Maybe the quickest way to know you’re watching a bad Star Trek episode is when one of the main cast starts mooning over a character you’ve never seen before. That’s when you know you’re watching one of the dreaded one-off romance hours. It’s going to be slow, it’s going to be stilted, it’s going to be terrible, and have no effect on the overarching plot of the series. In most of them, you can feel the shame oozing off the actors like Odo at the end of a long day.
So, maybe the most surprising thing about this week’s episode, “A Simple Investigation,” is that it doesn’t suck. High praise, I know. I’ll even go a little further here. Speaking only of one-off romance episodes, this one might very well be the best since the TOS classic “City on the Edge of Forever.” It sounds odd, especially since this hour shares more than a little DNA with series-worst “Meridian.” So, why does this one succeed when “Meridian” turns me into the unholy combination of a disgruntled fanboy and a Jem’Hadar?
Odo has always been the best romantic lead the series had to offer. It’s a bold statement, considering every single regular and many of the sprawling supporting players all get love stories of one stripe or another. Quality varies here, as well; while I despise Dax’s dalliance with the Brigadoon aliens, I enjoy her easy opposites-attract chemistry with Worf. Odo, though, has the perfect combination of traits to make him the ideal sweetly romantic protagonist. On the outside, he is gruff and standoffish, but this masks a deep loneliness, a fascination for humanoid behavior, and mute romantic longings that never tip over to creepy nice guy stalking.
Odo is also ripe for this kind of plotline, which was hinted at in “Broken Link,” with the Bajoran woman who had a crush on him. The writers intended for him to have a romance with her while he was still a solid, but that never came to fruition. I’m pleased with that; this one is far more satisfying. He also resolved at least some of his feelings for Kira, accepting her relationship with Shakaar. He was due.
Dax, O’Brien, Bashir, and Odo have gathered at Quark’s to plan a trip into the holosuite. I enjoy these small scenes, because it does let us know that these characters are friends. We don’t need a ton, just this little moment. Bashir has a new spy program, like the kind seen in “Our Man Bashir,” and he’s divvying up the roles. Odo’s will require him to romance a femme fatale, and when he sees that, he abruptly excuses himself. O’Brien volunteers (No dice, he’s playing Falcon again.), and this is when I wonder how fidelity works in the holosuite/deck again. I mean... that sounds like he’s trying to have sex with a hologram right? And everyone’s cool with it? Keiko’s cool with it?
Odo sees Quark sleazing all over a human woman sitting by herself at the bar. He steps in, and she assumes he’s hitting on her. It’s a reasonable assumption, but she didn’t know one important thing: Odo has no idea how to flirt. She compliments his “bedroom eyes” and Odo leaves, a stammering mess. Incidentally, I’ve never understood that compliment. It always sounded like people had a change of eyes for every room in the house, and that’s just creepy.
The woman, Arissa, was waiting to meet someone who has information for her. When Odo arrests her for attempting to hack into DS9’s computer system, she starts coming clean. Her whole story comes out gradually over the course of the episode, as she begins to trust and rely on Odo. She’s a former “net-girl,” made-up slang that smacks of the late ‘90s, which amounts to a mental prostitute, allowing men into her mind for money. She hails from a non-Federation planet that sounds a bit like a more cyberpunk version of Tasha Yar’s homeworld. Cybernetic implants are an important part of science fiction, and increasingly reality, but they never feel quite at home in the clean, utopian vision of Star Trek. Cyberpunk erases the difference between technology and humanity, while Trek places humanity and humanist ideals firmly in the driver’s seat.
Arissa is an employee of Draim, a capo in the Orion Syndicate specializing in extortion and blackmail. For those who don’t remember, the Orion Syndicate is the shadowy organized crime outfit Odo sometimes goes up against. They never get defeated in the course of the series, which makes some fans object to their inclusion. Me, I like it. Shows that our heroes can’t entirely stamp out evil, and there’s a larger world visible on the fringes of what the show depicts. Arissa’s job is hacking into databases and stealing secrets. Now, she wants out.
She was meeting up with an Idanian contact, who are a race known for secrecy. This contact is assassinated by a pair of Draim’s goons. They’re after a data crystal in Arissa’s possession, and they plan to get a hold of it and kill her. Odo protects her, and in the process the two of them fall in love, and yes, they totally have sex. Odo admits he’s a virgin “with humanoids,” and allows he’s had an experience much like sex with another Changeling. This goes back to what I was saying that any mingling between the two of them is at least partially sexual, though perhaps not in the way we understand. The romantic aspects work here, because the emotions are understandable. Odo is lonely and obsessed with justice and finds a beautiful woman who needs him. Arissa was exploited all her life and for the first time she meets a man who wants nothing from her, and she gets to be the only woman who can melt the hard exterior and see the (literal) gooey center.
Arissa tries to get the crystal to Draim’s goons, but the hand-off was doomed from the start. Fortunately, Odo tailed her (“I’m good,” he tells her earlier in the episode after another tailing), and he is able to subdue the assassins. Arissa helps out in this scene too, so it’s nice to see her not falling squarely into damsel in distress territory.
So, everything’s good, right? Odo has a new girlfriend in Space Witness Protection? Not quite. The problem is, there is no Arissa. She is an Idanian agent surgically altered to look human and implanted with a false past. That data crystal holds her original identity. When she is fully restored, she goes to Odo and drops the biggest bomb yet: she’s married. A crushed Odo says that the woman he loved never existed. Arissa disagrees. She still exists, sort of. And she still loves him.
Then, she leaves Odo in his quarters. Alone, as he always is.
Next up: How did cousin Gaila buy that moon?