Star Trek, the original television show, is built on Gene Roddenberry’s insanely optimistic view of the future. Someday, he and his show believed, human beings would would learn to split the atom and solve the problem of need; our better natures would take over and we would fly around the galaxy spreading a vision of peace and tolerance to every sentient creature we found. Instead of camo or combat wear, members of the Future Space Navy instead wear immaculate space pajamas. Television, movies, popular music—shit like that lives in the past, here. In Roddenberry’s universe, everyone likes classical music and is insanely polite. Greed? Who needs it? Everyone solves problems with talking and understanding and then they fly together further and further into a perfect future. It rules, even if it’s also occasionally a little dull. But as the franchise went on, pretty much everyone else that took turns raising the baby disagreed with that vision in some measure.
There is no better example of this than Trek’s treatment of sports. In some early Next Generation episodes, we learn about the sports of the future. There’s a martial art, the ultimate evolution of human combat, performed in weird red-and-white armor with big sticks and vision-blocking visors, which Riker does to connect with his dad. In another episode, Jean-Luc Picard teaches a fucked-up version of racquetball to a human kid that the Enterprise has discovered living amongst a xenophobic warrior culture in order to teach that kid how to blow off steam. These sports are nonsense, but also why would the future just have the sports of the past? That could never be Gene. Everything is always getting better, apparently even racquetball.
Roddenberry died in 1991, and his broader grip on the philosophical bent of Picard’s adventures loosened almost immediately. In the fifth season, we learn about the occupation of the peaceful, religious planet of Bajor by Cardassians, a xenophobic galactic power who maintain a tenuous peace with the Federation. This thread would spin off into TNG’s more obscure and insanely wonderful spin off, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a show that takes place on a reappropriated Cardassian station that is now home to a Federation contingent serving as a protector to a newly independent Bajor. The writers of DS9 pieced together a Trek-show-as-proto-prestige exercise, with equal portions of optimism and oddity enlivening moving character arcs that feature anti-heroes wondering out loud if everyone even WANTS universal peace and prosperity. The crew found themselves at the axis of a massive multi-season military conflict, sent its Captain traveling through time back into the racist hellworld of the 1960s, and dove headfirst into insane moral compromises. The gray-accented black uniforms they started wearing barely resembled pajamas at all.
But nothing was less Gene than Deep Space 9 somehow managing to integrate human baseball back into its world of the future. Futurism as a philosophy necessitates that something new and great replaces something old, and there are few things older than baseball. But the beloved moldy-oldy bat swingin’ game somehow made a perfect companion for a show about animal nature dancing in concert with the world of the future.
In the future, there is just one baseball, and it sits on Commander Ben Sisko’s desk. He likes baseball, even though it is for all intents and purposes a dead sport. His human comrades on DS9 don’t even have any idea what the hell he’s talking about. But then some wild shit happens. On the first assignment of his new command, Ben accidentally flies into a stable wormhole and encounters aliens who live there. They are non-corporeal, non-linear creatures who exist in one space but also in all times at once. As such they have very little context for linear time. Ben explains it to them by using baseball, a sport in which one thing happens after another:
WORMHOLE ALIEN (manifesting as Jake Sisko, Ben’s Son): Baseball? What is this?
SISKO: I was afraid you’d ask that. I throw this ball to you and this other player stands between us with a bat, a stick, and he, and he tries to hit the ball in between these two white lines. (The Aliens, using figures familiar to Sisko to take form, do not understand) No. The rules aren’t important. What’s important is, it’s linear. Every time I throw this ball, a hundred different things can happen in a game. He might swing and miss, he might hit it. The point is, you never know. You try to anticipate, set a strategy for all the possibilities as best you can, but in the end it comes down to throwing one pitch after another and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape.
ALIEN: And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed.
SISKO: That’s right. In fact, the game wouldn’t be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.
ALIEN: You value your ignorance of what is to come?
SISKO: That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you either with weapons or with ideas, but to co-exist and learn.
