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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 1-05: Babel

Episode:5|Writer:Michael McGreevey & Naren Shankar|Air Date:24-Jan-1993

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm up to the fourth episode of Deep Space Nine season one, called Babel.

The episode's named after the Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel, which ends with God deciding it'd be best if humanity didn't have one common language any more, as it was encouraging them to build giant towers. I always assumed it was pronounced 'bay-bell', but it's apparently supposed to be read like 'babble', as in 'technobabble'. Which is something Star Trek has too much of, in my humble opinion.

I'll be writing SPOILERS for this episode and maybe even the ones that came before it, but everything after it is off limits. This is a New Viewer Safe review.

Babel begins with Chief O'Brien buried in maintenance work. He's had people trapped in an airlock for a hour, Dax's science lab's playing ZX Spectrum loading noises through the speakers, and this freighter captain keeps tapping him on the should and pestering him to readjust his ship's antimatter flow converter.

Somehow the actor they've got for Captain Jaheel is managing to appear both listless and boiling over with frustration at the same time, it's impressive. I feel like he could either take a swing at O'Brien or fall asleep on his feet at any moment.

Oh, plus Ops is broken too. It's weird how the station seemed to be running more or less fine in the last two episodes, but suddenly everything is breaking down at once. And as the department head for the station's engineering staff, Chief O'Brien has to roll his sleeves up, get out his tool box, and fix most of it himself.

He's so tired and overworked that he even starts talking back at Commander Sisko when he reminds him to fix the food replicators, which seems like a good way to end up with a stern telling off (the worst reprimand in Starfleet).

They do kind of need food to live though, so he crawls into an access tunnel and gets it done (grumbling the whole time).

And this is what the replicator looks like after he's done fixing it.

O'Brien waits for the arcing to die down, orders a coffee to try, and decides that as long as it tastes alright it's fine! I guess it's normal for electricity to surge through a replicator for a bit after a repair job like this.

He's not frozen during the actual scene by the way, the visual effects aren't that dated. I did that myself to make it loop better and keep the file size down.

But oh no there's a mysterious beepy thing attached to the hardware that he didn't notice! That's a decent enough threat to end a teaser on. Much better than ending on Bashir sitting alone with his bubble.

I like how we're getting to see the inner workings of the station this episode. All these maintenances hatches and computer panels hidden behind the walls really help to make the sets feel real. Plus it helps that there's some really good Foley work to make it all sound like solid metal instead of wood; that's one thing Babylon 5 really struggled with by comparison.


The first act opens with Odo gloating at Quark's misfortune. Seems that the replicators on this floor are still broken and his bar has been practically deserted for three days. Sure there's still gambling and I know I've seen bottles behind that bar, but it seems that no one wants to come to a casino that doesn't sell food.

Well it's not that he doesn't sell food, it's just that you wouldn't want to eat what he serves you. His one remaining customer apparently didn't get that memo though, and he calls Quark over to complain about his stew.

And then he force feeds him a spoonful of it to demonstrate how bad it is. Fun thing is, with the replicators broken that could be actual poison he's giving him! Quark could actually die from this! The alien definitely doesn't look all that well after eating some; the latex on his forehead has started to crease.

It seems weird to me somehow that Quark sells replicated food, seeing as you can get that anywhere on the station. I figured he had a kitchen in back or cooked meals in stasis or something. I'm sure he mentions having boxes full of something in stock in a later episode.

The guy has to do something here before he goes out of business (not that he actually pays rent), so we get the first appearance of his secret security rods! We also get to see another hidden computer panel that's been built into the set.

He uses the rods to get clearance and then asks for the location of all working replicators.

By the time Dax and Kira drop by, the bar's full of life again. In fact Quark's throwing a party and invites them both in.

Weirdly Dax is acting here like she's not used to being a woman (and mentions she's enjoying all the looks she's been getting), which shows that the writers haven't quite nailed down her character yet. Later episodes make clear that she's not a 300 year old symbiotic worm piloting a humanoid body, she's actually a blend of both their personalities and has both sets of memories. So she's been very much female for the last 30 years.

