Sunday, April 30, 2017

YEAR OF GARAK, part 4: DS9 episodes "Past Prologue," "Distant Voices," "Our Man Bashir," "Things Past," and "Empok Nor"

Hello and welcome back to another exciting installment of the Year of Garak, where we're looking at ALL THINGS GARAK. For those just joining, the discussion has been intense so far and if you want to catch up I recommend going back and checking out the content from January, February, and March. It's the last day of April and that means more Garak fun!

I'm joined again today by SFF poet, writer, and all around awesome person Nicasio Andres Reed. We're looking at a whole slew of episodes from DS9 so SPOILERS apply. Feel free to jump into the comments (they are moderated so it might take a little while for them to show up but I will try my best to check in regularly). Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the discussion!

Oh, and in case you don't remember from last time...

Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Liminality, Inkscrawl, and Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. Nico currently lives in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

And now, to the discussion!

CP: Okay, kicking things off, these episodes are ones that I would call more “Garak vs. Humanity” episodes (well, not always humanity but non-Cardassians at any rate). Here we see Garak’s first appearance and his progress with a certain bumbling doctor as well as how other people react to Garak. “Distant Voices” is almost entirely about how Bashir perceives Garak while “Our Man Bashir” takes that romantic vision of Garak and contrasts it with the realities of what he’s had to do. “Things Past” further shows some of the difficult parts of Garak’s character (his relationship with the occupation) and finally “Empok Nor” lets his violence and hatred out to play. These aren’t actually my favorite Garak episodes, but I do find them very interesting because (along with the episodes we looked at last time) they show how Garak interacts with the people of the station. And where many of those episodes were about him finding a place, I feel like these ones do a better job of showing how he’s alone and isolated on the station, separated by his upbringing, trauma, and ideology. So yeah, let’s begin!

NR: I really like how you’ve set these up, because I fall often into the habit of looking at the Garak-and-Bashir arc in terms of studio interference, and seeing the fall-off of their relationship at the back third of the show as an unnatural progression. And there is that, undeniably, but there’s also what you’ve laid out: Bashir’s initial wide-eyed fascination, which can only last so long until it sours in the face of too much detail, too much history, too much reality. It’s a credit to Bashir’s character growth that he moves on from simply having his ego stoked by Garak’s interest in him.

To diverge for a moment: I always think of “The Quickening” (4x24) as the pivotal episode for Dr. Bashir’s character. That’s the one where he and Dax answer a distress call and find a planet of people deep into a plague. Bashir synthesizes a treatment, gregarious in his confidence. Then his patients worsen, horribly, and he realizes too late that his methods have mutated and worsened the sickness. They die quickly, painfully, and there’s this shot of Bashir standing alone among their shrouded remains, hours after he’d boasted about curing a world on the brink.

I am a bad person, so that’s one of my favorite episodes. But anyway: Bashir’s arc over the series is mirrored here: he learns, again and again, that not only was his vaunted “frontier” already long-occupied, but that all the enthusiasm and go-get-it-ness in the galaxy can’t prevent suffering, death, war. He learns that the spy stories he’s loved so much gloss over the bestial acts that real life operatives deem necessary. And so it’s inevitable that his outlook on Garak would take a turn, would shift to disillusionment and perhaps an unspoken grudge. The mystery, as always, was easier to love.

Oh my god, I’m talking so much about Bashir in this year of Garak, sorry sorry sorry. TO SWITCH PERSPECTIVES: you might posit that Bashir actually becomes more interesting to Garak over time due to the very same awakening on the doctor’s part. Bashir was initially to him a starry-eyed little twink whose admiration was an easy way for Garak to access the upper management of the station. Certainly he was charmed by the attention, by Bashir himself, but it was a simple thing. In “The Wire” he lets in some genuine affection. But there’s a moment in “Our Man Bashir” that I think is pivotal for the both of them, in wholly different ways. Garak is willing to leave everyone else in the holodeck to (possibly) die, to save himself and Bashir by ending the program they’re trapped in. Bashir obviously finds this unconscionable. Garak begins to end the program anyway, and Bashir shoots him in the neck. A graze, perhaps deliberate, perhaps bad aim. Bashir drew a strict moral line, and watched for the first time with his own eyes as Garak stepped across it with ease. It’s disturbing for him. It’s the beginning of the end of their close association. But my god, the shine in Garak’s eyes after Bashir shoots him, the renewed wonder at seeing what Bashir is willing to do. He’s enamoured all over again. There was more to Bashir than he’d suspected, even after all that time.

