What is the price of utopia? In Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of Star Trek, there was no bill. Utopia was simply a natural outgrowth of the betterment of humanity. While that’s an undeniably attractive concept, it can be difficult circle for a more modern audience to square. DS9 is the product of a time in which cynicism was the rule of the day, and in the two decades since, that cynicism has become both an engine for and reflection of the modern state of the world. In other words, it’s tough for a contemporary viewer to look at the Federation and find it only slightly more realistic than time-traveling whales.
Since we’re already in the weeds of geek culture with detailed reviews of a Star Trek spinoff, I’ll go even further. The Federation is a Lawful Good culture. That’s a D&D term and is probably best summed up by an Aristotle quote: “Law is order, and good law is good order.” Except he said it in Greek. Possibly while nude wrestling. It means, essentially, the law is inherently good and just, lives are protected, the good are rewarded, and the evil are punished. Trying to come up with a good example in real life gets awful tough the more you know about history, so it might be reasonable to say that any Lawful Good culture is inherently unrealistic. Yet that’s a vital part of Roddenberry’s vision.
The writers of DS9 weren’t going to throw out thirty years of canon to make a point. They were, after all, humungous Star Trek fanboys first and foremost, evidenced most obviously in their love letter to TOS with season five’s “Trials and Tribble-ations.” They did, however, want to show that this perfect utopia, beset by enemies as deadly as the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, the Borg, and now the Dominion, might have to get its hands a wee bit dirty to avoid being destroyed/enslaved/assimilated/whatever. To that end, they introduced Section 31 in season six’s “Inquisition.” As a quick refresher, Section 31 is a super-secret and officially non-sanctioned black-ops organization operating entirely without oversight and possibly knowledge of Starfleet Command. Section 31 are the monsters that keep everyone else from having to become monsters to preserve utopia.
Section 31 appears largely in the form of Luther Sloan, an enigmatic agent played by the great William Sadler. He was introduced attempting to recruit Dr. Bashir into the organization through a convoluted catfishing scheme. It makes a lot of sense, as much of Bashir’s arc has to do with both his interest in espionage and his resistance to the uglier realities of it. Remember, season four’s “Our Man Bashir,” entirely revolved around Bashir, the fake spy, attempting to avoid getting into the mud while Garak, the real spy, chides him for it. Not only that, but Bashir has since been revealed to be something of a superhuman, and he’s the leading expert in both ketricel-white (He studied it close up in “Hippocratic Oath.”) and the Dominion’s biogenic weaponry (again studied first hand in “The Quickening”), making him an attractive recruit. This episode expertly builds on the Bashir we’ve come to know over the past seven years, and it is that experience that allows him to remain true to the bruised idealist we know. First season Bashir might have been seduced and corrupted by Sloan, but seventh season Bashir knows precisely what the cost of doing business is.
Sloan returns to Bashir to recruit him for a mission. Bashir, wisely, immediately notifies Captain Sisko, who has enough trust in his doctor (with good reason after seven years) to order Bashir to play along. Sloan doles out the information only gradually, deepening Bashir’s involvement with each new revelation. Bashir was ostensibly chosen because he was invited to speak at a conference on Romulus, as from a medical standpoint, he’s the leading authority on the Dominion. The mission revolves around Koval, the new head of the Tal Shiar and avowed hater of the Federation. Bashir’s closest allies at the conference are Admiral Ross and Senator Cretak, though we know Cretak can’t really be counted on by our heroes. She’s also been recast with Adrienne Barbeau, but she does a fine job and the Romulan makeup smooths over any weirdness.
At first, the mission is merely to confirm Koval has a specific neurological disorder, and then it becomes to assassinate him with a burst of radiation that will make it look as though the disease suddenly progressed. Bashir refuses, because he’s got that whole Hippocratic Oath thing going on, enlisting Cretak to help him save Koval and bring down Sloan and Section 31.
Because this is an espionage story, though, Bashir never truly has all the information. Sloan is less of a villain to fight and more of an impersonal force of nature. He can’t be swayed from his path, and any action taken against him is invariably part of his complex master plan. Villains of this type are unsatisfying, their victories ending up feeling more like cheats. It’s frustrated for the audience when all the hero’s actions are futile. That is on full display here. Sloan’s escapes are only given a cursory explanation, almost as though the writers narrowly resisted just saying “a wizard did it.”
The actual purpose of the plot is to eliminate Senator Cretak, a good woman, but a Romulan patriot who will bow out of the fight as soon as it makes sense for her people to do so. They’ll replace her with Koval, a Section 31 mole whose position as an outward hater of all things Starfleet will make his opinions that much more convincing. They’re trading a good person (or as good as Romulans get anyway) with a career spy known for likely masterminding the assassination of Starfleet officers. While it might seem unrealistic that a Starfleet Intelligence mole is heading up the Tai Shiar, remember that the organization was utterly devastated in season three’s “The Die is Cast,” so it’s probable the Tai Shiar might have skipped some vetting when filling the suddenly vacant hierarchy.
That really isn’t the point of the hour, though. The point is to ask what utopia is worth. Sloan lays it out in much the same language that would be used to defend both Jack Bauer and the excesses of the Bush administration (which, many argue, were influenced by Jack Bauer). It’s the essential paradox at the heart of this mode of thought: that principles can be abandoned in defense of those same principles.
Bashir, comes to the same conclusion he did in “Inquisition,” that this kind of thing isn’t acceptable. While he can’t really hold Sloan’s feet to the fire, he can with Admiral Ross. Ross basically tells Bashir he’s aware of Section 31 and at least indirectly condones their actions. “Inter arma enim silent leges,” he titles at the doctor, who immediately identifies the quote as coming from Cicero. “In times of war, the law is silent.” In other words, the rules go out the window when the fighting starts.
This might seem very familiar to students of modern politics. It’s nothing new, being used for justifications from the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II to the suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War to the seizure of Loyalist property in the Revolution. And so forth and so on.
Bashir pointedly asks Ross if the Federation will degenerate into another Roman Empire. It’s especially barbed, as the Romulans themselves are paper-thin Roman analogues, taking their name from the mythical founder of the eternal city, and their ranks from very real positions in that civilization. Bashir is saying, in essence, “This is some straight up Romulan shit. Are we Romulans?”
Writers and critics have argued that allowing Bashir to retain the high ground robs the episode of some emotional resonance. They’re right. This is one of the reasons it can’t touch the similarly themed “In the Pale Moonlight.” In that episode, Sisko succumbs and takes the immoral action for the greater good, knowing he has irrevocably lost a piece of himself in so doing. Here, Bashir never has to face that darkness. But he shouldn’t either. Bashir has already been established as a man who won’t take that extra step. To have him do so now would go against the rich continuity this episode largely plays in.
Now, with all the players in position, DS9 begins its epic endgame.
Next up: The end, part 1.