“Second Skin” (season 3, episode 5; originally aired 10/24/1994)
In which Kira doesn’t recognize herself anymore…
Try to imagine what it would be like to live a reality where plastic surgery wasn’t just convincing—it was perfect. Where you could go to a doctor, and in a few days (that’s how long Kira’s transition takes in “Second Skin,” so far as we know) come out with a new face, or a new body, or, hell, a new race. Forget, for the moment, the implausibility of it all—how can you generate actual living tissue? How are there no scars, no aches, how is the transition so goddamn perfect—and just focus on the implications. To no longer be restricted by the body you were born into could change everything, especially when you remember that the Federation doesn’t use money, so the process wouldn’t be cost prohibitive. It makes you wonder how many characters we’ve seen on the show have had work done. And it also raises some interesting questions about the nature of identity. I wonder if, in the universe of Star Trek, authenticity is even more important, and even harder to determine, than it is today. We’ve already had at least one person remake himself to look enough like someone else to fool nearly everyone (back in “Duet”—sure, all the DS9 crew had to go on for comparison was a photo, but it was still impressive). Between Odo’s shape-shifting and the apparent wonders of facial reconstruction, I’m amazed anyone trusts anyone as anyone.
“Second Skin” takes good advantage of this idea from both sides: on the one, you’ve got Kira, transported to Cardassia and made over to look like a Cardassian spy, through a transformation so thorough and carefully constructed that she gradually starts to doubt her own identity; and on the other, you’ve got Legate Tekeny Ghemor (Lawrence Pressman), the father of Kira’s supposed spy identity, who believes that his daughter has finally come home after years of undercover work. Sure, “Iliana” claims she doesn’t remember him or their house, and acts convinced that she really is Bajoran, but those are just implanted memories still lingering in her system. Tekeny is convinced that some tender loving care is all Kira needs to understand the truth, and that makes Kira’s struggle to remember who she really is even more difficult. Entek, the Obsidian Order agent in charge of Kira’s supposed re-integration, is pleasant enough, but he’s also forceful, and there’s a threat of violence behind every chummy smile, a threat which only grows more and more obvious as the episode wears on. But Tekeny is respectful, patient, and kind, and despite his position of political power, seems to have no real artifice about him. It would be difficult, in the face of such relentless decency, to keep saying no.
Kira just barely makes it through, although that has as much to do with the fact that her sanity isn’t the main target, as it does her resistance and determination. There’s no question that her sudden transformation is a ruse, and to its credit, the episode never really tries to pretend otherwise; Entek (the great character actor Gregory Sierra) keeps up the game for a while, even going so far as to show Kira the frozen body of the supposed real Kira, but while he pays lip service to the importance of “Iliana” realizing her true identity, the scenario never takes on the heated intensity of some of the other mind-fucks we’ve seen on Trek series. Episodes like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Future Imperfect” or even this season’s première (which is one of the rare cases of character’s being trapped in an alternate reality which they never question—more proof of the Dominion’s power) work harder to convince the people trapped in their webs and the audience, whereas “Second Skin” continually cuts away to Sisko’s determined attempts to rescue his officer. The mystery in a story like this is always “Why is this happening,” but instead of trying to disorient us, Entek’s plot plays in a largely straightforward fashion. Fun as it is when a show tries to make us question our basic assumptions, the fact that this episode doesn’t is largely a relief, especially after the events of “The Search, Part 2.”
The thing is, DS9 isn’t rewriting the Trek playbook (at least, not yet); the show has made changes to basic assumptions (in suggesting that negotiations can be impossible; there’s a danger inherent in exploration; good people don’t always see eye to eye), but we’re still using the same kind of plots the franchise has always used. Both episodes we’re looking at this week rely on a lot of magic-resembling technology to get their work done, and both work off of central concepts TNG covered before. The difference is in presentation, and in the way the series uses its characters’ histories to make familiar ideas richer and more complex.
When Entek starts pushing Kira for answers, Tekeny decides enough is enough. He’s worried how far Entek (and, by extension, the Obsidian Order) will go for the truth, and he doesn’t want to see a woman he believes he loves injured, so he makes plans to get Kira taken off-world. The twist is that Tekeny’s sincerity and kindness are the real deal. He really does have a daughter named Iliana, he really does think Kira is that daughter, and he really doesn’t want her tortured. Tekeny is one of the dissidents working to undermine the Cardassians’ totalitarian regime, and Entek put together this entire con in order to get dirt on the legate to use to attack the entire dissident movement. It’s a clever plot, if a little ornate, and while it ends up making the last quarter of the episode top-heavy (Kira learns Tekeny’s secret, then realizes how they’re both being played, then Entek shows up and gets the drop on them, then they’re rescued at the last minute by Garak and the others, then Kira and Tekeny have to share a moment together), it’s a fun way to catch viewers off-guard by playing with our expectations. It’s only natural to think Kira is the target of Entek’s efforts, and to find out she isn’t—she’s merely convenient—helps make the plot seem fresh. It also leads to a surprisingly touching final conversation between Tekeny and Kira on DS9; the scene pushes the sentiment hard, and it’s not entirely earned by the episode, but the actors make it work well enough.
