S2E11, “Rivals” (story: Jim Trombetta and Michael Piller)
Here is the summary from Memory Alpha: “Quark feels threatened when a con artist arrives on the station and opens up a competing bar. Meanwhile, Chief O’Brien is determined to beat Doctor Bashir at racquetball.” Now, that is a premise for a sci-fi show. Maybe not surprisingly, it’s kind of a silly distraction of an episode. But it is indeed fun, and the two threads come together in an interesting way.
The rivalry between Quark and Martus Mazur might have worked better as a smaller, more nagging thing over several episodes, where Quark and Mazur spar over customers with ever-more-elaborate less-dignified scheming (as referenced in this episode, Rule of Acquisition #109, “Dignity and an empty sack is worth the sack”) but they paid for the guest star so they were going to wring everything they could out of him in one go. The foundation for Mazur’s place (the delightfully/ridiculously named “Club Martus”) is a weird little game of chance toy he takes off a dying cellmate in the brig, where he was staying after his previous scam. Intrigued by it, he has several large versions built for his bar, which are such a hit they drain clientele from Quark’s.
Meanwhile, the O’Brien/Bashir thread is another entry for the “O’Brien kinda hates Bashir” file. They discover their mutual love of racquetball (only, SPACE RACQUETBALL because the court is all weird angles). O’Brien is an old pro and thinks he can beat some young upstart, but it turns out Julian was Team Captain at the academy. More notably, Julian is a lot younger and in better shape, and trounces the oafish and increasingly sweaty O’Brien. This was easily the most relatable part of the episode to me, naturally, as an increasingly oafish and sweaty man myself. But: we are all O’Brien, remembering our youthful accomplishments with high precision, only to flail about miserably when tested years later. And yet: who among us is the absolute best or worst at anything? So: we are all also Bashir, way better at some stuff than others—maybe some game, maybe something at work—to the point that you have to make excuses to avoid the conflicts which you’ll inevitably win, just to avoid the social awkwardness of making someone else look bad.
Meanwhile, increasingly weird, inexplicable stuff is happening all over the station. It climaxes during the final racquetball grudge match (which Quark has managed to bill into some kind of major sporting event that people are actually watching and gambling on, and it must be boring as hell on DS9 sometimes) when suddenly O’Brien can’t miss a shot. Like, literally can’t miss a shot, even if he tries to avoid it, which is as oddly improbably as all the other phenomena. With something to trace, they are able to determine that the weirdness points back to Club Martus, and the gambling devices. I liked this as a general sci-fi idea, like you could have some sort of quantum generator that flipped the probabilities of everyday life. If you didn’t immediately die of the most quickly metastasizing cancer in medical history it could be a rich source of stories.
I enjoyed this episode more for its metaphorical lessons than in actual execution. The effect of the devices was fuzzily explained, with random, weird macro-level consequences—we are to believe that quantum mechanical mucking about can make the proximate middle-aged into racquetball supermen? The device itself was unsatisfyingly convenient, too. The dying prisoner’s entire life was ruined by it over years and years, from a life of success and luxury to croaking in a ratty cell on DS9. Then Martus picks it up and wins right away. It’s the stupidest game, too. You hold down a button and either win or lose, with no onstensible reason for the outcome. Though the one time I played Super Smash Brothers that seemed like how it worked, and people love it.
Last note: Keiko tries to be supportive of O’Brien when he comes back from the first match sweaty and depressed. [Keiko for president.] She basically just tells him, like, what did you expect, you’re 36. Which seemed a very optimistic age to peg for O’Brien’s character. I looked up Colm Meaney’s age and he would have been 40 when this aired, so it was indeed optimistic, but not as far off as I’d originally guessed. (Unlike me, Colm probably wasn’t still getting carded at 40.) Still, probably felt pretty natural to him to play a guy grappling with his initial physical decline. For his part, Julian still fits into his shiny academy racquetball outfit, which is accurate, as Siddig El Fadil was just 29.
Morn watch: He misses out on a free drink when he loses an game of chance at Quark’s. We can assume it was rigged, or Morn’s natural luck, rather than some quantum oddity, I think.
