“Even in the darkest moments, you can always find something that’ll make you smile.”
— Captain Benjamin Sisko
By this point in the series, the writing was on the wall. The Federation and the Dominion were going to go to war. The writers even spent some time beforehand clearing the slate for the blow up. Sure, they still had about 52 hours to fill, and some of that would be weird one-offs (that feel even stranger in the midst of the Dominion War storyline), but it was time to get the main plot going. Because seasons are best finished out on a cliffhanger, the logical time to kick off the war would be to close out the stellar season five.
So, what do you do with the episode right before that? After the darkness of “Empok Nor,” and the coming grimness of the war, they needed something lighthearted. It’s also not a bad idea to check in with Jake Sisko, who has faded into the background (and rightfully so), but remains an integral part of the fabric of the show. Ironically enough, his pal Nog, by joining Starfleet, has become a much more visible presence. Here, the writers made the decision to pair up the odd couple friends, and as usual, it pays dividends.
The station is under a black cloud. Starships are going missing along the Cardassian (now Dominion) border. The war is universally acknowledged to be inevitable. Odo remarks that he’s seeing similar jumps in crime — specifically thefts of food and medicine — that he saw just before the Cardassians pulled out of DS9. To make matters worse, a representative from the Dominion, specifically the delightfully oily Weyoun, is coming to the station for a summit with Kai Winn.
Winn reaches out to Sisko for advice. The Dominion wants a non-aggression pact with Bajor which smells like the first step toward conquest. Bajor, though, stands alone. They have since “Rapture,” when Sisko’s vision promised doom for the planet if they joined the Federation. Sisko reassures Winn that in this situation, the both of them are completely aligned in this instance. Yes. Things have gotten so bad that Kai Winn is the good guy. Let that sink in a little bit.
Jake wants to cheer his dad up, and he finds just the thing. Quark is auctioning off the eclectic contents of a salvaged freighter’s hold. One of the lots is a chest containing several weird items, but the important one to Jake is a 1951 Willie Mays rookie baseball card. Sisko, of course, is a long established superfan of baseball who would jump at the chance for a cool piece of memorabilia like that. Besides, you have to love Willie Mays. The man could play.
The initial problem is that Jake has no money to bid on anything. He is, after all, human. So, he hits Nog up for his life savings (five bars of latinum secreted under his bed, much to Quark’s annoyance). The best part here is we get what amounts to a friendly Facebook debate between the two friends. Nog wags his finger at the foolish human who abandoned capitalism. Jake tries to get on a high horse about the human philosophy of self-improvement, but it’s pretty clear he’s reciting something from imperfect memory. Pretty soon he devolves into disconnected muttering. It’s the perfect way to poke fun at the Federation’s utopian ideals, by having a citizen pay condescending lip service to them. Eventually, Jake successfully guilts Nog into putting up the stake, mostly by invoking Sisko’s status as Nog’s reluctant mentor.
Unfortunately for them, they get outbid by a twitchy man later revealed to be Dr. Elias Giger, a mad scientist. Now, oftentimes, I’m of the mind that people concentrate too much on the first part of that term without properly celebrating the second. Here, it’s pretty clear that the “mad” part is the important bit. Dr. Giger has decided that the cause of death is cellular boredom. His solution is a chamber that will entertain cells with like, Netflix or something. He’s not too terribly clear on it. He agrees to give the card to the boys if they can scavenge together a collection of pieces that will help him on his bizarre quest and to avoid “the soulless minions of orthodoxy.”
What follows calls to mind the B-plot of the first season episode “Progress.” That was back when Jake and Nog decided to make some cash by trading one thing for another, for another, and so on, until they were left with nothing at all. Here, they have a concrete goal in mind, and in their pursuit of it, accidentally put the best parts of capitalism into action. The fundamental idea of capitalism, that everyone gets something they want more by trading something they want less, is a good one, practically designed to increase happiness. The problem is that it seldom works this way in practice. Here, it does, with both boys trading favors for the items Giger wants, getting Chief O’Brien time to kayak in the holosuite, recovering Dr. Bashir’s teddy bear from Leeta, filtering out distortions in Worf’s operas, or adding a little humor to Kira’s speech.
Eventually, the boys run afoul of the Dominion. Giger’s quarters were right below Weyoun’s, and the Vorta is understandably interested in what’s going on. He initially takes Jake and Nog to be spies or saboteurs, but correctly susses out the true story. Jake’s lie about Willie Mays possibly being a dangerous time traveler was kind of thin. Weyoun is interested in Giger’s work and is just fine with insuring the card make its way to Sisko. It’s important to note that Weyoun is a people pleaser. It’s right there in his genetic code. If he can curry a tiny bit of favor that costs him nothing, he’s going to do it. Being petty or violent? Well, that’s what you have the Jem’Hadar for.
The end result is that the black cloud hanging over the station has dissipated. The side effect of the boys doing all those favors is that everyone gets a little win under their belts. Kira’s speech goes well, Worf can listen to his music, O’Brien gets to shoot those rapids, and Dr. Bashir has his first patient back. Okay, Leeta is confused and distressed, but she’s the only one. And, of course, Sisko gets a very cool piece of baseball memorabilia, a gift from a loving son and an admiring cadet. It’s a light episode, but at this point in the season, that’s exactly what we needed.
Next up: War.