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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Wire (Review)

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

The Wire might just be the best episode of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In fact, it ranks with Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets as one of the best episodes of the show so far. Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe and showcasing the dramatic talents of both Siddig El Fadil and Andrew Robinson, The Wire is a powerhouse of dramatic writing – an intimate character study capable of provoking tensions and ambiguities on par with the season’s universe-altering installments.

Garak has only appeared a handful of times so far. Indeed, considering how important he would become to the series, it’s interesting how rare his early appearances are. However, The Wire is really the episode that pins Garak down and tells us everything that we could possibly need to know about Garak, without ever actually telling us everything we might want to know. It’s a careful distinction, and Wolfe’s script walks that line skilfully while Andrew Robinson’s performance is perfectly modulated.

Bashir's bedside manner...

Bashir’s bedside manner…

Garak is an absolutely fascinating recurring character, because we’ve never really seen any other character like him across the fifty years of the Star Trek franchise. Jeffrey Combs’ Shran from Star Trek: Enterprise probably comes closest – it’s not for nothing that Combs would reportedly have been recruited to that show’s main cast in a hypothetical fifth season – but Garak remains several orders of magnitude more complex.

The show never actually reveals the cause of Garak’s exile. The Wire offers several different plausible suggestions and back stories for the character, leaving it up to the viewer to determine the accuracy or credibility of each. In case the audience is still uncertain about Wolfe’s intent, he offers an insightful closing exchange. “What I want to know is of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren’t?” Bashir asks. “My dear Doctor, they’re all true,” Garak replies, in his enigmatic manner. “Even the lies?” Bashir inquires. “Especially the lies,” Garak answers.

Across the stars...

Across the stars…

In a way, it evokes the conclusion of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke. Most of the narrative offers an origin for the Joker, drawing from The Man in the Red Hood, published in 1951. However, at the climax, Moore throws a bit of a curve ball. “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another,” the Joker muses of his past. “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” The Killing Joke went on to be massively influential in the characterisation and portrayal of the Joker.

Some subsequent stories (Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughed and Alan Grant’s The Joker, for example) took the chemical-bath origin as fact. Others – such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – drew upon the ambiguity of the Joker’s recollections, hinting that the character didn’t really have a single definitive past. The Wire does something similar with Garak, offering us multiple choices of a possible past for the character, but each giving us some measure of insight into who Garak is and what he feels.

Who watches the watchers?

Who watches the watchers?

Does the story about murdering civilians offer a glimpse of a man uncomfortable with the things he had to do in the past? Does the story about taking pity on the orphans reflect Garak’s discomfort with the way that his own previously unquestioning faith in the Cardassian system has been eroded? Does the story of his attempted betrayal of Elim hint at a man truly uncomfortable with his own duplicitous nature? The stories each suggest something about Garak, leaving it up to the viewer to determine what faith they invest in any or all of the stories.

We’ve touched on this quite a bit already, but Deep Space Nine typically comes in for criticism as the most cynical of the Star Trek shows. However, The Wire is an interesting exploration of how often the series tempered that scepticism with the humanism we’d come to expect. On the surface, The Wire is a fairly bleak episode. It’s the story about a former spy who is dying as a result of a brain implant designed to help him withstand torture.

Tain and gain...

Tain and gain…

As Garak dies, he confesses to Bashir how every waking moment on the station has become his own personal hell. “Living on this station is torture for me, Doctor,” Garak admits. “The temperature is always too cold, the lights always too bright. Every Bajoran on the station looks at me with loathing and contempt. So one day I decided I couldn’t live with it any more, and I took the pain away.” He goes through an agonising withdrawal, which leads him to almost murder his closest friend in cold blood. That’s pretty dark subject matter, certainly much bleaker than anything you’d see on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager.

