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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “The Assignment”/“Trials And Tribble-ations”

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“The Assignment” (season five, episode five; originally aired 10/28/1996)

In which O’Brien sleeps with someone who is not his wife…

Hostage plots are a mixed bag. They’re tempting to writers, because they come with immediate, visceral stakes—“Oh no! My wife/husband/daughter/son/parent/cousin/gerbil has been taken away!”—and, more intriguingly, those stakes force characters to make difficult choices. Not just difficult choices—choices that  run counter to those characters’ established behavior. In other words, you have a hero, it’s pretty easy to predict what he’ll do when trouble arises, because you’ve seen him deal with trouble dozens of times before; plus, just being a hero brings with it certain basic ethical requirements. But if that hero has been coerced into acting in order to protect the wellbeing of someone he cares about, that range of behavior shifts. O’Brien is one of DS9’s most reliable protagonists. Being reliable is, in fact, one of his defining traits. He’s not really the cunning mastermind that Sisko is (although he has his moments); he’s not as idealistically pure as Bashir, or as determined to track down the truth as Odo; and he’s certainly not as morally ambiguous as Garak. He’s just a gifted engineer and stolid “reasonable man” type, someone not destined for high command, but incredibly important when it comes to making sure everything’s working properly. Yet “The Assignment” has him at odds with his closest friends, sabotaging the inner workings of the station, and fighting against an ancient alien race. And it’s all because some idiot ghost being decides to kidnap Keiko.


But I said “mixed bag,” didn’t I? Because as tempting as hostage plots are for the writers, it’s hard to get excited about them as a viewer. The beats are predictable: lots of “I WANT TO TALK TO MY [missing so-and-so]!” and stalling tactics from the hero, and you know the whole thing probably won’t get resolved until the end, which means there’s some uncomfortable lying and nervous tension and whatnot. It’s rarely ever a good idea to tell an audience what’s going to happen next, and then have that happen next, without much variation, and while that’s not exactly what happens in this sort of storyline, the simple act of kidnapping sets up a specific obstacle that has to be resolved. Not just “beat the bad guys” or “don’t die,” but “I have to get my [missing so-and-so] back.” It’s a small difference, but it makes everything a little more tedious. You end up waiting for the kidnapping to be taken care of so the real story can get underway, but generally, the kidnapping takes up the whole running time. In a weird way, the very emotional resonance that makes the plot so tempting also makes it frustrating, because it happens all the damn time. Or maybe this is just because I covered 24 for a few seasons, and that seemed to be the go-to plot twist for stalling out another hour.

Regardless, there is, as mentioned, a kidnapping plot in “The Assignment,” and it’s pretty much the only plot the episode has. Yet it works, and works brilliantly, another fantastic entry to the pantheon of Bad Days for Miles O’Brien. There are smart choices throughout. For one thing, Keiko doesn’t disappear, exactly. When she returns from a trip to Bajor at the beginning of the episode, O’Brien is nervous about telling her her bonsai plants have died (Bashir over-watered them), but within seconds, Keiko casually tells him the real crisis: she’s not exactly Keiko anymore. An alien force has taken over Mrs. O’Brien, and will only release the lady if O’Brien follows that force’s specific instructions. Until this happens, the alien will be running Keiko (who I will henceforth refer to as “Fake-o” because it makes me laugh), and threatening her with a brain hemorrhage if O’Brien gets any bright ideas about rebellion. The back and forth between hero and villain is usually a highlight in this kind of storyline, and here, there’s the added attraction of Fake-o using O’Brien’s very real love for his wife against him in a present and undeniable way. Rosalind Chao has a lot of fun with the part, and whether or not it’s intentional, the fact that Fake-o isn’t that much different from the real Keiko makes the whole thing all the more unsettling.

It also helps that Fake-o is smart, ruthless, and entertainingly pleased with itself; the creature, using knowledge of O’Brien gleaned from Keiko’s brain, is able to stay ahead of the chief for most of the running time, smirking the whole time, which keeps the story moving at a good clip. The important point being, the villain is never dumb just for the sake of expedience. One of the silly parts of hostage plots is that the bad guys aren’t just trying to coerce the hero into committing a crime—they’re using one of the hero’s nearest and dearest to do so, a loved one who has to be close to the hero, or else the whole scheme would be worthless. (“We’ve kidnapped your second grade teacher!” “Who?” “Mrs. Tozier.” “Who?” “The one with the limp.” “Wait, the one who failed me at vocab?” “Hold on, I’ll check… Yes. Yes, that’s her. She says she hopes your cursive improved. Now you must do our bidding!” “Look, I’ll call you back.”) But that also means the bad guys are going out of their way to make sure the hero has a very real, and very emotional, reason to want to shut you down. (Watch Commando if you want to see how badly this can turn out.) But Fake-o has mostly circumvented this problem by putting itself in its victim’s body, thus making it almost impossible for O’Brien to stun or incapacitate the creature before it has time to murder his wife. The threat never becomes distant or removed from the action, and that pressure makes for a better episode.

