Welcome back to Deep Dive Nine, where we investigate the odd, the strange, and the unique in the Star Trek Deep Space Nine universe. So far, I have discussed the confusing and mind-blowing nature of the Wormhole Aliens/Prophets and examined the awesomeness that is Garak, Star Trek’s Intergalactic Man of Mystery. Today, though, I’m afraid we must talk about the Wadi and the infinitely terrible episode “Move Along Home.”
The 10th episode of Season 1 is not unknown to those of us who love Deep Space Nine. Every Star Trek series has its rough spots, generally early in the show’s run, but not always (we’ll get to Time’s Orphan later). This particular outing, though, is my go-to reference (along with the Nikki and Paulo episode of Lost) as an example of what the worst episode of a great show looks like: a terrible concept, poorly executed. It is painful to watch. But now, for you the readers, I will delve back in.
A brief summary of this episode: DS9 gets ready to make first contact with the Wadi. The entire senior staff is nervous and excited, as this will be the first official diplomatic contact with a new species from the recently discovered Gamma Quadrant. Sisko, eager to implement his knowledge of the first contact protocol, quickly becomes frustrated when the Wadi brush off his advances and head for the gaming tables at Quark’s. They easily master the game of Dabo, winning piles and piles of gold-pressed latinum. Quark, predictably, tries to end their winning streak by cheating, and as punishment we are all forced to watch Quark play the Wadi in their own game called “Chula” with Sisko, Bashir, Dax, and Kira as pawns.
In the litany of terrible things about this episode, let us start with the Wadi. First of all, how is it possible that Sisko had exactly zero information about this culture when they arrived on his station? We know that the Wadi were first encountered by the Vulcans “three weeks ago,” and that official arrangements for a formal first contact have been in progress ever since. We know Starfleet has a specific written protocol for first contact, but based on the actions of Sisko and his staff, that protocol seems to be “Invite the new species over for dinner and hope everything goes well.” Sisko even makes a half-hearted attempt at comparing this encounter to a first date when he explains it to Jake.
Of course, it would be bizarre to collect detailed information about a person before showing up to a first date. That’s not how first dates work (looking at you, Facebook stalkers). But, as we know from “First Contact” (TNG episode 4.15, not to be confused with the motion picture of the same name), which aired two years before “Move Along Home,” that is how first contact should work. According to Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself:
“No starship mission is more dangerous than first contact. We never know what we face when we open the door to a new world. How will we be greeted? What are the dangers? Centuries ago, a disastrous first contact with the Klingon Empire led to decades of war. It was decided then that we must do surveillance before making contact. It was a controversial decision. But I believe it prevents more problems than it creates.”
Well said, sir. Yet, in between finalizing the seating chart and ironing dress uniforms, no one on DS9 thought to ask basic questions about how the Wadi society functions? Speaking of which, how does their society function? How does their government run? How does their economy maintain itself? Who build their starships? What the hell was with those sticks? Is there a darker side to these games? Are the Wadi we meet just the upper class of Wadi society, who get to live a life of leisure playing games as a lower class does all the work building the starships mining the materials to make whatever those sticks were? So many interesting possibilities! None of which are even remotely explored. Also, did I mention the face tattoos and the space mullets? From what we see here, it is party all the time, no business whatsoever.
The Wadi, on the other hand, do seem to have at least some information about their hosts. The very first thing the Wadi leader says to Sisko is, “Where are the games? We were told you have games.” Told by whom? The Vulcans they met? Is this an elaborate prank by Sisko’s Vulcan nemesis, Captain Solok? If so, I tip my hat to you sir, well played.
Or perhaps did the Wadi send their own surveillance team to check out the Federation? Maybe they’re not as whimsical and childlike as they seem? In any case, we never get answers to these questions, because the rest of the episode only concerns Sisko, Bashir, Dax, and Kira, and their attempts to navigate the game of Chula.
And now let’s talk about Chula. The game is, quite simply, stupid. It is supposed to be a three-dimensional version of Chutes and Ladders. I know this because the writers of the show have said this is what they based it on. (Geddit? CHUtes and LAdders?) So while the Federation plays three-dimensional chess, these aliens, who have mastered warp drive and whose entire culture revolves around gaming, are obsessed with a fancy version of a children’s game, based entirely on chance rather than skill. Fantastic.
