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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – In the Pale Moonlight (Review)

I can live with it.

I can live with it.

– Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko, Stardate 51721.3

In the Pale Moonlight is a masterpiece.

There is simple no way around it. It works beautifully as a morality play, as a thriller, as a character study. It has a powerful script, a set of brilliant performances, a memorable set-up and pay-off. In the Pale Moonlight is a fantastic piece of television production, something that immediately distinguishes itself from the episodes around it. Like The City on the Edge of Forever or The Inner Light, there is just something fundamentally different about In the Pale Moonlight from the establishing shots.

In many ways, In the Pale Moonlight is the flip side of the coin to Far Beyond the Stars. Both are spectacular episodes of television, and stand as some of the best entries in the franchise canon. However, there are clear differences. While Far Beyond the Stars would not work with any other lead character or actor, it is an episode that is arguably quintessentially Star Trek; it is a powerful allegory about racism and the power of an optimistic future. In contrast, In the Pale Moonlight is specifically Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In the Pale Moonlight is an episode of Deep Space Nine that simply could not exist in any other Star Trek show. This could never have been an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. The episodes that edge closest to this – like The Pegasus or The Omega Directive – lack the same commitment to the premise. Star Trek: Enterprise arguably came closest with the script for Damage, but even that lacked the powerhouse focus of In the Pale Moonlight.

As the title implies, In the Pale Moonlight is a story about what it takes to dance with devil. It is told against the epic backdrop of the Dominion War, against the scale and spectacle of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, but the real drama of In the Pale Moonlight unfolds in one man’s confession. This is the story in which the Romulans join the war effort, but it is not a story about the Romulans joining the war effort. It is a story about how Captain Benjamin Sisko sets a price for his own self-respect and his own self-regard.

In the Pale Moonlight is that most personal of dramas, the story of a man who bargains away his soul for a far cheaper price than he expects.

There was another episode where Avery Brooks and I, where Captain Sisko comes to Garak for help with the Romulans and basically it exposes the American innocence, that we want to do these things in the world, but we’re not really willing to take the consequences of our actions, and sometimes we have to do very dirty things, and we have to hurt people, and we pretend that that doesn’t exist, that Americans would never do that. We dealt with issues like that and I don’t think… you know… the other shows really went as far as we did.

Andrew Robinson

Deep Space Nine has spent an extended period of its existence straining against the expectations imposed upon it by the larger Star Trek franchise. The writers could often seem cheekily dismissive of the other Star Trek shows, slyly and wryly making jokes at their expense, like a younger child desperately trying to assert their own identity in the shadow of a more successful and popular elder sibling. This was particularly obvious in the troubled relationship between Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation.

It is hard to overstate how successful The Next Generation had been. The series largely resurrected Star Trek as a television franchise, kicking off an eighteen-year period in which there Star Trek was never absent from prime-time television. The Next Generation launched three direct spin-offs and spawned four feature films. More than that, it had a cultural cache that existed beyond the boundaries of the ghetto to which genre television was frequently consigned. It was a bona fides phenomenon, even earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.

Deep Space Nine largely responded against that. Many of the production team working on Deep Space Nine had cut their teeth as writers on The Next Generation, but were eager to establish their own identity distinct from their elder sibling. Although Lwaxanna Troi and Gowron would become recurring characters, and Worf would become a regular character, Deep Space Nine featured fewer crossovers with The Next Generation than Voyager or Enterprise. Geordi LaForge did not gatecrash the hundredth episode, while Riker, Troi and Data did not drop by for the finale.

There were also the subtle and not-so-subtle jabs. The Jem’Hadar celebrated the broadcast of All Good Things… by blowing up an iconic Galaxy-class starship. When Jonathan Frakes showed up in Defiant to help promote the looming release of Star Trek: Generations, the production team wrote the actor into the story as William Riker’s evil twin. When Benjamin Sisko was finally promoted to captain in The Adversary, it was former Enterprise crewmember O’Brien who toasted him as the “best captain in Starfleet.” Take that, Picard.

It is tempting to overstate that rivalry and frustration. It is very clear that the writers working on Deep Space Nine harboured a great deal of affection for the franchise. Ira Steven Behr has confessed that he almost let the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary pass unmarked, but relented at the last minute. Trials and Tribble-ations is one of the most affectionate tributes to Star Trek in the history of pop culture, with only Where No Fan Has Gone Before coming close. Similarly, the writers embraced the mirror universe and made Kor a recurring character.

There was always some tension there, even if it was exaggerated in the fan press and in interviews. Ronald D. Moore did joke about lying to Rick Berman to get him to agree to the Dominion War. Ira Steven Behr did describe The Next Generation as “the Connecticut of Star Trek.” There are any number of arguments that broke about individual episodes, from the execution of an anonymous crewmember in One Little Ship to the crippling of a recurring character in The Siege of AR-558. There was a sense Deep Space Nine was not traditional Star Trek.

As Robert Hewitt-Wolfe explained in The Fifty-Year Mission, the writers on Deep Space Nine tended to understand that they stood apart from the other series:

We were always kind of the ugly stepchild of the franchise, and we never really had our moment in the sun. Except for when we premiered. That one episode. We were never the primary focus of the promotional budgets and the attention of the powers that be – which helped us tremendously in some ways, because we were able to get away with a lot. Middle children always get away with a lot.

There is a sense that the sixth season of Deep Space Nine is very much pushing that tolerance to the limit. Just how much can Deep Space Nine get away with in the context of the franchise and in the context of nineties television.

The sixth season is constantly pushing against the boundaries of what might be considered Star Trek. Sometimes, it brushes against those limitations in seemingly minor ways, like the awkward “let’s get the rest of the cast into this smaller character-driven episode” introductory scenes of Honour Among Thieves. Sometimes, it brushes up those restrictions in a more severe fashion, like the inability to effectively convey the horrors experienced by “comfort women” in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night or the inability to kill off the character of Dax in Change of Heart.

The sixth season of Deep Space Nine works best when it manages to push past the audience’s expectations of a Star Trek show. The opening six episodes are an amazing accomplishment, effectively breaking up the cast and isolating half the characters from the title location for an extended (and heavily serialised) arc. Far Beyond the Stars is able to deal with racism and prejudice in an astoundingly frank manner, right down to actually using the “n-word” in a Star Trek script. In the Pale Moonlight also stretches beyond what many people would expect from a Star Trek show.

The closing scene offers a fairly effective summary of the transgressions made over the prior forty-five minutes. “I lied,” Sisko bluntly states into the camera, laying out his sins for the audience watching at home. “I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder.” More than that, he is unapologetic. These are very serious charges to lay at the feet of any regular character on a nineties television series, but they are particularly striking when leveled at the lead character on a Star Trek series.

It is impossible to imagine Kirk or Picard allowing themselves to be made complicit in such crimes. It is impossible to imagine Janeway acknowledging her complicity in such crimes, or to conceive of Voyager holding her to account for any of these actions. These would be damning accusations for any character to level at the lead character in a Star Trek series, but they are particularly striking when framed as a confessional. Sisko is not contesting these charges. They are not subjective accusations, manipulated through framing or editing. These are all fair accusations.

That is groundbreaking in terms of Star Trek. That is genuinely earth-shattering in the context of televised nineties science-fiction. It marks a very clear departure for the Star Trek franchise, and arguably one that nods towards the future of the medium. Deep Space Nine existed during the mid- to late-nineties, at the cusp of television’s golden age. Twenty-first century audiences have come to accept moral ambiguity in their protagonists, to empathise with figures who commit far greater crimes than those featured in In the Pale Moonlight.

