Statistical Probabilities is an interesting episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on a number of levels.
Most notably, it is the first episode to truly engage deal with the fallout from Doctor Bashir, I Presume. After all, the mid-fifth-season episode dropped a fairly substantial bombshell into the back story of Julian Bashir. In that episode, Bashir became the first Star Trek regular to be a genetically-engineered human, something that made him unique in the franchise. Bashir effectively became a character who could trace his lineage back to Khan Noonien Singh, from Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
However, Deep Space Nine had done very little with that interesting little nugget of a character idea. There had been token attempts to emphasise Bashir’s transformation through dialogue, by having the character speak like a computer and having Garak draw attention to it in A Time to Stand. However, Alexander Siddig was quite uncomfortable with this direction for the character, and made his distaste known. However, even those dialogue flourishes and exposition dumps were a superficial way of addressing a substantial change to the character.
Then again, Deep Space Nine is still getting used to serialisation. It takes a little while for the consequences of individual episodes to trickle down to later scripts. The alliance between Cardassia and the Dominion in By Inferno’s Light was left on the backburner for episodes like A Simple Investigation or Business as Usual before being explored in Ties of Blood and Water. Despite the impressive and sprawling six-episode opening arc, the delay between Doctor Bashir, I Presume and Statistical Probabilities suggests that delay is still in effect.
However, Statistical Probabilities is notable for the fact that it represents what might be the most direct point of intersection between the Star Trek franchise and the work of Isaac Asimov. Asimov is one of the most influential and iconic writers to work in science-fiction, formulating ideas and concepts that are taken for granted as genre shorthand by modern audiences. Asimov casts a long shadow over popular culture, including Star Trek. However, it is striking that Statistical Probabilities represents the most overt acknowledgement of his work.
Statistical Probabilities is essentially a Star Trek exploration of the concept of “psychohistory”, the fictional science at the heart of Asimov’s towering Foundation series.
Star Trek has a very long history with Asimov, even beyond the influence that Asimov had on the genre in general. From the outset, Star Trek was positioned in such a way that it was anchored in many of the iconic writers of the sixties. Richard Matheson wrote The Enemy Within. Robert Bloch wrote What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Catspaw and Wolf in the Fold. Theodore Sturgeon wrote Shore Leave and Amok Time. Harlan Ellison wrote The City on the Edge of Forever, although the episode had a notoriously painful birthing process. Norman Spinrad wrote The Doomsday Machine.
Asimov never actually wrote for Star Trek. However, he remains an important part of the larger Star Trek story. Among his many other contributions to popular culture, Asimov would occasionally write genre criticism for TV Guide. In that capacity, he cited Star Trek as part of a broader critique of how television approaches science-fiction. This prompted Roddenberry to write an impassioned defense of the series in a letter to Asimov. Asimov, for his part, softened toward the series; a later profile would cite Star Trek as Asimov’s “favourite TV show.”
Asimov would make a number of small creative contributions to the franchise over the years, even if he never directly contributed to a story being told. He offered Roddenberry advice on how to make Kirk as interesting and compelling as Spock. He was credited as a “special science consultant” on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Asimov used his platform to stump for Star Trek, even arguing that Spock had served to make intelligence sexy once again. Asimov was a long-term friend to the franchise.
To many fans who are casually familiar with Asimov’s work, the writer’s influence is most keenly felt in the portrayal of artificial intelligence. Indeed, the franchise even makes a few overt references to Asimov in terms of its portrayal of artificial intelligence. In Datalore, for example, Yar explains that Doctor Noonien Soong “tried to make Asimov’s dream of a positronic brain come true” in his construction of Data. Given that Data was the breakout character of Star Trek: The Next Generation, that is some legacy.
