Plain, Simple Garak

Elim Garak

One of my favorite characters in the Star Trek universe is a Cardassian. In general, the Cardassians were not known as the nicest of races. Captain Edward Jellico, who was briefly in command of the Enterprise-D, said of them, “Cardassians are like… timber wolves… predators… bold in large numbers… cautious by themselves… and with an instinctive need to establish a dominant position in any social gathering.” The Cardassians were similar to the Romulans in their xenophobic tendencies, and also shared the Romulan belief there is no such thing as luck. Like the Breen, they treated their prisoners with little tolerance or sympathy; they had no qualms using torture to extract information. Some Cardassians were even known to enjoy torturing their prisoners whether there was information to be extracted or not. 

Ideal Cardassian life was one of complete loyalty and servitude to the State and to the family. Like the Chinese, family was the building block of Cardassian society, and as such, the hierarchical system of respect also applied to one’s rulers and one’s family. The Cardassian government was assumed by its citizens to be omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent; the government was anything but benevolent. An example of the Cardassian approach to life was found in their jurisprudence and criminal trials in which the conclusion was always determined beforehand: the ruling of each case was a guilty verdict; the purpose of the proceeding was not justice in the Human sense, but instead bringing the offender to recognize the power and benevolence of the State. A trial, therefore, was an opportunity for the State to reveal how someone’s guilt was proven by what they considered, “the most efficient criminal investigation system in the quadrant.” 

Almost all Cardassians lived in fear of the Obsidian Order, the chief intelligence agency of the Cardassian Union, whose constant surveillance had led to the sudden elimination of numerous “traitors.” It was said The Order was so efficient a Cardassian citizen couldn’t sit down to a meal without each dish being duly noted and recorded including its preparation and the exact measurement of each ingredient. Dr. Julian Bashir wondered what happened to people who ate something that was “not in agreement” with the Order, and Odo noted that people had “disappeared” for less. Every Cardassian home was equipped with surveillance equipment to keep an eye on its citizens. Only members of the Central Command, the military leaders of Cardassia, could turn off the cameras and only occasionally. The Order was the ultimate Big Brother.

Some of the alien races of Star Trek, especially the enemies of the Federation, had an equivalent in Earth history especially during the Cold War era of The Original Series. The Klingons represented the Soviets, the Romulans were like the Communist Chinese, the Cardassians were representative of Nazi Germany, the Bajorans similar to the persecuted Jews of Europe. Cardassians took control of Bajor in 2319 establishing the Bajoran Occupational Government. Initially, the Bajoran people offered them little resistance. However, the Cardassians rapidly pacified the planet and began a coordinated scheme of strip-mining, forced labor, slavery, and genocide. The brutality of the Cardassian military drove many Bajorans to form a resistance to the Occupation. Using guerrilla and terrorist tactics, the resistance continually harassed Cardassian forces. Under constant attack and unable to subdue the Bajoran resistance, facing pressure from both internal civilian elements in the Cardassian Central Command and from the Federation, the Cardassians withdrew from Bajor in 2369. However, many Cardassians, such as Gul Dukat, continued to want to regain control of Bajor and to exterminate its people.

While the Cardassians were a brutal race, they sometimes showed signs of being a kind and warmhearted people. One of the most complex characters in Star Trek history is one of my favorites, Elim Garak. He was the Cardassian tailor and Promenade shopkeeper of Garak’s Clothiers who lived on Deep Space Nine. He first appeared in the episode, “Past Prologue” where he introduced himself to Dr. Bashir who believed Garak was a spy. As soon as I saw this conversation, I knew Garak would be an interesting character. He proved to have some of the best lines in the series beginning with this: after Garak asks Bashir to stop by his shop if he desires new apparel or some interesting conversation, Bashir says, “You’re very kind, Mister Garak.” To which Garak replies, “Oh, it’s just Garak. Plain, simple Garak.” Right away viewers knew there was nothing plain or simple about Garak. He had previously been an agent of the Obsidian Order but had been exiled to Terok Nor, the Cardassian name for Deep Space Nine. 

The true reason for Garak’s exile is never revealed during the series. When he does tell Bashir why he was exiled, he tells him three different stories all involving a man named Elim which Bashir later learns is Garak’s first name. When Bashir asks Garak, “Of all the stories you told me which ones were true and which ones weren’t?” Garak replies, “My dear Doctor, they’re all true.” Bashir says, “Even the lies?” to which Garak replies in his standard obfuscation, “Especially the lies.” Garak once told Bashir, “Truth is in the eye of the beholder, Doctor. I never tell the truth because I don’t believe there is such a thing. That is why I prefer the straight-line simplicity of cutting cloth.” Garak believed, “Lying is a skill like any other. And if you want to maintain a level of excellence, you have to practice constantly.” Bashir once tried to tell Garak the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” While Bashir believed the moral to be that lying too much will cause people to never believe a person, Garak retorted he believed the point was, “That you should never tell the same lie twice.” As his father, Enabran Tain, the one-time head of the Obsidian Order once said of him, one of Garak’s basic philosophies is, “Never tell the truth when a lie will do.” Garak once explained his belief that, “the truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination.”

