One of the things nobody tells you about relationships: When the person you love suffers, you suffer too. In theory, this should be obvious. You care about someone, be it your lover or your best friend or your father, you want them to be happy, and you get bummed when they aren’t. But it’s more insidious than that, because when you watch someone else be depressed or stressed or frustrated, you not only feel bad for them—you feel like it’s your job to do something about it. Even when, as in most cases, just being supportive and kind is enough, you want to find some concrete way of relieving that misery. You’re helpless, because you can’t force someone to be in a better mood, no matter how much you might want to. (With the best of intentions, of course.) When Jake sees his dad all tied up in knots, obsessing over the various angles of the Dominion threat, he gets upset about it, like any loving son would. And when an opportunity presents itself to add a little brightness to Benjamin Sisko’s day, he jumps at it; and he keeps pushing forward, even when common sense (and maybe even a few laws) suggest he should let it go.
But there’s wisdom in his desperation, and it’s the wisdom that pushes us towards the episode’s unexpectedly warm conclusion. “In the Cards” is a “comedic” episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a designation that tends to bode ill for the Cleaner sydney. We talked about this some in the last Ferengi-centric entry, but to reiterate: It’s all about stakes. The problem with intentionally setting out to write episodes that are funny and episodes that are dramatic is that you’re telling your audience from the outset that some storylines count less. I’m not saying drama is more important than comedy; I’m saying that in narrative television, the “serious” entries are usually the ones that have the most story movement, where the big twists happen, where the consequences live. Recognizing the signs of a jokey storyline (and they aren’t that hard to recognize) takes the pressure off, which kills a lot of the comedy. At their worst, “funny” Trek is a waste of time, and it must’ve been a bummer to get some of these episodes when the show was airing week to week. Nothing kills laughter like disappointment.
Thankfully, “In The Cards” is pretty great, largely because the humor rises from deeply serious, even terrifying, concerns. Sisko’s worries over the future of the station, and the threat the combined forces of Cardassia and the Dominion represent, aren’t paranoid fantasy. Slowly but surely, the past season has been tightening the noose around all of our favorite characters’ throats, and now that the end is coming, there’s no more denying the inevitable. There will be war, and if our heroes don’t find a way to fight it, things could go very badly indeed. The Jem’Hadar are a formidable fighting force; the Vorta (Weyoun is back this week, huzzah!) are brilliant diplomats and manipulators; and the Founders themselves have an uncanny knack for planning out strategy multiple moves in advance. This is not something that can be handled in a two-parter and then never spoken of again. Big, bad news is coming no matter what Jake, Nog, or anyone else does.
Almost paradoxically, the seeming pointlessness of Jake’s quest makes it that much more entertaining to watch. Which would seem to go against all that stakes talk I mentioned above (it wouldn’t change much of anything if Jake never got that card), but the thing is, the stakes are still important, even if Benjamin Sisko’s son can’t really do much about them. More importantly, the immediate stakes for Jake are utterly critical. There are dire times ahead, and the boy’s desire to brighten, if only for a few moments, his old man’s day, creates a pressing goal for the story to resolve, one that fits in with the episode’s major theme: How important are the small moments? If it takes this much out of us just to get through the daily business of being alive, how do you find the strength to keep going? What makes this work is how, for all the aliens and forays into mad science, this is a fundamentally simple tale. It’s a bit like one of those point-and-click adventure games: Jake sees something he wants, and then has to go through a series of seemingly random tasks in order to get it. But those tasks, in part because they’re motivated by a sincere desire to make someone’s life better, ripple outward.
So there’s a Willie Mays rookie card at an auction at Quark’s. Jake browbeats Nog into giving him the money to buy it—it’s a nice touch that Jake doesn’t really take his friend’s reluctance seriously, since it’s easy to be selfish when you’re trying to do something nice; besides, Jake grew up without a concept of money, so it’s likely he considers the subject a bit less weighty than a Ferengi would. Not that it matters in the end; Jake and Nog lose the auction when a mysterious human bids exorbitantly against them. So Jake and Nog go to see the human, a scientist named Dr. Giger (Brian Markinson), to see if they can purchase the baseball card directly from him. (The card was part of a larger lot of antiquities.) Dr. Giger rejects them initially, then changes his mind, and gives them a list of items he’ll take in exchange for the Willie Mays. Which is great, except there’s a pretty good chance Dr. Giger is completely mental.
Trek shows are often filled with wonderful, bordering on magical technology; it’s a tool to make certain kinds of stories possible, and it also adds to the escapist vibe all these shows share, the suggestion of a remarkable place you’ll be more than happy to spend hours visiting. But just because the future is apparently full of all kinds of wonderful toys (warp drive, replicators, the mindfuck that is the holodeck) doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to have everything they want. There are still going to be people pushing the boundaries of accepted knowledge, and some of those people are going to be crackpots, even if they’re right. Dr. Giger’s “cell entertainment is the key to immortality” theory is loopy. It’s possible it’s true (the episode never confirms this one way or the other, although I’m leaning towards “no”), but the idea is so fringe-level goofy it’s hard to take seriously. And Giger himself doesn’t help, as he rails to Jake and Nog about the dangers of the “soulless minions of orthodoxy” (band name!) he believes are working to destroy him. The guy’s a nut, and it’s refreshing to see this kind of batshit science on a show that reveres the pursuit of knowledge when it isn’t preaching the heaven of agrarian, rural utopias.
By the end of the hour, Jake gets his baseball card, although it takes some doing to get there, including a completely ill-advised attempt to strong arm Kai Winn (for a kid who works as a reporter, he’s weirdly naive), and a confrontation with Weyoun that almost, but not quite, turns into a total disaster. Winn and Weyoun are on the station to discuss a possible non-aggression pact between Bajor and the Dominion, a possibility which raises still more potential problems for Sisko, but in the episode’s closing moments, he’s smiling. Partly because Jake gives him the card, and partly because so many members of his staff seem a little happier, due in large part of Jake and Nog’s willingness to do favors. Too often, good intentions lead to bad news, but just this once, a sincere desire to make someone else’s life better managed to have a larger, more positive effect than intended. The key, I think, is recognizing that even when you can’t fix everything, the desire to help the people you love is a noble one. And hell, maybe Dr. Giger is on to something after all. You can’t stave off death forever—but if you can keep yourself entertained, you’ll better enjoy the time you get.
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