Oh lord, the feelings, I have to go lie down.

CP: I think that we can’t really talk about Garak and the show without talking about Bashir. Especially in the early seasons, Garak really only shows up around Bashir. So having this installment focus on Bashir a bit only makes sense. And Bashir is a character who has grown on me more and more as time has passed. I remember being annoyed with him when I first watched the show (the enthusiasm, the arrogance, the everything). But part of why I love DS9 so much is that it takes these characters which could have been rather flat and gives them such depth. Now, rewatching the show, Bashir is such a different character for so many reasons. I love the episode that you point out as being a turning point for him, as him seeing that his normal bravado isn’t enough (I think there are similar moments of this in episodes like “The Sound of Her Voice”). But I also love viewing the early Bashir in light of the later revelation that he’s genetically enhanced, because it means so much about his life has been about deception and the fear of discovery.

With Garak, too, I think that Bashir is pulled a bit by the romance of being a spy, but also because they both have so much to hide while being widely different people. They are both in a sort of exile. Bashir might claim he always wanted to go to the “frontier” because it was where “real medicine happens” (something the show goes along with for a long time) but it turns out his other motive is that he needs that distance from Starfleet because he’s hiding. Part of what makes it so interesting that he gets replaced by a Changeling at one point (episodes we’ll be getting to later and keep kind-of circling) is that no one notices. Not because the Changeling is that good, necessarily, but because Bashir has always been a spy and despite always talking he doesn’t give much away. I think part of what he likes about Garak is the game of it, and similarly with Garak I think the two enjoy each other’s company because they are in similar situations and find the other a relief because there’s comfort in never having to pretend to tell the truth.

Here, though, is where I see the divide that will eventually pull Garak and Bashir apart: their relationship to the truth. These episodes do a great job of showing just how much Garak doesn’t put stock in “the truth” so much as metaphoric truth. It makes so much sense because he’s had to live his life pulled in so many directions, trying to please so many different people. Garak seems to me to be someone not fond of labels, who puts on suits as needed and then shedding them (he’s a tailor, after all). He’s a man of masks and he seems to believe that a man is all masks, that there is no “true” self at the core of things. But Bashir, for all that he wears masks and suits, believes very much that there is a “truth” that goes deeper. For all he’s outed against his will as enhanced, it’s a label that he does believe in, that forms part of his identity. It makes him vulnerable, but it also gives his strength. And I think in “Our Man Bashir,” what’s happening is Garak and Bashir coming to this difference. Where Bashir has always admired Garak because he seemed so strong in the face of everything, so in control, only to learn that he’s all masks, that he would shed Bashir and all of DS9 if he needed to (he might be upset about it, but there’s a long history of the show of Garak killing people he is fond of).

It’s a part of Garak I think that changes over time. In “Our Man Bashir” it’s Garak’s turn to admire Bashir, because for all the decision is a risky one, Bashir is showing that there’s this great strength that can only come from being vulnerable. That trust is not just a liability but an asset. It twists their relationship and in some ways reverses it, where now Garak might see that there’s more to this Starfleet thing than he thought. Especially when you see that, in “Empok Nor,” they’re willing to accept Garak and trust him. They want him around. He’s...confused by this, because he’s still sure he would betray them all if he needed to. And he does, but against his will, and in that he has to confront that the distance he was seeing between himself and the Federation is small indeed. He wants to be be accepted, for all it makes him uncomfortable. Like Bashir is accepted despite the distrust of enhanced people. Like so many other’s are accepted. Garak wants that because it never seemed real to him, always seemed so loaded because on Cardassia it’s always a trap. But here it’s not, and from his time with the Federation he’s learning that maybe there is something underneath all the masks, and something that doesn’t need to always hide.

NR: Yes, yes, I love your reading of the changeling-Bashir period. That nobody noticed, not because of some bravura performance, but because Bashir is always conscious of putting on a performance, and so the replacement’s affectedness actually rang true.

I’ve never thought deeply about the genetic enhancement thing of Bashir’s. Maybe because I was too aware that Siddig el Fadil wasn’t into the idea, and I found it difficult it to take the Watsonian view after knowing that. Maybe because of that episode with the other enhanced characters and the weird romance angle that made me uncomfortable, so in hindsight I wrote off the whole arc. Maybe because I haven’t yet found My Prefered Queer Reading. Whatever the reason, I’ve spent years studiously ignoring the whole thing. But as an understanding of hiding, of reticence, that works for me a lot.