And yet, at the same time, this is balanced by Bashir’s humanism. The Wire is a show that is as much about Julian Bashir as it is about Elim Garak. It’s about their friendship and their trust, and Bashir’s capacity to do everything within his capacity to save the life of a man hasn’t necessarily earned that sort of compassion. “Has it ever occurred to you that I might be getting exactly what I deserve?” Garak asks at one point. Given that we’re all but certain that Garak is a torturer and a murderer, his position makes sense. And yet, despite that, Bashir refuses to let Garak suffer. “No one deserves this.”

There! Are! Three! Bottles!

There! Are! Three! Bottles!

Bashir has been something of a joke character up to this point in the show. He seems to exist as a mockery of the type of “perfect human” who inhabited Gene Roddenberry’s The Next Generation. He’s over-achieving, over-enthusiastic and a little self-centred. He doesn’t appreciate anything outside the Starfleet experience. This can occasionally be a little less than flattering – his desire to manufacture the perfect girl friend in Melora, for example, or his speech about frontier medicine in Emissary.

The rest of the crew seem to treat Bashir as something of an over-earnest boy scout, from O’Brien’s treatment of him in Armageddon Games through to Sisko’s stern rebuke of his Prime Directive question in Battle Lines. His attempts to present himself as the dashing young hero in the prologue to Dax served as a comedic interlude, as he was rapidly bettered by those he fought against. Bashir is the only character who seems to be on Deep Space Nine because he actively wants to be there, and the show’s first few seasons present him as hopelessly naive.

It's a plant!

It’s a plant!

And yet, The Wire suggests, this isn’t a bad thing. For all his innocence and naivety, Bashir can forgive Garak his past crimes. “Listen to me, Garak,” he advises his patient. “Right now I’m not concerned with what you did in the past. I’m simply not going to walk out of here and let you die.” Bashir’s optimism and humanism allow him to save Garak, contrasted with the cynical approach of Odo, who is more concerned with interrogating Garak while he still can.

Bashir’s basic decency – what Garak dismisses as his “smug Federation sympathy” – wins out. He might be overly earnest, but he’s genuine. He ventures into the heart of darkness to help his friend, crossing the Cardassian border and engaging with the retired head of the Obsidian Order to argue for Garak’s life. Even Enabran Tain, the sinister spy master, has some measure of admiration for the lengths Bashir will go to in order to save his friend. “Still, what you did was very brave. I’m impressed.”

He'll tell you when he's had enough...

He’ll tell you when he’s had enough…

For all that Deep Space Nine might express doubt and questions about the workings of the Federation, it does embrace the optimism at the heart of Star Trek. Bashir might occasionally be a little bit overzealous, but he’s a good guy. He’s a heroic figure, despite the fact that he’s a little too naive and a little too innocent. Deep Space Nine implies that Garak is interested in Bashir precisely because of the character’s unflappable faith in basic decency.

While The Wire sees Garak getting defensive and pushing Bashir away, it also suggests that he does genuinely like the good doctor. “Doctor, what a pleasant surprise,” a half-drunk Garak greets Bashir in Quark’s. “I apologise for my outburst at lunch, but I promise I’ll make it up to you. Please, join me. “ Despite Garak’s many layers and masks, it seems that his affection and respect for Bashir runs deep. Indeed, one could argue that his confessions are an attempt to drive Bashir away, so that his friend might let Garak die wallowing in his angst and self-pity.

Poking around...

Poking around…

There is a definite homoerotic subtext to all of this. Bashir’s interest in Garak’s suffering is initially driven by a sense of wounded pride. Bitterly, he remarks, “If he doesn’t want my help, that’s his prerogative.” (Complete with stabbing gesture for added subtext.) When Bashir confronts Garak about his shady dealings with Quark, there are hints of jealousy in their exchange. “Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing you can do for me,” Garak replies. “Oh, and Quark can, is that it?” Bashir counters, making it seem like a lovers’ spat.

