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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Babel (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

With Babel, we hit the most significant flaw in the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Put frankly, Babel is the first story that could easily have worked as an episode of the original Star Trek or of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Indeed, Michael Piller concedes in Captains’ Logs Supplemental – The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages that Babel had a history longer than that of Deep Space Nine itself:

We had this premise for over five years at Next Generation. It was written by the same person who wrote “Hollow Pursuits” for us, and we had always been attracted to the idea that you could suddenly lose the ability to use language and communicate, and how people are able to communicate with each other.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that the first season of Deep Space Nine was airing concurrently with the sixth season of The Next Generation. If people wanted to see stories that could work on The Next Generation, it made more sense to see them executed on that show by a production team with experience in these sorts of plots.

While Babel isn’t a bad episode by any means, there’s a sense that it has been cobbled together from leftovers at another table, and the result isn’t nearly as satisfying as it should be.

Chief concerns...

Chief concerns…

To be fair, the ingredients are solid. The idea at the heart of Babel is a solid science-fiction premise, and one ideally suited to the Star Trek universe. After all, Roddenberry dared to imagine a future where we all would have learned to communicate with one another and get along, so removing our capacity to speak to or comprehend one another makes for a pretty fascinating central concept. Indeed, the early scenes of people like Dax and O’Brien suddenly speaking gibberish are effectively conveyed, with a palpable sense of concern and fear as they realise what has happened to them.

The problem, of course, is that it all feels a tad generic. Star Trek is a big fan of “virus” stories. Indeed, you could see Babel as a spiritual successor to the tradition of first season virus episodes like The Naked Time and The Naked Now. While I’d argue that Babel is at least much stronger than The Naked Now, it still feels a little awkward. The first season of a new Star Trek show should really be about defining that particular show, rather than consciously attempting to emulate its predecessors.

A beam of optimism...

A beam of optimism…

The Next Generation spent a great deal of its first season attempting to replicate the formula that made Star Trek so popular, and Deep Space Nine would spend quite a bit of its first season trying to channel the things that made The Next Generation so popular. Unfortunately, it’s trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Deep Space Nine is not The Next Generation, and has been explicitly designed differently. It seems a waste of all that energy to try to make it conform for the sake of a standard virus story.

The efforts to build suspense in the final third don’t really help matters that much. The threat of death from the virus feels a little bit superfluous. After all, losing the ability to talk or to understand is terrifying enough. Death, on the other hand, is a conventional plot device and we know that the virus has to be cured before the time elapses. Of course, I suppose we also know that the virus has to be resolved within forty-five minutes, but adding death as an eventual consequence of infection feels too trite and too conventional.

The house always wins...

The house always wins…

Similarly, the problem with Captain Jaheel seems to exist merely as an excuse for some dramatic music cues. It seems strange that only one person would cause a problem in a situation like this, and it makes Deep Space Nine feel much smaller than it really should. Instead of a major threat in its own right, Jaheel’s attempt to escape feels like it exists to pad out an episode that was likely running a few minutes short.

To be entirely fair, there are several touches here that do define this as a Deep Space Nine story, but they are relatively understated when compared to the distinctive approach showcased in Past Prologue and A Man Alone. For example, there is the underdeveloped idea of Deep Space Nine itself as something of a hub, rather than a starship. Being a space station and a nexus of galactic activity, an infection on a station like this is arguably a greater concern than an outbreak on the Enterprise. With life forms from countless worlds coming and going, the spread of a virus could be catastrophic.

That Captain's pay should definitely be docked...

That Captain’s pay should definitely be docked…

Unfortunately, the episode only really hints at this idea, with only Captain Jaheel confronting Sisko about his need to leave. As such, the risk to the wider universe isn’t properly conveyed, and it winds up feeling like Jaheel exists merely as a convenient third-act obstacle for Sisko and Odo (and Quark!) to deal with. It’s a shame, because it might have been more interesting to see the consequences and difficulties of locking down a station this size, with this many different cultures and race on board.

There’s also the history of the virus which feels a little shallow. It’s easy enough to imagine the back story of the infection being conveniently re-written for an episode of The Next Generation. Tying it to the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor is a nice way to root the crisis in the station’s past, but it feels underdeveloped and a little trite. After all, the issue of the Bajoran labourers on the station is never raised.

