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Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 1-16: If Wishes Were Horses

Episode:16|Writer:Nell McCue Crawford & William L. Crawford and Michael Piller|Air Date:16-May-1993

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I've finally reached Deep Space Nine's leprechaun Rumpelstiltskin episode!

If Wishes Were Horses is an episode of Star Trek about imaginary creatures harassing the crew, because this is what happens when a writing staff is put under pressure to put out 20 something episodes a year. They start going strange, and this tends to get worse the longer the series goes on for (see: Next Gen season 7). Makes me glad that Star Trek: Discovery is only getting 13 episodes for its first season.

I have to admit that I'm dreading this one, but I don't really remember it, so it's possible that it'll surprise me in a good way! Maybe all those people who put it down near the bottom 10 in their DS9 episode lists were just being mean to it because they hate fun. Or maybe not.

Okay I'm going to recap the episode with screencaps, observations, opinions and SPOILERS, but only for this story and maybe a few that came before it. I'll give away nothing about where the series is going... except that it gets better, I promise.



Well that’s a shockingly original way to start a Deep Space Nine episode, with Odo and Quark together in the bar, winding each other up. Not that I'm complaining; these two are usually my favourite part of an episode. One thing I've noticed though is that there's a lot less moody smoke in here than there used to be. I guess O'Brien's finally got the atmospheric filtering system working right.

Odo's a bit concerned when he notices Jake going upstairs to play in one Quark's holographic sex simulation suites, but Quark explains that he's been going up there every afternoon to play a nice wholesome game of baseball. Seriously Odo, how can you not have noticed that Jake plays baseball; he talks about it with Nog all the time and walks around the station with a baseball glove on! This is a conversation that belongs in episode 2 or 3. Though to be honest I'm surprised they're having a chat about a main character's brothel in Star Trek at all really.

Quark explains that he's branching out, leasing new space to provide family friendly holosuites (right next door to the holobrothel). He says that a true entrepreneur knows to sniff the wind for the scent of 'op-por-tun-itee', leading Odo to reveal that he's got no sense of smell... which reminds me of a great scene he has in season 3's Improbable Cause. It's the only the teaser and I'm already thinking of all the other things I could be watching.

Speaking of things that belong in episode 2 or 3, Bashir shows that he's still obsessed with Dax, and Dax is still trying to put him down gently.

She heads up to Ops, apologises about being late, then gets on with detecting elevated thoron emissions in the plasma field. Seems that they might be a bad thing, or maybe not. Apparently turning up late for work because 'I was having dinner with Julian' doesn't count as a bad thing though, judging by Sisko's complete lack of a reaction.

Meanwhile, down in the O'Briens' quarters, the Chief is having to deal with Rumpelstiltskin escaping from a bedtime story and scaring the crap out of his young daughter.

What amuses me is that O'Brien's not even shocked by this. I guess after spending almost 6 years on the Enterprise he's used to this shit by now.

So that's the shocking end of the teaser. Now viewers have to stay tuned in case they get to see O'Brien beat the crap out of a fictional man in tights who's barely up to his waist.


ACT ONE.


O'Brien sends his family out and calls security, but the little bastard's too nimble to be caught. Rumpelstiltskin assumes he was called here because O'Brien wants something from him, and he's a little confused when he just wants rid of him.

Famously this guy was originally going to be a Leprechaun, to tie into O'Brien's Irish heritage, but actor Colm Meaney wasn't having it and I don't blame him. It's a shame he couldn't have stopped Next Gen's Up the Long Ladder as well while he was on that series. In fact they should've brought him over as a consultant on Voyager to stop Fair Haven and Spirit Folk from happening too.

Sisko's called over, but he's got his own problems as Jake's brought one of holographic players home from the baseball program. Not just any player though, it's Buck Bokai, the most famous made up future baseball player in Star Trek history!

Bokai was first mentioned by name a couple of episodes back in The Storyteller, but he's been featured on a baseball card prop in Sisko's office and his existence was indicated all the way back in season 1 Next Gen. He's apparently really good at smacking balls with a stick.

