidacy, we could’ve seen him flame out, and we could even have seen Dax failing to live up to her wish to distinguish herself from Curzon. Any or all of these approaches could’ve worked, but the semi-familiarity of how things play out works to the episode’s benefit. Sure, something more complex could’ve given the episode greater depth, but it works well enough that I’m not complaining.
Things get significantly stranger in the episode’s other storyline, a sci-fi hook which introduces a Very Big Idea but then fails to scratch more than the surface. It’s not really bad, per se, just a weird left turn in an otherwise highly traditional hour of television. One minute, we’re watching Dax talk with Sisko about her difficulties with her new trainee; the next, she and that trainee manage to bring a bit of space detritus back through the wormhole, and before you know it, the detritus is a proto-universe and has started to rapidly expand, threatening to take the rest of the ship along with it. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, Dax discovers evidence that the growing universe has intelligent life. Which puts the station’s already precarious position even into even further difficulty. Do they have the right, as Kira argues, to destroy a threat before it destroys them? Or do they have a responsibility, as Odo says, to protect potential intelligence, even when there’s no immediate way to determine that intelligence exists? We started this episode with a character-specific conflict (Dax vs. the trainee), and while that conflict is still relevant for the whole hour, all of a sudden we’re also dealing with great power versus great responsibility. There’s an effort to make an abstract conflict more personal, seeing as how Kira and Odo’s respective positions make perfect sense based on what we know of who they are. Odo, with his uncertain status in the world, wants to defend life for life’s sake, while Kira, who has spent her whole life defending her home against aggressors, jumps immediately to the nuclear option.
These aren’t terrible starting points for a debate, but given that they don’t come up until over halfway into an hour that’s far more focused on other subjects, it’s hard to get too worked up about them. I’m not complaining that “Playing God” doesn’t feature more hard-hitting genocidal debate; it’s fine for what it is. But there’s something unintentionally funny about casually throwing such a big topic into an otherwise unrelated episode. The crisis which eventually allows Arjin to show his stuff could’ve been just about anything. This show comes from a franchise with a history of tossing out just-plausible-enough technical crises to put its characters in danger. Hell, “Playing God” already has just such a crisis; the station is overrun with (ugly and charmingly fake) voles, a holdover from the Cardassian occupation. They’re responsible for futzing around with the force field holding the proto-universe in check, but they could’ve easily chewed up some cord or gotten stuck in an engine. Instead of a final act where Arjin pilots a runabout to save the day, we get a final act where Arjin pilots a runabout to save the day while escaping from a rapidly expanding universe. It’s not precisely bad, but it is distracting.
In the end, though, what matters most about this entry is how much it reveals about Dax—and how much of that revelation is understanding that she’s basically doing fine. We’ve got our angsty characters, we’ve got our comic relief. Dax is somewhere in-between. Not because she’s indistinct or problematic. She’s just cool. That may not always lead to high drama or big laughs, but it’s good to have around.
- While experimenting with ways to get rid of the vole invasion. O’Brien tries a super-sonic pitch designed to drive them insane. Quark’s reaction is really, really funny.
- Jake is in love with a Dabo girl. Sisko takes this as well as can be expected.
“Profit And Loss” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 3/20/1994)
In which this may be the start of a beautiful friendship
The good news: Garak is back! The bad news: he’s not the focus of this episode, and he’s also kind of a dick. (Actually, that last isn’t really bad news, but I didn’t want to try for an “ugly news” joke. Seemed beneath me.)
In retrospect, it was probably inevitable. Quark runs an establishment of questionable virtue in a station next a wormhole, a place at the edge of the Federation where the law gets fuzzy, full of refugees and outcasts and the politically unfeasible. So he makes a perfect Humphrey Bogart stand-in when Deep Space Nine decides to do a charmingly straight-faced riff on Casablanca. Actually, no, stating it out like that doesn’t make it seem inevitable, retrospect or no. It makes sense, sure, but the idea of Quark as a romantic lead in an episode which isn’t overtly comedic blows the mind. But it works. “Profit And Loss” is a little silly around the edges, and it might have been more memorable if it had used Quark’s Ferengi nature to poke more holes in its story’s romantic pretensions, but it never comes across as forced or insincere. In its worst moments, it’s generic; in its best, it shows us a side of a regular character which I’d never suspected, but somehow makes sense. Of course Quark has a romantic past. In a way, isn’t romance all about greed? The transactional material is affection, not cash, but it’s still lust however you look at it.
The set-up: a Cardassian ship comes through the wormhole in a state of distress. The station welcomes aboard Natima Long and her two “students,” Rekelen and Hogue. She claims they were out on a scholarly survey when their ship ran afoul of a meteor storm, but when O’Brien goes to repair the damage, he discovers the evidence that Natima and her companions ran afoul of Caradassian fighters. (Kira’s response—”Why would Cardassians fire on Cardassians?”—is dumb, although I guess she has a myopic perspective on her former foes.) While Sisko tries to get to the bottom of just what secrets the lady’s trying to keep, Quark is overjoyed to have Natima back on the station. She used to be a reporter for the Cardassian News Service, and the two of them had a relationship which ended badly when Quark stole her computer codes to authorize some illegitimate payments. But now Quark is desperate to make it back to her, and if that means helping to sneak her students, who turn out to be potential revolutionaries in a way that’s never exactly explained, off the station, so be it.
