“If Wishes Were Horses”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 1, Episode 16
Ah, Season 1 Trek – this nonexistent guy over here knows what I’m talking about! It’s been pointed out ad nauseum that the first seasons of these shows can be rough (and isn’t exclusive to Star Trek). To its credit, Deep Space Nine was a remarkably more cogent and well-conceived series than The Next Generation. Nonetheless, it had its own awkward initial period of finding its footing. Although it’s all too easy to condescendingly snicker at its missteps and oddities, it’s also interesting to watch the process of a successful show discover itself over time. It’s a journey in which the cast and crew gradually figure out what the show’s strengths are and the types of stories that play to its premise better – and weeding out the ones that don’t. “If Wishes Were Horses” is an interesting hour because it represents a transition between what Trek had been up until that point and what it would evolve into.
Much of Season 1 Deep Space Nine (and even Seasons 2 and 3 in spots) feels like a transition phase between the type of show The Next Generation was and the type of show DS9 wanted to become, which makes sense for a number of reasons. Some episodes were based upon unused stories leftover from the previous show, and “Horses” definitely has that feel to it. “Fantasy becoming reality because of [sci-fi plot device]” is a familiar concept in Trek, notably in the early TNG episode “Where No One Has Gone Before.” There isn’t anything about the idea that relates to DS9’s setting or premise, so it feels superfluous. But at the same time, there’s something different and uniquely Deep Space Nine-y about the execution of “Horses” that makes it interesting (and much less awkward than “No One”).
In a society in which holodeck technology is commonplace, the novelty of having your fantasies come to life would seem to be more of an annoyance than anything. True to that, the characters here are more irritated by the make-believe figures than amazed. And of course, like any Trek hero – curious as to their origin. “Horses” achieves better results with this idea than “No One” does because of its character-based focus – namely, in the three main figures that are conjured and how annoyingly persistent they are in sticking around. They each embody dramatically different qualities and speak to their host “wishers,” for better and for worse.
Bashir, firmly in his initial “aggressively pursuing Dax” phase, is blessed/cursed with a version of Dax who aggressively desires him just as much. Oy. Jake is followed home from the holosuite by long dead baseball player Buck Bokai. And of course, O’Brien is haunted by a real-life Rumpelstiltskin.
The figments are varying levels of silly (and even cringe), and because the episode plays the true nature of them completely close to its chest until the very end, the characters (and us) are forced to just deal with it all in the meantime. Structurally, it’s not really the best choice in my opinion. We know that there’s some sort of force causing all of this and want to know what it is, and because the concept is very Trek 101 there’s not much inherent novelty to it. How the concept is executed is slightly interesting in places, but overall the annoyance of the characters’ is also mirrored in us, the audience. So bonus points for immersion, I guess? But it doesn’t make for a very enjoyable episode.
Season 1 Bashir is of course awful and thankfully did not stick around in this form. His overall personality was intentionally off-putting and his lecherous, indefatigable pursuit of Dax was instantly tiresome. But watching that karmically turned around on him is equally not fun. Star Trek just does this thing where any character that’s coded as “amorous” has to be literally on top of the object of their affection, just circling and running their hands all over them constantly. It’s so goofy and uncomfortable to watch, like an adolescent’s idea of horniness (and regrettably, not the last time DS9 would feature this as a major plot point). You end up feeling bad for Bashir, because he doesn’t deserve to have his inner fantasies broadcast for everyone to see. Real Dax at least acknowledges how much of a privacy violation it must be, and they reach something of an understanding.
Rumpelstiltskin is the closest thing to a villain in the episode, but he’s more of an implied threat than an outright one. Which I think is a fine story choice and more successful than Fantasy Dax. How it relates to O’Brien is pretty random – originally it was to be a leprechaun until Meaney put his foot down with the writers. So what we get is the next closest thing, I guess.
Meaney is always fun to watch, of course (especially when he’s going through stuff), and I like how short a fuse he has. He’s normally the nicest, most genial guy in the world, but at the same time his anger can quickly boil over if he gets pushed. There’s something very human about it and makes O’Brien such a compelling character.