It helps that Tekeny makes sure to warn Kira about Garak before he goes, which ends the hour on a subtle, but resonant, note of paranoia. As much as “Second Skin” focuses on Kira and her travails, the episode also works as a stealth Garak spotlight, taking the ex-spy (or is he?) out of his comfort zone when Sisko forces him to join them on a rescue mission. Garak started off as a charming figure of mystery, but as his character development continues, the writers have taken him in a direction I didn’t see coming. Garak isn’t some kind of secret hero. He’s complicated, in ways that resist easy answers, and his behavior in this episode demonstrates just how unwilling he is to be cast into the role of a “good guy.” The tailor with a history is still likeable, but it’s a likeability that doesn’t always translate to other characters on the show. (Sisko has no compunctions in blackmailing Garak into doing what he wants, for one.) We don’t know why Garak does what he does, but Andrew Robinson has managed to make that ambiguity utterly consistent, to the point where I don’t always know what to expect from the character, but I believe him capable of nearly anything. Yet he’s far from an outright villain, either, and the way this episode uses the tension between Garak’s sense of self-preservation, and his desire to do, if not the right thing, than at least the thing which will make him look like he’s doing the right thing, is excellent. There’s a desperation and terror behind his charm that we last saw evident in “The Wire,” and I’m happy to see it hasn’t been forgotten.
- It doesn’t take too much away from the episode, but Kira’s resemblance to the real Iliana (who may or may not be dead) is a strange coincidence. Then again, it serves as another demonstration of the scope and power of the Obsidian Order. It doesn’t matter that Kira is a prominent official. They decided they wanted her for reasons that had basically nothing to do with who she was (although her status as a Bajoran “terrorist,” and her role on DS9, probably didn’t hurt the cover story), and they grabbed her. It also serves as an example of how arrogant power can overreach itself, as their plan would’ve worked if they’d grabbed someone who didn’t have such dedicated friends. (And given that they could make Kira look like a Cardassian so effortlessly, they could’ve picked anyone to play this game with.)
- “Commander, this is extortion.” “Mmm. Yes, it is.” -Garak and Sisko, having the best exchange of the episode
“The Abandoned” (season 3, episode 6; originally aired 10/31/1994)
In which Odo tries to make up for the sins of the father/mother…
Here’s another familiar story: One of our heroes “adopts” an orphaned alien genetically pre-disposed to violent, anti-social behavior. On TNG, “Suddenly Human” had Picard working with a human raised by aliens, trying to get him to adapt to human ways. In “The Abandoned,” Odo tries to teach a young member of the Jem’Hadar not to want to kill everything. Both characters ultimately fail, although the ending of “Suddenly Human” is, unsurprisingly, more optimistic. But Odo’s story is more effective overall, because the never-named boy he works with doesn’t come from some random, previously unheard of alien culture. The Jem’Hadar are an established, important race in DS9’s burgeoning mythology, and, even more importantly, Odo, as a changeling, has a very specific relationship to that race, a relationship with alters his motivations. Picard did what he did because he’s a good man, and because good men try and do the right thing. Odo does what he does because he wants to prove beings don’t have to live the lives dictated by their genetics. It’s a partly selfish motive that’s still driven largely by altruistic intent, and the result is honest, sad, and the best use of Odo’s backstory that the show has managed this season.
That last bit is important, because the fact that Odo is an orphan Founder—that he basically had the same sort of upbringing as the Jem’Hadar boy, albeit in a lab, and over a much longer period of time—is a big deal. Odo was introduced as unique, someone without the society or context to understand his abilities or his place in the galaxy. But then, when he finally tracked down his homeworld, he learned that the rest of his race are cruel fascists, subjugating others to their will in order to protect themselves from any possible threat. It’s a shocking, painful transformation for the constable, and what helps make “The Abandoned” so satisfying is that it finds a way to make that change impact on an emotional and intellectual level. The reveal in “The Search” was a twist that took place in the last few minutes of the episode, without allowing much room for fallout. Now, though, Odo is trying to define himself in new ways, and this episode shows the difficulties inherent in such a journey.
It also gives us a better sense of who the Jem’Hadar are, and just how thoroughly the Founders have enslaved them. When Quark buys some salvage from one his usual associates, he discovers a lot of scrap metal, and a stasis chamber with a living infant boy inside. Bashir runs tests on the child, but is unable to determine his species; all the good doctor can be sure of is that the kid is growing at a fantastic rate, which is almost certainly the result of some high-class genetic engineering. So the infant becomes a toddler, and then toddler becomes a young man, and by now it’s obvious to everyone that the orphan is one of the Jem’Hadar. (He looks like he has a face made out of dinosaurs, for one.) The older he gets, the more violent and angry he becomes, and that’s where Odo comes in. In addition to their high metabolism (which seems to plateau when they hit prime fighting age) and built-in drug addiction, the Jem’Hadar are essentially programmed from birth to respect and instinctually obey the Founders. While Odo may not be officially on the team, he is a shape-changer, and that means the orphan will listen to what he says.
