Behind the Lines is an exemplary demonstration of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s embrace of serialisation.
More than any other episode in the opening arc of the sixth season, Behind the Lines is an episode that exists in relation to the other episodes around it more than a self-contained unit of narrative. A Time to Stand set the tone for the final two seasons of the show, but its also featured a daring raid on a Dominion facility. Rocks and Shoals was about a ground conflict between Sisko and a Jem’Hadar platoon. Sons and Daughters was about Worf’s long-neglected relationship to Alexander. Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels are an ambitious two-part finale.
In contrast, Behind the Lines is very much about taking what has already been established and streamlining it in preparation for the bombastic conclusion to this story. Behind the Lines is the episode in which Kira uses her “new resistance” formed in Rocks and Shoals to actually do something, in which Damar finally figures out how to dismantle the minefield that went up in Call to Arms, and in which Odo betrays his friends and colleagues in pursuit of his own gratification. More than any of the episodes around it, Behind the Lines cannot really stand in isolation.
However, it is also a stunningly brilliant piece of storytelling and a reminder of just how skilfully the writing staff on Deep Space Nine had adapted to the demands of serialisation.
Behind the Lines was a notoriously difficult episode to produce, precisely because it so strongly embraced serialised storytelling. The Deep Space Nine writers had been experimenting with serialisation since the launch of the show, but it was still something novel and alien to them. The writers had enjoyed developing dangling plot threads and character arcs, but had also appreciated the luxury of space in telling those kinds of stories. In the first five seasons of Deep Space Nine, actions had consequences, but those consequences were generally somewhat removed.
This was noticeable in the fifth season, when Cardassia’s admission into the Dominion in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light up-ended the political framework upon which Deep Space Nine was built. Tellingly, the episodes immediately following that two-parter skirted the issue entirely; neither Cardassia nor the Dominion was a point of discussion in Doctor Bashir, I Presume, A Simple Investigation or Business as Usual. It was a few episodes before the consequences could be explored in episodes like Ties of Blood and Water or Blaze of Glory.
The writers working on the early sixth season episodes did not have that comfort in mapping out their plots. Deep Space Nine would not be spending enough time away from the station that the writers could indulge in that sort of storytelling. There were not three episodes between A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals in which to work through the implications of Sisko’s raid on the ketracel white facility, nor were there three episodes between Rocks and Shoals and Sons and Daughters to figure out what the writers were doing with Kira’s resistance cell.
As a result, there was a lot more urgency to the writing, and a much tighter sense of collaboration between the various writers working on the show. The writing staff on Deep Space Nine were a well-oiled machine, clearly understanding what they wanted from the show and all pushing in the same direction. There were many reasons why serialisation was not feasible on Star Trek: Voyager, but it seems highly unlikely that its fragmented and conflicted writing staff could ever have integrated successfully enough to pull it off.
After all, plotting a long-form serialised story arc blurs the lines of authorship on a teleplay. Is a writer really writing their own story if they are striving to hit beats agreed by the entire room? What happens when the writer actually working on a teleplay has to deviate from the agreed plan? Ronald D. Moore acknowledged that this was a challenge:
It’s been a challenge. We’ve had to work much more closely as a staff than we ever did before. Typically, each writer has a fair amount of leeway when it comes to translating an approved story outline into an actual script. I often deviate from the beat sheet if I feel something’s not working or I have a better idea. But in this case, that means hurried conferences with everyone else working on the same story arc and lots of scrambling to make sure everything is in sync. It’s been a struggle, but a good one and I’m glad we’re doing it.
This had already caused some friction earlier in the arc, with Moore having to hastily rewrite his station-based subplot in Rocks and Shoals based upon the creative direction taken in Sons and Daughters. Although individual writers are credited on the teleplays, they are driven by the larger writers’ room.