Tony Soprano murdered an informant hiding in the witness protection program in College, the fifth episode of the first season of The Sopranos. Walter White has murdered a man with his bare hands by …and the Bag’s in the River, the third episode of the first season of Breaking Bad. Vic Mackey murders a fellow police officer at the end of The Pilot, the first episode of The Shield. It often seems like modern prestige dramas are obligated to have at least one cold-blooded murder committed by the male lead within the first half of the first season.

Indeed, writer Michael Taylor has acknowledged that Ronald D. Moore’s heavy rewrite of In the Pale Moonlight should be seen as foreshadowing his later work on Battlestar Galactica:

You should know that Ron rewrote my freelancer’s draft of In the Pale Moonlight, making it much darker and more profound, so it’s no coincidence that it prefigures some of the concerns and predilections that later found full expression in Galactica.

Of course, the tough decisions made by Bill Adama and Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica make Sisko’s moral calculus in In the Pale Moonlight look like primary school math. However, there is a clear sense of change in the air.

Still, there is no denying that In the Pale Moonlight works. Even today, the episode holds up remarkably well. The sixth season of Deep Space Nine often feels like it has reached the limit of what is possible within both nineties television and the larger Star Trek franchise, but this episode has aged remarkably well. It is just a superbly constructed piece for television, from Moore’s rewrite of Taylor’s script to Victor Lobl’s claustrophobic direction to the central performances from Avery Brooks, Andrew Robinson and Stephen McHattie.

It is no surprise that the episode placed so highly in rankings and lists around the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise Time Magazine cited In the Pale Moonlight as one of the franchise’s best moments, the only entry from Deep Space Nine to appear on the list. The Hollywood Reporter identified it as the single best episode of Deep Space Nine. MTV went even further, listing it as the third best episode in the franchise overall. That is a fairly sizable pop cultural footprint from a late episode of a series considered by its own writers to be the franchise’s “bastard stepchild.”

To be fair, Deep Space Nine had to wait a while to earn its cultural cache, retroactively appraised in large part due to binge services and the success of Battlestar Galatica. However, even audiences watching at the time understood that In the Pale Moonlight was a big deal. The episode was cited in TV Guide‘s high-profile “cheers and jeers” section:

An outstanding episode of the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, In the Pale Moonlight, was structured as a long, labyrinthine entry in the captain’s log, as a vexed Sisko (Avery Brooks) dictated his perceptions of and participation in recent momentous events in the Alpha Quadrant. The program’s anguished, confessional mood, its Machiavellian plot, in which Sisko desperately attempts to manipulate the Romulans into breaking their non-aggression pact with the Dominion, and Avery’s powerful, passionate performance (arguably his best in six years on the science-fiction series) combined to make this episode absolutely stellar.

In the Pale Moonlight is an episode of television that was simple earth-shattering at the time, and which has only grown in prestige and profile since it was first broadcast. It is debatable whether the Star Trek franchise ever managed to push past the moral marker set by In the Pale Moonlight.

Only the third season of Enterprise could claim to come close to the ambiguity and the compromise that distinguishes In the Pale Moonlight from the rest of the franchise. Indeed, Enterprise would consciously invite the comparison. Stephen McHattie is a recognisable genre actor, but his only other Star Trek credit is as the alien foreman in The Xindi, the first episode of that third season. Phyllis Strong would force Archer to face a similar moral dilemma in Damage, an episode that features a guest appearance from recurring Deep Space Nine actor Casey Biggs.

However, the third season of Enterprise never quite managed to match the impact of In the Pale Moonlight, despite the moral ambiguity and the overlapping cast members. In the Pale Moonlight is (understandably) remembered as a truly transgressive episode of Star Trek, pushing the boundaries of what was possible within the framework of the Star Trek franchise, but it is also a superbly and meticulously crafted teleplay. On a purely technical level, there is an argument to be made that In the Pale Moonlight is the best teleplay that Ronald D. Moore has ever written.

In the end, I found this episode to be one of the most rewarding shows I’ve had the pleasure of working on in that it never flinched or tried to find an easy way out. It forced our lead character into actions that he never thought he would take and into moral territory he never thought he’d travel. It’s shows like this that make me love DS9.

Ronald D. Moore

The writing staff on Deep Space Nine always enjoyed a great deal of freedom to tell the stories that they wanted to tell in the way that they wanted to tell them. There were compromises to be made, as many sixth season episodes attest, but the writers on Deep Space Nine could generally get away with a lot more than the writers on Voyager or Enterprise. Part of that was down to the fact that Deep Space Nine was syndicated, while Voyager and Enterprise were both tethered to UPN. Deep Space Nine had to deal with the studio, but never directly with a network.

However, there was also a recurring sense that the writers on Deep Space Nine were more adventurous than their counterparts on Voyager or Enterprise, and that they operated under a more enthusiastic executive producer. On Voyager, it frequently seemed like there was and active resistance to new ideas or concepts. Michael Piller stumbled while trying to introduce serialisation into the second season. Piller would be succeeded by Jeri Taylor, a very conservative showrunner. When Taylor left, the inexperienced Brannon Braga took over, under Rick Berman’s lead.

In contrast, Ira Steven Behr encouraged his writers to take chances and to craft bold stories. Behr reflected to The Fifty-Year Mission:

I was there during the third season of The Next Generation, and I remember what it was like before TNG was put on the mountaintop. I remember when people were still b!tching and moaning about what a lousy, stinking, rotten show TNG was compared to Kirk and Spock and Charlie X and the good old days. Well, then TNG became the godhead and Deep Space Nine was the one struggling to make a name for itself. I always felt if people would just allow it to happen, they would have said, “Hey, this is different Star Trek.” We did something just like TNG did: we developed a new wrinkly in the franchise, which what we set out to do. How often do you accomplish what you set out to do?

Deep Space Nine was a series very comfortable in its own skin, with writers who largely knew what they wanted to do, if not necessarily how they wanted to do it.

There was a lot of trust in the way that the writing staff approached Deep Space Nine, a lot of faith in both the ideas supporting the show and in the writers working with those ideas. The production team never really mapped out a clear arc for Deep Space Nine from beginning to end, never setting out with an end destination in mind. While this approach would cause problems when the writers found themselves tidying away the dangling plot threads, it also opened the production team up to all sorts of interesting possibilities.

Many of the most compelling developments in Deep Space Nine came about as a result of this improvisation or due to outside intervention. Worf was introduced to the show (and the Klingons became a focal point) in The Way of the Warrior following a rare direct intervention from the studio. In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light began as a jailbreak story focusing on the character of Michael Eddington, and evolved into a status-quo-shattering two-parter. Through the sixth and seventh seasons, the writers even debated closing the series with a reveal that it was all the dream of Benny Russell.

In the Pale Moonlight is another great example of this improvisational spirit. The episode was not the result of some larger plot arc that had been mapped out earlier in the year. As Moore confessed, the involvement of the Romulans was introduced rather late in the development process:

Things change. Our thinking changes, sometimes daily. We had  no plans for Romulan involvement in the war until In the Pale Moonlight was being developed. As we worked on the story, it became clear that bringing the Romulans into the war was a good fit for the episode and for the series so we went in that direction.

In hindsight, that seems almost ridiculous. The entry of the Romulans into the Dominion War is a pretty huge plot point. “This may even be the turning point of the entire war,” Sisko explains in the closing act, and that seems fair. The Romulans are a big deal in the Star Trek canon, and play an important role in some of the stories ahead.

Then again, it is arguable that the Romulans have reached a point where they are little more than iconic Star Trek aliens, carrying a narrative weight in large part due to their long association with the franchise dating back to Balance of Terror. Certainly, the Romulans have never been developed to the same extent as the Klingons or the Cardassians or the Ferengi. Stories like Message in a Bottle and Star Trek treat the Romulans as aliens that are part of the franchise iconography without being burdened by anything more substantial or meaningful.

