Retro Review: The Wire


By unraveling some of the secrets of the Cardassian’s past, Bashir fights to save Garak from an experimental brain implant that is slowly killing him.

Plot Summary: While discussing Cardassian literature with Dr. Bashir, Garak appears to be in pain and flees the Promenade. Suspicious, Bashir keeps an eye on him and discovers that Garak is trying to do business with Quark, who later calls Bashir for help when an intoxicated Garak refuses to leave the bar. Though Garak resists Bashir’s help, he collapses and is taken to the infirmary, where Bashir discovers that Garak has an electronic implant in his brain. When Bashir asks Odo if he knows anything about Garak’s medical history, Odo enables Bashir to eavesdrop on Quark as the Ferengi tries to make a deal with a Cardassian who is appalled to discover that the technology Quark wants has been labeled classified by the Obsidian Order, Cardassia’s vicious intelligence agency. Bashir leans from Garak that the implant was designed to enable its user to withstand torture by giving him pleasurable endorphins, but Garak has been using it continually in exile and is now taking huge doses of tranquilizers as it slowly breaks down. When Bashir offers medical help, Garak says that he deserves to die, having been responsible for destroying a ship carrying nearly 100 Cardassians including his friend Elim. Bashir insists on treating Garak anyway, though Garak’s story keeps changing, first claiming that Elim was his aide when he freed Bajoran children they were meant to torture, then saying that he and Elim were both proteges of Obsidian Order leader Enabran Tain, who had Garak exiled when Elim framed Garak for releasing Bajoran prisoners. Though tests show that Garak is dying, Garak refuses to let Bashir turn the implant back on, so Bashir decides to find Tain for help in treating Garak’s condition. Tain does not try to evade Bashir, though he says that if the doctor truly cared about Garak, he would let Garak die rather than suffer in exile, though since Tain believes that Garak deserves his pain, he agrees to help Bashir treat Garak. When Bashir asks about Elim, Tain reveals that Elim is Garak’s own first name. Once Garak recovers, he asks Bashir over a friendly lunch why Odo now believes Garak was a member of the Obsidian Order. Though Bashir presses for the truth, Garak insists that everything he has told Bashir was true, especially the lies.

Analysis: During Deep Space Nine‘s first season, the writers had an unfortunate tendency to dump backstory about the major characters within stories, having Kira tell us about her past in the Bajoran Resistance in long speeches or having Bashir talk to to O’Brien about his Academy days. Well into the second season, Dax was still going on on at length about things she did as Curzon and the rest of her previous hosts. While some of this exposition was necessary to flesh out the characters and their motivations, it often resulted in clumsy storytelling of the sort where an audience is abruptly ordered to accept certain facts because someone announced that they were true rather than being shown how these characters developed and how their motivations have been shaped. In this regard, many of the secondary characters received much more interesting treatments – perhaps because the writers had not yet decided how to use all of them, but they certainly knew who generated sparks with the regulars and whose interactions inspired engrossing episodes. Garak the plain, simple tailor is perhaps the finest example of such a secondary character. His very existence on the station evokes strong reactions in most of the regulars, for different reasons – Odo is distrustful, Kira even more so, Sisko resents him, Quark hopes to exploit him, Bashir is curious and a bit admiring. Garak’s unique situation as a Cardassian who may always have wanted justice for the Bajorans or who may have been one of the worst abusers of all means that his very presence makes any situation more unpredictable and therefore intriguing. When I first reviewed this episode the week it aired, I was frustrated that the writers continued to withhold so much information, suspecting that they hadn’t really worked out who Garak was. That may have been true, but looking back after the end of the series, the strategy of not-telling pays off brilliantly.