It is worth stressing how ambitious this story was in the context of nineties television. Of course, Deep Space Nine was not the first heavily-serialised prime-time television show. However, following the difficulty selling prime-time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty into syndication, American television had adopted a more rigidly episodic approach to storytelling in the late eighties and into the nineties. However, things began to change in the second half of the decade, owing to shows as diverse as E.R., The X-Files, Babylon 5 and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
Deep Space Nine was not quite a trailblazer, but it was comfortably ahead of the curve. As a result, its storytelling has aged remarkably well. After all, what is the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc of the sixth season but the kind of story that might be told over half of a season prestige television? It is impossible to know at this point, but it seems highly likely that the first season of Star Trek: Discovery will owe more to this stretch of Deep Space Nine than to the entirety of Voyager.
This ambitious arc only worked because the creative team were willing to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, something that the franchise did all too rarely. In the context of the larger arc, Behind the Line represents the point at which the production staff seemed strained to breaking point. As The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion notes of the production:
By all accounts, the fourth episode in the arc, Behind the Lines (originally titled Life During Wartime), was the toughest one to write, and the one that went through the most changes. “Poor René,” says Behr. “He was really behind the eight ball on that one, going around to each of us, asking ‘What are you doing?’ ‘What are you doing?’ ‘What are you doing?’ He was suffering, and it was a very painful experience, but ultimately, the show worked. It’s amazing that it turned out as good as it did because usually, when shows have that painful a birth, they usually show it on-screen.”
By all accounts, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels were easier to write than Behind the Lines, because they offered a neat resolution to the arc. Behind the Lines was a challenge because it served as something of a nexus point in the larger story. In some ways, this seems to set a limit on the production team’s ability to tell long-form stories at this stage of Deep Space Nine‘s life.
Indeed, it should be noted that such limit arguably applies to the even more ambitious ten-episode arc that closes out the seventh season. The first four episodes of that arc (Penumbra, Til Death Do Us Part, Strange Bedfellows and The Changing Face of Evil) are the most heavily serialised, followed by a makeshift two-parter (When It Rains…, Tacking Into the Wind) that resolves the larger Klingon arc, and then by two relatively stand-alone episodes (Extreme Measures, The Dogs of War) before the big finale in What You Leave Behind. Four seems to be the limit.
In spite of the difficulty behind the scenes, Behind the Lines works beautifully. Part of that is down to the creative talent involved, with René Echevarria and LeVar Burton among the most underrated writers and directors to work on the franchise. More precisely, Behind the Lines is a story that plays to their relative strengths. Echevarria is one of the strongest character-driven writers on the franchise, as demonstrated by Explorers or The Visitor. LeVar Burton is among the best actor-driven directors, as demonstrated by his work on Cogenitor, Similitude or The Forgotten.
Behind the Lines is largely a character-driven episode, notable as the only episode of the opening arc not to have an impressive space battle special effect sequence. Dax’s mission into the Argolis Cluster unfolds entirely off-screen, with Sisko spending the bulk of the episode fretting and worrying. Similarly, there is no sense of immediate threat or tension on Terok Nor, with the Female Changeling appearing very secure in her position. Behind the Lines is a very much a war story, but it is a different kind of war story than A Time to Stand or Rocks and Shoals.
Behind the Lines is the first episode of the season to focus its primary plot on Terok Nor. The station appeared in all three episodes to this point, but it was never the primary focus of a given episode. A Time to Stand was very much about establishing the status quo on the station after Gul Dukat seized control, but the bulk of the action unfolded in the plot thread focusing on Sisko and his daring raid. Rocks and Shoals spent most of its time on the planet with Sisko, relegating Kira to a subplot. Sons and Daughters split its time more evenly between Alexander and Ziyal.
The thread focusing on Sisko in Behind the Lines is the secondary plot of the episode. It is a nice little story about how wars tend to divide families, and the difficulty of watching somebody else put their life in danger while following orders, but it is not the heart of the teleplay by any measure. In fact, according to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the original intended subplot for the episode was too large for the space available:
“It couldn’t be delivered in the page count we had,” Echevarria continues. “So we came up with a new b-story to fit into those twelve or fifteen pages. This was about Dax getting command of the Defiant and realising how much she loves the fighting. She comes back after the mission and confesses to Sisko, ‘And I liked it. I liked it.'”
“It stirs her in some way because she’s in command of this ship at a time of war,” explains Moore, “touching on all these experiences that the symbiont’s had over the years. She gets into it too far and becomes Patton.”
