You Spooky Trek to Me? – “The Alternate”

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!


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 2, Episode 12

Alternate creature forms are a classic and interesting horror trope – what happens when the monster is within? Some weird and fantastical affliction causes a victim to turn into a monster (with or without their knowledge), commit all sorts of mayhem, only to turn human again to deal with the aftermath. There’s a Jungian aspect to this idea, and it plays upon the duality of humanity – we are intelligent, godly beings that still have animalistic instincts that rule us. The classical werewolf is a manifestation of this disharmony – a man that becomes a beast at night, taken over by his lower urges. The producers’ concept for the episode is simple but tantalizing – what if a shapeshifter had multiple personalities? “The Alternate” is an unexpected take on this notion in which Odo is transformed by a primal force that represents everything he is not.

Odo is one of the coolest Star Trek aliens ever – not just because of his shape-changing abilities, but because of the shroud of mystery his character was initially cloaked in. His origin was unknown and the many unanswered questions about where he came from and who his people were created a lot of enticing interest. This would only last for the first two seasons before we got those answers, but until then Deep Space Nine toyed with some clues and red herrings about Odo’s origins.

“Oh! I see where Odo gets his… melted looks from?”

To add to the interest, Odo has two origins – his first mysterious one, and the second in which he grew up in a Bajoran laboratory after being discovered. This one is much more integral to who Odo is as a person, and gives us a father figure of sorts in his former scientific caretaker Dr. Mora (what would a good sci-fi horror story be without a scientist?). Mora is played by Star Trek veteran James Sloyan who has given several captivating guest performances. Mora was his only recurring role and his most benevolent character, although there’s still plenty of interpersonal drama here.

Having raised him (in a laboratory), Mora regards Odo with the well-meaning but patronizing attitude parents often have towards their children. The awe he regards his former subject with reminds me of the amazement my mom expressed towards me when she saw my first apartment and the very basic things I accomplished in that respect. They mean well, but they can’t help but view you as a grown-up child rather than a fellow adult, and Mora similarly can’t help himself at being amazed (and remarking so, out loud) with Odo’s progress in an adult, humanoid world. Coming face-to-face with him for the first time here, he remarks that he still hasn’t “gotten the ears right,” and Odo visibly dies inside. The scene where Mora prompts Odo to regale Dax with an anecdote from their laboratory days before immediately interrupting him when he doesn’t get a detail quite right (and finishing the story himself) is cringingly accurate. >.<

“Odo, you left out the part where you made a total mess of yourself in front of the entire high school. Here, let me tell it. Picture it: Bajor, 2354…”

Auberjonis perfectly emotes his extreme discomfort with Mora’s presence and you can feel his (approximated) skin crawl in their scenes together. It obviously reminds him too much of being a lab specimen and object of scientific fascination (or a party favor; Dr. Mora is the one who taught Odo the famed Cardassian Neck Trick). Odo has built a highly regimented life and a profession for himself on DS9, and having Mora there disturbs it greatly – the opening scene with Odo busting Quark’s chops over some counterfeit Ferengi remains is great, and the way Mora’s entrance totally derails it is funny.

Misdirection is a theme of the story and creates dramatic interest. Once again, Odo is enticed with the promise of finding out the origins of his people like in Season 1’s “Vortex.” And also like in that episode, there is some genetic material thing to back it up. That’s the reason why Mora has barged into Odo’s life here – some signs of life on a planet in the Gamma Quadrant appear to be similar to Odo’s biology. Mora, Odo, Dax, and a random scientist head out in a runabout to investigate. During the trip we get a fascinating anecdote about the Constable’s “childhood” in Mora’s lab, and how the Bajoran scientist didn’t even realize that Odo was a life form at first.

“Finders keepers! I want the obelisk! You can have all the mummified corpses! We’ll split the jewels!”

On the planet, they find a Mysterious Obelisk and some funky moss that was the source of the attention-grabbing readings. Dax suggests taking the obelisk back to the station for analysis (how very British Empire of her!), and when they beam it up the ground immediately starts shaking. It’s kind of odd, almost like removing the artifact angers the ground or something. I guess it’s supposed to be a simple coincidence, but the episode doesn’t make it clear. It’s at least consistent with the odd/spooky theme – it’s like they’re disturbing the Mummy’s temple or something. During the earthquake some toxic gas is released from the ground that renders everyone but Odo unconscious. But they manage to escape and make it back to Deep Space Nine.

