Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Rivals”/“The Alternate”
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Rivals”/“The Alternate”

“Rivals” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 1/2/1994)

In which games can ruin lives, but mostly don’t

Sometimes you get bad TV which fails because the tone is off, or because the script spells everything out, or because familiar characters are behaving in contradictory ways. Sometimes, you get bad TV that screams its badness in your face, the visual equivalent of biting on tinfoil, scratching Styrofoam, listening to “Revolution 9.” And sometimes, you get bad TV that shrugs. 

For most of its running time, “Rivals” is passable. The main story, revolving around guest star Chris Sarandon and a strange alien artifact, is silly and routine, suffering most of all from the fact that it spends too much time on a character we’ve never seen before. The B-story isn’t half bad, hopefully moving us one step closer to a full on Bashir and O’Brien friendship. And it all builds to a big finish, and then just sort of stops. The main plot has an ending which manages to resolve all major questions without managing a satisfactory sense of closure; the secondary plot is distracted by something shiny, wanders off, and never comes back. This is a bad hour of television. It’s not egregiously irritating or offensive (unless you find sloppiness offensive—which, okay, I kind of do). It’s just sloppy, and serves to point out the importance of structure in narrative, even if that structure can sometimes seem overly familiar.

We meet Martus Mazur (Sarandon) in the cold open, trying his best to run a con on a sweet old lady who happens to be widowed, wealthy, and waiting for it. Odo catches him in the act and throws him in a cell, where he meets an alien with a purple egg, and that, as the saying goes, is where his troubles begin. Sort of. This is a setup with a very clear arc: A just-charming-enough-to-be-sympathetic bad guy is tempted by a too good-to-be-true offer; he accepts after some initial reservations, briefly succeeds beyond his wildest dreams; then, at the moment of his greatest triumph, everything falls apart in the worst way, and the bad guy suffers a suitably ironic comeuppance. That’s solid stuff, and the episode follows it note by note, right up to the underdone conclusion. But solid or not, it doesn’t really work. Sarandon is a fine actor (See also: The original Fright Night; he makes a terrific vampire), and he’s appropriately oily and charismatic as Martus, but this isn’t someone we have any investment in. Which is problematic, since the character dominates the first half of the episode. While it can be rewarding to have an outsider come and give us a new look at the same old surroundings, that’s not what Martus is here for; apart from reminding us that Quark doesn’t like competition and that Odo has a tendency to arrest criminals, he barely interacts with the main ensemble. I would guess that Martus exists so the narrative can have a one-off character who can suffer or succeed however much story needs him to—but nothing happens to the guy. He ends the episode in roughly the same place he started it, and if this is the introduction to a recurring guest star, it does a lame job selling the idea. I have little to no interest in seeing this character again, and I like Sarandon.

Then there’s the fact that Martus’ story doesn’t fit in the Trek-verse. There’s the fact that the device he finds is established for much of the episode’s running time as a magical, vaguely threatening thingy, without any real history or clear purpose. The device’s last owner tells a story straight out of the Twilight Zone—he didn’t just make some bad financial calls, he believes the device itself destroyed his life through vaguely supernatural means. Any time a Trek show tries to muddle about with the vaguely supernatural, the results are dicey. It’s a fine line, but as silly as all those tech-babble explanations are, they help create the illusion that everything in the show exists in a specific universe. Trying to cheat that by throwing in ghosts or cursed objects is only going upset everyone, even when the episode tries to come up with some realistic justification. Take “Sub Rosa,” a terrible hour of TV for many reasons. Beverly Crusher has sex with a ghost, and it’s terribly uncomfortable and weird, and then we find out the “ghost” is actual some strange form of alien life that works as a succubus for the Crusher family DNA. Something like that, anyway; my point is, none of this suddenly made everything leading up to the explanation make sense. You can’t Scooby-Doo this sort of thing, because the damage is already done. I’m sure there examples of this actually working (none spring to mind, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist), but it’s very difficult to pull off well. “Sub Rosa” doesn’t come close; despite it’s somewhat scientific ending, “Rivals” doesn’t really try.

