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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Move Along Home (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

And here we hit what is commonly agreed to be the nadir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s rocky first season. Even the production staff seemed to acknowledge the problems with Move Along Home. Director David Carson conceded that it was “disappointing”, while future writer Ronald D. Moore could help  “wondering if everyone had lost their minds.” And there’s no way of getting around it. Move Along Home is a stinker in virtually every way that counts. It’s messy, contrived, confused, but without the wit to pull off the surreality of the set-up. There are no stakes, and the only way the episode can generate suspense is by lying to the audience.

And yet, despite that, I am actually much fonder of Move Along Home than I am of The Passenger. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like either very much, but I’m more forgiving of the problems with Move Along Home, which stem from the episode’s ambition. There’s a sense that at least the episode was trying to do something a bit novel, even it backfired spectacularly. If I have to choose between flawed ambition and bland mediocrity, I’ll choose flawed ambition every time. Move Along Home might be a pretty dodgy episode, but at least its less generic than The Passenger.

A piece of the action...

A piece of the action…

To be fair, there are some nice touches here, mostly established in the show’s first ten minutes or so. There are seeds of what might have been a much more interesting episode here. For one thing, Move Along Home spends quite a lot of its time playing with the Federation’s sense of self-importance. It’s clear that this first contact with the Wadi is a big deal. “First contact is our most important mission, Jake,” Sisko proudly explains to his son.

When Bashir forgets his dress uniform, Sisko is less than impressed. “Listen to me. This is no dress rehearsal, this is the real thing. Our first formal reception for a delegation from the Gamma Quadrant, and I want things to go right from this moment on.” The fact that the show retains the dress uniforms from its sister series is a nice touch. After all, the sanctity of first contact and the stern sense of seriousness with which alien interaction is treated feels like an expression of The Next Generation‘s moral outlook.

Not dressed to impress?

Not dressed to impress?

Deep Space Nine generally works best when playing with those sort of ideals, rather than simply playing into them, so the notion that an alien civilisation might not be as “into” the whole first contact schtick as the Federation feels like a nice way of deflating some of the franchise’s po-faced seriousness. “First contact is not what it used to be,” Sisko laments, and it’s clear he is a long way from home.

Indeed, Move Along Home plays with the idea that the Federation’s values might not be as universal as they’d like to think. We might be excited by the prospect of meeting alien lifeforms and establish diplomatic liaisons, but that doesn’t mean other societies share out priorities. There’s even some hint of discordant priorities among Sisko’s own crew. Secreted away to play the Wadi game, the Starfleet officers seem a little curious.

Goodwill ambassador?

Goodwill ambassador?

“There doesn’t seem to be any immediate threat,” Dax observes. Kira is still not entirely cool with all this. “Oh, no. I’m sure all you Starfleet explorers find this fascinating, but I’m a Bajoran administrator. This is not what I signed up for.” It’s nice to have a regular cast who don’t all feel tied to a generic set of cultural norms. Even early in the run, the show was taking a lot of care to define Starfleet’s position as only one of a few moral outlooks. Not all are equally valid, but they were generally legitimate.

Similarly, this relativity is apparent in Odo’s reaction to Primmin’s insistence that the Constable can’t board the Wadi vessel without permission. “You can’t just go storming onto their ship without their permission,” Primmin insists. With Auberjones having a bit of fun in the role, Odo mocks concern, “Oh, is that Starfleet policy?” Primmin replies, “That’s right.” Odo reminds him, “Well, I’m not in Starfleet.” If only the first season of Star Trek: Voyager handled its “outsider” Maquis characters so well and so effectively.

Looks like Siddig el Fadil was the first one to finish his read of the teleplay...

Looks like Siddig el Fadil was the first one to finish his read of the teleplay…

By the way, say goodbye to Primmin, that guy we met briefly in the last episode. James Lashley always struck me as an odd fit for a Starfleet security officer, and his somewhat befuddled response to the fact that most of the regular cast have gone missing does little to reassure the viewer that this is the man for the job. He also completely disappears from the episode once he’s helped Odo get on board the Wadi vessel. What, did he go on a coffee break or something?

