Honour Among Thieves is effectively Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pitching itself as a nineties crime film.
One of the luxuries of Star Trek is the sheer flexibility of the format week-in and week-out, the capacity to tell different sorts of stories depending on the tastes of the writers. The franchise can do comedy episodes like The Trouble with Tribbles or House of Quark, political thrillers like Sins of the Father or Homefront and Paradise Lost, weird science-fiction like Whispers or Threshold. The possibilities are endless, the variety incredible. It is a remarkable flexibility, to the point that the audience is never entirely sure what genre they will end up with in a given week.
The writers on Deep Space Nine have long been fascinated with the darker side of the Star Trek universe, the pulpy aspect of the franchise that was largely downplayed in the Rick Berman era. Episodes like Necessary Evil played with the conventions of noir storytelling, while Whispers hinted at some postmodern paranoia. The Orion Syndicate were brought back into twenty-fourth century continuity in The Ascent. Occasionally, the strands would come together, most notably in A Simple Investigation, a cyberpunk noir that blended “net girls” with bantering assassins.
Honour Among Thieves very much continues along that evolutionary line. It picks up the Orion Syndicate thread from earlier episodes like The Ascent or A Simple Investigation. However, it also positions itself very much in the context of nineties gangster cinema. This is Deep Space Nine channelling Donnie Brasco, casting O’Brien as a mob informant finding himself sympathetic to his target.
The Deep Space Nine writing staff can be rather shameless in borrowing from their influences. Profit and Loss was very much Casablanca. Meridian was Brigadoon. Fascination was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Our Man Bashir was a titular nod to Our Man Flint while also an extended homage to the James Bond franchise. They have even tended to look outside the franchise for influences in their science-fiction, with Statistical Probabilities referencing Asimov, Whispers alluding to Dick, and A Simple Investigation nodding to Gibson.
The other Star Trek shows also do homages and references, but rarely as overtly and not quite as frequently. There is something quite compelling about the way that Deep Space Nine lends itself to these extended homages. Appropriately enough, Deep Space Nine seems to serve as something of a nexus point, an outpost where the Star Trek franchise is most likely to intersect and overlap with other types of story. In some ways, the series could be seen as a metaphorical extension of the eponymous station; a pop culture junction.
It makes sense that the production team would finds themselves drawn to this sort of plot. As René Echevarria confesses in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the “undercover officer sympathises with his target” plot is basically a stock television episode:
“We’d been looking for an O’Brien show, because it had been a while since we’d done one,” says Echevarria. “I’m not sure we found a level to this that made it truly an O’Brien show, or even truly a Deep Space Nine show. The story’s a little familiar. Every television detective series has done a story about a crime fighter going undercover, getting involved, and coming to respect the code of the bad guy. So it wasn’t a resounding success for me. But O’Brien is our Everyman, and if O’Brien can find himself sympathizing with a gangster-thug-killer, then anyone should be able to.”
Echevarria’s right. “Undercover cop has second thoughts about criminal” was already a cliché when Miami Vice went into production, and that series hit upon the plot point several times over its run. In some ways, it makes sense that Deep Space Nine would tell this story now. The basic plot feels like a “why not?” story, in the same way story One Little Ship.
Of course, the basic premise of Honour Among Thieves is ridiculous. The plot hinges on O’Brien being snapped away from his position as Chief Engineer on Deep Space Nine to infiltrate a small corner of a galactic criminal empire on Farius. The script offers only the weakest possible handwave to explain why an engineer was best suited to the task. “I realise you didn’t exactly volunteer for this. Believe me, I wish we hadn’t been forced to turn to someone outside Starfleet Intelligence for help,” Chadwick confesses, explaining that O’Brien is looking for a mole.
Even ignoring the fact that intelligence organisations tend to have their own internal investigative units to handle this sort of thing, or that this would seem the perfect wet work for the unit at Section 31 waiting to be introduced in Inquisition, the question remains: why choose O’Brien? Why choose any staff member on Deep Space Nine, but why choose O’Brien in particular? O’Brien was a soldier, not a spy. Sisko might be too high profile to send, but surely Kira would do Starfleet Intelligence a favour. Surely Dax would be better suited to the task?
Of course, there is a very good reason why O’Brien has been chosen for this assignment, although not within the storytelling universe. Honour Among Thieves is the sixth season’s first (and best) “O’Brien must suffer!” episode, the annual (or twice-annual) fixture wherein the Star Trek universe draws upon an infinite array of science-fiction storytelling choices to ruin the life of the franchise’s first working class protagonist. Colm Meaney brings an incredible humanity and fundamental decency to O’Brien, which makes it easy to engage with his plight.