There are absolutely more economical ways to describe sports than “a miniature world where what happens is determined entirely by the linear progress of time” but there’s also no lie there. As the episode goes on, and the aliens, uh, help Ben learn to live with the death of his wife during the Borg’s infamous slaughter of Starfleet forces at Wolf 359, and in turn they learn about other beings in the universe. Man and non-corporeal beings who exist outside of time, learning about the lives of the other and growing through that learning, an understanding formed by the universal language of sport. All in all it’s Some Extremely Star Trek Shit.
As the show continues, the wormhole aliens—again sorry but: it turns out, are sort of ancient Bajoran Gods known as The Prophets—continue to lean on baseball for their understanding of linear, corporeal existence. As Sisko flies into the wormhole, he encounters a Dominion invasion fleet from the Gamma quadrant, poised to destroy the station and Bajor and whatever else might stand in their way. As he loads up a suicidal assault, Sisko is visited again by The Prophets, who confront him in the form of his worst enemy, holding a baseball and crooning “you desire to end the game?” A species of creatures basing their entire concept of reality on baseball. Not too terribly unlike Bill James, if you think about it.
This, surprisingly or not, is not the only time baseball pops up in DS9. When Ben’s son Jake introduces him to to a handsome freighter captain, the two bond over a mutual love of baseball. After the Dominion and the Cardassian Union take control of the station, Sisko leaves the baseball he keeps on his desk behind, a signal that he plans to return. Michael Dorn, who plays Worf under a massive heap of makeup, appears without it as a famous Major Leaguer when Sisko is given a vision by the prophets that sticks Sisko into the body and mind of a black sci-fi writer in the 1960’s.
But there is, truly, no more baseball episode of Star Trek episode, or ANY television episode, than “Take Me Out To The Holosuite.” This is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which the crew plays a game of baseball against a crew of Vulcans whose bigoted dickhead leader Captain Solok regards humans as an “emotionally handicapped” species.
In some sense, there really is just no episode of Star Trek that more fully flies in the face of Gene’s vision of an intergalactic Utopian United Nations Exploring Space. Pretty much every Vulcan we have met up to this point in Star Trek was pretty much all right. Spock is a dear friend to Kirk and McCoy; his dad Sarek is kind of distant but, on the whole, a pretty stand-up dude; Tuvok, on Voyager, is kind of boring but he’s also loyal and competent and generally chill. The broader idea undergirding all this is that living your life by logic—what Roddenberry thought would cleanse Earth of hatred and bigotry and human limits—would make you a pretty good dude.
But Captain Solok brings us back to the central conflict of Star Trek which is not the Federation vs. Klingons, the Romulans, the Borg, the Dominion, or whoever. The central conflict of Star Trek is between the utopian boner of the sunny optimist who created this universe and the more cynical and suspicious motives of the people who followed him in populating and sustaining it.
As time went on, a show that was mostly about space pajamas and ethical debates between good faith parties began to develop its own series of moves. The films, which were made mostly without Roddenberry’s input, are variously a revenge thriller, a high stakes personal drama, a wry comedy about whales, whatever the fuck Trek Five was, and a lovely elegy about growing old and seeing the conflicts of your past yield to a more tolerant future. Some work better than others, but all of them register as Star Trek, just as Manu Ginobili eurostepping around a fool on a drive is very clearly basketball even though it fudges the rules as James Naismith might have thought they would work.
Deep Space Nine is the most radical example of this. The Federation finds itself in a war, a military alliance with belligerents who don’t always cooperate, working with spies and capitalists and religious fanatics whose values don’t hew to the soft shit they teach you about in Starfleet Academy.
In Captain Solok we see the other side of Beings Of Pure Logic, which is that rigid thinking tends to make you kind of a prick. He is the captain of an all-Vulcan ship—one presumes that every other species finds this fuckface impossible to work with—and he seems to loathe human beings in general and Captain Ben Sisko in particular.
