And now, for something of even less interest than Deep Space Nine recaps. What follows is a sampling of my musical interests, in the form of my favorite songs of 2017. I am not qualified to sum up the year in movies, because I watched like five, total. I am not qualified to sum up the year in news, because it was depressing as hell and I avoided what I could. Music, by comparison, is something I both like and feel good about. Should you, the reader, care at all about this? Well obviously no you should not, but consider this:

  • I am an avid music fan of discerning, well-rounded musical taste.
    • Though it is heavy on the shoegaze and electronic genres I frequent.
  • I can confidently declare that none of these songs are objectively bad.

That said,

  • I’m kind of old and absolutely out of touch with new pop music. This is no kind of attempt to capture the international, national, regional, or local zeitgeist. It doesn’t even capture the zietgeist of my house, which also features my wife, who is really good at music and is smart.
  • It is just a list of stuff that:
    • I liked
    • happened to be released in 2017
    • happened to be heard by me, also in 2017.

That is all. Thank you.

Fell behind in my DS9 write-ups (and still about ten episodes ahead in viewing) so the push continues here. Usually I try to alternate DS9 posts with something else, but focused on getting these knocked out.

S3E1/2, “The Search” (story: Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe)Sisko and the Grand Nagus' staff (on loan)

Everyone’s been scrambling since the end of season 2 to prep for possible attack by the Jem’Hadar. The simulations paint a dire picture of doom. New purple undershirts have been issued. Sisko has returned from traveling to talk with the Federation. He’s come back with the Defiant (a prototype attack ship with a cloaking device) and a lot of workplace-related anger. Federation leadership has been devious, unsympathetic, tone-deaf, and corrupt throughout Trek. It’s kind of a running theme that the desk jockeys back on Earth will always come off as hopelessly detached and frustrating to every starship captain, but Sisko has had it with them even before they show up to negotiate a treaty in Part II and really screw things up.

Sisko takes a new turn here. Dax observes a shot of extra emotion in him and he agrees that he’s tired of being the coffee-sipping bureaucrat. It doesn’t really jive with what we’ve seen from him the first two seasons but let’s go with what he says: he wants to get out there and shake things up. Not sure if the showrunners felt they’d hit a wall with the gentle diplomat version of the character or the situation simply dictated a change, but with the Defiant in the mix we’ll presumably be seeing more of Sisko sitting in a command chair barking orders at people.

Odo also gets some major face time here and I’m ready to decide that he’s my favorite character of the series as we lead off season 3. He’s a true outsider—more than say, Worf or Data from TNG—and it’s increasingly interesting to see how he fits into DS9. I really like Rene Auberjonois’ portrayal in a challenging role. He can’t use his face, it’s all eyes and voice inflection. Anyway we find out that one of the reasons Sisko has come back mad is because the Federation bigwigs have decided to demote Odo from security chief just because there have been several breaches, no one trusts him, and he won’t follow regulations. (See! They are totally out of touch!) He’s not sure what will happen next and may resign, but Kira persuades him to join the away mission in the meantime. The relationship between these two has been on the upswing for a while now since the awkward standoff at the end of “Necessary Evil” and I’m curious where it’s ultimately going.

So things get underway, and I don’t really know what anyone thought was going to happen when they sent one measly ship into Dominion space (like, they remember what happened with the Odyssey literally last episode, yes?), but I think dramatically it sets up three things. First, Odo may have been welcomed by Kira but trapped on board a tiny ship, he doesn’t get his usual space and time to himself, and has to bunk with Quark, of all people. So he feels as out of place as ever. Second, also re: Odo, he starts getting wobbly around mention of a special nebula in the Gamma Quadrant, but he doesn’t know why. And third, we establish Sisko in some captain’s chair action, which lasts like maybe 15 minutes of screen time before the Jem’Hadar get wind of them and predictably disable and board the ship. Because this mission is very stupid. Anyway Part I ends with things looking awfully bleak, but Part II starts in a strange place where everything’s fine. Looking back, I should have realized right away how weird the transition was, but the plot got rolling quickly and it slipped my mind.

In any story where things start going off-the-rails terrible for everyone, there’s a point where it crosses over into such radical territory that the willful suspension of disbelief gets, uh, suspended, and it’s like, wait, no way, what’s going on. Sisko & co. somehow find themselves getting back to DS9 with nothing to explain their escape. But everything’s messed up, and it slowly dawned on me that something was off. Federation goons are aboard trying to negotiate a treaty with the Dominion. Jem’Hadar guys are just walking around the station, hurling poor O’Brien around Quark’s with no repercussions. (Scotty knew how to handle himself in a bar fight, is all I will say here.) The treaty is taking on increasingly outrageous terms: namely that the Federation is to give up their position in space, hand over DS9, and split up the crew. Which like, come on, that’s not going to happen. Garak declares that the only way a treaty like that could happen is if “our leaders have gone insane.” So they all commit treason to try to stop the treaty by destroying the wormhole and Garak gets killed in the skirmish. But by then I was ready for something to make sense again. I think this was all done well—it’s fun to go just a little past a point of no return and be forced to entertain a deep change in the show structure…and then have it restored to normalcy in time for the next episode.

