Nutshell: Totally absurd, but very amusing ... and surprisingly engaging.
"One Little Ship"—also known as "Honey, I Shrunk the Runabout"—is probably the most absurd episode of DS9 you'll see this season, maybe ever. This lightweight, zippy outing feels like a show that belongs in Voyager's fourth season. It's fairly inconsequential but well made. Just when you think it seems likely to spin out of control into an utterly laughable disaster (that is, from the point of seeing the trailers the week before), this show becomes strangely infectious and entertaining.
This is what they call "high concept." Or a better term might be "low concept." How an episode sold on the unfathomably ridiculous idea of "a Runabout is shrunk to about five inches long" can survive a writers staff meeting at DS9 is beyond me, but somehow it did. And how it is this idea actually works also eludes me—but somehow it does.
The question wasn't whether this plot would prove ludicrous, the question was whether it would be workable in a 1990s sci-fi realm. It strikes me as one of the goofiest things in recent memory. The premise seems more like it belongs in the 1950s, and the presentation seems more akin to the cinematic attitudes of Xena: Warrior Princess. But the funny thing is it works for most of the same reasons Xena does: it takes itself just seriously enough to be engaging, yet constantly keeps its tongue lodged firmly in cheek where it belongs.
Do you even want to know more about the plot? What more needs to be said? Well, I'll try anyway. You see, the Defiant and the Runabout Rubicon—with Dax, O'Brien, and Bashir on board—are trying this new scientific experiment involving some bizarre gravitational whatcha-ma-whozit. As the Runabout goes near the anomaly, it shrinks smaller and smaller. The plan is that the Defiant will tractor it back away from the anomaly after the experiment is over, returning the Runabout to its normal size. Well, things of course don't go as planned. The Defiant is attacked by the Jem'Hadar, who board the Defiant and take the crew prisoner before the episode's teaser is even over. The tractor beam connection is lost and the Runabout flies out of control through the anomaly. Since it doesn't exit the anomaly the same way it entered, it doesn't return to its normal size.
The rest of the episode is about how the Rubicon gets inside the Defiant and becomes instrumental in retaking the ship, unbeknownst to everybody on the Defiant for a very long stretch of the plot. With the Defiant's warp drive damaged, Sisko has time to devise a plan to retake the ship or, if all else fails, rig an auto-destruct so that it doesn't fall into Dominion hands. But since the Jem'Hadar have barred all the key officers from the bridge—forcing them instead to repair the engines—the problem is that Sisko has no command access. So he, Worf, Kira, and Nog must try to gain access to the computer while pretending to repair the battle damage, all unbeknownst to the Jem'Hadar soldiers watching over them.
This is where the mini-Runabout comes into play. Since Sisko & Co. are locked down, this leaves it to Dax & Co. in the Runabout to get to the bridge and disable the security lockout to the computer system.
A lot of "One Little Ship" is sold on its special effects. This episode is a visual delight. Watching the Rubicon fly around like a toy ship is great fun. I don't know exactly why, but it is. It's neat. And funny. And strangely infectious. The dash through the plasma conduit was an engaging mix of convincing visuals and understated suspense. The Runabout spying on the engine room was amusing as it peeked mischievously from behind objects. And the Runabout's dash to the bridge was droll, especially when the ship pushes a button on a control panel to open a door to the bridge.
One set piece involves Bashir and O'Brien beaming onto a circuit relay to manually override the commands Sisko needs disabled. Seeing the two officers standing in the middle of a huge mass of cables and computer chips was a fresh spin on the established idea of O'Brien Fixing Something™. Meanwhile, Bashir and O'Brien's subtle banter was amiable as always.
Despite the fluffy aspects of the episode, not everything in "One Little Ship" is inconsequential. For example, I did find the uneasy cracks in loyalty between the "Alpha" and "Gamma" Jem'Hadar soldiers quite interesting, if maybe a little forced and overstated. The new "Alpha" Jem'Hadar (referred to as such because they were engineered and born in the Alpha Quadrant to replace the mass numbers wiped out in "Sacrifice of Angels") seem a little less hard-core in their loyalties to the Dominion, and seemingly less controllable. Their loyalty seems to be to other "Alphas" first and to the Dominion second. And they don't really have much respect for the "Gammas."
This is an idea that could have some possibilities down the road. As evidenced here, the friction between Second Ixtana'Rax (Fritz Sperberg), a Gamma, and First Kudak'Etan (Scott Thompson Baker), an Alpha who was recently promoted over Ixtana'Rax as the squadron commander, ultimately serves to undermine the Jem'Hadar effort to seize the Defiant. This seems indicative of a larger problem that the Dominion may have on their hands, and I get a strong feeling that we'll be seeing this again. (But then again, I also had a strong feeling that the cracks in Dukat and Weyoun's alliance would play out in some manner, which it ultimately didn't.)
The pivotal action turning point rides on the fact that the Jem'Hadar soldiers are worse shots than the average storm trooper—and hopelessly unobservant as well. I must admit that these Jem'Hadar are a major step down after the riveting performances in "Rocks and Shoals," but that's okay, because they serve their purpose. This episode is a comic book outing, after all, and even though the villains came off as rather bungling in the action finale, I did think that Our Heroes still came off looking surprisingly good. I'd also say the stunt coordination in the final fight was above average for Trek, and introducing a five-inch Runabout with tiny photon torpedoes into the fight was a good move, though hammy as hell. Allan Kroeker's direction made some good camera choices in this final showdown, as well as throughout the episode.
But ultimately, this show lives on its own carefully chosen tone. Through all the convincing special effects, bright ideas, and goal-oriented action, the truth of the matter is inescapable: This is absurd, even for Trek. Weddle & Thompson's screenplay knows that, and knows just when to insert a joke and when to avert seriousness. Such moments as the Bashir/O'Brien discussion on being "this tall" and Sisko announcing to Worf "Your wife is here" make all the difference, and the performances shine through the silliness to make it work better than one might have dreamed possible. Add this to a closing that features Worf reciting part of a poem (?) and then smiling (!) and Odo playing a cruel joke, and you've got a show that inspires to be an amiable and slight action comedy—and succeeds.
I was laughing quite a bit through this show. But I wasn't laughing because the show was laughable (although I admit that the premise certainly was). I was laughing because I was having fun. That's what this episode is: good fun. With "Far Beyond the Stars" last week, DS9 showed the serious, important side of Trek that makes us question ourselves. "One Little Ship" is the type of goofy entertainment that exemplifies Trek's other side.
Next week: O'Brien becomes a thief.