But that, too, wasn’t to be. “I could never feel it in my heart,” says Echevarria. “I tried to execute it, but we couldn’t spend much on the B-story, so we wouldn’t have even been able to show her fighting the war. It was all sort of off-screen.
“So we reinvented it yet again, making it a much smaller, quieter little story, where you’re just asked to put yourself into Sisko’s shoes and see how hard it must be for him to have to sit back and send his friends to war.”
It is a great example of the sort of creative compromise that the team had to make in writing this epic war saga within the confines of a television series. After all, the show’s production budget had not been increased for the sixth season, which meant that the producers had to be even more cognisant of cost in order to justify the location work in Rocks and Shoals or the epic space battle in Sacrifice of Angels.
Still, the primary focus of Behind the Lines is on the station rather than with the Starfleet crew. The writers did an excellent job setting up conflict and tension on the station in A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals and Sons and Daughters, but very little actually happened. Kira formed a resistance cell at the end of Rocks and Shoals, but it seemed like they did little more than hold meetings in Sons and Daughters. In contrast, Behind the Lines takes the opportunity to tell a story using these characters in this setting.
This obvious from the teaser. A resistance does not need to single-handedly change the course of the war in order to be effective. The opening scenes of Behind the Lines offer a glimpse at a more low-key strategy orchestrated by Kira, trying to turn the Cardassians and the Jem’Hadar against one another by arranging for Rom to plant incendiary evidence where it might readily be found. In a particularly nice continuity touch, that “inflammatory document” was drafted by Damar in response to the raid on the ketracel white facility in A Time to Stand.
The story thread running through these six episodes focusing on Terok Nor is an interesting distillation of several recurring themes on Deep Space Nine, particularly as the show touches on issues of culpability and collaboration. For all that critics and cynics argue that Deep Space Nine is a morally ambiguous or murky television show, it has a very clear moral calculus that plays out repeatedly in its handling of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor. Deep Space Nine repeatedly insists that the only proper response to evil can be action.
Deep Space Nine genuinely believes that Edmund Burke was correct when he insisted that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This was a theme explored in the fifth season, contrasting Odo’s morally compromised culpability in Things Past with Kira’s absolute moral certainty about her own actions in The Darkness and the Light. Odo’s willingness to work with the Cardassians made him an accomplice, while Kira should never have to apologise for the horrible things that she did to protect her homeland.
As is a big recurring theme of Deep Space Nine, history moves in cycles. Characters find themselves drawn in circles, often approaching similar situations from different positions. This epic six-episode arc invites Odo and Kira to experience the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor from new perspectives; Odo now has a much stronger sense of who he is, while Kira has just spent five years working with the Federation. The series uses this contrast to ask what aspects of Odo and Kira are fundamental and unchanging? What is situational and what is fundamental?
Kira’s big character arc in Rocks and Shoals and Sons and Daughters is about to coming to terms with this, understanding that she cannot allow herself to become a passive observer of the war in the expectation that the Federation alone will vanquish the Dominion. This morality is part of Kira’s essential character, and Deep Space Nine embraces that side of her personality. Kira is fundamentally a freedom fighter, something that does not change when she puts on a uniform. This point is emphasised when she dons a Starfleet uniform in When It Rains…
Of course, this Cardassian Occupation is different. The version of the station presented in A Time to Stand is notably different than the wreck that appeared in Emissary, Necessary Evil or even Call to Arms. In fact, Quark even takes time in A Time to Stand to argue this occupation is “not so bad.” He asks, “Do you see any ghetto fences dividing the Promenade? Or exhausted Bajoran slave labourers sprawled on the ground after a grueling day in the Ore Processing Centre? Do you hear the cries of starving children? I don’t.”
Repeatedly over the course of the six episodes, characters attempt to normalise the occupation. “Bajorans are returning to the station,” Weyoun advises Dukat in A Time to Stand. “Life here is returning to normal. The shops are reopening, the Promenade is abuzz with activity once again. The Habitat ring echoes with the laughter of happy children.” When Jake refers to the “occupation”, Weyoun interjects, “This is not an occupation. This is a Cardassian station, Jake, and I’m sure you’re aware that there are no Dominion troops on Bajor.”
