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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Rivals (Review)

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

Rivals doesn’t work. However, while the second season has produced a string of noble failures, Rivals fails for a very simple reason. It’s a comedy episode without any comedy. It’s a guest-star focused episode which centres on a hopelessly miscast Chris Sarandon. Sarandon is an Oscar-nominated actor, and he should be something of a casting coup for the show. This second season has already featured Louise Fletcher, Frank Langella and John Glover – so it seems fair to acknowledge that the casting people were on a bit of a roll.

However, due to a reheated script and Sarandon’s lack of interest or engagement, Rivals winds up feeling stale. There is potential here, but it’s squandered as the writers forget the first rule of a good comedy episode. They forgot to bring the laughs.

I feel a similar way...

I feel a similar way…

To be fair, you could look at Rivals as a failed attempt at world-building from a show still trying to define its own boundaries. The second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made a conscious effort to do things that couldn’t be done on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and to figure out its own identity. This is what leads to episodes like the opening Circle trilogy or even Necessary Evil. It stands to reason that not all of these experiments would be successful.

Rivals offers us the possibility of a foil for Quark. It’s the kind of premise which takes advantage of the show’s unique setting. Sure, Quark has a bar – but Guinan runs a bar on the Enterprise. However, Deep Space Nine has its own station-wide economy. We’ve already seen vendors, a school, a temple. The best part of Melora was the introduction of a Klingon bistro where the owner serenades his customers. The Promenade helps create the impression that the station is really just a town in space.

If Chris Sarandon can't be bothered, why should I? (It's also good advice in general practice.)

If Chris Sarandon can’t be bothered, why should I? (It’s also good advice in general practice.)

So developing the Promenade makes sense. Quark and Odo are really our only gateways into how the Promenade works. We occasionally get a glimpse of Garak’s shop, but expanding the cast of characters on the Promenade is a nice way of developing a concept which distinguishes Deep Space Nine from The Next Generation. Giving Quark a business rival makes sense, and it’s clear – as Michael Piller concedes in Captains’ Logs Supplemental – The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages – that Martus was originally conceived as a potential recurring foil:

When we did Rivals I thought that the character of Martus had a chance of being a recurring one. It was like Harry Mudd or something like that. But I don’t think it will. I thought it was an average episode, albeit with some great character stuff in it.

The problem is that Martus really isn’t that exciting a character. It’s clear the episode is in trouble from the teaser. The teaser is intended to get the audience interested in the episode, to “hook” them and reel them in. However, the teaser to Rivals hinges on the fact that this character we met two minutes ago is in a bit of a bind. He’s been locked up for being a criminal. The problem is that locking up criminals (particularly those preying on the weak and the elderly) is that it’s the kind of thing we’re supposed to applaud. This isn’t a hook, it’s a good thing.

You win some...

You win some…

The only reason to be upset or engaged by the arrest of a criminal is if we’re invested in the character to begin with. For a hook like this to work, to make us want to follow this story, the audience needs to be wondering “how is he going to get out of this one?” or at least interesting in uncovering why this is happening to him. Rivals can’t do that. All Martus has done is talk to a woman for a little while before Odo threw him in prison, which is probably where he belongs. There’s no “tease” here, no attempt to excite the audience. It’s just “something that happened.”

If the script can’t get too excited about Martus, it’s hard to blame Chris Sarandon for phoning his performance in. He spends most of Rivals looking bored or disinterested. For a story which hinges on the appeal and charm of a guest star we’ve never met before, this is a major problem. Martus needs to be larger-than-life, over-confident, charming and manipulative. Sarandon plays him as disengaged and condescending.

You lose some...

You lose some…

Given that the main attraction here is supposed to be the conflict between Quark and his new adversary, sparks need to fly. The only moment where it seems like Quark and Martus might work as foils is that short sequence where Martus is herding people into his sleazy little cantina, pausing to shoot Quark a look of smug confidence. Sadly, the rest of the time it appears that Martus isn’t too bothered about what’s going on.

