“Hippocratic Oath” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired 10/16/1995)
In which Bashir and O’Brien have different ideas about doing no harm…
You think of drama, you think of conflict; and when you think of conflict, the easiest conflict to think of is good versus evil. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a bit on the simple side, and it can lead to lazy writing, but plenty of great stories have a hero, and a villain, and get a lot of mileage out of watching them duke it out. But there’s something missing in those confrontations. Or, to put it another way, there’s something little too obvious about them. I mean, when it’s good vs. evil, well, you know who you’re supposed to root for, right? Hitler was evil. You certainly wouldn’t want to root for Hitler.
Again: nothing wrong with that. You can get a lot of rich, satisfying emotion out of seeing some baddies get their comeuppance. But it’s limiting if that’s the only kind of conflict a writer ever uses, because there are only so many ways you can tell the good guy vs. bad guy story. The details change, but the basic arc will always be pretty much stuck in place. Occasionally, you could go for a downer and let the baddies win, but even that, it’s the same arc, just with the consequences inverted. What really needs to happen to shake things up, to make things complicated in a way that allows for more shades of narrative as well as forces the audience to engage more fully in the result, is that you need to remove the “good” and “bad” altogether. It’s just guys, gals, and whatever comes in-between. The conflict still happens, and it gets trickier to pull off because you can’t just say “he wants this because he’s evil” or “she will protect that because she’s good.” You’ve got to come up with strong motivation, the more understandable and relatable the better. When you do that, you have a fight between a whole bunch of characters, all with different, but valid, goals, and no obvious happy ending to root for. And even when you do get to the ending, it’s all awkward and bittersweet. Maybe even haunting.
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Admittedly, this is just another long-winded way for me to describe the evolution of DS9, but given how the main story of “Hippocratic Oath” plays out, especially between Bashir and O’Brien, it felt worth repeating. This isn’t as epic an episode as the premiere; nor is it as emotional gut-wrenching as “The Visitor.” This is what you call a back-to-basics hour, the sort of meat and potatoes entry in which the status quo doesn’t really change, but everyone runs around a bit, some lessons are learned, and, most obviously, we have a main plot and a sub plot to fill up the time. It’s very, very good, finding new ways to explore and poke at the Bashir and O’Brien friendship, as well as giving us some more information about the Jem’Hadar, helping the race’s transition in our eyes from fearsome warrior class to fearsome, horribly exploited warrior class which might, someday, prove a valuable ally. Our heroes are held as captives, but they escape unharmed, as we know they would. But it isn’t a happy ending, though, and that escape comes with a price.
The subplot is a lot more straightforward. Worf hasn’t had a chance to settle into his role on the station (and the show) yet. He had a solid arc in the premiere, and the writers were smart enough to have him lurking around in the background of this season’s second episode, but he’s still new enough that we don’t really know what role he’s supposed to fill. More importantly, neither does he, and his experience on the Enterprise as the Head Security Officer has him eyeing suspicious characters in Quark’s bar, and then getting fidgety when Odo refuses to immediately arrest them. It’s an obvious plot from the beginning; given what we know of Worf (straight-shooter, sometimes to his detriment) and Odo (canny, and very, very good at his job), there isn’t much doubt about who’s going to wind up ahead in this debate. And it plays out as you’d expect. Wof keeps insisting Odo needs to do his job, Odo keeps explaining, with less and less patient, that that’s exactly what he’s doing, until finally, Worf decides to take matters into his own hands, and in doing so, messes up Odo’s carefully planned sting operation. It’s maybe a bit on the simple side, and it’s not like Trek viewers haven’t seen Worf humiliated enough at this point. But it would’ve been odd if Worf hadn’t had a few growing pains on DS9, and Sisko’s nonchalant reaction to it all takes some of the sting out of the embarrassment. Honor doesn’t quite mean the same thing on the station as it does in Worf’s head, and he’ll need to get used to that, soon.
Thankfully, Bashir and O’Brien’s encounter with the Jem’Hadar is much more intriguing. It’s not just a hostage situation. (Actually, I don’t even know if the Jem’Hadar bother to take hostages; more likely, if the leader of the group hadn’t needed Bashir’s help, they would’ve tortured the two men and then killed them.) Thanks to the genetic manipulations of the Vorta, the Jem’Hadar are addicted to a drug they call ketracel white. Goran’Agar, the leader of this group, is determined to break his men’s addiction to the substance, and thus free them from Vorta control. He insists to Bashir that it can be done; he himself no longer requires regular doses, and he broke his addiction years ago, when he crash-landed on the very same planet that the Jem’Hadar, O’Brien, and Bashir are on right now. He believes that something in the planet’s atmosphere, water, or plant-life may have helped him to get off the white, a process which is normally lethal to his kind, but he doesn’t know how to repeat this process. For this, he wants Bashir’s help.
