You Spooky Trek to Me? – “Things Past”

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!

“Things Past”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 8

One of my favorite aspects of Deep Space Nine’s setting was that it had a significant history to it. Before it was the Starfleet/Bajoran station DS9, it was Terek Nor, built decades before the series started during the Cardassians’ 50-year brutal occupation of Bajor. It not only had a background, but a very dark one that we glimpsed in Season 2’s excellent “Necessary Evil.” As the epicenter of the Occupation, it’s a literal graveyard of Bajorans that were abused, worked to death, and worse. “Things Past” returns to this foreboding setting once again for a dreamily spooky episode that reveals some more unpleasant truths.

The episode utilizes the “dreamspace” story type we’ve seen on Star Trek many times. Reportedly, the producers wanted to return to Terek Nor but not use flashbacks or time travel, so the episode cooks up another method of getting Sisko, Odo, Dax, and Garak to that setting. It’s an OK solution, although the ultimate explanation for why it all happens is pretty wacky. The story doesn’t bother to obfuscate the dream setting to us the audience, but the four main characters of the episode are left in the dark until the end. The episode purposefully leans into the dreamy theme, and there’s an unbalanced fuzziness to everything that happens. It’s not as outwardly nutty as Counselor Troi Cake (or Will Riker Straw Head), but there is a surreal, hazy quality that fits the dream theme.

Sisko, Dax, Odo, and Garak are returning to Deep Space Nine on a runabout from a conference meant to examine the Bajoran Occupation from a “dispassionate historical view.” (seems a little early for that, given it ended like four years prior, but OK) Garak complains about the Bajorans not listening to his very Cardassian point of view that it, uh, built character. Garak Cardi-explaining Bajorans’ suffering to them is such a darkly amusing mental image, and he shows some trademark obliviousness and insensitivity at other times, as well. It’s a gutsy choice to have him say such unlikable things, but I think it displays one of the show’s strengths.

However, the star of the conference seems to have been Odo, who everyone fawned over due to his fair and even-handed rule of law under the Cardassians. Both sides seem to have great respect for his impartial nature that cared only for justice. However, Odo seems particularly grumpy over the attention, and doesn’t want to revel in it.

Weirdly, the runabout arrives at the station with everyone aboard unconscious and Bashir is unable to wake them. Apparently they went through a plasma storm, which doesn’t explain why they’re like this. Meanwhile, the four of them wake up aboard the dark and nightmarish Terek Nor in the past. Wha….?

“According to my scans, they all appear to be vewwy sweepy.”

The foursome tries to figure out what’s going, while Odo hallucinates a dead Bajoran man with a hole in his chest walking by, staring daggers at him. They see Dukat on the Promenade with Odo’s predecessor Thrax (Kurtwood Smith!). A Cardassian picks Dax, who has been “selected.” Yikes. Garak tries to interfere, and gets a bloody nose for doing so. Of course, in the Infirmary unconscious Garak’s nose starts to bleed because if you get hurt in the Matrix, you get hurt in real life, too. Even killed! It’s a little silly and although it establishes some life or death stakes, it seems largely unnecessary and doesn’t factor into the plot again. But anyway.

I was just dreaming of chocolate syrup pouring out of my nose!

Garak, clever and resourceful as always, swiped the guard’s smartphone when he got pummeled. He’s able to access their identities, and it appears they’re all Bajoran workers (and are regarded as such by everyone in the dream, despite their actual species). Strangely, Odo seems to know their names already. Before he can explain why, Quark arrogantly saunters over to offer them some work cleaning up his bar.

“Necessary Evil” depicted Quark during the Occupation as a fairly scuzzy guy, and this episode makes the daring choice of leaning further into him being a huge asshole who used slave labor and treated them like shit. Granted, he does the same to his employees in the current timeline. Although we also know he secretly helped out Bajoran orphans during this time under the table, so he’s not totally a bad guy? But he is here! Quark’s specific shade of moral grey tends to shift depending on what the story requires.

