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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Second Skin (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Second Skin continues the identity and reality themes running through the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Search revealed that the Dominion is led by shape-changing aliens who can impersonate anybody, after our heroes spend an episode in a virtual reality. House of Quark stemmed from lies Quark told about himself, only to discover that Klingon culture is not what it claims to be. Equilibrium revealed that Dax held secrets even from herself, having a whole other life. Second Skin confronts Kira with the idea that she may be everything she hates.

The theme will continue in the episodes ahead. The Abandoned is a rather cynical meditation on the nature-against-nurture debate. Civil Defense involves the Deep Space Nine crew discovering that the station itself is not as safe as they like to think. Meridian involves a subplot about Kira’s right to control her own body. Defiant is built around a crisis of identity for a doppelganger. Past Tense features Sisko stepping into the identity of a historical figure. And so it continues. Things are not what they appear to be; the truths we take for granted are not true.

Rewatching this first block of Deep Space Nine‘s third season, it’s amazing how cynical the show could be.

Face of the enemy...

Face of the enemy…

Second Skin has a pretty compelling story hook. What if you weren’t who you thought you were? What if you woke up one morning to find yourself living in an alien body, surrounded by people trying desperately to convince you that everything you remembered up to this point was a lie? What if you discovered that you were, all along, the very thing that you had spent your life hating and fighting against?

It’s an existential nightmare, and one of those great examples of using science-fiction to literalise a pretty potent metaphor. In this case, Kira undergoes all sorts of identity crises. Not only is she threatened with the revelation that she might not be who she thinks that she is, she faces the idea that she might not even be the same race – she might not belong to the same ideology, culture or society as she believed that she did.

Re-sculpting her self-image?

Re-sculpting her self-image?

In many respects, Deep Space Nine is grounded in the aftermath of the Cold War. Many of the show’s themes reflect insecurities and uncertainties at play during the nineties. Second Skin manages to hit almost perfectly on a number of these big questions. Most obviously, the nineties was an era where it first seemed like something as complex and convincing as Kira’s transformation could occur.

Sure, Kirk might have worn surgical prosthetics to pass as Romulan in The Enterprise Incident, but it was hard to imagine that any surgery could exist that could permanently and convincingly transform him. He passed undercover for a number of hours, but the transformation was more like wearing a mask than a full-scale body alteration. Of course, in the nineties, it was a lot easier to believe that such transformations could take place.

Over her dead body...

Over her dead body…

As Kathy Davis noted in Reshaping the Female Body and later in Surgical Passing, cosmetic surgery to conceal or remove certain ethnic characteristics was becoming more and more frequent in the eighties and nineties. In fact, Davis argued that there was a more profound subtext to the explosion of plastic surgery at that time. “Cosmetic surgery is not about beauty,” she contended in Reshaping the Female Body, “but about identity.”

In fact, Davis’ findings on ethnic plastic surgery while researching Reshaping the Female Body intrigued her enough to return to the subject in Surgical Passing. The notion of using surgical procedures in this manner is understandably controversial, even decades later. This became a particularly heated topic in the nineties with the progressive lightening of Michael Jackson’s skin and the increasing popularity of East Asian blepharoplasty. Kira’s transformation is very clearly an ethnic one. She transforms from a Bajoran, a victim of systemic oppression, to a Cardassian, the people responsible for that oppression.

Shady forces at work...

Shady forces at work…

In a way, this reflects the nineties’ increasingly high-profile struggles with ethnic and cultural identity. As Michael Gambone notes in Small Wars: Low-Intensity Threats and the American Response since Vietnam, ethnicity was one of the primary causes of international conflict in the nineties:

There were many sources of this new world disorder. Primary among them was ethnicity. Samuel Huntington argued that in periods of drastic change and uncertainty, civilisations gravitate towards more fundamental sources of identity: language, history, customs, and local institutions. Huntington believed that cultural characteristics were “less mutable and hence less easily compromised than political and economic ones.” The penchant for ethnic identity was also an assertion of self-determination after the demand for assimilation or conformity was removed.

As such, this fixation on ethnic identity was a a result of the end of the Cold War. Without two major world powers to balance international politics, more local and more fragmented issues were able to push themselves to the fore.

