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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – If Wishes Were Horses… (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 after Progress gives us the most Deep-Space-Nine-y” episode yet, If Wishes Were Horses… offers the most generic Star Trek episode this side of The Passenger. The plot here should be very familiar. Like in Imaginary Friend or Shore Leave, the characters find their imaginations seem to be bringing things to life. Of course, it turns out to be an advanced alien intelligence that really just wants to study our crew, like in The Observer Effect or Scientific Method or even Schism. What I’m getting at here is that there’s really very little in this premise which hasn’t been done before or since on Star Trek, and nothing which wouldn’t feel more at home on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager.

While it’s not as bad as The Passenger or Move Along Home, it is terribly generic and it feels like a waste of an episode in an already truncated season.

If wishes were emus...

If wishes were emus…

I’m actually quite glad that Deep Space Nine had a relatively short first season, running only nineteen episodes (or twenty, if you count Emissary as two forty-five minute episodes). Most Star Trek seasons run to about twenty-six episodes each. Deep Space Nine never quite reached the point where it was churning out twenty-six great episodes each year. Every season has its clunkers. However, it did reach a point where it was producing twenty-six reasonably consistent stories in its fourth season, and maintained that level of quality through to its final year.

So the first season of Deep Space Nine falls six episodes short of the mode Star Trek season length. And I don’t mind that too much. It is, I suppose, the price that we pay for the strongest first season of any of the spin-offs. I don’t doubt that the show could have produced another six episodes to meet the show’s quota, but I have difficulty believing that these additional episodes could have been on par with Progress or Duet or In the Hands of the Prophets.

Inside baseball...

Inside baseball…

Maybe they writers and producers were finding their feet at the end of that first year. After all, the two best episodes of the season are the last two. However, I worry that pushing the team to produce another six episodes of television would only exhaust them, and that you’d end up with six more episodes like If Wishes Were Horses… or The Passenger. Because If Wishes Were Horses… feels tired. It feels like everybody involved is just a little tired from working so hard, and they just want to switch everything on autopilot.

The first draft of the episode featured a leprechaun! Instead of Rumpelstiltskin, O’Brien was going to be followed around by an Irish leprechaun, until Colm Meaney forced the writers to change that. You really don’t get any lazier at plotting Star Trek episodes than declaring “I got it! the Irish guy… wait for it… he meets… hold on to your hats now… a leprechaun!” I can practically hear the round of applause from the team and one guy at the end of the table asking “now can we order Chinese?”

"Top of the mornin' to ya..."

“Top of the mornin’ to ya…”

The plot of If Wishes Were Horses… is pretty much one giant collection of Star Trek clichés. It even ends with one of the aliens complementing Ben on his humanity. “I learned that about you. That you could have such an affection for someone you never even met. I wonder if you appreciate how unique that imagination of yours really is.” The original Star Trek and The Next Generation were quite fond of the classic “humans are special” plots, but Deep Space Nine tended to avoid them. Instead, it suggested that a variety of alien cultures and characters could be appreciated on their own merits without reducing them to two-dimensional stereotypes.

There is an interesting idea in here somewhere, but the episode never finds the right focus. I like the suggestion, for example, that the station is only at risk because Dax imagines it to be at risk. There’s probably a nice bit of self-criticism in there about how characters like Quark and Odo have relatively harmless fantasies, while the imaginations of the Starfleet personal are so conditioned to danger and epic drama that they wind up putting the station at risk. But we don’t get that. Instead we get bland-but-nice baseball players, public sexual fantasies and evil-but-useless dwarves.

A healthy imagination...

A healthy imagination…

That said, If Wishes Were Horses… does raise something which will become an issue down the line. The original Star Trek did “sexy” quite well. Both Kirk and Spock seemed like interstellar stud-muffins, ready to get down on just about any alien world with any suitably sexy alien momma. The spin-offs never quite matched that, perhaps because they weren’t products of the “free love” environment of the late sixties. In the more politically correct and sexually sterile eighties and nineties, the spin-offs struggled to make Star Trek sexy.

The Next Generation struggled a bit early on, with first season episodes like Angel One and Justice feeling like reheated left-overs from the sixties or seventies. Deep Space Nine would make its own attempts to do sex comedies and farces. While some of them (Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places) worked reasonably well, this also produced some of the show’s worst episodes (Let He is Without Sin… and the “everyone is a lesbian but no one is gay” mirror universe stories). However, despite the fact that they never worked consistent, these stories did work a tiny bit better on Deep Space Nine than they did on The Next Generation.

I'll rumpel his stiltskin...

I’ll rumpel his stiltskin…

I think part of that is because Deep Space Nine acknowledged how weird all this alien lovin’ actually would be. Justice features Riker beaming an away team down to a planet to scout for sex as if it’s no big deal. He even invites Wesley along so the kid can meet the nice well-exercised gentlemen who might be sleeping with his mother if everything goes right. However, nobody bats an eye at all this slightly creepy and unnerving all this should be.

In contrast, at least If Wishes Were Horses… acknowledges that Bashir’s walking and talking sexual fantasy joining him for a staff meeting is a little weird. However, Dax isn’t upset that he has the fantasy – even though we’d understand if she were – she’s more embarrassed that it has been publicly broadcast like this. “In a way, I feel as if we’ve invaded your privacy. We all have fantasies and dreams we keep to ourselves, thoughts that should remain private.” That’s quite an enlightened philosophy.

A glass act...

