Retro Review: Doctor Bashir, I PresumePosted by Michelle - 06/12/13 at 08:12 pm
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season: 05 Episode: 16 (s05e16)
Original US airdate: 02/24/1997
When Bashir is selected as the model for Starfleet’s newest medical hologram, his parents’ participation leads to the discovery of his deepest secret.
Plot Summary: While Rom frets about his inability to ask Leeta to date him, Bashir learns that he has been chosen as the model for the LMH – the long-term medical hologram designed to supersede the EMH. Dr. Lewis Zimmerman arrives to inform him of this honor and immediately demands extensive information about Bashir from his favorite foods to his favorite jokes. Bashir is uncomfortable enough having Zimmerman question his colleagues about his personality quirks, but he specifically asks that his parents not be interviewed, since he has not been close with them for many years. The bumptious Zimmerman, who is aggressively wooing Leeta, immediately summons Bashir’s parents, who promptly embarrass Bashir when his father begins to brag about his latest scheme to get famous doing landscape architecture. When Bashir demands that his parents keep their family secrets to themselves, he and his father have an argument. When, later, his parents arrive to promise that they will keep his greatest secret – the fact that they had him genetically enhanced as a child – they do not realize that they are speaking to the duplicate holographic Bashir, and that Zimmerman and O’Brien are listening. Because Zimmerman intends to report this discovery to Starfleet, Bashir prepares to resign, explaining to O’Brien that because he fell behind at age six, his parents decided that he needed to be “fixed” and turned to illegal genetic enhancement. Devastated that their own actions have destroyed their son’s career, Bashir’s parents go to Sisko before he can and negotiate a solution with Starfleet in which Bashir’s father will go to prison for the crime of using genetic enhancement while Bashir will be allowed to keep his Starfleet commission. Though still humiliated not only at being found out but because his parents felt that he was a failure as a young child, Bashir accepts this sacrifice and acknowledges that his parents have only wanted what was best for him, promising to visit his father in prison. They board the same ship as Leeta, who plans to leave with Zimmerman to take over a cafe at Jupiter Station, but Rom races to the airlock and confesses that he loves her, convincing her to stay on DS9.
Analysis: Although I have rewatched this episode many times since it first aired, it strikes me anew each time how extraordinary it is. If this had merely been a gimmick episode to have Voyager‘s Doctor appear on Deep Space Nine, it would have been enjoyable merely watching Robert Picardo and Alexander Siddig exchange barbs, and if it had only told the story of Bashir’s childhood secret with potentially explosive connections to Khan and the Eugenics Wars, it would still have been a great episode, answering a lot of questions such as why we’ve never heard much about his family and why he missed an obvious question on a medical school final which prevented him from graduating as his class valedictorian. But the combination of the two storylines is pure genius, making “Doctor Bashir, I Presume” top ten in a series that has so many brilliant episodes. You may remember that I wasn’t a Bashir fan when the series first started; I didn’t like the whole young, egotistical, womanizing characterization, I didn’t think we needed another character who’d get his sense of “frontier adventure” knocked down a peg. But so many wonderful storylines focused on him – “The Quickening” and “Hippocratic Oath” and “Nor the Battle to the Strong” – that he started to grow on me, and Siddig’s performances got more and more nuanced and unexpected at a point in other Star Trek franchises when some of the actors seemed to start phoning it in. His performance gets a jolt of energy here by getting to interact with the always-enjoyable Picardo and with the actors playing Bashir’s parents, who are also well-cast. Bashir’s ethnic background in canon remains frustratingly unexplored; he has a Mongolian middle name and an Arabic last name, his parents are played by Jewish and Muslim performers from different parts of the Middle East, his father sounds British and his mother sounds Egyptian but we are never told where on Earth Julian grew up, though here we learn that no element of his background is as significant as the fact that he was slow to learn and develop the fine motor skills that would have allowed him to excel at school.
