“In the end, it all comes down to luck.”
This is my third time through the entire series of DS9, not counting the innumerable instances I’ve caught full or partial episodes on TV or cued up one of my favorites from the collection. I have a pretty good idea of the contents of an episode before I screen it for review. Sometimes, it’s down to only the basic skeleton of the plot, but there’s always something. Which is what made this week’s episode, “Rivals,” so weird. I couldn’t remember a single thing. Oh, I had a vague image of Chris Sarandon — that’s Prince Humperdink — standing at a doorway with lights, but that’s all. It was like the episode had abducted me like a UFO, and I was going to wake up with bits of latinum in my skin.
As it turns out, there’s a good reason I didn’t remember this one. It feels like a bad TNG concept brutally stretched out to fill a flabby running time. And, there’s a good reason for that: it was a story originally pitched to TNG and purchased for DS9 when they needed something to fill out the 26-episode order they had for the second season. In today’s climate, where the showrunner is the closest thing to a sacrosanct position, it’s strange that random stories were being bought. It was commonplace on TNG, who would even purchase vague ideas and then develop them into something. (The episode where Data has a dream was one of these.) Television, at the time, was not about telling long, serialized, novel-length stories, but filling hour-long chunks with ultimately disposable entertainment. If an airing was missed, there was no on-demand service to catch up, and no DVR to record it, so an ongoing story was actually an inconvenience. The only way to watch something later required VCR programming, a skill so arcane, every hack stand-up comic was legally mandated to do at least three minutes on it.
In “Rivals,” Chris Sarandon plays Martus Mazur, an El-Alurian, otherwise known as one of Guinan’s race. Instead of turning his power of super-listening toward being a maternal bartender, Martus is a conman. Arrested by Odo on an outstanding warrant, Martus meets a dying alien named Cos in jail. For some unfathomable reason, Cos was allowed to keep this little, beeping ball which looks like what might happen if L.A. Gear made thermal detonators. It’s a game of some kind, but all it does is beep a little and occasionally make a sad, little sound. If it were a droid, I would have it treated for depression. Cos dies and Martus takes the game. The couple who originally wanted to press charges on Martus suddenly change their minds, so he gets released. He first tries to sell the game to Quark, before replicating bigger ones for a brand new casino on the Promenade.
While this should touch off a titanic and hilarious struggle of two conmen trying to out-swindle one another, it’s mostly just them occasionally scowling at one another across the Promenade. The bright spot is Rom, who leaves Quark to work for Martus, and then comes right back when Martus proves just as bad. As Rom storms out, he hilariously offers his arm to a Dabo girl with a, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” And, she goes. Yep, Rom’s got the sex appeal, and this of all things will come back later.
As this is happening, probability is going haywire on the station. Minor accidents have filled up the infirmary, and the finicky computers are eating and coughing up files seemingly at random. Eventually, Dax links the problem to a weird neutrino spin (I don’t know anything about neutrinos, but the science consultant for the episode has since pointed out that he was totally wrong about neutrinos spinning in different directions,), which is localized in Martus’s club. They deduce that the games are the culprits, and Dax and Commander Sisko shoot the games with phasers. And, that’s it. Martus gets arrested as his luck runs out, and that couple decides to press charges after all. Oh yeah, and there was another con artist working on him the whole time.
It sounds like there should be enough there for a rollicking, good time, but nothing gels. Chris Sarandon can be a fine performer if he’s in his wheelhouse. He’s fantastic as the slimy Prince Humperdink, and he’s the only person who has ever been scary in a giant ‘80s sweater in the original Fright Night. Here, he’s too stilted and aloof, which plays poorly off Armin Shimerman’s charismatic and naturalistic work as Quark. While it’s tough to keep up with Shimerman (even though Rene Auberjonois and Max Grodénchik do a great job nearly every week), he can and does carry people during scenes. Nothing against Sarandon, but there’s no spark of rivalry between the two of them.
Layering on top of it a luck plot that would be far more at home on the Enterprise is a bridge too far, as well. What’s the fun in watching two swindlers at the tops of their games when blind luck determines who wins? While the bad luck plaguing certain people does have one solid laugh, courtesy of Kira of all people, it actively goes against the drama of the unfolding plot. And, this is petty, but normally the prop people do really amazing work on the show. I don’t understand how to play Dabo, or Tongo, or even Chula, but the boards look like something that could conceivably be played as a game and might even be fun. Tongo especially looks awesome. This game? It’s just a beeping ball! Touch the ball, it beeps, and if it’s a happy beep, you win, sad beep you lose. What the f— is that? How is that fun? That’s not a game. That’s barely even an activity!
Enough about the stuff I didn’t like. I was very specific in that I said the A-plot was terrible. That’s because the B-plot is actually pretty good. It’s another step on the journey of Bashir and O’Brien to becoming the odd couple pals that they are destined to be. Both men play racquetball — and though it’s a weird, futurey version with a bizarre angled court, they thankfully still just call it racquetball — and O’Brien has turned a room into a playing area. Sadly, the other guy who plays is Dr. Bashir, who was a collegiate champion. Bashir mops the floor with O’Brien, who has to confront the fact that he’s in his late thirties and has maybe lost a step or two.
They each come home from their first match unsatisfied, O’Brien because he hates being beaten, and Bashir because he hated beating the Chief. In a refreshingly non-creepy meal with Dax, underlining that Bashir is actually a decent guy and respecting Dax’s desire for friendship, he specifically says that he hated doing it because of the respect he has for Chief O’Brien. Keiko gets some great moments here, too. Because she had to give up her career for her husband, she can come off as a little shrewish in some episodes, even though her point of view is totally understandable. Here, she serves as the supportive wife, even giving O’Brien a pretty badass token — a silk handkerchief in a medieval Japanese design, scented with her perfume — before his climactic game with Bashir. As for the two men, they find common ground in the game when the probability starts acting up strangely, prompting them to present a united front. And, all proceeds went to Bajoran war orphans. Seriously.
Next up: Odo and his dad bond