Identity crisis...

Identity crisis…

So Kira spends much of Second Skin trying to make piece with the fact that she might be a Cardassian. She might be everything that she claims to hate. More than that, though, Kira gets a chance to continue the development that began with Duet. She gets to see what life is like from the other side. In Duet, a confrontation with a war survivor helped Kira to realise that not all Cardassians were monsters. Here, Kira gets to live inside a Cardassian household. She gets to see the situation from the other side – Iliana Ghemor’s patriotism and optimism, her own desire to make the world a better a place, even in a limited manner.

Interestingly, Second Skin begins something of a theme for Kira as a character. Over the course of Deep Space Nine, Kira picks up her own very diverse surrogate family. Her parents are dead before the show begins. She has two brothers who are never mentioned in the present tense. She has lived a harsh and lonely life. And yet, despite that, she winds up building this strange family around herself. Ghemor becomes something of an adoptive father to Kira. In the fourth and fifth seasons, Kira becomes surrogate mother to the O’Brien’s second child. Later, she finds true love when she starts dating outside boring Bajoran men.

Shattered mirror...

Shattered mirror…

There’s something strangely charming about all that – as if Kira has had the chance to experience a more diverse lifestyle than might otherwise have been possible. Her time on the show has broadened the character’s horizons and given her opportunities of which she never could have dreamed while waging a guerrilla war against the Cardassians. Kira has already come a long way from the bitter and angry young woman we met in Emissary; however, she still has further to go. Second Skin is a vital part of that, literally forcing Kira into another person’s shoes. And, well, skin.

Of course, Second Skin is decidedly more complex than that. It also invites the viewer to contemplate questions of identity and reality. It is by no means alone in this. Quite a lot of nineties Star Trek is built around these sorts of identity crisis. Brannon Braga has penned scripts like Projections and Frame of Mind exploring these ideas, but Deep Space Nine also filmed Whispers in its second season. (In fact, Wolfe originally pitched Second Skin as an “O’Brien must suffer” episode, before discovering Kira was a better fit.)

Taking a window of opportunity...

Taking a window of opportunity…

As The Deep Space Nine Companion notes, this fascination with identity and memory is not itself original. By the mid-nineties, it was almost quaint:

The concept of placing memories into someone’s head is a classic science fiction theme, admits Wolfe, who cites the film Blade Runner and literary works We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and Nimbus.

It is worth noting just how heavily that list is dominated by Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner is an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick wrote We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Nimbus was a 1993 novel from Alexander Jablokov, who has been quite frequently compared to Dick.

The Ent(ek) justifies the means...

The Ent(ek) justifies the means…

Philip K. Dick passed away in 1982 before the release of Blade Runner. However, his work became hugely popular in the late eighties and nineties. It’s interesting to speculate why Dick’s themes about identity and reality suddenly resonated, decades after the stories were originally written:

At a time when most 20th-century science fiction writers seem hopelessly dated, Dick gives us a vision of the future that captures the feel of our time. He didn’t really care about robots or space travel, though they sometimes turn up in his stories. He wrote about ordinary Joes caught in a web of corporate domination and ubiquitous electronic media, of memory implants and mood dispensers and counterfeit worlds. This strikes a nerve. “People cannot put their finger anymore on what is real and what is not real,” observes Paul Verhoeven, the one-time Dutch mathematician who directed Total Recall. “What we find in Dick is an absence of truth and an ambiguous interpretation of reality. Dreams that turn out to be reality, reality that turns out to be a dream. This can only sell when people recognize it, and they can only recognize it when they see it in their own lives.”

Like the babbling psychics who predict future crimes in Minority Report, Dick was a precog. Lurking within his amphetamine-fueled fictions are truths that have only to be found and decoded. In a 1978 essay he wrote: “We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives. I distrust their power. It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”

Second Skin, much like Whispers before it, seems to reflect this same anxiety. It’s a variant of the paranoia and uncertainty that made The X-Files such a pop culture juggernaut around the same time – a sense that the world might not be exactly how we perceive it to be; and that we may not be how we perceive ourselves to be.

The surveillance devices must really bug him...

