Attention on heck! Don’t try to adjust your viewscreens, person-hell and boo-tenants! What you’re seeing isn’t a creepy clone, a hellish hologram, or a strangely specific alternate universe! For the month of October, we’ll be taking a spine-chilling stroll through Trek’s most horror-iffic outings and spooky adventures! Now why don’t you sit back and try not to let that green blood of yours run cold! If things get a little too intense, don’t hesitate to ask Scotty to SCREAM you up! Hehehehehehehehehe!
“Empok Nor” (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 24)
Deep Space Nine was by far the most violent Star Trek series – it featured an interstellar war that took place over several seasons, lots of space battle action, and good ol’ fashioned phasers & fisticuffs. However, the series often took the time to examine the results and fallout of this violence as it affected the characters and their world. Anyone who enjoys action movies knows there’s a dumb and primal thrill to violence and destruction, and anyone who enjoys slasher movies recognizes there’s a perverse pleasure to watching characters get brutally murdered.
I am not one of those people. I’m fairly picky when it comes to horror, and slasher films are like the stinky and pungent cheeses I don’t enjoy. Some do and that’s cool. I suppose I just don’t like seeing people get killed needlessly – even if they’re fictional – and especially if they don’t deserve it. There’s a savage quality to it that just isn’t entertaining to me, so I didn’t grow up partaking of the franchises of Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc.
In addition to the gratuitous violence, the rote, predictable nature of these films also made them unappealing. There’s a psychotic, usually supernatural killer, one or two protagonists, and a bunch of dumb idiots that get killed one at a time until only the main characters are left to kill the killer. Fun, I guess.
“Empok Nor” is at its heart a true-to-form slasher-horror episode, and there’s a certain gutsiness to that I admire. It’s a decent episode and if murder rampage stories are your jam, this one might be too. But at its heart there’s something ugly and unpleasant about it, and thus uncomfortably un-Trek-like.
In this case, the two main characters are Chief O’Brien and Cadet Nog. The idiots are the engineering and security detail along with them. And the main killer is also a main character – Garak – with the twist being a psychotropic drug-induced heel turn two-thirds of the way into the story. Tasked with finding a replacement station part (that can’t be replicated, conveniently), the team travels to a nearby Cardassian outpost that’s been abandoned and looks just like DS9 (also conveniently).
And I cannot emphasize enough how big of idiots this crew is – including O’Brien, unfortunately. Upon boarding the station, they accidentally activate two stasis pods housing some Cardassians hopped up on lizard hate juice (which is the name of my Trek tribute energy drink). We’ve seen the Cardassian military and espionage complexes experimenting on and modifying their own people before, and this is a particularly disturbing example (I appreciate that there’s no concrete explanation for it, just academic assumptions of an experiment gone wrong or whatever).
The stupidity sets in with the classic “let’s split up!” routine. Granted, they initially don’t know about the psycho Cardassians, but they spend a lot of time talking about how dangerous and booby-trapped the place is (oddly enough, they don’t run into any such traps), and Empok Nor is certainly a dark, spooky, nightmarish setting as it is. So it seems like maximum caution would be best?
The Cardassians immediately destroy the runabout, stranding the crew on the station. O’Brien makes the regrettable decision of splitting the team up again in order to send a signal to the station. To his credit (and the episode’s), he eventually realizes his mistake of calling for help rather than neutralizing the immediate threat. And of course, the murderous fun starts as the two killers pick off three members of the crew. The episode does a good job of establishing some minimal, workable characterization for these hapless, imminent corpses. They’re all likable Starfleet people who nonetheless seem to have no fucking clue of what to do in this situation (even the security personnel), and they all pay the price.
In two separate situations, the engineer works on their task while blabbing the entire time as the security person assigned to them blabs back at them instead of keeping an eye out. It’s ridiculous. At least they weren’t sneaking off into the woods to have teenage sex. Actually, make that three scenes, because O’Brien and Garak also blab to each other while Nog, the eager soldier boy naively patrols around while almost getting killed by one of the Cardassians. Oh, yous guys…
I guess one of the features of slasher movies is that none of the characters know they’re in a slasher movie (the same rule applies to zombie movies), otherwise they would act differently and it wouldn’t be a slasher movie (say “slasher” one more time, dude). But there’s really no excuse here. These are trained and basically military personnel who all get taken out like chumps. The kills aren’t especially notable or entertainingly gorey (likely because of the show’s TV-14 nature), although there’s a legitimately great jump scare as one of the Cardassian bursts through a window Jason Vorhees style and nabs a hapless engineer (we don’t see what he even does to him, it almost sounds like he’s eating him).
