Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "One Little Ship"/"Honor Among Thieves" 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "One Little Ship"/"Honor Among Thieves" 

“One Little Ship” (season 6, episode 14; originally aired 2/18/1998)
In which Dax, Bashir, and O’Brien take a fantastic voyage...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

A show’s genre qualifies our expectations of it. I wouldn’t expect to see zombies wandering through the background of Mad Men, as awesome as that would be; conversely, I’d be shocked to find rich characterizations and thoughtful commentary about the shifting of cultural norms on The Walking Dead. (Zing!) Over time, a show develops a niche, creating expectations that define it even when set against other shows of a similar type. Those limits establish what stories the writers can tell, creating limits which in turn help to ground the reality of what we’re watching. There is no actual rule that says a witch can’t show up at the front door of Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce at the start of next season, but it would be a terrible idea. It would break the reality of the show, and the fact that the show has no real fundamental reality makes that reality even more necessary to protect. This is delicate business, and television is littered with examples of showrunners overstepping invisible lines and threatening to knock everything over for good. (Ask a Friday Night Lights fan about Landry and season 2, but only if you have a few minutes.)

The fact that DS9 is a science fiction show—and a semi-fantastical one at that—means that the writers have a lot of wiggle room before they’d be in any risk of going too far. Maybe if a vampire showed up (I’m on a Halloween kick today), without any accompanying pseudo-scientific explanation, that would break something. Who knows. I’ll say this much, though: shrinking three major characters to the size of thumbtacks is about as close as I hope we’ll ever get to zombies on the bridge. It’s so silly that it threatens to become absurd in unintentional ways. Yet “One Little Ship” is charming, and fun, enough to justify the risk. Maybe that’s the only real guideline: the bigger the chance you take, the stranger or more potentially distracting the twist, the harder you have to work to earn it.

“Hard work” isn’t the first phrase that pops to mind when it comes to describing this episode, which follows the adventures of a miniaturized Dax, Bashir, and O’Brien as they fight to save a regular-sized Defiant from the clutches of the Jem’Hadar; this story succeeds because it keeps things light. it’s not a comedy, exactly, although there are funny bits. The situation is played straight, even as the characters throw jokes at each other to try and keep their spirits up. But it is fun, which is pretty much a requirement with such an inherently goofy idea. This is an adventure, pure and simple, with menacing bad guys and determined heroes, and there’s no intense moral questions or dire tragedy to force us to take the premise more seriously than we should. If there was, the shots of a tiny Rubicon floating through the Defiant’s engine room and various corridors would strain credulity to the breaking point. Because things are briskly paced and engaging, it’s much easier to just enjoy the ride without questioning the particulars. The “hard work,” then, comes in the polished, well constructed script by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, and the surprisingly convincing effects work. The writers wisely keep the shrunken heroes inside the Rubicon for most of the running time, and it just looks—well, it looks kind of adorable. In a good way!

So, bottom line is, this is nifty bit of television, another highlight in a season which has so far been impressively full of such highlights. This wouldn’t be DS9, though, if there weren’t some subtleties to discuss. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was missing some good old fashioned Bashir/O’Brien banter, and “One Little Ship” is full of the stuff; O’Brien’s response to a crisis is to worry and work on the problem, while Bashir’s response is to mock O’Brien’s concerns, a dynamic which somehow doesn’t make either character come off poorly. The highlight is their trip inside a computer system to do, well, it’s very complicated and technical and involves them needing to release the bridge controls to the engine room so Sisko can take control of the ship, but all that really matters is that the set looks cool, and it gives the two chums a chance to work together, which they do quite well. Dax, meanwhile, is an excellent leader of the trio, and while it makes sense that she’d be in charge, given her rank and her experience, it’s still nice to see a woman in command without anyone even considering questioning her role. (It never even occurred to me to notice this until just now, and I’m still probably over-stressing it, so good job, show.)

