We begin with Commander Sisko being a terrible father. As he puts on his dress uniform to make first contact with a new alien species called the Wadi, his son Jake enters. In a short conversation, Jake reveals 1) his fondness for Bajoran culture (the Bajorans being the aliens who control DS9 with the Federation), and his special fondness for all the Bajoran girls that stop by DS9 (especially since Bajoran girls look pretty much exactly like humans except with a few nose ridges).
Sisko, like so many fathers before him, is both baffled and disapproving. He tells Jake that they’re going to need to have The Talk, and Jake replies he already knows what he needs to know thanks to Nog, his Ferengi friend. Sisko is appalled, mostly because he hates Nog, but it seems partially because he hates Ferengis, although he doesn’t seem that fond of Bajorans at this point either. Sisko is just basically weirdly xenophobic, especially to be commander of a Federation space station.
After learning that his son has presumably terrible and misguided ideas about women and sex, Sisko decides to correct his son later (he calls it “damage control”) and leaves to meet the Wadi. The Wadi are basically human, although they all have mullets and forehead tattoos, and dress in a cross between pioneer women and Las Vegas magicians. At any rate, the Wadi, led by their ambassador Falow, have no interest in first contact, niceties and just want to go to Quark’s bar and casino to get their game on. Sisko hates them.
At Quark’s, Quark immediately starts giving these unknown aliens with unknown powers a hard time, because Quark is an idiot. He introduces them to the game of Dabo, which is to say Space Roulette, and then demands to know what they have to bet. He refuses to let the Wadi use their Klon Peag sticks, although “highly sought after in [their] culture,” probably because they look like pretzel rods. Falow offers “priceless Alpha-Current nectar” next, which Quark tries and is disgusted by. Finally, Falow offers a bunch of rocks from a rock tumbler, which Quark believes — and I’m pretty sure the show itself is trying to pretend — are precious gems, and the Space Roulette games are on. It should go without saying that Sisko hates Quark.
Six hours later, an extremely grumpy Sisko leaves to tell his son he still needs to have “The Talk” with his son, but he still refuses to have it at this particular moment, and they’ll just talk tomorrow (also he says Nog is terrible). Back at Quark’s, Quark is freaking the fuck out because the Wadi keep winning, which means Quark keeps losing money. Quark, being a greedy idiot, decides to rig the next game against the aliens he just met. Even ignoring the whole “First Contact” rules of politeness, half of the aliens in the Star Trek universe have ridiculous reality-warping powers. Why would you ever piss anybody off until you’re sure they couldn’t completely wreck your shit?
Obviously, the Wadi lose, instantly know they’ve been conned, and start to wreck everybody’s shit. It begins with Falow transforming the Dabo table into a Chula table, which is a special Wadi game, and then telling Quark he can either play the game and win some more smooth rocks, or… else. Seeing the table is much easier than describing it, so here:
Note the seven triangular “levels.” Falow explains there are four pieces that must “move along home” for the player to win, and nothing else — one of the rules of the game is that players can only learn the rules as they play. It should surprise absolutely no one that Sisko, Dr. Julian Bashir, Colonel Kira and Major Dax wake up in a strange, small, hexagonal room. Obviously, they are the four pieces Quark is playing with, although he doesn’t know it.
Now, the “players-as-game-pieces” trope has been used quite a bit in genre storytelling, and I would posit to you that this plot line is as only as strong as the game being featured. Well-known games like chess work, because the rules are both established and fair. When you make up games, writers tend to get into trouble, because if the game makes no sense, then the plot doesn’t either. Let me assure you, Chula is not chess.
It’s going to be a lot easier to break the game’s myriad “features” down will bullet points, so please indulge me.
• Falow sets many, many figures on the triangular levels including Quark’s four pieces.
• Falow says they’ll start on the “second shap,” or second triangular level down from the top. When Quark asks why they don’t start at the beginning, Falow says only children start at the beginning.
