In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light represent a fantastic accomplishment for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
The two-parter demonstrates the care and skill that went into characterisation on the show. The later Star Trek series often struggled to define their core ensembles as effectively as this series defined its secondary players. Star Trek: Voyager often reduced its characters to cogs within a plot-driven machine, capable of whatever a given plot required from them at a given moment. The same was true of Star Trek: Enterprise, which spent most of its first two years slotting cookie-cutter characters into very conventional narratives.
In contrast to Voyager and Enterprise, the bulk of plotting on Deep Space Nine seemed to flow from the characters themselves rather than forcing the characters to conform to the demands of the plot. All the big storytelling decisions on Deep Space Nine are rooted in the agency of the characters in question, to the point that the fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant seems to hinge upon the fragility of Gul Dukat’s ego. It is a very clever (and very ahead of its time) approach to plotting a science-fiction series, just one reason that Deep Space Nine has aged so well.
As a result, In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light are both rooted in what the audience already knows about the characters populating Deep Space Nine. All the decisions that are taken feel very much in character, and in keeping with what the audience knows about these individuals. This only serves to make it all the more impressive that the two-parter so radically revises the show’s status quo.
Scale is nothing new for Star Trek two-parters. The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II imagined a Borg invasion of the Federation. Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II featured a Klingon Civil War that ran the risk of drawing the Federation into its gravity. All Good Things… found the entire future of the human race (if not the entire galaxy) at risk as Picard bopped through time. The Star Trek franchise had done “epic” storytelling before.
More than that, Voyager was in the process of refining a “blockbuster” template for its multi-part stories. This approach had been suggested by Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, but would be better refined during the show’s fourth season with Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Those episodes would pull off an impressive sense of spectacle on a television budget, offering a white-knuckle action adventure.
Barring a few early experiments, Deep Space Nine has generally steered clear of this approach to multi-episode stories. The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege were very much in the style of Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II, upending the show’s status quo for the length of the arc only to put everything back in place by the time that the story wrapped up. Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II is probably the best example of the show doing a “blockbuster” two-parter that is essentially just a larger single-episode narrative.
By and large, Deep Space Nine tends to use two-part stories as points of transition between iterations of the show. The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II introduced the Defiant and the Founders, two concepts that altered the framework of the series. The Way of the Warrior drafted Worf into the show and established the Klingons as primary antagonists. In the sixth season, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels topple Dukat and return Sisko to Deep Space Nine. Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols introduce Ezri and bring Sisko back to the station.
Deep Space Nine tends to use multi-part episodes as pivot points to upend the status quo. With In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, the Cardassian Union is officially assimilated into the Dominion. The Dominion establishes a beachhead into the Alpha Quadrant, with the wormhole no longer serving as a tactical bottleneck between the Federation and the Dominion. As the closing credits play over By Inferno’s Light, there is a sense that everything has changed and nothing is the same.
That is an incredible feeling for a television drama, particularly one that was written and produced in the context of the nineties. After all, the relatively stability and certainty of a television show’s premise was largely taken for granted in the era of syndication. Television stations expected audiences to be able to tune into any episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation playing in syndication, to be able to follow what was happening without having to watch the episodes in sequence. The core premise of the show was a framework upon which each episode was built.
In terms of nineties prime-time television, it was important for that framework to remain constant and stable. As Mark Mikhail argues:
Not long ago, in the early ’90s, television was, for the most part, episodic rather than serial. That is to say, any episode could stand alone as its own story and did not rely on other episodes to provide context. Think of dramas like ER, CSI, NYPD BLUE; each episode has a case or puzzle to solve that begins and resolves within each installment, the characters being the only common threads between episodes. Networks made piles of money from syndication, which thrives on reruns, especially in the global market (Still today, countries all over the world air reruns of all the aforementioned dramas.). Unlike episodic programming, serialized television doesn’t work as reruns unless you’ve seen the preceding episode. Subsequently, serial narratives took the back seat to episodic programming, though it wouldn’t stay that way much longer.
It should be noted that prime-time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty did attempt serialisation in prime-time, but their lack of success in syndication discouraged other networks from continuing to experiment with the form.
This all changed in the later nineties, both on mainstream television and on the fringes. Twin Peaks was a formative example, a murder mystery produced by David Lynch. Genre television paved the way in some respects, with the launch of J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 on the Prime-Time Entertainment Network in 1994, the emergence of Chris Carter’s The X-Files on Fox in 1993, and the premiere of Joss Whedon’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer on the WB in 1997.