At any rate, gameplay consists of rolling dice and moving one’s pawns through various levels (called “shaps”). In each level, the pawns encounter some sort of test or challenge they must defeat before moving on. These challenges are as follows: First, they must locate each other in a maze of doorways. It’s literally five minutes of Sisko and company wandering around, trying every door they see, almost all of which are locked. Second, they spend about an hour watching a little Wadi girl play hopscotch before realizing that they must imitate her in order to cross to the other side of the room. Third, they escape from a noxious smoke-filled cocktail party by accepting a beverage offered by their Wadi hosts. We, as an audience are supposed to believe that Federation officers go through intense mental and physical training to become officers, yet they are flummoxed by a little girl playing hopscotch and room full of smoke? What is happening here? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!
At this point, Quark makes the decision to send his pawns down the risky path, a shortcut which will double their peril but also double his winnings if they succeed. Accordingly, they make their way through a dangerous cavern complete with deep chasms, earthquakes, and rockslides. For a moment, it does seem like the players’ lives are in danger as they fall to their apparent doom. The game is over, but (surprise!) the four officers reappear in Quark’s bar unharmed. “It’s only a game,” the Wadi leader explains smugly.
So what was the point of all this? In the first season of a show, most episodes should be devoted to character development and universe building (literally so in the case of Star Trek). “Move Along Home” failed on both of these grounds. None of the characters grow as people during the episode, nor does the audience learn more about any of them. Sisko is gruff, Kira is impatient, Bashir is naïve, and Dax is wise. We already know all this! The only new information we learn is that Avery Brooks is the only one of the four who can carry a tune. Sometimes, alien races are introduced to test some Federation ideal, to force the characters to think about their morals and ideals in a different light. The only challenge with the Wadi is the matter of common courtesy. They are so similar to humans in manner and appearance that the Gamma Quadrant just seems like more of the same, rather than some fascinating new world. The DS9 universe actually seems smaller after meeting the Wadi.
It is sad that Deep Space Nine punted with their first interaction with aliens from the Gamma Quadrant. Wait. Did they? Oh yeah, I remember now, Deep Space Nine did a great first contact episode. It was called “Captive Pursuit,” and it WAS FOUR EPISODES EARLIER!
Tell me if this sounds familiar: A new race of Gamma Quadrant aliens arrives at DS9. Their manners and customs are completely foreign, and the station crew finds themselves unwittingly drawn into a high stakes game of survival, the rules of which remain a mystery.
Now imagine that instead of bemulletted board game enthusiasts, the new aliens differ so radically from humans as to appear to have evolved from amphibians rather than primates. One of them arrives on the station in a damaged ship, and refuses to reveal anything about himself other than that he “is Tosk.”
Chief O’Brien befriends Tosk as the two work together to repair his ship, and eventually it becomes clear that the new arrival is on the run from someone or something. When his pursuers (a race of more evolved but still vaguely lizard-like aristocrats who breed the Tosk specifically to serve as prey in their hunts) finally track him to DS9, the crew is faced with the decision to protect this being, who they have grown to like and admire, or step aside and allow the hunt to continue without interference, per the Prime Directive. As Sisko knowingly looks the other way, O’Brien finds a way to help his friend escape capture while still respecting his culture enough to avoid imposing his own values on it.
Character development? Check. Universe building? Check. Moral dilemmas? Check. Check.
The Tosk are a mystery that the O’Brien and the other officers have to solve, and then even without fully understanding, they show the Tosk compassion. “Captive Pursuit” has drama and tension. From the moment the Tosk ship comes out of the wormhole we are engaged and curious about this creature. His refusal to answer questions about himself keeps both the characters on the show as well as the audience wondering, and wanting to see where this story goes. The Wadi bring no such drama; personally, I am annoyed by their presence immediately upon their arrival. The Tosk represent newness, a strangeness that compels humanity to continue to explore the universe.
Looking back at these two episodes, it is almost as if there was a fight for the soul of the Gamma Quadrant. Was this new world going to be populated with quirky, fun loving aliens who look vaguely like humans? Or, does the Gamma Quadrant hold wondrous and dangerous new species, whose makeup might cost a bit more, but who offer us a glimpse of a truly alien culture? Luckily, the show decided to go with the latter. The Jem’Hadar clearly represent a more fleshed-out version of the Tosk, from their scaly appearance and cloaking ability to their genetically engineered desire to fight for and serve the Founders. This is the mysterious, fascinating, morally ambiguous Gamma Quadrant we eventually come to know and love. The higher the risk, the greater the reward. That is the only reason to look back at the episode “Move Along Home,” to see the safer yet ultimately less-exciting path not taken and be glad. Allamaraine!
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