• Inside the "game," each hexagonal room has a door on each side; only one opens. As Sisko travels from room to identical room, Falow suddenly pops up, grinning like a madman, and screaming, “MOVE ALONG HOME!”
• Back on DS9, Falow has Quark make a bet (he picks the minimum wager) and then roll some dice. Whatever the hell he roles, it means his players will meet “The Chandra.”
• In the game, Sisko — having met up with the other three “pieces” — enters a room with a young girl playing Space Hopscotch. As Dax discovers, there’s an ionic wall that shocks her when she tries to cross the room, but not the girl. Bashir figures out that if he steps on the same pieces the girl does, in the same order… he also gets shocked by the wall. And then Kira realizes they also have say the girl’s stupid Space Hopscotch rhyme while they jump. They cross the room and the door opens, but at the cost of their dignity.
• This incredible triumph of intelligence is apparently all that’s needed to move the players to the third Shap, and net Quark a bunch of pretty rocks. So, to make this absolutely clear, in order to win this level, Sisko and pals had to 1) enter a room that contained nothing but a girl playing hopscotch, and 2) somehow deduce that they needed to play hopscotch.
• On the third shap, Falow tells Quark he must pick his pieces’ path, long or short. The short path is twice as dangerous, but nets him twice the winnings. Quark is about to pick “short,” until Falow warns him that if none of his players reach home, he forfeits all his winning.
• Earlier Jake went to security chief Odo to ask where the hell his dad has disappeared to, since he’s not on board DS9, but didn’t leave on any ship. Odo, being pretty competent, quickly discover Kira, Bashir and Dax are missing too, this is weird, and heads the last place they were seen — Quark's. Together, Odo and Quark realize that the missing commanders are the game pieces. Quark picks the safer path, and rolls again. Odo hates Quark.
• The pieces have realized something themselves. “A game! Home is often the destination in a game!” Kira says, which is technically accurate but sounds insane when you say it like that. Besides, since they have no idea where they are, they have no concept of what "home" might be — or where it might be. This would be like if you live in Cleveland, and were suddenly transported to the Gobi desert. “Move along home!” is not an effective direction at this point.
• Sisko and pals enter a room where a bunch of Wadians are having a party. They laugh and laugh and keep offering the “pieces” drinks, which is when the room starts filling with gas. The Wadians are unaffected, but Sisko and the rest start choking. The Wadians continue to offer them drinks and Bashir figures out, hey, maybe these two things are related, grabs a drink, drinks it, and then is of course fine. He tells the others to drink, and then they’re fine, and then the Wadians applaud their brilliance at figuring out this Sphinx-ian mystery.
• Seriously. They enter a room full of nothing but people and drinks. The room fills with gas. What were the alternative solutions? Punch the Wadians in the face? Take off all their clothes? Do the hopscotch bit again? At any rate, this miraculous achievement brings them to the fourth shap.
• Odo tries to stop the game, but Falow informs him that if you stop the game, you forfeit your players. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, and Quark chooses the long path again, and rolls.
• The roll makes a bunch of floating lights corner Sisko and the others. They choose Bashir, and he disappears, and Falow takes a piece off the board.
• Falow asks Quark to choose their path again, and Quark picks short. Odo is incensed, but Quark gives him some spiel about knowing games, and the shortcut skips a level, getting them “home” faster, thus ending this nonsense, although how he knows this would be faster is beyond me. Quark would be better off mentioning that the two times he picked the “safe” long path, his players were assaulted with poison gas and deadly lights, and the one time he didn’t pick long his players had to do hopscotch. Of course, then Odo could reply what the fuck are you talking about, the only way the players move is down the goddamn board, there are no short or long paths at all, this is all complete bullshit, so perhaps its best this conversation didn’t happen.
• Quark rolls, and immediately another player dies. Well, not really — he comes up with a roll that means “sacrifice one player so the other two may pass.” Odo hates Quark so fucking much.