To be fair, the Romulans have arguably worked best as a twisted reflection of mankind. After all, they are designed to mirror the Vulcans, the alien species most strongly associated with the Federation. More than that, the positioning of the Earth-Romulan War within the Star Trek canon sets up the Romulans as a compelling foil to the Federation. Dating back to The Next Generation, the Romulans have been portrayed as deep space cold warriors. They are a twisted mirror of the Federation; isolationist, subversive, calculating, cynical.

Deep Space Nine has never known quite what to do with the Romulans. The series memorably introduced a prominent Romulan supporting character in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, only for her to disappear from the rest of the season. Deep Space Nine developed the Cardassians as their own deep space cold warriors, usurping the narrative role traditionally played by the Romulans. The gradual moral shading of the Federation meant that the Romulans were rendered redundant as a moral foil.

Indeed, that redundancy is a large part of the Romulan arc across the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine. There is a recurring sense that the Romulan Star Empire is no longer as dangerous as it had once been, that the Federation is more than a match for them in terms of plotting and scheming. Indeed, the plan to lure the Romulans into the Dominion War through fabricated evidence and political assassination is the kind of plot that the Tal’Shiar might have employed against the Federation during The Next Generation. It broadly recalls the scheming in Mind’s Eye.

So the Romulans repeatedly find themselves outflanked and outclassed by the Federation in the final years of Deep Space Nine. In In the Pale Moonlight, the Romulans are outmaneouvred by Sisko and Garak, tricked into joining a war that will cost millions of lives by Federation manipulation. In Inter Enim Arma Silent Leges, the entire Romulan political system is gamed by Luther Sloan who is playing for stakes far beyond the Dominion War. When Shinzon murders the Romulan Senate in Star Trek: Nemesis, it simply literalises that sense of humiliation and defeat.

To be fair, since the return to the station in Sacrifice of Angels, the Dominion War has largely unfolded in the background of Deep Space Nine. It could reasonably be argued that the fourth season of Voyager is more driven by combat and space battles than the sixth season of Deep Space Nine. Episodes like Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II arguably have a stronger blockbuster sensibility than any Deep Space Nine episode between between Sacrifice of Angels and Tears of the Prophets.

Deep Space Nine is more interested in the stories that can be told against the backdrop of the war than in telling the singular story of the war. Whereas the fifth season of Deep Space Nine seemed to be consciously building towards the Dominion War, and while the first six episodes of the sixth season built to the reclaiming of the station, the bulk of the sixth season treats the Dominion War as a backdrop. The Dominion War is arguably a status quo more than a singular narrative arc, providing a framework for telling new and interesting stories.

The sixth season of Deep Space Nine seems invested more in various facets of the war than in the epic sweep of the conflict itself; the hard mathematical compromises of Statistical Probabilities, the lonely depression of Far Beyond the Stars, the simmering underworld of Honour Among Thieves, the moral pragmatism of Inquisition, the tragic inexperience (and prideful fervour) of Valiant. As such, the production could tell a story like In the Pale Moonlight, suddenly deciding to throw the Romulans into the mix without disrupting their on-going plotting.

The Romulan intervention in the war as no impact on the plotting of His Way or The Reckoning. Indeed, the writing only really embraces the Romulan presence in Tears of the Prophets, where it is suggested that Sisko might have been correct in his assessment of the long-term impact of the Romulans joining the war effort. The sixth season finale suggests that the Romulans have thrown enough weight behind the Federation and the Klingons that they can begin making strategic inroads into Cardassian territory.

The early seventh season goes even further. With the Romulan Star Empire committed to defeating the Dominion, the seventh season seems much more optimistic about the eventual victory of “the good guys.” In Image in the Sand, it seems like the Romulans are preparing to annex Bajor and the Bajoran wormhole after the dust settles, using the conflict as a pretense to set up a military base on the Bajoran moon of Derna. In Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, it is revealed that the Federation has actively begun to look beyond the present conflict to postwar alliances.

Although the arc was not planned in advance, there is something very satisfying about how the Romulan intervention in the Dominion War seems to turn the tide of the conflict across the sixth and seventh seasons. In order to up the dramatic stakes for the final run of episodes, The Changing Face of Evil has to align the Breen with the Dominion, giving the bad guys a magical one-shot-kills super-weapon. This feels like an organic development on multiple levels.

The Romulan intervention is a satisfying dramatic pay-off in terms of the larger Star Trek canon. It has been argued (perhaps most effectively by Garfield Reeves-Stevens) that Star Trek is ultimately the optimistic story of how enemies become allies. As such, this feels very much like the logical conclusion to the Dominion War, creating an unstoppable alliance of the three most iconic Star Trek powers. The Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans can traced across the length and breadth of the franchise, even if In the Pale Moonlight adds a bitter irony to the alliance.

Similarly, there is something to be said for the idea of the Romulans as late arrivals to the party, changing the course of the conflict. In many ways, this mirrors the American experience in the two largest conflicts of the twentieth century. In both the First and Second World War, American intervention was both delayed and decisive. In fact, a lot of American influence is built upon its role in the Second World War. As a reflection of American self-image, the Second World War is a formative event in the Star Trek canon.

There is something subversive in the portrayal of the Romulans as the United States in the grand historical narrative of the Dominion War, the heroes forsaking neutrality in response to atrocity by riding to the rescue of the besieged Allied powers. Over the course of the Star Trek franchise, the Romulans have been many things. The Romulans have been space!Russians and generic Star Trek aliens without the iconic weight of the Klingons. However, the Romulans have also been intermittently treated as a dark and twisted reflection of American ambition.

They were introduced in Balance of Terror as the first of the franchise’s space!Romans, before the Terran Empire in Mirror, Mirror or the inhabitants of 892-IV in Bread and Circuses. In the context of the sixties, this preoccupation could be seen as a meditation upon the clichéd anxiety that the United States might abuse its geopolitical influence to become “a modern-day Rome.” With their minimal make-up and familiar trappings, the Romulans have always hewed closer to American self-image than the more overtly alien Klingons.

Indeed, the fourth season of Enterprise would return to this idea of the Romulan Star Empire as a twisted mirror of the United States. In Babel OneUnited and The Aenar, released as the War on Terror raged, the Romulans engaged in drone warfare as a ploy to destabilise a turbulent region of space. The parallels seem quite apparent, particularly given that In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II would return to the fascistic space!Rome of the Terran Empire right before presenting the Earth with a choice of future in Demons and Terra Prime.

The manipulation if the Romulans into the Dominion War recalls a number of conspiracy theories about the events that drew the United States into the First and Second World Wars. There is, for example, an unfounded conspiracy theory that Winston Churchill engineered the sinking of the Lusitania as part of a plot to bring the United States into the First World War. Similarly, there is a long-standing myth that Franklin Roosevelt knew about Japanese plans to bomb Pearl Harbour and let it happen in order to force the United States to enter the Second World War.

To be fair, the most obvious parallel to Sisko’s plan may be the Zimmerman Telegram, the infamous communication in which Germany attempted to goad Mexico into launching an invasion of the United States so as to keep them disengaged from the European Front in the First World War. As the Federation hoped to do with the holo-recording in In the Pale Moonlight, the United Kingdom planned to use the telegram to provoke enough outrage to bring that outside party into the conflict. However, the Germans eventually confirmed the authenticity of the telegram.

There is something very cheeky and subversive in the positioning of the Romulans within the overall arc of the Dominion War. In the Pale Moonlight seems to suggest that the Romulans occupy the narrative space traditionally reserved for the United States in accounts of the First and Second World War, the heroes riding to the rescue of besieged allies who find themselves outflanked facing a fascist enemy. In some ways, this reflects the brutal cynicism of In the Pale Moonlight, a story that builds a optimistic Star Trek alliance upon a foundation of lies and murder.

