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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Distant Voices (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Poor Julian Bashir. Even at two-and-a-half seasons in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the character is still a blank slate. Distant Voices is a story that takes us inside the character’s head, but it winds up feeling very generic. It turns out that Bashir is afraid of getting old, as awkwardly pointed out in the opening scene. He also might have some self-esteem issues. For an episode that journeys into Bashir’s brain, Distant Voices is really pretty bland. There’s really not too much going on there.

Indeed, the most interesting thing about this glimpse inside Bashir’s mind is that it is so generic that it manages to avoid conflicting at all with the character-shattering revelation that Ronald D. Moore proposes in Doctor Bashir, I Presume. While it’s a nice piece of trivia, it’s hardly a compelling hook.

"So this is what a 100,000th episode party looks like..."

“So this is what a 100,000th episode party looks like…”

It should be conceded that Distant Voices is really the last episode of Deep Space Nine centring around Julian Bashir that does not work. From here on out, the character is generally at the centre of functional stories. Even the weaker stories driven by the character (such as Chrysalis or Extreme Measures) are basically functional. There’s a huge improvement over episodes like The Passenger or Melora or even If Wishes Were Horses…

In fact, the only storyline driven by Bashir that really worked during the first three years of Deep Space Nine was The Wire. And, even then, there’s a strong argument to be made that Bashir was really the supporting player in that story, or – at the very least – he was sharing it with a more interesting character. Looking at the first three seasons of Deep Space Nine, you get a sense that it would have been really easy to just write Bashir into the background and forget about him.

She's dead, Jim...

She’s dead, Jim…

Indeed, the producers even considered firing Siddig El Fadil from the cast, with Rick Berman fighting to keep the actor and the character on board. In the long run, this serves to make Bashir one of the most interesting characters in the franchise. He is a character that could very easily have become a companion to the franchise’s other under-developed leads like Harry Kim or Travis Mayweather, but who was developed to the point where he could become a functioning part of the ensemble who could support an episode in his own right.

That’s a pretty strong endorsement of the approach that Deep Space Nine adopted to its characters, and it’s something that none of the other Star Trek shows really emulated, although Star Trek: Enterprise did at least try with the character of Malcolm Reed in the final season. Still, all of this is abstract. The knowledge that the show’s next Bashir episode will be much better doesn’t substantially improve Distant Voices. It doesn’t redeem the poor choices made with the character in the past, or the fact that the writers took three full years to properly figure out how best to write Bashir as a protagonist.

"Precious!"

“Precious!”

Distant Voices unfolds inside Bashir’s head. It’s really the perfect excuse to dig beneath the surface of a character who lacks the sort of deep inner life of the characters surrounding him. Since Emissary, Bashir has worked best as part of the ensemble. He is the member of the Deep Space Nine cast you could most easily imagine serving on Picard’s Enterprise. He is the embodiment of Roddenberry’s perfected humanity; he’s smart, sophisticated, enthusiastic, optimistic, but also arrogant and somewhat aloof.

However, you get a sense that Distant Voices wouldn’t really be any different had it unfolded inside Geordi LaForge’s head or Harry Kim’s head. It turns out that Bashir is turning thirty and so his mortality is on his on his mind; this doesn’t feel particularly specific to the character, instead seeming like the show had to invent something vaguely interesting about our young doctor so that it could form the basis of the journey to the centre of Julian Bashir.

The stars' tennis balls...

The stars’ tennis balls…

Sure, Bashir is young and enthusiastic, one imagines that using his youth and vitality might be a concern. However, Bashir has never been too concerned about growing old before. The fact that all of this is clumsily mentioned in the episode’s teaser feels like the most awkward sort of foreshadowing, as Garak and Bashir conveniently happen to talk about the episode’s subject matter. It’s a thematic version of Chekov’s gun: the theme discussed in the teaser must be confronted in the fifth.

