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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Improbable Cause (Review)

This 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.

Improbable Cause is an episode that should be a mess. It was originally conceived as a sort-of-sequel to Second Skin, building off Garak’s murder of Entek in that episode. The idea was that Garak would face the consequences of that action, with the Obsidian Order planning an assassination attempt. However, the script was incredibly difficult to break. The resolution felt contrived and forced, closing the story out with Garak blackmailing is adversaries into compliance using a never-before-referenced isolinear rod felt overly convenient.

With the script not working, desperate action was taken. It was decided to extend Improbable Cause into a two-parter at the last minute, tying it into the proposed sequel to Defiant. The decision was made so late in the production schedule that it was impossible to pull the script back out of production. Even though Improbable Cause aired after Through the Looking Glass, it was produced beforehand. Writer René Echevarria re-wrote the last two acts of Improbable Cause with The Die is Cast screenwriter Ronald D. Moore in a frenzy, to tie both parts together.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

This is the very definition of “production nightmare.” It recalls one of those stories that you hear about blockbuster movies that start shooting without a finished script, or directors being locked out of the editing suite. By all accounts, Improbable Cause should have been a trainwreck held together by duct tape and good thoughts. Instead, there’s a credible argument that Improbable Cause is the strongest episode of the third season. It’s certainly the strongest episode broadcast since Star Trek: Voyager came on the air.

And that’s down to one simple fact: every single aspect of Improbable Cause works extraordinarily well.

Odo has the scent...

Odo has the scent…

One of the things that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did very well was to convey the sense that the political could be very personal. Deep Space Nine dramatically re-shapes and moulds the Star Trek universe, shaking it down to its foundation. Pretty much everything changes between Emissary and What You Leave Behind, with none of the major political powers surviving the series unscathed. Alliances are forged, trusts are betrayed, worlds are conquered, wars are declared.

And yet, according to Deep Space Nine, all of these massive political shifts were rooted in decidedly personal stakes. In Favour the Bold, Weyoun asks the Female Changeling why she is so interesting in Odo, with everything else at stakes. She explains, “Bringing him home, returning him to the Great Link, means more to us than the Alpha Quadrant itself.” As such, Deep Space Nine seems to exist in a universe where the political stems out from the personal – the big decisions are made by people on a personal basis, with far-reaching consequences.

Some of Garak's fashion designs went down a bomb...

Some of Garak’s fashion designs went down a bomb…

After all, it’s Dukat’s own wounded pride that allows the Dominion to take root in the Alpha Quadrant, the end result of a decision tree rooted a personal decision he made during the Occupation long before the wormhole was discovered and long before the show began. Towards the end of the show’s run, Gowran’s personal insecurity throws the fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant into doubt. Winn’s actions as Kai are dictated by her own personal issues with her faith and her relationship with her gods.

The major powers seemed to circle one another, colliding into one another with dramatic results, but one of the most beautiful things about Deep Space Nine was the way that these confrontations all seemed to stem from individual characters making individual decisions – the fate of the universe was rooted in people and the decisions that people made, even if they could not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions.

No Tain, no gain...

No Tain, no gain…

Improbable Cause is an absolutely beautiful example of this type of story, the type of story that Deep Space Nine did so well throughout its run. It starts with something very low-key and personal. In this case, a bomb explodes on the promenade, an assassination attempt targeted at a recurring guest star on the show. Odo investigates. Almost immediately, it’s suggested that this might be a political assassination, due to Garak’s shady history. Even then, though, it would remain mostly personal, a story about Garak with no stakes outside of that.

Indeed, the original pitch for the episode suggested that this might be a sequel to the events of Second Skin, with the Obsidian Order punishing Garak for the murder of Entek. Such a story would undoubtedly have a political element, but it would remain a fairly low-key story. Garak is targeted for assassination; Odo investigates; Odo protects Garak and solves the case. However, Improbable Cause develops into something much larger in scale.

Shadows and symbols...

Shadows and symbols…

Part of that is down to the re-written ending. Originally, according to The Deep Space Nine Companion, the plan was to end the episode with Garak blackmailing Tain into releasing him using the contents of the isolinear rod. The writers had a great deal of difficulty making this work:

“That’s all they had,” sighs Echevarria. “And Tain goes, ‘Oh, damn.’ That’s kind of an old gag, and that’s what the show had built to. It was terribly anticlimactic.”