Meanwhile Odo and Kira woke up from the attack separately, and head to the nebula Odo was so keyed up about. Kira wants to stop him but what are you gonna do. There they encounter a rogue planet that isn’t part of any system (sure why not–I mean, I’m sure there are rogue planets in the universe but they’d be basically big balls of ice) and—surprise!—it’s filled with shapeshifters. They live as one in a big lake, and if we understood their biology I’m sure it would be considered some sort of porn. They welcome Odo home and invite him to get in on the joining. Odo’s position is interesting here—as much as he’s also exhausted by the “Solids” (namely Quark) it’s a pretty major life decision. They encourage him not just to shapeshift into a rock but to, like, be a rock. Who even are these hippies? The stodgy Odo is not sure he’s ready to find out.

Ultimately the two threads come together in the type of ending that will get you banned from any creative writing workshop: i.e., it was all a dream. For all the DS9ers but Odo and Kira anyway. The rest of them got hooked up to some VR something that is feeding them their half of the story to see how they’d react. They further reveal that the shapeshifters are the Founders, the leaders of the Dominion. Odo can get in on the ground floor so it’s a pretty good deal for him. But he rejects them. He’s appalled to find his friends treated like this. He doesn’t like their methods and cares too much about his friends and justice.

Yeah, it was all a dream, but I think the ending is solid. (Har, “solid”. Didn’t intend that, but Zing!) It’s entirely consistent with the justice-loving Odo we have gotten to know. We’ll know the Founders are out there going forward, and it’s bound to put Odo into some complicated situations. We’ll see.

Quark is not your friend: Quark is included in the simulation purely to convey the information that the Jem’Hadar actively enjoy gambling. Quark, for one, welcomes his new Dominion overlords.

Odo’s biology corner: He gets very grouchy before bedtime. Which is one thing he has in common with the Solids, although we don’t collapse into a puddle of liquid organic stew if we wait too long. YMMV.

Overall: A very important episode for the series, continuing directly from the end of season 2. Sets up a lot and accomplishes a lot. 5 out of 5.

S3E3, “The House of Quark” (story: Tom Benko)

A lot of my favorite TNG episodes were about Klingons. Many of my favorite DS9ers so far are about Quark. “The House of Quark” is both, and I was not disappointed.

It’s a quiet night in the bar, spurring the cash-desperate Quark to confront a drunken Klingon about his tab. This is, of course, a guaranteed brawl. But the Klingon is drunk enough to be roughly as bad a fighter as Quark, and rather than epic battling they end up tripping down some stairs, which results in the Klingon’s knife in his own chest. After weighing the various ethical questions of whether to claim it was the result of valiant self-defense or a terribly unfortunate accident, Quark does the thing that will make him some money. He thinks that will be the self-defense story, which he believes gawkers will pay to hear. Instead it gets him completely entangled in Klingon politics and house rivalries. At one point he ends up married. But never mind that, the real story here is the power of bookkeeping.

After a serious stretch, we were due for a lighter episode about how Ferengi and Klingons work together (we covered Vulcan/Ferengi a few episodes ago, so continuing to check off some inter-species boxes here, one surmises). Klingon culture may be on the decline amongst the Federation but it’s alive and well on the Klingon homeworld, replete with Byzantine rules of order and heredity law. Quark’s profit motivation is a ridiculous mix-in, and makes for an extremely delightful episode. Literally any Klingon could crush Quark physically so he goes Moneyball literally and metaphorically, seeking out an under-the-radar strategy that he can succeed with. As mentioned, that is bookkeeping. Klingons are evidently terrible at it, and Quark easily exploits leaky records to turn the tables and extricate himself from trouble. It’s silly but the plot is fun and internally consistent with both cultures.

Morn watch: Rather than close down the bar, Morn actually leaves early, inexplicably accompanied by another sentient lifeform, and giving Quark the thumbs-up. Quark makes up a new Rule of Acquisition on the spot to describe how desperately bad business is when even Morn has better things to do.

Overall: Klingon accounting practices are an intrinsically funny concept and they made a whole show about it. I liked it. 5 out of 5.

