One of the more common observations about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that it is the most “morally ambiguous” Star Trek series, with characters engaging in actions that Picard never would have considered on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In some ways, this observation makes sense. After all, Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek show to feature an extended interstellar conflict. Its primary cast is comprised of unapologetic terrorists and untrustworthy wheeler-dealers. The Federation were no longer the unambiguous good guys of the larger Star Trek universe, monolithic humanity giving way to factions like the Maquis or Section 31. Deep Space Nine never took Gene Roddenberry’s utopia for granted, daring to ask what it might look like when paradise found itself under threat.
However, Deep Space Nine also a very strong moral compass. While there are episodes that flirt with the idea of the end justifying the means, like In the Pale Moonlight or Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, they are very much the exception rather than the rule. Section 31 are unequivocally monsters, and never proven to be a necessary evil. The Federation wins the Dominion War without the help of their attempted genocide in Extreme Measures. Even the Maquis are treated as ineffective in Defiant, and only romanticised through eulogy in Blaze of Glory.
More than that, Deep Space Nine clearly has a very strong social conscience. This is particularly true in episodes written by executive producer and showrunner Ira Steven Behr. Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II rage against the treatment of the homeless in contemporary society, sending three regular characters back in time to protest a nineties Los Angeles ordinance. Bar Association insists upon the right to collective bargaining. Far Beyond the Stars is a poignant ode to the power of science-fiction as a window to a better future.
Even in the context of the show’s more controversial elements, that moral compass shines through. While the Dominion War might lead to murky compromises, the show goes out of its way to cast the Founders as monstrous; the enslavement of the Jem’Hadar as explored in The Abandoned or of the Vorta as touched upon in Treachery, Faith and the Great River, the use of biological weapons in The Quickening, the disregard for soldiers’ lives in Rocks and Shoals. The Dominion is monstrous, as unequivocally evil as Nazi Germany.
As such, Waltz really serves to confirm something that has always been true of the series. Despite the familiar refrain that Deep Space Nine embraces “moral ambiguity”, the truth is that Deep Space Nine has always believed “that there is really such a thing as truly evil.”
Taken on its own merits, Waltz is a superb piece of television. It is an episode built around throwing two great characters played by two great actors into a confined space, and watching them play off one another. Much like Duet, which is an obvious point of comparison, even the title of Waltz suggests an intimate performance between two oppositional forces coming together to tell a singular story. In Waltz, Captain Benjamin Sisko finds himself stranded on a hostile planet with Gul Dukat, and sparks fly.
Part of this is down to the two actors in question. Avery Brooks is a tremendous performer, with a style that feels half-way between William Shatner’s staccato delivery and Patrick Stewart’s lyrical Shakespearean approach. Brooks is an actor with considerable opera experience, and he fares well in theatrical episodes. Waltz is an episode that could easily be adapted for the stage, driven primarily by the charge between its two central performers. Avery Brooks plays righteous anger with incredible force, and Waltz gives him plenty of opportunity.
However, Waltz is primarily driven by Gul Dukat. Marc Alaimo has been a recurring fixture on Deep Space Nine since Emissary, but the character really came into is own through episodes like The Maquis, Part I, The Maquis, Part II and Defiant. In The Fifty-Year Mission, Alaimo takes a lot of credit of that nuance:
I believe the objective in the beginning was to have Dukat be a fairly one-dimensional, aggressive Cardassian. But then I began to add to what they gave me in the scripts and slowly made the character my own. I began to endow him with a number of characteristics, which they then picked up on, and perhaps they realised that I was more versatile than they originally thought. So they started writing these wonderful situations for Dukat where he could be seen as being sensitive or irrational or intellectual.
Put simply, Alaimo played Dukat like he was the hero of his own show, which is a compelling way to play an antagonist and which led to episodes like Indiscretion and Return to Grace that played upon this aspect of the character. The Star Trek franchise has never had a villain as compelling and intriguing as Dukat.
