Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.3: Three Threes

A Man Alone

Star Trek A Man Alone

The boy in the bubble

Intro

So once again, Deep Space Nine has to push back against TNG‘s mistakes. The appalling flood of clueless racism that swept “Code Of Honor” out past any chance of rescue needs damming as quickly as possible. Happily, “A Man Alone” finds time to not just comment on the issues TNG‘s third episode so flagrantly and disastrously ignored, but to do so with impressive subtlety.

It’s fair to say that Star Trek doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to “issues” episodes. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, for instance, framed racism as the act of not recognising yourself in the mirror, and barking at it like a confused puppy. A nice idea, perhaps, but it brushes aside the fundamental structural imbalances that fuel racism out in the actual world, and so ends up doing more harm than good. The Next Generation has far from a spotless record either. Remember “The Outcast”? A terribly worthy TNG episode about transphobia that everyone involved in writing somehow believed was actually about homophobia?

So it’s not surprising DS9 would try to say something worthy. The surprise is that it does so strong a job.

1. Triangle

“A Man Alone” is firing on all cylinders from the moment it begins. It might not seem so at first, perhaps. The episode’s beginning can initially seem out of place. Sure, Dax’s puzzle looks rather nice, as you can see above (I guess Star Trek just can’t comment on racism without someone having their reflection distorted). I also give full props to Jadzia bursting Julian’s bubble mere seconds after he bursts hers. That’s pretty darn funny. Beyond that though, the opening might feel like an odd choice given where the episode ends up going. Isn’t the trailer supposed to set things up better than this? Why commence with the Dax-Bashir-Sisko triangle only to drop it the instant we get to Quark’s and the A-plot kicks off?

As it turns out, the answer is simple. That the triangle goes nowhere is entirely deliberate. The message here is very clear. Let other shows eat up airtime with characters who alternately sulk and snipe at each other, unable to admit what really drives them. Star Trek is about what happens once we move beyond that. Here people have lucid, honest conversations about what they want, discussing their respective positions and desires in the open. This is one of the franchise’s greatest and rarest strengths, so at any time it’s welcome to see the idea return. In this episode, though, it has additional weight. Here we have a potential romantic clash between a black man from Louisiana, a British man played by an actor with Sudanese heritage, and a white woman from another species entirely. And yet the idea that any of that could possibly matter in an episode about racism is dropped almost immediately. The script is making an important point as clearly as it can: effectively challenging racism has to mean more than pointing out the absurdity of squabbles over skin tone. The Federation has at least managed to move past that particular problem.  That doesn’t mean racism is dead, even in the 24th century. It just means it takes a little more effort to root out.

2. Education, Education, Education

If humanity hasn’t stamped out racism by the time it reaches Bajor, though, it’s difficult to argue the humans of three hundred years hence aren’t doing better on this score than we are. How did humanity get to so enlightened a point? Was it simply that our tribal battling seemed silly once we could plug a box into the wall and magic up infinite burritos? Did we cure racism at the same time we eradicated scurvy? That’s probably got something to do with it, actually, but it can’t be the whole story. There’s still the question of how we realised replicators were a gift to be shared across the species, rather than an innovation by businessmen to be flogged to rich white men. Was it education, then? We’re regularly told that this is the best cure for irrational hatreds of all kinds, after all. Which means it’s lucky that this is the episode in which Keiko O’Brien opens her school. Isn’t this precisely what we need, long-term, to fight the kind of ugliness “A Man Alone” uncovers?

That’s a complicated question, needing a considered answer. First of all, we need to think about what a school actually is. Or rather, we need to remember schools function on multiple levels that might not all pull in the same direction. It’s not just what gets taught, it’s who gets brought together. The schoolyard can be a valuable place for children to interact with peers from alternative cultures and backgrounds. This varies on the diversity of the student body, naturally – no parent sends their son to Eton to meet children who don’t look or think like him. In principle, though, it’s a fine thing.  A room in which Bajoran, Ferengi and human children share their stories with each other is a good room.

