Wrath of Khan is, in many ways, the least-Star Trek-like Star Trek movie. It’s a tale of violence and revenge, of ear slugs and Nietzchean supermen. It’s not about utopia, or exploration, or brotherhood, or anything else Roddenberry’s vision was supposed to be about. It’s a submarine movie set in space.
And, it’s absolutely riveting. The ironic thing is Roddenberry’s ergonomically iconic future is highly unlikely as the future of space travel. Not the post-scarcity utopia part, but the idea of these vaulted rooms and winding hallways with enough headroom not to hit your head. No, in space, space (no pun intended) is at a premium. Spaceships are likely to be claustrophobic nightmares, the human cargo in stasis while the ship’s AI, assisted by numerous tiny insectoid do the actual running of the ship.
Yes, I realize this is specific. I’m a sci-fi writer. I’m literally paid to think about this stuff.
The point is that a submarine movie is actually far more “realistic” to what space travel is likely to be like. This week, DS9 does its own sub-episode, and, surprise, it’s one of my favorite hours of the season.
The Defiant is off in the Gamma Quadrant (Seriously, guys? Do you just not care about the Dominion?) on a diplomatic mission with the Karemma. Remember them? They’re the mercantile arm of the Dominion, a capitalistic race who would rather trade then get involved in pointless wars. To abide by the letter of Dominion law, however, they’re using the Ferengi as intermediaries for their trade with the Federation. And yes, this is a bit like allowing a Florida resident to guard your combination meth warehouse, strip club, and gator farm.
While negotiations between Minister Hanok (a nearly-unrecognizable James Cromwell), Captain Sisko, and Quark grow tense (you know, because Quark has been swindling the Karemma because of course he has), a pair of Jem’Hadar ships arrive at the meeting and attack the Karemma ship. Desperate not to die, the Karemma fly into the stormy atmosphere of a local gas giant, pursued by the Jem’Hadar, who are in turn pursued by the Defiant.
The Defiant isn’t built for atmospheric travel, and the atmosphere of a gas giant is sort of like the boss monster of atmospheres. The hull is buckling, visibility is nil, and the Defiant is desperately trying to save a merchant vessel from two of the most dangerous warships in the galaxy.
DS9 is one of my favorite shows, because it never leans on the Treknobabble that afflicts the other entries in the franchise. There is a certain amount of jury-rigging solutions, but they tend to the low-tech. Not a lot of switching polarity of tachyon fields. Here, it’s simple things like arming an atmospheric probe with a warhead to use as a makeshift torpedo, creating an active scanning system to see, and turning the deflector array into a one-shot phaser. They’re temporary, desperate solutions with intuitive, easy-to-understand stakes.
As the ship grows steadily more crippled, the crew finds itself in odd pairings, and each gets to advance their relationship with the other in some interesting way. It’s one of the reasons I like the episode so much; it balances two hallmarks of the series: exciting space battles and deep character work.
Sisko gets grievously injured taking out one of the Jem’Hadar ships, and Kira stays with him, keeping him awake with stories so he won’t slip into a coma. I’ve gone on and on about how difficult it must be for Kira to basically serve under Jesus, and this is where it comes to the fore. Sisko timed this mission to coincide with the Bajoran holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the Emissary’s -- his -- arrival, but Kira still faithfully observes it by fasting. When Sisko takes a turn for the worst, Kira comes right out and tells him that she knows he feels uncomfortable around her because of her religious beliefs. While he can’t respond very well to her soul-bearing, what with the concussion, he does extend an olive branch when they’re safe at DS9 by inviting her to a baseball game.
Bashir saves Dax from a hull breach, but in the process gets trapped with her in a small, poorly shielded alcove. He admits he used to have fantasies like this one, and the two of them finally confront the elephant in the room. Bashir was a creep. To his credit, he gets that he totally was and apologizes. They seem comfortable in this new relationship, and there’s no sign Bashir is merely waiting around for Dax to suddenly change her mind about him. Of course, like many beautiful women who are accustomed to men falling all over themselves to impress them, Jadzia does miss the admiration a little bit.
Quark and Hanok are in the mess hall when a faulty Jem’Hadar torpedo gets lodged in the wall and fails to explode. Quark takes the chance to wax philosophical on his favorite subject: gambling. Disarming the torpedo is a gamble, but it’s one where they have nothing to lose. Leave it, and it’ll explode. Disarm it and it might explode. 50/50. Quark likes those odds. It’s this bonding experience that lets both capitalists try to put aside their differences and get back to earning profit.
This is also an important episode for Worf. While he starts out on the bridge (in his soon-to-be customary position as auxiliary commander of the Defiant), he goes down to the Engine room when the bridge is effectively disabled. This is when he gets a crash course in something he never had to bother with: dealing with enlisted men. While he’s initially a hard ass about the whole thing, O’Brien takes him aside and tries to get him to play to the men’s strengths. Give them a problem to solve and they’ll solve it. Barking orders will get you nowhere. It continues Worf’s adjustment to his new environs, helping him become more a part of the station and her crew.
While researching the episode, I found out that it is less than popular amongst some of the writing staff. They wanted it to be a literal submarine episode, with the Defiant going underwater. Their logic was that dodging gas explosions doesn’t have the same visceral thrill of water flooding into a hallway. They were obsessed with eventually coming back and doing a submarine episode “right.”
If you ask me, they already did.
Next up: Someone call Mulder and Scully.