The relationship to the truth and idea of a deeper, more true self is so interesting. Because if Bashir sees the masks as not a part of his true self, then they are somehow separate from himself; and Garak, instead, sees the lies, the masks, as being as much a part of himself as any other. Lies, not something to be ashamed of or regretted, but real in the way that the stories we tell about ourselves always say something real about who we are.

Speaking of which: Empok Nor. There are a couple times that I’ve watched this episode with someone who hasn’t seen it before, and both times they’re taken a bit aback by what happens. Garak straight up murders someone! What the! And it should be a given, he’s someone who we know has tortured many people, presumably not all of whom survived the experience. He’s committed assassinations. But the killing in this episode lacks the veneer of civility that we’re used to from his brand of violence.

CP: That murder is so different than what we’ve come to expect from Garak that it’s a very difficult moment and I think is rather brilliantly acted, because you get Garak issuing this somewhat zingy one-liner as he does the deed but I read his face as confused. He knows that this is wrong somehow, that this isn’t him. It’s such a departure from the Garak at the beginning, the gameplayer, and I think that’s why he engages Miles the way he does, drawing him back into a game, because that’s his way of fighting against the influence of the drug, of hoping that Miles will be able to save him or stop him somehow.

And he apologizes for the murder. That, too, says a lot to me, because he’s killed people even in the show. More than once he disintegrates another Cardassian and there’s no apology for it, even if he liked the person. But here we see Garak wearing a mask that he doesn’t choose to because of the drug and it disturbs him, disturbs him in part because it’s one that he’s worn before. But that’s not the Garak he wants these people to see. It’s like someone finding an older version of himself that he’s embarrassed of but that even through the embarrassment he can’t bring himself to truly get rid of. Because there is that part of him that could go back to it, even after everything to that point in the show. I personally think that changes a bit after the war comes to a close and in the aftermath on Cardassia, and I think getting back to last month that’s what happens at that secret meeting when Garak can finally put so much of his past to bed.

I love the way you talk about lies in relation to Garak, because I think that rings so true to Garak. That for him it’s the lies, the stories, that reveal the truth and not some detached and pure self. Which is part of why I feel he comes through the end of the war in a better place than Bashir, really. Because he sees the changing nature of stories. Though his trauma is immense, I feel like he’s still able to take control of his own narrative in the end. In A Stitch in Time and I hope beyond that we see that even with the destruction of so much of his world, he writes a new story. For all that Odo is the Founder, Garak too is a changeling, and these episodes do a nice job of showing that, how he changes faces like he changes clothes (also, on that, his clothes go through some wild swings in these episodes). But even with such different Garaks on display, he never really seems lost but for the moments in “Empok Nor” where he’s not in control. For all that Bashir struggles to know himself, Garak seems much more along for the ride, comfortable in his masks and lies and games even as he’s beginning to suspect that there’s something more important than just playing the game for its own sake, that maybe what he wants, in a life of constant shifts and feints and missions, is a home and a family that accepts him.

NR: I am so psyched for you to read Never-ending Sacrifice and The Crimson Shadow. I don’t even remember if Crimson Shadow is on the docket for this series of posts, especially since it’s ostensibly part of a whole grouping/series of novels, but I read it on its own because Garak, and by god, it was worth it. But yeah: his ability to accept a changed narrative and a changed role is a survival tactic that saw him through A Stitch in Time, and through especially those later events of DS9, of the occupation and destruction of Cardassia Prime. Or that thing we talked about in an earlier discussion: Bashir’s adherence to the very human (very Western) idea that the long arc of history is one of upward progress, and Garak’s upbringing in a culture where the cyclical narrative was dominant instead. A total destruction by violence halts progress, makes rubble of what’s been built, but in the cycle might be seen as a sort of Ragnarok event, a remaking. I enjoy that the show lacks a value judgement to this on the personal level: we’re not told whether it is “better” to remake yourself, or to stand fast by who you think you are.

Which brings me, roundabout, to Things Past. Checking out the Memory Alpha page for this episode, I saw it noted that this is Garak’s first appearance since he was locked up at the end of Broken Link for ATTEMPTED GENOCIDE (a six-month sentence, btw, if you were wondering how that played out in the Federation justice system). And it is honestly the most horrifically Cardassian thing to go from ATTEMPTED GENOCIDE to jail to attending a conference about the occupation and stridently arguing that it was, you know, really a matter of perspective, bro.

