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The Loss of Garak and Bashir

Dateline: 10/24/98

Friendships are the cornerstone of Star Trek. When you're watching TOS and those styrofoam rocks get to be too much, when Kim's Howdy Doody act just can't be gagged down another minute, when you'd rather pull out all your hair than listen to the Prophets talking about the "limitations" of linear existence, and even when you want to scream at the television that Data has so used contractions, all it takes is some quality time with any of great friendships on the show -- Kirk and Spock and McCoy, Picard and Riker and Troi, Janeway and Seven of Nine, O'Brien and Bashir, even Odo and Quark -- and you know you're going to be tuning in next week for more.

So I'm more than a little confused that one of Star Trek's most interesting friendships seems to have been abandoned.

Right after the pilot episode, we met "plain, simple" Garak, and we met him specifically as a part of the Bashir storyline. All of Garak's initial work on the show was, in fact, with Bashir.

They made a great team. Bashir in the first couple seasons was...well...annoying. Interestingly, and long before we found out about his genetically enhanced secret, Bashir became much more likable specifically through his relationships with other characters. Perhaps it's because he's always so perfect, so able and ready to heal anything and anyone, that his heroics often leave us emotionally uninvolved. To compensate for his professional greatness, the writers made him a social stumble-bum. This would have worked better, but his awkwardness was always so awkward, quite painful, in fact. It was such a relief when he and Jadzia reached a friendly agreement. It was genuinely touching when he and O'Brien got drunk together and talked about liking each other. And it was sheer chemistry when he and Garak cautiously bonded in episodes like "The Wire."

Much of Garak's characterizations seem to have developed as a counter-point to Bashir's. Where Bashir is naive, Garak is cynical. Where Bashir is unfailingly honest with mournful eyes, Garak smiles and spins little tales of glistering lies. While Bashir longs for James Bond-like excitement, Garak's spy life has broken up his soul. Bashir cannot refrain from being kind, Garak is capable of extraordinary cruelty.

Ok, let's fast-forward to the past couple seasons. Garak has settled firmly into the life of the station. Most everyone still distrusts him somewhat, but he's an important part of the war effort, and receives gruff respect from O'Brien, Odo, and even Worf. And just last week he formed a somewhat instant bond with Ezri Dax.

And during all this he has hardly ever said a word to Bashir.

I mean, what happened? Supposedly, they're still friends. They didn't have a fight or anything, but when was the last time they had a conversation? I vaguely remember a highly impersonal exchange sometime early last season, but we haven't seen them interacting as friends since they were in that Cardassian prison with Worf and company.

[Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that it can be embarrassing to complain about things on the 'net. Just a couple weeks ago I complained that O'Brien and Worf didn't talk about their time on the Enterprise. I then got to watch on the very next show as they did just that.

But, hey, the embarrassment would be worth it to see Bashir and Garak do so much as say "Boo" to each other.]

I have a sinking feeling the end of Bashir and Garak's friendship onscreen might not just be careless writing, or an outcome of being too busy with other things. Truly interesting friendships are valuable commodities even on a show rich with good characters. The almost total lack of interaction between two characters whose friendship was once so rich seems to me deliberately arranged, and I have an even more sinking feeling that I might know why.

The call for gay characters somewhere on Star Trek started long ago, and has been gaining in volume steadily. It's just so bizarre to see 10% of the world's population almost completely ignored, and certainly completely unrepresented, in a view of the future that has supposedly no bigotry. However, in this article I'm not interested in taking up the issue of whether Star Trek should have a gay character on it. Instead, I'm interested in whether The Powers That Be have killed off one of my favorite friendships in response to that issue itself.

