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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Vortex (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

Something very interesting happens in the second half of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s first season. It seems like the writers and producers are making a conscious effort to develop the show’s characters, themes and the world that these inhabit. Plot threads are hinted at, only to be left dangling. Ideas are broached, and tucked away for another day. Given that Star Trek: The Next Generation waited until the third season to broach serialisation in Sins of the Father, the approach taken here is quite striking.

These three episodes are more notable for what they set up rather than what they actually accomplish on their own terms. These adventures lay groundwork, or at least hint at laying groundwork, that will pay off throughout the show’s extended seven-year run. Okay, not exactly. There are some redundant elements here that never actually pay off, but Vortex, Battle Lines and The Storyteller all play into the show’s bigger story arc, even if it seems the writers aren’t entirely sure what those story arcs are.

It's murky out there...

It’s murky out there…

As I noted in Emissary, quite a lot of the shuffling and set-up during the early days of Deep Space Nine didn’t exactly pay off. After all, from the pilot, you’d assume that the show would end with Bajor’s admittance into the Federation. That is – we’re assured – the whole point of the Federation presence on this world. Given the time and energy devoted to establishing Bajor’s history and the need for Sisko to find some measure of accomplishment, the logical conclusion for the show would be the resolution of the Bajoran question.

Without spoiling too much, that isn’t the case. Objectives change, goals shift. Writing is an organic concept, and some times you find that things evolve over time. Elements that you thought would work never really gel, and then those small ideas peppered throughout scripts bloom into something far more exciting than you might have imagined. As the show went on, the emphasis shifted away from Bajor and into other areas, a demonstration that things don’t always play out the way you expect them to.

Putting his necklace on the line...

Putting his necklace on the line…

This makes sense. Deep Space Nine was not planned out from the start. Indeed, there was apparently a great deal of internal debate about how serialised the show should be. Rick Berman wanted another episodic space adventure show, one easier to sell in syndication – an argument borne out by the fact that Deep Space Nine is less like to be broadcast than The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager or even Star Trek: Enterprise.

In contrast, Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr wanted more serialisation. Piller argued that a show set on a space station should, by its nature, be more concerned with consequences than a space ship travelling at several times the speed of life. Behr’s influence is all over these later episodes of the first season, and one can see that he’s setting up the show for the long-haul.

Morn again...

Morn again…

However, the point stands that Star Trek had little experience with serialisation when Deep Space Nine started. Ronald D. Moore had helped cultivate extended recurring plot lines featuring the Romulans and the Klingons in The Next Generation, and the first spin-off had developed a charming supporting cast of recurring characters, but the series was still largely stand-alone. The original Star Trek had been so firmly episodic that you could almost watch the episodes in any order without ever getting too lost, with cast and costume changes the most significant evolutions.

So the confusion evident in these early episodes makes sense. Like Emissary, Vortex develops particular threads which ultimately aren’t that essential to the over-arching mythos. The connections between Odo’s search for his people here and the pay-off in The Search are mostly incidental – thematic ties and foreshadowing that is probably accidental rather than anything more concrete.

He's all ears...

He’s all ears…

Here, Croden suggests that the shape-shifters (Changelings”, for the first time) live in a nebula, which ultimately turns out to be the case. It’s just a different nebula. When Sisko and Dax make contact with Croden’s home planet, they discover that these aliens have absolutely no interest in meeting the Federation. “We are well aware of the traffic through the newly discovered passage,” their contact points out. “We simply have no interest in contact with anyone from your quadrant.”

To be fair, these aren’t the first xenophobic aliens to appear in the franchise. However, given how tight the Dominion grip would turn out to be, the disinterest shown by this world could easily be motivated by fear. Later episodes would establish that the Dominion rules with fear and doesn’t welcome contact with outsiders, while militantly protecting their own borders. Under those circumstances, you can understand that members would be cautious about inviting guests down.

He caught that brig-and...