If this is an occupation, it is a very civil one. The lighting is turned up high and the smoke machines are turned off. Nobody is screaming in agony, at least not where anybody can hear. The armed guards are lurking in the background rather than towering over their subjects. Care is taken to properly frame every discussion in the right terms. Words are very carefully chosen; this is most definitely not an “occupation”, and the representatives visiting Bajor are really just “facilitators” rather than anything more extreme.
This portrayal of life under a fascist power is quite striking, if only because it plays so skilfully against expectations. The audience saw the state of Terok Nor at the start of Emissary and the ruins at the end of Call to Arms. It makes sense that a new occupation would look very similar to the last one, as presented in flashbacks like Necessary Evil or Things Past or in trips to the mirror universe like Crossover or Through the Looking Glass. After all, the audience and the characters should know fascistic oppression when they see it, right? It should look like Nazi Germany?
Of course, fascism and totalitarianism are often easier to recognise in hindsight, easier to capture through the prism of memory and imagination than in reality. In truth, these types of governments very carefully and very meticulously maintain the appearance of civility and order. After all, Nazi Germany did an excellent job fooling the world in 1936:
In August 1936, the Nazi regime tried to camouflage its violent racist policies while it hosted the Summer Olympics. Most anti-Jewish signs were temporarily removed and newspapers toned down their harsh rhetoric, in line with directives from the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Joseph Goebbels. Thus, the regime exploited the Olympic Games to present foreign spectators and journalists with a false image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.
There were protests, but Barbara Bursten argues that the Games legitimised Hitler, “It kind of dulled the opposition to [Hitler] that clearly had been quite evident up to 1936… A lot of people felt he was clearly heading in the wrong direction, and by going to the Olympics we gave him the opportunity to appear sane, rational and tolerant.”
The key to legitimising any fascist movement lies in normalising it, often through conscious attempts to realign perception and to distort reality. The racists supporting the election of Donald J. Trump are no longer called “white supremacists”, they rebrand themselves as the “alt-right.” The first press conference of the Trump administration was called to lambaste the media for daring to show unedited pictures of the crowd attending his Inauguration. This is to say nothing of the punishment of the National Parks Service for publishing factual information.
The key is to insist that something truly horrifying is merely business as usual. History has repeatedly suggested that people will generally go along with terrifying policies as long as the disruption to their day-to-day existence is minimised. The behavioural psychologist Stanley Milgram famously boasted on Sixty Minutes in 1979 that “if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”
In the world of Deep Space Nine, those willing to stand by and do nothing as evil takes root share some responsibility for whatever happens. Even Quark learns this lesson over the course of the six-episode arc. In A Time to Stand, it is Quark who argues that the new occupation is not as bad as it could be. “Now don’t get me wrong, I miss the Federation too,” he assures Kira and Odo. “All I’m saying is, things could be a lot worse.” Odo concedes, “I hate to say this, but he’s right.” Only Kira seems unconvinced.
If Kira is the character who recognises the horror of passive collaboration early on, and Odo is the character who falls most obviously under its spell, it is Quark who gradually awakens to its seductive suffocation. This isn’t really a surprise. The Deep Space Nine writers have repeatedly pointed to Quark as a character with a surprisingly strong moral centre, in episodes like The Jem’Hadar or Business as Usual or The Siege of AR-558. The production team tend to treat Quark as an every man character, offering a more grounded perspective.
It makes sense that Quark is originally drawn in by the luxury and the optics of the new Cardassian occupation, and who is initially reluctant to involve himself in the risky business of opposing a fascist military force. Even during this stage of his character development, Quark’s hidden decency shines through. At the start of Sons and Daughters, he seems genuinely concerned about Jake involving himself with Kira’s cell. “You don’t want to get involved in this,” he warns Jake. “But if you are looking for something to do, I could use another waiter.” It’s a joke, but he means well.
