In the nineteenth episode of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, I can live with that. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Allow me to get a lil’ philosophical and political about Star Trek.
I can’t begin to claim myself as an expert of the show by any means. Just logistically, that’s impossible; I’ve still got less than half of Voyager and barely over a season of Deep Space Nine to make it through, and I’ve got all of Enterprise to experience. All I can talk about is what I’ve perceived this far. For its time, The Original Series was mind-blowing. (And hell, I even pointed out ways in which in remained ahead of its time.) it proposed a world free of racism and poverty and bigotry, which meant it inherently argued that these things were social ills, aspects of the world that we should strive to do without. You can see Roddenberry’s vision and tone all over The Next Generation as well. Some of that comes from the same desire for parity in the world. (Though a desire didn’t always manifest as an actuality. The road to hell…) But there’s a hopefulness spread across all seven seasons of that show. It’s a liberal fantasy in a number of ways, namely in that good intentions, a strong moral code, and democratic ideals can be wrapped in a military-esque structure to give us a utopia. The characters often sought out non-aggressive solutions to their problems; they believed the best of each other and the species and cultures they met; the end of Next Generation is about the hope they all had for a better future.
I’m not setting up a segue to talk about the grim nature of Deep Space Nine, though. Roddenberry’s hope and vision for the future still exists within this show. It’s just that the writers are so much more brutally honest about what that actually means. How does a force like the Federation deal with something as pure evil as the Dominion? Can they maintain their squeaky clean image in the face of absolute immorality and terror? And what does that say about humanity?
Those are a lot of hefty questions to ask about the whole of Star Trek, and yet I can’t help but re-examine Trek because of “In the Pale Moonlight.” There are elements of this that are unsurprising. Sisko has always been the riskiest leader of a Star Trek crew. Need I remind you that he met Q and punched Q in the face? He’s also the kind of leader who is far more of a pragmatist than Kirk, Picard, or Janeway. (That’s not a negative feature for those other captains, for the record.) Seeing him take such huge risks to get the Romulans to join the war against the Dominion felt exactly like the character I’d grown to love over these six seasons. And that’s the key here: at no point did I doubt his characterization.
I’ve also stated numerous times (probably much to the delight of all of you) that Deep Space Nine has been willing to go to a much darker place than past Trek shows. Again, I’m not into grimness for the sake of it, and I wouldn’t claim this show was truly dark at its core. Instead, it’s a show about good intentions and the sometimes horrific, messy things that come of that. These characters mean well, but they’re allowed to fail. To have very visible flaws. To disagree with one another, sometimes over multiple episodes. As the show became more serialized and more complicated, I became more impressed with the commitment we got from the writers.
“In the Pale Moonlight” is no exception, and if we hadn’t already gotten “The Visitor” and “Far Beyond the Stars,” I would have claimed that this was the best Trek had to offer. It’s entertaining and pleasing to tell stories of hope and wonder. But what about asking how that hope and wonder comes about? Coming off the heels of both of the previous two episodes, this is a trilogy: three stories that all ask difficult questions and given even more uncomfortable answers.
Before I close this off with praise of Avery Brooks (I wasn’t ready!!!), though, I need to talk about context. What Sisko and Garak do here is horrifying in a number of ways, all of which are detailed in that excruciating scene at the end of the episode. Garak killed multiple people: Tolar, the criminal they used to fake the data rod. Vreenak, who was guilty of a lack of interest in the suffering of others; Vreenak’s crew and guards, who aren’t even mentioned in passing after Sisko discovers what Garak did. And at no point is Garak shy about what he did to guarantee that the Romulans would turn against the Dominion; why should he be? Sisko knew who he was enlisting to help him lie to Vreenak.
Thus, I feel this story is less about guilt – though that plays a huge part in the framing of the fourth-wall-breaking logs – and more about complicity. One of my big complaints about the rise and fall of the Maquis is how The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine failed to address accountability. (More so the former of the three.) The Federation was complicit in ruining the lives of everyone who suddenly found themselves in Cardassian territory because of a treaty, and thus, it always felt immensely unfair that the Maquis were never given their due for a very justifiable grievance with the Federation. This episode does not make that sort of mistake. Instead of doing whatever they can to justify the heroes, the writers for “In the Pale Moonlight” just outright state that the “heroes” have done some deplorable in order to benefit the greater good. Their intentions might have been good, but the cost was multiple lives.
How does Sisko live with that knowledge? If the show never addresses this episode again, I won’t see that as an oversight. I’ll see it as Sisko calmly compartmentalizing what was done, accepting the guilt as part of a grander scheme. Is that fucked up? Of course it is. But it’s real. That’s why I called The Next Generation a liberal fantasy. It’s much easier to never talk about these kind of decisions or stories because they muddle our understanding of reality. I meet progressive-minded folks all the time who prefer a more sanitized version of the world, who want to ignore how many people Obama has deported or bombed with drone strikes. They viewed radical critiques of Hillary as nothing more than misogyny or in-fighting. They see a political landscape of good intentions, catchy slogans, and moral detachment.
“In the Pale Moonlight” allows no such aspirations. And I would be a fool if I didn’t praise the major keystone to all of this: Avery Brooks. There is no finer actor in all of Trek, and his performance here (and in “Far Beyond the Stars”) is evidence that the production team for Deep Space Nine found someone special and immensely talented in this man. The decision to film the logs with such an arresting and urgent framing made Brooks’s performance shine through, and it is all the more devastating because of it.
I know for a fact now that Deep Space Nine is my favorite Trek series.
The video for “In the Pale Moonlight” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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