“By Inferno’s Light” (season 5, episode 15; originally 2/17/1997)
In which Gul Dukat is a son of a…
(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)
Turning Bashir into a Changeling—not the real Bashir, of course, just the one we’d been seeing on the station for the past few episodes—was a great twist. It used information that was readily available to us, and didn’t cheat to make the plot work; while you can argue over some aspects of the fake-Bashir’s behavior, the fundamental truth is, we knew the Changelings were capable of this sort of behavior, and there’s every reason to believe they’d want someone on DS9, even before we learn what their ultimate plan is at the end of this episode. It’s smart, engaging writing. But it also has a limited impact. By the end of “By Inferno’s Light,” the real Julian is back where he belongs, and the impostor is dead, having died in an attempt to basically blow up an entire solar system. While the paranoia levels for the audience have been raised, there’s no real sense that this is going to be something we’ll return to in the future. And even if we do, it’ll most likely be a one off episode, or a line from Bashir about how much he doesn’t care for the Jem’Hadar.
This isn’t a criticism. It was cool idea, and a well-executed one. But for my money, the most thrilling development in an hour full of pretty terrific “Fuck yeah!” moments is the discovery that Gul Dukat has been working on secret negotiations between the Cardassian government and the Dominion; and what’s more, the end result of those negotiations has managed to leave Dukat as ruler of his home planet. While Dukat isn’t a member of the show’s main ensemble, he’s always hung around the edges, and this sudden reversal of fortune, from Klingon-hatin’ guerrilla fighter to ruler of a planet, is both remarkable and just plausible enough to work. It makes those scenes I groused about last week between him and Ziyal much more interesting in retrospect (although I don’t retract my mild criticism), and it helps to kick off this hour with a tremendous sense of energy. We find this out in the cold open; at first, there’s shock at the arrival of the Jem’Hadar fleet, and then seconds later, the fleet sails off and Dukat goes with it, saving time for one final “Screw off” for Kira before he goes.
The Bashir reveal is a great piece of showmanship, but the transition for Dukat is the more impressive piece of writing. It makes sense to me; it’s curious that the Founders have seemingly reneged on their seemingly intractable hatred of Cardassians, but we don’t know the full extent of their plans, and besides, they seem like the kind of folks that would be willing to put their hatred aside if it furthered their goals. Given how much Dukat’s rage has been directed at Klingons the last few times we’ve seen him, the whole thing has a manipulative panache to it—for all his arrogance, Dukat has basically set the stage for turning his homeworld into another occupied Bajor. He believes he’s canny enough to use the situation to his advantage, and this false assumption could potentially ruin everything. It’s masterfully done, and the more I think about it, the more it impresses me. Not just because it fits, not just because of what it tells us about the Founders and Dukat, but because it once again shows how willing the writers are to change the status quo without losing that central conflict. First there was the Founders; then there were the Founders and (unwittingly) the Klingons; and now it’s the Founders and Cardassia. The players shift, but the stakes remain high. It’s a sequence of moves which could have seemed like stalling, but instead play like a clarification of just how deadly an enemy the Founders are. This isn’t the Borg. They don’t simply smash through resistance. They plan, bide their time, and keep changing the field until it suits their needs.
And this isn’t even the focus of the episode! “By Inferno’s Light” has two main plots: Garak, Worf, and Bashir’s efforts to escape the prison camp, and Sisko’s reaction to the shifting Dominion threat back on DS9. The former takes precedence for most of the hour, and it plays like the more urgent of the two, even though the fate of the station, and Bajor, would seem like a much bigger deal. Partly that’s because we know Bashir needs to get back to DS9 and warn everyone about the impostor, but it’s also a factor of how cleverly the writers turn the screws on the characters in the camp.
