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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Chimera (Review)

Chimera is a welcome return to form for the seventh season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, following an underwhelming run of episodes from Prodigal Daughter through The Emperor’s New Cloak and into Field of Fire.

It is another example of how storytelling real estate in the seventh season is at a premium, the production team understanding that their remaining time is finite and that there are a number of key plot and character beats that the show needs to hit before it can begin the massive final arc that will run from Penumbra through to What You Leave Behind. As such, Chimera has a very clear purpose in the overall arc of the seventh season. As with Treachery, Faith and the Great River, this is an episode designed to clarify that Odo cannot remain on Deep Space Nine forever.

Their Laas.

However, Chimera is more than just the writing staff moving pieces across a chessboard. It is in many ways an exploration of one of the fundamental (and often unspoken) tensions within the larger Star Trek universe. As with a lot of Deep Space Nine, there is a sense that Chimera is consciously exploring and interrogating some of the underlying assumptions of Gene Roddenberry’s massive universe. In particular, Chimera is an episode that wonders whether mankind can ever be truly comfortable with the alien, and whether there is a difference between assimilation and multiculturalism.

The result is a powerful and provocative piece of science-fiction, a story that has aged as well as the show around it. Chimera is a story about what it means to be different, and what it means to part of a society. It is a cautionary tale about the unspoken conditions that are often attached to membership of a community, and of the conflict between blending in and standing out.

Changelings. Together. Strong.

The plot of Chimera is spurred by the arrival of Laas. Laas is a changeling like Odo, but he is not a Founder. Laas is one of “the hundred”, the infant changelings sent out into the universe by the Great Link in order to gather information about what dangers might be lurking out there in the wider universe. This is an interesting basis for a seventh season episode on a number of levels. Most obviously, it is a return to a premise that the show has not explored in quite some time.

Odo’s origin story was a focal point of several early episodes of Deep Space Nine. In the first and second seasons, Deep Space Nine worked hard to establish a sense of mystery about who he was and how he came to be. Emissary explained that Odo had been found floating in Bajoran space, and taken for study. In Vortex, the show teased that he came from the Gamma Quadrant. In The Alternate, he discovered an artifact that radically affected him. In Shadowplay, it was suggested changelings were a Gamma Quadrant myth.

There’s a lot at steak here.

However, the mysteries around Odo’s origins were largely resolved at the start of the third season, in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II. That two parter revealed that the changelings were “the Founders”, the leaders of the ominous Dominion. These shapeshifters had sent out “the hundred”, a bunch of young changelings into the void. The idea was to gather intelligence on the wider universe, without ever having to leave the Great Link. These young changelings would eventually return home, bringing information with them.

This was a very logical and organic revelation, which worked on a number of levels. It prevented Deep Space Nine from drawing out the mystery of Odo’s origins for too long, while also skilfully integrating the character into the show’s central story arc. It was a clever example of how the writers on Deep Space Nine approached serialisation, tending to fold seemingly unrelated elements back into the core of their overarching narrative. It also refactored Odo’s character arc. Odo was no longer concerned with finding his people, but conflicted about his relationship with them.

“No need to get bent out of shape.”

As such, the concept of “the hundred” was largely brushed aside in favour of more immediate plotting concerns. The subject would be broached once or twice over the ensuing seasons, but the story of how Odo came to be found in the Denorios Belt was secondary to the question of how he related to his people. Odo discussed his origins in Heart of Stone, but the episode was more concerned with the Founders’ desire to bring Odo home. Odo encountered what might have been another member of “the hundred” in The Begotten, but it served as a way to restore his shape-shifting.

There is something jarring in the way that Chimera returns to the concept of “the hundred” more than half-way through the final season. It would be as surreal as meeting Lieutenant George Primmin again, following his appearances in The Passenger and Move Along Home. It would be as uncanny as the return of Subcommander T’Rul, the Romulan attache attached the Defiant in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, but never seen again. It would be like revisiting Kai Opaka from Battle Lines. In the context of the seventh season, “the hundred” feels like a historical concern.

“Don’t worry, Worf, you missed most of the episodes setting this up.”

After all, television shows inevitably evolve and grow, re-purposing concepts and shedding dead weight. Most notably, Sisko’s mission to induct Bajor into the Federation in Emissary goes completely unfulfilled. The concept is last broached in Rapture, where it is vetoed by divine intervention. What had been (very forcefully) established as the central driving narrative premise of the series does not even get a cursory acknowledgement in What You Leave Behind. Even Sisko’s purpose of Emissary has been radically reconfigured, from an vague New Age prophet to a pseudo-Christian messiah.

In some ways, the return to the concept of “the hundred” in Chimera serves as an interesting tether. It is obviously informed by the weight of everything that has been revealed about the Dominion and the Founders in the intervening years, but it serves as a connection back to the first season. Through its use of this premise, as a reminder of how Odo began as a confused alien with no sense of where he came from or who he was, it illustrates how far these characters have come over the past seven seasons.

Lost and Founder.

However, the decision to introduce Laas as one of “the hundred” is interesting in other ways as well. It is a reminder of the clever ways in which Deep Space Nine explores the ideas of species essentialism that underpin so much of the Star Trek universe, the series’ tendency to subvert the assumption that all the alien species in the Star Trek universe can be treated as monolithic entities. Deep Space Nine often explored the central tension between its individual characters the expectations that their societies heaped upon them.

Chimera repeatedly goes out of its way to explain that Laas might be a changeling, but that his biological composition does not make him a Founder. “How do we know he’s not a Founder?” O’Brien asks in the teaser. Odo responds, “He’s not.” Sisko asks the same question later in the episode. “How can we be sure he’s not a Founder?” Odo assures Sisko, “He is not a Founder. He’s one of the hundred, I’m sure of it. Sir, I’m asking you to trust me on this.” When Kira seems concerned about Odo linking with Laas, Odo promise, “There’s nothing to worry about. He’s not a Founder.”

Odo’s got a knick knack for this dating thing.

