This post contains full spoilers for the episodes discussed, both of which are Star Trek at its finest, and I highly recommend you watch them both if you haven’t already. As a content warning, this post contains some mention of self-harm.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Defector” (season 3, episode 10)
Written by Ronald D. Moore; directed by Robert Scheerer; first aired in 1990
We open on Captain Picard playing acting coach to Data, whose performance as a king anonymously walking among his people, from Shakespeare’s Henry V, just might end up being thematically relevant later in this episode. Their time on the holodeck is interrupted when a Romulan ship, on a course through the Neutral Zone toward Federation space, contacts the Enterprise to request asylum. The ship’s lone occupant identifies himself as Sublieutenant Setal, and claims to have information on a Romulan plan to establish a secret base in the Neutral Zone, in preparation for an attack on the Federation. Picard isn’t sure how much he should trust Setal, who is belligerent and secretive … and who eventually reveals himself not to be Setal at all, but Admiral Jarok, a high-ranking military official not exactly known for being a “man of peace”. But when Jarok provides detailed tactical information on the secret base, Picard takes him at his word, and risks starting a war by entering the Neutral Zone to investigate. There is no base, it turns out, but Jarok wasn’t lying. He was tricked into exposing himself as a “traitor” by the Romulan military, whose Warbirds suddenly decloak and threaten the Enterprise … until some Klingon Birds of Prey, secretly called in as reinforcements by Picard and Worf, decloak and threaten the Warbirds. The Enterprise escapes unscathed and without starting any wars, but Jarok is left knowing that he sacrificed everything “for nothing”. He is found dead in his quarters on the Enterprise after poisoning himself, and Picard hopes that other Romulans like Jarok will work to ensure that his sacrifice was not in vain.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Duet” (season 1, episode 19)
Teleplay by Peter Allan Fields; story by Lisa Rich & Jeanne Carrigan-Fauci; directed by James L. Conway; first aired in 1993
A freighter docked at Deep Space 9 requests medical attention for a passenger suffering from a medical condition with only one known cause: exposure to a mining accident which occurred at Gallitep, a notorious forced labor camp run by the Cardassians during their occupation of Bajor. Major Kira is honored to welcome a survivor of Gallitep onto the station … until she discovers that he’s not Bajoran, but Cardassian, and has him immediately arrested as a war criminal. The Cardassian identifies himself as a file clerk who was stationed at Gallitep, but held no authority and did not participate in the atrocities that occurred there. But Kira feels that any Cardassian stationed at Gallitep is guilty, and her mind certainly isn’t changed when evidence surfaces that the man in custody was actually the commander of Gallitep. He seems strangely delighted to have been found out, taking the opportunity to brag and pontificate and present himself as exactly the horrifying villain Kira might expect him to be … until she confronts him with yet more new evidence that the real commander of Gallitep is dead, and that this imposter really was just a file clerk all along. He finally admits that he had hoped to stand trial as the commander of Gallitep, to atone for being “a coward” and to force all Cardassians to face up to the horrors of the occupation. Kira releases him, having stepped off this emotional roller coaster believing that one scared and guilt-stricken file clerk can’t be held responsible for Gallitep … a sentiment which, unfortunately for the Cardassian, isn’t shared by one random Bajoran with a knife.
Let’s not mince words here: these are two excellent episodes of Trek. Moreover, they’re each early examples of what their respective series were capable of. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that The Next Generation, as a series, got off to a very rocky start, and that apart from some standout second-season episodes, its third season is where the show finally came into its own. I hope it’s equally uncontroversial to say that, while Deep Space Nine benefited from a clearer sense of what it was right from the beginning, it still had its own early growing pains, with a hit-or-miss first season containing more than its fair share of real stinkers. “The Defector” and “Duet” both stand out to me almost as templates for what was to come after them, while also demonstrating an impressive understanding of what had worked best about the Trek that came before them. I tend to think that Trek is at its best when it tells small stories set against a big backdrop, and each of these episodes feels like they could easily be staged as a play: “The Defector” seems to hang a lantern on this by having Data himself rehearse a stage play on the holodeck, and it’s almost impossible to watch the scenes in “Duet” between Nana Visitor and Harris Yulin, as Major Kira and the Cardassian, Aamin Marritza, respectively, without imagining them performing those scenes on a stage, in front of a hushed live audience. And still, as contained and intimate as these episodes are, they manage to take on big topics, both narratively and thematically. Both are set against a backdrop of interstellar political intrigue, and explore the toll taken by war and oppression. And both ask heavy, enduring questions: Where are the boundaries of personal and collective responsibility? What can be forgiven, and what can’t? And what does true patriotism look like?