S3E4, “Equilibrium” (story: Christopher Teague)

Getting into the third season, I think there’s a lot we still don’t really understand about Dax. I’m not sure they’ve found great ways to introduce Trill stuff gently into the thread of other stories, they seem to be leaning more on deep-dive episodes about them. Which is fine but it feels like we forget about her for weeks at a time. Though it does require a light touch, which they do well. The concept has some danger of getting out of control: it’d be easy to make Dax into a sort of superhero, where there was a past life skillset that surfaced to save the day any time there was a problem. “Equilibrium” gets more into the flipside of things, where Dax has a fuzzy memory of a past life that she can’t shake. It’s maddening enough when an old song gets into your head and you can’t remember where it’s from, imagine if it happened several lifetimes ago.

As a single story, “Equilibrium” is fine. It’s basically a medical drama, which walks a fine line between interesting and artificial. It’s not that different from a standard Trek Trope where some technical issue arises whenever they need some drama.

Doctor: “Your isoboramine levels are up!”

Patient: “Oh no!” [Dramatic scene commences]

Doctor: “Now they are down again.”

Patient: “OK good! Whew!” [Let’s re-examine our lives now.]

But it’s done well enough here, the show remains engaging. It ends up being less about Dax than Bashir and Sisko trying to figure out the larger mystery, but that’s more Trek’s style. Julian has scaled back from a wannabe ladies’ man into a competent medical professional with understated charm. More relevant long term is the a major Trill reveal at the end—that the exclusivity of symbiont pairing is largely artificial and a secret, to avoid them becoming commodities. I can envision a story down the road where this information falls into the wrong hands (his name rhymes with Smork).

Overall: Some important Trill stuff and filling out some Dax history but not super memorable. 3 out of 5.

Quark and Odo hugging

S2E23, “Crossover” (story: Peter Allan Fields)

This episode exists for two reasons:

1. We we overdue for a revisit to the “Mirror, Mirror” universe from TOS.

Kira and Bashir have a warp drive malfunction and are accidentally cast into the mirror universe, where they come across a gross evil version of the station, and it’s still known as Terek Nor. There, they learn about the fate of the mirror universe the TOS crew left behind. As it turns out, Kirk screwed everything up. His encouragement and influence on mirror Spock leads to him rising to great power within the Federation on a platform of peaceful reform. Well, that is a very stupid idea in a pathologically evil universe because it just leaves them vulnerable to hostile takeover by a Klingon-Cardassian alliance (in which Bajor has a strong influence).

The story is mostly Kira-centric. Mirror Kira is the Intendant of DS9, brutally ruling in the name of the Klingons and Cardassians, including evil Garak. Most of the regulars are around. Odo is a similarly brutal bureaucratic boss of the ore-processing wing of the station. O’Brien is one of many Terran slaves, although he is employed doing technical work instead of crushing physical labor. Sisko is some sort of pirate. Quark owns an even sleazier bar. But most of the story is about our Kira, given a pretty long leash by evil Kira (who is sortly weirdly into her…self) to conspire about and eventually orchestrate an escape.

I wouldn’t say the plot is especially interesting compared with the original “Mirror, Mirror”. But both really work as executions of great ideas and performances. “Crossover” clips along fine, though. It broadens the scope of the mirror universe in an interesting way, and was worth doing for that. But plotwise it’s really more of a throwback to TOS, being more focused on scrappin’ than talkin’.

2. What’s inside Odo?

An ongoing subject of fascination. From the moment a Nog splattered a bucketful of oatmeal on Jake in “Storytellers“, we have all wondered: what’s inside Odo? What is a changeling’s purest unrefined form? Kind of like a Terminator 2-style liquid metal? Or is he indeed a chunky oatmeal-like glop? Or like us humans, packed full of slimy organic sacs? Well, during Bashir’s escape from the ore processing center, we are given a perfect chance to find out! He blasts alt-Odo, who explodes with extreme splatter. We don’t see what happens next, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he slowly regathers himself like the aforementioned Terminator. But from the on-screen evidence he appears to be a combo of the latter two: mostly glop and sacs. And now we know!

Overall: This is a nice addition to the “Mirror, Mirror” canon, if not as iconic. Great performance by Nana Visitor as both regular Kira and ruthless vixen queen Kira. 4 out of 5.

S2E24, “The Collaborator” (story: Gary Holland)

Vedek Bareil has crossed into the unenviable realm of characters which cause me to elicit a sigh immediately upon their entrance. I know I’m supposed to be like, “Oh cool, some more Bajoran political intrigue!” But: sigh. I’m finding the performances by Philip Anglim to be dead stiff. I know he’s going for understated. Vedeks are the Bajoran equivalents of Buddhist monks, they aren’t going to be vivacious. But I’m not super interested in political/religious philosophizing anyway, vapid mumbling about it isn’t going to help. Now combine that with Vedek Winn, whose insipid fundamentalist nonsense is basically any smarmy TV preacher, or Mike Pence, and barf. I like Louise Fletcher, who is obviously great at self-righteous icy villains. (Who is the DS9 equivalent of Randle Patrick McMurphy that’s going to fix this? The closest Trekster I can think of to the charismatic outsider who disrupts the system and makes everyone question themselves is Q. An episode about Q harassing Winn would be something.) So anyway, yeah, these two again. Bajoran political intrigue: like a rice cake, but with a dash of salt!