Later, Quark summons Bashir to the bar to collect Garak, like asking a spouse to pick up a drunken partner. “I think it’s a little noisy in here,” Bashir suggests. “I prefer to drink somewhere quiet.” Garak picks up on the hint right away. “An excellent idea,” he replies. “We’ll go to my quarters.” Given that Garak has been trying to drown out his suffering in worldly pleasures, the subtext seems rather obvious.

Pained and simple Garak...

Pained and simple Garak…

Andrew Robinson originally made a conscious choice to play Garak as gay, even if he subsequently toned it down at the request of the writers and producers:

I had planned Garak not as homosexual or heterosexual but omnisexual, and the first episode I had with Bashir played that way gave people fits. So I had to remove that characteristic from him.

These aspects of the character are obvious in his debut – Past Prologue – but are toned down in his subsequent appearances. However, The Wire pushes them consciously to the fore.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

In discussing the original Star Trek, I’ve talked a bit about the existence of fan-fiction. After all, Star Trek is one of the franchises that pushed fan fiction into the mainstream, and helped invent the subgenre of “slash” fiction, pairing characters up to form various romantic couplings. The most famous (or infamous) is the original “Kirk/Spock” pairing, which has been discussed at length in various academic studies and other pieces of research.

While the spin-offs can’t claim such a significant role in the origin and evolution of fan fiction, there is still a rather heavy and active community. It’s no surprised that the pairing of Garak and Bashir is quite popular among those writing and publishing fiction on-line. Indeed, the German reference book Faszinierend! Star Trek und die Wissenschaften, the pairing of Garak and Bashir is somewhat comparable in popularity to the combination of Kirk and Spock.

Chipping in to help...

Chipping in to help…

It’s easy to see why. In many ways, The Wire seems written to invite this. The episode bares a remarkable resemblance to the fan fiction subgenre of “hurt/comfort”, a particular type of fan fiction defined quite well by Camille Bacon-Smith in Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth:

In hurt-comfort fiction, one of the heroes suffers while the other, or a character created for the purpose, comforts him. (In Blake’s 7 fan fiction the comfortee may be one of the female characters, but is more often one of the men.) The source of the suffering may in some instances be illness, but more often inflicted injury causes the pain.

In this instance, it is Garak who is suffering and Bashir who offers the comfort, complete with montage of Bashir playing concerned nurse to an ailing Garak. Indeed, The Wire seems structured – rather effectively – so that there’s more emphasis on Bashir caring for Garak than there is on his investigation into the mysterious implant.

Call the doctor...

Call the doctor…

There’s always an element of snobbery that comes up whenever fan fiction is discussed, so it’s worth remarking that while “hurt/comfort” is most popularly identified as a fan fiction subgenre, Elizabeth Woledge argues that it has a strong literary pedigree. In Intimatopia: Genre Intersections Between Slash and the Mainstream, she argues:

Hurt/comfort provides a plausible way for any author to depict increasing closeness between two men, because when the hero is hurt, he is at his most vulnerable. The element of hurt permits him to share intimacies that would otherwise be kept private. Although hurt/comfort has only been labelled as an explicit genre within fannish literatures, it is yet another structure that connects amateur and professional texts. Its pervasiveness clearly demonstrates how similar concerns are being explored across literary fields that have traditionally been considered as vastly different.

And using this plot structure is a great way to develop the characters and to explore their relationships. Deep Space Nine has already defined itself as a show more concerned with characters and their relationships than its sibling shows, and The Wire is arguably an expression of that.

Stars in their eyes...

Stars in their eyes…

The Wire also offers some nice world-building, albeit clearly secondary to the main character arcs of the episode. For example, it introduces us to the concept of the Obsidian Order, the secret Cardassian police designed to further cement comparisons between the Cardassian Union and Germany, as Amy Carney notes in Nazis, Cardassians and Other Villains in the Final Frontier:

The writers of Deep Space Nine had the Gestapo in mind when they created the Obsidian Order. However, they chose to show much less about its inner workings than historians know about the Gestapo. Viewers do not see whether the Order relies on informants, collaborators, or spies for information or if it accumulates data through technological means. Instead, characters assert that the Order has the ability to find out anything.

