"The Passenger" (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 2/22/1993)
In which Bashir is touched by a stranger and goes a little mad…
Our theme this week: Aliens be crazy. Today’s double feature represents a new low, as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine engages in that classic of all Trek pastimes, hanging around with another species which has magic powers or some damn thing. This story type allows for a lot of freedom and inspired creativity; it also allows for some deeply goofy ideas, ideas that wouldn’t ever fly with established characters. Both of these episodes run to the goofy side, and neither are all that good. “The Passenger” goes for a sort of crime-horror story, “Move Along Home” just embraces the weirdness as much as it can, and neither is memorable for the right reasons. “The Passenger” is especially generic, a mystery which relies on poor communication between all parties and a one-dimensional villain, along with a lame, unsurprising twist. There are a few bright spots of character interaction, but the central storyline is a space filler (no pun intended), the sort of hook that probably sounded fun in a pitch meeting—”The bad guy takes over Bashir’s brain!”—but plays out about as clumsily as you’d expect.
The very first scene of the episode sets the mood: Kira and Bashir are returning to the station, and Kira congratulates Bashir on saving a life. Instead of taking the compliment gracefully, Bashir goes off on how brilliant he is, in a short speech which I think is supposed to be comedic, but comes off as irritating. Up until this point, Bashir has largely been defined by a certain naïveté, along with his general horniness and medical expertise; He’s like some over-eager med student, so determined to make the most of his new job that he doesn’t see the dangers until they smack him in the face. A certain amount of good-natured arrogance fits well with the characterization, and it wouldn’t take much effort to imagine Julian as the favored son from a wealthy family, on his own for the first time. But even in that context, the cold open doesn’t work. It’s too much, and the writer’s need to really nail the laugh makes the speech less about Bashir, and more about how silly it would be for someone to be so full of themselves. Alexander Siddig does what he can with it, playing up Bashir’s complete cluelessness that what he’s saying could be considered at all offensive or rude (he’s just stating the facts!), but it’s still cringe-inducing, and worse, it’s cringe-inducing in a distracting, underlined sort of way.
Then the whole “criminal genius who also happens to be able to body jump” plot arrives, and what was wince-inducing becomes flat and predictable. About the episode’s only surprise is that Bashir is the one who gets infected, and not Kajada, the cop escorting Vantika who’s obsessed with the idea that her prisoner might still be alive. I say “surprise” only in the loosest sense. Anyone paying attention would’ve realized the truth almost immediately, since
- the episode loudly telegraphs that Kajada may be possessed, which makes for an obvious feint,
- when “Vantika” grabs Quark from behind in the Promenade, he has a male voice, and he’s shorter than Kajada, and
- Vantika actually takes hold of Bashir’s neck and intones “Make… me… live” during the cold open.
Bashir doesn’t undergo an immediate personality change or start abusing his genitals with a crucifix, but there really isn’t much mystery here.
I’ll give the episode some credit for not overplaying the reveal as much as it might have, but it’s still pretty clunky, and nowhere near as creepy or cool as it needed to be to support an entire hour. Vantika is by necessity a personality-free bad guy, more of an idea than a conscious threat, one who spends the first half of “The Passenger” as an absentee boogeyman, and the rest as a speech impediment. There are potentially intriguing ideas here about immortality and hubris and crazy science, but those ideas don’t amount to much. In theory, the fact that we spend so much time hearing how terrifying and brilliant Vantika is should make his eventual “arrival” all the more powerful. In practice, though, it just makes Siddig’s attempts to convey menace by… speaking… slowly… seem all the more foolish. Also foolish? The name “Vantika,” which is not a word that you want to repeat too many times. It sounds like the name of a failed line of high-tech ladies fashion accessories. And “Kajada” ain’t much better as a name or a character, She’s a grim, inarticulate piece of wood who could’ve saved everyone a lot of trouble by just sharing what Vantika had been researching at the outset, instead of wandering around like the housekeeper in a haunted house. Yes, yes, everyone’s doomed, we get it, now maybe you could start in with the specifics.
In terms of the episode’s world-building elements, Quark gets involved with some actual illegitimate shenanigans this week, hiring a crew on Vantika’s orders to hijack a shipment of life-extending deuridium. (The Kobliad are a dying race, and require deuridium to survive. Which, by the way, would’ve made for a better story focus, but I digress.) It seems like the show has finally decided to give us hard proof of Quark’s nefarious ways, and this creates an odd balance for the character. On the one hand, it’s interesting to have a series regular who, every now and again, breaks the rules for his own benefit. On the other hand, Quark is flat out teamed up with a psychotic serial killer, and while the Ferengi isn’t directly involved with any murdering, he’s still a big part of the villain’s plan. I’m not sure that’s a level of moral dubiousness this show can really sustain. Quark as gray-area opportunist is fine; Quark as flunky who helps killers go on killing is something else entirely. If DS9 wants to go the latter route, it’s going to be hard to justify the character’s continued presence on the show without some serious moral accounting.
