Bashir is less than thrilled with Garak’s gift of a holographic adaptation of a Cardassian “enigma tale,” and explains he’s testy about his impending 30th birthday.
Quark seems relieved when Bashir shoots down a shady client’s hopes of buying “biomemetic gel.”
Bashir later finds that same customer (a bumpy-faced reptilian named Altovar) ransacking the infirmary, and gets energy-zapped unconscious for his troubles.
After the opening credits, Bashir wakes up and seems okay, but the computers are all flickering strangely, he can’t contact anyone on the ship, and while passing a mirror he notices he now has some gray hair.
He wanders through a deserted promenade, and finds Quark cowering in the bar, as something we can’t see makes animal noises and throws things around.
Everything seems off. A food replicator is producing an endless stream of “Tarkalean tea,” we hear off-screen whispers that Bashir can’t make out, and after Garak shows up and gleefully suggests some possible plotlines, “Maybe they’ve fallen victim to some kind of rampant virus, or space anomaly, or Dominion plot,” he cheerfully suggests that they split up. Garak’s enthusiasm gives the impression is that he’s perfectly aware that splitting up is just another plot contrivance, but Bashir is still taking everything in earnest.
After several standard haunted-house cinema effects — lights going out in the distance, the hero backs into a dead end, just when it feels safe there’s a jump-scare — Bashir finds Dax, O’Brien, Kira and Odo arguing in the wardroom. Dax seems too eager to make the first move, Odo is more suspicious than usual, O’Brien is more pessimistic than usual, and Kira snarks and lashes out without actually giving any orders.
Bashir deduces from their strange behavior, and because it’s about time for an infodump, that he is in a coma and everyone else represents various parts of his personality. Just as he seems to work out who represents what, and he starts trying to put his little “Inside Out” ensemble to work, Altovar shows up and starts picking off the Jungian archetypes.
The scene shifts and Bashir is playing tennis with Garak, who is now reacting to what Bashir has deduced — that the failing station represents Bashir’s dying body — and encourages him to get to Ops and start working on repairs.
Along the way, Bashir, who has been aging steadily, meets Sisko, who is doing doctory things in a crowded corridor full of casualties. Concluding that Sisko represents his professionalism, Bashir talks him into coming to Ops with him, and again just when it looks like things are going well, Altovar shows up, this time taunting Bashir by saying he will destroy Bashir piece by piece.
The Alice-in-Wonderland moments keep coming (and without a B-plot there’s lots of time to fill), until the now very frail Bashir — in top-notch “old man” makeup — totters into a surprise birthday party where a sultry dabo girl vamps her way through “Happy Birthday.” In this psychodrama nothing has so far attacked Bashir directly, so the good doctor concludes Altovar is waiting for him to give up.
Bashir further reasons that Garak’s presence in his mind is a distraction, and instead of following Garak’s advice he returns to the infirmary, and because the episode has by now gone on long enough, of course it works and Bashir wakes up in the real infirmary.
The final scene is a great Garak moment, when the simple tailor learns the antagonistic archetype he role-played in Bashir’s headspace adventure: “To think, after all this time, all our lunches together, you still don’t trust me. There’s hope for you yet, Doctor.”