There I was again, on what felt like my 500th Zoom call of the week, telling yet another person that I couldn’t hear them because they were on mute. Between the virus, remote working, lockdowns, homeschooling, and the constant barrage of political news, life has, over the last several months, felt both episodic and like we’ve been dragged into the Mirror Universe against our will. Resistance has at times felt futile.
But whether it’s because of duty or optimism, or simply because the children and the dog still need to be fed, most of us get up every single day and just get on with it. While new Star Trek – Picard, Discovery, and Lower Decks – has gone an extremely long way to making this last year bearable (how nice is it having a new episode of Star Trek to look forward to?), I found myself regularly craving and revisiting “Low Stakes Trek.”
“Low Stakes Trek” refers to those rare episodes where our heroes are not in mortal danger, the ship is not about to explode, and the fate of the galaxy (or of the space-time continuum) does not lie in the balance. These scripts are always character-focused, limited in terms of scope or problem, and more often than not, bottle episodes. They’re situational comedies set in outer space. But don’t equate these smaller shows with poor quality – that would be a big mistake. The best thing about these episodes is how good they are and how they successfully deepen our understanding of the characters and their relationships.
I’ve revisited many low stakes episodes during this pandemic. No doubt a good ship’s counselor could articulate the connection between the ever-present doomsday scenario of the outside world and my desire to stay under the covers revisiting episodes where the central conflict is nothing more than a bet between friendly rivals. However, while I may have a soft spot for the concept, not all low stakes episodes are created equal, there are a few that always rise to the top.
So the next time you find yourself overwhelmed or simply in need of a distraction, I strongly prescribe any or all of the following five episodes. Not only are they guaranteed to put a smile on your face, but they will transport you – for approximately 44 minutes – to a lighter corner of the final frontier.
1. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Data’s Day”
“Overall an ordinary day.”
My favorite thing about low stakes Trek episodes is that they allow for small, trivial interactions between the crew. While not much may be happening in terms of story, these episodes provide a clear window into a character’s likes, dislikes, personalities, relationships, and quirks. “Data’s Day” takes us on a tour of Data’s life and duties — an “ordinary day” as he calls it. Yes, there’s some diplomatic intrigue and of course Keiko and Chief O’Brien’s wedding, but the episode’s true highlights are Data’s one-on-one scenes with Geordi, Worf, Troi, O’Brien, Keiko, and Dr. Crusher. The last being the most charming encounter — Crusher, “The Dancing Doctor,” teaching Data to tap. Low Stakes episodes give us details to love and hold onto about our favorite characters. “Data’s Day” is the archetypical low stakes episode and now, in a post-Star Trek: Picard world, Data’s casual correspondence with Bruce Maddox takes on a whole new meaning.
2. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “In the Cards”
Despite this episode taking place in the shadow of what is to be a long and dark war, this simple story of friendship and kindness is utterly charming; a palate cleanser before a heavy main course. The story, which focuses on Jake and Nog trying to get a vintage baseball card to cheer up a depressed Captain Sisko, is a series of misadventures that get progressively more ridiculous. The episode works because the relationship between Jake and Nog is genuine, and together they make a relatable if less than perfect team. There’s a dynamic and flow to Jake and Nog’s friendship that is natural; these two have grown up together, and while extremely different, they love each other. The episode ends with a more cheerful Sisko, now the proud owner of a 1951 Willie Mays baseball card, telling himself, and us, that, “Even in the darkest moments, you can always find something that will make you smile.” It's a reminder arguably more poignant today than when the episode originally aired.
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”
If you were asked to describe Captain Benjamin Sisko, you’d use words like "passionate," "caring," "devoted," "focused"; not "immature" or "petty." But in “Take Me Out to the Holosuite,” we saw a Sisko who – driven by a youthful rivalry with the obnoxious Vulcan Solok – was juvenile and petulant. When his crew (and we, the audience) eventually understands Sisko’s history with Solok, we can all support and feed Sisko’s rivalry, because we want Sisko to triumph over Solok at any cost! The result is among the funniest low stakes Trek episodes. Every scene in this baseball-themed story is fun and infinitely quotable (“Death to the opposition!”). The fact that the Niners celebrate their massive loss to the Vulcans at the end is pitch perfect and keeping with Deep Space Nine’s unique sense of humor.
4. Star Trek: Voyager’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”
This episode plays like a ‘90s sitcom and it has no business being as delightful as it is. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is the episode I’ve re-watched most from this list and is solidly in my Voyager Top 10. Revolving around a bet between The Doctor and Paris, Seven of Nine is sent forth on a series of romantic misadventures. Predictably, the dates don’t go as planned and she learns of the bet. In true Seven-fashion, she’s quick-to-anger, unintentionally hilarious, and simultaneously indifferent yet curious. This episode cements The Doctor’s affections for Seven and brings out a sweetness in her that, while there, she keeps under tight lock and key. The famous duet between The Doctor and Seven at the episode’s halfway mark is among Voyager’s most endearing moments.
5. Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Carbon Creek”
One of Enterprise’s finest hours – low stakes Trek or not. While this is the only episode on the list that is not a bottle show, it is arguably the most intimate entry. Over dinner one night, T’Pol tells Captain Archer and Trip a story about how her great-grandmother, and two other Vulcans, crash landed and lived in a small Pennsylvania town in 1957, a full century before first contact. Fascinated and in disbelief, Archer and Trip listen intently to T’Pol as we, the audience, watch her great-grandmother and her colleagues build a life for themselves in 1950s America. “Carbon Creek” is a clever fish-out-of-water tale with lots of humor and even more heart. The very last shot of the episode, which confirms the authenticity of T’Pol’s tale, is gratifyingly poignant.
This article was originally published on February 2, 2021.
Carlos Miranda (he/him) is the Founder of Social Misfits Media, a London-based digital agency. Carlos, as obsessed with coffee and ramen as he is sci-fi, loves blogging about Star Trek in his spare time. Follow him on Twitter: @doublemacc.