You may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant, and all it cost, was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer
The first batch of episodes that make up Star Trek Deep Space Nine watch like a Krusty-Brand-Imitation-Gruel version of its predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episodes were less about compelling moral dilemmas, or mysteries that slowly unfold over the course of an episode, as they were about a new batch of moody characters, embarking on personal journeys of discovery over the course of each episode, yet failing to develop as a result. The science fiction element took a back foot, and served merely as a vehicle for these character studies. Characters we have experienced little with at this point, having not been properly introduced, and yet told to care for them without the benefit of shared experience.
I was on the point of packing DS9 in. But curiosity and the emptiness of life got the better of me, and kept me watching. What kept this program going for seven series? The answer is, of course, a gradual descent into war. A story arc slowly develops, and along with it the characters, and we begin to fight and suffer with them as their situation becomes ever more desperate.
Initially the program’s format follows the space station next to the only known stable wormhole, gateway to the Gamma Quadrant. This is under the pretext of situations and races arriving on DS9 as a vehicle for new stories, as opposed to the Enterprise seeking them out episode by episode. But too much time is dedicated to the politics of nearby Bajora, Quark’s run ins with Odo, and Major Kira’s personal life, all characters peripheral to our cherished Starfleet. But then at the end of series two, DS9 takes an unexpected turn as we meet the Dominion, a formidable alien race living on the other side of wormhole. Made up of clone warriors bred for war, their commanders and tacticians the Vorta, also cloned by a race of shapeshifters known as the Founders, who are regarded as gods in the eyes of the Vorta. Odo discovers that his people, so long assumed lost forever, are actually aggressive supremacists living in the Gamma Quadrant, bent on bringing order to humanoid races they call ‘solids’.
Over the course of its seven series, there is much to love about DS9, but Bajoran spirituality, Quark’s relationship with the Ferengi Alliance, and Jake Sisko’s writing career, are not a part of them. All have too many episodes dedicated to them, but all fortunately take a back seat to a wartime story arc that pulls the other main characters along with it. This in turn justifies the occasional light-hearted episode, which previously would have come across as an unforgivable dumbing down of the spirit of Star Trek, in later series become welcome relief after periods of surprisingly dark and gritty stories.
One of the best illustrations of this is a DS9 episode called ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ in the middle of series six, which focuses on Captain Sisko’s attempts to draw the Romulans into the war against the Dominion, and turn the tide of the war in favour of the Alpha Quadrant. The Cardassians, brought to their knees by revolution and Klingon invasion, agreed to join the Dominion and assist with the annexation of the Alpha Quadrant. Meanwhile the Romulans have signed a non-aggression pact with the Dominion, happy to watch both sides exhaust themselves, biding their time for the right moment to swoop in and gain control of the quadrant.
The episode is told through a series of flashbacks as Sisko narrates a personal log entry detailing the events that led to the Romulans entering the war. Sisko, desperate to change the Federation’s fortunes, turns to Garek, a former member of the Cardassian secret police, now exiled from Cardassia, he is sometimes tailor, sometimes hired gun for the Federation. Turning to this morally ambiguous character is the first indication of Sisko’s desperation to bring the war to a swift end. Sisko believes that if they break into the Cardassian archives in the heart of Dominion territory, they could obtain evidence that the Dominion is planning a pre-emptive strike against the Romulan empire.
Garek immediately suggests that breaking into the most highly guarded archives in the middle of Dominion held territory, to find such evidence that may or may not exist, is unnecessarily dangerous and most likely futile. Nevertheless he calls in what favours he has among contacts on his home-world, only to discover less than a day later, that all those he contacted were found dead. Garek delivers the news to Sisko in his usual blasé manner, admiring Dominion efficiency. He even goes as far as to offer an alternative plan. Why not simply manufacture the evidence from the safety of DS9 and present it to a high ranking Romulan Senator? If they can convince one unsympathetic to the Federation’s cause even better. And one may just be passing DS9 on the way back from talks with the Dominion, and could be persuaded to make a detour to hold unofficial talks with Sisko.
All that is required is a convincing forgery of a recording of a high level Dominion meeting, held on Cardassia, where their plans to strike at the Romulans are laid out. The tricky part is convincing the Romulan senator that the recording is not a forgery. Garek assures Sisko that if he can obtain a unique data rod, manufactured only on Cardassia, to store the forged recording on, it will be convincing enough to fool the senator.
The only person outside of the Cardassian empire capable of this forgery currently sits in a Klingon prison. And so the moral ambiguity continues. Sisko calls in a favour with the Klingons to secure the release of one Grathon Tolar. He is released on condition of fulfilling this task for Sisko and Garek, and that he remain aboard DS9 until it is completed to everyone’s satisfaction. Starfleet approves Sisko’s plan, on a need to know basis.
During Tolar’s stay however, he enters into a brawl in Quark’s bar, which ends in him stabbing the owner. Further down the rabbit hole Sisko tumbles. He asks Quark what it will take for him to refrain from pressing charges against Tolar. Aside from money, Quark asks for some help clearing a shipment past security without the proper clearance. The casualty lists from the war, posted every Friday on DS9, motivate Sisko to continue.
