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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Things Past (Review)

At a time when Star Trek: Voyager was working very hard to disentangle itself from its own past, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine committed to exploring its own.

Things Past hits on one the big recurring themes of the series in general and fifth season in particular. Deep Space Nine has always been a show about memory and history, the relationship between past, present and future that is seldom as clear-cut as one might like it to be. Across the show’s run, characters are constantly exploring and re-evaluating their own histories. This has always been the case, dating back to Sisko working through his trauma with the Prophets in Emissary, Kira facing her past in Past Prologue and Odo doing the same in A Man Alone.

"You know, my subconscious can be pretty heavy handed."

“You know, my subconscious can be pretty heavy handed.”

At this point, Deep Space Nine has been on the air for over four years. Many other shows would already have moved on from their foundational premises. Voyager has already completely forgotten what it originally promised, and it is less than half way through its third season. However, the fifth season finds Deep Space Nine engaging repeatedly and enthusiastically with a history that stems back to before the events of the first episode. The characters on Deep Space Nine are shaped and informed by events that occurred long before fate or chance brought them together.

Some of these episodes work better than others, but the fifth season is still fascinated with the characters’ lives long before the series began. Let He Who Is Without Sin… attempted to build a story like this around Worf, playing almost as a parody of this kind of storytelling. Doctor Bashir, I Presume walks a very fine line between when it comes to exploring Bashir’s secret history. Empok Nor returns to the question of whether O’Brien is an engineer or a soldier in a much pulpier and trashier vein than earlier episodes like Hippocratic Oath.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

Unsurprisingly, the best examples of these sorts of stories tend to focus on the characters who were actually around Terok Nor during the Occupation. The Darkness and the Light and Ties of Blood and Water, the two episodes focusing on Kira, are among the strongest of the season. They also have some pretty great titles, although neither is quite Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night. However, it is Things Past that marks the fifth season’s first trip back to the Cardassian Occupation, telling the story from Odo’s perspective.

It is an episode that really pushes Odo, to the point where it seems like the changeling might snap. “Nobody ever had to teach me the justice trick,” Odo monologued in Necessary Evil, way back in the second season. “That’s something I’ve always known.” Over the course of Things Past, Odo must eventually admit that this is not the case.

Barriers to entry.

Barriers to entry.

Odo is one of the most fascinating characters on Deep Space Nine, for any number of reasons. He is the station’s stoic and reserved chief of security, but he also has the emotional maturity of a teenager. He is a literal shape changer, but repeatedly proves far too rigid and set in his own ways. He is Deep Space Nine‘s requisite “outsider” character in the style of Spock on the original Star Trek and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but his arc is largely about the rejection (rather than the embrace) of humanity.

Odo is a mess of contradictions, like many members of the cast on Deep Space Nine. Quark is at once the most greedy and avaricious member of the crew, but he may also have the strongest moral compass. O’Brien is a working class engineer struggling with the mundane responsibilities of keeping the lights on and keeping his family happy, but he is also a combat veteran. Jadzia is adventurous and playful, but is also the oldest and most experienced member of the crew. Sisko begins the show as a loyal Starfleet officer, and develops into a messiah figure.

"Trust me, Constable. If I didn't drum Worf off staff for what happened on Risa, you probably have nothing to worry about."

“Trust me, Constable. If I didn’t drum Worf off staff for what happened on Risa, you probably have nothing to worry about.”

What is striking about Odo is the extent to which the production team are willing to vilify or problematicise the character. More than any other regular, Deep Space Nine is willing to suggest that Odo is not necessarily somebody who can be counted upon in a crisis or to insinuate that his moral compass is more than slightly askew. Given that Worf essentially became a terrorist in Let He Who Is Without Sin… because he walked in on Vanessa Williams doing some phallic sculpting with his girlfriend, that is really saying something about how far the writers push Odo.

There are lots of little examples over the course of the show that hint at the idea that Odo’s belief system and values are no aligned with that of the rest of the crew – or the audience. Odo constantly and repeatedly complains how hard basic civil liberties make his job. In The Maquis, Part I, the changeling seems to long for the reintroduction of Cardassian law on the station. In The Wire, the chief of security admits to monitoring outgoing communications without probable cause. Odo is very much a character who would freely sacrifice liberty for security. Not justice.

Facing up to his past self.

Facing up to his past self.

Odo never convincingly masters the art of constructing a humanoid face, even in the alternate future of Children of Time. The character could never disguise himself from Sisko in the way that changeling!Martok or changeling!Bashir do. However, Odo proves much more effective at self-deception. As Abigail Nussbaum argues:

By the end of the series, the perception of Odo as motivated by a desire for justice has been thoroughly exploded. Though he’s a good man, it’s clearly not a love of justice that drives him. In the third season opener, The Search, the Founders inform Odo that what he perceives as a love of justice is in fact a desire for order. This is in keeping with Odo’s behaviour throughout the second second, during which he repeatedly complains about being forced to adhere to Starfleet’s rules about due process and civil rights–rules which, according to him, prevent him from making Deep Space Nine safe. For the next three years, the Founders alternately torment Odo and try to tempt him back to the Great Link. Their entire discourse with him is based not on morality, but on their understanding of the things Odo wants–Kira, whom they insist he can’t have, and the solace and companionship of the Great Link, which can only be his if he accepts their immoral behaviour.