Indeed, this is part of the beauty of In the Pale Moonlight. Sisko gets exactly what he wanted. Sisko manages to successfully draw the Romulans into the war. That Romulan intervention seems to make a very real difference to how the war unfolds. Sisko’s scheme is never exposed and uncovered, never laid bare before the Romulans. Sisko is never held to account for his actions. There is no cruel twist, no mocking irony. Sisko makes a deal with the devil to get what he wants, and there is no sting in the tale.

This is part of what makes In the Pale Moonlight so compelling and so unsettling. It is an episode that seems to suggest that there is no cosmic ordering principle that will bend the universe towards justice. There is no cosmic power that ensures everything is fair. The righteous are not always rewarded, and the criminals are not always punished. This might seem an overly cynical perspective within the utopian framework of the Star Trek universe, but it is accurate. The world does not always protect the innocent and the universe does not always condemn the guilty.

That is the true power of In the Pale Moonlight, the biting irony. There is no follow-up. In absolute terms, there is no reassurance that Sisko has done the right thing or the wrong thing. Audience members looking to Deep Space Nine will find no validation here, no later episode that explicitly condemns Sisko’s actions by laying them out in the open. After all, that is not what In the Pale Moonlight is about. In the Pale Moonlight is not about the idea of a moral universe that runs on principles like fairness or justice.

By this point in the run, Deep Space Nine is a highly serialised television show. The writers understand that they can set up ideas in early episodes, and follow them up later. Indeed, there are quite a number of sequel and follow-up episodes between the sixth and seventh seasons; Statistical Probabilities leads to Chrysalis, Honour Among Thieves leads to Prodigal Daughter, Inquisition leads to Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. The writers working on Deep Space Nine understand that they could write a sequel to In the Pale Moonlight, if they really wanted to.

However, there is no direct follow-up to In the Pale Moonlight. There is no story that builds upon the events of this episode. Tie-in novels like Hollow Men have explored that thematic ground, but the television series is quite happy to let In the Pale Moonlight stand on its own two feet. There is no sequel where the Romulans discover Sisko’s deception; no tale where the moral order reasserts itself. That would be a very fundamental misreading of what In the Pale Moonlight is actually about.

In the Pale Moonlight is not a story about whether Sisko’s actions are objectively right or wrong. The episode is consciously mute on that point, although Deep Space Nine has touched on that idea repeatedly. Stories like Statistical Probabilities condemn the idea of reducing war to a mere numbers game, while episodes like Change of Heart suggest that the death of an innocent person can never be rationalised by reference to “the greater good” or “the needs of the many.” It is quite clear that Deep Space Nine does not see Sisko’s actions as especially moral.

However, In the Pale Moonlight is not about objective morality. The story is not about these grand notions of right and wrong, these impossible and abstract dilemmas concerning billions of lives. The focus of In the Pale Moonlight is considerably tighter. This is an episode about what it takes for one seemingly moral man to betray everything that he holds dear, about the price that Captain Benjamin Sisko charges for his soul and the cost of living with such a decision.

The fact is that In the Pale Moonlight, Sisko ostensibly “confessed” to a computer, looked straight into a camera and talked about it. When we talk about this darker thing, or people have referred to Deep Space Nine as this darker thing, in my mind it resembles us. The writers were making a left turn for me [in this episode]. How do you make this palatable? How do you make this situation comfortable, especially for a man who doesn’t want to be here in this situation?

– Avery Brooks, The Fifty-Year Mission

Visually, the most striking aspect of In the Pale Moonlight is the decision to frame the episode as a confessional. The bulk of the story is told through Sisko’s log entries, which is not unusual. The captain’s log is an iconic piece of Star Trek storytelling, a handy expositional tool to bring the audience up to speed. It is part and parcel of the franchise, to the point that audiences all but expect that voice-over narration. The title “captain’s log” has been applied to everything from curated “best of” video collections to “behind the scenes” books.

However, In the Pale Moonlight is interesting in how it chooses to use that familiar storytelling device. In the Pale Moonlight is effectively a single forty-five minute log entry. That would be unique of itself, but it is particularly striking for the way that the episode is framed. In the Pale Moonlight opens with Sisko staring directly at the camera, is if addressing the audience at home. In the Pale Moonlight plays as a monologue from Sisko to the viewer, as if the character is arguing his own defense to an impartial observer.

The Star Trek franchise has never been particularly experimental in terms of storytelling, particularly when compared to shows like The X-Files or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Although the holodeck allows the franchise to play with genre and style, the Star Trek franchise would never try anything as ambitious (or weird) as a musical episode or a found-footage episode. Voyager would half-ass a dialogue-lite episode with Macrocosm and compromise on a kinda black-and-white episode in Bride of Chaotica!, but that was about as far as it went.

As such, In the Pale Moonlight represents a significant formal departure for the Star Trek franchise, effectively sitting the lead character down opposite the audience. Sisko even stares into the camera at various points in the episode, which makes little sense in the context of the log entry and the positioning of the camera. Log entries are primarily audio, and there is no portable computer or wall terminal that could be occupying the same space as the camera recording his monologue. It is a very effective and disorienting framing device.

Interestingly, In the Pale Moonlight shifted from an objective narrative to a more subjective narrative during the development cycle. According to Ronald D. Moore, the episode originally focused on an objective news report rather than a subjective log entry:

This episode started out as a Jake story, if you can believe it.  The story that Peter wrote and that Michael turned into a script was told from Jake’s point of view. The premise was that he’s a reporter doing a profile on  Garak and then begins to realize that something BIG is going on that  involves his father.  The idea was to do a sort of “All the President’s Men” type of episode where the trail leads Jake to his own father’s involvement  in a conspiracy to bring the Romulans into the war via a deception  facilitated by Garak.  The story at its core, however, didn’t work (through no fault of Michael Taylor, by the way — he wrote the script we sent him  out to do and did the best he could with it).

When it became time for me to do the rewrite, it was clear that we’d have to rebreak the story, so we gathered again and put the show back on the board (always an excruciating process). The first thing to go was the Jake angle  as we all agreed that the meat of the story was Sisko’s dance with the devil as he attempted to turn the tide of the war.  We tried two or three approaches over the course of three days, and kept getting frustrated  because nothing seemed to work.

Finally, I was at home doing something completely unrelated when the log entry/flashback device occurred to me. I called Rene (much to his surprise) and he liked it. The next day, I presented the concept to the rest of the staff and we decided to go for it.

It is a very clever storytelling shift, one that very much changes the emphasis of the story. The original story was about how Jake saw his father, and perhaps even the objective morality of what Sisko had done. The finished episode is much more subjective and all the more powerful for that.

After all, the episode repeatedly makes it clear that Sisko is not breaking any laws or doing anything illegal. Starfleet has endorsed his plan, and signs off on his actions every step of the way. “You realise I can’t authorise a thing like this on my own,” Sisko remarks of Garak’s plan to fabricate the necessary evidence. “I’ll have to clear it with Starfleet Command.” Garak understands, observing, “I suspect that with the fall of Betazed, they’ll be ready to do whatever it takes to bring the Romulans into the war.”

There is never any doubt that Starfleet endorses Sisko’s plan. After all, the organisation has never been especially hung up on morality. While Sisko might disavow Starfleet’s involvement to Tolar, he seems almost glad of it. “I was off the hook,” he admits in one log entry. “Starfleet Command had given the plan their blessing and I thought that would make things easier.” So it is clear from the outset that In the Pale Moonlight is not about Sisko disobeying orders or betraying the uniform or anything like that. Sisko is still a good Starfleet officer, whatever that entails.

