“Second Skin” (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 3, Episode 5)
One of the lesser-known but still prevalent story themes in Trek is one in which the main character’s entire worldview (and often times, sanity) is thrown into doubt. Episodes of this theme include The Next Generation’s “Frame of Mind” (where Riker shifts between his life on the Enterprise and a mental hospital), or Voyager’s “Projections” (which suggests the Doctor might be a real human being instead of a hologram). In these types of episodes we typically see our hapless heroes put through the mental wringer in situations where the overwhelming evidence seems to suggest everything they know is a lie, and they pretty much all conclude with the status quo once again re-confirmed.
Because of that, these types of stories can be anti-climatic. There’s heavy dramatic potential in throwing everything our heroes know into question, but for a successful episode it requires A) actual follow-through, and/or B) weird fun along the way, as well as C) some cleverness in the overall machinations of the plot. In the case of “Frame of Mind,” there’s no question whether Riker is a mental patient imagining the Enterprise or an actual Starfleet officer, but the trippy visuals and unsettling tone make it a worthwhile episode.
In developing this episode, the writers toyed with the revelation that Kira actually is a Cardassian, or at least that Bashir is unable to determine what she truly is in the end. This certainly would have been a bold choice – but also wildly unnecessary and complicating, so thankfully it didn’t turn out to be the case. The procedure of the story is fine, but not especially spellbinding. When Entek shows Kira her “body,” there is a moment where she is truly taken aback (despite her rationalizations of it being a hologram or whatever, which has to be the case, right…?). His breakdown of how easy it is for the Obsidian Order to do everything he claims is convincing. And near the episode’s conclusion, the captivity and stress of her ordeal cause Kira a temporary emotional breakdown, which is understandable. And there is the message Iliana recorded – she does look and sound exactly like Kira, which is certainly weird.
But we know that Kira being a Cardassian isn’t true, so the drama of that artifice is pretty flat. We’re just biding time until the reveal of what’s really going on. And during that time, Kira is (justifiably) openly hostile and suspicious of everyone she interacts with, so the scenes of her and her captors are kind of one-note.
The ultimate explanation of why this is all happening is… far-fetched to say the least. So, let’s review Entek’s intricate ploy: he dislikes and mistrusts Ghemor, and suspects he is a part of the Cardassian dissident movement. He clearly can’t prove it directly, so he concocts a plan to get him to betray Cardassia. Ghemor just happens to have had a daughter who went undercover as an Obsidian Order agent (that Entek himself trained), but she got lost in the field. So Entek is able to locate someone who looks and sounds enough like her to kidnap and surgically alter (that she is the first office of the most important nearby Federation base doesn’t seem like much of a deterrent to him; it clearly should have been). He also has an operative on Bajor falsifying records and one posing as a fellow prisoner to get Kira onto Bajor. There is also an operative on DS9 doing stuff, too.
So that is like… a lot. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but this is a wild chain of stuff that make up a tremendously circuitous plan that seems largely unnecessary. Like, can’t you just entrap Ghemor in a much simpler way without involving so many other extraneous players and events? What if Ghemor had decided to take Kira to an independent, outside doctor to get a regular workup? They would have immediately determined she isn’t Cardassian. If the Obsidian Order is so meticulous and without legal boundaries, why would it be so hard to catch Ghemor in one of his secret communist party meetings or communiques? Entek actually does this part at the end and it doesn’t seem that difficult.
I’m being harsh on the plot, but despite the wackiness of it, I do like this episode. There’s a novelty in seeing Kira in Cardassian makeup (which Visitor reportedly hated). Ghemor (Lawrence Pressman, who I’ll always associate with Doogie Howser) and Entek are both compelling characters, both symbolizing the duality of Cardassian society and its endemic schisms. As Garak says, it is a pity Entek dies. I rather liked him, too (I love his “Major, your testimony would make for a more dramatic trial, but I’d be willing to dispense with it if you give us any trouble…” line).
Even more entertaining is the involvement of Garak, especially his prickly scenes with Sisko. Garak fulfills the wildcard role of the show nicely by finding out Kira’s fate, meddling around on the Defiant, saving everyone’s asses when shit goes sideways, and of course delivering the killing blow to the villain (yet again, as he did in “Profit and Loss”). It really highlights the expanded stories Deep Space Nine was capable of doing with its diverse characters; without Garak in the episode, it would be a pretty straightforward Starfleet search and rescue. Which is fine, but it’s by-the-numbers, and thankfully Deep Space Nine rarely did stuff by-the-numbers.
Sisko deals with Garak like a boss by blackmailing him to help them, a callback to him forcing Quark to stay on the station in the series’ first episode. It’s fun to see him not being quite the squeaky clean Starfleet officer in that regard (more on that as the series progresses…). One of Sisko’s strengths is his ability to see the bigger picture, as well as out-of-the-box thinking. Up until now we’ve seen Bashir as the primary person who interacts with Garak, someone who is pretty susceptible to and disarmed by the former spy’s obfuscation. But Sisko holds actual power over Garak and doesn’t tolerate any B.S., so it’s a good change of pace. Also great: “Mr. Garak, I believe that’s the first completely honest thing you’ve ever said to me.” “How perceptive of you, Commander.”
We will see Ghemor again in a few seasons, and his final scene with Kira in the episode is a surprisingly emotional affair for them. I don’t think the story totally connects the emotional dots of Kira accepting this guy as something akin to a family member, but the effort is appreciated. They’re both likable people who have suffered symmetrical losses (her father, his daughter) and it meshes well with Deep Space Nine’s theme of assembled families. Ghemor’s hard-edged warning about Garak emphasizes the tailor’s potential danger and unpredictability (wildcard!), and underlines the show’s theme of its characters’ incompatible agendas.
Despite the logical flaws in the plot, it’s gratifying to see so many story elements being used in such a fluid manner, and I think that’s why the episode succeeds. Garak, the Obsidian Order, and surgically altered undercover agents are all things that have been seen before and they’re used to craft a good new story that moves everything forward. The world building of the show has been very well done up to this point and has set up a lot of cool facets for the creators to slip into and run with.
- I love when Sisko strides in, throws the bag on the ground, and then SUDDENLY ODO! (This fall on CBS, check your local listings)
- I believe this is the first concrete confirmation that Garak was in the Obsidian Order (it had been implied and assumed before). His scene on the bridge of the Defiant is great. It also gives us this gangsta AF image.