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René Auberjonois

René Auberjonois passed away at the weekend.

Auberjonois was a tremendously prolific and talented performer. Indeed, one of the most striking things about his passing has been the sheer diversity among his fans. It seems like everybody has a different memory of Auberjonois, a different role with which they associate him. Some people remember him from M*A*S*H, some people remember him from Benson, others associate him with cult roles like King Kong. However, it seems like everybody remembered Auberjonois in one form or another.

I have a long and deep attachment to Auberjonois. He was an accomplished voice actor, and I knew him well from various cartoons that I would have watched as a child and even beyond that; Chef Louis in The Little Mermaid, Flanagan in Cats Don’t Dance, his vocal turns in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the part that I most associate with Auberjonois is his work as Constable Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is a performance with which I grew up and to which I have frequently returned.

It is a performance which has seemed richer every time that I have watched, a fantastic demonstration of the actor’s talent.

There have been some wonderful and moving obituaries written about Auberjonois, covering the length and breadth of an impressive career. It feels almost churlish to focus on a single role. However, it’s the role that I have been thinking about since I heard the news. I’ve been turning the performance over and over in my head, thinking about what made it so fantastic and why it resonated in the way that it did. It’s no insult to the other instalments in the franchise to argue that Deep Space Nine had the best ensemble of any Star Trek series, and Auberjonois was always a highlight.

Odo is an interesting character. Most obviously, he’s Deep Space Nine‘s take on the classic Star Trek “outsider” character like Spock or Data or Seven of Nine or the EMH. He is the alien whose perspective provides a window on the human experience. Of course, Odo is more than just an alien. He isn’t a Bajoran or a Cardassian or a Ferengi or a Klingon. He is a shapeshifter. His natural form is a puddle of liquid. He cannot properly replicate a human face, and so looks quite distinct from the people around him. When Deep Space Nine began, Odo didn’t even know where he came from or who his people were.

However, what distinguished Odo from characters like Spock and Data and Seven of Nine was that he didn’t want to become more human. He took some stated pride in his status as somebody who stands apart, as illustrated in episodes like A Man Alone. Indeed, his transformation into a human in Broken Link was a punishment rather than a piece of wish fulfilment. Odo remained an outsider for the show’s entire run, a very Deep Space Nine touch. It is consistent with the show’s approach to characters like Quark or Garak or Worf.

Odo was – and remained – one of the most alien characters in the Star Trek franchise. In Chimera, he even transforms himself into beams of light. In What You Leave Behind, Odo leaves the station and the love of his life to be reunited with his people as gigantic ball of liquid. That’s an immensely challenging role for an actor to play. Auberjonois had to convincing present a version of Odo that was recognisably human and completely alien. It was a very delicate balance for any actor to strike, and Auberjonois rose to the occasion.

Odo that rare Star Trek character largely defined in opposition to his stated motivations. Star Trek characters tend to be transparent. One of the features of Roddenberry’s utopian future was that characters were radically honest. The audience could generally trust what they were hearing. Many of the best Star Trek performances, such as Leonard Nimoy’s, play with that assumption. Deep Space Nine was the Star Trek series that really pushed at that, frequently presenting characters that were untrustworthy or ambiguous – this was the defining trait of the Cardassians – but it was particularly interesting in the context of Odo.

One of the most compelling facets of Odo is that even he couldn’t admit what he wanted. Auberjonois could always communicate how deeply Odo’s needs often ran counter to his wants – his insistence on standing apart juxtaposed with his yearning to belong to something, his very calm and ordered demeanour belying a hidden emotional volatility. Odo was a character largely defined by unarticulated yearning; his attraction to Kira, his desire to go home. Befitting his nature, Odo was a character with a very rigid self-image that existed in contrast to his true identity.

This is most obvious in Odo’s push-and-pull relationship with Quark. The Ferengi barman was Odo’s closest friend, even though Odo could never bring himself to admit it. Auberjonois played remarkably well with co-star Armin Shimerman, the two eagerly bouncing off one another. It seems strange that The Ascent is arguably the only episode with a completely Quark-and-Odo-centric primary plot. However, Odo could never admit his affection for Quark. Even in the finale, he refuses to give Quark the satisfaction of admitting his affection. Auberjonois always played it through.