This is a fascinating distinction, and it is telling that Chimera is so insistent upon it. On a basic level, it reinforces one of the key themes of the episode about the question of what it means to belong to a community, and how perception and prejudice play into that. More subtly, it plays into a recurring theme of Deep Space Nine that identity is not simply a product of biology. After all, Deep Space Nine repeatedly wonders whether Worf is really a Klingon, or just an outsider who likes to roleplay as one. Deep Space Nine repeatedly suggests that if Quark is truly a Ferengi, he is a bad one.

(Many of the characters on Deep Space Nine spend time isolated and alienated from their cultures and societies. Garak is introduced in Past Prologue as a Cardassian with no option but to live on a Starfleet station in the Bajoran system. Worf is exiled for his actions in The Way of the Warrior, and his brother loses his status in Sons of Mogh. Quark is cast out of Ferengi society in Body Parts. Odo is stripped of his ability to change shape and vanquished from the Great Link in Broken Link. Repeatedly, Deep Space Nine suggests identity is a social rather than biological construct.)

“I suppose it couldn’t Hert(zler) to consider some familiar faces.”

Laas is a fascinating character, particularly notable as a one-shot guest character played by a veteran member of the recurring ensemble. As Ira Steven Behr explains in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the writing staff carefully considered all of their options when casting the role:

“We needed an actor who could stand up to Rene, because Rene is so good,” comments Ira Behr. “We had to give him the best. We saw lots of actors, but none of them were doing it for us.” The producers started thinking about the character actors they put the most stock in. Coincidentally, they were all currently under DS9’s employ. “We kicked around the idea of using Jeff Combs for a while,” Behr grins. “We also talked about using Andy Robinson, but his voice is just so recognisable. Then we said, ‘How about J.G.?’ I’m just a huge fan of his, but we weren’t sure. We brought him in and he auditioned for us.”

In Deep Space Nine‘s final season, Laas becomes the third role on the show to be played by veteran character actor J.G. Hertzler. Hertzler is credited under his middle name “Garman.”

To be fair, part of the reason that Laas made the other characters so uncomfortable was because he looked so vaguely familiar.

There is precedent for a Star Trek show to recycle actors. After all, there are only so many affordable actors in Hollywood and the Star Trek franchise was already closing on six hundred episodes of television. More than that, Star Trek tends to rely upon a very specific type of actor. The franchise tends to rely on actors with some theatrical training, which makes sense given the theatrical quality of some of the dialogue. Delivering Star Trek dialogue is a very specific skill, and not every actor has that ability. Even beyond that, acting through latex can be very demanding.

It makes sense that the Star Trek franchise would return to actors who had already proven that they can handle the material. Many of the recurring actors on Deep Space Nine began as one-shot guest performers. Before he was Gul Dukat, Marc Alaimo was Gul Macet in The Wounded. Before she was the Female Changeling, Salome Jens was the alien in The Chase. Before he was Brunt or Weyoun, Jeffrey Combs was Tiron in Meridian. Even J.G. Hertzler went though this pseudo-audition process, playing Sisko’s superior in the prologue to Emissary.

“So… see you on Star Trek: Enterprise?”

However, it was strange for a recurring guest star to step into a one-shot guest role on the same series, particularly while that recurring character was an ongoing concern. Herzler reflected on the surreal nature of being cast as Laas:

“I said to the producers, ‘You mean in all of L.A., you can’t find anyone who hasn’t already been on the show?'” said Hertzler, who was very surprised when he was asked to play a second character on Deep Space Nine while Martok had such a significant presence. “The hope was that people would not recognize me. That was the danger – I said, ‘I don’t want to detract from Martok in any way, so if I can’t completely lose any Martok persona in my performance, please don’t cast me.’ They said it would be fine, but I was scared because I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it.”

The actor used the name Garman Hertzler in the credits, hoping viewers would think he was a different actor. It worked: few viewers realized Laas was played by the same performer as Martok. “I had a wonderful time,” Hertzler recalled. “To be able to walk into a room and insult everybody on the show, legitimately, without any malice! I go into Quark’s Bar and say, ‘I’m very sorry that you’re all humans, you have that burden to carry, but you’re idiots.’ It was a great thing.”

Chimera wisely avoids getting too clever when it comes to using Hertzler. Unlike The Dogs of War, which has considerable fun in featuring Combs as both Weyoun and Brunt, Chimera consciously avoids have Hertzler play both Laas and Martok. Martok is referenced in dialogue, but he does not appear.

The franchise doesn’t hold back.

The casting of Hertzler as Laas solidifies the sense that the Star Trek franchise has a familiar troupe of reliable supporting actors. By this point, the franchise had a long history of recasting single-episode guest stars and minor characters. James Cromwell had appeared in The Hunted, Birthright, Part I and Starship Down before featuring in Star Trek: First Contact. Susanna Thompson would take over the role of the Borg Queen in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, having appeared in The Next Phase, Frame of Mind and Rejoined.

However, Chimera confirms that the franchise is open to recycling actors who have played relatively major (and important) roles in earlier series. The following season, Star Trek: Voyager would cast both Combs and Hertzler in Tsunkatse. Star Trek: Enterprise would open the floodgates. Jeffrey Combs would appear as a Ferengi in Acquisition and play the recurring character Shran. Hertzler would play a Klingon in Judgment and Borderland. However, Enterprise would also use previous series regulars; Rene Auberjonois in Oasis, Ethan Phillips in Acquisition.

“Don’t worry, the production office said they’d have you back next year. How does a Hirogen sound to you?”

To be fair to Hertzler, he does make a valiant effort to disguise his performance, even beyond the latex on his face. Hertzler tried to alter his distinctive voice, offering a vocal impression of one of the franchise’s most iconic actors:

I don’t know why they hired me to do Chimera, to be honest. I did my best to disguise my voice, but people still recognized it. Actually, some people say, “Oh, you were Laas? I had no idea.” That’s rewarding for an actor to hear. I was basically trying to do Shatner, but at a higher pitch. I don’t think I accomplished the Shatner, but I did alter my voice a little bit. I loved that piece because I got to work with Rene Auberjonois the whole time, and I’d never gotten to do much with him before, other than harrumph at each other as our grumpy characters.

