• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.


Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

To be fair, it is not as if the writers working on Deep Space Nine conjured the plot from thin air only for the United States government to realise it during the War on Terror. Deep Space Nine is a show that suggests history tends to repeat itself, and that humanity (and people) tend to fall into cycles of behaviour. The humiliation and abuse inflicted upon Bashir in Inquisition has any number of historical precedents in human history, playing as a grim commentary upon mankind’s fascination with casting blame and punishing perceived enemies.

The title evokes the inquisitions that were organised by the Catholic Church, most notably the Spanish Inquisitions. These tribunals would enforce orthodoxy by publicly punishing those who had been perceived as refusing to conform to orthodoxy; it is estimated tens of thousands were burned alive. However, there are countless other examples. During the Cold War, the House Unamerican Activities Committee would publicly and aggressively pursue people with alleged communist sympathies, often destroying lives and ruining careers based on hearsay and speculation.

A wake-up call.

Deep Space Nine draws upon any number of historical conflicts to flesh out the Dominion War, from the First World War to the Vietnam War. However, the show also draws rather heavily from the Second World War, which makes sense given the importance of the conflict in both the national memory and in the franchise history. After all, the Second World War was a formative experience. It defined the role of the United States in the world during the second half of the twentieth century, and also coloured Star Trek‘s vision of the future.

The most famous hearings and tribunals concerning the war were held in public. The Nuremberg Trials exposed the horrors of the Holocaust to the world, immortalised in a popular cinematic film that featured an early performance from William Shatner. However, not all justice relating to the Second World War as administered so fairly. Indeed, the use of a military tribunal to prosecute a collection of German saboteurs in 1942 under the authorisation of President Roosevelt would become a touchstone for debates about the legality and morality of Guantanamo Bay.

These are trying times.

Even after the end of the Second World War, was the Nuremberg Trials were taking place, the United States was conducting more secretive hearings in Dachau between November 1945 and August 1948. The decision to conduct these inquiries as closed hearings was controversial, and condemned by Senator Homer Ferguson in December 1948:

Aside from the reduction of sentence itself, the most serious error made by the military authorities was their failure to make a public announcement of the reduction. To mete out justice was important, but to do it so that our action made sense to the people of our own nation and the rest of the world was also vitally important. The action of the military authorities appeared to be an effort to suppress the facts. Nothing so quickly arouses the public to the belief of possible impropriety as concealment. Our concern in the case is based on our paramount interest in the democratic principles of justice.

As such, the sort of brutal investigations and miscarriages of justice suggested by Inquisition are not abstract threats to democracy. They represent a clear and present danger, particularly in times of crisis. As controversial as the Dominion War might have been, it allowed the writers on Deep Space Nine to plunge the Star Trek universe into a perpetual state of crisis. It allowed the show to interrogate what its characters were really like, what the Federation really stood for.

Worming their way to the heart of the Federation.

In The Maquis, Part II, Sisko argued that it was “easy to be a saint in paradise.” Over the course of its run, starting in the third season and really amping up the tension in the sixth season, Deep Space Nine dared to ask how these characters in this world would act if paradise was placed under threat. The Federation could engage in very questionable practices during times of peace and stability, as suggested by episodes like Too Short a Season or The Drumhead. However, what happened when the chips were down and their backs were against the wall?

It is a provocative question. Deep Space Nine courted controversy in its refusal to offer easy answers and tidy solutions. Many fans came to think of Deep Space Nine, whether fairly or not, as the most cynical of Star Trek shows. However, the series repeatedly suggested that its characters were more fundamentally decent than their government, that the power invested in structures like the Federation would ultimately corrupt and that such large-scale institutions were susceptible to compromise when their interests were truly at stake.

All things intern.

In the episode’s final scene, the lead characters meditate upon the revelation that a character like Sloan might be sanctioned by Starfleet and the Federation. “I can’t believe the Federation condones this kind of activity,” Bashir laments. Sisko seems similarly upset. However, the outsider characters seem less surprised. “Personally, I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t,” Odo observes. “Every other great power has a unit like Section thirty one. The Romulans have the Tal Shiar, the Cardassians had the Obsidian Order.”

Odo certainly has a point. It seems incredibly naive to believe that an organisation as large (and powerful) as the Federation could exist without an intelligence agency, if only to engage with threats from other major powers. Visionary revealed that even the Klingons had an intelligence service; just not a very good one. A similar argument could be made about Deep Space Nine‘s fascination with the economy of the Federation; the Federation might exist in a post-scarcity economy, but it still needs to regulate its interactions with the other major powers.

Section 31, now available in Section 27.

The franchise seemed to acknowledge this pragmatic reality. Characters had been alluding to “Starfleet Intelligence” as early as Chain of Command, Part I. This seems entirely appropriate, given that the Next Generation sixth-season two-parter provided a lot of set-up for Deep Space Nine. Nevertheless, Starfleet Intelligence had always seemed like a very passive organisation. They had an unfortunate habit out outsourcing dangerous missions to series regulars, as in Chain of Command, Part I and Honour Among Thieves.

