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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Necessary Evil (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.

Commence Station Security log. Stardate 47282.5. At the request of Commander Sisko, I will hereafter be recording a daily log of law enforcement affairs. The reason for this exercise is beyond my comprehension, except perhaps that humans have a compulsion to keep records and lists and files. So many, in fact, that they have to invent new ways to store them microscopically, otherwise their records would overrun all known civilisation. My own very adequate memory not being good enough for Starfleet, I am pleased to put my voice to this official record of this day. Everything’s under control. End log.

Necessary Evil continues to deliver on the promise of “things you can’t do anywhere but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that Michael Piller made at the start of the show’s second season. It’s a genuinely ambitious piece of Star Trek, all the stronger for the fact that it’s idea that could go horribly and spectacularly wrong. Movies like Blade Runner demonstrated that it is possible to blend the aesthetics of science-fiction and film noir, but it seems like a mix that would sit rather uncomfortably in the bright utopian future of Star Trek.

However, Deep Space Nine was never afraid to experiment with its format. This wasn’t always successful, but it did give the show a unique flavour. And when it did work, as it does here, it offered something new and exciting to the franchise’s playbook.

Time for a Changeling...

Time for a Changeling…

Like a lot of the stronger episodes of the first two seasons of Deep Space Nine, Necessary Evil comes from the pen of Peter Allan Fields. Fields was one of the early contributors to Deep Space Nine – along with Ira Steven Behr – who seem to make a conscious effort to pitch his story specifically to the show. Progress and Duet were other stories which couldn’t have worked on any of the other Star Trek shows. Necessary Evil also takes advantage of the unique set-up and dynamic on the show.

For one thing, Necessary Evil is an episode that leans quite heavily on a collective past. That’s not to suggest that the crew of the Enterprise didn’t have pasts. Kirk was always running into old friends or one-time squeezes. Even Spock occasionally met a colleague from long ago. However, these were introduced as the plot needed them, with a sense that each character’s past was a blank canvas from which a suitable amount of angst could be generated.

Shifting friendships...

Shifting friendships…

It’s the same on The Next Generation. In Pegasus, for example, we discover that Riker was on board the USS Pegasus during a mutiny. He made a choice which he agonises over even years later. This was never hinted at or suggested before the episode. In Identity Crisis, we discover that Geordi was on an away team one time that conveniently generates the necessary hook for the episode. These characters had pasts, but pasts which only existed as nebulous and hazy constructs subject to change at the whim of the writer.

These shows were all about where the characters were going next week, and the show was only really concerned with the past as it possibly contextualised whatever was happening this week. Deep Space Nine takes a somewhat broader approach. The past exists as something which defines our characters, more than it powers the plot of the week. It’s something which informs everything they do, even when it’s not explicit.

A gripping yarn...

A gripping yarn…

At the end, when Odo asks why Kira never told him the truth, she argues that she was worried that it would change the dynamic of their relationship. “What you think of me matters a lot. I was afraid…” She’s not worried about the consequences of her actions, or what it might mean for her career. Instead, she’s more concerned that it will change the dynamic that exists between herself and Odo, that it will affect how he perceives her as a person. That it might change the idea of Kira’s character he has constructed in his head.

At one point, in his private eye monologue security officer’s log, Odo concedes, “The assault on Quark reopens a five year old murder case that I’ve never, not for a moment, closed.” The past haunts Deep Space Nine. It is a show unfolding in the wake of a planetary catastrophe, a bitter and festering wound. As the flashback scenes indicate, the crew are effectively living in what was a charnel house. The lights might be turned up, the fences might be removed, and Quark’s bar might not be flying the flag of the Cardassian Union, but it’s the same place.

Looking down on the solids...

Looking down on the solids…

The architecture of the station still hides shadows of the past. It’s interesting that Odo opens the episode by starting his hard-boiled log by noting how meticulously humans like to keep records. “So many, in fact, that they have to invent new ways to store them microscopically, otherwise their records would overrun all known civilisation.” We’ve never really thought too much about the records that serve as convenient exposition at the start and end (and sometimes in the middle) of adventures, but they do provide an impartial and removed record of the events.

The Occupation is, rather pointedly, not recorded. Despite the claims by Marritza in Duet that he was an exceptional filing clerk, and by Garak in Cardassians that the Cardassians brought record-keeping to Bajor, the show has repeatedly stressed that the majority of records of the Occupation were razed by the Cardassians during their departure. So much of the past is hazy and uncertain, ill-defined. This was what provoking Marritza’s scheme in Duet.