It’s in this question of patriotism where we find probably the clearest link between these two episodes, and where their continuing relevance is maybe the most obvious. It can feel, today, like we are constantly being pushed by politicians and pundits toward either an us-or-them tribalism that calls for walls to be built, or toward a moral relativism that refuses to draw any uncrossable lines at all, urging that there are ‘good people’ on ‘both sides’, even when one of those ‘sides’ argues against the fundamental human rights of the other. Both of these lenses distort the world around us (which is their intended political purpose): either they make complex situations seem deceptively simple, or they disingenuously acknowledge complexity, but only as an excuse for the inexcusable. Through the us-versus-them lens, we might view the Romulan Admiral Jarok’s actions in “The Defector” as honorable because he turns his back on the evil Romulan Empire to side with the righteous Federation … an assessment the character himself would bitterly laugh at. And through the lens of moral relativism, we might say that Aamin Marritza in “Duet” shouldn’t feel the need to be absolved by Kira, or by anyone else; he was just following orders, as were the ‘many good people’ on ‘both sides’ of the Cardassian occupation. This line of reasoning draws little distinction between the oppressed and the oppressors, which is awfully convenient for the oppressors. But, again, Marritza himself rejects this reasoning, and in fact explicitly argues against it in the episode, insisting that he “deserves to be dead” and has to “be punished”, whether he gave the orders, carried them out, or simply filed them in his records. Both Jarok and Marritza make a case, in these episodes, for a patriotism that rejects both us-and-them absolutes and the convenient loopholes of moral relativism. Both characters insist, instead, that to be truly patriotic is to be brutally honest about what your nation has done, and painfully realistic about where your nation is headed.
For Jarok in “The Defector”, that means actively working against the interests of those who rule his Romulan Empire. Importantly, though, he draws a distinction between those interests and the interests of the Romulan people, to whom he is still fiercely loyal. Captain Picard notes that “a Romulan defector is almost a contradiction in terms,” and Jarok himself would reject the title of this episode and insist that he is not a defector. This is dramatized early and effectively when his ship explodes after his rescue, set to self-destruct by Jarok himself. We’ve watched a lot of starships blow up across the Trek franchise, but it’s rare for one to explode with literally no warning – with no ominous sensor readings or hastily-given orders to beam anyone off the doomed vessel – and it’s genuinely pretty shocking to watch Jarok’s ship explode not on the bridge viewscreen, as usual, but through a window, over Picard’s shoulder, interrupting him mid-sentence. It catches us, the audience, off guard, as it does Picard, and it’s a clever way of visualizing the underlying fact that Jarok’s motives are more complex than crossing from the ‘bad side’ to the ‘good side’. He opposes only the Romulan military’s willingness to go to war with the Federation, not the Romulan military itself; when Riker confronts him about the self-destruct – “Excuse me for being a little confused, but I thought you were defecting” – Jarok immediately asserts that he is “not a traitor”. He has come to share only those military secrets absolutely necessary to stop a war, and that doesn’t include whatever Starfleet could have learned from the technology aboard his ship if he hadn’t blown it up.
I would argue that we see these same strict lines that Jarok has drawn for himself, between limited cooperation with the Federation and defecting to the Federation, in his decision to take his own life at the episode’s end. Certainly, his despair at leaving the Empire seemingly “for nothing” played a role in that decision, but it’s significant that we see the pill he uses much earlier in the episode, foreshadowing suicide as the likely end to his story long before he realizes he’s been played by his enemies in the Empire. I’m convinced that Jarok never even entertained the possibility of living a life in the Federation, missing a world and a family he could never return to while probably being pestered by Starfleet to share Romulan secrets … to say nothing of the chance he might be tried and imprisoned for the vaguely-mentioned “massacres” he is said to have played a part in. And while it’s not too hard to see why he might not want to live out that life, I think Jarok himself might describe it in more patriotic terms, as the ultimate expression of his insistence that he is “not a traitor” – that he is doing all this not to gain a freer life for himself in the Federation, but to save lives in the Empire:
Jarok: Do you have any children, Captain Picard? A family?
J: Then you have sacrificed too much for your career.
