“The Quickening”(season four, episode 23; originally aired 5/20/1996)
In which Bashir does what he can, and it’s almost enough…
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has featured the Dominion as a major, if somewhat elusive, threat for a couple of seasons now. It’s been a good fit for the show; the mysterious nature of the Founders, the horrifying brutality of the Jem’Hadar, the Vorta smarm (the last of which, admittedly, has been in limited supply) have all served to suggest an opponent with seemingly bottomless resources and astonishing guile, a foe who has been through a hundred conflicts much like this one, and come out on top every time before. The Changelings’ use of fear and paranoia to unman (so to speak) their enemies means that every new problem that arises on Deep Space Nine might in some way lead back to their machinations, and their access to a devoted, vat-grown race of super soldiers means that there’s always a fist to back up all the insinuations, if one is required. But while this has established them as an adversary to be reckoned with, some of the moral framework of the conflict has been lost. I root for Sisko and the others because these are the characters I care about, and because there is something clearly screwed up about staffing your military with drug-addicted slaves. But it’s not like the Enterprise never stumbled over objectionable societies before. The Changelings have a history of persecution to back up their choices; what makes them so wrong?
There are multiple answers to this particular question, but “The Quickening” provides the most immediate yet; regardless of their past, the Founders decision to not just conquer but utterly destroy anyone who gets in their way is indefensible. And their methods make it even worse. Returning home from a routine mission in the Gamma Quadrant, Kira picks up an SOS message from a planet just outside of Dominion space. Bashir and Dax beam down to investigate (in a nice touch which means that at least one person stays on the shuttle in case anything goes wrong), and find a city devastated by a plague known only as “The Blight.” Everyone on the planet is infected with the disease at birth; it starts as lesions on the skin, until at some point, those lesions “quicken” and become a fatal, throbbing red. Death follows soon after. There’s no cure, and the only doctor Bashir can find, a man named Trevean, has resigned himself to offering what little comfort he can: When someone quickens, Trevean helps them arrange a final dinner with their family and friends, and then gives them an herbal poison that will allow them to die quickly and painlessly.
Unsurprisingly, Bashir isn’t a fan of this, and at first, “The Quickening” looks like it will be story about how the good doctor needs to learn the limits of his science and book-learnin’; any time a character becomes obsessed with something, be it a cure to a plague, a white whale, or the name of that band that recorded that song in 1987—no not that one, the other one—a certain amount of perspective will inevitably be applied before the end credits. And that is a part of what happens in “The Quickening.” While the writers have backed away from earlier portrayals of Bashir as an arrogant, callow youth who thinks some time in the back end of civilization will be a bit of a lark, they, along with Alexander Siddig, have turned that mildly irritating stereotype into something richer and more endearing. Bashir’s earlier brashness was simply a side effect of his deep and passionate optimism, a faith in his abilities that isn’t so much ego as it is a need to be able to make things better. So any time he takes center stage, there’s going to be some kind of conflict between that optimism and the grinding ugliness of reality. After all, he went into medicine, not puppy-cuddling; he chose a profession where he’d have to fight death back every day (as he tells Ekoria in this episode), but no matter how good you are at fighting death, you will lose eventually.
But that isn’t the main focus of “The Quickening,” which is less a morality play for its hero than it is a character study, and a look at how a culture can lose hope, and how difficult, terrifying, and occasionally fatal it can be to rebuild that hope. Apart from a line from Dax reminding Bashir that just because he’s angry with himself doesn’t mean he has the right to give up, this is also pretty much judgement free. (I wonder if one of the problems with Dax—who I think is great, but doesn’t get a lot of great episodes like this one focused around her—is that the age and experience of the symbiote means that she’s relegated to playing the voice of wisdom in almost every situation. She doesn’t have obvious flaws or demons she’s struggling with; that makes her a terrific secondary figure, but frustratingly distant as a heroine.) And that’s good. The storyline isn’t shy about playing up the tragedy and ugliness of its situation; there’s a sincerity and directness to the struggles of Ekoria and her people that for the most part eschews subtlety, choosing obvious symbols (Ekoria is pregnant for more than just plot purposes) and putting us through the emotional wringer. I can see this being labeled as melodrama, but I think it works regardless; the cast is strong, but just as importantly there’s the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters. Everyone here has understandable motives, and none of those motives are given precedence above the others. That’s an immensely rich approach to storytelling: many perspectives, all of them necessary.
