This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.
The Die is Cast is, like Improbable Cause before it, a wonderful piece of television.
As with most Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two-parters, The Die is Cast maintains continuity and consistency with its predecessor, but it feels like a very different episode than Improbable Cause. After all, the curtain has been pulled back. The assassination attempt is no longer the driving force of the narrative (in fact, it’s barely referenced), with the plot focusing on Enabrain Tain’s pre-emptive strike against the Dominion.
It’s interesting that it falls to the Cardassians and the Romulans to drive the Dominion plot onwards. There’s been no real development of this long-form plot since Sisko and his crew escaped at the end of The Search, Part II. Episodes like The Abandoned and Heart of Stone have seen the crew encountering individual members of the Dominion, and shows like Visionary have had characters sitting around talking about them, but nothing has actually happened. It is mostly business as usual.
As such, the episode’s title feels beautifully appropriate – it’s the crossing of a threshold, a point from which there can be no return. Not just for Tain or the Cardassians, but the show itself.
If it weren’t so carefully constructed, The Die is Cast could seem pretentious. Between the title of the episode, the two-parter’s book-ending references to Julius Caesar and even the presence of the Romulans, The Die is Cast is packed with classical references. Indeed, it seems like the only reason that Tain brought the Romulans along would be so he could actually have space!Romans along while he can play space!Caesar. (Actually, per Visionary, we’re told they brought the map and the cloaking devices, but the Romulans do feel a bit surplus to requirement. The Order should probably have been able to source those itself.)
Of course, references to Rome are nothing new on Star Trek, or in science-fiction in general. The Romulans have been around as a space-age Rome since Balance of Terror. Kirk and company even visited a planet of modern-day Romans in Bread and Circuses. Within the context of Deep Space Nine, it’s worth noting that several of the writers are fascinated with Roman and military history. Writer and producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe has compared both the Founders and the Terran Empire to the Romans, while Ronald D. Moore has repeated stressed an interest in military history. (And gave us the Federation as “a 24th century Rome” in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.)
In particular, modelling alien or futuristic cultures on the Roman Empire is a bit of a stock science-fiction trope. It has long been argued that Isaac Asimov was a massive influence on Star Trek, as with a significant portion of contemporary American science-fiction. John Clute’s essay on Asimov in A Companion to Science Fiction suggests that Asimov codified the idea of future counterparts to the Roman Empire:
Just as he made sense of robots in the Robot sequence, in the Foundation and Empire sequence Asimov cast a similarly rational eye upon the tradition world of American space opera, taming its ray-gun, Ruritanian excesses through a sustained and sober use of historical analogy: specifically, he based his long description of the fall of a sclerotic galactic empire as a rewriting of the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The city-planet Trantor is, of course, Rome.
It makes a great deal of sense to anchor alien cultures in the familiar, and the Roman Empire ranks as one of the most recognisable classic cultures to Western audiences – a fact evidenced by the abundance of “America as a modern Rome” arguments that tend to pop up in foreign policy debates. (A comparison that seemed to have influenced Bread and Circuses and arguably even Paul Schneider’s vision of the Romulans in Balance of Terror – particularly as developed by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood in The Romulan Way.)
So the heavy use of symbolism and imagery associated with the Roman Empire in The Die is Cast feels appropriate – right down to the wormhole serving as a metaphorical Rubicon, and Sisko subsequently replacing the runabout Mekong (featured here) with one named Rubicon. Even historian Francis Titchner’s observation that “for a Roman patrician like Julius Caesar there is no life without military service; there is no life without service to the state” seems to apply to the mindset of Enabran Tain.
Tain is an old man who clearly desires the chance to ride to glory one more time. Although he claims to be a patriot and rationalises his action with concern about Cardassia, Tain is clearly acting for his own ego. Indeed, the episode allows Garak and Tain to celebrate their victory with champagne flutes of Romulan Ale – illustrating just how over-confident and self-congratulatory they are. Tain has been blinded by the potential to lead one last great battle, and Garak is swept up in the romance of it. The duo are already planning how best to capitalise on their success before the mission is even complete.