Everyone but Odo recovers in the infirmary, him being the only one unaffected by the gas (or is he…?). O’Brien has the lifeform they collected in a study chamber and notes that it’s undergoing strange, rapid metamorphosis and quickly growing in size…

One of the great aspects of the episode is that much of it is darkly lit and takes place at “night” for a cool horror movie vibe. Case in point, Sisko is awakened later that night by Kira when they discover that the science lab the creature was in has been busted up. Its case has a big hole in it and it’s gone. Monster on the loose?

“Aw, hell. This is a bigger mess than when I tried to microwave my own ravioli. I’m all thumbs in the kitchen!”

O’Brien thinks that the life form may have escaped through the ventilation. He also reports that there was an energy drain, suggesting that the creature is feeding off of RF energy. Shambling into the ventilation with a tricorder, O’Brien tries to track down where it might have gone. It’s a great little scene that feeds into a classic horror trope while applying some of the episode’s calculated misdirection to keep us guessing.

Over the comm, O’Brien blabs on as Sisko and Odo listen in. If this were a real horror movie, he definitely would have been dismembered at this point, but it’s fortunately just a fake-out (a similar scene takes place in First Contact with the Borg as a more explicit Alien reference, and those two crewmembers aren’t so lucky). The way it’s paced is great and builds up the expectation that something bad is going to happen (“Don’t tell my wife I did this,” O’Brien says). When O’Brien opens a panel he screams as a thick syrupy liquid spills out. Sisko and Odo are alarmed until O’Brien reports that it’s the residue of the creature, apparently having died before it got very far. Case closed?

🎵 There’s something strange / in the conduit / Who you gonna hail? / OH-BRIEN! 🎵

Later, Dr. Bashir reports that the station’s atmosphere wasn’t able to support the life form’s biology and caused its death after escaping. He hears a noise, and in the darkness is attacked by a tentacle. We see only brief shots of the creature attacking him, and Bashir is able to use a laser scalpel to drive it off.

Joining Dax on her analysis of the life form’s remains, Mora realizes that they share very basic building blocks, but aren’t really related and it turns out to be yet another dead end for Odo’s origins, and the plot here as well. Looking at the results from the attack on Bashir, Mora notices something he doesn’t reveal to Dax and instead goes to see Odo. He tells Odo that he already recognizes the sample from the lab – it’s him.

Look out, horny teenager! IT’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

Odo is of course horrified by the thought that he’s the one that’s been wrecking labs and attacking people, apparently during his regeneration cycles. The conception of Odo’s alter-ego is interesting both visually and thematically. I appreciated that the creators made the extra effort of giving him a different appearance in his altered state; he kind of resembles clay, which is interesting. Because the monster appears when Odo is essentially sleeping, it’s the living embodiment of a nightmare and all the subconscious anxieties and emotions he has, brought out by Mora like the volcanic/geological eruption in the episode’s beginning. It acts out of pure emotion without rational thought, and the clay-like appearance visually suggests deep, primeval feelings and urges that have been unearthed, as well as a childlike inability to regulate those impulses. Odo has dedicated his life to justice and upholding the law, and his id acts in opposition to that, destroying things and attacking people. Whereas Odo is a tightly regimented and inflexible individual, his alter-ego is a shapeless, shifting blob of anger and chaos.

Mora asks if there have been other unsolved crimes on the station, wondering how long this thing has been around. Odo desperately theorizes that it must have been the gas from the planet that affected him in some way. Mora allows that possibility, but wants to get Odo back into his lab to figure it out. Their argument is highly emotional and kind of ugly, the way arguments with family can be. The thought of returning to the lab sends Odo into a rage and he slams his fists into the control panel and starts to melt before finally transforming into his alter ego. The visual of Odo’s face melting is horrifying, but as he turns into a monster we only see Mora’s hushed look of wide-eyed fear as he backs out. It’s a good directorial choice that preserves the suspense of his appearance, although we can hear a monstrous roar from Odo as he turns. It’s pretty freaky – the gas hasn’t given Odo and new abilities, it’s more of a psychological shift. Like Data’s rampage in “Brothers”, the extent of Odo’s powers is rarely seen but frightening.

“YOU CAN’T BOSS ME AROUND ANYMORE, DAD. I’M A BIG BOY NOW!”

Mora goes to Ops and reveals to the crew what has happened. He surmises that the creature’s actions have been emotional backlashes related to his presence – he destroyed the lab that was housing/confining the alien lifeform, and later appeared in the infirmary where Mora was recovering. He offers to use himself as bait to attract Odo so that he can be captured, despite the risk it presents to himself.