Sisko, Kira, Nog, and Worf’s efforts to defeat the Jem’Hadar are solid; I especially like how Nog’s become an important member of the team, even coming close to bonding with Worf. Or at least helping to cover for Worf when the Dax and the others try to embarrass him, which is about the same. But the really interesting details in this episode come from what we learn about a new development with the Jem’Hadar soldiers. Because of Sisko’s successful return to Deep Space Nine (and the Prophets helpful “Oh, we’ll just take care of that for you” gesture), the Vorta have had to breed a new group of Jem’Hadar on this side of the wormhole. This new group are called “alphas,” and there is definite tension between the non-alphas and their apparent replacements. This tension is demonstrated by the strained relations between the group’s First, Kuduk’Etan (Scott Thompson Baker), an arrogant alpha, and the Second, Ixtana’Rax (Fritz Sperberg), an old schooler with more experience in the field. Throughout the hour, Ixtana’Rax repeatedly gives Kuduk’Etan the sort of advice that would’ve made this a very short (and sad, for our heroes) episode, and the First angrily tells him to hold his tongue.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Jem’Hadar is how their innate subservience to the Founders and their aggressive natures work against each other in unexpected ways. From what we see here, there’s little doubt that Kuduk’Etan and his fellow alphas are as driven and focused on victory for their leaders as earlier iterations of the Jem’Hadar are, but that drive manifests itself as a reckless self-confidence, and a need to prove themselves unique (and thus better, and more honorable, than their predecessors) leads to potentially disastrous blindness. Even a seemingly perfect system, one which relies on servants genetically engineered to do one’s bidding, has its risks. In creating the Jem’Hadar, the Changelings sought to build the perfect warrior: fanatical, physically gifted, and stripped of all excess concerns. But sentient life will always find ways to justify its existence, and if the only avenue for that justification is a deeper commitment to the honor of battle, and a pride in service, you’re creating a race of super powerful killers who live perpetually on the borders of madness. The white keeps them in check (although note how Kuduk’Etan subverts the usual ritual; he distributes the drug amongst his own, and assures them there’s no need to recite the usual oaths, because their deeds are what defines them), but the balance won’t last forever.

This is all very under the radar for right now, though; the writers want us to be aware that shifts are happening, and I’m sure those shifts will eventually have some sort of pay-off down the line, but “One Little Ship” resolves without much in the way of moral complexity, and is all the better for it. The Rubicon helps to save the day, everyone’s restored to their normal size, Worf makes a funny (a really good one, too), and Odo and Quark team up to mock O’Brien and Bashir. It’s hard to ask for much more than that.

Stray observations:

  • The miniaturization is accomplished via some space anomaly thingie which is best not questioned too closely; I feel like, if it were possible to shrink someone down very small on a regular basis, this would raise questions I have no interest in the show trying to answer.
  • That final scene really is terrific. Both Worf’s joke (he reads the first line of an intentionally terrible poem to Dax) and Odo and Quark’s gag (Odo suggests that Bashir and O’Brien have come back shorter from their experience, and Quark concurs) are brief, but warm and necessary glimpses of everyone going about their usual business.
  • “Don’t worry, I have a light touch.” -Dax “Not according to Worf.” -Bashir. Hey-o!
  • “And people say you don’t have a sense of humor.” -Quark

“Honor Among Thieves” (season 6, episode 15; originally aired 2/18/1998)
In which O’Brien can’t fuggaaboutit...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Of all the things I was expecting from a mid-season episode of DS9, a Donnie Brasco riff was not one of them. In fact, I was so not expecting it that it took me maybe half of “Honor Among Thieves” to realize what was going on. In my defense, the homage (we will be polite and label it as such) doesn’t really get cooking until O’Brien visits Liam Bilby’s apartment, and realizes what a friendly sad sack the old bastard really is. Up until then, the story is a typical enough “let’s go undercover with the mob!” plot, as O’Brien uses his technological know-how to ingratiate himself with a trio of low rent crooks who run jobs for the Orion Syndicate. But once we get a better sense of who Bilby (Nick Tate) is, the reference point becomes impossible to ignore. Colm Meaney may not be the world’s most convincing stand-in for Johnny Depp, but he fits quite nicely into the role of a good guy pretending to be a bad one to catch some real villains. And Nick Tate may not be Pacino, but he does a great job as a decent guy who loves his family a whole lot, and has a pet cat named Chester, and oh yeah is also a crook who’s willing to kill people.

I don’t know as DS9 needed a mob episode. The show is always willing to poke around different cultures and try and figure out what makes them tick, but a cartoonishly evil criminal organization doesn’t strike me as a topic that’s ripe for study. Halfway through the episode, a Vorta shows up in the company of Bilby’s Orion contact, and there’s an effort made to tie this all back into the season’s main plot; Bilby gets a mission to murder the local Klingon Ambassador, but to do it in such a way as to frame Gowron for the crime, thus creating strife in the Empire, strife that will help the Dominion in its war against the Federation.