Flying the Union flag...

Flying the Union flag…

Instead, the Occupation is something of a folk memory, a collective story that is told by the survivors. It doesn’t live as objective fact, but as a bunch of remembrances created by those who lived through it. As Odo boasts, the record is preserved in his own “very adequate memory.” However, that memory isn’t perfect. It isn’t as objective as he might like to think that it is. Much is made in Necessary Evil of how objective Odo is; how, as an outsider, Odo is unbiased and uncompromised.

That is, inevitably, revealed as a lie. “Nobody ever had to teach me the justice trick,” he remarks in his log, and he shows ever sign of being a dogged investigator. Even Dukat is impressed by his work. However, almost as soon as he gets involved he loses that objectivity. One can’t be both entirely inside and outside the system at the same time, no matter how much of a shape-changer the might be. He justifies that compromise to himself by arguing that she’s not guilty of the crime he’s investigating, but he still picks a side. As she warns him, “Everybody has to choose sides, Constable.”

His reach exceeds his... oh wait, not quite...

His reach exceeds his… oh wait, not quite…

However, in the present, he readily and admittedly compromises himself even further. Kira confesses that she was afraid to admit her guilt because she worried how Odo’s unflinching sense of justice would react to her admission. She was concerned that her guilt would colour their friendship. Given that Odo has apparently never – “not for one second” – closed the case, you can understand why she might feel that way.

When she wonders whether this ends their friendship, Odo concedes, “Maybe it doesn’t have to.” He’s making the same choice he made on Terok Nor all those years ago. He’s letting Kira off the hook for a serious crime. Except, this time, he can’t dismiss it so readily. He can’t rationalise that she isn’t guilt of the crime he’s investigating. However, it’s immediately clear that Odo is so emotionally invested in Kira (at least as much as she is in him) that he can’t hold her to account objectively.

Keeping his ears open...

Keeping his ears open…

If Odo of all people – the character who claims a “racial memory” of justice – can’t maintain a healthy distance from the Occupation, then what chance does anybody else have? There’s a reason that Dwight Eisenhower famously insisted that photographers should be brought in to record the horror of the concentration camps liberated by Allied forces. By maintaining such a concrete and incontrovertible record, it becomes harder to distort or to skew the memory of that sort of trauma.

Otherwise, things get forgotten. Time marches on, and the version of events shifts gradually, the truth lost to the ages. In the episode’s teaser, Pallra tries to convince Quark of her innocence. “I didn’t kill him, you know,” she assures Quark. “A lot of people believed it was me. That shape-shifter thought so. But he was wrong.” Quark doesn’t offer any personal opinion one way or the other. He simply replies, “It was a long time ago.” It’s in the past, lost to the cloudy mists of history.

It's hard to be on the fence about it...

It’s hard to be on the fence about it…

It’s telling, then, that the plot device which serves to kick off this whole storyline is a piece of paper. It’s incontrovertible evidence. It’s a record. It’s written history. “Just a piece of paper?” Quark asks as he examines the contents of the box, as if surprised that it could be worth so much. It turns out to be worth quite a lot, a price measured in lives. The list names a bunch of collaborators who sold their planet out to the Cardassians.

It’s interesting that Kira was sent up to the station to retrieve the list, when the Resistance already suspected at least Ches’so of working with the enemy. He wasn’t to be executed summarily. (Indeed, without the list slipping into the hands of the Resistance, he seems to have lived a relatively longer life.) For that matter, Kira seems almost offended at the suggestion she was sent to the station to “execute” Vattrik for his involvement with the Cardassians. “No,” she assures Odo. “I was here to find the list. The names of the Bajorans who were selling us out.”

A Major terrorist...

A Major terrorist…

So the paper becomes more than just a list. As a record, it becomes proof. It’s due process. Kira suggests that the Resistance at least needed proof before acting on suspicions of collaboration. It’s certainly commendable, and suggests that the Bajoran Resistance operated on higher standards of proof than most “freedom fighters” waging war against oppressors. The written record is what stops the freedom fighters from becoming murderers. It’s important. History needs to be witnessed and documented and observed in order to allow closure.

In that respect, then, Necessary Evil becomes a companion piece to Duet. Duet was also about the necessity of forcing an oppressor to confront their own history. It was implied that the Cardassians’ selective memory – their subjective account of the Occupation – was something toxic and damaging at the heart of their culture. Unless we learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. And learning involves the painful process of documenting the past and closing the loose threads.

