If you haven’t noticed, I most enjoy the episodes that deal with ethical quandaries and characters wading through moral dilemmas. Stories in which you have to decide whether you need to follow the rules, even if the rules are not fair. To me those are the stories at which the Star Trek universe excels. This is a great Odo episode that pits Odo in the middle of one of these ethical quandaries, an episode with a darker edge and gray frayed edges, and the episode that solidified Odo as my favorite character in the series.
I am sad to say that the Star Trek universe lost another one of its greats this last year. René Auberjonois died in 2019 at age 79. He was best known for his role as Odo on DS9, but he was first a stage actor, winning Tony awards, and he has also embodied more than 200 roles on screen. Additionally, he was a voice over actor for video games. Nobody could have played Odo like Auberjonois. He brought panache to the role, a particular flavor of curmudgeon, with a tinge of seediness and secrecy. I can tell his theatre background from the way he plays the character. I don’t like most of the acting on DS9 most of the time with this one exception. The actors who play Odo, Quark and Garak are top notch.
Back to the episode. “Vortex” kicks off with Odo in his usual spot at Quark’s bar. Strangely, not ordering anything, not even an orange juice, just sitting there, observing. I don’t know why Quark as a profit-minded proprietor allows one of his seats to go to a non-paying customer regularly like that, and to surveil him at that, but it’s all part of the game of the relationship between them, a wink, wink, nod, nod, shifting loyalties arc. A Rakhari man is sitting quietly at the other end of the bar. Quark deflects on how he knows him, saying a bartender talks to all his customers, who tell him their woes. Odo, naturally, suspects he is hiding something.
Miradorn twins Ah-Kel and Ro-Kel then enter the bar and set up a meeting with Quark. Miradorns are from the Gamma Quadrant, and twins on their world are inseparable, practically the same person. They want to sell a precious egg-shaped object to Quark, but Quark tells them that the buyer has backed out and he himself has concerns that the object is stolen. Odo has shapeshifted into a glass on the drink tray that Rom serves; Quark later lambasts Rom for failing to notice a fifth glass on the tray.
Trouble ensues. Croden, the Rahkari who was sitting at the bar in the introductory scene, takes the onlookers hostage at gunpoint in exchange for the object. Odo appears amid a struggle. Croden kills Ro-Kel. Security arrives to reinforce Odo, and Croden is detained in the brig. Ah-Kel is hell-bent on avenging the loss of his brother and wants to take the law into his own hands. Commander Sisko wants a trial.
In the brig, Croden calls Odo a “changeling,” informing him that he’ll tell him more about what he knows about others like his kind, if he can get something to eat. Odo dismisses him throughout, saying later to Doctor Bashir that the source is even less reliable than Quark. But he is nevertheless tempted as Croden tries to manipulate him into letting him escape. Croden says he has met others like his kind on an asteroid colony locked inside the Vortex. He lets him borrow a necklace with a green jewel that is shaped like a key. It can shapeshift into a key that will fit any lock. Doctor Bashir tells him that the jewelry piece has characteristics similar to his species. It is a kind of changeling.
Odo has always remained convinced that he is the only one of his species. He is law-abiding and follows the rules, and he is extremely self-righteous and judgmental, unyielding in his enforcement of the law. But Starfleet is just another overlord. First the Cardassians, then Starfleet. Another ass to kiss, so to speak. So long as Odo is left alone to do his job as he sees fit, he’ll follow the rules and uphold justice. But he has never quite felt like he belongs. Inward, he has always wondered if there are others like him. This inner conflict will foreshadow and inform many of his decisions throughout the series.
The Miradorns want Croden extradited, so instead of delaying like past episodes with an extradition hearing, Sisko obeys immediately. It turns out Croden is wanted for other crimes on his home world and the Miradorns want him dead. Odo is tasked with bringing the prisoner home. Along the way, they are pursued by Ah-Kel, who has murder on his mind. But Quark said earlier that Odo would never give up his prisoner. More hard rules. Or are they always firm?
On the shuttle ride over, Odo learns that even though dissembling comes second nature to Croden, his crimes are not what they seem. He is more of a political prisoner than anything else, forced to make impossible choices by an unfair regime. As Odo learns more about the possibility of a race of changelings existing in the Gamma Quadrant, he is confronted with an impossible choice.
Overall, this is a classic Odo character story and a good reflection of the best of DS9. The rules and the facts are not always what they seem, and sometimes they can be bent, but whether the characters were justified in bending those rules is up for debate.