Still, Inquisition is something different. Starfleet has a rich tradition of rogue senior officers, from Commodore Decker in The Doomsday Machine to Admiral Kennelly in Ensign Ro. However, the franchise has a tendency to imply that these officers are merely bad apples. The issue is seldom with Starfleet or the Federation itself, and more to do with the person wielding authority. Inquisition is as much about the system as about the characters tied up in it. Sloan is not a rogue individual. He exists within an organisational framework.

“Starfleet Intelligence is a bit of an oxymoron, eh?”

Indeed, there is something quite appropriate about building this episode around Bashir. It is not simply Bashir’s affinity for espionage antics in episodes like Our Man Bashir or A Simple Investigation, although Sloan cites that in particular. It is not simply the fact that Bashir is relatively dark-skinned and that Alexander Siddig was born in Sudan, a country very much tied up in the War on Terror and whose citizens have been subjected to the sort of practices depicted in this episode. Sudan was included on both of Trump’s travel bans.

Bashir is an interesting choice to anchor Inquisition, and an interesting foil for Sloan, because he is perhaps the most idealistic member of the Deep Space Nine cast. Bashir genuinely believes in Gene Roddenberry’s utopia, and is the Deep Space Nine character who would feel most at home on The Next Generation. That remains the case no matter how cynical Deep Space Nine might appear. Garak might quip about Bashir losing his boyish charm in A Time to Stand, but Bashir is still the only officer to stand up to Sisko in In the Pale Moonlight.

Sitting pretty.

Interestingly, Inquisition began as a very different episode. As writer Bradley Thompson explains in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, it had a more absurdist and surrealist approach to the material:

“Bashir went to a planet to do something really nice, like saving the lives of everyone on the whole planet,” Thompson says. “He parked his runabout in orbit, and when he finished doing this wonderful thing, he found out that his runabout had been towed and he had a parking ticket! So he had to go up against the bureaucracy. It was the ultimate genetically engineered human against the ultimate bureaucratic red tape.”

That reads almost like the comedic subplot of an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Given that the sixth season was saturated with light comedic episodes like You Are Cordially Invited…, The Magnificent Ferengi, Who Mourns for Morn? and One Little Ship, it was probably a good idea to steer into drama.

Virtual insanity.

At the same time, there is still something uncomfortable and uncanny about Inquisition, a sense of absurdity gnawing away behind the horror of it all. Deep Space Nine engaged with timeless themes, but it could never entirely escape its cultural moment. There are definitely elements of Inquisition that are rooted in the existential ennui of the nineties, with several plot elements feeling like they might have been lifted over from Voyager. This is appropriate, given that the bulk of the episode takes place on what looks like Voyager’s holodeck.

There is a recurring sense of the unreal about Doctor Bashir’s experiences, the recurring suggestion that the world is not quite right. There is a paranoia in Inquisition, one that obviously parallels and enriches Sloan’s witch hunt, but one which also runs deeper. Bashir is not just confronted with a rogue Starfleet Intelligence officer chasing conspiracies, he is repeatedly forced to acknowledge that his world might not be real. Inquisition suggests that Bashir cannot take anything for granted, even those things that he experienced directly.

Sloan gets real.

“And you were there five weeks?” Sloan challenges Bashir on his stay in the Dominion prison camp. Bashir clarifies, “Thirty seven days, actually.” Sloan presses his question, “You’re absolutely sure about that?” Sloan seems to reject the notion of objective reality outright, suggesting that all anybody can testify to is their own subjective experience. When Sloan talks about Bashir’s week in solitary, Bashir corrects him, “It wasn’t seven days, it was five. Five days.” Sloan observes, “Now that’s odd, because General Martok said you were gone for seven days.”

It’s a little detail, but Sloan picks at it. Later, Sloan suggests that Bashir could be a spy without even realising it. “I’m not working for them,” Bashir insists, forcefully. “How can you be sure?” Sloan counters. Bashir is taken aback. “Excuse me?” he asks. Sloan elaborates, “How can you be sure you’re not working for them?” Sloan might be trying to catch a Dominion double agent, but he also seems to take a great deal of pleasure in shattering Bashir’s sense of reality. Like Gul Madred in Chain of Command, Part II, Sloan wants to break Bashir of his tether to reality.

A lighter shade of blue.

Sloan seeks to convince Bashir that he is compartmentalising his betrayal of the Federation through “engramatic dissociation.” The idea is that Bashir could hold two contradictory ideas in his head at the exact same moment, meaning that he could be both a loyal Federation citizen and a Dominion spy without ever realising it. If Sloan is to be believed, Bashir cannot even trust his own awareness of himself. His memory and identity are corrupted, flawed, eroded. Bashir cannot be sure what is real and what is not.

It turns out that everything in Inquisition is fake. Chandler and Kagan do not exist, so Kagan never had a buddy who died during the Dominion attack upon the Seventh Fleet. This version of Weyoun is holographic, alluding to events that never happened. As part of the holographic program, Sisko tells Bashir that Sloan lost a son to the conflict, and that this is motivating his overzealous pursuit of Bashir. It turns out that this is also a lie. Even Sloan’s Starfleet uniform is an illusion, a construct pasted over black leather.