Most of the primary cast have thought about this at one time or another...

Most of the primary cast have thought about this at one time or another…

These themes are perfectly suited to film noir, and Necessary Evil relentlessly mines that particular style of cinema. Fields’ teleplay is constructed with so many archetypal elements. Pallra, with her beautiful dresses and her blonde hair, evokes the femme fatale. There’s the sense that Odo is being manoeuvred and manipulated by forces more powerful than he is. The episode even opens in the middle of  a thunder storm.

Director James L. Conway also adds a lot of atmosphere to the episode, desaturating the Terok Nor scenes to give the flashback sequences an almost haunted quality. The structure of the sets is the same, but things are somehow uncertain and unfamiliar. It’s a nice touch, and he even favours the effective close-ups and low angles one associates with the classic film noir genre. It’s really very hard to imagine “Star Trek as film noir” working, and it’s to the credit of Conway that the visual language works at all.

Rom can be a bit of a tool...

Rom can be a bit of a tool…

Using the film noir iconography is effective for several reasons. Most obviously, it’s just a fun way of playing with the format. At this point, Star Trek had been on the air for six consecutive years since The Next Generation brought the franchise back to life on television. as such, and with two shows running concurrently, there’s a fear that it might get “samey.” Indeed, one of the biggest problems with Star Trek: Voyager and the early years of Star Trek: Enterprise was the sense that the two shows were really just doing the same thing we’d just watched done better for several years on The Next Generation. Doing something novel with Star Trek is fun.

However, it also plays into the themes of the show. Evoking film noir can’t help but bring to mind the thirties and the forties, the middle decades of the 20th century, with the sense of lurking and infectious evil. It’s an effective image, as a lot of Deep Space Nine harks back to that era. The Bajoran Occupation is generally described to the audiences in terms which evoke the Holocaust. The epic conflict between good-and-evil at the climax of the series seems to call to mind the Second World War. This is in marked contrast to the decidedly Cold War tensions of the Federation’s conflicts with the Klingons and Romulans on Star Trek and The Next Generation.

He looks like Dukat that got Dukream...

He looks like Dukat that got Dukream…

Film noir is part of the visual language of that piece of history. It calls to mind an earlier uncertain time when it seemed the world on the very cusp of collapse. The original Star Trek was very firmly rooted in the Second World War. Not for nothing did a disruption to the Second World War seem to destroy reality itself in The City on the Edge of Forever. However, Star Trek and The Next Generation were about striving forward – towards the idealised American future of the sixties and beyond. Deep Space Nine seems to take a less linear approach, instead meditating on the American past as much as the promised future.

In a way, I think that’s why the show has aged so well. While The Next Generation boldly heralded a television science-fiction craze in the nineties, Deep Space Nine took its cues from older story-telling models. Deep Space Nine is really a collection of genres that were well defunct long before the series was produced. It was every bit as much a western as the original Star Trek, despite the fact that the glory days of that genre were long past. Eventually, it morphed into a war epic. The show even took cues from vintage films. The Nagus was The Godfather. The Homecoming was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Later this year, we’ll get Casablanca.

Prime suspect...

Prime suspect…

Then there’s the fact that Deep Space Nine just lends itself to this sort of storytelling. None of the other Star Trek ensembles feature quite so many morally ambiguous characters, or presents such a cynical view of the universe. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Deep Space Nine eschewed Roddenberry’s optimism, but I do think that it contrasted that optimism effectively against a rather cynical universe. It is – to quote a later episode from this season – easy to be a saint in paradise, but nobody live in paradise.

While Necessary Evil spares us gratuitous exposure to the horrors of the Cardassian Occupation, with most of the brutality implied through dialogue rather than shown on screen, there is a sense that Terok Nor was a fundamentally corrupt and broken world. When Odo discovers that Quark is covering for Kira, and interfering with an investigation into a murder on the station, one might expect there to be severe consequences.

Odo's never bent out of shape...

Odo’s never bent out of shape…

“I wonder how Gul Dukat will react when I tell him about that,” Odo remarks. Quark muses, “I’m sure it’ll cost me a case of Cardassian ale.” Dukat clarifies, “Two cases at the very least.” It’s still a bargain price for a man’s life, and it illustrates just how systemic corruption on Terok Nor is that Dukat doesn’t seem too bothered about lies and misdirection clouding up an investigation he actually wants to solve.

