“I canceled my death for you. I was really looking forward to it.”
The more experienced I become in my chosen vocation, the more I appreciate the slow rehabilitation of Dr. Julian Bashir. Other than a misstep next season which the actor hated, the character has steadily progressed from an arrogant, sexually aggressive naif to arguably one of the most heroic characters in science fiction. It was a pretty steep climb, too, when you remember just how obnoxious he was in the early going, and how unbearably creepily he treated Dax. This episode, nestled here at the end of the fourth season and serving to remind us just how monstrous the Dominion can be, is arguably the most important Bashir episode, harnessing his foibles and virtues into a compelling portrait of a flawed hero.
This week, Bashir and Dax find a planet suffering under a horrific, engineered plague. As a price for defying the Dominion, the entire populace was infected with the blight, a disease that afflicts them at birth, displayed in the form of lesions on their skin. At some random point, the disease “quickens” when the lesions inflame, and the person dies in unbearable agony. This has been going on for two hundred years, and the whole world has become a depressed hellhole. There is no possibility of a cure, so the equivalent of a doctor is a man named Trevean who holds pleasant suicide parties for people who have quickened, allowing them to die in peace.
Naturally, Bashir is horrified when he learns all of this. Starfleet is all about hope, and they’re willing to assimilate you like the Borg or root beer to insure you feel it, too. Here’s the thing about hope: In the right (or wrong) circumstances, it’s indistinguishable from arrogance. Bashir is the perfect avatar for both versions.
Remember in the very beginning when he rubbed Kira the wrong way by referring to her home as a frontier? Seemed pretty obnoxious, until you remember Starfleet designated the station around Bajor as “Deep Space Nine.” That’s not deep space to Kira. It was orbiting her home. That’s as shallow as space gets. Bashir wasn’t expressing a sentiment that wasn’t right there in Federation terminology. In modern terms, he really needed to check his privilege.
The episode opens by showing how much their relationships have thawed. Bashir still yearns for adventure, but both Kira and Dax regard it as an endearing character quirk. He’s no longer sleazing all over Dax here, allowing her to serve, at turns, as friend, sounding board, confidant, and mentor. This really is the best role for Dax, as the supporting character whose wealth of experience lets her cut through someone else’s bullshit. She gets the best moment of the episode when Bashir is despairing over his own arrogance at thinking he could cure this plague. “It’s even more arrogant to think there isn’t a cure just because you couldn’t find it,” she tells him.
When Bashir finds this planet, his better nature kicks in immediately. He wants to cure these people, and there is an element of personal glory to it, but it’s hardly his primary purpose. He’s willing to work himself to exhaustion to see these people able to live full lives free of the blight. He slowly builds a group of trial subjects, starting with Ekoria, a sweet and heavily pregnant widow, and later Epran, a wry young man with the jaundiced hope of the condemned. The problem is, with each step forward, Bashir takes two back, and each one costs the lives of his subjects who die screaming.
Trevean is a constant presence on the fringes. He warns his people that others have periodically come and promised a cure. They’ve never delivered and served only to make people suffer. He can’t offer anything more than a peaceful and relatively painless death. To the infected, this is an unimaginable luxury. When Bashir’s instruments cause nearly all of his patients to quicken and die in unimaginable agony, it starts to look like Trevean might be right.
Only Ekoria sticks around, even after Bashir’s mistake, though in a final kick in the gut, she quickens as well. She refuses to give up hope, and Bashir continues to attempt to treat her. With death assured, she just wants to hang on long enough to give birth to her son. Pretty heavy, wrenching stuff. Trevean begs her to let him help her, whispering that her baby “will have only known peace.” The thing is, Trevean is not wrong here. Based on what he knows of the blight, this is precisely what she should be doing. Morality is all about a reduction of suffering, and, sometimes, death is the only respite. This is a world shaped by that reality for two centuries. Acting another way, as Bashir is doing, is insane at best and cruel at worst.
Ekoria draws on some reserves of strength, and Bashir induces labor as soon as it is safe. She delivers a child, and Bashir discovers why the antigen he’s been shooting up into her doesn’t seem to be in her blood anymore. It’s been absorbed into the placenta. The baby is entirely blight-free. Ekoria gets the chance to see the results of her heroism before her battered body gives up. Bashir is overwhelmed between being delirious at the prospect of hope and shattered that Ekoria had to die.
Bashir takes the baby to Trevean who, to his credit, is instantly on board. He calls the distribution of the vaccine “a privilege.” Bashir returns to DS9, having given this planet back some semblance of hope. He ends the episode in his lab, working on a cure for the blight. It’s not enough to have saved the next generation; he wants the present one as well.
It’s unfortunate they were never mentioned again, as a Federation ally in Dominion space, even one so broken, could have been useful. This joins “Hippocratic Oath” as a hero Bashir episode, and it’s just not as exciting to watch a man in a lab fight a disease as it is watching fleets of ships blow each other up. While we never see him continue this worth, it does get mentioned again, and I don’t think Bashir would have given up. Call it hope, call it arrogance. Just as long as he does it.
Next up: Quark makes a bad deal.