“We’ll make a sailor out of you yet.”
— Commander Benjamin Sisko
By now everyone knows what “jumping the shark” means. It’s the inverse that a lot of people have trouble with. The term, according to TV Tropes, is “growing the beard,” and it references the second season of Star Trek: TNG when Riker farmed his familiar facial hair. The beard itself wasn’t the reason for the quality — it was more that TNG figured out it wasn’t TOS — but the beard is useful shorthand to know whether or not you’re about to waste an hour or not. The weird thing is that it works pretty well with DS9, too. Granted, there are plenty of great episodes before Sisko grows his goatee, but if you see it, you’re practically guaranteed a good time.
That’s right, the most often-cited indicator of DS9’s quality has finally happened. Although, it really comes in two stages, the second being when Sisko shaves his head for the Season 4 premiere. That’s when he goes from Commander Sisko, good officer, to Captain Sisko, ultimate badass of the Alpha Quadrant.
In fact, this episode, intended as a slow-paced breather after the amazing insanity of the previous two-parter is deceptively important for series continuity. Not only does it establish the all-important chin-decoration, but it features the first appearance of Leeta the Dabo Girl, the first mention (though not by name) of freighter captain Kasidy Yates, and the beginning of Jake’s career as a writer. Oh sure, we learned that he wrote love poetry back in “The Abandoned,” but let this novelist assure you: poetry and prose are two entirely different animals.
I haven’t even gotten to the actual episode. At this point it probably sounds like Sisko entered a beard-growing contest against a Dabo Girl, while Jake writes a story about a freighter captain. Nope, this is altogether more simple. Sisko has latched onto Bajoran legends that they explored their star system eight hundred years ago in light vessels powered by solar sails. There are even some who believe they made it all the way to Cardassia. To find out, Sisko decides to build a ship, using the techniques of the time. Remember, Sisko is a shipwright — he helped design the Defiant, which is the single best combat ship in the Quadrant. He is also a builder and father, his two most important traits, both of which take center stage in this hour.
The lightship, when designed, is a triumph of production design. It looks like a beetle, and when the solar sails unfold, they are graceful, insectile wings. On the inside, it appears like an old sailing vessel, complete with brass fixtures.
He envisions this as a chance to bond with his son. A kind of future camping trip that this time Quark, Nog, and the Jem’Hadar won’t crash. With Sisko’s enthusiasm for doing things exactly like the ancient Bajorans (though with artificial gravity because “weightlessness makes [him] queasy”), it’s easy to see a modern father trying to get his teenaged son psyched about a couple days pooping in a hole without Netflix. Incidentally, the toilet in the lightship is intended for zero gravity and is implied to be on the wall. I don’t even want to know how that works.
The two of them spend the time as Sisko hoped: bonding. While this was the kind of episode that annoyed me when it first aired, as I had no real frame of reference for it and would have liked them to get back to the space battles please, it holds up remarkably well. Brooks does some of his best work opposite Lofton, and Sisko never comes off as less than a caring and attentive father. He’s seeing that his little boy is growing up before his eyes, and occasionally that hits him hard.
The biggest revelation is that Jake is old enough to take a kind of caretaker role for his father. For one thing, Jake’s decided that it’s time for the old man to date, and not only that, he’d like to fix him up. There’s a freighter captain who’s interested. It’s a thrill hearing the first mention of Kasidy Yates here, a character who goes on to have great importance in the Emissary’s life.
Jake was also accepted to a writing fellowship on Earth. He’s deferred it, because he doesn’t want to leave his father behind. That, more than anything, gives Sisko pause. He is the one who is supposed to be there for Jake, not vice versa. To see that his son views him as vulnerable, and to be a little correct in that assumption, is a new one. Jake loves the old man, and Sisko knows that he’s raised a good guy.
On the voyage, a tachyon eddy accelerates the lightship to warp speed, and they do make it to Cardassia. Gul Dukat is there to greet them and inform them that their arrival just happens to coincide with the discovery of a Bajoran lightship crash site from around eight hundred years ago. Since Dukat spent the earlier part of the episode trying to dissuade Sisko from his quixotic quest, it’s pretty clear what’s going on there.
Meanwhile, Bashir is still stewing over that pre-ganglionic fiber/post-ganglionic nerve fiasco. I had forgotten how much hay the writers made over that. I’m going to be hearing it in my sleep. Anyway, Dr. Elizabeth Lense, the valedictorian at Starfleet med school to Bashir’s salutatorian, is on the station. Her ship, the Lexington, was the plum assignment for Bashir’s class, and though he wanted DS9, the fact that Lense could have had his posting tarnishes it somewhat for him. After a series of misunderstandings, the two make peace. It comes out that while Bashir thinks of starship life as a romantic series of adventures, Lense envies him. She maybe gets to scratch the surface before being forced to move along, but Bashir is allowed to build something lasting.
It’s not hard to look at this as DS9 stating its position in relation to TNG. Exploration versus development. While it’s very easy to look at a starship zipping from place to place and see nothing but the adventure, it’s also easy to forget that they leave wherever they arrived as soon as they get there. There’s no time for any depth. The Enterprise dealt with Bajor in “Ensign Ro” and then promptly zoomed off into space. DS9 hung out for seven seasons through coups, holy wars, occupations, famine, immigration, and any number of problems. Picard solved one problem per planet. Sisko solved a bunch of problems for one planet. Both approaches have their undeniable allure, and are valuable parts of the Trek universe. Starfleet needs men like Picard — skilled diplomats and intrepid explorers. But, they also need men like Sisko — wonderful fathers raising the next generation, and builders who can create institutions of lasting value for utopia.
Next up: Quark goes home.