But weak as it was, it was the only device the staff writers could come up with that would safely get Odo out of that room on the warbird. “Everything we tried was just a writer’s device or a cliché or a convenience or a cheat,” notes Ronald D. Moore.

That’s when Michael Piller, serving for the last time as executive producer on the series, came to the rescue. “Michael said, ‘Don’t get Odo out of the room’,” says Moore. “‘Keep him that and go fight the Dominion, and make up a second part.'”

That’s a wonderful demonstration of just what an asset Michael Piller was to the franchise. Piller had been scaling back his involvement with Deep Space Nine since the end of the second season, and the third season saw the producer stepping away completely. He gave his last notes on Life Support. Improbable Cause was the last time he was credited as an executive producer on Deep Space Nine. He would depart the franchise completely at the end of the following year, after writing Basics, Part II for Voyager.

Make it sew...

Make it sew…

The decision to extend Improbable Cause through to The Die is Cast is a rather genius way of avoiding an anti-climactic resolution – pulling the audience’s feet out from under them. It helps that the two parts of the episode have unique names – much like The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege at the start of the show’s second season. Those casually reviewing the episode listings for the week ahead could easily miss that it’s a two-part story, making the closing scenes particularly surprising.

This is an absolutely wonderful touch from a storytelling point of view. Odo begins investigating an assassination attempt made on a regular character, and suddenly finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue that could alter the balance of power across two quadrants. “But I do know that you are investigating a very insignificant piece of a much larger puzzle,” Odo’s informant offers as the assassination ties back to Romulan fleet movements along the Cardassian border. However, that misses the point. There is no insignificant piece.

A simple investigation...

A simple investigation…

Even in the closing scene, as the details of the Romulan and Cardassian alliance are made clear and the galactic stakes are outlined, Improbable Cause never loses sight of the character drama. Garak doesn’t join Tain to protect the Alpha Quadrant or to secure Cardassia’s future. He joins Tain because this is an attempt to heal a rift between the two men; this is a chance for Garak to atone for whatever unspeakable mistake he made in the past.

The closing lines emphasise how personal all this is. “Garak, this is the man who put you into exile,” Odo argues. “This is the man who just two days ago tried to have you killed.” Garak concedes, “Yes, he is. But it doesn’t matter. I’m back.” This is the sentiment that closes the episode. The final scene isn’t an imposing shot of the fleet, or the warbirds plunging into the wormhole. That’s saved for the teaser to The Die is Cast. Instead, the drama is in Garak making peace with his distant father-figure, embracing a world he left behind years ago.

Lighting up the screen...

Lighting up the screen…

Similarly, the Romulan/Cardassian plan in Improbable Cause is as much rooted in Tain’s ego as it is in larger political factors. The show has done very little so far to convince viewers that the Dominion are a truly serious political threat. The last time we saw them in action was during The Search at the start of the season. So the invasion doesn’t seem like an inevitable response to a definite threat. Instead, this entire gambit – which distorts the galactic balance of power – is rooted in Tain’s desire to re-live his glory days.

There’s a powerful tragedy to Tain – a man with grand ambitions and a hunger for power who outlived his prime. He was very good at what he did. “He retired some years ago,” Garak informs Odo. “He was, I might add, the only head of the agency ever to live long enough to do so.” The fact that Tain lived long enough to vanquish all his enemies and to retire gracefully is seen as a tragedy rather than a blessing. Like the Klingons in Blood Oath, Tain finds himself unable to cope with growing old, unable to deal with the changes that come at the end of life.

A little the worse for wear...

A little the worse for wear…

Once the most feared man in the Cardassian Union, Tain is now just a fat man who has grown out of touch with the universe around him. When he comments on Garak’s outfit, the tailor snarkily responds, “Well you always did have a keen sense of fashion, but you seem to have let it go along with your once trim figure.” When the Dominion offer Tain a chance to re-capture past glories, he seizes it.

This is a nice encapsulation of one of the stronger recurring themes in Deep Space Nine. Confronted by an ever-changing set of circumstances, characters must decide if they are willing to change themselves. Characters like Kira and Nog are continually evolving and refining themselves, while those like Dukat and Gowran can’t seem to accept the changes that life brings. The Founders are perhaps the most extreme example of characters unable to cope with the change that comes with life, planning to impose their “perfect order” on a chaotic universe.

