“Statistical Probabilities” (season six, episode 9; originally aired 11/24/1997)
In which Bashir gets a little too much brain…
Ever since the Truth About Bashir was revealed last season, the writers have struggled to find a way to deal with it. Well, maybe that’s presuming too much—maybe they didn’t really give a damn. But post-reveal, the good doctor has been reduced to a handful exchanges about statistical probabilities, and some of the usual great banter with O’Brien. Nothing wrong with the latter, and the former has been largely minimized, just a touch of character to remind us that the situation has changed. Still, he comes across as less friendly than he used to, less charming and aggressively eager to please. There’s something fundamentally sad about Bashir these days, and it’s a choice I’m not sure what to make of. Maybe it’s the war, maybe it’s the stress of having to be “himself” in front of people who probably don’t look at him the same way they used to, but the guy has turned into a bit of a bummer. This is a shame, really, because it’s been so one-note so far. Outside of “You Are Cordially Invited…,” Bashir has spent his time this season looking like a man in the grips of an ongoing depressive episode. In real life, I’d ask him what was wrong; in fiction, either he needs to cheer the hell up, or he needs a focus episode that explains what has him in such a bad mood.
“Statistical Probabilities” isn’t exactly that episode, but it’s close enough. The focus is on a group of genetically engineered super geniuses who have spent most of their lives institutionalized; they’re “enhancements” left them so unstable that they were unable to simulate normal behavior at a young age, which led to them to being identified and locked away. It’s easy to feel sorry for them—unlike Bashir, who could keep his improvements secret until it became dramatically convenient to reveal them, these kids (adults now) had their lives fundamentally altered by their parents in a way they have no control over whatsoever. But it becomes clear very early on that while this is a group of victims, the laws that put them away aren’t entirely to blame. Jack, Lauren, Patrick, and Sarina are fractured, deeply damaged individuals, and while they have intellectual abilities far beyond normal humans, they also have certain trade-offs that limit their functionality in polite society. Jack is aggressive, fast-talking, and perpetually on edge; Lauren is—well, okay, all we ever really get from her is that she’s seductive-ish, but since this never impacts the narrative in anyway at all, I guess we should just assume she’s some kind of sex/power addict and move on? Patrick is childlike and easily insulted. Sarina doesn’t talk.
As crazies go, this isn’t exactly One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In terms of depth, the four guests are little more than cliché, and the pathos of their situation comes mostly from Bashir’s discussions with the rest of the crew about how guilty he feels about them. Yet that’s enough, really. The story here isn’t the plight of a group of thinly sketched oddities who we’ll most likely never see again (and if we do see them again, chances are there will be more time to get to know them better); this is Bashir coming to grips once again with his gifts, and trying to find a way to make up for his own good fortune by helping people like him who were less lucky in their circumstances. Instead of focusing on Bashir’s efforts to “cure” anyone, the episode introduces the idea that the group might actually be able to contribute meaningfully to society by having them demonstrate their uncanny knack for deduction. This makes more sense than any kind of therapy would have, given that therapy isn’t really Bashir’s job (or something he’s been trained at, as far as we know); it’s also more dramatically interesting. While the metaphor is never explicit, these people are largely interesting for the way they represent paths Bashir might have gone down, had fortune not smiled on him as it did. In helping them, he tries to atone for his luck, and assuage his guilt.
Their abilities manifest in two ways: The group is highly sensitive to body language and vocal cues, which allows them to intuit secrets and motives people wish to conceal; they are then able to take that knowledge and use it to extrapolate far out into the future, via mathematical models of probability. The former knack for interpolating subtle, and unintentional, psychological “tells” is taken as a given, although the contrast between the characters’ insight into others, and their apparent inability to use that insight to better balance their own lives is a minor tragedy. It’s the sort of tragedy we’ve gotten used to through years of movies and television shows about geniuses incapable of living “normal,” healthy lives, but while the concept has become a cliché by now, there’s still some truth to it. Most regular interaction doesn’t benefit from extensive analysis. When a co-worker asks you “How are you?”, if the answer takes you ten minutes to come up with and involves an extensive monologue about how a difficult relationship with your siblings has left you with a fundamental distrust of group settings and potlucks, you are doing it wrong.
