“Armageddon Game” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 1/30/1994)
In which Bashir and O’Brien get stuck in the hell of Molasses Swamp
This week, we get two episodes about warring alien civilizations; everybody’s looking for peace, but by the end of each episode, it doesn’t look like anyone had much luck finding it. O’Brien keeps getting the short end of the stick, because no one suffers quite so entertainingly as Colm Meaney. And both episodes demonstrate how the show is working towards more ambitious and morally complex storylines, without quite knowing how to handle them. Of the two, “Armageddon Game” is the most straightforward, as O’Brien and Bashir are inadvertently sucked into a peace-motivated massacre, barely escape with their lives, and have to struggle for survival while Sisko and everyone back on the station believe they’re dead. For the most part, it plays out as you’d expect: Bashir and O’Brien squabble a bit, O’Brien gets sick and Bashir tells a story about his past; meanwhile, Keiko doesn’t believe her husband is dead, and Sisko trusts her judgment. Things only get strange when we learn the motivation behind all the death. This is a plot that plays out on traditional lines while trying to experiment with twistier themes, and the effect, of a series which wants to be better but isn’t quite sure how to get there yet, is one that’s been coming up fairly often this season.
There's nothing seriously wrong with "Armageddon Game." There are strong character beats, some fine suspense, and a fun pay-off at the end; if I tuned in looking for some fun, low-expectation Trek, I would have been completely satisfied. The only sour note is the reveal that this whole thing came about because the two races which brought Bashir and O’Brien in to help are now trying to kill anyone with knowledge of the super biological weapon they needed aid in destroying. The Kellerun and the T’Lani governments have teamed up to ensure that their newfound peace will be sustained, and they’re going about it in the worst way imaginable, sealing their treaty with blood. This is Trek in its social-commentary mode, and while the story never goes full lecture, neither Ambassador Sharat of the Kellerun, or E’Tyshra of the T’Lani are more than one-note antagonists. They want to bury the past by eradicating the evidence, as though that would ever work for long. It’s a complex idea, and would’ve been better served by an episode that was more willing to embrace the complex. What we get instead are two bad guys who do the exact same bad guy things we’ve seen bad guys do in countless shows before, only they’re doing it to, in their minds, protect the future of their respective civilizations.
There’s a certain amount of sense in that, I guess; it’s not a smart plan, but it has a certain blind arrogance to it that makes its own kind of sense. They don’t like their past, so they’re just going to erase it. That’s pretty old school Trek, and I’m surprised we didn’t find out computers were somehow responsible for the whole mess. The situation gets more complicated with Starfleet personnel involved, though, to the point where it stops being a dark satire of extremism, and starts being pretty damn stupid. Bashir and O’Brien are outsiders, and while neither are huge names in the Federation, their deaths will be noticed. The cover-up for the mass-killing isn’t bad, but it’s a huge, and unnecessary, risk. If they’d just waited until Bashir and O’Brien had left, the T’Lani and Kellerun might have gotten away with their plan. It’s not as though anyone from DS9 was going to keep checking in. Sharat and E’Tyshra insist that Bashir and O’Brien have to be killed along with everyone else with knowledge of the Harvesters. This despite the fact that both men have access to a universe full of unthinkable weapons through their various Federation contacts. Is the worry that the doctor and the engineer are going to sell back what they know? And it gets even more ridiculous once Sisko and Dax manage to beam their erstwhile colleagues onto a runabout. Instead of accepting that the battle is lost (at this point, Sharat and E’Tyshra could’ve just stonewalled any Starfleet investigation), they decide to fire on the runabout, effectively making a direct declaration of war, for no real reason. Yes, people make bad decisions in the heat of the battle, but the villains in this case are so archetypal in their vehemence that there’s not enough character to hang their behavior on. By the end, they seem to be pursuing our heroes simply because heroes need to be pursued. If their reasoning had been more overtly selfish, this would’ve been understandable; but because they’re ostensibly driven by a need to save lives, we need more justification for their willingness to take them.
That's the only major flaw, really. The episode even uses a trope I normally dislike—everyone grieves over protagonists we know very well aren’t dead—to satisfying, and at times moving, effect. While Bashir and O’Brien are struggling planetside, Sisko gets the news the two have died in an apparent radiation blast, triggered by O’Brien’s own mistake. (This, by the way, is also kind of dumb. Did they decide to blame O’Brien in order to throw off suspicion?) We get the expected arrangement of various cast members mourning the (not really) dead, but it doesn’t come off as a waste of time or some kind of padding. Keiko’s reaction is understated and sad, and Kira and Dax’s conversation about Bashir’s journals is a sweet, revealing conversation. Hell, Quark gets in on the act, delivering a toast to the fallen which is both character appropriate and strangely moving. There’s the voyeuristic thrill of imagining what it would be like to pull a Tom Sawyer and eavesdrop on your own funeral, but there’s also a great sense of how close this ensemble has come together over the past season and a half. None of this comes across as over-stated or forced sentimentality, and it helps to reinforce our own sense of connection with the ensemble.
