Ira Steven Behr’s answer was they couldn’t. He had been relentlessly deconstructing the idea of Federation goodness all the way back to the line “It’s easy to be a saint in Paradise” from season two’s “The Maquis.” In Behr’s mind, the answer is simple. The saints may exist precisely because of the dark deeds of a small cadre of sinners. Think about a show like 24, or the logic many political leaders use to justify overstepping bounds: in order to protect freedoms, you have to be willing to violate them. It’s obviously a paradox, but it’s one that rules a good deal of political thought.
In the reality of Star Trek, it stands out, especially after the creation of entities like the Tal Shiar and the Obsidian Order. These started out as the intelligence arms of their respective governments, like the CIA or KGB, but gained larger importance beyond those real-world analogues. Or, if you’re more conspiracy minded, gained an importance equivalent to the one those real organizations exercise in reality. The point is, these groups are scary, and how could they be going up against the Federation and consistently losing when the Federation has nothing to match them with?
This episode gives the answer. There is a Federation equivalent organization, and it’s called Section 31. They’re so secret they’re not in the official command structure. There’s no oversight. They were part of the founding charter 200 years ago, and promptly forgotten, allowed to deal with threats to the Federation in any way they like. They are ruthless and pragmatic, with none of the lofty ideals of their parent government. They are, in short, the exact kind of thing Roddenberry never would have tolerated in his utopia.
The existence of Section 31 is the big reveal of the episode, in essence, the final twist just before the end. The episode builds to it well, cultivating a sense of unease throughout, before periodically pulling the rug out from under the viewer. In many ways, the episode feels like a sequel to season two’s “Whispers,” when O’Brien thought the crew had turned against him only to discover he was an impostor all along. It’s another epic gaslighting of a major character, upending his reality in the service of an unseen antagonist.
Dr. Bashir is scheduled to go on a trip to a medical conference, treating the last-minute dislocation of Chief O’Brien’s arm (kayaking injury, of course) before leaving. That morning he’s awakened -- weirdly exhausted -- and summoned to Ops. Starfleet Internal Affairs has arrived, and they believe they have a Dominion spy in their midst.
The search instantly focuses right on Dr. Bashir, with Sloan (the great character actor William Sadler), the IA deputy director, running down a litany of the good doctor’s poor judgment. When you line it up, it really does sound bad. This was the man who wanted to cure the Jem’Hadar of their addiction to ketracel-white and who advised Starfleet to surrender to the Dominion. He was even held in a Dominion prison camp, where a period of allegedly solitary confinement would have been the perfect time to have been recruited and turned. In fact, Sloan is convinced that not only is Bashir a spy, but completely unaware of that fact. In essence, a Manchurian Candidate.
Sloan also plays games with Bashir, quietly denying him food and sleep, while continually grilling him over his various failures. Though initially the crew is supportive, eventually they all succumb to their suspicions. It’s even worse when the Dominion beams Bashir out. Weyoun is there to meet him, and in typical Weyoun fashion, he’s friendly and accommodating. What strikes Bashir as odd is that Weyoun has the same story as Sloan did, leaving Bashir to assume they’re in cahoots.
They’re not. As Bashir discovers when Chief O’Brien is able to move his injured shoulder without difficulty, this is a simulation. One run by the real Sloan, for the purposes of determining Bashir’s loyalty. In a fit of irony, he kidnapped Bashir just before the conference so his absence wouldn’t be noticed (which, as he points out, is exactly what the Dominion did to get him in that prison camp. Maybe Bashir should just skip conferences from here on out?) woke him up on an hour’s sleep (explaining why he was so tired), stuck a neural monitor in his skull, and got to work.
Sloan now attempts to recruit Bashir, because chutzpah was something they taught at the academy, I guess. Bashir makes a lot of sense as a recruit. He’s a genetic superman, demonstrably loyal, and has a fascination with spycraft that entertains him in holosuites and made him accidentally cultivate a valuable asset in Garak. Bashir turns Sloan down. He asks the pertinent question, the question that Roddenberry himself would have asked: Is survival worth the sacrifice of our principles? It’s a question DS9 returns to again and again, notably in the season four two-parter “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” and again in the high-water mark of the series, the very next episode, “In the Pale Moonlight.” What should relieve Trek purists is that, for the most part, the answer is no. Although, there are exceptions.
Later, as Sisko debriefs his doctor, he gives him another order: When Sloan returns, say yes. Sisko takes it for granted that the Section 31 man will be back. He’s right, of course. As the Dominion War grows more desperate, so does Section 31. It makes one wonder, what would have happened had Bashir said yes in the first place?
Next up: My favorite episode in the entire series.