Waltz works so well because it essentially throws Dukat’s narrative into conflict with that of Sisko. Waltz is fundamentally the story of two antagonists sitting down around a camp fire, each convinced that they are the heroes of their own narratives and finally hashing it all out once and for all. They cannot both be right, and they cannot both be heroes. There is a fantastic conflict there, because one of those two characters must eventually shatter their own sense of self-image.
The stakes might not be “the Alpha Quadrant itself” or anything that epic, but they are still tangible. There is a real danger to this situation, even beyond Dukat’s slipping grip on sanity. Either Sisko or Dukat will be broken by this experience, forced to confront that their world view has been built upon entirely incorrect assumptions. Those are very visceral stakes for a character drama, in that most people can empathise with that situation. Few people have ever fought to save the galaxy, but most have experienced moments of doubt and had their faith in themselves tested.
It helps that Waltz has a fantastic script. The episode hinges upon two fantastic central performances, but those actors are working from one of Ronald D. Moore’s best scripts. Both Dukat and Sisko articulate themselves very clearly in that extended fire-side chat, which the script clearly outlining how Dukat can justify his own narrative by tailoring his account of events or quoting statistics. Both the characters feel true to themselves across the length and breadth of the episode, without hitting a false beat.
However, Moore’s script is simply well-constructed. It is a very clever piece of television writing, one that understands the form and the expectations that come with it. Most notably, the episode trusts the audience and does not feel the need to spell everything out. Despite its very clear central thesis on the nature of good and evil, Waltz understands the appeal of lingering ambiguity and doubt. At several points in the episode, Waltz avoids tidying away dangling plot threads, accepting that the messiness adds texture and nuance to the episode.
When Sisko awakes on the planet surface with Dukat, he asks about the officer guarding the brig. “Where’s McConnell?” Sisko wonders, clearly having missed the memo that this was meant to be a two-parter. “Dead,” Dukat responds. “A piece of shrapnel hit him in the head just as we were carrying you into the shuttle.” The audience is left to wonder whether Dukat is telling the truth. There is no awkward final act reveal of McConnell’s murdered body in the caverns or the shuttle, even if it still seems more than likely that his death was not an accident.
Despite the fact that Waltz is a character-driven psychological thriller, Moore still structures the script with any number of clever storytelling choices. There is a rather brilliant act-break that finds the Defiant picking up two life forms on the surface of the planet as the situation between Sisko and Dukat escalates on the surface. As it looks like Dukat is about to come to blows with Sisko, the Defiant beams the two life signs onboard. They are two random Starfleet officers. Dukat then continues brutally beating Sisko.
It is a very nice bait-and-switch, one that provides a very effect act break in a very character-driven episode. It plays skilfully upon the idea of a last-minute rescue by the Defiant, before offering a bait-and-switch. It is a hardly a novel or radical subversion of the trope, but the sequence is structured beautifully. It bounces between the planet and the Defiant in such a way that the tele-literate audience buys that the two events are overlapping. It is a much more satisfying “dramatic act break” than Jack’s sudden threatening of Sarina in Statistical Probabilities.
Waltz feels very effectively heightened by its setting and its structure. The final act works phenomenally well, as any hint of civility breaks down between Sisko and Dukat. As that rage simmers to the surface, so do the combatants. A tempest stirs around them, the planet’s raging atmosphere a literal representation of the energy flowing between them. It is more than a little melodramatic, but it works. The final act of Waltz plays like something of a gothic horror, as if the landscape of the planet reflects the psychology of its central characters.
