Welcome back to Deep Dive Nine, your local watering hole for all the little and great things Deep Space Nine has to offer. If you did not have a chance to read my inaugural discussion on the Prophets and how Sisko introduced them to linear time thereby turning them into Prophets in the first place, you should check it out here. So, after talking about the Prophets and their causality issues, today we discuss the greatness that is Elim Garak.
I am not breaking new ground here by saying that Garak is my favorite character on DS9. In fact, Garak and characters like him are a huge part of what makes DS9 my favorite Star Trek series. Only on DS9 could we find this amoral, gray (literally) character on the frontier of Federation space, orbiting the world his people enslaved for 60 years, exiled, forced to live with people who hate or, at best, don’t trust him. He is an outsider, yet, unlike the Prophets, who cannot comprehend and generally remain aloof from the minutiae of linear beings, Garak is endlessly fascinated by the mundane interactions of those around (or beneath) him, and he cannot resist meddling when it suits him.
According to the official DS9 Companion, the character of Garak was to be used only once, in this third episode of season 1. But Andrew Robinson infused Garak with so much life, depth, sarcasm, and wit they decided to bring him back in season 2. Would DS9 have become my favorite Star Trek series if they had stuck to their original plan? Would DS9 even be DS9 without Garak?
Confusing I know, I love paradoxes. To solve this conundrum, let’s take a look at Garak’s first episode and see how exactly he connived his way into our hearts.
In the very first scene, Garak approaches Dr. Bashir during lunch and introduces himself. He explains that as the only Cardassian left on the station, “I do so appreciate making new friends when I can,” smiling in a way that somehow manages to be both sincere and insincere at the same time. Julian, with a complete lack of subtlety, bluntly asks Garak whether he is a Cardassian spy. Garak, obviously enjoying his role as the mysterious stranger, insists that he’s only a humble tailor, “plain, simple Garak,” but that Julian should feel free come by his shop any time. Julian, of course, runs right to Sisko to tell him “the spy” has made contact with him.
Sisko, however, has his hands full with the A plot, which revolves around a Bajoran named Tahna Los who is fleeing a Cardassian warship. Tahna is a member of the Kohn-Ma, a terrorist group made up of former Bajoran resistance fighters, so it’s no surprise when he turns out to be an old friend of Kira’s. Tahna requests asylum on DS9, insisting he’s had enough of killing and terrorism.
A few days later, the always-delightful Klingon sisters Lursa and B’Etor (of the house of Duras) arrive on the station. Odo immediately suspects they are up to something, and we learn from Sisko that they are on the run from the Klingon High Council, trying to regroup after an attempted coup. However, since they haven’t broken any Federation laws, Sisko refuses to give Odo permission to arrest them. They are free to sit quietly in Quark’s bar for as long as they please. Where we see Garak watching them.
He also suspects the sisters are up to something, but we never learn whether he is acting on his own instincts or information from his supposed Cardassian contacts. Rather than going to his new friend with his suspicions, though, this time he patiently waits for Bashir to find him. In a reversal of the first scene, Julian approaches Garak at Quark’s, trying to play it cool and failing miserably. He’s so stuck on the idea that Garak must be trying to extract Federation medical secrets from him that Garak (equal parts amused and exasperated) practically has to spell it out for his protégé, telling Julian that as a tailor, he believes those two Klingon “outfits” are “worth studying closely.”
The suspicions of all are confirmed when Lursa and B’Etor meet secretly with Tahna Los, discussing a payment he owes them. Odo (having also attended the meeting, in the guise of an adorable space rat) takes this information to Sisko, and together they deduce that Tahna’s Bajoran friends must be bringing the payment. These two have also been granted asylum, thanks in part to Kira’s lobbying on their behalf. Still, though, Federation law prevents Sisko from taking action until he has some evidence of illegal activity.
Meanwhile, the Klingon sisters have decided to hedge their bets and offer their services to the Cardassians, in exchange for a higher payment. They approach Garak in his shop, dismiss his attempts at subterfuge (“We have no time for your games!”), and demand to know whether he still represents “Cardassian interests” on the station and if so, what Tahna would be worth to them. Garak thinks for a moment and, still insisting that he is “only a simple clothing merchant,” names a price, obviously a low-ball based on their insulted reaction. Now easily slipping into the role of used car dealer, Garak suggests they haggle.
After concluding his business with the Klingons, Garak goes to find Bashir. Julian adopts the playful, winking tone of their previous encounters, but now Garak is all business, declaring that “there’s a time for levity… and a time for genuine concern.” He points out Tahna’s two friends, who have since arrived on the station, calling them terrorists and suggesting that together he and Julian should find out what they are up to. Julian becomes alarmed (“Garak, I’m a doctor, not a…”), prompting Garak to abruptly switch gears back to the coy, disinterested tailor. He suggests that Julian come by his shop for a fitting that evening. Once again Julian misses the point and Garak has to spell it out for him, although this time he’s less amused. “Doctor, am I making myself clear? I want you to buy a new suit tonight at 20:55. Exactly.”