P: Yes, this is all very interesting –
J: [interrupting] There comes a time in a man’s life that you cannot know. When he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realizes he must change the world for her. For all children. It is for her that I am here. Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it. For months, I tried desperately to persuade the High Command that another war would destroy the Empire. They got tired of my arguments. Finally, I was censured, sent off to command some distant sector. This was my only recourse. I will never see my child smile again. She will grow up believing that her father is a traitor. But she will grow up. If you act, Picard. If we stop the war before it begins.
Of course, it’s worth acknowledging that Jarok is, to some extent, having his cake and eating it too, even if it is a “bitter” cake, as Picard points out to him, just before the above speech:
Picard: You’ve already betrayed your people, Admiral. You’ve made your choices, sir. You’re a traitor. Now, if the bitter taste of that is unpalatable to you, I am truly sorry. But I will not risk the lives of my crew because you think you can dance on the edge of the Neutral Zone. You’ve crossed over, Admiral. You make yourself comfortable with that.
Jarok’s insistence that he’s helping his Empire without betraying it – without actually working against that Empire – has a genuine nobility to it … but it’s not exactly accurate, is it? As Picard says, Jarok has made his choices, and one of the inevitable consequences of those choices is that his people will view him as a traitor (as he admits, above, about his own daughter), and will pay no heed to the careful lines in the sand he draws for himself. While his claims of doing what’s best for his people are genuine, his repeated rejection of the term “traitor” ignores a hard truth: that the most harmful lies a society tells itself are so ingrained, so fully internalized, that attempting to expose those lies actually does mean turning against that society – or against the current, dominant version of that society, at least – and will be largely viewed that way, even by people we’d think of, otherwise, as good and smart and reasonable. True patriotism, as Jarok aspires to it, isn’t about standing up for one’s nation as it currently is, but standing up to it, and insisting it change for the better … and that will inevitably be spun as standing against the nation, by those who benefit from society not changing for the better.
Marritza in “Duet” has followed this logic to its conclusion in a way that Jarok hasn’t, which might reflect Deep Space Nine’s general willingness to go beyond philosophical questions into the messiness of the real world in a way that The Next Generation often wasn’t. Marritza’s plan is less straightforward, more convoluted than Jarok’s, perhaps because his goals are more complex. He isn’t trying to prevent a war, at least not in the immediate future; the Cardassians have already abandoned their occupation of Bajor, which, as Marritza points out to Kira in his Gul Darhe’el persona, was “a political decision” rather than a military defeat. Where Jarok is trying to save Romulan lives, Marritza is more concerned with the soul of Cardassia. He’s thinking more long-term than Jarok, thinking in historical and sociological terms, not military terms. He understands that Cardassia doesn’t just need to change its current course, as Jarok wants the Romulan Empire to do; Marritza wants Cardassia to re-examine its history. In “The Defector”, the Romulan admiral tries to downplay his military record – heroic from a Romulan perspective, but monstrous to Starfleet – by impersonating a logistics clerk, hiding his history so that Starfleet’s very different perspective on it won’t jeopardize his mission. In “Duet”, Marritza, a clerk himself, attempts to impersonate Gul Darhe’el – a military hero on Cardassia, but an architect of atrocities on Bajor – so that the history of the real Darhe’el can’t stay hidden from his fellow Cardassians. He’s willing to stand trial as Darhe’el himself, so that those differing perspectives on history can themselves be put on trial. Jarok tells Picard that “one world’s butcher is another world’s hero,” and that he himself might be “neither one”, making the old familiar argument that, when there are two differing perspectives on something, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And sometimes, of course, that’s true. But there are other times, as Marritza knows, when one of those perspectives is much, much closer to the truth, and the other is just a cover for that ugly truth.
And Deep Space Nine has shown us repeatedly that the occupation of Bajor falls squarely into the latter category, starting in its very first episode, “Emissary”. When I wrote about that episode, I noted how striking it was for its willingness to introduce the show’s setting and characters in such a state of disarray and discontentment, standing in stark contrast to the crisp, clean Starfleet The Next Generation had shown us. The station is first presented to us as a literal and figurative mess, its staff struggling to deal with uncooperative computers, destroyed shops and injured civilians on the promenade, and the political instability of Bajor’s provisional government. All of this turmoil is directly attributed to the Cardassians, to the long-term damage they did throughout the occupation, and the short-term damage they did to the station before abandoning it. That first episode also introduced us to Gul Dukat, who would, throughout the series, repeatedly serve as the voice of Cardassian revisionist history, and who would embody his culture’s refusal to take responsibility for those very real consequences of their military actions. Which is precisely what he does here, in “Duet”, in his com-link conversation with Sisko:
Dukat: I do appreciate the awkwardness of your position here, Commander. This Bajoran obsession with alleged Cardassian improprieties during the occupation is really quite distasteful.