There’s something very arbitrary about all this. When Bashir encounters the regular cast of Deep Space Nine representing various parts of his personality, it seems like this might be the perfect opportunity to see how Bashir views (and relates to) the characters around him. Some of the choices are logical. Kira is the perfect vessel for Bashir’s anger, while Odo is the embodiment of Bashir’s paranoia. (Even if one gets the sense Bashir’s paranoia should be even more immature.)

Frying his brain...

Frying his brain…

Beyond that, things get a little hazy. Bashir’s subconscious chooses O’Brien to represent Bashir’s cowardice. This feels a little strange for a number of reasons. For one thing, Bashir knows O’Brien is a former soldier, and has seen him in action as such. It’s also worth noting that the first scene inside Bashir’s mind has the character encountering a cowering Quark. (Later on, Quark reappears as Bashir’s greed… which makes the audience wonder, if Bashir is greedy, surely it’s in a very different way than Quark is greedy.)

In the early part of the episode, Dax takes charge of the situation. This seems a little strange, as Bashir’s relationship with Dax has always been flirtatious and fun. One imagines that Dax would work better as the embodiment of Bashir’s sense of fun and excitement. Even Bashir concedes as much, “Dax, to me you’ve always represented my confidence and sense of adventure.” Oddly enough, this seems to be rather at odds with what Dax actually represents. She is short-tempered and trigger-happy.

In darkness dwells...

In darkness dwells…

There’s a sense of randomness to all this, as if the concept itself is the attraction and Bashir himself has just been slotted into the character-shaped hole at the centre of the plot. There are a few nods and catchy visual references to Bashir’s past – the tennis balls in Ops, the fact that Altovar’s criticisms about Bashir are rooted in a mistake referenced as early as Emissary and Q-Less. At the same time, there’s a sense that Distant Voices ended up as a Bashir show because he was the only major character who had yet to receive a character-centric episode this season.

To be fair, the final conversation between Bashir and Altovar is quite a nice piece of work – underscoring the idea that Bashir has self-esteem issues that have always held him back, suggesting that his enthusiasm and confidence really mask a well of insecurity and uncertainty. It’s something the show has been hinting at since at least If Wishes Were Horses…, and it makes a great deal of sense in the context of the character. That said, it does feel like the show is only now reaching a conclusion the audience had reached two years earlier.

Well, I imagine being a doctor is very stressful...

Well, I imagine being a doctor is very stressful…

The revelation that Bashir effectively threw his final year exams actually came from Celeste Wolfe, Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s wife. As Wolfe explained to The Deep Space Nine Companion:

“Celeste was pre-vet,” notes Wolfe. “And every time she saw Emissary or heard Bashir’s line about mistaking a pre-ganglionic fibre for a post-ganglionic nerve, she’d say ‘They’re nothing like each other! No one would make that mistake!'”

Deep Space Nine was always fascinated with retroactively repairing these sorts of continuity gaffes. After all, Facets would go out of its way to explain a contradiction made in The Royale, half-a-decade earlier.

Damn socialist Federation replomat, stealing Quark's customers...

Damn socialist Federation replomat, stealing Quark’s customers…

In this case, though, the fix was serendipitous. It provided something of a jumping off point for revelations made by Ronald D. Moore in Doctor Bashir, I Presume – suggesting that Bashir had something to hide. Indeed, in the wake of Doctor Bashir, I Presume, Moore was quick to stress that Distant Voices still made sense in the context of the character:

I think the reasons stated in “Distant Voices” still apply — he consciously or subconsciously blew the final question because he didn’t want to be the valedictorian. Now whether that’s because he still retained some overly-cautious attitudes about the revelation of his genetic background (I think he probably was careful throughout his life never to be TOO brilliant) or whether it was something more complex and related to his self-view as related to his parents and his own perceived failings is certainly open to debate.

And it’s to the credit of all involved that the climax to Distant Voices works reasonably well whether you approach it in the lead-up to or the wake of Doctor Bashir, I Presume.

I wouldn't bet on it...

