Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Deep Space Nine 3x22 "Explorers"

rating: ****

the story: While the Siskos experience some one-on-one bonding time, Bashir reluctantly reunites with an old classmate.

what it's all about: When it comes to episodes featuring the unique bond between Benjamin and Jake Sisko, most fans will be able to tell you all about the classic episode from early the next season, "The Visitor," but few will remember "Explorers," which really only comes a few episodes earlier, and in some ways, in its breezy simplicity, is better.

Next Generation could sometimes drive itself nuts trying to create a slice-of-life episode that hit all the right marks, but never came close to something like this.  Not only are the Siskos in the spotlight, but Bashir in what is by far his most appealing story of the season, and perhaps the all-time great B-story of the whole franchise featuring the all-time greatest drunken duet of the whole franchise....It's really, really hard for me to undersell this episode, which has always been one of the key reasons for why I love this season so much, and how it helped me fall in love with the series itself.

Jake Sisko will always be the youthful character of the franchise that somehow managed to avoid the curse of becoming a grating, obnoxious recurring presence, who was listed as a regular throughout the series but somehow ended up being featured and feeling like a recurring character, and by far the most subtle one.  In some respects he existed to ground his father in a reality most Star Trek characters never really get to experience, as the kind of Wesley Crusher we always wish we had, merely the reminder of a tragedy that must inevitably happen in Starfleet families, the loss of a parent and the need to soldier on.  And yet by this point Jake had made the decision to forego Starfleet and committed himself to the life of a writer (in fact, a lot of this episode is dedicated to his formative development in that regard, and as such always had natural appeal to someone who was just beginning to realize that's what he wanted, too, for his future).  He'd seen his best friend, who seemed to have far worse prospects, make exactly the opposite decision and convince everyone it wasn't just a mad pipedream.  And with a father who had become more involved in his own life than he had been in years, Jake now wonders if it's time he move on, accept a scholarship that will take him away from the station (in some ways, the course of Jake's whole arc in the series mirrored the one that brought everyone to the station to begin with, because in fact he never leaves).

The Ben Sisko who appears in "Explorers" is by far the most appealing he ever was, a warmed-in version of the one who showed up in the season premiere, "The Search," with the same kind of fervor for a new project early seasons only hinted at.  He decides to throw himself into recreating an ancient Bajoran solar ship, and once that's completed actually taking it into space with his son.  By that time the episode really settles in, and becomes ten times more appealing, a lark that never really feels the urge to become more complicated than it needs to be, allowing father and son plenty of time to bond.  When an emergency does break out, it feels organic, and when Dukat shows up to congratulate them on showing how ancient Bajorans really could have been as impressive as the ship itself suggests, it's the best moment of the season for showing how politically hypocritical the Cardassians can be (same as politicians ever are), but in a good way.

And anyway, Bashir's angst about where his career has landed has been a subplot all season, whether the award he thinks he's too young to win or the sudden awareness that he's actually getting older...But being confronted with an actual specter of his past, the embodiment of the one decision he regrets, having charged with the fullness of youthful abandon at the prospect of the "frontier" instead of taking the most prestigious posting available upon graduation from medical school...This is the guy's lowest moment.  He gets drunk, sings with O'Brien (what's with O'Brien getting all the best singing moments in Star Trek, anyway?), and then...discovers how wrong he's been.  Well, of course.

This right here is the depth of the series, the simple moments somehow writ large, because for Deep Space Nine it really wasn't about the big moments (even though the Dominion War was about as big as you can get in Star Trek), but the small ones, the ones that are all about, and only about, its characters, and why they matter, for the fact that they exist and nothing else.  And yet it would be a huge mistake to say this is soap opera material, because soap opera wishes it could be this endearing.  Soap opera lives for shock value.  There's nothing shocking about a father telling his son his writing has a long way to go.  But there's plenty of profundity in it.

Surely the most unlikely classic in a franchise better known for its sci-fi twists...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Unlike anything else you'll see in Star Trek.
  • series - Or this series, really.
  • character - But it's all about what's always important about this series.
  • essential - The characters.
notable guest-stars:
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
Chase Masterson (Leeta)

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