Still, there is something quite appealing about the concept of Primmin, and I’m glad that the show would return to the concept once it had grown up a bit. It’s probably a bit too early to be introducing guest stars who step on the toes of our regulars, and there’s the risk of introducing redundancy into a young cast, but it’s something very worth exploring. Lashley just isn’t the man for the task, and Primmin would work much better when he showed up as Eddington, a character just as banal and boring, but much more convincing as a Starfleet security officer.

Level up...

Level up…

To be fair, there are some nice character moments here, and it seems like the regular cast are settling quite comfortably into their roles. Here, Siddig El Fadil demonstrates that Bashir works much better as part of the supporting ensemble than as the focus of an episode. There’s some nice jokes at the expense of the arrogant overachiever, from the way he forgets his dress uniform to his failed attempt to get through one of the Wadi traps. “Watch this!” he proudly declares before getting a face full of force-field. I feel a little bad relishing how wonderfully pathetic the show is treating Bashir as a character, but then I remember we just sat through The Passenger.

Any scenes with Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton are also good as well. Avery Brooks has cited the relationship as the part of Deep Space Nine of which he is most proud. It feels like the best parent-child relationship in Star Trek. There had been young cast members before, but The Next Generation never really dealt with the relationship between Wesley Crusher and his single mother. Barring the occasional reference, the two spent most their time apart. On Deep Space Nine, especially in the early years, Jake really only existed as an extension of Sisko.

All that glitters...

All that glitters…

Cirroc Lofton was great and the role developed into its own over time, but the early shows tended to treat Jake as a means to humanise Sisko. As noted before, Jake didn’t appear unless he was necessary. The show didn’t feel obligated to work him into every episode, and we’d often go long stretches without seeing him. It was a smart way to use the character, and he somewhat softened Sisko’s gruff exterior. Without allowing Sisko to show his enthusiasm about first contact to Jake, for example, his frustration with Bashir or Quark might make him seem gruff or angry.

Indeed, Sisko comes across as just a bit of an ass here. It seems that he doesn’t like Bashir, which seems to fit with most of the cast’s reactions to the character. Kira seems to barely tolerate him (as seen in Emissary and The Passenger), O’Brien has issues with him, Dax seems flattered by his romantic intentions in a patronising way, and it’s clear that Sisko isn’t overly fond of his medical officer either. In Past Prologue, he didn’t seem to take Bashir’s interactions with a former Cardassian spy particularly seriously, as if doubting that Bashir could cause any risk to Federation security, even if he set his mind to it.

We hardly knew ye...

We hardly knew ye…

Sisko’s clear dislike of Bashir, or at least skepticism about him, comes into play in Move Along Home as well. On top of dressing him down over the uniform thing, he also makes a rather pointed jab when Dax suggests they split up. “Use your tricorders for proximity checks every two minutes. And if all else fails, just yell again, Doctor. We’ll find you.” It’s a joke, playing off Bashir’s early attempt to wake himself up by screaming himself out of a dream, but it’s hardly the most professional observation.

There’s also the revelation that Sisko is kinda a little bit racist. He doesn’t like Ferengi. He refers to Nog, his son’s friend, as “the Ferengi boy”, which seems a little bit hypocritical for a man who was just boasting about making diplomatic contact with an alien species. These are significant character flaws, but they’re part of what makes Sisko so compelling a lead. As mentioned in my review of Emissary, there’s a sense that Sisko is really sort of being put out to pasture here on Deep Space Nine, and the series is the story of Sisko learning how to pick up the pieces that shattered when his wife died.

That's not your Wadi, it's my Wadi!

That’s not your Wadi, it’s my Wadi!

