“What could possibly go wrong?”: A Fistful of Datas (TNG) vs. Our Man Bashir (DS9)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “A Fistful of Datas” (season 6, episode 8)

fistful 2Teleplay by Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Brannon Braga; story by Robert Hewitt Wolfe; directed by Patrick Stewart; first aired in 1992

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

While the Enterprise waits for a rendezvous with a supply ship, the crew takes the opportunity for some downtime. Picard practices his flute between interruptions from crew members like father-of-the-year Worf, who begs for extra work so he won’t have to spend quality time with his son, Alexander. Picard denies his request for busywork, forcing Worf to join Alexander and Troi in the holodeck for a simulation of Earth’s “Ancient West”. Meanwhile, LaForge and Data use their free time to try hooking Data’s brain up to the ship’s computer, with predictably disastrous results: the holodeck safeties are predictably deactivated, and all of the enemy gunslingers in Alexander’s holodeck program are transformed, less predictably, into replicas of Data – complete with his superior strength, speed, and accuracy. While the real Data swaggers around the Enterprise using potted plants as spittoons, Worf and Troi must rescue a kidnapped Alexander and complete the Ancient West program, which will, for some reason, allow them to end the program and get the holographic hell out of holographic Dodge.

VS.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Our Man Bashir” (season 4, episode 10)

our man 1Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore; story by Bob Gillan; directed by Winrich Kolbe; first aired in 1995

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Bashir is enjoying a James Bond-inspired 1960s spy simulation, until Garak, who really is a spy, intrudes on his holosuite time to point out the inaccuracies of Bashir’s fantasy. But when a runabout carrying most of the station’s senior staff is sabotaged, a transporter accident stores their transporter patterns in the station’s computer systems (because of course it does). While Odo and Eddington work to retrieve their brain patterns, the bodies of Sisko, Kira, Dax, Worf, and O’Brien have all taken roles in Bashir’s spy thriller … and if their characters die, they die (because of course they do). This means that Bashir and Garak must continue the program, even though the holosuite’s safeties have been deactivated (because of course they have). Garak is more worried about his own safety than that of the crew, and lectures Bashir on the messy, morally grey reality that real spies are survivors, not heroes. But Bashir insists that  they can be heroes, that they can save themselves and their crewmates … which he does by helping a maniacal Sisko – sorry, “Dr. Noah” – flood the fictional Earth. But, hey, you have to break a few holographic eggs to make a holographic omelette.

fistful 4I have a love/hate relationship with the holodeck. (And no, not the kind that Lt. Barclay has.)

To my mind, it’s one of the most fascinating fictional technologies Star Trek has ever shown us, in part because it’s so easy to imagine the ways, both good and bad, that the holodeck (like the transporter beam, or the replicator) could be used in the world we live in right now … and, no, I’m not talking about sex stuff (although it absolutely would be used for sex stuff). Imagine its use in education, job training, and, of course, gaming … and then imagine the philosophical dilemmas which would arise when someone inevitably insisted on, say, continuing a relationship with a holographic simulation of a lost loved one, or amusing themselves by murdering holographic simulations of real, living people, or doing any number of other things straight out of an episode of Black Mirror. It’s both easy to imagine holodeck technology fitting into our own real world, and mind-boggling to think of how much it might change our world.

our man 4Which is one reason I tend to be a bit annoyed by holodeck-centric episodes of The Next Generation, in particular, which so often treat holodeck technology as a chance to look backward, rather than forward. “The Big Goodbye”, in TNG’s first season, is an enjoyable episode, but it firmly established two tropes I don’t much care for in holodeck episodes: a) it focused more on what might happen when the holodeck malfunctioned than on how it might be used when it wasn’t malfunctioning; and b) it assumed that common 24th-century interests in fiction and history would perfectly mirror that of, say, a late-20th-century Hollywood writers’ room. Deep Space Nine would make some progress on the first point, with episodes like “Take Me Out to the Holosuites” and “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” exploring how people might make use of properly-functioning, non-lethal holosuites, something we’d see more of on Voyager. But the weird 24th-century fascination with recreating the 20th century on the holodeck continued almost without exception, though at least Voyager would smartly justify it by establishing a fondness for 20th-century Americana as a canonical character trait for Tom Paris. (And of course, Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram is that rare example of the franchise actually playing out the holodeck’s intriguing implications for life in the 24th century beyond letting its inhabitants live in the past.)

fistful 3But rather than challenge these holodeck tropes, “A Fistful of Datas” and “Our Man Bashir” pretty much double down on them. Both episodes perform some serious plot-contrivance gymnastics, so that not only do their respective holodecks malfunction – complete with deactivated safeties, naturally – but they end up populated by likenesses of their respective crews. And both episodes mine most of their comedy from the conspicuously mid-20th-century genres of their holodeck programs – Westerns and James Bond-style spy stories, respectively – and from casting familiar characters in broad, stereotypical roles common to those genres. This is great fun, of course, for viewers who like Westerns and James Bond, but it means that the episode is probably going to fall at least a little flat for viewers, like me, whose interest in those genres is mostly limited to playing Red Dead Redemption and the old Goldeneye game for Nintendo 64.