“Hello, I’m Dukat. This is going to get really weird.”

Meanwhile, Dax is brought before Dukat. He explains in his characteristically long-winded way (Alaimo is always fun to listen to) that he really just wants a friend. You know, a female friend that just happens to be spectacularly attractive? Yeah, uh-huh, real friendly, totally normal. Dukat’s womanizing of Bajoran women was a well-established fact already and has big “Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List” energy, but his own bullshit spin on it is grossly fascinating. Again, Alaimo is just amazing in the role and really conveys how Dukat is so passionate about his narcissistic B.S. that maybe he actually believes it. He drones on to Dax how he considers the Bajorans his children, and how he tries to look after them despite their bad manners (aka attempts on his life). It’s super weird and gross, but his megalomania is one of the more realistic and compelling aspects of his character. It’s an outgrowth of his deep-seated racism towards the Bajorans and his own extreme narcissism – infantilizing them and casting himself in a protective role while at the same brutalizing them physically and sexually. In an episode that’s focused on very morally dark territory, it fits right in and isn’t even the main part of the plot, just a side dish.

After a long hard day of cleaning Quark’s Bar, Sisko asks Odo how he knew their Bajoran identities. Odo sees another vision of dead Bajoran men slo-mo striding down the Promenade, with haunting green light shining behind them. Not being completely honest, he tells Sisko he recognized them from a report back in the day – they were all executed for an attempted assassination of Dukat. Uh oh.

🎵 It’s a bittersweet / travesty 🎵

Thrax comes into Quark’s to shake him down for information. Kurtwood Smith channels Annorax’s cold persona mixed with some Cardassian brutality for a fun performance throughout. Eavesdropping on their convo, Garak realizes that the facets of this reality don’t add up – given the year this is supposed to take place, Thrax wasn’t head of security at the time, Odo was. Hmm.

“All right, listen up dumbass.”

Sisko, remembering a tip Kira once told him, arranges a meeting with a member of the Bajoran underground resistance to try and get off the station before the events that lead up to their execution. Odo has another very on-the-nose vision of his hands covered in blood (I WONDER WHAT THAT COULD MEAN). Dukat and Dax make an appearance on the Promenade and it isn’t long before an explosion goes off, injuring the two. Rushing over to check on Dax, Sisko is arrested along with Garak and Odo (the racial overtones of a black man getting arrested for something he didn’t do because of his proximity to the crime scene are hard not to notice).

“Every single time, Constable. How have you not gotten the hang of utensils yet?”
I’m gonna go with… OOF.

In a holding cell, Thrax informs the three that they will stand trial for the attempted assassination of Dukat. The other cells are filled with throngs of yelling Bajorans and it makes for a frenzied and chaotic scene as Thrax is continually turning to bark at them to be quiet. It gives the sense of how impossible it is to find any real justice in this mess. Odo pleads with Thrax to actually investigate, since all the evidence against them is circumstantial. Like the Cardassian justice system itself (which we’ve seen an intimate window into already), Thrax is only concerned with getting convictions and meting out punishment, truth be damned (which is totally not like the U.S. system at all… ahem).

In Dukat’s office, he drones on to Dax about how this is the umpteenth attempt on his life and how he doesn’t blame his “children” (yuck). Dax pointedly suggests he find a different line of work. Dukat laughs and starts monologuing about how preternaturally patient and generous he is with his Bajoran children. While he’s caught up in his own masturbatory self-aggrandizing, Dax konks him on the head and starts working on an escape plan.

In the holding cell, Sisko deduces that Odo knows more than he’s letting on, but the Constable remains agitated and tight-lipped. Suddenly, a hole opens up in the wall with a grinning Dax on the other side ready to bust them out. They make their way to an escape shuttle and get in a fight with some guards along the way, including Thrax. Sisko knocks him back, and Thrax morphs into a liquid Changeling state to escape. That doesn’t make any sense at all!