While the plague planet suffers from the usual Trek Economy of Civilization (in that it’s a big planet, but the small piece of it we see is supposedly a stand-in for every possible city/town), and the few characters we get to know are arguably more archetypal than specific individuals, they are convincing enough, and tragic enough, that the distinction isn’t really important. Ekoria (Ellen Wheeler), the pregnant woman who asks Bashir for help, could’ve been the most manipulative cliché imaginable: a young mother alone in the world, desperate to see her baby before she dies. But the actresses’ subdued, earnest performance is heartbreaking, and the script (by Naren Shankar) manages to give her just enough personality that even though the trick is obvious—it’s hard not to get choked up about someone like this—it works. Little details fill her in, like the fact that her dead husband was a painter (leaving behind a mural that reminds people of what life might be like if they weren’t all dying young), or her ease tending to sick patients, so that by the time her quickening strikes, and she’s begging Bashir to help her survive long enough to give birth, it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by her plight.
Textures like this define the episode, which forgoes some of the more complex morality we’ve seen in other entries in the series to have a stronger, more direct empathetic effect. Still, there is some minor, but fascinating, conflict at play. Take Trevean. Initially Bashir is upset by the other man’s seemingly casual acceptance of the inevitability of death. This isn’t a position we’re supposed to share; Bashir’s stubbornness has been well-established by now, and the people who come to Trevean for help don’t seem coerced or indoctrinated, but simply trying to find some dignity in a horrible situation. Yet it’s hard to deny that Trevean’s acceptance of their plight hasn’t helped to make that situation more inevitable. Bashir may have an outsider’s blindness to the difficulties and pain of living in a world where you’re fatally ill from birth (okay, technically, that’s all of us, but you get me), but his perspective allows him to work in an environment where anyone else who might have accomplished something has long since given up. It doesn’t hurt that the disease gets worst after prolonged exposure to the electrical fields given off by Bashir’s instruments; it’s a sickness designed to punish people who try and cure it. So it’s completely understandable that Trevean is doing the best he can. But the anger and fear with which people react to Bashir’s efforts is fascinating—they’ve been hurt before, and the worse that hurt gets, the more effectively they are insulated against any potential cure.
Ekoria dies immediately after giving birth. There’s a happy ending to this story—the antigen Bashir developed works as a vaccine—but it’s not a cure-all: since everyone is born with the plague, the vaccine only works on unborn children. They can save future generations, but not themselves. To be honest, even this is more upbeat than I was expecting, and it’s a mark of how well the episode is put together that hope can be found amid such a dire situation, and it doesn’t come across as cheap or unearned. (Maybe this also has something to do with my ignorance when it comes to bio-engineered plagues.) But even this isn’t enough for Bashir. In the final scene, he’s back in his office on DS9, running computer simulations, rubbing his eyes and hoping that maybe the nth pairing of the nth sequence might yield something he can use, that maybe 10 hours can do what five did not, and if that fails, there’s always tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. This is the cost of wanting to do good: knowing that you can never do enough, but being unable to keep trying to fix everything, cure everyone, save this world and that world and all of them. It’s certainly a kind of arrogance, and the episode makes a point of showing how it has its limits; when his first attempt at a cure ends in multiple deaths without any seeming positive result, Bashir turns his energies inward, and it’s only a quick verbal shoulder-shake from Dax that shames into getting back on his feet. But ultimately, this is who he is, and when Sisko congratulates him for the vaccine, Bashir barely acknowledges the praise. There’s still work to be done. And because Ekoria is dead, and because her child will never know his parents, the work will never truly end.
- I’m a sucker for a good cold-open comedy sketch, and the bit here about Quark reprogramming the replicators and video feeds around the station to advertise his bar is pretty funny, especially Worf’s utter rage at getting a singing cup with his prune juice.
- It is almost impossible for me to hear “the quickening” without wanting to laugh. Congratulations, DS9. You managed to beat Highlander 2 out of my brain.
- “I like your spots.” “You told me that yesterday.” “I still like them.”—a patient and Dax
- At one point, Trevean makes vague threats at Bashir about how bad things happen to people who make promises they can’t fulfill. I was expecting some kind of major conflict after the first round of deaths, but it’s mostly just Bashir feeling like shit about himself. Probably better that way.
