Deep Space Nine: s07 e23 – Extreme Measures

Almost the perfect con…

I admit to a cynical expectation about Deep Space Nine after all but a tiny few of seven seasons. Though I’ve enjoyed a majority of the episodes I’ve seen, far too many of these have been spoiled for me by poor writing, sloppy writing, writing that has skimped on logic or dodged self-constructed corners with the equivalent of a ‘Hey! Look! A Squirrel!’ that distracts the audience’s attention (they think).

Last week, Julian Bashir and Miles O’Brien declared a private war on Section 31, determined to get out of it the cure for the morphogenetic disease that’s slowly killing the Founders but rapidly killing Odo: in an extended and emotional open, Bashir diagnoses our horribly flaky friend as having a week left, maybe two. Typically, crusty Odo sends Kira back to Demar and co, so he can die alone without her having to watch.

That Julian’s plan – to lure someone from Section 31 to DS9 by pretending to have the cure, have them come to destroy it and extract the real one from them – would work was scarcely in doubt. It was how it would work and, given the nature of Section 31 and the massive imbalance of forces, whether it would be remotely credible that worried me.¬† And my doubts were gloriously refuted.

‘Extreme Measures’ was practically a two-hander, three if you count William Sadler, making a final guest appearance as Luther Sloan. This enabled tight, focussed writing that, because only minimal use of the rest of the cast was allowed (no Quark for two weeks running!), left room for a beautifully constructed twist that I confess I didn’t see coming at all, but which was perfectly logical.

Bashir’s bluff, which he and O’Brien have to reveal to Sisko in the open, works, and of course it’s Sloan himself to rises to the bait, appearing out of nowhere in the chair in the Doctor’s quarters in the night, just like last time. That is what Bashir’s counted upon, and he has a containment field ready. He also has Romulan Mind-Probes ready, despite their being highly illegal in the Federation: Sloan has underestimated just how much of an underhand sneaky bastard the genetically enhanced Julian is prepared to be, and we should all be thankful that all he’s motivated by in the life of a friend.

But Sloan is going to be a tough nut to crack: rather than allow the cure to be extracted, from where it might fall into Dominion hands, Sloan activates the futuristic equivalent of a cyanide tooth, a neuropole thingummy that crashes his brain and will cause his death within an hour. Which leaves Bashir only one option, a complex and dodgy on many levels neural link that will allow him to enter the dying mind of Sloan. Not just the Doctor but also the Chief: O’Brien will not let him go alone, and it is O’Brien alone who will circumnavigate the last and most brilliantly conceived trap.

Inside Sloan’s head it’s DS9. Sloan appears to the hunters almost immediately, willing, indeed eager to hand over the cure but incapable of doing so until they join him in the wardroom and hear his speech in apology to his family and friends for ruining their and his lives by his secrecy and self-erasure, a life he deeply regrets and for which he is shamed by the beliefs of Bashir.

On the one hand, this Damascene conversion is a thrilling refutation of secrecy and manipulation, a self-condemnation for the pain and deceit, but it was laid on a bit with a trowel, and I rapidly decided I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not from Sloan. In physical terms, the plot wasn’t having any of it: Sloan’s about to hand over the PADD his ‘wife’s been keeping for him when he’s shot and killed by… Sloan. Two warring impulses in the same mind, we’re meant to think, but one of us wondered if this whole thing hadn’t been a diversion, a delaying tactic using up as many as possible of the precious minutes between now and Sloan’s brain-death.

In pursuit of the ‘real’ Sloan, our intrepid pair get themselves shot by a Section 31 operative, witness the light at the end of the tunnel, the one that leads beyond, and soldier on, until, that is, they’re pulled out by a medical team summoned by Sisko after Ezri finds the trio laid out in Science Lab 4. Despite Bashir’s best efforts, Sloan dies.

It’s an unexpectedly final barrier that had me wondering where they could now take this story, with Odo condemned to death. But here was the twist, and it was as beautifully played as the one in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ in The Prisoner, the infinitessimal detail that Sloan’s overlooked that makes Julian realise they’ve been conned; they’re still in Sloan’s mind and they have been all along! So small a thing: Julian’s been reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, an antiquarian copy borrowed from Ezri (whom he admits, though only to Miles, that he loves passionately). It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, the famous opening line, repeated on page 194… because Julian hadn’t finished reading the book and Sloan, who had never read it, couldn’t pull the rest of the story out of the Doctor#’s head to construct this trap.

So at last we come to Sloan’s lair, the heart of section 31, and a storehouse of everything necessary to destroy it utterly. Sloan knows that and Bashir knows that, and O’Brien knows that it’s the final and most elegant trap: without O’Brien to maintain focus, Bashir will grab everything he can to take back, and will die in Sloan’s mind when time wasted runs out without ever collecting enough to satisfy him.

And thanks to Miles, they’re out for real, and Sloan is dead, a sacrifice in pursuit of what, to him, was an ideal in itself, however much an anathema it might have been to the rest of the good Federation believers. In its own terms, its a noble death, but in Slaon’s it’s a wasted death. Bashir has the cure, and after a big build up about how painful this is going to be, it takes about two seconds to work, an instant transformation that undercuts the seriousness of this episode, but doesn’t mar it, thankfully.

Indeed, but for that and the shoehorning in of the unconvincing Ezri/Julian romance, this was a near perfect episode. Only two more to try to keep that high standard.

Deep Space Nine: s07 e16 – Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

Two sides of a coin

So we arrive at the end of the standalones. From here on in, it’s head on to the grand conclusion, a nine part finale, all irrelevances thrust aside as DS9 goes for it. And a fine, if ultimately flawed, episode to lead into it.