But while Jack, Patrick, Lauren, Sarina are given opportunity to demonstrate just how poorly they’d do at dinner parties, the real heart of the episode comes from their second gift, that uncanny knack for foresight. Well, maybe “uncanny” is too far, given that we don’t see any of their predictions come true, but they seem pretty confident, and Bashir trusts them. He trusts them so much, in fact, that’s he’s willing to bring their ultimate vision of the future to Sisko, with the hope that he’ll pass the idea onto Starfleet: the Dominion is going to win the war, and it’s in the Federation’s best interests to surrender.
That goes over about as well as you’d expect, and it’s Sisko’s reaction, and Bashir’s grasp of reality, that leads to what happens next. But what’s really cool about all of this is that even though no one applies a specific name to the process, what the group of crazies is doing is basically a form of psychohistory, a term invented by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series. The Foundation books follow the course of a civilization formed in the waning days of the Galactic Empire; mathematician and all-around smart guy Hari Seldon charted the future of that civilization (and provided various recorded messages to serve as warnings/advice for each major crisis) through a process he’d perfected that used statistical probabilities and information on crowd psychology to project the behavior of groups of people on a large scale. The central point is that societies are easier to predict than individuals, and that the behavior of individuals can rarely influence society substantially enough to affect significant change.
That’s pretty much the message of this episode, although the resolution is more humanistic than Asimov’s. When the Federation rejects their “surrender” proposal, Jack and the others decide that the only way to move forward is to talk to the Dominion directly. Now that Dukat has been deposed, Damar has risen to take his place, and he and Weyoun are on the station to negotiate a temporary truce (which the crazies realize is just an excuse to get access to a planet that will allow them to manufacture more white). Even as a Gul, Damar remains a secondary figure, serving more to fill an absence than out of any real ability of his own, a fact that Weyoun isn’t going to let him forget any time soon. When Jack (or one of the group; Jack comes off as the leader, so let’s just say it was him) contacts the pair with an offer of Starfleet secrets, he couldn’t have picked a better time. Where Dukat might have been (needlessly) suspicious, both Damar and Weyoun are eager to prove themselves, and the result would almost certainly been disastrous.
Instead, Sarina saves the day; given that she’s the only member of the group who doesn’t have any lines, it’s not entirely surprising that she gets left behind when the others go to meet Weyoun, and it’s also not a huge shock that Bashir is able to talk her into letting him go. Masters of spycraft, these folks are not. Bashir tries to sell Sarina’s behavior as proof of the flaws in the group’s predictions, but in truth Jack and the other’s own behavior is proof enough; if they’d succeeded in bringing information to Weyoun and Damar, then the three of them would’ve single-handedly changed the course of the war. Admittedly, that change would’ve mostly been about shortening the duration of the fight, and not altering the outcome, but it’s still a substantial change, and the fact that none of the group seemed to realize the holes they’d poked in their own theory is the proof of the fallacy of their reasoning. After all, their whole lives have been in an institution; while they are understandably arrogant about their intellects, their perspective on the universe is narrow and academic. They trust their judgment because it is often all they have left. Which doesn’t mean that they should be ignore or marginalized; just that they need to learn the valuable lesson of taking their conclusions with a few grains of salt. (It would also be helpful if they had a better understand of how others would react to their findings.) And hell, the war isn’t over yet. They might even turn out to be right.
- It’s been a while since I read Foundation, but I remember the thrust of the original trilogy being that, even if anomalies occur (and the anomaly Asimov comes up with is pretty damn cool), science will adjust. I also remember the third book being somewhat sad. “Statistical Probabilities” is less concerned with the efficacy of the math involved than it is with the shortcomings of the minds behind that math. And really, it’s mostly just a way for Bashir to deal openly for a bit with what his life is like now.
- As for that, well, Bashir has a couple good exchanges with O’Brien (who’s still making him stand back when they play darts), and a nice conversation with the rest of the ensemble over dinner. He also gets to say goodbye to everyone before they leave, so there are no hard feelings about the knocked-unconscious-and-tied-up situation. There’s no real resolution for the doctor, at least in terms of his general grumpiness, but at least things don’t end too terribly.