The other reason Martus doesn’t fit is more difficult to parse. We’ve talked about how Deep Space Nine is a darker show than the previous two Trek series. I doubt we’ve plumbed the depths yet, but in its first two seasons, DS9 has struggled with grimmer themes, and the show’s premise—which forces the cast to the same location week in, week out—means that even fairly closed-off episodes have a lingering impact. But the darkness of DS9 is complex, driven primarily by the complications of war and social upheaval. The show generally avoids simplistic morality, and that’s all Martus’s story really is: he’s selfish and greedy, he gets in over his head, and he pays the price. Again, this is Twilight Zone-esque, with a little Tales From The Crypt thrown in. I spent much of the first half of the episode wondering what Martus’ inevitable downfall would be, and just how bad things would go for him. Considering the last owner of the purple egg died holding it (right after saying, “I won!” which is not promising at all), anything seemed possible. We don’t learn anything about Martus, we don’t get any reason to care about what happens to him. We just hang around waiting for dropping shoes, and for the amount of screen time he’s given, that doesn’t work. It’s Aesop’s Fables on a show that’s been giving us a fair approximation of Dostoevsky.

Thankfully, while Martus is getting up in Quark’s business, O’Brien and Bashir are off playing space racquetball, and experiencing some difficulties. Despite the fact that the two men appeared to be getting on well enough at the end of “The Storyteller,” O’Brien has clearly gone back to disliking the younger man on sight, and when he finds Bashir hanging out in the special court O’Brien himself built for his favorite game, things get a little awkward. They get even more awkward when the two have a match together and Bashir turns out to be the superior player. This isn’t a huge surprise; as Keiko (who is pretty great in this episode) points out, O’Brien isn’t as young as he used to be, and no amount of stretching and jogging is going to turn him into a 25-year-old. But O’Brien is furious and insecure, while Bashir is embarrassed. As he explains to Dax, he doesn’t want to humiliate the Chief or drive him to a heart attack, but the more he tries to beg off, the more aggressively O’Brien pursues a rematch. It’s a fine set-up for both characters, as it’s easy to be sympathetic to either side. Sure, O’Brien is being unreasonable, but no one wants to be beaten at something they love, and it can be hard to accept that, for some things, you’re best days are already behind you. And sure, Bashir has that whole callow youth vibe going on, but he honestly does care what O’Brien thinks of him, and really does want to find a way out of the situation that won’t make the other man feel worse.

While none of this is life and death, I was more invested in O’Brien and Bashir’s story than I was in anything to do with Martus, not even after Martus manages to replicate and embiggen the purple eggs and use them to start his own gambling club. But then everything goes off the rails. Quark, desperate to drum up business, forces O’Brien and Bashir to hold a public rematch, and during the game, Bashir starts losing. Not just losing; he’s bombing, and bombing hard, while O’Brien is playing the best game of his life. The two men quickly realize that something is wrong, and stop the match. They bring in Sisko and the others to observe the phenomenon, and it’s just as well, since other strange things have been happening all over the station: minor accidents, small catastrophes, and lots of tripping. Turns out that Martus’ devices have some weird affect on probability, and now—oh, you wanted to know what happened with O’Brien and Bashir? Yeah, so did I, but unfortunately, it’s never resolved. Martus loses his devices (and falls for a con), but he finds his way off the station to freedom in the end, which means the writers basically chickened out on giving him the sort of downfall they’d foreshadowed at the beginning, which in turn means his whole tale just comes off as pointless. It’s worse for O’Brien and Bashir, because as enjoyable as their scenes together are, they’re all just a slightly more sophisticated version of padding. No one had any intention at providing a resolution. Normally I appreciate it when a story resists an easy ending, but no ending at all is, well…

Stray observations:

  • Bashir has a fun bit while he’s talking with Dax—he’s looking for a salt shaker, and every one he picks up is empty. It’s a small gag (and maybe connected to the Martus plot), but it works because it plays against his frustrations at dealing with O’Brien.
  • Another oddity about the ending: The woman who conned Martus comes back to the station after taking his money, only to be caught by Odo while she’s trying to con someone new. This seems incredibly stupid to me.

