In the Cards is the perfect penultimate episode to a sensational season of television.
One of the more common observations about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that it is the most dour and serious of the Star Trek series. It is the grim and cynical series of the bunch, with many commentators insisting that the series rejects the franchise’s humanist utopia in favour of brutality and nihilism. This criticism is entirely understandable. The series is literally and thematically darker than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Even at this point, it is about to embark upon a two-year-long war arc, the longest in the franchise.
However, this is also a very reductive reading of Deep Space Nine. The series is more willing to criticise and interrogate the foundations of the Star Trek universe than any of its siblings, but it remains generally positive about the human condition. Governments and power structures should be treated with suspicion, but individuals are generally decent. Positioned right before the beginning of an epic franchise-shattering war, In the Cards is the perfect example of this philosophy. In the Cards elegantly captures the warmth and optimism of Deep Space Nine.
Deep Space Nine is fundamentally the story of a diverse and multicultural community formed of countless disparate people drawn together by fate or chance. In the Cards is a story about how happiness functions in that community, how the bonds between people can make all the difference even as the universe falls into chaos around them. It is also very funny.
Ronald D. Moore is quite well-regarded as Star Trek writers go. His work on Battlestar Galactica has ensured him a higher pop culture profile than most of his contemporaries. Ironically, Bryan Fuller might be the only other Star Trek veteran who comes close in terms of recognition. However, Moore is generally seen as a dramatic writer. Moore is the writer who shook that Star Trek universe to its core by pushing The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in provocative directions with Sins of the Father, Family, In the Pale Moonlight, and many others.
However, Moore’s success as a dramatic writer (coupled with the lofty seriousness and political ambition of Battlestar Galactica) tends to overshow his more comedic sensibilities. Moore was never Deep Space Nine‘s most prolific comedy writer. Ira Steven Behr was the driving force behind the recurring Ferengi and mirror universe episodes, the most high-profile (and divisive) comedy episodes produced during the show’s seven seasons. However, Moore did dabble in comedy. His second script for the series was the highly underrated House of Quark.
Moore has a great sense of humour, in spite of his reputation for his more sombre pieces. Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places might just be the only successful sex comedy in the franchise’s fifty-year history. In the Cards is another example of Moore’s wonderful comedic pieces. In the Cards is a very broad comedy that remains rooted in its characters and true to its world. It is a comedy episode that integrates quite smoothly with the parent show while featuring a cavalcade of hilarious lines and scenarios.
In the Cards features any number of delightful jokes, delivered at a frantic pace. Doctor Elias Giger is one of the franchise’s great one-shot guest characters, essentially a Douglas Adams character who seems to have wandered over from a lost episode of Doctor Who starring Tom Baker. The idea that death is a result of “cellular ennui” that can be combated through “the cellular regeneration and entertainment chamber” is delightful, as is Doctor Giger’s wonderfully socially awkward (mostly “harmless”) mad scientist routine.
In the Cards is a comedy episode that finds time for Nog to utter, “Lions, Gigers, bears.” More than that, it allows Jake to respond, “Oh my.” According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, this Wizard of Oz reference was the script’s most controversial joke:
But although the rest of the staff was inclined to go along with Moore in the pursuit of fun, the sheer audacity of one of the exchanges between Jake and Nog had them all aghast. “Everybody looked at me as if I was out of my mind, and they all said, ‘You’re not serious, are you?'” recites Moore. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I love it.’ And Rick [Berman] was like, ‘You really want to do this?’ They kind of expected me to take it out, and I refused. After they shot it, the editors came back to us and they wanted to take it out, and Peter Lauritson said, ‘I suggest we lose this’, and I just said, ‘No, no, no! I love this joke! It’s one of the best stupid jokes I’ve ever written and it’s gonna stay in the script!'”
It is fantastic that Moore was able to get that joke to air, given how self-serious the Star Trek franchise could be. Deep Space Nine was more self-aware than its siblings, more willing to be cheeky and subversive. Even then, the characters making an overt pop culture reference to a popular film from the thirties feels almost heretical.
