In season five of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the episode “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” opens with Doctor Bashir getting the opportunity of a lifetime: the newest Emergency Medical Hologram will be modeled off of his appearance and personality. He will become the face of emergency medicine for the entire Federation. Bashir, however, is terrified, and as inevitably happens, the truth comes out: Bashir was genetically-modified as a child.
“When the other children were learning to read and write…I was still trying to tell a dog from a cat, a tree from a house,” Bashir recalls. His parents smuggled him out of the Federation’s reach, to get illegal gene therapy that fixed his developmental disability. Bashir’s own genetic code is a felony, and he’s had to cover it up his whole life.
Bashir’s parents act like it was a necessary thing, to modify him so that he could be normal. They talk about “remedial education and underachievement,” how they worried for their struggling son in a cruel world, and did what they had to do. But Bashir doesn’t agree that it was necessary:
“You decided I was a failure in the first grade,” Julian says, with barely restrained rage. “Jules Bashir died in that hospital because you couldn’t live with the shame of having a son who didn’t measure up!”
Bashir’s primary reaction is rage. Bashir sees what has happened to “Jules” Bashir as murder, replacing him with the utterly different Julian Bashir. He stresses that Jules was six years old, when his parents decided he couldn’t make it on his own. They decided rob Jules of a future, in order to get their perfect, brilliant replacement son.
This episode can start tons of good discussions on disability — stigmas around it, the ethics of “curing” someone with a mental disability, and how government can make things better or worse. There’s also another excellent Deep Space Nine episode, “Melora,” that tackles these topics with a physically disabled character. But what matters to me in this episode, the reason it’s my favorite Trek episode, ever, is Bashir’s self-advocacy.
Bashir is not himself disabled, but he has Jules’ eyes, hands, and most importantly, he has Jules’ voice. Bashir is keenly aware of his responsibility to Jules, what Jules was forced to sacrifice in order for Julian to exist. Bashir is also keenly aware that he has kept Jules a secret for his entire adulthood, to cover up for a crime he never chose to be a part of. Bashir has kept Jules silenced for years, and he’s relieved to let the truth finally step forward. Bashir tells Jules’ truth–that Jules ought to have been treated like a son. Like an equal to other kids, no matter whether he measured up to first grade standards or not.
When I saw this episode, I was fifteen, and struggling with high school. I’d struggled with school my whole life — swinging between brilliance in some areas and total failure in others. I had struggled to become literate as a kid but now that I was a book-loving teenager, I found that books were the only friends I understood. I felt like a badly-functioning robot, some sort of attempt at a human that had obviously failed. The gap between me and other people was vast.
I’d never known what it could feel like to be represented on TV, and there Bashir was. He knew what it was like to struggle, to feel apart from other people. He knew what it was like to know you’re a disappointment. He’d even had trouble reading in the first grade — except instead of being assigned a special teacher, his parents decided to change who he was. I would have given anything to be a smart and cute and easy-going like Bashir, but Bashir, instead, wished he was like me. He believed fiercely in the dignity of Jules’ existence. Julian Bashir thought a person, imperfect, disabled, confused, was enough, just the way they are.
I’d never been enough, before. I’ve always been lucky enough to be loved, but love can’t shield a kid from knowing that they don’t measure up. It always felt like the bar to pass for humanity was just too high, and everyone else had step stools. In my middle-class suburban town, I was alone, stuck behind. And then there was Bashir, who was like me, who might think that I was fine the way I was.
Almost every time I watch this episode, I end up pausing during Bashir’s big confrontation with his parents. Every time, I reach out, as if my fingers can go through the screen and I can touch him. He feels so real to me, every time, as if he’s sprung out of my heart, rather than out of Alexander Siddig’s excellent performance. I’ve gone on to achieve things my depressed, anxious, struggling teenaged self would never have dreamed, simply because Bashir has felt so present and important since that episode.
When no one else I knew even thought to say it, Bashir seemed to look directly into my eyes, and say, you are enough. You are worthy. And you are worthy of love.
And that lit my heart on fire.