DS9 is fond of telling noir stories -- although technically anything with Odo as the protagonist will be hard-boiled -- and probably is at least partly responsible for my enduring fascination for both genre and show as well as my habit of returning to noir in my own work. This week’s episode, the excellent “Whispers,” is one of the best hours in the season and serves as a companion piece to one of the other highlights, the Odo-helmed “Necessary Evil.”
Noir is indelibly associated with two devices currently considered out of fashion amongst the snobberati: first-person narration and flashback. I could go into why these are seen as no-nos, but it would just degenerate into an expletive-filled rant, and besides, you can catch my rants daily on one of the finer street corners in Los Angeles for the price of a bottle of Mad Dog. “Whispers” opens with a confused Chief O’Brien alone in the runabout Rio Grande, trying to make sense of the last 52 hours. (I should note here that DS9 operates on a 26-hour day, just to mess with people.) He’s introduced in a Dutch close-up, which sounds like a terrifying sex act but totally isn’t, a deliberate call-back to the use of the same shot in noir classics. The director returns to this a few more times as though to remind the audience what’s going on.
O’Brien is an hour away from his destination, the Parada System, a planet on the other side of the wormhole. He doesn’t think he’ll be alive when anyone hears the log, and “they” are after him. He thinks that everything changed when he returned from the Parada System 52 hours before, when he was updating their security system. The Paradas have been in a civil war for 12 years, and the upcoming peace talks between the government and the rebels could put a stop to it. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the Paradas; they never appeared before and don’t really make any sense in the larger context of the show. They live in the Gamma Quadrant, but based on subsequent appearances are not Dominion members. Still, they’re a triumph by the makeup department, looking like fish-frog-things and sporting some digital modification to the actors’ voices.
As soon as O’Brien gets back, everyone is acting a little weird. His family is nervous and withholding of affection, Sisko reassigns him from the security preparation for the arrival of the Paradas to the menial task of fixing pylons, and Bashir is incredibly insistent that O’Brien drop everything for his physical. As the episode unfolds, things that seemed mildly off come to have deeper significance: the pylons appear to have been purposefully sabotaged, he’s being locked out of files he should have access to, his security code doesn’t work, and Keiko might be trying to poison him. The only person acting normally is Jake, and it is through him that O’Brien catches Sisko in a bald-faced lie. Eventually, O’Brien concludes the only thing he can in such a situation: the crew has been mind-controlled or outright replaced by duplicates.
O’Brien grows more desperate as the hour continues, trying to act as normally as he can while he’s convinced all his friends and co-workers are impostors. He assumes that this has something to do with the upcoming peace talks and believes this is some act by the rebels to take out some important government officials. He reaches out to Odo, who was on Bajor for the beginning of the trouble, giving him a rundown on what’s happening. Odo agrees to investigate, but when he calls O’Brien to his office, it’s clear he’s been compromised. That’s when Sisko, Kira, and some security men come in with phasers to arrest the Chief. Using some quick thinking and those battle reflexes of his, O’Brien gets out and to the Rio Grande, set on warning the Paradan government. The Mekong -- a new runabout replacing the Ganges, destroyed in the previous episode -- in pursuit.
“Whispers” is built entirely on the back of a stunning twist, and it’s so good I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say that the best twists are the ones that come logically from the narrative and are totally obvious in retrospect. The Sixth Sense still gets a lot of justified love for the way it works, a few nitpicky think-pieces aside. The key is that when watching something famed for a twist, like that or like Fight Club, smaller events take on a heightened significance. Things that seemed strange or out of place turn out to have a chilling purpose. The use of the color red in The Sixth Sense, the actions of Project Mayhem in Fight Club, and in this case, the subtle acting choices of the cast. “Whispers” works best on its first viewing, but like the greatest noir, it’s still a solid gut punch twenty years later.
Next up: Sisko hates the new interactive Farmville.