You Talking Season 5 DS9 to Me? – “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 16

The development of Dr. Julian Bashir’s character throughout Deep Space Nine is a fascinating journey, and like many others on the show, he goes through a stunning metamorphosis. “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” establishes a foundational revelation of not only his character but exploration of a world-building detail of Star Trek. The episode represents Deep Space Nine’s characteristic upending of the franchise’s status quo while using established elements of the Trek mythos to move its characters into more interesting places.

That being said, there is a lot of silliness in the episode, both intentional and otherwise. It’s a very odd entry, mainly because it mixes a mostly lighthearted story with darker family melodrama that ties into some cataclysmic human history. As is the case with a lot of A/B stories in Trek episodes, there’s some tonal dissonance as we switch back and forth from Bashir feeling like a monster whose life is over and screaming at his parents to Dr. Zimmerman trying to bang Leeta (who all the while wants Rom to bang her). It somehow mostly works in spite of itself, but choices were definitely made!

“Heyyyy brother. Guess who I end up with here?”

There’s a general sitcommy, Afterschool Special vibe to Bashir’s storyline, and the way its details play out range from potentially interesting to monumentally dumb and embarrassing, and everything in between. I appreciate a lot of what the episode was aiming for and mostly like it, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark for several reasons. However, it is a very important episode for Bashir (and leads to some interesting directions), and fills in some blanks about a popular science fiction topic Trek has mostly avoided: genetic engineering.

The evolution of the episode’s story is interesting, and as is always the case with Deep Space Nine, the circuitous route the writers took to arrive at the final product is fascinating and instructive. Dr. Zimmerman coming to the station to design a new medical hologram based on Dr. Bashir was the original seed. Not feeling as if it was enough to base an entire episode around, the writers wanted a dark secret about Julian’s past to be uncovered in the process. They decided to make him a product of the same type of genetic engineering that created evil supermen like Khaaaan (and caused a third world war). Originally, it would also be revealed that Zimmerman had his own dark secrets concerning his medical holographic work that he didn’t want to become public, and a classic stalemate truce was established between him and Bashir, with them mutually deciding not to reveal each other’s dirty laundry. The end.

“We’ll be testing out some new catchphrases for the LMH, including ‘What’s your sicky-wicky?’ and ‘Please state the nature of the sneezy-weezy.'”

Interestingly, it was Alexander Siddig who implored the writers to actually reveal Bashir’s secret to everyone, feeling that his character having to keep that bottled up wouldn’t be a great idea, dramatically speaking. And really, that’s the right decision, creatively. It forces new and dramatic material for the characters and the world, and avoids the rote trope of the mutual secret stalemate. I appreciate whenever an actor has a deep understanding of the character and is able to sway the writers into making better decisions (as Andrew Robinson did for “Empok Nor”).

Amusingly, it would not be the first time that a foundational aspect of Bashir was haphazardly introduced via retcon. It’s a much heavier and upending reveal than him having been a Changeling imposter for the past month, but the writers at least felt that in this case it explained more about his personality (and how initially brash and even repellent he was at first). So as retcons go, it’s a good one – it doesn’t directly contradict anything that’s been established, and may retroactively explain some things. And it fills in some in-universe history, gives some weighty character material, and opens up fascinating future stories. Where it falters is the execution.

The aforementioned Dr. Zimmerman boards the station to create a new Longterm Medical Hologram and has chosen Bashir as the template. Physically identical to the Emergency Medical Hologram from Star Trek: Voyager, he’s of course played by the sublime Robert Picardo. Despite Deep Space Nine and Voyager being two concurrent running Trek series, references and cameos between the two were very rare. Zimmerman appeared previously on Voyager as a holographic version of himself, and would later show up for real on that show. But this is interestingly his character’s first appearance “in the flesh.”

Zimmerman is basing not only the physical appearance of the hologram on Bashir, but his personality as well. This requires a detailed psychological profile and exhaustive interviews with everyone who knows him. Bashir asks that Zimmerman not contact his parents during the process as they aren’t close. So of course Zimmerman brings them aboard the station, much to Bashir’s dismay and anger. Zimmerman is consistently portrayed between the two series as being brilliant, acerbic, single-minded, and a huge dick. He’s completely unapologetic about what he’s done, believing that the information Bashir’s parents can provide is essential to his project. And if that hurts Bashir’s feelings, too bad. Diiiiiiick.

“Note to self: steal candy from child.”