And…I didn’t hate it? Actually it was a pretty clever story with a building, complex mystery, and an unexpected reveal at the end. I’m honestly a little stunned! Also interested in what happens next, because the outcome–Vedek Winn falling backwards into the role of Kai–has longstanding ramifications. We’re not done with this, but I can hope this is a turning point.

Highlight: Odo and Kira getting Quark to help hack into a computer because they need to circumvent the usual legal channels. I guess this is why they keep him around: dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

Overall: 4 out of 5. Don’t let it go to your head, Vedeks.

S2E25, “Tribunal” (story: Bill Dial)

Memory Alpha references the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, which refers to this as an “O’Brien Must Suffer” episode. I want to say this is the third or fourth of the series to this point. Why do they like putting O’Brien into every terrible situation? I guess his stoic demeanor and middle-aged physique ensures he’s just gotta power through rather than fight (Kira), charm (Bashir), negotiate (Sisko), weasel (Quark), or transmogrify (Odo) his way out. Powering through can fill out an episode.

And so it does. Largely that’s what “Tribunal” is all about. O’Brien gets framed for running weapons and is arrested by Cardassians. He endures “processing”, imprisonment (actually better than processing, he gets to keep his clothes and all his teeth), and a show trial. Which brings us to the real point of the episode, the portrayal of the mercilessly efficient Cardassian legal system. We are reminded many, many times that the trial is a sham, O’Brien has already been ruled guilty and the execution is already scheduled and will Tuesday work for him.

Nevertheless, the DS9ers push their way into the proceedings and eventually compel the court to overturn the verdict. Mostly this is Odo’s handiwork. He manages to worm his way into the position of nestor, which is a sort of extra attorney behind the court-appointed milquetoast pushover O’Brien has otherwise been granted. He spends most of the proceedings badgering the judge but basically getting away with it. (I couldn’t help but thinking of the episode of Futurama where they keep asking for increasingly insane legal privilege and the judge keeps saying, “I’m going to allow this.”)

“Tribunal” is sort of an “Amok Time” for DS9. The real treat is seeing the Cardassian homeworld. Although “Amok Time” is more about Vulcans at their craziest and most primitive, “Tribunal” is maximum Cardassia: efficient and unmerciful. Also we see several new Cardassian hairstyles.

Odo tidbit: He doesn’t have any teeth. Have we gotten around to figure out how Odo eats? Does he just, like, absorb stuff?

Overall: A lot of the atmosphere stuck with me, although I can’t really recall the thread of the plot even a week later. We had to see Cardassia eventually, perhaps this is the best way. I guess maybe you can’t have a tense legal drama in a system of preordained verdicts. So, I dunno, maybe a different excuse to get planetside? Let’s go 3 out of 5.

S2E26, “The Jem’Hadar” (story: Ira Steven Behr)

Two distinct, strangely paired halves. First half is setup in the form of delightful farce. Sisko thinks he’s going to get to spend some time with Jake helping him with a science project. Instead Nog gets to tag along and Quark weasels his way aboard too. Sisko’s sitcom-style reaction suggests four’s a crowd! They visit a planet in the Gamma Quadrant to commence some science and ensue some hijinks, mostly in the form of laughing at Quark’s expense as he battles sunburn and bugs in his food (the wrong kind of bugs). Sisko finally tells him to stop complaining in a fierce enough tone that Nog is insulted by proxy, and he storms off into the forest. Jake chases him down, leaving Sisko and Quark alone, and abruptly things shift as a strange humanoid barges into their campsite, apparently being pursued by someone else: the Jem’Hadar. Sisko, Quark, and the humanoid (we learn her name is Eris and she’s a Vorta) are captured and taken away, and Jake and Nog return to an empty campsite.

A bunch of action happens in the second half, but it’s mostly a demonstration that the Jem’Hadar are for serious. There’s a bit more Jake/Nog silliness but mostly it’s just Jake failing to get the runabout to work and Nog screeching. More relevant are the Jem’Hadar proving repeatedly that they have better technology and are real jazzed about killing everyone. It’s a scary new concept for Trek, excepting maybe the Borg. In the old days we had Klingons and Romulans and Cardassians, and they were all formidable, but rarely superior to the Federation. They’d occasionally unveil something like a cloaking device as a potential game changer, but the Federation was able to keep up. The Jem’Hadar are way ahead. They can beam on and off DS9 at will, have fantastic shielding technology, are voraciously violent, and willing to engage in suicide runs. It’s, uh, not a good situation.

