Monday, January 10, 2005

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 4 of 7


Deep Space Nine was a shock to viewers weaned on The Next Generation. If The Next Generation had a fault, it was that its outlook on life was a bit too rosy, its characters a bit too perfect, its messages a bit too pompous. DS9 shattered the paradigms. Here, the external and internal universes are in constant upheaval. Outwardly, the Federation is threatened by a malevolent force beyond anything it has ever faced (except for perhaps the Borg) and inwardly, its officers are conflicted, plagued, cynical, tortured individuals with very palpable problems. For the first time in the Trek universe, the future is not seen as a foregone paradise in which all of humanity has achieved a sort of personal nirvana. Indeed, humans are very much still working out their inner souls, and it is primarily here that the emphasis of the show takes place.

Deep Space Nine, a space station set at the interstellar crossroads of a wormhole, a cosmic conduit enabling almost instantaneous travel from one point in the galaxy to another, is by far Trek’s bleakest, darkest and, some would say, most honest series. They may be right. Modern audiences can perhaps relate to Captain Benjamin Sisko better than to any other leader of the show. He is a widower and father, trying to hold together an outpost on the extreme frontier of Federation space, as well as make a life for his son and himself the best he knows how. He is a stoic character who, nonetheless, occasionally cracks, revealing extreme and often volatile emotions. His duty to his uniform and what it stands for is paramount. So much is this so that when faced with the possibility of Earth’s demise, he is willing to do what no other Trek character has ever done—compromise his own ethics and morality for the startling belief that sometimes final ends do justify even the most despicable of means. The world of DS9 is far from black and white, and the bitter and heartbreaking conflicts the characters face rage just as hotly in outer space as they do in inner space. This existentialism, where the desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe occasionally permits acts of gross insubordination to personal and collective ethics, stands alone in the Trek construct and has not been dabbled with before or after the series.* The viewer succinctly sees this tormented world in "Duet".

Summary: When a Cardassian man by the name of Marritza arrives on DS9 with a rare ailment that could only have been contracted at the forced labor camp of Gallitepp on Bajor during the Cardassian occupation, executive officer Major Kira Nerys suspects him of being a war criminal on the lam. Commander Sisko is ordered to turn Marritza over to the Bajorian authorities if his guilt is revealed, and Kira is appointed to handle the investigation. Eventually Marritza admits he was at Gallitepp, but only as a filing clerk. Additionally, he purports that her claims of atrocities at Gallitepp are outrageous. Kira, a member of the resistance during the occupation, is insulted when he counters her claims for justice with the accusation that she is interested only in vengeance. When an image of Marritza is discovered from the Gallitepp archives, the picture bears absolutely no resemblance to the man in the holding cell. The image does, however, perfectly match another Cardassian, Gul Darhe'el, camp commandant and the man dubbed “The Butcher of Gallitepp." When confronted with the evidence, “Marritza” haughtily confesses to the masquerade and proceeds to boast proudly of his countless atrocities. As Kira and “Marritza’s” fiery debate continues, the plot thickens when it is confirmed beyond any doubt that Gul Darhe’el died several years earlier. The man in the holding cell cannot possibly be the Butcher of Gallitepp. This man wanted to be caught, but why? The truth comes out when it is discovered that the man in the holding cell is indeed the filing clerk, Marritza, who had his face surgically altered to look like the infamous camp commandant. He is revealed to be a tortured man agonizing over the atrocities of his government, who wishes to sacrifice himself in an attempt to purge both his and his world’s collective guilt. Kira, not willing that he should sacrifice his life, is preparing to return him to his home when a Bajoran man approaches in a crowd and plunges a dagger into the Cardassian, killing him. Shaken to the core, Kira hears her fellow Bajoran claim that the fact that Marritza is a Cardassian is reason enough to take his life.

The Holocaust has been addressed with varying degrees in each series but never more vigorously than on DS9. The parallels between the Nazis and Jews, and the Cardassians and Bajorians, are more than coincidence. This dramatic and emotional storyline was examined repeatedly throughout DS9’s run, but rarely more powerfully than in Duet. The idea of a man’s misplaced guilt so overwhelming him that he is willing to sacrifice himself as penance spins around the traditional victor/victim role and presents the audience with the realization that they are both sides of the same coin.

* “The high-minded utopian humanism of the 1980s had failed to find support in the selfish and cynical late nineties. More recent Star Trek episodes have presented moral ambiguity and downright immoral behavior by leading characters. The high-minded modernist assumptions of the Next Generation have begun to be eroded, in line with shifting opinion among Star Trek’s audience” (Barrett 57).


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