First, there’s poor Worf, stuck fighting against Jem’Hadar soldiers as a training exercise. This plays a bit like a 10-minute apology to the character for all those YouTube compilations of Worf getting his ass handed to him, and I mean that in the best possible way. He makes it through one fight mildly scathed but ready for more, and by the end of the first day, he’s got a few broken ribs, and he’s still not beaten yet. And this goes on, in a facility with severely limited access to medical resources (to put it mildly): Worf goes out, kicks some ass, and comes back so Bashir can wave his hands around and look worried. Most of the fighting takes place off screen (given how much else is going on in the hour, this makes sense), but the damage is evident, and it’s thrilling to see Worf finally live up to the high standard he’s set for himself. Most of the time, Worf’s warrior ways are restricted to the holodeck, or to his piloting the Defiant. Here, he’s forced into meeting the enemy on the most restrictive field imaginable, and he rises to the challenge admirably.
And it pays off. After Worf has defeats every warrior sent to fight him, the captain of the Jem’Hadar steps into the ring. Worf is severely injured, and most likely exhausted, and the captain makes short work of him—except Worf refuses to stand down. Every time he falls, he rises, and the captain is so impressed by his resilience that when the Vorta warden of the camp orders Worf killed, the captain refuses to pull the trigger. This decision dooms them both (although Worf manages a last second escape), but both suggest a common ground between the Jem’Hadar and the Klingons that might be useful down the line. And really, it’s hard to imagine anything more awesomely Klingon than staving off defeat by willpower alone.
Willpower is a bit of a running theme this week, as while Worf is off playing Space Rocky, Garak is stuck in the hidden area where Tain programmed his distress signal, working to reprogram the system to contact their runabout. This storyline is a bit clunkier than Worf’s; Tain’s death from last week is largely to one side, as Garak is forced to deal with a sudden attack of claustrophobia, and the results are a little forced. Andrew Robinson sells the hell out of it, and his monologues inside the wall are compelling enough, but for the phobia to strike him all of a sudden smacks of convenience on the writers’ part, as though they realized they needed some way to add tension to the sequence but didn’t want to add anymore plot. It also makes the Jem’Hadar a lot less formidable when “hide a guy behind a wall” is a viable escape strategy. Still, Garak’s struggles work on the basic, nerve-ending level, and his decision to go back into the hole after suffering a severe panic attack enriches his character and earns him the respect of the hard-to-please Worf. Clunky or not, that last moment between the two is immensely satisfying.
Also satisfying: The deft way the episode cuts between events at the prison camp, and the increasingly tense stand-off back home. Cross-cutting is an old tradition in film and television (he said, lacking the historical knowledge to back this up at all), but it’s difficult to do well. Too often, jumping between exciting plot lines means sacrificing pacing to create the impression of simultaneous action; it’s also a way to make an episode’s structure appear more dynamic.
It works beautifully here. DS9 has had exciting hours in the past, but I’m not sure I can remember a climactic 15 minutes as thrilling as this one, and that excitement is due in large part to the way the two stories play off each other. In the camp, things go from bad to worse as Worf struggles to stay alive, Garak struggles with his sanity, and the Jem’Hadar guards finally wise up (i.e., they get orders from Dukat) and stop by the cell to execute the tailor. As that explodes, back on the station, Sisko is juggling his options as a deadline approaches. Dukat has declared war on DS9, and things look bleak until Gowron and his Klingons show up—there’s no reason for the Federation and the Klingons to be at war anymore, so Sisko arranges a quick reinstatement of the Khitomer Accords, and waits for the Jem’Hadar fleet to arrive. Warp signatures hit the computer from all over, but no one can find any ships to shoot at. Suspense mounts—Garak finally succeeds in hacking the computer, saving everyone at the last possible second; the group races back to Alpha Quadrant, and Bashir sends a message about the impostor; Sisko gets the message, pieces together what’s happened, and that’s when we realize the true plan. Dukat has no real interest in DS9. The Changeling posing as Bashir intends to sacrifice himself to set off a charge in the system’s sun that will wipe out all life in the system.
Again, we see the Founders machinations are never as straightforward as they appear; and again we’re reminded of how much they dislike direct combat, choosing obfuscation and long cons over the brute force of war. Which isn’t to say they won’t crush their enemies if they’re forced to, but look at how things worked out with the Cardassians. A race they ostensibly despised has now provided them with a foothold in the quadrant, with defensive outposts and bodies on the ground (so to speak). Sure, their plan here fails, stymied in the last minute by Garak, Sisko’s clever thinking, and Kira’s willingness to push the Defiant to extremes, but they still end up in a better position at the end of the episode than they did at the start. The biggest downside is that Sisko now has the Klingons and the Romulans on his side. But there’s time left. The Founders have proven they can kidnap DS9 personnel, arrange private negotiations that shift the political situation an entire sector, and came within 10 seconds of killing millions. Sisko and his team have proven that they can save in the day at the last possible moment. Sounds like a fair fight to me.
