“Life Support” is one of many medical ethics episodes in Star Trek. TNG’s “Ethics,” filmed just three years earlier (and also with a teleplay by Ronald D. Moore) comes immediately to mind. “Ethics” also had odd problems, but at least the choices were not clear cut. And in the TNG version we had a conflict between a responsible physician who put her patients first and used only proven procedures (Dr. Beverly Crusher) and a radical and irresponsible physician willing to gamble her patient’s lives on experimental procedures in order to further the science of medicine (Dr. Toby Russell). In “Life Support,” by contrast, Dr. Bashir plays both roles and his choices always seem clear cut (even when he chooses wrong). And while Bashir enjoys initial success as he walks down Toby Russell’s path, he quickly learns that he would have preferred to stay on Beverly Crusher’s path.
The fact that Vedek Bareil Antos is the patient means we have some investment in the character. Bareil is Kira’s love interest and he’d already appeared in six previous episodes. However, any concern we might have over risking his life is somewhat mitigated by the fact that he starts off the episode dead, and both Kira and the audience have started to accept his loss. But Dr. Bashir’s radical treatment unexpectedly resurrects Bareil and from this moment on the medical gambles feel like playing at a casino with the house’s money — we’d already lost it once, so we’re much more willing to go for broke. The critical moment comes when Dr. Bashir mentions an experimental drug treatment called “vasokin,” which has an unacceptable potential to degrade Bareil’s organs. Given that Bareil’s priority is the overriding treaty under negotiation, the fact that he wants to gamble his life on the drug should come as no shock to Bashir; if Bashir felt the risk was unacceptable, it was irresponsible to mention the drug. Later, when the drug has the predicted consequences — Bareil’s organs, including half his brain, are eventually degraded and have to be replaced with synthetic alternatives — Bashir’s path is again clear. And by the time it dead ends, Kira’s plea to replace the remaining real half of Bareil’s brain with a positronic implant becomes grotesquely absurd. Anyone should understand, without having to be told explicitly, that if you “replace” a person’s entire brain with a robot brain, you have killed the person!
Meanwhile, the politics are equally clear cut. Kai Winn remains irredeemably evil. She’s ready to sacrifice Bareil (who is, after all, a political enemy) to gain a successful treaty, but she is just as eager to use him as a scape goat, should the negotiations fail.
While the A-plot is literally death-and-life dramatic, the B-plot is a comedic farce. Jake and Nog go on a double date, which Nog sabotages by laying his Ferengi sexism on super thick. Jake is rightly mortified and angry, but his father convinces him that it’s important to be tolerant of Nog’s bigotry. After all, Nog is a sexist because he’s Ferengi; so if you hate him for it, you’re a racist and being racist is worst than be sexist. No! Sorry, folks, that’s not how it works.
In the end, the two halves of this episode don’t fit well together and neither really works on its own.
- Remarkable quote: “Just one thing, Jake. You’re still pretty new at this dating business. Just promise me you won’t do anything to embarrass me.” (Nog)