Hello and welcome once again to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week we’ll be returning to ‘Deep Space Nine’ for a look at the episode ‘In the Pale Moonlight. I haven’t got much in the way of preamble this week, so let’s just cut to the chase!
Falling late in the show’s sixth season, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ is what you might call “peak ‘DS9’.” The show, by this point, had long since found its voice and was at roughly the midway point of its signature storyline: the Dominion War. As might be expected from ‘Star Trek’, the writers used this story not only to inject some action into the show but to examine the costs and hard choices that are part and parcel of any war. In point of fact, this episode may well be the most striking example of exactly that.
‘In the Pale Moonlight’ started off as a very different episode. As originally conceived by Peter Allan Fields, it would have seen Jake Sisko, in his role as a journalist, uncover some Watergate-esque malfeasance, ultimately placing him in conflict with his father. In at least one version of the story, Jake would have uncovered some dark secret about Shakaar, the First Minister of the Bajoran government, which Sisko would have tried to prevent his son from publishing. In a later draft, this became a secret about Captain Sisko himself. It was felt, however, that placing to two Siskos in opposition to one another never quite rang true. This was thanks in large part to the fact that the relationship between the two was too strong, a fact which had always been part of the show’s bedrock, not to mention something that was (and has since remained) fairly unique in the entirety of ‘Star Trek’. This lead to Jake being jettisoned from the story altogether and its subsequent development into the version that we know today.
We begin as Sisko – obviously a bit out of sorts – is dictating his personal log. This, he explains, is to help him come to terms with some unspecified action he has taken. Two weeks ago, he posted the latest casualty list in the wardroom, which he explains has become a grim Friday ritual. Dax lost a friend that week to a Dominion attack along the Romulans border. They are able to cross through Romulan territory thanks to a nonaggression pact the Empire signed. Sisko and his officers lament this. The war hasn’t been going well for the Federation, and if the Romulans joined the fight, they could very well turn the tide. Sisko explains that in retros, that was the point of no return. That was the moment he decided that he would find a way to bring the Romulans into the war.
The Romulans, Sisko reasons, will only join the war if it is in their best interest to do so, and so far that’s a hard case to argue. Any evidence of a Dominion plot against the Romulans, however, would be under lock and key far behind the lines. This leads him to speak with Garak, hoping that the spy-turned-tailor might still have some contacts, someone who owes him a favor. Hen Garak notes that even the attempt to enlist the Romulans is likely to be a “very messy, very bloody business.” Sisko reiterates his determination, simply asking if Garak is in or out. He’s in.
In the middle of the night, Dax wales him with the news that Betazed has fallen to the Dominion. This puts them in a position to threaten several core Federation worlds, including Vulcan and Alpha Centauri. Garak, meanwhile, was able to reach several of his former colleagues, all of whom, he informs Sisko, were killed within hours of speaking to him. Ever resourceful, Garak suggests that the best way to guarantee you find evidence of a plan to invade Romulus is to simply manufacture it. Sisko wonders if he should have walked away then and there but instead, he presses on, albeit covertly. Garak recommends reaching out to a Romulan Senator named Vreenak, one of the most pro-Dominion voices on Romulus. How best to convince the Senator? Why, present him with a single-use optolithic data rod of the type used for official record keeping on Cardassia. This data rod will, naturally, contain a holorecording of the invasion of Romulus being discussed at the highest levels of power. Sisko tells Garak that he’ll contact Starfleet Command to approve the operation. With that approval in hand, and Garak’s forged of choice sprung from a Klingon prison, they can begin.
On the station, however, the forger – Grathon Tolar – wastes no time in bringing some undue attention to himself. After getting drunk, harassing a dabo girl, and assaulting Quark, Tolar lands in Odo’s custody. Sisko explains to Odo that he can’t have any record of Tolar’s presence on the station. While Odo understands, his hands are tied if Quark presses charges. To that end, Sisko reluctantly agrees to bribe the Ferengi. In his log entry, Sisko explains that bribing Quark made him wonder whether or not this whole scheme was a mistake… at least until he got back to his office to find yet another casualty list waiting for him. Later, Garak reports to Sisko that he has located a seller with a genuine optolithic data rod, but there’s a catch. His source will only accept payment in the form of biomimetic gel, a substance strictly controlled by the Federation. Once again, Sisko nearly walks away, but ultimately agrees. Meanwhile, Tolar has completed his work on the holographic forgery, though Sisko refuses to let him leave the station unless and until his work is accepted by their “client”. Shortly thereafter, Vreenak arrives at the station. A security perimeter is established, leaving Garak and Sisko the only people aware of the Senator’s presence.
