Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Deep Space Nine 6x19 "In the Pale Moonlight"

rating: ****

the story: Sisko uses lies and deceit to get the Romulans into the Dominion War.

what it's all about: There's a moment in the third season two-part premiere, "The Search," where Sisko and Garak are talking and they suddenly realize how strange it is, because until then they hadn't really spent any time together.  This was the period where the producers were catching on to the fact that scenes like this could lead to entire episodes.  It's not inconceivable that "In the Pale Moonlight" began to gestate that very moment.

"Moonlight" may in fact be the signature episode of the whole series.  Its story is framed by Sisko recording a personal log in which he struggles with everything he's done.  By the end he decides that he's okay with his decisions, and he deletes the log.  It's an incredibly bold creative statement that's downright unthinkable in any other Star Trek context.  Because his decisions seem to go against every Starfleet principle, and therefore every franchise ideal.  And yet the ends do seem to justify the means.  Without the Romulans, the Federation would likely have lost the war.  Even by the final episode of the series, it's not until the Cardassians defect from the Dominion that the good guys can be assured victory.

Which makes "Moonlight" as integral to the Star Trek meditation on war as anything else the franchise ever did.  The original series was famously conceived during the cultural tumult of the '60s, generally coming up on the same side as the counterculture that thought the Vietnam War was abhorrent.  At the time "Moonlight" originally aired, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were several years in the future, but the same arguments people made against Vietnam were just as relevant then, too.  There had finally come a point where civilization generally seemed to think war was no longer justifiable. 

And yet, "Moonlight" is an episode that justifies war.  Make no mistake about it: this is a story set deep into a war well underway.  It's the Romulans who are asked to fight, not the Federation.  But imagine it's the other way around.  What if it were Sisko needing to convince Starfleet to entire a Romulan war?  The results would be the same, wouldn't they? 

"Moonlight" has long been considered one of the major creative statements of Deep Space Nine, an episode with a lot of cool moments (a Romulan senator creating meme-worthy material when he hisses, "It's a faaake"), and of course Sisko grappling with his conscience, and his getting in bed with Garak, who for the first time since the third season willingly involves himself in morally questionable behavior.  It should be most shocking to watch Garak in this kind of material, as he has otherwise meticulously given himself an ambiguous presence, a past he never really talks about but deeply rooted in the messy affairs of a foreign spy service with a terrible reputation...And he's spent all this time looking like a good guy regardless, even quickly backing off of his decisions in that third season adventure ("Improbable Cause"/"The Die Is Cast"). 

So why should it be so easy to love an episode like this?  And what does that say about fans?  In the end, "Moonlight" isn't anymore an approval of war than the whole of the Dominion War arc itself, but tacit acknowledgment of its infinite complexities, and it's the embodiment of those complexities in its most viral state.  This one's hard to ignore.  It has all the elements necessary to explain in a nutshell what the war was really all about, the study of the human condition that Gene Roddenberry first set out to explore, whether in "The Cage," with Pike's experiences amidst fantastic illusions, or "Where No Man Has Gone Before," where Kirk's best friend turns into a mad god.  Sisko's demons are more terrestrial, more personal.  There are no tricks involved here, just oneself. 

It's Star Trek at its essence.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Tackles the big question at the heart of the whole idea.
  • series - The Dominion War arc boiled down to its core concepts.
  • character - Sisko's finest hour.
  • essential - Arguably the best episode of the series.
notable guest-stars:
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
Casey Biggs (Damar)

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