What follows is a fascinating, and occasionally heartbreaking, case of nature versus nurture, with the former winning a decisive victory over the latter. (Admittedly, the genetic engineering makes for suspect results.) When I mentioned this episode on Twitter, a few people compared it to the TNG episode “I, Borg,” in that both episodes have a hostile enemy set into a friendly environment. It makes for an interesting contrast. On the Enterprise, Dr. Crusher and Geordi were able to form a connection with Hugh, the stranded Borg, humanizing a heretofore faceless, and terrifying, threat. On DS9, Odo tries to teach the boy about patience, reserve, and self-control, only for the Jem’Hadar to totally reject his efforts. The enemy has been faced, the talks were opened, and the result of our best efforts is a phaser in the face and a snarl. Not a bad way to remind the audience once again of just how unprepared our heroes are against their newest enemy.
Still, to my mind, the most compelling part of Odo’s story is how desperate he is throughout the hour to put a bright face on things. To this point, Odo has been defined by his gruff cynicism. He’s the classic “seen it all, didn’t believe most of it” lawman, an observer whose isolation puts him in a position to hold himself apart from everyone. Only now, he’s found his place, and it’s awful, and he’s struggling to come to terms with that. There’s a great scene early in the hour when Kira brings by a plant as a house-warming gift, and Odo, after initially not wanting to let her inside his new apartment, tells her excitedly about all his plans to try new shapes and new textures. It’s a sweet exchange between the two of them, but it also shows just how vulnerable and lonely Odo really is. He isn’t a cynic at heart; he wants to engage with life, he’s just terrified of risking a sense of self which had to have been tenuous even before he found out he came from a long line of villainous dictators. And now he’s got this young Jem’Hadar, a boy in a similar position to his own, and that means he has a chance to prove that he really can define himself by his own terms. If the Jem’Hadar can be saved, if this nearly psychotic warrior can learn to live on his own, Odo’s own position becomes more secure, and less solitary. But of course he can’t, because the universe doesn’t organize itself to strengthen our sense of self. The damage to the Jem’Hadar as a people is too deep to be healed by good intentions alone, and in the end, the best Odo can do is take the kid back to where he belongs.
The relationship resembles a father-son dynamic to an extent, so it’s not surprising that the subplot in “The Abandoned” spends some time with Jake and Sisko in their non-work lives. Jake has a girlfriend, a 20 year-old Dabo girl (who he’s mentioned before, right? Sometimes the details blur together), and Sisko is determined to put a stop to it. Only, when he has the girl, Mardah (Jill Sayre) over for a family dinner, he finds himself learning more about his son than he was expecting, and the new information changes his mind about the relationship. It’s not a bad storyline, and as always, I enjoy seeing Sisko work his way through being a father. I love that there’s never any question about him being a great dad—we don’t have to deal with a lot of clichés about Sisko working too hard, or about the two of them being estranged for drama’s sake. Jake is a little awkward around his father, but in a natural, non-dickish, teenage kind of way.
The contrast between Jake and his girlfriend, however, makes their romance harder to understand. Jake doesn’t look older than 16, and Mardah (who is likeable, and seems sweet) looks older than 20, and the two actors don’t have a huge amount of chemistry between them. The implication could be that the relationship is more platonic than sexual, but it’s treated so lightly that it’s hard to tell. 20 to 16 isn’t the worst ever, but imagine if Jake was a girl, and Mardah a guy—it’d be weird, and it is weird, in a way that the episode isn’t really willing to deal with.
Still, the main message—parents don’t always know what’s best for their children—fits in well with Odo’s arc, and certainly has a happier ending than the changeling’s. Again I find myself appreciating the episode as much for texture as for plot. Detail-wise, as with “Second Skin,” there’s a lot of entertaining sci-fi nonsense going on, what with its genetically engineered lizard soldier whose surgically induced drug addiction requires him to take constant doses of a synthetic compound only his shape-changing masters can create. But the fact that the episode takes this nonsense seriously, and, even better, uses it as a means to explore how people struggle to connect, and how that struggle is often more a reflection of their own needs. What Odo wants to do for the Jem’Hadar foundling is both commendable and selfish, and it’s possible to admire him for the former, while still recognizing the cost of the latter.
- O’Brien’s “16 years old and dating a Dabo girl. Godspeed, Jake,” is funny, but it also creeps me out. Yes, it’s standard to think of a teenage guy dating an older woman as some sort of sexual fantasy brought to life, but there’s still a power imbalance. Plus, while Mardah does seem to legitimately care for Jake, we don’t know enough about her to understand why she’d be interested in someone so young. I don’t want to make more of this than it deserves (and I suspect I already have), but in a show which is normally so good about staying true to its characters, this is a disappointing, if brief, misstep.
- “Now, tell me more about my poet hustler son.”—Sisko
- The speed with which the Jem’Hadar boy goes from “troubled, but trying” to “warrior able to use the station’s transporter and steal a phaser” is frightening, and great. It breaks down any illusion that Odo could control him for long. (It also demonstrates the absurdity of the Federation wanting to hold the boy in a lab. That would end badly.)
Next week: We face down some “Civil Defense,” and Dax gets intimate while cruising the “Meridian.”