Rather wonderfully, the show builds up the Obsidian Order as a massive nebulous entity capable of almost anything… and then savagely tears it down. The Obsidian Order pops up quite a bit during the third season of Deep Space Nine, and it is consistently bettered by our heroes before being soundly embarrassed by the Dominion and then dismantled quite ruthlessly.

Good talk.

Good talk.

The implication is quite obvious. The Obsidian Order is not everything that it is cracked up to be. While it has teeth, it’s nowhere near the omniscient shadowy body that Cardassians seem to fear. Instead, the show suggests that the Order’s power is rooted in the minds of its citizens, the Cardassians who grow up fearing the Order and what it is capable of. The Order isn’t able to outwit its opponents, and it isn’t even able to protect itself from collapse, but it has power due to its hold on the Cardassian soul.

Like the Cardassian State itself, the Obsidian Order can continue to do whatever it wishes because its people have been raised to believe in it. It’s drummed into their minds again and again and again. “The repetitive epic is the most elegant form of Cardassian literature,” Garak boasts to Bashir, “and The Never-Ending Sacrifice is it’s greatest achievement.” Cardassian art is built on reinforcing the idea of giving wholly and selflessly and unquestioningly to the state – “the same story over and over again.” As Bashir notes, “All of his characters lead selfless lives of duty to the state, grow old and die. Then the next generation comes along and does it all over again.”



History repeats, which is the subtext of many of Deep Space Nine‘s Cardassian-centric episodes, the idea that those who do not question history are doomed to repeat it. The Cardassians possess absolute and unfaltering loyalty to the state, justifying countless atrocities. In light of that, perhaps the show’s scepticism about authority is well-earned. It’s a small price to pay. After all, accepting the moral authority of the state unquestioningly never ends well.

Arguably, that’s Garak’s character arc in a nutshell. He expands on it in The Way of the Warrior, but it seems that being away from his people has corrupted him, somewhat. After one outburst, Bashir offers, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I thought you enjoyed my company.” Garak confesses, “I did. And that’s the worst part.” Indeed, The Wire adds a great deal of retroactive complexity to Profit and Loss, as it seems that Garak is wrestling with the unwavering loyalty he was trained to feel and doubts beginning to creep in at the edges.

He's feeling sew-sew today...

He’s feeling sew-sew today…

Interestingly, The Wire continues to suggest that Odo might be a bit of a fascist. Following his arguments in favour of reintroducing Cardassian law in The Maquis, here he seems genuinely awed by the reputed effectiveness of the Obsidian Order. “Whether you agree with their goals or not, you can’t help but admire their efficiency.” Following on from a confession about routinely tapping Quark’s calls – “is that legal?” … “it’s in the best interests of station security” – it suggests that Odo probably isn’t too concerned about what gets trampled in his pursuit of law and order.

Even if this wasn’t intended to foreshadow The Search, it works well. Indeed, The Wire is full of nice little random moments of foreshadowing, even if these weren’t necessarily planned at the time. Garak’s reference to how he and Elim were known as “the Sons of Tain” hints at a dark family secret. At the end, he loans Bashir a novel which “takes place in the future during a time when Cardassia and the Klingon Empire are at war.” So it’s set after The Way of the Warrior, right?

Garak's dealing with the end of the Occupation quite poorly...

Garak’s dealing with the end of the Occupation quite poorly…

Still, aside from all of this, The Wire really works as a wonderful character study of two most unlikely friends. A wonderfully tight script and two powerful central performances help the episode stand out as one of the finest hours of Deep Space Nine ever produced.

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

2 Responses

  1. Garak’s comment about the repetitive epic is more important than it might seem at first. His three backstories in this episode are essentially a repetitive epic-the same story told in a different way. Nice thematic foreshadowing by Robert Hewitt Wolfe.

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