However, while those least familiar with Asimov’s work might recognise him as the author of I, Robot and the architect of the iconic “three rules of robotics”, there is a solid argument to be made that Asimov’s masterpiece was his Foundation saga. As Dan Schneider argues:
Foundation is a masterpiece, bar none. It is not only great science fiction, but great fiction. Asimov does a truly wondrous job of painting a large picture, much in the way that the Hudson School of painting did in the 19th Century, while also giving compelling characterization, like a Rembrandt, and selecting the ‘right’ moments that the reader can zoom in on, in this compelling account of future history. Asimov leaves Clarke in the dust in terms of characterization, and most of this is achieved via dialogue, while still painting a big picture. Asimov wrote wonderful dialogue, and one can read the tenor of a character’s soul simply by how they react in words to other characters. That said, I am very surprised that Asimov did not take issue with George Lucas’s Star Wars films, because without Foundation there would simply not be Star Wars. Everything is there to be plumbed and looted- a galactic Empire, rebels, space jumps to circumvent the speed of light, the Galactic Spirit (aka The Force), and so on. Even Star Trek took a heavy load of its mythos from this book, as the human dominated Federation and human-looking and human-derived aliens that dominate most of the Star Trek universe have much akin with the Empire that rules Foundation at novel’s start.
So, it is in some ways surprising that it took Star Trek so long to play with these sorts of ideas, given the franchise’s affinity for other big science-fiction concepts like robots and time travel.
Then again, it is not surprising that Deep Space Nine should be the Star Trek series most eager to play with Asimov’s themes and ideas. As a rule, Deep Space Nine is the most adventurous Star Trek series when it comes to attempting genre pastiches and extended homages. This applies to all media, with any number of classic Deep Space Nine episodes tracing their roots back to classic Hollywood productions. Profit and Loss is Casablanca, while Meridian is Brigadoon. Our Man Bashir is James Bond, while His Way sees sixties Vegas become a regular fixture.
However, even in terms of science-fiction references and homages, Deep Space Nine tends to draw from a diverse array of influences. Whispers is a story very heavily influenced by the work of Philip K. Dick, a writer whose cynicism and paranoia existed very much at odds with the utopian idealism of the Star Trek universe. A Simple Investigation represented a very rare detour into cyberpunk for the franchise, which had to that point mostly expressed its anxiety about the genre through the Borg.
Statistical Probabilities borrows one of its central ideas from the Foundation series, Asimov’s theory of “psychohistory.” Loosely inspired by The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation series finds its central characters plotting the grand arc of history to map the pending collapse (and eventual resurrection) of a great civilisation through that dark art. Alasdair Williams argued that “psychohistory” was Asimov’s boldest and most original idea:
The concept of psychohistory is, I would argue, the greatest idea Asimov ever came up with, surpassing even the Three Laws of Robotics, and I’d be perfectly willing to argue that it’s the most fascinating notion in the entire history of science fiction. It’s an invented science that makes great intuitive sense, comments on the nature of humanity, and demands a scope almost impossibly epic, as we’ve already discussed.
The basic concept of “psychohistory” is that future history can be predicted through a mixture of crowd psychology and mathematics, a futuristic twist of macro economics. Of course, the pseudo-science of psychohistory could not predict the actions of individuals, instead averaging behaviour over large groups and extended periods.
Statistical Probabilities finds Bashir coordinating his own attempt at psychohistory, drawing in four other genetically-engineered individuals to make vital predictions about the Dominion War. As with psychohistory, their model aims to look at the psychology of large groups, discarding the impact of fluke events or individual actors. “The way our statistical analysis works, the farther into the future you go, the more accurate the projection,” Bashir explains to Sisko. “It’s based on a kind of non-linear dynamics, whereby small fluctuations tend to factor out over time.”
The idea is that individual actions are little more than statistical abnormalities, deviations from are smoothed out over the long term. It is a theory that suggests the arc of history is driven by broader trends and movements rather than individual vision. It is an interesting debate about self-determination. In some ways, it plays out as a companion piece to Resurrection. That earlier episode wondered whether an individual was entirely shaped by their surroundings and the world of which they were a part. Statistically Probabilities inverts the question, asking if history can be diverted by individuals.
