“Babel” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 1/24/1993)
In which Sisko and the others have to blue skies Tuesday on a frying pan…
Ah, the virus-which-incapacitates-nearly-every-major-character episode, a staple of Trek since the very first series. It’s a simple enough idea: some form of sickness is brought aboard the ship (or space station), first afflicting only a handful of anonymous crewmembers and one or two leads. The disease, whatever it is, causes some unusual effect, one which is at first comical, but then increasingly less funny when the afflicted can’t knock off the gag. The captain is concerned, the doctor investigates. The stakes slowly rise, as the sickness begins to spread, reducing the ship (or space station) to a skeleton crew. The sick get sicker; lives are at stake; and because this is a ship (or, well, you know), disaster threatens. In our world, if you feel ill at home, you can take a sick day from work, and if your family comes down with the same bug, it’s not like an asteroid is going to strike your house or your warp core is going to breach. It’s not so simple in space. Tensions rise, only a handful of healthy people remain, until finally, in the 11th hour, a cure is discovered. Everyone is cured, and we all learn a helpful lesson about the danger of putting your hand out where someone else may have sneezed.
DS9 follows in the path of TOS’ “The Naked Time” and TNG’s “The Naked Now” with “Babel.” Not only does the episode feature a similar plot structure to the earlier ones, it also takes place at relatively the same point in DS9’s first season run that those episodes took place in their respective series. I wouldn’t make much out of this, apart from maybe a sense of tradition. While “The Naked Now” is intended as a direct reference to “The Naked Time,” “Babel” takes a similar premise and heads in a different direction. In the two “Naked”s (the name of my autobiography, by the way), the virus brings out everyone’s repressed desires and fantasies, resulting in a lot of goofy, overheated melodrama. (On TOS, this was par for the course; on TNG, where we barely knew any of the characters and most of them were already annoying, it was disastrous.) The “Babel” virus does as the name suggests, and makes anyone who catches it aphasic, and thus incapable of communicating with others. The other episodes sought to use the virus to expose character; DS9 seeks to occlude it.
It’s not a bad conceit, and the episode, which I admit to dreading a little (I really couldn’t stand “The Naked Now”), is better than I expected. A big reason for this, probably the biggest reason, is that no one in the cast is forced to humiliate themselves. Due to the nature of the virus, the worst anyone suffers is the temporary indignity of speaking nonsense, and that’s far more unsettling than embarrassing. The effect happens multiple times throughout the episode. A character who seems perfectly fine is having a conversation, and then, without any warning or indication they realize something is wrong, that character will say something like, “I have to get the moonlight permanence sideways.” O’Brien is the first struck down, and while “Babel” is told almost entirely from the perspective of the virus-free, it does a decent job of conveying the horror of those initial moments when comprehension abandons the sick, and they struggle to make themselves understood.
Later in the episode, the virus turns fatal, threatening O’Brien’s life and adding a ticking clock to efforts of the people who haven’t taken ill. It’s an understandable turn of the screw, and it doesn’t really hurt the episode, exactly, but I’m not completely convinced it’s necessary. The plot already has an inherent countdown, what with the fact that just about everyone (with the exception of Odo and Quark) eventually catches the virus, so there’s already a clear sense of urgency as the danger closes in. Worse, the lethality element highlights a weakness that might otherwise have gone unaccounted for: No one on the station ever thinks to ask for outside help. Sure, Kira eventually contacts someone on Bajor, but that’s because she believes he helped engineer the virus in the first place, not because she’s appealing to any structured authority. While the show has done a good job establishing geography and social climate of its central location, it hasn’t put more than a cursory effort into setting up just how Deep Space Nine connects to Bajor. Which isn’t to say that Sisko should’ve been able to ring up the home world and get a team of doctors on-board without any worries—more that it would’ve helped to indicate were the station fits in the context of the Federation’s relationship with Bajor, and just how comfortable the Bajoran government is having the outpost floating around its backyard. There are many ways this could’ve been handled without significantly changing the plot, and it speaks to a core issue that I assume will become less relevant over time: I think the writers are still writing the show as though it was set on a spaceship. It’s not the worst crime in the world, but I look forward to them getting more comfortable with the stationary aspect of Deeps Space Nine as time goes on.
