Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Trek Noir: Out of the Past in Deep Space Nine's "Necessary Evil"

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for the Deep Space Nine episode, "Necessary Evil"


I'm currently making my way through the entirety of the Star Trek TV series, Deep Space Nine, which I never got to watch regularly during its first run, and so far it has been a richly rewarding experience. While all of the episodes have their merits, I was especially struck by Season Two's eighth episode, titled "Necessary Evil." This one stands out from the others and from most of the older Star Trek shows for its serious - and successful - evocation of classic film noir to tell a dark, duplicitous story about events that unfold before the Cardassians leave Bajor and the Federation takes charge of the space station. While the Star Trek universe is traditionally a positive space with an optimistic vision of the future, this episode uses the tropes of classic noir to investigate the dark past that haunts Deep Space Nine, and it calls into question the motives and relationships of some of its most complex characters.

The Next Generation crew in "The Big Goodbye"

Star Trek shows have been playing with genre since the original series, but the sensibility of true noir is at odds with the core values of the Trek universe. When The Next Generation ventures into noir territory in the first season episode, "The Big Goodbye," it does so as a holodeck adventure with Captain Picard adopting the role of fictional private eye Dixon Hill, a figure very much inspired by Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett's iconic Sam Spade in both the book and film versions of The Maltese Falcon. The holodeck story is intended to be a nostalgic amusement for Picard and his friends, but an external event causes the safety protocols of the holodeck to disengage, thus thrusting the crew members into a more dangerous adventure than they had expected. While the episode includes real peril for the crew, the noir element of the experience is artificial and contained, and it is also pointedly self-conscious, an homage to noir rather than an embodiment of it.

Such is not the case on the Deep Space Nine episode, where a dark past of Cardassian control and Bajoran resistance creates opportunities for a noir plot that exists as part of the characters' reality. It's not surprising that a series with persistent connections to Casablanca (1942) might see the shadowy world of noir as fruitful territory to mine for narrative; the show even gets around to a blatant revision of Casablanca later in Season Two with the episode, "Profit and Loss" (with Quark, of course, as the stand-in for Bogart's bar owner Rick). In "Necessary Evil," the series takes us back and forth between its past and present to explore what life on the space station was like before the Bajoran liberation, which also evokes shades of Casablanca and the Nazi Occupation. That past is a dark place, where everyone's motives are suspect and our core characters meet for the first time under grim circumstances. It's a perfect setting for a very unusual example of tech noir, the (literal and figurative) space where noir and science fiction meet.

"Necessary Evil" focuses on the past between Odo and Kira.

The story opens in the present, when Quark is hired to retrieve a hidden, valuable item for an attractive Bajoran widow. Quark then becomes the victim of an attempted murder, and security chief Odo sets about uncovering Quark's assailant. His investigation takes him back to his first case on the station, when the Cardassian Gul Dukat assigned him to solve the murder of the widow's husband, a Bajoran merchant. The lead suspect in that case turned out to be the Bajoran Kira, then newly arrived on the station but now Odo's friend and colleague in the present. As Odo tries to uncover the present crime he begins to understand more about the murder from the past, but his realizations threaten his relationship with Kira.

Unlike Captain Picard in "The Big Goodbye," Odo is an unwitting noir protagonist and utterly unsentimental about the past, whether fictional or real. As an alien shape-shifter with no knowledge of his own home planet or people, Odo is a perfect noir lead - alone, aloof, cynical, and observant by necessity. He provides a classic noir narration of events only because Commander Sisko has asked him to create a record of the investigation. His failure to solve his first case haunts Odo, making him determined to solve not only the present crime but also the original murder. Gul Dukat claims that Odo is an ideal agent of justice in this case because his outsider status makes him neutral to both the occupying Cardassians and the subjugated Bajorans, but that neutrality is as questionable as Gul Dukat's explanation for Odo's assignment. Odo does, however, have a strong and clearly stated interest in justice, which makes him dogged in pursuit of the guilty parties in both the past and the present.

A Ferengi and a femme fatale meet in "Necessary Evil."

The character who most complicates Odo's sense of justice is Kira, the Bajoran woman who arrives at the station just before the original murder and is set up with the hallmarks of noir's good-bad girl and mystery's red herring (see Andrew Spicer's book Film Noir for a discussion of the genre's good-bad girl type). The widow claims that Kira was having an affair with her husband and is thus the obvious suspect, but the present tense crime has already depicted the widow as a classic femme fatale, so we, the audience, don't trust her. Kira denies the affair but eventually confesses to Odo that she is a saboteur for the Bajoran resistance and could not have committed the murder because she was busy causing damage elsewhere at that time. Odo protects Kira from Gul Dukat and leaves the murder unsolved, a situation that drives him all the more when the attack on Quark recalls the earlier crime. Finally, in the present, Kira reveals to Odo that she did, in fact, kill the Bajoran merchant when he discovered her trying to steal the same list of Bajoran collaborators that the widow hires Quark to find. The twist ending reveals Kira to be a better liar, and a less reliable associate, than Odo imagined, and it's not clear if he's more shocked by her duplicity or his own credulity. The episode concludes with the relationship between the two unresolved and the future of their friendship uncertain. It's a very noir ending for the episode even if both of the major characters remain alive and still working on the station afterward.

Everything else about this episode contributes to its noir sensibility. The scenes in the past use dark, blue lighting to cast shadows and uncertainty over the characters, while the other characters around Odo and Kira also fall into classic noir types, including Quark as the petty criminal in over his head and the widow as a beautiful femme fatale, complete with white evening gown and seductive manner. Odo's voice over narration, a staple of the genre, helps us navigate the shifts between past and present, but the two markedly different visual styles make the time periods quite distinct already. Gul Dukat, technically Odo's client in this investigation, has ulterior motives that he does not disclose, and the viewer comes away with the sense that "justice" is really a slippery idea. The smaller problems - who killed the merchant and who attacked Quark - might be solved, but larger and more unsettling questions persist. The episode presents, in abbreviated form, all the characteristics of classic noir, and it never winks or tips its hand about doing it. There's nothing cute about "Necessary Evil," which is part of the reason it's so good.

If you're interested in the particular pleasures of tech noir, check out film-length examples like Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998), and Minority Report (2002). If you're a Star Trek fan new to classic noir, start with iconic favorites like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and, as my post title suggests, Out of the Past (1947).

1 comment:

  1. DS9 is probably underrated. Fun to watch, especially Quark. He always makes me laugh.