WARNING: The following article contains faint, barely-audible words about DS9's "Distant Voice" that might constitute spoilers. Please be aware of that.
In brief: Not a bad premise, but badly heavy-handed execution -- and to no real good purpose.
Brief summary: A telepathic attack leaves Bashir struggling for survival within his own mind.
As soon as I saw Joe Menosky's name under the "story by" credit, I knew roughly what sort of show "Distant Voice" was likely to be. Consider Menosky's last two stories in the Trek universe:
-- DS9's "Dramatis Personae". A strange alien force makes the crew act like they're not themselves.
-- TNG's "Masks". A strange alien force makes Data act like he's not himself.
Hmm ... could it be that in "Distant Voice", we'd see a strange alien force make some of the cast members play alternate roles? Just possibly, yes.
Now, there's not necessarily anything wrong with that sort of story -- assuming that, as with most other stories, there's good justification given for what's happening and the execution is good. And "Bashir confronts parts of his personality in the forms of the DS9 regulars" is a premise with some promise, certainly. The show was undercut, however, by a few things -- enough of them to make the show something of a chore to get through, in fact.
In the first place, there was no real justification given for why particular elements of Bashir's personality were mapped to the people they were. You'd think that Bashir would subconsciously link the characters we saw to traits they exemplify in real life -- and while that makes perfectly good sense for Odo's suspicion and Kira's aggression, I don't buy into O'Brien representing doubt. Quite the contrary, in fact -- while O'Brien grumbles, he's pretty confident about his ability to fix things, and Bashir is very confident about O'Brien's ability in such matters. While Dax representing adventure is plausible, moreover, I don't think saying "enough of this; let's just blast the thing to hell" is a particularly adventurous spirit. There should be an optimism to adventure, not just mindless violence -- and Dax seemed to typify the latter a lot more than the former. This, therefore, was something of a mixed bag.
A substantially bigger problem was that we were told what the various features Bashir saw represented a lot more than we were shown them. Having Bashir walk up to each person and say "oh, well, you represent such-and-such" is, dramatically speaking, only slightly more subtle than having someone walk through with a sign saying "symbolism, right? Don't you get it? We'll keep talking until you do!" -- and that's not something I find particularly appealing. There are better ways to make points like that -- for instance, having Garak be the one making the "you've always given up" speech instead of Altovar and be rebutted could have had Garak subtly represent Bashir's self-deception, which would have been very apt. Instead, however, we got points made with a sledgehammer.
Speaking of the "you've always given up" speech, it points to the third big problem I had with the show. Presumably, this show was in some way intended to be a character study of Bashir, and I think that's a noble
goal. Unfortunately, this wasn't much of one so far as I could tell. In terms of events Bashir went through, usually an important secondary point in "revelation" shows, there was nothing we didn't already know -- and more importantly, we also learned nothing about Bashir's own emotions and reactions. The conversation could almost be boiled down to the Lethean saying "you've given up in A, B, and C", and Bashir rebutting "no, I didn't!" two minutes later, thus making the Lethean explode in a puff of sterilization logic. This is character work?
On the whole, then, I didn't care much for the show as presented. It did, however, have a few saving graces which made it more tolerable -- and the first of those would have to have been Alexander Singer's direction. He gave Bashir's mind a good sense of surreal atmosphere, and made the characters seem somewhat unreal in ways other than their actual lines -- what motion we saw from them, for instance, was usually very sudden and almost jerky, which is unlike the way the characters usually carry themselves.
I also valued the care taken with a few small details in the plot -- while the story itself failed to wow me, it at least covered a few common traps one can find in this sort of tale. The first was that the "real story" of what was going on, namely Bashir's coma, was revealed fairly early on, at the close of act two. That allowed more time to be spent on solving the problem rather than simply us realizing what it was. Another point is Garak's mention that "minor elements" like turbolifts and doors were left working -- while a minor point, it's the absence of statements like that which tend to look like sloppy thinking, and it's nice to see it avoided.
The show's ultimate saving grace, however, was the set of Bashir/Garak interactions that were the show's bookends. From Garak's singing the praises of Cardassian "enigma tales", to Bashir's grumbling about turning thirty, to the utterly wonderful final scene where Garak muses on being cast as a villain in Bashir's mind, the strength of this pairing was as strong as ever, and helped make up for a not inconsiderable number of flaws.
On the whole, then, I'd have to call "Distant Voice" watchable, but far from good. It had enough things right with it to watch once, but is nothing I'd care to repeat any time soon.
So, some short takes:
-- The aging makeup on Siddig el Fadil was terrible. While SEF did a reasonable job portraying a crotchety old man (I've seen much better, but he was fine), the makeup undercut everything he was doing, and did nothing more than remind me of Admiral Jameson back from TNG's early "Too Short a Season". I wasn't impressed there, either.
-- Gee, once Bashir makes it to Ops his hip seems to improve drastically. Interesting plot device you've got there...
-- The Lethean's acting also left a lot to be desired -- this was "GI Joe" villain material we had here. Not my speed, I'm afraid. (We also, as a plot point, never even knew why he wanted bio-mimetic gel.)
To wrap up, then:
Writing: An intriguing premise, but executed with bludgeonlike care, little point, and with a few cringe-inducing moments such as the "happy birthday" song.
Directing: Good creepiness and some nice cuts, only occasionally heading into hokiness.
Acting: Very good work from el Fadil and Robinson, particularly together, and everyone else seemed pretty reasonable -- except for the Lethean.
OVERALL: Call it a 4.5. Let's hope for better.
Sisko takes a little jaunt to the other side of the looking glass.
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"... and what I find interesting is how your mind ended up casting me in the role of the villain! [...] To think, after all this time, all our lunches together, you STILL don't trust me. There's hope for you yet, doctor."