More problematic is the show’s treatment of Quark, a character I still like who has unfortunately been thrust into the “untrustworthy, and not all that bright, bastard” role. Which isn’t to say there’s something wrong with having an untrustworthy bastard play a regular role on the show, but it can be a tough balance to pull off. Right now, my concern is the way everyone treats Quark. His relationship with Odo makes sense; they’re old adversaries, and there’s a nice runner of mutual respect/contempt through their conversations that establishes them as, if not precisely equals, than at least comfortably pitted against each other. But everyone else is constantly dismissing or accusing the Ferengi of double-dealing, and, given how much of the cast recently transferred to the station, and how little we’ve actually seen of Quark’s trickery, it starts to come across as bit, well, speciesist. The Ferengi have been problematic ever since their first introduction on TNG. While it’s standard practice for Trek to have different races represent a specific, dominant trait (Klingons are warlike, Vulcans are logical, Romulans are logic-without-morality, etc), generally the show made some effort to treat monocultures with respect. Ferengi, however, have been routinely portrayed as shiftless, greedy nitwits. Armin Shimerman has done great work developing Quark, but there’s still a lot of commenting on just how untrustworthy the guy is, and it makes him seem more like a victim of prejudice than a crook. In “Babel,” his sneakiness winds up exacerbating the virus problem, when he uses the crew-level replicators to (unknowingly) provide his clientele with virus-laden food, but as Odo himself points out, he could’ve had access to the replicators if he’d asked. No one even realized they were contaminated.
I’m sure we’ll deal more with Quark later in the season, and he does get a chance to be heroic and cool before the end, teaming up with Odo in an effort to save the station from an explosion. And while “Babel” suffers a little from predictability, the parts that work continue to lay the foundation for a long-running series. There’s the teamwork aspect. It’s not surprising that a station-wide crisis brings everyone together, but it’s gratifying to see people accepting their various roles with ease. Poor O’Brien gets somewhat shafted here, as he’s the first one to take ill, but before he goes full-River-Tam, the episode shows just how overworked and stressed he is in his new job. Apart from that, we have Sisko taking command with confidence, Kira proving herself willing to go to any ends to achieve her goals, and Bashir being very clever. Nobody reveals any deep, burning secrets (and thankfully, unlike “The Naked Now,” there’s no android-on-security-chief sex, unless Odo got frisky with a replicator and I blocked it out), but that’s probably for the best.
The most unexpected aspect of the episode is the source of the Babel virus. On the previous Trek series, there was some vaguely sci-fi explanation for all the mess (if I remember right, “The Naked Now” actually features the same virus we saw in “The Naked Time”). It wasn’t really connected to anything, but that was accepted on those shows, because exploration was their main focus. By traveling from planet to planet each week, the writers had a built-in excuse for whatever weird shit they wanted to throw at us. DS9 isn’t so lucky, but I assumed the writers would still try and get away with the same coincidental plotting, at least for a while. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself wrong in this case. Kira discovers a device attached to one of the command deck replicators, and Bashir quickly determines it caused the virus by creating food with the sickness built in. The device’s presence isn’t random, either. It was placed on the station years ago by Bajoran dissidents who intended to sabotage the Cardassians. Something went wrong, and the device was only activated following O’Brien’s efforts to fix the replicators.
