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Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Waltz

"I'm such a monster, such an evil man."

Sisko and Dukat are stranded in the Star Trek Caves, while Dukat's mind slowly unravels.

This is a masterpiece of an episode. At its core is a tense, brilliantly acted two-hander from Marc Alaimo and Avery Brooks, interspersed with their friends being faced with a horrible situation, and of course, appearances from several important characters in Dukat's head.

The direction the creative team decided to take with Dukat in season six is really fascinating. It totally makes sense to me that Ziyal's death could have sent him over the edge and resulted in his mental health breaking down, and it sends his character in a direction I wasn't expecting (and gives Damar an interesting new direction as leader as well).

From here, the writers could have chosen to pursue a redemption storyline with Dukat. This is something that was maybe hinted at as a possibility in earlier years, particularly in his relationship with Ziyal, and in the occasions where he and Sisko or even Kira are forced to work together. However, the show's creative team were adamant that Dukat was entirely evil, given that he was basically a Space Nazi, and they wrote this episode to try to convince the audience of that – none too subtly, since Sisko literally says so in so many words towards the end.

One of the things that makes Dukat so compelling as a character is that, despite the best efforts of the writers, he isn't black and white – he does have softer shades to him (such as his love for Ziyal) and he really seems to believe what he's saying about helping the Bajorans, even though we as the audience are horrified by his protestations. Alaimo always played him as the hero of his own story, and in his own mind, he is the good guy.

Dukat represents the most insidious kind of evil, the kind of evil that completely believes its own self-justification and genuinely believes that it's doing nothing wrong. Of course, in some cases Dukat is simply lying to both himself and Sisko about his actions and intentions, but this is blended with the good intentions that pave the path to you know where, along with Dukat's own selfishness and willingness to abuse others for his own gain.

The most obvious, and clearly intentional, historical parallel to the Cardassians are the Nazis, especially given the prevalence of work camps and so on during their occupation of Bajor. But the Nazis are not the only conquering force in history, and far from the most successful. One of the things that makes Dukat an especially fascinating character is that he so often embraces justifications of occupation that real-life imperialists have often trotted out.

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1980s, you could still sometimes come across justifications of the British Empire along the lines of bringing various perceived benefits to occupied peoples. The British tended to look back to the Roman occupation of Britain two thousand years ago, conclude that the Romans helped the Britons to develop, especially in regards to technology and infrastructure (roads, baths, central heating and so on), and apply that same logic to the British conquest of roughly one quarter of the globe in the nineteenth century. I suspect there are plenty of people who still view it this way.

Dukat's justifications of his actions are a perfect evocation of all these real life justifications for occupation that have been trotted out so often. He blends them with another traditional justification for the abuse of others – the justification of a slave owner that at least they treated their slaves well. This is also frequently found in justifications of slavery from people wanting to defend the slave owners of the past. Dukat wants credit for his efforts to "help" the Bajorans, and genuinely can't understand why Sisko doesn't think this makes his running of labour camps and role in the occupation of the planet okay.

Of course, the character at whom all this colonialising bile is directed is Sisko, in all of Star Trek, the character probably most aware of the suffering of his own ancestors at the hands of people who considered themselves superior. It's not surprising that it doesn't work and by the time Dukat has justified his horrific treatment of the Bajorans and beaten up the injured Sisko with a pipe, most of the viewers are probably pretty happy to agree with Sisko. But it's Dukat's absolute insistence on his own heroism that makes watching him fall apart so compelling.

Often, when the bulk of an episode is a brilliant story for one or two characters, the rest can end up being filler. But that's not the case here, as the tension among the crew on the Defiant between their desire to save their friend and the need to do their duty, obey orders, and see the bigger picture is palpable. Bashir and O'Brien behave absolutely as we would expect Star Trek characters to behave, pretending not to understand Kira's message because they want to keep looking for Sisko, even though they have no way of knowing whether or not he is alive. That's what Bones and Spock would have done, no question; it's what the Voyager crew (possibly excepting Tuvok) would have done; it's probably what the Next Gen crew would have done as long as Borg assimilation wasn't involved (it's interesting that of the two former Enterprise-D crew-members, O'Brien follows the usual Star Trek pattern here, but Worf doesn't).

But Kira comes from a harsher background full of harder choices, and Worf and Dax are hardened warriors (O'Brien actually has the most extensive combat experience, but Worf and Dax have a more warrior-focused mentality). Luckily for station morale, Dukat's message gets through just in time – in that, the story does follow a more typical Star Trek template!

The whole story is taught and tense, pulling off that most elusive feat in Star Trek, which is making you genuinely fear for the captain's safety even though you know he will be okay in the end. The realism of Dukat's wrongdoing, achieved through both the sharp writing and Alaimo's nuanced performance, makes him and his struggle compelling, even as we come to feel, like Sisko, that he is irredeemably evil, and the whole thing is just brilliantly written and performed from start to finish. This is Deep Space Nine at its grimdark best.

Bits and pieces

- This is one of eight episodes of Deep Space Nine directed by René Auberjonois (Odo), and probably the best of the eight (the quality of a TV episode being partly down to the direction, but also the script!)

- Although not set on the station, this is basically a bottle episode – it features almost entirely regular or recurring cast and uses standing sets (the Defiant, and the caves, which were a standing set on the Paramount lot used by Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager. If you ever wondered why all the caves in Star Trek look the same, it's because they are literally the same caves).

Quotes

Sisko: What the hell do you want from me? My approval?!

Dukat: I'm so glad we had this time together Benjamin, because we won't be seeing each other for a while.

Sisko: Sometimes life seems so complicated, 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 realize that there is such a thing as truly evil.

Sisko: I fear no evil. From now on, it's him or me.

Final analysis: Tense, compelling drama. Four out of four identical caves.

3 comments:

tucsonbarbara said...

Thank-you for a wonderful review. This episode is one example of why DS9 is my favorite of the Star Trek series.

I'm really enjoying these reviews.

Also, please forgive me for being a grammar cop, but the word you meant was "taut" not taught.

Victoria Grossack said...

This episode is one of the many amazing DS9 episodes. You have given great praise to Brooks and to Alaimo, but I also loved Visitor's performance - especially in her role in the figment of Dukat's imagination.

CoramDeo said...

One of my all-time favorites. Excellent review.