I wouldn’t bet on it…

Indeed, knowledge of Doctor Bashir, I Presume dramatically changes the subtext of that final scene – suggesting that both Altovar and Bashir are aware of something with which the audience is not yet up to speed, even if neither character states it directly. (After all, Altovar is pretty crap at mind-screwing if he misses that big a secret.) If the production team had not been so honest about Bashir’s haphazard fits-and-starts development, this might even be read as oblique foreshadowing of reveals yet to come.

Altovar’s biting criticism all skirt the edges of the issue without explicitly acknowledging it – treating it like an elephant in the room, something Bashir can’t even admit to himself. “You didn’t want to be first in your class,” he accuses. “You couldn’t take the pressure.” Or the scrutiny. Indeed, it ties nicely back into the subplot of Prophet Motive, suggesting that there was another reason Bashir was so anxious about the Carrington Award, beyond the obvious.

Bashir pulls himself together...

Bashir pulls himself together…

And we get the first reference to Bashir’s family life that fits with subsequent portrayals – the story he told in Melora being difficult to reconcile with later stories. When Bashir claims he was never good enough to be a professional tennis player, Altovar doesn’t buy it. “Don’t lie to me,” he instructs. “Not in here. You were good enough. But you knew your parents wouldn’t approve of it. So you gave up and you became a doctor instead.”

To be fair, this fits with the idea that Bashir may have come from a prestigious and distinguished family – as suggested in Melora. It’s understandable that a diplomat might consider the life of a tennis player beneath his son. At the same time, it also works in the context of later reveals about the relationship between Bashir and his parents – the way that they typically forced him to hide his gifts out of fear.

Oh what a world!

Oh what a world!

In a way then, Distant Voices is really the first episode to hint at a rift between Bashir and his parents. This would be confirmed by a small line in Homefront, when Bashir states that there is nobody on Earth to whom he would have Odo deliver a message. These small hints would eventually blossom into Doctor Bashir, I Presume – a wonderful example of the sort of organic development that Deep Space Nine did so well.

Still, even with all of this, Distant Voices never feels like it peels back any layers on Bashir. Instead, it’s an episode that gets marginally more interesting in hindsight – and marginally more interesting for how little it actually says, avoiding saying anything substantial enough to conflict with later developments. There’s still a sense that this is really Bashir’s big story of the years by process of elimination. There was no better fit, so he just gets the least awkward.

Winging it...

Winging it…

And yet, despite that, Distant Voices is more interesting than it ought to be. It is drawn from a story by Joe Menosky. Menosky is a Star Trek writer who likes big high-concept ideas. Although Menosky wrote and pitched a number of episodes for Deep Space Nine, he fit much more comfortably on Voyager. In fact, he fit so comfortably that he would develop into Brannon Braga’s writing partner for the big bombastic two-part episodes that came to define Voyager in its final years.

If Braga’s writing seems fixated on the idea of time and space as these incredible concepts that bend and distort, Menosky is more interested in psychological spaces. Menosky plays with ideas like language and dream space. It’s not uncommon for Menosky’s stories to play with themes of perception and perspective. Distant Voices is an obvious example, but The Thaw also stands out. His stories typically play with the relationship between the individual perspective and objective reality.

He has fallen and he cannot get up...

He has fallen and he cannot get up…

As such, Menosky’s stories typically wander into symbolism and dream imagery – characters navigating between the dream world and a more substantial “real” world. This results in some of the most ambitious and abstract imagery in Star Trek, even if Menosky’s bolder ideas tend to be a bit polarising. Menosky’s work lends itself to dissection and analysis, packed with meaning and layered with metaphor.

The results are always interesting, even if they don’t always connect. An episode derived from a Joe Menosky concept is typically interesting and engaging to watch, even if the material doesn’t quite connect. Even the more glaring and controversial episodes written by Menosky (Masks, perhaps?) are rich and vibrant. There’s an opportunity for the cast and directors to work outside their comfort zone. And, of course, when a Menosky concept lands (Darmok, maybe?), the result is transcendental.

Dax's surprise parties have obviously taken years off his life...

