“There’s no stigma attached to success.”
— Dr. Julian Bashir
I’m guessing about 90% of people reading this know what retcon is, but since the remaining 10% don’t and are my mother, I’ll go ahead and explain. Retcon is an adorable abbreviation of Retroactive Continuity, which is a phenomenon found in long-form fiction and most prevalent in comic books. Essentially, something is revealed about a character or situation, and whatever this change is, has been true all along. For example, when Magneto was introduced, he wasn’t a Holocaust survivor, but later writers have made him such and it’s now an indelible element of his character.
This should also make clear that not all retcon is necessarily bad. Magneto’s retconned history adds heft to the character and it grounds his extreme methods in uncomfortable reality. Retcon is a tool for a long-form writer, and it’s a nigh inevitability in anything lasting long enough, especially when more than one writer is involved. Purists will fret over every instance of it, but the truth is, it’s a lot like a supermarket. You take what you want and ignore the rest. Yelling at someone over a single funny-looking peach isn’t going to help anybody.
Retcons are all over the place in Star Trek. The property’s been around since the ‘60s with untold numbers of writers all working on the thing, each one putting their own stamp on it. When Roddenberry started the original series, continuity wasn’t as prized on television the way it is now, and no one was expected to see every single episode of any series. He had no idea he was setting up this vast universe with every episode, because that kind of storytelling didn’t really exist yet. In one episode, Spock states that an ancestor of his mated with a human. In a later episode, that becomes his mother — technically an ancestor, but there’s no way that’s what was meant at the time. The Cardassians came out of nowhere in TNG, a brand new power in the Alpha Quadrant with whom the Federation had just fought a nasty war. A lot of these retcons have since become beloved parts of the series. Star Trek has always been assembled more as a quilt. If one patch doesn’t go with the rest, it’s mostly just quietly forgotten.
This week’s episode, “Doctor Bashir, I Presume,” has a big retcon for our doctor friend, and on the balance, I dislike it. Dr. Bashir gets selected by Starfleet to be the model for the new Long-Term Medical Hologram, an updated version of the Emergency Medical Hologram. For those familiar with Voyager, this is a nice bit of continuity. For anyone else, they get the treat of Robert Picardo guest-starring. While I was never a Voyager fan, Picardo’s endearingly prickly holographic Doctor was one of the few highlights. Here, he plays Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, the brilliant programmer and model for the EMH.
The episode starts out as a farce. The modeling of the hologram requires the LMH to be able to share anecdotes, swap dirty jokes, and more or less act like a real person. Zimmerman interviews everyone who knows Bashir, getting a variety of takes on the man. It’s rewarding to see that after five years, everyone has grown fond of the formerly brash and arrogant doctor. The show had been gradually building him into a hero worthy of admiration, with episodes like “Hippocratic Oath,” where he works to free the Jem’Hadar of their addiction, and “The Quickening,” where his own arrogance nearly breaks him on the quest to cure a Dominion-engineered plague. This is what DS9 does so well: believably and incrementally allowing a character to grow. McCoy started out as the great, compassionate, and human doctor he would be throughout the series and the films. Bashir had to get there, and because we were on the road with him, his improvement resonates with us.
The first hint of trouble arises when Bashir asks Zimmerman not to interview his parents. Zimmerman, of course, instantly invites both of them to DS9. It initially looks like the cause of the embarrassment is Bashir’s father, Richard, who is a career loser always talking up his nonexistent accomplishments. This is a mask for something darker, revealed when Bashir tells both of his parents to keep their secret safe.
Sticking around in farce for a little while longer, the B-plot concerns Rom’s romantic life. We finally get the full history — or as full as the show will ever give us — of Nog’s mother. Quark rattles it off in a bored singsong, like he’s done this lecture a thousand times. Rom wanted kids, so he signed a five-year marriage contract with Ferengi female Prinadora. “An everyday business transaction,” Quark says. Rom made the mistake of falling in love, and when the time came for an extension, Rom signed whatever was put in front of him, which let Prinadora and her father swindle Rom out of all of his money.
Rom has eyes for Leeta, and as revealed in the godawful “Let He Who is Without Sin…” Leeta has the hots for Rom. Rom is too shy to spit it out, and what I don’t understand is why Leeta doesn’t just ask him. Zimmerman swoops in and romances Leeta, nearly bringing her back to Jupiter Base to run a cafe, before Rom stops her at the airlock. It’s a big, romantic moment, and DS9 has a spotty relationship with those. Sometimes, the show nails them, such as with sixth season’s “His Way,” but more often than not, it kind of falls flat. Here, it is rewarding to see sad sack Rom find love, and he and Leeta are a reliably odd couple, even if this doesn’t quite have the dramatic heft it wants to.
Back in the A-plot, the big secret spills when Bashir’s parents accidentally confess to a Bashir hologram while O’Brien and Zimmerman overhear. Bashir, as it turns out, was genetically enhanced. He was born clumsy and slow, and using genetic re-sequencing, was transformed into the brilliant, athletic doctor we all know and now love. The importance of this revelation is that genetic engineering is illegal in the Trek Universe. Why? The answer is KHAAAAAAAAN!
Yes, that Khan. He’s even namechecked in the episode, when a J.A.G. lawyer says that for every Dr. Julian Bashir, there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings. In the distant past (the 1990s. No, seriously) of Star Trek, the Eugenics War ravaged Earth, and Khan was basically the Immortan Joe of the whole affair. Because the creation of genetically perfect humans led to an attempt at genocide, the Federation thought maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore.
The resolution of the episode sends Richard to prison for breaking the law, but Bashir’s career is intact. It’s good to see that the Federation wasn’t going to throw one of their finest doctors under the bus for a crime his father committed.
A verdict on this retcon is tough, because it does explain certain things about Bashir. His self-sabotage is no longer some deep-seated psychological issue, but rather an attempt to hide his genetic background from others. His arrogance in the early episodes takes on a darker cast, as well. But then it makes no sense in light of the episode “Distant Voices,” where we spend the whole time in Bashir’s mind, but this incredibly important secret never makes an appearance. It also means this entire time Bashir has been purposefully losing at darts, which isn’t evil, but it is kind of a dick move.
While this episode isn’t bad, ultimately, the retcon isn’t worth it. It doesn’t have much bearing on the show as it continues and creates problems for Trek fans. I don’t know if you’re aware, but we can be a wee bit obsessive.
Next up: Odo gets mixed up with the wrong dame.