In the Pale Moonlight is not particularly concerned about what this episode says about Starfleet Command. After all, Deep Space Nine has long been skeptical of the institution; from episodes like The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II through to Homefront and Paradise Lost. The episode is much more concerned about what all of this says about Sisko. How does Sisko rationalise his behaviour here? How does Sisko justify his complicity in all of this? Can Sisko accept what he has done?

In the Pale Moonlight is fundamentally about Sisko laying out an accounting of his actions, trying to make sense of what he did. “Maybe if I just lay it all out in my log, it’ll finally make sense,” he explains in the teaser. “I can see where it all went wrong. Where I went wrong.” Sisko is trying to apply some sense of order to his own subjective account of events. He is not interested in an objective and impartial chronology of what happened, he is trying to determine where he lost his footing and where he went wrong.

In the Pale Moonlight is a superbly constructed and structured episode of television. Most notably, Moore weaves the idea of deception into the narrative from the outset. In the Pale Moonlight is a story about characters who are consistently lying, both to themselves and to one another. Many of the characters pretend to be other people. Dax role-plays as a Romulan to debate the point with Sisko, offering many of the points that Vreenak would make at the climax. Garak parrots Sisko’s own words back to him. Even Weyoun and Damar appear as holograms.

Garak repeatedly lies to Sisko, very pointedly and explicitly manipulating Sisko through this little drama. “It may be a very messy, very bloody business,” Garak warns Sisko early in the episode. “Are you prepared for that?” It seems quite clear that Garak has already knows how he will bring the Romulans into the war, and is simply manoeuvring Sisko into place. No matter what the failure or the misadventure, Garak always seems to have a contingency in place. Garak seems aware of which of his plans will seem palatable to Sisko, but also of what he can do when those fail.

When Garak fails to procure evidence of a Dominion plot against Romulus, he already has the next steps worked out. No sooner has Garak suggested faking the evidence than he explains how he plans to fake the evidence. “You will have handed him a genuine optolythic data rod, but it will contain one of the most perfect forgeries ever fashioned,” Garak assures Sisko. “I’m still working on obtaining the data rod, but I have located the man who will create the holo-recording.” Garak is either a phenomenal ad-hoc plotter, or he had all of this planned out.

In the Pale Moonlight suggests that Garak always knew how this story would end, but that he simply moved slowly enough that he could manipulate Sisko into making the necessary compromises to make his plan possible. “That’s what you planned to do all along, isn’t it?” Sisko demands. “You knew the data rod wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. You just wanted to get him on the station so you could plant a bomb on his shuttle?” The implication is that Garak has been lying to Sisko, that he always planned to murder Vreenak and fed Sisko a series of lies to get to that point.

Garak is ambiguous on the point. “It wasn’t quite that simple,” he assures Sisko. “I did have hopes that the rod would somehow pass inspection, but I suspected that Tolar may not have been up to the task.” Of course, this makes very little sense in terms of basic plot mechanics. Garak would have planting the bomb while Vreenak was reviewing the rod. It seems highly unlikely that Garak could have disarmed the bomb in the unlikely event that Vreenak accepted the rod as genuine. It is more likely that Garak is lying to Sisko, to make Sisko feel better.

Obviously, Sisko also spends a significant stretch of the episode lying to Vreenak. Vreenak repeatedly draws attention to the artifice of the set-up. He opens the negotiations by complaining about the unconvincing facsimile of “kali-fal” that he has been served. “A fair approximation,” he admits. “Somewhat lacking in aroma.” In other words, it does not smell right. “It really is a good replica,” Vreenak concedes later in the scene. “The aroma’s starting to grow on me. For a moment there I almost forgot that it wasn’t the real thing, but only for a moment.”

Naturally, the biggest lie of which Sisko has to convince Vreenak is to invest in the faked recording of the Dominion plot to invade Romulan space. This is easily the most iconic moment in the episode, and perhaps the most iconic moment in Deep Space Nine. Over a decade after the episode aired, Stephen McHattie’s memorable delivery of “it’s a faaaaaake” became an internet meme. However, it reinforces this theme of deception and betrayal that runs through the episode.

Although the stakes are obviously very high in that memorable scene, the holo-recording is not the biggest lie in In the Pale Moonlight. The biggest like in In the Pale Moonlight comes at the very end of the episode, as Sisko assures both the audience and himself that he can live with it. He can live with it. The repetition, coupled with Brooks’ delivery and Sisko’s awkward posture, suggest that Sisko is not being entirely honest. Sisko is lying to himself and to the viewers, trying to convince himself that he can accept the price of what he has done.

Sisko lies repeatedly to the audience over the course of In the Pale Moonlight. The entire log entry is an attempt to reconstruct a narrative around these events, to bend and distort the truth into a form that is more palatable to Sisko. “I was the one who had to make it happen,” he confesses of his meeting face-to-face with Vreenak. “I was the one who had to look Senator Vreenak in his eye and convince him that a lie was the truth.” It is a clever line. Given the framing of the episode, Sisko has to do the same thing to the audience. He has to look into the camera, and lie.

Sisko lies from the outset. Indeed, the teaser closes on a fairly dramatic (and easily disprovable) lie. Recalling a conversation between Dax and Bashir about the necessity of bringing the Romulans into the Dominion War, Sisko tells the audience, “That was the moment I made the decision. It was like I had stepped through a door and locked it behind me. I was going to bring the Romulans into the war.” Sisko repeatedly insists that he is committed to the cause, that he is devoted to this mission. However, the episode then repeatedly undercuts that assertion.

The flashback sequences repeatedly suggest moments of doubt and hesitation from Sisko. There are several points in the episode when it seems like Sisko is ready to give up on his plan, to retreat back to his office and to the mundane demands of everyday live. Every time the flashbacks show Sisko setting a line in the sand, his narration insists that there is no line. Every time that Sisko engages in a very precise and defined plan, his recording assures the audience that he has committed to his cause.

After Sisko suggests that Garak contact his sources on Cardassia to find genuine evidence of a Dominion plot against Romulus, Sisko warns the audience, “I laid the first stone right there. I’d committed myself. I’d pay any price, go to any lengths, because my cause was righteous. My intentions were good.” However, when that (legitimate and reasonable) plan fails, Sisko seems ready to give up on the whole enterprise. “I’m sorry,” Sisko mumbles to Garak, turning to leave. It is clear that even the deaths of a few anonymous informants are enough to make him waiver.

Sisko only commits to faking the evidence when goaded by Garak. “I hope you’re not giving up that easily,” Garak states. “After all, the stakes are much higher than a few dead operatives. The fate of the entire quadrant hangs in the balance. Or at least that’s the case you made to me.” Garak is clearly driving the conversation, even as Sisko retroactively asserts his complicity. “In my heart, I knew what he was saying made sense,” Sisko insists in his log entry.

This pattern repeats itself over the course of the episode. Sisko repeatedly insists in the log entry that he always knew that he would do whatever it takes to bring the Romulans into the war. However, this is contrasted with scenes in which Sisko is quite clearly hesitating and in which he is quite clearly manipulated by outside events. Sisko insists that he locked the door behind him in the teaser, but the flashbacks suggest that he was spurred on by outside forces; by needling from Garak, by desperation at the fall of Betazed, by the timing of a casualty report.

Why does any of this matter? Why is Sisko so caught up in lying to himself? Why would Sisko want to believe that he is comfortable being an accomplice to murder? These are interesting and illuminating questions, but they really get ot the heart of Sisko as a character. Sisko very clearly wants to believe that he has a strong moral framework. Sisko wants to believe that his moral boundaries are rigid and defined. By insisting that he was ready to do whatever it took from the outset, Sisko has the comfort of setting his own boundaries. Sisko at least has the illusion of control.