It is very much to Hertzler’s credit that Laas works as well as he does. Laas is very much the polar opposite of Martok; he is condescending, cold, and more than a little desperate. Hertzler demonstrates impressive range, even if he fails to perfectly disguise his voice.

What’s a changeling to do?

One of the more interesting aspects of Laas is how Chimera uses the character to really stretch the audience’s understanding of changelings. Many of the aliens on Star Trek can feel quite generic and quite familiar, largely owing to production realities like budget and technology. After all, the Klingons did not even have forehead ridges until Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Because most Star Trek aliens are played by actors, most Star Trek aliens tend to look like human beings with a questionable taste in fashion and considerable skill with make-up.

Chimera points out as much. When Odo insists that the population of Deep Space Nine is diverse, Laas pauses a moment to point out the limitations of the franchise’s approach to alien lifeforms. Laas reflects, “He has bumps on his forehead. She has a wrinkled nose. But they’re basically alike. They’re bipeds that eat, sleep, breathe.” It is not exactly an unfair criticism, even if it seems a little harsh in light of the constraints under which Star Trek tended to operate. Voyager and Enterprise would move towards using computer-generated imagery to make their aliens more uncanny.

All goo, baby.

Chimera reminds the audience that the changelings are fundamentally different from the other aliens who inhabit the Star Trek universe. Sure, Odo spends his time looking like a regular person; in The Way of the Warrior, Odo demonstrated that he even emulates drinking in order to make his colleagues feel less uncomfortable around him. However, while Odo might walk like Rene Auberjonois and sound like Rene Auberjonois, the character is more than just that form. “This is just a form I’ve borrowed,” he informs Kira. “I could just as easily be someone else or something else.”

Over the course of Chimera, Odo and Laas both come to terms with how different they are from the humanoids around them; not just genetically or biologically, but fundamentally. The existence of a changeling is so different from that of a humanoid that it can scarce be explained using language. “Our people spend most of their time in the Link,” Odo explains. “It involves a melding into one, a merging of thought and form, idea and sensation.” Laas is not particularly impressed. “You’re speaking in riddles.” It is a concept for which words are a poor fit.

Shine on, you crazy changeling.

It is debatable whether changelings could ever fully integrate with humanoids, even if they wanted to. Chimera repeatedly hammers home the idea that the relationship between Odo and Kira is doomed by any measure. Discussing his own failed romance, Laas reflects, “We couldn’t have children. That was important to her.” When Odo insists that his relationship with Kira is strong than that, Laas responds, “And if you’re very lucky, you can watch her grow old and die.” By its nature, the relationship between Odo and Kira is impermanent.

To be fair, there has always been something uncanny about Odo. Odo turned himself into a trip rope in Emissary, a mouse in The Circle, a cushion in The Way of the Warrior, a hawk in The Begotten. Odo melted into a pool of liquid in The Forsaken and threatened to flake away into dust in The Die is Cast. Odo used his arms to stop a falling turbolift in Crossfire, and experience intimacy with other changelings by co-mingling as goo. Odo has always been relatively alien, even by the standards of Star Trek aliens.

Odo’s plans to hitch hike back to the Great Link hit an immediate stumbling block.

There are any number of logical questions to be asked about all of this. Does Odo have a fixed mass? If not, where does all that material go when he becomes smaller? What happens if you cut Odo in half? Where exactly does Odo’s intelligence reside? Does Odo use his eyes to see, or are they just an affectation? Laas even asks one such question in Chimera, “Do our people reproduce?” Where did “the hundred” come from? Is the Female Changeling the same character across the run of Deep Space Nine? Does the Great Link destroy and recreate those it absorbs?

Changelings are weird. They are aliens that challenge the audience’s preconceptions and understanding, in a manner that evokes the Borg as they were introduced in Q Who?, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. Like the Borg, the changelings exist so far beyond the audience’s frame of reference that they seem genuinely conceptually alien. However, over time, both the audience and the characters have come to take that weirdness for granted. Familiarity is a part of that, as is the fact that the show has been engaged with other questions.

Things really heat up.

One of the most compelling and endearing aspects of Chimera is the way in which Laas pushes both Odo and the audience to question what they think they know about changelings. Laas is introduced as a creature flying through the void under his own power. This makes a reasonable amount of sense, given what the audience knows about changelings, but which has never been seen before. However, Laas pushes the boundaries even further. Over the course of the episode, Laas materialises as both fire and gas, both new forms for changelings.

As with episodes like Children of Time or Behind the Lines, Chimera is structured to remind the audience that Odo is still relatively young. He might take the form of fifty-eight-year-old man, but Deep Space Nine has repeatedly clarified that Odo is still mentally a teenager. “When did you first assume humanoid form?” Laas inquires of Odo. Odo responds, “A little over thirty years ago.” Laas seems to understand why Odo has such a simplistic idea of what he can do. “So that’s it. It’s all still so new to you.”

Odo always knows how to lighten the mood.

The episode’s closing scene even goes so far as to emphasise this sense of otherness. Returning home to be with Kira, Odo makes a point to share something beautiful with her, transforming himself into light. In an interview with Cinefantastique, director David Stipes was justifiably proud of the sequence:

We combined various levels of elements, twinkle, sparkles, stretching and shimmering colors to do the whole thing. There were some really wonderful things that Digital Muse did, where some of the textures swooped up gently and stroked across Nana’s face. It really became quite lovely. I really wanted it to appeal to women, while the whole idea of snuggling into a gelatinous pile of goo doesn’t sound very romantic, doesn’t sound warm and cozy. After the sequence was finished, women seemed to respond favorably to it, and that was one of the things I wanted to really try and do.

It is a beautiful and genuinely affecting sequence, one that underscores just how restrictive it is to think about Odo in terms of his humanoid form. It is a moment that seems to truly embrace the idea of transcendence, of the idea that something beyond the human form is not inherently monstrous or scary.

