“In the Cards”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 25
Christmas – it’s the giving season! The annual avalanche of Christmas-focused pop culture entertainment seems to rarely focus on the central aspect of the holiday – giving gifts. Movies and TV shows of course include gift-giving, but it’s rarely the central theme. It’s usually about the general spirit of holiday tidings, family and friends, or romance for some reason (and a dog?). To be clear, “In the Cards” is not a Christmas episode in any explicit way (Trek very rarely acknowledges real-world holidays). However, it is a story about the act of giving, featuring a range of feelings surrounding it both joyous and not-so-rosy. But the episode’s payoff and ultimate message is surprisingly warm, sentimental, and much more effective than a cheesy Hallmark TV movie.
“Cards” is also one of the last Jake and Nog adventures, of which the series sorely lacked. Like “Who Mourns For Morn?” there’s something quintessentially Deep Space Nine about the story, as it utilizes the setting and unique cast of extended characters to maximum benefit. There’s a bit of tonal whiplash to the episode – it is the penultimate one of the season, the last hurrah before the official start of what would be the Dominion War. And even in the episode, the approaching inevitable conflict is bubbling in the background. So for the story to be focused on a mostly comedic, light-hearted caper really doesn’t seem like it should work. But because of that unique DS9 magic, it somehow does with a twinkle in its eye.
The mood on Deep Space Nine is dark, to put it mildly. Everyone seems grouchy and on edge, and Captain Sisko seems to carry the heaviest burden. As said, the encroaching Dominion threat fills the air and it’s hard to really focus on anything else but imminent war. Jake can see how much everything is weighing on his dad, so when he learns that Quark will be holding another auction that will include a Willie Mays rookie baseball card, he realizes how perfect a gift this will be to lift his dad’s spirits.
As I’ve noted a couple times before, I think high – even deadly – stakes can heighten comedy. Any story is about stakes, ultimately. The subplot of the episode is about the possibility of interstellar war against an intractable enemy. The stakes of Jake cheering up his dad would seem infinitesimally smaller in comparison, but because of how much investment we have in all the characters concerned, it succeeds as the main and more important storyline. Like “Who Mourns For Morn,” I think this is the kind of episode that could only be done later in the series after all the pieces involved have been established. Specifically, the relationship between Ben and Jake, which has always been a highlight of the show. Jake started out as a child on the series and has now grown into an adult. We’ve seen how parental and protective Benjamin has been of his kid, and Jake has a strong need to take care of his dad for once, if only in some small way. These are all really strong core threads to the story, so it makes the comedy that hangs off of it that much stronger and more effective.
Nog gets looped in because Jake doesn’t actually have any money. But more importantly, Jake guilts him into doing this favor for Benjamin because of the role he had in Nog’s development – he was the one who sponsored his application to Starfleet academy. Jake and Nog’s friendship has always been a brotherhood of sorts, and the episode underlines that even more with their unique obligations to Benjamin. He is Jake’s literal father who helped give him life, and he is the role model and career-related father figure to Nog, who helped give him his new, Starfleet life. Fortunately for Jake, the guilt trip works and Nog reluctantly agrees to spend his life savings (five bars of latinum!) to buy the damn card.
Of course, it’s not as easy as that. The auction listing containing the baseball card and several other items gets yanked out of reach when a mysterious man at Quark’s easily outbids Jake and Nog. Jake won’t give up that easily, and confronts the man as he leaves the auction, but he’s not willing to hear them out.
However, he ends up contacting them later after he realizes that Jake is the station commander’s son and that Nog is Quark’s nephew. Introducing himself as Dr. Giger (cool name, brah), he wants them to use their connections to gather some supplies for him, and in exchange he will trade them the baseball card. What does he want the supplies for, Nog asks?
Why, so he can complete work on his cellular regeneration and entertainment chamber! Showing off a big weird pod, he explains how his radical theories of biology have led him to conclude that death is only a matter of your cells getting bored. But his magical chamber “keep cells energized by teaching them new mitochondrial tricks”. The chamber transmits biogenic energy on a chromoelectric wavelength, to “send uplifting and entertaining messages to cellular nuclei.” It’s absolutely nutty, and the actor gives such a grave and serious energy to the character that heightens the silliness. It’s a novel sci-fi concept that sounds almost plausible but veers into crazy pseudoscience. A lesser show might base an entire episode around such an idea, but on Deep Space Nine it’s just a random background detail to move the story forward. I love it. Jake and Nog are weirded out, but don’t really care much since he doesn’t seem to pose any threat. They agree to get all of his supplies.