When his crew shows up to DS9 for repairs, Ben tries to be cool about it, but you can smell the ill will when he and Solok first meet to discuss repairs to his ship. There is also some conflict about the use of DS9’s holosuites for a program Solok and his crew have been getting pretty into—which happens to be A BASEBALL PROGRAM. It seems this Vulcan jerkoff is dedicated to provoking Captain Sisko, his old pet, into a grudge match.
Sisko, who likes baseball more than anything in the universe, doesn’t even care that he’s being baited by a dick who is three times as physically strong as him. He accepts a challenge from Solok, and gets together the station’s crew, his son, his girlfriend, and some miscellaneous other residents on DS9—and then Sisko has himself a baseball team. He and Solok agree to throw down in two weeks’ time.
There are some problems. For instance no one has ever played baseball before, and so practices doesn’t go very well. Rom, in particular, is truly embarrassing, swatting at bullshit pitches, falling down, just showing absolutely no capacity to help the team out there. Sisko, thirsting for victory against his Vulcan enemy and forgetting his Federation manners, tosses Rom off the team. Everyone else almost quits as a result but Rom, who is a good dude that everyone likes, tells them that they should still play, he’ll be happy to cheer from the stands, it’s no problem.
Later, we find Sisko sitting in his quarters just getting madder and madder about this game against Solok. Ben tells his wife, who also loves baseball, that he and Solok were in Starfleet Academy together and explains the roots of their animus. One day, Solok and a bunch of Vulcans came to the bar where Sisko was chilling and they just sat around and watched everyone drinking and told them they were observing the bonding rituals of humans. Ben got mad because holy shit what a dickhead, to the point where he threw hands at Solok, who in turn swiftly fucked him up because Vulcans are three times stronger than humans.
After that incident, Solok kept writing academic papers about human behavior and the problems of emotional handicaps in running an efficient Starfleet, and in every one of those papers he would include the story of the time he kicked Sisko’s ass. This drives Ben, an accomplished Starfleet officer and a guy who made first contact with literal gods, pretty upset.
Everything looks pretty grim for the, uh, Deep Space Nine, but a challenge is a challenge, and so the Niners, wearing insanely goofy hats, square off against the Logicians, which is the out of control pretentious name the Vulcans chose for their team. It doesn’t go well! On the very first pitch, the Vulcans mash a big ass dinger, and the Niners are just serving up one tater after another from there. Frustration sets in. Worf, who is apparently a proto-Barry Bonds, tries to draw a walk, but Odo—this is Deep Space Nine’s security chief, who is umpiring the game because he has a colossal boner for law and order—calls the fourth ball a strike. Worf is furious and Sisko, as manager, has to intervene before Worf’s hot Klingon blood leads him to snap Odo’s gelatinous neck. In the dispute, Sisko taps Odo’s shoulder, which is enough to get him ejected. Solok tips his cap at his old rival, his thesis proven yet again. Human emotion is a weakness. Klingons don’t have the perfect batting eye that they think they do.
Ben has no choice but to get into the stands and watch the whipping with Rom, who is cheering on his wife and his son and his friends. Ben realizes the error of his ways—it was never about winning at all, turns out—and gets Rom in the game. Everyone slowly figures out that a bunt would work against the Logician defense, Rom kind of lays one down by accident, and the Niners score a run on a play at the plate. Solok, playing for the very cause of Vulcan superiority itself, argues the call, touches Odo, and gets thrown out himself.
Having escaped the indignity of a shutout, everyone on the Deep Space crew celebrates at Quark’s. Solok, victorious but very much still a fucking dick, accuses them of “manufacturing a triumph,” says they’re all being emotional, and then everyone roasts him while Solok’s crew just kind of stands there because they also probably hate this guy. Much like being a friend, being a dick knows no species, no limit. Dickishness expands through the cosmos, touches all species to some degree or another. Even if Gene didn’t quite accept that, everyone who pitched relief for him did. It made the game more interesting.