Mark Watches ‘Deep Space Nine’: S06E09 – Statistical Probabilities

In the ninth episode of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, Bashir becomes involved in a complicated journey with four other individuals who were genetically enhanced. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek. 

Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of ableism, particularly the depiction of various mental illnesses and autism. 

This is a tough one, y’all. It’s rare that, when doing critical analysis as I do, I find cases where creators doing things intentionally. As is often the case, preconceived notions about people or places or phenomena creeps into the work that I’m consuming, and I hope I can shine a light on how this happens. And it happens to everyone, myself included! There’s certainly stuff I’ve read in reviews of mine from the start of Mark Does Stuff that embarrasses me now, especially since I was so certain I got things right.

Nothing in “Statistical Probabilities” feels willfully malicious. The writers tried their best, and I wonder if, at the time, many people saw it as an admirable attempt to talk about mental illness in the context of genetic modification. At times, there is a sympathy in the text that I didn’t expect, but at other times, it wasn’t enough to counter the Othering I felt from the narrative. And that’s the challenge I face when I’m reviewing things that are decades old. How can you hold something to a standard that, more or less, did not exist to the same extent that it does now? How can you criticize ignorance when everyone is ignorant about practically everything at one point or another?

So my goal here isn’t to say HOW DARE YOU, YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, but to analyze this show through a modern lens as an educational tool. If my work affects how people perceive the world going further, then I’m pleased. In the case of “Statistical Probabilities,” I was unnerved by how little the show builds up each of these four “enhanced” characters beyond the obvious. Julian tells his friends that many people whose parents submitted them to genetic enhancement did not fair as well as his own. The DNA resequencing created mutations that manifested in mental and physical disabilities. The problem I saw, though, was that these disabilities are never defined. What exactly was wrong with these people? Instead, the show presents us with four “broken” people, and then communicates this Otherness by trotting out a ton of very common visual stereotypes for people who aren’t neurotypical.

I know that Star Trek is a visual medium, and I’m not expecting lengthy biographies on these characters, but there’s virtually nothing here to give these people anything beyond their attributes and behaviors, many of which are portrayed as deliberately silly or off-putting. What does that do? What does it accomplish? Well, for one, it makes it very difficult to see these people as something other than a caricature. Take Lauren for an example. Is she supposed to have histrionic personality disorder? If so, why isn’t that ever acknowledged? What about Jack’s paranoia and anxiety? Is it based on a real condition or did the writers just shove a bunch of things into one person? Patrick seems to have a lowered emotional development… I think? And then there’s Sirena, who was the most glaring stereotype of someone who is autistic that I’ve seen in a LONG time.

Now, the show does show us how, for many years, all of these people were utterly ignored by society, that they were institutionalized and treated as if it was unfair for them to contribute. Once Julian began to engage with them in a way that was respectful and showed that he was interested in their perspective, look what happened! They flourished. They found the world exciting and thrilling! And most importantly, they had a unique way of contributing to society, one that no one would have ever discovered without Julian. That’s a good thing! In this specific context, the episode soars, showing us that prejudicial treatment of people like this is bad for everyone, but especially for those who are ignored and invisible to the world.

On top of all of this, there’s an ethical dilemma that’s equally as compelling. It’s sort of hard to wrap my head around the idea that these people could “calculate” the future, but the underlying horror was still there. What if you could do a cost-benefit analysis of the future? And what if that analysis could save hundred of billions of lives? Would it mean that a person would be ethically compelled to guarantee that future? That sounds like a ridiculous idea, but it’s even more upsetting once we got the details. The group calculated that more lives would be saved if the Federation surrendered to the Dominion. On the surface, as horrible as this was, I could see exactly why they thought this was the best option.

But there’s something the group missed. Maybe live would be save, but what would the quality of that life be? Could you ever calculate that? Because yes, let’s say they saved 898 billion lives. Those lives would exist in a world of Dominion occupation and oppression, and I would be willing to bet that many of those lives would be downright miserable. Is that the world they should live in? Is that a moral act?

I respect that Julian abandoned his grim cynicism. For a moment, this seemed like a truly difficult decision for him to make, but I also didn’t think he would ultimately choose to betray the Federation’s plans to the Dominion. That would have been an unforgivable offense, and I think he knew that. I enjoyed this episode and how difficult it was, too, though I do wish more care had been given to executing these characters. It’s not the worst thing I’ve seen, you know? But it could have been better.

The video for “Statistical Probabilities” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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