Aug 17, 2021
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Honor Among Thieves”
Top o’ the mornin’, you cheeky monkey! Welcome back to…
Today’s episode, “Honor Among Thieves”, checks off several different Trek boxes. First, there’s the well-worn trope of Chief O’Brien being assigned to a task that’s either well above his pay grade, well outside his area of expertise, or both. On the list of jobs O’Brien is qualified to do, I think “undercover informant” ranks somewhere between “Cirque du Soleil performer” and “night watchman at a Guinness warehouse”.
Secondly, this is one of those episodes where the Star Trek franchise decides to indulge in genre aesthetics on a limited budget with enjoyably silly results. “Western” is their most frequent choice (Gene Roddenberry famously described his vision of the show as “Wagon Train to the stars”) but they also do noir a lot, and in “Honor Among Thieves” they do a noir pastiche in all its rainy, grimy, Venetian-blinded harshly-lit glory.
Third, it’s a crime episode, and as much as Star Trek would like to commit fully to a futuristic utopian wonderland and a society free from conflict and material needs, that frankly sounds boring as shit, and the fertile storytelling potential inherent in crime (and organized crime in particular) isn’t something Star Trek writers are generally able to resist for very long. They usually reconcile the existence of crime by making it happen on an impoverished planet less enlightened than the Federation. This is, of course, chauvinistic as hell, and it wasn’t until Deep Space Nine that Trek writers started adding subtext acknowledging this and engaging with it.
The cold open finds us on a grubby, vaguely art deco dystopian planet, with CGI trains zooming by to complete the future-1940s tableau.
Cut to the interior of a dank bar, where shady characters are playing card games and snorting futuristic drugs. O’Brien, dumpy and unshaven, is sitting at the bar drinking quietly, while three criminal figures discuss crime things at a nearby table. One of the figures gets up to use a phone booth (with no phone, though, because it’s the future!). He attaches an identical pair of illegal-looking devices to his neck and the booth’s screen, meaning to hack it to get a free dinner. O’Brien discreetly hits a button and the would-be brain-hacker in the booth gets shocked.
“Don’t touch him!” O’Brien says. “He’s being spiked.” He rushes over to the booth and hits a sequence of buttons that stops the juice flowing. The man is unhurt but distraught over the fact that his brain-hacking neck jewelry has been blown out and fused together. “I can’t ask Raimus to pay for a replacement!” he moans. O’Brien offers to take a look and see if he can fix it… for a price.
The leader of the group, a human named Liam Bilby (Nick Tate of Space: 1999 fame), is some connected bigwig with the Orion Syndicate, hyeah, see? He says he’s seen “Connelly”—which is how O’Brien gave his name—at the bar around the clock for the past couple of weeks, which means he’s probably hard up for work and hence in no position to bargain. He “convinces” O’Brien to do the necessary repairs for free, just to be a good guy. “Connelly” agrees.
Cut to a rain-drenched, foggy alley, where a guy who answered the casting call for “People Who Sort of Look Like Robert Mitchum” (future Orange is the New Black star Michael Harney) is hanging around. He’s Chadwick, O’Brien’s Starfleet contact. There must be some safer and more convenient way to have secret conversations in the 24th century, but they paid for this alley set and God damn if they’re not going to get their money’s worth.
O’Brien approaches and fills Chadwick in on his successful contact with the Orion Syndicate. It seems that the Syndicate has a mole inside Starfleet Intelligence who keeps getting undercover operatives killed, making it necessary to find and recruit someone outside Starfleet Intelligence (namely, O’Brien). O’Brien’s job is to figure out who the mole is, via Bilby. “The Syndicate is always looking for people with your skills,” Chadwick says. “If he offers you more work, take it… and don’t take any more unnecessary risks.”
After the intro, we go back to DS9. O’Brien’s many engineering hacks are apparently the only thing keeping this jury-rigged shitbucket of a station in the sky, and in his absence, all the main characters are going to Major Kira with complaints of stuff breaking down. Dax and Worf have a comedy moment getting stuck on the elevator up to Ops. This scene is rather unnecessary and a bad tonal fit for the episode, and I suspect that it only happened because the episode didn’t have enough main characters in it.