Meanwhile Garek has sourced the unique data rod required to complete the deception, the only problem being that the seller’s price is 200 litres of bio-memetic gel, a restricted substance and highly dangerous, used in genetic experimentation, and the production of biogenic weapons. At Sisko’s protest, Garek reiterates that this may be their only chance of obtaining the rod. Sisko requires Doctor Bashir to clear the release of the gel. Bashir naturally protests and logs a complaint with Starfleet, yet still Sisko persists with the plan, accepting that he must deceive his most trusted officers to pull this off.
And so the plan continues under Garek’s supervision, the forgery is complete and the Romulans arrive. Sisko still does Senetar Vreenak the courtesy of trying to convince him to enter the war through reason. Vreenak naturally refuse, claiming it is clear who the winning side will be, stockpiling weapons and training soldiers remains the prudent course of action while the Federation slowly weakens through battle as far as he’s concerned. So Sisko shows him the recording. The Senator asks to inspect the rod and almost immediately discovers the forgery, and leaves with the data rod, in a state of fury.
All seems lost. The Romulans may even join the Dominion as a result of this treachery. Until Sisko learns that the senator’s ship exploded two days after leaving DS9, before his deception could be exposed to the Alpha Quadrant. Dominion assassination is suspected by all, save Sisko, who immediately seeks out Garek…and punches him in the face. It seemed so obvious to Garek, clearly Tolar was not up to the task of creating a forgery convincing enough to fool the Romulan senator, so why not just manufacture a Dominion strike on a Romulan senator as a back-up plan? Tolar was also promptly disposed of by Garek to cover any trace of these events.
Vreenak’s shuttle, when inspected by the Romulans, will contain the data rod, intact, with evidence of the Domion’s plans to invade the Romulan Empire, and any imperfections in the forgery will look like the result of the explosion. To the Romulans, it would seem the Dominion killed Vreenak to prevent him from bringing evidence of their treachery to light, and the more the Dominion protest, the more the Romulans will anger. This seemingly unprovoked act of aggression from the Dominion, to cover their own treachery drags the Romulans into the war against the Dominion, and destroys any evidence connecting Sisko and Garek to the incident. A master stroke of deceit, and a thrilling reminder of Garek’s true nature beneath his well-crafted air of benevolence.
The log entry ends with Sisko toasting himself and the changing fortunes of the war. He expresses no regret, after everything, as to the methods he employed. He deletes the log entry, with none of his senior staff any the wiser as to the real story behind this pivotal event in the war. More shocking is Starfleet Command’s approval of the plans in the first place, if not Garek’s covert plan to destroy the Romulan ship as a contingency, then at least the idea of fooling the Romulans.
We see how a noble and peaceful institution can morph and change as the strains of war set in, and how moral characters gradually twist their compass to fit extreme circumstances. This is done patiently, over the course of many series, through episodes such as ‘In the Pale Moonlight’. We find ourselves agreeing with these decisions, as we have followed the descent ourselves, with each episode gradually revealing the strain war can put on every aspect of society. We are not beaten over the head with the horrors of war gratuitously, rather we see how these horrors rise and mutate that which we once thought as certain or noble.
We see this on a personal level, where Nog and Jake, practically children, are thrust into skirmishes and battles, witnessing and complicit in horrific acts of violence. We see how the Federation’s alliances buckle under the strain of war. We see a secret police cell operating within the Federation, conducting investigations and performing surveillance, with no accountability and no restrictions as to what methods they may use. We witness episodes dealing with PTSD, suicide cults, prison camps, even genocide. The struggle for resources, the death toll, the personal and political strain, all illustrate how the Federation corrupts itself from within in the face of an external threat.
The fact that we have been with these characters for over two seasons before this descent begins adds depth to this plotline lacking in the more recent Star Trek Discovery (STD…). In DS9 we already know the main characters as peaceful and enlightened, and we watch them change over the course of the program as war transforms them into hardened soldiers, morphed by experiences and decisions the war forces them to make. In Discovery, every character is an insufferable dick from the get-go and the audience is given no reason to care about any of them, and as a result no reason to care about the fate of the Federation and the stakes of the war. The Federation comes across as a dangerous military force, it makes no attempts at peace with the Klingons, and all the characters are unstable and dangerous in one way or another, irrational, reckless, morally questionable (at best), and that’s before the war has fully gained momentum.
It is the descent that is fascinating. The Next Generation was masterful in its telling of self-contained episodes which challenged a group of characters, all of whom were archetypes of human intellect and nobility. For instance, only after Pickard is abducted by the Borg does a character take more than one episode to recover from an experience aboard the Enterprise. And well told as this episode is, TOS rarely acknowledges that these characters do not simply reset at the end of each episode, learning practically nothing after each new experience. DS9 in this respect has the edge in terms of character development, even if it took a while to gain momentum.
One persistent problem with the program however…is that well into series seven O’Brien and Bashir still seem to think that the aim of darts is to hit the bullseye. I mean, the program goes into quite a lot of depth about baseball…could it not extend darts the same level of respect?