This is more than just an abstract science-fiction concept. It is more than an engaging philosophical question. In fact, Statistical Probabilities hits upon all manner of intriguing political ideas. After all, there is compelling overlap between the fictional science of psychohistory and the real-world application of theories of economics. Indeed, Paul Krugman credits Asimov for inspiring his choice of career:
Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is,” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if ?”
In the modern world, predicting the future has become a dark art form, a strange hybrid of sciences like economics, sociology and history. Trends are extrapolated from available data, based on polls, and derived from the speculative decisions of hypothetical actors. Even using this model, it makes sense to talk in generalities, because so-called “black swan” events are by their nature unpredictable.
In the twenty-first century, audiences seem to have lost patience with these predictions. After all, the first two decades of the new millennium featured any number of spectacular upsets. Although there were a few outliers, by and large economists failed to predict the global recession of 2008. Even the oft-reliable bookies were stumped by the surprise Brexit vote in late June 2016. Pollster and pundits were caught off-guard by the election of Donald J. Trump in November 2016. The future seemed more uncertain than it had been in a long time.
However, there is an even more compelling narrative nestled snugly beneath this modern relevance. The doctrine of pyschohistory that informs both Foundation and Statistical Probabilities is so compelling because it taps into a very primal theme. Psychohistory is a perfect vehicle to explore the influence of an individual upon the sweeping arc of history. It is a challenge to the idea that every person matters; more than that, it is a challenge to the idea that any person matters. It is an idea as provocative as unsettling. Can the individual really make a difference?
This is not a new debate, by any measure. Even ignoring the delicate science of predicting future events, it is a contentious subject among those tasked with picking through past matters. As David A. Bell explains, historians are divided on the difference that a single person can make:
Marxist historians and social scientists have put these claims forward most famously, but a belief in the power of large-scale impersonal forces has hardly been limited to the left. The great 19th-century French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote magnificent studies of American democracy and the origins of the French Revolution in which even the most prominent historical actors made virtually no appearance. The true protagonist of both books was equality itself, which Tocqueville saw as the defining feature of modern times: a great force that swept over kings and presidents as surely as it did other members of society.
There have always been apparent dissenters from this tradition. Hegel, in his philosophy of history, emphasized the role of what he called “world-historical individuals” — the great examples were Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. The 19th-century British writer Thomas Carlyle delivered a series of lectures in the 1830s in which he argued that “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Yet both Hegel and Carlyle ultimately saw the individuals they singled out as in some sense channeling or crystallizing — or at least acknowledging and reckoning with — larger, impersonal forces. Carlyle, for instance, argued that Napoleon only succeeded because of his faith “that this new enormous Democracy… is an unsuppressible Fact, which the whole world, with its old forces and institutions, cannot put down.”
It is an intriguing debate. Was the Second World War a result of Adolf Hitler’s harnessing of public sentiment in service of his own agenda, or was Adolf Hitler a product of those same forces? If Hitler had never been born, would somebody else have filled that historical lacuna? What of Napoleon? What of Churchill?
This is a timeless debate, one that has been argued back and forth across the length and breadth of history. This makes a certain amount of sense. More than any other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine is the series most strongly detached from its exact moment in time. The writing staff on Deep Space Nine draw from all manner of historical events and classical inspirations, which meands that the show feels much less anchored in the nineties or the turn of the millennium than its contemporaries.
At the same time, this debate about self-determination in the face of intangible social forces tapped into a palpable nineties anxiety. After all, the fall of the Berlin Wall had brought an end to the Cold War. The international order that had existed since the end of the Second World War had evaporated, with the United States standing triumphant at the end of the twentieth century. Some even argued that it represented the end of history, although it might be more accurate to describe it as a lacuna.
There was a sense of existential ennui to the nineties, a feeling of spiritual despondency. Without an ideological conflict or struggle to define them, many individuals felt adrift in an era of relative prosperity. Pop culture tapped into that sense of disconnect in a number of ways, with repeated reflections on a “crisis of masculinity” that informed sleeper hits like Fight Club or prestige pictures like American Beauty. Pop culture questioned the nature of reality in films like The Thirteenth Floor, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenz and The Matrix.