Cut to Bashir, who wakes up to find Dax in his quarters, actually showing an interest in him. The most absurd fantasy apparition yet.

To his credit he immediately figures that something's strange about this situation and literally gets his tricorder out to scan her for insanity. So we learn three things here: Bashir sleeps in his clothes, with a tricorder, and he knows full well that Dax has no interest in him but keeps bothering her anyway.

Dax asks him why he's fighting this, and he gives it a moment's thought before realising he's got no good answer for that. But unfortunately for Bashir they're suddenly called away to Ops to discuss the imaginary creature problem...

...where Bashir discovers that he's with the wrong Dax.

The real Dax takes it in stride though. In fact everyone here is surprisingly calm despite the impossibility of what they're dealing with, even Kira. I would've expected some good ranting from her, because she's got an innate sense of what kind of plots should and shouldn't be going on in Deep Space Nine, and whenever she's sucked into an alien board game or has to deal with technobabble you can tell she's not impressed.

Oh, I should mention that this is a panning shot I stitched together, the episode didn't suddenly go widescreen. Though in a way it did, as scenes like this featuring visual effects were often filmed with a fixed camera positioned to fit the entire scene in shot at once. That way they didn't have to worry about matching camera movement when putting the footage together, they'd just zoom in on the composited shot and pan across during the scene.


ACT TWO.


Wow, Bashir's got that exact expression people have when someone suddenly changes topic mid-conversation to talk about 90's visual effects compositing techniques.

Dax theorises that their imagination might be coming to life due to a subspace disruption or some kind of dimensional shift. Personally my list of possible causes would begin and end with 'godlike aliens screwing around with them', but hey if she thinks she can science up an explanation for how a spontaneous Rumpelstiltskin event can occur naturally then I wish her luck.

Also it's snowing on the Promenade now, lets see her explain that with science! Actually Odo just assumes it's the environmental controls breaking down, which I admit is slightly more plausible than godlike aliens.

Sisko orders a yellow alert, causing Kira to ask if they're really putting the station on "Yellow alert against our own imaginations?" I'm with her, they should really have a new colour for imaginary threats. Mauve alert, or teal alert maybe.

They're definitely detecting something out there that might be linked to the phenomenon, but it's emitting an intense field of tedium that my attention cannot penetrate.

I don't think there's anything intrinsically bad about technobabble, no one complains when doctors are yelling out indecipherable sentences around a dying patient in... damn I really can't think of an example more recent than House. But gathering characters people around a monitor and having them talk about particulate readings just kills the drama. My mind starts wandering off to wonder how they got the camera inside the wall for this scene. Did the entire console pull away from the set? Did they take a monitor screen out and have it poking through there?

Down in the Promenade the weather's improved, but now Odo's having a staring match with what he describes as being a 'Gunji jackdaw', and most people watching this would describe as being 'obviously an emu'. I can forgive the guy for getting them mixed up though, seeing as he likely doesn't give a damn about Earth wildlife. Plus I thought it was an ostrich myself.

Quark on the other hand is thinking more like Dr. McCoy in the Original Series episode Shore Leave, walking around with a fantasy woman hanging off each arm and a huge grin on his face. I'm surprised he didn't imagine up an extra Dax for himself while he was at it.

You know, this is the first time I've ever noticed a human with a regular normal tattoo in Star Trek, and she's not even real. Unless... she's a real woman fantasising about her own Quark. It's not that crazy a theory! I mean if this was the real Quark he should be freaking out about now, because... well, what do people in a casino fantasise about?

Ah, there you go, he's finally noticed that his customers are cleaning him out. Interesting how it's mostly Starfleet officers who are fantasising about getting rich, seeing as the Federation doesn't use money. Quark tries to imagine them losing, but he's outnumbered.