Then we have the process of teaching itself. And that can help. At school I learned about the callous, blood-drenched brutality of the slave trade, and the undeniable moral force of the Civil Rights Movement. I learned which words to never, ever say. In my middle-class, (almost) entirely white neighbourhood, this was a history it would never even have occurred to me to seek out, at least at that age. That, quite obviously, is not nothing. But the key word here is “history”. We learned how to recognise the racism of the past. The racism of the present was left entirely unconsidered.

That’s the thing about schools. They’re very good at tearing away the kinds of bigoted ideas society has deemed unacceptable, and equally good at reinforcing those society hasn’t seen a problem with yet. Check out the sordid history of Section 28 to see what I’m talking about here. Schools in the conservative England of the early ’90s taught the new generation the values of conservative England in the early ’90s. The Tories needed laws to do that, teachers by and large a fairly a lefty sort (though not nearly so much as we’re stereotyped as), but a similar phenomenon occurs under left-wing governments too. Whether by shared philosophy or government legislation, schools teach that the prevailing political mood is the most sensible approach possible.  Again, if you doubt this, check out Prevent before coming after me.

A Federation school, then, will push the political philosophies of the Federation. It might not even realise it. The Federation has gotten very good at telling itself the values it espouses are simple reflections of universal truths; apolitical and fundamental. Neither of those things are actually true. We’ll talk more about this when Deep Space Nine reaches the end of its first season, though, so for now I’ll focus on how Keiko sets up her school.  I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about the transparent ridiculousness of someone moving from “I want to be a teacher” to “Welcome to your first day at school” within 52 hours – though there was so much side eye in my house, I was watching the screen through my ear canal – but I do have one point to make. Thinking you can craft a curriculum (for children of different ages, no less) which you can launch two days after first putting finger to pad is deeply foolish. Thinking you can do that whilst adequately catering to cultures other than your own goes beyond foolish into breathtaking arrogance.

Here we come to one of the hard limits on the Federation approach. Keiko might have designed a curriculum catering to at least three different cultures, but she’s still taken upon herself the role of deciding which elements of Bajoran and Ferengi culture will be highlighted, and which won’t. It’s integration, but it’s integration on the Federation’s terms. How can it be for her to say what a Bajoran child should learn? What happens when Keiko’s ad-hoc syllabus wanders onto topics where Federation and/or Bajoran and/or Ferengi culture are utterly at odds?

Well, we kind of know that already, don’t we. If we’ve seen “Tears of the Prophets”, anyway.

Rom tried to warn Keiko, in his own way. The very fundamentals of Ferengi society argue against Nog even being able to look at Mrs O’Brien, let alone accept her as an authority figure. And without in any way wanting to look like I’m defending the bedrock misogyny of Ferengi culture, it’s not obviously appropriate for a human to take on the role of deprogramming their children. Even if that isn’t Keiko’s aim, this will be an issue that haunts the classroom on a daily basis. How long before that cultural viewpoint becomes a source of constant contention? How many times can Nog lose his temper and demand his teacher disrobe before she loses patience, and Nog becomes labelled a “problem student”? In other words, how long can the enlightened Federation maintain their party line of respect for all cultures in the face of a people who stand for so much of what they oppose?

We know that already too. Consider how Sisko Senior and Rom are mirrored here. More or less the very first thing a non-Federation citizen says inside Keiko’s classroom is “Not next to that human boy!”. Not “Jake”. Not “That boy who helped you terrorise that poor albeit hilariously inattentive couple”. Not even “Federation boy”. “Human”. Species as slur. Sensible people can disagree over how big a deal that comment is, and whether or not Keiko should have picked up on it, on her first day, when just getting Rom’s son through the door is a surprising victory. But it’s still an uncomfortable moment. Not just for what it reveals regarding the limitations of Terek Nor Junior High, but because it’s an obvious reflection of what Sisko has been saying all episode. Rom’s dislike of Jake is a deliberate parallel to Benjamin’s dislike of Nog.

You don’t have to wear your metaphorical boots out to get to where all this is headed: Sisko, on some level, has a problem with Ferengi.