That’s a clever way to pull everything together, and it’s a good example of how the show’s attention to serialization pays off even in minor episodes. The Vorta’s appearance demonstrates just how far the Dominion War has spread, and keeping the season’s threat present even in a story that isn’t necessarily dedicated to moving the big picture forward. But it doesn’t really explain why O’Brien has been sucked into this situation in the first place. His Starfleet contact, Chadwick (Michael Harney, who I think is going for low-key but mostly ends up being very, very boring), tells him how multiple other undercovered operative have been killed trying to get inside the Syndicate, which is a necessary gesture to establish the stakes, but also serves to underline how inappropriate O’Brien is for this kind of work. He was a soldier, and I can imagine him doing reconnaissance, but out of all the people available, is the Chief Engineer of what might be the most important space station in the universe really the best guy to call when you want to get a bead on a bunch of crooks? He succeeds, because that’s what O’Briens do best, but it seems like a misplaced application of a very important tool.

Maybe “Honor Among Thieves” is another entry in the Hard Times For O’Brien signature series, although it doesn’t really come off that way. He’s deeply troubled by the end of the episode, and for good reason, but there’s little of the physical and mental torment he’s endured in the past. The crux of his dilemma here is that the more he gets to know Bilby, the more he gets to like him. And that inevitably leads to a horrified moment when he realizes that in order to do his job, he’s going to have to send his friend to his death. Not just betray him, not just doom him to spending the remainder of his years in a Federation prison; actually set him up to be killed. And since it’s Klingons who will do the killing, it’s not going to be an easy death. That is a rough spot to be in, and to its credit, the episode treats it seriously, even if it never really rises above the mafia-in-alien-clothing trappings. The last scene between Bashir and O’Brien suggests that this incident will haunt the Chief for a long time. (It also inadvertently reminds us how long it’s been since we’ve seen Keiko on the show.)

This conceit wouldn’t work if we, too, didn’t fall a bit for Bilby, much like Donnie Brasco wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it didn’t feature one of Al Pacino’s best performances in years. Nick Tate does a fine job, and while Rene Echevarria’s script tips its hand a little too much in making him sympathetic, the actor makes that sympathy feel earned regardless. It’s a gratifyingly complex view of criminality from a show that tends to make bad guys of this sort into either comic relief or heavy-handed thugs. Bilby is neither. Admittedly, no one around him is offered the same respect; Krole (Carlos Carrasco) and Flith (John Chandler) are pretty much your standard henchmen, all cowardly cringing and ineptitude. The impression that the three criminals are getting near the ends of their various ropes is obvious, and that makes them a little more interesting, but for the most part, Bilby’s the show. His constant exhortations about the importance of family make him more than just a bully with a gun, and the clear shine he takes to O’Brien suggest a desperately lonely man who wishes he had someone to talk to who had more on his mind than cadging free meals from a computer system. As character studies go, it’s not bad, and Tate and Meaney work well together.

It’s just, once you spot the movie connection, it’s distracting how indebted Rene Echevarria and Philip Kim are to their unacknowledged (at least officially) source. Bilby takes a shine to O’Brien because he’s lonely, and also because he needs someone competent in his organization to impress the bosses with; he’s down on his luck and could use a boost. He even buys O’Brien clothes to wear. In the moment that basically dooms him, Bilby vouches for his new protege to the boss, Raimus (Joseph Culp), which means that if O’Brien fails live up to the Syndicate’s high standards, both men will be punished. All of this is familiar to anyone who’s seen Donnie Brasco, and while the arc is a familiar one to undercover stories, the specifics are needlessly, well, specific.

Or maybe it’s just this isn’t really a story that suits the show all that well. O’Brien is the nominal protagonist, but O’Brien is a quiet man, and his time undercover isn’t long enough for him to get a really good case of angst going. Which means that Bilby dominates the episode, and as solid as Tate is, the character’s journey isn’t really compelling enough to justify the spotlight for this long. “Honor Among Thieves” is far from a bad episode, and the fact that it follows through in the end, and Bilby does die, means its moving in its small way. But even with the Vorta’s presence, events are so detached from the parts of the show we really care about that the whole thing comes off like an odd, unnecessary detour. When it comes to fiction, steal if you need to; but if you steal, you better make sure to make what you take your own.

Stray observations:

  • At one point, Bilby gets O’Brien a prostitute. The lady doesn’t have a single line and is, as far as I could tell, the only woman to appear in the hour.

Next week: Happy Thanksgiving! We’ll be back December 5th with “Change Of Heart” and “Wrongs Darker Than Death Or Night.”  

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