Dax’s surprise parties have obviously taken years off his life…

Like Brannon Braga’s early scripts, there’s an endearing novelty to most of Menosky’s work – a sense that Star Trek is doing something completely different this week, markedly different from the types of stories it does week in and week out. Menosky was arguably lucky that he never became as substantial a player in the Star Trek franchise as Braga did. As such, the novelty of his approach never really wore off in the way that it did for Braga.

So Distant Voices is more interesting than it really should be – albeit for reasons completely disconnected from Bashir himself. The lighting on the station is striking – creating a wonderfully haunting and ethereal atmosphere. With a minimum amount of lighting, the promenade itself becomes weird and unsettling – the arches becoming a lot more imposing, the silence deafening, the absences eerie. Even the sight of the leaking replicator is inexplicably unnerving – suggesting a fundamental breakdown of the things the characters (and the audience) take for granted.

The bow is a nice touch...

The bow is a nice touch…

In many respects, Distant Voices is Deep Space Nine as a horror movie. While the special effects used for melting Odo might have dated poorly, there’s something quite horrific about the sight of a lifeless Kira Nerys, propped up against the bulkhead, eyes open and mouth ever-so-slightly ajar. Similarly, the idea of Bashir being chased through the station by a power cut is a concept that should be absurd, but is bizarrely effective. This is not what Deep Space Nine should be; this is the show pushing into a narrative space to which the audience is unaccustomed.

Of course, all this effectiveness is undercut by the question of whether Distant Voices makes any damn sense at all. The use of Deep Space Nine regulars to represent aspects of Bashir’s personality is already questionable, but what’s the point? Altovar murders his way through these aspects of Bashir, but it seems to have little real impact on our hero. His advanced ageing starts before Altovar claims his first victim, and Bashir’s mental faculties are unaffected by the time he reaches Ops.

But Quark's friends are usually so social!

But Quark’s friends are usually so social!

It’s possible that Altovar is just screwing the Bashir – trying to convince Bashir that little pieces of himself are dying in a way of undermining the character’s self-confidence and will to live. However, this isn’t clearly articulated by the episode, and would turn Distant Voices into something of a shaggy dog story. As it stands, it seems like the “murder parts of Bashir’s psyche” angle only exists to eat up a couple of acts in the middle of the episode.

Weirdly enough, Distant Voices is written by Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe from Joe Menosky’s story idea. Although he had been on board since Emissary, Behr was very much the driving creative force on the show at this point – Deep Space Nine is very much his show now. Michael Piller had moved away from Deep Space Nine in its third year, to focus on the feature film franchise or on Voyager.

Boy, he's a real party pooper...

Boy, he’s a real party pooper…

And yet, despite that, Behr and Wolfe spent most of the third season working on the smaller stand-alone stories rather than the big arc-driving episodes. Although the duo provided the story for The Search, Part I, the teleplay was assigned to Ronald D. Moore. Due to Wolfe’s honeymoon, Behr wrote The Search, Part II alone. The two collaborated on The Adversary, the third season finalé. However, the pair also wrote the Past Tense two-parter instead of the upcoming Dominion-driven two-parter.

They worked on the third season’s two Ferengi episodes (Prophet Motive and Family Business) and the mirror universe story (Through the Looking Glass), episodes considered to be towards the fringe of the show. Indeed, one suspects that the Ferengi and mirror universe episodes only remained annual institutions because they were driven by Behr and Wolfe. While the executive producers on the other Star Trek shows typically stepped up to write the bigger episodes of a given season, Behr tended to favour the quirkier stories in the show’s third season.

Yes, Altovar stops just short of "mwaa-ha-ha-ha-ing"...

Yes, Altovar stops just short of “mwaa-ha-ha-ha-ing”…

Maybe this accounts for the lack of direction in Deep Space Nine‘s third season. Certainly, Behr and Wolfe were a lot more “on point” in the fourth and fifth season – handling both the season premieres and finalés, as well as the big arc-driving two-parters in the middle of the season. There’s a weird dissonance to their work on the third season, where Behr and Wolfe find time to write three scripts pretty much back-to-back, and they wind up being a Ferengi episode, a Bashir episode and a mirror universe episode.