Sisko, Mora, and a brigade of security wait in the Promenade and use the energy the monster has been absorbing to lure him there. Because of that, all the power/lights are off and it heightens the horror of the situation. Even though there’s tons of armed people there, it’s tense. It’s not long before Alter-Odo appears and we finally get a good look at him. Aside from looking different, he’s also gigantic and goes after Mora before being trapped in a forcefield. It’s one of the series’ craziest visuals – this humongous screaming amoeba-like creature smashing itself against the forcefield which lights up the darkness. The sound of the creature is otherworldy and frightening. The true weight of Odo’s emotional pain finally registers with Mora, and he curses himself for hurting Odo and trapping him once again.

“OMIGOD! YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING! I HATE YOU, DR. MORA! I WISH I WAS NEVER DISCOVERED!”

Odo’s rage and energy finally subside and he collapses, turning back to his old self and totally exhausted. Odo’s mysterious nature allows the story to gloss over the details of what exactly happens to him here, which is fine. That some geological gas knocks everyone else out but has some weird, Jekyll-Hyde effect on Odo is kind of out of left field (as well as his sudden hunger for RF energy), but whatever. We’re all having a good time here.

Later on, Bashir admits he’s completely dumbfounded as to what exactly happened to Odo, but with Mora’s help he’s purged all of the gas from his system so hopefully that should be the end of the ordeal. Odo apologizes to Mora for attacking him, but Mora acknowledges that as always, he had to speak in a voice loud enough for him to hear. Whether it’s turning into a beaker to convince him he’s intelligent, or becoming a monster to let him know I’M NOT A KID ANYMORE, DAD. Mora isn’t a bad guy, just a very single-minded scientist who treated Odo more as a discovery and a curiosity than as a person. But he’s begun to realize how much that harmed Odo and their relationship. He tells Odo that he would like to hear from him occasionally and talk about stuff. Like any parent, he just wants you to call more, bubbe!

“Wow, dad. Your hands are smoother than my weird, featureless ears.”

Odo agrees to that, and places his hand on Mora’s. Like in The Next Generation’s “Identity Crisis,” this monster story is built around an emotional connection between two characters, which makes it more resonant and on brand for Star Trek. Odo and Mora’s difficult relationship isn’t totally solved here (as we’ll see in Mora’s next appearance), but there’s at least a first step.

“The Alternate” is great monster story with some impressive misdirection built into it. The reveal of Odo is actually a surprise, even though it’s spelled out in the episode title. In turning the mysterious Odo into a gigantic, weird creature we actually end up learning more about him and the deep well of angst that resides within him, which is also an impressive feat of the episode. The tragedy of monsters is that they’re often misunderstood creatures. In the case of alter ego monsters, they represent all that is misunderstood within us – our frailties, urges, and uncontrollable feelings. There is a dark abyss inside each of us that contains all sorts of emotional ugliness. If we don’t deal with it properly it can fester and eventually bubble up in all sorts of monstrous ways.


Stray Observations:

  • The episode doesn’t explain how Odo can be so much bigger than he normally is, but we can surmise that his energy absorption is the cause. Energy and mass are interchangeable, so by eating all that RF energy Odo could potentially increase his mass. Of course, the physics of Changelings doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny, and we’ve seen Odo transform into much smaller objects (like a drinking glass) that have an appropriately smaller weight. Which I’m fine with, and the fact that Changelings are kind of magical (being able to turn into fire or fog, for example) makes them unique and not just another T-1000 knockoff.
  • They make poor O’Brien crawl through the conduit to investigate. Odo’s a shapeshifter! Shouldn’t he be doing that grunt work?
  • It’s not totally clear whether the original life form sample breaks out of its container, or if it’s Alter-Odo’s doing. He smashes up the lab and takes out the containment field for sure, but the break pattern on the container definitely looks like something that was within bursting out. In this respect the misdirection obfuscates a little too much, since we never learn what the original life form’s abilities are. Can it even move or morph? It just looks like funky moss in the glimpses we get.
  • The obelisk is another of the episode’s fake outs and doesn’t factor into the plot at all. But it does appear again on the Changeling’s home world, so maybe the planet was an outpost of theirs that they deposited some of their genetic material on.
  • Odo mentions a fascination with cultural death rituals when pestering Quark in the beginning. It’s not mentioned again, and it could just as well have been pretense leading up to his reveal that the guy Quark was selling was still alive. But it’s an interesting character detail about Odo, if true. That makes two of us!