Note: This episode was rerated from 3 to 3.5 stars when the season recap was written.
Nutshell: Good stuff. A mysterious, intriguing look at the "other side" of Starfleet.
Back during the fourth season, the episode "Paradise Lost" looked at what happened when a small piece of Starfleet decided it was going to take charge on behalf of the "best interests" of the Federation. Specifically, Admiral Leyton tried to stop the Defiant from reaching Earth. Changeling paranoia gave rise to his inappropriate decisions; he didn't want to see the end of his imposed martial rule. From his perspective, business as usual on Earth was a vulnerability.
Now we have "Inquisition," an interesting episode that again examines the darker side of Starfleet that concerns itself with intrigue and potential threats, and introduces a mysterious branch called "Section 31"—which specializes in "identifying and dealing with potential dangers to the Federation."
The story comes initially packaged as an Innocent Wrongly Accused paradigm, in which Starfleet internal affairs officer Sloan (William Sadler) arrives at DS9 to investigate a possible security leak. The episode centers on Bashir, whom Sloan is convinced is working for the Dominion. He attempts to expose Bashir as a Dominion agent, and the lengths he goes to in this endeavor venture into the territory of injustice.
Since it's vital to analysis, I might as well just say it up front: The episode's big trick is that none of Bashir's experiences through this investigation are really happening; it's all a holodeck simulation on board Sloan's ship, used as a test to determine if Bashir (whom Sloan quietly kidnapped for the purposes of finding the truth) is really a Dominion spy.
The simulation premise is a clever device, because it puts an interesting spin on the derivative idea of an Innocent Wrongly Accused. I have a few minor qualms with some of the audience deception that it inherently brings forth, the most primary qualm being the fact that, well, the whole damn thing never really happened. It's somewhat frustrating to invest time in characterizations that aren't real. In this case, everything Sisko said through Bashir's plight is merely something he "might" have said given the situation. That's kind of a shame, because I appreciated scenes such as the one where he plays hardball to get his way in talking to Bashir in private, and where he demands to sit in on Sloan's interrogations. Sisko was reasonably well written in those scenes, but it wasn't really Sisko who was being well written—it was just a hologram.
But I suppose that's only an inevitable drawback to the device. So don't get me wrong; I think much more good than ill came out of the use of the illusion device. For example, the fact that Sloan is manipulating Bashir's environment to uncover a larger truth strikes me as a very plausible (even if morally questionable) 24th-century method of interrogation—especially for interrogating someone who is as skillful and as quietly operating a "spy" as Sloan suspects Bashir is.
The simulations Sloan runs Bashir through are also interesting. While the story will have us believe they are actual events as it progresses, it's interesting to watch the episode a second time and see that some of the little details indicate Sloan was simply trying to distract Bashir with added confusion. Why, for example, were there armed officers running through the station corridors? Bashir wonders. "It's nothing you need to be concerned about," comes the answer. Why were his quarters obviously tampered with? His rights so obviously violated? Because Sloan wanted this guy to crumble, and he knew that a guilty man would do just that. Viewed as elements on their own, the plot holds together; viewed as part of Sloan's ruse, it holds together just as well, and it has the benefit of showing that Sloan isn't simply a man with a personal vendetta, but a man working to find the truth—even if his means are extreme.
The actual interrogations bring up some interesting possibilities, and I liked the story's way of having Sloan utilize Bashir's history as a means to voice his suspicions. Bashir's genetic engineering became a major issue to be taken to task, as did the fact he was in a Dominion prison a year ago (not to mention his attempt to help the Jem'Hadar in "Hippocratic Oath"). Sloan has a number of theories that seem insidiously plausible, even though he has no evidence. Given the Dominion's craftiness, however, it's hard to know which is worse: Intense witch-hunt accusations of innocent people, or the lack of pursuing very real covert Dominion threats simply because they can't be immediately proven.
Apart from this theme, however, was one of the most interesting scenes: the episode on the Dominion ship where Weyoun tries to convince Bashir that he is, in fact, a Dominion spy with suppressed memories. In all honesty, the possibility that Bashir might actually be an unwitting Dominion agent had my keen attention, though by the time it was obvious Bashir wasn't coming around I had a good idea where the story was going with it. Ah, what possibilities stories like these could take if not for the fact our heroes have to remain true good guys! (But, in all fairness, taking such a route would mean the end of Julian Bashir as we know him, so it probably wasn't a viable choice.)
Thompson & Weddle's script did another fine job of seeing a character through a high-pressure situation (a la "The Assignment" and "Business as Usual"). The Bashir of this episode, whom thanks to Alexander Siddig striking the right notes, is one who doggedly tries to proclaim his innocence on more than one occasion, but never goes over the edge into histrionics. He's a fountain of patience given the extreme situation, and I liked that he never seemed to give up and vent flat-out frustration; he always seemed on the edge of pondering the next move—defeated for now, but still ready to encounter the next stage.
On the technical side, I thought Michael Dorn, in his sophomore effort, pulled off another good direction, evoking a mysterious sense of eerieness as Bashir slowly realizes that he's into more trouble than he initially thought. (Although, I must admit I was amused by the scene on the Defiant when Worf said "You have run out of excuses, Doctor," and then walked out of the frame. I had a feeling that his next line should've been, "Now excuse me while I direct the rest of this scene.") Lending a helping hand is an effectively dark and ominous score by Dennis McCarthy.
The performances were good, particularly in the final dialog exchange between Sadler and Siddig, which managed to answer a lot of plot questions and still be convincing. Sadler's strong screen persona was evident throughout the episode, as he easily turns from a nice guy into a threatening figure from one scene to the next.
As far as Section 31 goes, I personally find the idea (and the ethical implications) of such an organization fascinating ... although I'm not so sure we needed yet another plot element to worry about on this series, especially given that we haven't seen enough recent intrigue within the Dominion War as it is—though that seems very likely to be changing soon, as early as next week. (I also wonder if the Section 31 uniforms were designed by someone who had seen Men in Black too many times.)
The ending of "Inquisition" seems to suggest we'll see these guys again—in a setting that could cause a strife internal to Starfleet itself. I'm not sure what Sisko's intentions are, but it seems to me that the writers may be opening up quite a can of worms here—and given how much we already have to deal with, I'm not so sure that's a prudent decision. It's still far too early to say, but I'd hate to see all of Section 31 boiled down to one subsequent episode in which Bashir "plays spy"; this could be much more interesting if properly integrated into the other DS9 threads.
In short, there's potential here for something neat down the road. And even if we don't get a follow-up, it's still interesting to ponder the knowledge that Section 31 is still out there, somewhere, using their covert operations and unconventional tactics to fight the Dominion. And it's also interesting to consider the episode's argument. Is Starfleet really "above" such an extreme method of protection that holds the combined power of "judge, jury, and executioner"? Sloan seems like he has good intentions, but maybe that's simply not enough. Organizations that answer to no one can be very dangerous, even if they do save so many lives and have such good intentions as Sloan claims.
The final reflection in Sisko's office was interesting, but it was executed with a lot of lengthy exposition; it seemed to me the writers were presenting obvious lessons spelled out in tidy dialog more than they were allowing the characters to say things that were natural. I can understand why that happened, though. There are many endings to Trek shows that do that, because the writers often seem like they want to present "the moral" in a conscious manner. Overall, "Inquisition" does a good job of presenting its argument. And although it isn't a groundbreaker as DS9 stories go, it's definitely an interesting and compelling ride along the way.
Next week: Sisko plans to bring the Romulans into the fold.