Honour Among Thieves is built around O’Brien because it simply would not work as a story with Dax or Kira. Dax is generally self-aware enough to put an emotional distance between herself and her work, particularly given her lifetimes of experience and her status as a science officer. Kira has unapologetically admitted to murdering collaborators and non-combatants in the past, so she would not bat an eye at what happens to Bilby. O’Brien is a character with a very real sense of emotional empathy and considered compassion. His affection for Bilby feels genuine.
Still, on a practical level, this is a ridiculous conceit. It is probably for the best that Honour Among Thieves does not attempt to over-explain it. There is a reference to the peculiarity of the circumstances in the teaser, but then the story gets moving. Similarly, the writing staff once again find themselves fumbling against the constraints of nineties network television, spending the first three minutes of the episode after the teaser writing the rest of the cast into throwaway scenes on standing sets.
These scenes are a staple of episodes of Deep Space Nine that feature one or more members of the core cast on an extended trip away from the station; the inclusion of the scene between Odo and Quark at the start of Through the Looking Glass comes to mind, as does the joke about Quark’s advertising jingle in The Quickening. Modern television shows would be comfortable enough leaving these cast members out of the episode entirely, leaving Honour Among Thieves as an O’Brien-centric episode with a small appearance from Bashir or Keiko in the coda.
However, there is a sense that the conventions of nineties television are hemming in the writers. Because Deep Space Nine has this large primary cast and these impressive standing sets, there is an expectation that the series should check in on them at least once a week. It must seem particularly frustrating to actors like Michael Dorn, Armin Shimerman or Rene Auberjonois to have to go through their standard make-up routines for a single forgettable joke scene that plays very much against the tone of the rest of the episode.
Honour Among Thieves seems well aware of this awkwardness. Tellingly, the episode gets these station-bound scenes out of the way as weekly as possible, bookending the O’Brien-driven plot thread rather than punctuating it. In some ways, this heightens the awkwardness of these short scenes; the cut from the crew lamenting the station’s technical malfunctions to Bashir being legitimately concerned about O’Brien is jarring, if only because it would be easy enough to segue between the two scenes by giving Quark’s last line in the previous scene to Bashir.
The crime genre is a staple of popular culture. It could reasonably be argued that the gangster is just as much an American archetype as the cowboy, although crime films have endured more successfully than westerns. Crime films date back to the earliest days of the medium, from the less-than-a-minute short Sherlock Holmes Baffled to the short film The Musketeers of Pig Alley to the serial Fantômas to the classic Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. Even modern audiences are casually familiar with the explosion of film noir in the thirties and forties.
Still, while the basic formula is very old and Deep Space Nine has a longstanding affection for classic Hollywood cinema, Honour Among Thieves exists very much in the context of nineties crime films. The genre never disappeared from American cinemas, but it did go through something of a rest period in the eighties. While the eighties still spawned classic (and hugely influential) crime films like Scarface or Once Upon a Time in America, the volume of crime films dropped dramatically.
In the nineties, there was a major resurgence in films about criminals and gangsters. Honour Among Thieves went into production in late 1997. On top of Donnie Brasco, that year saw the release of Jackie Brown, L.A. Confidential, Lost Highway, Cop Land, Hoodlum, Mean Guns, Truth or Consequences N.M., Blood and Wine, Acts of Betrayal and City of Industry. The previous year had seen the release of films like Bound, The Funeral, Mulholland Falls, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and Last Man Standing.
This resurgence of the crime film during the nineties was an interesting cultural moment. It could be seen as a reflection of cultural anxieties in the aftermath of the moral certainty presented by the Cold War, perhaps most effectively evoked in the release of and discussion over films like Natural Born Killers. It might also have been read as a reflection of contemporary masculinity in crisis at the turn of the millennium, driven by the veiled anxieties that would be given form in Fight Club.
On less pseudo-psychological sense, it could be contended that the revival of these crime in the nineties reflected a broad cultural nostalgia for the aesthetic and mood of the seventies. This trend was reflected elsewhere in popular culture by the paranoia of figures like Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, or even in the temporary revival of epic natural disaster movies like Dante’s Peak or Volcano. This connection to seventies crime cinema was cemented by Francis Ford Coppola’s rather cynical return to The Godfather with The Godfather: Part III.
In a more general and commercial sense, the resurrection of the crime film during the nineties could be traced back to the work of directors like veteran Martin Scorsese and enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino. Taken together, these two filmmakers really redefined what the crime film looked and felt like. Scorsese crafted an energetic exploration of masculinity against a strong moral background, while Tarantino brought a reflexive charm and wry banter to the genre.