Who interrogates the interrogator?

Who interrogates the interrogator?

And so Tain and Garak’s drama is deeply personal. Tain is a character who is incapable of accepting change, finding himself trapped in a nostalgic fantasy with devastating results. The tragic thing about Garak is that he wants to believe that he is a man like Tain – Garak wants to believe in the romantic ideal that he is the loyal servant of a Cardassia that is an imperial power capable of forcing its will upon the universe.

The irony is that – however much Garak may want to believe that – he can’t. Garak has seen too much to buy into that nostalgic myth. It’s the same loose arc followed by characters like Worf, Quark and Sisko. (It’s also quite similar to Odo’s character arc, except that Odo is more ready to admit the flaws in his own culture than any of the other characters.) That’s why pairing up Garak and Odo pays off so brilliantly in The Die is Cast. Both are outcasts who desperately long to go home, even if they have discovered that “home” is not all they imagined it to be.

Bashir can be so sweet sometimes...

Bashir can be so sweet sometimes…

After all, despite Garak’s criticism of Julius Caesar in the opening to Improbable Cause, he winds up quoting it to Tain at the climax of The Die is Cast. At the end of that episode, Garak admits that the worst part of being forced to pose as a tailor is that he’s a very good tailor. It’s clear that Garak doesn’t belong at Tain’s side, any more that Quark belongs in Ferengi culture or Worf belongs among the Klingons; it doesn’t change the fact that he would rather be a good “son of Tain” than the man he actually is.

It’s worth noting that Improbable Cause is layered beautifully. Echevarria remains one of the strongest character-focused writers to work on the franchise. Part of what is so remarkable is how little is actually said by any of the characters. While the precise nature of Garak’s relationship to Tain is not clarified until By Inferno’s Light, there’s enough material here that the eventual twist feels logical and organic.

This doesn't smell right...

This doesn’t smell right…

Indeed, the episode draws attention to these, leaving them as unanswered questions. “That woman, Mila,” Odo asks, “Who is she?” The fact that Tain’s housekeeper is so fond of Garak (and he is so fond of her) suggests a possible answer. It’s an answer that the show never explicitly articulates, and one that builds of revelations that Improbable Cause hints at, but never explicitly states. Indeed, Improbable Cause allows the audience to surmise a lot of Garak’s personal history without any of it being stated directly. That is beautifully nuanced scripting.

Improbable Cause is built around an unreliable protagonist. It takes almost the whole episode for Garak to concede that he was even a member of the Obsidian Order. Even after he allows Odo that small nugget, he’s still far from trustworthy; he refuses to answer direct questions and tries to steer the conversation back to Odo. As such, it’s remarkable how much Improbable Cause allows the audience to come to understand Garak, while retaining his air of mystery.

Cardassian eyes are smiling...

Cardassian eyes are smiling…

It also helps that Improbable Cause is the rare Star Trek mystery story that works. As a rule, science-fiction mysteries are hard to write, because they unfold in worlds that don’t necessary conform to the assumptions necessary to make a mystery plausible. A “locked room” mystery would seem redundant in a universe with a transporter. This undermines mysteries like A Matter of Perspective, where the solution is really “insert [techno-babble] here.” It’s hard to engage with a mystery subject to a writer’s random exposition.

What makes Improbable Cause work so well is that all the details are there, and the mystery’s solution depends on character phsychology rather than arbitrary technology. The mystery isn’t how the assassination attempt was made. Chief O’Brien doesn’t spend the episode trawling digital archives, or wondering about power conduits or other nonsense. Garak’s shop blew up, and the question isn’t how that happened. It is who, and why.

Journey into mystery...

Journey into mystery…

The resulting story could easily be told on just about any show. The plot of Improbable Cause is elegant in its simplicity. Garak spotted an assassin on the station, and blew up his own shop in order to catch the assassin off guard and to draw the attention of the authorities. Not only is a great set-up, it tells us a lot about Garak. The story hinges on the idea that Garak is a character complex and compelling enough to carry off a plot like this.