- I hope we get a good episode about how the rest of Cardassia responds to the sudden takeover. There’s something tragic about it.
- “Never turn your back on a Breen.” Probably because they look like LEIA IN BOUNTY HUNTER DISGUISE i am so sorry.
- Dukat intends to drive out the Klingons and the Maquis. Not a huge twist, but it’s interesting to have this happen so soon after “For The Uniform.”
- Speaking of previous episodes, I guess we know why Sisko was freaking out about locusts and Cardassia and whatnot.
- “I cannot defeat this Klingon. All I can do is kill him and that no longer holds my interest.”—Jem’Hadar warrior. Cannot stress enough how great it was to watch him yield when faced with Worf’s refusal to back down; not because Worf represents any physical threat (the guy is close to unconsciousness), but because his own sense of honor forces him to respect Worf’s determination. Less great, but still important: the warrior is immediately killed by his own men on orders from the Vorta in command of the camp. Boy, the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar really don’t get along too great. Wonder if that’s going to go anywhere.
- DS9 gets a permanent Klingon garrison, and Sisko puts Martok in charge. Neat!
- The only fallout from faux Bashir’s time on the station? O’Brien makes a joke at the real Bashir’s expense. (“Well, for one thing, he was a lot easier to get along with.”)
“Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” (season 5, episode 16)
In which Bashir is more than meets the eye…
(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)
“Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” has us shifting gears, although not nearly as much as the first half of the episode would suggest. After the intensity of the new threat from the Dominion, we get a pair of smaller stories, focused on a handful of characters. In the subplot, Rom struggles to find the courage to express his feelings to Leeta, while she waits patiently for him to ask her on a date; and in the main plot, Bashir learns he’s been chosen as the model for a holographic medical program. The tone is light, exemplified by a guest star turn from the always welcome Robert Picardo. By this point, Star Trek: Voyager had been on the air for a couple years, and Picardo’s character is one of the only two people on the show to have ever made any impression on me; I’m going to make a small jump and assume he’s a fan favorite, because it’s Robert Picardo. He does excellent work here, playing an arrogant, mildly nebbishy scientist who seems like a creep at first, but then turns out to be not really so bad once you get past his irritating exterior. So, the Picardo specialty, really.
But Zimmerman (Picard’s scientist character) isn’t the focus here; he’s more of a catalyst that forces the real stories into motion. In Rom’s case, it’s simple enough. Leeta keeps giving Rom a chance to ask her out, he can’t work up the courage to do it, and then Zimmerman forces the issue by giving Leeta a great reason to leave the station. It’s not a particularly deep conflict, and it’s watchable because the actors are game and the characters endearing; Picardo manages to make Zimmerman’s infatuation with Leeta surprisingly un-creepy, and it’s sweet to see both Rom and Leeta find happiness together. But I’d still be happy if I never had to see this particular sort of silliness ever again. Rom’s shyness is a forced obstacle that’s mostly just frustrating to watch, and Leeta’s weird refusal to actually ask him out her own damn self is kind of infuriating. Sure, you can say there’s some Bajoran philosophical reason that holds her back, but nobody mentions it, and that would still sound pretty dumb. She knows he likes her—she literally says she does. The whole thing isn’t painful for anything, but it’s good when it’s over.
Much more compelling, and a bit heavier on the melodrama, is Bashir’s story. What starts off as a fun excuse to let another Trek actor guest on the series turns into something a lot more complex when Bashir’s parents show up on the station. Zimmerman is there to record Bashir’s image, and construct a hologram program based off his looks and personality to use at Starfleet locations that can’t necessarily afford the space for medical personnel. Basically, it’s like the Doctor from Voyager (a program Zimmerman created and based on himself, naturally), only this program is designed to be more long term. So there’s some fun stuff with O’Brien throwing out some jokes, and a goofy exchange between the Bashir hologram and the Zimmerman hologram, and then Zimmerman starts interviewing people on the station about Bashir. Bashir begs the scientist not to contact his parents, but Zimmerman goes against his wishes, and that’s when things get interesting.
