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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Empok Nor (Review)

Empok Nor is effectively a slasher movie.

It is Bryan Fuller’s second story credit for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and it shares a number of tonal and thematic similarities with his story for The Darkness and the Light. Both episodes are essentially pitched as serial killer horror movies, in which monsters from the past stalk our lead characters. These are fascinating tonal departures for the Rick Berman era of the Star Trek franchise, even if they feel like the logical extension of early horror-tinged episodes like The Man Trap or Charlie X or The Enemy Within.

The great game.

The great game.

Empok Nor is not as well developed or as effective as The Darkness and the Light. It lacks the thematic and character-driven punch of that earlier episode, even suffering as a little derivative. While Kira’s efforts to reconcile her past as a terrorist with her current status quo was the driving force of The Darkness and the Light, the contrast between O’Brien as a soldier and O’Brien as an engineer feels a little underdeveloped in Empok Nor. More than that, Empok Nor suffers from casually transforming Garak into a gloating nineties serial killer.

At the same time, there is a cheeky thrill to watching the Deep Space Nine production team try their hand at a particularly trashy and visceral genre, offering jump scares and atmosphere on familiar sets with the lighting turned way down low. Empok Nor is not a standout of this most spectacular of television seasons, but it had its charms.

Sleeping beauties.

Sleeping beauties.

The slasher genre was largely considered defunct by the start of the nineties. A particularly nasty horror subgenre, the slasher frequently featured teenagers being hunted by nigh-invulnerable killers and hacked to bits. Although the genre arguably included classics like Psycho, it was frequently dismissed and overlooked in terms of critical discussion. After all, the genre had certain sensibilities that lent themselves to casual misogyny and senseless gratuitous violence.

In some ways, this knee-jerk reaction reflected a general critical snobbishness about genre work in general. Science-fiction and horror narratives are liable to be dismissed or overlooked in discussion of broader cultural trends. This is a shame, because these stories frequently have a lot to say about contemporary values and norms. A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the defining feature films of Ronald Reagan’s America, for example. The Shining is a fantastic exploration of abusive relationships while also exploring broader notions of American identity.

"Yep. This episode definitely has some slasher DNA."

“Yep. This episode definitely has some slasher DNA.”

However, the slasher film was largely an artefact of cinematic history for most of the nineties. However, that changed dramatically with the release of Wes Craven’s Scream in December 1996. The film was a huge critical and commercial success, resurrecting a genre that many had written off:

Following the success of Scream in 1996, the slasher genre was momentarily revived. A slew of slashers like I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty and Urban Legend were released soon after. It also revamped dormant franchises. The House on Haunted Hill remake and Halloween: H20 followed within the next few years. 

As a result of Scream, it was difficult to go to the cinema in the late nineties without passing a poster for some questionable teenage slasher film with a healthy supply of irony thrown into the mix. Empok Nor was broadcast only five months later, but its sensibility feels very much of a piece with that resurrected genre.

Letting the gravity of the situation sink in.

Letting the gravity of the situation sink in.

Of course, it should be noted that Empok Nor is the second episode of Star Trek with a “story” credit for writer Bryan Fuller. Although Fuller would not get the opportunity to write a teleplay until The Raven, early in the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager, his first two story ideas share a number of his own sensibilities and stylings. The Darkness and the Light is very much a Ronald D. Moore script, but its horror elements owe a lot to the original story from the up-and-coming Star Trek fan.

Fuller is a writer with a lot of affection for the horror genre. Although he would oversee series like Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Fuller would arguably make his greatest impression on popular culture with his work on Hannibal. In fact, that horror series would become Fuller’s longest-running television show, complete with constant chatter about the possibility of a revival. Fuller is a television writer who truly broke out with a television series focusing on the most iconic fictional serial killer of the nineties.

Sew, that's what this is.

Sew, that’s what this is.