Airlocked in...

Airlocked in…

We see from Kira that the virus affects Bajorans as well, so it seems a little weird that the Bajoran underground would do something like this. Why not limit the virus to explicitly target Cardassian DNA? The answer, of course, is that such an approach would not facilitate the story that the production team want to tell. Then again, if they did restrict it like that, you’d simply have a much less interesting version of The Wire on your hands.

And, to be fair to the writers working on Babel, the show does try its best to use the characters in a way that feels organic, rather than shoe-horning them into familiar roles. Even if this is a problem that The Next Generation would deal with, and even if it develops like an episode of The Next Generation, there’s at least a sense that the characters here are relatively well-defined. Which is good, but is a little undermined when the episode is explicitly about character interactions failing to work – in other words, not an episode conducive to character development.

Odo strikes a nerve...

Odo strikes a nerve…

There are some small problems. Odo, for example, seems to lack a bit of definition. It almost seems like the writers are trying to use the character as the show’s token “logical” character, in the spirit of Spock or Data. We saw in A Man Alone that the writers seem quite fond of that archetype, even trying to shoehorn Dax into the role when it looked like Odo might not fit. Here we have Odo making the very Spock- or Data-esque confession that he doesn’t play Dabo because he doesn’t understand it.

Quark offers to let him have a spin, prompting Odo to refuse. “The truth is,” he confesses, in a rare moment of honesty with Quark, “I never learned the game.” This forces Quark into the role of his professor of humanities. “You mean,” Quark asks, “you’ve sat here for all these years and you don’t even know how to gamble?” Luckily, the show never makes too conscious an effort to develop the characters down that line, even if it is clear that Quark does harbour some affection for Odo.

We have a Major problem here...

We have a Major problem here…

The other characters, however, seem much more well-defined and consistent. We get a nice scene with Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton. One of the smarter things that show did was to keep Jake Sisko around without feeling the need to feature him in every episode. As a result, he was around when the show wanted to develop the Sisko family, but it didn’t clutter up the show unnecessarily. It helps that Brooks does an excellent job portraying Ben Sisko as a concerned father. Lofton is fine here (much stronger than Will Wheaton in The Next Generation), but he’ll improve dramatically during the third and fourth seasons of the show.

We also get some nice ambiguous behaviour from Kira, who continues her trend of being the strongest leading female character in Star Trek, a title she established in Emissary and has been holding on to ever since. Once again, we’re confronted with the fact that Kira operates on her code of morality. She is, after all, a former terrorist. She refuses to apologise for what she had to do for Bajor, and there’s a sense that she is just as willing to do what it takes to protect Deep Space Nine (and by extension Bajor) now as she was during the occupation.

This new talk is infectious...

This new talk is infectious…

Indeed, she seems dismissive of Sisko’s authority here. She appears to leave without filling him in on her plan. “Major, I can’t allow you to break quarantine,” he protests. “We can’t risk spreading the virus to Bajor.” Kira responds in a way that manages to avoid revealing her intent. “I am well aware of that, Commander,” she concedes. “As a matter of fact, I don’t intend to step foot on the planet.” She doesn’t fill Sisko in on her plan to abduct a native from the surface, and it seems heavily implied that Sisko would object.

It is worth noting that Kira’s actions here are so reckless and borderline amoral that this is the first time we’ve seen a Star Trek regular do something like this. She kidnaps a Bajoran from his office, one who has a tangential (at best) relationship to the virus, and who might – through no fault of his own – be unable to do anything to cure it. Kira does this knowing that she is infecting this man with a potentially fatal virus.

Taking it as written...

Taking it as written…

It helps that Surmak seems a little confrontational and disagreeable – Kira’ action would seem a bit harsher if he were a nice guy. Still, her action crosses all sorts of moral lines. When he refuses once again to help, she responds, “All right. Then how about helping yourself?” When he asks what she means by this, she replies, “Meaning I’ve been infected with your virus, Doctor. So now you’re infected too.” If Surmak couldn’t make heads-nor-tails of Bashir’s research, Kira had doomed a relatively innocent man. It’s a very morally grey portrayal of Kira, but it is one that fits what we know of her.