Interestingly enough, Waltz went through an interesting development cycle. According to writer Ronald D. Moore, the production team knew that they wanted to do a story like this episode around Dukat, but were unsure of exactly how they wanted to tell it:
Waltz began life as a story we called “Dukat’s Head” around the office. The notion was for Sisko to go visit Dukat in the mental hospital and while Sisko was trying to engage the catatonic Cardassian in conversation (by speaking in alliterative sentences) we would push in on Dukat’s face and then go inside his head and show us the fantasy life he was living. The story would’ve gone into the past, dealt with his Bajoran mistress (Ziyal’s mother, whose name escapes me at the moment) his rise to power, his treatment of the Bajorans and even the fantasy life he was trying to construct for himself on Terok Nor with Kira as his wife and himself as beloved leader of Cardassia and Bajor. We struggled with the storyline for quite a while, but never found a way to make it compelling. Eventually, we noticed that the scenes we liked the best were the ones in the hospital room between Sisko and Dukat and we decided to toss out everything but that. However, some of the character dynamics we had envisioned for the fantasy sequences eventually were realized in the phantom images of Weyoun, Damar, and Kira as they appeared in Dukat’s hallucinations.
An episode like Waltz or Dukat’s Head makes a great deal of sense. After all, Sacrifice of Angels had ended with Dukat as a broken man in Federation custody. More than that, there was a long-standing anxiety on the Deep Space Nine writing staff about how best to approach the character of Gul Dukat.
Dukat is one of the most compelling Star Trek antagonists because he is very much the hero of his own narrative. As played by Alaimo, Dukat is a man who has created his own alternate version of reality in which he is a selfless servant of the people who wants nothing but the best for those around him. As played by Alaimo, Dukat is an excellent salesman. Dukat can bend facts and history to suit his own account of events, portraying himself as a victim of cruel fate subject to undeserved scorn and mockery.
Deep Space Nine has never believed this. After all, Dukat has always been a cynical self-serving opportunist. He is perfectly willing to attack political enemies through their families, as demonstrated by Cardassians, in spite of his own many familial shortcomings. Dukat believes that he deserves love and affection for declining to murder his own illegitimate daughter in Indiscretion. Sisko has acknowledged in The Way of the Warrior that Dukat was something of a moral cockroach, willing to ride the prevailing political winds wherever they may take him.
However, there is also a sense that the Deep Space Nine writing staff are worried about Dukat. The production team seem anxious that some audience members might actually believe Dukat’s narrative. Marc Alaimo is a fantastic salesman, after all. More than that, there are a significant portion of fans who actively ship Gul Dukat and Major Kira. Given that Dukat effective oversaw the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, an event comparable to the Holocaust at a time when Holocaust denial was becoming more and more mainstream, this unease makes a great deal of sense.
As such, Deep Space Nine worked increasingly hard to present Dukat as a clear-cut villain. This was most notable in the fifth season episode Things Past, which flashed back to Odo’s time on Terok Nor during the Cardassian Occupation. Despite taking place entirely inside Odo’s head, it still found time for Dax to embark upon a subplot which explored the ways in which Dukat preyed upon and exploited Bajoran women under his care. This thread would even develop into Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night.
As such, Waltz feels like the logical end point for Dukat as a character. It is an episode that chips away at the last of Dukat’s self-delusion and self-deceit. The entire tension of the episode lies in whether Dukat will admit to himself that he knows himself to be evil, whether those lies can be stripped away and Dukat can finally recognise his own moral vacuum. As Sisko and Dukat spar, the episode plays for Dukat’s self-image. After all, if Dukat acknowledges that he is a genocidal maniac, what else needs to be said?
And so Waltz very carefully and very meticulously strips away the rationalisations. Dukat makes his eloquent defence to Sisko, hinging on familiar rhetorical tactics. Dukat insists that he was just a cog in a larger machine, that he needed to get results. Dukat claims that he was as compassionate as he could have been, given the circumstances. Dukat points to terrorist actions by the Bajorans to justify his own brutality. Dukat argues that he actually cut the death rate, making it lower than it had been before. However, Sisko doesn’t buy this. And neither does Dukat.