“Body Parts” (season four, episode 24; originally aired 6/10/1996)
In which Quark makes a bad bargain…
While I came around to liking “Body Parts” soon enough, it’s bad scheduling to put this just after “The Quickening.” The episode’s main plotline has Quark convinced he’s been struck with a fatal disease, and since there’s no way in hell the show was going to kill off Quark this suddenly, the plot is played largely for laughs. Oh, it’s well done, and it leads to one of my favorite endings the show has ever done, and overall, I think this is a good one; but coming right after all the misery of Ekoria and her people, it seems somehow callous to follow Quark bemoaning his ill health when we all know damn well there’ll be some sudden reversal or miracle cure. Maybe people watching the show week-to-week when it originally aired wouldn’t have noticed the shift; and if nothing else, it’s a good example of how much range DS9 has even when it’s tackling tangentially related topics. But it struck me, if only for a little while.
That out of the way, “Body Parts” isn’t all laughs. While Quark is contemplating the end of his life, and how little he has to show for his time spent earning, Keiko and Kira are caught in a shuttlecraft accident that forces Bashir to improvise. Behind the scenes, Nana Visitor had become pregnant (with her and Alexander Siddig’s baby, no less), and the writers came up with a work around that would allow Visitor to stay in the show while she was expecting without having to resort to a lot of loose-fitting clothes, chest-high tables, and from-the-neck-up close-ups. The solution was to put Keiko’s baby in Kira’s womb when Keiko is injured in the accident; because of the way Bajorans carry their young (Bajoran pregnancies only last five months), once the fetus is in Kira, it’s stuck there for the duration.
As a plot device, this is pretty ridiculous, but as a workaround of an unavoidable situation, it’s not bad at all; a damn sight better than that awful “Daphne gets fat” crap on Frasier. And once the idea gets going, the writers find interesting ways to let it play out, spending most of the time in this episode with Keiko and O’Brien as they struggle to come to terms with missing out on what they both consider a crucial part of the child-rearing process. Keiko is especially heartbroken, and it’s hard not to feel for both of them, while still finding their smiles as they welcome Kira into their home a little too welcoming, a little too desperate. There’s an awkwardness, a naked emotional need that makes this situation deeply difficult to navigate on both sides, and since there’s no conclusion to the arc in this episode, there’s no saying where it will go before the actual birth. By the end of this episode, Kira’s moving in with the O’Briens and making friends with Molly. The whole idea is still pretty goofy, but it’s impressive how well it integrates with one of the most basic of the show’s themes: the clumsy, heartfelt ways people build families.
What’s even more impressive is that this theme also turns out to be at the heart of the episode’s other, more prominent plot: Quark’s struggle with mortality and his role as a Ferengi. The struggle with mortality lasts just long enough to set up the second half of the plot. See, now that he thinks he’s dying (SPOILER: he’s not), Quark needs to find some way to pay off his debts, so he can be assured of his place in the Divine Treasury. He has a lot of debt, but the only asset he can sell is his desiccated corpse, to be vacuum sealed and sliced into 52 discs after his death. Rom assures him that he’ll find buyers, but Quark is skeptical; so imagine his shock when someone bids a huge chunk of money for the whole lot of him. It’s the sort of happy twist you know is going to quickly turn sour, and it does soon enough. Because Quark isn’t dying, his doctor just swapped diagnoses (I like to think the only reason he realized his mistake was when another patient he’d pronounced healthy suddenly died). That’s great, except that the person who paid all that money for Quark’s corpse is his old friend Brunt (F.C.A.), and he’s not going to accept a refund plus interest in exchange. He paid for a dead Quark, and he wants a dead Quark, and he’s not all that particular on how.