Overall: 3 out of 5. Some fun takeaways but sort of a silly one.
S2E12, “The Alternate” (story: Jim Trombetta and Bill Dial)
Mostly just DS9 doing a monster-of-the-week-style X-Files episode, and largely forgettable. At least by me, since I have largely forgotten it. But I never liked monster-of-the-week so could be just me. So anyway, I don’t have much to say about this one. There’s a creature. They chase it around and eventually figure out what it is. Some episodes like this are intriguing, but I felt like this one was a little flat. The most important question never even got answered: how does the monster’s presence affect O’Brien’s racquetball game??
Rather than the plot itself, which hints that it might explain something about Odo’s origin, but ultimately doesn’t (and how many times is that going to happen before we actually get there), the main takeaway here is an establishment of Odo’s early years with guest-of-the-week Dr. Mora. Mora is clearly an influence on proto-Odo, he was Odo’s first teacher, and Odo sports the same slicked-back hairstyle. (I certainly didn’t remember this detail, but Memory Alpha reminds me that Odo mentioned that he had his mentor’s hairstyle back in “The Forsaken” when he was talking with Lwaxana.) In fact, he seems more like a father. Odo denies that he views Mora that way, though that might be because they are a bit estranged. But by the end they agree to some future visits.
So this is best remembered as a character builder, mostly for Odo. There are some good moments between Bashir and Dax, too, as they try to figure out more about the monster. Late nights in the lab seem like a possible key to Dax’s heart, so Bashir might eventually look back on the monster’s rampage of terror as an important building block of their future relationship. (Dax: “Feel like getting a raktajino before we call it a night?” Bashir: “My replicator or yours?” Me: Nice.) We’ll see.
Odo medical notes: Odo has no respiratory system.
Morn watch: Among a group of suckers looking to buy a dubious Ferengi relic from Quark, which he claims are some remains from a famous Ferengi named Plegg. Odo happens by and shares the pertinent fact that Plegg isn’t actually dead. Unclear whether Morn bought it anyway.
Overall: 2 out of 5.
S2E13, “Armageddon Game” (story: Morgan Gendel)
The writer credit immediately caught my attention, as it did for his other DS9 credit, “The Passenger”. Seems like he’s evened out now that he’s got a great, a bad, and a good episode under is belt. This one is also good. Bashir and O’Brien are helping some aliens get rid of a stockpile of ultra-powerful bioweapons. But just as they are dealing with the last of it, some terrorists break into the lab and kill all the scientists. Bashir and O’Brien escape to a nearby planet where they hole up and wait for rescue, only they realize O’Brien got splattered with a little bioterror in the mayhem and he’s rapidly getting sick. Meanwhile, the aliens report back to DS9 and instead of reporting the terrorist incident, present a fake video of O’Brien and Bashir getting vaporized along with the rest of the scientists in a lab accident. This sets up a classic two-tracker: one plot-driven mystery on DS9 about the accident, and one character-building track about Bashir and O’Brien.
The Bashir/O’Brien thread is the meatier, and more important one for the series. They go back to the “O’Brien finds Julian irritating” well, seems their last adventure together and aborted racquetball rivalry hasn’t quite sold O’Brien. As an introverted, happily married guy, he’s a bit bewildered by Julian’s endless yammering and glorification of the bachelor lifestyle. It should be noted for all of Julian’s girl-craziness, in practice it seems like mostly idle boasting. There hasn’t exactly been a Kirk-level string of disheveled conquests awkwardly sneaking out of medical. Thought maybe that’s implied, and we should accept the lack of visual evidence as a limitation of the show, which despite being produced in the swinging ’90s, seems more PG than TNG, and certainly moreso than TOS. Anyway, their situation is a good setup to further get to understand each other. Bashir makes some good points about the difficulty of family life while serving in Starfleet, so he’s not necessarily such a selfish guy, but mostly his competent handling of both O’Brien’s health and the damaged communication console finally earns hims some genuine respect. Left for future episodes: How does this affect their racquetball rivalry??