Something to chew over.

In The Hyperreal Theme in 1990s American Cinema, Randy Laist points to the nineties as a moment when the American consciousness became fascinated with the space between what was real and what was unreal, and the divide (if any) between them:

To be sure, the end of the Cold War was not the only significant cultural change underway during the 1990s. As American society experienced the sense that established polar narratives of good vs. evil had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, technological innovations such as cloning, virtual reality, 24-hour cable news channels, the internet, and CGI cinematography all seemed to operate simultaneously to collapse other polar narratives such as real vs. illusory, original vs. derivative, and authentic vs. artificial. Writing in 1999, cultural critic Neal Gabler argues: “After decades of public-relations contrivances and media hype, and after decades more of steady pounding by an array of social forces that have alerted each of us personally to the power of performance, life has become art, so that the two are now indistinguishable from each other.” To explain his troubled impression that American social life in the 1990s had been characterized by an incapacity to differentiate reality from its representations, Gabler recounts Lewis Carroll’s description of a map that is so accurate that if it were unfolded, it would bury the actual world underneath the representation. A similar fable from Jorge Luis Borges became the starting point for Jean Baudrillard’s famous essay, The Precession of Simulacra, in which he argued “[t]oday abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”  Baudrillard formulated his doctrine of hyperreality throughout the eighties, and it had been extremely influential on the art and literature of that decade, but Baudrillard’s breakthrough into popular awareness did not come until the heavily marketed 1988 debut of his book America. Most of his books were not translated into English until the 1990s, when hyperreality came into its own as a widely-acknowledged condition. Baudrillard drew attention to himself in the early nineties with his provocative statement that the Gulf War “did not take place,” a statement which, like another controversial statement from later on in that decade, hinges on what the definition of “is” is. For citizen-consumers in the heartland, does seeing a war on television, through cameras mounted on computer-guided ordnance, make the war real? Or does it make it hyperreal, so spectacularly vivid that it has spun off into its own ontological register – neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal. A book on the Clinton presidency is titled Constructing Clinton: Hyperreality and Image-Making in Postmodern Politics. Hyperreality might have been first theorized in the seventies and eighties, but it is not until the nineties that the end of the Cold War, which had held reality at gunpoint since the middle of the century, along with the proliferation of new reality-bending technologies, made hyperreality come true. In the “lost decade” between 11/9 and 9/11, the texture of reality itself seemed to quiver, a psychic condition which is extremely evident when we turn to that seismograph of American consciousness, Hollywood cinema.

This anxiety played out in a number of ways through the nineties, in television shows like V.R. 5 and Harsh Realm, or through movies like Dark City, The Matrix, eXistenz, The Truman Show and The Thirteenth Floor. In fact, Deep Space Nine even played with this paranoia in Whispers.

Getting inside Bashir’s head.

To be fair, Voyager was much more interested in these stories about fungible memory and identities, reflecting its status as the Star Trek series most firmly rooted in the mood and tone of the nineties. Even a cursory glance the fourth season reveals this recurring theme, whether in the distortion of history in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, the traded experiences of Random Thoughts, the untrustworthy memory of Retrospect, the stolen history of The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, or the warped record in Living Witness.

As such, it is fascinating to see Deep Space Nine play with these themes even within the background of an episode. Inquisition is about much broader political and historical themes, about the need to balance security (or the perception of security) against liberty, but these ideas still bubble through the episode. They play with the episode in interesting ways, informing the other themes. It is a relatively rare moment of thematic intersection between Deep Space Nine and Voyager, two franchise siblings that were often at a remove from one another.

Shackled to a meaningless construct of reality.

Still, there is a clear difference between how Inquisition approaches these themes, as compared to Voyager. Throughout Voyager‘s run, it is repeatedly suggested that the crew exist in a universe with a static history that is under constant existential threat. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II cemented the idea that the twenty-ninth century would not be so radically removed from the twenty-fourth, with Starfleet standing guard over time as well as space. Voyager often felt stuck on one extended moment, with no tangible sense of growth or movement.

Voyager was about a ship crossing tens of thousands of light years, but with most of the crew trapped in amber. Deep Space Nine was about a station stuck in one place, but with a crew constantly changing and growing. Indeed, Inquisition is an episode built upon the idea of continuity. It is an episode very firmly rooted in the history of Deep Space Nine, cleverly using the show’s history to construct a damning indictment of Julian Bashir by reference to events that the audience have actually seen depicted on screen.

“Well, he does make a pretty convincing case.”

Sloan builds a compelling case against Bashir by citing episodes like Hippocratic Oath, In Purgatory’s Shadow, By Inferno’s Light and Statistical Probabilities. It is a wonderful argument, because it hinges on information that is readily available to the audience and which can be taken together to imply a pattern of behaviour. Had Sloan not leveled these charges in Inquisition, it seems like these circumstantial links might have been fashioned together into a subversive fan theory, like the speculation about Riker’s functional alcoholism on The Next Generation.