All of these films reflected a broader sense of impotence, of powerlessness in the modern world. Indeed, this anxiety about the power of an individual to determine their own fate was arguably reflected in the mainstreaming of conspiracy theory in the nineties. Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon suggested that the course of history was set by anonymous men in dimly-lit rooms. Chris Carter explored what it meant to be trapped by these forces in shows like The X-Files, Millennium and Harsh Realm.
In the real world, Hillary Clinton would famously allege that her husband was under attack from an anonymous “vast right-wing conspiracy”, one that could not front a more convincing electoral rival than Bob Dole. Across the aisle, the Clintons were accused of orchestrating and manipulating murders and other horrors, while there were also whispers about secret cabals plotting to introduce a “new world order” and perhaps even use the turn of the millennium to stage a military coup. These organisations were inevitably shadowy and secretive, anonymous and alien.
Less melodramatically, there we were other subtle cultural shifts taking place. Although the “great man” theory of history had its ups and downs over the decades (and centuries), the nineties saw a perceptible shift in leadership studies away from the “great man” theory towards a more diverse array of theories. For example, consider Larry Spear’s expansion of Robert Greenleaf’s seventies theory of “follower leadership” in 1995. The argument was that even leaders were the product of sociological forces at work in the world.
This all fueled an increasing sense of powerlessness. This anxiety found expression in any number of ways, perhaps most dramatically in the creeping sense that the individual was ultimately obsolete, even in fields like manufacturing. Systems of automation supplanted human workers. However, the fear was more than just economic in nature. As Manuel De Landa in War in The Age of Intelligent Machines, these was a fear the humans were just part of larger systems:
The robot historian … would hardly be bothered by the fact that it was a human who put the first motor together: for the role of humans would be seen as little more than industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine flower that simply does not possess its own reproductive organs during a segment of its evolution.
There was a palpable concern that people were (at best) cogs in some vast machine and (at worst) completely irrelevant. The machine did not need to be literal or mechanical in nature, applying as much to invisible systems like politics and society. After all, voter turnout declined dramatically across the developed world in the decades following the end of the Second World War. People felt detached from the social systems around them.
It could be argued that this sense of deep-seated unease informed a lot of the political backlash to globalisation and multiculturalism in twenty-first century, particularly backlash against international organisations like the European Union. Frequent complaints were made that the “bureaucrats in Brussels” were disconnected from the concerns of common people, that the rules and regulations were confusing or absurd. This was indeed a large part of the successful campaign for Brexit, a promise to “take back control.”
This was a key part of the appeal of Donald Trump. Trump spoke to his followers using the vocabulary of an eleven- to twelve-year old. Trump offered a sweeping heroic narrative that positioned himself as the only force that could stand between the United States and chaos. He claimed to empower his followers, promising, “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” He offered simple solutions to complex problems. Build a wall, make Mexico pay for it. Torture your opponents, murder their families.
Indeed, the election of Trump served to reinvigorate the age-old “great man” theory, leading some to accept that (for better or worse) an individual could change the course of history. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues:
I used to believe that while history is pushed along by strong impersonal forces, every once in a while great men can and do change the course of history. But after watching a “great man” up close, I now take a slightly more nuanced view: Impersonal forces still matter very much, but one reason why is because too many people believe they have no power to change history, that their choices do not matter. We could have many more great men and women, in other words, if more people believed they could become one.
Say what you will about Donald Trump, at least he should be recognized for his contributions to epistemology.
The debate rages on, something that lends Statistical Probabilities a very timeless quality. It is an episode that is at once timeless and incredibly relevant, a story that transcends the moment of its creation and speaks to events two decades after original broadcast.
In fact, some of Statistical Probabilities reads quite uncomfortably in the immediate aftermath of those events. In some ways, Statistical Probabilities could be read as a defense of those populist movements, particularly in their anti-intellectual and anti-elitist leanings. The victory of Brexit and the election of Trump were both strong rebukes of the establishment, of qualified experts. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” argued Michael Gove. Level of education was inversely proportional to support of Brexit. The same is true of Trump.
