(season 6, episode 19; originally aired 4/15/1998)
When I was 18 years old, my family took a vacation. I stayed home, because it was summer and because I had a job; I was trying to put away some money before I went to college in the fall. I’d just passed my driver’s test, and my dad left me the truck, a big blue monster of a Ford that didn’t turn so great and wheezed when you changed the gears.
One afternoon I was running low on cereal and toilet paper, so I took a trip to the grocery store. The parking lot was three-quarters full, but I found a space not too far from the entrance. It was narrow, but I was sure I could make it, and I’d never had any problems parking before. But I didn’t make it. As I turned, there was a crunch and a popping sound, and I looked down just in time to see fragments of orange plastic flying out where the truck’s bumper had knocked out another car’s tail light. A stranger’s tail light.
I froze. In the 10 seconds before I made my next move, I had options, but all I knew was that I was a bad person, and that everything was ruined. So when my 10 seconds were up, I drove away. For the next two days, I was convinced that the cops were going to find me, that someone had seen me, that someone had written down my license plate number. But nothing happened. There wasn’t even enough damage to the truck for my parents to notice when they finally came home.
I love stories, and I love them because they have reasons, and consequences, cause and effect. They have meaning. But this story made no sense. I wasn’t one of the good guys anymore, but it didn’t matter. No one cared. I got over it.
There’s nothing in my life comparable to Sisko’s actions in “In The Pale Moonlight.” The episode goes to great lengths to establish the ongoing cost of the Dominion War, the captain’s personal sense of responsibility, and the frustrated rage that drives him. He does what he does because he tells himself there are no other choices he can make, and life keeps finding reasons that seem to confirm this. There’s no real accident here, and certainly nothing as silly as the anecdote I just described; Sisko’s course might have saved the entire Federation. My cowardice just screwed somebody out of a tail light. But for me, what matters most about “In The Pale Moonlight” is what happens at the very end: nothing. Oh, some ambiguity, a little uncomfortableness. It’s possible the death of the Romulan ambassador might someday land on the captain’s doorstep, and there could very well be consequences. But for right now, he gets away with it. He drives off, and if he has a hard time sleeping, he’ll get over it.
Star Trek is built on the vision of an ideal future; a tomorrow in which so many of the wants and hatreds that drive us today have been put aside. No money, no starvation, and if politics still seem as sniping and childish as ever, well, maybe there are folks who prefer it that way. The fundamental assumption is that problems can be solved. That with enough technology, enough goodwill and time, eventually humanity will work through its differences and grow the fuck up. Sure, there will still be the occasional criminal or malcontent, and sure, contact with other species can bring with it a whole host of new problems. But the fundamental optimism remains. With patience, the stalwart and true heroes of the world can save the day by sticking to their principles. It’s a nice idea.
In the years since Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars” first debuted, that idea has been poked and prodded by the Star Trek franchise, but it’s never been entirely discarded. Jean-Luc Picard had some dark moments on the Enterprise, but there was never any question about his moral fortitude; the worst thing that happened to him—being captured and assimilated by the Borg—was something that was done to him, not a personal failing or momentary lapse. The integrity of Picard, and of all his crew, was one of the hallmarks that defined Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the show’s best, these were good people doing noble work. They struggled from time to time, and they weren’t perfect, but they didn’t compromise themselves.
The same can’t really be said for Deep Space Nine. It’s a show built on compromise, and most of its cast have experienced this first hand. The events of “Moonlight,” the slow sickening build of bad choice stacked atop bad choice, are simply the natural evolution of a principle that has been with us from the beginning. Life is not neat. It is messy and strained and frequently uncomfortable, and staying clean isn’t always an option. The shock here isn’t that Sisko is capable of following a course of action that ends in murder. The shock is the realization that this isn’t that shocking. It doesn’t destroy our idea of Sisko, it doesn’t break any established rules, and it doesn’t shake the foundations of the series. All it does is twist things. Slightly. The good guys are still going to win, and the evil Dominion will be cast aside (or maybe there will be negotiations, I don’t know), and all it cost was, well. Not that much, right? A few lives, and a blotch on a good man’s soul. That’s a comparatively small price to pay.
Putting aside thematic concerns for a moment, “Moonlight’”s framing device, which has Sisko wrestling with his actions as he narrates what happened to his personal log, helps to establish this as being as much about character as it is about plot. Not that there’s ever any danger of us losing sight of that plot. If I have a criticism of the episode, it’s that it works a little too hard to make sure we understand exactly why Sisko does what he does, with Dax making comments like, “Boy, we definitely need the some help now!” at just the right moment. These reminders are distracting and unnecessary, although it’s not hard to figure out why they were included. DS9 has always been an accessible series; for all its moral ambiguity and technobabble, it rarely makes us struggle too hard to understand where its characters are coming from. Its genius is in using that accessibility to force its audience to confront uncomfortable truths. Another show might have gone to lengths to make sure neither side in the Dominion War was, strictly speaking, right; here, while it’s possible to sympathize with the Jem’Hadar, and even the Founders, there’s no real question. But that doesn’t make what happens to Vreenak (the always terrifying Stephen McHattie) any easier to take.
