Babel kinda punted on the interesting “what do you do when you lose language” question

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Some elaboration on my thoughts from earlier on the episode today’s strip is referencing: seriously, it is a little bit of a downer that in the episode of Deep Space Nine that I’m riffing on here, Babel, the writers treated being struck aphasic by the mystery ailment as a good reason to just stop paying any attention to that character for the rest of the episode. You’ve got a problem? Okay, go be off-camera now, you’re clearly useless.

(The very brief synopsis, if you don’t remember this one: back when DS9 was a Cardassian station as part of the decades-long occupation of Bajor, a brilliant Bajoran scientist/rebel planted a language-virus device intended to fuck with the Cardassians by rendering them mutually unintelligible. Instead, it stayed dormant until the Federation showed up, and first Miles O’Brien and then a bunch of other folks started getting sick; first some flu-like symptoms, and then aphasia, and then apparently death not long after which makes you wonder why the aphasia was even part of it but okay. It’s a race against time as many main cast members also start speaking nonsense! Kira saves the day by finding and infecting a guy who helped design the virus, who finds the antidote even as Kira herself succumbs! End.)

And, so, I get that that’s just the story they were writing — it’s an epidemic plot, first one person gets sick and then another and then it’s everybody and OH GOSH RACE AGAINST TIME FOR THE CURE — and I can totally understand that accordingly they were focusing on the narrative through-line from infection to discovery to urgent race for a solution. I’m not saying it’s an inherently problematic plot or anything.

But at the same time, what if they’d actually tackled the idea of a clever, headstrong motley command staff reacting to being struck effectively dumb by this virus by working around the verbal barrier? I mean, when, in any good Star Trek story, has a core crew’s reaction to adversity been “oh well, I suppose I’ll lie down now and wait for someone else to come up with a solution”?

If Bashir can’t keep working on his attempt to cure the virus in his usual way because speaking to the computer is out, why not try and work with a still-able assistant via drawings or touch? If Sisko can’t give commands verbally or read console text, you think he wouldn’t try and work off visuals on the dozens of displays in Ops? And so on. These people do not accede willingly to affliction or roadblock.

Considering how beloved Darmok turned out to be, it feels conspicuous in retrospect that an episode from the same period of Star Trek production and one similarly premised off a linguistic conceit (however deeply hazily presented) didn’t do more to engage with the communicative consequences of that conceit. It could have easily been a far more interesting episode of television had they gone in that direction.

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