He caught that brig-and…

These connections feel mostly incidental, and Vortex really feels like it’s just an acknowledgement from the writing staff that they know the question of Odo’s origin is on the table. It’s more of a “we promise we’ll get around to it” rather than “here are some answers”, but that’s very forgivable this early in the game. One of the great things about Deep Space Nine was the fact that it generally did deal with its unanswered questions sooner rather than later.

Imagine how a modern show like Lost would play with Odo’s mysterious past; the writers tie it all up in the first episode of the show’s third season. And that leads to its own organic developments and its own storytelling opportunities. The show would only play with Odo’s back story a few more times before actually addressing the issue, which was a nice touch. The show learned how to handle serialisation relatively quickly.

There! Are! Four! Glasses!

There! Are! Four! Glasses!

So Vortex isn’t exactly essential viewing, existing mainly to establish that there is actually a mystery. You can feel that watching the episode, which is actually surprisingly straight-forward. We’re almost half-way through the episode before Odo and Croden leave the station, which would seem to put a dampener on the odds of finding any shapeshifters, unless it’s a two-parter. (Which it isn’t.)

However, even if it’s not essential to Odo’s arc, it feels like a valid experiment for the series. First seasons are often quite rocky, as a writing staff tries to figure out what the hell they are trying to do with this piece of television. However, if the show is to improve, there needs to be some hint of experimentation – a willingness to try new things and to take risks with the material.

A simple investigation...

A simple investigation…

The Next Generation tried that towards the end of its first season and into its second. I’d argue that one of the major problems with Voyager was that it was far too conservative to ever take any creative risks. Enterprise really came into its own when it dared to try things that hadn’t been done before. And Deep Space Nine spends a considerable portion of its first season trying these new things, familiarising itself with various toys and techniques.

Even in the relatively conventional stories ahead, you can see the writing crew devoting time and effort to figuring out what they want the show to look like. There’s an acknowledgement that it won’t be perfect right away, that it might stumble and it might reach some dead ends, but the experimentation is worth the effort. Vortex isn’t a dead-end so much as dipping a toe in the waters. It isn’t praise-worthy of itself, but for what it represents.

A little piece of home...

A little piece of home…

But enough of that. What about Vortex itself? It’s actually a pretty solid episode. This isn’t gold-standard Star Trek, but it’s well-constructed and the character dynamics are interesting. It’s a lot stronger than The Passenger and Move Along Home, but it’s nowhere near as good as the show would become. I feel a bit cheeky complaining about how “average” various episodes of this first season are.

Even the worst episodes of Deep Space Nine‘s first year can’t compare to the clunkers in the early part of The Next Generation, and are generally more interesting than the first-year adventures of Voyager or Enterprise. After watching Code of Honour or The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us or Angel One or The Neutral Zone, I would be delighted to find anything half as decent (albeit unspectacular) as Vortex.

Grabbing crime by the throat...

Grabbing crime by the throat…

Odo is the central character here. In a way, Odo fulfils the mandatory “outsider” archetype that Star Trek is so fond of, even as he takes it to the logical extreme. Spock and Data fulfilled the role on the two earlier shows, and Odo continues the tradition. He was never as iconic as either of that pair, though. That’s mostly because Deep Space Nine never quite resonated with the public as much as the classic Star Trek or The Next Generation. However, it’s also because Odo is a tougher character to relate to.

Data was an outsider who wanted to be human. He might as well have been introduced in Encounter at Farpoint whistling “If I Only Had a Heart” rather than “Pop Goes the Weasel”, but what are you gonna do about rights issues? It’s flattering to think that this super-intelligent, super-powerful being wants to be like us. Data considers humanity to be worthy of emulation and his ultimate goal – the perfection he strives for – is an innate part of the viewer. Brent Spiner’s performance helps, and the great scripts, but I think Data’s core appeal can be understood in those terms.

It doesn't scan...