The surveillance devices must really bug him…

Speaking on the DVD release, writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe noted that the ending which made it screen was radically different from the ending he originally pitched:

In my original version of the story, Bashir could not conclusively tell her if she was Bajoran or Cardassian in the end, which I always liked better. At the end, that gives Kira a choice and she realises that it doesn’t matter. She’s been Kira Nerys. She might be the real Kira Nerys, she might be a replacement, but she’s the real Kira now and it doesn’t really matter. Your identity is who you are. It doesn’t matter how you get there. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or a lie. If you live it long enough, it’s true.

The finished version of Second Skin backs away from this ambiguity with dead certainty. The episode goes out of its way to remove any trace of doubt about Kira’s identity.

A tailor-made solution...

A tailor-made solution…

“According to Doctor Bashir, my genetic structure is entirely Bajoran,” she states in the final scene. “The alterations were surgical.” Even the Bajoran who recognised her at the camp is accounted for. “We suspect he was a Cardassian agent. He’s probably the one who changed the Detention Centre records in the first place.” There’s really very little room left for equivocation.

The only potential ambiguity is raised in an early scene with Entek, where the character is able to discuss with Kira a memory that she never shared with anybody. Kira wonders how he could know such a thing. Given how the episode turns out, the audience would be forgiven for wondering the same thing. “I know about it because we placed that story in your memories, Iliana,” Entek boasts. “Just like we gave you every other memory you have. What we couldn’t extract from the real Kira, we got from other prisoners or just invented ourselves.”

Kira's not feeling herself today...

Kira’s not feeling herself today…

Even then, this isn’t really a plot hole. Entek could have implanted this memory in Kira’s head after abducting her in this very episode, hoping to create a seed of doubt about her identity. According to Rene Echevarria in Cinefantastique, the episode was pretty much shot from Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s first draft of the script. There is a sense that Kira’s identity crisis could have have been tightened or toned up a bit.

Still, even the possibility that Kira could really by Iliana Ghemor raises all manner of provocative philosophical questions about the nature of a person’s identity and continuity of memory. What makes a person who they are? The memories they carry? The skin they wear? Their strands of DNA? These are very potent existential questions, and Second Skin raises a whole host of these ideas, even if the script doesn’t quite follow through.

Garak is all sewn up...

Garak is all sewn up…

In fact, Second Skin seems to be built around philosopher John Locke’s ideas about identity. Discussing What Are Little Girls Made of? in his essay Who am I? Personal Identity in the Original Star Trek, Lyle Zynda points out that Star Trek is replete with stories about strange vessels storing the essence of a person:

Locke argues that the continued existence of a person does not essentially involve the continuance of any entity or object, such as a body, brain or non-physical soul. Instead, a kind of pattern is transmitted – in particular, the patterns that encode memories – and this process (the transmission of memories) is what constitutes the continuance of a person. In short, according to Locke, a person is simply a series of psychological stages in which later stages remember what happened to the earlier ones. Now, since patterns are abstract in nature, memories can be transferred – eg, between two bodies, from a physical body to a non-physical soul after death or even between two souls. Thus, Locke’s theory implies that a single person could exist in different bodies (or souls) at different stages of its existence.

In this case, it’s interesting to wonder if the act of transferring Kira’s memories and experiences to Iliana – grafting them on to her along with the skin – essentially erased Iliana as a person. Does Iliana – where ever she may be – still actually exist in a meaningful way? Or does she have as valid a claim to the identity of Kira Nerys as the character we know and love?

Grave existential crisis...

Grave existential crisis…

Second Skin is a wonderful piece of Star Trek, and a continuation of a strong string of episodes – even if the cynicism of the third season seems to be approaching critical mass. Indeed, it’s probably for the best that the episode ends with an affirmation of a universal truth that Kira takes for granted. The show has been undermining all sorts of assumptions and beliefs all season – it’s quite exhausting watching Dax learn that Trill culture is a lie, or Odo discover his people are fascists, or even the audience confronted with the hypocrisy of Klingon culture.

It’s nice to have an unambiguously happy ending for a major character, even if the alternative would not have necessarily been as bleak or depressing as those around it. After all “you are who you are, even if you weren’t always” is a pretty positive life-affirming message for the show, and much more heart-warming than any of the existential quandaries facing other characters this season. Still, it’s easy to see why the production team veered away from the ambiguity in Wolfe’s original pitch.