So we have Bashir and O’Brien pitted against a brutal enemy; we have one of those enemies making a half plea/half demand of the doctor, which puts him in the position of having to balance his obligation to help sentient beings in pain against the very real physical threat; we have a squad of Jem’Hadar half out of their minds from suffering the intermittent agonies of withdrawal, a race whose first response to any situation is violence; and we have O’Brien, the former soldier, dedicated to saving his and Bashir’s life, regardless of Bashir’s loftier ambitions. It makes for an excellent mix, and no one side comes out the winner. Or rather, winners in a situation like this are less a matter of moral authority, and more a matter of whomever walks away in the end. Bashir is eventually won over to Goran’Agar’s position, convinced by both his own loathing of the Vorta’s actions, and by Goran’s behavior. Now that his addiction is no longer an issue (his body has developed a way to provide him with sufficient amounts of the white to survive), Goran’Agar is more thoughtful, less eager to kill, and easier to find common ground with. If it were possible to free the Jem’Hadar from their chemical enslavement, maybe one of the Founder’s greatest threats would no longer me such a danger.
It’s not hard to see where Bashir is coming from, and not hard to agree with him, but while he’s getting to know their captors, O’Brien is getting pushed around and kept locked away in a cave. O’Brien has some experience with captivity and war, more than Bashir has had, and when the opportunity arises to escape, he seizes it without a second thought. Then, when Bashir refuses to join him, O’Brien destroys the doctor’s work, leaving him no choice. This is arguably the most villainous act in the entire episode (well, okay, barring the whole “kidnapping strangers to do your bidding” thing), but it makes complete sense in context, and doesn’t say anything negative about the chief whatsoever. He’s doing what believes he has to do, and if his view is a bit more simplified than Bashir’s, you can’t blame him. They are being held prisoner, after all, and if Julian hadn’t managed to find Goran’Agar’s cure—a cure there is no guarantee actually exists—both he and O’Brien would’ve been killed. In an ideal universe, the noblest thing to do would always be the right thing to do. This isn’t an ideal universe.
In the end, our heroes escape, with some minor damage to their friendship. Presumably, the Jem’Hadar all wind up dead. It’s not the happiest ending, but it’s honest.
- Another solid moment: even after O’Brien has destroyed Bashir’s work, thus ensuring that Goran’Agar and his men are doomed, Goran’Agar doesn’t treat him as the enemy. He recognizes him as a fellow soldier.
- I don’t think anyone specifically references the Hippocratic Oath in this episode, which is cool.
“Indiscretion” (season 4, episode 4; originally aired 10/23/1995)
In which Kira and Gul Dukat go on a road trip…
Another meat and potatoes episode; another split between main plot and sub-plot, with once again the main plot doing most of the heavy lifting. Standard TV stuff, obviously, and it basically works, but “Indiscretion” is a good example of a strong hour which might have been stronger if it had focused more on one single storyline. Sisko’s relationship woes are engaging enough, and it’s good to have this kind of comparatively low stakes drama on the show, reminding us that these are still people (or otherwise) trying to lead their lives in the middle of all this craziness. But like Worf’s story in the previous episode, it’s predictable, and there’s no corresponding satisfaction in seeing that predictability play out.
The idea is, Benjamin and Kasidy’s relationship is going well, and Kasidy has a new job offer from Bajor that would keep her in the system more regularly, and even allow her to set up some permanent quarters on the station. Sisko is uncomfortable about this, and when they try and have a conversation about it over dinner, his lack of enthusiasm upsets Yates, and she leaves the room. It’s the first big argument we’ve seen the couple have, which is important, but it’s also the most predictable argument two people in love on a tv show could have. She wants to take the next step in the relationship; he’s nervous about moving too fast. The fact that Sisko has backstory reasons for his nervousness, reasons beyond simple cold-feetism, helps the situation to an extent. He lost his first wife, and her death was directly connected to his line of work. He’s also the head guy on a space station which has gone through any number of dangerous crises in the last few years, a station which will almost certainly be facing threats in the near future. It makes sense that he’d be worried about having someone else in his life, someone apart from Jake, to be worried about.
The episode manages to convey all this, and the actors handle the material competently, but there’s no real spark to any of it. The most interesting moments aren’t really about Kasidy or Benjamin at all; it’s delightful to see Bashir and Dax teaming up to give romantic advice, or hear Jake relay his conversation to Nog about how Sisko should be handling himself. But to see their helpful tips put into action is, well, it’s okay. It’s not bad. I’m glad Sisko gets over his fears quickly enough not to risk a promising relationship with someone. But in the end, I’m not sure it was worth this much time to see something so rote unfold so rotely.