- The sight of Bashir brandishing multiple PADDs cracked me up.
“The Magnificent Ferengi” (season six, episode 10; originally aired 1/1/1998)
In which Quark proves his mettle…
Is this the best Ferengi-centric episode I’ve seen so far? I want to say so, but I feel like that doesn’t go far enough. This isn’t just a great episode by the standards of Trek’s most aggravating major race, it’s a fine episode by any judgement you put on it, a clever, well-paced adventure that manages the all important trick of being funny without ever losing sight of the stakes. This is a “comedic” episode about Quark’s desperate efforts to rescue his mother from the Dominion, and it (almost) never comes across as pandering or strained. This isn’t as deep as episodes earlier in the season, and while life or death is on the line, it’s not as though Quark and his team of mercenaries are fighting for the survival of the Alpha Quadrant. But it’s important to have a narrow focus on occasion, to make sure we understand why we root for these people when the scope pulls back to encompass the whole universe. Also, “the Magnficent Ferengi” does a Weekend At Bernie’s riff, and I normally hate those, but this one was pretty brilliant.
I don’t want to oversell the hour here: There’s nothing devastating, or even particularly emotional, going on behind the scenes, and even though we see the death of a familiar face, it’s not an end that’s going to bring a tear to anyone’s eye. But this one was a surprisingly effective, and surprisingly entertaining, entry in a format I’d long since given up hope would ever really excite me. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Trek’s intentionally comedic episodes, for reasons I’ve dealt with at tedious length before. Most of the time, the franchise suffers from a lack of humor chops that means instead of a witty, madcap farce, we get a lot of soggy, predictable jokes and some lazy plotting. Oh, and there’s also “sentiment,” which generally reduces what little humor there is to something even less effective, smoothing out edges and re-assuring the audience that none of what we see really matters, so there’s no need to get worked up about it. But for a funny story to be, well, funny, it needs to matter as much to the people involved as a more serious story would. Laughter is, in its way, an answer to despair and fear, a coping mechanism in the face of a frequently cruel, regularly maddening reality that so often sees fit to give us the exact opposite of what we truly need. Make things safe, build a gag on the lie that nothing hurts and everything is fine forever, and what’s there to laugh about?
“The Magnificent Ferengi” deals with this problem straight off the bat by giving us definite crisis. Sure, there’s some setup focusing on Quark’s wish that others would recognize and respect his prowess at the bargaining table in the same way they cheer Bashir, Dax, and O’Brien for their heroism in the field; this is an all-too obvious set-up for the character’s episode arc, which has him starting at a point of low self-esteem before successfully resolving the plot through the bravery and cunning, thus proving to himself and his peers that he’s just as much a hero as anybody. It’s a cute, Disneyesquetheme that works despite (or maybe because) of its obviousness. Even more, it works because the writers don’t compromise who Quark is in order to give him a victory. That’s part of the game. We want to see Quark succeed, but that success can’t be too easy, and it has to be on his own terms, or else it will play like a cheat. The dramatic impact of the episode—that cheerful feeling that comes at the end when the bad guys are vanquished and Quark has his dignity back—only matters if it was fairly earned. If Quark had turned into some kind of fearsome bad-ass, laying waste to Jem’Hadar without a second thought, or if the whole thing had hinged on coincidence and sloppy plotting, it wouldn’t have been as effective.
But I was talking about a crisis, right? Moogie—as in Ishka, as in Quark and Rom’s beloved, ambitious mother—has been taken captive by the Dominion, and the Grand Nagus has ordered Quark to get her back. The setup for this is probably the weakest part of the episode: a long conversation with Quark and Rom that only works because of how it’s staged (they’re crawling around the ventilation ducts, and end up popping out in Sisko’s office; Avery Brooks’ reaction is fantastic). The weakness stems from the fact that we don’t see the Nagus actually telling Quark what happened, but given how stuffed full the episode is, and given that Zek probably wouldn’t have been much more than a walk-on, it makes sense that they didn’t get Wallace Shawn. And however it’s delivered, the premise is solid. Zek doesn’t just want Quark’s help; he’s also offering a reward of fifty bars of latinum for Ishka’s safe return. Which fits in with the episode’s general commitment to simultaneously mocking and celebrating Ferengi culture. A Klingon would go on the mission for honor; a Ferengi does it because he loves his mom, and also because there’s profit to be made.