Indeed, Fuller points to horror as a major influence on him as he grew up. Somewhat ironically, he points to The Munsters as his introduction to the genre:

Looking back, it’s funny how the lighter family-friendly version of these classic Universal movie monsters that were satirized in The Munsters seduced me like a gateway drug into the genre. In junior high I read a lot of Stephen King, whose Americana approach to writing was often about “the terror next door” and at the same time I was reading a lot of Clive Barker, who was on the other end of the horror pendulum: insidious and disturbingly psychological. I found it fascinating how these two authors came at horror from two totally different perspectives.

It should be noted that one of Fuller’s sadly failed television projects was the pilot for the aborted television series Mockingbird Lane, which aspired to be a twenty-first century version of The Munsters.

Full tilt.

Full tilt.

With all of that in mind, it is no surprise that Empok Nor aspires to be a slasher movie in deep space. Indeed, a lot of the stranger (and more illogical) plotting and story choices can be explained as stylistic touches to evoke the genre. This is most obvious in the way that the episode portrays the eponymous space station. Empok Nor is consistently shown to be off its axis, looking slightly askew. This is, by any logical standard, ridiculous. There is no “up” in space, as Commodore Paris argues in Star Trek Beyond. So there is no “askew”, either.

Why doesn’t the runabout approach Empok Nor on the same plane, as has been the norm for Star Trek over the previous thirty years? Why are all the external shots of the station taken at a dutch angles given that there is no relative direction in space? Even accepting that there might be an up or a down in space relative to the galactic plane, what exactly happened that the station could have been knocked off its axis like that? Why is one side lower than the other? These are all valid questions, given what audiences know about space in general and Star Trek in particular.

Lighten up. Batman will be here in a moment.

Lighten up. Batman will be here in a moment.

Of course, the answers are very simple. This is a horror story. The decision to show Empok Nor as being off its axis is to convey an inherent and instinctive sense of “wrongness.” The shots of the station being “off-balance” work so well because they make no sense on any rational level. In fact, it should be noted that they are ultimately the logical extension of the dutch angles employed by director Mike Vejar on the physical sets. Even when gravity is restored, the camera still tilts. The external shots are an extension of that. Trying to explain it in-universe misses the point.

Empok Nor plays into the tropes and expectations of this sort of horror story. The bulk of the episode unfolds on an abandoned Cardassian station, one built to the same specifications as Deep Space Nine. While the decision to shoot the episode on standing sets was likely influenced by budgetary concerns, there is something very effective about seeing these familiar sets warped and distorted. Much like the glimpse of the station’s past in Necessary Evil or the station’s alternate present in Crossover, the horrors seem more vivid for their uncanniness.

Awakening.

Awakening.

Empok Nor is structured like a horror film and build around horror movie clichés. The episode is driven by the trio of O’Brien, Nog and Garak. However, they are accompanied by four guest stars; two engineers and two security officers. These are quite pointedly fodder for whatever horror lurks on the station. Colm Meaney is protected by the security of a television contract, while the writers have invested too much in Nog and Garak to kill them off in a horror movie tribute. As a result, the four yellow-shirts are ultimately walking cadavers.

There is something almost endearing in how casually the episode sets up their characterisation. Pechetti likes to collect trophies, which is rendered so explicitly as a defining character trait that O’Brien literally remind him that “this is a salvage operation… not an opportunity to indulge [his] collecting obsession.” And Pechetti is the most developed guest star, only to be the first to die in a reasonably clever subversion of expectations. The other guest stars are drawn even more broadly. Boq’ta is terrified. Amaro is trigger-happy. Stolzoff is competent.

"I sense a franchising opportunity."

“I sense a franchising opportunity.”

There are other nice horror movie touches in the plotting and storytelling. Most intriguingly, the entire episode is driven by the consequences of an experiment conducted by the Cardassian High Command in order to use chemical stimulation to design better soldiers. This adds a nice sense of nineties paranoia to proceedings, tapping into the same sort of anxieties that frequently drove television shows like The X-Files and Millennium while also reflecting contemporary worries about chemical additives to food and water.

