Nutshell: A tour de force of heartfelt choices and matters of identity.
Ah, how wonderful, complex, and deeply involving Rene Echevarria's stories can be, all the while being so extremely straightforward and honest in plot. Even though his episodes earlier this season ("Afterimage," "Chrysalis," "Covenant") haven't quite clicked for me, I almost always appreciate what Echevarria tries to do on a character level. He also seems to have been the force behind the most substantive of the Odo/Kira stories, including fifth season's "Children of Time"—one of the series' best installments—and last season's "Behind the Lines," a compelling view lessened only by what came after it.
Now we have "Chimera," a textured, gripping story full of issues and choices and relationships and feelings; it's incredible material, yet in an understated sort of way. It doesn't resort to gimmicks; it simply faces up to its characters' histories, decisions, and identities from the first scene to the last. It's a character episode that will reward those who have watched the series and come to understand Odo's angst. It also charts some new territory, even though the primary conflict is something Odo has faced before.
I didn't loathe "His Way" from last season the way a lot of people did, but I didn't really like it, either. While I found it entertaining, it seemed too superficial and trivial given the complexity of the Odo/Kira relationship, and I feared that certain story opportunities were never going to be available again. Sure, there was the opportunity to create new problems within the new relationship, but the question was whether that would actually happen, or if we'd simply get contrived soapish stuff like what, unfortunately, characterized stretches of the Worf/Dax relationship. "Chimera" answers the question, and I very much like the answer.
Romance on Trek has a shaky track record. Too frequently we receive the single-episode pair-up-with-random-guest treatment, which more often than not feels forced for the sake of fulfilling some quota ("Second Sight," "Meridian," or this season's "Chrysalis" as DS9 examples; "Unforgettable" or even the recent "Gravity" as Voyager examples). Sometimes it comes across reasonably, but rarely does it really, really work.
In "Chimera," it really, really works. For once I could feel the connection between Odo and Kira in a way that no episode before has been able to approach. A big part of that is simply because Echevarria treats the characters intelligently, with dialog that makes a great amount sense. The rest of the credit goes to performance: Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonois sell the material so well that the Odo/Kira scenes reach a poignancy that's never been matched by two lovers on any Star Trek story I can remember.
Frankly, I didn't expect that. Odo/Kira has been an interesting relationship, and even after "His Way" it has been watchable. But I've never really been moved by their romantic scenes the way I was here. The writing usually keeps their relationship as a backdrop to an issue of plot. Here it was integral to the plot in an extremely urgent, powerful, and affecting way.
Yet this story is only partially about love; it's equally, if not more so, about identity. Namely, Odo's identity, which has always been in a state of self-doubt. Since his relationship with Kira became more intimate, he has found happy times—"the happiest of [his] life," in fact. He believes he has found where he belongs—with humanoids and, more specifically, with Kira. But In "Chimera," Odo's self-doubt is brought back to the forefront with the appearance of Laas, a shapeshifter who was one of "the hundred" like Odo—sent away from the Great Link centuries ago to make contact with other life in the galaxy—and not part of the Founders' more recent, insidious agenda to control everything in their reach.
Laas is an intriguing individual—one of the most interesting guest characters in recent memory, simply because he's allowed to exist as a believable entity whose actions and dialog grow out of the character, rather than some need to fulfill a plot element. The plot of "Chimera" grows out of characters, and that's perhaps why it's so simple and so effective.
Of course, it also helps that Laas is exceptionally well performed. Laas is played by Garman Hertzler, a.k.a. J.G. Hertzler, who is so convincing as Laas that I didn't even realize Garman and J.G. were one and the same until after I'd seen the entire show. Hertzler displays quite an acting range between Laas and Martok (who doesn't appear in "Chimera"); with that gruff voice, Hertzler often chews the scenery as Martok, and here that voice is so different and controlled that it rarely can be distinguished as the same.
But even more important is Echevarria's idea of who Laas is. Like Odo, Laas has been in search of other shapeshifters, though he doesn't know about his people in the Gamma Quadrant and the Great Link. Unlike Odo, his tolerance for humanoids has surpassed the breaking point. You see, Laas became sentient long before Odo had, and lived a longer life among humanoids before abandoning it. In that time he established plenty of opinions—opinions that he isn't afraid to voice to Odo and Odo's friends.
Laas' opinions are interesting because they challenge basic humanoid existence in a pointed, unexpected way. In one scene, where Laas meets Odo's friends, he unleashes a calm, quiet, but unmistakably unhappy monolog on why he dislikes humanoids: They expand and consume, displacing other life forms from their natural habitats, and covering worlds with farms, cities, and automation. They refuse to exist as they naturally are, instead striving for artificial advances. And they aren't tolerant of non-humanoids.
Even more: Laas tells Odo that his ability to fit in with humanoids is a denial of his true existence. With a sentiment that could send any reasonable person into an identity crisis, Laas informs Odo that he has been assimilated by humanoids to the point that he knows nothing more. And Odo isn't sure; maybe Laas is right. Odo has been so enraptured in his relationship with Kira that he hasn't thought about being a Changeling in some time.
What's fascinating about these arguments is that the story looks at them from different perspectives. Through the other regular characters we see doubt and disagreement with Laas, but through Odo we see understanding. The weight of Laas' point of view and his understandable distrust for humanoids might have been lessened if the story had supplemented his opinions with unnecessary "evil intentions" or other silly plot devices. But it doesn't do that; it delivers the dialog and points of view and puts Odo right in the middle. Then it puts Laas in the center of a situation where we can see injustice toward a shapeshifter unfolding.