‘Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges’ translates, and is translated for us by Doctor Julian Bashir at the end, as ‘in time of war, the law is silent’. It’s about compromise, about manipulation, about ignoring the ideals of a fine civilisation in order to secure the continuing existence of such civilisation. In short, at the last moment possible, it’s about the reappearance of Section 31, under the man named Sloan, and the recruitment of Bashir as an operative who, intent on exposing Section 31, finds himself out-manouevered at every turn.

The basic story is that Bashir, together with Senator Cretak, the Romulan DS9 liaison (here played by former scream-queen Adrienne Barbeau), are attending a medical conference on Romulus itself. Sloan recruits Bashir to study Koval, head of the Tal Shiar and one of two candidates with Cretak for the vacant post on the Continuing Committee, to determine if he has the rumoured Tuvan syndrome. Sloan himself attends the Conference.

Bashir develops the belief that Sloan actually intends to assassinate the anti-Federation Koval, and enable the Federation-sympathetic Cretak to take the Committee chair. Anxious to try to stop this, Bashir confides in Cretak after Admiral Ross, his only ally, suffers an aneurysm.

The outcome is that Bashir is arrested by Koval and interrogated (unsuccessfully, thanks to his genetic modification) and then brought as a witness to Senator Cretak’s trial for treason, attempting – at Bashir’s request – to access Koval’s personal databank. To everyone’s surprise, a tortured Sloan is also produced, and denounced by Koval as an ordinary Starfleet Intelligence Officer who has created ‘Section 31’ out of whole cloth as a screen for his intense personal loyalty to an Admiral assassinated by the Romulans and a self-imposed mission to assassinate a senior Romulan for vengeance.

Cretak is convicted, Bashir sent back as an innocent dupe, and Sloan, attempting to escape, is disintegrated.

On the way back, Bashir works it all out and confronts Ross, off the record, over the fact that Sloan is still alive, beamed out a fraction of a second before the disruptor struck, and that the whole plan was really an elaborate scheme to protect the Federation’s undercover ally, Koval, whose anti-Federation stance will make his decision to back the Alliance all the more powerful. Cretak, a patriot who would turn against the Federation if it served her people, is sacrificed partly because of that risk, but largely as the innocent sacrifice crushed as collateral damage.

Bashir gets to let off a rant about the immorality of the whole scheme, which prompts Ross to quote the title for our good Doctor to translate with fine scorn and serious irony, which is one of the episode’s two main flaws, because it lets Bashir off his own culpability. If Cretak is executed, as she likely will be, her blood spatters Baashir’s hands as well, but his speech distances himself from moral culpability when it really shouldn’t. Many people, Ira Stephen Behr included, have criticised the episode for failing to take that final step and instead exonerating Bashir, and I agree whilst also repeating my quasi-mantra – Nineties Network TV Prime-Time Drama series.

The other flaw is Sloan himself, who can do anything: get in and out of highly secure places, vanish without a trace, corrupt Starfleet Admirals, the whole nine yards without the scriptwriters ever explaining how he does this. Magic? No, lazy writing. Sloan is Superman, so there’s no need to explain how he does it.

And the two strands come together in the close when Sloan, still alive of course, turns up in Bashir’s quarters, to salute him as a man of consequence who the ruthless, completely amoral Sloan, salutes and admires.

For all that, it’s a taut episode, cleverly constructed and, until its cop-out, confronting the audience with the moral ambiguities inherent in espionage of any kind. The principled Bashir, who can be a bit otherworldly in his extremes of honour, has always been the best contrast to the classically pragmatic Section 31, the dirty tricks boys. Early on, Bashir responds to Sloan’s concerns about where the Romulan political balance might lie once the Dominion War is over by sneering that they haven’t finished fighting this war and he’s already planning the next, and I’m thinking that if you’ve got a temporary ally who, after this war is done, will be the only power bloc capable of fighting you, it’s plain sense to know what they’re likely to do.

And this ties into Rosss’s self-justifying outburst, at the end, when challenged over his abandonment of the principles of the Federation, that every day he signs orders sending young men and women out to be killed, and that if sanctioning Section 31’s operations means less of that, he will choose what seems to him to be the lesser of two evils. Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.

In fiction, where the lines are usually more clearly drawn than in real life, it’s easy to side with Sloan and Ross. The latter’s argument reminded me instantly of a moment the late George MacDonald Fraser once related, arguing with an anti-nuclear campaigner who was denouncing the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Fraser was in the British Army in Burma (his book about that time, Quartered Safe Out Here, is brilliant) and, if the War against Japan hadn’t been so abruptly ended, would have been part of the forces that would have fought their way towards the Home Islands. The bomb saved the lives of thousands and thousands of serving men, Fraser and his platoon potentially among them. It’s dropping was terrible, but the lives it took would have been replicated by the lives to be last if it had not been used. Which set of deaths do you choose to accept? Fraser’s choice is Ross’s choice, and I can’t find it in myself to criticise the Admiral’s decision.

One aspect of the episode I did like was when Bashir recruited Cretak to his side. Without the show giving away any hints, I suddenly realised that Bashir was doing exactly what was wanted by Sloan, that he had been manipulated into a set-up whereby his own fierce determination to thwart Sloan’s ‘assassination’ would end up accomplishing it. I didn’t foresee the twist about Koval, but I admired how deftly the show set up that realisation without telegraphing it in any way.

So. The endgame is upon us. All roads lead to the east and the coming of war. Three years of watching this series lie behind me. In more ways than one, I’m ready for the End.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e18 – Inquisition

Section 31

Hmmm, interesting.

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.