“I took a tissue sample from the soldier’s body,” Garak reports after killing the first Cardassian. “It seems the unfortunate soul had been given a massive dose of psychotropic drugs.” He elaborates, “I can tell you one thing. It wasn’t to make him amicable. The drug’s protein structure seems designed to amplify my people’s xenophobic tendencies. My guess is that the soldiers that were left here were part of a Cardassian military experiment. The High Command was probably looking for a way to further motivate their troops.”

Nog, knowing he was only a recurring guest star, came prepared for the trip ahead.

Nog, knowing he was only a recurring guest star, came prepared for the trip ahead.

This background detail naturally recalls all manner of shady experiments by United States authorities. It obviously recalls the CIA’s experiments with LSD as part of MK-ULTRA. However, it also reflects the state-sanctioned use of stimulants by American soldiers dating back to the sixties:

The U.S. military officially approved amphetamines in 1960. Since then, we’ve employed them in Vietnam, Panama, Libya, and during the first Gulf War. Today, all four branches of the U.S. armed forces authorize the use of dextroamphetamine under specific conditions. The Army rations caffeine gum, and every survey suggests that most U.S. aircrews, when in action, use stimulants.

Although all of these practices date back to the middle of the twentieth century, they only really became part of the national conversation during the nineties owing to conspiracy-minded writers and directors like Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, or controversies like President Bill Clinton apologising for illegal radiation trials.

Getting on board with it.

Getting on board with it.

Empok Nor is even structured like an old horror film. Director Mike Vejar and writer Hans Beimler are very aware of the genre in which they are working, and Empok Nor features all of the elements that one might expect from such a story. The episode’s first act break features a seemingly sleeping (or dead) Cardassian suddenly opening his eye; it plays like a much earlier variation on the tried and tested “the monster is really still alive” ending that is grafted on to so many of these slasher stories for a cheap jump scare.

Similarly, the episode features a number of jump scares that work to varying degrees. The sequence in which Boq’ta discovers the bones of a Cardassian in the third stasis tube seems a little hokey. More effectively, Pechetti is clever ambushed while examining a particularly stylish Cardassian emblem. As Pechetti approaches the glass case, the audience expects an attack from either behind Pechetti or from behind the glass case holding the logo. Instead, Pechetti’s attacker swipes at him from the case to the right-hand side, catching the audience a little off-guard.

Oh, sheet!

Oh, sheet!

Empok Nor plays its horror story conventions almost perfectly. Investigating a seemingly abandoned and poorly lit station, the cast inevitably split up. O’Brien frequently makes a point to keep the “important” characters together so that the guest stars can be easily murdered. Even when operating in pairs, the characters frequently wander off from one another. Hearing a strange noise on the promenade, Stolzoff wanders off by herself and leaves Pechetti alone. In a nice touch, Stolzoff lasts a few seconds longer than Pechetti.

Of course, it is hard to justify these plot decisions in the terms of the internal logic of the show. These are trained characters who are used to dealing with high stakes scenarios. There is a sense that the script understands this. After Stolzoff and Pechetti are murdered, O’Brien suggests that the characters separate again. Boq’ta objects. “We’re going to split up?” he inquires, justifiably. O’Brien argues that it’s necessary to split the workload, but it would arguably make more sense to keep the five together for as long as possible. But sense does not enter into horror.

"I'll be right back."

“I’ll be right back.”

While the first half of Empok Nor plays its horror conventions very well, it runs into some trouble in its final couple of acts. Empok Nor begins with the gleeful slaughter of a bunch of guest stars before escalating to a conflict between a drugged-up and psychotic Garak against Chief Miles Edward O’Brien with Nog trapped in the middle. The climax is a problem in a number of different ways, both in terms of character and in terms of tone. Most obviously, Garak’s inability to murder Nog only serves to emphasise how ridiculous the slaughter of the yellow shirts is.

There are moments when Empok Nor engages with the bigger recurring themes of the fifth season in general and of the entire series as a whole. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine has demonstrated a renewed interest in the legacy of the Cardassian Occupation, an exploration into how the past shapes and defines the future. It plays out literally in episodes like Trials and Tribble-ations and Ties of Blood and Water, but also even in little character beats like the conversation between Major Kira and Kai Winn in Rapture.