There is an astonishing attention to detail in Sloan’s accusations. Sloan draws attention to the fact that Bashir was in solitary confinement before being released into general population in In Purgatory’s Shadow. It was a plot element that was obviously designed to conceal the fact that he had been replaced by a changeling, but Sloan uses that seemingly innocuous detail as the cornerstone of his accusation. Why was Bashir in solitary? How long was Bashir in solitary? What happened while Bashir was in solitary?

“Memory is what you’ll have instead of a view.”

Inquisition even shrewdly capitalises on a lingering plot hole in By Inferno’s Light. Most television shows would gloss over the absurdity of the Dominion leaving a fully-functional runabout orbitting their penal colony to provide a means of escape, but Sloan returns to it. “Why would the Dominion leave your runabout orbiting the camp unattended?” Sloan nitpicks. Bashir sighs, “They didn’t think we’d be able to contact it.” Sloan jumps on that with the enthusiasm of an internet commenter. “Why not? They left you everything you needed to build a transmitter.”

It is an exaggeration to say that this sort of continuity was entirely absent from Voyager. After all, the fourth season did maintain a surprisingly tight continuity in the episodes immediately following Message in a Bottle. However, this sort of continuity was the exception rather than the rule on Voyager. Often, memory functioned as a trap on Voyager. In Course: Oblivion, the crew are doomed by their connection to the episode Demon. In The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine quite literally overdoses on continuity. In Latent Image, memory almost kills the EMH.

A friendly warning.

Instead, Deep Space Nine has come to understand continuity, and the opportunities that it presents. The show is still producing standalone episodes, but those standalone episodes exist in a broader context. More than that, they are strengthened by the fact that these details and plot elements exist outside these individual forty-five minute chunks. Indeed, Inquisition even includes a sly continuation of a small gag from Change of Heart, with Casperia Prime usurping Risa’s place in the Star Trek canon.

Even beyond that creeping sense of unreality, there is something delightfully uncomfortable about Inquisition. This is the first episode of Star Trek to be directed by Michael Dorn, which is remarkable. Dorn is the longest-serving regular in the history of the franchise, even reportedly offered a guest appearance on Star Trek: Discovery, so it is surprising that it took him over a decade to step behind the camera. Dorn is not as assured a director as Frakes, Burton, McNeill, Dawson or Brooks. However, Inquisition is an impressive debut.

The best of frenemies.

There are not too many impressive technical shots in Inquisition, which makes a great deal of sense. This is a dialogue- and idea-driven episode, largely anchored in the interplay between Alexander Siddig and William Sadler. However, Dorn does make a number of interesting directorial choices. In particular, he keeps the camera moving. This is most striking in a short cut of Bashir leaving his quarters only to be interrupted by a phaser drill.

The surreal nature of the scene is heightened by the decision to track Bashir through the doorway out into the corridor, a rare camera manoeuvre on televised Star Trek. The scene cannot be structured as a long take, likely due to the layout of the standing sets. Nevertheless, keeping the camera with Bashir helps to ground the audience in his perspective, which in some ways sets up the episode’s big twist in the final act.

Disarming conversation.

Indeed, Inquisition does an excellent job of quietly and slowly heightening the stakes and amping up the tension as it goes. There is something decidedly Hitchcockian in the way that the episode escalates. The sight of armed officers in Ops during the teaser is unsettling, but so is the unexplained tactical drill, and the signs of disturbance in Bashir’s quarters. Even when Sloan presents himself as a “good cop”, there is a creeping sense of anxiety. Something is wrong, even if its never clear exactly what is going on.

That said, Inquisition works largely due its casting. Luther Sloan is an instantly memorable character, even before his true identity is revealed. William Sadler has an incredible screen presence, one that sets him apart from Deep Space Nine‘s other Starfleet personnel. Sadler is a compelling enough presence that Inquisition can effectively close its teaser with a close-up on his face. The teaser does not end on the suggestion that there is a spy on Deep Space Nine, the teaser ends because this is the man who has been sent to deal with it.

“We’ve this man on Sloan from Starfleet Intelligence.”

Sloan would become one of Deep Space Nine‘s most iconic characters, which is remarkable for a character who only appeared three times across the final two years of the show. In fact, even Sadler seems to remember Sloan in these archetypal terms:

I had a great time doing that. They called me up and asked me if I’d do it—that was another offer—and I had been a Star Trek fan, but I hadn’t watched Deep Space Nine. I didn’t follow that series. But Star Trek was such an important part of the fabric of the culture when I was growing up that I was thrilled. And I had a ball, too. But what a fun character to play. I think the first time we see him, he’s sitting at Dr. Bashir’s bedside, and he’s been there all night. Or you don’t know how long he’s been sitting there watching Bashir sleep. [Laughs.] It’s just an extremely creepy entrance for a character, and it’s great. Very unsettling.