Odo’s actions and decisions in episodes like Children of Time and Behind the Lines suggest a truly self-centred morality, perhaps the most horrifying decisions made by a lead character on the show. Things Past very much sets the tone for these later stories, while building upon what had earlier been implied in Necessary Evil during the show’s second season.

"Well, to be fair, your nightmare was much more compelling than Distant Voices."

“Well, to be fair, your nightmare was much more compelling than Distant Voices.”

Indeed, Things Past could be considered a sequel to Necessary Evil. There are notable differences between the two episodes, of course. The story is not so much told by flashback as it is by placing three other characters into Odo’s memory of events. Although Odo engages in a lot of self-deception over the course of Necessary Evil, that self-deception is rendered explicit in Things Past. By bringing Sisko, Dax and Garak along for the ride, the script is able to explicitly call Odo out on the lies that he tells himself.

At the same time, there are a lot of explicit parallels between the two stories. Both Necessary Evil and Things Past take the audience back to Terok Nor during the Cardassian Occupation, using the occasion to turn down the lighting on standing sets and fill them with clouds of smoke. Both episodes revolve around Odo’s investigations into a crime committed by the Bajoran Resistance, culminating in a spectacular error in judgment. Both episodes end with a scene of Kira and Odo acknowledging truths about one another that shake their relationship.

"When Odo said that Terok Nor was 'da bomb', I didn't think that this was what he had in mind."

“When Odo said that Terok Nor was ‘da bomb’, I didn’t think that this was what he had in mind.”

Indeed, these comparisons suggest the single biggest issue with Things Past. The episode is simply not as good as Necessary Evil. A large part of the charm of Necessary Evil came from the decision to structure the story as a noir tale within the established Star Trek universe. Using the device of a station security log, Necessary Evil allowed Odo to over hard-boiled narrative and commentary. In contrast, Things Past has Odo growing progressively more uncomfortable as the plot progresses.

However, the most striking aspect of Necessary Evil stretched beyond superficial genre trappings. In keeping with the core themes of noir storytelling, Necessary Evil was a very ambiguous and cynical piece of work. The episode left a lot of its big ideas implicit rather than explicit. The final confrontation between Kira and Odo is heartbreaking, but for reasons that are largely left to the viewer. Did Odo really believe that Kira was innocent all those years? Or did he simply want to believe? Kira lied to Odo, but did he lie to himself?

"Also, you made me feel hella guilty at the end of Necessary Evil, Odo. So I'm going to enjoy this."

“Also, you made me feel hella guilty at the end of Necessary Evil, Odo. So I’m going to enjoy this.”

Necessary Evil opted not to answer these questions, and was in many ways more powerful for that restraint. It was a decision that served to distinguish Deep Space Nine from the more clear-cut moral storytelling of the other Star Trek series. Star Trek has generally favoured a fairly conventional moral outlook. Its lead characters have traditionally been portrayed as heroes, and Star Trek narratives tend to explicitly call those characters out when they cross moral lines, as Captain Picard does to Worf in The Enemy or the show does to Captain Picard in I, Borg.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine is just as capable of making these sorts of condemnations. Sisko very bluntly and brutally calls Worf to task in episodes like Sons of Mogh and Rules of Engagement, although the first lecture comes qualified with an acknowledgement of cultural relativism and the second speech feels more than a little hypocritical on the part of the show. However, Deep Space Nine also seems more comfortable with ambiguity than its sibling series, something that became particularly obvious in second season episodes like Necessary Evil and The Wire.

Thrax attack!

Thrax attack!

This is not to suggest (as some might) that Deep Space Nine completely abandons the moral framework of the other Star Trek series, even if Necessary Evil embraces noir storytelling. As Aeon J. Skoble argues in Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir, it is fair to simplistic to suggest that noir eschews conventional notions of right and wrong:

We’ve got the lonely settings; we’ve got the strange camera angles; we’ve got the unsettling use of light and shadow; we’ve got the hard-boiled dialogue; we’ve got the femme fatales. But we also have, it turns out, a body of films which showcase practical reason and ethical decision making, in settings that affirm moral realism and explicitly reject nihilism. Perhaps surprisingly, films noirs end up being more about moral clarity.

Despite its reputation as the most cynical of the Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine has a very strong moral framework. This is perhaps most notable in the way that the fourth season built its stories around Julian Bashir. Bashir is consistently characterised by Deep Space Nine as overeager and inexperienced, naive and optimistic. However, episodes like Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening make a point to ultimately validate his moral worldview.

Dukool Dukat.

Dukool Dukat.

After all, any arguments about moral relativity on Deep Space Nine should include a proper frame of reference. Over the final few seasons of the show, Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica looms on the horizon as if gestating within the Star Trek spin-off. Working on a twenty-first century update of the camp sci-fi classic, Moore would often consciously borrow from the Star Trek franchise. This borrowing was reflected in elements like casting (Nana Visitor and Michelle Forbes) and plotting (biological weapons, enemy occupation).

