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  • Ric Crossman

4.1.16 I Have No Mouth, And I Must Sigh

The Forsaken

Lwaxana sans wig.
Plain, simple Lwaxana

An introvert and an extrovert walk into an unreliable turbolift...

Old Skin For The Slightly Older Ceremony

I see no point in trying to fight the inevitable. The correct point of comparison with this episode is quite clearly “Q-Less“, the last time this show had a guest star play a character who debuted on TNG. I argued at the time that the Vash storyline was perhaps a mistake, but one with potential, while adding in Q guaranteed a straight-up disaster. All that episode achieved was to allow Q to push our nascent heroes to the sides, like a competitive dad playing football against his kids. The aim might have been to show how Deep Space Nine differed from its older sibling, but the only real contrast shown was that TNG rarely displayed such a total disregard for its own regulars.

Fortunately, “The Forsaken” demonstrates that lessons have been learned. For a start, we can look at how late in the season this episode is. “Q-Less” was the third time in six stories that at least one character from TNG guest starred on DS9. It’s now waited fully ten more episodes before trying it again. This is a smart move. For all their differences, Lwaxana Troi and Q are similar regarding the effect they have on a narrative, warping and scattering everything around them as they tear through like a personality cyclone. By waiting over half a season between Hurricanes John and Majel, the show is given time to grow and strengthen, acquiring the resilience it needs to weather the Troistorm. [1]

It’s not just the episode’s place in the running order that helps matters. There’s some very savvy story choices here. One is to place Ambassador Troi in a single thread of a larger story, rather than have the episode revolve around her. For most of her screen-time here, in fact, she’s literally contained, trapped in a single room with the rest of the story going on without her. “Q-Less” was about Vash coming through the wormhole – the future of the franchise delivering the past instead. “The Forsaken” simply has Troi be present while the wormhole spits out something entirely new.

Undercover Hater

Well, OK. “Entirely new” is perhaps stretching the truth a little. Stories about artificial life and mysterious space probes abound in Trek, and the idea of a computer program that works like a puppy isn’t much more than a cute throwaway (it’s also a little jarring to see O’Brien and Sisko talk about it like a mischievous dog minutes after it almost burned four people to death in a bid for attention). There’s a limit to how much this can bite as a criticism, though, because pup.exe isn’t designed to be some fascinating new spin on the concept of non-biological life. It’s designed to function as a parallel to Odo.

This is where the true strength of “The Forsaken Lie” lies. What other show would attempt to compare a main character to not just a man-eating noblewoman, but to an electronic dog simulator, in the same episode?

Let’s start with the probe since, delightfully, it’s easier to find parallels to Odo there than it is with Lwaxana. Even this early in the show, the possibility Odo came through the wormhole is pretty strong. It’s not hard to see where this episode got its name from.

Considering this parallel brings up the differing ways in which people in the Bajoran system – whether Bajoran, Cardassian, or Federation – treat lifeforms so unfamiliar in structure that they struggle to even recognise them as life. Odo’s decision to finally talk about his earliest memories here makes it clear, even before we get the full story in next season’s “The Alternate”, that the probe is lucky to be found by the Federation rather than the Cardassians, and to be assigned to Lieutenant Dax rather than Dr Mora.

There’s something delightful in the solution our crew come up with here, made all the more so by the fact it’s done with very little self-congratulatory fanfare. Take an invasive semi-sentient computer program and give it its own area of the computer to run around? Treat it like any other visitor to the station? That’s exactly the kind of idea that makes me glad Trek exists.

Let’s keep the focus on Odo, though, and talk about how much he hates keeping the focus on him. This is an obvious difference between the constable and the Inu-AI – the probe’s program craves attention, whereas Odo actively dislikes it. This is completely understandable, given his formative experiences in the Alpha Quadrant, constantly pressured to perform for others. Naturally, had he been happy to use his unique morphology to entertain others, all’s chill. It’s clear from his telling of it that this wasn’t the case. This was the 24th century equivalent of a freak show, with all the unpleasantness that entails.

The resulting emotional scars are visible in several ways. Just on a physical level, Odo’s half-formed humanoid look tells us a great deal. We’ve seen Odo morph into a rat, utterly indistinguishable from any other specimen of rattus norvegicus, right down to the fur. There’s nothing fundamental to Odo’s nature that makes him incapable of mimicking human hair. The reason he can’t do it is that he hasn’t considered it a priority to get any better than he currently is. He’s not prepared to perform for others any more than he’s already required to. He’ll practice transformations that allow him to do his job – rats, glasses, anything that allows him to hide in plain sight. But his current standard form already allows him to interact with those around him to the degree necessary to get things done. There’s no professional advantage to him being able to look like someone else – I’m not sure what the legal implications are of any evidence he gathers while pretending to be a rodent or an object [2], but I feel pretty confident saying anything he’s told while implicitly claiming to be someone else would be inadmissible. Any improvements in his ability to mimic those around him would therefore be only of value socially, and Odo is wired to see social value as suspect, even painful. By refusing to put more effort than is necessary to interact with other humanoids, Odo discourages further requests for him to morph himself into and for the whims of others.

Perhaps this might ultimately be self-defeating. By refusing to look like everybody else, Odo is inviting the very attention he finds distasteful. He’d almost certainly be asked to discuss himself less if he could fully mimic Bajoran features. Whether Lwaxana would have been so impressed with the constable had he fit in more with his deputies is an open question – though her comments regarding her hairpieces certainly suggests she associates interest with visual distinctiveness. We should though at least worth considering the possibility that simply being a competent, no-nonsense security chief might not have been enough to turn Lwaxana’s head.