Complicating matters is the presence of Garak, who doesn’t look too fondly of revolutionaries of any sort, and contrives to sell Natima and the others back to the Cardassian government in exchange for a release from exile. While Quark’s lovelorn please are a big surprise, the discovery of the real reason why Garak hangs around DS9 is equally important—and while Garak still remains something of a gray area, “Profit And Loss” gives us perhaps our clearest glimpse of the erstwhile spy. For a good portion of the episode, he’s working in the role of the ostensible villain; not the major bad guy (that would be Gul Toran, who is a.) an idiot and b.) doomed), but a definite obstacle to Natima and her charges shot at freedom. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Casablanca, but I’m comfortable saying that Garak is in the Claude Rains role. (Actually, he shares it with Odo, but this isn’t math.) At first, you aren’t sure what side he’s on, then it looks like he’s going to be a problem, but in the end, it turns out he has a code that will help us arrive at a somewhat happy ending. While I’m curious as to just how Garak got himself exiled, it’s the code that really interests me here. Garak believes in Cardassia. He’s a true patriot who wants what’s best for his home, and the reason he doesn’t immediately support Natima and the others is, at least in part, because he doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in revolutions. While there’s no sense that he believes a military tribunal is really the best way to run things, it’s better the chaos of instability. He’s a pragmatist, which fits in with everything we already knew about him, while adding a bit of clarity.
The same can be said for Quark’s desperate passion for Natima. This is the second romance Quark has had on the show, and much as with “Rules Of Acquisition,” it’s great to see him put into a traditional hero role. And even more so than in the earlier episode, he’s really, really romantic. His relationship with Pel was mostly made up of jokes about how she was actually a woman in disguise, but with Natima, Quark has a history, and she treats him with the same disdain-bordering-on-passion that you’d expect of two humans in a similar situation. This could’ve been a gag, but “Profit And Loss” treats their history and connection with utmost sincerity; while Quark never betrays his nature (in that he’s still largely self-interested), he’s also completely honest about his feelings for the Cardassian woman, and the fact that she returns those feelings is actually plausible. Maybe it’s the fact that both actors are buried under heavy make-up, but their overtures of affection basically work. Sure, Natima isn’t the most vibrant personality. (Ingrid Bergman could get away with this because, y’know, she was Ingrid Bergman.) But for this episode to work, we have to believe Quark is seriously invested in trying to keep Natima around. And I did. I briefly wondered if he might be making some long con type of play, but he isn’t. Armin Shimerman does a terrific job of finding still more room for feeling in Quark’s character. The episode is never transcendent, but it holds together, and that’s due in no small part to the actor’s continued excellence.
Of course, all this mushiness doesn’t mean Quark has lost all sense of proportion. Like Bogart, he wants his love to stay behind, but unlike Bogart, when the chips come down, Quark isn’t willing to sacrifice his happiness, not even with the fate of Cardassia at stake. When Garak learns the Cardassian government has no plans of ending his exile, he shoots Toran and decides to let Natima and the others go. (It’s a weird moment; Robinson makes it work, but it’s almost as if he decides not to kill the rebels just to piss off the already vaporized Toran.) Quark thinks this means Natima will stay behind with him, but she has her own plans. So there’s no “Here’s looking at you, kid,” although “So all I have to do to get you back is wait until Cardassia becomes a free and democratic society?” is a reasonable substitute. Both of this week’s episodes are lightweight entries, not because they lack urgent drama and catastrophe, but because they vanish from the mind soon after watching. The stories are competent and thin, and the big impression I come away with is the depth of this show’s ensemble, and how good the writers and actors are at adding personality to even the most generic script. And who knows. Natima claims Rekelen and Hogue (which sounds like the title of a really strange cop show) are the future of Cardassia, and while we don’t know much about their philosophy, beyond their distrust of the military government, maybe they’ll have some effect in the months to come. That’s the other joy of this show; while the serialization isn’t particularly intense, it’s always present, and any tossed off line or background revelation might pay dividends down the line.
- Lest I sound like I’m damning with faint praise, it is really, really difficult to correctly convey the right distinction between a good (or fine, or decent) hour of TV and a great one. Bad, I can identify, great I can usually catch, but just a bit better than average—well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and it’s an indication of the strength of a show at just how well it handles its middling episodes. But I want to save my hossanahs for when the show earns ‘em.
- The exchange between Garak and Quark in Garak’s shop is terrific. The two characters haven’t had a lot of screentime together, but it really works; I especially how Quark isn't entirely sure what Garak is getting at, but understands well enough to know the right way to respond.
- Also great: Quark begging Odo to let Natima go. Really, any time these guys hang out is excellent.
Next week: Dax has to deal with a “Blood Oath,” and things get complicated with “The Maquis, part 1.”