Quark's theory is that a Federation experiment has turned the station into a vast holosuite, which is actually about the most sensible explanation thrown out so far. Though it doesn't explain how it's sensing their fantasies. It also doesn't explain why the most exotic thing anyone's dreamed up so far is an emu.

Hey Dax still has her science lab! I don't think I've seen this place since way back in Babel. Though now she has to share it I guess.

She's actually very understanding about Bashir's embarrassing fantasies coming to life... though she's starting to get a bit annoyed at how submissive and dumb his 'ideal' version of her is. Meanwhile fantasy Dax is trying to persuade real Dax to quit denying her true feelings and give Bashir a chance!

I bet the guy's really wishing he'd gotten Rumpelstiltskin instead right about now. Though not quite wishing hard enough I guess.

Oh, plus they've found a match in the records for the mysterious anomaly outside: a subspace rupture in the Hanoli system... that exploded and took the Hanoli system with it.


ACT THREE.


Meanwhile Rumpelstiltskin's bothering O'Brien some more, trying to find a way to help him so that he can claim his firstborn as payment. Plus he's intrigued that O'Brien's so scared of him. He's aware that he's a figment of the man's imagination, but that means he can do anything O'Brien can imagine he can. And his daughter is his first child...

Basically it's like having Q hanging around, except with less underlying benevolence.

You know it occurs to me that this is the second time O'Brien's had to deal with an imaginary threat this month, as he had Dal'Rok issues in The Storyteller. If he'd learned anything from that, he'd get on the station PA system and make a rousing speech about how they'll all come together, deal with the anomaly and send the fantasy creatures packing. Get everyone imagining a happy ending and the rest handles itself.

The anomaly outside is still growing but I'm sure this walkway around the Promenade must be shrinking. Buck's practically having to duck under the beams as they walk around, discussing... well, baseball mostly. He's a personal hero to Sisko and the commander can't help but chat to him as if he's a real guy. He certainly acts like he is, with his concerns that he might vanish or might have to stick around. If he is here for the long haul, he hopes that Sisko's got room on his team "for a switch-hitting third baseman with good power."

But then in the next scene Rumpelstiltskin, Buck and fake Dax appear at a table together! They are real intelligent beings, and they're thinking about calling this whole thing off as they've learned nothing from their experiment so far.

This was another panning shot but I couldn't resist stitching it together and making a second fake widescreen screencap out of it. This is what all of DS9 could look like if they ever get around to remastering it for Blu-ray! Except with better colour timing probably.


ACT FOUR.


Sisko really needs to quit dreaming about baseball and imagine up a briefing room already, as it's a bit awkward having staff meetings in his office all the time. Kira on the other hand is displaying an admirable lack of imagination and she should keep that up, seeing as 'Cardassian invasion fleet' is likely hanging around on the outskirts of her subconscious waiting to jump out.

They're thinking that the anomaly may be causing hallucinations, which is obviously ridiculous as they can all see the same hallucinations. Unless they've also caught that mutated virus from Red Dwarf that makes hallucinations solid.

One thing the anomaly will definitely cause is the destruction of the entire Bajor system, unless they do something to stop it. Unfortunately their best idea is to fire torpedoes at it, which may also destroy the entire system.

Kira's sent to evacuate the docking pylons in case things get worse and it occurs to me that she may not be the best choice, considering how much crap they went through when she was sent to evacuate a moon in Progress last week. Long story short, it ended with explosions and fire.

Wow, it happened again? At least now we know what's going on in Kira's imagination. It's okay, the victim's imaginary too, she didn't really light someone up. Nice stunt though.

I've figured out what this episode reminds me of now! Well, TOS's Shore Leave obviously, but also Where No One Has Gone Before from season 1 of Next Gen. In that the Enterprise travelled so fast it reached the outer rim of the universe where thought becomes reality, and found that the best they could imagine was a cat, a dog, Picard's mother, the vast emptiness of space, and a wall of fire. It was actually one of the better episodes of Next Gen season 1 if I recall, and to be honest I kind of like this one too so far.