Of course, Sadler is misremembering. Sloan is never glimpsed inside Bashir’s quarters in Inquisition. Sloan reintroduces himself to Bashir in that manner in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Extreme Measures, and that is how most casual viewers will remember him. Sloan perched at the end of Bashir’s bed is an evocative image, one that captures the essence of the character.

Well, the franchise’s utopia is built on the replicator…

Of course, Inquisition introduces one of the great legacies of Deep Space Nine. In many ways, Deep Space Nine become an evolutionary cul-de-sac for the larger Star Trek franchise. There was very little continuity between Deep Space Nine and the later Star Trek shows. Ronald D. Moore would be the only member of staff to continue on with the franchise after Deep Space Nine came to an end, but his tenure on Voyager would be measured in weeks. A lot of the experience learned on Deep Space Nine was allowed to slip away after the show ended.

When Star Trek: Enterprise launched, there was a clear continuity from Voyager. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were the showrunners. Mike Sussman and Phylis Strong were the first writers to be hired. André Bormanis also returned. As such, Enterprise had to learn to do serialisation from scratch, leading to a bizarre situation where Ira Steven Behr was brought in to consult towards the end of the second year for a session that was less than productive. This is to say nothing of carrying over pet interests like time travel or the Borg.

Give it a wrist.

As such, Deep Space Nine had a relatively subdued influence on the rest of the Rick Berman era. Taking a holistic view of the second-generation Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine could seem like something of a narrative and creative dead end for the franchise. If anything, Star Trek actively retreated from the ambitious spirit of Deep Space Nine. Its influence would be more keenly felt on television series outside the Star Trek banner. There is a much stronger evolutionary link to Battlestar Galactica, for example.

However, it is often surprising what elements of Deep Space Nine took root outside the show. The Cardassians never quite became iconic Star Trek baddies, never measuring up to the Klingons or the Romulans in popular consciousness. The Dominion would only receive a few fleeting references in other concurrent Star Trek stories. While characters from The Next Generation and Voyager seemed to frequently overlap with one another, the characters from Deep Space Nine seldom crossed over to other shows, barring Birthright, Part I and smaller appearances from Quark.

Sloan’s decision to check Bashir’s social media feed was damning.

However, Section 31 endured. Section 31 might just be the most lasting contribution that Deep Space Nine made to the larger Star Trek continuity, the textual element that has endured long beyond (and well outside) the series. Section 31 would appear in episodes of Enterprise like Affliction and Divergence, with Malcolm Reed revealed to have some history with the organisation. Section 31 would also appear connected to the antagonist of Star Trek Into Darkness, albeit in a very muddled and confusing manner.

To be fair, it is easy to see why Section 31 has stuck around. Inquisition makes it very clear that they are not a new organisation, with Sloan insisting that the organisation “was part of the original Starfleet charter”, making them more than two hundred years old. As such, they are a rare part of the Deep Space Nine mythos that can be integrated into prequel settings. Indeed, Sloan’s line all but invites an appearance on Enterprise, which is built around the idea that Starfleet predates the Federation. Plus, clandestine organisations and secret societies are inherently cool.


At the same time, there is something slightly frustrating about Section 31. As author Keith R.A. DeCandido argues, Section 31 becomes a convenient scapegoat that can be used to defuse potential criticisms of Starfleet and the Federation:

I have a hard time figuring out how I feel about this episode, partly because I think the introduction of Section 31 was one of the great missteps of DS9. One of Ira Steven Behr’s oft-stated goals on DS9 was to challenge the Federation’s utopia, but this failed to work because it didn’t challenge the utopia, it just provided a too-handy scapegoat for non-utopian actions by the Federation. Indeed, S31 has far too often become a writer’s crutch, a way to work around the ideal society of the Federation for the ease of storytelling.

Suddenly, any major missteps of Federation policy and Starfleet directives can be blamed on a small cadre or rogue officers operating without any direct oversight. These problems are not institutional, not rooted in a culture of unquestioning devotion to a large organistion. Section 31 are a barrel of bad apples.

This week, Bashir finds himself in a bit of a jam.

One need only look at how tie-in media has approached the concept of Section 31, using the organisation to effectively write around any portrayal of the Federation as less than ideal. Many authors have retroactively suggested that Section 31 was secretly involved in any number of questionable decisions that Starfleet made over the franchise’s fifty-year history. As such, Section 31 allows authors and fans to re-write the franchise’s history, to downplay any implicit or explicit criticism of the Federation by claiming that there is a secret society of “bad” guys at work.

The novel Cloak ties the organisation to the theft of the Romulan cloaking device in The Enterprise Incident, to the conspirator Admiral Cartwright from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, at to the disastrous experiment referenced in The Omega Directive. The novel Abyss suggests that the Starfleet plot against the Bak’u in Star Trek: Insurrection was largely driven by Section 31. In These Are The Voyages…, Riker even retroactively suggests that “a secret section of Starfleet security” was responsible for the events of The Pegasus.

Keeping his ears open.