Besides these slaughterable nobodies, we do get a little character work for O’Brien, Nog, and Garak. Andrew Robinson reportedly hated the initial draft of the script since it contained no deeper character material for Garak. He insisted that additional stuff be put in to give him something to work with beyond being a one-dimensional killer. It’s a neat factoid and shows how thoughtful and committed the actors were about their roles on the show. As it is in the episode, Garak’s character motivation is pretty thin, so I shudder to think of the version where Robinson didn’t pipe up.
Even before Garak falls victim to the same drug that motivates the other two Cardassians to be killeriffic, he needles O’Brien about his war record against the Cardassians (bringing up the Setlik III massacre, one of the defining background details of the Chief). It’s… odd. There’s the intimation that Garak is either resentful of O’Brien’s actions against Cardassians during their war or obsessed with besting him in strategy/combat. The tension between the characters is out of left field and doesn’t quite jibe with who Garak is. He has no love or loyalty for the military, and he doesn’t seem like a person motivated by ego or competitiveness at all. It’s an unfortunate, reductive turn for a normally magnetic and multi-faceted character.
O’Brien, true to his nature, is hesitant to talk about his combat experience and eager to put his soldier days far behind him. During his drug-fueled manic state, Garak continually taunts O’Brien for being a violent creature like him, and kidnaps Nog (rather than killing him) to maneuver the Chief into a physical fight. Even with the stress and anger surging through him, O’Brien has no lust for battle and defeats Garak not as a soldier, but an engineer. He says as much, in the episode’s best part as he knocks Garak on his ass with a jury-rigged tricorder-phaser bomb (it’s awesome). It’s a nice summation of Miles’ character/history for him to definitively state who he is now and choose ingenuity over violence (well, mostly).
But at the same time, the episode does find fault with O’Brien’s lack of aggression. Again, subduing the Cardassians should have been their first priority, a basic rule of war as realized by the Chief. Thus, the messaging is a little muddled about who the Chief should be vs. who he is. Sure, he eventually defeats the bad guy and saves the day by acting like an engineer rather than a soldier, but the situation wouldn’t have happened if he acted like a soldier rather than an engineer in the first place. I dunno.
With two of the killers killed and the third subdued (and cured), the episode’s final scene deals with the violence that has been committed throughout. It’s commendable that the show suggests some realistic consequences of what Garak has done – O’Brien mentions an inquiry, and Garak drops the more disturbing detail that the man he killed while under the influence had a wife. Bashir medically (and morally) absolves Garak of his crime, citing the ol’ “it wasn’t him, he wasn’t in control” song and dance. And presumably so does Starfleet, as there is never mention of any legal fallout from the events of this episode.
In a way, this final scene makes the episode a little worse, since it imparts some realism in a genre that doesn’t really use realism. It’s true to the nature of Trek in that it’s a thoughtful and logical parting thought, but it presents an irreconcilable discord from the rest of the story. The characters in slasher films aren’t really three-dimensional characters; they’re just blood-filled cardboard cutouts to get mowed down. If they were sympathetic people with relatable thoughts, feelings, and motivations, slashing them down becomes much bleaker and disturbing than a standard horror movie – it turns into a tragedy. As much as the episode tries to have some fun killing people, it can’t help but remind us that there’s actually nothing fun about that at all.
- The fact that there’s a space station exactly like DS9 within cosmic walking distance is kind of crazy, as is the fact that it’s NEVER been mentioned before. O’Brien mentions that it’s a “remote” sector and that the Cardassians pulled out a year ago, but still. In just a few episodes from now, Starfleet will abandon DS9 to the Dominion, but never think to re-establish a command post on Empok Nor.
- That being said, it is kind of a clever plot device to have this alternate setting, and we will see it a couple more times. The exterior shots are appropriately spooky, as well as the interior set redressing.
- Love the skeletal Cardassian. It really sets the tone for the episode. Garak’s “gotcha!” kill from inside one of the pods is great.
- I take back what I said about the kills not being notable. The Cardassian stepping on the neck of the Bolian and snapping it is brutal (that sound), and Garak stabbing the dude is also great. “It’s a flux coupler!” That’s So Garak.
- Garak stringing up the dead bodies of the crew makes for a disturbing visual, but it seems like an insane amount of physical work to do. Granted, he’s hopped up on psycho space meth and anything is possible when you believe, but still. Bodies weigh a lot! Don’t ask me how I know.
- Nog doesn’t get a ton to do, but it’s nice that he’s in the episode and he makes a good companion for O’Brien. It also sets up a nice bit between him and Garak early next season.
- Cardassians wear their combadges on their wrists instead of their chests like Starfleet. When Garak goes full tilt killer, he wears his on his wrist too. It’s a nice little detail.
- I feel bad for the widow of the one guy. Shit happens, huh? I could easily see a follow-up story of murderous revenge from her, but we don’t get one.
- I like the part where O’Brien angrily knocks over the Cardassian Checkers board Garak set up. It’s a small moment, but it shows his frayed nerves and the humanity that has always made him a compelling character.