But it is a good teaser for future seasons! More to come.

Last note: While they’re in captivity, Sisko tells Quark to pick the lock on Eris’ neckband so she can use her body phaser or whatever it is to damage their holding cell. Quark’s fed up with being ordered around and lays into Sisko about his human superiority complex. He says he’s figured out why humans are so disdainful of Ferengi: they represent human characteristics like greed which are thought to be repulsive and left behind, but remain base instincts and absolutely present. Further, the Ferengi have no history of barbaric practices like slavery or genocides. Quark’s attack is out of left field (and crammed into the episode in such a way that it’s underdeveloped and hard to properly react to) but does try to re-frame how we are viewing Ferengi. Sisko doesn’t know how to respond immediately, but I kinda think it’s a weak argument. Yes I will concede it’s good Ferengi never had concentration camps, but simply not being shockingly, shamefully terrible doesn’t mean they’re good guys. Sisko might have retorted, “Yes, humans are pretty awful. But you have a systematically oppressive society and are constantly engaged in crime, including petty theft via lockpicking. So shut up and get at it so we can avoid getting murdered by Jem’Hadar, who are probably actively trying to do some genocides while you’re bickering with me.”

Morn watch: Now they’re just teasing me. Morn is nursing his drink and Quark invites him to open up and discuss what’s bothering him, and just as he’s about to…Quark tells him to hold that thought so he can get with Odo about something. Naturally, he forgets all about poor Morn.

Overall: Half silly and half scary. Not a lot is developed here, it’s mostly opening the door to what’s to come. But effective. 4 out of 5.

Quark and Odo huggingS2E19, “Blood Oath” (story: Peter Allan Fields)

This one’s about Klingons getting old. When they get old they still have that same bloodlust and honor-seeking drive, but I guess one can’t fight off time with a bat’leth either. An old gang of them appears on the station looking for Dax, who in a previous incarnation was a comrade, and had shared a vow with them to settle an old debt against a common enemy if they ever found him. Retired Klingons have nothing to do, one imagines, but settle old debts or find a good last glorious battle to go out with, and this is a chance to do both.

I always like me a good Klingon episode and this one doesn’t disappoint. I think they always work well in stories because they always have some ethical crisis that eventually gets resolved with the most efficient distribution of honor all around. Tell me that’s not satisfying. DS9 also seems to be continuing TNG’s trend (and really started with Star Trek VI and the end of TOS) of exploring postmodern Klingonism, a term which I have just made up, though certainly the concept isn’t new. What happens when an aggressive, battle- and conquest-crazed society starts experiencing a decline? Its influence lessens, its empire shrinks, the old ways aren’t solving all your problems anymore, and everyone slowly realizes—like it or not—that in a position of weakness, negotiation and peace is just a lot more effective. But the old guard is still around. And they seem sorta pathetic, really.

The other interesting bit here concerns Dax’s role in all of this. Sisko initially won’t grant her leave to go do a vengeance murder (possibly because it is not a Federation HR-approved leave category, and also, there’s an idea for the next time your union is settling a new CBA). But she has to honor Curzon Dax’s oath whether Sisko and other crewmates approve of the murder-mission or not. It makes it pretty awkward when she gets back to the station at the end. Dear Ask A Manager….

Tidbit: I thought all the Klingon names sounded familiar but I didn’t connect the dots until I read a review of this episode on AV Club. They are all holdover characters from TOS! It’s not really relevant to the plot since the TOS Klingons didn’t really have backstories, and none of what they did in those episodes matters here, but it’s a super fun batch of easter eggs.

Overall: A really good one, covering new ground for both Dax and the Klingons. All the Klingon guys were great, too. 5 out of 5.

S2E20/21, “The Maquis” parts I & II (story: a whole bunch of people)

“The Maquis” is an pivotal (two-part) episode that sets up some new directions and thematic territory for the series. I think it’s more successful as a setup for what’s to come than super engaging on its own. Which is to say, it’s been several weeks since I actually watched it and I’m absolutely forgetting stuff already. Here is what happens that we need to remember:

