WARNING: Let me ask you a simple question: Do you want to be spoiled? Of course not -- and why should you? In that case, avoid the spoilers for DS9's "In the Cards" that lurk below.
In brief: Stay away from that brown acid, man -- it does weird things.
Brief summary: Jake's quest to cheer up his father leads him and Nog on a merry chase, while Kai Winn faces a fateful decision.
That was quite possibly the single weirdest episode of DS9 I have seen in a very long time. I don't mean that it was bad -- I wouldn't put it in my top ten, but it was quite enjoyable. I just have to wonder what prompted it, because this kind of combination of weirdness doesn't just happen by chance. :-)
Actually, I have a strong hunch as to what prompted this. There's one line in the show that is such a bad pun, and so utterly bizarre, that it has the feeling of the sort of warped line one comes up with and then decides to build a story around. That line?
Well, it's spoken by Nog right after Jake says he's going to "beard the lion in its den". This, after they've both worried about the disappearance of Dr. Geiger, and Nog's been spending time rescuing Bashir's teddy bear Kukalaka from Leeta. Nog says, of course,
"Lions and Geigers and bears..." to which Jake adds while looking at Kai Winn, "Oh, my."
Psst. Ron. C'mere. No, no, don't worry. Everything's fine. I just want to whisper something to you.
There. Thanks. I feel better now.
"Oh, my" indeed. My jaw just about hit the floor when I heard that -- it's a pun that is SO bad that it's difficult not to laugh at the sheer audacity of it.
Much of the episode was like that, in fact. On the face of it, there's really nothing wrong with a plot that has Jake try to cheer up his father; Jake's statement that his father's always been there for him and that the tables should turn once in a while is right on. Similarly, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Jake and Nog getting in over their heads -- they've done it before and will undoubtedly do it again. Even so, the show just kept getting stranger and stranger until we were more or less willing to accept anything by the show's end.
The auction was straightforward enough, as was Jake's truly vicious emotional blackmail to get Nog to "donate" money to Jake's cause. (I don't usually get behind Nog's complaints, but then he said "oh, this is so low", I agreed with just about everything but his dialect. :-) ) In particular, that scene was beautifully directed by Michael Dorn, as we're privy to every single facial contortion Cirroc Lofton can put himself through. (Dorn broke a trend, by the way; he didn't get a Ferengi show for his first episode. I hope he's thankful; I certainly am.) Where the episode got strange, however, was when Jake and Nog tried to open negotiations with Dr. Geiger the first time for the Willie Mays baseball card.
I mean, let's face it. "Soulless minions of orthodoxy" is not a phrase that comes up in casual conversation particularly often, or any conversation at all for that matter (at least, not any conversation I've ever been in) -- so having Geiger use it suggests that something strange is afoot. The constant repetition of it throughout the rest of the show added to that sense of unreality, priming us for Geiger's "special project".
That project almost struck me as an acknowledgment that Trek "science" and technobabble is WAY out of control at times. More to the point, it was saying that some ideas are so wacky that they're not going to be taken seriously. (Now, why dying of "cellular ennui" is any wackier an idea than going warp 10 and temporarily turning into a giant mudpuppy is perhaps an open question, but I'll be good.) Fortunately, nobody took it particularly seriously -- well, except Weyoun, but since I don't take him seriously I'm not concerned.
After Geiger's harmless little project was revealed, the show started taking an odd but very amusing turn, as Jake and Nog began bargaining their way to all the pieces they needed. I was reminded of John Fitzgerald's old Great Brain books that you may remember from your childhood (I do; they were great :-) ), and my wife thought of a recent Neil Gaiman story called The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish (also worth a read if you can find it, as is virtually anything Gaiman writes); whatever the echo, however, the endless horse-trading of services for objects (obtaining a teddy bear for Bashir, rewriting a speech for Kira, filtering out noise on Worf's operas, recalibrating some stuff for O'Brien...) was pretty much hilarious through and through.
What was also hilarious was Jake's greater and greater obsession with the baseball card. Okay, so he's convinced that getting it is "kismet" -- but that's a long way from deciding Kai Winn is to blame for kidnapping Dr. Geiger on no more evidence than seeing her converse with a Vedek (which, being Kai, she tends to do). Nog pretty much summed it up there: "Jake, I'm really starting to worry about you."