In contrast, Babel also marks the beginning of a problematic portrayal of Quark. I remarked in A Man Alone that Deep Space Nine did wonders for the Ferengi as a Star Trek alien. And, to be fair, it does. However, there’s a bit of difficulty with Quark’s role in the ensemble in some of these early episodes. In short, Quark is the character who keeps betraying the crew for money. It happens quite a bit in the first season, but it also pops up in Invasive Procedures in the second season as well.

He'll be the death of Sisko...

He’ll be the death of Sisko…

Here, Quark uses command-level replicators to replicate bar food, facilitating the spread of the virus. This then gives the virus enough of a foothold that it can mutate into an airborne pathogen. Of course, it’s hard to blame Quark for this. After all, he didn’t start the infection. It’s quite possible that the infection could have become airborne without Quark’s assistance. And, even then, it’s not as if he knew the risk he was putting the station in.

It’s a troublesome portrayal for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it makes Quark look like a bit of an idiot, that his schemes backfire so readily. In fact, the fact that they consistently and continually backfire suggests that he’s really not that skilled a Ferengi. That said, it’s also the fact that Quark lacks the foresight to see any of this backfiring means that he really is a legitimate threat to the safety of the station.

Pulling out all the (st)Ops...

Pulling out all the (st)Ops…

In fact, these repeated failures make Sisko look incompetent for keeping Quark around, despite the fact that Quark is evidently a massive source of risk to the station and its crew. I know Sisko wants community spirit on the station and explained his reasons convincingly in Emissary, but the point where he almost accidentally gets Jadzia killed would probably be the point at which I’d kick him to the curb.

O’Brien gets a nice bit of focus at the start of the episode. Indeed, O’Brien really is an underrated gem of a character, particularly as he developed on Deep Space Nine. He’s very much a working-class character in a universe where mankind has apparently moved past class distinctions. O’Brien isn’t LaForgi or Scotty. He’s not working on a ship of the line trying to break records. Instead, he’s trying to keep doors working properly and replicators from breaking down.

To be fair, Ben is not quite on course for "father of the year" here...

To be fair, Ben is not quite on course for “father of the year” here…

Colm Meaney is great, and it’s nice that there’s a sense of resentment at his lot in life – the fact that everyone expects everything of him, the straws piling up to break the camel’s back. When Sisko gives him another instruction, O’Brien angrily mutters, “You’re absolutely right, sir. I knew I’d forgotten something. Can’t have the operations chief sitting around daydreaming when there’s work to be done, can we? I’ll get right on it.” It’s hard to imagine any other regular character on Star Trek griping about their job like that.

Then again, there’s a sense that being in charge of repairs on Deep Space Nine is hardly the must illustrious assignment. A Man Alone made it clear that O’Brien was effective bribed to the station with a promotion that will be revoked if he leaves. His relative lack of seniority (he’s just about the only major non-commissioned officer in the franchise) despite his responsibility suggests that this was a job that nobody else would take. Indeed, it seems that O’Brien – quite like a lot of the cast – quite simply doesn’t want to be here. He’s only there because he really has to be. “I should’ve transferred to a cargo drone,” he laments. “No people, no complaints.”

A handy plot device...

A handy plot device…

Still, despite some interesting character beats, Babel feels like it would work a lot smoother with the cast of The Next Generation. Sadly, it represents the first time that we’ll see that complaint this season. There’s a run of episodes in the middle of Deep Space Nine‘s first year where it feels like the production team were simply going through the motions and revisiting franchise staples, instead of telling stories suited to the particular show.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine grew out of that phase fairly quickly. It took Star Trek: Enterprise at least two years to do so. Star Trek: Voyager arguably never did. That’s not a lot of comfort right now, but at least this starts a run of episodes that feel like functional Star Trek. That is, after all, more than could really be said about the middle stretch of The Next Generation‘s first season.

You might be interested in our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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3 Responses

  1. “We have a Major problem here…”

    Is this awful pun going to be all the DS9 reviews until Kira’s promotion to colonel in season 7? God help us all…

  2. I kept thinking that the cargo captain was actually the bajoran who created the disease, and he was in disguise. I think that would have made a lot more sense. Maybe, he was actually a bajoran extremist who wanted people off th station.

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