One of the cleverer touches of Waltz is the way in which it explains Dukat’s psychosis. Over the course of the episode, Dukat is haunted by three psychological projections – psych!Kira, psych!Weyoun and psych!Damar. These are obviously a handy storytelling function, allowing for some exposition and set-up, but they also enlighten Dukat’s psychology. Each of those three characters represents a reflection of Dukat, a way for his fractured psyche to reflect some part of him back at himself.
psych!Damar most explicitly outlines this vision of Dukat as the hero of his own story. psych!Damar is spineless and sycophantic, hanging on the every word of his superior officer. When psych!Damar dares to question the validity of this experiment with Sisko, Dukat slaps him down. “It’s my time to waste, Damar. Remember your place.” However, psych!Damar then offers a glimpse of how Dukat sees his role in the larger tapestry of events. “I mean no disrespect, you know that. But without you the war will be lost and Cardassia will lie in ruins.”
While these three fragments of Dukat’s fractured psyche provide key insights into the character, they also hint at a more fundamental aspect of the character. Dukat has started imagining these three characters as a result of his breakdown after Sacrifice of Angels, but their presence and function hints at a deep truth about Dukat as a character. Dukat had to manufacture these three avatars to reflect his own image back to him, but the implication is that he would be happier to use real people to serve that purpose.
To Dukat, the entire universe serves as a projection of himself. Waltz underscores this idea through Dukat’s relationship with Sisko. Dukat does believe that other people have agency, instead insisting that they exist primarily to validate himself. “If you only want me to tell you what you want to hear, just say so,” Sisko states at one point. Dukat clearly wants that, but doesn’t want to have to admit it. In fact this is the central tension of the episode, the conflict between what Dukat knows of himself and what he can bring to admit while preserving his self-image.
The episode’s climax comes as Sisko goads Dukat into expressing his own rage towards the Bajorans. “They all wore their pride like some twisted badge of honour,” Dukat complains. “And you hated them for it,” Sisko elaborates. “Of course I hated them!” Dukat cuts across. “I hated everything about them!” Sisko goes for broke. “You should have killed them all,” he suggests. “I knew it!” Dukat responds, “I’ve always known it! I should have killed every last one of them. I should have turned their planet into a graveyard the likes of which the galaxy had never seen!”
This is the moment that confirms Dukat is pure evil. Sisko takes the opportunity to bash his skull with a pipe, sarcastically taunting, “And that is why you’re not an evil man.” Later on, with Dax, Sisko explicitly states the theme of the episode. “You know, old man, sometimes life seems so complicated,” he acknowledges. “Nothing is truly good or truly evil. Everything seems to be a shade of grey. And then you spend some time with a man like Dukat and you realise that there is really such a thing as truly evil.”
As much as Waltz is an episode with Dukat acknowledging that he is truly evil, it is also an episode about Sisko coming to terms with the concept of moral absolutism and firmly rejecting any hint of moral relativism. Waltz has a clear character arc for both of its lead characters, fitting comfortably with the larger character arc of Captain Benjamin Sisko. Deep Space Nine frequently invites its central characters to question the larger universe and their place in it.
Repeatedly over the run of Deep Space Nine, Sisko is forced to confront uncomfortable truths and to grow as a result. He learns to question Starfleet in The Maquis, Part I, The Maquis, Part II, Homefront and Paradise Lost. He earns a new found respect for Eddington in Blaze of Glory. He accepts the role of Emissary in Accession and Rapture. In Waltz, Sisko is forced to confront and reject the comforting utopian fiction that evil does not exist and that everybody is fundamentally good deep down.
Deep Space Nine has generally been absolute in its morality. It genuinely believes that concepts like “good” and “evil” exist in absolute forms. Indeed, the entire series is set in the aftermath of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, an event presented as analogous to the Holocaust. Over the course of the series, characters are repeatedly presented with opportunities to grow and evolve, to learn from their mistakes. Sisko is a character who is willing to evolve and grow, which makes him the hero. Dukat’s stubborn refusal to even acknowledge past failings makes him a villain.
Deep Space Nine consciously and repeatedly rejects moral relativism. The Dominion’s use of biological weapons in The Quickening does not justify the Federation’s use of a biological weapon in Extreme Measures. The existence of the Tal Shiar or the Obsidian Order does not excuse the methods of Section 31 in Inquisition. The Dominion War might force its characters to make tough choices, but there is never any real sense of moral equivalence between the Federation and the Dominion. The Federation might be flawed, but they are the heroes of the narrative.
