Welcome, as always, to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week we’ll be going back to the first season of ‘Deep Space Nine.’ After covering what is arguably the show’s first classic with ‘Duet‘, it’s worth also taking a look at some of the ways the show stumbled that first year. To that end, we’ll be turning our attention to an episode that is often held up as an example of everything wrong with this season: ‘Move Along Home’.
‘Move Along Home’ started life as a fairly ambitious episode that was hit by some unexpected budget problems that arose in the middle of the first season. This caught the producers off guard due in part to the fact that several of the first ten episodes were essentially bottle shows (meaning they were staged primarily on existing sets). According to Executive Producer Michael Piller, the episode’s budgetary problems were exacerbated by the fact that the episode was the most expensive of any they’d produced to that point, with the notable exception of the pilot. This necessitated both a rewritten script and no small amount of creativity just to get the episode done with the money available. As I’m sure you can imagine, that would be a handicap for any show, never mind a young series’ ambitious midseason effort. Let’s move on and see how well ‘Move Along Home’ weather these obstacles.
Sisko – along with Dax, Kira, and Bashir – prepares to meet a delegation from the Wadi, a newly contacted Gamma Quadrant race. The assembled officers are all on edge. Even though this isn’t the first time they’ve made first contact with a species from the other side of the wormhole, it’s never been a formal occasion until now. Pleasantries are exchanged as the Wadi come aboard, though, to everyone’s surprise, their leader Falow immediately asks to be taken to Quark’s. You see, they’ve heard Quark’s has games!
After some terse words from Sisko, Quark assures the Commander that nobody is more interested in securing the Wadi’s goodwill than he is. After all, it’s good for business. The Wadi turn out to have a particular fascination with – and skill at – games, and soon cast doubt on the axiom that the house always wins. As it becomes obvious that Falow is more interested in dabo than diplomacy, Sisko excuses himself, telling Quark to keep their guests happy. As his losses continue to mount, Quark (like any good Ferengi) tries to cheat. When Falow catches him, he proposes a new game, an honest Wadi game called Chula. As the game begins, Sisko wakes up in a strange, empty room.
As Sisko explores the “facility”, he has a strange encounter with Falow, who tells him to “move along home.” He soon finds Dax, Bashir, and Kira, and the four begin trying to figure out where they are and how to get home. Meanwhile, Jake visits Odo to report his father missing. Odo’s search quickly reveals Dax, Kira, and Bashir are missing as well. Back at Quark’s, the game continues and we rejoin the officers as they encounter a puzzle that they have to solve in order to progress. As Odo arrives to interrogate Quark, he connects the mention of four missing officers to the four game pieces. In the game, Dax reaches a similar conclusion based on the puzzles they’ve encountered and the apparent objective of reaching home.
Odo continues his investigation by covertly beaming aboard the Wadi ship. On entering a brightly lit room, he is transported to Quark’s. When Odo demands an end to the game, Falow insists that it continue. On his next move, Quark loses a piece. In the game, a cluster of lights appears and surrounds Bashir, who promptly vanishes. When offered a high risk, high reward shortcut, Quark accepts over Odo’s objections. On rolling the dice, however , he must sacrifice a piece in order to take the shortcut.
Desperate to avoid the choice facing him, Quark grovels before Falow, swearing never to cheat again. Falow apparently concedes, before explaining that the game can select one at random. The officers enter a cavern and Dax is injured. Refusing to leave Dax behind (despite her insistence to the contrary) they make their way across a ledge. As they do so, an earthquake hits and one by one they begin to fall. After falling, they materialize in the bar. As an incredulous Kira realizes they were never in any real danger, the Wadi laugh and Falow notes that “it’s only a game.” As Sisko is about to lose his temper with Falow, Odo suggests he ask Quark how this all started. As the Ferengi begrudgingly admits to cheating, the Wadi excuse themselves, but not before inviting our heroes for a rematch.
Honestly, I have a soft spot for this one. It’s an episode that I have fond memories of watching in my younger days. It’s far from a classic, but considering the hate it gets? Let’s be honest with ourselves. For all its faults, it’s hardly worthy of its “worst episode ever” reputation. It’s not even the worst that this season has to offer, to say nothing of that weird slump in the middle of the second season.
If anything, I would argue it’s a more clever episode that it gets credit for. Even setting aside the central sci-fi premise of the station crew becoming (literally) pawns in a game, it takes a particular delight in subverting the viewer’s expectations whenever it can. The most prominent example is the way Sisko’s prim and proper first contact proceedings are quickly derailed into an all night party at Quark’s. My favorite, though, is the way the script relies on the viewer’s familiarity with genre tropes to generate tension. That is, the assumption the audience makes that if something happens to the characters in the game, they will face some real world consequences. Think of ‘The Matrix’ and you’ll get the idea. Even the characters themselves make these assumptions. But neither Falow nor any of the other Wadi ever so much as hint that the officers are in any real danger (in the game or otherwise). But clever as it is, it also proves a double-edged sword. You see, this is ultimately a crutch to disguise the episode’s lack of actual stakes or tension.
Another issue with the episode is that the rules and nature of the game are never quite clear, save in perhaps the broadest possible terms. According to the writers, this was so that the audience would be just as confused by what was going on and the way the game worked as Sisko and the others. Fair enough, and that works well enough in the game scenes. The biggest problem with this, though, is that it’s never clear how much agency the “pieces” have. We’re just as likely to see the officers figure out a puzzle on their own as we are to see Falow act as though it’s determined by the dice roll. It’s all rather contradictory.
All of that deliberate ambiguity would work much better if we didn’t spend as much time as we do with Quark and the Wadi as they physically play the game. Not that Quark ever learns that much about the game, and indeed, Falow does tell him that players are expected to learn as they go. But that would play a lot better if Falow spoke in anything other than vague non-answers when asked about what was going on in the game.
All told, ‘Move Along Home’ is a fairly boilerplate example of early ‘Deep Space Nine’. There’s fun to be had, and it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation would have you believe, but it’s not an especially strong episode either. And it definitely suffers from the fact that the writing staff had yet to find the show’s voice. As a result, it (like a lot of early ‘Deep Space Nine’) feels like a repurposed ‘Next Generation’ script. You could just as easily swap Quark’s Bar for Ten Forward, for example. And beyond that, most of the ‘Deep Space Nine’-specific elements are largely down to the characters involved or window dressing (the enjoyable albeit redundant moments in which both Odo and Kira separately make a point of reminding everyone that they’re not actually Starfleet officers). But give it a shot. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s one the fanboy hivemind might do well to reevaluate.
What do you think of ‘Move Along Home’? Is it better than its reputation would suggest or am I just being blinded by nostalgia? As always, let me know what you think in the comments and be sure to check back for our next installment in two weeks!