However, it seemed like critics and pundits only began paying attention to the trend toward serialisation when it affected prestige programming. HBO is seen as a pioneer in this respect, particular with the launch of Oz in 1997 and of The Sopranos in 1999. However, it is important to remember that serialisation tended to happen in quirky science-fiction and horror shows over the course of the decade. Deep Space Nine was not revolutionary in this regard, but it was still an early adaptor.
In fact, it could legitimately be argued that this willingness to upend the status quo and shift the narrative foundation of the series is an aspect of Deep Space Nine that has aged remarkable well. C. Gregory makes this case in Parallel Narratives:
Deep Space Nine stands as Star Trek’s major dramatic achievement. Whereas the two proceding series were basically episodic, using more-or-less “fixed” characters and relationships, DS9 interweaves its continuous political story arcs with strong character development. The movement way from ‘closure’ of narratives that had begun during the third season of TNG reaches its climax in a series which continually presents its characters with challenging political and personal choices, emphasises the relative perspectives of different alien races, and grasps the “epic” form in a way unparalleled in TV history. While the utopian idealism of Roddenberry’s conception of Star Trek remains as a constant reference point, the political and psychological realism of DS9 gives it a constant ‘edge’ that redefines Star Trek as a strikingly cohesive product of the modern “televisual” age.
It is easy to overstate this argument. Deep Space Nine is not as tightly serialised as most modern drama. The series appears quite dated when compared to something like Lost or Breaking Bad. Much like The X-Files, it is perhaps more reasonable to suggest that Deep Space Nine exists halfway between nineties television and its descendents.
This is clear even in the context of In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. This is an episode that revises the concept of the show, and the layout of the fictional universe. However, it takes time for those changes to trickle down into later scripts. Deep Space Nine segues from the reveal Bashir is not who he claims to be in By Inferno’s Light to… the reveal Bashir is not who he claims to be in Doctor Bashir, I Presume. Initial plans for Business as Usual suggested an episode focusing on a failing Cardassian state selling off its weapons of mass destruction.
The series doesn’t really begin to deal with the fallout of In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light until Ties of Blood and Water, four whole episodes later. It is almost as though the writing staff needed to take a couple episodes to adjust to the new status quo. The word “Dominion” is not mentioned in Doctor Bashir, I Presume, A Simple Investigation or Business as Usual. When the Cardassians are discussed in A Simple Investigation and Business as Usual, it is in the context of the Occupation.
In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light are very clearly their own story, with their own plot beats and action sequences. The bulk of the two-parter is built around the story in the Dominion prison camp, with Garak plotting an escape as Worf fights with the Jem’Hadar. However, even the Alpha Quadrant section of the story has a clear structure to it. It is not just about Dukat taking control of Cardassia. By Inferno’s Light also has the Defiant foil an attempted terrorist strike to destroy Bajor. There is an element of self-contained narrative to all of this.
However, even though it takes a couple of episodes for Deep Space Nine to roll with the punches and build off the consequences of the two-parter, the production team clearly understand that these changes will have long-term consequences for the show. The final conversation between Sisko and Dukat is really an extended teaser making it clear that this is the beginning of something rather than the end. Dukat taunts, “You may have escaped defeat this day but tomorrow…” Sisko replies, “We will see about tomorrow.” Dukat agrees, “Yes, we will.” Ominious fade out.
Once the show adjusts to the new status quo, it quickly crafts stories dealing with it. Soldiers of the Empire, Blaze of Glory and In the Cards are all stories that could not have been told in the first half of the season. In the context of nineties television, this is remarkable. Although Star Trek would continue to broadcast for another six years after the end of Deep Space Nine, the franchise never pushed that much further in terms of long-form storytelling. Deep Space Nine was ahead of its time when it ended, but the Star Trek franchise would find itself standing in the dust.
Deep Space Nine‘s political themes have aged remarkably well, perhaps because they are not as firmly rooted in the nineties as those of Voyager. After all, Ronald D. Moore was able to port over many of the core themes of Deep Space Nine into his successful relaunch of Battlestar Galactica, demonstrating how effectively those themes spoke to the realities of the War on Terror. Deep Space Nine‘s themes only seem to get more relevant, particularly episodes like The Way of the Warrior or Homefront and Paradise Lost.
This might be because Deep Space Nine draws so much from history, acknowledging that the past has a tendency to loop or rhyme. This is obvious in terms of its cultural references, eschewing nods to contemporary pop culture in favour building episodes around classic films like Casablanca or Brigadoon or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When it does come to depicting the Dominion War, Deep Space Nine is heavily informed by both the Second World War and the Vietnam War.