  • A new order surfaces in prominence, called the Maquis. Some people pronounce this “MOCK-kee”. Some pronounce it “muh-KEE”. Memory Alpha says “mah-KEE”. I picture fictional grouchy out-of-touch conservative Federation admirals in dim Earth conference rooms saying things like “We oughta just photon torpedo these here Mackeys” amongst friendly company.
  • The Maquis are symbolic of any group adversely affected by territorial decisions made by larger forces. See: most Earth situations where large empires divide up their holdings but cut arbitrary borders through native peoples’ lands. This gives rise to isolated ethnic groups immediately at the mercy of whomever is still around and might have better resources. It’s a natural consequence of war and imperialism and pretty much about the worst thing people do to each other on a macro scale. People are the worst.
  • Their cause has turned a few Federationers and affected Trek notables personally:
    • We first met the Maquis in TNG when Ro betrayed the Federation, and specifically Picard, to join them, pissing off Picard very, very much.
    • One of Sisko’s old pals from the Federation (played here by a wooden Bernie Casey cashing in a paycheck) turns and joins the Maquis.
  • Longer term, betrayals may continue to happen. Everyone sympathizes with the Maquis, but they are also de-stabilizing an already uneasy peace. Sisko may be doing a lot less bureaucratic shuffling and a lot more preventing all out war.

A couple other notes to call out. DS9 has had its moments as an examination of management styles and “The Maquis” has some important additions:

  1. Sisko and Dukat’s relationship is really evolving from hostility to grudging respect. I’m starting to appreciate Dukat’s stark and brutal efficiency. He just wants to blow stuff up and kill bad guys sometimes, and he’s not even wrong. Luckily Sisko has earned his respect and can always provide an effective alternative.
  2. Speaking of seemingly bad management styles that actually do make some sense sometimes: let’s talk Quark. I’m leaving out plenty about the thread with him and the Vulcan Sakonna engaging in some illegal arms deals but the meta-story is how a Ferengi and a Vulcan work together. It’s weirdly, surprisingly effective. Ferengi are certainly passionate, but about the coldly logical bottom line. Ultimately, economic arguments are pretty compelling to Vulcans. Not something I’d thought about before but it’s explored here to great effect.

Overall: Very successful. I expect things that happened here will echo for the rest of the series. Though I have to admit I found Part I a little unengaging, and the overall plot a bit cluttered, so I’ll come in at 4 out of 5.

S2E22, “The Wire” (story: Robert Hewitt Wolfe)

I think I like all the Garak episodes so far, but I’m cautious about getting too involved with him. Obviously he’s written to be tantalizingly mysterious, having had some influence among the Cardassians but is now viciously hates/is hated by Dukat and lives seemingly as an outcast, dispensing men’s fashion on DS9. He simultaneously helps the Federation whenever he can, occasionally demonstrating definitive insider knowledge of Cardassia, but he also regularly drops hints about how much everyone on DS9 hates him and the feeling is mutual. Bashir constantly badgers him about being a spy and he always says something that is somehow neither an acknowledgment nor a denial. Anyway when TV does this kind of thing it means either (A) they have a distinct vision for what’s going on and all will be made known as it best serves the story or (B) they are making it up as they go along and hoping they’ll figure something out, but they usually don’t to any real satisfaction. I have some confidence it’ll be Situation A with Garak but I’ve been disappointed by a lot of Bs.

“The Wire” keeps this going to some degree, but also lets us in on a lot of Garak background, as well as introducing the Obsidian Order. It’s sort of like a cross between the KGB and secret police of the Cardassians (and we have definitely not heard the end of them). The plot is relatively straightforward: Garak develops some medical issues he can’t hide from Bashir, which reveals that he’s got some kind of brain implant typical of members of the Obsidian Order. It’s meant to release endorphins to make him immune from pain in the event of capture, but he’s been depressed and miserable in his DS9 exile and has been gradually using it more and more like a drug. Not designed for continued use, it has burned out and he’s essentially suffering from withdrawals. But it’s less medical drama (Garak is fine in the end) than a chance to delve into his past. In particular, Garak talks about an old aide of his named Elim, and as his condition gets increasingly worse, his story leaks more and more truth about Elim. Bashir ultimately gets the final word from the head of the Obsidian Order, Enabran Tain, who clears up the Elim business but also makes it clear he wants Garak to live a long life suffering as a hated exile, a fate considered worse than death.

Morn watch: He’s seen closing down Quark’s. It seems our friend is back off the wagon again.

Overall: I thought this was a fantastic episode for Garak and Bashir with extremely strong writing and performances from both of them. I like Garak as a character, but also digging the portrayal by Andrew Robinson, who seems to relish the ambiguity of the role. He’s got oodles of secrets that he loves holding over everyone. Who wouldn’t like that? 5 out of 5.