Kira turns down Quark's invitation (because she hates him) and heads to Ops, where she finds that O'Brien looks like he's about to drop. Also he's started talking total nonsense, and not the sci-fi science kind of nonsense you'd expect to come out of a Star Trek character's mouth.
"Let birds go further loose maybe. Shout easy play. Round the turbulent quick."
This freaks him out as much as it does her, and he runs off to take the turbolift to the Infirmary. It's lucky the lift seems to intuit where to take him automatically, seeing as it's voice activated and doesn't have buttons to press. Maybe he programmed it so that if he ever starts ranting in drunken gibberish it takes him directly to his bed.


Couldn't they have found a more interesting wall to point the camera at for this scene? It seems weird now when they show a place on the station that isn't entirely covered in computer screens, moulded plastic or flashing lights, it's like the set's unfinished.

Anyway Bashir can't find anything wrong with O'Brien's brain, aside from the fact that the words coming out of it make no sense. So O'Brien tries to write something on Bashir's iPad instead.

Deep Space Nine Babel PADD
Nope, that didn't work either.

Bashir explains that he's come down with a form of aphasia. His actual thinking hasn't been impaired, but he can't understand a word they're saying to him and he's lost the ability to communicate. He does verbally repeat some of the text he's written on the PADD though, so his words aren't just coming out randomly. You'd think their amazing universal translation technology could step in here and learn his rewired vocabulary, but I guess that's not how it works.

Wow, it's so weird to see them all sitting around the Ops table like that. It's also weird that I've never noticed how the Ops table looks just like Quark's Dabo table, with the picture of the station in place of the wheel. Scroll back up to the screencap at the top of the page, you'll see what I mean.

The crew try to figure out what O'Brien could've been doing recently to cause this aphasia, which is tricky considering they've been sending him to fix things all over the station. Incidentally the station's still broken, so Dax is temporarily assigned his duties.

And then Dax immediately comes down with the aphasia as well! Funny how this illness can't be detected by scanners and only seems to affect crew members who've been told to do crappy demoralising repair work.

But Bashir determines that it's being caused by a virus and more people are getting sick, so Sisko puts the station under quarantine, with all shops and businesses closed until further notice.

Whoa is that a painted background at the end of the promenade next to the spiral staircase? I've seen almost every episode of this series and I have never noticed that before.

Weirdly this shot of an abandoned silent Promenade comes directly after a scene showing that Quark's ignored the order to close his business and his bar's full of customers. It's like the writers had forgotten that Quark's bar is on the Promenade. In fact if you could turn the camera around you'd likely see the upper level of the bar from here.

Oh. Well... I guess they hadn't built that part of the Promenade yet.

In season 2 they'll add some floor to the inside edge of the curve and take out part of the wall, so characters can walk right into Quark's. Plus they'll add yellow fluorescent lights along the side of the walkways and enhance the curving sides of the railing posts. And eventually that murky grey fog down there will evolve into a beautiful carpet!

Hey it's Captain Jaheel! With O'Brien out of action for the rest of the episode, he's come to complain to Sisko instead. He wants permission to leave the station, as apparently he's come under a very specific strain of the virus that means he doesn't understand what the word 'quarantine' means.

I think I've figured out this actor's problem now. He's got so much make-up on that he can't actually move his face to show expressions! It makes me appreciate just how good René Auberjonois is playing Odo, considering he's basically acting through a mask.

Speaking of Odo, he's just caught Quark stealing food from empty crew quarters (while disguised as the food cart). Turns out that why his bar was doing so well: he'd been using this replicator while his own one were broken.

Funny thing is, Quark actually seemed to be enjoying all this running around, carrying food from the quarters to his bar, because he'd found a cunning way to cheat the system and get something he wasn't supposed to have. But Odo points out that the command staff would've likely let him use the thing if he'd thought to ask them. They're reasonable people and they want him to stay in business here!

It's also funny because Odo only knew something was up because Quark had claimed that Rom had fixed his replicators and "Rom's an idiot. He couldn't fix a straw if it was bent." The writers are sure going to change their minds on that one later on.


Well the good news is that Kira's finally discovered the mysterious device from the teaser. The bad news is that the aphasia virus has been added to every meal since O'Brien fixed the replicators, and Quark's been selling the contaminated food to everyone. The worse news is that Quark's actions don't even matter, as the virus has become airborne and now everyone's been infected.

