Thursday, April 21, 2016

“Here's lookin' at you”: Profit and Loss

I've got a theory that Hollywood and the greater Los Angeles area are different from other big world cities. I mean granted every city is different in its own way because every place has its own unique energies, but even so there are general and superficial cultural similarities that we can notice if we do a comparative study of a lot of big cities. By those standards, I've always got the sense that Los Angeles is weirdly insular, at least the Hollywood area. It seems to operate less like a huge world city and more exactly like a small town with the exact same traditional relationship with vocational trade that's existed throughout modern western history. Nobody is in Hollywood if they don't want to be in the film industry, and if you grew up there you know everyone. Hollywood is an old European small town that just so happens to dominate the media of the entire country, as well as that of a few other countries.

It's no secret that the Star Trek team are massive old Hollywood fans. I think that's sort of a prerequisite for living in southern California. When you get right down to it, they're all tradesmen and craftsmen who have worked their way up through a system that's basically vocational apprenticeship and they naturally want to pay tribute to their old masters. That's the reason genre romps, pastiches and “Let's Do” stories exist to begin with: Art is built on imitation anyway, and I would imagine that's merely amplified and concentrated by living and working in a climate like southern California's film industry. Genre fiction is no different and isn't on some higher plane: In fact, one of my favourite ridiculous things about the generally ridiculous movie Species is how it's this serious, provocative sci-fi sexual horror movie that also desperately wants to be a breathless tribute to 1940s hard-broiled LA Noir pulp fiction because it's endearingly, stupidly, hopelessly in love with Los Angeles. It's “the city of the future”, you know! You can do anything and be anyone in the City of Angels!

But I'll have to come back to Sil and her joyride of carnage through every LA landmark that's been in every movie ever another day (though her movie is in production by now and, because synchronicity is everything, the earthquake that interrupted production on “Profit and Loss” is an actual plot point in Species). The point of the matter is that Star Trek is far from immune to this sot of hyperlocalized psychogeographic make-out session, and we've seen this plenty of times before (Vasquez Rocks, anyone?). And so with “Profit and Loss”, we get Star Trek: Deep Space Nine bending over backwards to borderline remake Casablanca simply because Casablanca is a classic of Old Hollywood and because it can. This sort of giddy-yet-pointless genre romp seems to be a reoccuring Thing for Quark stories, considering “The Nagus” was basically this but for The Godfather instead. But “Profit and Loss” is a unique and important “Let's Do” story, because it's the rare “Let's Do” story that actually works, and it's all due to the interaction between whole plot reference and showcased protagonist. In fact, it's probably the best “Let's Do” in the entire show, a highlight of the year and very possibly the definitive Quark story.

Thing is, Quark is already sort of a Humphrey Bogart antihero character. Armin Shimerman has displayed glimpses of these characteristics since the beginning, and he really works best when he's written this way. This is partly due to, actually, Shimerman's prosthetics: The combination of fake Ferengi teeth and gigantic Ferengi headpiece means his range of movement around his face is restricted, and he ends up inflecting his speech with a very Bogart-drawl type accent, which he'll frequently play up for dramatic emphasis. So writing Quark this way actually plays to Shimerman's strengths and acting range that he's somewhat forced to use while playing the character. But also, it's just a great thematic fit for him: Quark is this broody, surly, cynical and slightly shady bartender character who you can't help but love because he's witty and charismatic. He's the Humphrey Bogart archetype to the letter and it's kind of a no-brainer for anyone to write for that.

So giving Quark a story that's Casablanca in everything but name is not only obvious, it's damn near inevitable considering Casablanca is Bogart's iconic role. It's also a perfect fit for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, because that's exactly what Deep Space 9 *is*: It's a Deep Space Casablanca where characters of every size, shape and moral alignment from all walks of life and all corners of the galaxy come to mingle, each with a story to tell and a chip on their shoulder. And the lingering unpleasantness with the Cardassian Empire, which Natima Lang' plot here is a direct outgrowth of, is a fitting stand-in for the machinations of empires that served as the backdrop for the movie Casablanca. There's a sense of a world gone mad and turned upside down, which is very much in keeping with the source material: We've seen sympathetic Cardassians before, but not to this extent, Quark reminds us he has hidden depths and isn't a one-note joke character and Garak's trademark erratic behaviour and unpredictability is the perfect accompaniment.

(Mary Crosby as Natima Lang brings with her some more fun associations. Famous for shooting J.R. on Dallas, a very fitting guest star for a show that has often been called a soap opera in space, she's also the daughter of Bing Crosby and thus the aunt of Denise, our very own Tasha Yar. Now what was that I was saying about Hollywood being provincial?)

We even get one of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's crapshoot attempts at Moral Ambiguity when Odo pulls a temporary Face Heel Turn and tries to haul Natima in because he's been ordered to by the Bajoran Provisional Government, who are basically cartoon villains by this point (but in a good way). I would have a problem with this if not for two reasons: One, this is actually in keeping with Odo's character: He's interested in some permutation of law, order and justice first and foremost because that's what “gives him shape”. So he probably wouldn't think too hard about turning over a political radical if someone in authority asked him to (although this is a gray area: He encouraged Major Kira to go against the Provisional Government in “The Circle” and told Commander Sisko that laws come and go in his establishing scene in “A Man Alone”, but both of those situations were in circumstances he was probably more familiar with and informed about. Remember, he would have turned Kira over to Gul Dukat in “Necessary Evil” had she told him the truth about Vaatrik).

But secondly, he gets better. Which is also in keeping with Odo's character. Quark convinces Odo to help him and Natima escape because it's the right thing to do, and that's all he needs. “Profit and Loss” is another example of the Deep Space 9 crew, who are, lest we forget, basically administrators, being forced into an uncomfortable situation and facing making a morally bankrupt decision due to circumstances beyond their control. But, for what I think may well be the first time, they find another way. A better way. Because that's the utopian thing to do, and this show is supposed to be about utopianism and progress. That's the critical element that was missing in episodes like “Progress”, “Cardassians”, “Sanctuary” and even “Thine Own Self”. You can tell a story about the crew being backed into a corner where it looks like there's no way out, sure, just so long as you eventually show us that there really is a way out we just hadn't seen yet. It's that final element that's the most important: You can tell a perfectly serviceable and effective bit of drama without it, but not on this show. It's that final element that makes it a Star Trek story.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Josh, I hadn't really thought about the obvious point of Deep Space Nine basically being Casablanca - so obvious I hadn't seen it!

    When he is served well by plots such as this I really love Armin Shimmerman - and really enjoying the reappearance of Psychogeography in the posts.