On a trip to Scotland a few years ago, my wife and I happened upon a history of video games exhibit in Edinburgh. After a flat entry fee you could play everything. The exhibit started with arcade games, then took you through consoles, PC gaming, and had tons of new experimental stuff across platforms. I thought this would be good for a few hours of fun but it ended up greatly influencing my gaming ever since. It should be made clear that I am completely out of the loop on video games, having made only occasional forays into the 21st century. But for one thing, we learned about Jakub Dvorský, and stop reading this post and go play Machinarium, Botanicula, and the Samorost series immediately. I also learned about what would become my next great gaming madness: SimCity.

The original SimCity was set up on an ancient PC. I’d somehow missed it even though I have done most of my life’s gaming on ancient PCs. Kristen was excited about it. She’d played it growing up and showed me a bit about how it worked. I was super-interested immediately. I mean, of course I was: it combined maps with planning! As a game! As soon as we got back home I checked Good Old Games and was sorta disappointed they didn’t have the original, but they did have SimCity 2000. Something taking place in the distant year of 2000 might have been too advanced for me, but I decided to give it a try.

Then I played it for two months solid. I read a whole book about it. I built lots of crappy little cities with intractable design problems. Then I abandoned them and built a huge elaborate city called New Arran (in honor of the Isle of Arran, my favorite part of the Scotland trip) that filled out the whole map and made it to self-sustaining happiness. It’s been a couple years but I still think about New Arran. Some cool old neighborhoods there. Seems silly but as the mayor I lived in a huge mansion near the hip old downtown and the baseball stadium. My people loved me. Of course I still think about it.

I’d just been waiting for a good time to pick it up again.


SimCity’s delight is in its slow burn. You can see everything you’ll eventually have, but you can’t just have it. Other quest games gently introduce new challenges, but give you more abilities to deal with them. SimCity is a blank canvas where you can imagine a lot more than you can actually pull off immediately.

The bottleneck is cash. You start with a nice wad to bankroll some initial infrastructure, but you quickly run out and start spending more and more time passively watching the days go by (liberally using the “speed up time” feature), reading the sim newspaper and letting the city coffers fill back up with tax funds. There aren’t a lot to be had at first, either, because you don’t have that many residents. If you get greedy you can issue a bond, but the crushing interest will probably doom you in the long run. This was my mistake on my first two or three cities. With New Arran, I was patient. I refused to take out loans, and lived within my means. This is the ultimate lesson of SimCity, and if you fail to heed it, you will watch your cities decay, and your abysmal Trumpian approval rating will make daily headlines.


Recently Kristen has been playing Neko Atsume, the absurdly cute cat collection game. It is also played in semi-real time. The game’s various cats visit your house when (1) you’ve sufficiently lured them with toys, (2) you’ve sufficiently lured them with food, and (3) they are in the mood. It works brilliantly for an iPhone because you check the thing multiple times a day. Neko Atsume always gives you a few things to do but not continuous action. You have to leave it alone for a while and come back later. But when you do, you’ll find some cats–or at least evidence they’ve been through.

I know real-time games aren’t a completely new idea but they never made sense to me in other contexts. I never wanted a Tamagotchi or something similar I could neglect and feel bad about. A friend was telling me about Little King’s Story for Wii, which required him to do all manner of village chores to run the place. Things would take time to grow and he’d have to attend to the village regularly. Then he lost interest in the game and didn’t play for a year or two. When he thought about it again and popped it in the Wii, the village was still there, covered in weeds. The people asked why he had abandoned them.

But the Neko Atsume model clicked with me, and I felt that I had an unfilled niche for an iPhone project game. There wasn’t a lot of new ground to cover with Neko Atsume. I have demanded, and received, regular cat updates already, which is great because Kristen is doing all the actual cat habitat maintenance. But I was vaguely aware there was a SimCity iOS port, so it was time to try it.


My lack of gaming currency absolutely extends to the realm of iPhone apps. I have a few little games I dig, but I tend to stick with a few reliable ones rather than cycle through new stuff. At some point I discovered that this fantastic logic puzzle game I used to play on previously-mentioned ancient PCs called Sherlock had been ported to a phone app. I still play Ticket To Ride all the time. Over the summer I played a lot of Onirim. Anyway I seldom branch out because frankly, digging into the world of gaming apps turns me into a cranky, cynical, confused old man.

The in-app purchase freemium model has its value–not everyone can or should put out a cash outlay for a garbage product–but is more generally unadulterated shady carnie hucksterism. I got a racing game once. It was free! Unless I wanted to complete a whole lap. That cost $2.99 or something. In the middle of the race it stopped me to beg for money. “Have you enjoyed the last 11 seconds? Want to keep going?” Besides the fact that most apps are just crap, free or not. Craven rip-offs of more well known titles (“Who’s for some Smetris?!”) and Facebook-sign-in-required transparent marketing lead grabs dominate the filthily competitive morass that is the App Store. But as an employed adult that will pay a few bucks for a well-designed game, I realize I am in the vanishing minority of the clientele. For every one of me there are a hundred adolescents with zero phone attention span who don’t expect to pay a cent for anything online ever. They don’t have any money anyway, which is beside the point, because app developers already know that and their actual income is from harvesting and turning out marketing data to the actual good development firms.