Talk about afterglow.

After all, this emphasis on the difference between changelings and humanoids is more than just an example of clever world-building from the production team. It is an important thematic detail. It is a vehicle to explore the challenges of a truly multicultural future. The Star Trek franchise is anchored in a utopian vision of the future, of a world in which people can peacefully coexist with one another, but the franchise is also frustratingly ambiguous when it comes to the details of this idealised universe.

Star Trek tends to skirt the particulars, perhaps because these questions are difficult to answer. How have people learned to get along? What happens when there are disagreements? What happens when people believe in fundamentally different things, whether those things are values or policies or rights? In many ways, the Star Trek universe seems built more on technology than on policy. It frequently seems like the transporter and the replicator have been enough to eliminate mankind’s worst impulses. One of the defining attributes of Deep Space Nine has been to challenge this.

Doesn’t phase him in the slightest.

More than that, the utopian future of the Star Trek universe is very human-centric. The bulk of the major characters are human, especially when it comes to primary characters across the five live-action series. Starfleet and the Federation are dominated by humans. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Chancellor Azetbur argues that the Federation is “a homo sapiens only club.” It is a stinging accusation, and there is more than a grain of truth to it. It should also be noted that the humans at the heart of franchise are also predominantly white men.

As a rule, the Star Trek franchise seems wary of anything that exists beyond human. There are inevitably exceptions, but they are consciously defined as such. Data is a sympathetic android constructed in the image of humanity, but he is defined against countless other sinister robots; What Are Little Girls Made Of?, I, Mudd, Datalore, Whispers, Prototype. Julian Bashir is a sympathetic character who has been genetically engineered to make him faster and smarter than the average human, but he is defined against episodes like Space Seed, Unnatural Selection and The Masterpiece Society.

A touching romance.

Even when it comes to bipedal aliens, the Star Trek franchise tends to rely on shorthand. As a rule, the more human the aliens appear, the friendlier they are. Bajorans and Vulcans are allies. Klingons tend to be threats. The Jem’Hadar are a viscous opponent, while the Vorta are friendlier negotiators. There are exceptions, of course. Nemesis cleverly inverts this dynamic with its two central species. Deep Space Nine has repeatedly charactised the Jem’Hadar as surprisingly honourable and decent. However, by and large, there is a clear trend discernible.

The Star Trek franchise suggests a future in which the boundaries defining humanity are very rigidly and very cleanly enforced. The Borg are monstrous for attempting to blend the biological and the mechanical, a grotesque affront to nature. Khan Noonien Singh is horrifying because genetic manipulation has pushed him beyond the limits of humanity. Although the franchise features a number of hybrid characters like Spock, Troi and Torres, humanity is still very strongly delineated.

Seeing stars.

To be fair, there are undoubtedly production reasons for some of these decisions. Most of the characters on Star Trek are human because most of the audience watching Star Trek are human, and there is an assumption that people want to see people who look like them on television. There are relatively few hybrid characters on Star Trek because it could easily become cumbersome to keep track of various characters’ origins and backgrounds without such delineation. However, these details add up a rather uncomfortable subtext.

Chimera uses all of these details to build a compelling criticism of the franchise’s utopian future, daring to ask how tolerant the Federation really is. Star Trek is built on the idea of a tolerant and utopian future, but what happens when these characters are confronted with something truly outside their frame of reference? How do these characters react when confronted with somebody who doesn’t have a body? How do they respond when dealing with someone who may or may not even be one person? These are legitimately interesting and challenging questions.

No sex, please. We’re changelings.

The issues broached in Chimera have clear parallels within contemporary society. Society has theoretically come to accept that people are equal regardless of gender or ethnicity, even if there are still outstanding issues that need to be addressed. However, other groups have fought to receive even that level of recognition. Homosexual couples still fight to have their own expressions of love and family validated in the manner that heterosexual couples take for granted. Transgender individuals still struggle for basic recognition of who they are.

Tellingly, Chimera chooses to construct the relationship (and the conflict) between Odo and Laas in terms of same-sex relationships. This is an interesting choice in a number of respects. Most obviously, it seems rather late for the Star Trek franchise to be constructing an allegory for gay rights in February 1999. Friends featured a lesbian wedding in January 1996. Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian in April 1997Will & Grace premiered in September 1998. Although still underrepresented, there was nothing transgressive about featuring a same sex relationship on television.

Let’s go outside.

Star Trek was well behind the curve. The Star Trek franchise was notoriously half-hearted in its support and encouragement of the fight for gay rights. The producers had vetoed the production of David Gerrold’s script Blood and Fire in the late eighties, and botched a well-meaning metaphor in The Outcast in the early nineties. Deep Space Nine flirted with the issue in Rejoined, and then squandered a lot of that good will with sleazy and exploitative mirror universe episodes like Shattered Mirror and The Emperor’s New Cloak.

The franchise would wait until Star Trek Beyond and Star Trek: Discovery to introduce explicitly gay characters. Although these creative decisions were worthy and worthwhile, they arrived more than twenty years too late. The franchise’s track record on LGBTQ issues is shameful, particularly in the context of a cultural institution that prides itself on its progressive values. In some ways, Chimera‘s decision to code the relationship between Laas and Odo as homosexual feels like an attempt at self-criticism. Notably, the regulars who are most repulsed by Laas are the Starfleet officers.

To be Nerys to you…

Writer René Echevarria is notable for making repeated efforts to slip queer content into his Star Trek scripts, although in decidedly indirect ways. His first script, The Offspring, features a sequence in which Lal is allowed to assign her own gender rather than having on determined for her. His second script, Transfigurations, might be best described as “gay Jesus”, a surprisingly wry blend of Christian iconography with queer symbolism. Echevarria was also credited as co-writer on Rejoined. As such, Echevarria is one of the few Star Trek writers with a track record in this area.