Andrew Robinson

Garak, though, was more than just a pathological liar. Played by Andrew Robinson, originally a stage actor, he is also known for his portrayals of the serial killer Scorpio in the crime film, Dirty Harry (1971); Larry Cotton in the horror film, Hellraiser (1987); and as the title character in the ABC television film, Liberace (1988). Without Robinson, the character of Garak never would have become as intriguing as it did. In fact, the character might have had only one appearance in the series. Robinson commented, “Garak is one of those guys, we all know someone a bit like him who you can’t trust as far as you can spit. The moment you see him you put your hand on your wallet, and the moment he opens his mouth you know he’s going to lie to you, but yet, somehow, you’d rather be in his company than with almost anybody else. He’s a charming rogue, you can’t deny it. Even I get sucked in by him. Although it’s me playing him. When I see Garak on TV, I swear to God this is true, I’m fascinated.” Robinson also said of the character, “He’s all subtext. If a smart guy like Garak says he’s ‘plain and simple’, you realize he’s not plain and not simple. There is a lot going on. Regardless of how innocuous or simple each line is, there’s always something going on underneath that belies the line. And his eyes and the tone of his voice say something different than the words he’s speaking. It’s not an easy thing to work with subtext, but when you do it well, you really get people’s attention.”

Garak was also one of the most sexually ambiguous characters in Star Trek history. Robinson stated in an interview, “I started out playing Garak as someone who doesn’t have a defined sexuality. He’s not gay, he’s not straight, it’s a non-issue for him. Basically, his sexuality is inclusive. But, it’s Star Trek, and there were a couple of things working against that. One is that Americans are very nervous about sexual ambiguity. Also, this is a family show; they have to keep it on the ‘straight and narrow’ so I backed off from it. Originally, in that first episode, I loved the man’s absolute fearlessness about presenting himself to an attractive Human being. The fact that the attractive Human being is a man (Bashir) doesn’t make any difference to him, but that was a little too sophisticated, I think. For the most part, the writers supported the character beautifully, but in that area, they just made a choice not to go there, and if they don’t want to go there, I can’t, because the writing doesn’t support it.” Ira Steven Behr, the executive producer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, commented, “I wish we could have done a little bit more with the Garak character…. I mean, he was clearly gay or queer or however you want to say it. I think I would have loved to have taken that and seen where that went and how that affected his relationship with Bashir.” I would have loved for the show’s creators to have explored that part of Garak. It took twenty-five more years before we saw LGBTQ+ characters in Star Trek: Discovery. There had been a few hints, or even winks, to LGBTQ+ characters. It could have come sooner and been bolder with Garak’s character, and we wouldn’t have had to wait twenty-five years.

Behr once said, “Garak is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. So, who he is, what he really is, who the hell knows? And I think it took a more sophisticated audience to really get behind that kind of a character, because back in the day, it seemed anyway, that mystery and … I don’t want to say subtlety, but something along those lines … that’s not what people wanted, they wanted their TNG good, bad, everything very clear, everything very clean, everything very understandable. And at the end of the day, everything was safe. Everything was basically safe. And Garak is not a safe character. The fact that now he’s so popular says something about how the audience has matured. And that’s a good thing.” Hans Beimler, a writer, producer, and script editor of many Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes, commented, “To me, the guy that embodied the show was Garak. He was a fuckin’ spy, man! He was a bad guy in a way. But you got to know and understand him. And he got to know us and understand us. Even appreciate us. He wasn’t such a bad guy at the end of the show.”

Garak had been intended to be a one-off character; Robinson said he first portrayed the character, because he needed money that month to pay his bills. The producers were impressed with Robinson’s performance and decided to develop the character after Robinson agreed to return. The decision to incorporate Garak into more of the series led to Garak becoming a pivotal character transforming him into someone of importance, of unusual complexity, and of resonance. Garak became known throughout the series for the ruthlessness of his past with the Obsidian Order, but at various times, he uses contacts on Cardassia to help Starfleet and even the Bajorans. He was known to be a witty conversationalist and a skilled tailor, but underneath his friendly and charming exterior, he was a proficient assassin, saboteur, and expert liar able to adapt to a variety of situations. Occasionally, he was used by Starfleet as a backchannel to the Cardassians when a direct message was not possible. By the end of the series, he was a different man. 

On numerous occasions, Garak was seen to have internal conflicts between his morals and his obligations to the Cardassian Central Command. One of my favorite episodes is, “In the Pale Moonlight.” This episode shows the Federation on the brink of losing the Federation-Dominion War. With mounting losses and the specter of defeat, Captain Sisko must put aside his Federation morals in an attempt to turn the tide of the war.  Sisko enlists Garak’s help to “persuade” the Romulans to join the Federation/Klingon alliance. Deep down, Sisko knew Garak could do things that he, morally, could not. Garak tells him at the end of the episode, “That’s why you came to me, isn’t it, Captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing. Well, it worked. And you’ll get what you wanted: a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant, and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal… and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.”

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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