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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S1E4)’

“Who said anything about volunteering? We can haggle over price later.”  –Quark

The mysterious plague episode is the baked potato of the Star Trek franchise.  It’s the staple, presumably what the writers do when they don’t have anything better on the agenda.  “So, what’s the plan this week?”  “I dunno, Ira, how about a mysterious plague?”  “GOLD!  You’re spinning gold right now!”  It might seem shocking that DS9 dipped into that well so quickly, but they showed more restraint than TNG whose “Naked Now” was the very second episode ever.  Fortunately, this doesn’t feature Denise Crosby with bizarre ‘80s hair either.

“Babel” begins by once again underlining the twin themes of Nothing Works and Everything Sucks.  Overt conflict is as important to DS9’s structure as serialization, and here we have O’Brien confronting his most persistent nemesis: the station itself.  Poor Chief is used to the Enterprise, where everything runs like greased owls–t until precisely the moment that it doesn’t, and even then we’re just a quick polarity-shift-in-the-tachyon-field away from full functionality.  DS9 is Cardassian technology and, apparently, it’s made entirely of failure and the tears of Bajoran slave labor and oh my god that’s the most depressing thing I’ve typed all day.  The point of all this is that O’Brien is constantly zooming around the station grumpily fixing pretty much everything.

While fixing a replicator on the command deck at the behest of the Commander (Weird continuity note here: Sisko ordered coffee, which loyal viewers know isn’t the ultra-manly beverage Sisko enjoys during the run of the show when he’s not saving the galaxy by punching something.), O’Brien sets off a device.  Pretty soon, he’s patient zero for that mysterious plague I’ve been talking up.  This one causes a form of aphasia, meaning the brain no longer processes words correctly.  Infected people start babbling strings of word salad and perceive everyone around them as doing the same.  After a day or so of that, they lapse into unconsciousness and die.  It’s doubly terrifying in that the disease itself renders someone helpless to fight it: you can’t tell the computer to make a cure if all that comes out is “purple monkey dishwasher.”

It turns out that the plague was a genetically engineered weapon of the Bajoran Underground, and it’s a fiendishly clever one at that, designed to build the aphasia virus directly into the replicated food.  It’s a nice glimpse into the desperation of the war, though it’s debatable how quickly we needed to see the Bajorans doing something kind of evil so quickly after “Past Prologue” showed the lines between sides are not quite as sharply drawn as we would like.  Major Kira is the last to be infected, and she uses a pretty badass gambit to extort one of the plague’s designers to create a cure.  She beams him from the planet to a runabout with her, and then points out that while she’s not yet symptomatic, she’s definitely been exposed.  It’s yet another moment where Kira uses the kind of tactics that would have gotten her kicked out of Starfleet for Reckless Awesomeness.

Two people in all the station are apparently immune to the plague, or at the very least highly resistant: Odo and Quark.  There have been moments of the two of them playing off one another and some great subtle hints about their long history as antagonists (the best being in “A Man Alone,” when Quark opines that an enemy is the closest thing Odo has to a friend), but here it’s given some quality screentime.  Rene Auberjonois (Odo) and Armin Shimerman (Quark) are two of the stronger actors in the ensemble, and the pleasure they take in playing off one another is palpable.  The term hadn’t been invented yet, and at least Odo would deny the truth of it, but they’re classic frenemies.  With everyone struck down by the plague, they’re the last two left on Ops trying to deal with a panicked freighter captain who threatens to tear the docking ring apart.

It’s a good episode for Quark, who slipped into the background of earlier hours and didn’t even appear in “Past Prologue.”  The show is still establishing both his character and the Ferengi as a race, walking them back from the cartoonish monsters of TNG to a more versatile conception of hardcore capitalists in space. (Please read the last four words in an echoing bellow for full effect.)  Armin Shimerman portrayed one of the original Ferengi in that debut episode, so it’s only right that he should get the chance to rehabilitate them.  Sadly, this makeover means no more energy whips, but we can’t have everything.  The irony of Quark’s importance here is that he’s the one who spread the plague.  His replicator is broken, and Chief O’Brien has no time to fix it, so Quark uses one of the infected ones on the command deck, inadvertently spreading the plague to his customers.

There are two other odd continuity notes here.  The first is Quark mentions a Ferengi saying: “Never ask when you could take.”  At any other point in the series, this would be one of the Rules of Acquisition, the catechism by which the Ferengi run their businesses and culture (as though there’s a distinction).  These became so popular, they even released a tie-in book of all the collected Rules.  Which I own.  Because, well . . . diehard Niner.  The more striking continuity error (which will get a halfhearted hand wave later on) concerns how Odo knows Quark was lying when he claimed his brother Rom fixed his replicator.  “Rom’s an idiot,” Odo growls. “He couldn’t fix a straw if it were bent.”  As we will discover, Rom is pretty far from an idiot, though he certainly comes off that way.

While “Babel” has the best Quark moments thus far, it’s a fairly disposable episode.  Completists and Quark fans will want to catch it, but it’s an easy one to skip.

Next up: O’Brien ruins a perfectly good hunting trip.




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