While Battlestar Galactica was never quite as dark and nihilistic as many commentators would suggest, ultimately embracing the idea of peaceful coexistence between humans and the genocidal Cylons, it was still much darker than Deep Space Nine. Although Ira Steven Behr was pushing against the limitations of the franchise, Deep Space Nine was still a Star Trek show. For all the horror and devastation depicted on Deep Space Nine, the show retains a faith in humanity (if not in institutions) that Battlestar Galactica sorely lacks.

"If we put their heads together..."

“If we put their heads together…”

Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that one of the biggest issues with the final seasons of Deep Space Nine is an insistence upon rigidly-defined moral clarity. During the show’s final few years, the production team repeatedly insist upon clearly labeling characters and concepts as truly good and truly evil. In a way, this began with the introduction of the pah wraiths in The Assignment. By inventing a set of devils for the Bajoran religion, the writers transformed the Prophets from the unknowable aliens of The Collaborator and Prophet Motive into something much more banal.

The sixth season will do something similar with Gul Dukat in Waltz, motivated primarily by the fear that the audience was becoming too sympathetic towards the character based on small humanising moments like those featured in Civil Defense or Defiant. In many ways, Deep Space Nine is the most mature and complex of the Star Trek series, but there are moments when the writing staff seem uncomfortable with that maturity and complexity. There are several points in the final seasons of Deep Space Nine where the show pauses to over-explain itself to viewers.

Above it all.

Above it all.

That is perhaps the biggest weakness of Things Past, particularly when measured against Necessary Evil. While Necessary Evil was content to leave Odo’s self-delusion and denial unspoken, Things Past feels the need to render it explicit. Necessary Evil was narrated subjectively, the flashback coloured by Odo’s account of events and eventually revealed to be based upon a misreading of events. While Things Past unfolds within a distorted version of Odo’s memory of events, it makes a point to position Odo’s three companions as objective observers.

As such, Things Past seems more reluctant to trust the audience than Necessary Evil was. The result is an episode that seems markedly more straightforward, its moral commentary explicitly incorporated into the text rather than left for the audience to parse on their own. Indeed, while waiting in the jail cell with Odo, Sisko and Garak seem almost like literal reflections of Odo’s guilt. They pick at the narrative logic of the episode as if unpacking an early Christmas present. They almost play the role of an engaged audience.

"Janeway never has to put up with this crap."

“Janeway never has to put up with this crap.”

“You knew the names of the people we’re supposed to be,” Garak observes. Sisko follows up, “You knew the details of their case like you were there.” Garak follows that thread even further, “But you couldn’t have been there because it happened before you came aboard the station.” This applies as much to the episode’s themes as to the material plot. There is a bluntness to Things Past that jars when compared to the efficiency of Necessary Evil, as if the episode is afraid that the audience might miss some vital part of the story if it is not stated outright.

There are other problems. For all that Things Past carefully articulates all its big themes and ideas, there is a sense that the episode is cluttered and unfocused. In a way, this makes a certain amount of sense; the characters finds themselves trapped inside Odo’s memory as the result of a “class two plasma storm”, a somewhat contrived anomaly of the week worthy of Voyager. (Although, to be fair, the problem with Voyager was the show would only rarely use such a contrivance to tell a character-driven story.)

He must think Dax is pretty Gul-able.

He must think Dax is pretty Gul-able.

However, there are entire plot threads that seem to go nowhere. There is an entire secondary storyline dedicated to Gul Dukat that feels like nothing more than a retread of what has already been done with the character and a rough outline of where the show might want to take him. The abduction of Dax to become Dukat’s token female Bajoran “friend” to whom he can whine about his “lonely position” and feeling “isolated from the people who live under [his] protection” is very much in character, but is drawn too broadly in an episode with so much else going on.

The sequences between Dax and Dukat draw upon the character’s long-standing attempts to bend the historical narrative to his own self-serving account of the Occupation. Dukat casts himself as a stern father to unappreciative offspring. “The Bajorans are… well, they’re like my children, I suppose,” he explains to Dax. “And like any father, I want only what’s best for them.” He promises to be tough but fair with them. “Bad manners are the fault of the parent, not the child. My weakness is I’m too generous, too forgiving. My heart is too big.”

"What parent hasn't considered a little mass genocide to teach their children how to love?"

“What parent hasn’t considered a little mass genocide to teach their children how to love?”

This is very much in keeping with what the audience already knows of Dukat, based on his conversations with Sisko in The Maquis, Part I and with Kira in Indiscretion. Dukat is oblivious and indifferent to the horrific abuses perpetrated against the Bajorans, engaging in rationalisations and justifications that paint him as a compassionate figure. Notably, he never apologises for the damage that he caused. He never accepts that the Cardassian Occupation was an atrocity. He never acknowledges the agency of the Bajoran people.

Similarly, as with a lot of the fifth season, there is a sense that the writing staff are also mapping out territory for further exploration at a later date. When Dax is “selected” by the Cardassians for what Odo speculates to be “random interrogation” or “forced labour relocation”, it is quite clear that Dukat has a very particular purpose in mind. Given Dukat’s preference for Bajoran women, as suggested by his flirting with Kira in Civil Defense and the reveal of Ziyal in Indiscretion, it is no coincidence that Dukat’s new Bajoran “friend” is an attractive woman.

