HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
When I sat down to watch “Babel,” I realized I had absolutely no memory of this episode, which is a shame because it’s a pretty solid entry for DS9’s freshman season. It features all the elements that make the series such a stand out from the rest of the franchise—Sisko’s relationship with Jake, dealing with the fallout from the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, the Great Frenemies, and having to occupy a far greyer moral area than TNG ever did. The real downside to “Babel” is the actual story itself. “Babel” relies far too much on familiar tropes and nick of time solutions for the plot actually to land. Still, the episode packs in enough nuggets to render it worth a watch, and I suspect I’ll remember it better in the future.
The episode opens with a stressed Chief O’Brien who’s desperately trying to stay ahead of the demand for his services all over the station. Commander Sisko calls him up to work on the command level replicators. Replicators all over the station have failed, resulting in significant lost business for Quark, but Sisko’s coffee takes priority. While O’Brien dashes around the station, Captain Jaheel expresses his frustration that O’Brien hasn’t addressed the issues on his ship as the delay will cause his cargo to expire.
O’Brien trudges up to Ops to fix the replicator, and while carrying on a conversation with Major Kira, he begins speaking in gibberish. No one can understand him, and O’Brien appears to lose the ability to understand his colleagues as well. Dr. Bashir examines O’Brien and concludes that he suffers from a virus that causes aphasia. Moreover, that virus is highly contagious and spreading throughout the crew. Sisko orders the station to be quarantined.
Sisko goes in search of his son and finds Jake playing with Nog, and he orders them both to their respective quarters. Upon returning to Ops, they continue contact tracing for Chief O’Brien as O’Brien is patient zero. After looking at his schedule, they begin to suspect that the virus is somehow related to the replicators. Odo offers even more bad news when he informs them that Quark has been supplying his bar from a replicator in some vacant quarters. Sisko begins to realize the magnitude of the virus, but before they can begin hunting down Quark’s patrons, Dr. Bashir arrives and tells them not to the bother. The virus has mutated into an airborne pathogen, and they’re all infected. Kira investigates the replicator systems and finds the device responsible for the virus. She immediately blames the Cardassians, but when Dr. Bashir examines the virus’s genetic structure, he concludes that the work is actually Bajoran in origin. When O’Brien falls into a coma, Bashir discovers that the virus is fatal and that O’Brien will be dead in twelve hours.
Kira taps her resources among former Resistance members and discovers that a man named Dekon Elig likely designed the virus. Unfortunately, Dekon died in a Cardassian prison camp, but she finds that a Surmak Ren signed Dekon’s death certificate. As it happens, Surmak remains employed at a medical center on Bajor. Kira browbeats Sisko into letting her take a runabout to contact him, promising not to set foot on the planet’s surface. She finds Surmak who initially refuses to speak with her, so she beams him aboard the runabout. Now that he is infected, Surmak becomes more cooperative.
Back on DS9, Sisko, Odo, and Quark are the sole crew members who have yet to show symptoms of the virus. While in Ops, Sisko and Odo note that Jaheel is attempting to leave the station, even though the docking clamps have not been released. Jaheel’s ship’s engine begins to overheat, which would cause an explosion that would destroy half the docking ring. Odo suggests that they blow the clamps manually to let Jaheel’s ship drift away from the station. Sisko begins speaking gibberish, so Odo calls Quark to Ops to beam Odo to the docking bay. Odo manages to rescue Jaheel and blow the clamps just in time to save the docking ring. Jaheel’s ship explodes a safe distance away from the station.
Kira and Surmak return to the station where Surmak looks over Bashir’s notes regarding his search for a cure. He uses those to develop a cure, observing that Bashir was quite close, and everyone on the station is saved. O’Brien still has to fix the command level replicators, however.
“Babel” leads with a disgruntled, overworked Miles O’Brien, and while this episode does not subject him to the misfortunes that will plague future episodes, it does foreshadow how O’Brien will come to function in the series. Here, he is the first victim of a biological weapon, and let us not mince words on that point. Nothing about the virus or its delivery device can be excused. The creators intended for the device to be lethal to the most beings possible. “Babel” never engages with that aspect of the story. Had the script reflected a bit more on the potential horror, “Babel” would have made for much more interesting viewing.