A glass act…

Similarly, the episode pretty much confirms that Quark’s holosuites are little more than masturbatory aids, something that has been implicit since at least Hollow Pursuits on The Next Generation. Dilbert creator Scott Adams joked that the holodeck would be “society’s last invention.” However, the franchise never really embraced or explored the idea that the holodeck could be used to render anything beyond PG-13 fantasies. Reginald Barclay using the holodeck to act out power and romantic fantasies intersecting with the real world was treated as something of an abherration.

Quark’s holosuites have such a strong reputation that even Odo is horrified to see Jake Sisko climbing the stairs at the back of the bar. “You’re not allowing young Mister Sisko in your holosuites, I hope,” he protests. Quark quickly replies, “It’s not what you think.” Odo retorts, “It better not be.” It’s an acknowledgement of the very creepy use that this sort of technology would allow, and of what sexuality in the Star Trek future might look like.

Snowhere to go...

Snowhere to go…

However, it’s not the trippy happy “everything’s cool” philosophy that Roddenberry espoused. It’s a more cautious “let’s think of the implications” approach. Why should we assume that alien sexuality (or even future human sexuality) will be compatible with out own views on the topic? Early in the episode, Quark speculates what sex would be like for Odo. Foreshadowing The Search, he suggests, “I could create a shape-shifter playmate for you. The two of you could intermingle.”

Odo replies, “You’re disgusting.” And it is not a pretty picture to contemplate. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, I suppose. But sexuality is everybody’s private concern. Deep Space Nine features several of the weirder relationships in the franchise (most notably Odo gets to have quite an active sex life). In a way, the sexual morality of Deep Space Nine seems much more advanced than that of The Next Generation.

Bashir gets his sexual Trills...

Bashir gets his sexual Trills…

The show acknowledges that some expressions of sexuality can be unsettling or unnerving, but that doesn’t invalidate them. Just because these expressions don’t conform to our expectations (or Gene Roddenberry’s expectations) doesn’t make them invalid or incorrect or anything we have a right to judge. Sex doesn’t need to conform to our ideals in order to be valid.

Barring his concern about young Jake Sisko using the holosuite, Odo generally doesn’t seem too bothered about the sleazy function of the devices and the Federation certainly has no objection to Quark’s “Vulcan love slave.” In that respect, offering a liberal understanding of alien ways of life, Deep Space Nine actually seems more in tune with Roddenberry’s vision than Roddenberry himself was.

Waltz with Bashir...

Waltz with Bashir…

That said, Bashir’s sexual fantasy does seem a little pervy. Not because he has imagined his work colleague in an unprofessional manner – although her neediness probably says something quite unflattering about Bashir as a character. When she first appears, he’s concerned that either or both of them are under the influence of something. “It must be this Larosian virus that’s been going around,” he suggests.

However, as soon as she asks “why are you fighting this?”, he just gives right in. It’s a little creepy, because it seems to suggest that Bashir thinks this is the real Dax and also realises that she’s not acting in-character. Given how often mind-control and other factors are at work in the Star Trek universe, his decision to just have sex with her anyway seems a little… opportunistic. Especially for a man who is supposed to a physician, primarily concerned about the well-being of his fellow staff members.

It's getting hot in here...

It’s getting hot in here…

That said, I do like the glimpse of Bashir’s self-doubt when the two are summoned to Ops. He is immediately suspicious and thinks he is being set up as a mean practical joke. “Okay, I get it. Very funny. Did O’Brien put you up to this? … Senior officers report to Ops. We all walk in, everybody has a good laugh at my expense.” There are two interesting things about that. For one thing, the Deep Space Nine ensemble is the only ensemble where that suspicion could plausibly exist even early in the show’s run. There’s no way to make that work using the cast of The Next Generation. Nobody even suspects Riker of being that big a jerk.

However, it also reveals something interesting about Bashir as a character. Siddig’s delivery is wonderful, and we get a sense that Bashir knows he’s not the best-loved person on the station. It’s been quite clear that everybody on the station thinks he’s a bit of a fool. Sisko seems to barely tolerate him. Kira wants to strangle him. O’Brien dreads being stuck in a runabout with him. Up until this point, Bashir has generally seemed a bit oblivious to that. The revelation that he suspects he’s a bit of joke to the rest of the staff makes him pitiable, really. It also helps to qualify the character’s arrogance and ego – he’s over-compensating against his own self-worth.

The storyteller...

The storyteller…

That’s just about the only interesting character beats to be drawn from If Wishes Were Horses... Colm Meaney does the best that he can in a subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere. Although the opening scene does make you wonder how O’Brien could be such a crap storyteller in The Storyteller. Avery Brooks enjoys the chance to play a happy version of Sisko. However, nothing here feels substantial or specific. This is just a generic Star Trek script where somebody has pasted in some Deep Space Nine specific characters and references.

The show relies heavily on technobabble for a resolution, which is not a good sign in general – but particularly worrying in a Deep Space Nine episode. The Next Generation and even the occasional Star Trek: Voyager could occasionally wrangle drama from the gibberish, but Deep Space Nine tended to work better when the stakes were character driven. All of Bashir’s talk about “proton counts”  and “wave intensity analysis” feel rather shallow.

Bashful Bashir...

Bashful Bashir…

In that respect, I suppose, it’s perfectly in tune with the episode as a whole.

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

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One Response

  1. A forgettable episode, though one scene alone makes it watchable: Odo imagining Quark in a security cell. And Rumpelstilzchen alone was quite a horrible appearance that even me as a viewer got chills. Nice to see a Twin Peaks-actor coming to DS9 (like in the Circle-trilogy).

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