This is the truly horrifying aspect of In the Pale Moonlight, the idea that a slippery slope can push somebody so far past their own moral boundaries that they are lost. Over the course of In the Pale Moonlight, Sisko escalates from trying to expose a genuine Dominion plot against Romulus to being complicit in the murder of a Romulan Senator. Sisko slips down that slope so fast that his only defense is to claim that he wanted to end up at the bottom. It is a wonderful character beat, and a fantastic piece of writing. Sisko lies to Vreenak, but he lies more to himself.

Indeed, this is very much in keeping with how Deep Space Nine approaches Sisko as a character. Repeatedly over the course of Deep Space Nine, Sisko finds his own certainties undermined and eroded. In episodes like The Maquis, Part I, The Maquis, Part II, Homefront and Paradise Lost, Sisko is repeatedly confronted with the reality that Starfleet is not as perfect as he thought it to be. In episodes like Accession and Rapture, Sisko finds himself drawn away from rationality and towards Bajoran spirituality.

In In the Pale Moonlight, it seems like Sisko cannot even trust himself. As with episodes like The Jem’Hadar and The Siege of AR-558, Quark is presented as the insightful arbitor of truth in the face of Federation virtue. “Thank you, Captain,” Quark remarks upon accepting a bribe in return for his silence. “Thank you for restoring my faith in the ninety-eighth Rule of Acquisition. Every man has his price.” Sisko is a man who never thought that he would have a price, but In the Pale Moonlight confronts him with that brutal reality.

This character arc is reflected in the way that Sisko gradually peels off his uniform over the course of the episode. As director Victor Lobl acknowledged to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, this was a conscious choice to underscore the idea that Sisko was being stripped of his illusions:

“I felt that if we just let him get more and more relaxed in his clothing that would help us,” the director says. “And since we shot it in continuity, we just kept letting him strip down a little bit.” Thematically, of course, that also indicated that the character was baring his soul. “That was the intent,” Lobl confirms. “But with that uniform, there’s just so much that we could strip him of.”

In the Pale Moonlight is rich and evocative, in terms of scripting and direction. There is even a nice sly parallel between Sisko’s assertion that he locked the (metaphorical) door behind him and Garak’s (maybe half-serious) assertion that he rigged the door on Tolar’s quarters to explode.

In the Pale Moonlight is a superb piece of drama and a superb piece of television. It is one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced, and ranks as a crowing accomplishment for Deep Space Nine.

You might be interested in our reviews of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

40 Responses

  1. One of my all time favourite episodes from any Star Trek series. I love Garak’s speech to Sisko, about how sometimes it is necessary to do a bad thing in order to prevent something worse from happening. Andrew Robinson is amazing in this episode. It really makes you think about what choice you would make yourself if you had been in this situation. Powerful stuff.

    • Robinson is a force of nature here. One of the franchise’s best recurring actors. One of the franchise’s best actors, to be honest.

      • Absolutely. I wish they had made him a main cast member, instead of regular guest star. Fascinating character and Robinson gives what I consider to be his best screen performance playing him.

  2. Great episode, great analysis. You mentioned the book “Hollow Men.” I’m curious how it deals with the aftermath of this incident. Does it add anything to the episode?

    • I don’t know if it adds anything to the episode, but it does some interesting stuff with what it takes away from the episode. More to the point, it avoids a lot of the obvious pit-falls that you’d expect from “follow up to In the Pale Moonlight.”

      But I would recommend McCormack’s Star Trek work in general. Particularly Hollow Men and The Never-Ending Sacrifice. She does a lot of what I really like from tie-in writers, where she understands that you can craft a different type of story in the shadow of the source material, rather than simply trying to go bigger or bolder, which I think a lot of the more recent Star Trek tie-in novels do.

      (That is to say, McCormack understands it better that her work be “good” than “essential”, if that makes sense.)

  3. Andrew Robinson is the core of this episode for me; he’s simply brilliant. Watch the whole holosuite forgery scene with him, Sisko and Tolar very closely. He manages to make it clear, through simple body language, that Garak intends to murder Tolar at the earliest possible opportunity. And, after Tolar starts waving the rod around like a toy, he looks like he has to restrain himself from killing Tolar right then, right there.

    • Yep. Garak is such a fantastic character here and everywhere else. Most particularly, Robinson clearly understands that Garak knows exactly what he is doing from the moment that Sisko drafts him into the plan. It is just a case of nudging Sisko in the right direction, while pretending to be a passenger along for the ride. He knows which buttons to press and exactly how to press them.

  4. One of the things I love about this episode is the ambiguity in the details. For example, I always believed that Garak lied about all of his contacts being killed, as a way to get Sisko to feel sympathetic to him and to make him feel as if Garak’s plan was the only possible way to solve the problem. There is a perfectly acceptable alternative explanation, however, that Garak was simply telling the truth.

    This episode does truly stand as a symbol of all that DS9 has accomplished. When I watched this episode for the first time, I thought it was very good, but I did not truly get why it was considered revolutionary. Recently, however, I have been rewatching TNG episodes, and I have gained a new appreciation for it. I don’t think I fully appreciated how DS9’s characters are flawed individuals and TNG characters are role models until I was able to see both series so close together. It is especially intriguing to compare this episode to The First Duty, which is also ironically another Ronald D. Moore script, as I think both episodes really do serve as a shining example of what each series tried to accomplish.

    • The funny thing is, Garak basically lays out that entire tactic right after he tells Sisko his contacts are dead:

      “You will tell the Senator that this information was obtained through
      various covert means at great cost to the Federation — “at least ten good men lost their lives bringing it across the lines” — that sort of thing.”

    • Garak is brilliantly inscrutable across the length and breadth of the episode, isn’t he? After all, he even signposts the importance of using stakes to “sell” Vreenak on the story, which is arguably exactly what he does with Sisko in those early scenes.

  5. >Many of the production team working on Deep Space Nine had cut their teeth as writers on Deep Space Nine, but were eager to establish their own identity distinct from their elder sibling.

    I’m going to assume that second reference to DS9 was meant to be TNG?

    What a fine episode; a real conversation-starter. I’m no fan of the 2000+ shows Darren listed in his review but I truly appreciate the moral anguish Sisko wrestles with here. I guess I have to find characters sympathetic before I can manage their dilemmas and justifications.

    On my most recent view of this episode I suddenly realized how perfectly Garak’s actions line up with ‘In Purgatory’s Shadow,’ wherein he made a promise to his dying father that he would “make the Dominion pay” for what they did to him. Although Garak suggested in that very episode he didn’t understand honour, perhaps his formidable determination to sway the course of the war in this episode is Garak demonstrating honour?

    • Good spot, actually. Corrected.

      With regards to modern television, I’m very fond of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, although I’m more interested in the characters than sympathetic to them.

      I also like you’re tying of the episode back to In Purgatory’s Shadow. It’s certainly a delightfully twisted “for my father…” on the part of Garak, but it totally fits.

  6. Fascinating overview of a complex, troubling, brilliant episode.

    I know you like ‘The Sopranos’ but I do think you touch on some of the reasons why I am so unimpressed with that show and so utterly bored of the soul daubed in pitch protagonists television has invested us with for nearly two decades. There is far more tragedy, compromise and anger in a fundamentally good man compromising himself than in a fundamentally bad man doing the same. Sisko is just devastating here, probably my favourite performance by Avery Brooks in the series. I’m not sure I’d say the same about Garak – I think he is even better elsewhere – but Andrew Robinson is wonderful.

    And yes ‘it’s a faaake’ deserves it’s meme status. 🙂

    • I know what you mean. I’ve missed out on some famous television (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, House Of Cards, Game Of Thrones) precisely because I have so little interest in tuning in to watch awful people doing awful things all day long. I like it just fine in films – I love the Godfather movies, for instance. But if I’m going to be tuning in week after week for years, I need to have more emotional investment in the characters than “for the love of God, will somebody just shoot this prick?”