In discussing Waltz in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Ira Steven Behr made a similar argument:
I wanted us to come away from this show with Dukat finally having faced who the hell he is and what he’s done. To get him to finally admit that he hates the Bajorans and he wishes to kill them all. And he does. Evil may be an unclear concept in this day and age. But Dukat certainly has done evil things. And since he refuses to admit to them, we then have to simplify things, deconstruct things, until we get to the most simplistic level. Which is: ‘He does evil things, therefore, he is evil’.
This is very similar to the argument that Kira about Dukat’s morality to Ziyal in By Inferno’s Light.
There is a tendency in popular culture to equate moral ambiguity with complexity. After all, very few people see themselves as the villains of their own narratives. Most convincing antagonists can offer their own reasons or justifications for what they are doing. Pop culture is frequently evaluated through its willingness to humanise its villains (as much as any of them are villains) and to invite the audience to see the world from the perspective of these characters.
This is nothing new. The same arguments can be made about any classic works of art that portray people who terrible things as nuanced three-dimensional characters. Rachel Martin on Humbert Humbert from Lolita, “When writers portray a pedophile, a rapist or a sexual predator as a villain, it can be complicated business because their actions are despicable. But written too broadly and the character is cartoonish, too deep and it makes the villain too sympathetic.”
Of course, this approach can be taken to ridiculous extremes in matters of pop culture. To pick a recent example, artist Stephen Byrne produced a work named Trump Rally that featured Trump’s Inauguration attended by a host of fictional supervillains. Commenters quickly protested that given fictional characters had moral standards that would prevent them from attending such an event. Who can forget the ridiculous image of Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom crying in the rubble of the World Trade Centre, horrified by the violence?
However, it is not just low-brow pulpy culture that falls into this trap of presenting villains as having standards and excuses. Contemporary prestige television is still driven by the male anti-hero, as cemented by The Sopranos and The Shield. Those are just the most high-profile and successful examples. There are plenty of less engaging television shows about bad men doing bad things to one another, to the point that “male anti-hero” seemed to become shorthand for “prestige television drama.”
The best of these shows work incredibly well, crafting nuanced examinations of deeply troubled individuals operating in a complicated world. However, there many of these shows often embraced the aesthetic of moral complexity and relativity without ever fully grappling with the concept. Todd VanDerWerff has argued that some of these shows tended to play down the true of the violence inflicted by their protagonists:
When David Chase put The Sopranos on the air, he famously argued that Tony Soprano should be allowed to kill a former mob snitch in episode five because if he didn’t, the audience would never respect him again. He would have broken his code and would be uninteresting as a protagonist forever after. There were things like “the right thing” and “the wrong thing” on The Sopranos, but they more often broke down as “the hard thing” and “the easy thing.” The series’ argument was always that the vast majority of us choose “the easy thing” every day of our lives, even if that’s as basic as eating a burger instead of a salad for lunch. Tony Soprano’s easy things may have been many degrees of latitude worse than our own, but we were at least somewhat in concert with who he was. In contrast, choosing the hard thing is ultimately rewarding but rarely so in the moment. The only way a human being can truly change is to do so, but few of us want to engage with the work necessary.
To be clear, The Sopranos is a masterpiece of television, but there is some weight to this criticism that becomes clearer when looking at the broader tapestry of contemporary television. These are difficult stories to tell well; these moral faults tend to compound, and false equivalences abound.
With that in mind, the clear-cut moral certain of Deep Space Nine feels almost like a relief. Its protagonists might find themselves challenged and conflicted, but they generally at least try to do the right thing. There is a clear difference between Gul Dukat and Benjamin Sisko that runs deeper than mere circumstance or environmental factors. Indeed, Resurrection was a forty-five minute episode largely dedicated to the idea that good people are fundamentally good, regardless of their upbringings or their surroundings.