Meanwhile Odo finally takes a break from chasing everyone else's runaway imagination and takes a moment to prove he has one as well... by imagining Quark in jail.


POINTLESS JAKE SISKO INTERLUDE.


Meanwhile Buck Bokai tries to tempt Jake into going to play baseball instead of doing homework, but imaginary dad appears to put him back on the right track. Uh... I guess the episode was running short.


ACT FIVE.


Yeah, I'm thinking they needed to pad this episode out a little as now we've got a Star Trek: The Motion Picture scene of everyone just staring at the visual effects on the view screen. I'm giving the VFX team bonus points for taking the time to composite in that docking pylon outside the window as well, but then I have to take them away again because they got the angle all wrong. We're looking upwards right now so there's no way we should be able to see the base of the thing, and Ops is at the core of the station so we shouldn't see the side either.

O'Brien launches the torpedoes at the subspace swirly thing and they wait to see if they've collapsed it or wiped out the solar system. You know, it occurs to me that maybe the Bajorans should've had some say in this plan, considering that billions of them will die if this doesn't work out.

And the torpedoes... don't cause the annihilation of Bajoran civilisation! But they don't collapse the rift either and it seems like they may have made things worse.

Though on the plus side, this gives Kira a chance to say "Perimeter sensors are picking up a subspace oscillation... what the hell does that mean?" I'm sure she's speaking for all of the actors (especially Terry Farrell), considering the ridiculous technobabble they're having to say in this scene. They probably had to memorise it too, despite having perfectly good consoles in front of them to stick their gibberish lines onto.

The station ends up getting hit by a wave that sends them flying, including poor imaginary Dax who hits her head on the floor and is seriously injured. Bashir stuggles to save her (with Bokai's help), but they're pretty much all doomed at this point.

I keep waiting for Rumpelstiltskin to jump in and give them an out but he's been really quiet throughout all of this.

Oh, there you go.

He offers O'Brien a deal: he'll save the station and the entire Bajoran system in exchange for his daughter. It's funny how serious this is played, the episode's gotten really dark all of a sudden and the actors are selling it.

Suddenly Sisko steps in and... wow that has to be the most boring looking possible background in Ops. It's very disappointing wall.

Anyway Sisko steps in and pulls the same trick he did in Dax and Progress: imposing his own will on reality, except on a much larger scale. He tells them that there's no rupture and no threat to the station. Kira reports there's actually magnetic shock waves on the scanner, but Sisko corrects her, saying that there aren't.

All the crew can do is agree with him when he gets like this, and so the rupture vanishes. It wasn't the cause of the imaginary constructs on the station, it was a giant imaginary construct itself, made worse every time the crew took a guess at what it could be. Basically, they were assembling their own nemesis through excessive technobabble, which kind of justifies its presence in the script (but not quite).

Seems that Dax's fantasy turned out to be a fair bit more embarrassing than Bashir's in the end then! Also Bashir's fantasy Dax disappeared after the crisis, which I hope is symbolic of him letting this bloody obsession go already.

With the crisis over, Sisko sends the O'Briens home and goes to his office to chill out, only for Buck Bokai to drop in on him.

Turns out that he's a member of the latest weird alien race to come through the wormhole, but unlike the others these guys are actually peaceful explorers. They were fascinated by this alien concept of imagination and wanted to figure it out, by... somehow making it real.

So hang on, they're super-powerful explorers travelling the galaxy on an extended mission, and they've never once encountered a race with an imagination before? I'm... not sure I'm buying that, especially as this episode shows that pretty much everyone on the station including Odo has one.

But Buck can't tell us anything about his own race, that'd just be crazy, so he throws Sisko his imaginary baseball and leaves.

I've read that this is supposed to be the baseball, the one that sits on Sisko's desk from season 2 onwards and becomes very meaningful by season 6... but I'm not sure I'm buying that either. I mean it'd be nice if it really was a souvenir from this episode, pulled right out of his imagination, but Sisko's been seen playing with baseballs before. Like in The Nagus when he was spinning one in a bowl. Though on the other hand I suppose it'd have to be a special baseball to him in some way for him to display it on a little baseball stand in his office. Okay fine, I'm convinced!

