“Inquisition” (season 6, episode 18; originally aired 4/8/1998)
In which we just have a few questions...
Look, we’re all friends here, right? Of course we are—there’s no need to reply, I already know what you’ll say. And because we’re such good friends, and because we both care about justice, decency, and apple pie, we can be honest with each other. Things aren’t going well. There are threats coming at us from all sides, monstrous enemies with the power to wipe out our way of live if our resolve falters even for an instant. We are strong fighters and determined strategists, but this war never seems to end, and we are capable of mistakes. Worst of all is the possibility that some few of us might be working for the enemy. I know. I know! It’s a horrifying thought. But the enemy is cunning, even seductive; they are capable of shrouding themselves under cover of friendship, and even infiltrating our highest ranks. We must be ever vigilant. Ever watchful. Also, completely random here, but what have you been up to lately? You know, in general. Oh, no reason. I just notice you’re not saying much. And that makes me… curious.
Maybe the most shocking aspect of “Inquisition” is that it’s not very shocking at all. Strip away the science fiction elements and the big twist, and the fundamental story is so distressingly familiar as to be practically banal. A man with a past which happens to make him an easy target for suspicious minds (Bashir’s time in the Dominion prison camp, plus his genetically engineered brain, set him apart; there’s also his skin color, which, while technically irrelevant in the context of the show, raises some uncomfortable echoes in our present) is taken without his consent, questioned without understanding the charges, and tortured in order to determine the depth of his “innocence.” That the torture is almost entirely psychological, and conveyed through the fun trickery of made-up technology, is a relief to be sure, but the story remains what it is. Apart from vague suspicions, there’s no reason to accuse Bashir of committing a crime. Deputy Director Sloan (William Sadler, who is excellent) never gives any solid evidence proving his case; it’s all innuendo, a mental fishing trip largely designed to see what, if anything, he can catch. Maybe that’s the most disturbing part. After the charade is revealed, Sloan bears Bashir no hard feelings, and has no regret or guilt over his actions. He’s not even bothered that Bashir is innocent. It’s just a day’s work, really.
But then, if we’re looking for shocks, the discovery that Sloan is part of a mysterious security organization known as “Section 31,” an organization which, while not officially condoned by the Federation, is not officially denied by it either—well, that’s a stunner. The utopian future has been a key part of Star Trek since the original series, and while the ideal has been questioned and tweaked since the days that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy first debated ethics, it’s never been entirely abandoned. The franchise has had its share of bullheaded officials, and for most of the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it seemed like the only qualification necessary to be promoted to the rank of admiral was “being an arrogant asshole.” You watch an episode like “The Offspring,” in which a Starfleet officer tries to take away Data’s newly created daughter, and it’s hard not to draw certain conclusions about the organization, how its bureaucracy allows (and even encourages) stultified thinking, protecting the egos of its ranking members to a degree that they retain the illusion that their judgment is unquestionable. (See also “The Drumhead.”) And Sisko has always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the ruling body back on Earth.
Yet these developments, while frequently unsettling and, when well-handled, thrilling to watch, also suggested a certain base level of outlier status. Conflict arose between our heroes and the powers that be, but those conflicts were ultimately resolved, and even if the resolution didn’t leave everyone satisfied, it at least felt that the fundamental systems themselves were not inherently corrupt. Any large governing body is bound to have flaws, because people have flaws, and while admitting that means giving up on Roddenberry’s dream of perfection, well, it was a sillly dream to begin with. (And it’s not like Kirk didn’t have to deal with his fair share of jerkwads.) The central principle—that the Federation was a powerful institution whose aims were solely for the benefit of all sentient life (okay, all sentient life that was a member, or might be a member in the future, but basically), and if the means they used to achieve those aims weren’t always perfect, the decency remained. These were the good guys. Sometimes it was necessary to make them assholes so that our good guys had someone to shout at, but ultimately, everyone was on the same side.