We learn that the station's 18 years old here, as that's how long the device has been hidden inside the replicators, waiting to go off. It was placed here by the Bajoran underground during construction to infect the Cardassians running the place, so they're victims of their own sabotage! Now Kira has to discover who made the virus and get the cure from them... if it even exists.

There's so many aphasic victims now that they've had to convert some crew quarters into a hospital ward to put them in... and Sisko's son Jake has come down with it now. It looks like Quark's sick too, but he's just yelling at his customers to make sure they're not faking it to get out of paying their bills.

O'Brien's definitely not faking it though, as the virus has begun to attack his nervous system. He'll be dead in twelve hours and the rest of them will follow soon after. So there's some escalating drama for you.


Oh cool, they've found a more interesting wall in the Infirmary to point the camera at. The screens aren't exactly placed in an optimal position for the staff though, seeing as the main monitor will give them neck pain and they'd have to shove their head into the corner to see what's on the ones tucked away back there.

The situation seems grim, but now Dr. Bashir knows there's a virus he can work on trying to cure it. Bashir's about as smart as Star Trek doctors come and likely equipped with the same plot armour that makes sure he's the last to fall, so the rest of the crew just need to keep on top of the other catastrophes while he works through the problem.


The 'doctor always manages to hold on long enough to cure the virus' trope has failed. I guess Dr. Bashir just doesn't have the inhuman resilience of Dr. McCoy. Either that or the Infirmary computers finally broke down like the rest of the station.

Well they've lost all the genius characters, so now it's up to Sisko, Kira and Odo to cure the plague and save the day. For some reason I expected that Sisko would've been taken out early to make the crisis even worse, but nope he's holding on until the end.

Oh it's this asshole again. He's trying to depart the station despite the fact that the mooring clamps are locked down on his ship.

It's literally down to just Odo and Sisko running Ops now, as Kira's still busy hunting down the man who created the virus, and this is the last thing they need. They try to explain why he can't leave, but Jaheel's convinced that he still has a chance to escape the airborne virus if he leaves right now. So he throttles up his engines to break free and ends up breaking his own ship instead. Now it's going to explode and take out half the docking ring!

So there's only two crew members left, everyone else is incapacitated and mere hours from death, and there's a time bomb clamped to the hull they can't release. Could be worse though I guess. I mean do they really need that half of the docking ring?


Meanwhile Kira's taken a runabout out to Bajor to follow a lead. Trouble is that she can't leave the ship or she'll end up spreading the infection to her planet. How long does it take to get to Bajor anyway? Less than 6 hours I guess, or else O'Brien will be dead before she gets back.

The man who created the aphasia virus 18 years ago is dead, but his assistant Dr. Surmak is still around and he's pretty much the only other person who could know what the antidote is.

That's Dr. Surmak Ren by the way, son of Hoek and Stimson, both huge Ren and Stimpy fans I guess.

Kira calls him up from the runabout and he makes it clear he's got nothing to say to her. That's fine with her though really as she just wanted to make sure he was in his office when she activated the transporter.

Hey Kira, next time you kidnap someone, maybe take the phasers away from the transporter frame. Remember what happened in Past Prologue, with Tahna?

Also I cropped the shot a bit for the sake of my GIF, but in the original footage she forgets to beam up his ankles.

He just floats there until he's fully materialised.

Now Dr. Surmak's on board the runabout with Kira he's been infected too, giving him a strong motivation to cure the virus before he dies like the rest of them. This does kind of raise the question though of why Deep Space Nine is on its own in trying to cure this problem. Sure the station has become a more distant outpost recently after it flew away to the wormhole, but it's also become incredibly important to Bajor and has a lot of Bajorans living there. You'd think that someone on the planet would already be trying to help them solve this.

There's beaming going on over on Deep Space Nine as well, as someone needs to go over sort out that exploding ship problem. Sisko's finally collapsed though, so it's all up to Odo and Quark to save the day. His Ferengi immune system means that he's outlasted every other humanoid (save for Kira), and is basically running the station now. Fortunately he's seen people operate transporters before so he's fairly sure he knows what buttons to press.

I guess we can add 'transporter' to the list of systems that are still working. In fact not a single thing has broken since O'Brien got sick, so that's just more proof that the universe hates him. Well okay the mooring clamps have jammed, holding Jaheel's ship in place, but that was his own damn fault.