      YMMV, of course. Though I doubt we’re the only ones.

      • For what it’s worth, I generally agree with you when it comes to the other grimdark shows, Game of Thrones is more than nuanced than the rest. Sure, there are a lot of awful people doing awful things to people, but some of them change, and other more enlightened characters later earn victories against them. I totally get that the show isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth a try.

      • For me, the form of Game of Thrones is probably more important than the story or the character. I genuinely believe its storytelling is brilliant and transcendent, in that it is a prestige drama built around the model of byte-sized delivery that resonates with the way that we consume media in the internet age. It’s all collections of little bits rather than big chunks, sorted by theme rather than by plot, anchored in big (very straightforward) “moments” that lend themselves to the rapid-fire pacing and abbreviated means of modern internet discourse.

        Each episode is almost a short story collection, arranged by theme. If that makes sense.

    • That’s a fair enough point about The Sopranos, although I know we hold very different opinions of the show. 🙂

      Also: “It’s REEEEAAAAALLLLL!”

      • Interesting you say that about Game of Thrones. I always thought its delivery and form undermined the show. To me, too many episodes feel like loosely tied together bits of a larger story rather than shorter stories interesting in their own right. I sometimes felt (especially in Season 5) that episodes included a scene just because the writers felt compelled to check in on each major character in each episode. I much prefer the Netflix model of just releasing all the episodes at once and letting people watch the whole story. Of course, the show’s current form is very good at feeding internet speculation and generating buzz, which is probably the real point anyways.

      • I don’t know if it’s the point, but I certainly think it’s a feature. I think it’s something that very much sets the show apart from a lot of the other big shows and which I suspect is key to its popularity. I think that there’s a lot to be said about “Game of Thrones” as the modern “water cooler” show, and how it reflects the beats and rhythms of everyday life.

  7. My all time favorite episode of Star Trek. Watching it, or even just reading some of the quotes from the episode, gives me the kind of chills down my arms and back when I encounter something sublime.

    Avery Brooks’ delivery is just so spot-on here. I’ve shared this episode with several friends who had only seen 2-3 episodes of DS9 previously, and everyone I’ve watched it with has been impressed by it.

  8. Ironic that a few episodes ago, Sisko declared that Dukat was pure evil. Now we watch Sisko become Dukat, a man whose personal image is at odds with reality. People think themselves the hero of their own story, and Sisko has deluded himself into believing he was the grand architect of this manipulation, that on his shoulders rests the fate of the Alpha Quadrant. Yet we see in Sisko’s account that he was a hapless bit-player in Garak’s manipulations. I’m not even convinced Garak’s operatives even died on Cardassia, I think that was just another manipulation to keep Sisko from wasting time looking for legitimate evidence. And we see how quickly Sisko gets his hands very dirty, and in his inability to cope, he creates the lie to satisfy his self-respect. Is Sisko pure-evil? No, and that’s what makes this a fantastic episode.

    Great review all around Darren! You caught several things I failed to notice about this episode despite my repeated viewings. I will have to re-watch this episode soon.

    I’ve been meaning to comment on the Waltz review and how I thought it was a terrible mistake, but I’ve been having trouble putting it into words, just what a misstep the writers took. They tried to shoehorn Dukat into something he was not, pure evil. Dukat was not Gul Darhe’el as represented in Duet, I can imagine Dukat meeting such a man and being disgusted and chilled. Such brutal savagery was a threat to Dukat’s deluded sense of the greatness of Cardassia. If Dukat really was committed to the idea of exterminating the Bajorans, he wouldn’t be dicking around with Kira in Wrongs Darker Then Who Cares… The only thing he should have cared about was dumping her in an anonymous mass grave after Waltz, but it was clear the writers didn’t know what they were doing with the character.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      That said, I’m not so sure that Waltz itself is a terrible idea for Dukat, so much as everything that came afterwards. I’d almost be happy if that were the last that the audience saw of Dukat. But, yeah, almost everything afterwards is a spectacular misfire and the waste of a great character.

  9. “Stories like Statistical Probabilities condemn the idea of reducing war to a mere numbers game, while episodes like Change of Heart suggest that the death of an innocent person can never be rationalized by reference to “the greater good” or “the needs of the many.” It is quite clear that Deep Space Nine does not see Sisko’s actions as especially moral.”

    You can just as easily cite examples of the opposite position in the series. In “A Call to Arms”, at the suggestion taking the Defiant to go back for Jake, Sisko says “I can’t risk the entire crew for one man, even if he is my son.” (A far wiser choice than Janeway and Chakotay stupidly walking into Seska’s obvious trap in “Basics”).

    In “The Ship”, Dax is quite candid in defending the capture of an enemy ship that five officer paid for with their lives. Heck, basically every dangerous assignment that crew members are sent on (be it by Sisko or someone higher up) in service of Starfleet or the Federation can be considered an exercise in “greater good” thinking

    • That’s a fair point, but I think the difference in those episodes is that it’s never really presented as an either/or choice.

      In The Ship, for example, the crew don’t make a conscious decision to take the Jem’Hadar ship no matter the cost. They stumble into a situation that ends up costing a lot of lives. And there is no way that they could surrender to the Dominion after the siege begins. As Sisko points out at the end of the episode, the issue is that the two sides cannot trust one another; for all Sisko knows, his crew would have been executed on surrendering. I’d argue that Dax’s observation at the end is an attempt to sooth Sisko’s sense of responsibility for what happened, to assure him he did the right thing.

      Similarly, while Sisko justifies not going back for Jake, it isn’t as though he makes the decision to actively leave him. Plus, as Jake points out, he is the son of the Emissary and the Dominion are trying to make nice with the Bajorans.

      However, when those choices are framed in an “either/or” fashion, the film tends to decisively come down on choosing not to make the pragmatic numerical decision about the greater good. When Bashir and Sisko have to choose between sacrificing millions to save billions or gambling it all, they gamble it all. When Worf has to choose between saving Jadzia or letting her die, he chooses to save her over the lives that would have been saved by rescuing the informant instead.

      • How about Sisko abandoning Dax and O’Brien on a Dominion planet in “The Search, Part I”, being prepared to destroy the Defiant with all hands to prevent the Dominion from provoking a war with the Tzenkethi in “The Adversary”, or attempting to seal the wormhole, with Worf, Garak, and potentially numerous other Alpha Quadrant ships stranded on the other side in “In Purgatory’s Shadow” (and technically being willing to do the same to Kira and Odo in “The Search, Part II” as well)?

      • Crucially though, none of those ultimately pay-off (with the crew generally finding a way around it or the plot contorting to avoid it) and most of them involve officers who have signed up to service understanding the sacrifices they may be asked to make. That’s very different from the pragmatic mass sacrifice rejected in Statistical Probabilities or the “ends justify the means” philosophy that weighs on Sisko in In the Pale Moonlight.

  10. I’ve been looking forward to your review of this episode for quite some time. Really great, insightful analysis.

  11. After watching “Waltz” on Netflix, I dove into “In the Pale Moonlight.” The two episodes work wonderfully as companion pieces. They really draw a very sharp distinction between Sisko and Dukat.

    In “Waltz” we see that Dukat is utterly immoral, as well as completely unwilling / unable to take responsibility for any of his actions. It is always someone else’s fault. In Dukat’s mind, he is *never* to blame for the crimes, the murders, he has perpetrated. As Dukat sees it, if only everyone would have been reasonable and simple done things his way, if only others had shown him the respect & deference that was his due, then none of these unfortunate incidents would have had to occur. Ducat is completely incapable of introspection and self-examination.