Indeed, the influence of both directors is visible in Honour Among Thieves. There are some flashes of weird Tarantino dialogue touches in how the members of the Orion Syndicate banter among themselves, particularly in the opening episode. Bilby, Flith and Krole are introduced having an extended conversation about what to eat. “Let’s have Krellan food,” Flith suggests. “No,” Bilby protests. “Last time that gave me heartburn.” Flith responds, “That’s because you eat too fast.” Bilby explains, “I eat when I’m hungry. And when I’m hungry, I eat fast.”
It is a short scene, but it very much feels like an homage to the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s theatrical directorial debut. That film also focused on an undercover cop infiltrating a group of criminals, and it opened with a much more extended and colloquial conversation over breakfast that culminates in an argument about the finer etiquette of tipping. It is not a scene driven by plot exposition, instead using a mundane scenario to introduce the audience to the characters and their dynamics. Honour Among Thieves does something similar, albeit clumsier.
Similarly, Honour Among Thieves also borrows some of its stylistic sensibilities from Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese’s nineties gangster duology. Both of those films explain the allure of the criminal lifestyle in heavily materialistic terms. Gangster films always played with the idea of crime as alluring, but often suggested that the thrill or the action was the appeal. There are shades of that to Scorsese’s work on Goodfellas and Casino, but his films tend to emphasise the material appeal of the life of crime; the money, the social prestige, the trappings of power.
Honour Among Thieves suggests something similar about the Orion Syndicate. While the Star Trek universe has always been a bit cagey about the workings of money and currency, there is still something decidedly materialistic about how Bilby effectively welcomes O’Brien into the organisation. He buys O’Brien a nice suit and a shave, the markers of class and privilege. “Now that’s more like it,” Bilby insists. “I think you look great, Connolly.” The episode does not suggest crime as a life of violence, instead playing into the idea of crime as performative masculinity.
If the scene introducing Bilby could be seen as an allusion to Reservoir Dogs, then the raid on the “Bank of Bolius” in the middle of the episode feels like a nod to Goodfellas. The positioning and execution of the robbery in Honour Among Thieves evokes the way that Scorsese handles the Luftansa Heist in Goodfellas. Scorsese places the iconic robbery in the middle of the film, but keeps the action mostly off-screen. Instead, it is presented a scheme that enriches the characters and defines the bond between them. The Bank of Bolius robbery is used in a similar way.
However, Honour Among Thieves feels closest to Donnie Brasco. Released in February 1997, about half a year before the episode went into production, Donnie Brasco is an adaptation of the autobiographical true crime novel of the same name. Joseph Pistone infiltrated the mob during the late seventies, tying back into that broader sense of cultural nostalgia. The adaptation played up the idea of Pistone as a conflicted man caught between his duty and his affection for his mob contact Lefty.
As George S. Larke-Walsh argues in Screening the Mafia, the film plays into a whole host of specifically nineties sensibilities in its portrayal of the mob world and Pistone’s interaction with it:
The tired and disillusioned figure of Lefty dominates the film. The pathos surrounding the character is far greater than was evidenced in Pacino’s previous gangster film, Carlito’s Way. Lefty has never been anyone’s hero, and this is shown as the reason for his weakness in his relationship with Donnie. The film expertly dissects the intricate hierarchy of Italian American Mafia relationships. The notion of the morality of traditional bosses in The Godfather appears niave after the brutality of Goodfellas and sympathy is now focused on the vulnerability of the little-men, rather than the angst of the upper echelons. Furthermore, the style is reminiscent of Goodfellas, in that many scenes are constructed as “staged documentary”, as if monitored by FBI cameras. However, as with The Godfather or The Funeral the film’s emphasis is on emotions as much as action. The characters may not be likable, but they have well-rounded personalities and are not simply caricatures. The Village Voice describes Lefty as a “lovable goombah.” Donnie Brasco marks a significant shift in narrative focus from violence and style to psychological angst – a fitting precursor to the TV series The Sopranos.
There is that sense of fractured masculinity, of a man in a role traditionally considered quite masculine who is nevertheless emasculated and disempowered.
There are any number of direct parallels between Honour Among Thieves and Donnie Brasco, most notably in the way that Bilby “witnesses” for O’Brien in front of his direct superior. It recalls the way the conversations in Donnie Brasco about how “vouching” for the wrong person might get a mobster killed. It reinforces the sense of the informant’s complicity in the eventual tragic death of the sympathetic mob figure, by allowing the criminal to take responsibility for the undercover officer who knows that they will likely die for this error in judgment.