Those influences are quite clear within In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. The Cardassian Union has long been heavily influenced by the cultural memory of Nazi Germany, with the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor heavily likened to the Holocaust in episodes like Emissary and Duet. Even episodes like Chain of Command, Part I and Chain of Command, Part II build upon this idea, with Gul Macet insisting that fascism took root on Cardassia in response to the hunger and anger of a broken people. He lauds “what the military has done for Cardassia.”
It is a familiar narrative that consciously evokes the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany following the end of the First World War. Deep Space Nine has a fondness for symmetry and repetition, and so it has Cardassia move in an arc that loosely resembles a circle. Following the events of Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, military rule on Cardassia collapses. However, the Klingon invasion in The Way of the Warrior comes at a high cost. Much like the initial rise of the military was driven by that sense of anger and hunger, so too is membership of the Dominion.
When Dukat explains the alliance to the Cardassian people in By Inferno’s Light, he frames it in nationalist terms. There is a sense that liberal civilian rule has allowed Cardassia’s national character to decay. “Cardassia will be made whole,” Dukat vows. “All that we have lost will be ours again, and anyone who stands in our way will be destroyed.” It is very much the crafting of a fascist national myth, the legend of a romantic past that can be used to justify a brutal future. He promises, “What I did I did to make Cardassia strong again.”
As with the political subtext of Homefront and Paradise Lost, this aspect of the show has aged remarkably well. Dukat evokes a horrific past and a terrifying future. Indeed, Dukat’s rhetoric seems perfectly attuned to the rise of populist right-wing nationalism that haunts the early twentieth-century. The political campaign of Donald Trump comes to mind, particularly when framed in these terms by Roger Cohen:
Welcome to Weimar America: It’s getting restive in the beer halls. People are sick of politics as usual. They want blunt talk. They want answers.
Welcome to an angry nation stung by two lost wars, its politics veering to the extremes, its mood vengeful, beset by decades of stagnant real wages for most people, tempted by a strongman who would keep all Muslims out and vows to restore American greatness.
There are other examples, of course. The rise of Marine Le Pen in France. The unforeseen triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom. It is worth noting that both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson campaigned on slogans that are very similar in tone to Dukat’s promise to “make Cardassia strong again.” Trump’s campaign slogan was “make America great again”, while Johnson urged voters to “take back control.”
Cardassia’s decision to join the Dominion, stoked by nationalist fervour and a sense of cultural decline, feels like a prescient commentary on the sorts of selfish decisions that populist right-wing factions tend to make. In joining the Dominion, Dukat makes a deal with a metaphorical devil that will leave Cardassia in ruins by the end of What You Leave Behind. It recalls the disaster that the Republican Party invited upon itself by creating the perfect conditions for Trump to ride to populist success or the horror that David Cameron brought upon Britain in his arrogance.
(There are any number of parallels that might be made with Cardassia’s decision to join the Dominion and the recent rise of the political right in the United States and Europe. The Dominion is quite clearly driven by the same concepts of racial purity and fascist philosophy that informs a lot of the so-called “alt-right.” The anxieties of the Cardassian Union are largely driven by fears of terrorists operating within their borders, which is tied to contemporary Islamophobia and xenophobia. It is a metaphor that fits uncomfortably well.)
Deep Space Nine has done a remarkable job of sketching out the wider political and social contexts of the Star Trek universe. There is a sense that nothing on the show happens in a vacuum, that it is contextualised by what came before and that it will shape what follows. Robert Hewitt Wolfe made a convincing argument for how unprepared the Federation was for the arrival of the Dominion in the Alpha Quadrant:
Wolf 359 ring a bell? The Federation fleet got raked over the coals. Subsequently they’ve been through an incredibly costly war with the Klingons, and yet another bloody battle with the Borg. Starfleet’s in bad shape. And every time they manage to rebuild they get the sh!t kicked out of them again.
This is one of the most remarkable aspects of Deep Space Nine, the sense that absolutely everything ties together in some way or form. Sisko makes a passing reference to the events of Star Trek: First Contact in In Purgatory’s Shadow; Dukat’s references to the Maquis in By Inferno’s Light are only reinforced by what the audience just witnessed in For the Uniform. All these little details fit together to form a larger picture.
This sense of purpose and continuity ultimately helps Deep Space Nine seem more cohesive than it actually is. By Inferno’s Light finds Gowron reintroducing the Khitomer Accords, resetting the status quo that had been thrown out by the events of The Way of the Warrior. As such, the fourth season might easily have seemed like a narrative cul-de-sac. After all, the Klingon Empire and the Federation went to war for a little while, but then sorted it out. This is not a hugely satisfying conclusion. It suggests that the fourth season was nothing more than a detour for the series.