Sisko: I suppose, if you’re a Bajoran, so was the occupation.
D: I might remind you that neither one of us is Bajoran. And I would hate for their bitterness to cause conflict between Cardassia and the Federation.
Dukat’s talk of “distasteful” “bitterness” over “alleged Cardassian improprieties” is all the more galling, here, because he must know that Sisko knows exactly what sort of unimagined “improprieties” the Cardassian military got up to during their time on Bajor, the aftermath of which Sisko deals with every day as commander of DS9, and as the Federation’s representative to Bajor. We see that same bald-faced revisionism again when Dukat speaks with Odo:
Dukat: I do miss working with you, Odo. I’ve missed our games of Kalevian Montar.
Odo: As I recall, Gul Dukat, we played one game. And you cheated.
D: [chuckles] The same old Odo. Like a blunt instrument.
This is a funny character moment, but a cleverly revealing one as well. It gives us a glimpse of how Dukat (and, by extension, the Cardassian military) doesn’t just lie about the past, but has, in fact, constructed an entire counter-past, a set of ‘alternative facts’ which, unlike garden-variety lies, aren’t weakened when they’re revealed for what they are. When Sisko invokes the reality of Bajoran experience, Dukat dismisses it as ‘fake news’, irrelevant to non-Bajorans like himself and the Commander. When Odo simply states the facts of their shared past, Dukat chides him for stating those facts so bluntly, like a real-world politician complaining that their words were taken ‘too literally’ (as though we don’t have a responsibility to take seriously the words of those with significant power). The false narratives of Dukat and the rest of the Cardassian military run too deep to be combated with simple facts alone.
Which is why Marritza doesn’t intend simply to reveal facts about the atrocities of the occupation. Those facts are already known, all too well, to the Bajoran people, and have already been dismissed out of hand by the Cardassian military. It’s also why he isn’t simply standing up to Cardassia’s current military leaders, like Dukat. He knows the problem isn’t just one of leadership, but of culture, of dishonest and harmful narratives too systemic to be interrupted by a change of leaders alone. Harris Yulin’s performance as Marritza, great as it is, might seem a bit over-the-top until you get to the climax of the episode, where it becomes clear that he’s giving an over-the-top performance because Marritza is giving an over-the-top performance. He plays Gul Darhe’el as a monologuing supervillain because Marritza realizes that what Cardassia needs isn’t new leaders, or even new history textbooks, but a new cultural narrative.
Kira: You’re Marritza, aren’t you?
Marritza: You mistake me for that bug? That whimpering nothing? Oh, you stupid Bajoran girl, don’t you know who I am? I’m your nemesis! I’m your nightmare! I’m the Butcher of Gallitep!
K: The Butcher of Gallitep died six years ago. You’re Aamin Marritza, his filing clerk.
M: That’s not true. I am alive! I’ll always be alive! It’s Marritza who’s dead. Marritza, who was only good for cowering under his bunk and weeping like a woman. Who, every night, covered his ears, because he couldn’t bear to hear the screaming for mercy of the Bajorans. [starts crying, tone of voice changes] I covered my ears every night. I couldn’t bear to hear those horrible screams. You have no idea what it’s like to be a coward, to see these horrors and do nothing. Marritza’s dead. He deserves to be dead.
To Marritza, true patriotism means forcing his own nation to “acknowledge its guilt” – not just the guilt of brutal leaders like Darhe’el and Dukat, but the guilt of all Cardassians who could “see these horrors and do nothing”. Kira points out that Marritza was less a bystander than a victim himself – “You didn’t commit those crimes, and you couldn’t stop them” – but Marritza insists that “Cardassia will only survive if it stands in front of Bajor and admits the truth.” The danger of nationalism is its tendency to turn national identity into a zero-sum game: it imagines that any victory for Bajor must be a loss for Cardassia, and that any patriotic Cardassian must therefore deny their nation’s guilt, regardless of the facts, or even of how they themselves might feel about their nation’s actions. After years of being tortured by guilt over something his culture refused to even acknowledge as a crime, Marritza understands that we can never really be the good guys if we can’t admit to the times we’ve been the bad guys.
Next time on Trek vs. Trek, with Halloween on the way, let’s look at what happens when Star Trek tries its hand at horror, with The Next Generation‘s “Night Terrors” and Voyager‘s “The Haunting of Deck Twelve”!