“The Alternate” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 1/9/1994)

In which Odo has a bad reaction to a familiar face

I don’t think either of my parents have ever read any of my reviews. I’m not absolutely sure of this—I suppose it’s possible that Mom or Dad is scanning this sentence right now and preparing a friendly but appropriately scathing e-mail about assumptions and telling tales out of school and would it kill me to call, even a little—but I’ve never asked them to, and I don’t think they’d be all that interested in this kind of work. If I was 10 years old, I’d be upset about this; but I’m not, so I’m not. As a kid, I was a big one for showing off report cards, essays, short stories, and I made sure some representative of parental support would attend every show I ever had a line in, ever chorus concert in which I ever sang a note. But then I went off to college, and then I got older, and at a certain point, Mom and Dad’s approval stopped meaning so much. Well, that’s not quite right; it’s more that I started to resent how much I needed their approval, because the need, I thought, represented a part of my life that was now officially over. I was my own man, which meant I got to decide what mattered and what didn’t in my own life. While the resentment faded (thank goodness!), the knowledge behind it didn’t. I love my parents, and I hope they’re proud of me, but it works best when we don’t get hung up on the details.

And hey, at least I’m not a shape-shifter who spent the first four years of his conscious existence in a lab. In “The Alternate,” Odo reunites with Dr. Mora (James Sloyan), the scientist who first studied, then essentially raised Odo in his early days. It’s a difficult situation for both men, although Dr. Mora doesn’t recognize the difficulty at first; Odo obviously has mixed feelings about his time on Bajor, and at times, this almost feels like an abuse story, albeit one that is far more subtle and less painful then those stories so often are. Throughout the hour, scenes with Odo and Mora together manage to capture a variety of emotions from both characters, as Odo is by turns embarrassed and uncomfortable to have such a clear reminder of his old life on the station, even while he works to win Mora’s approval; for his part, Mora is proud of how far his old charge has come, but he’s more than a little confused at just what Odo is trying to accomplish. If Odo, despite his protestations, views Mora as a father figure, Mora seems to have trouble separating the son from the experiment, which leads him to make the common parental mistake of assuming what you think is best for someone was, is, and always will be the only real option.

I have this theory that plot always works best when it’s an extension, or expression, of character. This is more a general idea than a rule, but one of the reasons genre fiction so often struggles for critical acceptance is that so much of it is more about things happening to people than it is about people making things happen (whether they want to or not). You have your heroes, they’ll be going about their regular lives, and then some monster will show up and cause havoc; the heroes run and fight and work together to slay the beast; and then everything goes back mostly to the way it was before, although we’re kind of sad now that the janitor is dead. There’s nothing wrong with this: when done well, it can be terrifically exciting and great fun. But the heroes themselves in this scenario are largely irrelevant. We need someone there to create conflict and have someone to root for, but most of the time, they aren’t directly connected to the monster, and the monster doesn’t say much about who they are. A good writer will try and change this up, but unless they manage it just right, characterization and human interaction becomes secondary to the thing with claws that’s bumping off your supporting cast. There are genre stories which transcend this structure with aplomb (Night Of The Living Dead springs to mind), but when they do, their writers know that the more character drives events, the more effective the storytelling. (For an example of how not to do this, watch Super 8. It’s a lovely, terrific movie about a group of kids hanging out and making movies and falling in love, right up until the monster arrives and everything turns to shit.)

