WARNING: DS9 spoilers await, shining "In the Pale Moonlight".
In brief: Occasionally clunky execution, but a nice plot.
Between last week's "Inquisition" and this week's "In the Pale Moonlight", break time is definitely over: the immediate crisis at hand, the war, is snapping back into focus. That by itself certainly isn't enough to guarantee a good show (consider "Sacrifice of Angels", which while intriguing in spots was certainly a letdown in others), but the simple fact of having a goal and an obvious reason for a story to unfold is always a good start.
"In the Pale Moonlight" serves as a nice reinforcement of some of the questions raised by "Inquisition", in fact. Where "Inquisition" raised questions about whether protecting the Federation at all costs was a valuable goal by introducing an outside conspiracy, "In the Pale Moonlight" aimed a little more squarely at the very heart of the show, one Captain Benjamin Sisko.
Putting Sisko at the heart of the show certainly makes sense; a more interesting stylistic choice was having the episode effectively take place in flashback as he's dictating his personal log. There have been times when that sort of voice-over narration has hurt a great deal (consider TNG's "Suspicions" for starters), and times when it's fit in very nicely ("Whispers" comes to mind from a few seasons back on DS9); this time it worked reasonably well, with a few questionable choices. (One question that kept occurring to me was why we ended up with so many shots of Sisko speaking directly into the camera: even if it's a visual log, it's an odd thing for him to do, and having the log effectively switch camera angles from time to time is just weird.)
The definite advantage of having Sisko dictate the log, however, is that we knew in advance that there was some sort of disaster as a result of his choices -- odds are most viewers would have expected it anyway, but this reinforced it. Far from blunting the effectiveness of what actually transpired, however, that choice made the viewers wonder exactly what kind of disaster occurred: did the plan fail? Have the Romulans actually entered the war on the Dominion's side? Is the Federation only inches from defeat? What exactly is going on? It's an interesting way to build suspense, to be sure. (It was a bit overdone at times, however; one example is when flashback-Sisko tells Garak that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to bring the Romulans in. That's ominous enough without Sisko then going out of the way to call attention to it.)
The story boils down to an examination of what Sisko is prepared to do in order to help save the Alpha Quadrant from the Dominion; is the Federation worth Sisko turning his back on all of his usual Starfleet ethics? That's an interesting question, and one that the episode handled well: it gave Sisko a no-win scenario, had him deal with it, then left it to the viewer to decide whether it was worth it.
Sisko's no-win scenario was made all the more riveting by the fact that we could all see it happening, inch by inch. As he said, his intentions were good -- and in fact, even the initial plan was no real ethical concern at all. His mock debate with Dax made it plain that any Romulan higher-up would want proof of Dominion plots rather than simple speechmaking (though admittedly, if he ever thought otherwise he was being particularly naive), and going to Garak in the hopes of obtaining said proof didn't present any sort of problem other than the practical.
Sisko's fall really began with his second conversation with our plain, simple tailor friend Garak. At that point, it was clear that Sisko's initial plan of simply locating the evidence wasn't going to fly -- and it was presented beautifully, with Garak describing his initial inquiries and then adding almost as an afterthought, "unfortunately, they're all dead now." The real problem began with Garak's later suggestion: that if they want evidence of Dominion duplicity, they're going to have to manufacture it.
Ethical problems there? Oh, quite possibly -- the Federation is supposed to be above such things. However, the circumstances were such as to make the idea extremely tempting. Garak not only had a basic idea of inventing evidence, he had a detailed plan about how to do it; what's worse, if you're a high-level Starfleet official and you've just heard that one of your primary worlds, Betazed, has just fallen to the Dominion, you know that lots of other worlds have become serious risks. Under normal circumstances, I imagine Sisko would have dismissed the plan -- or if he hadn't, that Starfleet Command might well have. These, however, were not normal circumstances, and the depth of the Federation's plight was made pretty plain.
Amazingly, all of this setup was established in the first two acts: for the next two, we got to see the plan take shape, and more importantly see all the questionable things Sisko has to do in order to implement this gamble. Pardoning criminals, bribing Quark, keeping secrets from his senior staff, altering a deal and threatening the same criminal he pardoned -- these are all things that go against everything he's been trained to do. Each one by itself, however, must seem like a reasonably trivial breach of ethics -- as Sisko points out, people have been dying out there by the thousands as he debates the wisdom of giving Quark a bribe to keep quiet. Even though he was putting together a host of small lies in the hopes of convincing someone of a big lie, one never lost sight of his almighty good intentions.