As with a lot of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, the spectre of Battlestar Galactica haunts the moral framework suggested by Waltz. Ronald D. Moore’s revival of the cult seventies television series won a lot of praise for tackling the War on Terror in an interesting and provocative manner. However, it occasionally struggled in its attempts to suggest moral complexity and ambiguity. Critic Abigail Nussbaum makes a strong case that the Battlestar Galactica was too morally relative in its approach to the Cylons, giving them a free pass on genocide.
As such, there is a lot to be said for how readily Waltz can label Dukat as evil. Sure, Dukat can rationalise all that he wants; he might have excuses for his actions, he might be able to cite statistics in his defence, he might be able to rationalise the horrors conducted under his watch. However, he actions still resulted in millions of deaths and untold suffering. Even as he wastes away in Federation custody, he is responsible for the escalation of the Dominion War that threatens to kill billions.
In some ways, Deep Space Nine exists against backdrop of the late nineties. Although less firmly rooted in the decade than Star Trek: Voyager, the series was still informed by contemporary anxieties and trends. Deep Space Nine has aged remarkably well because so much of the series is timeless and resonates beyond that original context, but parts of the series are undoubtedly a product of its nineties origin. While Waltz stands in sharp contrast to the looming boom of cable anti-hero dramas, it also exists in the context of nineties fears about the erosion of moral certainty.
These anxieties and uncertainties had long festered in the American public consciousness. Indeed, much of the unease with moral relativism could be traced back to the establishment’s anxieties over sixties counterculture. Richard A. Posner argues, this engagement with moral absolutism in the nineties was largely reactionary:
Gertrude Himmelfarb is a well-known intellectual historian, but she is also, and in this book primarily, an influential social conservative. She argues that the counterculture of the 1960’s, with its unbridled sexuality, its flight from tradition and personal responsibility, its flouting of authority and its cultural relativism, has become the dominant culture of today, while the culture of the 1950’s — the culmination of an era, stretching back to the founding of the nation, when strong family values, a belief in absolute standards of truth and morality and respect for religion and authority were the cornerstones of the national culture — has become a dissident culture. We live, she thinks, in a period of moral decay, but there is growing resistance to the cultural revolution — resistance manifested in increased religiosity and in the recent improvement in social indicators like the number of abortions, births out of wedlock and crimes.
With all of that chaos in the world, it is easy to appreciate the appeal of moral absolutism. At a time when everything is subject to change at the drop of a hat, it is important to remember that there are some certainties at work in the world.
Following the end of the Cold War, there was a lot of political and social uncertainty. Without the Soviet Union against which it might define itself, the United States became more introspective and philosophical. There were serious debates to be had about the country’s place in the world, about its history and its sense of moral identity. Without the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation and without a singular rival standing in opposition, there was time for reflection and examination.
The nineties were a decade when everything seemed open to interrogation and criticism. Paranoia was the currency of the decade, as reflected in the conspiracy-thriller mood of films like JFK or shows like The X-Files. Even reality itself was treated was fungible and flexible in films like Existenz or The Thirteenth Floor or The Matrix. If concepts like history and the real world could be seen as malleable, then what of basic concepts like “decency” or “goodness”? Were those also up for grabs in a postmodern age?
At the end of the twentieth century, moral relativism was seen as an existential threat by conservative intellectuals. As Jonathan Merritt contends:
Moral relativism has been a conservative boogeyman since at least the Cold War. Conservative stalwarts like William F. Buckley claimed that liberals had accepted a view that morality was culturally or historically defined—“what’s right for you may not be right for me”—instead of universal and timeless. It’s true that the ethical framework was en vogue, particularly in places of higher education. Liberal college professors stocked conservatives’ arsenals with copious quotes to back up the claim that a squishy, flimsy understanding of morality had taken root in America.
As such, it is no small irony that the Republican Party would eventually produce the most abstract and postmodern presidential candidate. Donald Trump would not just blur the lines of right and wrong, but of fact and unfact.