To a certain extent, the fourth season was a detour. Worf and the Klingons were introduced into the fourth season of Deep Space Nine at the behest of the studio, and against the wishes of the production team. The reintroduction of the Khitomer Accords and the affirmation of the Dominion as the primary threat serves to roll the clock back a little bit on Deep Space Nine. It seems almost as though the fourth season had been a distraction that led the story in the wrong direction, and the fifth season is a conscious course-correction.
This is reinforced by the strong plotting connections between the third and fifth seasons, bypassing the fourth. Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places as a sequel to House of Quark; Ferengi Love Songs as a sequel to Family Business; Ties of Blood and Water as a sequel to Second Skin. Even In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light play very much as a sequel two-parter to Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast. With all of this in mind, the fourth season might easily seem like a waste of time and energy, which would be unsatisfying.
However, Deep Space Nine is clever enough to understand this risk. As a result, it carefully draws attention to everything that happened during the fourth season and serves to recontextualise it as background material explaining these dramatic plot twists. The Klingon War was not just a dead end, because it informed both Cardassia’s decision to the join the Dominion and the weakened state of the Federation. Admittedly, Cardassia was crippled after The Die is Cast and the Federation after First Contact, but the care taken to tie it all together is admirable.
Deep Space Nine has done a phenomenal amount of what might be termed “world-building”, mapping out a fictional space inhabited by its characters and through which their actions might ripple. Over the course of the show’s run, it seems like Deep Space Nine has become the centre of this fictional universe. It is almost as if Terok Nor is spinning at the heart of the Alpha Quadrant. In By Inferno’s Light, Gowron reflects, “Think of it. Five years ago no one had ever heard of Bajor or Deep Space Nine, and now all our hopes rest here.”
However, this nexus of continuity and connection is not simply driven by plot requirements or narrative mechanics. Deep Space Nine is very much invested in its characters and the various connections that they share to one another. This interesting social network proves essential to the Dominion War, where it seems like all the key figures exist within two degrees of separation from one another and one of those degrees is the station itself. This is very much the case in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light.
There is a sense that absolutely everybody on Deep Space Nine is tied together. In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light are firmly anchored in familial relationships, the relationships between parents and children. In In Purgatory’s Shadow, Gul Dukat visits the station in to reconnect with his daughter, while Garak mounts a mission to rescue his father. It feels very much like the Dominion invasion of the Alpha Quadrant is nothing bu an epic backdrop for these family struggles.
(To be fair, there are points when Deep Space Nine would over-exert itself in trying to forge these connections between characters, particularly in the final two seasons. Although it seems a bit convenient that the son of the head of the Obsidian Order would find himself exiled on Terok Nor, it does not feel overly contrived. In contrast, the familial connections between Dukat and Kira in Wrongs Darker than Death or Night or between Sisko and the Prophets in Signs and Symbols both make the world of Deep Space Nine seems very small and incestuous.)
In Purgatory’s Shadow seems to imply that the Dominion were only able to gain a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant because of Gul Dukat’s family drama. At one point, Dukat seems to be constructing his own narrative of exile, trying to reconcile himself to the role of antagonist. Whereas Dukat painted himself as a rebel and a hero in episodes like Return to Grace and Apocalypse Rising, his conversations with Kira and Ziyal in In Purgatory’s Shadow suggest a man undergoing a period of humiliation before his redemption.
Upon finding that Ziyal has struck up a relationship with Garak, Dukat angrily confronts Kira. He accuses of plotting against him, constructing an elaborate and paranoid revenge fantasy. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?” he demands. “Allowed my daughter to associate with a man you knew was my enemy? Stood by while he whispered poison in her ear? And all under the guise of doing me a favour.” Dukat is preemptively constructing a narrative that will justify his betrayal of the trust that Kira and Sisko had invested in him.
These scenes are a testament to the wonderful characterisation on Deep Space Nine, understanding that Dukat is a classic narcissist. “Dukat, let’s get one thing straight,” Kira insists. “I didn’t bring Ziyal to the station for you. I did it for her. Because I knew it’d be better for her to be here than being a soldier fighting in your private little war with the Klingons.” Dukat believes that everything is about him. After all, that is the arrogance that would allow Dukat to surrender Cardassia to the Dominion, all to advance his own social standing.