The episode becomes a scavenger hunt as the two of them try to track down everything on Giger’s list. It involves them interfacing with most of the main cast members, conveniently. Deep Space Nine deepened the Ferengi race in ways that didn’t always work, but this is one of the examples where it succeeds so well in depicting Nog’s thinking and approach (as well as it did in “Faith, Treachery, and the Great River”). Jake seems generally clueless on how to get things from people (living on the station for so long you’d think he would have developed some street smarts), but Nog is able to finagle what they need from the likes of Chief O’Brien and Dr. Bashir with some psychological legwork.
O’Brien is unhappily doing an inventory he doesn’t want to do, so Nog and Jake offer to do it for him in exchange for a power doohickey. Bashir is profoundly unhappy because Leeta kept his favorite teddy bear following their breakup, so Nog sneaks into her room and steals it from her arms while she’s asleep (that doesn’t seem quite ethical, but that’s Deep Space Nine for ya!).
They deliver the first batch of supplies to Giger, and his equipment hums to life. Unfortunately, the noise alerts a sharp-eared Weyoun in the quarters above him (who is on the station negotiating with Kai Winn).
The subplot of the episode sees Weyoun traveling to DS9 to meet with Winn about Bajor forming a nonaggression pact with the Dominion. It’s an interesting affair, and Winn is probably the most sympathetic she’s ever been here. In her private meetings with Sisko, she expresses the very precarious position Bajor is in – should the Dominion attack, her planet is on the front line. Sisko observes that Weyoun is trying to drive a wedge between the Federation and Bajor, and promises that Starfleet will do anything they can to protect them. But Winn wonders if Starfleet would actually sacrifice serious resources to do so if it means leaving Earth, Vulcan, or Andor unguarded? Sisko replies that he can’t promise that, and Winn says she wouldn’t have believed him if he said so.
Their scenes are smartly written and stand in contrast with ones in the rest of the series. She’s been a thorn in Sisko’s side and has always dripped with passive-aggressive condescension towards him. But their interplay here has a different tone entirely, and it seems for once they’re on equal footing and on the same side against a common foe. She has a great scene where she bluntly rebuffs Weyon’s obsequious ass-kissing, so as much of an asshole as she is, she still can’t stand this even greater asshole (say asshole one more time, you asshole).
Meanwhile, Jake and Nog continue with their errands and favors for various crewmembers – Nog has to autotune Worf’s Klingon operas by hand (er, ear) and Jake is punching up a speech of Kira’s. They’re both incredibly grouchy now (like everyone else around them) for all the extra work and hassle they’re having to do. But the moment finally comes when they’re all done and… Giger’s quarters have been emptied out.
Jake and Nog go to Odo to try and track down this guy. Unfortunately, it appears there’s no records of him ever being on the station, and Jake’s description of his cellular rejuvenation and entertainment chamber get them thrown out of Odo’s office (Auberjonis’ confused nodding as Jake talks his hilarious).
On the Promenade, Jake sees Winn talking to a Bajoran monk who also bid on the baseball card. He immediately forms an inexplicable conspiracy theory that Winn has disappeared Giger. It’s preposterous, but Jake is aware of how ruthless and evil she is, so not totally unfounded? Given that, it’s still kind of dumb, but it does lead into the next wacky plot twist…
Benjamin screams at Jake and Nog for accusing Winn of kidnapping some dude. Well, not “accuse” so much as “imply,” Nog defends. Just as he’s about to tell the Captain about the card, Jake jumps in and “admits” they got drunk at Quark’s and got carried away. This obviously makes Benjamin even more furious, and he confines them to quarters in response.
But the two don’t even make it to their quarters before they’re beamed to Weyoun’s ship. He questions the two of them about their connection to Dr. Giger, his high-energy experiments directly below his quarters, their recent meetings with every member of the senior staff, as well as their meeting with Winn right after his. Uh-oh. It’s that classic “flurry of innocent but incredibly suspicious-looking activity comes back to bite us” situation.