There’s also the arrival of George Primmin, a Starfleet-sanctioned security officer who arrives on the station to help safe-guard the deuridiium shipment and then just hangs out for a bit. His first act is to question Odo’s behavior, which puts the shape-shifter on the defensive side. As setups go, this one makes sense, and hits on something I hope we’ll see more of in the future: the Federation’s efforts to integrate Deep Space Nine into its system. Sure, Bajor isn’t an official member yet, but Sisko is in command of the station, and it makes sense that Starfleet would send more of its officers on board, both to assist Sisko, and to establish a base of bureaucracy that large organizations like the Federation tend to love. Out of everything in “The Passenger,” this small subplot is the most successful element, in that it gives us a problem that tells us about the people involved, and finds an answer in a satisfying, character-appropriate way. Primmin causes some stress, so Sisko orders him to pay attention to Odo; Odo is paranoid (justifiably so, really) that Primmin is there to take his job, so Sisko tells him to calm down, and assures him he’s still in charge. Then Primmin sees the error of his ways, and, picking up on Odo’s behavior, actually manages to spot a potentially massive security problem before it happens.
This is a not bad example of how predictable storylines don’t necessairly mean bad storylines. While Bashir-as-Vantika plays out with all the usual sci-fi babble, resolving itself not through character but through a last minute, “Press some buttons!”-style fix, Primmin and Odo get through their initial hostility in a way that makes sense, and says some good things about both men. We learn Primmin, though a bit of a stuffed shirt, can take orders and, what’s better, doesn’t ignore his mistakes. We also learn that Odo, while suspicious in nature, is more than willing to accept when he’s wrong and find common ground. In a largely drab outing, it’s nice that we can still find small exchanges like this one.
- I didn’t do a lot of summary in this writeup, mainly because the plot didn’t seem worth repeating. But: Vantika body jumps into Bashir, Kajada gets knocked out while trying to spy on Quark (and we get one of those hilarious scenes where a nearly comatose person manages to get out just a few words before collapsing, and those words aren’t of any use to anyone), Vantika-Bashir try and steal the ship with the deuridium shipment, Sisko and the others throw up a tractor beam just in time, and Dax manages to block out Vantika’s brain waves long enough for Bashir to take control.
- While talking with Dax about Vantika’s potential brain-jumping plans, Bashir throws out the old saw about how humans only use a small percentage of their brains. This isn’t true.
- Siddig’s performance as Vantika-Bashir is bizarre. I give him points for fully committing to an idea that could look ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean he looks any less ridiculous.
"Move Along Home" (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 3/14/1993)
In which we play a game, and everything is kind of stupid…
I have a soft spot for goofy Trek. Maybe it’s because I started this project with the original show, where it seemed like every other week I dealt with babe-robots who destruct with a kiss, totalitarian computers, and Abraham Lincoln (who, thank god, was not fighting vampires at the time). Few of these episodes were good in the traditional sense, but most of them were fun, and good-natured, and that goes a long way. So while I don’t think “Move Along Home” in any way qualifies as a quality episode of DS9, and while it once again sacrifices ensemble interaction in favor of an outside force, I didn’t hate it. It was utterly ridiculous, and most of the times I was laughing, I was laughing at the episode rather than with it, but when you’re dealing with mediocre TV, you take whatever laughter you can get.
Things start promisingly enough. Sisko is getting suited up in his fancy dress uniform, when Jake bounds in the room—remember Jake? Sisko’s son? Yeah, it’s been a while. Anyway, Sisko sets things up for Jake: A new race of aliens is coming about the station, and Sisko and his team are in charge of handling first contact. When the aliens arrive, things don’t go quite as expected. For one, Bashir has lost his dress uniform, which is an odd beat that’s neither funny, nor character-illuminating, nor, unless I missed something, at all relevant to the plot. For another, the aliens, who call themselves the Wadi, aren’t much interested in Sisko or any of the others. They want to go to Quark’s bar, because they hear he has games, so that’s where they go.
We’ve dealt with first contact before in the Trek-verse. Hell, there’s even a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “First Contact” (not to mention the movie, which, admittedly, isn’t really about first contact). “Move Along Home” isn’t really about Sisko trying to negotiate a relationship with the Wadi, mainly because the Wadi are basically nutters who exist only so we can have a 30-minute psuedo-holodeck segment. Most of the time, Trek makes an effort to create coherent societies for their aliens. Those societies aren’t always perfect, but they at least feel like they have a purpose beyond providing temporary narrative conflict. Then you have folks like the Wadi, who have one trait—they love games!—and, after a single episode, disappear forever. While “The Passenger” is dull stuff, at least the Kobliad seem they could exist outside the episode. The Wadi are like cartoon characters briefly granted the gift of flesh. They arrive, they spout some silly crap, they stress everybody out, and then they leave, without really changing much of anything.