Reflecting on a past victim of Garak’s torture, Tain suggests, “When we get back, you should look him up.” Garak has already invested some thought in the matter. “Oh, there are a number of people I intend to look up when we get back.” Given how a traitor lurks right under Tain’s nose, one imagines that their time would be better spent on the task at hand. Then again, that’s the great tragedy of it all; Tain was so convinced of his success that he was blinded.
In spite (and, indeed, because) of his urge to get back in the saddle, Tain has grown comfortable and complacent. “Wouldn’t have played it that way in the old days,” Tain reflects. “In the old days I would’ve kept Lovok at arms length. He was too cagey, too smart.” It turns out that this was all part of a Changeling plan, but it wasn’t instigated by them. Although they capitalised on Tain’s recklessness, the mistake was clearly his own. “Tain originated the plan, and when we learned of it we did everything we could to carry it forward,” changeling!Lovok explains.
This sense of tragedy is compounded by the fact that – even in the last moments – Tain refuses to accept a quiet retirement. As the world falls apart around him, as his plans crumble to dust, Tain still feels more comfortable in the command chair than he ever did in retirement. When Garak tries to convince Tain to abandon the ship, Tain refuses. “Go where? Back to Mila and my quiet retirement? I don’t think so.” Perhaps Tain’s retirement on Arawath isn’t so different from Garak’s exile on Terok Nor.
The Caesar parallel applies equally to Elim Garak, the guest star who sits very much at the heart of The Die is Cast. Like Caesar, Garak finds himself having to choose between an ignominious life in exile and a risky treacherous action that may pave the road glory. Despite all the harm that Tain has done to Garak, Garak very clearly wants the love and affection of the old man – completely (and willfully) blind to what it might cost him.
As well-connected and ruthless as he might be, the fact that Garak ended up in exile suggests that he wasn’t really a great spy. However, as he concedes in the closing scene, he is “a very good tailor.” The character’s central tragedy is his inability to concede those two facts, to accept and embrace them. Garak spends most of the episode lying to himself that he is willing to do whatever it takes to earn Tain’s respect, despite his discomfort with the proposed execution of Mila or the torture of Odo.
At the start of Improbable Cause, Garak criticises Shakespeare’s plotting of Julius Caesar because the betrayal and death of Caesar was obvious to any objective observer. While it is perhaps trite to compare the plotting of a Star Trek episode to the work of the Bard, Ronald D. Moore structures The Die is Cast around a similar conceit. The outcome of Garak’s choices are equally obvious to the viewer and to Odo. “The only common enemy you and I share is Enabran Tain,” Odo explains. “The difference between you and I is that you don’t know it.”
The Die is Cast feels like an epic, a fact only enhanced by the fact that it contains what is essentially the franchise’s first televised space battle. Star Trek had done confrontations between space ships before – most notably in episodes like Peak Performance and Redemption, Part II. However, the franchise was restricted somewhat by costs and other practical concerns. The Die is Cast is the first time that two rival fleets come into conflict with one another on screen, and the climax to The Die is Cast is packed with explosions and action shots.
Again, there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine is flexing its creative muscles. Like a lot of the third season, it seems like the show is dipping its toes in the water. Although the action sequences in The Die is Cast are the most elaborate space combat sequences in the franchise to date, the show would dramatically increase the stakes with its fourth season premiere, The Way of the Warrior. From the fifth season finalé (A Call to Arms) onwards, big action set pieces would become a hallmark of Deep Space Nine, even if footage was occasionally recycled and reused.
There’s also a sense that The Die is Cast is a spectacle unfolding before our heroes – with Sisko and his crew bearing witness to an epic struggle between three other galactic powers. Our heroes spend most of The Die is Cast on the sidelines, observing and trying to react to schemes and plots that ultimately have nothing to do with them. Unlike in stories featuring Picard or Janeway, there’s no sense that Sisko is a vital character in this epic galactic struggle unfolding around him.