The homosexual subtext is suggested by the decision to cast Laas as a male actor. Chimera represents the first time that Odo has consensually linked with a changeling identifiable as male; he grappled with male imposters in The Adversary and Homefront, and has merged with the Great Link, but most of his linking has been with the Female Changeling. More than that, linking has been coded as explicitly sexual in nature; Odo and the Female Changeling liken it to sex in Behind the Lines, while it first comes up in the context of a discussion about reproduction in Chimera.

“If it makes you feel better, this time I won’t allow Rom to be sentenced to death.”

Indeed, Kira even responds to Odo’s decision to link with Laas with some small sense of personal betrayal. “The link is part of what we are,” Odo reassures her. “It comes as naturally to us as talking does to humanoids.” Kira is not reassured. “It’s a little more personal than talking, isn’t it?” she asks. In fact, Chimera positions Laas and Kira in a relationship triangle with Odo, suggesting their relationships are equivalent. Similarly, Odo’s refusal to link with Laas in public suggests that he perceives it as an intimate act.

More to the point, the source of the disagreement between Laas and Odo is rooted in conflicts within the gay rights movement. Laas accuses Odo of effectively “passing.” According to Laas, Odo allows the humanoids around him to define his identity, and compromises his own sense of self in order to avoid drawing attention or generating conflict. While this metaphor can be applied to ethnic minorities, it fits more comfortably within the context of gay rights. Gender and race are often (but not always) defined by physical difference, while Laas and Odo argue over something different.

Linking arms in public.

“Link with me,” Laas insists as they walk down the promenade. Odo feels uncomfortable. Laas immediately understands. “You don’t want to do anything to remind them that you’re not truly a humanoid,” he states. “Why not? Are you afraid they will reject you?” Odo responds, “I don’t like to confront people with something that might make them uncomfortable.” Laas accuses Odo of “pretending to be one of them.” When Laas transforms himself into fog, Odo suggests, “Do it in private.” Laas responds, “Did I embarrass you?”

Odo seeks to avoid confrontation by assuming a form that looks humanoid. Indeed, in his default form, there is little to distinguish Odo from a Klingon or a Bolian or any other humanoid alien with a distinctive visage. Odo keeps himself to himself. He regenerates in the privacy of his own quarters, doesn’t use his powers gratuitously and mostly accepts the limitations of his form to avoid making his colleagues feel awkward. He never stretches his arms to grab something across a room, never bounds across the promenade as a cheetah.

Shaped by the expectations of others.

Laas is openly contemptuous of humanoids. “You and I are nothing like them,” he warns Odo. However, Odo has found some security in his ability to change form. What better way to fit in? “We’re changelings,” Odo reminds Laas. “We can be like them when we choose.” Laas seems unconvinced by the argument. “I choose to be like them as little as possible,” Laas states. “That’s where we differ.” There is an unspoken accusation there, a suggestion that Odo is too accommodating of his humanoid colleagues.

Laas refuses to tone down his identity to make other people feel comfortable. He will flaunt his difference in public by drawing attention to himself and what he can do; Laas revels in everything that makes him stand out from the rest of the crew on the station. He will readily engage in public displays of affection, literally eager to hold hands with Odo on the promenade; regardless of the fact that those gestures may make the more close-minded people around him feel awkward. Laas would happily stage his own “changeling pride demonstration on the promenade.”

Odo hasn’t the foggiest idea why others are so offended.

Laas seems genuinely frustrated with Odo’s efforts to fit in. In some respects, it reflects the tension that existed in the gay rights movement in the eighties and into the nineties, with many out-and-proud homosexuals resenting the members of the community that had closeted themselves. As Randy Shilts argued in New York Magazine, there was a perception that closeted homosexuals were actively hurting the cause:

[A] truism to people active in the gay movement [is] that the greatest impediments to homosexuals’ progress often [are] not heterosexuals, but closeted homosexuals. … By definition, the homosexual in the closet [has] surrendered his integrity. This makes closeted people very useful to the establishment: once empowered, such people are guaranteed to support the most subtle nuances of anti-gay prejudice. A closeted homosexual has the keenest understanding of these nuances, having chosen to live under the subjugation of prejudice. The closeted homosexual is far less likely to demand fair or just treatment for his kind, because to do so would call attention to himself.

This is largely the accusation that Laas makes against Odo, that Odo has devoted so much time and effort to hiding his difference that the people around him have never been confronted with who he really is. It is a very bold accusation, but one that makes a great deal of sense. Odo has spent a lot of his existence conforming to the expectations of the humanoids around him.

The Klingons will be fuming over this.

What happens when these characters are confronted with something truly different? The Star Trek philosophy is one of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”, but history suggests that people never been comfortable interacting with anything outside their frame of reference. For all that the Federation and Starfleet are tolerant societies, they have a massive blind spot for organisms that exist beyond their preconceptions of what life looks like. Data challenged these preconceptions in episodes like The Measure of a Man and Quality of Life. The EMH will also do so in Author, Author.

“Humanoids are not very tolerant of difference,” Laas warns Odo. Odo responds with a stock defense of the diversity of the Star Trek universe. “Some of them are,” he assures Laas. “There are dozens of species on this station. They tolerate each other’s differences very well.” Laas is not convinced. More than that, Laas’ paranoia is vindicated over the course of the episode. Laas might not be a particularly pleasant individual, but he is still treated with hatred and derision for the mere fact of his difference.

Walking the walk.

As Deep Space Nine has repeatedly reminded viewers in episodes like House of Quark and You Are Cordially Invited…, Klingons are not particularly open-minded. However, a lot of this prejudice comes from people who would claim to be enlightened. “Don’t change form in my presence again,” a Klingon protests, evoking arguments that gay pride parades should “tone it down.” But is that so different from the reaction of O’Brien and Bashir. “Can’t he be fog somewhere else?” O’Brien asks. Bashir suggests, “Or at night, when no one’s around?”