The existence of Section 31 doesn’t completely destroy this assumption. But it does put it on some very shaky ground. In our era of Homeland Security and seemingly omnipresent surveillance, the idea that a secret agency working inside the government to ferret out threats to national security might exist doesn’t sound like a long shot. That’s the present, though: the messy, irritating, cynical, non-fictional reality. Star Trek is supposed to be above that sort of thing. It represents an ideal we strive for, and its institutions should, one would assume, reflect that ideal. By creating Section 31, the writers of DS9 have decided to muddy the water even further than they have in the past, and while right now, the organization is more of a threat than anything specific, it casts a shadow over everything. As a member of Starfleet, Bashir has always considered himself to be on the right side, the side that protects truth and justice and due process, the side that would never ever kidnap people in the middle of the night to try and break their brains open through trickery and deceit. But now that belief has been tested. And while no serious physical damage is done—while Bashir is able to use the standard “Wait, a previous event established a condition which pokes a hole in your seemingly perfect scenario!” out that so many Trek episodes have used in the past to save himself—the doubts remain. Because what if O’Brien hadn’t injured himself without Sloan’s knowledge? What if the simulation had been perfect? What if Sloan had decided to dig deeper?
The grimmest implications of “Inquisition” are held off until the end of the episode. Until then, the plot follows Dr. Bashir through the interview process, charting each step of Sloan’s attempts to first win his trust, then unnerve him, then put him on his guard, and then make him doubt himself. Over the course of the interrogations, Sloan reveals himself to be very, very good at his job; Sadler is a reliable heavy, conveying an almost palpable contempt for his adversaries even when he’s pretending to be their friend, and the script by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle makes great use of Bashir’s past, throwing seemingly unconnected incidents back into the doctor’s face and treating them as some great pattern which leads inevitably to betrayal. And when it comes time for Sloan to go on the attack, he twists the accusation in a way that allows Bashir to confess a sin without accepting any guilt for it, a brilliant bait and switch that seems to offer sympathy even as it tightens the noose. “Engramatic dissociation” is an obscure phrase, but the meaning is simple. What if the Dominion broke Bashir so thoroughly that he doesn’t even remember being broken? He can be a double agent without needing to give up his concept of himself as a good Federation officer. It’s not his fault. It’s just his brain.
This is a clear tactic on Sloan’s part. Once he can get Bashir to admit that culpability is possible, he has a foothold, and can press further, uncovering whatever secrets remain hidden. (I don’t know if Sloan honestly believes Bashir has divided mind; I don’t think he cares very much either way. Morality rarely enters into the equation for people like Sloan.) But Bashir stubbornly refuses to take the bait, and it’s a measure of the effectiveness of the episode that even I found myself doubting him. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for Bashir to actually be working for the Dominion, even if it did turn out to be inadvertent. For one, we’ve already done the “Bashir is evil!” plot, and even if this time it would be the actual real Bashir committing the crimes, that’s still needlessly redundant writing. For another, it wouldn’t make much sense to introduce a creepy, invasive security force which also happens to be completely right. Dramatically speaking, that would be one hell of a bummer, and not in a particularly interesting or exciting way. Still, I couldn’t help wondering, right up until the moment when Weyoun beams Bashir aboard his ship.
It’s not really Weyoun, but the episode does such a good job of disorienting the viewer nearly as much as poor Bashir that for a few minutes, it seems like all of this might actually be happening. And a few minutes is all it takes. There’s something comforting in that last twist, the discovery that Bashir has been on a holodeck, and that much of what we’ve seen (all of it?) has been constructed specifically to break him. Because at least a holodeck gives us some distance from what’s happening. It’s a construct, and after all that uncomfortable dialogue and questioning, after seeing even Sisko begin to doubt Bashir’s honesty, a fun, clever construct that gives Bashir a chance to outsmart his captors puts us firmly back in the land of fiction. The final scene has Bashir retelling his adventures to Sisko, Kira, and Odo, and none of them question the need to learn more about Section 31; there’s a clear sense that the good guys aren’t bowing out in the face of such malevolence, institutional though it may be, and that’s a relief. Because in real life, there are no clever tricks, no easy to exploit mistakes, no way to turn the tables and escape. Sloan is wearing a leather uniform in the end. I imagine the blood washes right off.
- Michael Dorn directed this episode. Good job, Michael Dorn.
- Okay, how long was Bashir on that holodeck? From the moment he wakes up for his conference? Was it when he was beamed out of the cell? Somewhere in between? (I suspect there’s an obvious answer to this, but I’m going to display my ignorance for all to see.)
- Sisko tells Bashir to join Section 31 the next time Sloan makes him an offer. I have mixed feelings about this. Further time spent on on this storyline might rob it of its power, but I really, really want to see Sadler again. (Also, Bashir as an actual spy could pay huge dividends.)
Next week: Muddy water turns black as we close out the year with “In The Pale Moonlight.”