And then there are the scenes between Bashir and O’Brien on the planet. The two are still struggling to come to terms with each other; O’Brien still finds the doctor annoying, and Bashir is still eager to please. They have some good moments of connection in this episode, as O’Brien gets infected by a Harvester and is forced to rely on Bashir to do the necessary repair work to get them back home. They discuss marriage; Bashir has his doubts (and he expresses some audience concerns when he mentions how Keiko and O’Brien sometimes seem less than delighted by each other's company), and O’Brien settles the score on why his family means so much to him, despite the difficulties that might arise between them. Bashir even gives some backstory about the only woman he ever loved, a dancer he gave up when he decided to commit to a full-time career in Starfleet. There’s a charming honesty to these conversations, well played by both actors, and while there’s little surprise in the way they bond by the end, surprise is not the issue here. It’s just enriching to watch characters we like grow to tolerate each other, as it means from now on, whenever they’re together on screen, we know they share this history, and whatever harsh words pass between them, the history will remain.
- Another reason to appreciate this episode: when Keiko decides something is wrong with the security tape, Sisko trusts her judgment and gets to work. We don’t waste time with a lot of, “Dear, I know you miss your husband, but are you sure that isn’t clouding your judgment?” crap. It’s refreshing.
- That said, the reveal at the end that Keiko’s whole reason for being suspicious was invalid (O’Brien does, in fact, drink coffee in the afternoon) is terrific.
“Whispers” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 2/6/1994)
In which O’Brien is not himself today
I love puzzles. I’m not obsessed or anything, and whenever I try and do a jigsaw or solve a crossword or figure out a logic problem, there’s a decent chance I’ll get distracted and bored after ten minutes and wander off, but I love the idea of a puzzle. I love a game that has rules and a solution and you just need to look at it the right way to make it all work out properly. I find that very satisfying. It’s one of the reason I love genre stories so much; science fiction and horror are often inclined towards the puzzling, establishing mysteries and raising unanswered questions to pull readers through a narrative. (Weirdly, I’ve never been a huge fan of mysteries in and of themselves. I like I just like magic and weirdness.) I’m a huge sucker for well-constructed trickery, although I don’t believe that sort of thing is ever entirely satisfying in its own right. The only drawback to all this is that the more you love the puzzle part of storytelling, the more primed you are to go into a movie or a book or a TV show looking to “solve” it. At least, that’s how it works for me. I don’t much like it when people accuse me of thinking too much about fiction—this is basically just how my brain works, unless I’ve got a “Good/Nitpicking Bastard” switch on the back of my skull—but the line gets fuzzy when it comes to something like “Whispers.” Because it was so odd, and because there was so clearly something going on with O’Brien and the rest of the cast, I spent a good portion of the hour trying to figure it all out. And when you put your effort into figuring out where a story is headed, odds are, you’ll get the basics. I didn’t know that the O’Brien we spent most of the episode with was a clone of the real man, but I did figure out about twenty minutes in that the problem was with him, and not with the rest of the characters. So I spent every scene after that hoping I was wrong. It’s funny how it works; unlike a real puzzle, I never want to “solve” a plot. I want to be surprised. I just can’t help thinking it through, thought, and sometimes coming to conclusions.
Now, arguably the most striking aspect of “Whispers” is the fate of the O’Brien clone, and, again, I didn’t see that coming at all. But this happens in the last three minutes, which means we have just enough time to be shocked by the revelation, but not much time for anything else. To a certain extent, I don’t have problems with that; I like any work of art that can get in and get out without needing to over-stress its talking points. But while the abruptness here basically works in and of itself, it doesn’t make up for the decent but sort of one-note episode which preceded it. I mention how I dig puzzles, and how I’ll often reflexively work towards figuring out the end whenever I watch or read something, to try and give myself a little leeway. Maybe I’m being too harsh when I say the middle of “Whispers” feels like padding. It’s not awful, and I appreciated how long the writers and actors managed to maintain a spooky ambiguity about everything, but once you realize that it’s almost certainly O’Brien himself whose the source of the problem, it turns into the same scene over and over and over again. O’Brien talks with someone he should be friends with/married to, they behave strangely but not so strangely you could put your finger on it, and he gets suspicious. Rinse, repeat.