There are also a few nice hints that Bajor still isn’t quite comfortable, even a year following the departure of the Cardassians. “Say what you will about the Cardassians, at least they could keep the power on,” Pallra comments at the start of the episode. We’re informed that her power has been cut off because she can’t pay her bills. It appears that, despite the Federation’s presence, Bajor hasn’t quite adopted a socialist model, and not everybody on the planet is being taken care of.

Worth the paper it's printed on...

Worth the paper it’s printed on…

The speed at which Kira is able to identify Ches’so through her former Resistance contacts suggests that old wounds are still open and that the old networks haven’t begun to dissolve. The fact that Pallra is blackmailing the people on the list of contacts implies that Bajor is hardly running any “truth and reconciliation” committees, and that those who worked with the Cardassians still have a lot to fear from being “outed” or “exposed.”

Necessary Evil also works quite well as a mystery. Like Duet, Fields realises that he has a pretty compelling hook to reel the audience in, and knows when to thicken the plot. It evolves in a surprisingly plausible and believable manner. One of the strengths of Necessary Evil is the fact that it doesn’t wimp out at the conclusion. Pallra exists as an obvious scapegoat, but revealing her as the murderer would have been anti-climactic.

Oh, brother...

Oh, brother…

Kira makes a much more convincing murderer, not least of which because it makes a lot more sense. As Odo notes, there’s no real motive for Pallra to kill her husband and it doesn’t fit with the materialistic character we come to know over the course of the episode. Of course, it would be convenient if she were revealed as the killer. She’s not a regular character; we’ll never see her again. Kira, on the other hand, is a regular. And that’s how the mystery catches us off guard.

We expect that Kira – despite the fact she might as well be wearing a sign reading “I did it” – to be innocent because she has to come back next week. We assume that because she’s a regular character, there are ways that the show will refuse to compromise her. The fact that Necessary Evil follows through on its set-up elevates it from an impressive episode to a genuine classic. There’s never a sense that the story has to be compromised in order to make sure the characters are not impugned, something which was a problem on Voyager and Enterprise.

A Quark of fate...

A Quark of fate…

We also get some nice foreshadowing about Odo’s race here. In his final log, he wonders whether his thirst for justice is a racial memory. He observes he never had to be taught about justice. “That’s something I’ve always known. A racial memory from my species, I guess. It’s really the only clue I have to what kind of people they are.” Apparently the idea that Odo’s people would be the Founders of the Dominion was only agreed between the second and third season, but both Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr admit to nursing the idea for some time before pitching it.

Still, this is likely just a nice indication that the show knew roughly where it wanted to go, rather than having a clearly-plotted course in mind. It’s a nice sign of how the show was beginning to gel in its second season which was – for better or worse – a lot more committed to big and bold ideas than the first year of the show. It didn’t always pay off, and the season has more than its fair share of duds, but it’s an approach which I respect. Not least because it produced episodes like this.

I'm desperately trying to think of a ROM/"Random Access Memory" line...

I’m desperately trying to think of a ROM/”Random Access Memory” line…

We also get the first inkling that there might be more to Rom than meets the eye. Rom was a character who evolved quite a bit over the show’s first season. He was always portrayed as a bit dopey, bullied by his older brother. However, he had a bloodthirsty streak in early appearances which was eventually downplayed. Here, however, the show hints that Rom might have some impressive technical abilities, despite his dopeyness. This thread would eventually pay off down the line.

(It’s also worth noting that Necessary Evil seems to pretend that Melora never happened. Despite Bashir’s suggestion that Cardassian architecture was incompatible with Federation anti-gravity technology, he still calls for an anti-gravity stretcher for Quark. Continuity is a fickle mistress, but it seems an odd inconsistency to occur so close to Melora. But it would appear that the show is already trying to brush off the stinker that was Melora.)

Shady dealings...

Shady dealings…

Necessary Evil is a delightful piece of Deep Space Nine, an episode which plays perfectly to the show’s strengths. It’s an effective bit of world-building, but it’s also a deep character study, exploring how our leads see the world – and the differences between the lives of these characters and most Star Trek regulars. It’s a gem.

Nobody ever had to teach me the justice trick. That’s something I’ve always known. A racial memory from my species, I guess. It’s really the only clue I have to what kind of people they are. Are these kinds of thoughts appropriate for a Starfleet log? I don’t care. There’s no room in justice for loyalty or friendship or love. Justice, as the humans like to say, is blind. I used to believe that. I’m not sure I can anymore.

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

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