O’Brien’s a family man, so a personified Rumpelstiltskin is a disturbing threat – perhaps one that’s a little too dark for this episode if one were to interrogate it fully. Stories and legends surrounding villainous figures/monsters are often borne out of real fears and anxieties, and a creepster wanting to snatch up children needs no complicated explanation. The actor gives a surprisingly subdued portrayal of ol’ Rumpy (as opposed to the cackling malevolence of the titular figure from the Leprechaun horror movies), which I think is the better direction to go in. Again, it’s all about the implied threat – we’re all pretty familiar with the broad strokes of his story so it doesn’t need to be hammered in. Despite all that, it still seems laughable that O’Brien would seriously be at all threatened by this fictional character. The dude’s a fucking war vet and has been through some real shit. It just doesn’t really fit at all.
Bokai Bucks this trend (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE) in that he isn’t any kind of threat at all. He of course attaches himself to Commander Sisko because of his love of baseball. Building on the continuity presented by The Next Generation (Bokai is a first season TNG reference, even), baseball is a forgotten sport at this point in Trek’s history – a literal American past time. Baseball is the most romantic sport in American cinema (how many ghostly ball players from movies can you name..?), and the fact that it’s not widely played anymore makes it that much more of a wistful, nostalgic trip for Sisko. Bokai underlines the forlorn, tragic nature of his sport’s demise, noting that only 300 people attended their World Series winning game. Sad! Sisko gamely (AH? AH?) humors Bokai and it’s nice to see how fond he is of this guy in spite of himself – but he’s too smart, responsible, and incorruptible to get caught up in the illusion like Bashir and O’Brien.
Aside from these three fantasy figures, there isn’t much left over for the rest of the characters. Quark gets a couple of babes because of course he does (more horniness! more!), Kira has a disturbing hallucination of a guy burning alive (OK what), and Odo gets to finally put Quark behind bars (eh, forcefields). I know there’s only so much time to go around and that three is a magic dramatic number. But it would have been nice to delve into these people’s desires and fears more (well, except Quark).
Odo’s fantasy is played for laughs but there’s something small and pathetic about it (an idea the show would lean on more heavily in a later episode). It’s a funny bit, but this guy already has a huge, burning desire built into his character – his search for home and his own people. And to a lesser extent, his alien nature that precludes him from understanding everyone else’s existence (he comments here that in addition to not being able to eat or drink, he doesn’t even have a sense of smell). So there’s plenty of pathos and intrigue that could have been explored there.
Kira’s fantasy is even more brief but still singularly memorable. The lifetime war she’s been in is barely behind her, and there’s clearly a lot of violence still inside her that is illustrated by the burning figure. Of all the characters, she’s probably the one whose inner fears and desires are the most disturbing. Like the implications of Rumpelstiltskin, it’s too dark of a direction for the fluffy type of episode this is.
In these ways it’s interesting how much the limitations of TNG’s structure is chafing against that of DS9’s here. There are some very intriguing paths that the episode skirts around, but it seems held back by the overall goofiness of its sci-fi concept. One of the best aspects of Deep Space Nine was its more colorful cast of non-human characters, and in this episode their perspectives are the ones that get the least amount of story time. It seems like a missed opportunity.
But of course the main fantasy I haven’t mentioned – which turns out to be the Final Boss of all these fantasies – belongs to Dax. It says absolutely nothing about her as a character, but I do appreciate its inventiveness and the misdirection it serves in the story. The spatial anomaly that the crew has been blaming all the apparitions on is in itself an apparition – in attempting to initially hypothesize what could be causing all the weird stuff, Dax brought to life a hungrily expanding tear in space that almost destroys the station. She has the deepest well of material to draw from because of her multiple lifetimes. But the show wasn’t anywhere close to finding its footing with her character at this point (though it did try, in one of the most boring and unmemorable episodes of Star Trek ever, “Dax”), so we get a generic science-y threat from her. If only you were a human dude, you might have gotten more story time. That’s Hollywood for ya, Jadzia.