That situation involves two Klingons attacking Laas, essentially because he annoyed them. They insult him and label him a "Founder." By the time the brief skirmish is over, one of the Klingons has died at Laas' hand. (Minor complaint #1: I didn't care for the portrayals of the Klingon officers, who are badly performed and written as needlessly stupid and hostile.)
What happens next is exactly what we expect. The Klingons want someone to answer for the death of one of their officers, and they plan to do anything they can to bring this Changeling to "justice." The distrust is more than obvious. Laas has been singled out by the Klingons because of what he is more than because of what he has done. It's also interesting that Laas' own attitudes don't help matters, but therein lies the problem—Laas has his prejudices, but so does everyone else.
Demonstrating this issue are a number of excellent performances from the supporting characters. Even before the death of the Klingon, Colm Meaney brings a subtle distrust to his scenes in a way that is so perfectly "O'Brien"—with subtle sarcasm that isn't anything approaching hatred, but definitely reveals a distrust for Laas that is partially based upon a prejudice. It's telling in an understated way, because it proves there's some truth behind what Laas believes (even if Laas is unwilling to work to make the situation better), yet the point is made in a way that doesn't place blame or make indictments, but simply reveals a sad fact.
And Sisko's pragmatic skepticism, and later annoyance—which comes when Odo voices one too many opinions about the way shapeshifters have suddenly and covertly become targets of injustice—is a notion that is realistic, and perfectly conveyed by Avery Brooks. Odo goes just a little too far in his insinuations, and Sisko lets him know. It's a bad situation all around, but it has to be dealt with, and Sisko handles it the best he can. Meanwhile, Michael Dorn and the director, Steve Posey, make an interesting statement with the casual reactions of Worf; as Odo describes the events leading up to the Klingon's death (including the absurdity of the two Klingons being "menaced by fog"), Worf is quietly disappointed with how the Klingons handled the situation, and the ridiculous overreaction of their government. The number of levels that this works on is fascinating.
Then, of course, there's Quark, who manages to get in a pointed speech that's at least as challenging as his speech about the human capacity for violence in "The Siege of AR-558." This time he informs Odo that the humanoid fear of Changelings and other differences stems from natural, genetic self-preservation. I've heard this argument before, in real life, and I've never bought it as a defense for prejudice, because prejudice is learned. But I appreciated Quark's blunt honesty, and that he doesn't excuse what the Klingons did, but merely explains why it happened.
Issues of war also arise; the fact that the Alpha Quadrant is at war with Odo and Laas' people is one of the driving forces of tension, meaning that unjust consequences are all but guaranteed in Laas' future. The tension is understandable given the deceptive abilities of Changelings, but there's a point where the line must be drawn, otherwise any shapeshifter would be subject to the kind of persecution and internment that, say, Japanese-Americans found themselves victim of during World War II. In short, Quark's assertion that "this is no time for a Changeling pride demonstration on the promenade" is both practical and realistic. It's just unfortunate that such a situation has to exist in the first place.
The fact this story can work in so many implicit issues without turning preachy or melodramatic and sticking solely with the truth of the characters is, well, pretty amazing.
And all through this, Odo is torn between love and identity in a way that is excruciatingly vivid. Who is Odo, really? Is he just pretending to be a humanoid? How does he cope with not knowing where he belongs? Does Kira's love go beyond the bounds of Odo's familiar humanoid form? I would say the answer to the last question is yes, but I would also say that a great deal of how others perceive us is based partially on the expectations of our physical existence. What happens when that existence could be anything? Odo has struggled with such questions his entire life, and Laas serves to remind him of where he could go—to exist with others like him in a link separate from the Great Link. (And I have a feeling this isn't the last time Odo will face having to make this choice.)
Odo isn't the only person torn. So is Kira when she realizes Odo's search for himself might require leaving her behind. She realizes Odo must be permitted to find his path—his right path—and makes a particularly difficult decision when releasing Laas from his holding cell so he can escape the station. (Minor complaint #2: I'm skeptical that Kira could so easily release Laas from confinement, leaving no evidence of her intervention and no suspicions from Sisko.) She can't bear to see Odo stuck where he doesn't belong, and she loves him enough to let him choose his path, even if that means joining Laas and abandoning his life as a humanoid.
"Love conquers all," as Laas puts it, may seem like a trite statement, but here it shows a huge difference between Laas' philosophy and Odo's. Laas faces humanoids with a cynicism that's understandable. And one could argue that Odo faces humanoids with a naivete that's equally understandable simply because his interactions haven't yet become jaded over a long period of time. Or perhaps it's simply that Odo got the luckier draw compared to Laas, whose experience with humanoids simply didn't work. (It's a telling sign that Laas once had a humanoid lover, but that the relationship fell apart.) Echevarria approaches each situation with great insight; even scenes that could've been cliche are instead full of probing dialog and ideas. (Interesting perspectives like Laas' belief that humanoids are tragically trapped in their static forms make all the difference.)
"Chimera" is a great story—the season's best so far. It's an intelligent and emotional outing, solidifying the Odo/Kira relationship in a way that, in its final scene, is exceptionally moving because it vies to capture our imaginations and emotions and senses all at once.
So many tantalizing questions, so many honest answers. This is why I watch Star Trek. At its best, like with "Chimera," it transcends plot and ends up meaning something. This episode looks at uncertainty in the universe and finds out what it means to the people involved. In the process, we discover their feelings and reflect upon them, hopefully while reflecting upon our own.
Next week: Mobsters take over Vic's lounge—badda-bing, badda-bang.