June 13 2024


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Retro Review: Distant Voices

6 min read

In order to save his own life after a telepathic attack, Bashir must confront aspects of his own personality manifesting as colleagues on the station.

Plot Summary: While Bashir and Garak are having one of their regular shared meals, Quark introduces them to a Lethean named Altovar who asks Bashir to sell him some biomimetic gel. Bashir refuses, but when he later goes to sickbay, he finds that Altovar is already there looking for the banned substance. The Lethean knocks Bashir out, and when he wakes, he finds that he is aging prematurely on a devastated station where only critical systems are working. Though he finds a terrified Quark and a pragmatic Garak still alive, plus the pursuing Altovar, Bashir can only hear strange whispers in the distance until he discovers Dax, O’Brien, Odo and Kira attempting to come up with a repair strategy. The crew behaves strangely, and after O’Brien fixes the communications relay, allowing all of them to hear the whispers that keep haunting Bashir, they hear their own voices saying that Bashir is in a telepathically-induced coma which will soon leave him dead. When the doctor scans his own brain patterns, he realizes that he is indeed comatose and the crewmembers are aspects of his own personality trying to repair the station, which represents his consciousness. A fearful O’Brien does not want to confront the Lethean, who abducts an overconfident Dax. Abruptly Bashir finds himself playing tennis with Garak, which seems to be a waste of time. The two decide to go to Ops to repair the damaged station since it represents Bashir’s mind. On the way, Bashir encounters Sisko, who has all of the doctor’s medical knowledge and skill, but Altovar abducts Sisko as well, then kills Kira and Odo. Quark, however, is alive and taking bets on how quickly Bashir will die. When Altovar appears and kills Quark, a rapidly aging Bashir breaks his hip trying to flee. Garak tells Bashir that it is hopeless, but this attitude makes the doctor realize that Garak is really Altovar, his enemy. He returns to sickbay, restores power, and destroys the Lethean, defending his life choices all the whole. When Bashir wakes on the real station, Garak is amused to learn of his role as the villain in Bashir’s unconscious drama.

Analysis: “Distant Voices” is an episode that I considered decent but forgettable when I first saw it. In retrospect, however – and I haven’t rewatched it since that first viewing – it seems like brilliant foreshadowing of things we will learn later about Julian Bashir, which just proves that the writers did a good job on this series of keeping track of even minor plot threads. The storyline suggests that Bashir is his own worst enemy, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in third-season series time; we’ve already heard the story about the pre-ganglionic fiber mix-up that tarnished his Starfleet record, and if Bashir is happy practicing “frontier medicine,” why would he resent his parents for his inability to have a brilliant career in tennis? Once we find out that he’s been genetically modified, it will all make much more sense: we’ll know the young Bashir couldn’t afford to draw too much attention to himself, and felt he didn’t really deserve accolades that were only made possible by the illegal procedure that gave him so many of his skills. I’m sure the writers hadn’t worked out Bashir’s augmentation when “Distant Voices” was written, since it would be ridiculous for his Inner Lethean not to have used that against him otherwise. But everything we do learn fits in nicely with later canon about Bashir, nicely rounding out his character, even if it seems like the payoff of this particular episode (he’s satisfied with his job, he’s proud of his principles, he’s afraid of losing Dax’s friendship if he makes a pass at her) is pretty thin. I mean, being depressed about turning 30 in a future where people live to be 150? That’s the series writers expressing their own anxieties, not explaining something that seems logical for the character!

