Deep Space Nine was unique in the Star Trek TV series’, and not just because it was set on a space station. I’ve described it as “Star Trek for people who don’t like Star Trek” and, while glib, it is true. Unlike the two series that came before and the two after, there seemed to be no reset button. Actions had lasting consequences, people died, relationships were forged and broken and wars were fought. It’s sort of like Wrath of Khan: The Series.
After two fairly shaky seasons of boldly going nowhere on the whole, the conclusion of season 2 introduced us to the Dominion, an anti-Federation on the other side of the galaxy who considered all the races in our corner of the universe as the number one threat to their particular type of order. After they blew up a Galaxy-class starship in their first appearance it became clear that a direct confrontation was only a matter of time. The shapeshifting Founders of the Dominion spent the next two seasons infiltrating the major Alpha Quadrant powers and trying to start wars to weaken them prior to invasion: we get to see a joint Romulan-Cardassian fleet wiped out while trying to attack the Founders, the Klingons invade Cardassia in the aftermath and a border war between the Klingons and the Federation. Eventually the Cardassian Gul Dukat, recurring season 1-3 bad guy recast as piratical anti-hero in season 4, sell his own people out to the Dominion: he becomes dictator of Cardassia and they get a forward operating base from which to bomb every other civilization in the Alpha Quadrant into dust.
Which brings us to what is considered the finest episode of Star Trek ever made. Not much in the way of special effects, just good solid drama. The Pale Moonlight finds Captain Sisko six months into a war the Federation and Klingons are losing badly. With only one real victory under their belts the allied powers are desperate for something to break the current stalemate. Unfortunately the Dominion break it first, invading and occupying Betazed which puts them within striking distance of Earth and Vulcan. Noticing the number of raids launched by Dominion ships crossing Romulan territory, Sisko resolves to bring the Romulans into the war on their side.
Recruiting exiled Cardassian spy-turned-tailor Elim Garak, Sisko sets about trying to find evidence of the Dominion’s war plans for the Romulan Empire. Unfortunately all of Garak’s contacts meet untimely deaths within hours of speaking to him. Garak then persuades Sisko to manufacture the evidence. We then find Starfleet’s finest engaging in numerous dodgy backdoor deals: selling biological weapons materiel in return for a Cardassian data storage device; freeing a holographic forger from Klingon prison; and bribing Quark not to press charges when the forger stabs the station’s resident barman. Eventually a forged recording of a meeting between the heads of the Dominion and Cardassia where they plan invading the Romulans is ready and Sisko invites a Romulan senator to the station to view the ‘evidence’. Again the hand of fate flips our hero the finger and Senator Vreenak discovers the recording is a fake, threatening to expose Sisko’s treachery to the galaxy.
Awaiting the inevitable diplomatic shit-storm, Sisko is shocked to learn that Vreenak’s shuttle has exploded en route to Romulus and the Dominion is being blamed. Furious, he storms off to beat the living hell out of Garak for planting a bomb on board a diplomatic mission. Garak responds that this was his contingency plan: Vreenak will appear to have picked up the recording and was killed to prevent him exposing the Dominion’s attack plans. The imperfections in the recording will be put down to bomb damage and, to Sisko’s ashamed realisation, the Romulans will now enter the war on the allied side, providing a much-needed boost in numbers. This is a huge, if hollow, victory for the good guys.
The episode takes its name from a line by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman: “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Quite apart from it being the law that anything named after a quote from a Tim Burton movie has to be brilliant, the title is excellently chosen after Sisko’s own tango with Garak’s Lucifer. The episode itself is little more than an acting showcase for Avery Brooks and Andrew Robinson, but it is brilliantly written and performed. Political intrigue is rarely seen in Star Trek and this episode piled it on with a shovel. You don’t need special effects when you have one man’s world disintegrating around him. Sisko’s final speech, as he tries to justify his actions to both his log and his conscience, should’ve gotten Avery Brooks an Emmy nod at the very least.
Unfortunately, as the following series’ focused on time travel, technobabble, maintaining the status quo and big blue wibbly-wobbly things in space, it’s not so much a watershed moment in Trek as its last hurrah. Regardless of what the viewers thought (and this show really did divide them), everyone seemed to agree that Deep Space Nine was a unique show and one that is unlikely to be mirrored any time soon.