Sisko builds a version of an ancient Bajoran space vessel in an effort to prove that centuries earlier, Bajorans landed on Cardassia.
Plot Summary: Having read that ancient Bajorans built lightships propelled by solar pressure, Sisko decides to prove that it might have been possible for them to have reached Cardassia, as the Bajorans have always claimed. He builds a ship based on an ancient model and asks Jake to travel as far as the Denorios Belt to demonstrate that the propulsion system works. Though Jake initially resists, he decides to go, concluding that the trip will be a good opportunity to talk to his father about whether to accept a writing scholarship to a school in New Zealand. Dukat warns Sisko that the Bajoran legends of reaching Cardassia are ludicrous, which is O’Brien’s feeling as well, but Kira insists that the Cardassians’ only agenda is to prevent any proof of the idea that Bajor achieved spaceflight before they did. During the smooth early part of the trip, Jake confesses that he worries about leaving his father alone and asks whether he can introduce Sisko to a freighter captain who’s interested in dating him. Meanwhile, back on the station, Bashir’s flirtation with new Dabo girl Leeta is interrupted by the arrival of his medical school class valedictorian, whom Bashir desperately wants to impress, though she ignores him entirely when he approaches her. Bolstered by a drinking session with O’Brien, Bashir tries again and discovers that she had no idea what he looked like. Sisko’s ship encounters turbulence that damages the navigational equipment, then is bombarded by particles that propel it to warp speed. Unable to hail the station, the pair are astonished when Dukat arrives with three warships to congratulate them on reaching Cardassian space. Coincidentally, Dukat adds, the crash site of a centuries-old Bajoran lightship very like the one Sisko is piloting has just been discovered on Cardassia, whose government says that Sisko’s voyage is a testament to ancient Bajorans who first ventured out into space.
Analysis: “Explorers” is a deeply flawed episode, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one. I had to shut off my brain for the “scientific” explanation of how solar sails trap tachyon particles that propel what looks like a Leonardo da Vinci design for a spaceship to faster-than-light speeds, but the shiny steampunk interiors of the lightship and the big butterfly sails make it fun to watch anyway. Similarly, I had to turn off my brain at the notion that Bashir and Elizabeth Lense went to medical school together, were considered the two brightest students in their year, competed with each other, were presumably nominated for the same awards and honors and invited to the same symposiums and demonstrations, yet managed never to be introduced to one another even at graduation where the one followed the other onto the stage to speak, but it’s a cute gimmick to set up the only redeeming aspect of the B storyline: the scene in which Bashir and O’Brien get drunk and sing “Jerusalem” together. I’d have an easier time believing that she doesn’t recognize him because 24th century contact lenses don’t work for her (that would explain why she went off looking for biological samples rather than being a surgeon) – or that she’s lying to save face after the terrible manners of blowing off Bashir, or perhaps because she knows he hits on Dabo girls. No matter, Elizabeth Lense is not important; what’s significant is that this is yet another reiteration of the preganglionic fiber-postganglionic nerve mistake that’s at the core of all of Bashir’s anxieties, which was feeling very over-used the first time I saw “Explorers” yet takes on a whole new significance rewatching with the understanding that Bashir was sabotaging himself (and, presumably, his relationships) all along.
I wonder what it means that Bashir feels most himself around Garak, another man who’s living a lie, and O’Brien, who’s the opposite – solid and predictable even if he seems rather out of character declaring that a Bajoran solar sailing ship can’t make it to Cardassia. That seems like just the sort of challenge that would appeal to O’Brien, not make him cynical, and Kira rightly tells him off for dismissing her people’s technological triumph much the way many Europeans spent centuries suppressing the scientific achievements of the Muslim world. (O’Brien retorts that Kira sounds like a Romulan, who always claim to have invented everything first.) Okay, it is ridiculous that Sisko gets the ship built so quickly, without seeking input from O’Brien, Dax, or any of the Bajoran engineers on the station, and I’d love to know why the celebration fireworks set off by Dukat don’t send the little ship spinning on its light-powered sails (which perhaps is Dukat’s true intention: to blast them back home). On a show whose serious themes don’t always allow laugh-aloud moments, the writers deserve full kudos for Dukat’s offhand revelation that oh, guess what, the Cardassians only just discovered that the Bajorans landed on their planet centuries earlier after all. But what’s up with a pairing of storylines that seems to parallel Julian’s personal history with early Bajoran spacefaring accomplishments? I refuse to believe that the writers used “Jerusalem” to equate Bajorans walking upon Cardassia’s mountains green with Blake’s fantasy of Jesus walking on England’s pleasant pastures. As the episode makes clear in the end, the Bajoran stories are not based in fantasy, but in history.
Which brings me to my major peeve about this episode, the fact that no Bajorans are invited to participate in any way in Sisko’s quest to prove their people’s early space accomplishments. I get that the writers wanted a père et fils bonding expedition, but how hard would it have been to show Sisko working with Bajoran builders on the craft, and how much more would the journey have meant to Kira or any Bajoran who got to look Dukat in the eye and force him to own up to Bajor’s independent early breakthrough? Sisko has been making small forays into discovering what it means to be the Emissary, like attending the reopening of the historic Bajoran library in which he discovers the plans for the ancient sky sails, so maybe he feels he owes it to Bajor to make such a contribution on his own. I never object when Sisko gets to spend a lot of time with Jake, since they have one of the most believable father-son relationships I’ve seen on television (I sometimes forget that Avery Brooks is not really Cirroc Lofton’s dad). Now that he’s getting used to the idea that his son doesn’t want to follow him into Starfleet, Sisko is more willing to share his feelings about Jake’s other options. It’s a pity that the writers keep chickening out on the father-son sex talk – when Sisko tells Jake that some parts of his story seem unrealistic, he hopes because Jake hasn’t actually experienced such things, we’re all guessing at first that he means intimate matters, not joining the Maquis – yet quite funny when Jake reveals that he wants to set his dad up on a blind date, leading Sisko to lament that he’s getting romantic advice from his son. At least it’s not with a Dabo girl who has to feign neediness to catch his attention and it’s not with someone who hated him before learning to love him.