I recognise the obvious objection. Sisko isn’t ordering Jake to stay away from Ferengi children. He’s ordering him to stay away from Nog, a trouble-maker who just happens to be Ferengi. But here, in this particular episode, that distinction simply isn’t sufficient. It’s far too easy to take refuge in the argument that it isn’t the Ferengi species you have a problem with, but Ferengi culture. That all a Ferengi has to do is act like you think people should act, and you’d be OK with you.

For them, in other words, to be the right sort of Ferengi. To be a Ferengi who acts like we do. It’s not our fault so few of them are. It’s not our fault you’re more likely to be swindled by a Ferengi than, say, a Vulcan.

Racist attitudes forever seem to be being dismissed or forgiven as being other things entirely. Culture clash. Bad attitude. The balance of probabilities [1]. And since the problem gets totally misdiagnosed, the prescription ends up being utterly useless too. That doesn’t stop it getting pushed in all places and at all times, obviously. The three-stage treatment process to not having the majority dislike you: just smile sweetly, work within our rules, and hold out for some good fortune. Do all that and there’s a distant chance that you too can be granted the supreme honour of being labelled “one of us”.

3. The Three Lies

A) “You Will Be Assimilated”

The last thing Constable Odo wants to be is one of us. He can’t make that clear fast or often enough. The very first thing he does here is to dismiss the need for partnership that drives – or at least diverts – the vast majority of people from the vast majority of species which surround him. Moments later he’s announcing he gets to decide who does and doesn’t get rights within his jurisdiction, whilst physically assaulting someone for the crime of not leaving on his say-so.  There’s no way to sugarcoat it; that’s straight up fascistic behaviour. In an episode about racism, a cop who thinks he can assault anyone he feels like is a stand-in for some very ugly stuff indeed. And Odo’s response to being called on all this is to complain about how much easier his job was when he worked for a brutal military dictatorship. For the second episode in a row.

The end result is a character seemingly written to be not merely unlikable, but actively unpleasant. Which is a bold move, and one which strengthens the episode. This kind of story usually has to happen early in a show’s lifespan, since after that the main characters have too much shared history to buy one of their number as a potential villain. In “A Man Alone”, though, the suggestion Odo has murdered Ibudan has weight not simply because of his unfamiliarity, but because Odo’s own uncompromising, hard-line philosophy suggests it’s entirely possible he’s taken the law into his own hands. Justice, as he puts it, is justice.

Here’s the thing, though. This idea that justice can exist in directions at right angles or even opposite to those in which our current laws point isn’t just held by those who turn a blind eye to police brutality against those who “deserve it”. It all depends on which laws you refuse to recognise. The fascists want to be able to ignore the rules which prevent them beating up anyone they dislike. Odo wants to ignore the rules that allow men who let the children of poor parents die walk free because they also murdered someone the government disliked. Put another way, Odo’s problem is that he can see that the rules aren’t fairly being applied, and that bothers him tremendously. Needless to say, the desire for fair rules is about as far from fascism as it is possible to get.

Which seems like a contradiction to all that “I am the law” chest-thumping from earlier. And it is. But that’s OK. People are complicated. I mean, it would in any case be entirely understandable if in the second episode filmed Odo’s character was as rough and unfinished as his face.  But I think what we see here isn’t rough, so much as it’s incoherent. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Plenty of people take stances and cherish beliefs that cannot rationally be squared away with each other.  It makes even more sense in Odo’s case, given his comments about relationships demonstrate that he can’t actually tell the difference between compromise and capitulation. He exists at both opposing poles because he can’t see anything in the gap between them other than surrender. No wonder he insists his concept of fairness is more important than the rules of whomever is signing his paycheck. Odo is desperate to serve justice, and so far hasn’t served under an administration that feels the same way. And it is absolutely reasonable, from his perspective, to assume the Federation will be no different in this regard.

And there’s your culture clash. Sisko’s position – which naturally is just as reasonable from his own perspective – is that the station is now operating under a new set of rules, which the head of station security needs to follow. Odo’s position is to utterly not give a crap about the rules, unless he sees them as furthering his own understanding of justice. Of course the two of them are going to clash. It’s even possible to understand why Sisko might not be completely sure Odo is innocent. The constable doesn’t actually back down and agree to work under Federation rules, and his insistence that he determines people’s rights, and that laws can be an impediment to justice makes the idea of him engaging in vigilante killing far from unthinkable. Perhaps it’s no wonder Sisko’s statement about how he personally doesn’t think Odo is guilty comes out as so mealy-mouthed. A degree of suspicion seems reasonable.