Somehow, his parents instantaneously arrive on the station (I think the writers sometimes forget the “Deep” part of DS9 – it’s supposed to be super distant and far away from Earth, but anyway). Uncomfortable family dynamics are something that Star Trek loves, and here’s another one! Siddig does a great job here of emoting his visible discomfort at having his parents around, as amiable and friendly as they seem. The conception of Richard Bashir as a meandering, unfocused blowhard is great, and he immediately (and pathetically) tries to impress Sisko with his long list of supposed accomplishments and projects. In the enlightened utopia of Trek, there are still aimless losers like Richard and it helps to create a more nuanced portrait of 24th century humanity. He’s a jack of all trades and master of none, lacking the grit to stick with anything.

In a super tense dinner later, a fed up Julian angrily punctures his father’s delusions of grandeur – no dad, you weren’t a shuttle captain, you were a third-class steward for 6 months before being dismissed. He drips with contempt for his dad, and it’s a raw and dark side of Julian. It’s great, and Richard is such an oddly specific type of dude we’ve all met. The casting (and his accent) could have been better. I can’t unsee Brian George as Babu from Seinfeld, but I suppose it’s an appropriate choice if he’s supposed to be buffoon (some Seinfeldian actors can disappear into their roles better than others).

“Mother. Father. I’m ever so happy to kill you. I mean see you. How long will you by dying. I mean staying.”

Julian coaches his parents on what to say (and not say) during the interviews, and I appreciate that the big secret isn’t revealed here in that expository way that TV shows do. Richard takes umbrage to the implication that they’re not smart enough and things quickly get heated with Julian storming out. He quickly jumps to the assumption that Julian thinks they’re not smart enough, which seems like projection. There’s a whiff of the same toxic competitiveness between Will Riker and his estranged dad. The rawness of the scene is well-done, and it illustrates how parents are able to get under our skins so easily, even as mature adults. Julian’s mother Amsha tries in vain to be the mediator between these two squabbling men but isn’t successful.

“Dad, you weren’t on the groundfloor of the latest starship class design, you mopped the floors of the grounds where they were built.”

What happens next is frankly embarrassing and is one of the stupidest things I’ve seen the show do. I just can’t believe that with the writing talent here that they did this.

Richard and Amsha head down to Zimmerman’s lab where they find Julian. And they proceed to – I goddamn fucking shit you not – to apologize to Julian and explain out loud that they won’t reveal the fact that he is genetically modified during the interviews. Like Richard even says “JUST TO BE CLEAR…” and then flatly lays out THE BIG SECRET. Forget what I said earlier about the show NOT doing awkwardly expository info-dumping dialogue! Julian looks at them blankly, says OK. And they just walk out. AND THEN. Zimmerman and O’Brien emerge from a back room, HAVING JUST LISTENED TO THE WHOLE CONVERSATION. At which point Julian – WHO IS NOT ACTUALLY JULIAN BUT THE HOLOGRAM – asks who those people were!

What the absolute fuck just happened.

It’s literally the dumbest, most hot garbage way to handle this earth-shattering reveal. Just bottom basement D- sitcom level plotting and writing. The way they announce it is so weirdly limp and awkward. And relying on the ol’ “hiding characters overhearing shit” trope is jaw-droppingly inane and bad. It’s like a dream or something. In which the writers forgot how to write. It’s so bad, I can’t emphasize it enough. There was no other way to reveal this information? No way whatsoever??? It’s like a placeholder in a first draft that you’d go back and revise with some REAL writing later on.

“Who were those fountains of extraneous exposition?”

*Deep breath*

Anyway. Having gotten that secret out in the worst way possible, the episode can only go up from here and Julian rages to O’Brien about allowing his parents to just blather on to a hologram like that. O’Brien defends it as Zimmerman’s idea, who wanted to test the hologram’s personality. Which seems like something a dick like Zimmy would do, honestly. But still!

Julian’s demeanor quickly melts into glum depression as he realizes the consequences of this dark secret becoming public. He describes to O’Brien the circumstances leading up to his genetic enhancement, and it’s all kinds of fascinating. Apparently he was a mentally slow child – as well as physically smaller and stunted – and couldn’t keep up with his peers in school. The way Julian describes it is heartbreaking, and Siddig really gives a great soliloquy here. As he stares off, he communicates the pain and confusion he experienced as a child – knowing that he was different and slower, but not able to comprehend why. I think it’s something everyone has experienced during childhood at some point – when everyone seems to be moving forward and picking up on things super easily but for some reason it totally eludes you. Or being the smallest kid. Picked last for sports. Heh, not me though! *cries*

“My brashness was enhanced to superhuman levels. Even my accent changed…”

And it brings up some interesting and unsettling questions. It isn’t definitively specified, but it’s implied that Julian had either a learning disability or a more serious medical issue. It seems odd that the almost-perfect utopian systems of Earth weren’t able to diagnose or help him – Richard Bashir certainly seems like the kind of helicopter parent that was no doubt the bane of many teachers’ existences. So it’s not like Julian’s sub-par development would not have gone unnoticed or unremarked upon. Maybe even in a utopia some people can still fall through the cracks. In a later argument with his parents, Julian even theorizes that he might have caught up with the other kids and that maybe he was a late bloomer. Sure, maybe.