There follows one of the most familiar, and one of the most delightful, structures in adventure stories: the getting-the-band-together sequence. Rom is a given, and Nog doesn’t take much convincing (especially once he realizes he’ll get to throw his weight around the group a bit, as the only member of the team with actual military training), but the guest stars pile on after. First there’s Leck (Hamilton Camp), a Ferengi hitman whom I can’t remember having seen before; Memory Alpha has him connected to “Ferengi Love Songs,” but if that’s true, he didn’t make much impression then. He definitely makes an impression in this episode, playing the role of the violence-loving mercenary who could, under the right circumstances, turn on everyone and murder them in their sleep. Then there’s Gaila (Josh Pais), Quark’s traitorous cousin, currently in jail after the events of “Business As Usual.” Gaila doesn’t have much of a reason to help Quark, but there are only so many recurring Ferengi the show can use in this context, which is why we also get the return of the magnificent Brunt, who, having lost his job at the F.C.A., is looking to get back into the Nagus’s good graces.
The other major guest star of note for the hour is my favorite of the bunch: the completely unexpected Iggy Pop as the Vorta Yelgrun. Pop is delightful in the role, using his trademark deadpan to give the typically smarmy and sycophantic Vorta another distinctive spin. He and Keevan (who makes his second, and final, appearance here), represent two different takes on a very simple idea: complete and total disdain. Whereas Weyoun is all ingratiating smiles (only occasionally undercut by legitimate menace), these two show the real downside to leaving out aesthetic qualities in genetically engineered bureaucrats: They both seem to be suffering from severe depression, albeit in ways that don’t make either of them very sympathetic. Hell, Keevan gets shot and spends the final moments of the hour as a crudely re-animated corpse transformed into a sight gag, and he’s still not registering much higher than a “huh” on the empathy scale. (Although his “I hate Ferengi” exit line is hard to argue with.) To a large part “The Magnificent Ferengi” lives and dies on the strengths of its characters, and since there are so many of them, they need to make a strong impression with a minimum of screentime. While some of Quark’s crew are more memorable than others, they’re all the right mixture of loopy/entertaining, and Yelgrun makes for a perfect enemy.
Are there weak points in this? Well, Ishka doesn’t really register, apart from a lousy “comedy” scene between her and Rom that is a great example of something the rest of the episode manages to avoid. This isn’t make-or-break, as the story doesn’t rely on her much, but it’s shame that a character who was once so potentially interesting has been relegated to the sidelines. But it’s hard to begrudge this particular episode for that failing. The sixth season hit a lull after the opening run of more heavily serialized stories, but “The Magnificent Ferengi” represents a return to form; it’s not as intense, or as thrilling, as those earlier entries could be, but it doesn’t feel as disinterested as “Resurrection” or even as fine but not exactly memorable as “Statistical Probabilities.” This is proof that DS9 can still turn out great standalones, if anyone needed to see it.
- Keevan gets roped into this because Quark realizes his best chance is to offer a prisoner exchange with the Dominion; Kira helps to make it happen as payment for Quark’s heroism earlier in the season, so it’s nice to know she doesn’t totally despise him these days.
- Vorta are supposed to commit suicide before they’re captured, which makes Keevan even more interesting. His betrayal of his Jem’Hadar soldiers was an extension of the Vorta’s innate gift for manipulation turned towards self-preservation. But he’s dead now so that’s that.
- “Must’ve taken a wrong turn.” “It looks that way.” Just the look on Sisko’s face here.
Next week: This feature is going to be going on hiatus for a little while, probably until early November. This is my choice; I've just got too much on my plate right now to do these write-ups properly. I'll be back as soon as I can. (I mean, I'll still be writing a ton of reviews for the site, so it's not like I'm lost or anything.) Thanks, as ever, for your patience.