“In The Pale Moonlight” shifts the status quo for the series’ biggest ongoing storyline, but Sisko’s musings, self-recrimination, and self-doubt are the heart of the story. The episode turns the entire Dominion War into an opportunity to consider what lengths a man might be willing to go to try and do the right thing—and how the “right thing” can cease to lose its meaning past a certain point. In that respect, the hour plays like a miniature film noir, full of big gambles and shady creeps; you can even, if you squint, see some of the antihero signifiers that would become so important to modern television drama. Sisko takes shortcuts, offers bribes, works with criminals, and keeps the truth from his friends, and he does it all with, as he himself notes, the best of intentions. He does it for a cause greater than himself, but the sins still stain.
The escalation is elegant, all small steps from here to here to here, and then suddenly you look back to where you came from and you can’t see home anymore. This isn’t the most fun I’ve had watching a DS9 episode, but it is fun, and like those antihero shows, there’s a lot of excitement to be had in bending and breaking the rules. With Garak around, nothing ever gets too heavy or grim, except when you think about it; even Vreenak’s death doesn’t leave much of a mark. He was an interesting character, and he probably didn’t deserve to die, but it’s not like we’re going to miss him. Mostly this is just clever and well-paced and exciting, and each new setback adds to the suspense. Sisko’s plan, which seemed so simple (if basically impossible) keeps running into roadblocks, and each roadblock requires Sisko to lower himself just that much more. There’s plenty of entertainment value to be had in watching the captain negotiate a pay-off with Quark. Besides, Quark isn’t so bad, is he? And Garak, hey, Garak’s had his issues, but he’s such a charming, fascinating figure, he surely has everyone’s best interest at heart.
Here’s the thing: from a certain perspective, Garak does have everyone’s best interest at heart. At least, he has right people’s best interests. While the script (teleplay by Michael Taylor, from a story by Peter Allan Fields) may hit some notes too hard, it never overplays Sisko’s deepening sense of crisis, to the point where it’s entirely possible to watch the whole episode and think not much of importance has happened at all. It’s not as though Sisko murdered Vreenak himself; it’s not as though he records his log with blood dripping from his fingers.
Questions of right and wrong are often presented as simple binary decisions in fiction. Even in complicated scenarios, the choices characters make within those scenarios, from our outsider’s perspective, are basically straightforward. Sometimes doing the right thing is incredibly, almost impossibly, difficult, but we still know what that right thing is, and woe betide anyone who fails to follow it.
But here, nothing’s easy. You can say, it’s wrong that Sisko asked for Garak’s help, because surely he must have known Garak would take whatever steps necessary to ensure the plan would succeed. You can say, after Vreenak’s death, it was Sisko’s responsibility to turn Garak over to the authorities, and confess to his part in the crime. Yet the guilt of the former is outweighed by those endless casualty reports, by wave after wave of meaningless deaths, by the very real possibility that the Federation might lose the war; and the responsibility of the latter is cast aside by the simple fact that it’s too late, and any attempt to find justice would just make everything that much worse. So all that’s left is an empty feeling in the pit of one’s stomach and the slime left behind by all those moderate capitulations. And the corpses, of course.
Look: that taillight story? That’s a stupid story. I’ve done worse things in my life, and I’m still walking around, but even those worse things aren’t comparable to the subject at hand. But that minor accident, that lousy mistake that probably ruined (or at least inconvenienced) someone’s day, was the first time I can remember doing the wrong thing, and it not mattering. There was no punishment, no effect, no anything. If it were possible to work out some equation that expressed Sisko’s behavior in “Moonlight,” a way to balance out the millions of potential lives lost, and the very strong possibility that he’d helped to win the war (a war that Vreenak accuses him of starting, no less), against the immorality of the lies and murder it took to get him there… I don’t know. Maybe it would come down to little more than a busted taillight, and the knowledge that this is what we are capable of. This is how we are weak. Sisko can console himself with the thought that life demands impossible decisions, and it could just be that sometimes you have to do something awful to save the day. But he’ll always know that there are virtuous, heroic, and noble people in the universe, people who always take the high road, people who don’t run away or let their desperation drive them; and whatever else happens, if Sisko is among them, it will always be with an asterisk. You can live with that, though.
Next: We’re off until January 9, when we return to our two-episodes-a-week format with “His Way” and “The Reckoning.” Happy holidays!