There are shades of this to Statistical Probabilities, with the implication that Bashir is too smart to really understand what is happening. He is out of touch with his common man. “The way you’re acting, you’d think nobody with half a brain could possibly disagree with you,” O’Brien insists. Bashir responds, “Frankly, I don’t see how they can.” O’Brien counters, “I can see two possible explanations for it. Either I’m more feebleminded than you ever realised, or you’re not as smart as you think you are.”
Bashir is presented as an elitist snob, one whose book smarts and intelligence are no match for the indomitability of the human spirit. To be fair, this is hardly unusual in pop culture. Stories are more likely to champion the victory of the uneducated working-class go-getter over the stuffy upper-class crust snobs. It could reasonably be argued that these pop culture fairy tales paved the way for the election of Donald Trump and the victory of Brexit, placing an emphasis on the importance of emotional intuition over cold knowledge.
Even within the larger Star Trek canon, this theme can be seen. Transhumanism is treated with fear and anxiety, from the artificial intelligences of What Are Little Girls Made Of? and The Return of the Archons to the genetically-engineered supermen of Space Seed and Unnatural Selection. Indeed, Statistical Probabilities even contextualises Jack his friends through that lens. “They are afraid that people like us are going to take over,” Jack protests. “It happened before,” Bashir states. “People like us did try and take over.”
Statistical Probabilities avoids making too big a deal of it. Indeed, it seems churlish to complain about the episode’s subtext in light of events that occurred twenty years after it was broadcast, particularly when that subtext recurs across the length and breadth of popular culture. Indeed, the episode goes out of its way to avoid seeming overly anti-intellectual; Bashir never even thinks about acting unilaterally to subvert the Federation, while Jack vows to continue in his efforts to figure out how best to win the war.
It helps that the dramatic stakes of Statistical Probabilities are quite clear. More than that, they are rooted in that wonderful existential conflict. The mathematic models at the heart of the episode are ultimately a distraction from a story engaged with one of the most compelling questions about the human condition and an individual’s ability to influence the world around them. Indeed, despite the almost impossible scale of the story, Statistical Probabilities remains intimate, coming down to Bashir’s near-breakdown and Selena’s decision in the cargo bay.
Sure, there are all these hypothetical calculations about countless billions suffering and dying in the future, but those are largely abstract. Indeed, the figures are so ridiculously large that it is almost impossible to process the discussion taking place. When Jack decides to sell out the Federation to the Dominion in order to minimise the loss of life in the long-term, Lauren justifies it, “There wouldn’t be more than two billion casualties.” Jack responds, “That’s a lot better than nine hundred billion.” It recalls that quote often attributed to Josef Stalin.
Indeed, this idea of individual autonomy and self-determination bubbles through the episode. The reduction of the human experience to a simple act of calculus is repeatedly presented as grotesque or abhorrent. In fact, the episode makes several extended references to the fact that the Dominion engages in such gambits all of the time, treating the entire conflict as an elaborate game of chess to be played according to cold long-term logic regardless of the immediate cost to the individual actors.
In deducing that the Dominion wants the Kabrel System, Jack extrapolates, “That’s a typical Dominion strategy. They offer to give up something valuable in order to hide the fact that they want something even more valuable in the long term. See, that’s how they think. Big picture. They don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, no, no, no, they’re thinking long term. They’re thinking what’s going to happen a year from now, a decade, a century.” The Dominion is portrayed as a cold and impersonal force with a long view of history.
The Dominion cares little for individuals, treating them as cogs that can be easily replaced. The Vorta and the Jem’Hadar are clones. Even the leader of the Cardassian Union can be swapped out as the situation demands. “My, my, how quickly you’ve taken to your new role,” Weyoun teases Damar. “And to think only a short time ago you were nothing more than Gul Dukat’s adjutant.” When Damar dares to question Weyoun, the Vorta assures him, “It should be clear to you by now that no one is irreplaceable.”
