Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s moral murkiness meant that a lot of its heroes, unlike many of the noble Trek stars that came before them, started out as kind-of jerks who softened and grew with the time we spent with them across seven seasons. But it wasn’t really a Starfleet officer on the show that best symbolized this; it was DS9's irascible chief of security, René Auberjonois’s Constable Odo.
Auberjonois, who passed away last night at the age of 79, was a heartwarming constant throughout Deep Space Nine’s entire run. As the show itself grew and evolved—moving on from the lingering tensions between the Federations and the Bajoran government attempting to join its ranks (and the factions looking to avoid that outcome) to plunging into the dark depths of the all-out war with the alien Dominion in its back half—Odo felt like a character you could rely on for a sense of familiarity among the ever-changing crowds of the titular space station’s promenade. Whatever episode you pulled up, whatever season, Auberjonois—almost hidden underneath the layers of prosthesis required to give Odo his smooth-faced, almost melting changeling appearance—would be there, Deep Space Nine’s ever-watchful grump.
With a brusque huff or complaint about being overworked, he’d get on with his job as constable regardless, managing the bustling crowds of DS9, keeping order, or trying—trying so hard—to finally nail Quark doing something openly illegal enough at his bar to warrant the scheming Ferengi a bit of time in Odo’s little brig. It was a familiar bit, the gruff and put-upon security officer. But Auberjonois made it his bit, bringing a charming physicality and a whipsmart sense of comedic timing to bear when his makeup work limited what he get across with his face. He did it with an ability to growl about something in a particular way that could make you both understand Odo’s frustrations and yet also chuckle on command (something Odo himself wouldn’t really appreciate in the throes of his annoyances).
But for all the familiarity of Odo’s charming bit as the station’s haplessly diligent warden provided, he is also the character that perhaps changed the most of all on Deep Space Nine. He did this physically, of course, in that Odo was literally a shapeshifter, necessitating Auberjonois to bring a heft and conviction to mid-‘90s, TV-budgeted CG effects to turn Odo from humanoid alien to everything from a spinning top to a seagull (and, more often than not, a distressingly-colored pile of goop). But he also did it emotionally. Where Auberjonois truly shined wasn’t really as Deep Space Nine’s familiar curmudgeon, it was in relishing Odo’s role in another Star Trek trope, an alien being who was, deep down inside, so compellingly and heartbreakingly human.
Like almost everyone else on DS9, Odo’s irascible exterior hid a heart driven by pain and trauma. While for people like Kira or Sisko, those traumas were the scars of long and bitter wars, crises of conscience and a desire to understand the strength of their moralities in dark times. Odo’s were existential: He thought himself the last of kind, so he was desperate to understand the very basic idea of who he was, where he came from, and why he was so isolated. His need to understand himself brought with it a crippling loneliness.
His gruff attitude kept everyone at arm’s length, because how could he let people in when he didn’t even know who he was? And when he did learn who he was—and that he wasn’t just the sole survivor of a dead race, but that that race, the Founders, were the calculating and cold minds behind the Dominion—he’s forced to contend with placing himself into the context of a family that both provided the answers to some of his deepest questions of identity, but was also now an antithesis to the person he’d become thanks to his found family on DS9.
Auberjonois’ physicality in Odo’s lighter moments drove these internal anguishes too—and suddenly, beneath all that makeup, the same glimmer in those sunken eyes, the downward turn of the corner of his mouth, and yes, even that frustrated harumph could instantly transform from something comic to utterly heartbreaking. But that was Odo at his core, this constant struggle between the mask of the dutifully put-upon Constable and the turmoil of exploring his sense of self, of trying so hard to keep people out while desperately wanting to let them in so he could help find an anchor in the swirling storm of sadness in his heart.
Auberjonois’ best performances on Deep Space Nine might highlight the more solitary, internalized moments of Odo’s quest to find himself—episodes like “The Begotten,” where the scientist who found Odo and raised him re-enters his life; the heartbreaking “Things Past,” which examined his time as DS9's constable during the Cardassian occupation; or “Chimera,” where he’s confronted with another isolated changeling who’s come to despite the “solids” Odo has learned to build connections to. But what work he did best with the character, what makes Odo so compellingly human in the first place, was always in the moments when he could break down that comical curmudgeonly exterior and let other people in.
“His Way” saw Odo and Kira finally act upon their feelings for each other in the closest Star Trek could ever get to a rom-com. Inversely, there’s episodes like “The Forsaken”—which sees his exasperated team-up with the always-hilarious Lwaxana Troi become a sweet, shared sadness—and “The Ascent,” where crash-landing on a frigid alien world and needing each other to survive brings a new layer of understanding to Odo and Quark’s combative relationship. For all his loneliness and his frustrations, cooped away in his little square of an office on the promenade, Odo always shone brightest when he had someone else to share it with, a lesson he slowly learned himself over Deep Space Nine’s run.
With Auberjonois’ passing, a little part of that bright light has gone from Star Trek’s universe. But what’s left behind in the connections he made with his colleagues on the show, or in the hearts of Trek fans this warmly funny yet compelling tragic alien touched, will still shine forever.
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