I make no bones about it, I’m a Star Trek fan. I remember going to the university residence laundry room (where the building’s television set was located) earlier every Friday evening to make sure I had the remote control and, therefore, control over what was watched at 7:00 pm, namely Star Trek: The Next Generation. Years after it had run its seven year course, I taped repeats Monday to Thursday to find those couple of episodes I’d missed the first time around. When Deep Space 9 came on the air six years later, my college friends and I would try to get together for episodes so we could watch and deconstruct them every week.
Deep Space 9 is my favourite Star Trek series. All the series have very good qualities (I can’t comment on Enterprise because I missed almost all of it, living in a place without the proper channel), but DS9 was it for me. Its detractors will say that it lacked the adventure of space travel, being set on a space station rather than on a ship, but to that I say that adventure is largely like the feeling of being at home; you can have it wherever you are.
On DS9, the journey came to them, and eventually they got their own ship—its awesomeness demonstrated by its automatic-fire phasers—and they could find adventure off-station as well. Although ST:TNG had their escapades under the guise of exploration, DS9 was almost always at war; they were not on a goodwill mission, to explore strange new worlds, neither were they a group of explorers just trying to get home, as on Voyager. The galaxy came to them, and the fixed location allowed an examination of interpersonal relationships that was just not found in any detail on previous Star Trek outings. Deep Space 9, the station itself, had started out as a Cardassian military space station in orbit around a world called Bajor, that had been subject to the Cardassians for sixty years. For the regular reasons usually cited in situations like these, the overlords left, trashing their former base behind them, and the Bajorans, many of whom wanted to find their own way without anyone’s help, turned to the United Federation of Planets, of which Starfleet is the military/scientific/peace keeping branch, to help them with the transition. The Starfleet officer in charge was Commander Benjamin Sisko, who starts out with personal reasons for wanting to leave the station, and ends up with very complicated reasons for staying. His first officer is Kira Nerys (Nerys is her given name, Kira the family name) who is somewhere around her late 20s, early 30s, and had fought Cardassians since she was old enough to hold a phaser. Almost everyone she knew had spent their entire adult lives subject to Cardassia, although in one episode, a reasonably spry judge says she’s 100, so maybe they’re like Vulcans and live half as long as the descendants of Numenor. Anyhow, the point is that she, and virtually everyone she knows, hates Cardassians – hates Cardassians, and frankly, anyone who had lived through what she’d lived through, which was better than some and worse than others, probably would.
In the penultimate episode of season one, Duet, a man ends up in the sickbay on DS9, suffering from a disease called Kalla-Nohra that had only ever presented among people (of any race) who had been at a Cardassian forced labour camp, called Galatep, during a mining accident. Kira tells Sisko that the Bajoran survivors of the disaster had always been an inspiration to her people, and she goes to see the man in the doctor’s office, only to discover that he is actually a Cardassian, and, by implication, one of the guards or officials who ran the camp. Kira has the man arrested and put in a cell as a war criminal.
Kira wants to send him to Bajor for trial, but the prisoner tells her he was only a file clerk, Marritza, and both she and Sisko kind of think that makes him less culpable for what happened, although Kira is inclined to see him as complicit, even if he was just a clerk; he recorded the atrocities and did nothing. Someone needs to pay.
The crew get a photo from some archives, the only photo with an image of the man the prisoner claims to be. The file clerk’s image is not that of the man in the cell, but the image reveals the him to be the actual prefect of the camp: a much bigger prize, the Butcher of Galatep, Gul Darhe’el. Kira confronts the prisoner about this, and in one of the most fantastic monologues ever seen on television, he transforms from Marritza to Gul Darhe’el, and all the bombast and ego of a terrible man comes spilling forth, justifying his acts in the labour camp. Kira says, “Nothing justifies genocide.” The prisoner replies calmly with the devastating, “What you call genocide, I call a day’s work.”
Kira is understandably horrified by the prisoner’s pride in his acts and leaves the security area. The Bajoran government wants the prisoner transferred to Bajor and Sisko is now inclined to agree, but the former Cardassian prefect of the space station, Gul Dukat, tells Sisko that, in fact, Gul Darhe’el had actually died many years before. Dukat seems genuinely confused as to who the man on DS9 actually is. Kira thinks it’s all just a ruse to free the prisoner. DS9’s security chief, Odo, discovers that Galatep’s prefect didn’t have Kalla-Nohra because he was away from the camp on another planet when the disaster occurred, and Dr. Bashir says there’s no other way to have contracted it. Finally, Bashir discovers that the prisoner has had a lot of plastic surgery, and Odo somehow finds out the man had settled all his affairs before he’d left to come to DS9. There’s only one conclusion: the prisoner has intentionally changed his appearance so as to look like Gul Darhe’el.
Kira returns to the cell to ask him why he would do such a thing. At first, he denies any such thing, continuing to insist on his identity as the camp prefect, but he is obviously shaken. Kira posits that he’s actually the clerk Marritza, whom he first claimed to be, and the prisoner slowly breaks down, describing how Marritza was actually a weakling and a coward, hiding in his room, covering his ears to the screams of the labour camp internees. As he collapses onto the bunk in the cell, Kira lowers the force field and asks him again why he’s done what he’s done. Crying, Marritza tells her that Cardassia can only be clean when it admits to what it’s done to Bajor and Bajorans, that all Cardassians are guilty, and that his trial and execution will force Cardassia to admit its guilt. Someone has to pay. Kira tells him that he’s asking for another murder, and too many good people have died already.
The episode closes with Kira walking him out of the security area to a ship. They are walking side by side, which by itself changes our perception of Kira, who had barely acknowledged Cardassians as people, and is now having a perfectly reasonable conversation with one. As they are walking, another Bajoran pulls a knife, approaches from behind the pair, and stabs Marritza in the back. Marritza falls to the ground and Kira, holding his head in her lap, looks up at the perpetrator and asks him why he’d do such a thing. The man says, “He’s a Cardassian. That’s enough.” Kira blurts out, “No!” and more quietly, “It’s not.”
This episode allowed Kira to see that not all Cardassians can be painted with the brush she’d grown up with, that there are Cardassians who know their occupation of Bajor was brutal, oppressive, and wrong, and it changes her character moving forward in the series to someone who can deal honestly and clearly with a group of people she had previously only hated. It’s one of the fundamental moments in the life of the character.
Good art makes us question our assumptions, and we can usually only do that in a context that is not our own. Forced to confront our own biases, many of us cannot, but in the guise of entertainment, good television can make us internalize the struggles of strangers and learn their lessons while learning our own. Star Trek has always been good for this, and this episode illustrates it particularly well.