But from all the descriptions, it sounds like there was a legit neurological issue at play, and it’s weird that there’s no mention of any kind of formal evaluation, treatment, or therapy for it. In our current, very less than perfect (American) society, a slow child has a very real possibility of falling through the vast chasms in our education system and nonexistent social safety net. Which would make Richard and Amsha’s decision to illegally enhance him more understandable if the episode took place in the modern day, even reasonable. But in the fantasy world of Star Trek where everything goes right on Earth, it seems a much murkier and more problematic choice.

And as terrifically-acted a scene as it is, there’s something kind of flat about the way all this information is just told to us. This is something that I’ve been critical of before, but a character just describing in detail something that happened isn’t very spellbinding and is kind of a pet peeve of mine as a viewer (although not always). Not everything has to be illustrated through flashback, but I think the material here could have been worthy of the more immersive storytelling technique used in the wonderful “Necessary Evil.”

Julian goes on to describe how his parents took him to another planet where he underwent illegal genetic augmentation. Despite my gripes about how this info is dumped, the details Julian includes paint a picture and make it an effective scene. His intellectual abilities were enhanced, and he even grew by several inches. His hand-eye coordination was also boosted to peak levels as well as physical stamina. When they returned to Earth afterwards (with falsified records), Julian was enrolled in a different school where he became a star pupil. O’Brien wonders why no one noticed, and Julian bitterly tells him that success isn’t punished or scrutinized. Which is a wonderful detail.

But Bashir feels like a fraud, since everything he’s accomplished isn’t really his. O’Brien rebukes this, saying that genetic engineering can’t provide compassion, ambition, or a personality. It’s yet another expression of Star Trek’s theme of humanism – there’s an innate quality that makes us human and valuable. It can’t be given, and more importantly, can’t be taken away. O’Brien is insistent that Julian’s career isn’t necessarily kaput, but the Doctor is convinced it’s all over and will resign from Starfleet before they ask him to leave.

With his family, Julian listens as his father rants and raves about their next step and how they have to come up with a new plan. Julian has had his fill of his father’s bullshit, and calls out him out on his scheming and plotting. The writing strikes a really good balance of not making Richard out to be a monster or even an asshole, but just a generally exhausting dude and a less than ideal father. A lesser show would have made it a more black and white deal, with this guy clearly being an abusive piece of shit and a villain. Instead it’s much more subtle, realistic, and relatable. Richard is a criminal and a self-deluded person, but he means well and isn’t evil. But like even the best parents, sometimes you just want them to shut the hell up.

Julian berates his father for not being satisfied with the son he got, and turning to illicit means to create a new one. He calls attention to his parent’s usage of his “Jules” moniker – they insist on calling him that, despite the fact that he stopped referring to himself that way when he turned 15 and learned the truth about his genetic engineering. As far as he is concerned, Jules died when he went into the facility and became a new, “better” person. It’s a clever story detail that symbolizes Julian’s revulsion at his nature and what he went through. There’s clearly a lot of angst and shame about who he is – feeling that who he was originally wasn’t good enough, and being replaced with a superior but artificial version. All the subsequent accomplishments feel thusly unearned and fraudulent. Julian accuses his father of building a better son, and underlines that he’s the best, most successful thing he’s ever done. There’s some venom behind that, and Julian can’t help but get a dig at his father’s aimless loserdom.

“You don’t know what it’s like, putting up with this guy’s accent every day.”

Amsha finally gets some time to speak and she pushes back against the notion that they were ashamed of their son. She recounts the sadness of seeing him struggle to keep up, and their own shame that maybe they were responsible for passing on faulty genes or that they did something wrong during pregnancy. She insists that they wanted to give him a chance to be successful, and that they did it out of love, not shame. Julian buys it, buuuuttttt…

They didn’t enhance him to make him normal, but superior. That doesn’t make them bad, but it makes their motivations murkier. And it seems to align with Richard’s oversized ambitions – why have a normal son, when you can have one that’s better than everyone else’s? Julian ends up being the ultimate vanity project for Richard, the only one that actually pans out. Of course, many parents would jump at the chance to give their own child an edge over others. But at what cost? It speaks to a larger fundamental issue of humanity and the complicated zero sum philosophical calculations we engage in. And it factors into the moral hazards of genetic engineering/enhancement. The potential arms race of bettering our natures in seemingly innocent ways can have uncomfortable consequences for society as a whole (explored in the classic film Gattaca).