“If I vouch for the guy, I could end up dead,” Donnie protests at one point in Donnie Brasco, underscoring the error in judgment that Lefite has made. Honour Among Thieves underscores that same tragedy repeatedly. “Do you know what I just did for you?” Bilby asks of O’Brien after their first collective meeting with Raimus. “I witnessed for you. If anything happens, I’m accountable.” When Raimus kills off Flith, he teases Bilby, “It’s a good thing you never witnessed for him or you’d be lying there too, Bilby.”
However, the similarities between Honour Among Thieves and Donnie Brasco are most pronounced in how the stories approach their criminal characters. Deep Space Nine has always been the Star Trek show most interested in characters who exist at the periphery. This is most obvious in the status quo suggested by Emissary, the idea of a trading stop that exists as nexus between important places. It is reinforced by the recurring sense of Deep Space Nine as an island of misfit toys, inhabited by the broken and the dysfunctional.
Even as the sixth season makes a conscious turn towards the epic and sweeping with episodes like Sacrifice of Angels, The Reckoning and Tears of the Prophets, there is still a sense that the writing staff appreciate the show’s position on the periphery of the Star Trek universe. Stories like Statistical Probabilities, Waltz and Far Beyond the Stars have assured audience members that the Dominion War is still raging. However, Deep Space Nine remains at the edge of that fray. Once Sisko retakes the station, Deep Space Nine seems to be at the edge of the board.
Deep Space Nine is presented as out of the way for Senator Vreenak in In the Pale Moonlight, a detour from his important business of state. The sixth season tends to examine the Dominion War from a number of perspectives that are not explicitly tied to the front lines; Honour Among Thieves looks at how the war affects the criminal underworld, Change of Heart focuses on a mission behind enemy lines, In the Pale Moonlight plays with the political games being played. These choices were probably budgetary, but they do fit with the ethos of Deep Space Nine as a show.
In some respects, it makes sense that Deep Space Nine should be drawn to the Orion Syndicate as a concept. The criminal organisation had been introduced in Journey to Babel, but had been largely ignored by the Berman era. However, Deep Space Nine was particularly interested in elements that subverted the Star Trek brand. Deep Space Nine introduced concepts like Section 31 or currency into the twenty-fourth century. These were elements that may have fit with the first season of Star Trek, but which brushed up against the expectations of the Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
Deep Space Nine arguably had a very romantic and anarchistic view of life on the frontier, skeptical of any centralised authority. The Federation was repeatedly undermined and tweaked, whether through its policy towards its citizens in The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II or through the more militant version of Starfleet suggested by Homefront and Paradise Lost. Centralising power tended to be a bad thing, and there were recurring suggestions that the Federation was at best a bureaucratic nightmare and at worst a force for ill in the universe.
In fact, there are even hints at that within the episode. O’Brien’s primary mission on infiltrating the Orion Syndicate is to expose a mole within Starfleet Intelligence. Starfleet and the Federation have had any number bad apples before, from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to Too Short a Season to The Drumhead to Ensign Ro. However, these corrupt officials tended to be motivated by ideology or belief. In contrast, the mole in Honour Among Thieves is just plain greedy.
O’Brien comments upon this in his discussion of the mole with Bilby. “I just find it hard to believe that someone in Starfleet could be bought,” O’Brien confesses. One imagines that Gene Roddenberry would sympathise with him. Bilby explains how this officer fell into the Orion Syndicate. “Raimus met him when he was vacationing on Risa last year.” It provides a nice call back to Let He Who is Without Sin…, both in reference to the events of the episode and to the themes. Of course the softest and weakest representatives of the Federation are found on Risa.
This skepticism about centralised authority perhaps explains the choices that Honour Among Thieves makes in its handling of the Orion Syndicate. The episode makes a point to characterise Bilby as a working stiff rather than a major crime lord. In many ways, Bilby consciously mirrors O’Brien. Deep Space Nine has consistently suggested that O’Brien is a character who is effectively a working class individual in a world of phasers and replicators. Bilby is an ordinary guy who works to provide for his family. He just happens to work as a gangster.
Honour Among Thieves makes repeated reference to Bilby’s lack of influence and power. When Krole short-circuits his implant, he complains, “I can’t go to Raimus and ask him to pay for a replacement.” Even Bilby coughs up his “fare” to his superior. “I pay my fare to Raimus,” he explains to O’Brien. “Every month. That’s the way it works. He’s above me in the organisation.” The Orion Syndicate seems to have a very rigid hierarchy.