Chewing it over.

Chewing it over.

This is an idea that seems to be hinting at issues that will be more thoroughly explored in Wrongs Darker than Death or Night, in which Kira Nerys explores the relationship that her mother had with Dukat as one of his “friends.” As such, Things Past seems to be marking out that idea as something worth exploring at a later date, much like The Ship seems to herald Rocks and Shoals and … Nor the Battle to the Strong seems to prefigure The Siege of AR-558. The writing staff on Deep Space Nine tended to play with themes or ideas before committing wholeheartedly to them.

This is certainly an interesting aspect of the Cardassian Occupation to explore, but it feels like there is not enough room to fully deal with it in Things Past. In fact, the subplot with Dax and Dukat ultimately goes nowhere, with Dax breaking her friends out of the holding cell only for Odo’s memory to bring them right back for the final act. The most interesting aspect of this particular story thread is that it all takes place within Odo’s mind. There is a suggestion that Odo was well aware of Dukat’s predatory behaviour, which raises the question of whether he was culpable.

"Oh, hey, I never realised that there were buttons back here."

“Oh, hey, I never realised that there were buttons back here.”

That is an interesting question that speaks to the most compelling aspects of the episode. While Things Past suffers in comparison to Necessary Evil, it raises any number of interesting ideas in its own right. Most obviously, it makes Odo explicitly culpable in the atrocities of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, which is what drew the staff to the story. As Ronald D. Moore explained in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:

“One of the things that always drove the writing staff nuts,” says Ron Moore, “was the idea that Odo had been a policeman during the Cardassian Occupation, but never had gotten his hands dirty, that he had been above it all, and that everybody had trusted him. We never bought that. It seemed to me that if I were a Bajoran, I wouldn’t trust the cop who’s still on duty from the Occupation. Somewhere along the line something bad went down on Odo’s watch. And Things Past was the show to say it.”

To be fair, this culpability and suspicion had been suggested in early episodes like A Man Alone, but had largely been left unspoken since. The existence of Primmin in The Passenger and Michael Eddington in The Search, Part I suggested that Starfleet was understandably unhappy with delegating security to somebody who worked under the Cardassians. However, the Bajorans seemed surprisingly cool with Odo handling Shakaar’s security in Crossfire.

"There goes my four-star Yelp! rating."

“There goes my four-star Yelp! rating.”

Indeed, the episode’s teaser explicitly discusses this, setting up the hour ahead. “Odo wasn’t a member of the Resistance and he managed to attract a fair amount of attention,” Dax reflects as the team return home. Garak offers, “Yes, it seems you have quite a fan club on Bajor. I half expected you to be signing autographs at the end.” Dax falls back into the familiar narrative of Odo’s detachment in the midst of the carnage. “You should be proud of what you did during the Occupation.”

In many ways, Things Past is about puncturing Odo’s self-image, the narrative that he has cultivated around himself and to himself. “I’ve nothing to be proud of,” he concedes in the teaser. However, he also affords himself a comforting untruth, “I tried to bring order to a chaotic situation, that’s all.” Odo did try to bring order, but such order was inevitably in favour of the status quo. In some ways, Odo enabled the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, choosing to support the brutal order imposed by the Cardassians over the dignity of the Bajorans.

Tailor-made for debate.

Tailor-made for debate.

One of the big recurring themes of Deep Space Nine concerns identity and self-image. How do characters see one another? How do they perceive themselves? Sisko touches on this obliquely in Things Past, observing of the inhabitants occupying Odo’s memory of Terok Nor, “I’m beginning to think they don’t see any of us as who we really are.” Over the show’s seven seasons, characters are repeatedly forced to re-evaluate themselves, to acknowledge they are (or are not) who they thought themselves to be.

Most characters face these moments of crisis over the course of the series; Quark in Body Parts, O’Brien in Hard Time, Dax in Blood Oath, Jake in … Nor the Battle to the Strong. Even secondary characters like Damar and Garak wrestle with these challenges. Things Past is one such moment for Odo. Indeed, it is ironic that this story should arrive at this point in the character’s arc, when he finds himself trapped in a single shape unable to change form. Odo can no longer hide from himself.

Quark operates off the grid.

Quark operates off the grid.

Things Past makes a very strong judgment about culpability, strongly suggesting that Odo’s involvement with the Cardassians during the Occupation represents a form of collaboration. Odo may not have participated in the atrocities directly, in that he does not hold the disruptor used to execute the suspects, but that does not mean that he is not complicit in the violence inflicted upon the Bajoran people. Odo was part of a corrupt and abusive system, and that taints him. How could Odo claim that “justice” was done, in such an unjust environment?

It is a sweeping statement, but it is defensible. After all, Odo’s presence and involvement offers a sort of validation to the Cardassians. Odo is an “outsider” with no significant stakes in this conflict. Odo’s complicit legitimises the Cardassian Occupation by suggesting that it is possible for “fairness” and “reason” to exist within this climate. Necessary Evil suggested as much when Dukat recruited Odo for that earlier investigation, suggesting that Odo’s involvement offered the appearance of propriety.

Morally flexible.

Morally flexible.