In the nineties, this anxiety about moral relativism played itself out in a number of different ways. Most superficially, it was reflected in the concerted attempt by right-wing voters and politicians to impeach President Bill Clinton (in effect) for the moral transgression of having an extramarital affair. More seriously, and more justifiably, it played out in the fear that postmodernist doctrine could be used as a tool to justify Holocaust denial. Indeed, Voyager touches repeatedly on that fear in episodes like Remember or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.
Indeed, given that Gul Dukat is responsible for an atrocity analogous to the Holocaust, that subtext plays out in Waltz. Arguing with Sisko, Dukat trots out the sort of relativism that was used by Holocaust deniers during the nineties. He argues that his policies were nowhere near as harsh as people would claim, much like deniers try to revise down the estimated deaths in the Holocaust. He insists that he was not hateful or vindictive towards the Bajorans, much like David Irvine tried to argue that Hitler was oblivious to the Final Solution.
“So in my first official act as Prefect, I ordered all labour camp commanders to reduce their output quotas by fifty percent fifty percent,” he promises Sisko. “Then I reorganised the camps themselves. Child labour was abolished. Medical care was improved. Food rations were increased. At the end of one month of my administration, the death rate had dropped by twenty percent.” Of course, even if Sisko could trust those arguments, the simple fact is that Dukat was still operating a sprawling system of slavery and mass murder.
Dukat’s appeals to Sisko hinge upon moral relativism. “All my victims,” Dukat protests. “It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? All my crimes. I’m such a monster, such an evil man. Behold Benjamin Sisko, supreme arbiter of right and wrong in the universe. A man of such high moral calibre that he can sit in judgement on all the rest of us.” Dukat argues that Sisko is no better than he is, that Sisko has no right to judge Dukat because only Dukat can understand what he has lived.
In fact, Dukat repeatedly suggests that he is somehow equivalent to Sisko. “You know, when I was out there in the shuttle just now, it occurred to me that the Bajorans would be very confused if they could see us here, sharing the same food, the same hardships,” Dukat reflects at one point. “What do you think they would say if they knew the Emissary of the Prophets and the evil Gul Dukat were sitting here together, getting along like the two old friends that they really are?” In fact, Dukat even tries to cook a nice seasoned dinner for Sisko, reinforcing that equivalence.
(This is perhaps the most compelling justification for the creative decisions that are made with Dukat starting with Tears of the Prophets. While Dukat’s character arc comes off the rails in the aftermath of Waltz, it makes sense that Dukat would effectively try to position himself as a counterpart to Sisko. In Waltz, it is suggested that Dukat sees himself as equivalent to Sisko. When that illusion is shattered at the climax of the episode, it makes sense that Dukat should come to see himself as a twisted reflection.)
One of the more interesting aspects of Waltz is the recurring implication that Sisko is tempted by moral relativism, that he wants to believe that Dukat is not pure evil. This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, people are generally thought to think the best of others, to assume that other people have their reasons and are fundamentally decent. More than that, Sisko has grown up in the Roddenberry utopia of the Star Trek universe, a world where the Federation is open-minded and idealistic in how it approaches the wider universe.
So, in spite of everything, Sisko seems willing to forgive Dukat at the start of Waltz. He reflects in his opening log, “As terrible as it sounds, there’s a part of me that wishes he were dead. But that’s a thought unworthy of a Starfleet officer. He lost an empire, he lost his daughter, and he nearly lost his mind. Whatever his crimes isn’t that enough punishment for one lifetime?” There is something very tempting in that idea, something quite alluring about showing compassion to a vanquished foe and forgiving past transgressions.
Even in the teaser, Sisko extends some measure of sympathy to Dukat. When Dukat gets defensive and paranoid about the perceived meddling of “Doctor Cox”, he lashes out. He regains his composure and apologises. Sisko seems to take his apology at face value. “It’s all right,” Sisko assures Dukat, seeming genuinely sympathetic to the man who has fallen so sharply from grace. Although it might be too much to believe that Sisko could ever completely forgive Dukat for everything that happened, Waltz does suggest that Sisko might be sympathetic to Dukat.