Gelnon, the Vorta from One Little Ship, even likens the criminal Orion Syndicate to the fascistic Dominion, which provides a clear framework for how Honour Among Thieves views the organisation. “I never realised how much the Dominion and the Orion Syndicate have in common,” Gelnon confesses to Raimus. “It seems that in both organisations, loyalty is everything.” There is also a sense that both organisations are overseen by uncaring powers with little compassion for those who execute directives.
Indeed, there is probably something very revealing in the fact that Honour Among Thieves returns time and time again to the word “organisation” to describe the Orion Syndicate. It steers clear of the words usually applied to criminal empires in popular culture. The Orion Syndicate is not a “clan” or a “family”, words that imply some common bond or mutual concern. The Orion Syndicate is an “organisation”, a rigid hierarchy with an interest that seldom advances the cause or the plight of its lowest-ranking members.
Bilby is a killer, but he is also trapped within a much larger power structure. “When Raimus tells you to do something, you just do it,” he tells O’Brien. Later on, he confesses, “Sometimes I wish I could just get away from it all. But what would I do with myself? I’m too old to start over. Besides, who am I to complain? The organisation’s given me opportunities I never thought I’d have.” There is something tragic in Bilby’s inability to imagine a life outside a system that will happily grind him up and sacrifice him to the Klingons.
Indeed, Honour Among Thieves makes a point to emphasise how pathetic and impotent Bilby actually is. At one point, Bilby hires a prostitute for O’Brien, which feels like a nod to the hyper-macho opulence of gangster films, only to play out in a delightfully awkward fashion; O’Brien excuses the prostitute so that men might engage in polite conversation without recourse to her services. When O’Brien confesses his identity to Bilby, the crook laments his own status as collateral damage. “I wasn’t even your target. I suppose I’m not important enough.”
After all, Farius is not even the centre of the Orion Syndicate. It is not the hub of any major activity. It is a backwater world. “There’s a Klingon Ambassador here?” O’Brien asks Chadwick at one point. “Gowron mustn’t like him too much.” Although O’Brien is joking, it is a nice set-up for the reveal that Gowron actually doesn’t like the ambassador too much, sending him to Farius as a way of marginalising him. Even the Dominion’s plot of Farius seems secondary. It might cause some political instability, but it is unlikely to turn the tide of the war overnight.
As such, Bilby is presented as a tragic figure rather than an aspirational one. He is very much framed in the same way that Donnie Brasco presents Lefty. He is not a masculine ideal, but instead a dysfunctional and marginalised figure. Bilby’s attempts to appear macho involve tailored clothes that simply look “fine” and a prostitute who gets paid for sitting on a bed fully clothed. In some ways, the portrayal of Bilby as a representative of organised crime in Honour Among Thieves hints at the anxieties around masculinity in late nineties pop culture.
Nick Tate does good work as Bilby, although Honour Among Thieves is somewhat overshadowed by surrounding circumstances. Tate was not the production team’s first choice to play Bilby. In fact, Tate filled in at the last minute. The role had originally been offered to veteran character actor Charles Hallahan, perhaps best known for his work in films like Going in Style or The Thing. Although Hallahan was actually younger than Tate, he had a very different screen presence. This would likely have changed the dynamic greatly.
As The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion explains, the last-minute change in casting arose from a very tragic set of circumstances:
“This is a very complicated and sad story,” Eastman says. “The casting decision really came down to Nick and Charlie. But what Ira and I found interesting is that there was a kind of physical resemblance between Charlie and Colm, so that you could almost believe that Charlie was Colm’s father. And we thought that would have been very interesting to work with, so that tilted the balance. We went with Charlie, and I told Nick about our reasons.
“Charlie was very excited to do the show,” Eastman continues. “But before we got into production, he had a heart attack and died. It was very tragic, losing such a gentleman and an actor of that quality, a very, very sad circumstance, but we had to go ahead and call Nick. It felt quite odd asking him to come and do the part in that situation, but he took it with a great feeling of wanting to do it in honour of Charlie’s memory.”
Tate is very effective as Bilby, creating a character who very clearly wants a friend. However, there is sense that Bilby might have worked better as a father figure to O’Brien.
Honour Among Thieves is a little bit too rough around the edges to really stand out as a classic episode. Perhaps Hallahan might have been that missing element that could have elevated the story around him. However, it remains a fascinating addition to the canon, and an intriguing genre experiment for Deep Space Nine. It also works quite well at presenting an off-centre view of the Dominion War, suggesting a front that operates beneath the fleets vying for control of the Alpha Quadrant.
Honour Among Thieves is an oddity, but an endearing one. It tells a familiar story, building it around a reliable aspect of Deep Space Nine. That’s no crime.