O’Brien and Bashir offer a very safe, very reasonable form of prejudice. O’Brien and Bashir would never explicitly suggest that Laas shouldn’t shapeshift, because that would be offensive. Laas is a changeling, and O’Brien and Bashir understand that uttering an explicitly anti-changeling sentiment would be wrong. Instead, they fall back on a more insidious form of prejudice. Sure, Laas can change shape, but does he have to rub their noses in it? Why can’t Laas shapeshift in private, where he wouldn’t bother anybody?

“Friendly, open-minded Starfleet officers. That’s what we are.”

This is a form of prejudice that has become increasingly common in an era when concepts like racial equality and gay rights have become more socially acceptable. Instead of suggesting that gay people lack basic rights, instead the question becomes why they have to be so public in expressing those rights. “Well why do they have to come out? Why do they have to tell everyone?” People of different nationalities and ethnicities are fine, but why can’t they just speak English when in public?

Laas suggests that the people on Deep Space Nine only accept Odo because he has worked so hard to be accepted by them. When Laas suggests that O’Brien doesn’t trust shapeshifters, O’Brien replies, “I trust Odo.” Laas responds, “Of course you trust Odo. Look at him. You’ve convinced him that he is as limited as you are.” Later, Laas is blunt in his assessment of how Odo has managed to avoid more overt anti-changeling prejudice during his time on the station. “They tolerate you, Odo, because you emulate them. What higher flattery is there? I, who can be anything, choose to be like you.”

“To be fair, the title A Man Alone wasn’t particularly accurate either…”

Chimera accepts that there is some truth in this. After all, this fear of “the other” was subtext running through A Man Alone, the show’s first Odo-centric story, which suggested that the inhabitants of the station would turn on Odo with only the slightest provocation. Much like The Jem’Hadar or The Siege of AR-558, Chimera casts Quark as a keen observer of human nature. “You never pulled a stunt like that. You’re smart enough to know that people don’t want to be reminded that you’re different. Who wants to see somebody turn into goo? I hope you don’t do that around Kira.”

Quark elaborates, “Don’t you get it, Odo? We humanoids are a product of millions of years of evolution. Our ancestors learned the hard way that what you don’t know might kill you. They wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t have jumped back when they encountered a snake coiled in the muck. And now millions of years later, that instinct is still there. It’s genetic. Our tolerance to other lifeforms doesn’t extend beyond the two arm, two leg variety. I hate to break this to you, but when you’re in your natural state, you’re more than our poor old genes can handle.”

The space between us.

It is a pretty damning indictment of mankind, one that very consciously and very bitterly chips away at the self-congratulatory utopianism of the Star Trek franchise. It raises questions about whether the Federation is truly multicultural, or whether it is a society that believes in cultural assimilation. As Thomas Lacroix explains, this is a debate that dates back generations, and it seems unlikely to have been resolved by the twenty-fourth century:

In France, the issue of assimilation emerged in the 19th century. The question then wasn’t migrants, but of the place of Jews in French society. It was presented as a way to prevent a “race war” that anti-Semitic intellectuals – notably Edouard Drumont, author of Jewish France – threatened would break out. Assimilation was presented as a social pact: the ability to privately maintain one’s religion in exchange for full participation in the construction of the nation.

Such discussions are best understood within the context of the time – they took place during a drive to erase regional and linguistic differences in France through free schooling and compulsory military service. Assimilation was seen initially as a way to treat domestic “others” – Jews – and more broadly, to forge a collective identity out of the mosaic of French regions.

More than any other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine is avowedly multicultural. It is a series willing to push past the human-centric stories that define other iterations of the franchise. Episodes like Soldiers of the Empire, Sons and Daughters and Once More Unto the Breach are told from a Klingon perspective. Episodes like The Nagus, Family BusinessFerengi Love Songs, Profit and Lace and The Dogs of War are larger explored through Ferengi eyes.

However, Deep Space Nine is openly skeptical of the idea that the Federation could ever hope to be a truly multicultural society. In Homefront, Admiral Leyton suggests that the security of Earth should not be left in the hands of an alien president. “I think the President is a long way from home. This isn’t his world. We can’t expect him to care about it the way we do.” In For the Cause, Lieutenant Michael Eddington defects to join the Maquis, and mounts a scathing criticism of Starfleet, suggesting they are worse than the Borg. “At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation.”

In some ways, this is perhaps a criticism of the Star Trek franchise itself, of the production team’s reluctance to present viewers with anything too far outside their perceived comfort zone. There was not one prominent and openly gay or bisexual character over the course of the Berman era. There was not one transgender or asexual character. Relationships were presented in a relatively conservative manner, monogamous and committed love affairs. However, it goes further than that.

Indeed, for all the emphasis placed on diversity within the Star Trek franchise, its composition was decidedly conservative. Twenty-seven of the franchise’s forty credited leads were white, and twenty-nine were male. It is unfortunately revealing that many of the neglected and underdeveloped characters tended to be women and minorities; Uhura, Sulu, Tuvok, Kim, Sato, Mayweather. It is no wonder that many fans felt underrepresented and underserved by the franchise. There was a sense that the future conformed to a very conservative and limited vision of the future.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine worked hard to push past that. Deep Space Nine is notably the only Star Trek series without a white male American lead character, with Armin Shimerman and Rene Auberjonois buried behind prosthetics. More than that, Deep Space Nine made a conscious effort to broaden the franchise’s perspective; Dax repeatedly suggested that she was bisexual, while Odo and Dax could be read as characters extending beyond conventional gender and orientation. Rejoined featured the franchise’s first same-sex kiss.

None of the Starfleet officers in Chimera come across particularly effectively. Sisko is willing to hand Laas over to Martok. Worf insists that Laas “provoked” the Klingons. Bashir and O’Brien are both openly uncomfortable with an out and proud changeling on the station. Tellingly, the most open-minded members of the regular cast are those outside Starfleet. Quark tries to explain what has happened to Odo. Kira is the only person at the bar who is willing or able to take Laas’ concerns about Odo at face. It is Kira who ultimately frees Laas, and does the same for Odo.