Moment of silence to imagine Garak in cargo shorts and a deep-v-neck tshirt, calling people “bro”.

It is something of a terrifying masterwork of creation that DS9 manages to make Garak so enduringly compelling and beloved, so much so that we’re having this endless conversation about him 17ish years later, and yet never once does he explicitly express remorse for his part in the occupation. If there were ever a time for such a moment, it would surely be during this episode, but it never quite comes. Which makes me wonder: how is Garak’s lack of remorse materially different than that of, say, Damar? Or even Gul Dukat? Is it something in Garak that allows the others to befriend him despite this, or a willful eliding in their own minds? Do we, the audience, forgive or forget? And do we do so only because the narrative extracts a satisfying price of personal trauma from him? And if instead we have, without forgiveness, found it within ourselves to enduringly love a character who has done the things Garak has done, who has proudly participated in the regime he served, and who does not regret, in principle, the occupation and subjugation of Bajor, then what have we compromised ourselves?

CP: I think that is a wonderful place to come to when looking at these episodes, because of how they deal with him and non-Cardassians. And I think we’ll see this idea get complicated especially when we see Garak in contrast to other Cardassians (because you’re right, Damar and Dukat both defend the occupation as well). I think part of many of the character’s comfort with Garak has to do with most of them being Starfleet, though. If you look at many of the episodes, after all, it’s not like Garak is ever all that accepted by the Bajorans. Kira never likes him or trusts him. They all see him as a Cardassian, as owning part of their subjugation and torture (deservedly so), and yet Starfleet prides itself on being so...accepting. So liberal. We do see a bit of the hypocrisy of Starfleet at work here, some of the arrogance.

Garak is useful and intelligent. Again and again in DS9 we see that part of the Starfleet ideal is to make friends with their enemies. It’s one of their great strengths. Something they fail at much more is dealing with the aftermath of pain and trauma. They have this policy where they believe people can change, because they want to believe that humans can change. From how we are now, from how we’ve been in the past. The human history in Star Trek is filled with atrocities and missteps. And yet this hope of progress is that we can get better. So you do see Garak be more-or-less accepted. Damar becomes a hero. Even Dukat was forgiven (by Starfleet) multiple times. Which is part of why I love Kira. She shows that forgiveness isn’t necessary or even good much of the time. While she might come off as cold or conservative at times by Starfleet standards, as you point out, Starfleet standards come with a six-month sentence for attempted genocide. That level of forgiveness on the part of the Federation is perhaps admirable, but it doesn’t really value victims.

To touch on “Things Past,” the episode is so much about Odo’s guilt, Odo’s complicity. But it’s also about Sisko experiencing what it was like. Living the Occupation as a Bajoran. There is no Starfleet distance in that. No calm objectivity. He has to see what he is forgiving, what he is trying to convince people to move past, to pretend in some ways that it didn’t happen. Part of what will help Bajor make it into the Federation, after all, is peace with Cardassia. That’s something Starfleet values because they want peace, because they want everyone to be friends. But they don’t want an accounting. They don’t want to really get into what would be justice at this point.

I think you hit on something very real. That we have this human perspective of all of this, this distance. We as viewers might want Garak forgiven because we understand what it’s like to be a part of something terrible. Living in America, a lot of the country’s history is Imperial and Colonial. But in some ways we recognize that it can’t just be wiped away (even as we look for ways to do just that). So yes, I think we’re more comfortable with Garak because of his tragedy. Same with Damar (and even Dukat). Part of why the story involves Cardassia being so hurt is undoubtedly to “pay for” the Occupation, narratively speaking. To even things up or at least make people feel like okay, now the sins of Cardassia have been wiped away and we can begin again. Part of why I’m so excited about the new McCormack book is that it seems like it will address this with the New Cardassia.

(also I cannot get bro-Garak out of my head now. He’s terrifying.)

But to close out my thoughts for the month. Star Trek is still a living text. Maybe that’s why we’re still talking about Garak. His story isn’t done and for all that we see in these episodes so many different sides to him, there’s still more to explore. For me, he captures so many conflicting and difficult and amazing things. He’s his own enigma tale: we know from the start that he’s guilty, but we’re always waiting to find out what exactly he’s guilty of, and what that can teach us about ourselves.

And that's it! Please stop back in next month when I will be looking at three different Garak stories. Nicasio will be back the month after that when we'll once again turn our attentions to DS9 episodes, but with a focus on Garak's interactions with other Cardassians. Until then, stay mysterious!


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