While it’s useful to ponder that hypothetical, though, a hypothetical is all it could ever be. Odo’s choice of appearance can’t be separated from the rest of his nature – that’s my whole point. It doesn’t matter if he’d get less attention if he looked like everyone else. It simply isn’t something he’s willing to entertain. This brings us to the second reason Odo looks like he does – it’s because that’s what Odo looks like.

This is more than a simple tautology. I’ve said before that what makes Odo so fascinating is that he’s a shapechanger who is psychologically incapable of being anyone but himself. Having established a physical form that allows him to function in society, any deviation from that form would feel like trying to be someone else. We already know his feelings about trying that – note that his first criticism about the time people waste on romance involves changing the way we smell. Odo has no time for artifice or pretense (he says this explicitly in “Past Prologue”), which means the idea of changing himself to fit in is abhorrent to him, irrespective of whether it might improve his quality of life.

Show And Tell

Since we’ve moved into considerations of what draws Lwaxana to the constable, though, let’s finish off this post by considering their time in the turbolift.

Odo’s nightmare picnic is another example of the approach to conflict I was talking about in “Shuttlepod One” – two people whose normal approach to getting what they want from each other is guaranteed to produce the exact opposite in this particular case. The more Odo tries to put Lwaxana off with his attempts to shut down their interaction, the more Lwaxana sees a puzzle to solve, and then possibly smooch. The more Lwaxana tries to apply her huge reserves of charm to Odo, the more he shrinks away – a liquid forced into the only space she’s left him.

This is already a smart set-up, but what makes it truly work is how brilliantly Auberjonois and Barrett play off each other. Barrett has and generates as much fun as she always does when playing Lwaxana, so I mean it as no slight on her when I say that it’s Auberjonois (so sadly lost while I was writing the original version of this essay) who anchors their scenes together. Given Odo’s standard form of a harrumphing curmudgeon, it can be easy to forget what stellar comic chops Auberjonois possessed. There’s no missing them here, though, as he ponders at what point the risk of electrocution becomes preferable to hearing another of Lwaxana’s anecdotes.

While Auberjonois excels here, though, and while the objective here is primarily exploring Odo – further demonstrating the lessons learned regarding how to use guess stars – Lwaxana is certainly not ignored. First, the standard caveat: as with “Haven”, I don’t think we should give Lwaxana a complete pass for behaviour which, if gender-flipped, would be immediately recognisable as horribly problematic. This is even more true here, in fact, since Odo’s role as head of security doesn’t put him on as an even footing against Lwaxana as Picard’s captaincy of the Federation’s flagship does [3]. In fact, Bashir’s experiences with the other ambassadors shows the 24th century hasn’t seen the back of dignitaries abusing their power, and Sisko’s story makes it horribly clear this still extends to thinking they can get away with sexual harassment. The aggressiveness with which Ambassador Troi pursues Odo is more concerning than it is comic, even before they get into the turbolift. Once there, we step up to a whole new level of discomfort – just read up on Elevatorgate if you want tips on what you shouldn’t try in a lift, even a working one.

With that said, let’s talk about what else is going on here. What’s most interesting is how clearly Lwaxana is trying just as hard as Odo is to avoid giving anything truly personal away. While he does this through taciturn exasperation, though, her strategy is distraction and chaff – constantly throwing out stuff that doesn’t reveal anything in order to obscure anything that does. Her constant embellishing of her past adventures serves the same purpose as her outrageous wigs; they’re not to be mistaken for the truth, but to distract from what the truth might actually be.

It might be tempting at this point to play with the idea of Troi as forsaken herself. It certainly isn’t difficult to see how we could colour that argument – Troi is a single woman in her early sixties, trying entirely too hard to entangle herself romantically with men almost a decade younger (or at least, played by actors almost a decade younger). By the standards of our own society, heavily ageist as it is, the odds seem stacked against her.

As neatly as this would fit into a post about parallels to Odo, though, I think we should resist the urge. Whatever the many flaws of “Q-Less”, one thing it got right was arguing that people don’t lose their worth as they get older. “The Forsaken” restates this position – just look how much Sisko is into the idea of Odo having some romantic fun with Ambassador Troi. Note how, in an episode which focuses on what makes the most unusual member of the main characters tick, it’s Odo who tells Troi she’s nothing like he expected, both meant and taken as a high compliment.

It’s a compliment she more than deserves. In another happy side-effect of the IDFC approach, the second time we see Lwaxana is in her sixth appearance, over five years after the character was first introduced. When this happened with Q, we saw a furious avatar of cosmic justice replaced by, to use my own phrase, a magical git. Things couldn’t be more different with Lwaxana. The woman who five years earlier was insisting her aristocratic heritage should guarantee her getting her way is now willing to calmly volunteer her dress as a hammock for a sentient liquid.

As a result, both characters are enriched by their time together. That’s exactly what a recurring guest spot should do. As well as “The Forsaken” treats Lwaxana, though, it’s the work it does with Odo that’s going to make the biggest difference going forward. For the first fifteen stories, and in particular the last thirteen, Odo has been positioned as the perennial outsider as much by choice as by circumstance.

That changes here. Yes, Odo can’t dismiss the same racial animus that hounded his race for so long in the Gamma Quadrant – “A Man Alone” proved that. Even so, though, this is the point where Odo begins to realise that he’s only actually as forsaken as he chooses to be.


1. The Forsaken

[1] In fact, it’s a rather nice coincidence that ten stories is exactly how long TNG waited in its first season before bringing Barrett onboard. Or we could count episodes instead of stories, in which case the distance between Q and Lwaxana’s debuts in each show becomes the same.

[2] I guess it would essentially fall under whatever legal precedents exist for bugging rooms, actually.

[3] Nor would the sole member of an unknown species working for people indebted to the Federation be able to expect the same level of support as could Picard, should they offend a Federation ambassador.

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