However, as the arc continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Quark cannot remain passive or disengaged. Indeed, the fate of Sisko and his crew ultimately comes down to Quark’s desperate last-minute rescue attempt in Sacrifice of Angels. His decision to act frees Rom and Kira, which in turn allows them to disarm the station, which in turn allows Sisko to retake the station. Deep Space Nine is a series that believes in action as something with intrinsic value, and with little patience for standing on the sidelines.
There is a moral imperative to the fight in Deep Space Nine, rooted as it is in the history of the mid-twentieth century. The obvious point of reference for the Dominion War is the Second World War, but the show has such a keen eye for human behaviour and psychology that it has aged remarkably well. The issues of collaboration and resistance certainly resonate into the twenty-first century, whether examined in light of the War in Iraq or even through the resurgent nationalism of a Trump presidency.
One of the more interesting recurring threads of the sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine is the sense in which the show seems to summon the future of science-fiction television. In particular, it often feels like Battlestar Galactica is gestating in the background of these stories. Certain ideas and plot points on Battlestar Galactica play like extensions of ideas that were mooted on Deep Space Nine, as if Ronald D. Moore was finally ready to push past the limitations that the franchise had imposed upon him.
I think a lot of Battlestar was born at Deep Space Nine in that Deep Space started as much more episodic because of the nature of the show, it became more a continuing serialised structure. I really liked that, and I discovered I really liked that style of storytelling, and also particularly when we got into the later years of Deep Space, and we started telling the Dominion War story (1997-99), we would sit and argue and fight with the powers that be at Trek about making it a more realistic war, about making it grittier, and ugly; adding more ambiguity to the characters, and roughing it up a little bit, and I kept bumping my head against the strictures at Trek. What Star Trek is could not accommodate things that I wanted to do, so I started to have this sort of pent up frustration about ‘well if we were really going to do it right’, these ideas would sit in the back of my head so when Battlestar came along, I could now do all of those things that I was never allowed to do at Deep Space.
Although Deep Space Nine never attained the cultural cache of Battlestar Galactica, it is a key evolutionary link.
These episodes provide a very valid point of comparison between Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica. There are obvious plotting and thematic comparisons to be made between the six-episode “occupation” arc at the start of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine and the four-episode “New Caprica” arc at the start of the third season of Battlestar Galactica. Both stories split an established cast between those stranded under an enemy occupation and those in the fleet desperate to return home. Both stories deal with themes of betrayal and collaboration.
In some ways, the “New Caprica” arc could be seen to revise and improve upon the “occupation” arc. After all, Battlestar Galactica enjoyed much greater storytelling freedom; the writers did not have to justify themselves to a Rick Berman figure, and so could really push the boat out in terms of violence and sexuality and grit. Certainly, the horrors inflicted upon the characters on New Caprica are more harrowing than anything experienced by Kira or Odo. Prominent characters die and are forever changed, not just a token sacrifice from the supporting cast.
Certainly, the “New Caprica” arc captured the contemporary imagination in a way that the “occupation” arc did not. Battlestar Galactica was very much a show for its time, one of the defining television shows of the War on Terror. In fact, Battlestar Galactica was deemed so topical and so relevant that it transcended the barriers of genre that have traditionally separated science-fiction from more prestigious programming. The Guardian compared it to The Wire, and ranked it among the best television dramas ever made. Deep Space Nine never had that prestige.
The comparison seems weighted against Deep Space Nine. After all, that was a show overseen by a bunch of writers still adapting to serialisation, confined by the dictates of the larger franchise, and broadcast on American television in the nineties. There were always going to limitations imposed upon the stories that it could tell, and there were relatively few contemporary events with which the “occupation” arc might resonate. Indeed, its themes of collaboration and occupation seemed purely academic in the context of mid-to-late-nineties pop culture.
And yet, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) that, it holds up surprisingly well. Deep Space Nine always felt out of step with the world in which it was broadcast, never speaking to the nineties in the same way that Voyager did. However, the writers on Deep Space Nine constructed a broader story drawing from larger swathes of history. The result is that the show feels timeless and resonant beyond its original broadcast. Most obviously, Homefront and Paradise Lost are a more powerful allegory for the War on Terror than Star Trek Into Darkness.