That said, it does reinforce the idea that Behr and Wolfe really care about the world of Deep Space Nine, and are willing (and ready) to invest their time in potentially minor world-building in order to get the concepts working. It isn’t that Behr and Wolfe are working on unimportant scripts, it’s that Behr and Wolfe seem to see these little episodes as important. It is important to develop the Ferengi, to spend time with Bashir, to build up the mirror universe.

This isn't what I expected from the inside of Bashir's head at all. To be fair, I imagined more nudity.

This isn’t what I expected from the inside of Bashir’s head at all. To be fair, I imagined more nudity.

As tempting as it is to build a restrictive view of what Deep Space Nine is or is meant to be, Behr and Wolfe seemed to champion diversity. Deep Space Nine isn’t just a show about religion or multi-culturalism or war, even if those threads are the most dramatically satisfying. It’s also a show that invests in character and world-building, even if the characters or worlds aren’t necessarily working yet.

Fans may not have been particularly enthused by the Ferengi episodes or the mirror universe episodes, but Behr and Wolfe saw them as an essential part of what they were building. Those concepts didn’t always work, but that didn’t mean they weren’t essential to Behr’s vision for the show. Behr could be quite contrarian, and reluctant to allow others to dictate what would and would not work on his show. This lead to brilliant plots and great character work, but also to spectacular failures. It was Behr’s willingness to commit and to try that really distinguished Deep Space Nine.

Imagine how ticked off Bashir would have been if Garak forgot his birthday...

Imagine how ticked off Bashir would have been if Garak forgot his birthday…

And, so, we get Distant Voices. It’s forty-five minutes dedicated to a character who has yet to find his feet. It still doesn’t find them for him. Still, at least it’s trying. And there are lots of little touches that do work here. There’s the fantastic notion of Cardassian enigma tales – mysteries where every character is guilt. “The challenge is determining exactly who is guilty of what,” Garak helpfully explains. It’s great that the Cardassians or so well-developed that a flippant detail like that can fit perfectly with what we know of them.

Similarly, the image of the Dabo girl serenading Bashir in Ops is a delightfully surreal twist. It’s obviously an appeal to Behr’s affection for classic pop culture – I’m surprised that she doesn’t croon “happy birthday, Mister Doctor” to him – but it’s also a catchy visual. It’s the kind of thing that the other Star Trek shows wouldn’t dare attempt. It’s a scene that lends itself to ridicule, and which basks in the absurd. But it works, because it’s a nice way of reminding us Bashir is a bit of a letch without pushing the character back to the extremes of the first season. And yet, the fact that it’s the most Bashir-specific element of the episode is disappointing.

It's no surprise that that tricorder doesn't pick up too much; there's not much here...

It’s no surprise that that tricorder doesn’t pick up too much; there’s not much here…

Distant Voices is an episode that doesn’t quite work. It is perhaps a little awkward and generic in its pop psychology and analysis of its central character. And yet, despite that, it’s just about quirky and visually fascinating enough to remain a curiosity. It’s distinct and unique. While that can’t resolve the story’s central and fundamental issues, it does make it an intriguing watch.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I wonder if Bashir survived Altovar’s telepathic attack because he’s genetically enhanced? That saved the Romulans from probing his brain in Inter Amin Emin Silent Leges. There’s another example of a late revelation paying off earlier down the line, you might say. It was Odo that Bashir asked about not looking anyone up for him on Earth in Homefront, not Sisko. VGR’s two-parters were the best thing about that show. Scorpion and Year of Hell were epic.

    • Good spot. Corrected!

      As far as Voyager two-parters go, I’m also quite fond of Future’s End, which I’d argue is the real Voyager thirtieth anniversary special. (It’s really The Voyage Home with the nineties.) But the season four two-parters really are spectacular. Mini movies.

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