fistful 6The way each episode engineers this fun-but-ludicrous scenario is interesting, but a bit frustrating. Connecting Data’s brain to the Enterprise’s main computer in “A Fistful of Datas” is a cool idea, and seems like a pretty practical way of making use of Data’s android skill-set … though of course any scientist worth their tricorder would test this idea by hooking him up to a very limited set of the ship’s systems first, to check for, you know, catastrophic side effects. And for that matter, why are both the holodeck and the replicators described as not being “critical systems”? The replicators literally put food on the table, and if the slightest malfunction on the holodeck can allow its holograms to straight-up murder people, then keeping it in working order sounds pretty darn “critical” to me.

fistful 5Meanwhile, in setting up its own even-more-contrived concept, “Our Man Bashir” seems to gather up a bunch of interesting half-ideas from the white board in the writers’ room, and spray them at us like octopus ink. The question of how much computer storage space a sentient being’s brain patterns would take up is some classic Star Trek stuff, and the glimpse we get of Rom’s jury-rigged setup to run the bar’s systems is classic Deep Space Nine in its own right, harkening back to the shambles the station was in when we first saw it, back in “Emissary”; either of these nuggets might be able to support a story of their own, instead of being used as throwaway technobabble to prop up an unrelated story. And the terrorist group of Cardassian separatists who sabotage Sisko’s runabout, setting the transporter malfunction in motion, reminded me of the upstart Alpha Quadrant Jem’Hadar who would later be weirdly introduced in the similarly light-hearted “One Little Ship”. Both are intriguing, serious ideas, introduced in episodes not serious enough to do them justice … and both would never be mentioned again.

fistful 1And the payoff to these plot contrivances is mixed, as well. Again, yes, it’s fun to watch familiar cast members flex their acting muscles in unfamiliar ways, and everyone involved in making these episodes was obviously having a whole lot of fun themselves. In “A Fistful of Datas”, Marina Sirtis does great work with Troi’s unbridled enthusiasm for playing “the mysterious stranger”, and Michael Dorn is spot-on with Worf’s gradually-warming reaction to the Western program (it is a bit distracting how terrible a father Worf is to Alexander at the beginning of the episode – practically begging his captain for extra work as an excuse for avoiding quality time with his son – but of course that’s not the actor’s fault). And both Brent Spiner in “A Fistful of Datas” and Avery Brooks in “Our Man Bashir” give impressively over-the-top, scenery-chewing performances that Bill Shatner himself would be envious of. But even the fun is inconsistent, I think. While Spiner does an admirable job of keeping his half-dozen characters distinct from each other, they can be a bit much individually; his delivery of the line, “He’s more valuable to us … aliiiive,” puts so much stress on the word “alive” that I was afraid it would break. And in “Our Man Bashir”, it feels like different actors were given different direction on whether to play their usual character as a Bond character, or just fully throw themselves into the Bond character; both Brooks and Nana Visitor very much take the latter approach (right down to Visitor speaking with a different accent than usual, something none of the other actors are doing), while Dorn, Terry Farrell, and Colm Meaney all sound and act mostly like they usually do, albeit with a very different wardrobe.

our man 5I’ll admit, for all that’s obviously ridiculous about these episodes, I liked them both a lot more, on rewatch, than I’d expected to (especially as someone with only a mild interest in Westerns, and almost zero interest in James Bond). They sound bananas on paper, which is exactly how I remembered them, but they’re surprisingly watchable – sick-day viewing at its finest, I’d say. But one of them has more to say than the other, and merits a closer look.

When I wrote about that very first holodeck-centered episode, The Next Generation’s “The Big Goodbye”, I found that it, too, was quite fun, but that it missed a real opportunity to be more than fun. Where its half-hearted philosophical musings about the real-ness of holo-characters feel pretty dated today, it could, instead, have commented on the genre of fiction it was riffing on. Instead, that episode unquestioningly treats noir detective fiction as an objective window into Earth’s past, completely failing to even draw a distinction between fiction and history, let alone comment on it. Likewise, “A Fistful of Datas” makes no mention of the difference between stories about the “Ancient West”, and the reality of that time, and the episode makes very little attempt to challenge the standard narrative of a Western. Yes, Worf decides to let the Datas go instead of killing them, setting an example for his son, but this doesn’t connect in any meaningful way to anything else in the episode, and any critique of Western narratives here is somewhat contradicted by the fact that Worf agrees, at the episode’s end, to play out more Westerns on the holodeck with Alexander in the future. Add to this the already-mentioned fact that Brent Spiner adopts some very broad, stereotypical takes on stock Western characters, and what you get is an episode that says very little about Westerns, except that they’re fun.