The “occupation” arc in the sixth season of Deep Space Nine obviously does not resonate as specifically and precisely with the War in Iraq as the “New Caprica” arc in the third season of Battlestar Galactica, but that is only fair. The “occupation” arc was not tailored for an event that would not occur for more than half-a-decade into the future. However, this also means that the “occupation” arc is not anchored to one particular moment in time, it is not tailored to one specific event.
Deep Space Nine feels broader in its themes and its interests, its allegory purer for the distance between the series any obvious contemporary comparisons. The Dominion War is very much the Second World War, but it is distant enough that it can take on shades of other conflicts; it can evoke Vietnam in The Siege of AR-558, and even resonate with future wars in episodes like The Way of the Warrior. It is all wars, and no specific war, all at the same time. There is something endearing about that broadness, which grants Deep Space Nine an almost universal quality.
Deep Space Nine argues that inaction and compromise are as dangerous to freedom as active collaboration. This is the contrast between Kira and Odo. Deep Space Nine repeatedly suggests that Kira is justified in using any and all means at her disposal to resist tyranny and oppression, but it also insists that Odo is diminished and tainted by his preference for order over justice. The sixth season brings those characters back around to the tough questions they faced during the Cardassian Occupation, and holds them both to account.
Tellingly, Odo’s betrayal of the resistance (and the entire Alpha Quadrant) is presented as a passive act. As René Echevarria explained to Cinefantastique, this aspect of the script also went through a lot of revision:
In its earliest incarnation, Odo deliberately arrests Rom. He is so affected by his relationship with the female shapeshifter, and his innate need for order, that he can’t stomach the chaos he fears Rom is about to start. He actually physically arrests him. I did two drafts trying to get Odo there, and I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t really believe it. It suddenly hit me, that it shouldn’t be a sin of commission, it should be a sin of omission. It’s a lot more believable that we could get Odo there. It’s still a terrible betrayal and a terrible failure, but there’s no way Odo would ever take the step that we thought he was going to. I think it turned out to be a solid show, and kind of shocking.
Odo’s passive betrayal works brilliantly, arguably much better than it would if it were an active betrayal. It is a very clever storytelling choice that works for any number of reasons.
Most obviously, having a major character engage in that sort of betrayal is a risky proposition. It can be difficult to justify having a regular character stay around after betraying such a fundamental trust. The writers on Deep Space Nine are very fond of pushing characters in bold directions, but can occasionally go too far in trying to make characters appear edgy. After all, trust has to be earned. If these characters are to maintain believable long-term relationships with one another, such betrayals cannot be casual or fleeting.
This was a problem with the characterisation of Quark during the early years of the show, with Quark making very stupid decisions that put the entire station at risk in episodes like Move Along Home or Invasive Procedures. The writers occasionally struggled with this tendency when it came to writing Worf, having the Klingon attempt to murder his brother in Sons of Mogh and joining a terrorist cell in Let He Who Is Without Sin… Often, Deep Space Nine has to walk a fine line between believable character development and sensationalist plotting.
In general, Deep Space Nine does much better job presenting Odo as a morally ambiguous character than it does with Quark or Worf. Part of this is down to the simple fact that Odo was established as a vaguely fascist character rather early in the run, insisting that Starfleet’s attitude towards civil liberties made it harder to do his job in The Maquis, Part I and casually eavesdropping on residents’ communications in The Wire. Even before the Founders were introduced in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, it was clear Odo had authoritarian tendencies.
These tendencies are foreshadowed in Behind the Lines, even before the first appearance of the Female Changeling. Odo seems to object to the idea of Kira’s resistance in purely philosophical terms. “I spend my days sitting on the Council with Dukat and Weyoun, doing whatever I can to make sure Bajor survives this war intact,” he insists. “The last thing I need is to have you running around causing mayhem. Do you have any idea what Dukat would do if he found out you were behind it? It’s all the excuse he would need to throw every Bajoran off this station.”