This is our first in-depth glimpse at the complexities of Garak’s past and his psyche, tossing out all sorts of details that become valuable later. It doesn’t matter whether the writers had already decided if Tain and Garak should be father and son or if they just wanted the possibility of a mentoring relationship gone wrong; it doesn’t matter whether they had a full outline of Garak’s real past when they scripted Garak’s lies. Having the layers peeled back bit by bit is ultimately much more satisfying than having any particular episode provide solid information about Garak, particularly in the hands of an actor who makes the ambiguities look not like holes in characterization but like deliberate blind spots and secrets. Among the extraordinary group of performers who make up Deep Space Nine‘s supporting cast, Andrew Robinson stands out not only because of the number of episodes in which Garak plays a major role, but because of the complexity of the character Robinson develops. “The Wire” is one of his finest episodes, though I would be remiss if I didn’t note that it’s one of Alexander Siddig’s finest too, and the chemistry generated in their two-man drama make it riveting to rewatch even once one knows most of the truths behind Garak’s stories. What seems obvious upon rewatching is that Garak isn’t manipulating Bashir for some grand Cardassian scheme but because he’s desperately lonely, looking for someone with whom he can share some part of his story, even a part that isn’t factually true. The opening scene finds Bashir admitting that great Cardassian literature about duty and sacrifice bores him, while Garak, who has always seemed to be the least self-sacrificing and most opportunistic of Cardassians, defends the epic against Federation judgments even as he anticipates enjoying Federation food. Whether these meals and debates represent a real friendship or merely a way of passing time, neither man is ready to admit, and Garak becomes extremely defensive when Bashir tries to speak as a friend or as a doctor…any position that puts them on equal footing.

The episode plods a bit during the medical scenes, since the scientific details of the implant aren’t all that interesting; it’s the psychological effects and the reasons it was put there in the first place that matter. If other Cardassians have this implant, surely Garak isn’t the only one who’s abused it and become addicted. What sort of recreation someone would enjoy when pain brings a guarantee of endorphin-fueled pleasure? Is Garak ashamed of this weakness or only of its discovery? Is it Bashir’s clinical detachment as a doctor that he values in a companion, or is it Bashir’s comparative innocence to people like Garak and Kira and Odo, who are accustomed to seeing suffering while Bashir still believes he can and should try to put a stop to it? Bashir seems horrified on both a personal and professional level when Garak lashes out at him, particularly by the stories of cruelty he tells, but he doesn’t flee and he keeps his judgments mostly to himself. He’s grown up a lot in a year on the station, unafraid to challenge Odo, able to laugh at O’Brien’s eye-rolling, not flirting with Dax when he has an opportunity. The fact that he approaches Tain himself and not through one of the more experienced Starfleet officers shows both his own increasing confidence and Sisko’s willingness to trust him on such a mission; I’m not sure I’d have let any of my officers go looking for a former Cardassian operative whether I believed Garak’s story or not. I wish the scene with Tain were longer and hinted just a bit more at Tain’s position – even if the writers had no intention at the time of ever bringing the character back, the fact that he knows Bashir’s yet-unspoken middle name is pretty creepy. But it’s fine that he doesn’t give us any major revelations about Garak besides another name. It leaves so much more to be discovered later.

What do you think? Chat with other fans in the Star Trek: Deep Space nine forum at The Trek BBS.

Michelle Erica Green


Michelle Erica Green

Writer, mother, reader, traveler, teacher, partner, photographer, activist, friend, fangirl, student, critic, citizen, environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, enthusiast. TrekToday staffer for many years, former news reporter, current retro reviewer.

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  • A classic episode; & a perfect example of what made DS9 different to all the other Treks. A few throwaway details about a minor character – a funny line here… a plot device there – has developed into a character deep enough to build a tragically real story around. This is what development means, by the way. It isn’t change per se – Bashir didn’t develop when he became genetically modified – but the accumulation & extension of character traits to create new stories. The EMH aside, no Voyager character really developed in this sense – Kes was beginning to; & might have continued to do so had Garrett Wang not been named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the year his character was due to be dropped. That the DS9 writers did this with supporting characters (Garak, Nog, Leeta even) more than most shows do with their headliners is the wonder of the show

    (Development in itself is neither a plus or a minus, either. Perhaps the best-loved character in Trek didn’t develop one iota from first TV appearance to last film glimpse – De’s Bones McCoy – but its what Niners like about this crazy show)

    The story belongs on the urban streets; but setting it on a space station at the frontier of empire gives it a compassionate distance that contemporary stories struggle to achieve. It’s easier to empathise with Garak’s situation because his crimes are against the Bajora rather than with a street kid whose violence turns up on reality news. Its easier to make Tain such a charming pimp because – as a Cardassian – his street-look doesn’t conform to the cliches of urban prejudice. But The Wire is a true story that people close their eyes in real life made visible because its told in surreal life. Its classic, true science fiction of the Asimov-Clarke school; & viewing it again reminds me again what i hate the dishonest equation of science fiction & comic book. Science fiction – not SybloodyFy – is fiction… comic books are just painting

    This doesn’t mean, by the way, that others have to like it. DS9 is different, so naturally its audience is smaller. But The Wire – & DS9 – is what media science fiction can be; & only once was

  • Bobby

    This quote: “When I first reviewed this episode the week it aired, I was frustrated that the writers continued to withhold so much information, suspecting that they hadn’t really worked out who Garak was. That may have been true, but looking back after the end of the series, the strategy of not-telling pays off brilliantly.”