But is it, really? The two people who know Odo the best – including his worst enemy; the first real sign of how fascinating Odo and Quark’s relationship will be over the next seven years – are both completely convinced he isn’t a murderer. Even if Sisko were minded to dismiss those opinions (both given by non-Federation characters, you’ll note), there’s the fact Odo managed to work for the Cardassian invaders for years and, when those invaders left, the Bajorans themselves rehired him to do the same job. Odo actually put Bajorans in prison for murdering Cardassians, and the Provisional Government still thought he was the right person to maintain order on the station, even after it became one of the most critical postings in the system. It’s also worth pointing out that if he didn’t kill Ibudan back when the Cardassians were in charge and wouldn’t have cared in the least (Odo might even have received a medal for it), why would he do it now? If Odo believed murder should be a capital offence, Ibudan would never have lived long enough to see Bajor liberated.

Refusing to learn the Federation legal quick-step doesn’t make Odo suspicious. But Sisko isn’t capable of seeing that, because he’s too busy dancing the only steps he knows.

B) Shift That Frown Upside-Down

Let’s move on to Odo’s attitude. It’s always fun to see the constable set to maximum abrasion, but here it’s useful too. It sets the episode above what in my experience at least has always been a rather uninspiring pair of cliches. Often when film or TV tries to make a point about racism they make the character on the receiving end either a guileless martyr to unhinged bigotry (The Green Mile) or as a mess of anger and resentment the dogged white liberals have to persuade are on his side (The Same Kind Of Different As Me). Both approaches have their uses. The former reminds us that racism isn’t actually about its target at all, and the latter reminds us that white people do not deserve and should not expect for people of colour to fall in love with them for the simple act of recognising them as people.

But they both have their problems, too. The “angry black person” is a racist stereotype in itself, and stories about white people dealing with them can end up implying racism is mainly a problem for white folk who struggle to find people of colour willing to help them feel better about themselves. The Green Mile approach, meanwhile, requires a form of performative racism that leads the unwary to conclude that racists are pantomime villains, rather than their friends, and neighbours, and themselves.

Odo’s story is neither of these things. He starts as a pain in the backside, and does not budge one inch from that position. He shows not the slightest gratitude for the fact Sisko saves him from an angry mob (one Sisko has already capitulated to, it’s worth noting, however good his reasons). And again, his refusal to acknowledge Sisko’s position or concerns at any point throughout the episode – look how totally he tears apart his commanding officer’s half-hearted “support” – clearly isn’t doing him any favours.

But here’s the thing. Odo doesn’t need to be doing himself any favours. Odo’s intransigence is utterly irrelevant to the only question that needs answering: did he kill Ibudan? That’s the only game in space-town. And instead of doing something useful, like noting how the case against the constable doesn’t actually make sense, Sisko benches Odo without even clarifying if it’s just a temporary measure until the case is resolved. Instead, Sisko tells Odo he’s handing the investigation to Dax and Kira. Why pick those two? Neither have any actual experience with homicide investigations that we know of, and one of them already seems to think Odo did it (Farrell’s delivery of the line “Even if he’s innocent…” very much suggests Dax thinks that unlikely).

The overall impression then is that Sisko doesn’t really like Odo, finds him difficult to work with, and is just as happy to see the back of him. He doesn’t want to see the guy lynched, or anything, but the difference between how Sisko deals with Odo being accused of murder and the same charge being levelled against Dax a few episodes later is very telling.

C) Shapeshifters Don’t Even Use Razors

Finally, there’s the question of how strong the evidence is against Odo. At first glance, this might seem like an open and shut case, insofar as only Odo could kill Ibudan without opening and shutting the door. In addition to that, we have that he’d already threatened Ibudan, and announced he has no use for any Federation laws that say that’s not allowed. Ibudan’s schedule mentions a meeting with Odo at the time he was murdered, a period for which Odo has no alibi. A witness states that Ibudan mentioned being terrified Odo would kill him, just an hour before he does in fact show up dead. It’s so impressive a frame-up that even Odo is forced to acknowledge its cleverness. Surely it’s reasonable to find the evidence persuasive?