He made a good game of it, too; he managed to keep a stiff upper lip when dealing with Senator Vreenak (a true charmer if there ever was one), and argued a good case without resorting to the forgery at all. (In particular, his point to Vreenak that the Romulans might eventually wind up facing the same enemy on all sides instead of three different ones was well presented. "There's a word for that: surrounded.") The forgery itself was convincing -- both Weyoun and Damar felt right, with Weyoun's serene arrogance contrasting nicely with Damar's blunter opinions. Regardless, though, all of it came down to whether Vreenak believed the data rod or not.
Through all of this, what was it that was keeping Sisko in the game, ready to lie, cheat and steal his way to a Federation victory? None other than Garak, who was probably put to the best use here he's had in many a year. Garak's always been a complex character, but at times he's been used primarily as a sardonic commentator who can manage to get a few things done here and there. This time, he was very much a Iago figure -- he could not only think all the same dark thoughts that Sisko could never act upon, but he could voice them and carry them out. (When he told Sisko that Sisko came to him because "you knew that I could do those things that you weren't capable of doing," he was absolutely dead on.) Garak is a practical man, and if it takes levels upon levels of deception, theft, forgery and even cold- blooded murder to achieve a higher goal, he'll do it without question and without hesitation. Given all the complexities of the character and Andrew J. Robinson's ever-marvelous performance, Garak is rarely dull -- but this time he managed to be completely and utterly chilling by the show's end as well. (In point of fact, I can only think of three characters who have managed to be that chilling while still "correct" at the same time: Garak, Dukat, and Odo.)
All of this came to fruition in the fifth act, one of the best closing acts DS9's had this season. Once Vreenak realized the recording was a forgery, Sisko saw no options except disaster -- because the only real option, killing Vreenak and continuing the forgery, was so alien that he couldn't bring himself to consider it. Instead, he (and we) found out about it later as an intelligence report. Lots of people may have called that particular outcome in advance -- I certainly suspected that Garak might pull something like that -- but it's beside the point. Dramatically, the decision made sense: it's changed the tenor of the war, it's put an incredible load on Sisko's conscience, and it was all done as a natural outgrowth of the earlier parts of the show. I can definitely live with more of this, as I can with the Sisko/Garak confrontation.
At the last, it came down to Sisko finding a way to live with what he'd done. As it is, no one knows exactly what's transpired except for Sisko and Garak -- some people at Starfleet Command may have suspicions, but they have no proof. As Sisko put it, "this is a huge victory for the good guys!" ... if only it didn't feel so much like a stroll down the road to Hell. Interesting stuff here.
-- Garak is a great planner, but he does need to work on his math a little. When he tells Sisko that all it cost was "the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of a Starfleet officer," he left out Vreenak's four bodyguards. Sure, they didn't have lines, but extras are people too. :-)
-- So Betazed has fallen. Please put Lwaxana first on the list. (I'm not bloodthirsty, just ... well, okay, where she's concerned I am bloodthirsty.)
-- We've seen images of Weyoun several times now, but we haven't seen one that's actually him speaking since "Statistical Probabilities", and we haven't seen him in the flesh since the station was retaken. Let's see him!
-- Garak refers to Vreenak as working for Proconsul Neral. We've seen Neral before; he was part of the plot to invade Vulcan back in TNG's "Unification". Interesting bit of continuity there.
-- More questionable is Vreenak's statement that the Dominion shipyards are working at peak efficiency: didn't the Federation destroy most of them in "Call to Arms"?
-- The only real drawback acting-wise was, perhaps surprisingly, Avery Brooks. Most of the time he was fine, particularly when he was smoldering quietly -- when he goes over the top, though, as in his speech about people dying, he often feels a little like he's overdoing it.
That pretty much covers it. "By the Pale Moonlight" did some strong work; the plot-related aspects will no doubt be followed up on, leaving me only to hope that the questions raised by Sisko will be dealt with just as much.
Writing: Ever-so-slightly clunky work in the framing sequence at times, but nicely layered almost everywhere else. Directing: Lots of wordless scenes which were surprisingly impressive, from Dax's reaction to seeing her friend on the casualty list to the arrival of Vreenak's shuttle. Acting: Brooks teetered on the edge a few times, but was basically fine; Robinson was a godsend.
OVERALL: 9.5. Nice job; the only question is "what now?"
Odo consults a holographic lounge lizard for romance tips. Deep breath: I won't prejudge, I won't prejudge, I won't prejudge...
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) firstname.lastname@example.org <*> "So, you're the commander of Deep Space Nine, and the Emissary of the Prophets, decorated combat officer, widower, father, mentor ... and, oh, yes, the man who started the war with the Dominion. Somehow, I thought you'd be taller." -- Senator Vreenak Copyright 1998, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.