And of course making O’Brien the center of the action helps to keep everything balanced. As he makes clear from the start, as much as he loves his wife, there is no way O’Brien would be willing to hurt anyone on the station. For most of the episode’s running time, we have no idea what the modifications Fake-o orders the chief to perform are meant to accomplish, which adds a bit of mystery, and helps keep O’Brien’s actions in a sort of moral gray area. Even when his work draws the attention of the main crew, the closest he comes to out and out villainy is punching Odo in the face; which isn’t great, but there are no betrayals here that will linger long after the hour is over. That makes the episode more fun—and make no mistake, as creepy as it sometimes gets, and as upset as O’Brien is (he even breaks a glass in his hand, the classic “I am suppressing a lot of feelings right now” move), this is a fun one. It’s structured like a game. The rules are, O’Brien has to follow Fake-o’s commands, and give no obvious sign of disobedience, while simultaneously making sure his work goes unnoticed by his friends and co-workers and figuring out what Fake-o’s plans are, and how to stop them. It’s a seemingly insurmountable task, especially when you factor in the time restrictions (Fake-o wants the whole thing finished in 13 hours). And that’s where Rom comes in.


Here’s another reason to dig “The Assignment”: The cold open looks like a toss-off, one-joke bit, but it’s actually fairly crucial to the rest of the episode, getting us up to speed with the ups and downs of Rom’s engineering career, and reminding us how eager he is to make friends with his new co-workers. Rom is still stuck on the night shift (working on waste-extraction units, which must be fun; also, is this the first time anyone has ever mentioned “waste extraction” on Star Trek?), but he’s determined to make it work despite Quark’s snide commentary, even to the point of ordering one of O’Brien’s standard breakfast meals. This is a nice piece of business that makes it easy to empathize with both sides. We want Rom to succeed, because he obviously wasn’t having much luck under Quark’s tutelage, while at the same time understanding Quark’s obvious discomfort at seeing Rom try to push aside his own heritage to fit in. The scene is played for laughs, but there’s a complexity to it that makes it linger. Rom is doing what he needs to do to be happy; but that doesn’t necessarily come without a cost.

This all looks like some kind of ill-advised B-plot; while O’Brien rushes around trying to rewire the station, Rom will be doing his thing. This would’ve been a terrible choice. When you’re telling a story as intentionally suspenseful and claustrophobic as a hostage plot, the last thing you want is to keep reminding viewers that there are other people on the station leading their lives. It’s a distraction, especially with a character like Rom, who tends to have more comedic plots. But Rom actually turns out to be crucial to O’Brien’s efforts, in a deeply satisfying way. The deadline Fake-o imposes on O’Brien’s work has him running around like a crazy man, but Rom is the first (and for a while, only) person to notice anything wrong, mainly because he picks up on one of the changes O’Brien made. So O’Brien lies to him, and recruits him for the work. It gets really uncomfortable when Odo starts asking about the changes, and O’Brien is forced to turn over his guileless, eager-to-please assistant to the cops. But Rom keeps quiet, and even better, Rom figures out what O’Brien has been too distracted to put together himself: The modifications Fake-o has ordered are designed to turn the station into a big chroniton laser, aiming directly at the wormhole.


There’s a lot of just-on-the-edge-silliness stuff about Fake-o being a Pah-Wraith (the Pah-Wraiths are supposedly mythical creatures living in the fire caves on Bajor; and that just happens to be where Keiko was visiting during her trip), and the Pah-Wraiths wanting revenge on the wormhole aliens, and so on. It’s never overplayed, which helps to sell the idea; we never see any actual physical evidence of the wraith, and the wormhole aliens don’t make an appearance at the end to thank O’Brien for his efforts. It’s just the barest of justifications for everything that happens, which, in stories like this, is all you really need. In the end, O’Brien saves the day and his wife and daughter, and Rom, for his troubles, gets promoted to the day shift. It’s really just business as usual on Deep Space Nine, and another reminder of the lengths O’Brien will go to to protect his family. He never seriously steps over the line, but he dances with it a bit, and there’s no sense of soul-searching on his part for doing what needs to be done; Keiko and Molly are his life, and it’s great to get such thrilling, ultimately heartwarming proof of that. Here’s hoping Odo doesn’t mind the sore jaw.