Oh, these nerd glasses are getting pushed up SO HARD right now!

Before they can figure out that continuity error, the four of them enter the shuttle airlock only to find… themselves back in the holding cell as if nothing happened. A guard smugly informs them they’ll be executed in two hours. Sisko, Dax, and Garak pointedly question Odo about what’s going on and why nothing seems to make sense, but he continues to deny any knowledge of what’s happening. They’re being incredibly patient with him, since at that point I’d probably be physically shaking him and demanding to know what the F is up.

Thrax comes in and honors his request for a one-on-one meeting, and Odo pleads with him to conduct an actual investigation into the crime. He tries to logically point out various inconsistencies, but Thrax seems to have an answer for everything (I love his prediction that the Occupation will probably go on for another 50 years). Re-watching the episode after you know what’s going on makes the scene more interesting, because spoiler alert: Odo is just arguing with himself – more specifically, his past self that was too focused on getting the job done to actually do it right. Auberjonis conveys the frustration with trying to reason with one’s past unchangeable actions and attitudes. Thrax then admits that he knows Odo and his friends are innocent, and asks hauntingly, “What are you going to do… Odo?” This mentally knocks Odo on his ass, and the zoom-in/zoom-out shot conveys the reality-churning moment of reversal.

🎵 It was Odo all along! 🎵

The four of them are suddenly on the upper level of the Promenade about to be executed, but then it shifts to them witnessing the actual Bajoran men getting killed from a distance. It visually channels the shifting nature that dreams can have, and some off-kilter camera techniques add to the surreal nature of the scene. The ugly truth is revealed by Odo – he was the one who wrongfully convicted the three Bajoran men to death for the attempted assassination of Dukat, not Thrax. He was so intent on maintaining law and order that he accepted the circumstantial evidence and didn’t do his due diligence to investigate the crime. Going to the conference and getting praise for being so fair and balanced only dredged up the guilt he’s carried all these years. He admits all of this to Sisko, Dax, and Garak before they all wake up in the Infirmary.

Bashir Explains Everything to Odo – soooo, it turns out that although he’s human now, Odo still has enough Changeling [plot devices] in his head that he was able to form a telepathic Great Link with the other people in the runabout when the plasma storm rendered them unconscious. And because he was so consumed with this one incident, it created a dreamspace they all got stuck it. Ha ha, no really. Even for Star Trek it’s kind of bonkers, but ultimately it’s just an excuse to allow the plot to happen, so whatever.

Kira enters and tells Odo how devastated she is to hear about what he’s done. There’s something about this scene (and kind of the whole episode) that doesn’t sit right with me. For starters, the entire episode is a retread of “Necessary Evil,” not only in its setting but in its ultimate reveal. Whereas “Evil” was a fresh and interesting story, “Past” seems a little stale and perfunctory in comparison. Utilizing the same concept, it doesn’t add that much more and just pulls an Uno reverse card for the exact same climax.

Because the big reveal in “Evil” was that the murderer Odo tried to find all those years prior was Kira – she successfully deceived him and that lie had been festering between them ever since. Odo felt hurt that she had never come clean with him, and she admitted that she had been afraid to, given that his opinion means so much to her (Visitor can’t even meet his gaze as she tells him this, and it really communicates how ashamed she is). But Odo seems willing to forgive, and their friendship does continue on unabated. It’s a good twist with some character consequences and acted beautifully by both.