Things Past makes it explicit that there is no “outsider” perspective in these scenarios, that every engagement with a culture is in some way a commentary upon it. Odo’s willingness to engage with the system, to accept the comfort of the ordered structures of governance, renders him unable to enact true justice. “It was all there from the beginning but I was too busy, too concerned with maintaining order and the rule of law,” he confesses. “I thought of myself as the outsider, the shape-shifter who cared for nothing but justice.”

In many ways, Things Past foreshadows the stark moral landscape depicted by Kira in The Darkness and the Light, suggesting that there is no compromise that can be struck with such forces and no middle ground that might be occupied. “Giving me a name tag that read, ‘Elim Garak, former Cardassian oppressor’ was hardly polite,” Garak suggests in the teaser, but there’s more than a hint of truth to the joke. The Darkness and the Light would argue that every Cardassian on Bajor was an oppressor by virtue of enabling the systemic oppression of the Bajorans.

Dukat explodes on to the scene.

Dukat explodes on to the scene.

Indeed, a recurring suggestion in Things Past is that doing nothing is effectively defending the status quo. When Odo lays into the part of himself represented by Thrax, Thrax responds by blaming the Bajorans for daring to defy Cardassian authority. “Truth?” Thrax teases. “You want the truth? All right. The truth is that none of you would be accused, none of you would even be here if the Bajorans weren’t fighting the Cardassians. It’s futile. The occupation has lasted for fifty years and it will probably last another fifty.”

He demands, “Why not accept it? If the Bajoran people would accept their place in history, none of this would be happening.” In that moment, Thrax-as-Odo sounds almost like Dukat. He expects the Bajorans to be civil and ordered in response to oppression. It is no coincidence that Odo chose to replace himself in this version of events with a Cardassian. Thrax acts as though somehow the Bajorans are responsible for all the violence, as if the proper thing to do would be to lay down and accept their conquerors.

"Why do you make me oppress you?"

“Why do you make me oppress you?”

When Odo objects to his own generalisations as articulated through Thrax, the Cardassian falls back arguments that very much emphasise his allegiance to the Cardassian authorities. “It’s all part of the same problem. When your people resort to terrorism and violence, they’re fighting against order, against stability, against the rule of law, and this must be stopped.” Thrax even throws “you people” into his rant, which is has evolved into shorthand for racism in rhetoric.

Thrax-as-Odo declines to upset the apple cart, which means that he is tacitly accepting the established order of things. When Odo begs him to question the witnesses instead of accepting dictated statements, Thrax-as-Odo reaffirms his own role in the drama. “I don’t interrogate members of the Cardassian military.” When Thrax-as-Odo admits that he knows what is happening, Odo challenges, “Then what are you going to do about it?” Thrax-as-Odo responds, “What I am supposed to do, nothing more, nothing less.” That makes him as guilty as anyone.

Dukat is not everybody's cup of kanar.

Dukat is not everybody’s cup of kanar.

There is something very provocative in this. Things Past explicitly endorses the terrorism conducted by the Bajoran Resistance, with The Darkness and the Light going even further. Of course, Deep Space Nine had always tacitly endorsed the Bajoran Resistance as freedom fighters, the series had historically been quite vague on the matter of collateral damage and the philosophy of total war. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine embraces those concepts with a surprising zeal. It is perhaps a reminder of the show’s nineties roots; Star Trek would not have done this after 9/11.

Things Past even makes a point to underscore the situational nature of these terrorist actions. When Dax is escorted to meet Dukat, her hands are trembling. Dax has met Dukat on many occasions; she even made a joke at his expense in The Way of the Warrior. She was never scared of him. However, this time things are different. The situation has changed. Dax has always addressed Dukat as a Starfleet officer, which has its own dynamic. However, Things Past makes it clear that the terms of engagement are very different once Dax is cast in a different role.

Boy, that conference sure was exciting.

Boy, that conference sure was exciting.

Collective guilt and responsibility can be difficult subjects to navigate. Consider the challenges posed by collaboration with Nazi during the Second World War. In Admitting Guilt Is Neither Common Nor Easy, Daniel Chirot argues that focusing specifically on German war guilt glosses over broader questions of political and social culpability:

Looking in more detail at German memories of the war as a single trajectory toward repentance and admission of wrongdoing runs into several problems. The first of these is that the German story is very much embedded in all of Europe’s interpretation of what happened. For a long time, until some ten to twenty years ago, depending on which European country we are talking about, this was the most troubling aspect of how the world war was remembered. The countries occupied by Germany in Western Europe, without exception, constructed stories that blamed everything bad on Germans and a fairly small number of virtually criminal and deviant collaborators. It was more complicated in Central Europe and the Balkans, where the Germans had various allied states (Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, along with Italy, which occupied parts of the Balkans) and also deliberately exacerbated ethnic tensions in mixed areas, but there, also, similar stories were put forward. Where the Soviet Union set up communist regimes in the East after the war, not only Nazi Germany but also the local “reactionary bourgeoisie” and upper classes were blamed. In all cases, however, the guilty were said to be either outsiders or a relatively small number of treacherous locals who were quickly disposed of after the war. There was therefore no perceived need for any general national self-examination, much less repentance for wrongdoing, in either Western or Eastern Europe, except among Germans.

