Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.4: “Once Again, The Communication Process Has Broken Down”


Star Trek Babel

“You’re a whining little bulb; lock door spurn.”

“Babel” feels like DS9‘s first misstep.  Not because it’s a particularly bad episode – bits of it are rather good, in fact. Still, it’s the first example of the show failing to make use of its unique strengths.


Of all the Trek shows available to stuff into our face-holes at the time of writing, it’s definitely this one that’s best placed to tell this story. A city-port on literally the only trade route connecting the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants? Of course there’s going to be language issues. And of course those issues can lead to misunderstandings, which might lead in turn to conflict. That’s a perfect base for a Deep Space Nine story. You don’t even need the angle of a biological agent that scrambles people’s speech. A simple malfunction of the universal translators would do the job.

Yet the episode itself never really seems to make the link. Much is promised in the opening seconds, with O’Brien failing to make himself understood whilst yelling platitudes through an airlock window. He’s literally trying out the old cliche of bellowing in English more slowly. Since there’s no sign the aliens trapped in the ‘lock can hear him, though, he’s basically relying on lip-reading to do the job. Which, if I understand how universal translators function (as oppose to how Star Trek pretends they function so that guest stars can speak English), can’t actually work. O’Brien’s mouth movements are surely incomprehensible to almost every sentient being in the quadrant. It seems at least some among the station personnel have forgotten that communication can be difficult. That it isn’t something you can just assume is going smoothly for everyone.

Given what follows, this is an almost perfect beginning. Once we’re done with the scene, though, the problems of intercultural comprehension seem to be forgotten almost entirely.

It seems likely that this is a result of the story’s origin. The idea of an aphasia-mimicking virus had been bouncing around the TNG writers’ room for a while by this point. Now in itself, it’s not necessarily bad to offer the new show story ideas its big sister couldn’t make work. Sisko’s command is a much better fit for this concept, as I’ve said. But the episode shows no interest in actually taking advantage of the opportunity. Instead it just uses the station as a generic sci-fi location that can play host to a virus-of-the-week (compare this to how “The Naked Time” wrung significance from its mutated water molecules, even if much of that may have been by accident). And even by those standards this feels underdeveloped. A killer virus that induces aphasia is actually a brilliantly evil idea. It limits your targets’ ability to defend against the epidemic. You can’t put together a research initiative to neutralise a bio-weapon if everyone on the team is yelling random nouns at each other. Dekon’s creation is terribly clever, in a vicious and despicable way.

But the story ignores this angle too. It’s like the script is going out of its way to sail past every single thematic or even practical advantage the disease has. Apparently the mere fact people are talking funny is supposed to be enough to make the episode interesting. Despite no-one ever thinking that was a strong enough hook whenever the idea came up at TNG script meetings, of course.

You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Daisy-Chain Sentences

The episode compounds these problems with its treatment of O’Brien. There is admittedly an obvious advantage to having him be the first to fall ill; it underlines the fact no-one is listening to him anyway. Certainly Captain Jarheel isn’t as the episode opens. I actually think Jarheel has a decent point about the importance of a prompt departure. O’Brien might not need to care about money, but not everyone in the Alpha Quadrant is so fortunate. That said, the absolute worst time to give the Chief grief about this is when he’s trying to release people from a room one malfunctioning door away from blasting those inside into space. A room which already has its other door malfunctioning, at that. Similarly, there’s nothing obviously critical about Dax’s experiments or Kira’s need to bring up star charts (whilst on a stationary object) that would override O’Brien’s need for a wee bit of a break. That goes quadruple for Sisko’s strop about his coffee not being precisely the way he likes it. O’Brien is not Rimmer. His most vital duty is not ensuring the replicators weave energy into the matter matrix equivalent of fun-size Crunchie Bars. The guy spends every day keeping a critical installation running. He should be treated accordingly.

As such, making O’Brien’s difficulty in getting anyone to understand where he’s coming from literal is in some ways rather clever. And naturally, Meaney sells it very well. Still, the problem here is obvious. If you want to comment on the unfairness of using the Chief as a voice-activated tool-box rather than an actual person, having him collapse into bed sweating and mumbling the instant he’s fulfilled the needs of the story is a terrible idea. It treats O’Brien the exact same way everyone else is doing, as something to be summoned to solve a problem and then dismissed. It’s a waste of a talented actor and it’s a waste of a great and well-loved character. Worse, it manages to imply the problem here isn’t that O’Brien is being horribly overworked, it’s that he’s stopped being able to work, putting the episode’s sympathies in entirely the wrong place.

(Speaking of wasting talent, by the way, let’s take a few moments to marvel at how miserably”Babel” serves Terry Farrell. Dax starts off needing a man to fix a noise leak in her lab, despite her being a scientific genius of the kind of Starfleet can produce, i.e. someone good at all things at all times. Then she tells Kira how much she’s enjoying men leching over her now she’s young, pretty and female. Now, if there are women in the real world who get a kick out of dudes staring longingly at them, that’s none of my business. When a fictional character whose dialogue being written by men says this, though, it’s a problem. Especially in science-fiction, with the much broader definition of “male”a universe packed with sentient races requires. This scene suggests not being able to keep one’s eyes to oneself is a trait that crosses both species barriers and interstellar space. And this is an even bigger problem in Star Trek specifically. Humanity has supposedly brought about a truly equal society here. The idea such an enlightened utopia in which all are equally valued would also take it as read that you’ll get more appreciative glances if you’re a hot woman is one I take great exception to.

With that nonsense concluded, Dax finds herself shuffled out of Sisko’s counsels so she can play the vitally important role of “woman who looks worried but can’t be any help”.  I might have my issues with what Kira gets up to this episode, but at least she gets to get up to something.)

This issue continues throughout, really. The episode seems to want us to take the wrong side of more than one issue. As I say above, Captain Jarheel’s frustration at the possibility his cargo is going to be ruined strikes me as entirely reasonable. So does Quark’s fear of going out of business. You don’t have to be a fan of capitalism to realise that, in the places where it operates, it’s probably best if people don’t lose their livelihoods because the authorities want their trivial problems fixed first. This is particularly true for Quark. He’s only even still on the station because Sisko blackmailed him into keeping his bar open. And now he’s bleeding money because ops wants better beverages? Apparently Deep Space Nine’s essential need for a social hub like Quark’s to represent post-occupation regeneration stops mattering if the commander has to down stinky espressos. Empty rooms are getting their replicators back online before the habitat ring. Sure, Quark could just have asked for access to the vacant command quarters, but the civilian population of the station is struggling to get access to edible food. Why wasn’t opening these quarters to general use the very first response to the problem? Did Sisko just completely lose interest in the crisis the moment his raktajinos were sufficiently spiced with jacarine peel once more?

Both Jarheel and Quark, then, have completely reasonable issues with the way station maintenance tasks are being prioritised and processed. Once again, the real communication breakdowns are between people who are speaking the same language. And once again that very promising idea is totally mishandled. Quark and Jarheel are both portrayed as annoyances/criminals/threats for not wanting to take major losses while waiting to be heard, whilst Sisko’s total inability to see beyond his next caffeine hit is played for laughs. The closest the episode gets to commenting on how communication breakdowns are bad for all involved is what happens to Surmak Ren: exposed to a deadly virus because he didn’t have time to Skype.

“I Tried Calling, But…”

Even there, though, this idea doesn’t get the space it needs. It’s too deeply buried beneath the sheer extremity of Kira’s actions. Infecting someone with a fatal disease because she thinks he might’ve helped make it, and she hopes he might be able to cure it? I don’t see how that’s something we should be comfortable with. I mean sure, it worked out in the end. This is television. But there was every chance that Surmak had nothing to do with the virus. There’s plenty of other reasons someone might not want to discuss what they got up to during the occupation, as Kira should know.  And even if we knew he helped slap these gribblies together, and so could consider his infection a form of poetic justice, why would Kira come to that same conclusion? C’mon, Major! Resistance bros before the unwrinkled nose! Either you’ve infected an innocent man, or you’ve infected one who joined you in armed resistance against a brutal oppressor. And this is how you treat your former comrade? Endangering his life over sub-optimal vid bantz? If nothing else, I’m not sure how we can simultaneously be thrilled at Kira’s actions whilst being disgusted at Jarheel’s. Both went to extreme lengths to be heard, and both of them endangered others to do it. I realise their actions aren’t equivalent, but they’re closer than the script seems to notice.

Perhaps the kidnapping is supposed to demonstrate Kira’s desperation, but if so it’s one more failure of the episode to communicate effectively. Which I suppose serves as a reminder that even thematically appropriate plot beats can frustrating as all hell.

Not everything here disappoints. Not every comment on communication misses its mark. The scenes where Odo and Quark take over Ops are a lot of fun, and a cheeky comment on how a dialogue is supposed to work – “I need help!” “Fine; pay me”. And the oft-complimented moment where Sisko comforts his ill and uncomprehending son is indeed lovely, as well as reminding us of how much people can say to each other entirely without language. There is definitely wheat among the chaff. But that just underscores how much more could have been done elsewhere. How much credit can we give for a story that manages to be uninspiring but generally watchable? This episode is born of five years of institutional memory on how to make The Next Generation work. Basic competence comes as standard (or it damn well should do). The show should be aiming for so much more. It did for its first few episodes, giving Deep Space Nine the best opening three weeks of any entry in the franchise so far. The fact this installment is merely watchable just reminds us what it could have been, had everyone involved pulled together to drag “Babel” up above this production team’s baseline level.

It just reminds us how much more this episode could have said.


1. The Last Outpost

2. The Naked Time

3. Babel

4. The Lorelei Signal

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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