HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
“Vortex” marks the first Odo-centric episode and builds on the set-up from “Emissary” to establish more firmly one of the primary drivers for Odo’s journey that will last throughout the series. “Emissary” slides the information that Odo is the only member of his species in the Alpha Quadrant and that he knows nothing about his origins, but “Vortex” contextualizes his lived experience. If “Emissary” gives viewers the facts of Odo’s life, “Vortex” tells them what that life is really like. The episode’s obvious theme is that of identity, but even deeper than that, “Vortex” has something to say about how isolating it can be to move alone in the dominant culture.
The episode opens with Odo happily engaging in his favorite pastime, harassing Quark in the bar. He notes that a Miradorn Raider has just docked and wonders if Quark has any ties to the raiders, which Quark vehemently denies. Odo also asks after a lone man seated at the bar, and Quark observes that like Odo, Croden is the only representative of his species in the Alpha Quadrant. Further discussion gets cut short by the entrance of Ah-kel and Ro-kel, who nod at Quark.
Quark calls to Rom to bring up a special flask of liquor, and Rom loads the tray, never noticing that he brought five glasses instead of four. Rom continues into the Holosuite, where Quark informs the Miradorn twins that the buyer he had for their Space Faberge egg has reneged on the deal. The Miradorn are furious, but as they threaten Quark, the door opens to reveal Croden with a phaser. Croden attempts to steal the egg, but Ro-Kel lunges at him. Croden fires, killing Ro-Kel. Odo materializes and has everyone present arrested.
Because Croden is Rakhari, a species from the Gamma Quadrant, Sisko himself pilots the Runabout to find Croden’s homeworld. What he discovers is a border-line xenophobic species with a leader who demands that Croden be turned over to them for execution. Meanwhile, in the cells in Odo’s office, Croden identifies Odo as a Changeling and implies that he knows where to find a Changeling colony. As proof, he presents the skeptical Odo with the necklace he has been wearing. He opens the locket, and the stone inside immediately transforms into a key. Odo takes the stone to Bashir who identifies it as being very similar to Odo, possibly a very distant cousin, biologically speaking.
Ah-Kel does not take kindly to his twin’s murder, and he swears to kill Croden. He threatens Odo’s office, and though Odo clears Ah-Kel and his raider crew away from the door, Ah-Kel warns him that since Croden killed the only thing that made life worth living. One way or another, Ah-Kel intends to kill Croden.
Sisko sends Odo to take Croden back to Rakhar to answer for his crimes there, and he warns Odo that he will be entirely alone as the Miradorn ship can outrun any ship DS9 has at its disposal. Odo takes this warning in stride and preps Croden for transport. They make it through the wormhole, and Croden tells Odo a bit about his story, namely that he spoke out against the Rakhari government, for which the same government murdered his wives. Croden used a slaughter knife to kill some of the soldiers sent to execute his family and escaped. Odo remains skeptical.
On DS9, Ah-Kel confronts Quark and demands to know where Croden is. Quark hacks the security system to find Odo’s flight plan, and Ah-Kel immediately departs to follow the Runabout. Ah-Kel finds Odo’s Runabout just outside the Chamra Vortex. Croden suggests hiding in the Vortex, albeit carefully, as the Vortex plays host to various toh-maire fields. Because Toh-maire is a substance that is apparently very volatile, Odo cedes the Runabout controls to Croden. Croden directs them to a small planetoid, which he promises is the cite of the Changeling colony. However, once they land, Odo confronts Croden, who admit that the planetoid is not a Changeling colony but where he has stashed his daughter’s stasis pod. Odo and Croden rescue Yareth, but Miradorn weapons cause a cave-in that knocks Odo unconscious. After a brief hesitation, Croden rescues Odo, and the three of them rush back to the Runabout.
Once in space, the Miradorn close in on the Ganges, and Odo seizes on the toh-maire field as a possible means of escape. He asks Croden to pilot them into the field, and as he anticipated, Ah-Kel follows them into the field and fires upon the Runabout. Just before firing, Odo directs the Ganges to activate its impulse engines, and they navigate out of the field while Ah-Kel’s weapons ignite the toh-maire field, destroying the Miradorn ship.
A Vulcan science vessel notices the explosion and contacts the Ganges to see if it sustained damage. Odo demurs but asks the Vulcans to take two people whose ship was not so lucky to Vulcan. He promises Croden to tell Sisko that Croden died when Ah-Kel fired upon the planetoid. In gratitude, Croden gives Odo his locket, saying he hopes it will help Odo find his people one day.
“Vortex” is far from a perfect episode, so before we get too far into the analysis, I should mention its most glaring faults. As I stated above, “Vortex” centers around Odo, and the episode’s most glaring faults similarly revolve around Odo. Deep Space Nine generally handwaves how Odo’s shapeshifting ability actually works, and apparently, it defies the rules of the physical universe as we know it. If you don’t recall from high school chemistry, the law of conservation of mass states that absent additional transfers of matter and energy into a reaction, the amount of mass that predated the reaction must equal the amount that remains after the reaction. Odo’s shapechanging does not even pretend to abide by this rule. He flows from a humanoid form roughly 1.83 meters (6 ft) tall to the size of a mouse without issue. In “Vortex,” Odo shifts into a perfect drinking glass, and most importantly, Rom never notices a weight difference. That stretches the bounds of credulity a little too much.
