Nutshell: An unpleasant surprise. This episode could've been many great things, but it chooses many of the most disappointing paths.
Many aspects of "Extreme Measures" seem grossly out of place. The final stretch of DS9 so far has been woven together into a mostly well-thought-out story that understands the nature of a greater purpose. Seeds are planted, then they grow. But with this episode, we have a primarily self-contained plot that, for the most part, seems to go nowhere we needed to go—certainly not where I wanted to go. What's most disappointing is that Section 31 is brought in as the story's central element, and then not used for what it has come to best represent—an immense moral issue with which our characters must wrestle.
This could've been a great episode. It should've been a great episode. Frankly, I'm a little shocked that it didn't live up to its potential. This has to be one of the most unexpected disappointments of the season.
With time for Odo running out (estimates show the disease will kill him within a week), the plot continues from "Tacking into the Wind," as Bashir and O'Brien prepare for Section 31 to show up on their doorstep as a possible insight into the disease that infects Odo (as well as all the Founders). They confess their plan to Sisko, who isn't happy about the legal or ethical aspects of the plan (that is to say, Bashir's plan to capture an agent and then use Romulan mind-probing equipment to find the truth is both illegal and unethical), but he goes along with it in the interests of saving his crewman's life. And besides, this is the Sisko who lied and cheated to bring the Romulans into the war in "In the Pale Moonlight," and who just last week told Worf to do "whatever it takes" to prevent Gowron from making a military blunder.
Given all that's going on in terms of the moral issues and the undertaking of "extreme measures," as the episode calls itself, this story should be rich with ethical debate, the questioning of tactics, the challenging of morality, and the subsequent challenging of those challenges.
What can I say? It's not.
Sure, there are some interesting moments to be found scattered through the hour (just look at my quote for Sloan at the top of this review and consider where the dialog alone could've gone), but there's not nearly enough analysis of the issues that make this story worth telling.
The big problem, I think, is that "Extreme Measures" approaches its subject with the completely wrong type of plot. Perhaps some details of that plot are in order. Bashir's plan sort of works; his bait of alleging to have found a cure brings Section 31 to the station to seize the cure. Bashir and O'Brien capture Sloan (William Sadler) and isolate him in a room for questioning. It's at this point the story should've turned interesting, with Sloan and Bashir in a room together with little to do but talk. Their initial conversations are actually pretty good, but they aren't permitted to develop to fruition.
Instead, Sloan activates a device in his brain designed for suicide. This leaves Sloan's body dead except for some traces of activity in his brain, which has about an hour of life remaining. Bashir and O'Brien then realize they must use the Romulan mind equipment to connect themselves to Sloan's brain, digging through his mind in a virtual-reality-type situation to find the cure to Odo's disease.
As far as I'm concerned, this is simply the wrong story to be telling. The plot is a gimmick that owes itself more to, say, third season's "Distant Voices," with all the surreal gags to go along with it. Sloan's mind, naturally, looks just like DS9. ("I wanted you to feel at home," Sloan says when he encounters O'Brien and Bashir inside his own brain. A more cynical reviewer might say, "Yes, and we also wanted to use the standing sets to stay within our budget.")
The episode is replete with the usual tricks of surreal virtual-reality mind games, like falling elevators, corridors that inexplicably rearrange themselves, threatening men who appear and vanish, rooms that are filled with people and then suddenly empty, and so on. This might be interesting under other circumstances, but this is Sloan we're dealing with here, in what is the third-to-last episode of the series. Why are we suddenly going back to routine, drawn-out sci-fi games when the whole rest of the arc has been so dead-set on getting things accomplished without resorting to contrived circumstances? (It also doesn't help that this episode puts every other current storyline on hold.)
I should probably point out that there are some genuinely good moments in "Extreme Measures." I liked, for example, that being inside Sloan's mind allowed us to see the side of him that he would never show in real life, namely the "nice" Sloan. This mental projection of Sloan is a side that wants to give Bashir the cure, and who goes into a room full of acquaintances and apologizes for cheating them out of being in their lives.
I liked the notion that part of Sloan regrets what he was, and that the people in his personal life suffered as a result of his constant existence in shadowy espionage. It shows a key aspect of this series, which is that all characters have a side to them that makes them more understandable than we might have assumed given the plots they typically inhabit. We realize here that Sloan has made great personal sacrifices to be who he is—a man of secrets who protects the interests of the Federation at all costs. At the same time, he seems to regret the means he has taken in protecting the Federation, as he tells Bashir that he respects him because in the end, "it's our actions, not our beliefs, that define who we are."