    THIS. This is exactly how I felt, and how I feel about this episode. At the time it first aired I was kind of frustrated with it. We finally get all sorts of interesting backstory for Garak, and just when it feels like we’re starting to put together the pieces of the puzzle, we find out its all a pack of lies.

    When I first saw this episode that aspect of it made me CRAZY. But later, looking back (and rewatching) I recognized it was total genius.

    But no matter how you feel about the script, its impossible not to love Andy Robinson’s performance. He is masterful, as always.

    And of course that snippet of dialog. “It’s all true.” “Even the lies?” “Especially the lies.” That is Garak in a nutshell.

  • Guest

    Comics can’t be fiction because they are “just painting?” Go back on your meds.

  • Seventhbeacon

    While I can’t agree with ‘Guest’s’ rude meds comment, you truly do have a dated view of what comic books are as both an art form and a medium to tell stories. They are as wide and varied, rich and shallow as the spectrum of science fiction, or for that matter of all television, from the greats like Asimov and Bradbury to the drivel like most of the SyFy channel’s programming. Even if you’re referring simply to the most-populous superhero genre for which comics are best known for, there’s so much richness and variety to be found.

    I find your comment regarding the medium to be both dirisive and uneducated. On that same note, it is easy to lament the weakening of science fiction as a genre proper when we have to contend with the mindless Star Wars prequels and James Cameron’s schlockfest Avatar, who’ve given science fiction a bad name by comparison. Even the new Star Trek movie was all action, little substance, and zero science or social examination… like popcorn, it was tasty and easy to enjoy but otherwise only filled us with empty calories.

  • Seventhbeacon

    One of my favorite and most-watched episodes. You are absolutely right about Andrew Robinson’s contributions to this show! The mystery of Garak was one of the main elements that kept me coming back each week.

  • I’ll reply to you Seventhbeacon; but i doubt you’ll particularly care for what i have to say. Sure graphic novels can be fiction of merit (i never said they couldn’t be – your distinguished colleague did) but mostly they aren’t… for the obvious reason that the art is the reason for the work’s popularity rather than the story, which can servicably be no more than a through-line which ties together the images. Very much like the over-priced, underwhelming films based on – or inspired by, like ST XI – them as it happens. If this commonsensical observation wasn’t true, why would the fan base be so joyously content with all of the regular retreads & reboots?

    (Not so long ago, a comic book podcaster linked with approval to a defense of continuous reboots which argued that it was easier to retell a previous story over again rather than create a new & interesting development of the story at the point the last film left it. If comic books – & the films based on them – were meant to be fictions rather than paintings, would that argument even be possible much less seem sensible?)

    As such, they’re much more closely related to art than fiction; & graphic novels are the top end of the market. When you get to real comics, the stories – by definition – are even weaker. You may – & often do – get intricate plotting; but the kind of character development i praised in The Wire can’t appear in them almost by definition. Similarly, you can’t get a simple story subtly told (as The Wire ultimately is – my friend is in trouble; i have to help him but he keeps lying to me about the problem) because a comics writer can’t control the length & more importantly rhythm of the story-telling

    So, yes, i do know what i’m talking about. Some graphic novels – & yes, comic books – are glorious to look at; but as fiction, they’re rarely subtle reading. Neither are they science fiction (at best they may use science fiction props; but the speculation & extrapolation which marks classical SF is missing), apart a few which could be described as dystopian – & even these have the curious habit of appearing to advocate the kind of vigilante thinking which created the dystopia in the first. If stating this is being divisive then perhaps division is called for; because this is one science fiction fan whose tired of being told that he should like these glossy, characterisationless extravaganzas just because they happen to based on something culturally significant like the Avengers