Once again, Odo’s world view is rooted in the importance of order and structure; all other considerations are secondary at best, distractions at worst. “The Federation is losing this war,” Kira warns him. “We can’t sit by and do nothing.” Odo responds, “There are limits to what we can do.” Kira understands Odo well enough to understand what is bothering him. “I’m beginning to think you shouldn’t have agreed to sit on that Council. It’s as if you’re so invested in making sure the station runs smoothly, you’ve forgotten there’s a war going on.”
Even beyond that, the fifth season made a point to repeatedly emphasise Odo’s selfishness and his capacity for self-deception. Things Past rendered explicit an idea that had been suggested by Necessary Evil, that Odo chose order over justice during the Cardassian Occupation and was compromised by that fact. In Children of Time, Odo knowingly sacrifices entire generations of colonists so that Kira might live and that he might have some tiny chance of becoming romantically involved with her.
Deep Space Nine has been markedly consistent in how it approaches Odo’s psychology. Episodes like The Alternate, Crossfire and The Begotten suggest that Odo has the mentality of a teenager, that his gruff demeanour is really an affectation disguising a man with very limited life experience or understanding of how the world (or people) actually work. When Odo is implied to have developed a drinking problem after becoming solid in Apocalypse Rising, the show seems to suggest that he has an addictive personality.
All of these little details of characterisation build to his betrayal of Kira and the Alpha Quadrant in Behind the Lines. When Odo finds himself reunited with the Female Changeling, he begins spending more and more time with her. He begins linking with her. As the two merge, Odo loses track of everything else. After the Cardassians arrest Rom, Kira confronts Odo. “I was in the Link,” he states. “Are you saying you forgot?” she attempts to clarify. “I didn’t forget,” he answers. “It just didn’t seem to matter.”
In some respects, Behind the Lines paints Odo as a stereotypical teenage boy who has just discovered sex to the exclusion of everything else. In fact, the episode even has Odo and the Female Changeling engage in sexual intercourse to drive the comparison home. While it is something of a strange point of comparison for the usually sterile Berman-era Star Trek shows, it makes a great deal of sense given everything that has been established about Odo’s character to this point.
In fact, Odo’s betrayal of Kira and Rom fits so perfectly with his established character that it is easy to gloss over just how groundbreaking and subversive this plot development actually is. This is a regular character on a Star Trek series, who has betrayed his colleagues to a fascist government. He is not under the influence of any foreign government, or any neural parasite. Odo chooses not to run the security diagnostic, which leads to Rom being captured by the Cardassians, which leads to Rom being sentenced to death in Favour the Bold.
Ultimately, Rom’s death sentence is not carried out due to Quark and Ziyal’s jailbreak in Sacrifice of Angels, but this is still a shocking and monumental twist for a Star Trek show. It is very much at odds with the utopian idealism of the franchise, the suggestion that exposure to the Federation’s ideals makes a person better than they would otherwise be. Of course, Odo has engaged in any number of morally questionable decisions in the past, but none have so directly threatened the rest of the primary cast.
This creates an interesting tension in Behind the Lines. As much as Odo’s betrayal of Rom and Kira fits his character as established, it is fundamentally opposed to the moral framework of the larger Star Trek universe. This means that Odo’s inaction works as a brilliant twist; it is the rare twist that is perfectly foreshadowed and set up, but which still catches the audience off guard because it plays so strongly against their expectations. It is the kind of twist that could only really work on Deep Space Nine, that would not play with any other Star Trek series.
This is part of why Behind the Lines works so brilliantly, and why it feels like such a perfect fit for the larger arc of the Dominion War. Having spent several seasons straining against the expectations imposed by the so-called “Roddenberry box”, the sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine finally allow the series to break free. Having a regular character passively sabotage a plot to save the entire Alpha Quadrant is a prime example of this. It is a storytelling beat that would have seemed impossible while Roddenberry was alive.
Behind the Lines is careful to root this development in terms of its characters. In purely statistical terms, Odo’s inaction could the entire Alpha Quadrant. It is the very definition of an epic betrayal. However, Behind the Lines very cannily anchors that betrayal in a more relatable and understandable dynamic. It is presented as a personal betrayal of Kira, a character who clearly loves and trusts Odo. “Jealous?” Damar mockingly asks Kira of Odo’s relationship with the Female Changeling. There is some suggestion that Damar hit a nerve.