Bewildered, Julian takes this information to Sisko, who explains that “Sometimes, communications can’t be conducted through official channels. Maybe this is [the Cardassians’] way of telling us we have a common enemy.” Again, though, we never actually have any confirmation that Garak is acting in an official capacity on behalf of Cardassia. Sisko advises Julian to visit Garak’s shop that night, where he overhears Garak’s meeting with Lursa and B’Etor. Garak, back in his role as deal broker, insists that the sisters tell him the details of their arrangement with Tahna, claiming that it could affect their deal with “those [he] represent[s].” It turns out that the Klingons were hired by Tahna to deliver a cylinder of Bilitrium. This, Garak explains to Bashir after the Klingons leave, is a component that could be used in the creation of a powerful bomb, especially if one has an anti-matter converter. Here Garak finally plays the card he’s been holding since the beginning of the episode. He knows that the reason the Cardassians were chasing Tahna in the first place is that he stole just such a converter from them.
Bashir takes this information to Sisko, and they realize that once Tahna makes his exchange with the Klingons, they’ll finally have the evidence they need. They plan to head to the meeting point (the dark side of a remote moon) early and arrest Tahna once the exchange goes down. Before they leave, Sisko warns Dax to “keep an eye on the Cardassians” since “they’ll be coming to the party, too.”
Predictably, things do not go as planned, but the A team manages to get the upper hand. Given a choice between a Cardassian torture room or a Federation prison, Tahna wisely surrenders to Sisko.
So let’s go back and examine each of Garak’s actions in this episode. Did Garak have a plan already in place when he approached Doctor Bashir at the beginning of the episode? How did he know Tahna had stolen the antimatter converter? Did the Cardassians tell him directly, and instruct him to quietly inform someone from the Federation, as we are led to believe? Did they tell him about the Klingons as well? Or did he simply find out from his own network of sources and act on his information alone? Did he act out of self-preservation, believing the station was in danger? Was he trying to protect Bajor and earn points with the Federation, or was he just playing with Dr. Bashir? It is a mystery! A delightful mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wearing a well-cut vest. We never get answers to these questions and that is why Garak is such a fantastic character. We never know his motives or his endgame, whether he is working alone or as part of a network, whether he supports the Federation or merely tolerates it.
Garak is a man without a planet, without his people, without a home. Yet he is different from other “outsider” characters in the Star Trek universe. He is not like the affable Neelix or the serious T’pol, he is certainly not a wise confidante like Guinan. He is even different from Quark and his journey down the Great Material Continuum. He lives in a very different universe from the Federation, a universe that trades in quips, levity, and favors, but also in deceit and well-timed betrayals.
He has skills in espionage and spy craft, and his attention to detail actually does make him an excellent tailor. Isolated from Cardassia, he does the smart thing and bides his time. He knows in this unstable environment at the edge of his race’s territory he will become useful to someone at some point. That is what makes these questions about his motives in this episode so exciting. He is not only an engaging character, thanks to Andrew Robinson’s fantastic portrayal, but he is a necessary character for a show like this. This is the wild west of space. Someone has to help the Federation survive out here, where everyone follows a different code and clear-cut rules and regulations mean nothing.
It makes sense that he would target Bashir, the youngest and brashest member of Starfleet on the station. As I watch their first interaction, I can hear the dialogue on the page but what I see with my eyes is a master class in confusion. In fact, the original script describes the scene as something of a poker match (albeit between two very unevenly-matched opponents). Garak floats around Bashir, stares at him without blinking, and invades his personal space. It is delightful to behold. The amount of fear and dread and also excitement he brings out of Bashir is a reflection of the goodie-two-shoes Starfleet stereotype, and how the wide universe will chew them up and spit them out if they are not careful.
If there ever was a character that embodies the perfect opposite of Gene Roddenberry’s peaceful yet painfully boring utopian vision, it is Garak. He sees the Federation as a bunch of naïvely optimistic, law-abiding, goody-goodies. Even Kira, the hardcore resistance fighter who doesn’t trust the well-meaning Federation, proves herself too trusting of her old buddies. They, and we as the audience, need Garak to explain the true moral ambiguity of the universe they want so badly to defend, and to save them from themselves. That moral line, and the characters who toe it, blur it, and even cross it, is what makes DS9 such a compelling series.
While I could write thousands more words on Garak, we shall save that for his return in Season 2. For now, enjoy one more Garak gif and prepare for next time, when we deep dive into one of the worst episodes in Star Trek history: Move Along Home.
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