A sexy grifter arrives on Deep Space Nine and opens a bar to rival Quark’s, but his games wreak havoc on the station.
Plot Summary: Alien widow Alsia tells sexy stranger Martus that having lost her husband, she is going to invest all her money in mining. Scheming Martus is plotting to get her money when Odo arrives to arrest him for swindling another couple on the station. In the brig, Martus meets a dying alien who explains that he lost everything gambling with a strange device. To demonstrate, he activates it, gasps to Martus that he won, and expires. When Odo comes to release Martus, whose accusers have declined to press charges, Martus shows of the device to Quark, who offers to buy it for enough money that Martus decides it must be valuable. To Quark’s dismay, Martus convinces another widow to let him set up a bar in her abandoned shop and Rom goes to work for him. Replicating the alien device, Martus quickly has a full club, but becomes alarmed when everyone wins at once, costing him most of his swindled fortune. Meanwhile, O’Brien loses a hard-fought racquetball game to Bashir and laments that he must be getting old, as Bashir tells Dax that he fears O’Brien could have a heart attack if they have a rematch. Elsewhere on the station, Dax and Sisko notice many reports of unfortunate incidents from unexpected mechanical failures to people experiencing bouts of clumsiness. Quark decides to change his luck by pressing O’Brien and Bashir into a rematch with proceeds from betting going to help Bajoran orphans and Martus sees his own fortunes plummet as people abandon his bar for Quark’s. He gives Alsia the rest of his money to invest in her mining scheme, but it turns out that she is a swindler just like him. Dax finds that the neutrinos on the station are nearly all spinning in the same direction, which leads her to believe that the laws of probability are being tampered with; O’Brien comes to the same conclusion as every ball he serves against Bashir proves to be a winner. Once Dax determines that Martus’s gambling devices are the root of all the problems, she and Sisko destroy them just before Odo comes to take Martus into custody for swindling again. Quark agrees to bail him out if Martus will leave the station for good.
Analysis: Given that the scientific foundation is so thin as to be preposterous, “Rivals” should feel either more dramatic or more lighthearted than it does. I wouldn’t mind if Quark met a seriously dangerous swindler and learned a lesson about gambling with other people’s profits, nor would I mind a fun story in which changes to the laws of probability lead to hilarious hijinks, but what’s here is a story so predictable that what’s obvious from the first scene – that the con man’s mark will con him in turn – comes to pass with no real consequence for any of the regulars. I don’t know anything about how neutrinos are supposed to spin (though I’ve read that “Rivals” got it all wrong anyway), but even if they were bang-on, the technobabble that gives away the game sounds silly and the direct correlation between probability and luck sounds sillier. It’s fortunate that the effects are limited to mean-spirited problems like Kira tripping over her own feet and the computer wiping out complicated but non-essential reports, rather than life support failing in some parts of the station and docking ships missing the pylons. Escalating “bad luck” could have led to a sense of menace that might have increased the drama, and broader slapstick might have made it funny enough that no one would have been worrying about whether the science behind the probability alteration made any sense, but the episode offers neither.
I don’t have much use for Martus, whom Quark recognizes at once as a con man of less skill and subtlety than himself. How annoying that Martus’s targets are all middle-aged widows, even if one of them outsmarts him and the other ditches him when she finds that he’s not faithful. I’m much more interested in the O’Brien-Bashir storyline, though the fact that Bashir was a champion racquetball player at Starfleet Academy and is clearly a show-off would seem to contradict his later claims, when everyone learned that he was genetically enhanced, that he always tried to play down his abilities and not shine at athletics for fear of being found out. He’s definitely more gifted at racquetball than darts, though he looks unnervingly skinny here in his jumpsuit…and O’Brien might have stayed in better shape had they kept playing the more athletic sport together! I love the scenes with Miles and Keiko, whom we often see in family conflict or in domestic situations as parents; here we see that he’s worried he’s no longer sexy to her and that she still likes to flirt with her husband. Miles doesn’t seem a likely candidate for this sort of mid-life crisis – our only hints that he dreams of being a macho hero come from his choice of holosuite adventures – so it’s rather charming to see him fretting that he can’t beat a man more than a decade younger at a competitive sport. And it’s even more charming when, upon starting to win, he suspects not that his practice has paid off, but that somehow the game has been rigged.
Maybe I’m just not enough of a gamer to appreciate “Rivals.” Martus’s devices are very pretty but it boggles my mind that getting them to light up should excite anyone enough to inspire an alcohol-fueled gambling franchise, though I also fail to get the endorphin rush I keep reading that my sons get from playing Skies of Arcadia and Shin Megami Tensei or whatever kids are playing now. I guess I’d be no fun in a 24th century bar, though Dax seems to appreciate the games, if not the Dabo girls, when they’re not threatening the station. Martus is no Harry Mudd, he’s not even a Quark, and we never even get a head-on confrontation with Quark in which Quark gives Martus the comeuppance he deserves. Given the feebleness of the comedy, it’s too bad that the scientific drama gets submerged by the bright lights and silliness, making the entire episode feel like two B plots waiting for an A plot to happen.