The Wadi’s main gift is their love of the game Chula. They force Quark to play after they catch him trying to cheat them into a loss on the Dabo tables. What Quark doesn’t realize is that the four game pieces he’s moving around a giant plastic board represent Sisko, Bashir, Dax, and Kira, who have all been magicked from their rooms in the middle of the night and stuck into a game space with no clear connection to the outside world. As Quark tries to make the most of an unfamiliar challenge, Sisko and the others must make their way through several levels of Chula—called “Shaps”—solving the trap that awaits them on each level.
Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s even more ridiculous in practice, because throughout the game, Falow, the head of the Wadi delegation, keeps popping in to taunt Sisko and the others with the refrain, “Move along home.” It’s sort of spooky, but mostly stupid, which is the whole episode in a nutshell. There’s considerable time spent on worrying whether or not the four station crewmembers trapped in the game will find their way out, or if Quark will somehow manage to beat the system, but the suspense is never particularly suspenseful. For all their weirdness, the Wadi don’t seem evil or cruel enough to actually murder anyone, and they clearly understand the language and customs of other humanoid races enough for us to assume they won’t let Sisko die without realizing the action would have consequences.
Of course, that raises its own questions. Like, if the Wadi know enough about the station to know Quark has the gaming tables, shouldn’t they realize that there’s no real precedent in the area for a game like Chula? Throughout the episode, Sisko stresses over the need to effectively manage first contact, but arguably, the Wadi should be as interested in making sure the talks go well. Maybe even more so, given that they’re obsessed with games (again, this is the only thing we know about them). The Federation spans enough systems to potentially provide access to thousands of new games, and millions of potential participants. Yet the Wadi seem barely interested in anything beyond their immediate pleasure. They “win” in the end, embarrassing Quark and reassuring everyone that there was no real danger in a mild case of kidnapping, but unless they have some resources that Starfleet wants, I can’t imagine anyone picking up the phone and calling them again any time soon.
As for the adventures in Shap-jumping, well, if you ever wanted to see Avery Brooks playing hopscotch, here’s your chance. Like I said, this sort of silliness isn’t all bad, and the basic weirdness of the game in which Sisko and the others are trapped at least keeps the episode from being completely boring. But it’s all very Saturday-morning cartoonish. Given the setup, there’s no real other way for it to be. In one Shap (ugh), Dax and Bashir figure out they need to play a child’s game to continue; in another Shap (gah), Bashir realizes they need to drink from champagne flutes to stop themselves from being gassed. Then Quark rolls a die wrong, and Bashir gets eaten by some green light. About the only time Chula gets even close to legitimate drama is when we learn that one of the remaining players will have to be sacrificed for the other two to survive. Because Sisko refuses to leave Dax behind, everybody ends up “dying.” But since nobody really dies, and since Sisko had no way of knowing that keeping Dax alive would get them all “killed,” it’s essentially pointless.
Beyond the silliness, there are a couple not-terrible scenes. When Jake realizes his father is missing, he immediately goes to Odo, and I like the relationship between the boy and the constable; Odo is gruff, but he treats the boy’s concerns with respect. Quark also gets a nice moment when he realizes the bits of plastic he’s been treating as game pieces represent people with whom he works. When he hears he has to sacrifice one to save the others, he begs and pleads for the choice to be taken out of his hands. This isn’t the height of heroism, but it at least shows that Quark isn’t completely heartless.
That’s about it, really. In retrospect, there’s precious little to defend in this episode. It’s more memorable than “The Passenger,” and I had an easier time staying awake watching it, but that’s mostly because it’s hard to sleep when you keep saying, “The hell?” at your TV screen. Out of everything I’ve seen of DS9 so far, “Move Along Home” would fit the easiest into the first season of TNG. That is in no way a compliment.
- Jake has apparently started to learn about girls from Nog. It’s weird that Ferengi are into human, and very nearly human, women, right? It’s hard to imagine the reverse happening, although I suppose it’s possible. And it’s not like there are a ton of Ferengi ladies around for Nog to leer at.
- This marks the second, and last, appearance of Primmin. Goodbye, sir! You will be quickly forgotten.
- Anyone who says to “learn as you play” is getting ready to basically cheat the hell out of you.
- After enjoying Kira last week (and generally digging her in “The Passenger”), she’s really shrill here. Hard to blame her, really.
- “Dad, I’m 14.” “I’m glad we agree on something. Go to bed.”
Next week: We spend some time getting to know the Ferengi in “The Nagus,” and Odo is tempted by the “Vortex.”