Chimera could be seen as a bit of self-criticism in Deep Space Nine‘s final season, as this production team prepared to bid farewell to the franchise. Of the writing staff, only Ronald D. Moore would migrate to Voyager. Even then, he would only stay a few weeks. The seventh season represents that last opportunity for these writers to make bold statements about Star Trek, about what the franchise is and what it could be. In some respects, Chimera plays very much like Crossover, an episode that dares to challenge some of the colonial subtext of the franchise.

Star-crossed changelings.

However, there is also a sense that this is very pointed social commentary that is directed as much at the viewers as at the franchise itself. Star Trek has always imagined a future extrapolated upon American ideals and American values. What is “the final frontier” but the ultimate expression of Kennedy’s “new frontier”? The Star Trek franchise imagines the American century stretching further into the future, with Starfleet and the Federation offering a utopian extropolation of American norms and cultural values.

As such, the recurring notion that the Federation is an open-minded and inclusive organisation reflects the self-image of the United States. After all, one of the founding myths of the United States is that it was a nation founded by immigrants. The Statue of Liberty welcomes those who come to the country “yearning to breathe free”, with no reference to where they came from or what language they spoke or what they looked like. The United States is built on the idea that anybody can be welcomed and can make anything of themselves.

Odo’s sexuality is fluid.

However, it has never been as simple as those broad and idealistic statements of intent. As Michael Lind argues, the reality has always been more complicated than all that:

This is a problem that America has always grappled with. The claim that the Founders sought to create a multiracial democracy that welcomed immigrants from all over the world might make inspiring Fourth of July oratory, but it isn’t true. The first U.S. naturalization act of 1790 limited citizenship to immigrants who were “free white persons,” excluding Africans, Asians and others. America’s white only-naturalization policy lasted until after World War II.

The Founders and their successors also struggled with the contradiction between black slavery in the United States and America’s creed of universal human rights. One popular solution to the dilemma was the idea that blacks deserved to be free—somewhere else. In his autobiography the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, wrote: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that [American slaves] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” (The Jefferson Memorial quotes the first sentence but not the second).

In some respects, Chimera extrapolates that idea and wonders whether it is a universal truth. Even in an enlightened future of replicators and transporters, is mankind capable of getting past these fundamental and deeply-engrained prejudices?

A picturesque relationship.

In some ways, Chimera is a deeply cynical episode. It certainly reinforces Deep Space Nine‘s long-standing ambivalence towards the Federation. It is very much in keeping with Deep Space Nine‘s long-standing skepticism of large institutions, suggesting that Starfleet is nowhere near as open-minded as it would like to think. However, there is a very strong humanism threaded through Chimera, one which reaffirms the kernel of optimism that is always close to the heart of Deep Space Nine.

As much as Deep Space Nine might be wary of large organisations, it remains optimistic about individuals. While people as a group can be dangerous or prejudiced or close-minded, Deep Space Nine suggests that individuals are defined by their capacity to be more than that. As much as the Starfleet officers on Deep Space Nine might be everything that Laas accuses them of being, of being hateful and petty and afraid of anything beyond their frame reference, Kira Nerys is better than all of that.

A stronger link.

It is Kira who actually listens to Laas, even when he is saying things that the humanoids around him would not want to hear. It is Kira who releases Laas at the end of the episode. To be fair, Kira doesn’t break Laas out of his cell because she wants to protect him, but Kira seems to have taken everything that Laas said to heart. Kira understands that Odo has been limiting himself to avoid offending others, that Odo has restricted himself so that he might fit in. Kira understands that Odo needs the freedom to be whatever he can (and whatever he wants) to be.

“I don’t want you to stay here out of some sense of obligation,” Kira tells Odo. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” It is a beautiful moment, one that affirms the emotional power of the relationship between Kira and Odo. Although Deep Space Nine struggled in setting up the relationship in His Way, there is something to be said for the pair as a science-fiction power couple. Their romance plays out in small but important gestures. Chimera is perhaps the most important of those, an acknowledgement by Kira that she understands their romance cannot be permanent.

“I see a couple of problems in our future.”

After all, much like Treachery, Faith and the Great River, Chimera largely exists to set up the idea that Odo will not be remaining on the station in What You Leave Behind. Odo must complete his journey by returning home, and that means that he will have to leave Kira. In fact, one of the reasons that the production team finally pulled the trigger on the romance in His Way was because Ira Steven Behr wanted Odo to have something to lose when he inevitably returned to the Great Link.

One of the great recurring themes of Deep Space Nine is that impermanence does not devalue anything. The fact that things come to an end does not rob them of meaning. It was part of Sisko’s discussion with the Prophets in Emissary, and it informs the seven-year run of the series. Laas argues that Odo’s relationship with Kira is ultimately pointless because it must end; either they will break up or Odo will outlive Kira. However, Kira’s actions in Chimera suggests that her love for Odo is no less powerful for being temporary. Even if they do split up, she still loves him.

Holding on to a piece of him.

In freeing Laas and encouraging Odo to do what feels right to him, Kira ultimately vindicates Odo’s faith in humanoids. People might be flawed, and prejudiced, and afraid of anything different than they are. However, occasionally people elevate themselves above all that. Occasionally people are just as transcendent as changelings, albeit in a less literal manner. “Laas, humanoids are not the petty, limited creatures you perceive them to be,” Odo reflects, deciding to return to Deep Space Nine. “What Nerys did should prove that even to you.”

Chimera is a sweet and beautiful story, one that affirms Deep Space Nine‘s unique strand of optimism about the human condition. While holding the Star Trek franchise to account for some of its more egregious failings, and while raising tough questions about modern and even liberal societies treats those they deem different, Chimera never loses its faith in individual people. Sometimes that is enough.

14 Responses

  1. I think that some of the message of this episode is diluted by the fact that it takes place in the middle of the war with the Dominion. An argument can certainly be made that the occupants of DS9 have every right to be suspicious of Laas. For all they know he really could be one of the Founders, engaged in a mission of espionage and/or to drive a wedge between Odo and his “solid” friends. Previous infiltrations by the Changelings caused immense damage to the Federation, the Klingon Empire, the Cardassian Union, and the Romulan Star Empire.