France has long had difficulty reconciling itself with the legacy of Vichy collaboration, only acknowledging its involvement in the deportation of Jews as recently as 1995. Countries like Serbia and Croatia are still dealing with the legacy of their collaborators. These wounds do not go away simply because we might want them to, and they still need to be addressed.

Barrels of laughs.

Barrels of laughs.

A recurring theme of the fifth season of Deep Space Nine is that the Cardassian Occupation has left scars on Bajor that are still festering. Even more than a hundred episodes into the series, the atrocities committed upon Bajor are still an open wound. Many television shows have moved long past their original premise by this point in the run. Most notably, Voyager has cleansed itself of the stink of the first two seasons with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Even Deep Space Nine has moved away from Bajor-centric stories like Accession and Shakaar.

However, Deep Space Nine never loses sight of its own history. Indeed, one of the nicer smaller touches in Things Past is the quick shot of Odo’s younger self at the execution. Rene Auberjonois is very clearly wearing the same make-up that the character wore in the first two seasons of the show, explicitly confirming that the changes in his make-up design represent growth and evolution of his character more than advances in the prosthetics used to bring the character to life. Even something as simple as the lines of Odo’s face are treated as part of the show’s history.

Odo was always a smooth customer.

Odo was always a smooth criminal hunter.

The Cardassian Occupation leaves lingering marks, as any atrocity on that scale must. Certainly, the real world demonstrates that these sorts of crimes cannot be forgotten or ignored. The Armenian Genocide is still a hotly contested piece of Turkish history more than a century after it occurred. Reinhold Hanning was put on trial in February 2016 for serving at Auschwitz seventy years later. It is quite rare for a television series to hold focus on a single event for so long, owing to the conventions of television narratives.

Across the fifth season, the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor comes up time and time again. Even as new threats loom on the horizon, past atrocities cannot be forgotten. Kira is confronted with a survivor left disfigured by a terrorist bombing and seeking revenge in The Darkness and the Light. Bajor still remembers the weapons supplied by arms dealer Hagath in Business as Usual. Kira is forced to acknowledge Ghemor’s complicity in the Occupation in Ties of Blood and Water. The season ends with a renewed Cardassian Occupation in A Call to Arms.

A sign of things to come.

A sign of things to come.

Even within Things Past, there is a recurring sense that some wish that the Bajorans could just “get over” the violence committed against them. “My understanding of this conference was that it was supposed to be an examination of the occupation from a dispassionate historical perspective,” Garak complains in the opening. “Instead, everyone went out of their way to dismiss virtually everything I had to say.” Of course, Garak spends most of the episode’s flashback sequences insisting that the Occupation was not as bad as it appeared to be.

“I never knew we were such messy conquerors,” he reflects after spending a shift working in Quark’s. “I remember the occupation being a little more tidy than this.” Sisko very astutely responds, “Everything’s tidy when someone else is doing the cleaning.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Garak responds to that pointed criticism by doubling down on the same racist stereotypes perpetuated by Dukat. “The Bajorans were much more suited for this sort of thing than we were. Servile work is in their nature.” The Bajorans are like children, they need a stern hand.

Tailored scenario.

Tailored scenario.

Asked what he expected from the conference, Garak falls back on the on the old rhetoric trick of couching his revisionism and racism in “debate.” He insists, “What I would have liked was less posturing and more debate. It’s clear to me now that the Bajorans aren’t really interested in discovering historical truth as much as they are in promoting the myths and legends of the glorious Resistance.” That is very much along the lines of “just asking questions…” hedging rhetoric.

Appropriately enough, then, Odo’s character arc amounts to accepting his culpability in what happened. He spends the entire episode concealing the truth from those around him, refusing to explain the particulars of the case to Sisko and Garak. His subconscious tries to hide is complicity in this atrocity, casting Thrax as the chief of security responsible for the investigation. With the help of Dax, Odo tries to change history and to fix his mistake. The group try to break out of their cell. He tries to reason with Thrax.

"Either we've been sent back in time, or Kira really let things go to hell while I was gone.

“Either we’ve been sent back in time, or Kira really let things go to hell while I was gone.”

However, some things cannot be undone. The matter is only settled once Odo admits his own role in the murder of three innocent Bajorans. He casts Thrax out of this reenactment and acknowledges that he allowed three Bajoran prisoners to be executed on the promenade in a grotesque parody of justice. “You can’t execute them,” Odo finally tells Thrax. “You don’t even belong here. I do.” In doing so, Odo makes peace with something long buried within himself.

With the white light pouring in through the windows, the strange camera angles, the actors and characters constantly repositioning between shots, the climax of Things Past is very much structured like an Orb experience. Odo “breaks character” while reenacting memories to properly contextualise them, trying to reconcile himself with a past trauma. Although the event is not explicitly (or even implicitly) linked to the Prophets, it very strongly evokes Sisko’s own reconciliation in Emissary.

"No wonder Quark had trouble turning a profit. I mean, that is some seriously ominous back lighting."

“No wonder Quark had trouble turning a profit. I mean, that is some seriously ominous back lighting.”