It doesn’t scan…

Spock is an outsider seeking to balance his two halves. He’ll never be completely Vulcan, and The Motion Picture has the character acknowledge that he was wrong to try to purge all emotion so completely. Instead, Spock must reconcile his alien and human natures, and find a balance between the two. He talks a good game about logic and rationality, but Star Trek seems to argue that Spock’s humanity is a valid part of him, and one that must be developed and integrated. He is, as the 2009 reboot notes, “a child of two worlds.”

Odo is the third logical point on that spectrum, but he’s also the one which is probably less flattering to the audience. Spock and Data are both alien outsiders, but they seek to integrate. Data wants to integrate completely, and Spock eventually finds the right balance between “human” and “other.” Kirk’s humanising influence on his half-Vulcan first officer is pretty much endorsed by the show. In contrast Odo doesn’t really want to integrate or to fit in.

A hard cell...

A hard cell…

His rigidity is ironic given the fact that he’s a sentient liquid, but Odo feels like the opposite to Data’s desire to completely integrate with human kind. He fits in well among the ensemble of Deep Space Nine, which often feels like the Star Trek show populated by misfits. And Bashir, who would fit in anywhere else, but is a misfit here. It’s something that the show remains true to throughout its run, particularly in its sixth and seventh seasons, and it makes Odo an absolutely fascinating character.

He claims that he can’t approximate a more human face, but we never really see him try. One would image he might at least be able to add a few bumps to his nose to help him blend in better among the Bajorans on the station. But Odo prides himself on his position as an outsider. It allows him to do his job without fear of bias or corruption, making him completely impartial. As the opening scene notes, Odo is a skilled observer of humanoid behaviour (suspect Croden because “he looks away whenever we make eye contact”) and a skilled investigator.

By hook or by crook...

By hook or by crook…

And Odo hides a secret. He doesn’t want to fit in with the people on the station. He wants to go home. One of the weirdest lines in Emissary comes from Odo admitting that. It’s not that it’s untrue or unreasonable, it’s the fact that Odo actually shared that thought with a colleague which seems strange. Here, he keeps his interest in finding his people a secret from everybody. Croden has to intuit his Odo’s loneliness, something Odo would never admit.

“You know you could use some company, Changeling,” Croden argues when he asks Odo to care for his daughter. “You deny it, but we both know it’s true, or the stone would have meant nothing to you.” Odo’s final act of mercy to Croden and his daughter is delightfully ambiguous. Is Odo releasing Croden because he feels that the man deserves his freedom, or is he doing this so he can’t be guilted into taking the young girl into custody? It’s not every character who can make doing the right thing ambiguous, and Rene Auberjones is superb as Odo.

A deal-breaker...

A deal-breaker…

In fact, the whole of Vortex has a charming ambiguity to it. We do know that Croden is a killer. We never find out what he actually did on his home planet, despite his stories to Odo. His daughter seems to believe that he’s a good man, but it’s hard to believe he’d tell her the truth if he wasn’t. The episode wisely and shrewdly cultivates this murky sense of uncertainty, something mostly unique to Deep Space Nine. Vortex is hardly In the Pale Moonlight, but it’s shrewdly constructed.

Again, we get hints of a deeper relationship between Quark and Odo. Quark is still a crook here, staging a robbery to steal a stolen artefact. And yet he tries to protect Odo from the rampaging Ah-Kel. Rom suggests that Quark might be trying to protect his own hide. If Odo surrenders Croden, then Croden could implicate Quark. However, Quark confesses that this isn’t the case. “Odo would never give up his prisoner. He’ll just get himself killed.” While the episode never states it, one can infer Quark doesn’t want Odo to “get himself killed.”

Shady dealings...

Shady dealings…

As a side note, after some strange characterisation in The Nagus, Vortex introduces us to the version of Rom who will become a steady part of the show. He’s a bumbling idiot here, with none of the malice and bitterness that led him to attempt to assassinate Quark in the previous episode. It’s a dynamic that works a lot better, even if one wonders how exactly Quark dealt with the fact that his idiot brother tried to push him out of an airlock.

