“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” straddled the change between episodic television — where each episode is self-contained and the action returns to status quo ante at the end — and the more modern practice of dramatic arcs, where multiple episodes or even entire seasons are one long plot line. The result of the transition to longer arcs was a deeper, more interesting series than the “Star Trek” universe had ever attempted, but there were still plenty of one-offs that could be enjoyed out of order in syndication.
“Babel,” the fourth episode of the first season, is one such one-off, though the plot is still grounded in one of the show’s larger themes: the transition to Bajoran independence and self-governance. The episode begins with a look at the daily life of Chief Miles O’Brien. O’Brien, who appears at times to be Starfleet’s only enlisted man, has his hands full with the overwhelming task of keeping the ramshackle station in working order.
One of his many jobs early in the episode involves fixing the replicators, the matter-energy conversion devices that can produce nearly anything and serve as the basis for Roddenberry’s post-scarcity economy. The replicators featured most prominently in this and other episodes are used to create food and drink, and the one on the command level is doing a poor job of it. O’Brien dutifully repairs it. In doing so, he activates a mysterious device hidden in its circuitry that, we later learn, has been there since the station was built.
Meanwhile, the replicator works again. Word of this reaches Quark, whose own replicators are down, and he surreptitiously gains access to the working machine to feed his own customers until O’Brien gets around to fixing the bar’s replicators. Why Quark’s privately owned and operated bar and gambling den relies on Starfleet to maintain their infrastructure is unclear. It is, perhaps, an artifact of Cardassian lease agreements. Whatever the case, Quark’s kitchen is back up and running thanks to his hacking skills.
As Sisko makes some small talk with O’Brien, the harried chief replies with what sounds at first like Irish colloquialisms but quickly transitions into “Finnegan’s Wake”-style gibberish. While retaining his powers of speech, O’Brien is unable to make his thoughts into words, or to understand other people’s communication. They bring him to Doctor Bashir, who diagnoses him with aphasia. Aphasia is a real-life malady, but one usually brought on by a traumatic brain injury. Lacking such an obvious nexus to the condition, Bashir is stumped about its cause.
The problem spreads through the rest of the station, starting with Dax. Examining them both, Bashir finds evidence of a previously unknown virus in their system and surmises that it is the culprit. Sisko orders a quarantine on the station while they search for answers. Odo notices the hopping crowd at Quark’s and, knowing that the replicators there have not been repaired, surmises the Ferengi’s illegal access. More troubling, that theft (if stealing something that doesn’t cost anything can be called theft) has spread the virus beyond the crew and into the general population of the station.
More cases follow. Kira finds the device that sabotaged the replicator and Bashir determines that it was writing the virus directly into the “code” that creates the food and drink. She assumes Cardassian sabotage, but Bashir says the device is Bajoran, presumably built into the station by the same Bajoran slave laborers who the Cardassians forced to build the whole thing. Bashir also discovers that the virus may be fatal, just before he himself succumbs to it.
Kira talks to her old comrades from the Resistance and zeroes in on the scientist she thinks may have been behind the virus’s creation, but also finds that he died years earlier in a Cardassian prison. She contacts another Resistance scientist who had worked with him to learn more. That man, Surmak Ren (Matthew Faison), is now the administrator of a hospital and claims to know nothing of the virus. Kira is unconvinced, and takes one of the station’s runabout crafts to seize him from the planet. Here, for the first time, Sisko discards Federation due process laws and bows to the need for drastic measures in the emergency.
Kira cannot land on the surface for fear of spreading the virus, but beams Surmak up to her ship and kidnaps him back to DS9. Initially reluctant, he agrees to help find a cure to the virus — which he claims he knew almost nothing about during the war — once Kira informs him that, though contact with her, he is almost certainly infected with it.
As Surmak races against time for a cure, one of the commercial ship captains forced to remain on the station tries to break the quarantine before his perishable cargo spoils. By now, all of the commanding officers are ill except Odo, whose bizarre physiology appears to render him immune to the virus. Also unaffected is Quark, who credits the indefatigable Ferengi immune system with keeping him healthy.
In a classic dramatic trope, constable and criminal must work together to prevent the ship’s departure and repair the damage it caused to the dock before the whole station explodes. (They succeed.) Surmak reviews Bashir’s notes and uses them to create a cure to the aphasia virus. Everyone is cured, and things are back to normal once again.
Strangely absent is any condemnation of Surmak and his mentor for creating and deploying a biological weapon. Federation morals are not unlike our own on the subject, and bioweapons are consistently portrayed in the various “Star Trek” series as beyond the pale, weapons that no civilized society would use. That the Bajorans would deploy them in their struggle for independence drives home how truly nasty their long-running freedom fight was. That such an awful tactic was used by a people seen as heroes on the show is also a testament to some of the moral ambiguity that “Deep Space Nine” will feature.
The idea of deadly munitions causing harm long after the conflict is over is one that fits with the times. In 1992, a year before this episode aired, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was started. Princess Diana of Wales became the group’s celebrity spokeswoman, and it is likely that the idea was in the back of this episode’s writers’ minds. In 1997 the group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was a campaign very much ahead of its time. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, many of the running conflicts around the Third World ended as communist rebels were deprived of their backer’s funds and weapons. That meant the triumph of democracy in many countries, but it also left behind the deadly munitions that had been used in the conflicts. The reaction to this led to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, in which the signatories pledged to ban anti-personnel mines.
That may seem like the distant past to younger readers, but one result of Ottawa is in the news even today. The United States, despite popular support for the anti-landmine cause, declined to sign the treaty. One reason for this was that landmines were and are an essential part of our defense of the Korean peninsula, where the inter-Korean border features thousands of mines, among other defensive works.
Perhaps by viewing “Babel,” Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un could finally agree to remove these infernal devices and open the DMZ to peaceful commerce and cultural exchange. That would certainly fit Roddenberry’s vision, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.