To be fair, this development does pose some challenges to the Deep Space Nine writing staff. While Odo’s betrayal makes a lot of sense in terms of his character and motivation, the writers do struggle with the aftermath of his inaction. Odo redeems himself by helping Kira and Rom to sabotage the weapons in Sacrifice of Angels, but that feels like the bare minimum that he could do given the massive potential cost of his decision. There is a sense that there should be some lasting consequences for Odo; if not legally or professionally, at least personally.
The writers fumble with Odo’s characterisation in the immediate aftermath of Behind the Lines, as if unsure how best to move forward. The realities of television drama in the nineties mean that the writers could not kill the character off, even if they wanted to; his treachery cannot be redeemed through death in the way that Battlestar Galactica redeemed Ellen Tigh’s betrayal of the resistance in Exodus, Part II. More than that, Deep Space Nine has never been that ruthless, and Odo is too intriguing a character to kill off with almost two seasons to go.
However, Odo never really answers for his betrayal. Quark never holds Rom’s arrest and near-execution against his frenemy. Kira is a little bit more upset, but they eventually reconcile their differences in a closet in You Are Cordially Invited… and eventually become a couple in His Way. It feels strange that Kira could ever forgive Odo for what happens in Behind the Lines. As with a lot of the relationship between Kira and Odo in the first six seasons of the show, there is a sense that Kira’s agency and motivations are secondary to Odo’s emotional needs.
Still, these are problems that will only become clear in the episodes following this extended arc. The actual character dynamics on display in Behind the Lines feel entirely organic and reasonable, demonstrating just how well Deep Space Nine constructs character-driven stories. Even with the epic Dominion War raging in the background, the characters are pushed to the fore. This is obvious even in smaller dynamics, like Dukat and Weyoun vying for the Female Changeling’s attention, a scene that feels perfectly in character for all involved.
One of the most persistent criticisms of Deep Space Nine is the suggestion that it adopted a decidedly “soap opera” approach to characterisation, wallowing in melodrama and interpersonal relationships. However, this feels like a pejorative term applied to basic characterisation by fans who prefer plot-driven stories. Asked about the distinction between “soap opera” and “character-driven plotting”, Ronald D. Moore acknowledged it as a false dichotomy:
Soap vs. Character is kind of a phony argument. People who like action-oriented shows and dislike character studies tend to label those kinds of stories as “soap opera”. But the truth is that continuity and character are what make DS9 special within the Trek lexicon and if people want to label as soap, that’s fine with me.
Moore makes a valid point, and one that is entirely defensible. The Deep Space Nine writing staff made a conscious effort to ensure that the series’ entire cast were developed and fleshed out. The audience watching Deep Space Nine undoubtedly has a much stronger understanding of Garak and Nog than the audience watching Voyager has a feeling of Chakotay or Tuvok.
There is certainly nothing wrong with character-driven stories, when they are written well and focus on interesting characters played by talented actors. In that respect, it is interesting to contrast Behind the Lines with Sons and Daughters. The two middle stories of this epic six-episode adventure are both character-driven episodes focusing on the idea of strained relationships in time of war, but there is a massive difference in how these narratives approach their plots and their characters.
While Sons and Daughters is an awkward misfire wallowing in heightened melodrama and poor performances, Behind the Lines is a beautifully constructed interpersonal drama focusing on some of the series’ strongest actors and most interesting characters. Behind the Lines is constructed in a much more compelling and effective manner. Its dialogue is less awkward and expository, its character beats feel more logical and coherent, its central tension is more gripping, its conclusion is more striking.
Behind the Lines serves to pick up a lot of the momentum that was lost with Sons and Daughters, beginning the process of ramping up the arc towards its grand conclusion with Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels. It does this through a very clever and very tight script that builds to a betrayal that feels at once surprising and entirely in character. Behind the Lines is a superlative piece of television, an episode that really demonstrates the extent to which the writers on Deep Space Nine are willing to push the show outside its comfort zone.