In his own way, Dukat is crafted a personal varient of the “Dolchstoßlegende“, the “stab-in-the-back myth.” Dukat sees himself as a betrayed and aggrieved party. There is something remarkably telling in his warning to Kira, “Save your excuses, Major. You’ve betrayed me, and I promise I won’t forget it.” Given how friendly Dukat had been towards Kira in episodes like Indiscretion and Return to Grace and Apocalypse Rising, this is a rather strong response. However, it makes perfect sense in the context of what is coming.
Dukat’s argument with Kira has nothing to do with Ziyal. It has everything to do with Dukat’s self-image as a man who deserves respect that has never been afforded to him. Dukat is willing to throw the entire Alpha Quadrant (including his daughter) under the bus in order to feed his own ego. While he claims to be upset at Kira allowing Ziyal to spend time with Garak, he is even more upset that Kira doesn’t take the implied threat seriously. “There was a time when Bajorans took Cardassian threats very seriously,” he remarks, almost nostalgically.
(All of this characterisation would be expanded upon in Waltz. Tellingly, that episode finds Dukat haunted by an imaginary version of Kira Nerys. Kira laughs at Dukat repeatedly, taunting him with her mockery. It is a great character decision, one that fits quite cleverly with the dynamic between Kira and Dukat as reinforced by their scenes in episodes like Indiscretion and In Purgatory’s Shadow. Dukat feels emasculated because Kira doesn’t take him seriously. He feels diminished, because she feels comfortable openly mocking him rather than fearing him.)
Dukat refuses to see Ziyal as a person. Instead, Ziyal is treated like an extension of himself. Late in In Purgatory’s Shadow, Dukat seems to cast his daughter aside the moment that she refuses to ascede to his commands. “Is a promise to an enemy of your family more important than obeying your father?” he demands. “So be it. Stay here if that’s what you want. Stay here and be damned.” With that, Dukat abandons Ziyal to her fate. He takes off in the Klingon Bird of Prey and never looks back.
Ziyal does not share any scenes with her father in By Inferno’s Light. Indeed, Dukat’s plan to destroy the Bajoran system in would have killed Ziyal had it succeeded. Sisko draws attention this fact during his conversation with Dukat at the end of the episode. “If that protomatter device had gone off inside the sun, well, the death toll would have been enormous,” Dukat reflects. Sisko observes, “And your daughter would’ve been one of the casualties.” Dukat doesn’t flinch. “Ziyal made her choice. As far as I’m concerned, she is no longer my daughter.”
The relationship between Dukat and Ziyal is pointedly contrasted with the relationship between Garak and Tain. Much like Ziyal, Garak is the illegitimate child of a promenant Cardassian official. Much like Dukat, Tain was never much of a father to his child. However, with Dukat abandons his daughter the moment that she becomes inconvenient to him, Garak refuses to let go of the father who could never actually acknowledge him. The Dominion elevate Dukat for his decision to abandon Ziyal, and punish Garak for his attempt to rescue Tain.
In Purgatory’s Shadow draws attention to how little Garak owes Enabran Tain. When changeling!Bashir confronts Garak for trying to hijack a runabout, he cannot fathom the emotional attachment that Garak has for his… “mentor.” When changeling!Bashir points out that Tain had Garak exiled from Cardassia, Garak shrugs it off. “Yes, but aside from that, we were very close.” Ultimately, for all his glibness and his deflection, Garak is presented as a character who would go to the ends of the galaxy to reconnect with his estranged father.
Deep Space Nine attracts a lot of criticism for being overly cynical or pessimistic in its world view, at least compared to the other Star Trek shows. However, there is a strange humanism that bleeds through the series, even in the darkest of hours. That moral certainty and philosophy is evident even within In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. This is an epic two-parter that dramatically reshapes the wider Star Trek universe, but it is also firmly rooted in the story of the characters and in the dynamics of two Cardassian families.
Dukat is effectively damned by his willingness to abandon his daughter in pursuit of power and glory, something that will ultimately lead to her death and his downfall in Sacrifice of Angels. Garak is redeemed by his desire to reconnect with his lost father. Not only does Tain finally (albeit fleetingly) acknowledge Garak as his son, the whole mission allows Garak to rescue the real Bashir and expose changeling!Bashir before he can detonate a weapon that would cripple the entire Alpha Quadrant.
That is the beauty of Deep Space Nine. As skilfully as it mapes out the politics of the Alpha Quadrant and the complicated system of reactions and alliances, it remains fixated on the characters who make these decisions. In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light finds the fate of the Alpha Quadrant coming down to a pair of dysfunctional families, with one broken family throwing the entire region into chaos while the reconciled family offers some sense of stability. Even in the darkest of moments, Deep Space Nine finds hope.