“You blew up your own shop, Garak!” is just a brilliant revelation, and it’s beautiful how the episode – and Rene Auberjonois – treat the revelation. This is something Odo deduced quite some time earlier, but it’s only really relevant now. Like the later revelations about the relationship between Tain and Garak, it’s not brilliant because it represents a sharp left turn; it’s brilliant because it fits perfectly with everything we already know, while still changing the rules and dynamics a bit.

"See, this is why Sisko tries not to leave the station without the Defiant..."

“See, this is why Sisko tries not to leave the station without the Defiant…”

This is really the point where Garak becomes a part of the Deep Space Nine ensemble. While a recurring character, Garak was generally most closely associated with Doctor Bashir. Garak had occasionally wandered into other plots featuring the main cast outside Bashir, most notably in the early third season with Civil Defense and Second Skin, but this is the first episode that hits on the idea of teaming Garak up with another member of the core cast.

Improbable Cause teams up Andrew Robinson and Rene Auberjonois, two of the strongest members of the ensemble. It works spectacularly, giving Garak a chance to spar with a more cynical character than Bashir. As with a lot of the third season, there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine is still learning about what works – trying new things so that can have a stronger base to launch into future seasons. (Much like The Search is a precursor to The Way of the WarriorPast Tense leads to Home Front and this two-parter leads to In Purgatory’s Shadow.)

Garak tries to con-Tain his excitement...

Garak tries to con-Tain his excitement…

Pairing up Garak and Odo for this two-parter feels like a trial run for later combinations like Garak and Worf (In Purgatory’s Shadow), Garak and O’Brien (Empok Nor), Garak and Dax (Afterimage), Garak and Sisko (In the Pale Moonlight) and even Garak and Kira (When It Rains…). It demonstrates that Garak is a character who can exist outside the niche of “token Cardassion plot device” and “Bashir’s friend”, cementing the idea the Garak might even have made a credible addition to the main cast.

It helps that the teleplay for Improbable Cause – despite all the behind-the-scenes difficulties – stands as one of the most tightly-constructed scripts in the history of the franchise. The reveal that Garak blew up his own shop is expertly foreshadowed in his conversation with Bashir about “the boy who cried wolf.” All the threads in the script lead to logical conclusions. There’s no fat here, but the script is written in such a way that it never feels too purposeful.

File this under "bonding experience"...

File this under “bonding experience”…

Improbable Cause is an episode that radically alters the status quo of the Star Trek universe, but it never feels weighed down. It’s just a good story, well told, that happens to alter the status quo for the show. Rather than a single narrative leading inevitably to a dramatic outcome, Improbable Cause is structured as a riddle, with Odo (and the audience) peeling back the layers until they reach a conclusion that simply does not fit what we expected at all.

At the same time, the script is decidedly playful, never weighed down by the boxes that it has to check. The would-be and almost-was plot-resolving isolinear rod is alluded to in a scene late in the episode, with the script pointing out how cliché that resolution would be. “If you go into my quarters and examine the bulkhead next to the replicator, you’ll notice there’s a false panel,” Garak advises Bashir. “Behind that panel is a compartment containing an isolinear rod. If I’m not back within seventy eight hours, I want you to take that rod… and eat it.”

Bringing Obsidian Order to chaos...

Bringing Obsidian Order to chaos…

Similarly, the script includes a sly acknowledgement of what Ronald Moore described as his “personal crusade” to update the outdated bulky shoulder-padded Romulan uniforms. (The re-designed uniforms making their first appearance here as Tal’Shiar outfits.) When it seems like the Romulans may have been involved in the assassination attempt on Garak, Odo deadpans, “Considering those uniforms of theirs, you’d think they’d appreciate a decent tailor.”

At the same time, Improbable Cause provides further fodder for Deep Space Nine‘s worldview. The first Star Trek show launched after the death of Gene Roddenberry, Deep Space Nine was always more than a little sceptical of Roddenberry’s utopianism. It wasn’t that Deep Space Nine rejected the idea of a better future for mankind, as many of its detractors would claim. Instead, Deep Space Nine suggested that such a paradise would not come about as a result of replicators or transporters; but out of a desire to improve ourselves.

Odo keeps himself informed...