That said, I like that the Bajorans developed the virus because it shows us that the violence was hardly one-sided. To this point, we’ve been told that the Resistance was violent, but we haven’t really seen evidence of that. Tahna Los demonstrably was ready to kill Kira and perhaps irradiate part of Bajor, but the show carefully insisted that he belonged to a fanatical splinter group. In “Babel,” Dekon Elig and Surmak Ren are not part of an ultra-violent offshoot but rather a regular Resistance cell. The members of that Resistance cell deliberately planned to release a contagion that would prove lethal to everyone, regardless of involvement in the Occupation. A virus cannot discern the distinction between Cardassian and Bajoran or combatant or noncombatant. Dekon Elig, Surmak Ren, and their cohort knew this and moved forward anyway. They only failed to activate the device because Cardassians captured or massacred the entire cell.
The Occupation haunts DS9 as a series, which it can do because the show centers around a stationary location. Sisko does not have the opportunity to warp away from the issue the way Kirk or Picard can. He therefore becomes as embroiled in the politics of reconstruction as is Kira Nerys. The aphasia virus serves as a metaphor to remind us of that truth. Thus, having Kira be the one to track down Surmak Ren makes a great deal of sense, both in terms of story and in theme. If “Past Prologue” hinted that Kira needed to make her own peace with her deeds in the Resistance, “Babel” represents a symbolic completion of that arc. By finding Surmak Ren and convincing him to cure the virus, she takes some responsibility for the actions of the Resistance but also to undoes some of that damage. In forty-five minutes, that storyline presents a character arc that will take seven seasons to complete.
While the device may be the most interesting aspect of “Babel,” the device also becomes its weakest aspect, relying too much on plot-convenient luck. Kira and Sisko fall victim the aphasia virus last and only do so in dramatically convenient moments. Sisko ceases to be coherent only after he and Odo work out what must be done to prevent the station’s destruction. The virus hits Kira only after she delivers Surmak to the Infirmary where he can dial up Bashir’s notes and develop a cure to save them all. The episode mostly handwaves how he does so, having up to that point emphasized Dekon Elig’s genius in developing his plague. In fact, the situation with the virus gets resolves so easily that the threat to O’Brien’s life and the entire business with Jaheel and the docking pylon feel like additions made to the story only to guarantee it hit the required run time. Like an episode of TNG, Babel ends with an intact station, zero fatalities, and relatively minor collateral damage. Sorry, Jaheel.
Despite those plot failings, “Babel” shines a light on a significant tension that will become one of the emotional through-lines in the series. Showing us the lengths to which the Resistance was willing to go lends greater impact to some of the revelations we’ll see in later episodes, and really, any episode that throws Odo and Quark together is well-worth a watch just for them alone.
3 bases with a foul ball
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- Kira’s hunt for the cure doesn’t end up being all that involved, though it was clever to look into who signed the death certificate. However, what sticks out to me is the casual way the Bajorans discuss deaths in prison camps. They treat them as every day occurrences because up until recently, they had been. It’s a great nod to the reality of the Occupation.
- I do wish Babel had devoted some time to discussing why the virus caused aphasia. Was it part of the way the virus caused a coma and then death? Was it because Dekon Elig had a sick sense of humor? I really wish I knew the in-world reason for it. I’m sure it was a Great Idea in the writer’s room.
- Speaking of the writer’s room, “Babel” mirrors the “problem of the week” format of TNG episodes, complete with a humorous wrap up in the form of O’Brien having to address the replicators. I find that a strange conceit to use in an episode about a potentially horrific terrorist weapon, but sure. You do you, “Babel.”
- While aphasia isn’t always just a matter of substituting words, the type of aphasia portrayed in the episode is closest to global aphasia, but as you can see here, the version on DS9 is more stylized.
- After the last year and change, I certainly appreciate both Sisko’s quick action to quarantine the station and Jaheel’s very real panic about falling ill. Real life gave me a new appreciation for the episode.