Fortunately, Sisko figures it all out and has everyone Just Don’t Look the anomaly away. It’s silly, but it works. Now let’s all burn down our imaginations so this never happens again! (please insert a third Simpsons reference of your choice here – might I suggest The Land of Chocolate?)
And sooooo we FINALLY get the concrete explanation for everything, as relayed by Bokai to Sisko. They’re just aliens on a science mission of their own who followed a ship through the wormhole and decided to study This Thing You Call Imagination. LOL, OK you jerks. It’s another Trek Trope that gets trotted out for another tried and true tryst (NO ONE CAN STOP ME, PEOPLE HAVE TRIED). Aliens who have no concept of a basic truth of existence is a little silly, and there’s something very limp and disappointing about the reveal here. Really, you all have NO IMAGINATION? How does that work, you advanced species??? Just… shut up.
I do love how exasperated Sisko is upon hearing it, basically asking why they didn’t introduce themselves like normal goddamn beings. Even the way it’s done is stale – meeting Sisko in his ready room after the fact, just like that silver-faced dickhead did with Picard in “Where Silence Has Lease” with the most generic observations about humanity possible. “You humans are capable of such _______ but also such _______.” Yeah, uh-huh, you don’t say. Good luck with your term paper, asshole. Don’t forget to double space.
I think Aliens Not Understanding Stuff is fine as a concept, but for it to work the aliens have to be… actually alien. In TNG’s “Night Terrors,” the aliens are apparently so different from us that they can’t communicate directly, only telepathically on a level most people can’t detect (and that telepaths themselves can barely decipher). After the crisis is resolved, they go their separate ways without any explicit contact or understanding. I like the idea of an alien mind that works in a way that’s barely comprehensible to us. It’s a more fascinating (and realistic) notion, like how we relate to animals – there are some super basic commonalities, but what goes on in their heads is beyond our comprehension (and part of their appeal).
But if you have the ability to just talk to us in a clear, direct way? C’mon. You can clearly see your little experiment is making everyone uncomfortable… oh, and almost killing everyone? Were you… going to pull the plug before that happened, or just sit back and watch everything get destroyed? Fuck all the way off with this shit, you people. NO DEAL!
At first glance, “If Wishes Were Horses” seems like a frivolous and even forgettable first season entry of Deep Space Nine. But upon further inspection, it shows glimmers of the more interesting and layered show it would evolve into. Its story idea is birthed from some very familiar elements of Star Trek, but like in the episode they quickly spin out of control and gain a life of their own, just as Deep Space Nine eventually would.
- Jake gets a little scene with Bokai (as well as a figment of his dad) that’s silly and frivolous. But lest we forget, this kid’s beloved mom is dead. Realistically, maybe he’d be dreaming her up instead? Same with Ben, for that matter. Again, that’s definitely not the type of torturous emotional episode this was intended to be, but it’s kind of conspicuous how the plot just sidesteps these huge foundational aspects of the characters.
- When addressing the crowd at Quark’s to vainly stop people from using their imaginations, Odo refers to “ladies, gentlemen, and androgynous creatures.” It’s a pretty clumsy line by today’s standards, but I guess forward thinking for the time. Star Trek rarely acknowledges the existence of genders outside of the male and female variety, and can quickly get very messy and awful when it does.
- Speaking of animals, I fucking loved the emus just strolling around the Promenade. They’re a great fit for the episode, because they’re one of those animals that is hard to believe actually exists. The visual is so striking that it’s always the first thing I think of when I think of this episode (which is… not often). Auberjonis is great in the scenes, as well, trying to respectfully herd them along. In a more serious sense, it also speaks to one of his character’s greatest strengths – an egalitarian respect for all life, no matter the form (“I don’t step on ants, Major.”). These emus have the right to be here too, dammit! As long as they follow the Promenade rules.
- Interestingly, the most enduring legacy of this episode is the baseball that Bokai gives Sisko at the end, which he retains throughout the series. At least, I think it’s the same ball. It figures into some dramatic moments, and it’s interesting how it all came from such a wacky episode.