Well, it isn’t that good, is it? There’s a host of inconsistencies and problems with the ostensibly most plausible scenario. Occam’s razor snaps pretty quickly. Let’s start with the knife. How did that get into the holosuite? Odo couldn’t have carried it in with him; any room with enough space under the door to get a hunting knife through wouldn’t be private enough for the kinds of program people pay Quark to run. Did he generate it inside the holosuite? How could he do that without Ibudan hearing him? If it was a holographic knife, shouldn’t the safety protocols have stopped the murder? Were they turned off, and if so when and by whom? Why would Odo even need to use a knife, when he could just strangle Ibudan with a tentacle, leaving the investigation without a murder weapon?

And there’s more. Why did the killer open the door when they left? Odo wouldn’t have needed to, and it he’d been seen strolling out of a room containing a dead body that would have been game over right there? Why would a man who believed Odo was planning on killing him make an appointment to meet him alone in a room with only one exit? What was the point of the meeting in the first place? If it had been scheduled before the altercation in Quark’s, why didn’t Ibudan mention to our witness that it was kind of odd Odo was attacking him for being on the station a few hours before their scheduled meeting? If it was scheduled after the fight, what was its purpose?

I’ll go on. Why was Ibudan running a programme that left him face-down and shirtless whilst waiting for someone he thought planned to kill him to arrive? For that matter, who gets a massage whilst in immediate fear of their life? I hear they can be relaxing and all, but come on. Who goes into a possible fight to the death covered in oil and potentially aroused? Why was the room apparently sterile before Ibudan went in? I mean, I can imagine the computer does in fact sterilise the suite after each visitor, because ick, but if that’s the case why wouldn’t Odo have activated the sterilisation process before leaving, thus rendering DNA evidence irrelevant?

And finally; the real kicker. The simple truth that kills the killer Odo theory. How could anyone with the wit to put a uniform on the right way round not realise that when the chief of police wants you dead, you don’t end up looking like you’ve been assassinated unless that’s the way the chief wants it?

Compare this to the alternative possibility that someone managed to mask a transporter beam, but could only risk using it once. Hey, anyone know of a technologically-advanced people with intimate knowledge of the station’s scanning equipment who might want to see a Bajoran dead for murdering a Cardassian? When you see a Bajoran dead on a Cardassian-built station just after he was pardoned for murdering a Cardassian and you think “shapeshifter“, it’s probably a sign that you need to have a few words with yourself.

In short, Ibudan hasn’t concocted a scenario where blaming Odo is inevitable. He’s concocted one in which blaming Odo is convenient. That this turned out to nearly be all that was necessary is a fairly damning comment on our Federation regulars, who it seems didn’t come up with an alternative explanation simply because, Bashir aside, none of them seemed to think it worth giving it a go.

Outro

So this is where we end up, a bunch of assumptions and clashes that individually all look like they might be about something other than Odo being a shapeshifter, but combine to form a rather less innocent picture. Someone on Twitter once said that for some people racism operates like the Weeping Angels; its always out there lurking, but it transforms into coincidence every time you see it.  The smart racists don’t come to you with their flags unfurled and their tattoos uncovered. They drip their poison into the drink you’re having with them while you think you’re talking about something else.

Take Zayra here. His role as the episode’s main villain comes about not because he’s Ibudan’s partner in the frame-up, but because he’s a bigot who spies his chance. He seizes it effectively, certainly. Clearly he knows how this game is played. He might giggle at his drinking buddies’ casual racism down the pub (“He isn’t one of anything” doesn’t even work as a joke; it’s just straight up about erasing Odo’s identity as a person), but in front of Sisko he is the model of a concerned citizen. Hell, he’s not even wrong as regards what he’s pretending is the issue. Odo really can’t be in charge of an investigation he’s the chief suspect in. I also don’t want to go down the road of insisting individual Bajorans can’t have a problem that someone who once arrested their fellows for killing their oppressors is now drawing a government salary. Zayra says all the right things, adopts all the right tones. It all seems so reasonable.

