“A Simple Investigation” (season five, episode 17; originally aired 3/31/1997)
In which Odo has an adventure (adventure meaning “sex”)…
When you’re socially awkward, one of the dreams is that someone will find you. This isn’t true of everybody; there are plenty of introverts and shy folks and flailers who would be perfectly happy to stay in the shadows, pining at the stars. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that large numbers of folks who fumble through conversations terrified that everyone can see them sweat, yearn for some magical stranger to remove them from their largely self-induced corner. That’s what so much of the romantic myth that drives our culture is based on. “Love” becomes less of a mundane, reliable connection between individuals, and more of a panacea that can cure the ills of insecurity, loneliness, guilt, embarrassment, self-loathing, and so on. We—and I’m including myself in this because, well, come on—realize the stupidity of the wish, which makes the experience all of the more painful. There’s something so pathetically, idiotically vulnerable about wanting a some beautiful (yes, always) someone to look at you see what everyone else has been missing, and more, to reach past your clumsiness and terror and do whatever it is you need done. It’s selfish, and its doomed, and yet it’s not hard to understand the appeal. Just once, to have someone save you. Just once, to feel safe.
Yeah, so, it’s complex and weird and a total fantasy, and it’s also a big part of what makes “A Simple Investigation” compelling to watch. This isn’t a perfect episode; it’s hamstrung by a tepid guest star and a story that understands its clichés without embracing them enough to transcend them. The plot wouldn’t have been much out of place in the show’s first or second season. Not terrible, really, but simplistic, and without the larger implications or complexity we’ve come to expect.
But “A Simple Investigation” isn’t a bad episode, either, and while the core story is straightforward enough, the details filled in by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s main ensemble provide for an emotional depth that might otherwise have been lacking. One of the greatest tools narrative television has at its disposal is the ability to create a sense of communal history simply through the accumulation of time. Serialization helps, but it’s not as important as the simple wait of all the hours we’ve spent watching these characters, and knowing everything they’ve been through. The story becomes as much about who it’s happening to as it is about what’s happening.
That means Odo in this particular case. One of the episode’s best jokes comes early on. Bashir just got in a new holosuite program, another Bond-like adventure, and the plan is for him, Dax, O’Brien, and Odo to participate. This in and of itself is just delightful, and the pay off later in the episode, when Odo comes to see Bashir and the good doctor is in the middle of wooing a blonde in a limousine, is hilarious. (O’Brien’s decision to take advantage of Bashir while he’s talking to Odo is maybe the funniest gag I’ve ever seen on the show.) But the joke I’m talking about is a subtler one. Odo declines to join in with the festivities, presumably because the thought of all that seduction makes him uncomfortable. He then proceeds to stumble into his very own spy adventure, complete with damsel-in-distress, wisecracking thugs, and a complicated plot about an evil mastermind. Arguably this is more private-detective stuff than espionage, but still, the gag holds: Odo is getting his own holosuite experience, whether he wants it or not. The only downside is, he can’t pick the ending.
Strip away the specifics, and the central arc of this hour is easy to predict. Odo gets interested in Arissa (Dey Young) because he’s interested in mysteries, and because she tells him he has “bedroom eyes.” Their relationship deepens, she’s attracted to him because she’s scared and he’s a trustworthy, reassuring presence; he’s into her because she’s attractive, and actually regards him as a potential sexual partner. They hook up, it’s rather lovely; there’s a fight with the bad guys; Odo saves the day, but wouldn’t you know it, there’s a twist that means he and Arissa won’t be spending anymore time together. A little heartbreaking, but still an important chapter in Odo’s development, and entertaining for all that.
It’s odd, though, that the most interesting non-Odo parts of the story are held off until the end. In the final 10 minutes, it’s revealed that Arissa is actually a kind of federal agent gone deep undercover to track down a crime boss. And when I say “deep,” I mean, “memory wipe of her old personality” deep. The Arissa Odo meets has no idea of her real self; she just knows she’s tired of working as a blackmailer for a bad guy, and wants her freedom. While I realize this would be hard to sell without shifting the focus too far off Odo (and he really should be the central figure in all this, because he’s the one we have the most important attachment to), it seems like a lot of potentially fascinating detail has been generated merely to get us through an otherwise comparatively straightforward plot. The whole idea of Arissa having her mind wiped seems like it could’ve been the main premise of an entire episode, and that idea, plus her comments about serving as a psychic prostitute, suggest a whole world of sci-fi concepts of which DS9 has only brushed the surface. I wouldn’t say that’s a flaw of the script, exactly, but it does sometimes seem like we’re seeing the least interesting version possible of these events. If it wasn’t for Odo and the few beats we get with the rest of the crew, this would all be weirdly bland; and yet summarizing the backstory makes it sound like something swiped from Philip K. Dick.