How does this apply to “The Alternate”? Well, the plot of this episode is, in its way, nearly as lazy as “Rivals.” There’s more of an effort to tie everything together under the guise of pseudoscience, but the third act is both very dramatic and creepy, which helps distract from the fact that it’s also pretty ridiculous. After all the setup about the potential discovery of Odo’s home world just beyond the worm hole, and the discovery of an artifact and a small pile of organic material that shared genetic similarities with the constable, this all turns into an excuse to spray poor Odo with some alien gas, and make him go a little evil. While there’s a much more definite, and powerful, conclusion to the hour than there was in “Rivals,” there’s still the frustrating sense that too much of the episode is a distraction from the real story. All that time spent studying the new life form and the artifact doesn’t pay off in any significant way; maybe we’ll come back to them later, since Odo’s search for his past is an ongoing story, but for this episode, these details feel like the distraction part of a parlor trick, and that’s too bad.

Yet “The Alternate” is a better episode overall because its main story—the whole “Odo turning into a monster” thing—is driven by the relationship between Odo and Dr. Mora. The gas is just an excuse for that relationship to become more heated. Throughout the episode, Mora makes repeated comments with intentionally or unintentionally dismiss Odo’s new position as little more than a game; then he starts in trying to persuade Odo to come back to the lab. There’s something a little sinister about Mora from the beginning, and Sloyan does a fine job hitting the balance between warmth and presumption. It’s not that he’s a mad scientist determined to exploit Odo to serve his own purposes; it’s just that he’s so convinced in the validity and importance of their work together that he can’t comprehend anyone might say no. Worse, he doesn’t seem quite convinced that Odo’s personhood is anything more than a parlor trick.

Very little of this is dealt with directly over the course of the episode, which is a big reason why it’s so effective. There’s enough honest discomfort and honest affection in Odo and Mora’s scenes to convey their relationship handily without ever giving us the comfort of having one of them be the bad guy. To be honest, I expected Mora to show his true colors eventually, which made the reveal that Odo was the monster which had been terrorizing the station all the more striking. It doesn’t work, exactly, because it turns Odo himself into a kind of object—even though his resentment and frustration against Mora are what’s driving him to act, he’s still unaware of what’s happening, which makes him a passive victim for the last 10 minutes or so. Worse than that, there’s something goofy about putting all of this on some magic gas. It plays like a too-easy way to force the conflict between Odo and Mora to its head, and the Alien-esque scenes of the creature “stalking” various characters don’t really fit the rest of the episode’s attempt to take the surrogate father dynamic seriously.

But that dynamic saves “The Alternate” from being a complete write-off. The way the episode shifts its focus from Odo to Mora in the final act is a good way to help us see things from his side, and it leads to a couple of unsettling sequences: The first—in which Mora realizes Odo is the monster and goes to confront him with this knowledge, driving the shape-shifter to literally melt before his eyes—is horrifying, while the second—in which Mora uses himself as bait to tempt monster-Odo out of hiding, and then watches his former lab rat getting repeatedly zapped by a force-field—makes the doctor’s ultimate conversion and heartfelt apology to Odo ring true. Really, this serves best as an example of how strong characters can overcome uneven writing. While “Rivals” short-changed its best storyline in favor of a guest star, “The Alternate” knows where its real heart is. Odo’s justifiably proud of the life he’s made for himself, and while he wants Mora to share that pride, he can’t bring himself to admit the desire. Thankfully, all it takes is some alien substance and a few Hulk-outs to bring them both around.

Stray observations:

  • The cold open, with Odo catching Quark in a corpse-scam, is fun. As is the exchange between Jake and Sisko about the joys of Klingon opera.
  • Show of hands: How many of you cringed when Mora lectured Odo on how to be nicer to people?

Next week: We get back into the O’Brien and Bashir dynamic as they dance to the “Armageddon Rag,” and then O’Brien has to listen closely for some “Whispers.”  

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