However, In the Cards works so well because (like House of Quark or Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places) it remains rooted in the emotional reality of the characters. Jake and Nog are the central characters of this comedic narrative, and Moore never loses sight of that even with everything else going on around them. Jake’s primary motivation is to procure an antique baseball card for his father. That goal is very easy to understand, and remains consistent through all the ensuing absurdity.
The relationship between Jake and Benjamin Sisko is an understated emotional core of the series, powering stories like Explorers or The Visitor. Cirroc Lofton and Avery Brooks work remarkably well together, forming the most endearing parent-child bond in the fifty-year history of the franchise. A young son trying to do something nice for his father, however small, is a very straightforward narrative. The beauty of In the Cards comes from the way that Jake’s initial plan spirals so completely beyond his control.
In the midst of this, there is some great character work for Nog and Jake. Moore’s script repeatedly returns to Jake’s defining character attribute. Jake is a storyteller. Shadowplay revealed that Jake did not want to follow his father into Starfleet. The Abandoned suggested that Jake had a knack for throwing words together. Explorers confirmed that he pursue writing as a vocation. The Visitor suggested a future in which Jake became a successful author. The Muse featured him writing one of his books. … Nor the Battle to the Strong cast him as a journalist.
As such, In the Cards focuses upon Jake as a storyteller. Repeatedly over the course of the episode, Jake and Nog stumble into trouble. Jake insists that they can never reveal their true mission. As a result, Jake engages in a series of heavily improvised excuses for his actions. In one of the episode’s more subtle jokes, Jake proves himself a terrible storyteller. He completely misreads the situation with Kai Winn, gets himself and Nog confined to quarters, and utterly fails to convince Weyoun.
Still there is something delightfully endearing about the combination of Jake and Nog. In the early days of Deep Space Nine, episodes like The Nagus, The Storyteller and Progress used Jake and Nog to provide an interesting and unconventional glimpse of life on the station. As The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion acknowledges, the later seasons drifted away from those stories, but never lost track of the characters:
Although Cirroc Lofton’s ever-increasing height (by the fourth season the actor had grown taller than Avery Brooks and Aron Eisenberg’s age (thirty in DS9’s final season) forced a change in the types of stories that would work for the pair, Eisenberg always liked to think of them as “a futuristic Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.”
The description of Jake and Nog as “a futuristic Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer” might date back to an interview with Ian Spelling during the first season of Deep Space Nine. Upon hearing the characters framed in those terms, Eisenberg agreed, “That’s a great description of our relationship.” It certainly feels like a compelling summary of their dynamic in In the Cards.
There are certainly shades of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the dynamics and mechanics of In the Cards. Ernest Hemingway famously insisted that Mark Twain’s novel was a foundational text for American popular culture. “All American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Hemingway famously insisted. Even today, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains an iconic and divisive piece of American culture; it remains on of the most banned books in the United States.
Mark Twain himself was famously immodest. Twain is frequently misquoted as contending, “I am not an American. It am the American.” Twain wrote the phrase as a quotation, but it always fit more comfortably with the popular impression of the author. Of course, Star Trek has suggested Mark Twain as the definitive American author before. Jerry Hardin memorably portrayed the writer in Time’s Arrow, Part I and Time’s Arrow, Part II, the time-travel two-parter bridging the fifth and sixth seasons of The Next Generation.
In terms of how In the Cards fits comfortably alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both stories are studies of young hucksters navigating the complex interconnected social bonds:
But most representatively American of all, perhaps, is the way Huck’s struggle between selfish individualism and collective responsibility defines the book’s action. Almost uniquely, Twain bridges the perpetual ideological divide that continues to cleave America today, right up to next week’s midterm elections: he embraced the “mainstream media” of his day, and promoted democratic egalitarianism and social justice – but he was also a free-market libertarian whose small-town populism was marked by a fundamental suspicion of government. Huck Finn registers America’s eternal ambivalence about individualism, simultaneously glorifying and condemning the doctrine that has so shaped the nation’s history and continues to define it.