Grave risk.

Grave risk.

In Empok Nor, the past intrudes yet again. Empok Nor is an abandoned Cardassian station, much like Terok Nor was only five years earlier. “The Cardassians pulled out about a year ago,” O’Brien tells Sisko, and now an intrepid crew of Federation officers are moving in. The sleeping Cardassian serial killers are a literal representation of past horrors reawakening in a new era. The Cardassians slumber and stir, like the Cardassian nationalism that led to the looming Dominion War. In the midst of this, Chief O’Brien is asked to confront his own past.

In theory, there is some interesting material here. O’Brien is a fascinating character, particularly when examined as a military veteran. O’Brien is a former soldier who has done a number of horrible things in the line of duty. It is no secret that O’Brien is ashamed of those things that he has done, as explored literally in The Wounded and thematically in Hippocratic Oath and Hard Time. It is repeatedly suggested over the course of Deep Space Nine that O’Brien resents himself for what he knows he is capable of doing in the line of duty.

"You're good crew, but you're also mostly guest stars. I'm fairly certain only one of you will get out of this alive."

“You’re good crew, but you’re also mostly guest stars. I’m fairly certain only one of you will get out of this alive.”

However, Deep Space Nine also insists that O’Brien is not solely defined by his experience as a soldier. O’Brien is an engineer. He is a man who repairs broken things. He has built a new life for himself. Empok Nor suggests as much in its teaser, as Nog converses with his superior. “My father says that I can learn a lot from you,” Nog suggests. “He says you can fix anything.” O’Brien responds, “I’m an engineer. That’s what we do.” The implication is that O’Brien has already fixed himself, transforming himself into something better.

This is just one of several reasons why the “O’Brien must suffer” episodes work so well. Colm Meaney’s wonderful Irish stoicism is a large part of it, but there is also a sense of integrity to O’Brien as a character. More than any other character on Deep Space Nine, except maybe Sisko, O’Brien seems like a character who can take horrific amounts of abuse and still find a way to put the pieces back together. There is something very elegant and optimistic in that metaphor, and worth returning to at any point when Deep Space Nine threatens to get a little cynical.

'Ear we go again.

‘Ear we go again.

So there is a nice bit of tension running through Empok Nor about whether O’Brien has truly left his past behind him. The Darkness and the Light put Kira through a similar emotional ringer to much greater effect, perhaps because Kira is utterly unashamed of her past. Unlike O’Brien, Kira never hated the Cardassians for what they forced to become, because Kira never hated herself. O’Brien is much less comfortable with his past actions, and Empok Nor simply lacks the narrative heft to play that story out to its logical conclusion.

“I’d love to play Kotra against the hero of Setlik Three,” Garak boasts on the runabout trip to Empok Nor, even before he has been affected by the psychotropic drug. “We all know your distinguished war record; how you led two dozen men against the Barrica encampment and took out an entire regiment of Cardassians.” O’Brien responds to that observation with a simple denial. “I’m not a soldier anymore. I’m an engineer.” Naturally, once Garak goes crazy, he fixates upon the idea of pitting himself against “the hero of Setlik Three.”

Engineering a winning strategy.

Engineering a winning strategy.

O’Brien is forced to take on Garak. Garak is disappointed at how little struggle O’Brien offers. “I expected to see the bloodlust in your eyes but all I see is fear. Maybe it’s true. Maybe you’re not a soldier anymore.” O’Brien responds to the set-up. “You’re right. I’m an engineer.” He defeats the psychotic Cardassian through a handy last-minute technology-related hail mary. It is a clean resolution to what should have been a more primal struggle. There is nothing with the emotive power of Kira’s self-righteousness in The Darkness and the Light.

There might be a little ambiguity there. After all, can O’Brien really claim to be an engineer rather than a soldier when he is engineering tactical traps for his military opponents? Isn’t O’Brien just a combination of a soldier and an engineer during that climactic confrontation with Garak? A better script might explore that lingering uncertainty, but Empok Nor seems more interesting in wrapping everything up as neatly as possible. As a result, the characterisation seems one-note and simplistic.

