A killing on Deep Space Nine puts Odo in contact with a man who claims to know of a colony of changelings in the Gamma Quadrant.
Plot Summary: Croden, who arrives at Deep Space Nine from the Gamma Quadrant, kills half of a pair of Miradorn twins during a robbery as they try to sell a collectible to Quark. Odo arrests Croden and must protect him from the surviving twin. While Sisko tracks down the authorities on Croden’s home planet, who declare that Croden is a dangerous criminal, Croden tells Odo that he knows of other changelings in the Gamma Quadrant. Croden has a locket containing a stone that morphs into a crystalline shape which he says he got from a colony of changelings. Bashir’s analysis reveals that the organic material in the crystal is similar to that of Odo, who tells Sisko that he will ferry Croden back to his home planet, sneaking him past the angry Miradorn whose ship then chases Odo’s runabout. As the runabout flees into a vortex where ionized gas hides it from Miradorn sensors, Croden explains that he was persecuted, his family killed. Odo allows Croden to pilot the runabout through the vortex, surprised when Croden lands on an asteroid where Croden claims the colony of changelings lives. But when Odo becomes suspicious, Croden confesses that the stone in his locket is really the key to a stasis chamber lock there. Inside is Croden’s daughter, the only survivor of his family’s slaughter. When the Miradorn attack, Odo is injured and Croden rescues him, agreeing to be returned to his own planet if Odo will care for the girl. They use the gases in the vortex to make the Miradorn weapons backfire, destroying the Miradorn vessel. When a passing Vulcan ship hails to inquire whether Odo needs assistance, Odo asks the Vulcan captain to take Croden and his daughter to safety. Croden leaves Odo with the shape-shifting key and the knowledge that there are legends of changelings in the Gamma Quadrant.
Analysis: “Vortex” finally offers us a glimpse into Odo’s biology and background, though it raises as many questions as it answers. What it does reveal are Odo’s two vulnerabilities, which will affect his life deeply over the next several years and affect the entire Alpha Quadrant: the fact that Odo doesn’t know his origins and the fact that Odo wishes for a family, a species…some sense of belonging to a place or to someone, not to remain a man alone. I remember being shocked the first time I saw “Vortex” that Odo had set aside his strict sense of justice to save Croden, whom he knew to be a killer even if the charges on Croden’s own planet were wrongful. In the absence of loved ones and fellows, Odo’s self-definition is wrapped up entirely in his sense of duty and justice, yet here we get the first glimmers that he can be swayed emotionally – just not by wine, women, and wealth, as Quark assumes will work on every other man. He has verbally disparaged relationships in favor of absolutes, both romantic ties and family loyalties, though we’ve already had some glimpses that he might make exceptions where Kira is concerned. No matter how terrible the justice to which Croden might be returning (something Sisko has already considered and decided isn’t ultimately his, or Starfleet’s, business), and no matter how much Odo fears taking on responsibility even temporarily for Croden’s daughter, the fact that he sends the murderer off to the Vulcans without so much as warning them is more than a bit disturbing.
Who is Croden? The episode never gives us a solid answer, which perhaps is part of its strategy. Cliff DeYoung gives a subtle, slippery performance, playing the character at first in broad strokes and then with very deep, specific emotions. His panic during the killing of the Miradorn proves to be feigned, but its odd that he expresses so little remorse, never for a moment considering the suffering of the dead man’s twin, which makes it hard to swallow his grief over his own family. If it’s all a show to get Odo’s attention, why not at least try to play the victim? With so many enemies on both sides of the wormhole, he never explains how he managed to hide his daughter so well, how he attracted the attention of the Klingons without attracting his own pursuers, or why he would risk angering the brutal Miradorn when what he really needs is an ally. Ironically, if he’d gone straight to Sisko pleading that he had an innocent child hidden from his enemies, Sisko would probably have taken the risk of checking out his story. I have ongoing concerns about how much Sisko lets Quark get away with at this stage – he’s pretty obviously a threat to station security, it’s strongly suggested that he engineered the robbery that got the Miradorn killed and Croden arrested – as well as Sisko’s inconsistent approach to various new neighbors in the Gamma Quadrant.
Quark, at least, has been reliable in his criminal dealings and probably does have a ship lined up for Croden before the killing gets Odo and Sisko involved. The fact that Croden allies with the bartender instead of the Bajorans or Starfleet suggests either a deep distrust of anyone in charge or more sins to hide than he ever confesses. Of course I’m glad the girl gets away safely, and I suppose she’s better off with her father than with no one, and the Vulcans will keep an eye on an impulsive newcomer among them, but it’s impossible to root for someone so shamelessly manipulative and casually brutal. Still, I find it odd that while Dax has concerns about a first contact with a Gamma Quadrant race being centered on the fate of a criminal, Kira thinks Croden should be handed to his planet’s authorities who will probably be grateful since someone like that has likely committed more crimes. I’d expect that someone from the Bajoran resistance, a criminal in the eyes of the Cardassians, might be the first to wonder precisely what sort of background drove a man to come through a wormhole on a ship full of strangers and immediately fall in with thieves and thugs.
I have quibbles about things like the fact that a rock can knock Odo out when a bullet can pass right through him, and the plot is overly busy with loose ends that don’t get tied up – the stolen item that Quark is trying to sell, the aliens expecting an escaped criminal to be returned to their planet, the changelings and the legends about them in the Gamma Quadrant. I’d think Odo would want to know as much as possible – when Croden first learned that name for shapeshifters, whether the stories tell of heroes or mischief-makers or villains, what sorts of families are they rumored to have – but he’s too focused on unraveling the basic question of what Croden was doing on Deep Space Nine and what sort of treatment he deserves after his crimes. The sometimes mocking, distrustful banter on the runabout is reminiscent of Odo’s banter with Quark, and the same sort of trust-via-necessity is forged when Odo realizes that Croden may be his only hope of navigating through the vortex to escape the Miradorn ship, though we’ve seen enough of Quark to know that he deserves a certain level of respect; not so this new alien. In all these early episodes, it’s impossible for the audience (and, indeed, for the writers) to know which of these new characters and species will turn up regularly and which will be forgotten, so while this episode might be a powerful jumping-off point for a conflict with Croden’s planet and a search for changelings, only the latter thread will be picked up and not for quite some time.