It’s dizzying stuff to contemplate, and historically Star Trek has dealt with these tough questions by not dealing with them. There’s something morally simplistic about that I can appreciate, as unrealistic as it may be. Essentially, humanity has decided that bettering itself through genetic engineering is Bad, so it’s completely outlawed.

The next morning, Julian enters Sisko’s office to resign his commission, but his parents have beaten him there and are already in a subspace meeting with a Starfleet admiral. It’s another incredibly odd scene – not as bad as the other one, but there’s something supremely bizarre and off-kilter about it. It has a weirdly dream-like quality, bolstered by the conspicuous beam of light Admiral Random is bathed in. He’s present in the room via the same holographic communication technology we saw once before. Is he using the “Heavenly Ghost” filter to give himself extra gravitas? It’s so weird.

“Julian, I’m going to jail in heaven for a while. I got a sweet plea deal from St. Buzzcut over there.”

Even weirder is how everything is instantaneously resolved with no negative consequences for anyone. Well, anyone we care about, that is. Richard will plead guilty to what he’s done and spend six months in prison for his literal crime against humanity. Julian will get to keep his Starfleet commission and medical license. I keep saying it, but it’s so weird. All this angst throughout the episode, and Julian’s certainty that his life and career are over. But instead – nah, you’re cool, bro. Keep on space trucking, you genetically superior threat to humanity. I appreciate how enlightened and gracious Starfleet is about the matter and it feels weird to complain about that. But dramatically, it’s such a flat and uninspired scene, much like the earlier accidental confession.

Adding to it all, Rear Admiral Glowstick even gives an info-dumpy speech about how genetic engineering almost destroyed humanity centuries ago, and cautions that for every good-natured Julian Bashir, there is the possibility of another Khaaaaaan waiting in the wings. So you see kids, genetic engineering may seem cool and a fun way to get your kicks, but it can have dire consequences for you and others. Just say no! – to manipulating your children’s genetic coding in order to increase their physical and mental capabilities, that is.


Well, problem solved then? That was easy.

The secondary storyline of the episode sees Dr. Zimmerman becoming infatuated with Leeta. Which… yeah, of course. Who isn’t? It’s all surprisingly inoffensive, although none of it is strictly necessary. I do appreciate that it softens Zimmernan’s character a lot and gives him something else to do. More Picardo is never a bad thing. And it kind of deepens Leeta a bit more in that she would return the affections of someone who isn’t traditionally attractive (no offense to Mr. Picardo, but…). It tracks with her aforementioned attraction to Rom. There’s perhaps some of that uncomfortable sitcommy male wish fulfillment of a bald, grouchy nerd being able to bag a gorgeous and lovely woman. Or maybe it’s actually progressive in rejecting the notion that people’s values are less about their outward attractiveness, and that we’re good enough for anyone if we’re good enough for… ourselves.

“One of these days, Quark. One of these days…!”

Structurally, Zimmerman acts as a disruptive force in the status quo of Leeta and Rom’s relationship and functions as a plot catalyst. He convinces her to journey back to his home on Jupiter Station where a position is opening up for cafe owner. It appeals to Leeta, since she could move up from being a Dabo Girl to a position of authority and responsibility. It’s one of the details that makes the storyline decent – Zimmerman isn’t just romantically pursuing her to make her his arm candy, but providing an opportunity for her to advance in life.

Rom is of course, Rom. Leeta practically begs him to give her a reason to stay, and he’s (sit)comically dumb about not being able to tell her how he feels. Like, he literally stutters to get the words out of his mouth. I can’t fault Grodénchik’s comic chops, and he’s always pitch perfect as the fuzzy-brained Ferengi. But this is probably the more toxic male wish fulfillment side to the storyline, ironically. Rom has evolved into a smart and sweet character, but I don’t think the series has really connected any of the dots to why Leeta fancies him. It was mostly a comical throwaway detail introduced in one of the show’s absolute worst episodes (“Let He Who is Without Sin…”) – ha ha, Leeta is dumping Bashir because she really likes the show’s absolute ugliest character. But no, we’re really going with that, it seems.

“Oh, Rommy-poo. Please don’t perforate my lip.”