This is clear from the episode’s opening scene, where a fleet of Romulan and Cardassian ships decloak near the station. Understandably, this causes a panic. The Romulans had tried to destroy the station recently in Visionary, after all. The station goes into panic mode as dozens of potentially hostile ships appear on the sensors. “Red alert,” Sisko commands. “All hands to battle stations. Shields up, stand by weapons.” This looks like it might be it – a massive confrontation.
And then the fleet ignores the station. The Romulans and Cardassians plunge through the wormhole, paying absolutely no attention to the station. They don’t even acknowledge Sisko’s attempts to communicate. Immediately, it’s clear. This isn’t a story about our heroes. Sisko and the station aren’t at the centre of this story. The best they can do is bear witness to this grand tragedy, as made clear in Sisko’s closing line from the teaser. “Open a priority channel to Starfleet Command now,” he instructs, serving as little more than a reporter of a titanic struggle.
The Die is Cast practically revels in how completely useless our heroes are. Ronald D. Moore’s script seems to acknowledge that the scenes featuring Sisko and his crew are really just padding, existing to help pace the scenes on the Romulan warbird. Most obviously, the scene where Kira attempts to offer O’Brien some assistance exists only to create some space between Garak’s initiation of the torture session with Odo and the scene exploring the consequences of that torture. (The scene actually accomplishes nothing beyond eating up thirty seconds and conveying that time has passed.)
Similarly, a large amount of the subplot involving Sisko and the crew basks in the melodrama of the situation while emphasising how completely divorced the characters are from the episode’s main plot. Deciding to venture into the Gamma Quadrant to rescue Odo (and maybe Garak), Sisko gives a big dramatic monologue about the situation, assuring the crew, “I consider this a volunteer mission, but don’t volunteer yet. There’s a good chance you won’t be coming back from this mission. And even if you do, you’ll probably be facing a general court martial.”
Naturally, none of this actually happens. The Defiant doesn’t even come under heavy fire, nipping in and out of the battle with little fuss. When Sisko returns to the station, Admiral Toddman seems to shrug off any idea of court martialing the crew… with no real reason given. “You may be interested to know I’ve decided not to file charges against anyone aboard the Defiant,” he offers, almost like an after-thought. It’s clear that Sisko’s subplot is not in anyway the major dramatic thrust of the episode.
Indeed, the break between the second and third acts of the script draws attention to how completely ineffective the crew are, with some delightfully overstated direction from David Livingston. All of a sudden, the Defiant’s cloak fails. Kira offers some incredibly obvious exposition, stating, “Commander, if the Jem’Hadar show up while we’re decloaked…” Sisko finishes the incredibly obvious statement, “We’ll have to fight our way out of here.” The scene comes complete with an absurdly dramatic close-up of Sisko’s solemn face as the score hits a crescendo.
And then… the crew efficiently and effectively repair the cloak, with absolutely no incidents of note occurring. In another episode, you could imagine a squadron of Jem’Hadar closing as O’Brien works frantically to get some techno-babble working – succeeding at the last possible moment. It is a brilliant example of subverting classic Star Trek storytelling. Indeed, the sabotage of the Defiant has absolutely no consequences. Eddington even manages to remain on the bridge. It is – very transparently – stalling to keep Sisko from wading into the episode’s larger plot.
There’s something very refreshing about this. Starfleet is generally treated as the most important of the Alpha Quadrant powers. So the Federation is forced to face the Borg while the Romulans and the Klingons sit that one out; the one of the most important events of a Klingon Civil War involve a Federation armada; that sort of thing. Before The Die is Cast, it’s hard to think of a major galactic event depicted in Star Trek where the Federation was not a major player. (The occupation of Bajor, referenced in Ensign Ro and The Chain of Command, is probably closest.)
This focus makes sense, given that the audience at home is human and most television shows like to focus on adjectives like “relatable” when producing television drama, especially in the mid-nineties. More than that, Star Trek shows tend to be built around Federation star ships and crews, so it makes sense that we see the universe through their eyes. Stories in which our characters act as detached observers to large-scale space operas are obviously less exciting and engaging than stories about our characters thrown into the middle of large-scale space operas.