What makes Sisko’s flaws different from the flaws evident in, say, Janeway or Archer is the fact that Sisko is clearly meant to be flawed. The writers release that Sisko has these weaknesses, and they acknowledge it. He’s not the perfect commanding officer yet, he has to grow into that. His racist perception of the Ferengi is challenged throughout the show. Particularly in The Nagus, when he discovers that Jake has transcended his father’s prejudices, and in The Jem’Hadar when Quark calls him out on his attitudes. While Sisko is never quite perfect, there is a sense that he is healing and developing, something that doesn’t happen with any other Star Trek lead.

Picard develops, but almost in reverse. He starts out in Encounter at Farpoint as this perfect human being, without any tangible flaws. However, the best Picard shows delve into that and reveal the very slight cracks in that exterior, the sheer control and discipline it takes to be that perfect human. Although he doesn’t really change that much over the course of The Next Generation, our understanding of him does. And Kirk does develop quite a bit, but only really in the movies. Archer showed signs of growth, but only in the last two years of his show.

Step into the light...

Step into the light…

However, all of these nice little things are tangential to Move Along Home, scattered in the background. The only really half-decent thing about Move Along Home is the way it give the focus to Quark as a character, and that’s arguably more down to Shimerman than the script:

There was a lot of interpretation, although in some of the scripts there was the leeway to do that. Primarily, I’m thinking of an episode called Move Along Home in the first season. It was about a whole race of people who played games. That script allowed Quark to, for the first time, realize his connection with the Starfleet people who had taken over Deep Space Nine. It gave him the ability or the opportunity to show how deep his feelings for them were. Instead of playing it comedically, I chose to play it dramatically. Which might be a plus, might be a minus – depending on how you look on it. But that’s when I started to fulfill my agenda, trying to deepen the character.

Quark could be a problematic character for the show, like Dax or Bashir in the early years. However, Move Along Home gives us the first real hint that he’s more than just comic relief.

The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great game of our time.

The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great game of our time.

That lovely scene where he breaks down and begs not to have to choose to kill a member of the main cast is very effective, and it’s nice to have a lead character who steadfastly refuses to be pushed into the role of a hero. His tantrum is pathetic and futile and selfish, but it also feels honest and real. I’m not convinced that Quark was that upset at the prospect of losing Sisko, Bashir, Kira or Dax, but he just didn’t want to have to make the choice himself. He just didn’t want to have the weight of choosing on his own shoulders. It’s not heroic, but that’s the point.

Unfortunately, then there’s everything else about the episode. Let’s begin with the Wadi. It is very nice to have a bunch of aliens with a unique cultural perspective. They are obsessed with games. Okay, that doesn’t sound too deep, but imagine what a culture like that might look like. Are they obsessed with game theory? Fixated on chance or skill? After all, the games a society plays can tell us a lot about them. One imagines, for example, their mind might be well suited to strategy, and they could provide a nice service to the Dominion, the power brokers of the Gamma Quadrant.

A dicey proposition...

A dicey proposition…

However, there’s never any real development of the Wadi. We have no idea about how they see the universe and how that makes us different from them, beyond the fact that it provides a nice vehicle to trap four of the main cast in a cheap family-friendly version of Cube. “We like games” is as deep as the development of the Wadi goes. This is only the second time that Deep Space Nine has resorted to the “wormhole produces strange aliens” plot generator, and it already feels old. Luckily, it becomes a lot less common in time.

So instead of seeming like a strange new species, the Wadi come across as manipulative sociopaths. When they introduce Chula, they present Quark with a dice. “Roll?” he asks. “But you haven’t even told me the rules yet.” Falow snidely responds, “You’re required to learn as you play. Roll.” Joel Brooks actually does the best he can to make Falow seem menacing while still a little camp, but that’s just ridiculous. Under normal circumstances, forcing somebody to play a game they don’t understand is a little bit dickish. When you’ve kidnapped four of their friends, it crosses the line into sadistic.

Handy catch...