The next morning, O’Brien goes to the same bar and hands the repaired thingamadoodles to Bilby and his two alien henchies. Impressed, Bilby invites O’Brien out for a walk. Soon they’re at Bilby’s apartment, which he shares with his cat Chester. Bilby says he’s looked into “Connelly’s” background, and the cover identity Starfleet invented is that of a skilled tinkerer having a streak of bad luck, including a prison sentence for trafficking stolen goods. On the subject of ill-gotten merchandise, Bilby has three Klingon disruptor rifles he bought from a man who neglected to tell him they didn’t work. So now O’Brien’s got to fix them, too.
Bilby talks some more. He’s got a family on another planet that he sends money to. He offers O’Brien some of his wife’s cake, and O’Brien gets on his good side by honestly telling him that it sucks.
After the commercial, O’Brien’s in the alley again, and Chadwick is handing him a box full of the parts he needs. Soon he’s back at the bar with three working Klingon disruptor rifles. And it seems Bilby has a Fu Manchu-ed associate who wants to know where O’Brien got the parts.
O’Brien refuses to give his supplier up and Bilby threatens him, so O’Brien “admits” that he stole the parts. He lied to Bilby, he says, so he wouldn’t be implicated in the theft. Bilby is impressed that “Connelly” is willing to go to such lengths to protect him. “I can’t imagine either of you willing to do that!” he spits at his henchmen.
In gratitude, Bilby fits O’Brien with a brand new future-1940s suit to match the rest of the gang.
As he’s admiring O’Brien’s new outfit, who should walk in but the scumbag who sold Bilby the nonworking disruptors. Bilby angrily tells the alien that Raimus would have killed him for bringing him faulty merchandise. In retaliation, he shoots the alien with the now-working disruptor.
You know he feels bad about the whole thing though, because he brings O’Brien back to his apartment and makes a self-justifying speech about killing the alien. “This life… it isn’t for everyone,” he laments. “Sometimes I wish I could just get away from it all, but… I’m too old to start over. Besides, this organization has given me opportunities I never thought I’d have.” In the course of talking about “the organization”, Bilby mentions they have a man in Starfleet.
With not very much prying, Bilby tells O’Brien how they were able to get a man in Starfleet: “Raimus met him while he was vacationing on Risa last year. Mr. Starfleet was in charge of the weather-control system. Raimus paid him a very substantial amount of money to make sure it wouldn’t rain.” All of a sudden, Bilby gets a text message on his mini-TV in a language that looks like a slow kid’s attempt at connect-the-dots. It seems Raimus the Big Man wants to see him. They pop back to their Crime Bar and Raimus beams in with two goons. He tells Bilby, “I brought someone here to meet you”. A Vorta (the species that serves as diplomats of the Dominion) approaches him.
O’Brien stares at the Vorta. Raimus asks Bilby who the stranger is. “He’s someone I know,” Bilby says. Satisfied, Raimus and the Vorta get down to business. After the meeting, Bilby turns to O’Brien. “Do you know what I just did for you?” he asks. “I witnessed for you. If anything happens, I’m accountable.”
“I understand,” says O’Brien.
Later, O’Brien meets back up with Chadwick. With the information O’Brien supplied, Chadwick remarks that it should be easy to find out the mole. He’s troubled to hear that the Syndicate is working with the Dominion. O’Brien’s mission is extended so he can try to find out what the Dominion is up to.
Later, O’Brien and his crime buddies are standing in front of a TV screen, while the alien with the crap in his neck is playing an artsy indie video game with his brain. Conversation reveals that they’re trying to hack into a bank on another planet, and the files are appearing onscreen in the form of various abstract shapes, in a sequence that’s only about 5% more ridiculous than your average computer hacking sequence on a 1990s TV show.
O’Brien spouts a bunch of hacker words to assist him. “Watch out for recursive data loops,” he says. “You don’t want to get diverted into a backflow.” This is where the hacker in your normal ’90s hacking sequence would start typing incredibly fast, but our brain-hacking alien instead sweats, strains, and squints like he’s trying to squeeze a turd out.
O’Brien navigates him around some leftover animation from Lawnmower Man and makes more dotty language appear. O’Brien urges the hacker to exit faster, convinced they’ve almost got a “trace” on him, and he leaves just in time.
To celebrate, Bilby goes out and gets O’Brien a prostitute. He’s very offended when O’Brien turns him down (“Don’t tell me you don’t like girls!”) and O’Brien has to invent a girlfriend he got very recently. So recently in fact that he hasn’t had a chance to tell Bilby yet. O’Brien sends the girl out of the apartment before the viewer realizes hey, wait a minute, Bilby’s apartment is a single-room studio, so was he just going to… be there, and, uh… watch, or…?