As such, Waltz forces Sisko to confront the idea that Dukat is absolutely evil. More than that, Waltz suggests that any refusal to acknowledge evil is downright dangerous, that compassion is something that can be weaponised by an opponent. In some ways, this is a very cynical perspective, but it clearly only applies in the most extreme of cases. After all, Dukat’s refusal to be redeemed and his intrinsic evil is juxtaposed against other morally flawed supporting characters who do find some measure of redemption for their sins; Odo, Damar, Garak.
Waltz is very much a tour de force for everybody involved, and a highlight of the sixth season. The biggest problems with the episode lie in its aftermath, in the way that Waltz shapes the remaining season-and-a-half of Deep Space Nine. This is most obvious in the way that it reconfigures the character of Gul Dukat. By just about any logic, Waltz should have been the last appearance of the character. It represents a logical endpoint for the character’s arc, and a fitting place to leave him were the ending only slightly tweaked.
So much of Dukat’s character is tied up in his self-image and narrative that stripping that away from the character should be a crippling blow. Sisko effectively defeats Dukat in Waltz, tearing away those last delusions of grandeur and exposing him as a self-deceiving fraud. For a character so fixated on his own heroism and pride, forcing Dukat to admit his own vindictiveness and his own pettiness should be the end of the line. So much of what makes Dukat a great character is taken from him in that moment, which would be great if Waltz were his last appearance.
Unfortunately, Waltz is Dukat’s last appearance. As a result, the Deep Space Nine writing staff have to figure out where the character goes from this point in the narrative. The results are not pretty. Dukat cold-calls Kira late at night in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night to reveal that he slept with her mother, which is just a douchebag move. Dukat makes himself host to evil gods in Tears of the Prophets so that he can fridge Jadzia Dax. The closest this version of Dukat comes to working is Covenant, but even that comes off the rails by What You Leave Behind…
Waltz tears Dukat apart, and exposes his inner workings. Deep Space Nine never figures out how to put the character back together again, and so he devolves into a two-dimensional ranting-and-raving cartoon supervillain. The vindictive ranting in the storm at the climax of Waltz is effective because it can be juxtaposed against all of the character’s earlier appearances. It is less effective as the cornerstone of the series’ primary antagonist. Dukat becomes a lot simpler after Waltz, and the show insists upon returned to him time and again. It is a major loss.
However, this issue with Dukat after Waltz is indicative of the larger issues that stem from this approach to large questions of good and evil. Waltz is very effective in its willingness to label Dukat as “evil”, rather than opting for a more nuanced or ambiguous term. However, the later episodes of the sixth season comes to embrace an overly simple moral calculus. For all the moral shading of episodes like In the Pale Moonlight or Inquisition, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine works to streamline the moral balance of the show.
The Reckoning builds upon the reworking of the Prophets in Sacrifice of Angels and the moral reframing of Gul Dukat in Waltz to realign the broader cosmology of Deep Space Nine. Towards the end of the sixth season, Deep Space Nine becomes a very conventional (and even archetypal) story about good and evil standing in opposition to one another. Sisko and the Prophets stand on one side of the arena; Dukat and the Pah-Wraiths on the other. However, these are never really contextualised. Why are the Pah-Wraiths evil, beyond their ominous red colouring?
Waltz is so effective because it completely eschews moral relativism in favour of a very straightforward moral reading: somebody who does lots of evil things is by definition evil. It is a very refreshing argument, particularly in the context of an increasingly postmodern world. However, later episodes run even further, adopting a befuddled and confused moral reading: somebody who is defined as evil is by definition evil. It seems unreasonable to blame Waltz for the shortcomings of later episodes and plot beats, but they do haunt the narrative.
Still, Waltz is a powerful piece of television and wonderful episode of Deep Space Nine. It cements some of the core themes of the series, in a well-written script that gives two great actors strong material to play. It brings a sense of closure and resolution to the arc of one of the franchise’s most compelling supporting characters. The biggest shame is that Waltz is not allowed to stand as a defining closing argument.