Odo keeps himself informed…

A product of the nineties, Deep Space Nine is wary of authority and complacency. Airing in “the unipolar moment”, the show was more than willing to question the idea that the Federation (Roddenberry’s idealised stand-in for a utopian America) was an unequivocal good. It did this by giving a more cynical and sceptical voice to the show’s archetypal outsiders. Garak and Odo are outsiders peering in, and – unlike Data’s unquestioning romanticism – both ask pretty probing questions.

During the episode’s opening scene, the tailor hits on one of the show’s recurring ideas – the notion that perhaps mankind isn’t as evolved as it might like to think, and that it needs to stay alert to prevent itself from slipping backwards. “But it is a very interesting sociological phenomenon, don’t you think?” Garak asks, noting how quickly Bashir finished his lunch. “For generations now, humankind has had more than enough food and yet you go about your eating as if you were afraid someone was going to come along and snatch away your plate.”

The storyteller...

The storyteller…

It’s a nice playful conversation (Garak is clearly needling Bashir a bit), but it also reflects back to observations that Bashir made during Past Tense. In a way, the comment also calls forward to episodes like Home Front, episodes that suggest that the Federation could become a very ugly place if you took away humanity’s comforts and put them under threat. Similarly, when his informant wonders why the Romulans might want to stage an invasion of Cardassia, Odo muses, “Does war ever make sense?”

His contact deadpans, “Still the wry observer of humanoid folly?” Although intended as a barb, it’s a fairly astute observation about Odo’s role on the show. Deep Space Nine had a wonderful knack for expanding its scope beyond the Federation. Characters like Kira, Odo, Quark and Garak provided a window through which to glimpse Starfleet and its attitudes – interrogating them in a way that was never possible on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Who scent you?!

Who scent you?!

More than that, though, the show was willing to suggest that Starfleet and the Federation did not exist in a vacuum – undermining the assumption that “the final frontier” was the inevitable conclusion of Kennedy’s “new frontier”, and that the Federation (as a stand-in for America) would be the driving force of future politics. Deep Space Nine constantly reminds us that the Federation is not the only intergalactic power – despite what it might like to think.

Indeed, Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast are notable because they completely re-write the franchise’s status quo while treating the Federation as nothing more than observers. Whether it was a Borg invasion or a Klingon Civil War, the Federation has always been the political focus of the Star Trek universe – playing a vital part in the way that events unfold. Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast mark the first time that the Federation takes a ringside seat. (Even in Redemption, Part II, it is the actions of Picard and Data that ultimately end the Klingon Civil War.)

Garak's neck is on the line...

Garak’s neck is on the line…

Here, there’s something absolutely massive happening, and our heroes are completely uninvolved. In The Die is Cast, Sisko and his crew are forced to react to the political machinations of other major powers, doing little more than bearing witness to a titanic struggle between three other galactic players. The fact that the Founders are willing to let Odo (and Garak) escape unharmed underscores just how little the Defiant’s intervention matters – they aren’t even necessary to save the cast members stuck in the middle of the fire-fight.

Still, as much as this might be the story of Romulus, Cardassia and the Dominion, Improbable Cause remains Garak’s story. Improbable Cause is a monumental piece of Deep Space Nine, not just because it represents a massive shake-up to the show’s status quo, but because it offers that shake-up without ever losing sight of the characters who exist at the show’s core.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Great review!

    This is one of my favourite episodes of Trek period and it ironically means I have little to add other than ‘great review’. 🙂

    • It is a fantastic two-parter isn’t it? Just so elegant and bold and utterly unlike anything else the franchise has ever done. Although I think I may slightly prefer In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, ever so slightly.

      “You blew up your own shop, Garak!” is one of my favourite “wham!” lines in Star Trek, along with “Mr. Worf, fire” or “I can live it.”

  2. Thanks for this man. I really like the depth of your episode analyses; DS9 has been one of my two or three favorite TV shows for about seventeen years, but there’s a lot of things here I didn’t know, very insightful. ‘Improbable Cause’ and ‘The Die is Cast’ were classics, offering a hint about the kind of storytelling quality DS9 would rise to in later seasons.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I hope I live up to them.

      I’ll be coming back to the fourth season of DS9 and the second season of Voyager next year. Along with all of Enterprise. Hoping to finish all of Star Trek by the end of 2016. Won’t happen, but we’ll see how close I can get.

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