Even more egregiously, the episode requires that Odo be knocked unconscious by falling rock debris. How? How does this work? Odo is literally a mass of gelatinous goo. He has no internal organs for the rock to damage. It’s a rock, not a phaser. It shouldn’t have hurt him, and yet, he obediently collapses to suit the plot. No part of this makes any sense, and while I certainly understand that the show has yet to do much to explain Odo’s peculiar physiology, that’s no excuse to chuck logic out of the proverbial window.
“Vortex” has other issues as well, including a bizarrely bloodthirsty Rom, but the episode does provide the first inklings that Odo comes from a people with a distinct culture. In addition to be the first to name Odo’s species, Croden tosses out various half-truths about their character in his attempt to curry Odo’s favor and sympathy, so he’s far from a reliable source of information. He does, however, give Odo just enough truth to string not only Odo along but the viewer as well. Croden mentions persecution, and later, the Female Changeling will confirm that not only did the solids persecute her people but that the persecution prompted the Changelings to become the Founders.
Perhaps most importantly, “Vortex” represents the first exploration of Odo’s loneliness. Croden makes the point that both he and Odo are the only representatives of their respective species in the Alpha Quadrant, which makes them aliens to everyone they encounter. Being alone, they must adapt to the dominant culture because they can take none of their cultural identities with them. For Croden, that’s because he abandoned everything he knew, but for Odo, the deracination is even more complete. Odo knows nothing about his people, and Croden seizes on that knowledge vacuum in his attempts to manipulate Odo. The episode never considers it so, but that’s a profound cruelty on Croden’s part, especially as one who has cause to understand Odo’s pain as intimately as he does. Croden even goes so far as to undermine the identity Odo has crafted for himself. At one point, Odo observes that he’s as much a part of the station culture as anyone, and Croden disputes that assertion, insisting that Odo is not. He capitalizes on Odo’s uncertainty there, and I wish the episode did not gloss over the damage Croden causes.
Odo is not Croden’s only victim, however. Croden does kill Ro-Kel as part of the plot to steal the Space Faberge Egg, leaving Ah-Kel one half of an unfinished whole. Ah-Kel’s resulting near physical agony over the death of his twin exists only to drive the plot forward by turning Ah-Kel into the antagonistic force creating the sense of urgency in “Vortex.” Granted, Ah-Kel’s motivation makes sense in context, but Ah-Kel as a villain drops that pathos at nearly the first occasion, becoming a one-note villain. Basically, “Vortex” excuses Ro-Kel’s murder just because he’s the bad guy. The episode doesn’t particularly care about the ramifications of his death because it has other themes to explore. I just can’t help but feel disappointed with this creative choice.
“Vortex” tries to redeem Croden by granting him a tragic backstory that fits neatly into Star Trek tropes. Croden flees his homeworld because the Rakhari are unjust. Furthermore, in case you happened to wonder whether their actions against Croden could be justified, “Vortex” goes out of its way to tell you that the Rakhari are an unpleasant people. Odo’s decision to free Croden, therefore, becomes a moral one and not in fact a dereliction of duty. Had the script allowed Croden to remain in that gloriously grey area in which Quark lives, “Vortex” would have been a much more interesting story. Instead, the script relies far too heavily on franchise-specific tropes.
Regardless of the episode’s flaws, it does serve to give voice to a real truth about Odo’s emotional life. The discussions between Croden and Odo do highlight just how lonely Odo is. Odo represents the ultimate case of The Other, and no matter how accepting the rest of the station’s inhabitants might be of him, “Vortex” implies heavily that nothing can quite fill the gaping hole left by the absence of people like him. Even Croden, who must make his way in the Alpha Quadrant, does not do so as the sole member of his species. He gets to take Yareth with him, meaning that he can see familiar facial ridges in at least one other person, which forms an additional twist of the knife. All Odo has at the end of “Vortex” is a species name, a locket, and an entirely new set of questions.
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- This episode actually names Morn and starts the series long joke about how much Morn talks even though the only time he’ll ever vocalize is when he laughs in “The Nagus.”
- Speaking of Morn, his name spelled backwards is “Norm,” which is the name of one of the barflies in Cheers. Yes, that was deliberate.
- My guess about the Ferengi plot is that Quark hired Croden to steal the Space Faberge Egg because he never intended to pay the Miradorn for it. That still does not quite explain why Rom loads four glasses onto the tray (not counting Odo) because we all know that there’s no way Quark intended his brother to drink with them. Even had the buyer not been fictitious, no one in the room expects the buyer to be present, so it’s an odd choice. Maybe it represents wishful thinking on Rom’s part? Perhaps due to his alleged promotion?
- Rom remains gleefully bloodthirsty, but Armin Shimmerman manages to convey Quark’s discomfort with possibly causing Odo’s death beautifully. I’m constantly amazed at what he can accomplish under those intense prosthetics.
- I will say that sprinkling hints like Croden’s stories about the Changelings even in these early episodes makes DS9 one of the most rewarding franchise installments to re-watch, even if just to see what you dismissed or did not pick up on when you watched it the first time. And by you, I mean me.
- If you’re wondering whether the Miradorn are always twins or how the bond between Miradorn twins works, you aren’t alone. You’ll also never find out because, unless they show up in either Discovery or Lower Decks, we’ll never see the Miradorn again. Considering that terrible costume (the same actor played both twins), that’s not a huge loss.