Handy catch…

Apparently the fact that Quark cheated them makes this okay. It doesn’t just provide character motivation, it somehow makes this all his fault, as if putting abducting four officers is acceptable if you’re doing it to teach Quark a very special lesson. The episode doesn’t even seem to be ironic about it. When Sisko is righteously angry about being taken into a game without his consent, Odo butts in, “Before you blame them, you might want to ask Quark just how all this started.” This seems to overlook the fact that this is still their fault. They still kidnapped four people and put them in what appeared to be a life-and-death situation.

… And then they just leave? The episode even closes on a shot of their ship leaving, as if we’re supposed to believe that everything is fine. This is obviously all Quark’s fault. No harm, no foul. It is just nonsense, and the script refuses to hold the Wadi responsible for their actions. It’s a massive cop-out. I get that Quark cheating people is bad, but to suggest that it excuses the events of Move Along Home is just very frustrating.

This blows...

This blows…

And then there’s the ending, where it’s revealed that it was all just a game. Writer Frederic Rappaport is fairly blunt in his own criticism of that twist:

The ending, where we learn it was just a game, undercut everything that went down for the previous four acts. It all seems pointless if there wasn’t any jeopardy after all. I’ve heard from some fans who felt cheated that the characters were never in any kind of threat. I agree with those fans.

Of course, if it’s wasn’t all just a game, the Wadi come across less as borderline sociopathic and more downright villainous. So it’s a lose-lose situation from the perspective of the writers.

A Quark of fate...

A Quark of fate…

Maybe we could excuse this if the game was at least interesting. The best shot of the episode occurs when Sisko first wakes up in the game, and the camera pulls up to reveal a tile pattern evoking squares on a board. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else quite as good. The puzzles aren’t really puzzles, and it’s amazing that it takes the crew any real time to solve any of them. Since the solutions are obvious, there’s no risk. Oddly enough, the scenes inside the game feel like padding. This feels surreal, since the game seems to be the whole point.

Not only does the kidnapping make the Wadi appear dangerously manipulative, but the simplicity of the game makes them look a little stupid. It reminds me of those old point-and-click games with the sort of “use … with …” commands – where you could count of the rule of conservation of detail to help you figure out what to do. If a girl is singing and dancing through a forcefield, best copy her. If you’re in a room with poison and lots of drinks, odds are the drinks might help a wee bit.

Doubly secure...

Doubly secure…

There are some miniscule endearing touches. I like that Sisko wakes up and almost immediately suspects he was wandered into a holodeck programme. “Sisko to Ops. Sisko to Security. Computer, freeze programme. End programme. Exit.” I wonder if there’s like a manual for these situations which teaches you that if you wake up in a strange surreal environment with crazy stuff going on, just assume the holodeck is acting up again. Also, I don’t want to be teamed up with Dax if I ever get stranded in a horror film. “As long as we can maintain contact, it should be reasonably safe to split up and see if any of us can find a way out of here.” Pfft.

Sadly, these touches are few and far between, and most of Move Along Home drags on far too long. However, there is a strangeness to it all that I can’t quite hate. It isn’t too hard to imagine Move Along Home as an episode of the third season of the classic Star Trek, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy trapped inside a weird board game. There’d be more wrestling monsters and better banter, but the same cheesy sci-fi premise. (How’d they all end up in their uniforms anyway?)

Bored game?

Bored game?

Of course, there’s a reason that the third season of the original Star Trek isn’t too highly regarded and – even as a product of that troubled year – Move Along Home was never going to be a classic. However, there is something I almost admire about it, despite how frustrating it is. It feels like an attempt to do a hokey cheesy piece of science-fiction, rather than simply reworking a conventional Star Trek plot. It’s hard to resent that, even if the result is terrible.

Move Along Home is a failure, but it’s a more ambitious attempt than The Passenger. Well, look at it this way: we’re just through the worst of the season. The only direction is upwards.

You might be interested in our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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