Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “In the Pale Moonlight” premiered on April 15th, 1998 and is definitely an outlier in the Star Trek universe. Star Trek has always been considered a utopian science fiction universe. When the Star Trek premiered in 1966 it depicted a future that where humans made it past their nuclear adolescence and prejudices. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) continued this tradition and took it a step further: society was so perfect we were even beyond interpersonal conflict.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) diverges from its parent series in a few ways, but the most important is that it is not the utopian world most Trekkies(ers) have come to know and love. The fact that Star Trek is a utopian environment has been taken for granted by most of its fans, many of those fans dislike DS9 for this exact reason. No other episode shows how un-utopian DS9 really is than the season six, episode nineteen “In the Pale Moonlight.” This episode comes in the middle of the Federation’s war with the Dominion (an invading alien force). The Federation is not doing well, and a lot of people are dying. Many of these casualties are the result of the Dominion crossing into Federation territory through the Neutral Zone – an area between Federation and Romulan space much like the DMZ. In response to this, Benjamin Sisko, the captain of the space station, thinks of a plan to get the Romulans to turn against the Dominion, which would have the effect of not only adding to the forces against the Dominion, but would also cut off a huge swath of space that the Dominion could use to attack the Federation. The only way to get the Romulans to violate their non-aggression pact with the Dominion, however, would be to show them evidence that the Dominion was planning on invading Romulus, the Romulan homeworld. In the effort of getting, and in the end forging this evidence to show to to the Romulans, Captain Sisko bribes someone to cover up a crime, trades material that could be used to make a biogenic weapon, and lies. Ultimately, his deception is found out, but it doesn’t matter because his associate had another plan in mind the whole time: kill the Romulan senator with evidence that it was done by the Dominion. With this action, Sisko becomes accessory to murder – but the Romulans join the war against the Dominion. In his confession to the computer Sisko says if he had to do it all over again, he would.
This episode premiered in 1998, at a time when the Gulf War was over but Iraq was still being scrutinized for weaponization. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 by a member of Al-Qaeda. This episode is not an allegory – the Dominion and the Romulans are not stand-ins for other countries outside of the SF universe.
The shape-shifting enemy (the Founders are shape-shifters who can look like anything or anyone) has its roots in the Cold War scare with such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978). At a time when terrorism is entering into the consciousness of the American people, here enter the “Changelings” the species that can look like anyone, turning everyone’s fears to their neighbor. Focusing less on specifics this episode speaks of a darker world surrounding something beautiful and utopian. This more shows not the pessimism of the time, since in the end the Federation wins out, but the logistics and pragmatism of the time.
This series overlapped with Star Trek: The Next Generation so we have a nice natural experiment on which kind of series was more what the audience wanted. TNG was undoubtedly more successful than DS9. There are some additional variables that could play into this, including fandom expectations and the effects of serialization on viewership, but I think much of this is because the optimism spoke more to the audience at the time – but DS9 spoke to the undercurrent – one that might gain more traction today than it did before.
“In the Pale Moonlight” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, written by Michael Taylor and Peter Allan Fields, directed by Victor Lobl, 1998.