Indeed, Statistical Probabilities seems to offer a succinct philosophical indictment of the Dominion. By this point in the series, it should be clear to even the most cynical observer that the Dominion is pure evil; the massacre on New Bajor in The Jem’Hadar, the slavery of their subject races as explored in The Abandoned or Hippocratic Oath, the carefully-calibrated plague the features in The Quickening. However, Statistical Probabilities offers a very streamlined argument of what exactly makes the Dominion evil, beyond the fascism and the genocide.
The Dominion is a government that exists solely for its own end, with individuals treated as pawns moving across a chess board. In fact, the Founders are arguably a literal representation of this idea, with the series repeatedly touching upon the challenges that the very concept of individuality poses to the Great Link. The Dominion is a large faceless institution with little concern for the well-being of its citizens. This is in marked contrast to the emphasis that Deep Space Nine places upon individuality and diversity.
In this respect, the Dominion could be seen as quite similar to the Borg, both represented a twisted reflection of the Federation. They are organisations which subsume the individual, an awkward extrapolation of Gene Roddenberry’s portrayal of the Federation in the first two seasons of The Next Generation. They are a version of the Federation that never internalised the lessons of The Measure of a Man, that never question the creation of slave races for their own utility. To the Dominion, People are not individuals; they are statistics. To Deep Space Nine, that is horrifying.
Statistical Probabilities is also notable for being the first episode to directly engage with the Dominion War following the end of Sacrifice of Angels. To be fair, You Are Cordially Invited… and Resurrection made it clear that the war was still raging, but the show seemed quite removed from the front lines of the franchise’s first true interstellar war. Statistical Probabilities serves to reassure audiences that the conflict has not been forgotten, and to move the story forward by answering a few key questions.
Most obviously, Statistical Probabilities affirms that Gul Damar is now the leader of the Cardassian Union. That might have been inferred from his importance to the war effort in earlier episodes, but it confirms that Gul Dukat’s absence has not created a permanent void. It also confirms that Damar will play a bigger role over the remaining season-and-a-half of the series. In focusing on the possibility of a temporary cease-fire, it reaffirms that the Dominion War is still raging and has not yet cooled.
Indeed, as a small matter of continuity, it even goes out of its way to tidy up a dangling loose end from A Time to Stand. In that episode, Sisko destroyed the “main storage facility for ketracel-white in the Alpha Quadrant.” That would seem to represent a crippling defeat for the Dominion. After all, the Jem’Hadar are dependent upon the drug. Damar was plotting to poison the last batches of the drug in Behind the Lines in order to prevent the drug-addicted soldiers from going into a withdrawal-driven rage.
Statistical Probabilities explains why this tactical strike does not bring an end to the war in the short- or medium-term. “I was going to recommend that the Federation accept the proposed border,” Sisko confesses. “It could have cost us the Alpha Quadrant.” Bashir suggests, “Actually, sir, we should give them Kabrel.” He elaborates, “If we don’t, the Dominion will be forced to attack before their stockpile of white runs out. Here are the casualty projections. As you can see, an attack would result in devastating casualties for both sides.”
Of course, “give the enemy this resource that we just made a big deal of denying them” is hardly the most satisfying way of reducing the impact of a narrative development. However, the fact that the writing staff make a point to explain this little detail speaks to the attention to continuity on the Deep Space Nine. Indeed, it also feels like a thumbing of the nose to executive producer Rick Berman, a reminder that the Dominion War will not be ending after a handful of episodes, to the point that the staff can actively close potential “get out of jail” clauses.
Cheekily enough, Statistical Probabilities even explicitly frames the Dominion War as an epic narrative. Watching Damar speak, the enhanced individuals effectively deduce the entire story to this point. Bashir summarises, “Weyoun is the Dark Prince, Gul Dukat is the deposed King, Damar is the Pretender to the throne, and Ziyal is the innocent Princess he murdered. And now the Pretender is wracked with guilt over what he’s done.” It reads almost like a fairy tale. Jack offers, “It’s not a bad story. Epic, really.”