Unfortunately, I'm of the belief that something like this would be more powerful if it had manifested itself in the real world rather than some obscure corner of Sloan's brain. Why couldn't a way be found to bring this sort of dialog to the surface without using a cheat plot?
Strangely, Sloan doesn't even seem to be the main idea here. It seems the primary goal of this episode was to give Miles and Julian one last buddy adventure. That would've been fine if the story had kept the plot true to the tone of the "Final Chapter" thus far, but it doesn't. The whole premise feels dumbed down. It's almost as if the writers needed a device that would give us a Sloan/Section 31 and an O'Brien/Bashir adventure in the same package, and the only thing that could accommodate both criteria was this VR/mind-probing premise.
A lot of this didn't work for me because I was wanting the story to get on with itself. Consider an extended scene where Bashir and O'Brien lie wounded in a corridor after being attacked by a bad actor with a phaser. This is a scene that goes nearly three entire minutes without a single cut of the camera. The technique is skilled. Alexander Siddig and Colm Meaney put a lot into the scene, and come off as extremely natural. I even found myself amused by the dialog, in which Bashir keys in on male bonding in a way that of course drives O'Brien nuts. (My personal favorite: "I love Ezri passionately. It's just that—I like you a bit more.")
But as much chemistry as these two guys have, this scene seems like an overlong and misplaced attempt to be "Armageddon Game, Part II." The point is, I think, that these two guys love each other—in a decidedly brotherly way. Miles of course doesn't want to admit it right off, while Julian is constantly open with his feelings. (Although, this comical lesson of the week had me thinking too much of a line from Wayne's World: "I've learned that platonic love can exist between two grown men.") I honestly liked the idea of O'Brien and Bashir having one last adventure; it's just that the writers picked the wrong way of going about it given the gravity of the situation surrounding it.
Anyway, I hate to get off the topic at hand of Sloan—which is precisely why some of this storyline is distracting. The other interesting idea here is one of Sloan offering to Julian "all my secrets," as a distraction to delay him in finding the cure to the disease. As Bashir later admits, it was the perfect bait. Bashir wants to bring down Section 31 completely—which he considers a parasite in the Federation—and the information in Sloan's head was probably the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do it. O'Brien's practical sensibility of returning from VR with the cure before Sloan's brain dies prevents Bashir from taking the lure and failing the mission. (And speaking of the cure, now that it has been successfully administered to Odo, I'm wondering if having it will play into the story involving the Founders in the final two episodes. I certainly hope so.)
Unfortunately for the bulk of the hour, the VR mind games are too prevalent. Thompson and Weddle fall back onto the most obvious of the VR genre tricks—the predictable "let's allege to wake them up now, never mind the fact there's still 20 minutes left in the show." I'd be very surprised to hear from anyone who didn't instantly suspect we were still in Sloan's mind, and that Sloan was playing an elaborate ruse on Bashir and O'Brien. The story even drops us some surreal hints through the acting (particularly Avery Brooks') in the scene where Sloan "dies"—but then it plays the game through the commercial break in an attempt to dupe the audience. This was far too transparent to be worthwhile, and contains almost no lasting significance, coming off as story padding more than anything else.
What's most frustrating about "Extreme Measures" is the sheer number of missed opportunities. Given all the questionable morality we've seen through this war, and the way Section 31 has played into that through "Inquisition" and especially "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges," this is an episode that should've dared to ask the truly tough questions. What about the morality of forcing this cure from Sloan through the illegal Romulan mind probes? Here we have the irony of Bashir, who considers Section 31 a scourge in the Federation, resorting to the type of questionable tactics Section 31 itself employs. Yet the episode doesn't begin to address Bashir's actions. And here we have Sisko objecting to Bashir's plan, and then reluctantly permitting it. Yet the episode doesn't address Sisko's past roles in bending the moral rules for the greater good. We have the issue of Section 31 committing genocide. Yet there's barely one line of dialog devoted to it. There could've been an endless clash of riveting moral arguments here, but for the most part, "Extreme Measures" doesn't tackle them, because it spends too much time inside Sloan's brain supplying us with the usual sci-fi plot twists.
Although we see the end of Sloan here, we don't see the destruction of Section 31. But considering there's only two more episodes, I severely doubt we'll be seeing Section 31 again on the series, and I fear that the bigger questions involving Section 31 have not been sufficiently answered—and now never will be.
This episode is by no means a complete failure. It actually proves quite entertaining on many of the superficial levels. But superficial is not what I've come to expect from DS9. This episode set out to be the wrong thing, and it deserved to be so much more than it was. The writers had a huge opportunity here, and they blew it.
Next week: Chapter eight. An apparent acceleration in the war.