The biggest problem may be Dey Young. She gets better as the episode allows her to open up a little, but the story depends on her and Odo striking some sort of meet-cute in their first scene, and the chemistry isn’t there. The “bedroom eyes” comment is, admittedly, a bit of a hard sell, but there’s no warmth or curiosity to her. She may just be miscast; this is a part that needs someone who can convey vulnerability and strength without coming across as a victim, but Young seems better suited to a kind of distant, icy disdain. While that may be slightly more realistic for the character, it doesn’t work on screen, especially in a narrative like this that needs for everyone involved to be just that much more heightened than usual.
Still, their scene in bed together isn’t bad at all, and once they get past the initial awkwardness, the two actors do come across as believably drawn to one another. The ending isn’t all that tragic; Odo is clearly sad that he’s losing his first girlfriend, but hey, he’s had his first humanoid sex, and he seems to have enjoyed it, so maybe he can actually try dating now. Arissa, her mind (and real name) restored, goes back to her husband, and Odo goes back to being grumpy and avoiding his friends. It’s funny, but I find it hard to feel too bad for him now. No matter how hard he tries to avoid it, adventures keep finding him. At least this one let him have the fantasy, if only for a little while.
- Apparently, Odo can “mingle” with solids. I have no idea how that would work, but Arissa seemed to enjoy it.
- The hit men truly are hilarious. Nearly all of the funny bits in the episode land, which makes it that much more enjoyable to watch. (I could’ve used a bit more humor, actually, especially in some of the less romantic Odo/Arissa scenes. There’s a lack of spark in the central relationship that keeps a decent entry from being great.)
- Kira is surprisingly invested in Odo’s dating life. Just putting that out there.
- This week in Odo awesomeness: He’s reading a detective story, and he figured out the killer’s identity by the third page. (Actually, that sounds more like sloppy writing than brilliant deduction.)
- Another advantage of main character history: Odo doesn’t need much more motive for helping Arissa beyond, “She’s in trouble,” but the fact that he’s impressed by her desire to stop working for an evil force, given his own failure to quit the Cardassians, is a nice touch.
“Business As Usual” (season five, episode 18; originally aired 4/7/1997)
In which Quark makes the wrong investment…
Usually I’m in favor of DS9’s approach to serialization; the mix of short, one-episode stories and longer narratives spread out over the course of a season or more, is a good fit for a TV show. I don’t mind that the Dominion threat is hanging in the background right now, because that seems more realistic to me than otherwise. Crises aren’t always happening. Life goes on between deadlines. But sometimes an episode will pop up that I’ll wish had more time to really get its point across, and “Business As Usual” is that sort of episode. That’s not to say that its message is obscure or hard to parse: Selling weapons, no matter how profitable, is evil. Quark shouldn’t do it. The end.
It’s hard to object to this on principle. Arms dealers don’t show up on television regularly enough for this to be a cliché, and a Quark-centric story that isn’t broadly comedic is a welcome change of pace. Armin Shimerman is as excellent as ever, and the guest stars deliver solid work. The resolution is clever, and feels earned; Quark’s decision to dabble in the waters of immoral violence-slinging, before jumping back onto dry land, makes sense. And yet there’s a closed-off simplicity to all this that cuts back on the potential impact. It’s all a closed unit. We learn Quark is worried about money; his cousin Gaila (Josh Pais), who gave us the death ship in “Little Green Men,” comes by the bar with a tempting proposition; then it’s shady dealings, scary boss, judgmental friends, and finally, a finale that takes every threatening piece off the table and returns us to the status quo.
This is how TV used to be in many respects, and there are a lot of things I miss about the old model. Too many shows these days jump into full serialization without understanding the need for strong episode-by-episode storytelling (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead), and the assumption that “serialized” equals “quality” is as wrong-headed to television drama as the belief that single-camera comedies are inherently better than multi-cam is to TV comedy. But the old model wasn’t perfect, and to me, “Business As Usual” is an example of how the almost ruthless efficiency of standalone structure can make stories come across as hermetically sealed, blunting their impact by stripping them down to their simplest parts. “Business As Usual” is good—it’s better than “A Simple Investigation,” and in the top tier of Quark-centric episodes so far. But it’s too simplified to it for my tastes. The pieces all line up in a neat way that lets us all feel smug about our own moral superiority.