    Throughout the episode I kept waiting for someone, anyone to respond to Laas’s accusations of bigotry, to tell him “We are *not* suspicious of you because you are a shapeshifter. No, the reason why we don’t know if we can trust you is because right now, at this very moment, we’re at war with your people, who have vowed to conquer this entire quadrant of the galaxy. In the last two years millions of people have died in that conflict, and we have no way of knowing for certain that you are not an enemy agent.”

    Laas himself doesn’t help his case. He acts hostile, arrogant, and superior towards the occupants of DS9 right from the start, and appears to be suffering from a persecution complex similar to the Founders. Laas comes in expecting not to be trusted, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve even read some comments about this episode where viewers suggest that Laas fits the textbook definition of a sociopath.

    Perhaps this episode would have worked much better if it had been set in the third season or early in the fourth, before the Founders began most of their schemes to infiltrate & undermine the major powers of the Alpha Quadrant, and before open warfare had broken out between the Federation and the Dominion.

    • I don’t know. I think that the episode works just as well if you don’t like Laas and in the context of the Dominion War. I think there’s an argument that just because somebody is a jerk doesn’t justify racism, any more than a state of war doesn’t justify racism. After all, the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War is (rightly) acknowledged as a source of considerable national shame.

      • Okay, those are some fair observations. The comments from Quark, who obviously has a much less idealistic view of humanity than most other characters in the ST universe, does suggest that even if the Dominion War was not taking place, Laas would still be facing distrust & discrimination.

        I do agree that the relationship between Odo and Laas works pretty well as a metaphor for homosexuality, with Laas basically accusing Odo of trying to hide in the closet.

        Despite finding Laas somewhat disagreeable, he is nevertheless also on the sympathetic side. I guess there’s a genuine ambiguity to the character. I hope that Odo eventually finds him again, especially since he probably inadvertently infected Laas with the virus created by Section 31.

        By the way, I had no idea while watching this episode that Laas was being played by the same actor who portrayed Martok. So, yes, it was a great performance, and very different from Hertzler’s regular role on the show.

      • Laas is definitely deeply unpleasant. And I actually like that about the episode. Even truly terrible people deserve basic due process. (Allowing for things like self-defense, to get topical.)

  2. I like that in back-to-back scenes, Odo goes to the prisoner and asks the guard to leave them alone. The guard politely refuses. Then Kira goes to the same place with the same guard to ask him to leave them alone. The guard does so, with alacrity.

  3. ” It is very much in keeping with Deep Space Nine‘s long-standing skepticism of large institutions, suggesting that Starfleet is nowhere near as open-minded as it would like to think. However, there is a very strong humanism threaded through Chimera, one which reaffirms the kernel of optimism that is always close to the heart of Deep Space Nine.”

    This is one of your most emphasized points in these reviews. I think it’s correct. It also reminds me, interestingly enough, of The Wire. David Simon said in his interview with Alan Sepinwall that even though the show is often deeply pessimistic about institutions, oligarchic societies masquerading as free-market democracies, and self-perpetuating cycles that screw over certain portions of society, it also had a great deal of empathy for pretty much everyone in the show. Neither the cops or the criminals were evil at their core. The Wire’s great tragedy was that those with the power to bring about real change didn’t have the courage, and those with the courage didn’t have the power. Even though the institutions ultimately thwarted good people’s attempts to change society for the better, there were good people who attempted it nonetheless.

    While DS9 is not as cynical as the Wire, (the problems with the Federation are depicted as somewhat minor rather than the gaping, crippling flaws like they are in the Wire) I think it’s an interesting parallel.

  4. An incredibly well written and thoughtful piece about one of my favourite episodes of DS9. Thank you.

    • Thanks Luke. Glad you enjoyed!

    • That’s just how Darren rolls-I’ve discovered that from reading many of his reviews in my free time. Going all the way back to his Doctor Who Series 6 coverage from the ancient year of 2011 (feels that way anyway)-it’s all superb.

  5. I agree with you, Darren, that Laas’s personality provides a lot of strength to support the episode’s themes. If he were a friendly guy or a childlike naif who didn’t understand people’s fear of him, the question would be, “Why are the show’s heroes being so mean all of a sudden?” It would draw attention away from the skilled use of a one-off character to show us aspects of the show’s existing dynamic, because it would make it seem like that dynamic stepped out for coffee this week.

    Instead, Laas is pushy, presumptuous and condescending, which makes the reactions from characters such as Bashir and O’Brien, established by this season as the well-meaning, back-slapping pally-boys of the show, believable. They don’t shy away from suggesting that Laas exercise his more outre flavor of shapeshifting only when no “solid” is around to see it, because they realize that no one much enjoys the company of this individual in particular, even though he’s no Founder, even when he adopts a form pleasing to their eyes.

    The viewer can believe these two affable guys might say such things about Laas specifically, things they might keep to themselves if they felt they’d lose the room or force themselves to question their own geniality. It makes their words cut deep, because it’s discomfiting for the most “Starfleet” of the show’s characters to act out Deep Space Nine’s auto-critique of Star Trek’s setting, the gap in how it’s described by its heroes vs. how they act in its stories, including a great many from before Deep Space Nine. The real-world target the pair represent is hard to miss.

    Maybe the most surprising thing to me, though, is how Shimerman and the folks behind the camera do such a good job building Quark as a character, it doesn’t break that subtler message over melodrama’s knee to have a character step forward and opine—not in the Guinan-like mode of a devil’s advocate but from apparent conviction—that it’s just the way of things that Odo’s okay enough because he lets people forget what he is, and Laas isn’t, because he doesn’t. Even if Quark’s forthrightness repulses others, the show doesn’t insist the audience recalibrate to see O’Brien and Bashir’s behavior as upright in contrast.

    • Yep, it’s a fantastic and underrated episode, that really feels like Deep Space Nine throwing down a gauntlet and dropping a mic before their seven year set comes to an end. And it’s notable that the Berman era never really answered these criticisms.

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