This was an episode that displayed a considerable control of its tempo and tone, starting off by creating a bit of a sinking feeling that it was all going to be a bit too comic, and morphing into something considerably more serious and with deep-lying implications that caused a deal of controversy among Star Trek fans. Only on Deep Space Nine, only on Deep Space Nine.
The storyline is misleadingly simple. Bashir’s off to a Medical Conference on Casperia Prime, a lush, beautiful world, and being a bit smug about it, first to Odo, then to Miles O’Brien, who’s dislocated his shoulder again, kayaking in the holosuite.
But the next morning, his trip is cancelled, as the entire Senior Staff is confined to quarters during an examination into a security breach by Internal Affairs, acting by Director Sloan (William Sadler in a role originally intended for Martin Sheen). It’s not long before questioning concentrates on the Doctor, who is accused of being a spy for the Dominion. The theory is that, during his incarceration by the Dominion, whilst he was replaced on DS9 by a Changeling, Bashir was broken and turned into a spy who is concealing his own treachery even from himself by engrammatic dissociation – the creation of mental blocks compartmentalising the mind.
Bashir refuses to believe that and, initially, so does Sisko. But it’s a cunning detail, one impossible to disprove since it revolves around the idea that the accused is lying even to himself.
Sisko’s refusal to let Sloan do exactly what he wants to break Bashir leads to the Director’s decision to remove the Doctor to a maximum security cell. But this is disrupted by the unexpected teleportation of Bashir. Onto a Cardassian ship, to met Weyoun, who greets Bashir sympathetically. The story teeters on the edge of what would have been a truly tremendous and extremely dark revelation, that Sloan was right: Bashir has been aiding the Dominin, on ‘moral’ and ‘humanitarian’ grounds.
But that’s a twist too far. What Bashir takes from this supposed confirmation of his guilt is that Weyoun and Sloan are acting together to frame him, that Sloan is the traitor. And he’s not far off the mark: there’s a violent twist as the Defiant catches up with and attacks the Cardassian ship (too fast, how did they track it?). It’s got the full Senior Staff on board and they’re hostile, convinced Bashir is a traitor. Miles O’Brien throws him off. With his dislocated shoulder. The one he got playing stringball…
And the illusion dissolves into a holodeck, with Sloan and two assistants all dressed in unadorned black uniforms. Sloan is much more chatty now, convinced Bashir is innocent. He has been tested and has passed: he did set off for the Medical Conference after all, but was kidnapped en route, and it has all been a charade designed to test him to destruction.
Bashir is less than relieved at his exoneration however. He’s concerned about Sloan and his organisation. They’re not Internal Affairs, Sloan confirms, they’re Section 31, a secret, autonomous unit established at the birth of the Federation. They are the worm in the apple, the canker in the bud, the dirty jobs merchants. Beneath the surface of the utopia that is the Federation, they do what is necessary to ensure that the Federation remains a utopia. They are Judge, Jury, and Executioner.
Bashir is outraged. Section 31 offends every principle on which the Federation is built. And he is even more outraged that, given his high level of intelligence, his loyalty to the Federation, his genetic modifications, Sloan wants him to join Section 31. He refuses in disgust.
Once back on DS9, however, discussing his experience with Odo, Kira and Sisko, who reports that there is no Director Sloan in Starfleet, and that the Federation refuse to either confirm or deny the existence of Section 31, it is agreed that the dirty tricks section will try to recruit Bashir again. This time, the Captain orders, he will accept…
The idea of Section 31 was controversial among fans because it most directly breached Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Federation as a perfect set-up, as humanity having resolved all its issues and living happily ever after. Deep Space Nine had deliberately, but quietly, set itself to explore the darker side of that vision, the uncomfortable reality that perfect societies don’t stay perfect of themselves, but require a helping hand, beneath what’s on view, to ensure it’s that way.
It’s a broad streak of grey through the black and white, it’s the embodiment of the Greater Good argument. Being Deep Space Nine, we’re offered nothing but equivocation, in equal parts because this is not a black and white question, that it is not a simple question, and that this is a long-running prime-time drama series. But I am reminded of the late Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, “The Ones who walk away from Omelas”, which I recommend you read.
We live in a dark Universe. It’s always good that our fiction reflects that darkness.