Anyway the episode's over now.


CONCLUSION

If Wishes Were Horses is the definition of irony: an early Deep Space Nine story about imagination. The writers had already had to recycle a rejected Next Gen season 1 script by this point, that's how low on inspiration they were.

Super powerful aliens with the ability to make imagination into reality without any real understanding of what imagination is the biggest contrivance in DS9 since they discovered the super powerful aliens with the ability to make a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant for no reason without any real understanding of what linear time is. It's also super cheesy! The Prophets have an excuse though as their weird-ass nature means that they can learn about things for the first time after they already know about them. On the other hand, Buck Bokai telling Sisko with a straight face that humanity's imagination is something unique in their experience is 100% 'what is this human emotion you call love?' Star Trek bullshit. When every member of a diverse cast of humans and aliens shares an ability, including the outsider character, you lose the right to call it unusual.

But the main problem with If Wishes Were Horses isn't that the premise is utterly ridiculous, it's that it deals with it in a fairly limited way. What did we get when a few hundred aliens found that their imaginations were becoming reality? Snow, fire, an emu, success at the casino and a baseball player. And the point of the story is... that sometimes people fantasise about things they wouldn't actually want? That people can form a strong connection to imaginary constructs? Doesn't exactly teach us anything about the characters or humanity.

The Starfleet crew had the potential to dream up absolutely anything and the best they managed was a sexy woman in a jumpsuit, a spacial anomaly and an annoying alien creature who doesn't get the hint he's not wanted, which I guess sums up Star Trek around this point pretty well. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride and Starfleet officers would have a technobabble conundrum to resolve.

But for once I found that already knowing how it plays out actually made the episode better for me, as the endless scenes of tedious technobabble become more satisfying on a second watch. I found it funny to watch the Starfleet officers take one look at something interesting and manage to blow it up into an epic crisis as their worst case theories continually became true. The more they struggled to Trek science their way out of it, the worse the problem got, and the worse the problem got, the more they struggled to Trek science their way out.

Then when the dramatically empty Next Gen technobabble solutions fail, Rumpelstiltskin steps up to offer them the gritty 'difficult choices in an unfair world' solution and things suddenly get dark. But that's ultimately disregarded when Sisko comes up with the 'third way' solution, where he understands his way out of the problem. I can see how it might come across like a cop-out, but the idea of the characters winning by realising that they're building up a self-inflicted catastrophe in their minds by worrying about something that's not actually all that bad feels to me like the right fit for Deep Space Nine. Some of the series' best episodes are about a character actually making the tough choice and having to live with it, but this is a fundamentally optimistic universe, so I prefer that they're the exception. Plus it meant that Sisko got to bend reality to his whims again by calmly declaring what he wants to be true and then waiting for the universe to fall into line, and that always makes me smile.

A lot of people dislike this episode, but for me it's about average for season 1. After 15 episodes I'm at the point now where I'll forgive a lot of dumb as long as there's a bit of life to it. I'll take whatever joy I can get.


Deep Space Nine will return next year with The Forsaken. Oh great, it's the one where Deanna Troi's mother comes to visit. But before then, Sci-Fi Adventures will be celebrating Christmas with Doctor Who's The Husbands of River Song! You've earned a temporary reprieve from season 1 B5 and DS9.

If you're one of those rare beings who possess an imagination yourself, maybe consider dreaming up a comment and writing it in the box below.

4 comments:

  1. I don't know whether it has been asked before, but would you consider watching Red Dwarf of Blake's 7 for the site at some point?

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    Replies
    1. I am eager to get some more variety on the site next year, but I'm less eager to spend money to get the episodes, so Red Dwarf and Blake's 7 probably won't be turning up any time soon. Other things, but not them.

      Though I'll totally watch some episodes if I stumble across them somewhere.

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