The episode starts well enough. O’Brien is in a runabout, headed to the Paradan System to warn the Paradas about… something. He’s vague at first, but instead of leaving us completely in the dark, the Chief opens up a personal log and starts trying to sift through the events of the past few days. Given the final twist, this is smart; we already have a definite investment in O’Brien (and we have no idea this isn’t the real one), but by starting with him on the run and alone, we’re put in a position where we automatically trust whatever he says, at least at first. He’s our perspective on events, and we’re conditioned straight away to be on his side when he flashes back to Keiko and the other’s strange behavior. Most of the episode takes place in O’Brien’s flashback, and after every commercial break, there’s a brief scene of him in the runabout, musing on his destination and wondering where it all went wrong. So in addition to making this O’Brien’s story (which comes into play at the end), the runabout scenes also serve to repeatedly reminds us that this is all going somewhere. O’Brien’s life hings on a question mark, and he’s determined to find out what comes next.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just, once the basic idea of the flashback becomes clear, they’re a lot less exciting. Seeing O’Brien wake up and find Keiko already out of bed, his daughter reluctant to touch him, his wife clearly uncomfortable having him in the apartment? That’s excellent, demonstrating straight off that even the people who are nearest and dearest to the Chief have been affected by whatever is going on. It strips our hero of a safe place, even if he does initially dismiss Keiko’s behavior as a bad mood. Watching Sisko smile at O’Brien in a way that never touches his eyes? Also excellent. Nobody does ambiguously creepy as effectively as Avery Brooks. “Whispers” does a fine job suggesting that all of this may be a bad case of body-snatchers. First, Bashir demands O’Brien come in for a physical, and when O’Brien (after getting marching orders from Sisko) is forced to comply, the session goes considerably longer than he was expecting; almost as if Bashir wasn’t just checking his health, but getting a complete rundown on his body for means of duplication. Later, O’Brien meets Jake, who doesn’t seem to have any problems at all with the Chief—at first. But Kira calls Jake away, and the next time the Chief sees the boy, he treats O’Brien the same everyone else has, as though the Jake we saw earlier had somehow been replaced. The same basic transition (minus Kira) happens with Odo.
Repetitive or not, this is a decent con, and the conclusion is even better. As mentioned above, when O’Brien finally gets to his destination, he gets shot, and we discover that he isn’t the real O’Brien at all, but a clone created by the Paradan government with the design of sabotaging the peace talks that were scheduled to be held on DS9. The poor clone didn’t realize he was a tool, and no one on the station could tell him; they weren’t certain he was a duplicate, and there was no way to be sure what might set him off. Even if there’d been some way to determine that the clone was a complete pawn and honestly believed himself to be the real O’Brien, there was no way to explain the situation to him without risking a disaster. Which means that as upsetting as it was, the clone’s death was largely inevitable. Maybe if he hadn’t been so determined to do the right thing and warn the Paradas, he wouldn’t have stumbled across the truth at such an inopportune moment. It’s the tragedy the whole episode has been building to: a man gives everything he has to do the right thing, and dies knowing the only meaning he had in the world was to cause grief to the people he loved. That’s heavy shit right there, and “Whsipers” makes no attempt to mitigate the sadness. The moment the clone is shot and the real O’Brien is revealed, the focus of the scene moves away from the copy and onto the original. The dying man calls out his wife’s name, but even then, he’s barely understood, and while everyone feels bad, there’s nothing anyone can do.
All right, if I’m so keen on the conclusion, if I like the beginning and have nice things to say about the middle, why am I mixed about the episode? Well, like I said, it isn’t that hard to figure out O’Brien is the one with the problem, not the rest of the crew; and once I started to suspect this, it became impossible to invest too much in what happened next. But let’s put that to one side. The twist here is legitimately surprising, playing off our assumptions in a way that would be nearly impossible to predict, and yet it doesn’t come off as a cheat. It’s just, well, the most interesting part of this episode happens in the last five minutes. The rest is well made and well acted, but it’s only when Clone O’Brien gets shot and we learn the truth that the episode becomes anything more than just another one-off about an ensemble member having a wacky solo adventure. This doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time or outright bad, but it does keep “Whispers” a few steps shy of greatness. Even re-watching it with the knowledge of the clone’s true identity (and his eventual fate) wouldn’t change much. Since he’s a copy of O’Brien, he is O’Brien up until the moment when we learn the truth. We don’t learn anything about him, beyond being reminded that the actual O’Brien is a smart, determined, and resourceful man, and just as importantly, we don’t see any real drama in his interactions with others. They treat him like an impostor, because he is an impostor, but because we don’t know for sure that’s what’s going on, the tension is mostly theoretical. As smart as the in media res opening is to get us on Clone O’Brien’s side, it also has the unfortunate side effect of rendering large portions of the flashback unnecessary. Like, say, the clone’s escape from the station.
Really, then, this isn’t a question of me over-thinking it, or of the writers failing to sufficiently blow my mind. “Whispers” holds together and has a subversively dark conclusion. The downside is, that conclusion doesn’t have any larger implication beyond, “Boy, it would suck to be a clone.”
- What was up with all the coffee Clone O’Brien drank? Every few minutes he was hitting up a replicator for a “Jamica blend, double strong, double sweet.” I thought he was being drugged somehow.
- The twist ending reminds me a lot of Philip K. Dick’s “Impostor.” It was made into a terrible movie starring Gary Sinese, but the original short story is quite good, and worth checking out. Although I think I basically just spoiled it. Er. This is awkward.
- Quark mentions the racquetball game from “Rivals.” Nice bit of subtle continuity there.
Next week: Sisko and O’Brien win two tickets to “Paradise,” and Vedek Bareil returns for some “Shadowplay.”