In the self-loathing way only show-business can be, the writers of DS9 cast the liberal and conservative players as the latter’s dream of what they are. The liberal is Dr. Bashir: young, upper-class, and naïve, an officer with no combat experience but a wealth of book-learning and boundless empathy and compassion even for his bitterest foes. The conservative is Chief O’Brien: hearty and working-class, an enlisted family man, a practical veteran of a brutal war who works with his hands and solves problems with gumption, know-how, and a gun. They are also best friends, something outlined in the opening of the episode when O’Brien’s complaints about Keiko reach an (unvoiced) logical conclusion: he kind of wishes she were Bashir.
The two of them are on a mission to the Gamma Quadrant, because, seriously guys? You’re still doing this? I guess since the Dominion is now just openly sending spies through the wormhole they might as well. They’re far away from any Dominion outposts, so they feel pretty safe when they pick up an energy signature that could be a damaged warp core. Getting closer, a plasma field knocks them out of the sky, where they’re taken prisoner by a small force of Jem’Hadar.
This isn’t a normal group of Jem’Hadar. These are renegades. Led by grizzled veteran Goran’Agar, they’re focused on breaking their addiction to ketricel-white, which is the drug the Dominion administers to keep their organic killing machines in check. It’s basically the Lysine Contingency from Jurassic Park, and why the Jem’Hadar have little tubes apparently pumping milk into their carotid arteries. This is the first time the drug has been named (Bashir learned about it in “The Abandoned,” where he called it a missing enzyme, and it came up again in “The Die is Cast.”), and it will come to be an important part of DS9 lore, as well as a visible reminder of what monsters the Founders can be.
Goran’Agar is a pretty fascinating guy. The lone survivor of a shipwreck, he ran out of white and found he didn’t need it, something he relates to Bashir with fierce pride while flashing the still-raw scar from his missing feeding tube. After he was rescued, he gathered up his men and brought them back to the planet in hopes of freeing all of them from the addiction, as well.
As it turns out, it’s easier said than done. What luck then, that a Starfleet doctor literally falls out of the sky to help him.
This is the genesis of the debate. Bashir toes the utopian Federation line. The Jem’Hadar are sentient beings, and they want to be freed of their slavery. He listens to Goran’Agar’s fumbling attempts to forge a moral code free of Vorta doctrine and is inspired. These men need Bashir’s help, and he’s going to do everything he can to render that assistance.
O’Brien takes the far more pragmatic tack, even if it’s entirely at odds with what we thought the Federation should be like. The Jem’Hadar are biologically engineered murderers. Freeing them of the one thing that keeps them somewhat on a leash could be the equivalent of handing AK-47s to Genghis Khan. Helping them and hoping they won’t just kill everyone is naïve at best.
The show doesn’t come down on either man’s side, either. O’Brien forces Bashir’s hand by destroying the research in the midst of an escape, so there’s no more reason to stick around. It’s a mission statement to all of those who started watching the show when Worf showed up, a mission statement Sisko actually verbalizes at the end of the episode. While Worf was getting pissy about how Odo handles things -- specifically, Quark -- Worf ends up sticking his spined head where it doesn’t belong and ruining a sting operation that would have allowed Odo to bring down an entire smuggling ring. “DS9 has more shades of gray,” Sisko tells him.
The darkest bit of gray comes when Goran’Agar stops Bashir and O’Brien right before they get to the runabout and get off the planet. Bashir wants the Jem’Hadar to come with him. They can continue the research, and perhaps with the extra time, will discover the cure. Goran’Agar cannot, pointing to his responsibility to his men. They’ll die in agony over the following week without the white. He owes it to them to provide a death in battle. Bashir can’t understand, but Goran’Agar turns to O’Brien. “You were a soldier. You explain it to him.” O’Brien agrees, the one bit of understanding passing between the two men.
The irony here is that, to Goran’Agar and the other Jem’Hadar, it is O’Brien who is acting rationally. The first thing Goran’Agar says upon learning Bashir is a doctor is that he would be “trained to feel empathy and compassion.” That’s right, to the Jem’Hadar, these are not naturally occurring and would have to be the result of special training. They can’t understand their would-be savior, but they can understand the man who would doom them.
I’ve watched this episode many times over the years. While I wish I could be as idealistic as Bashir, I find myself siding with O’Brien, and for those keeping track, this is an avowed liberal taking an unabashedly conservative position. When both sides actually do have a point, the issues are harder to navigate, but the solutions they offer are real.
Next up: Dukat might not have taken those wedding vows seriously.