In some ways, Odo’s characterisation here foreshadows his later actions in episodes like Children of Time or Behind the Lines. It confirms something that was heavily implied as early as the first season, that Odo’s sense of “justice” is more flexible than he would acknowledge and prone to distortion. In Is Odo a Collaborator?, Sander Lee points out that Odo continues to wrestle with these challenges in later episodes:

While the consequences of the Cardassian Occupation were explored in a number of episodes, perhaps the most profound moral questions were raised by the role played by Odo, the changeling who acted as the head of security on the space station Terok Nor – later renamed Deep Space Nine – during the Cardassians’ tyrannical rule, which employed slave labour, the use of torture, and religious as well as racial oppression. Long after the collapse of Cardassian rule, Odo comes to flirt with a new form of collaboration as he waffles back and forth between his loyalty to his friends and his attraction to his own people, the Founders.

As ever, Deep Space Nine suggests that history does not always move in straight lines. It might not literally repeat, but it does arc. Less than a year after the events of Things Past, Odo will find himself facing a very similar situation as chief of security on Terok Nor. A more trite television show would insist that Odo has learned from his experiences, but Behind the Lines suggests that Odo is trapped within patterns of behaviour that he cannot break.

"I find that drinking large cups of coffee helps to keep the nightmares away. That and implants from the Obsidian Order."

“I find that drinking large cups of coffee helps to keep the nightmares away. That and implants from the Obsidian Order.”

Odo is a complicated and multifaceted character, and that is what makes him so compelling. He is deeply flawed and blind to his own weaknesses. He repeats his mistakes, perhaps because he has such difficulty acknowledging them. As with characters like Quark or Garak or Worf, a lot of what Odo actually says (and what he projects) runs counter to what the series actually tells us about him. He is a lead character who could never have worked on any other Star Trek show, but who seems perfectly suited to Deep Space Nine.

Indeed, the central twist of Things Past is that the villainous guest character Thrax is a representation of Odo himself. When Voyager opts to tell a similar story in Coda, the villainous guest character is inevitably revealed to be a parasitic alien. Things Past is actually quite clever in this regard. There are a number of very good hints scattered across the episode, from the way that Kurtwood Smith shouts “Quark!” to the way that he carries himself. More than that, the episode is deeply enriched by the twist; the conversation between Odo and Thrax makes a lot more sense.

Thrax isn't feeling himself lately.

Thrax isn’t feeling himself lately.

Kurtwood Smith does great work in an admittedly minor role, essentially playing a version of Rene Auberjonois in Cardassian make-up. Smith had previously played the Federation President in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and acknowledged that the make-up was a challenge:

Yeah, the makeup looked great, but the problem with that—and when I played this Kardashian on… [Starts to laugh.] No, not Kardashian. It’s like Kardashian. When I played the Cardassian on Deep Space Nine—is the makeup just isn’t comfortable, you can’t lay down. For the Federation President, I had to have the lenses where they made my eyes look blue, so everything was always foggy, I was never comfortable, and I’d never get enough sleep. You had to come in at, like, 4 in the morning to get the makeup, then they’d work you for 12 hours, then you’d spend another hour and a half taking off the makeup, so you’d end up getting maybe three and a half hours sleep a night. So by the end, you’re just punchy and grumpy.

Still, Smith does very good work. He would be rewarded. He would land the role of Annorax in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II off the back of his work here. That role would require much less make-up than either of his previous Star Trek performances.

The Terok Nor shuffle.

The Terok Nor shuffle.

Things Past is not the strongest episode of the season, but it is an intriguing and provocative story. It suffers in comparison to Necessary Evil, but it also sets up a number of themes and ideas that play across the rest of the run and the show. On Deep Space Nine, things past hint at things future.

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17 Responses

  1. Always loved this episode; mood, tone, great direction, intriguing story; and good mix of characters, particularly including Garak. I think it marries up to ‘Neccesary Evil’ reasonably well, except for Kira’s attitude at the end. What annoyed me, however, was how the sixth season’s ‘Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night’ was set on Terok Nor but didn’t look or feel anything like this episode or Necessary Evil.

    • Yep. While the sixth season tends to be well-loved, and I can understand why because it has some of the franchise’s best episodes, I think it falters a bit in the final third. Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is part of that. I think the show in some cases pushes too hard in particular directions, with the follow-through of ideas first mooted in the fourth and fifth seasons not as effective as explicitly showing them in the sixth.

      In the case of Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, Dukat was already just-short-of-outright-identified-as a sexual predator in Indiscretion and Things Past. So pushing that further and having him hook up with Kira’s mom feels like the show is pushing those ideas too far. But that’s probably for the actual review in a month or two.

      But I can see what you mean about the lighting. Which is strange as it’s directed by cinematographer Jonathan West. Although I recall most of the story takes place in the nicer “Cardassian” sections of the station, right?

      • Oh, maybe you’re right about that last part. I hadn’t thought of that. I always thought what would’ve made the episode count for more would be if it turned out Ziyal had been the daughter of Dukat and Kira’s Mom – and therefore really WAS Kira’s little sister.

      • I don’t know about that. I always thought it strange when characters in television shows were revealed to be secretly related to one another. It made the “universe” seem unnecessarily small.

      • Does that include Luke and Leia, Darren?

