“This is the story of a little ship, that took a little trip…”
— Lt. Commander Worf
Pacing is one of the paramount concerns of any fiction writer. Essentially, that’s how fast the events in the story unfold. A well-paced story can be slow or it can be fast, but the ultimate goal is to create a seamless experience for the audience. A perfectly paced story is one where no one checks their watches and doesn’t even think about the bathroom.
The use of comic relief is one of the tricks of pacing. If things are becoming too heavy, just nonstop depressing, like a puppy’s funeral or a DC superhero movie, you throw in a scene of levity to lighten things up. One classic example is the “knock knock” scene in MacBeth. You can be forgiven if that part didn’t make you laugh when you read the play. Comedy hadn’t quite been invented in Shakespeare’s time.
Pacing also unfolds across both shorter and longer periods, and these are even more challenging. In-scene pacing insures that anything inside a scene is moving at a decent clip, and season pacing is all about the episodes being in a satisfying order for viewing. In other words, not too many heavy episodes in a row, not too many light episodes, mythology episodes interspersed with monsters-of-the-week, and so on. In the old days, pre-binge technology, you would be waiting at least a week for a new episode, so one had to tide you over. The upside was that the instant reaction was gone by the time you tuned in again. Some modern series, specifically ones from Netflix and other streaming services, are designed to be consumed over the course of, say, a weekend. In these cases, seasonal pacing becomes a lot more like episode pacing.
The point of all of this is that after a heavy, thoughtful exploration on race and fiction, DS9 needed something light and fun. Yet they’d already done a recent (and truly excellent) Ferengi episode, and thus pacing demanded that the writers not return to that well too soon. It had also been a long time since an episode focused on Chief O’Brien, who must suffer for the Alpha Quadrant’s sins, and Dr. Bashir, still growing in his identity as a non-evil Khan. In an interesting move, the writers dusted off an idea that had originally been intended for TNG (and once you know that, it’s impossible to unsee) and imported it to DS9. In the process, they created an episode that’s one part Die Hard, one part Ant-Man, and one part The Fantastic Voyage.
The Defiant is on a science mission because, like I said, this was originally a TNG episode. You have to wonder how Dax deals with this kind of thing. She’s the science officer on the station, but most of her time is spent on the war. It’s probably a good thing that she’s basically the Trill equivalent of Doc Savage. Anyway, there’s a spacial anomaly that shrinks things because reasons, and a runabout crewed by Dax, O’Brien, and Bashir head in to investigate while the Defiant keeps a tether on them in the form of a tractor beam. But wouldn’t you know it, the Jem’Hadar attack in the middle of all the sciencing and take over the ship.
The runabout emerges from the anomaly still small because it drove out the wrong way (Look, just go with it.) and flies into the Defiant thinking they just have to signal the crew and figure out how to be re-enlarged. They discover the Jem’Hadar on the ship and spring into action, despite flying around in a ship that’s roughly hand-sized.
As for the crew, they’re down in engineering ostensibly making repairs to fly the thing back to Cardassian space. In reality, only Kira is repairing anything, and taking her sweet time. Nog is trying to get the bridge controls transferred to engineering (nearly impossible with the lockouts), Sisko’s sabotaging the ship to insure it explodes if it goes to warp, and Worf is covering their tracks as best he can.
The tiny ship sneaks around, using Jem’Hadar as cover, either going through doors that are already open or in one case operating the switch themselves by flying into it. Chief points out that Nog’s work will take a week (I’m unclear as to why there would be this much security over the transfer in a Starfleet ship unless they were super paranoid about Changelings.), so they have to do it manually. What follows is the best moment in the episode, where Bashir and O’Brien beam inside a circuit and have to rewire it by hauling around tiny wires that look like massive tubular paper lanterns. The set is absolutely stunning, aptly described by Bashir as looking like an electronic forest.
Eventually, it comes down to a fight, and watching the runabout zip around, firing photon torpedoes into Jem’Hadar soldiers is undeniably fun. As is the ending, when it hovers inches from Worf’s face, the tiny Jadzia visible inside, blowing him kisses while Chief O’Brien sheepishly waves.
This is a fun episode, the perfect trifle after the masterful “Far Beyond the Stars.” It doesn’t matter in the slightest for continuity, and in fact, its one attempt at larger significance is forgotten. A lot of the conflict is between the Jem’Hadar First and Second. The First is from a new breed, the Alphas, engineered specifically for warfare in the Alpha Quadrant. The Second is from the old guard, a Gamma. This tension is an interesting idea, but the writers never found the time to follow up on it. The Dominion has enough friction in its ranks between the races to really need it among its rank and file.
What makes this one worthwhile is that, despite its lack of importance to the larger plot, it is filled with great character moments. From Sisko’s unblinking decision to destroy the ship rather than let it fall into enemy hands, to Worf’s “attempt” at a poem commemorating the mission (and providing the episode’s quote), to the final scene, where Odo just decides to mess with O’Brien and Bashir, implying they haven’t quite returned to their old size. These are characters we’ve grown to know and love over the last six seasons. Not everything needs to be an earth-shaking turn in the war, a huge life event, or a political commentary. We’re pacing out the season, and we need time, as an audience, to catch our collective breath.
Next up: O’Brien goes undercover.