Jake and Nog essentially find themselves straddling between capitalism and social democracy, engaging in a system of deals and barters that serve their own interests while also enriching the community as a whole.
Indeed, In the Cards offers one of the franchise’s most explicit mediations on what Captain Picard described as “the economics of the future” in Star Trek: First Contact. As a rule, the Star Trek universe has been portrayed as a socialist utopia dating back to a throwaway gag in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and some serious statements of purpose in early Next Generation episodes like The Last Outpost or The Neutral Zone. It is widely accepted that the Federation operates a currency-free economy. Which is an interesting concept.
There are generic philosophical questions about resource allocation and motivation, but those are broader debates. However, things inevitably become more complicated when Starfleet officers have to interact with cultures that still use currency. If the Federation does not pay its staff, how do they afford to drink at bars operated by the Ferengi? If Bajor is not a member of the Federation, and so not part of this massive sharing socialist economy, how do Bajoran workers on Deep Space Nine make money to survive?
All I know is that by the time I joined TNG, Gene had decreed that money most emphatically did NOT exist in the Federation, nor did “credits” and that was that. Personally, I’ve always felt this was a bunch of hooey, but it was one of the rules and that’s that. Fortunately DS9 isn’t part of the Federation, so currency could make a back-door re-entry into our story-telling.
Indeed, the problems that Deep Space Nine subtly (and frequently) suggests with this economic model could be seen as another example of the show’s subversive tendencies at work.
Early in In the Cards, Jake and Nog have an extended argument about how exactly Jake is going to buy that baseball card for his father if he lives in a society without the concept of currency. “It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favour of some philosophy of self-enhancement,” Nog protests. “Hey, watch it,” Jake responds. “There’s nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Nog asks, “What does that mean exactly?” Jake pauses. “It means… It means we don’t need money.”
This little exchange is very much Moore affectionately mocking his work on First Contact, with Jake ironically mimicking a line that Picard offered earnestly. Moore would do something similar in Dogs of War, with Quark offering his own riff on Picard’s emotional breakdown. Moore acknowledged of that particular joke, “I take great glee at mocking my own work. See also In the Cards for a riff on Picard’s rather pompous ‘we don’t need money’ line.”
(As an aside, it is worth noting that Moore’s self-mockery in both In the Cards and Dogs of War harkens back to lines delivered by Patrick Stewart in First Contact. Moore seems to be suggesting that First Contact is his most iconic and influential Star Trek work, as those gags only work if the original material is recognisable. In some ways, it is confirmation that the thirtieth anniversary celebrations around the release of First Contact represented the peak of Star Trek‘s cultural impact during the Rick Berman era. Moore argues as much on the commentary.)
In some ways, the unease that Moore (and Deep Space Nine as a whole) felt about the existence of a completely socialist utopia makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. After all, how can the audience relate to characters who live in a world where they never physically want anything? Every character on Star Trek has access to everything that they could ever want, whether through replicators or holodecks. That renders their experience completely and irreconcilably different from that of every human being living on the planet.
They are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption. … You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature—the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art, and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to. … I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on the show, said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.
It is easy to see why this approach would pose problems for writers trying to construct relatable characters in recognisable situation.
In some ways, the softer skill-and-barter-based capitalism presented in Deep Space Nine via episodes like In the Cards or Treachery, Faith and the Great River is another example of the show responding to its elder sibling. The Next Generation presented a socialist utopia that worked largely because its characters rarely had to engage in personal transactions with those outside of their existing framework. Deep Space Nine‘s willingness to play with the idea of capitalism in the twenty-fourth century is perhaps a small example of its rebellious impulses.
However, In the Cards stops just short of endorsing conventional capitalism. Jake and Nog do not succeed in buying the card at auction. When they offer to purchase the card from Doctor Elias Giger, he rejects their offer of currency out of hand. “The card is not for sale,” Giger insists. Instead, he proposes a trade. He requires various materials that Nog and Jake can procure on his behalf, and he will offer the baseball card in exchange. This sets the plot of the episode in motion, with Jake and Nog engaged in a complex system of barter and trade ending with the card.