Weyoun then brings in Dr. Giger, who thinks Jake and Nog have betrayed him to “the soulless minions of orthodoxy.” He defiantly refuses to give up any of his research until a Jem’Hadar hilariously just grabs it from him without a fight.
Jake spins a yarn about a temporal kerfuffle involving the Willie Mays baseball card and how they’re trying to solve some sort of space-time continuum thingie. Weyoun doesn’t buy it, but he believes their original story of them just trying to buy a card for Jake’s dad. And his interest is very much piqued by Dr. Giger’s research into immortality, and the two of them start to get into it. Jake and Nog are allowed to go, and Weyoun surrenders the baseball card to them. It’s all pretty wacky and maybe even strains some credibility, but the entire story is a light-hearted comedic caper so it makes sense in that context. Even the Grinch learns to appreciate the power of Christmas!
Captain Sisko notes in his log how much better the vibe on the station has been, overlaid on a nice sequence of scenes depicting the senior staff in much improved moods thanks to Jake and Nog’s tireless efforts (except for Leeta who can’t find her bear – fuck her, I guess?) – even Weyoun and Giger are getting along famously. He even notes that their situation is still dire and war is looming on the horizon, but spirits seem temporarily lifted. He recalls something his dad once said – even in the darkest moments, you can always find something that’ll make you smile.
And indeed, we get the great payoff of all the work and hardship in the episode. It’s a short but perfect scene, delivered without any dialogue. Benjamin stares at his new card in wonder, shakes Nog’s hand, and embraces Jake tightly as the music swells. Fade to black. The emotional stakes are what drive the comedy of the episode, and it’s nice that it ends with some heartfelt sincerity in fulfilling them.
As Deep Space Nine so often did, it carried the ideals and themes set forth on The Next Generation but imparted more depth and gritty realism on them. The altruism on display here is a bit more muddied and realistic than we would have seen on TNG – Jake and Nog aren’t doing favors for everyone out of the goodness of their heart, but because they’re trying to accomplish a mission (which is out of the goodness of their hearts, to be fair – but narrowly focused on Benjamin). There’s a bit of a give and take with the senior staff not giving out of the goodness of their hearts until they’re motivated to do so. The people are more flawed and multifaceted than they’ve typically been in Trek – they’re stressed, frayed, irritable, and not in a giving mood. Like a lot of people are around the holidays!
But ultimately, all the stuff Jake and Nog do lifts everyone up a little and it demonstrates how two people doing a little self-sacrificing can do a lot of good for so many. It’s ultimately a very Star Trek message with Deep Space Nine’s trademark complexity and irreverence to give it some extra flavor. I think it makes the spirit of giving more meaningful when it’s not easy or convenient. The best gifts are the ones that take effort and thought – essentially telling the recipient that you understand and appreciate what is important to them, and that you went through a lot of work to bring it to them. What Jake and Nog do is a deep act of love for someone that’s important to them in distinct ways for each. It exemplifies the act of giving in a quirky and fun way, and although there isn’t a lit-up tree in sight, it may be the truest expression of the Christmas spirit in any installment of Star Trek.
- “Lions, Gigers, bears.” “Oh my.” I almost get the feeling the entire episode was conceived to deliver this bit of dialogue…
- I believe the last time we saw an auction at Quark’s was in Season 1’s “Q-Less.”
- There are a lot of baseball cards floating around out there. The last one we saw was in the possession of Kivas Fajo, who kidnapped Data in “The Most Toys.”
- In a later episode, Weyoun reveals that the Vorta have very good hearing, which is consistent with how he’s able to detect something funny going on below his quarters.
- The writers reportedly hated the name they gave Bashir’s bear – “Kukalaka” – and regretted being stuck with it. And it is indeed pretty weird.
- When explaining why he doesn’t have money, Jake uses Picard’s line to Lily from First Contact verbatim- “We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” To which Nog replies, “What does that mean exactly?” “It means… we don’t need money!” Jake says. I absolutely love how Deep Space Nine pokes at The Next Generation’s high-minded idealism here (as it did in several other, much more serious ways). It also lampshades the vague details on how a money-less human civilization would even work through Jake’s empty parroting and Nog’s incredulous query. It’s just the best. Amusingly, both First Contact and this episode where written by Ronald D. Moore, and he enjoyed making fun of his own ideas.
- I am Worf at every party.