Having decided that they character isn’t working, the episode ends with Quark exiling him from the station, never to be spoken of again. This makes the episode particularly frustrating. One of the great things that Michael Piller did when he took over the writing staff on the third season of The Next Generation was to insist that each story should relate to and affect our main cast in some way. It was a way of ensuring that the stories remained grounded as solid drama.

I'll drink to never reappearing...

I’ll drink to never reappearing…

The problem with Rivals on this front is that it should be a Quark story. Quark is the member of our regular cast who is put out by Martus’ arrival. He’s the one who is made redundant by Martus’ success. This should be a story about Quark asserting his place on the station. Instead, the episode spends its time focusing on the bland Martus, while Quark is reduced to whining about rules and agreements to Sisko or Odo, or finding a way to tie in the O’Brien/Bashir subplot to the main plot of the episode.

You could almost forgive this decision to focus on Martus if he were a recurring character. After all, character-centric episodes can be good or bad, and there’s the possibility that this narrative would at least codify his relationship with Quark for later episodes to reference. Plus, there’s always the notion that Martus could be kept in reserve for a good story later in the show’s run.

Odo is not amused.

Odo is not amused.

Wasting an episode on a one-shot guest star always feels like a bit of a cheat, even if the episode is good and the guest star interesting. It feels like an attempt to distract attention away from the regulars and to invest effort in developing something which the show just throws away. Rivals is frustrating not only because it’s a dodgy episode based around a boring character, but because it’s just killing time. Killing time with a fun plot and an enjoyable character would be excusable, but here it compounds the problems with the episode.

So instead of discovering how Quark deals with competition (would he really give the station an intestinal bug to sabotage the competition?), the episode is devoted to the relationship woes and easy-come-easy-go finances of a character who will never be heard from again. That said, perhaps it’s not a bad thing. Rivals resorts to one of the more awkward plot devices of early Deep Space Nine, using an unscrupulous supporting character to bring something dangerous aboard to generate a sense of risk. It’s a lazy plotting shortcut.

It never blue me away...

It never blue me away…

In earlier episodes – Q-Less, Invasive Procedures, etc. – this role was played by Quark. It was massively damaging to a character who was on shaky ground to begin with. One might wonder why the crew keeps him around. At least in Rivals, Martus is the one who gets the “greedy capitalist puts station at risk” subplot. That doesn’t make it any more palatable – you can almost see Sarandon’s resentment as he’s forced to read the lines explaining his character’s stupidity – but it spares Quark another indignity. We should be thankful for small wonders, I suppose.

That doesn’t make the plot point any less lazy. Or the “luck” idea any less ridiculous. Rivals seems to run on a premise borrowed from a dodgy sit-com, with the characters having a run of bad luck. “Doctor Bashir tells me the Infirmary is full of minor accidents,” Sisko tells us. “People slipping and falling, walking into turbolift doors before they open, that kind of thing.” It gives me the mental image of Deep Space Nine turning into The Three Stooges.

Well, at least somebody on the cast is managing some enthusiasm...

Well, at least somebody on the cast is managing some enthusiasm…

It’s not a bad idea. There’s something absurd about an alien technology that can change the laws of physics so profoundly that it reaches beyond the show’s reality and even changes the genre of Deep Space Nine from science-fiction to screwball comedy. If the script were a little more sly or self-aware, or willing to wink at the audience, you could almost see it working. The funniest line of the episode is entirely unintentional, as Sisko tries to figure out what’s going on and falls back on typical Star Trek cliché.

“There must be a logical explanation for all of this,” he protests, earnestly. Without a hint of irony, he offers, “Maybe a virus or some kind of spatial disruption?” The problem is that it isn’t meant to be a wry indictment of the show’s technobabble explanations for contrived plotting. Rivals is actually being serious. You imagine there was a point in the pitch meeting where “bad luck virus” was scrawled on the board with a question mark, only to be definitively crossed out after the third order of Chinese takeout.