Although In the Cards is a very comedic episode, it offers a charming glimpse of the sort of currency-free incentive-based economics that still hold sway over twenty-fourth century society. When Jake and Nog need a “Cardassian phase coil inverter”, Chief O’Brien simply does not have the time or the energy to help them. It’s not that he is being malicious or aggressive, it is just that he is tired and has enough other obligations. Nog explains the situation to Jake quite simply, “You’re not giving him any reason to help us.”
And so begins a sequence of trades that inch Jake and Nog closer to the card. They cover O’Brien’s shift so that he can relax in the holosuite, and in return he gets them their phase coil inverter. They steal back Kukalaka for Bashir in return for five litres of anaerobic metabolites suspended in hydrosaline solution. Nog harmonises Worf’s Klingon opera collection in exchange for two metres of electro-plasma conduit. It is never explained why Jake needs to rewrite Kira’s speech, but it seems likely that it is part of the chain of deals.
This is very much a kinder and gentler form of capitalism. In the Cards imagines an economy in which time and skill are the currency that drives trade, not money or latinum. Jake and Nog offer their time to help O’Brien recalibrate the EPS regulators. Later, they use their specific skills. Nog uses his Ferengi hearing to scan for the sub-harmonic distortions in Worf’s audio recordings while Jake uses his skill as a writer to punch up Kira’s big speech to the Agricultural Delegation. These are tasks that are specific to Jake and Nog’s strengths and abilities.
In some ways, this a very romantic extrapolation of the capitalism that drives the United States, in some ways a logical extension of the softer capitalism evident in classic Hollywood films like It’s a Wonderful Life. These stories propose a form of social capitalism, arguing that the relationships between individuals are strong enough to build viable communities without outside interference or government regulation. In keeping with the idea that Deep Space Nine is more humanist than it lets on, this model of commerce suggests that people are basically decent.
Perhaps the biggest difference in philosophy between Gene Roddenberry’s vision of The Next Generation and Ira Steven Behr’s work on Deep Space Nine is simply where the shows choose it place their faith. Roddenberry tended to trust systems and structures to ensure equality and integrity, investing a great deal of power and faith in institutions like Starfleet and the Federation. In contrast, Behr is more sceptical of these larger political bodies, instead believing that interactions between people are more likely to lead to change or growth or happiness.
This is perhaps the most effect aspect of In the Cards. The episode is, on one level, an exploration of the community that has developed on Deep Space Nine. This is the penultimate episode of the fifth season, airing right before A Call to Arms radically alters the status quo by breaking up the community that has developed over the past five years. As such, it makes sense for the production team to preface that dramatic season finale by exploring the complex web of interpersonal relationships on the station.
Indeed, the end of the fifth season is a time of transition for Deep Space Nine. A Call to Arms ends with the Dominion taking control of the station and forcing the Federation to retreat. Even when Sisko re-assumes control of the station at the end of Sacrifice of Angels, the status quo is not restored. In its fourth and fifth seasons, Deep Space Nine was a television show about a station where a bunch of lives accidentally intersected and formed a community. In its sixth and seventh seasons, it becomes a show about protecting that community in wartime.
As such, this is the perfect time for an episode like In the Cards. Several of the late fifth season episodes are about bidding farewell to stock Deep Space Nine narratives in preparation for the coming changes; Children of Time is the last Gamma Quadrant episode and Blaze of Glory is the last Maquis episode. In the Cards feels like a tribute to version of the show as it existed in the fourth and fifth seasons, a celebration of this most unlikely community of misfits and eccentrics on the edge of the frontier before things get really heavy.
