Bashir tries to stop a deadly plague engineered by the Dominion to punish a Gamma Quadrant society.
Plot Summary: After telling Quark to stop using the station’s comm system to advertise his bar, Kira takes Bashir and Dax on a mission to the Gamma Quadrant, where they pick up a distress call and follow it to a planet where the Dominion has infected the resisting populace with a lethal blight that has left lesions on every person from babies to the handful of surviving middle-aged adults. They learn that the disease is unpredictable, killing some people shortly after reaching adulthood and others several years after that, with death signaled by “the quickening” when the dull lesions turn bright red and become excruciatingly painful. Bashir is horrified to learn that the region’s hospital serves not to treat the sick but to help them commit suicide when the quickening makes life unbearable. The anesthesiologist, Trevean, tells Bashir that he can’t understand what has happened to the society since the disease struck. After meeting a pregnant woman who wants to live to see her child, Bashir tells Kira that he wants to remain on the planet with Dax to look for a cure. The woman, Ekoria, helps them find volunteers, but though Bashir is able to isolate the virus, his attempts at a cure only make the patients suffer more pain. They scream for Trevean, who helps them die. Determined to see Ekoria’s child born safely, Bashir insists on staying on the planet when Kira and Dax return to the Alpha Quadrant, but Ekoria experiences the quickening and the pain that accompanies it weeks before the baby is due. Trevean offers to euthanize Ekoria, but she chooses to suffer until Bashir is able to induce labor. Just after her son is born, Ekoria learns that he is immune to the virus. Though Bashir is unable to save her, he tells Trevean that pregnant women can be vaccinated so that their children won’t be born with the blight. Trevean promises to produce and provide the vaccine so that the next generation will be healthy.
Analysis: One of many superb Bashir episodes from Deep Space Nine‘s later seasons, “The Quickening” is frustrating in retrospect mostly because of all the ways it doesn’t connect with episodes that come after it. I adored it and thought it was brilliant when it first aired, but during a rewatch, it seems somewhat out of place. Lots of things happen that hint at possible long-term storylines, in particular the discovery that the Dominion can and will slowly poison entire populations with incurable diseases – something that comes up again shortly in the fourth season finale when Odo gets sick to force him to return to the Great Link. But then that storyline not only gets dropped by obliterated, and it’s Starfleet who’s not above committing slow genocide, while the Dominion appears to have lost the cutting-edge medical technology that allowed the creation of the disease on Ekoria’s planet, which is still obsessing Bashir at the end of this episode yet ceases to be an issue for anyone following the end of the season. Sure, the Dominion War makes curing the people of this planet less of a priority for anyone, but surely if the Dominion could (and did) do this on one planet, they could have done the same on Bajor, on Betazed, even on Earth. The only real continuity occurs in Bashir’s character development, and while that’s terrific to watch, it will soon be overwhelmed by the discovery that Bashir is genetically enhanced, which goes a lot further to explain why this medical problem obsesses him. When I first saw “The Quickening,” I assumed it was his developing compassion for the people stricken by the disease. Now I have an uncomfortable retroactive sense that it’s more frustration that even his enhanced intellect can’t solve this awful crisis.
None of that detracts from the ways the episode still resonates in our own era. Though the parallels between the blight and AIDS now seem less direct, the issue of assisted suicide for terminal patients remains complicated and emotional on a political and social level. Dr. Kevorkian’s trial was still fresh in viewers’ minds when “The Quickening” first aired, and Trevean’s role remains extremely nuanced among science fiction parallels – just compare him to the reviled champions of euthanasia from the original Star Trek. I wish we got to know him better, since it’s not clear whether he’s actually trained as a doctor or even as a scientist. Bashir sees him at first as a sort of shady pharmacist taking advantage of the pain of others, then as a kind of pathetic shadow of a doctor, able to alleviate pain but not making any progress on treating its source. Trevean never took a Hippocratic Oath and even if he had, as Bashir discovers, the concept of doing no harm on a world where everyone is fated to die in agony may mean addressing the agony rather than the deaths. Because of this, Ekoria seems very brave but also very isolated, and I wish I had more of a sense of why she in particular fights so hard to bring a child into this world. If most expectant parents are reconciled to the idea that they may not live to see their children, is Bashir throwing off the planet’s balance of power by encouraging them to do so? Like McCoy and Crusher before him, Bashir has often been willing to manipulate Starfleet regulations if he can stop people from suffering in the short term, a subject on which I’d expect Dax (not to mention Sisko) to have a broader view. Not long ago, he tried to cure the Jem’Hadar addiction to Ketracel-white without regard to the balance of power in the Gamma Quadrant, and now he’s trying to cure the victims of other Jem’Hadar. After the fact, we know he was right to consider the Dominion the enemy here, but we don’t actually know what happened between this planet and the people whom we assume tried to subjugate them.
The problem with rewatching any series, of course, is that such retroactive continuity issues come up all the time. Taken on its own, the scene in which Bashir laments that he thought he could come up with a cure in a week and now believes the disease has no cure, to which Dax retorts about the arrogance of assuming that if he can’t cure the disease, then there must not be a cure, makes a nice statement about the sort of arrogance we often see from Starfleet in general – how many times did Kirk walk in and turn a culture on its head in the name of saving it? The fact that Bashir is not welcomed but feared seems very realistic here, and the fact that he can’t understand how the fear of agonizing death has shaped these people’s expectations demonstrates how little experience he has of the sort of plagues that afflicted so much of the history of his own planet. Dax has lived longer and seen more, but even she arrives with the belief that their odds of Bashir’s finding a cure are quite good; she’s more concerned that he’s not taking time to rest and reevaluate what’s best for himself and his patients. Their discussion of his hubris takes on an entirely different significance in light of the knowledge that Bashir knows himself to have enhanced intelligence and to have lived with the guilt of that knowledge. He believes that to justify his current existence, he has to work harder and effect more positive change than anybody else. It’s not that he wants kudos from Sisko or Starfleet or the people of Ekoria’s planet so much as that he needs to have the interior sense of purpose from healing so many people. To him, everything Trevean does represents failure.
The most obvious solution – to have Sisko, Odo, or some entirely neutral party attempt to intervene with the Dominion to find out whether they have a cure – is never even discussed. It’s interesting that there are no consequences with Sisko and Starfleet for Bashir when he takes what must be a month off of work on the station to try to treat Ekoria’s people. Since the planet has been in contact with the Dominion, the Prime Directive in its strictest sense does not apply, but since these people are not new to contact with species from space, why doesn’t Bashir invite some of the people to come back with him when Kira returns to retrieve him and Dax instead of remaining in potentially unsafe conditions on the planet? I presume that the station has much better medical facilities, that he might be able to devise a stasis chamber that prevents the blight from getting worse, even that he might have better options for euthanasia than the ones Trevean offered which appeared to be somewhat painful. The complex issues surrounding terminal illness and euthanasia get left on the side for the character study, which is fine in any given episode, but it makes me sorry that the show never came back to the storyline. People who support assisted suicide for cancer and Alzheimer’s patients often feel differently when it’s chronic pain or chronic depression that the patient wishes to die to escape. I’d love to have seen a more direct look at the social issues touched on and dropped in “The Quickening.”