Back in Season One, Garak had barely said "Hello" to Bashir (with his hands on the doctor's shoulders) when some fans started screaming that he was "obviously" gay. He has some stereotypically gay qualities: he likes colors and fabrics, he likes to touch Bashir and invade his space, he's got that suggestive accent, he seems to know a lot about how it feels to be a social outcast. He also seems to have almost no interest in women. The whole "Zyal" business looked too forced and inappropriate to make him look straight, though I have a feeling that was the relationship's purpose.

Now, now. Don't get angry with me about whether or not Garak is gay, or whether or not straight men can like colors and fabrics. The point is that a lot of fans have made a lot of noise about wanting Garak to "come out," despite the fact that it's become quite obvious that isn't going to happen.

And, hey, if Rick Berman and company don't want Garak to be gay, that strikes me as being an artistic choice well within their purview. What disturbs me is not that Garak and Bashir's relationship hasn't developed into something more romantic. What disturbs me is that it hasn't developed, period.

Could it be true? Have the writers of a supposedly forward-thinking, tolerance-oriented, peace-and-people-loving franchise avoided any further suggestion of a gay presence on the show by nixing Garak and Bashir's friendship all together? Are they really that frightened of fan backlash?

These days, any intense same-sex friendship is going to set off TV-watchers' "gay-dar." Some shows, like Hercules and Xena: The Warrior Princess have exploited the social tension over homoerotic content, and benefited in their ratings. Strangely, openly gay characters on television right now are pretty boring. They're either sorry sacks of social suffering, or so politically correct you want to barf when they talk about their latest anti-something-march.

But the suggestion of homoerotic content -- or subtext -- blends taboo-breaking with taboo-reinforcement. People who want to see it it usually make a point of "reading between the lines," while viewers who would find it offensive usually don't make that effort, and thus don't see it. That sort of subext tension has turned Due South into something of a cult hit during the same period of time which has seen the cancellation of the openly gay Ellen.

And Garak is hardly Star Trek's only source of subtext tension. Frankly, I think that all great friendships have a romantic element in them simply because they evoke strong feelings. Even the most idealized platonic love involves many elements we associate traditionally with romance: self-sacrifice for the beloved, wanting to spend time together, being intimate through sharing secrets and offering comfort, and so on. Star Trek has created characters who've lived, died, and been reborn for their friends. Starfleet types sometimes seem to stand in line in order to risk their lives for each other.

And I love it. I eat it up with a spoon and scream for more. I have always believed that other Trekkers feel the same way. Those sorts of friendships are a vision of the future which speaks to me more strongly than Star Trek's lack of poverty on Earth, or "Humanity's attempt to better itself."

And now -- and I suppose it's foolish, but I can't help it -- I'm deeply disappointed that a friendship as interesting and complex (subtext or not) as the one between Garak and Bashir may have been swept under the rug because some people want it to come out of the closet.

It's a divine right of fandom to lobby for things which appeal to fans' personal tastes. If TPTB don't want Garak and Bashir subtext tension, then have them get drunk and hoot at chicks while they watch the game. Let Garak get involved with a real woman, and let Bashir score with some babe who doesn't ditch him for a Ferengi. Let them spend their lunch hours discussing the best knife to use for gutting a targ before they have a belching contest.

Let them do something besides ignore each other.

Sigh.

And now that I've finished my tirade let me finish by saying I hope I'm completely wrong. I hope that soon we'll see the doctor and the spy trade quips about a Shakespeare play or a Cardassian novel. I hope that the next time Garak tries to kill himself from an attack of claustrophobia Bashir tries to help him out.

And -- considering recent fan speculation that it would be nice to have Seven of Nine be a lesbian -- I really, really hope that Seven and Janeway don't suddenly become strangers whose only time together occurs in crowded rooms when they're talking to other people, hands at their sides, eye averted, heterosexuality in its firmly upright and locked position.

So, am I full of it? Post your opinions, suggest sites, make friends at my Star Trek bulletin boards.

Reasons Why DS9 is the Best Trek Yet

Previous Features

One Year Ago: 10/24/97 - The Role of War in Star Trek




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