• Quark’s response to needing to pick one of his pieces to be sacrificed, when he doesn’t even know which pieces represent which people? Having a complete mental and emotional breakdown, confessing to cheating earlier in the episode, and then falling to the floor sobbing. Falow’s solution: Having the game select a player to be sacrificed at random.
• Here’s how the game engineers this sacrifice: creating a room that’s a cave, waiting for Kira to enter it, causing a tremor, and making Kira twist her ankle so she can’t walk on it. All this does is force Sisko and Dax to carry her around through the cave level, until eventually they get to a cliff and all fall off.
• That’s when Sisko, Kira, Dax and even Bashir suddenly arrive at Quarks! Quark asks if he won, and Falow laughs and tells him no, presumably because the rest of his pieces fell off a cliff. Still, it turns out that the foursome were never in an actual danger, because, as Falow says with an incredible amount of smugness, “It’s only a game.”
• Sisko is about to fuck Falow up when Odo tells Sisko that the Wadians’ Chula bullshit was in response to Quark’s cheating. Sisko hates Quark more than anyone has ever hated anything ever.
• The Wadians, having annoyed everyone to their satisfaction, leave. Quark, having learned nothing, chases after them to ask for a Chula table for his bar.
The end. By the way, Sisko never does give his son “The Talk.” Consequently, in the following episode, Jake contracts Bajoran Space Gonorrhea.
What Did We Learn:
• Chula is bullshit.
• Seriously. It makes no fucking sense whatsoever. First of all, it’s a one-player game. Quark isn’t playing against anybody, he’s merely trying to get his players “home.” No one is competing against him. More importantly, the game is almost completely out of Quark’s hands. He chooses whether his players take the “long” or “short” paths, but whether Quark gets to the next level is entirely decided by his “pieces” and their ability to solve either incredibly simple puzzles or rock-climbing.
• I mentioned this earlier, but it’s amazing to me how bullshit the short/long path thing is. One is not shorter than the other, and although Falow complains one path is more dangerous than the other, the danger level is obviously random as well. Plus, even if there were some logic to things we weren’t seeing, the dice still totally randomize whatever path the player picks anyways.
• Why are the challenges so stupid? Why did Falow keep showing up on the board and yelling “Move along home!” to Sisko, especially when his progress was completely at the mercy of Quark? What would have happened if the players couldn’t figure out the hopscotch thing? Would Quark and Falow just have had to sit there for hours? How did the computer know that Kira would twist her ankle? Why did the computer consider this a sacrifice, especially when neither Sisko nor Dax would leave her? What the hell is the deal with the first shap that only children play on it, when the second shap has a fucking hopscotch board problem? And what the hell were the other figures on the board for?
• Apparently the DS9 writers called the game “Chula “after “Chutes and Ladder.” I found this vaguely cute before watching the episode, and infuriatingly annoying asfter watching the episode.
• There’s one thing I couldn’t convey in my recap, and that’s how insanely fucking boring this episode is. To best get a feel for what watching this episode is truly like, reread this article from the beginning, but take a three-minute break between every single sentence.
• Sisko explains to Jake that first contact is the Federation’s most important mission, and that it’s “Kind of like a first date with a woman. You have to show a certain respect—” before he gets cut off by the announcement that the Wadi have arrived. I think we have to assume he was going to continue, “—if you want to get to third base.”
• Dr. Bashir’s reaction to waking up in a strange hexagonal room: standing against the wall, closing his eyes, flailing his arms about and screaming. Because he thinks he’s having a nightmare, you see.
• In the hopscotch room, Kira’s first attempt to solve the puzzle is to salute the little girl. It’s so dumb it causes me literally pain.
• Here’s how important those Klon Peag sticks are — the Wadians tap two of them together while players roll the Chula dice. OH, THE INTRINSIC VALUE.
• I’d completely forgotten how creepy Odo’s completely smooth, hairless face is. I do not care for it.