At the same time, this might not be an intentional effort to downplay the Federation’s more morally ambiguous actions. It might just be authors indulging in the apophenia that drives so much licensed tie-in fiction, the insistence that everything must be tied together by the the threads of continuity. After all, what is the point in having a secret organisation within Starfleet if their invisible hand was never at work? The clandestine nature of Section 31 allows writers (and fans) to write them into the history of the fictional universe without explicitly rewriting continuity.

Inquisition is endearingly vague when it comes to the particulars of what Sloan is doing. Sloan suggests that he is operating in something resembling official capacity. He describes his organisation as “a branch of Starfleet Intelligence”, with an “official designation.” This suggests that Sloan is not a rogue operative operating without any official support within the command structure. In the closing scene, Sisko suggests that Starfleet Command is maintaining plausible deniability. “Starfleet Command doesn’t acknowledge its existence, but they don’t deny it either.”

Operating off the grid.

Still, Inquisition is careful to maintain a clear distance between Section 31 and the rest of Starfleet. “Starfleet sanctions what you’re doing?” Bashir demands. Sloan almost chuckles at the idea. “We don’t submit reports or ask for approval for specific operations, if that’s what you mean. We’re an autonomous department.” As such, it feels like Inquisition is trying to have its cake and eat it, insulating Section 31 from the larger Starfleet organisation. The Federation can be passively complicit in Sloan’s actions, but they cannot explicitly endorse him.

Inquisition would probably be even more effective if the production team were willing to paint Sloan as a member of Starfleet Intelligence, to suggest that the organisation was willing to suspend due process and torture Federation citizens in their efforts to protect the organisation from all threats foreign and domestic. After all, Starfleet had been willing to forceably relocate settlers in Journey’s End, seemed okay with Picard’s plan to commit genocide in I, Borg and would sign off on Sisko’s plan to lie to the Romulans in In the Pale Moonlight. Is this a bridge too far?

“Let’s be honest, I’m not even going to mention The Passenger.”

In some ways, this delineation feels like another illustration that Deep Space Nine has pushed as far as it can within the Roddenberry box. The series has repeatedly shattered the expectations for a Star Trek show, demonstrating just what could be done within the established framework. However, it seems that boundaries still exist. Honour Among Thieves cannot abandon the credited regulars. Change of Heart cannot kill off a credited lead mid-season. Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night cannot explore the true horrors of “comfort women.”

Inquisition suggests that Starfleet can be passively complicit in this behaviour, but cannot be directly implicated. Even in the midst of an on-going war for the very fate of the Alpha Quadrant, there are some lines that will not be crossed. The Deputy Assistant Attorney General and the Assistant Attorney General of the Federation are not sending memos on “enhanced interrogation.” The Federation’s Justice Department is not sending legal memos to Starfleet Intelligence about extraordinary rendition.

Holo man.

In the context of Inquisition, this is minor concern. The production team seem to recognise it as a potential issue. When Section 31 returns in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, Ronald D. Moore aligns recurring guest star Admiral Bill Ross with the organisation. When Bashir investigates the changeling virus in When It Rains…, he discovers that Commander Hilliard is certainly sympathetic to the attempted genocide. However, while these episodes place Section 31 closer to the heart of Starfleet and the Federation, their support is still rendered largely in passive terms.

Still, none of these are necessarily problems with Inquisition. Much like Sloan’s case against Julian Bashir, the argument against Section 31 tends to build up over time rather than rest upon a single inciting episode. Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and one of the best episodes of the sixth season. It is a clever script, built around some challenging ideas, anchored in two great lead performances. Inquisition is a paranoid and claustrophobic thriller that has aged remarkably well, and a testament to all involved.

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

26 Responses

  1. “Like the speculation about Riker’s functional alcoholism on The Next Generation.”

    Wait, what?

    • Sorry, just dropped that in there.

      In fairness, I think I float it somewhere in the Next Gen reviews.

      The idea is that Riker:
      (a.) is not as affected by intoxication as the other characters in The Naked Now;
      (b.) is shown to have relatively poor impulse control in terms of sex;
      (c.) spends a lot of his exposition scenes in Ten Forward; and
      (d.) is consistently avoiding being put in a position of prominence that would draw attention to himself;

      So there’s a fan theory I’ve seen mooted that Riker is basically a closet alcoholic, fitting with his impulse control in other areas of life, his resistance to being placed in a position where he would be subjected to additional scrutiny, and the fact that he metaphorically holds his liquor so well when even Data and Picard are drunk out of their minds.

      • I’ve never heard this fan theory before, but it would certainly provide an in-story reason for why Riker kept repeatedly turning down the promotion to Captain, as well as explaining some of his other quirks.

      • Ha! Yeah, I stumbled across it somewhere myself. Maybe TrekBBS, although it seems too irreverent to have come from there. The A.V. Club?

  2. >Sadler is misremembering. Sloan is never glimpsed inside Bashir’s quarters in Inquisition. Sloan reintroduces himself to Bashir in that manner in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Extreme Risk

    …Just as you are misremembering ‘Extreme Measures’ as ‘Extreme Risk,’ once again tying into your point about fungible memory.