Let sleeping... eh, whatever he is... lie...

Let sleeping… eh, whatever he is… lie…

Star Trek science is typically nonsense. I don’t mind that. To complain about science in a show about warp speed and transporters and Romulans and Klingons would seem to be missing the point. So the simple mistake about the spin of the station’s neutrinos can be forgiven easily enough. Dax suggests that it’s unusual that a large number of neutrinos on the station are in a left-handed spin state, when all neutrinos are in a left-handed spin state. To be fair, science advisor Andre Bormanis normally does a good job, and it’s hard to fault him for letting this slip through.

That said, the concept of a device which alters luck seems a little weird – especially a gambling device. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of metaphysical mysticism in Deep Space Nine. After all, the Bajoran Orbs are far from hard science. The problem is logical. Surely if you win at the device you get good luck, so you should continue winning? And the more you win, the more luck you accrue. After all, since losing requires a fairly significant amount of bad luck, you should avoid losing, right?

Glowing, glowing, gone...

Glowing, glowing, gone…

Or do the devices only measure luck? The episode seems to suggest that luck is something which exists in a finite amount, and that the devices only really “redistribute” the amount of luck per person. Are people playing the game only “borrowing” luck? Is the rule that Martus earns initial good luck, only to then have a proportionate amount of bad luck visited upon him? The episode’s concept is surprisingly undefined, and there’s a sense that Rivals doesn’t even care about its macguffin.

It’s the kind of thing that would be excusable if it were funny or interesting. Star Trek never delves too deeply into the pseudo-science aspect of science-fiction, preferring to throw out technobabble and effective metaphors or similes to explains the phenomenon of the week. (Dramatis Personae, for example, isn’t too bothered about how a “telepathic virus” might work, leaving everything suitably nebulous.) Rivals can’t even do that.

Now in Bajoro-vision...

Now in Bajoro-vision…

You’d imagine that Dax might be interested in studying the luck-apportioning devices, but she and Sisko can’t wait to phaser them out of the show. It doesn’t help that as well as being conceptually fuzzy, the device is aesthetically ugly. Martus sets up a gambling den where you push a button and a sphere either glows… or it doesn’t. To be fair, given how people get addicted to repetitive games like slots, it’s not too hard to believe it could be a success. It’s just not fun to watch.

“Am I supposed to be impressed?” Quark asks when presented with the device, and he seems to be speaking for the audience. The show never based an entire episode around Dabo, which is at least a little more interesting from a spectator point of view. There’s something very unsatisfying about Martus’ rise to success using the gambling equivalent of flicking on a faulty lightbulb – will it turn on or won’t it… the suspense! Perhaps it could be forgiven if the show made a point of the blandness of the device.

He doesn't seem too bothered about letting her play with his sphere...

He doesn’t seem too bothered about letting her play with his sphere…

Granted, The Next Generation already did a crap episode about a mind-control game, but that sort of interference would at least serve to explain the boring nature of Martus’ gambling emporium. As it stands, it’s just kind of a bit bland – which really serves as an appropriate observation about the episode itself, a bland unfunny comedy centring on a bland and unfunny guest star.

The only real point of interest concerning Martus is the fact that he’s an El-Aurian. It’s the first time that the species has been named, but it’s the same race as Guinan. (Indeed, the episode was originally planned as a crossover, with Martus written in early drafts as Guinan’s mischievous son.) Guinan is the Enterprise’s barkeep, and a character who made Troi even more redundant following the show’s first season. She was repeatedly described as a “a listener”, able to coax the concerns and worries from the main cast and offer them much-needed reassurance.

Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire...

Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire…

Apparently “listening” is a genetic trait for El-Aurians. “I know all about you El-Aurians,” Odo remarks. “You’re listeners. People like to talk to you.” However, it’s a nice demonstration of how Deep Space Nine was always more cynical than The Next Generation, even early on. Guinan uses her gifts to make things better, an expression of the Roddenberry ideal that – in the future – people are terribly nice to one another. Martus, on the other hand, exploits his for personal gain, twisting his empathy towards confidence tricks.

Still, not too much is done with this idea, only fleetingly referenced. Martus could just as easily be Betazoid (or even human) and the story would not change even slightly. It seems like an element left over from an attempt to coax Whoopi Goldberg to appear on the spin-off to grant it some legitimacy, rather than anything which was ever an essential part of the episode’s plot.

Never gets old...

Never gets old…

The subplot between O’Brien and Bashir is mildly more entertaining, but it never really has much of a drive, and it doesn’t end up with much of a resolution. As with quite a lot of early Deep Space Nine character insights, it’s fun to reassess Bashir’s love of racquet ball with later revelations about his abilities. While Melora reads quite creepily in light of his own feelings about his parents decided to have done to him, Rivals at least makes some sense.

After all, having to disguise his abilities and blend in, it makes sense that Bashir might want to excel in some area. Naturally, it’s best for that area to be recreational, and one that wouldn’t attract too much attention. “We took the sector championships in my final year,” he boasts of his impressive abilities, but one wonders why he never pursued to hobby after that point. One imagines that turning professional might have drawn more attention, and more risk. He could justify showing off at an amateur level, but he couldn’t take the chance of discovery.

"Oh, I just walked into a subplot, didn't I?"

“Oh, I just walked into a subplot, didn’t I?”

The conflict between O’Brien and Bashir works relatively well. O’Brien might be a little bit too stubborn – and who was he planning to play against if Bashir hadn’t come along? – but we can understand. Nobody likes to be confronted by the fact that they aren’t as young as they used to be and that they are just getting old. There’s also something strangely charming about Bashir’s awkwardness at dealing with the situation.

“The Chief has a lot of pride, and for good reason,” he confesses to Dax. “I really respect him, the things he does, the kind of man he is. I just don’t want to humiliate him.” There’s a sense of genuine respect there, and it’s clear that Bashir wants to find a way to resolve the situation without hurting O’Brien’s feelings or giving him a coronary. It feels like character development for Bashir, a sense that he’s growing increasingly aware (as hinted in If Wishes Were Horses…) of how other people think or feel.

A winning formula...

A winning formula…

Unfortunately, the plot never quite reaches a satisfying solution. The game is hyped by Quark as a means of saving his business, but then Bashir starts losing. I supposed O’Brien’s decision to stop the game probably suggests he’s coming to terms with his age, but he already refused to play with Bashir if the doctor didn’t bring his best game. There’s no sense that the two are now on good terms again, or that the racquet ball court will be disassembled. (Although it was never really used again, with the show favouring darts as the Bashir/O’Brien bonding game of choice.)

Instead, their plot just gets absorbed into the generic “somebody brought something stupid on board” plot line and is quickly shuffled to the bottom of the heap. It’s a shame, as it’s not a bad plot line. Putting Siddig El Fadil and Colm Meaney together is usually a recipe for success, as we’d see later in this same season.

Barkeepin' outta trouble...

Barkeepin’ outta trouble…

For now, Rivals is an incredibly frustrating episode. It’s an attempt to do a sit-com plot on an hour-long science-fiction drama series. Deep Space Nine could do many things well, including (occasionally) comedy, but Rivals isn’t smart enough, self-aware enough, or funny enough to work on its own terms.

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

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4 Responses

  1. The only real point of interest concerning Martus is the fact that he’s an El-Aurian. It’s the first time that the species has been named, but it’s the same race as Guinan.

    I never knew that! Being just a casual, late fan of Star Trek, I was highly interested in Guinan’s race while watching The Next Generation. It’s a shame that such a signficant piece of worldbuilding was wasted in a lackluster episode.

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