Right after Odo beams out, Kira returns in the runabout and rushes to bring Dr. Surmak over to the Infirmary so he can check Bashir's notes. The guy's written quite a lot considering he was in a rush.

Somehow Odo manages to get to Jaheel's ship after Kira arrives at the Infirmary, so I guess Quark must have beamed him to the other side of the station and let him walk there as a joke. He runs into the airlock and heroically drags the miserable bastard to safety. I've never been so disappointed to see someone survive a fire. At least he mumbles enough words to let us know he's infected.

Back in the Infirmary, Dr. Surmak's already found the antidote! So the virus plotline got resolved before the Jaheel plotline! I guess the freighter captain's stupidity was the real threat all along.

With only 40 seconds left, Odo reaches into the machine and pulls the lever to blow the mooring clamps and release Jaheel's ship, so it can safely blow up somewhere else. Even more mechanical stuff behind hatches! The production crew were busy this week despite it being practically a bottle episode.

I had no idea until recently that the term 'bottle episode' actually came from Star Trek (describing an episode that only uses standing sets, few actors and limited effects to save money). Deep Space Nine had a massive budget compared to series like Babylon 5, but they still had to cut corners when they could, by reusing models for instance.

Jaheel's ship is a weird case though, as it looks like they've taken a model from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and given it a makeover. In fact this may have been originally intended to be Buck's own ship, Ranger 3, until they ultimately chose to go with a space shuttle-looking vessel. Or maybe not!

Quark assumes the Ferengi crash position as the explosion rocks the station, and then gets thrown over onto the unconscious Sisko. I half expected the actor to get up and glower at him, but he gets away with it.

Now that the crisis is over and everyone's cured it's back to business as usual. Kira hasn't even been arrested for kidnapping and infecting someone with a deadly virus.

Trouble is that the replicator in Ops has broken down again so Sisko gets a coffee mug full of crap out of it, leading to another abrupt ending, with the Commander yelling "O'BRIEN!!" like he's the principal in an 80s comedy. I really feel for poor O'Brien. Standing at the same transporter console for hours every day on the Enterprise was better than this.


Babel... was a pretty good episode, actually. I mean it's definitely a season one episode, but I'm surprised by how much I liked it. There was drama, explosions, Quark, Odo, and some actual tension going on as the crew struggled to deal with a series of escalating crises while characters were dropping like flies. In fact I'd probably rank it as my favourite of the series so far, though I'm only up to episode four so that doesn't mean all that much. It could've done without the dumb joke at the end though. For a second I thought they were going to freeze frame on O'Brien's reaction with a bit of Original Series comedy music.

Speaking of Quark and Odo, the two of them seem to have entirely clicked by this point, with Quark becoming his cheerful self and and Odo finding the joy in putting him down. Plus we learn that Quark served on a freighter for 8 years, which helps to flesh his character out a little. I can see why he's so fond of his bar now, if he spent those years saving up the cash he needed to buy it. They're the highlight but there's enough good character moments to go around, with Sisko worrying about his son, Kira gleefully kidnapping an innocent man and infecting him with a deadly virus, and O'Brien getting pushed to the brink of a human's capacity to tolerate suffering. And that's before he gets the plague.

Plus they've used up the 'base is infected with a plague' cliché early, so we never have to worry about that popping up again! Though I'm sure the 'non-human outsider is immune' trope is going to get a lot more use.

It was pretty good as plagues go though, as being unable to communicate and then keeling over and dying is somehow more disturbing than just the keeling over and dying bit on its own. They could've done more to show the crew trying to operate without being able to communicate (or understand what the buttons do), but it works fine as it is. Plus they bothered to give a small justification for why everyone falls victim to different symptoms at different rates, which I like. Though evolving to become airborne in a couple of hours is not acceptable virus behaviour and it should knock that off.


Quark's food trolley.

Deep Space Nine will return with O'Brien making a friend in Captive Pursuit. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, more Doctor Who with Before the Flood.

You might be thinking about leaving a comment right now. This is a good instinct, you should go with it.

1 comment:

  1. I was just thinking that it would be interesting if someone did a Star Trek style sitcom, but then I remembered that it's been done.