But if you look a little closer, and you scratch the surface a little, the truth is never all that hard to see. Bigots can’t help but unmask themselves. They’re never happy with just winning; they have to be broadcasting their bigotry whilst they’re doing it. They need to believe its OK to have the opinions they have.  They need to believe their racism is “just common sense”. Something “everyone is thinking”. That unquenchable need for despicable self-expression guarantees that eventually one of them is going to lose their self-control, and do something like steal into their target’s office/home, trash the place, and scrawl racist slurs all over the place. “Shifter” isn’t even painted on to Odo’s wall, but carved. It’s an act of violence in itself.

Which is when things start to spiral outward. Misery may love company, but bigotry utterly obsesses over it. Once word gets around that the mighty Constable Odo can’t even protect his own home from attack, a mob gathers to finish the job. And look closely at who is in that mob. Some of those chanting for Odo’s removal or even death (note that no-one in the crowd voices any objection to Zayra explicitly saying they’re only there to try and lynch the constable) are wearing Bajoran militia uniforms. People who have worked alongside Odo, and who report to someone who considers him one of her closest friends, are baying for his blood-analogue. This is clearly a problem that runs deep through station society. This isn’t a lynch mob made up of people people who didn’t have an opinion on Odo fifty-two hours earlier.

And yet once the crowd disperses, there’s no suggestion that any further action is taken. Sisko notes tartly in his final log entry that Odo never gets an apology from anyone involved (including from Sisko himself, actually, so far as we know), but that seems to me beside the point. The promenade has cameras, and we know the twenty-fourth century has itself some mad facial recognition routines. I don’t want to know if any of those involved apologised to Odo. I want to know why none of them were arrested. You can’t solve racism by just yelling at the racists when they decide to go on the march, and deeming it a job well done once they go home again.

It’s easier to believe otherwise, obviously. You don’t have to actually do as much then. Instead you can pretend the struggle for equality reduces to an occasional game of racist whack-a-mole that plays out over decades, leaving you plenty of time for other things. But the bigotry is still there, even when you’re not required to confront it. Always metastasising.  Always trying to spread. If you want it gone, you can’t just wait for it to show up at your doorstep. And that’s even assuming you recognise it in the first place. If the print media still existed in the post-money Federation, you can absolutely guarantee half the papers the following day would run with op-eds explaining how Zayra’s mob were actually animated by economic uncertainty.

The episode may end with Odo being cleared of Ibudan’s murder, but the currents that dragged us to this point still surge, just beneath the surface, and Odo knows it.

But there’s still hope. In amongst all this ugliness there’s a moment of absolute triumph, when the station crew decide, seemingly without even thinking about it, that Ibudan’s clone should obviously be allowed to enter Bajoran society and go his own way just as soon as he can. There’s no reductionist nonsense about how the exact genetic duplicate of a multiple murderer might have “bad blood”, or anything like that. Just an acknowledgement that Dr Bashir accidentally grew a new sentient being who deserves to make their own choices.  We are what we make ourselves, and we all should get the chance to do our own making. In an episode that shows us so much unpleasantness and has the courage to avoid simplistic, comforting “answers”, we do get to see a nod to what should be our goal: people acting as though everyone is equal because it never occurs to them to think otherwise.

Which is a nice note to end on. In that respect at least, if “A Man Alone” is a “message” episode, then the message it’s sending is a rather nice one after all.

[1] Here the metaphor breaks somewhat. The Ferengi penchant for criminal activity stems from their political philosophy, rather than the complex interplay of multiple pressures that create the specific kinds of criminal activity within specific communities used to disguise/justify racism in our world. Grand Nagus Zek is not Avon Barksdale. The reason people think a Baltimore drug-dealer is more likely to be black is not because the African-American population of Maryland has a political philosophy that venerates selling heroin. The Ferengi are white-collar criminals; fraudsters and embezzlers. They do it because they can. Something to bear in mind when I discuss their introduction to the franchise in a few week’s time.

Ordering:

1. A Man Alone

2. Where No Man Has Gone Before

3. One Of Our Planets Is Missing

4. Code Of Honor

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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