Given that Deep Space Nine was now playing with serialisation, “epic” certainly seems an appropriate description. Even in purely technical terms, Deep Space Nine was telling bigger stories than any Star Trek show to this point. However, given the broader themes of the episode, it is also telling that Statistical Probabilities makes such a big deal of the Dominion War as an epic rooted in the actors. The Dominion War is an “epic” in the classical sense, a tragedy in which the decisions and actions of those involved ripple outwards leading to all manner of consequences.
Closing the ketracel white loophole is not the only strange storytelling choice in Statistical Probabilities. At points, the teleplay is so committed to the characters and to its themes that it struggles to hit the expected beats. The teaser closes on an awkward moment, right before Bashir meets Jack and the rest of the gang. It is a strange choice. Equally strange is the awkward act break in which Jack threatens to snap Sarina’s neck if Bashir doesn’t fix the humming sound in the cargo bay. It is beat that feels added purely from a dramatic shot before the commercial break.
This isn’t a big problem of itself. Indeed, it is more of a reminder of the peculiarities of network television, and of the strange structure that the medium imposes upon storytelling. More than cinema or theatre, network television imposes a set of structural limitations upon a writer; a set runtime, the act structure, the need to slot commercial messages into the story. There is a sense that Statistical Probabilities brushes up against the limitations of this format, wanting to be a much quieter and more introspective piece than the form demands.
However, there is also an endearing charm to Statistical Probabilities, in spite of the episode’s subject matter and stakes. For an episode that is about a group of severely damaged individuals building complex statistical models that predict billions of deaths, there is a surprising warmth to the teleplay. Deep Space Nine might be the most cynical Star Trek series, but it is never suffocatingly dark. There is still time for humour and for happiness, whether in the group’s informal part or even through Jack’s more absurd bouts of paranoia.
One of the episode’s best gags concerns the use of PADDs, the personal access data device that has been a fixture of the franchise since the earliest days of The Next Generation and can trace its roots back to those cumbersome devices that Kirk was always signing on the original Star Trek. On Star Trek, the PADDs have always been television shorthand for “paperwork”, with the franchise frequently using multiple PADDs as a way to demonstrate that a particular character is inundated with forms to fill out and reports to process.
The PADD is one of the great examples of a Star Trek technology that seemed to predict twenty-first century advances, much like replicators seemed to hint at 3D printers and Kirk’s communicator evoked flip phones. To modern audiences, the PADD recalls personal tablets. Production team members agree:
Drexler said that to him, the iPad is “eerily similar” to the PADDs used in Star Trek. “We always felt that the classic Okuda T-bar graphic was malleable, and that you could stretch and rearrange it to suit your task, just like the iPad,” he said. “The PADD never had a keyboard as part of its casing, just like the iPad. Its geometry is almost exactly the same—the corner radius, the thickness, and overall rectangular shape.”
“It’s uncanny to have a PADD that really works,” Drexler said, unlike the non-functional props made for the TV series and later films. “The iPad is the true Star Trek dream,” Drexler told Ars.
Indeed, in some ways the future even transcended Star Trek. Even the most basic personal tablets have functionality that seems beyond the abilities of PADDs as seen on Star Trek, limited by budget and special effects technology; they can play videos, operate tabs, pinch-and-zoom, respond to audio commands.
However, in some respects, the use of PADDs has dated rather well. When The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine originally aired, the recurring joke about characters fumbling with a half-dozen PADDs containing overdue reports and long-winded forms felt a little cliché. After all, if the Star Trek future was so technologically advanced, it seemed inefficient for people to carry individual PADDs for individual reports. Why not simply issue every character their own PADD, which would allow them to view multiple documents through the same interface?