Spare the rod, spoil the operative...

Spare the rod, spoil the operative…

To be fair, the third season did eventually do something similar. Visionary ends with a main character replaced by a version of themselves who is not really themselves. Naturally, as is the way with such existential issues, O’Brien is the focal point of the story. The episode ends with O’Brien replaced by a doppelganger from an alternate timeline. He only has a few additional memories and experiences, and the episode ends on the same note originally suggested by Wolfe here – O’Brien is O’Brien, even if he’s not strictly speaking the O’Brien that we knew.

There are a number of other nice touches to Second Skin. For one thing, it’s the first point that Garak has really engaged with the rest of the main cast. He wrestled with Quark in Profit and Loss, but the enigmatic Cardassian has pretty much been defined as a supporting character for Bashir. Here, he only shares a couple of scenes with Bashir before being “bumped up” the cast hierarchy and dealing with Sisko.

Kira was dissatisfied with the computer's less-than-flattering choice of headshot...

Kira was dissatisfied with the computer’s less-than-flattering choice of headshot…

This is a pretty nice development. Increasing Garak’s contact with the main cast extends the dramatic potential of the character. It’s also nice to have the former spy bouncing off a more seasoned and cynical cast member – Sisko won’t be led around on a wild goose chase like Bashir was in Cardassians or even The Wire. With Sisko, Garak doesn’t get the same lee-way or freedom or power that he does in dealing with Bashir. This makes the interaction a bit more charged and exciting.

(And, again, the show reinforces the idea that Sisko is considerably more compromised and pragmatic than Picard or Kirk. When Sisko threatens to force Garak off the station if he doesn’t participate in Kira’s rescue, the tailor is appalled. Sisko. “Commander,” he protests, “this is extortion.” Sisko pauses to consider it. “Mmm,” he reflects, as if seriously weighing the matter. “Yes it is.” That’s the extent of the matter. It’s a nice demonstration of how little Sisko really cares about the system or even general principles when it comes to the safety of people around him.)

Whatever it (En)teks...

Whatever it (En)teks…

This also opens the door to Garak dealing with the rest of the cast. It’s a shame that the series moves the focus away from Bashir and Garak, but Garak is too strong a character to tie to only one lead cast member. So Improbable Cause teams Garak up with Odo; In Purgatory’s Shadow will see Garak spending time with Worf; In the Pale Moonlight does wonders by allowing Garak to square off against Sisko. All of this really becomes possible with Second Skin, which illustrates just how strong and fascinating Garak is outside his dealings with Bashir.

Then again, a lot of the character work here is strong. Second Skin features two wonderful guest characters played by two wonderful guest actors during Kira’s time on Cardassian. In particular, Greg Sierra’s Entek is a delightfully slimy individual – a bully who hides his anger and resentment behind a smug smile. He serves as a pretty effective mirror to Garak. It’s not too difficult to imagine Garak engaged in a scheme like this, with the same knowing smile and feigned concern.

"C'mon... I broke out my Star Wars outfit for this!"

“C’mon… I broke out my Star Wars outfit for this!”

It’s also worth noting the lovely introductory sequence which confirms that Kira and Jadzia were supposed to visit the holosuite together. It’s nice to see Kira and Dax just hanging out. Unlike Troi and Crusher on The Next Generation, it seems like the pair do more than just sit around and gossip about men. Dax and Kira are the kinds of personalities that play well off one another – just like Bashir and O’Brien. Dax is fun-loving and free-wheeling; Kira is serious and grounded.

It’s such a great combination that Robert Hewitt Wolfe would return to the idea of Dax trying to teach Kira to relax in The Way of the Warrior. The notion that Kira never had time to relax and enjoy life, that she’s so used to violence and urgency and higher callings, makes these sorts of stories interesting. In a way, it underscores the idea alluded to above: Kira’s time on Deep Space Nine is really about affording her opportunities that she might never have had under other circumstances.

The Order has an impressive body of work...

The Order has an impressive body of work…

Second Skin is a fascinating, well-constructed little episode that touches on a lot of the nineties anxieties running through this half-season of Deep Space Nine.

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

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