Just hanging around.

Just hanging around.

This applies even more heavily to the psychotic version of Garak. In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Andrew Robinson admitted to some frustration with this approach to the character:

“After you’ve done a psychotic, and you’ve gone to that well, it’s very hard to go back there,” he says. “At least for me.”

Yet here he was, twenty-five years later, reading a script in which Garak turns into a psychopathic killer. “After I finished that first draft, I thought, ‘Ugh.’ I felt like the writers were intruding on Garak. He’s such a multidimensional character, such a mysterious character.” But Robinson, who’s considered a regular by cast and crew, decided to wait a bit before he voiced any complaints. “I’ve learned to trust Ira [Behr],” he says. “He has good sense when it comes to Garak. He understands the character. And sure enough, when the next draft came through, a lot of the stuff I hated was gone.”

There are still some problems with the psychotic version of Garak who appears in the broadcast version of Empok Nor.

"Miles to go, before I sleep."

“Miles to go, before I sleep.”

Robinson has acknowledged that he was relatively unhappy with the very one-note toady mirror!Garak, a character that lacked the moral complexity and ambiguity of his mainstream counterpart. After all, Robinson has a long and varied history of playing unambiguous psychotics on the big and small screens. He is perhaps most famous for playing the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry, the villain heavily influenced by the Zodiac. He also played deranged characters in Child’s Play III and Hellraiser.

Robinson plays psychotic characters well, but there is something very rote about seeing Garak presented as a stock nineties serial killer. Perhaps wary of getting too much blood on the character’s hands, his transformation comes quite late in the episode. However, it is painfully and awkwardly foreshadowed. After the first deaths, he goads, “Why don’t you come with me, Chief? Kill a few Cardies. It’d be like old times.” When O’Brien confesses to having killed in the line of duty, Garak taunts, “Come now, Chief, don’t be so modest. You did a lot of killing.”

Dark secrets.

Dark secrets.

However, the episode’s final few acts turn Garak into a lame Hannibal Lecter rip-off, spouting psychobabble and making any number of overly-elaborate theatrical gestures while stalking his prey. “This is the most exciting game I’ve played in years,” Garak boasts. “And the best thing about it is that it brings out the player’s true nature.” He warns O’Brien, “Behind your Federation mask of decency and benevolence, you’re a predator.” These are lines that sound like they were written for Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelsen.

Garak proves a remarkably unconvincing serial killer. While the two psychotic Cardassians get through three members of seven-person the away team, Garak only barely manages to kill Amaro. More than that, he leaves Amaro alive just long enough for Nog and O’Brien to find the wounded security officer and hear him identify Garak as his murderer. It is a plot point that feels particularly hackneyed, given the seriousness with which the episode tries to treat psycho!Garak.

"Trust me, we'll be joking about this by the time that we reach Rocks and Shoals."

“Trust me, we’ll be joking about this by the time that we reach Rocks and Shoals.”

More than that, the episode desperately struggles to avoid any consequences from Garak’s actions. Garak murders a man. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances. Garak is doped out of his mind. Amaro is nobody that the audience cares about. However, there are absolutely no repercussions for his actions. This feels very much like a cheat. At least when Garak tried to destroy the Founder’s homeworld in Broken Link he was punished; he was sentenced to the prison and did not reappear until Things Past.

This very casual no-stakes ending recalls the way that Voyager bends over backwards to avoid any long-term consequences for serious mistakes. Tuvok and Torres participated in a mutiny during Prime Factors, but avoided any discipline. Chakotay ignored Janeway’s orders in Manoeuvres, but got to keep his position. Neelix was an accomplice to murder in Fair Trade, but Janeway’s punishment took place entirely off-screen. It is quite frustrating to see Deep Space Nine move away from its fondness for consequences towards that looser episodic style.

Dead weight.

Dead weight.