I generally don’t love “alone on the ship”-type bottle stories, which always have pacing problems and often seem redundant – “The Omega Glory” on the original series, “Remember Me” on Next Gen, for instance – but it’s fun to see Bashir investing his companions with his own personality traits. How interesting that it’s Kira he sees as his aggression rather than someone formally trained in military tactics as Bashir himself presumably was while at Starfleet Academy, which is after all a military as well as scientific institution; how funny that he dumps his cowardice and pessimism onto his friend O’Brien; how odd that his interior Odo seems more like the mirror-universe changeling (or perhaps a fearful projection about the Dominion); how curious that despite his ostensible crush on Dax, Bashir sees her as representing self-reliance; how pleasant to discover the depth of his respect for Sisko’s skills and leadership; how hilarious that the villainous Garak of his inner thoughts is as flirtatious as the real one, a detail about which I’m sure someone with psychiatric training like Bashir can’t escape the implications. The allegedly secret attraction to Kira from “Fascination” is thankfully nowhere in evidence in this version of Bashir’s inner life. Given his often immature attitude toward women, by turns predatory and competitive, I appreciate that the Kira and Dax of his mind represent two of the stronger aspects of his personality. Plus I’m greatly relieved that the psychic projection crewmembers don’t age along with Bashir, since even the best aging makeup usually ends up looking silly; this episode won an Emmy for it yet I’m never convinced by the 30ish actor who’s supposed to look 100. (Hey, the makeup team had even less luck getting an older Diana Muldaur to look ancient on Next Gen.)

The pacing of “Distant Voices” has some plodding stretches where, instead of biting my nails waiting for the Lethean to appear, I’m wishing he would hurry up and kill someone already. And some of the devices by which Bashir figures out what’s going on seem ludicrous – it’s hilarious watching the crewmembers in his mind insist that they’re real and not figments of his unconscious, but it stretches credulity when he scans his own brain and sees delta waves. Ditto the moment when he sees himself on the viewscreen dying in sickbay, since he has little access to what’s going on in the real world apart from the snatches of conversation that end up not giving him as many clues to solving his dilemma as the title implies that they might. Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of distracting humor, mostly every time Garak is on the screen. Andy Robinson is always brilliant, infusing what could be boring conversations about aging and dieting with innuendo, but it’s particularly a delight when he has something substantial to do. Here Garak is only slightly more menacing than usual, so it takes quite a while for Bashir (and the audience) to guess that he’s more than just Bashir’s own doubts about whether he’s once again made the wrong choices. The moment when Garak turns into Bashir’s worst nightmare makes up for the slow parts beforehand, when the symbolism of Bashir’s mind is explicated in more detail than the audience actually needs and where we learn that even Bashir’s unconscious mind employs technobabble.

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12 thoughts on “Retro Review: Distant Voices

  1. I always felt Bashir being genetically enhanced was DS9’s biggest continuity problem and this episode proves it since there was absolutely no mention of it at any time over the course here. Whether it was the Lethean in Julian’s mind, or some representation of himself as the evil alien trying to make him give up his battle to survive the attack, there should have been at least some mention of such a deep dark secret, making him fearful of someone finding out about it in the future should he survive. If I were an evil telepathic alien in that situation, I certainly would have used the secret against him. The fact is making Bashir enhanced was definitely something that came out of the blue since there was really no hinting from what we’ve seen in previous episodes. If there were some indication of the secret having existed all along, I think the first episode that could have given us a clue would be season 1’s “Q-Less”. Someone as omnipotent as Q certainly would have known and he could have said an extra line in the scene he induces him to sleep to make him miss dinner with Vash. When Julian leaves, he says he needs to go to sleep, then Q says “Hopefully by yourself for a change.” The extra line he could have said afterward could have been something like “You’re still inferior to the likes of me no matter what they did to you.” This would have left viewers wondering what the heck Q was talking about, with the answer finally being revealed 4 years later.

  2. I’ve watched numerous documentaries about the making of TV series, including this one, and from the writers’ commentaries it’s pretty clear that most of the characters are developed over the course of the series. More often than not, a character becomes an amalgam of ideas in the writer’s mind and the personality of the actor that’s chosen to portray them. Bashir was clearly an unformed notion throughout the first season, and even this far in–in season four–they’re still developing facets of his personality and elements of his backstory.