      • Kinda.

        I mean, Star Wars gets a pass, I think because it’s doing big and mythic. It’s as much the saga of the family Skywalker as it is an entire fictional universe. The Star Trek universe doesn’t have that sort of dynasty theme running through it. Which I think is a good thing, generally speaking. I’m imagining “Son of Spock” as perhaps the primary candidate. Although I suppose Dax could count, if you retrofitted the symbiont’s history.

  2. I’ve always really liked this episode. I do not mind the Dukat plot line because it effectively conveys his need to always be the hero, which foreshadows his joining the Dominion. Plus any chance to hear Dukat rationalize himself is fine with me because I love the utter conviction that Marc Alaimo brings to these scenes.

    Also, the scene where Odo watches the bajoran prisoners be excuted once again is heartbreaking thanks to Rene Auberjonois’ performance.

    • Yep. It’s not necessarily that the Dukat scenes are bad. They just feel like they belong in a different episode. But, yes, Marc Aliamo is excellent.

      And you’re right about the execution scene. Although I would argue that LeVar Burton also does excellent work. One of the franchise’s most underrated directors. (Indiscretion, Soldiers of the Empire, Timeless, The Forgotten.)

  3. I have no where else to ask this, but who are your favorite Star Trek characters, from all the series? Mine are Spock and McCoy, Data/Picard/Worf, Odo/Kira/Sisko/Garak/Dukat, Seven/EHM and for Enterprise…I guess Shran, and maybe Phlox?

    • Off the top of my head:

      Kirk/Spock/McCoy/Scotty
      Picard/Data/Worf/Barclay/O’Brien
      Sisko/Kira/Bashir/O’Brien/Odo/Worf/Garak/Weyoun/Martok/Gowran/Dukat/Damar/The Singing Klingon Chef on the Promenade
      Torres/Seven/EMH
      Trip/T’Pol/Reed

      That’s a lot, but over all favourites in bold.

      • Singing klingon chef? Where was that again?

      • He popped up twice in the second season. Melora, for example.

        He was just a great example of Deep Space Nine as a thriving multicultural hub, and gave a sense that there was more going on on the Promenade than just Quark’s and the Bajoran Temple.

  4. To me, Things Past feels like a lesser sequel to Necessary Evil. It seems a little too calculated in trying to recreate the elements that made that episode such a success, right down to the final scene in the security office with Odo and Kira on opposite sides of the desk, a shameful secret has emerged out into the open and the question of trust hangs over the room for the final fade out.

    Where Things Past is a little more successful is in bringing Odo’s past as a collaborator to the fore, which has always been one of DS9’s most fascinating grey areas. Kira told Odo in they’re first meeting that on or off the record, he is working for the Cardassians and not the neutral observer he likes to think he is. And later in Rocks and Shoals she said that a saying in the Resistance is if you weren’t fighting the Cardassians, you were helping them. Odo was a collaborator and Things Past is the episode that drives that point home to Odo. He can no longer deny the shameful part he played in the Occupation and must accept the judgment of history, Kira and the people on DS9.

    I always thought the triggering of the enzymes in Odo’s brain is the first step on his way back to being a Changeling. Maybe that’s why when the baby Changeling linked with him in The Begotten it completed the process.

    In the TNG episode Allegiance, Kova Tholl told Picard the Mizarians had survived being conquered by following the path of least resistance, and that’s almost exactly what Thrax says to Odo. There are probably more than a few Cardassians that truly believe the Occupation was good for Bajor. It’s interesting to think that perhaps Odo held to that belief as well at some point.

    I always thought Odo looked scrawny during the execution scene and now I know the reason why. I hadn’t realised it was the less developed Odo of S1, and not the change in makeup some of the actors went through like Michael Dorn or Roxanne Dawson.

    “Kira really let things go to Hell while I was gone”; nah, that’s Riker or Chakotay. Kira usually holds things together in Sisko’s absence. I observed that James Cromwell was channelling Rene Auberjoinois’s mannerisms in Starship Down. I wonder if he would have been good as Thrax playing Odo. Kurtwood Smith mistook Cardassian for Kardashian; I wondered when that would finally happen.

  5. I didn’t like this episode for two reasons:

    1. I thought the whole telepathy thing was cheesy and didn’t bear up to scrutiny–even moreso than your usual ST plot contrivance.

    2. I find it hard to think of a more egregious waste of a guest star than the use of Kurtwood Smith here. He’s not playing a real character. He’s not even playing an illusion of a real character. He’s playing the illusion of an illusion of a real character.

    • Eh, I can go with a silly plot concept if the pay-off is worth it. Our Man Bashir is a great example. If Things Past scrapes past that threshold, it does so just barely.

      • It wasn’t the actual concept that I cared about. It’s just that the logic of the concept wasn’t internally consistent, if that makes sense. So this is being formed all out of Odo’s memories of that day, or something. How would he know that Dukat is creeping on Dax? Is he filling this in from other information?

        I mean, Our Man Bashir goes out and sets the rules–the stakes are high, and people could die. That’s why it works. To me, Things Past never does a good job of setting the stakes and the parameters of the concept. The explanation at the end is the psychic equivalent of technobabble (psychobabbe)?

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