The worst of this comes from the way the others on the station treat Odo after he gets involved with Gaila and Hagath (Steven Berkoff, doing his Beverly Hills Cop-bad-guy routine in space), Gaila’s employer. Quark’s always been the black sheep of the family, which is fine in theory; Star Trek could use a few more black sheep. But while it’s understandable that the others would be upset at Quark’s behavior, there’s a weird lack of empathy for what drove him to his decision. It’s a question of presentation, really, and it’s not as if Quark doesn’t deserve the rolled eyes and irritation. But Shimerman is so good at making him sympathetic that the dismissal he gets from the only people in his life he can really consider his friends makes the others come across as self-satisfied and priggish. After all, it’s not like anyone else on the station ever has to worry about money. (But then, Quark could just decide to stop trying to run a business altogether, and join up with the Federation like Rom. Because resistance is futile.)
I realize I’m on shaky ground here. I do think Dax’s rage works. Aside from Odo, she’s the only member of the ensemble with a close relationship with Quark, and their friendship, what little we’ve seen of it, has always made sense. The idea that she’d take his actions as an almost personal betrayal helps to give all that condemnation a necessary specificity. But the others just come across as scolds, and while that could be intentional—forcing us into Quark’s shoes by having familiar faces turn cold—it has the unfortunate effect of creating a kind of binary situation. Instead of Quark getting into a gray area and having to figure out himself just where he’ll draw the line, he steps off the path and has to deal with the immediate, obvious recriminations. Gaila is so slimy, and Hagath is so clearly, malevolently insane, that the middle part of the episode is a process of waiting to see what finally brings Quark to his senses. Which may be the problem with all “message” episodes, really. They’re color-coded so clearly that there’s no real tension until the comeuppances start piling up.
There’s a rule at the TV Club, and it's a good one, that our job as reviewers isn’t to try and “fix” an episode in our commentary, or imagine some magical situation in which everything is theoretically perfect; this is the kind of thinking that leads to sloppy writing, because it allows us to create ideal scenarios without ever having to deliver on them. (Trust me, I’ve made this mistake a lot.) So I’ll just say that I wonder if letting this arc build more might not have helped smooth out its more thuddingly obvious moments. Ideally, if you’re going to have a character engage in criminal (or at least unethical) activity in order to benefit himself, there should be a sense that their indulgences are giving them the kind of instant gratification that makes morality easier to ignore. But while Quark is making money hand over fist, Hagath funnels all that money directly to the Ferengi’s creditors. Which is cool in the sense that Quark never gets to have any fun with his wrongdoing (making it that much easier for us to forgive him when he returns to the fold), but again, it makes that decision to go back to the relatively straight and narrow all the simpler. The brevity of all this puts it into after-school special territory, and it might’ve been more effective to have Quark’s corruption happen more gradually, thus giving his redemption actual stakes.
But that also could’ve been boring and dumb; we’ll never know. Besides, it’s not like the show doesn’t have other season-long arcs to deal with. As for the episode at hand, it’s good; sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in critique and lose sight of what works. For all my criticism, I appreciate how logically the slippery slope of arms-dealing is presented here. Gaila is a creep, no question, but Quark’s financial vulnerability, combined with his isolation from his own people, make him an easy mark. It’s hard to blame him for wanting a taste of the good life, especially considering all the crap he’s been through of late. The idea of using the holosuite to sell weapons is a smart use of the technology, and it’s great how detached all the demonstrations are from actual, painful violence; when a potential customer wants to test fire a few shots, Quark just calls up a robot or an armored thug to serve as a target, no mess required.
Is the ending too neat? Sure, but that’s built into the model. I can’t imagine Quark getting thrown in jail, or killed, and the writers needed to find a way to resolve the crisis and allow everything to be back on the same footing next week. On those terms, this works: Quark forces Hagath and Gaila to deal with the consequences of their behavior, gets some people killed, and convinces Sisko that everything is back to the way it should be. Maybe this would’ve worked better if it hadn’t been restricted by the then demands of the medium, but as is, it’s still a great showcase for Shimerman, with a satisfying payoff.
- Lawrence Tierney, huh? I kept expecting him to walk off in the middle of his scene, disgusted with everyone.
- Oh, there’s also a B-plot about O’Brien trying to get his baby to sleep. It’s very cute, and the tag at the end, with Worf talking about how he wishes he could’ve experienced this with Alexander, is unexpected and sweet.
- For an episode on weapons and war, this is rarely as unsettling as it probably should be, with one great exception: Gaila’s speech about the stars. Too much of the time we spend with the villains is just gangster posturing, but Quark’s cousin’s convincing contempt for the value of life is just low-key enough to be plausible. (It’s also reminiscent of the cuckoo clock monologue in The Third Man.)
Next week: Kira deals with some stuff in “Ties Of Blood And Water” and we get another Quark episode with the unpromisingly titled “Ferengi Love Songs.”