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.