What felt iffy, I suppose, was the cross-cutting between the Jake/Nog "let's just have reality call in sick for the week" plot and the Sisko/Winn story, which was anything but light. Both stories worked well in and of themselves, but Bajor's fate is so precarious right now that I have problems trying to examine it in the same show that features a cellular entertainment chamber and Nog stealing a teddy bear.
That said, however, the Sisko/Winn material was breathtaking. For a time it seemed that no matter what Sisko did, his past was turning Winn against him -- even his noble actions for the sake of Bajor in "Rapture" earlier this season seemed now to stack the deck against him. What's more, as Winn pointed out, his claim that the Federation is committed to protecting Bajor has limits -- he can't promise that they'll save Bajor over, say, Vulcan. As such, Winn was faced with the very real choice of risking her planet's independence versus risking its very survival -- "a most unhappy choice," as she correctly put it.
That led to the biggest jaw-dropper of the show, and certainly the most serious one: Winn flat-out asking Sisko to tell her what to do. Would anyone have guessed three years ago that Kai Winn would not only accept Sisko as Emissary, but ask him for guidance as her own spiritual superior? I wouldn't have -- but between "Rapture" and this episode, it's convincing, as is the unease with which she takes his advice to stall. This question clearly has not played itself out yet (and if I've heard correctly, figures heavily into next week's season finale, which isn't surprising), so I'm curious to see what happens next.
The only slight concern I had with that aspect of the show was with Winn's very presence. The scenes were powerful, no doubt -- but I had to wonder why Winn was there to negotiate rather than Shakaar, who is after all the First Minister. Fortunately, he was at least mentioned, and one real-world reason for having Winn there is that Louise Fletcher can act rings around Duncan Regehr when it comes to issues like this ... but even so, some justification for Shakaar's absence was really necessary.
And the ending? Well, I mostly liked it -- Jake's hastily-spun second story about them being Starfleet Intelligence operatives searching for a time-traveling Willie Mays was just ludicrous enough that it was believable in the context of this particular show (and just ludicrous to show he really is a writer :-) ), and the comedy of errors turning serious for a brief moment made sense as well. My only real gripe there is with Weyoun, who keeps bouncing between being a serious character and being a totally annoying pain -- and as such is not overly convincing in either mode.
Some shorter takes:
-- When Quark said that the auction materials came from an abandoned freighter stocked to the brim with collectibles, my first thought was of the long-forgotten collector Kivas Fajo (remember him?). I was almost hoping there'd be some reference to him in the episode, either of the ship being his or of him wanting to make a bid for the whole set.
-- Sisko mentions one woman as having headed for the Coridan system, a neutral world. Interesting how times change: Bajor's the one caught in the middle now, but a hundred years ago there was a big debate about whether to admit Coridan to the Federation. (Don't remember? Watch "Journey to Babel".)
-- Massive nitpick alert: Geiger's original list included two liters of "anaerobic metabolite suspended in hydrosaline solution", whatever the hell THAT is ... but in every subsequent reference, it's five liters. Just thought I'd point it out.
-- We saw Leeta, but didn't have to hear her. Yippee!
-- Brian Markinson (Geiger) is looking a lot healthier than last time we saw him. Last time, he'd just lost his face to the Vidiians on Voyager...
-- "The Dominion is notorious for its political intrigue." "I have some experience in that area as well." Winn always did have a gift for understatement...
On the whole, then, I rather liked "In the Cards". It was silly, it was way off-kilter, and if another show like it pops up again I may have to start taking hostages ... but for what it was, it worked. Only the whiplash between the two plots really hurt it, and that's not so bad.
So, wrapping up:
Writing: I'm not sure the combination of the stories worked, but the two stories themselves worked beautifully with only minor hitches.
Acting: Lofton so rarely gets this much of an episode that it's always a delight. Brooks and Fletcher were marvelous, and even Aron Eisenberg was better than usual. (Jeffrey Combs ... well, perhaps.)
OVERALL: Hmm. I think a 7.5; pleasant and engaging, but not quite solid enough to be really top-notch. Each story separately might have been more than that; it's the crossing over that isn't.
The station's last stand?
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"Can you promise me that you will not let one Jem'Hadar soldier set foot on Bajor? Can you promise me that you will use your entire fleet to protect our planet, even if it means sacrificing other worlds like Vulcan, or Andor, or Berengaria, or perhaps even Earth itself?"
-- Winn, making the stakes clear