This development doesn’t provide us with new information. We knew the Bajoran rebels got up to some crazy stuff during the occupation, and it makes sense that Deep Space Nine was once a prime target. “Babel” uses the connection to develop Kira, showing her a thoroughly capable bad-ass willing to abduct someone off a planet if she thinks it’s necessary. But it doesn’t really go any deeper than that. Dr. Surmak, the Bajoran Kira effectively kidnaps, is less a character than a plot device with occasional emotions; first he’s outraged, then he’s shocked, and then he finds a cure. While there’s a definite symbolic resonance to Sisko and the others having to deal with the lingering damage caused by the Cardassians and their legacy, “Babel” is more interested in using the political strife as a convenient scapegoat than it is in delving into the past. But it still works. This isn’t an episode that goes for the jugular, and, given the nature of the main threat, the drama is largely impersonal; Odo, Quark, and Kira get to shine, but a decent portion of the hour is given over to standard narratives, like Sisko worrying about his son, or various leads getting frustrated by their inability to speak. Still, it’s telling that I’m even willing to look on that as a criticism at this point. “Babel” may use a conveniently available context to justify its story, but that context still has power, and the episode is an able demonstration how the world of DS9 can recycle old plot ideas in new, and potentially transformative, ways.
- We still haven’t seen a whole lot of Jake (last week’s “A Man Alone” gave him a subplot, but it wasn’t really that substantial), but I do like the relationship between him and his father. It’s the first parent/child interaction I can think of in the Trek-verse that’s purely warm and positive.
- Also nice: Jake casually mentions to his dad that he’s been hanging out with Nog. I guess Sisko was just fooling when he told Jake to stay away from the other kid?
- Dax enjoys getting ogled. That and her tendency to call Sisko “Benjamin” seem to be her defining character traits so far.
“Captive Pursuit” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 1/31/1993)
In which we learn O’Brien would totally care if you killed your wife…
Here we have our first purely “Who came out of the wormhole this week?”-style episode, one that largely eschews any serious attempt at world-building in favor a fairly straight-forward story for Chief O’Brien. There are a few twists here, and the episode’s resolution is a subtle reminder that we’re not exactly in Kansas anymore, but for the most part, “Captive Pursuit” is a lark designed to give Colm Meaney some much-deserved focus. And yet, it has its share of moral complexity. Episodes like this, and “Babel,” are somewhat formulaic. It’s not so much that we know everything that’s going to happen, as it is that we know, by the end, the resolution will be tidy and complete. These are classic stand-alones. There’s a clear problem, a lot of struggling, and finally, a solution. The Bajoran doctor discovers a cure for the virus; O’Brien helps his alien buddy escape capture and go about his merry way. In a way, the events of these stories linger in the mind, becoming a part of everything else that happens on Deep Space Nine, but that’s true of every show, and unless events of an episode have direct consequences, or are specifically referenced further down the line, they tend to blur together after a while. Technically speaking, all television drama and comedy is serialized, because each episode is considered canon. It’s just that some shows make more of an effort to acknowledge this directly, instead of forcing fans to do the legwork.
I’m getting overly complicated here, so let’s focus on the task at hand: In “Captive Pursuit,” an alien ship of unknown origin comes through the wormhole, and docks at Deep Space Nine. The ship has been damaged, and Sisko sends O’Brien to check both it and its pilot out, on the theory that O’Brien would make for a warmer welcome than a delegation of Starfleet officers. O’Brien makes first contact with an odd, lizard-like creature who calls himself (or herself) Tosk, and the two gradually bond, even as Tosk refuses to provide information about his background, or what exactly damaged his ship. (He claims it happened in the wormhole, but O’Brien ain’t buying it.) Eventually, Odo catches Tosk trying to break into the station’s weapons locker, and the alien gets sent to the brig, just as another strange ship arrives. This time, a group pale green humanoids (the leader of whom, played by the great Gerrit Graham, looks a bit like Peter Greene after he dons the titular artifact in The Mask) beam directly onto the promenade. They’re hunters, and they’re looking for Tosk. This is part of a game for them, although “game” doesn’t quite cover it; a ritual, maybe, and a point of honor and pride. Tosk is ridiculed for being so easily captured, and Sisko, because of Prime Directive rules and general diplomacy, can’t interfere. So O’Brien decides to lend his new friend a hand.
