“In the Pale Moonlight” is one of the highest rated episodes of Star Trek. It’s well regarded by fans as one of the definitive episodes of the series, if not the entire franchise. It only aired two months after “Far Beyond the Stars” and the Dominion War is not going well at all. Captain Sisko has a routine of posting the names of the Starfleet personnel killed, wounded or missing in the war. Each Friday the crew checks the casualty list to see if anyone they know is on it. Unfortunately a lot of the fighting is along the Romulan border, because the Dominion signed a nonaggression treaty with the Romulans, allowing them to use their territory to attack the Federation. The Romulans are content to turn a blind eye while their rivals slug it out.
Sisko believes getting the Romulans to enter the war against the Dominion would turn the tide and allow the Federation to finally go on the offensive. In order to achieve this goal, he enlists Elim Garak, an exiled Cardassian introduced during Season 1. Garak and Sisko must get their hands dirty with bribery, deception, and murder. As a framing device throughout the episode, Sisko is in his quarters explaining the situation to his log because of its classified nature and he’s struggling with coming to terms with what he has done. Initially we don’t know exactly what has transpired, or how far Sizsko went to get it done.
The ideal vision of society depicted in Star Trek is well known by fans and non fans alike. But “In the Pale Moonlight” shows the Star Trek universe isn’t as ideal as viewers think it is. Star Trek Deep Space Nine has consistently pushed the boundaries of the universe established by Gene Roddenberry. Characters are allowed to have flaws and conflicts, especially with other main characters. In contrast, Star Trek The Next Generation was established with a no interpersonal conflict rule, essentially tying the writers’ arms behind their backs. The characters of Garak, so essential to this episode, probably would not exist except as an one off in the other Trek shows.
While the racism in the 1950’s is uncomfortable to watch, at least there’s a hope while watching “Far Beyond the Stars” that eventually our society will get better. It’s clear from watching Star Trek that humanity has moved on from racism in the 24th century. Unfortunately there’s no such hope while watching “In the Pale Moonlight.” Sisko’s intention of bringing the Romulans into the war on the side of the Federation is noble, but he has to wade through plenty of mud with Garak in order to achieve the goal. Does the end justify the messy means?
We see just how far Sisko is willing to go. He had to get permission from Starfleet to proceed with his idea, but they gladly gave their blessing after losing a planet to the Dominion. The entire plan is Sisko’s and Garak’s idea with no input from those higher on the chain of command. The captain only consulted Dax before his plan was formed, and she told Sisko that the Romulans would need more convincing than a passioned plea to enter the war. They’d need evidence of an attack. As Sisko tells the story for his log, he mentions his doubts, but we don’t see them. Once Garak tells the captain he’s willing to help, Sisko is all in. Before deleting his log he admits he can live with all the dirty stuff he and Garak had to do in order to ensure the Romulans enter the war on their side.
This is an episode that’s recommend viewing for everyone. It’s stand-alone enough so fans unfamiliar with Star Trek Deep Space Nine can watch it. In fact that’s how I saw this episode for the first time. It’s included on a DVD collection called Star Trek: Fan Collective – Captain’s Log which I picked up when I first rediscovered my love for Star Trek. The other DS9 episodes in the collection are “Far Beyond the Stars” and the finale which I’ll discuss next time.