So The Die is Cast feels like a brilliant subversion. It’s a nice way of reminding the audience that the Federation doesn’t get to set galactic policy, and that it isn’t the only galactic power of interest. This was a point worth making in the context of the nineties, given the way that the Federation has historically served as an analogue to the United States of America. Arguing that galactic foreign policy exists beyond the needs or interests of the Federation serves as an example of Deep Space Nine‘s diverse perspective.
This makes sense. Deep Space Nine has always been the most multi-cultural of Star Trek shows. It explores and celebrates alien cultures, revelling in world-building and character development. The Cardassian Union and the Klingon Empire arguably become just as nuanced and developed as the Federation – just as intricately constructed and just as fully-formed. Deep Space Nine isn’t just the story of mankind venturing into outer space, it is a much larger story about history and politics and culture.
In The Soul of Popular Culture, Mary Lynn Kittelson notes this shift in perspective among the later Star Trek shows:
In the setting for the later Star Trek series, both Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (henceforth DS9) and Star Trek: Voyager (57V) we do not find ourselves exploring the alien unknown or patrolling the frontier with the the distrusted “other” but, in these times of deep change, living in the aliens’ place, on their turf.
With DS9 we are no longer roving the galaxy on a cutting-edge starship but occupying someone else’s recycled space station, beyond the edge of the Federation itself but near the only known stable “wormhole” — a fixed but unpredictable portal to unknown and unexplored parts of the galaxy. Now, we need not go journeying in search of the alien: we are the aliens residing among them and, as we cross into the new millennium, the yet-more-unknown lies just beyond the threshold, and may come barreling down on us unexpectedly.
In DS9, the Federation, paralleling the American geopolitical realities in the late 1990s, no longer finds itself playing Cold-War-style brinksmanship with an Evil Empire (Klingons or Romulans, as in ST or TNG), but rather, facing a far more balkanized and polycentric galaxy.
The events of The Die is Cast radically alter the politics of Deep Space Nine, even if they affect the Federation in the most minimal of ways. The fallout from the events depicted here casts a shadow over the rest of the show’s run.
The Die is Cast is also – like so much of Deep Space Nine‘s political plotting – almost prescient. It’s tempting to write off all the foreshadowing as nothing more than a succession of lucky guesses, but there’s more to it than that. Deep Space Nine is very clearly rooted in the politics and mindset of the nineties. The show was paranoid and sceptical about authority, but that was as much a part of the nineties zeitgeist as it is anchored in post-9/11 public consciousness.
The shape-shifting Changelings are not the only doppelgangers to emerge from science-fiction film and television in the decade – they aren’t too dissimilar to the T-1000 from Terminator 2 or the Bounty Hunter from The X-Files. Indeed, the paranoia of episodes like The Search and Whispers are rooted in the same nineties anxieties about shady authority figures as The X-Files, with the relevance carrying over quite well to the skepticism and cynicism of the post-9/11 era.
All of this is a way of suggesting that things like 9/11 (and the response to 9/11) do not happen in a vacuum. Although it re-framed the international debate, the War on Terror was not a radical shift in policy or direction. The United Kingdom operated an effective surveillance culture well before 2001. As The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism noted:
The terrorist threat to the UK is not new. In the postwar period terrorist organisations, with a wide range of motivations, have repeatedly attacked UK interests; and between 1969 and 1998 over 3,500 people died in the UK itself as a result of Irish-related terrorism.
As a result of the Troubles, British Intelligence services held a wide range of powers, including tapping phone calls between the United Kingdom and Ireland. Internment was an instrument of policy.
Internally, the United Kingdom built up an entire CCTV network in the seventies and eighties. Connections have been made officially and unofficially with the British deployments in Belfast and Basra. Even as the Troubles died down and before the War on Terror began, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 sought to expand the state’s surveillance powers. Though surveillance culture may have gained traction in the wake of 9/11, it was far from a new phenomenon.
