So we arrive at the end of the standalones. From here on in, it’s head on to the grand conclusion, a nine part finale, all irrelevances thrust aside as DS9 goes for it. And a fine, if ultimately flawed, episode to lead into it.
‘Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges’ translates, and is translated for us by Doctor Julian Bashir at the end, as ‘in time of war, the law is silent’. It’s about compromise, about manipulation, about ignoring the ideals of a fine civilisation in order to secure the continuing existence of such civilisation. In short, at the last moment possible, it’s about the reappearance of Section 31, under the man named Sloan, and the recruitment of Bashir as an operative who, intent on exposing Section 31, finds himself out-manouevered at every turn.
The basic story is that Bashir, together with Senator Cretak, the Romulan DS9 liaison (here played by former scream-queen Adrienne Barbeau), are attending a medical conference on Romulus itself. Sloan recruits Bashir to study Koval, head of the Tal Shiar and one of two candidates with Cretak for the vacant post on the Continuing Committee, to determine if he has the rumoured Tuvan syndrome. Sloan himself attends the Conference.
Bashir develops the belief that Sloan actually intends to assassinate the anti-Federation Koval, and enable the Federation-sympathetic Cretak to take the Committee chair. Anxious to try to stop this, Bashir confides in Cretak after Admiral Ross, his only ally, suffers an aneurysm.
The outcome is that Bashir is arrested by Koval and interrogated (unsuccessfully, thanks to his genetic modification) and then brought as a witness to Senator Cretak’s trial for treason, attempting – at Bashir’s request – to access Koval’s personal databank. To everyone’s surprise, a tortured Sloan is also produced, and denounced by Koval as an ordinary Starfleet Intelligence Officer who has created ‘Section 31’ out of whole cloth as a screen for his intense personal loyalty to an Admiral assassinated by the Romulans and a self-imposed mission to assassinate a senior Romulan for vengeance.
Cretak is convicted, Bashir sent back as an innocent dupe, and Sloan, attempting to escape, is disintegrated.
On the way back, Bashir works it all out and confronts Ross, off the record, over the fact that Sloan is still alive, beamed out a fraction of a second before the disruptor struck, and that the whole plan was really an elaborate scheme to protect the Federation’s undercover ally, Koval, whose anti-Federation stance will make his decision to back the Alliance all the more powerful. Cretak, a patriot who would turn against the Federation if it served her people, is sacrificed partly because of that risk, but largely as the innocent sacrifice crushed as collateral damage.
Bashir gets to let off a rant about the immorality of the whole scheme, which prompts Ross to quote the title for our good Doctor to translate with fine scorn and serious irony, which is one of the episode’s two main flaws, because it lets Bashir off his own culpability. If Cretak is executed, as she likely will be, her blood spatters Baashir’s hands as well, but his speech distances himself from moral culpability when it really shouldn’t. Many people, Ira Stephen Behr included, have criticised the episode for failing to take that final step and instead exonerating Bashir, and I agree whilst also repeating my quasi-mantra – Nineties Network TV Prime-Time Drama series.
The other flaw is Sloan himself, who can do anything: get in and out of highly secure places, vanish without a trace, corrupt Starfleet Admirals, the whole nine yards without the scriptwriters ever explaining how he does this. Magic? No, lazy writing. Sloan is Superman, so there’s no need to explain how he does it.
And the two strands come together in the close when Sloan, still alive of course, turns up in Bashir’s quarters, to salute him as a man of consequence who the ruthless, completely amoral Sloan, salutes and admires.
For all that, it’s a taut episode, cleverly constructed and, until its cop-out, confronting the audience with the moral ambiguities inherent in espionage of any kind. The principled Bashir, who can be a bit otherworldly in his extremes of honour, has always been the best contrast to the classically pragmatic Section 31, the dirty tricks boys. Early on, Bashir responds to Sloan’s concerns about where the Romulan political balance might lie once the Dominion War is over by sneering that they haven’t finished fighting this war and he’s already planning the next, and I’m thinking that if you’ve got a temporary ally who, after this war is done, will be the only power bloc capable of fighting you, it’s plain sense to know what they’re likely to do.
And this ties into Rosss’s self-justifying outburst, at the end, when challenged over his abandonment of the principles of the Federation, that every day he signs orders sending young men and women out to be killed, and that if sanctioning Section 31’s operations means less of that, he will choose what seems to him to be the lesser of two evils. Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.
In fiction, where the lines are usually more clearly drawn than in real life, it’s easy to side with Sloan and Ross. The latter’s argument reminded me instantly of a moment the late George MacDonald Fraser once related, arguing with an anti-nuclear campaigner who was denouncing the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Fraser was in the British Army in Burma (his book about that time, Quartered Safe Out Here, is brilliant) and, if the War against Japan hadn’t been so abruptly ended, would have been part of the forces that would have fought their way towards the Home Islands. The bomb saved the lives of thousands and thousands of serving men, Fraser and his platoon potentially among them. It’s dropping was terrible, but the lives it took would have been replicated by the lives to be last if it had not been used. Which set of deaths do you choose to accept? Fraser’s choice is Ross’s choice, and I can’t find it in myself to criticise the Admiral’s decision.
One aspect of the episode I did like was when Bashir recruited Cretak to his side. Without the show giving away any hints, I suddenly realised that Bashir was doing exactly what was wanted by Sloan, that he had been manipulated into a set-up whereby his own fierce determination to thwart Sloan’s ‘assassination’ would end up accomplishing it. I didn’t foresee the twist about Koval, but I admired how deftly the show set up that realisation without telegraphing it in any way.
So. The endgame is upon us. All roads lead to the east and the coming of war. Three years of watching this series lie behind me. In more ways than one, I’m ready for the End.