To contemporary audiences, these jokes play much better than they would have on original broadcast. After all, the advent of personal tablets has not streamlined the clutter of the modern working environment. Sitting at a desk in an office, it is not uncommon for an information technology worker to have several computer monitors, a personal tablet and a phone. While proof of concepts can be shared via networking, physically sharing those devices is still an operational reality. As such, the jokes about Sisko and the mountains of PADDs still work well.
Beyond these nice touches, Statistical Probabilities hits upon some of writer René Echevarria’s core themes, particularly through its handling of the dysfunctional augmented individuals. The characters repeatedly refer to themselves as “mutants”, evoking the classic X-Men comic book franchise. Even without the repeated use of that particular noun, the parallels are obvious. These are a bunch of sheltered and gifted individuals who work together to the advantage of a world that fears and hates them.
However, Statistical Probabilities plays with the comparisons to the X-Men franchise, which has long used mutant-hood as a metaphor for otherness. Over the years, mutants have stood in for all manner of minorities, whether in terms of race or religion or sexual orientation. However, there is a perverse irony in this. The classic X-Men as created by Stan lee and Jack Kirby were all white. When Chris Claremont and Len Wein revamped the team, they made a point to include more diversity. However, the truth is that the X-Men have generally been photogenic and predominantly white.
This is a rather problematic aspect of the X-Men franchise. It is perhaps articulated in its strongest terms by Neil Shyminsky in Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants:
The allegorical affinity that mutants are supposed to share with oppressed peoples allows otherwise privileged white males to appropriate a discourse of marginalisation. To quote sociologists Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack, it allows the readers who identify with mutants to “race to the margins” and assume marginalised positions in relation to the authority of the dominant culture – where no other obvious claim to these margins and victim positions exist. While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality.
There are certainly shades of that to Statistical Probabilities, with its four white “othered” characters who hit upon that core problem with the X-Men franchise. However, there is a sense of self-awareness to Echevarria’s riff on this concept.
Most obviously, it is made clear that the four characters all suffer from severe psychological dysfunction, even if there is something more than a little unsettling in the suggestion that Lauren’s dysfunction is being sexually assertive. They are explicitly (rather than merely implicitly) other, for reasons that go beyond race or ethnicity. It is not that Statistical Probabilities is a racial metaphor constructed using entirely white characters. More than that, there is a clever tweak in the suggestion the only functional augmented individual is Bashir, the non-white member.
Statistical Probabilities even explicitly brings up the issue of “passing”, the idea that it is entirely possible for a minority to hide in plain sight by posing as a member of the majority. When Bashir demonstrates his enhancements to the group, Lauren reflects, “He’s a mutant, just like the rest of us.” Jack objects, “No, no, no. He is not like us. No. He passed as normal.” Although “passing” is very much a part of the historical experience of certain ethnic and racial minorities, it also applies to minorities without physical distinctions; those with differing sexual orientations or religions.
It should be noted that René Echevarria has a recurring interesting in coding metaphors for non-heteronormative sexuality into his scripts for the franchise. This is most notable in his early scripts. In The Offspring, he allows Lal to choose her own gender. In Transfigurations, he writes a script about a Jesus-figure that is heavily coded as homosexual. He also scripted Rejoined and Chimera, two episodes focusing on romantic encounters between regular cast members and guest stars of their own gender.
Statistical Probabilities is hardly the most overt example of Echevarria’s interest in minority perspectives and his suggestion of a more inclusive approach to Star Trek. However, it is a very rare episode of the franchise that focuses on neuroatypical individuals without vilifying or sensationalising them. Although Jack and the group do attempt to betray the Federation to the Dominion, Statistical Probabilities never treats them as monstrous freaks. This is a more sensitive (and less sensationalist) approach than Whom God Destroy.
Statistical Probabilities is a fascinating (and provocative) piece of television. It is a strange episode of Deep Space Nine, another example of a story that feels more relevant to modern audiences than it would have been at time of broadcast. At the same time, while playing with timeless themes, it touches on ideas that are probably more uncomfortable now than they would have been when the episode was produced. It is a fantastic demonstration of just how well Deep Space Nine is produced, an strange and unconventional episode that feels very much of the series.