Attraction doesn’t have to make sense, of course. And long term, Rom seems like a better choice than Zimmerman – who she’s only known for like a week or whatever. This lighthearted storyline culminates appropriately in hilarious fashion when Rom literally comes screaming from the distance to stop her from leaving. It’s the Star Trek version of the romcom “running to the airport terminal” trope, with Rom finally working up the gumption to tell Leeta to stay. She instantly drops her bag and they embrace. It’s all very silly, but it at least moves these characters along in their journey. Zimmerman graciously accepts the greatest loss of his life, and immediately starts chatting up another alien babe about the Kama Sutra. Ahhhhh, that’s more like it! Groan, lol.

Bashir and O’Brien hang out playing darts, and Bashir appreciates his friend’s support. O’Brien realizes that Bashir’s genetically-enhanced hand-eye coordination means that he’s been playing down his true abilities all these years, which he demonstrates by effortlessly throwing three bullseyes. O’Brien institutes a new rule that Bashir will have to stand several paces back to make it fair. It’s a surprisingly lighthearted resolution to the episode, and establishes that they’re still best buds despite the crazy revelations. There’s something egalitarian about the solution – people of differing abilities and natural (or unnatural) privileges can still sit at the same table, as long as their differences are accounted for. It’s an comical but accurate illustration of equity over equality.

“Yours… is superior. Well, let’s see how superior it is from over there.

“Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” is a messy but interesting episode. It makes some stunningly weird choices and throws in a wacky unnecessary romantic subplot, but still manages to be one of the most important and fascinating installments of Deep Space Nine. Retconning a character this late in a series is a potentially disastrous prospect, but the result here provides some rich drama and leaves room for future exploration.

Stray Observations:

  • There is a quick but very funny scene involving the original EMH. He quips if Julian is even old enough to be a doctor, lol. It recalls the brief appearance of the EMH in First Contact. I have to give credit to Picardo for making an entirely different character out of someone with the exact same appearance.
“I’m a doctor, not a cameo!”
  • “Well whutta ’bout AHS? We could goatta PRISON!” has been living rent-free in my head for almost 30 years now. It’s right up there with “I don’t want. Your life.” from Varsity Blues (one of my favorite crappy movies) in the pantheon of Supposedly Dramatic Moments Ruined by Crappy Accents.
  • I always cringe whenever “IQ” is mentioned in Star Trek. 300 years in the future and they don’t have a different system in place?
  • There will be a little bit more stale sitcom hijinks between Rom and Leeta in the future. But overall, very little of their relationship is explored in the show, which is disappointing. Rom is mostly a cartoon character with occasional glimpses of more serious depth, and his marriage with Leeta could have provided more content along those lines, but alas. Or maybe they should have just gone full King of Queens with it – three cameras, laugh track, wacky neighbor – Orion Lou Ferrigno!
  • Speaking of Seinfeld guest actors, J. Patrick McCormack is one of those “that guy” actors, and I think the casting kind of works against the episode here by making it that much more of a cheesy sitcom.
  • In the episode “Lineage” Star Trek: Voyager would provide an additional dimension to the status of genetic engineering in human society – further establishing that it’s allowed to be used prenatally to correct maladies, but not to “design” babies. Which seems reasonable. Of course, Torres tries to illegally design her own child before being stopped, which is its own little basket of insanity.
  • Julian seems almost horrified that his dad will have to spend six months in a minimum security prison. I always appreciated Star Trek’s (generally) enlightened attitudes towards crime and punishment – the death penalty is totally verboten, and prison is generally pretty light and used sparingly. We’ve seen many an imprisoned and disgraced former Starfleet officer – from Ro Laren to Tom Paris. Or Kasidy Yates.
  • One of the weirdest contradictions in Star Trek’s consistent attitude towards genetic engineering is in The Next Generations’s “Unnatural Selection,” in which we see a Federation research station casually trying to create superpowered human children – and the dire consequences of that.
  • Quark is briefly in the episode and is absolutely disgusting throughout. When trying to convince Rom that Leeta is not worth the trouble, he gives some valuable backstory about Rom’s previous wife (and Nog’s mom). Interestingly, she seems completely uninvolved in Nog’s life, which may be for the best.
  • I think this is the first time we see a Ferengi adjust their ear like a radar dish to tune into a conversation across the room.
“Don’t aim at the bathroom, don’t aim at the bathroom…”
  • Hey, hands to yourself, buddy!
It’s gettin’ Morny in here.
  • Ugh, I just wince when Leeta kisses Rom. As an actor having to smash your lips into those snaggled prosthetic teeth it looks so painful.