Even within the United States, public faith in the government was still reeling from the Watergate Scandal. Although public approval of the American government only went into a truly sharp decline in the early years of the new millennium, Gallup never recorded support above 60% for the government in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. (In particular, the support for the Legislative branch had been trending downwards from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties.) In the nineties, events like the Monica Lewinski Affair only served to further undermine the faith of the American public.
In The Die is Cast, the rogue intelligence agencies of two major powers conspire to lead their people into war based on false intelligence. This is far from a direct parallel with the conduct of American and British intelligence communities in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq – for one thing, the two governments were complicit in the supply of misinformation and the intelligence community seemed to be furnishing intelligence to support a pre-set political agenda.
However, it can’t help but evoke concerns about the powers and autonomy of various intelligence services. Tain is able to assemble an armada through the Obsidian Order, without the oversight of the Central Command. The power that American government should and can hold over the CIA, for example, is a matter of frequent debate – with the suggestion that the agency has a history of acting on its own agenda, and the recurring suggestion that attempts at oversight (such as the Church Committee) tends to neuter the effectiveness of the service.
In particular, the suggestion that the Dominion is an enemy unlike any that the Romulans or Cardassians have confronted before recalls suggestions that contemporary espionage operations were ill-suited to fight the War on Terror. Still built around the Cold War model of an enemy country and centralised infrastructure, American and British intelligence were not prepared for the de-centralised and country-less form of organised terrorism. The 9/11 Commission criticised the intelligence community for a “lack of imagination” in dealing with threats.
When Tain and his fleet arrive in the Omarion Nebula to discover that the Founders’ homeworld has moved, it’s clear that they are unprepared for the new reality of war. It’s impossible to imagine the Klingons or Federation moving their home planet. Mankind would never abandon Earth any more than the Cardassians would foresake Cardassia. However, as befits their biological make-up, the Founders are less rigid and more fluid than the foes that Tain is used to confronting.
Given that these new adversaries do not need the sort of infrastructure that most governments take for granted, the Founders are highly mobile and hard to pin-down. The Changelings can just move from one planet to the next to re-establish their Great Link, while outsiders try to hunt them down. As such, engaging in traditional warfare with the Changelings is simply not feasible. This is a new type of war, one that the Romulans and Cardassians are ill-equipped to fight.
(That said, engaging in traditional warfare with the Dominion is quite possible – and it’s very strange that Changeling infiltration ceases entirely to be a threat to the Alpha Quadrant mid-way through the fifth season. To be fair, this is quite possibly justified by revelations during the seventh season, but it still seems like a weird shift in tone. One imagines that – had Deep Space Nine been produced a decade later – Changeling infiltration would have remained a much stronger threat for a longer period of the run.)
Indeed, Deep Space Nine stresses how useless and counter-productive heightened security is at stopping these infiltrators – the notion of using blood tests to identify Changelings in undermined obviously in the first episode they appear, The Adversary, and subtly in the next, The Way of the Warrior. This seems to mirror observations that most counter-terrorism initiatives are of questionable effectiveness. They primarily seem to exist to make people feel more secure.
Still, outside the political commentary, there’s a lot to recommend The Die is Cast. In many respects, it seems designed to mirror The Best of Both Worlds – coming towards the end of a period of growth for the show, it emphasises what Deep Space Nine is capable of accomplishing. Moore includes a reference to “Wolf 359” at the end of the episode, as if to reinforce the parallels. (And one could see Explorers as a “breather” episode in the style of Family, even if it is not directly connected.)
Like a lot of the third season, there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine is still tinkering with the formula, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Many of the same ideas would be revisited in later seasons – with The Die is Cast feeling like a progenitor of both The Way of the Warrior and By Inferno’s Light. It also, as Moore and Behr noted in an interview with Cinefantastique, pushes Deep Space Nine a little further towards serialisation:
Noted Moore, “I like to do episodes like Defiant and the big two parters because they are stories that are embroidering on the continuing story of the station that keeps moving along. I like the fact that there is a continuing saga and there are elements that are familiar to the audience every week that the loyal viewer can pick up on. We are able to walk the line between making it a serial and making it episodic. You can keep doing things that are enriching the over-all fabric of the show and yet that are still accessible to the average viewer. I like the shows that enrich the universe we are creating here.”
