Nutshell: Brilliant. Perhaps the most inspired and humanly scaled comedy in the history of Trek.
"In the Cards" is an enjoyable gem that earns full marks for inspiration and originality. But it all comes together because it works on human terms rather than conjured ones. It's a comedy with a heart and a lot of laughs, with the added bonus of having a reasonable amount of relevance. One probably wouldn't expect a DS9 comedy that centers around a 1951 Willie Mays rookie baseball card would be a likely candidate for a four-star rating. But this episode was, quite simply, so thoroughly enjoyable that I'm giving it just that—I really believe the show deserves it.
The remarkable thing about "In the Cards" is that, in a way, it's unprecedented. This is a DS9 comedy that, for a change, doesn't rely on the often-touted "high concept." It doesn't require a bizarre holodeck situation like "Our Man Bashir" did; it isn't inspired by old-movie parody or implemented with time travel peculiarities the way "Little Green Men" was; it doesn't go the specialized nostalgic route the way "Trials and Tribble-ations" did. I don't mean to take away from the aforementioned episodes—not at all. I enjoyed the Bond parody of "Our Man Bashir." I liked much of the alien invasion jokes in "Little Green Men" (even though I didn't think the whole episode itself was all it could've been). And "Trials and Tribble-ations" was great fun, with lots of infectious nostalgia, as well as some unprecedented creativeness of its own.
Still, for me, "In the Cards" is what I suspect "Trials and Tribble-ations" was for many other people: a wonderful hour of whimsical entertainment, and also something that's special and memorable. But, at the same time, "Cards" plays by the standard rules—it's funny and very well written, AND it manages to work its comedy around DS9's established lore and the current plot threads. In an episode that, for many, will likely be long forgotten when "Tribble-ations" lives on among the most vivid of immortal Trekkian memories, I think such qualities deserve serious respect.
The premise is simple, and it's not surprising why the show manages to do so well; the best comedy often emerges from the most simple of circumstances, because simplicity allows realistic characterizations to bring the humor to the surface.
As the story begins, everyone on the station is depressed, wallowing in a sense of impending doom. The moment of Dominion crisis has become very, very near. Even Ben Sisko, a leader who usually raises the spirits of his crew around him, cannot force a smile. Jake observes this problem and, looking to Nog for possible ideas, desperately hopes to find some way of making his father feel better. (Like many others, this installment highlights that it's very hard to go wrong when exploring the relationship between Jake and his father.)
It's about here that the 1951 Willie Mays baseball card enters the plot. Quark is moderating an auction of rare antiques, and one of the items on the bidding list is this baseball card, which would be the perfect gift Jake could surprise his father with.
Like I said, a simple premise. Most of the rest of the episode follows Jake and Nog around the station in their mini-adventures to get this card. Jake cons Nog into putting up the latinum for the auction bid in a hilarious scene where the young Sisko manipulates the Ferengi cadet with a guilt trip. "I can't believe," Jake says with canned melodrama and back turned, "you'd rather keep your filthy money than use it to give my father—the one who helped get you into Starfleet academy—endless moments of happiness." Nog reluctantly agrees. How couldn't he?
Well, naturally, things are not that simple. The two friends go to the auction but don't have enough latinum to keep up with the escalating bid, and they're outbid by a mysterious man named Doctor Geiger (Brian Markinson, who played the late Lt. Durst and also B'Elanna's Vidiian captor in Voyager's "Faces"). So it's time, as they say, for plan B: They go to Geiger and try to buy the card off him.
It's here where "In the Cards" really starts to take off, featuring a series of parodies and witty plot twists that feature low-key humor in unexpected circumstances. One of the story's inspired ideas is that Geiger turns out to be a paranoid, somewhat delusional scientist. He initially refuses to talk to Jake or Nog, because he thinks they were sent by the "Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy," an organization that earns a grin just for its name. Even Odo hasn't heard of this one. ("The who?" he muses, genuinely confused.)
Geiger's quarters are filled with bizarre equipment he's using in weird bio-experiments. His goal: to discover a way to live forever. The dialog that describes his plan is hilarious in its absurdity. His theory on death boils down to the fact that one's cells become "bored" with the cycle of dividing over and over again. If a person could keep them constantly "entertained," they would therefore live forever. I especially liked his "cellular regeneration and entertainment chamber." Jake's and Nog's blank reactions to Geiger's theories are quite funny, as is their discussion-in-huddle afterward. (Nog: "His theory seems a little odd." Jake: "He had me going there for a minute, but a cellular entertainment machine?")
It's no matter that Geiger is crazy, Jake reasons. He does, after all, have a baseball card. So Jake and Nog agree to Geiger's terms. In exchange for gathering a long list of items for his research, he will give them the card.