Vortex feels decidedly old-school in execution. One of the things I always liked about Deep Space Nine, and one of the reasons I suspect it has aged better than The Next Generation, is the fact that it has a very “old world” charm to it. It didn’t treat modern pop culture as a frame of reference, and it tended to hark back to more classic genres and sensibilities. The Nagus was The Godfatherin SPACE!!!, and the final few seasons turned into an epic science-fiction World War II saga.

Deal with it...

Deal with it…

The show also evoked classic western sensibilities in a way unseen since the original Star Trek. Sisko firing his phaser into the air in A Man Alone to disperse a lynch mob feels like something from a historical film… only with lasers and pyjamas. Here, Vortex plays into both the western genre and the film noir, two genres that were defunct long before the show aired. The plot itself is a giant homage to The Naked Spur, to the point where the staff recruited Sam Rolfe, the screenwriter of the 1953 film, to draft the teleplay.

Ah-Kel’s stand outside Odo’s office and his vow to avenge his brother feels like something from a classic revenge film. It seems like Deep Space Nine exists on the boundaries of the law. “I want to deal with the one who killed my twin,” he warns Sisko. The commander responds, “The law will deal with him.” There’s a sense of conflict, and a hint that things aren’t necessarily stable on this frontier town in space.

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror…

Noir also feeds into it. Croden is an ambiguous rogue, and Odo clearly isn’t impartial in dealing with him. There’s a sense, as Odo talks with Ah-Kel, that the Changeling perhaps feels that the man’s brother got what he deserved. “I am the one whose brother was killed, Commander,” Ah-Kel protests. Odo replies, “You have only yourself–“ Sisko cuts across him, but the sentiment is clear, and it’s strange to hear it coming from a member of the regular cast.

Director Winrich Kolbe, one of the more reliable directors to work on the franchise, and one whose sensibilities always gelled best with Deep Space Nine, clearly relishes the opportunity to direct a noir tale. There are lots of lovely shadowy atmospheric shots in Quark’s, and a lovely use of a mirror in the conversations between Odo and Croden. Kolbe’s work does a lot to cover the fact that not too much happens for the first twenty minutes of the episode.

Grey areas...

Grey areas…

There are other nice touches. Building off Move Along Home, we discover that apparently quite a few Gamma Quadrant aliens simply aren’t interested in dealing with Sisko. They head to Quark’s instead. This might arguably count as light foreshadowing of the Dominion arc, with the suggestion that these races are probably predisposed not to trust large multi-racial organisations, but it also does a lot to deflate the Federation’s occasional sense of self-importance.

“He didn’t seem to want to talk much to Sisko when he arrived,” Odo remarks, prompting Quark to offer a perfectly reasonable explanation. “Who would? All those Starfleet officers greeting him at the airlock. It would scare me too. The Federation could learn a few things from the Ferengi about hospitality.” Although he immediately recruits Croden into a criminal enterprise, there’s a sense that he is at least a little bit correct. The first season of Deep Space Nine does a lot to develop Ferengi culture as alternative (rather than inferior) to Federation cultural norms.

Talk about a Vortex manipulator...

Talk about a Vortex manipulator…

I do also like that what little we’ve seen of the Gamma Quadrant seems to be grey. Really grey. It creates the impression that it really is a pretty crap bit of space out there. It brings to mind the notion of survival in a harsh climate, like a new frontier. It also fits the show’s colour scheme. Given that The Next Generation was visiting worlds in primary colours, I like that Deep Space Nine visually distinguishes itself, even if grey isn’t the most exciting of colours. (Hm. Maybe that encourages the writers to stay away from the Gamma Quadrant as a source of generic “alien of the week” stories.)

Vortex isn’t a classic, but it’s not a bad piece of television. Like a lot of these mid- to late-season episodes, it’s a sign that the show is interested in playing with serialisation and developing long-term arcs. Even if it doesn’t really know what it’s going to do with them yet.

You might be interested in our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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