Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Second Skin

"Kira Nerys, Cardassian spy"?

What could've proved somewhat cliché on a worse-wrought and worse-acted show, instead makes our first officer's best character piece since 'Duet'.

I feel like I cheated. For whatever reason, as soon as I'd mentioned them I was handed all my favorite episodes of the third season for review, and even if trumping their quality of writing would be impossible I aim to do the best of it.

'Second Skin' is one of those episodes that will sell you on Kira Nerys as a character, warts and all. In fact, the warts are all-important.

Spy thrillers are all the rage on Deep Space Nine. Through the strengths of its ensemble and its setting, it's by far the most suited of all Star Trek to do them, and they've made for several of the classic installments of the series.

Furthermore, the way Deep Space Nine does them, the actual plot isn't what's most important, even if in this case it is very solid. All the focus is directed at a single character. 'In The Pale Moonlight' was Sisko's vehicle. 'Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges', Bashir's. 'The Wire' was Garak's.

'Second Skin' is Kira's.

Kira is no saint. She was never portrayed as one. Even if them calling her a war criminal might be hyperbole, her borderline racist hatred of all things Cardassian has been one of her standing character traits. Yes, her people were enslaved and murdered in the millions, but as a result, in many ways Kira's damaged, having turned into a twisted mirror image of her mortal enemy.

Of course, that's what makes any episode taking time to mine that conflict so effective, and you really can't go deeper into it than Deep Space Nine does with 'Second Skin'.

The brilliance of this episode lies in how the viewer and the main character are gradually sold on the idea that her tormentors might actually be telling her the truth. They aren't, and this is all an elaborate scheme, but it begs the question - what if this was real? What if this would've been the fate of Kira for the rest of the show? You could imagine her whole arc, and while it would've turned the show upside down it could've made for fascinating television.


That idea on its own would've been enough for a great hour, but the show doesn't stop there, as it proceeds to introduce the great Legate Ghemor as Kira's "father" - a member of the central command yet an ultimately kind-hearted old man who thinks his long lost daughter has returned to him. How they both fall prey to the cruel deception of the Obsidian Order is what brings them together.

This is yet-another-reason Deep Space Nine does espionage and subterfuge so much better than other Trek shows. It's the only one to bother really fleshing out the Cardassian psychological makeup, 'a plot within a lie within a trap.' Furthermore, this is only the first act of Kira and Ghemor's relationship; one of the starting points for something to broaden and deepen Kira's world view for years to come.

Superficially this bears some resemblance to TNG's 'Face of the Enemy', but it's several standard deviations more intelligent. In that show, Troi's turned into a Romulan. What does Troi know about Romulans? Kira's hated Cardassians all her life!


I could spend several paragraphs praising the supporting cast and their perfect delivery of an impeccable narrative. Actually, that's one thing that strikes you as you watch it - this is one of those good old shows that can't be correctly subtexted because the dialogue would fill the whole screen. It's true that the always-fantastic Garak is stepping more and more out of the shadows, yet that's a discussion best suited for a later review.


Finally, the way this piece centers on Kira and her emotional anguish is what grounds and elevates it. Nana Visitor is no Shakespearean actress and she doesn't have the knack for dramatic flair of an Andrew Robinson, a Patrick Stewart or even a Siddig El Fadil, but she knows how to play to her strengths. She's very well suited for the scaled-down, naturalistic and believable performance this episode needs to make it tick; selling what is arguably an extreme character in extreme circumstances with both nuance and conviction.

2 comments:

magritte said...

I liked this episode an awful lot too, as I do most of the Cardassian-centric episodes. Of all the Star Trek antagonist races, I think the Cardassians are by far the most nuanced and individualized. And as good as Nana Visitor is (and I'm a big fan of Kira), Legate Ghemor is what really gives the episode its soul.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Thank you, magritte.

Fun fact - the original draft of the review concluded on noting that "in this episode, the supporting cast's theater is but the spice to Kira's soul," but as I restructured it I cut that. But I thought that's what you responded to. ;-)