That’s about it, really. The episode lives and dies on the chemistry between O’Brien and Tosk (well-played by Scott MacDonald), and the two hit it off quite nicely. O’Brien’s innate chumminess, evident even during his TNG days, has had a chance to flourish on DS9. This is his first focus episode, but even in “Babel,” he’s a bit frustrated and stressed, but still fundamentally a decent, likeable guy. There’s something openly human about O’Brien, something that sets him apart from other Trek engineers. On TOS, Scotty was all swagger, sexism, and accent—not a bad character, but more an archetype than a human being for most of the show’s run, and he didn’t become truly likeable until the Trek film franchise. (I’d even argue that the character’s greatest hour wasn’t even on the original show, but during his guest appearance in TNG’s “Relics.”) Geordi La Forge of TNG was less confident, but he was also nerdier, and tended to spend his off-hours striking out with the ladies and playing dress-up with an albino robot. O’Brien is smart, and he knows his stuff, but he mostly comes across as a blue-collar guy just doing his best to get by. His wife is… challenging, and he’s got a job which is thankless on the best of days (I imagine “space station” isn’t as impressive on a resume as “starship”), but he doesn’t complain that much, and he’s friendly to everyone. Where other engineers have been the best of the best, O’Brien comes across as the guy who does the hard work while everyone else is showing off. That’s a little glib, and it does a disservice to the level of difficulty of the man’s job, but that’s the basic impression Meaney and the episode give off. Epic things may happen around him, or even to him, but he’ll be O’Brien to the core, no matter what.
You need characters like that on a show like this to balance the complexity of the world. Sisko has a tragic past; Kira is dealing with her new role and trying to figure out where her loyalties lie; Odo doesn’t know what he is; and Bashir and Dax are, well, sort of just there right now. (For the record, the few times I did watch this show when it aired, Bashir was my favorite, mainly because I found him easiest to identify with. What that says about me, I don’t know, but it’s not true anymore.) You need someone like O’Brien hanging around to lighten the mood every once in a while. He’s not the comic relief—Quark is the comic relief—but he is a good man without complications. His biggest frustration in this episode is coming up with a way to help Tosk after the hunters arrive. You know he’s going to figure something out, because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t, and when he does step up, it’s a refreshingly angst-free action sequence. Sure, you could get worked up about O’Brien interfering with the rituals of another culture, and somewhat disobeying his commanding officer in the process, but this is a clear-cut case of “Little guy getting messed with,” and there only a handful of morally appropriate responses.
That’s probably the episode’s biggest flaw: there’s no real risk. Tosk was created by the hunters to be hunted, and his life is defined by escape. He seems potentially threatening at first, despite his general adorability, but when the truth comes out, it’s impossible not to be on his side, especially considering what a humongous jerk the lead hunter turns out to be. It’s fun to see O’Brien step in, just as it’s fun when Sisko tells Odo to take his time tracking O’Brien and Tosk down (which leads to maybe the best gag on the show so far, as Odo sloooooowly crosses the room to the elevator), but there’s no threat of consequence, and no real danger to any of them. They help out a nice stranger, and get to feel better about themselves, but Tosk remains the hunted, and his world, and culture, remain a mystery. It’s telling that we have a crew who are willing to play fast and loose with the rules in order to do what they believe is right. But that loses any dramatic impact when their choice is pain-free.
Still, I don’t mean to be too harsh. “Captive Pursuit” is, while not a classic, entertaining enough, and it solidifies O’Brien’s moral authority on the station. He’s not someone who would never think of himself as the moral authority on anything, and that’s crucial to his character. We have an ensemble who, by and large, are convinced they know what’s best. And here is a man who’s comfortable with machines, but views himself as a soldier, not an officer, working in the trenches while the higher-ups make the big choices. Men like that often end up with more than they bargained for, but it’s good to have someone around who, when the lights go out, knows how to find the switch.
- At the start of the episode, we learn that Quark has been sexually harassing one of his dancers. It’s supposed to be funny (I think), but the Ferengi’s aggressive sexuality is probably their most unpleasant characteristic.
- “And you’re the most natural straight man I’ve met in ages.” That’s great, but hasn’t he met Data? Although I guess an android wouldn’t qualify as “natural.”
Next week: Q pays a visit to the station in “Q-Less,” and we spend some time getting to know “Dax.”