The DS9 mystery thread is also neatly presented. It finds an interesting space to tell the story: we know the DS9 crew is being misled, but we are just as unaware as to how or why. At first they don’t even realize there is a mystery, there’s no reason for them to doubt the story, so it’s about them grieving about the loss of O’Brien and Bashir. Well, O’Brien, anyway. He’s got a family, so Keiko has to be informed, and generally everyone likes him anyway. Julian, well…we probably ought to get a new doctor. But things shift when Keiko notices a crucial detail in the video: O’Brien drinking coffee. She insists he never drinks coffee in the afternoon because the caffeine keeps him up at night. Something is not right! [As always: Keiko for president.] This kicks off the deeper investigation that unravels the alien conspiracy, and eventually gets O’Brien and Bashir back home.
I loved that the key overlooked detail is truly as stupid as “O’Brien would never drink coffee in the afternoon.” (I nudged my wife to keep this in mind should she ever be watching a video of my vaporization, as I have the same caffeine issue.) I recently saw a Twitter gag about how the difference between American and British mysteries is that the American detective solves the crime by breaking all the rules, and the British detective solves the crime by noticing a specific type of umbrella. The coffee detail is only marginally less arbitrary. Moreover, I love the big twist at the end where actually O’Brien does drink coffee in the afternoon. But it just hard-closes after Keiko’s “You do?!” What a blown opportunity for some TOS-style endcap banter with a lighthearted music cue.
Note: Per Memory Alpha: “This episode was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Hairstyling for a Series.” There are some good hairstyles, as usual: Sharat, for one, and I also liked the E’Tyshra Vulcan-eared basket weave thing.
Overall: 4 out of 5. A very good episode. Maybe a little contrived, so I won’t go the full five, but it was certainly more memorable than the last one.
S2E14, “Whispers” (story: Paul Coyle)
I recently learned about the Simulation Hypothesis, which posits that since the universe is a big, old place, inevitably there must be some where or some time when aliens had/have/will have the capacity to simulate a universe. If they can do it once, they can do it any number of times, which implies that most universes are, in fact, simulations, which leads to the conclusion that any given universe—such as ours—is more likely to be a simulation.
It’s intriguing, but Cory Doctorow makes several good arguments against it at the link above. The most straightforward being: actually computers can never simulate the universe with any precision. The number of atoms you’d need to store sufficient information about even the smallest portion of the universe would rapidly exceed the number of atoms in the universe.
Anyway I like the style of the setup even if it’s flawed. It sort of does a reverse-logic statistical sleight of hand, implying that something statistical ought to be true because the opposite is false. Like how about: if essentially 100% of all humans who are alive or who have ever lived are not me, the math implies even I am not me. Doctorow brings up another similar example. It starts with the premise that the universe exists on an unfathomably long timescale by human standards, but yet, you are alive right now. That is an extremely unlikely occurrence given your pathetic human lifespan as a fraction of the universe’s existence, which is essentially zero. Unless you are immortal*.
*You’re not. It’s just observation bias. You weren’t around for the previous 14 billion years to notice you weren’t alive.
“Whispers” also leans on a few bits of fanciful, highly improbable sci-fi. One, that you could create a perfect replica of a person. So perfect that even their family and friends weren’t sure of the difference, and an elaborate interplanetary scheme would be required to ferret out the replica. (Couldn’t they just look for the guy with more atoms that the rest of the universe??) It also has a bit if the same reverse deductive essence—O’Brien thinks everyone is acting weird so there must be some external force at play, which he has somehow eluded, and must fight against. The actual truth just never occurs to him.
I really enjoyed this one and didn’t understand it at all while I was watching. But once the ending sunk in I appreciated all the little touches and everything fell into place. Keiko is great in the awkward position of having to pretend Replicant O’Brien is her husband, oh yeah hon it’s totally normal for me to go to work at 5:30am and also I’m bringing our daughter with me. Also liked that Quark almost inadvertently blew the scheme by telling him, “The odds are against you, O’Brien.” Which has several layers of meaning in this context, although most notable is that he’s just thinking about the next O’Brien/Bashir racquetball showdown. It always comes back to racquetball.
Overall: 5 out of 5. A mindbender with a great twist. Maybe a bit of a soft ending but super enjoyable throughout.