By contrast, “Past” does the exact same thing and has the exact same ending scene (with an almost identical wide closing shot), except this time it’s Kira being indignant that Odo did something bad way back when. She’s very disappointed that it turns out he wasn’t the paragon of truth and fairness everyone thought he was – which is pretty unfair and a little naive. It’s even kind of othering a thing for her to do – that because of his unique alien nature, he’s somehow infallible or immune to any of the influences that afflicts anyone else? Odo doesn’t defend himself and simply acknowledges that he’s just an imperfect solid… which, yeah. Of course he’s imperfect – everyone is, even (especially) Changelings. Kira is like, OK, I’ll buy that since I’m not perfect either. But her tone indicates that it’s still not good enough. Like, c’mon Kira. She even points out that it’s ludicrous to expect anyone to have lived through the Occupation and not gotten their hands dirty in some way (she would know!). We’ve definitely seen multiple examples of that theme illustrated throughout the series. But again, she says that but still comes off as accusatory, and it just doesn’t seem cool of her.

“I sorry.”

She needs to know if there were any other innocent people that Odo helped railroad, and he says he doesn’t know. I mean, there probably has to be, right? Nobody has a 100% win record, or even a 99%. And I realize that we’re talking about people’s lives, and not beer pong. But I would argue that from a dramatic plot standpoint, this Stunning Revelation makes the two of them even, if anything. In that context, her sense of betrayal seems a little over the top. Odo fucked up and clearly feels absolutely terrible over it. This isn’t even the 10th worst thing Odo has ever done! OK, that’s maybe not the best defense… They would continue to be friends (and even lovers, eventually), but it seems like she should be more understanding, given her own background and experience.

Deep Space Nine is regarded as the most morally grey Star Trek series, and the reputation is deserved. The series was unafraid of putting its characters into ethically difficult situations and examining the unpleasant consequences. It’s appropriate that the backstory of the show was built upon the Occupation, a thinly-veiled allegory of the Holocaust and includes all the darkness that extended metaphor entails. It’s a shadow that loomed over the show’s internal history and colored all those who lied within it. Lies are at the center of Odo’s angst here and they consume him and those closest to him in a spooky and hazy dreamspace to struggle with literally. There aren’t any corny monsters or outlandishly scary forces here, just the horrifying truths of injustice and lives unfairly cut short in a massively unfair system. As we’ve seen so often, being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and in the wrong skin – can be a real-life nightmare there’s no waking up from.

Stray Observations:

  • I believe this is the episode that introduces the “spoonhead” slur for Cardassians. It sounds ridiculous at first pass, but also really hateful and dehumanizing. So, uh, points for verisimilitude!
  • Quark’s makeup is subtly different here to make him appear younger, notably around the eyes.
“I was wondering, could I get authorization to wear a color that’s not Battleship Grey, Despair Black, or Deep Military Puke?”
  • The dream mechanics are a lot like the ones that would be depicted in the film Inception. Odo is the one who creates the dreamspace and populates it with characters. His knowledge of Dukat animates that character to where Dax can interact with him when he’s not in Odo’s vicinity. It’s kind of interesting.
  • When Dukat appears on the Promenade, it prompts a short rant from Garak. His mutual hatred of Dukat is well-established, but I enjoy his general disgust over the military as a character detail. As a former member of the espionage complex, it’s a realistic detail that he would have an intrinsic dislike of the other government departments, especially one as blunt and forceful as the military. Cardassian society was so wonderfully fleshed out and detailed throughout the course of Deep Space Nine.
  • Levar Burton directed this episode and nicknamed it “Nightmare on Odo Street.” Ha!
  • Dax’s prison break is really similar to Scotty’s of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. They both blow out a wall of a holding cell and appear through the hole. Normally I’d say it was an intentional tribute, but I don’t think anyone wants to purposefully reference that movie, ever.
“Herrrrreeee’s Jadzia!”
  • The choice of characters for the episode is a little odd to attend this Occupation-Con. Sisko and Odo make sense, but science officer Dax? Cardassian Garak? Kira didn’t go? I guess cuz she’s pregnant maybe? I think all the characters work well here (always fun to have Garak), but it’s a little random.
  • The continuity of Terek Nor as presented here seems to contradict “Necessary Evil” slightly. Thrax wasn’t mentioned until this episode, but wouldn’t he have been in charge of any murder investigation during that time? Maybe he left before the murder happened?