"Distant Voices" is strange, atypical, offbeat and often quite interesting. What more could you expect from a Joe Menosky concept? He's the guy who brought us TNG's "Darmok," "Masks" and "Emergence," as well as DS9's "Dramatis Personae" and "Rivals." Sometimes Menosky concepts can be terrific stories, like the dramatic "Darmok." Sometimes they can be bizarre works which seem to beam in from other galaxies, like the laughably horrendous "Masks."
"Distant Voices" is a mixed bag. It has some good moments, and it keeps one intrigued. But there just isn't enough substance from scripters Behr and Wolfe to keep Menosky's concept moving along. Perhaps the concept alone can't sustain an entire hour.
The concept: A telepathic attack by a Lethean criminal (Victor Rivers) leaves Dr. Bashir dying in a coma. The story is told from inside Bashir's mind. Each facet of his personality is represented by one of his DS9 comrades. In order to survive, he must use the different parts of his personality to repair a dead Deep Space Nine. (The station, of course, represents Bashir's own mind.)
The episode begins in a cloud of mystery as Bashir apparently wakes up from the Lethean's attack to find the station dark and empty. As Bashir roams the station, he finds his fellow DS9 officers, though the crew and civilians are all missing. Quark sits cowering behind his bar while the Lethean tears up his establishment. Bashir runs into Garak while looking for Odo. Bashir finds Dax, Kira, Odo and O'Brien arguing in the wardroom on how to stop the Lethean. Through all this, Bashir goes through an accelerating aging process.
In this opening act, the cloud of mystery successfully begs attention. Aside from the senior officers, why is there no one on the station? What is the Lethean up to? Why are all the station's systems down? Why does Bashir suddenly have grey hair? But when Menosky's concept is revealed—that this is all a very wild hallucination Bashir is having—the episode begins looking for what next to do with the concept, with only limited success.
Like "Emergence," TNG's inept attempt at highbrow symbolism (also written by Menosky), "Distant Voices" begins throwing a number of symbols at us, hoping that we genuinely care. The Lethean represents Bashir's inner struggle with elements of his past. If he loses this struggle, he will die in the coma. So the plot takes Bashir on a mission to get to Ops and repair the station. Symbolically, if he can repair the station and destroy the Lethean, he will survive the coma.
The story's apparent intention is to combine all these symbols in order to (1) show each DS9 character turned into a single personality trait, (2) set each scene with a creative, surreal visual and (3) milk Bashir's inner struggle for character development.
This all works to a point. The cast's personality manipulations are interesting, but hardly astonishing given the premise. The fresh visuals grab attention, even if they are a bit gimmicky. And this is really the only episode so far this season that spotlights Bashir.
Unfortunately, this episode takes too long to get where it ends up, and where it ends up is relatively underwhelming. One problem is that the climax hangs on Bashir confronting himself (represented by the Lethean), which reveals character backstory we've already heard before. (That old pre-ganglionic fiber thing again, eh?)
Another, perhaps bigger problem with this story is that it presses the symbolism factor on us by trying to explain every symbol in some concrete manner. Explaining every piece of what the station stands for in Bashir's mind is an excessive step the writers take that doesn't give the audience enough credit. It's almost like they're condescending. Symbolism is a device that requires subtlety—and subtlety is definitely not present here. Consequently, the episode's symbol angle falls apart, just as it did in "Emergence." Maybe the problem is that Joe Menosky is so far out there on some of these ideas that no one is really ready for it, including the writing staff.
Hey, I like original ideas. And "Distant Voices" has an original concept with sporadically interesting moments. But there's just not enough meat here.