    (also, tying into your point about DS9’s place in the canon, ‘Extreme Risk’ is one of the few Voyager eps to reference DS9 continuity)

    Your remarks about Dorn’s direction bring to mind Frakes’ first gig, ‘The Offspring,’ which likewise went bold with camerawork from the opening shot. I’m also reminded of the Combat! episode “Hill Are for Heroes” directed by series star Vic Morrow (story by Trek’s own Gene L. Coon!) and also features an inventive use of cameras totally unlike the series’ normal fashion. There’s something about putting actors behind the camera that brings out this playful, inventive stylishness. One imagines they must have each spent some time on the other side imagining, “boy, if I were calling the shots, I would have placed the camera there…”

    • Yep, there’s a definite sense of “I’ve been working on these sets for almost three years, and these would be some cool shots!” in how Dorn shoots Inquisition, even if there’s also a sense that the sets aren’t constructed in such a way as to really enable his more ambitious creative impulses. But it’s telling how strange it is for a camera to follow an actor through a doorway on DS9 from personal quarters into the corridors, when you’d think it should be the most obvious tracking shot imaginable.

  3. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the aspect of this episode that really enhances the claustrophobia. As soon as Bashir is in the holodeck program we are deprived of the usual exterior shots of the station. This is a really clever way to not only set the audience on edge as it makes them feel just as trapped as Bashir, but it also skillfully foreshadows the final twist.

    Great episode, but I just wish that if only there could have been some long term planning, then we could have had a great scene in the following episode, In the Pale Moonlight, when Sisko is asking for the gel from Bashir. It would have been nice to see Bashir looking at Sisko in a way that would convey to the audience that he wondered if maybe Sisko was part of Section 31 too.

    • I don’t know. I think the scene between Bashir and Sisko in In the Pale Moonlight works perfect as is. It’s perfectly in character for both officers, even if it doesn’t directly reference Inquisition. I think there’s enough there to suggest that Bashir would be thinking about Section 31.

    • It’s a regular trick to see no exterior shots when the story is illusory.

  4. “Section 31 would also appear connected to the antagonist of Star Trek Into Darkness, albeit in a very muddled and confusing manner.”

    Turning Section 31 into generic neocons who wanted “a more militarized version of Starfleet” was one of the many things that disappointed me in that movie. The original concept was very much not that – on the contrary, they were supposed to be sin eaters who worked in the shadows to do the Federation’s dirty work, so that its public faces, including Starfleet, could remain cute and cuddly. It’s less in your face, but for that reason much more unsettling, than Admiral Space Rumsfeld was.

    • More than that, instead of Section 31 operating under plausible deniability they’re an official branch of Starfleet which are brought up in Kirk & Spock’s mission briefing.

      Section 31 as seen in DS9 weren’t so much Seven Days in May as they were akin to Angel’s Wolfram & Hart: “See, for us, there is no fight. Which is why winning doesn’t enter into it. We – go on – no matter what. Our firm has always been here. In one form or another.”

    • To be fair, I think that Inter Arma Enim Leges, one of the more underrated episodes of the seventh season, handles that notion really well by calling out Admiral Ross’ passive complicity with them.

  5. Just saw this episode for the first time two days ago. Great episode. I watched it with a friend who had only seen 4-5 DS9 episodes before and he loved it (even as I had to apologize for the episode casually name dropping the plots from several episodes). The episode’s key themes remain very timely today. Great to know that Michael Dorn directed it!

  6. I’m watching the show with a far more critical — and appreciative — eye this time, and it strikes me that my younger self really had no real understanding of the broader issues DS9 explored; I watched the show as a slightly darker Trek with the customary aliens, and I certainly appreciated the better special effects, but I really didn’t see what was beyond the surface, the subversiveness of some of the plot lines and character actions. I hadn’t developed a political self yet, so most of this aspect of the show went right over my head. And I guess that’s why I remember virtually none of the episodes. It was Trek, I was a Trekkie, so I watched it.

    But this was one of the episodes I did remember, and I remembered it because of the paranoia and the shock of discovering the Federation’s underbelly. Very cool. Very X-Files. All those onion layers of false reality, peeling off one by one. At the end of the episode, even after his debriefing with Sikso et al, I was left with the sense that Julian was still not absolutely sure he was back in the “real” world.

    What an episode.

    • Thanks Laura!

      Yeah, it’s the sense of the uncanny that I love most about Inquisition, the sense of “this could never happen here…” but then it does and it is. It’s a feeling that I’ve felt with greater frequency this past year.

      • “I was left with the sense that Julian was still not absolutely sure he was back in the real world”. Like Barclay at the end of Ship in a Bottle when he’s still unsure if he’s in a holodeck program or not.

  7. DS9’s evisceration of the Star Trek universe continues apace with Inquisition, which introduces yet another shockingly controversial plot development to this frequently brilliant season. What begins as an investigation into Doctor Bashir by Internal Affairs eventually gravitates to something far more disturbing.