our man 6“Our Man Bashir”, on the other hand, clearly does have something to say about James Bond-style stories, and about Dr. Bashir himself. Granted, this episode, too, has a lot of fun with some very broadly-drawn stock characters. But unlike “The Big Goodbye” or “A Fistful of Datas”, “Our Man Bashir” uses those stock characters, and the stock storylines they’re taken from, to comment on Bashir’s relationship to that genre of fiction. It’s crucial that this episode centers on Bashir, as opposed to any other DS9 regular. Starting from DS9’s very first episode, one of Bashir’s defining character traits has been a sort of insensitive, egocentric naivety, as we saw in his painful first conversation with Major Kira, back in “Emissary”:

Bashir: This’ll be perfect. Real frontier medicine.
Kira: Frontier medicine?
B: Major, I had my choice of any job in the fleet.
K: Did you?
B: I didn’t want some cushy job or a research grant. I wanted this. The farthest reaches of the galaxy. One of the most remote outposts available. This is where the adventure is. This is where heroes are made. Right here, in the wilderness.
K: This wilderness is my home.
B: Well, I, I … I didn’t mean …
K: The Cardassians left behind a lot of injured people, Doctor. You can make yourself useful by bringing your Federation medicine to the natives. Oh, you’ll find them a friendly, simple folk.

That Bashir, the one we get in “Emissary” and in many other early episodes of DS9, may represent the series’ controversial willingness to critique what is often referred to, however accurately or inaccurately, as “Gene Roddenberry’s vision” for Star Trek. That Bashir is presented as an optimistic idealist, and a shining example of 24th-century human ingenuity … but he clearly doesn’t understand as much about the galaxy around him as he knows, and his thirst for adventure on the “frontier” reduces the people who actually live there to characters in a story about him. Moving past this mentality is a major part of Bashir’s character development over the course of the series, and since “Our Man Bashir” takes the real people around him – colleagues he has grown to know as nuanced individuals – and literally casts them as simplistic characters in a story about him, it seems fair to argue that “Our Man Bashir”, as light-hearted an episode as it might be, is also a significant moment of growth for him.

our man 3If it’s crucial that “Our Man Bashir” centers on the titular doctor, it’s equally important that his foil throughout the episode – the only other person in the holosuite whose behavior isn’t part of the holo-program – is Garak. A fascinating character in his own right, Garak also plays a pivotal role in that process of expanding Bashir’s horizons. Throughout Deep Space Nine, Garak’s checkered past, his ambiguous place on the station, and his pragmatic worldview all set him in stark contrast to an idealistic, adventurous Starfleet golden boy like Bashir. In “Our Man Bashir”, that contrast is made explicit. Right from the beginning of the episode, Garak provides a running commentary on how ridiculous the glamorous, romantic, James Bond-style fantasy of life as a spy must look to actual spies, whose survival depends on blending into the background and avoiding heroics. And where Bashir is determined to get everyone through their holo-ordeal alive, Garak insists on ignoring the hopeful possibility that the rest of the crew might be saved by playing out the program, and focuses on what they know for certain: that he and Bashir definitely can be saved, if they leave the holosuite, and accept that whatever might happen to the others as a result is simply collateral damage … something Garak, as a real spy, learned long ago to accept as a part of his job.

our man 7Bashir doesn’t listen to Garak, because of course he doesn’t. And he manages to save everyone anyway, because of course he does; we always knew no main characters were going to die in a fun holodeck episode, deactivated safeties be damned. The doctor’s shining Starfleet idealism triumphs over Garak’s gritty, world-weary pragmatism … or does it? Yes, Bashir saves everyone, but he saves them by sacrificing the world within the fiction of his holo-program. That world isn’t real, of course, while his crewmates are – easy choice, right? Well, yes and no. As the supposed hero of his holo-story – exactly the kind of hero he explicitly wished to be in one of the first lines of dialogue he was ever given – Bashir doesn’t just let the fictional villain flood the fictional world; he literally presses the button himself. He gets to be the hero, yes, but only by doing something his idealized, romanticized heroes would never do. He gets to reject Garak’s cynical impulse for self-preservation, while embracing the undeniable wisdom behind it: real life isn’t a story, and the real world works the way it works, not the way we want it to work. Yes, Bashir gets to have his heroic cake and eat it, too; he gets to reject idealized heroism and still be the hero. But then, “Our Man Bashir” is a story. Like the holodeck itself, it doesn’t have to work the way the real world works, but it can still say a few things about the real world. That’s the beauty of it.

 

 

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