In the course of their meeting, Vreenak concedes that while Sisko makes some compelling arguments, he’ll need to do better than that if he’s going to convince Vreenak – let alone the rest of the Romulan government – to abrogate their treaty with the Dominion. That’s when Sisko drops the bomb, escorting the Senator to a holosuite to present him with the data rod. After viewing the recording, Vreenak naturally, asks to examine the data rod. Sisko waits anxiously. Eventually, he makes his way to Vreenak’s quarters. The Senator dismisses his guards and renders the verdict: “It’s a faaake!”
With all of his lies and compromises laid bare, it’s time to face the music. Vreenak, furious, leaves the station, vowing to expose this treachery. Sisko, seeing nothing else to do, returns to his routine. On Friday, he posts another casualty list. His staff fairs relatively well, the only familiar name being a friend of a friend. Suddenly, Worf arrives with a report that a Romulan Senator – guess which one – has been killed, his shuttle destroyed while returning to Romulus from a diplomatic mission. Romulan intelligence believes the Dominion to be responsible. Such a brazen act may even be enough to bring the Romulans into the war. Sisko’ entire demeanor changes as he excuses himself. The Captain marches into Garak’s shop, and without a word punches the tailor in the face. As a Garak gets to his feet Sisko tears into him, accusing him of having planned Vreenak’s assassination all along. Garak replied that while he hoped the rod would pass muster, he suspected Tolar – who he tacitly admits that he has also killed – wasn’t quite up to the task. Sisko hits him again as Garak explains that their deaths were not in vain, that when the Romulans investigate the wreckage of Vreenak’s shuttle, they’ll find a Cardassian data rod containing a recording of high ranking Dominion officials planning the invasion of their homeworld. Any imperfections in the forgery, he notes, will be blamed on damage from the explosion. With a seemingly genuine data rod and a dead Senator on their hands, the conclusion is obvious. Garak adds that Sisko can sooth his conscience with the knowledge that they may have just saved the Alpha Quadrant at the cost of the lives of one Romulan Senator, one criminal, and the self respect of one Starfleet officer. Surely, a bargain. In his log, Sisko confirms that the Romulans did, in fact, join the war and that tide is already turning. The episode ends as Sisko closes (and immediately deletes) his log entry: “I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all? I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. Garak was right about one thing. A guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it. Because I can live with it. I can live with it.”
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is one of the finest hours in the entirety of ‘Deep Space Nine’ and a sterling example of what sets it apart from the other six ‘Star Trek’ shows. It takes a hard look at the kind of hard choices that even the “good guys” have to make during wartime. For a franchise that can so often default to building episodes around its protagonists finding the right answer, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ is a shot across the bow, asking hard questions while providing no easy answers. Does Sisko do the right thing? Is he doing the wrong things for the right reasons? How much farther might he have gone?
In fact, it’s not an understatement to say that this may well be the least “Roddenberry” episode that ‘Star Trek’ has ever produced. There’s a tendency within ‘Trek’ fandom to wield that sentiment as an insult, and understandably so. After all, how far can you get from the core of what makes ‘Star Trek’ special before it becomes just another sci-fi drama? But in this case, at least, that deviation from the norm is a big part of what makes it work. It’s the ways in which it undercuts the audiences’ expectations, taking the narrative in directions that you might not expect from ‘Trek’ and helps make Sisko’s closing narration so chillingly honest. It’s also a microcosm of so many of the things that ‘Deep Space Nine’ did so well. Not only would the show frequently place its characters in impossible situations that challenged their deepest beliefs, but it wouldn’t simply hit the reset button at the end of the episode, preferring instead to see if and how they learned to live with it.
But while I could go on (and on, and on) about the story, the simple fact is that this episode more than most succeeds on the strength of its performances. Partly, this is because it’s almost entirely a two-man show, with much of the core cast either not appearing or featuring only briefly. But it’s also because the performances we do get are just so damned good. The episode rests on the shoulders of Avery Brooks and Andrew Robinson as Sisko and Garak respectively, each of whom is a standout in a cast full of outstanding performers. Robinson, in particular, is often one of the show’s most under-utilized players. While he had plenty to do over the years, the simple fact is that we’re talking about an actor who could make sitting at a table and insisting that he really is just a “plain, simple” tailor compelling. So when he’s actually given a chance to stretch his legs and show us what he can really do? You can’t take your eyes off him. Brooks is similarly captivating as Sisko – a fundamentally good man – convinces himself to cross one moral event horizon after another, all culminating in the final speech I quoted above. If you haven’t seen it, you must watch this episode. When you do, you’ll never forget it.
That’s enough from me. What do you think of ‘In the Pale Moonlight’? Is there a better example of ‘Deep Space Nine’ at its finest? Would you have liked to see the story center on a conflict between the Siskos? As always, let me know in the comments, and be sure to check back in two weeks for our next installment.