Right after a powerful, thematic episode like A Man Alone, Babel is the first episode that really feels like a one-off episode. While it’s not completely without its redeeming factors, it doesn’t really have any big themes, nor does it really focus on any one character.
The episode begins with an overworked O’Brien working desperately to maintain DS9’s computer systems. Everything is breaking down, and everything is a priority. It’s a workload that isn’t shared with the rest of the command crew. After all, they have time to complain about how the replicators aren’t working, and are creating a horrible cup of coffee. The slackers.
Really, in this episode, O’Brien doesn’t get any respect. In fact, once he repairs the replicator, triggering the release of an aphasia virus, he is soon written out of the episode, being unable to communicate. This is actually the first of the “poor O’Brien” episodes, although his role in this episode is short.
This is the first time in the series we see Quark with access to computer systems he shouldn’t have. He uses a physical control rod system to change his access level, something that none of the earlier Star Trek series have used. It’s another good way in which the series sets itself apart.
There are several other problems with computer automation. When Bashir is attempting to find a cure for the virus, he needs to tell the computer when to run the next batch of tests. Wouldn’t it be easier to have the computer to run through them all automatically?
A similar situation occurs when Kira attempts to locate a Bajoran scientist on the surface. She has a database query to help, but she has to tell the computer to run the command against different databases on the planet, individually. Again, wouldn’t it be easier to run it against all of them in one go? I think the writers were attempting to show how disorganized the Bajorans are, but it leads me to believe that their software engineers are seriously lacking in skill.
Let’s consider this virus for a moment. It’s initially replicated at the molecular level, infecting anyone who consumes food from the repaired replicator. When enough people on the station are infected, it suddenly becomes aerosol. This explanation of a critical mass causing the type of transmission to change is a little suspect, unless the virus was engineered to reproduce in this way.
When O’Brien is symptomatic, and run through some medical tests, Bashir determines that O’Brien’s mind is fully functional, but that auditory and visual stimuli are being mistranslated. Since nobody can understand anyone else, the infected are shipped off to an emergency medical ward for observation.
While watching the episode, I began to wonder exactly how unstable the aphasia is. The initial attempts at communication from anyone newly infected with the virus seem to repeat several nonsense phrases. There appears to be no attempt to determine how stable this mapping is, and whether a simple translation service could make sense of what people were saying.
The progression of the virus also seems strange. It was at Sisko’s request that the replicator was initially fixed, triggering the release of the virus. While O’Brien was the first to try the replicator, thus infecting himself, Sisko is one of the last to succumb. While everyone else becomes aphasiac, but is perfectly capable of walking around, and waiting in quarantine for some time, Sisko immediately collapses in Ops. This wasn’t adequately explained, and was rather distracting.
To cure the virus, Kira kidnaps Sermak Ren, who had been an associate of the virus’ creator. While he initially threatens her with legal consequences, these threats are ignored after he starts working on a cure, having been infected himself. For a series that opens with the promise of long term consequences for your actions, this episode really fails to follow the trend. The only action that appears to have long term consequences in this episode is the installation of the virus itself, some eighteen years prior to the episode.
Overall, I was rather disappointed with Babel. This was a one-off episode, with limited ability to further any ongoing story arcs, or any advanced characterization. The writers didn’t even manage to use the wormhole for anything.
Babel originally aired January 24, 1993. Teleplay by Michael McGreevey and Naren Shankar. Story by Sally Caves and Ira Steven Behr. Directed by Paul Lynch.