This especially true when you compare this subplot against the more ambitious, and more unsettling, main storyline. Kira gets news that there might be a way to locate a ship, the Ravinok, that’s been missing since the occupation. She had a friend on board, and there’s a chance that friend might still be alive, so she’s determined to find out what happened. The problem is, the Ravinok was a Cardassian prisoner transport, and once the Cardassians get wind of Kira’s intentions, they insist that she bring along a Cardassian investigator. After some cajoling from Sisko (this is, after all, the Cardassian civilian government; it makes sense to maintain as good a connection with them as possible), Kira agrees to take on a partner, only to discover, to her dismay, that the investigator is Gul Dukat.
It’s a tricky pairing, and one I’m not sure the writers know entirely what to do with. Forcing two former enemies to work together to achieve a common goal is an old trick, and, when done well, a deeply satisfying one; there’s something wonderfully optimistic about watching a pair of people with every reason to want each other dead gradually finding some kind of common ground. Only, Dukat isn’t just a crook Kira’s been trying to track down, or a soldier fighting on the opposite side of a war. He was the head of the occupation of Bajor, the leader responsible for the loss of hundreds, maybe thousands of Bajoran lives. It’s hard to find common ground there, unless you call being in Hell the same time as the Devil sharing common ground. And Dukat’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Kira are misguided, to say the least. His big pitch in the shuttlecraft is that the Occupation helped to make the Bajoran people stronger, made them harder and more confident in themselves; it’s an argument that manages to be both insulting and self-serving at once, and for Dukat to consider it a starting point for opening discussions makes it hard to believe Kira doesn’t just kill him right then and there.
DS9 generally does a good job hiding its TV-roots, at the least when it comes to the more unfortunate restrictions those roots carry. But of course Kira can’t kill Dukat, because that would be too big of a shift—the writers are far more ambitious about changing the status quo on a galactic scale than on an individual one, which is how we can have war and chaos without any major shifts in the main cast. Mostly, this works. None of us want characters to die, and there’s enough drama in the potential that the actual eventuality never needs to happen. But watching Kira and Dukat face off against one another is such an unsettling situation that having them play through the usual getting to know you routines never quite feels right. It’s not that Kira needed to kill Dukat. But more acknowledgement that she had spent a good part of her life determined to murder him for his crimes against her people would’ve gone a long way to generating the right kind of tension. Imagine how this might have played out on a show like Battlestar Galactica, whose characters were seemingly capable of doing just about anything. Just acknowledging the possibility that something bad might happen would’ve been enough.
Instead, Kira puts up a good show, and for a few scenes even appears to be softening towards Dukat. It’s hard to swallow, to say the least; Dukat’s behavior makes him more sympathetic to us (we learn that the real reason he’s interested in the Ravinok is that his Bajoran mistress was on board when the ship disappeared), but it shouldn’t necessarily change how she views him. There’s a scene in which Dukat sits on something sharp, injuring himself, and Kira has to pull the object out of his buttock. She then offers him a device to heal the wound, and starts laughing at the visual of Dukat contorting his body to get a better angle on his own ass. It’s very strange, and not all that funny. I guess there’s something to be said for reducing a monster to a fool, but both their laughter is so awkward and shrill it’s hard to know for sure if it’s supposed to be sincere, or freakish, or something else.
Things snap into focus soon after when Kira finally ferrets out Dukat’s real real reason for coming along. He had a daughter with his Bajoran mistress, and if that daughter is still alive, he intends to kill her; if his enemies back on Cardassia learned of the young woman’s existence, his life and career would be put in jeopardy. This, at least, is the Dukat we know and hiss at, a self-serving bastard with enough charm to make those qualities seem far more clever than they probably are. Kira is appropriately horrified, and it could be that the earlier, minor friendship that had been developing between them served to lull her into a false security. It becomes her mission not just to find the survivors, but also to make sure that Dukat isn’t able to follow through on his goal, and having them be antagonistic, while still forced to work together, brings a clarity back to their interactions which was lacking before.
The climax of the episode comes when Dukat finally tracks down his child, has his gun on her, and then can’t follow through. It should be a thrilling, redemptive moment, a sign that Dukat, for all his coldness, does have some decency somewhere. But it doesn’t quite work, because instead of thinking, “Yay, he didn’t shoot his kid!”, I’m wondering if he has some sort of ulterior motive for not shooting her; if this was all come kind of con to win Kira over. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool, but only when it serves the story’s needs. In this case, my difficulties aligning what I know of Dukat’s character with his behavior on screen robbed the episode of its intended impact. Which is why I wish we’d spent less time with Sisko’s romance woes. The main plot of “Indiscretion” was tricky, and emotionally complex enough to have warranted more screentime. As is, it’s still a good episode, but one that leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
- Razka Karn and Lorit Akream; great names, but sometimes I wonder if the writers don’t just dump a bunch of Scrabble tiles on a table and hope.
- The Breen, the aliens who held the survivors of the Ravinok hostage after the ship crashed, wear helmets that look a lot like oversized versions of the mask Leia wears as a bounty hunter in Return Of The Jedi.
Next week: Dax gets intimate with an old acquaintance in “Rejoined,” and pine for rabbits in space on “Starship Down.”