Anyway I dipped my toe in for SimCity BuildIt. It had a little of the SimCity goodness: plan, build, grow, earn. Nice interface for the phone, easy to move things around, with a really nice look and feel. I initially liked the way I could play a few minutes here and there (i.e., employ it as a phone game as intended) then put it down for a while, and come back later to an accumulation of back-taxes, so I’d have the resources to do more. But like any poorly-financed real estate venture, it was doomed to failure.

In the classic game design, expenses would increase, but population would increase proportionally if I was doing things right, so I maintained a level of steady linear improvement. BuildIt is decidedly exponential. It is not designed to keep things rolling. It is designed to create ever more demands, at ever higher expense. Like movies on cable that suck you in with no commercials for the first 30 minutes, then pile them on as you get more and more invested, after a brief honeymoon period I started running into all kinds of expansion bottlenecks. There’s a leveling-up mechanism that opens up new buildings, and right alongside that, construction crews will start demanding whatever those buildings provide. New resources take longer to create. The in-game trading stops offering you anything you need. Citizens started requiring new services that I hadn’t planned for and required huge investments. That might have been the most annoying: with no warning or initial infrastructure needs, these feel exploitive and arbitrary. (The sewer-less lifestyle was perfectly fine for everyone until level 8!) The net result is that taxes and basic in-game economics stopped coming anywhere close to paying the bills.

So once I was past the early levels, all choices were clear:

  • Wait literally days in real time with little or nothing to do in-game to get the resources necessary to make marginal improvements
  • Make with the cash

This mechanic didn’t sneak up on me. Right from the start they tried tempting me to drop in a few dollars for an infusion of SimCash, which would have let me skip tedious tax collection and resource development in favor of just buying stuff. But with a large open canvas in the early levels, there was plenty to do and no real need to bother. Before long they dropped the subtlety and straight-up offered me rewards to watch commercials. I took them up on it many times, just letting the commercial play while I put my phone down for a minute to do something else. Still, as it went on I thought often of giving in and dropping a few dollars–after all, the app was free and I’d gotten some enjoyment out of it, why not support it and do more in-game? But the math never made sense. I’d have wiped out my SimCash immediately on a few improvements and been right back in the same crunch.

They know all of this. It is 100% designed to hook you in and begin extracting dollars. One can theoretically avoid that forever simply through patience. But I started also feeling like I was due for limited returns. The other thing that happened once I reached the middle levels is that I was required to start socializing. Join Mayor’s Clubs, join forums, launch attacks on other cities, and reciprocate by letting them do the same to me.


Multiverse Theory contends that we live in just one of an infinite set of possible universes. This is an amazing thought: it is possible that there are universes where Kristen and I lingered a bit too long for a drink and didn’t make it to the video game history exhibit, or the PCs were down that day, or some other thing that didn’t remind her of SimCity, and therefore never exposed me to it. Who knows what I could have done with the dozens of hours I spent obsessing over SimCity 2000. I’d be a different person today. And further, I never would have tried SimCity BuildIt and written two thousand words about it, intertwined with thoughts on my present-day gaming life.

Another thought about the Multiverse Theory is that there might be a possible universe among the infinite in which Parallel Josh was interested, in any capacity whatsoever, in getting entangled in some contrived virtual mayoral dispute and allowing them to destroy the city I just spent weeks developing.

Vanishingly likely is that, as in this universe, once this became a requirement of progress, I made peace with my stalled efforts and deleted the app.

I have since put down a few dollars each on Mini Metro and the very good port of Pandemic. I am much happier.


I know EA has a long track record of this kind of nonsense, well before SimCity BuildIt. They are routinely voted the Worst Company in the county in various polls. [Although frankly, this is ridiculous. Most of these polls are online and greatly skewed towards younger voters with exclusively first-world problems, and specifically teenagers with entertainment-focused first-world problems, with endless time on their hands and no real sense of scope. Any legit poll like this should be utterly dominated by insurance companies, oil companies, and the pharmaceutical industry.] But the recent rumpus over Star Wars Battlefront II, and its crushing microtransaction malfeasance, has provided me with great delight. I understand they have lost $3 billion in stock value as a result. Here we have a game design so horrendously corrupt it is literally altering the global economy, rousing legislative rumblings, and will likely upend software design trends forever.

I suppose microtransactions will never totally go away, they are probably an inevitable outcome of capitalism. But here’s hoping we are now post-peak.