    In contrast, “In the Pale Moonlight” shows us Sisko constantly struggling with his conscience, plagued by doubt & guilt. He repeatedly questions both his motives and his actions. Sisko cannot simply hand-wave away his actions with “the ends justify the means.” He regards the crimes he committed, the murders to which he was an accessory, as a terrible price to have paid to save the Federation from the Dominion, and you can tell that they will weight heavily on him.

    I love how this episode is directed by Victor Lobl. By having Sisko practically break the fourth wall while giving his “confession” he is in effect making us, the audience, his co-conspirators. As a viewer I really was drawn into this episode.

    One last thing… “It’s a faaaaaake!” I really have to wonder if it was Lobl, actor Stephen McHattie, writer Michael Taylor or someone else who came up with that, um, interesting line delivery. Of course by the time McHattie delivers it, the episode’s tension has been ratcheted up so much that instead of being over-the-top it works as a devastating moment. No wonder everyone remembers it.

  12. Deep Space Nine began as a deconstruction of the Star Trek universe. From Emissary, we knew this wouldn’t be another TOS or a concurrent TNG. And from season to season, DS9 has only gotten increasingly ballsy as it picks apart the utopian human universe Gene Roddenberry pioneered.

    But with In the Pale Moonlight, DS9 has now left behind deconstruction of a Star Trek universe, and moved onto brutal evisceration. The whole episode is like the answer to Bashir’s question at the end of Inquisition – how much will we sacrifice to ensure our survival?

    With a story from Peter Allan Fields and a script by Ronald D Moore, two of Star Trek’s finest writers, superb direction from Victor Lobl as well as a plotline headed by two of DS9’s strongest performers, In the Pale Moonlight emerges as a tremendous example of what DS9 excels at. It’s the crown jewel of this incredible season.

    The teaser sets an atypical scene with Sisko in his quarters, trying to record a log entry and he can’t even finish the Stardate because he has no idea what day it is. Sisko’s got a lot to get off his chest, and he feels the best way to do it is in a personal log. The war with the Dominion is looking increasingly bleak for the Federation. Even with the help of the Klingons, Bashir’s predictions about a Dominion victory from Statistical Probabilities are starting to look more and more like a reality. So Sisko makes a decision – he must bring the Romulans into this conflict.

    What follows is Sisko’s desperate quest to do just that, no matter what it takes and whatever the cost. But it winds up costing Sisko more than he could ever imagine. The episode beautifully structures each scene. First, the lovely bit in Sisko’s office where Dax acts like devil’s advocate as he makes his argument (Terry Farrell does an eerily good job of capturing the mannerisms of the Romulan Senate), before realising he must have something concrete to get the Romulans to wage war on the Dominion.

    The point Garak comes into it is the point In the Pale Moonlight takes off like a rocket. It makes up for the fact how strangely absent Garak has been throughout this wonderful season. Since the Federation retook the station in Sacrifice of Angels, there’s been neither sight nor sound of him. In the Pale Moonlight is a welcome reminder of how much Andrew Robinson brings to an episode. It’s his best showcase since The Wire.

    Both Sisko and Garak come to the mutual conclusion that the Romulans need proof the Dominion will try to conquer Romulus once they’re through with the Federation and the Klingons. But when Garak’s sources on Cardassia are killed just for even speaking with someone off world, they decide to create the evidence themselves.

    Wesley Crusher once made an incredibly naive remark back in TNG’s dreadful first season; “I’m Starfleet. We don’t lie”. In the Pale Moonlight delights in dispelling that conceited notion. Sisko and Garak arrange a meeting on DS9 with Vreenak, a prominent Romulan senator returning from a diplomatic briefing with the Dominion. If he can be convinced the Dominion are a threat to Romulan interests, the rest of the Senate will fall into line.

    Sisko and Garak hire a forger (after pardoning him from a Klingon prison first) to create the illusion of a meeting between Weyoun and Damar planning the invasion of Romulus. To make it seem even more authentic, Garak has it recorded onto a hard-to-find optolythic data rod, but not before Sisko has to order Bashir in writing to trade dangerous, unsellable biomimetic gel for the rod (Bashir probably loses some respect for Sisko in this episode). Sisko even has to resort to bribery to keep Quark from pressing charges against the forger Tolar, after he attacks Quark in the bar.

    Victor Lobl’s direction is relentless the way it piles the pressure on Sisko, and Avery Brooks plays it superbly, not just in the scenes in his quarters, but in the story he’s telling us. We see Sisko take each step as it pushes him further and further into increasingly more questionable acts. The instrument of Lobl’s direction is Garak. Having him in the episode is a masterstroke, because every time Sisko is about to back out of this endeavour, Garak gives him the incentive he needs to push on with it, even though it chips a little more out of Sisko’s soul.

    Things come to a head when Vreenak boards the station, reviews the recording and dismisses it as the fake that it is (a line delivery as much of a classic as anything else in the episode). But that’s not the end of it.

    The final act is a series of beautifully engineered precision twists. Suspecting the rod wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, Garak planted a bomb on Vreenak’s shuttle, taking him and his aides with him. Knowing the rod would survive the explosion, the Tal Shiar will examine it, believing the Dominion blew up the shuttle to stop Vreenak from exposing they’re plot to invade Romulus, and any flaws in the recording will be blamed on the explosion (and as an added precaution, Garak kills Tolar to eliminate the one other witness). This is enough to convince the Romulans to join the war against the Dominion.

    In the Pale Moonlight is a peerless episode of Deep Space Nine. Everything about it works, with a plot so engrossing you can’t avert your eyes at the shocking story unfolding. This is as close to perfect as it’s possible for Star Trek to get.

    • It is a fantastic piece of television.

    • I’ve seen people say that the episode has lost some of its bite in the years following due to other shows having their main characters do far worse things. But that ambiguity enhances the episode. If we could outright condemn Sisko then it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful in my opinion.

      Another thing I like about this episode is how no one in the main cast confronts him about it-as opposed to the Enterprise episode “Damage”, in which the big moment is a big blowout scene between Archer and T’Pol. “In the Pale Moonlight” is more unsubtle and low-key, but it’s infinitely more effective for the fact that no one finds out.

      • The perfect cap on this stunner of an episode is that Sisko then deletes the whole log entry. It’s the closest he can get to pretending this whole sorry state of affairs never happened. I love when the episode fades to black on Sisko’s closing remark. A particularly stylistic touch from Victor Lobl in an episode full of them.

      • That’s fair. I also like that there are no consequences for Sisko’s actions. The price of his actions is… that he has to live with his actions. That’s a fair bold narrative statement, and one which I think holds up quite well.

  13. Words seriously can’t do justice to this episode. This is easily my favorite episode of the series, and probably in my top 3 episodes of television I’ve ever seen. It’s *that* damn good, and from minute one too. Unlike other Trek masterpieces like “The Inner Light”, which have fairly standard openings, “In the Pale Moonlight” is gripping from the opening shot. That puts it a cut above the other episodes that you mentioned for me. It’s staggeringly brilliant on just about every level.

  14. The thing I think you nailed in this review is that the thing that truly gets under the skin in this episode is the slope that Sisko slides down. He starts off intending to win the war and save the quadrant. He does so, but in the process crossing numerous ethical boundaries that are apparently expected of 24th century humans. He crosses them so casually he barely even notices it. The “Star Trek” franchise often borrows from classic motifs, and “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is certainly not an original idea. But rarely has it been executed with such aplomb, with such dazzling skill. That alone is enough to vault this episode into the very upper echelon of “Star Trek” episodes.

    • Yep, and while this certainly isn’t a new idea thematically, it is relatively novel in the context of what was at the time a thirty-year-old franchise. So the combination of the two concepts felt fresh and exciting, and interesting.

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