  • Seventhbeacon

    I can and will list a number of books and series that show characterization, subtlety and depth. I can also list a number of titles that bear the markers of classical SF speculation. The medium has a lot more out there than you must be aware of. You don’t have to particularly like them, the format, or the art, but it makes them no less capable of storytelling than a TV show like Star Trek constrained to the five-act format and length of an hour structured by necessary commercial breaks. The writer of the Wire could no more control the length and rhythm of that episode than a comic author/artist can the length and rhythm of a single issue of their series. Shakespeare couldn’t control the length and rhythm of a sonnet, but he was able to make quite a few memorable ones regardless.

    And in all fairness, Asimov was pretty shit when it came to characterization. That’s fine; his speculative explorations are no less quality science fiction for it. Yes, there are tons of crap comics out there… but there’s also tons of crap television and science fiction.

    What, by the way, marks “real comics” from “not real comics”? The single issue format versus collections? The superhero genre versus all the rest? Why should the work Jeff Lemire has done on a critically acclaimed title such as ‘Sweet Tooth’ be considered any different from his work on ‘Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E?’

    You can no more lump ‘all comics’ into one category than you can ‘all television’ or ‘all books’. Comics have their Rob Liefelds, Books have their Stephanie Meyers, and television has its Brannon Bragas. You don’t have to like comics, and I’m not forcing you to read them, but you are wrong about the capabilities of the medium.

  • Actually, the writer can control the pacing of The Wire through the construction of the story, which unfolds – like most mature DS9 – at a markedly different rhythm to Voyager say. Its not just the number of scenes he – i don’t believe that there were any female writers – in a (currently) 42 minute long narrative (ignoring double episodes & arcs, which DS9 loved), its how those scenes are meant to flow. He can’t control where the ad breaks are; but that’s a different issue. One of the reasons why modern film & TV is so tedious to old school viewers is that the pacing is so mechanically fast in deliberate imitation of the eye flashing across a page of images in scan mood – there’s no time for detail, even when the screen is cluttered with it

    In general, Trek followed a more methodical pace: & DS9 – though not averse to action sequences – was the slowest of the modern series. Which is why it bores so many fans of the other shows

    Real comic books as opposed to graphic novels. Should have been clear from context (i was transitioning my argument from the later to the former). My apologies for that

    Agreed that Asimov’s strength wasn’t his characterisation (in general – he could do it were inspiration caught him, as with Bayta & Arkady Darrell & Lige Bailey), it was the clarity of his prose & the complexity of the speculation. On the other hand, he didn’t write 180 stories with the same characters. That’s what a good, dramatic science fiction show can do – take what was in potentia in these works & turn it into something more

    Just to repeat myself, i’m not dismissing about the potential of the comic medium – i’m talking about how it generally is: visually orientated; & without much subtlety in narrative (which is why the graphic novel form developed in the first place). The heroic figures in the form – Lee excepted; & he was more a executive producer than just a writer… same with JMS – have generally been painters or writer/painters… go to any comics convention & count how many writers are there. Then count the artists. You’re as free to love the form as i’m free not to – that’s not & never has been my argument. I am dismissing those people who equate science fiction & comic books as if they were the same genre. They aren’t & never have been

  • Seventhbeacon

    Thank you, I think I better understand what you are saying, and I can look at the majority of the industry, and the big sellers, and agree with you about the general state of the comic medium and the flashier aspects of it.

    If you would like some good science fiction and social exploration in that medium to peruse, I recommend any number of titles by Warren Ellis. Transmetropolitan, Ocean, Ministry of Space, Planetary… while they have some of the tropes you mentioned that the comic medium tends toward, there’s a depth and joy to his speculation that I have not found anywhere else in comics. His flavor tends to change from one project to the next, but his speculative fiction is quite deep.

    Again, though, comics have within them multiple genres, and can include science fiction. It may be conveyed differently than in television or prose form, but comic books are otherwise just a platform, if one that relies heavily on visual component.

    Everything you said about DS9 and its pacing is why I love the series more than the other Trek ones!

    Thanks again for clarifying your statement. In general, in the broad strokes, in terms of what most of the comic book market is, you are not wrong. The best books, I find, tend to have a much smaller market share than the flashy circus fare that dominates the medium.