    Although O’Brien is often the character who suffers the most on DS9, there is a miniature sub-genre of “Bashir must suffer” episodes too – the variable likes of The Passenger, Distant Voices, In Purgatory’s Shadow, By Inferno’s Light and Dr Bashir, I Presume?

    Inquisition may be the most fully formed example. It weaves together the events of Bashir’s life and turns them into a case Sloan makes against him (not unlike the way Waltz did with Dukat), trapping Bashir in an existential nightmare far more successfully than Distant Voices did.

    Michael Dorn’s direction is excellent (showing that In the Cards was no fluke or beginners luck). He litters Inquisition with false starts like the security officers running down the corridor engaged in battle drills or Bashir getting gagh for breakfast instead of the scones he ordered that all creates an unsettling ambiguity.

    Sloan becomes increasingly probing, as its obvious Bashir is his reason for coming to DS9, shining a spotlight on all of Bashir’s dealings with the Dominion, eventually getting him to consider the possibility the Dominion broke him when he was they’re prisoner, and conditioned him as a double-agent without his knowledge.

    When Star Trek does these sorts of stories that gets a character to doubt they’re own reality, there’s always that nagging feeling in the back of our minds that this can’t be real and Inquisition proves no different in that regard, but after it’s all revealed to be a test of Bashir’s loyalties to Starfleet, the episode isn’t quite done with him, or us for that matter, when Sloan reveals he works for Section 31, an organisation so secretive, the Federation may or may not know it even exists.

    DS9 is infamous for exposing the dark underbelly of the sunny, candy-coated Star Trek universe, and Inquisition is the episode that introduces Section 31, the Starfleet equivalent of the Tal Shiar or the Obsidian Order. They’re job is to root out potential threats to the Federation, and when they do, they deal with them…quietly.

    Some people may be offended by the very idea of Section 31 (Sisko and Bashir certainly are), but I loved it. One can’t maintain an institution like the Federation without someone having to get they’re hands dirty, and what appals Sisko and Bashir is that Starfleet seems willing to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to they’re activities as long as it keeps Starfleet’s backyard tidy.

    Sloan makes an interesting argument to Bashir (on what looks like one of Voyager’s holodecks) about the necessity of Section 31. They deal with threats to the Federation “that jeopardise its very survival”. As long as it keeps the Federation alive, who cares how the job gets done?

    Bashir may scoff at Sloan’s argument, but that’s only because he still believes in the Federation as a paradigm of elightenment. Inquisition is the episode that gets him to reevaluate that belief.

    Inquisition is an episode that brutally deconstructs Gene Roddenberry’s utopian human future (Section 31 have existed since the birth of the Federation apparently), and makes you question everything you thought you ever knew about Star Trek. Some people may despise it for that very reason, but I loved it for adding another shade of grey to an already murky S6.

    Gul Madred tries to break Picard’s sense of reality in Chain of Command, Pt II. I would have liked it if Bashir had woken up in his quarters after being sedated by Section 31. It would have made things more ambiguous if Bashir thought everything he experienced may have been a bad dream. Quark appeared in TNG and VGR – It wasn’t just Bashir who got to cross over to another Trek show. And it was Commander Hilliard.

    • The interesting thing about Inquisition is the way in which the Deep Space Nine episodes that follow on from it tend to improve it, while the other stories that follow on from it outside Deep Space Nine tend to have the opposite effect.

      And thanks for the corrections!

  8. I agree, it is an almost perfect piece of art – and just imagine that it is even topped by the following episode It has a very kafkaesque, eerie atmosphere.

    However, there is one tiny sloppy writing, when Sloan confronts Bashir about the events of “Hippocratic Oath” as prove that Bashir has been sympathetic to the Dominion from the start. Why did Bashir not counter this line of agument by stating that if he were sympathetic he would not try to destabilize the Founder’s rule about the Jem’Hadar via their White-addiction?

    • That’s fair, but I think Sloan was making the case that he wasn’t necessarily working for the Dominion in Hippocratic Oath, but instead showing himself to be capable of sympathising with the enemy. In this case, the Jem’Hadar rather than the Founders. If Bashir could be sympathetic to the Jem’Hadar, somebody like Sloan would make the case that Bashir could be sympathetic to the Founders in time. Sloan’s theory is, as I recall, that Bashir was recruited during his time on the prison asteroid. So his activities in Hippocratic Oath are more about establishing a pattern of behaviour (sympathetic to the Federation’s enemies) than proving that he was actually working for the Dominion.

    • There is one other-pointing out the absurdity of the Dominion leaving a runabout in orbit back during “In Purgatory’s Shadow”/”By Inferno’s Light” does not negate the plot hole. But I don’t really care that much about plot holes to begin with.

      • Yep. The narrative either works or it doesn’t.

      • If a story works, people generally don’t complain about plot holes. If a story is bad, then you start picking it apart and noticing holes in it. Since you’re already bored, it can be pretty fun to rip it apart even more. But the issues most important to me are things like acting, writing, pacing, etc. Unless it’s really massive or makes the narrative completely nonsensical, harping on about plot holes seems like nitpicking to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: