The station is afflicted with an airborne virus that first causes people to speak nonsense, then triggers deadly fevers.
Plot Summary: As systems break down on the onetime Cardassian station O’Brien is satisfied merely to have fixed the command level food replicators. Yet when they come online, the replicators activate a hidden device. Soon O’Brien is speaking nonsense which Bashir diagnoses as a form of aphasia, and by the time Dax, Jake, and a number of Bajoran crewmembers have become affected, Sisko decides to put the station under quarantine, upsetting the captains of ships wishing to depart. Bashir discovers that the virus must be ingested from corrupted food, and Odo learns that by stealing food from command level replicators to feed bar patrons, Quark has spread the virus throughout the station. As the virus mutates and becomes airborne, patients develop high fevers. Kira tracks down the device that triggered the crisis and suspects Cardassian sabotage, but though the device does appear to be Cardassian, Bashir determines that the decades-old genetic engineering used to create the virus was Bajoran. Knowing that a fellow member of the Resistance must have been responsible, Kira tracks down Surmak Ren, a onetime terrorist now working as a respectable doctor. While she takes a runabout to bring the unwilling Surmak to the station, Sisko attempts to stop an alien captain from blasting out of quarantine and ripping the docking ring away. When Sisko’s commands become unintelligible, Odo enlists Quark to help save the station. The initially uncooperative Surmak begins work on an antidote when he realizes that Kira has infected him. Using Bashir’s research, Surmak is able to treat the sick and return the station to what counts for normal…meaning faulty replicators.
Analysis: It’s an odd choice that so early in a series’ run, the writers chose to script an episode in which the newly introduced characters wind up helpless and the crisis is solved by a stranger with a shady past who will never reappear. The story of “Babel” remains timely and the episode is well-paced, but because the characters disintegrate into gibberish and must largely isolate themselves to work on different aspects of the problem, we don’t get a strong sense of how Deep Space Nine’s crew will work together during future crises. I enjoy the episode because so much of it focuses on Kira’s life and choices even though she’s by no means the character who gets the most screen time – we observe her in command of Ops, dealing with Bajoran officials, and solving the problem with a technique of which Picard would certainly disapprove, though the desperate Sisko already trusts her enough not to ask too many questions. We also get to see the developing love-hate relationship between Odo and Quark, who have been adversaries for many years but who are learning that on a station staffed mainly by Bajorans and Starfleet officers, they have the status of outsider in common. I find it a bit hard to believe that at this stage Odo would put Quark in charge of the station even for a few desperate minutes – Quark being Quark, that ought to be plenty of time to hack into the computers and steal some vital information – but the back-and-forth shouting over the station’s comm system provides some much-needed humor during a very grim storyline.
Poor Sisko is having a miserable first few weeks. After the splendor of meeting the Prophets, he’s had to deal with two serious terrorist threats left over from the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. He’s sensitive enough to realize in both cases that the Cardassians are the real villains, even if the Bajorans have put thousands of innocent lives at stake in their struggle for freedom, but he clearly has similar concerns to the O’Briens about whether he did the right thing bringing his young child to this tumultuous, dangerous station. Sisko has no choice but to leave poor Jake, who is desperately struggling to make himself understood, in the hands of a medical team he barely knows so that he can go address the larger issues of where the virus came from and how to stop it before it spreads. Neutral alien captains, who were apparently used to being able to bully or bribe their way into getting their ships repaired and sent on while the Cardassians controlled the station, clearly aren’t happy when first O’Brien and then Sisko explains that things will be different with the Federation in charge. The frustrations with the technical and bureaucratic failures during the transition period seem entirely believable and very nicely delineated, even Quark’s meddling to keep his bar in business and Odo’s reluctant acceptance of the idea that the station needs someone with Quark’s dubious skills. (They’re both wrong that Rom is an idiot, but Odo doesn’t realize yet that Rom is hiding his true intelligence from Quark for his own strategic reasons.)
I’m not sure whether the writers intended to suggest that the situation on Bajor is as dire as it seems at this point. Desperately in need of information from a doctor whom she suspected was in cahoots with a terrorist who specialized in germ warfare, Kira doesn’t even bother going through official government channels to track him down and force him to help undo the damage set in motion while the Cardassians were in charge; instead she asks someone she evidently knew personally during the Occupation, who manages to find out where Surmak Ren now works yet has no useful suggestions for enlisting the man’s cooperation. Considering that Kira also single-handedly negotiated amnesty for former terrorists from the Khon-Ma, she’s looking not only like Bajor’s greatest resource on the Resistance but also its most skilled politician. I can’t imagine anyone in Starfleet suggesting taking a ship and kidnapping the doctor in question, but Kira doesn’t wait around to debate the ethics or consider alternatives. Not only is she confident that she can snatch Surmak from his office, she’s equally sure that he can be recruited to help undo the damage wrought by a scientist he claims he barely knew – if not for moral reasons, than because her presence will infect him and make her problem his. On TNG, such actions would have gotten a crewmember called before Picard for a long lecture; on DS9, this is admirable thinking outside the Starfleet box.
In the Biblical story of Babel, the people started off united, speaking a single language, then were punished for their hubris and scattered at the end, unable to understand each other. It’s an odd title for this episode, where despite the aphasia most of the station’s diverse beings come away with a greater understanding of one another. There are some small amusing moments like Dax, walking with Kira, noting that men are checking them out and saying that since she hasn’t been female in 80 years, she’d forgotten how different it was; Kira asking Quark whether there’s a celebration because he cheated his 1000th customer; Quark telling Odo of an old Ferengi saying – actually one of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition – “Never ask when you can take”; Odo realizing as Quark transports him to the docking ring that Quark has never operated a transporter before. Then there’s the creepiness of Bashir calling the genetically engineered virus a work of genius and saying he would like to meet whoever made it (this is presumably years before the writers decided that Bashir himself was the product of genetic engineering). Because of that line, I can’t be too sorry that Bashir himself doesn’t get to find the antidote and get the credit for curing everyone. The hotshot deserves to be taken down a bit while the unlikely team of heroes, Odo and Quark, save the station.