Stray observations:

  • So it looks like Odo is a lot easier to knock out as a solid. Also, he’s smiling a lot more than he used to. I almost wish the show would spend more time with him, just to get a sense of how much his personality has changed since the body-shift; there’s a looseness about him now, oddly. (It’s not like he’s missed a step as an investigator, though.)
  • Bashir and O’Brien bantering about Keiko’s dead plants is just another reminder that they’re the more reliable comedic duo on the show. (Something we’ll get even better examples of in the very next episode.)
  • Rosalind Chao really does excellent work here. She never tips over into cackling villainy, but her clear amusement over O’Brien’s concerns, and the way she smiles as she threatens him and Molly, is very effective.
  • “Rom, everybody on the station knows your name.” “Right. But I won’t confirm it!”—O’Brien, questioning Rom’s clandestine skills

“Trials And Tribble-ations” (season five, episode six; originally aired 11/4/1996)

In which a tribble explodes, and Dax wears thigh-high boots…

“The Trouble With Tribbles” is one of Star Trek’s successful forays into comedy, and while I have a few reservations about it, it holds up well. I mean, they don’t make commemorative plates for Voyager episodes, right? (God, what a terrible way to diet: punishing yourself every time you finish a meal.) William Shatner normally gets stuck playing the straight man whenever wackiness happens, and “The Trouble With Tribbles” is no exception to the rule; he seems to be having more fun than usual with the premise, though, and some of his reaction shots here are Leonard Nimoy-level hysterical. Kirk’s growing frustration and bemusement could’ve come off as smug, but it doesn’t. Instead, he sets the tone for the entire episode; playful, often silly, with just enough of a grounded storyline to keep from floating away com—


Hold on a second. This is starting to sound a little familiar. (And over-written.) Let me just re-adjust my temporal display, and… there. That should do the trick.

“Trials And Tribble-ations” is a confection, a delight, a lark; a standalone episode on a show usually neck-deep in continuity that serves no greater purpose than to pay homage to the past. Produced in part as a tribute to the original Star Trek’s 30th anniversary (speaking of Voyager, it did its own tribute with “Flashback”; anybody know if it’s any good?), the hour has Sisko and his crew getting sucked back in time, where they intermingle with events from “The Trouble With Tribbles” in an attempt to stop the future (well, present) version of that story’s villain from succeeding where his younger self failed. Confused? Don’t be. The plot is barely relevant, serving (with little pretense) as an excuse for DS9’s heroes to wander around the old Enterprise, dressed up in classic costume and even occasionally stumbling into old footage. It’s not tightly plotted, and once the initial rush of nostalgia fades, there isn’t a lot of depth or suspense to replace it. But there are laughs, more than enough to justify the experiment, and the nostalgia never fades away entirely.


The playfulness starts straight off, as two men from the Temporal Investigation Bureau arrive on the station with questions for Sisko about a recent adventure. (If any Star Trek concept cried out for a spin-off, it’s the Temporal Investigation Bureau.) Dulmer and Lucsly (anagrams for “Mulder” and “Scully”) are there to make sure that nothing untoward happened during the Defiant’s trip through time, and Sisko, only moderately irritated by their presence, sets out to tell them a tale—said tale accounting for the bulk of “Trials And Tribble-ations.” Given the number of time travel episodes we’ve seen on the various Trek series (and on film), this is a clever way to distinguish this particular jaunt right from the get go. Usually, time travel is treated like an incredibly dangerous, and possibly universe threatening, mistake. Here, it’s just a goof, and the sort of goof that causes irritating, irritated bureaucrats stacks of paperwork and hours of headaches. Their collective groan when Sisko mentions James T. Kirk’s name speaks to years of aggravating, control freak busywork.