There’s an obvious way this can go. We’ve seen Brunt (F.C.A.) apply muscle to a problem in the past, so it wouldn’t have been all that shocking if he’d tried to do the same thing here, and send some assassins after Quark to get what he considers is his due. But the episode takes the more interesting approach of putting the choice of the matter entirely on Quark’s shoulders. Brunt (F.C.A.) makes the situation very clear: either Quark kills himself, or he’ll have to break his contract, thus rendering himself persona non grata in the eyes of Ferengi law. It’s a choice between his life and his way of life, and Brunt (F.C.A.) has no qualms about making sure Quark understands that the Ferengi way of life is exactly what he believes to be at stake here. Brunt (F.C.A.) didn’t buy Quark’s body for sentimental reasons, or because he has an idea to make some profit off the corpse. He’s doing it because he wants to desecrate Quark’s memory as horribly, and as thoroughly, as he can, because he considers Quark to be the symbol of everything that’s wrong with Ferengi culture. Just as Quark raged at his mother, his brother, and his nephew for staking out new ways of living, Quark is now the one being accused of a lack of fidelity to the cause.
This is probably too much weight to be suddenly putting on the shoulders of Brunt (F.C.A.), a character who’s only appeared in two other episodes; his attempt to run through a laundry list of Quark’s previous misdeeds never really gets off the ground. But Jeffrey Combs is, as ever, game, and he makes the character’s loathing utterly believable. Besides, the accusations fit into Quark’s character arc on the series in a way that’s just coming into focus. Quark has always come across as the square of his family, the one who professes to cling to the old ways, and yet despite his exhortations, there’s the core of decency in him that prevents him from ever truly turning his back on the people he cares about. He’s like a less brash, better-spoken Archie Bunker: bigoted and often foolish, but not, in the end, an evil creature. The line between progress and staunch conservatism is a difficult one to walk, and Brunt (F.C.A.) and his rage is evidence of just how impossible Quark’s position is to sustain. He’s too crooked to be a completely accepted member of the Federation, like Rom and Nog will be, but he’s too willing to bend his principles for others to be a true old-school Ferengi. So he’s stuck. And DS9 is good place for people who are stuck.
There’s some amusing business with Quark hiring Garak to assassinate him, and then freaking out when Garak demonstrates what assassination actually entails (they argue over details, but Quark’s main bone of contention seems to be that he doesn’t want to be dead, which is a pretty reasonable position); Quark has a dream in which Rom appears as Gint, the first Grand Nagus, to convince him to break the contract and save his life. Which, in the end, is what Quark does. It’s a strong choice for the show, because there’s no pretense of Quark finding some loophole to save himself that will restore the status quo; even if this never comes up again (and I’m sure it will), we’ll still know that Quark has been banned from doing business with other Ferengi, that he’s chosen compromise over martyrdom, and that changes who he is.
Even better, the writers manage to work in a reference to It’s A Wonderful Life that manages to be funny, sincere, and convincingly deserved. After Brunt (F.C.A.) closes up Quark’s bar and repossesses everything he has (even his shirt!), Quark sits in the place that used to be his only accomplishment in the world and contemplates the emptiness. Rom arrives, offering little comfort as usual, but as they’re sitting there talking, Bashir drops off a crate of foul-tasting booze one of his patient’s used as payment (which, come to think, wouldn’t be necessary, since Bashir is Federation; is he charging on the side?). While Quark is refusing to accept the charity, Dax brings in a box of extremely ugly glasses. And then Sisko and seemingly half the station bring in new furniture, claiming that they’re looking for a place to store it. This is the “George Bailey, the richest man in town” climax of the Frank Capra classic, with just enough of a skew to make it believable. And it’s surprisingly touching. Quark is often annoying, regularly selfish, and generally a pain in the ass. But he belongs here, and everyone knows it.
- “You weren’t always a tailor.” “You’re right. I used to be a gardener.”—Quark and Garak, exchanging words
- As much criticism as the show throws at the Federation, it’s worth noting how the problems in Ferengi civilization (as well as the crazed ups and downs of the Klingon empire) serve as subtle ways of reinforcing how, whatever its flaws, the Federation is still arguably the best way to go. What makes the Ferengi and the Klingons so vulnerable is their monomaniacal adherence to an unsustainable ideal; the more the Ferengi trade with other races, the more likely they’ll be exposed to cultures that contradict their own ways; and the more the Klingons try to expand, the greater the odds they will eventually run into someone bigger (or, just as problematic, that they won’t be able to hold together their own kingdoms). The Federation, on the other hand, has some rules and regulations to follow, but they’re basically peaceful intentions and desire for inclusion mean that, boring and bland or not, they’re more flexible.
- I didn’t tear up at the ending. But it was close.
Next week: We close out the fourth season with “Broken Link,” and I try and come up with something clever to say about the season as a whole.