To be fair, the final scene of Empok Nor offers a few half-hearted handwaves about this. When O’Brien mentions an “inquest”, Garak asks a favour. O’Brien assures him, “Once they know the facts…” However, Garak instead requests, “I’d like you to express my deepest regrets to Amaro’s wife.” It is a nice acknowledge of the death that resulted from Garak’s psychosis, but it only underscores that there are no real consequences from the final couple of acts. This feels like it should be a turning point for the characters, like there should be lasting repercussions. Instead, nothing.

Empok Nor is a surprisingly fun slasher movie homage for most of its first two-thirds, only really falling to pieces once it runs out of anonymous yellow shirts for those anonymous Cardassians to slaughter. Empok Nor is less successful when it attempts to transition into a character-driven psychological thriller, given that it is such a hard pivot that comes so late in the episode. Still, Empok Nor is an interesting diversion and an intriguing experiment. It is an episode that is strange enough that its sizeable flaws never become fatal.

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6 Responses

  1. What this episode does so well is that the gold shirts are actually interesting characters. The audience knows they are there to be butchered, but they are given enough personality that they escape just being sacrificial lambs, but people in their own right. The cinematography is also excellent, and really helps create a sense of unease.

    • I’d agree with the cinematography. It is a great looking episode. However, I’m less convinced by the characters, although they are certainly more than TOS-era redshirts.

  2. I have a real fondness for this episode, but I just can’t get over how cheap it is. They reuse all of DS9’s sets, which I can tolerate, but when it comes to the exterior shots, it’s just DS9 sideways in the middle of nowhere! Not only is there no reason for the runabout to approach the station sideways, there’s seemingly no reason for a station to be out there anyway! Now they could have gotten Empok Nor to work better if they spend a little extra money and put the station in orbit around a planet, like DS9 originally was. In relation to a planet, it would make sense for a space station to appear sideways to the viewer, and indicate the station has been dead for some time. Even better, they could have Empok Nor around a storm planet, for added atmosphere of a hostile space. Event Horizon got a lot of mileage setting the movie on a derelict spaceship within the storm clouds of Neptune. But just tilting the camera like that for the station feels so cheap, it sounds like something the Original Series would have done.

    I also agree that Garek doesn’t make a very good serial killer, really towards the end, he’s just doped and babbling non-sense that doesn’t even come close to getting under O’Brian’s skin. Really, Garak is a very controlled and calculating character, seeing him lose control wasn’t all that interesting. I can’t help but think it would have been more interesting if O’Brian got infected with the xenophonic stuff and Garak had to stop him. Taking O’Brain back alive wouldn’t exactly a part of Garak’s strong-suit being a spy and assassin, so it would be more intriguing to see him use his skills to sort the mess out. Though I guess that would subvert the whole slasher theme by having a sneaky assassin viewpoint character stalk the “monster”.

    • I like your idea of reversing O’Brien and Garak’s roles, although I can’t imagine O’Brien living with himself after doing something like that.

      I don’t mind the cheapness myself, and I’m a lot more forgiving of the runabout approaching Empok Nor sideways than most Star Trek fans I know. It is a little cheesy and makes no logical sense, but I think it sets the tone reasonably well. Although I do love the idea of setting Empok Nor orbitting a storm planet… or even putting it in an ion storm or something.

  3. In terms of long-term consequences for Garak, I’m not sure what those would be. Certainly nothing in a legal sense. In terms of him feeling some guilt for killing a man, I’m pretty sure that ship sailed long ago. Garak, unlike O’Brien who has only killed in combat as far as we know, is a cold-blooded killer; something we saw in “Profit and Loss” and “Second Skin” and would be reminded of in “In the Pale Moonlight”, “Tacking into the Wind”, and “What You Leave Behind” and God knows what else he did in service of the Obsidian Order before the series.

    • I don’t know about there not being any legal consequences. He was drugged, but one imagines that Starfleet would be a lot more wary about working with him after this point. Although it’s not like they have much choice. One imagines that there would have been a certain amount of resentment of Garak, and a bit more mistrust even beyond Nog’s line in Rocks and Shoals.

      As for Garak’s reaction himself, I think there’s a difference between killing somebody because you made a conscious choice to do it, and losing control of yourself.

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