So we finally get a follow-up to Ziyal’s murder and… well, I’m disappointed.
Once again, we don’t really get to see how Kira was affected by Ziyal’s loss — I guess that one steely look she shot at Gul Dumar as he walked off down the corridor from the airlock a few episodes ago is all the grieving she gets to do. Instead, this episode shows how that death has affected Dukat, seen through the lens of his tempestuous relationship with Sisko. The creative choices here, and their end result, do a lot to diminish Dukat, I think. Maybe this thing will go someplace interesting, but I don’t know. This is one of those huge moments that forever changes how you see a character, and it’s hard to imagine how they could turn this around.
The premise? Dukat basically lost his mind when Ziyal died. After a few weeks of therapy, he’s been released from observation to stand trial for war crimes, and Sisko has tagged along for his arraignment. The ship they’re on, the Honshu, comes under attack by the Dominion. Both men end up stranded on a forgotten planet together. Dukat holds the upper hand here; he’s rescued Sisko from certain death, and the captain broke an arm and suffered some plasma burns in the attack.
As it turns out, Dukat has only kept Sisko alive in order to satisfy his own mad vanity. He’s begun having conversations with vivid hallucinations of his greatest antagonists — Weyoun, Dumar, and Kira — and desperately craves the validation of knowing that Sisko respects him. He lies to the wounded Sisko about their situation, claiming their shuttle has crashed (it didn’t) and that he’s sent out a general distress signal (he hasn’t). Sisko stumbles across the truth, but he also realizes he’s in no position to confront Dukat, so he surreptitiously activates the distress beacon and tries to keep things low-key with what he comes to realize is his unhinged captor.
Eventually, Dukat catches on to Sisko’s counter-deceit, which is where the episode goes wrong. It almost goes incredibly right, though. Sisko and Dukat agree to lay everything out in the open, and Dukat scorns Sisko for sitting in judgment of his actions during the Bajoran occupation. This conversation really gets to the “shades of grey” that DS9 likes to explore, the moral relativism of way: Yes, Dukat admits, Bajorans died while he was stationed as overseer of the occupation… but he put into place reforms designed to reduce the mortality rate. He improved health care, reduced labor quotas, and within one month managed to cut the Bajoran prisoner death toll by 20%. He tried to minimize the suffering of the Bajorans within the strictures of the system he inherited. Does that make him a bad guy, he asks?
But he also explains how he dispensed justice: A Bajoran attack a month into his tenure killed 200 Cardassians, so Dukat had 200 Bajorans killed. Simple, punitive, morally correct action, right? But as Sisko pushes him (and as his phantoms taunt him), he snaps and begin ranting about how the proper course of action should have been to kill all the Bajorans. And that’s where we leave Dukat (or rather, where he leaves us): Vowing to wipe out Bajor.
So, the most complex and interesting villain Star Trek has ever seen is reduced to a ranting, genocidal lunatic. And Sisko, rescued by the Defiant after being left to die by Dukat, caps things off by musing on the complex shades of grey of villainy. It exists, he says, but then there are people like Dukat who are “pure evil.”
But that’s not what made Dukat interesting. He made an incredible foil for Sisko because he wasn’t pure evil. He was a bad guy, a ruthless killer bureaucrat, but he was also the other side of Sisko’s coin: A man from a different culture with different morality who made hard decisions as a leader. I wonder if it’s just that the show runners realized, hey, if we have Sisko giving the OK to commit genocide against the Jem’Hadar, we have to make his rival even more evil and actively seek out the destruction of a peaceful people!
I’m finding Deep Space Nine is hit-or-miss this season in ways I didn’t expect. It’s well-crafted, but a lot of the writing direction for characters and scenarios isn’t sitting well with me. I guess syndicated television wasn’t quite ready for something with Game of Thrones-level moral ambiguity 20 years ago. I’m curious to see where DS9 goes from here, but I’m concerned that the series just lost its most interesting villain in favor of a pale shadow of himself.