However, perhaps the most interesting thing about how Auberjonois played Odo only really shone through as I got older. After all, Odo looks like a grown man. He presents as an adult. Auberjonois was in his fifties when he played the role, among the oldest members of the primary (or recurring) cast. As a child, I always read Odo as an adult. However, Emissary makes it very clear that Odo is only a few years old when Deep Space Nine begins. Technically speaking, he is younger than Jake or Nog.

In Deep Space Nine, Odo is a teenager playing at being an adult. It informs so much of his characterisation, particularly in the final seasons when the writers figured out what Auberjonois was doing. This was most evident in the sixth season, in episodes like Behind the Lines or His Way, when the character’s insecurity was allowed to shine through. However, Auberjonois captured the sense of Odo as a teen passing as an adult almost from the outset. His gruff scoffs are the equivalent of a teenager rolling his eyes. His crossed arms are a child impersonating an adult. (Even his face if borrowed from his “father.”)

Of course, this approach sounds simple when you articulate it like that. However, it takes a lot of skill and craft to look a concept like Odo as a fifty-year-old actor, and then to hone so perfectly in on the heart of the character. Auberjonois did this without ever being showy about it, without ever making a big deal of it. While the character evolved and changed over the seven seasons of the series, a lot of that is immediately obvious. It is too much to suggest that Auberjonois presented Odo as fully formed, but he understood that the character was still forming.

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When we consider performance, we tend to overlook and ignore the unique challenges of genre work. Everybody knows that old joke about how awards are given for “the most acting” rather than “the best acting.” Auberjonois’ work as Odo is nothing short of a stunning example of craft, an actor taking his work seriously. Auberjonois taught mask at Juilliard, and that skill obviously informs how he approaches the character. Odo communicates so much with simply looks and facial expressions. The writers famously realised that Odo was in love with Kira from Auberjonois’ facial expression at the end of Necessary Evil.

It’s telling that despite the fact it took the writers two full seasons to figure out what exactly they wanted to do with Odo, with a soft reboot of the character concept in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, he never became a “problem character” like at least three of his co-stars. Even when early Odo-centric episodes like Vortex or The Adversary were a bit unsteady on their feet, they never seemed quite as lost as episodes like The Passenger or Dax. Even if the writes didn’t crack Odo immediately, Auberjonois did.

Obviously, Auberjonois is so much more than Odo. It was always a pleasure to see (or hear!) him pop up in anything. But that’s just what I’ve been turning over in my head for the past twenty-four hours. My own inadequate tribute to a great performer.

6 Responses

  1. A lovely tribute.

    I’d say yours and Nana’s were among the most beautiful I read.

  2. This is lovely, thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute.

    (I hesitate to make one potential disagreement with a minor point you made: but as far as I could see it was never really Spock’s stated or subtextual wish to become more human; on the contrary, I thought he generally seemed determined to live up to his Vulcan heritage, and to repress his human side. But I might have misread things, I suppose.)

    • Just quickly on that, the feature films repeatedly argue that Spock needs to embrace and accept his human side. The Motion Picture has him abandoning his quest to become more Vulcan, which is itself implied to be a response to the dissolution of the Enterprise crew and the separation from his friends. The Voyage Home hinges on Amanda challenging Spock, “How do you feel?” and forcing him to answer. Even his final line in “The Undiscovered Country” is anchored in Spock acknowledging his human identity, even if he immediately distances himself from it – “… if I were human.”

      Maybe it wasn’t explicitly Spock’s desire, but the stories tended to push Spock very much in that direction, and there was no counterbalancing sense that he also had to learn to be a Vulcan. (And the reboots also – cleverly, I think – hinge on this, with Spock learning to accept his emotional responses rather than hiding them.)

  3. Im not usually affected by 75% of celebrity deaths, but this one did hurt. Amazing actor.

  4. I had the delightful pleasure of actually meeting him at a Wolf359. convention.

    He was a citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot

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