This leads the two on a scavenger hunt of sorts, in which they meet with virtually every member of the senior staff, each of which may be able to supply them with materials they need. Naturally, they can't reveal the reasons they need these materials; Jake can't risk having the surprise blown for his father. Instead, Jake and Nog agree to do odd jobs for everybody in exchange for the materials they need. These scenes are entertaining because they're nicely done; the various crew interactions are simple and effective and remain true to the characters.
A large part of why all this works I attribute to the wonderful acting of Cirroc Lofton, who unveils his best turn yet as Jake Sisko. Lofton has a winner of a smile, and his performance in this comic plot is a very big reason of why it's so funny and endearing. There are a number of priceless facial expressions from Lofton that provide the premise with just what it needs to be both convincing and amusing.
Aron Eisenberg as Nog, while admittedly not on the level of Lofton, also deserves commendation. Both he and the writers have gotten a better hold of Nog's characterization, which makes him much more likable and dimensional than what we've seen in the past. One of the joys of the episode is how Nog so unwittingly gets pulled into the mayhem caused by Jake's obsession with this baseball card. For once, Nog is the character who must endure the will of his counterpart's less-than-crystal-clear judgment—which is milked for numerous comic opportunities as the cadet constantly frets about how going after this card may ultimately destroy his Starfleet Academy record.
Similarly, watching Jake get himself and Nog into hot water trying to secretly obtain the card is good for some laughs. At one point, Nog accuses Jake of being crazy. Jake's response: "I'm not crazy. I'm just a little obsessed." (One interesting parallel that pops up here is how "The Visitor" told a tragic story of Jake's obsession. "In the Cards," remarkably, also shows the sort of obsession Jake is capable of where his father is concerned, but the tone of the story, of course, is just the opposite.) Overall, this episode sports the best Jake/Nog story the series has yet come up with.
There's a B-story in "In the Cards," and it's surprising how well the two plots work together. The subplot revolves around Kai Winn's visit to the station, who is supposed to meet with Dominion negotiator Weyoun (Jeffrey Combs) to determine the fate of Bajor's involvement in Dominion affairs. Everyone knows that a Dominion/Federation war is imminent, but since Bajor is not yet part of the Federation, Winn has the opportunity to sign a non-aggression pact with Weyoun. But that may not be wise, to which both Winn and Sisko agree—Bajor risks being either destroyed along with Starfleet if they side with the Federation, but they risk suffering the fate of the conquered Cardassia if they sign a peace agreement. Sisko's appropriate advice: Stall for time. This is good stuff, executed on par with the main plot. As a preamble to next week's eruption of violence in "Call to Arms," this is a very, very sensible storyline (and I appreciated the allusions to "Rapture"). I'm certainly glad the writers haven't forgotten Bajor's role within the conflict between the Dominion and the Federation.
The way these pressures of imminent war and threat to Bajor affect Sisko makes the whole baseball card thing that much more relevant. I'm very pleased at how much depth this little comedy takes on.
Still, this episode knows better than to wallow in its own weighty issues. The comic set-pieces and subtle touches make it a winner. I enjoyed virtually all the clever ideas in here. From the goofy but nicely-placed line, "Lions, Geigers, and bears (oh my)"; to Jake accusing Winn of kidnapping Geiger once he vanishes without a trace; to Jake making up a story to his father about being drunk, just to keep a flabbergasted Nog from blowing the cover; to the deliciously-played meeting with Odo—it's all great stuff.
And the ending goes down as a classic in my book, probably one of the most creative, funniest scenes ever in Star Trek. Geiger's disappearance leaves Jake and Nog puzzled, but all questions are answered when Weyoun beams the two onto his ship and demands an explanation for their "conducting secret meetings with the crew," and associating with a man conducting experiments, ironically enough, right beneath Weyoun's own quarters.
When Weyoun doesn't believe the truth, Jake concocts a convoluted lie (much to Nog's dismay) that is brilliantly scripted, centering around, in all its unfathomability, the notion that Willie Mays is a time traveler who must be stopped at all costs. It's been quite a while since I've heard the line, "The fate of the entire galaxy may depend upon ". Coming from Lofton, it's almost convincing as the truth—and it's definitely convincing as a self-parody of Trekkian time travel. Quite clever.
What also works wonders is the extremely affecting closing captain's log montage, which gives the episode its emotional resonance. In essence, the "renewing spirits" in this episode are Jake and Nog themselves, who do the trivial tasks that give the senior staff the relaxing time they need to ease the burdens on their minds. Very cute.
This episode is a breath of fresh air. It successfully sticks with its premise from beginning to end without resorting to pointless action scenes or unwarranted plot nuisances. It's gleeful fun, yet not irrelevant. DS9's storylines can often be dark—which is not a complaint—but the great thing about "In the Cards" is that it proves that even in the heart of darkness there's plenty of room for a smile. If this episode isn't an embodiment of Star Trek attitudes, then I don't know what is.