“We basically build it piece by piece,” said Behr of the long-term storylines. “I think back to early Deep Space Nine and we were trying to find the identity. I told staff I wanted to come up with three alien races for the Gamma Quadrant. We created a whole new society and built it into something.”
The show’s internal continuity has been built rather slowly, brick-by-brick. This means occasional missteps and problems (most obviously, The Die is Cast should really have come half-a-season earlier), but which lends everything an organic feel. Unlike The X-Files, Behr and his staff were honest about how Deep Space Nine was being constructed on the fly, acknowledging the freedom of “making it up as they go along.” It’s not a perfect balance, and there are some bumps in the road, but it does work quite well along the way.
As such, it’s worth pointing out that Lovok’s foreshadowing of The Way of the Warrior was not clever planning from a writing staff with a clear roadmap for the years ahead. Instead, as Behr concedes in The Deep Space Nine Companion, it was a fortuitous piece of inspiration:
Lovok’s comment that, “After today the only real threats from the Alpha Quadrant are the Klingons and the Federation …” was, according to Behr, just a throwaway line at the time. But that single unassuming comment was ultimately responsible for the Federation’s problems with the Klingons in Season 4, and for Worf’s transfer to DS9.
The fourth season arc of Deep Space Nine is a bit of a muddle – the behind-the-scenes decisions still obscured a bit by history. There is some manner of debate about the last-minute changes made to the show’s arc, and what prompted them, but the show adapted wonderfully to the change.
Similarly, Eddington’s later character development had not yet been decided by the writing staff – but subsequent developments fit quite nicely with The Die is Cast. Eddington hasn’t been seen since The Search, Part II – audiences would be forgiven for assuming that he had vanished off the station with T’Rul. However, the show kept Kenneth Marshall around while it tried to figure out what to do with the character, a decision that would pay dividends. (As compared to the utilitarian use of supporting characters on Star Trek: Voyager.)
Indeed, although his character arc was yet to be mapped out, his scenes here play very well in hindsight. Sisko is immediately able to forgive Eddington’s betrayal here because it was done in service of Starfleet. “Odo’s my friend too,” Eddington explains, “but I report directly to Admiral Toddman and he gave me an explicit order. I couldn’t disobey it.” Sisko allows, “I don’t suppose you could.”
When Eddington swears to help the crew recover Odo, Sisko his earlier betrayal immediately, based on loyalty to the uniform. “I make it a policy to never question the word of anyone who wears that uniform. Don’t make me change that policy.” One imagines that the conversation probably played a large part in how Sisko came to feel about Eddington’s later decisions, and why Sisko seemed to take it so personally. (Beyond, well, the host of other reasons Sisko should take it personally.)
The Die is Cast is a demonstration of just what Deep Space Nine can do, and a highlight of the third season. The show’s third season has struggled a bit to reach this point, but if the staff can maintain this consistent level of quality, the future is bright.
You might be interested in our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- The Search, Part I
- The Search, Part II
- House of Quark
- Second Skin
- Supplemental: Fearful Symmetry by Olivia Woods
- The Abandoned
- Civil Defense
- Supplemental: (Malibu Comics) #29-30 – Sole Asylum
- Past Tense, Part I
- Past Tense, Part II
- Life Support
- Heart of Stone
- Supplemental: (Malibu Comics) The Rules of Diplomacy
- Prophet Motive
- Supplemental: The 34th Rule by Armin Shimerman & David R. George III
- Supplemental: (Malibu Comics) Blood and Honour
- Distant Voices
- Through the Looking Glass
- Improbable Cause
- The Die is Cast
Filed under: Deep Space Nine | Tagged: arcs, Caesar, cardassians, changelings, crossing the rubicon, deep space nine, Dominion, ds9, enabran tain, Federation, foreshadowing, Garak, Julius Caesar, lovok, Odo, plotting, romulans, ronald d. moore, star trek, star trek: deep space nine, tain, the die is cast, tragedy, war, war on terror |