    In many cases in Trek, often noted by Michelle in this blog, the characters in DS9 do things that, at least for a particular episode, feel out of character. To me, that’s proof that in many cases the writers focused primarily on telling a story which made it necessary to make adjustments to one or more characters’ personalities in order to service the plot. For example, it’s my belief that the writer of the episode “Doctor Bashir, I presume” wanted to explore what it means to be genetically enhanced in a world where that’s forbidden–a concept that was very popular in the ’90’s when that story was written. While they could have done it with a non-DS9 character, I think the writing staff felt at the time it would be an interesting addition to Bashir’s character. I don’t think that, prior to that time, they had even considered it being part of the character’s arc, due to the lack of any prior mention–or even hint–of it.

    Just allow that writers are far from omniscient and, especially in the TV medium where the pursuit of shifting audience allegiance rises to almost fanatical obsession, abrupt changes in characters are almost to be expected.

  3. That isn’t really the part that matters. She’s trying to imply that the pretend Garak in Bashir’s MIND is also gay for him, which would mean Bashir is actually gay for Garak, which would mean everyone’s gay for everyone all the time because MEG is obsessed with slash fiction and oh how goddamn ridiculous.

    By the way, intent of the artist hasn’t been a major factor in expert critique for a long, long time now. His is just another reading.

  4. I must be dense, but in all the times I’ve watched DS9, Garak’s sexuality has never even entered let alone crossed my mind. Even when I read the passage above, about Garak’s “flirtatious” nature, sexual attraction never wasn’t the first thing I considered. I had always thought that Garak’s interest in Bashir came from amused curiosity. To my mind, while Garak grew to view Bashir as a close friend, it always seemed to me that Garak derived pleasure from leading Bashir on and indulging Bashir’s penchant for covert intrigues. He found it amusing that someone like Bashir could be so obsessed with the glamour of a profession that was, to Garak, anything but glamorous.

    I sometimes wonder if I’m just so naive, or perhaps shallow, that I don’t see anything sexual in these actions while so many threads are devoted to ferreting out the Freudian intent behind them.

  5. As Andy Robinson said, “He’s not gay, he’s not straight…” He just portrayed the character as alien as possible in terms of how he interacted with the regulars. Similarly, people have pointed out that Craig Ferguson isn’t gay, he’s just being European. He just pretends to be gay in a lot of “Late Late Show” monologues simply because Americans are such prudes.

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of the slash genre simply because of the very notion of making any same sex pair of friends, like Kirk and Spock, a gay couple just for the heck of it. On the other hand, I’m amenable to the idea of a Bashir and Garak pairing since certain subtexts made such a notion believable.

  6. Well, that’s not exactly my point, though. I tend to approach this material in an asexual way, meaning that while I can understand the subtext, as well as the desire to portray non-traditional relationships in an open way, I just tend not to apply any sexual overtones to Trek episodes in general. I never once wondered about Garak’s sexuality, nor did I particularly care for Bashir’s decidedly juvenile approach to courtship. It’s just that I was more focused on the heroic nature of the characters, the plot they were trying to service, and the overall development of each character’s backstory.

    It’s pretty clear that the Trek writers were intent upon pushing many liberal (or progressive, whichever term one wants to apply) ideas, which is their right. It’s just that I tend to brush off the sexual ones in an attempt to simply enjoy the story and characters as they are presented to me. Perhaps that makes me a shallow thinker, but I tend to prefer episodes where humans try to stretch themselves beyond their basic animal instincts.

  7. Glad we’re agreement. I had simply hoped to broach the issue in a non-confrontational manner before the usual round of outrage MEG’s take on Garak, followed by the outrage over the outrage. Stay tuned for a Freudian analysis of the opening Bashir and O’Brien scene in “Hippocratic Oath.”

  8. OK, heres my Trek nerd nitpick – she says “The Omega Glory” was a TOS “alone on a ship bottle show”. It was, of course, “The Mark of Gideon”
    Now I feel better.

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