At first, it’s a lot of funny-and-uncomfortable gags about sons resenting their parents. Brian George and Fadwa El Guindi as Richard and Amsha Bashir are convincingly loving but just a little off; Richard in particular comes off as a charming, but slightly shiftless, dreamer, the kind of fast-talking, genial con man who’s less a villain than a guy whose reach is perpetually exceeding his grasp. This helps to justify the episode’s big twist: Bashir was genetically enhanced when he was 6 years old, to give him exceptional intelligence and physical abilities. I’m assuming this wasn’t planned ahead of time, but as retcons go, it’s pretty cool, and it’s introduced smoothly here. Suspicions are raised when Bashir asks Zimmerman to leave his folks out of the project, but there’s the foreshadowing doesn’t really kick in until mom, dad, and Julian are having dinner, and Bashir starts alluding to this “secret” between them. Up until then, the episode plays like a goofy fun. Even the reveal is sort of silly: Richard confesses his sins to the Bashir hologram, mistaking the program for his son like this was some kind of nutty sci-fi farce.
Things get serious after that, though, and that seriousness helps change the addition to Bashir’s backstory. It’s a little over-the-top in places, but the actors sell the idea sincerely, and Bashir’s resentment isn’t all that different from the resentment most gifted children feel towards their parents eventually; that deep-rooted, illogical certainty that Mom and Dad only really love you for your abilities, for the positive impression you can lend to their legacy. In Bashir’s case, the fear/anger is especially acute, given that he has seemingly irrefutable evidence that his parents weren’t satisfied with his real self. The argument between father and son is a raw one, rawer than we’ve maybe ever seen Bashir get on the show, and it helps distract from some of the sketchier aspects of the twist—like the fact that Bashir has significantly better reflexes than a normal human being. The doctor has been good at sports in the past, but he’s never been that good, and presumably there were times over the run of the series when his super smarts and skills would’ve been useful. Yet, nothing springs immediately to mind, which means it gets a pass. Besides, it helps explain how Bashir survived a month in a Jem’Hadar internment camp with nothing worse than a dirty face and some bad memories.
The drama between the doctor and his folks works out okay; Richard is a stand up guy, and when the secret comes out, he does the right thing and reports himself to the authorities. He’ll be going away to a minimum security prison in New Zealand for a couple years (they must put on awesome Lord Of The Rings cosplay), and Julian gets to keep his job. It’s good that there’s some consequence for all this, and that Bashir doesn’t have to pay for his parents’ mistakes. But while I’m glad to meet those parents, and I always enjoy a good angst-shedding squabble, what mostly interests me about “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” is how it will affect Bashir’s character down the line. I doubt he’ll start leaping tall buildings in a single bound or anything like that. We know who Julian is by now: a dedicated doctor, determined to do the right thing. There’s no reason for that to change. But I like how this means he’s just one more misfit toy, hiding in plain sight. Even if the genetic alterations are never mentioned again, we’ll know they’re there, and we’ll know that deep down, he’ll always be that 6-year-old boy, struggling to keep up with his peers, knowing he’ll never be good enough.
- Robert Picardo basically disappears for the back half of this one. I get why: The real conflict is between Bashir and his dad, and needs all the time it can get. But I wish he’d been more involved, because man, I love me some Robert Picardo.
- The random admiral who gives a lecture at the end about the horrors of genetic engineering is hilarious. The reference to Khan is nice (although he gives the wrong era for the Eugenics War), but the speech plays like the end of an anti-drug PSA.
- Quark tries to get Rom to forget his romantic woes with a little Vulcan Love Slave Part 2: The Revenge. Once again, we are reminded how gross those holosuites must be.
- The last scene between Bashir and O’Brien is great, as they always are. It’s a nice touch how the dartboard sound effects indicate Bashir is winning even before we see where the darts landed.
Next week: Odo has a romance in “A Simple Investigation” and Quark has a conscience in “Business As Usual.”