So his parents made a choice that either backfired or succeeded beyond their wildest dreams for many years: they had their six-year-old genetically modified. Now he’s a certifiable genius, so admired as a doctor that Zimmerman wants to use him as a model for a programmable version, and we know from other episodes that he used to play tennis well enough to turn professional and led his class racquetball team. It’s never made any sense that this gifted man has always seemed insecure, a failure with women, drawn to self-professed outcasts like Garak and people who scoff at intellectual snobbery like O’Brien. I always assumed it was a combination of careless writing and the onscreen chemistry Siddig has with Andrew Robinson and Colm Meaney – he’s not nearly as interesting to watch with Terry Farrell’s Dax or Nana Visitor’s Kira despite the fact that when “Doctor Bashir, I Presume” aired, he had a child with the latter. Whether one of the writers kept the idea of a genetically altered Bashir as mental backstory in the months between the pitch and the episode or whether the writers used the story as an excuse to explain their own loose ends, it works wonderfully. Most of the father-son conflicts we’ve seen on Star Trek have either been minor (Jake struggling for independence, Wesley diverging from the path his mother hoped for him) or the sort of parental alienation over emotional ties and expectations that’s cliche in genre television and too often wrapped up at the end of an episode (Spock vs. his father, Riker vs. his father, Chakotay vs. his father). When Bashir asked Zimmerman to stay away from his parents, I was expecting the sort of embarrassing stories that Amanda told Spock’s colleagues on Kirk’s Enterprise. Instead we get this wrenching, series-changing bombshell with ramifications that clearly must last beyond this episode (and will, indeed, put Bashir at the center of stories about the risks of genetic experimentation on humans in a more sophisticated manner than “Space Seed” or Enterprise‘s Augments).
Picardo adds great levity both to the Rom-Leeta storyline, which is in danger of becoming stereotyped and silly until Zimmerman gives Leeta some serious options to consider, and playing both Zimmerman and the EMH. Initially, it appears that the episode is going to focus on the famous guest star, exploring Zimmerman’s frustration at being replaced by Bashir as a holographic model and rejected romantically in favor of a nerdy Ferengi, yet he pretty much disappears from the episode from the moment Bashir’s secret is revealed. It still makes my stomach drop to see that the Bashir to whom his parents confess their mistake is a holographic double, and more so when the appalled Zimmerman and stunned O’Brien reveal that they’ve heard everything. As moving as I find the interaction between Bashir and his parents – particularly his mother, who fears less that he hates her than that he doesn’t understand her wish to have been to spare him from pain, not herself from shame – it’s O’Brien who really breaks my heart, wanting not only to console Bashir but to protect himself from losing his best friend, in a scene that’s designed to provide exposition about exactly what was done to the young Jules to turn him into Julian but the actors turn into a powerful emotional moment. I wish we’d gotten to hear from Miles as a father, not just as a friend, since he’s the character best suited to talk about what he would do if he watched one of his children struggling painfully to catch up with peers. The storyline has contemporary relevance for parents trying to make decisions about growth hormones and ADHD medications for their kids, yet there’s never a moment when the script feels pedantic. It’s a story about characters whom we’ve come to know well, facing a crime we know from decades of Star Trek history to be extremely fraught for Starfleet, in which there are really no bad guys, just a father looking for the sort of easy shortcut he prefers for himself and a mother still trying to protect her son’s self-esteem.
The ending is oversimplified for both the Rom-Leeta declaration of love and the Julian-Richard reconciliation, but it’s clear that things aren’t going to be easy, particularly for the latter when the father is off to prison and the son is going to be on the same busy schedule we’ve watched him keep for five years. It’s not clear how having his secret known to so many people will change Bashir and his interactions with them, starting with Leeta who broke up with him so recently – evidently she never really gained his trust, though they dated for about a year. O’Brien takes the discovery that Bashir has been letting him win at darts with good humor, but this opens up all sorts of questions about whether Bashir will find himself a focus of resentment, accused of being a fraud in everything he does, not to mention whether people will be looking at him sideways to see whether he’s turning into Khan Noonien Singh. It’s always wonderful when the writers provide such continuity to the original series as well as the internal series continuity – as I said, probably not intended and not yet direct, but suddenly we have a twist that explains all sorts of oddities about Bashir from the fact that we’ve never before heard a word about his parents to his mysterious weaknesses and anxieties. I watch Star Trek for episodes like this, where we not only see moving and dramatic character development but get an exploration of fundamental human issues, without any didacticism and with lots of room for nuance and disagreement.
Tags: Retro Review