In the Cards suggests that people are all connected to one another, and that actions and consequences ripple through an interconnected community. Jake begins In the Cards by trying to procure a gift for his father. By the end of the episode, Jake and Nog have improved the mood on the entire station. “For some reason,” Sisko acknowledges in his closing log entry, “it now seems as though a new spirit has swept through the station, as if someone had opened a door and let a gust of fresh air blow through a musty old house.”
In some ways, this is the perfect encapsulation of what Deep Space Nine has become in its middle seasons. Deep Space Nine was originally the story of a bunch of unlikely characters thrown together in the middle of nowhere for a routine assignment, an island of misfit toys in the larger Star Trek cosmos. However, in the fourth and fifth seasons, Deep Space Nine evolved into the tale of a number of vast and interconnected lives all tied together through this dusty old Cardasian station on the frontier.
There is something rather heartwarming about that, in the portrayal of a community brought together by chance that has grown into a functional family unit. Everybody is connected to everybody else, in ways that are not always easy to understand. Deep Space Nine is a place where Jake and Nog can confront the spiritual leader of Bajor by waiting outside her quarters, or where the diplomatic envoy of the Dominion can become embroiled in Jake’s pursuit of a baseball card through the happenstance of the quarters to which he has been assigned.
In the Cards repeatedly emphasises these strange and unlikely connections. There is a wonderful scene transition from Doctor Giger boasting about the loud hum of his immortality machine to Weyoun and his Jem’Hadar bodyguards trying to figure out the strange noise emanating from the room directly beneath them. This is the sort of connection and overlap that would seem ridiculous in a more dramatic episode, but which serves as a key thematic point of In the Cards. All these lives are connected.
Weyoun even points out the absurdity of it all. “Do you really expect me to believe that everything you’ve been doing for the last twenty two hours has been perfectly innocent?” he demands. “That it was merely a coincidence that Doctor Giger has been running experiments with highly charged polaric particles directly below my quarters? I suppose there’s also an innocent explanation to the secret meetings you’ve been having with virtually the entire senior staff of Deep Space Nine, or that Kai Winn met with you immediately after leaving me?”
One of the things that distinguishes Deep Space Nine from the other Star Trek shows is the emphasis that the series puts on the mundane day-to-day existence of the characters. This is most obvious in the secondary plots of episodes like Indiscretion or The Ascent, which capture more grounded personal moments involving primary and secondary characters. More than The Next Generation or Voyager, Deep Space Nine understands that life continues between those big “important” moments.
In the Cards is perhaps the ultimate example of that philosophy in action. The structure of the episode is interesting, in that the Jake and Nog plot is foregrounded while the galactic politics subplot bubbles in the background. It is an inversion of the format employed by stories like Life Support or Ferengi Love Songs. Ronald D. Moore acknowledged as much in an interview with Star Trek Monthly:
Basically we reverse the normal structure in this show, so that the A-story is the comedy and the B-story is serious. It’s a fun show.
It is difficult to imagine any other Star Trek series telling a story in this manner, allowing its two young adult characters to dominate the hour in pursuit of a gift for the series lead while the threat of war looms large in the background. In this respect, In the Cards renders explicit something heavily implied by the series’ tendency to pepper episodes with character-driven subplots: normal life unfolds around these seeming epic events.
In the Cards is a profoundly optimistic piece of television. Not because it insists that the world is a wonderful place and that everything will be all right. Instead, In the Cards works because it contends that life must go on regardless of all the horrible things that happen. Lives are connected to one another, and even seemingly small-scale good deeds can make a meaningful improvement to standards of living. Deep Space Nine is cynical about governments and power structures, but it remains confident in communities and individuals.
The strange (and oft-overlooked) optimism of Deep Space Nine can be succinctly summarised in the final two lines of the script, as Sisko reflects upon the happiness that has been created through Jake and Nog’s misadventures. “But maybe I’m over-thinking this. Maybe the real explanation is as simple as something my father taught me a long time ago. Even in the darkest moments, you can always find something that’ll make you smile.” That is what sets Moore’s work on Deep Space Nine quite apart from his work on Battlestar Galactica.