There is, or was, something on the line, though. It begins with the Defiant taking a trip to Cardassia to pick up the Bajoran Orb of Time. (If that name sounds hilariously generic, well, just wait for the scene when Kira casually masters the orb’s seemingly magical properties by just opening and closing its box.) While orbiting the planet, they also pick up an apparent stray, a human named Barry Waddle (Charlie Brill). One terrific gag about Worf’s smell later, and the Defiant finds itself hurled back to the 23rd century. “Barry,” it turns out, isn’t actually “Barry.” Nor is he a human being. His real name is Arne Darvin, and he’s a Klingon who’s been genetically altered to appear human, all to pull of the scheme that drove the story of the original “Trouble With Tribbles” episode. Why Arne never bothered to get his looks altered back to normal isn’t explicitly explained, but Worf does say his failure to defeat Kirk made him an outcast among his own kind, so… you do the math.


DS9 has brought back cast members from the original show before, and Brill’s appearance is a canny way to give the whole hour a feeling of continuity; conceptually, it’s even more effective than the use of digitally altered footage from the original episode. Strangely, though, the script doesn’t make all that much use of him. He’s only in two scenes, and while Brill does fine by the dialogue he’s given, the character has about as much depth as the orb that starts all this nonsense in the first place. It’s not a major flaw, but it does show how much the episode is depending on our good will towards its premise. If you don’t particularly care for the original series. If you don’t like watching the modern cast goofing around and playing hooky from all the seriousness of the Dominion War, you aren’t going to find much else to occupy your time.

Thankfully, I dug it. As a critic, I wouldn’t have minded a tighter script, but as a fan, I was mostly just enjoying the goofy grin on my face from beginning to end. The homage is played lightly; there are a few comments about how great Kirk is, and Sisko makes a point of meeting the captain before he and his crew travel back to the present, but this isn’t some breathless eulogy for a bygone age. When Dax expresses enthusiasm for an old tricorder design, there’s a joke built into the tribute. “Trials And Tribble-ations” is as much about fandom as it is about time travel. For the run of the episode, Dax and Sisko and the others are as much breathless, captivated enthusiasts as they are protagonists with a job to do, and that sense of shared joy easily overcomes the plot’s minor inadequacies. Dax gets to speak rapturously about Spock’s devastating attractiveness and mention how she slept with McCoy in a previous life. Plus she loves the uniforms. It’s hard not to cheer for that.


As for the effects work that blends new characters into the old, it works well enough. Sometimes you can see the seams, especially in the close ups, but perfection in special effects is never as important as our willingness to accept the illusion; and the enthusiasm that drives all of this makes the occasional fuzziness easy to ignore. The bar fight is as fun as it was in its original form, and the few times we see Kirk, Spock, and others (and if I’m remembering right, all of the main Enterprise crew from “The Trouble With Tribbles” is on screen at some point, even if our heroes don’t interact with all of them) make sure all those shots of long corridors and rebuilt sets seem utterly authentic. And hell, the attention to set design and detail is terrific. This is the bright side of fan-service, folks; briefly indulged with care, wit, and craft.

In the end, everything turns out as it should. Arne’s plan is foiled when Sisko and Dax are able to find the tribble with a bomb inside, and the Temporal Investigators are appeased that nothing drastic was altered or brought back to the present. There’s only one slight drawback. As befits an episode that looks to mimic TOS, “Trials And Tribble-ations” ends with a button joke, this time in the form of a promenade full of the small, furry aliens which give both episodes their names. When the Defiant returned to the present, there was a tribble on board, and now the aliens have infested the station. And so we end with a shot that gives you something you didn’t even know you wanted: Quark, frowning stoically, surrounded by small, cooing balls of fur. And he thought root beer was bad.


Stray observations:

  • I didn’t mention all the jokes, mainly because that would’ve doubled the length of the review, but Worf’s stoic “We do not discuss it with outsiders,” re: the forehead ridges, is the sort of perfect lamp-shade hanging of a joke that makes you proud to pay attention to continuity. (Worf’s revelation that tribbles are considered an enemy of the Klingon empire is also great.)
  • O’Brien and Bashir are teamed up for most of the episode, and it’s as great as you’d imagine. I especially liked O’Brien’s awed horror when looking over the insides of the Enterprise’s machinery, and his glee about lying to Kirk after the bar fight.
  • Bashir gets a “I’m a doctor, not a [something that is not a doctor]” line in, which is nice. Oh, and he also briefly entertains the thought that he was destined to be his own ancestor when he bumps into an attractive ensign on the elevator. Ah, the sexy, sexy perils of time travel.

Next week: Things get heavy again with “Let He Who Is Without Sin…,” and we take another jaunt back in time with “Things Past.”

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