Bilby urges O’Brien to bring his girlfriend around, so he can see if she’s marriage material. He can read people like that, you see. “When I first laid eyes on you,” he says, “I saw right through you. I said to myself, ‘That man, he doesn’t have a friend in the quadrant.’” He says everything’s going to go right between the two of them because of their friendship. The Dramatic Irony Monster lurks in the background with glistening jaws.
O’Brien meets Chadwick and tells him about all the stuff he’s been doing with Bilby. He asks what’s going to happen to his new crime buddy once O’Brien gets pulled out at the end of this assignment. “They’re going to kill him, aren’t they?” O’Brien asks.
“Listen, Bilby chose this life,” Chadwick says, “Whatever happens to him is his fault, not yours.” O’Brien looks gloomy at this, so Chadwick tries to cheer him up by saying maybe they’ll catch him and put him in prison, where he’ll be relatively safe. Ah yes, the safest possible place for a disgraced mafioso: prison! Chadwick instructs O’Brien to find out as much as he can about Bilby to help build a case and send him to jail.
Later, all the boys are laughing on their way into the Crime Bar, when who should they run into but Raimus and the Vorta, who have businessssss to discuss? There’s a traitor in their midst, and the Vorta is going to try to call him out by staring into each man’s eyes. He does this and lingers very long on O’Brien, and finally proclaims him to be the traitor. The Fu Manchu alien pipes up, “I knew it!” before being unexpectedly shot himself. “Good thing you never witnessed for him,” says Raimus, “or you’d be lying on the floor next to him.”
With that out of the way, the evening turns fun. The Vorta asks Bilby to use the Klingon disruptors he’s gotten hold of to assassinate the Klingon ambassador to Ferius. O’Brien astutely observes that the Vorta will want to make it look like a rival Klingon house killed him, which will set off a complex chain of geopolitical events that will eventually make the Klingons withdraw into their own territory, leaving the Federation alone in fighting the Dominion.
Lightning flashes while O’Brien meets with Chadwick. He says he’s figured out a way to get the assassins into the embassy, and it’s taking place tonight. Chadwick, of course, has to tip off the Klingons about this, which O’Brien objects to because it’ll mean Bilby’s death. “That’s not really our problem, is it?” Chadwick asks.
O’Brien is aghast at the thought of Starfleet killing Bilby by proxy. “You told me we were building a case against Bilby!” he shouts. “You told me he was going to prison!”
“I didn’t want to mislead you,” Chadwick says, “But you were starting to waver. I had to keep you on track.” He tells O’Brien his assignment is officially over and that he’s going home. But rather than going back home, O’Brien lays Chadwick out with a haymaker and rushes back to Bilby’s apartment.
Bilby’s pouring out some kibbles for his big flooffy kitty before going assassinatin’. O’Brien tries to dissuade him from walking into this trap. He cycles through every plausible cover he can think of before admitting the truth: he knows there’s a trap because he works for Starfleet.
“Why’d you have to tell me that?” Bilby moans. He’s as good as dead no matter what happens now, because if the Klingons don’t get him, the Syndicate will; he’s witnessed for a man who will soon be revealed as a Starfleet spy. O’Brien says he can go to prison instead, but Bilby refuses; if they can’t get him they’ll go after his family. The only option left for Bilby is to go on his doomed mission to get killed by the Klingons. That way, the Syndicate will think he died not knowing about O’Brien, and will continue to support his family. “I should have known,” he says. “You were too good to be true.”
“I suppose the smart thing to do is kill you,” Bilby says, “but I guess I’ve already proved I’m not too smart.” He makes O’Brien promise to look after his cat, and then he sadly leaves, never to return.
Back on DS9, O’Brien’s spilling his guts to Bashir. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him who I really was.” Bashir muses that at least it’s good that Chadwick left that bit out of his report (and presumably, also the punching). O’Brien says Bashir is not really hearing him. “Bilby trusted me. He put his life in my hands, and… I killed him, just as surely as if I’d pulled that trigger myself.”
So if you’re keeping score at home, one of O’Brien’s friends turned out to be a Cardassian spy, he killed one who turned out to not even be real, and now he’s killed another one. Dude goes through friends like Spinal Tap goes through drummers. His social life is an even bigger disaster than your average middle-aged guy’s.
Let’s see now, we’ve tortured O’Brien, O’Brien’s friends, O’Brien’s wife, who’s next? His children? Great idea! Things are gonna get real silly with “Time’s Orphan”.