By and large, I’ve been pretty successful at avoiding spoilers, considering I’m watching a series from twenty years ago. I should distinguish that as being specific spoilers, however: there is one about Odo I’d really rather not know given its circumstances, but that’s not bad after nearly two and a half years of doing this.
However, it is much harder to avoid more generalised spoilers, especially when it comes too my post-watch research: Memory Alpha is invaluable to me in one sense, but when it considers how a specific episode relates to a character in the round of their overall arc, it can give away more than I’d like to know.
I’ve long since been aware of the controversy among DS9 fans over the degeneration of Gul Dukat’s character over the last two seasons. Dukat is, I am led to believe, reduced to a one-dimensional, mad, wholly evil character, with none of the multi-level facets he’s displayed thus far, to the benefit of the series as a whole. This is where it starts.
I’ll return to that aspect in due course. The episode is structured as a two-hander, much the most effective approach, with minimal use of other characters. Dukat, officially recovered from his post-Ziyal’s death breakdown, is being transported to a Federation prison to await trial as a war criminal: Sisko is there to give evidence. Dukat is already visibly disturbed at being considered in such a light, though he minimises this.
Then the starship is attacked and destroyed. Sisko is injured, with a broken left arm and plasma burns down all that side of his body. He wakes to find that he and Dukat are marooned on an inhospitable planet, their shuttle damaged, a distress beacon going (these last two points are lies on Dukat’s part). They are stranded until someone arrives to rescue them, when they will once again be hero and prisoner (villain). Which is which will depend on who gets there first.
But that’s not the point. The point is to isolate Sisko and Dukat, Emissary and Adversary, and let them unravel. Or rather, let Dukat unravel, for Sisko is only weakened by physical issues and Dukat is mentally unstable. He hallucinates, holds conversations with Weyoun, Dumar, even Major Kira. Dukat fully intends to kill Sisko, but not until Sisko admits that he respects Dukat.
Plainly and simply, Dukat is going mad, or actually is mad. The hallucinations, the gradually increasing degree of mania in his talk, amplified by the gradually increasing submissiveness of his imaginary debaters, feeding his monstrous ego, and his overriding delusion that he is and always has been The Good Guy, are overt manifestations, but the most powerful sign that Dukat’s grasp on reality is no longer of this earth is that he seriously believes that he will get Sisko to admit that he secretly does respect Dukat.
Which Sisko will never do, not in a million years.
Beaten, battered, bruised, a visibly weakening Sisko finally stops temporising in the knowledge that he’s going to be killed soon and directly confronts Dukat. The Gul believes himself to be innocent, to have been the victim of misunderstandings all along, the Bajorans were responsible for everything he had to do whilst Prefect under the Occupation. If onlythey’d accepted he was their friend, was trying to assist them. That Cardassians were their superiors and the Bajorans an inferior race, fit only for subjection. Dukat was the Good Guy.
It’s a testament to Marc Alaimo’s abilities as Dukat that he can sell this so powerfully and convincingly. It’s self-deluding twaddle, and it’s in a sense overly-simplistic. The episode is gearing itself towards its pay-off, in Sisko declaring Dukat simply and purely evil, in a child-like sense. Alaimo’s intensity and range enables us to believe this.
In a way, Sisko’s actions do lead to what follows for the remainder of DS9. It’s that familiar old tactic of getting the mad villain onto a roll and feeding him until he blurts out the truth, which is that Dukat basically hates all Bajorans and wishes he had killed them all. This is the moment when Dukat steps over the line that brooks no retreat. It’s consciously done: after all, Gul Dukat is supposed to be the Villain, the Big Bad, Deep Space Nine‘s Public Enemy No. 1, and here were fans loving the character, even to the extent of defending his crimes.
So this is a reset, a firm exercise in button-pushing, in pushing the character into a position from where he becomes indefensible, strait-jacketed into what the Plot demands he be. Dukat’s been lying. The distress beacon isn’t working. The shuttle isn’t damaged. Now he’s faced the truth within himself,that he’s been avoiding acknowledging all this time, Dukat has embraced his true nature fully. Now, once and for always, he is Bajor’s enemy, and will destroy them all (when the villain’s motivation reduces to a Chris Claremont X-Men schtick, you know there’s something wrong).
But when Dukat escapes, he sends a signal to the rescue ship that enables them to rescue Sisko. After all, there’s no point in winning if your beaten enemy isn’t there to show off to. Even Sisko now admits it’s personal.
To go back to the overall character arc, I will wait to see how things develop. On the one hand, I can see the dramatic necessity of this move, but on the other I can easily understand the lack of subtlety involved in reducing a character to a single characteristic. Psychologically, it is plausible: a person who has been denying an essential facet of their character will frequently absorb it to the point of obsession once they are forced to confront it. It’s still a cliched move, especially in how it’s brought out. And it is far better to have a multi-faceted villain, one whose actions may not be unrelievedly evil, and whose degree of villainy can be debated. On the other hand, when the fans start justifying the villain as Supreme Dictator of a Subjugated Planet, then it is time to do a bit of drastic course correction.
We’ll see. As for the rest of the cast, they have minimal roles to play in a rescue give artificial time-limits in order to crank up a degree of melodrama, but that’s artificial bullshit and is so underplayed it can be ignored.
None of this would work at all without Marc Alaimo ‘being’ Gul Dukat to the fullest extent, and all praise to him. For all this episode’s pre-fabricated aspects, he made it work, made it tense and gripping, and made this the best episode to date since the return to Deep Space Nine. I just wish I didn’t know when he and Sisko have their next, and final meeting…