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Sympathy for the devil? 
7th-Feb-2016 07:04 pm
Well, we seem to have been here before. I think I must be naturally insubordinate - I can remember watching Dr Who as a child and feeling that the Doctor (in his Tom Baker incarnation) was far too smug, and imagining stories in which he got it wrong and had to be rescued by other characters (mostly of my own devising). As an adult, it often seems to be the case that I like the characters I am apparently not supposed to like. So, as I am coming up to my fortnightly posting deadline, some thoughts on the subject of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

I have recently been engaged in a re-watching of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 - initially because it was being shown on one of the myriad new TV channels the UK now has which seem to be dedicated to repeats of one sort or another, but now supplemented with individual episodes on Amazon Prime. Here I have been especially following episodes featuring Gul Dukat, who was definitely one of the standout characters for me when I saw DS9 for the first time in the 1990s. To begin with he was merely the villainous Cardassian Prefect of Bajor during the occupation, but gradually he became deeper and more complex, working with our heroes when the need arose (although never entirely on their side) before eventually betraying them in a last desperate gamble to restore Cardassia's lost power and influence by allying them with the Dominion. Revelations about his private life, and especially his love for his illegitimate half-Bajoran daughter Ziyal, also increased the character's depth. He was very well acted by Marc Alaimo, who managed to make him creepy, unsettling and oddly sympathetic at the same time - a very 'alien' alien, somebody with emotions and values very different from ours, but definitely not lacking in either. At the time I felt (and frequently said) that he was a good example of the positive influence of Babylon 5 on Deep Space 9 - he seemed to me to be very much the sort of character that (in their different ways) both Londo Mollari and G'Kar were on that show - a person with blood on their hands and a 'past' we were not allowed to forget, but who could also engage and keep our sympathy.

And then the creators of Deep Space 9 seem to have lost their nerve with him. From perhaps a high point in series 4, they seemed increasingly determined to shove him back into a box labelled 'villain', even if by that stage they had to sit on the box to keep the lid shut. His alliance with the Dominion was understandable as the last hope of a patriot desperate for his world to regain the prestige it had lost (not to mention a chance for personal power, something to which he would most certainly not have been indifferent), and his descent into madness when he lost both that gamble and his beloved daughter could be seen as tragic - but I am not at all sure that that is how they are presented. I have just been re-watching 'Waltz', the episode in which, shipwrecked on a desert planet with Ben Sisko, he pleads for Sisko's friendship and understanding while being taunted by the voices in his head, until the fact that he is quite mad becomes apparent even to Sisko; and am very struck by the epilogue. Here Sisko, rescued, states calmly that it is clear to him that Dukat is evil - whereas to me it is quite clear that what Dukat is is insane, although no less dangerous for that - and this is where the episode ends. Perhaps this is just intended as one character's reaction - after all, Ben Sisko is not a deep philosopher, and he has just been stranded on a planet with this lunatic for several days, something that would sour anybody - but there is an awful feeling of authorial approval hanging over this. Something which is only strengthened by Dukat's continued slide into super-villainy and madness in a series of episodes I haven't yet been able to bring myself to re-watch, until that Mount Doom/Reichenbach Falls moment when he and Sisko plunged into the Fire Caves on Bajor.

Looking up some of the online discussions of this, it would seem that I am to some degree right. It does seem to be the case that the show's creators did not like the fact that fans were showing rather too much sympathy for a character who was, after all, a war criminal, and decided to shut him down. But even war criminals have reasons for their actions - something that, again, Londo Mollari on B5 showed very well - and it is possible to understand these without excusing them; and even war criminals can love their families. To show how evil is often done for motives that seem good by people who are not otherwise despicable seems to me much more interesting than to show evil as done by moustache-twirling villains, who are quite different from us. Discussion boards on DS9 seem to be full of self-righteous little posts showing how, in a series in which there are some very grey areas and no-one's hands are clean, Dukat is the one character who is quite beyond the pale. And I wonder which is worse - that people should be expending a little sympathy on someone who does not deserve it, or that they should be becoming so contemptuous and judgmental? I certainly know which I would prefer.
19th-Feb-2016 04:30 am (UTC) - Grey areas
To show how evil is often done for motives that seem good by people who are not otherwise despicable seems to me much more interesting than to show evil as done by moustache-twirling villains, who are quite different from us.

So right, Ann! I tend to agree about Dukat; I didn't like him, but liked still less the box the show's writers shoved him into. Pagh Wraiths, forsooth! He was quite bad enough without going completely round the bend. I've got to say, though, that Kai Winn was a very consistent character, someone who fell into evil through a combination of envy and pride.

And, interestingly, in the end, DS9 did not wimp out where other characters were concerned. Both Sisko and Kira have blood on their hands. Kira, after all, is a former terrorist by many definitions, and she never truly repents, does she? Kira's exchange with Damar was wonderful, as was Damar's redemption. And then there's my personal fave, Elim Garak. He is a fascinating character, and very well played.

All the "Treks" are uneven, but when they're good, they are really good. DS9 is by far my favorite. Do let me know what you think of "The Never-Ending Sacrifice" if you should read it. I sent my paper copy to Amanda McCrina, but I'm not sure she ever read it, so now I'm rather wishing I still had it so I could send it to you!

20th-Feb-2016 11:34 pm (UTC) - Re: Grey areas
We evidently have very different tastes in Cardassians. Garak I find entertaining in small doses, and he is certainly very well acted, but I find I quite quickly get to the point with him where I find myself thinking 'Well, keep your stupid secrets, then - I'm sure they're not that exciting!' A lot of people I know love him, but there seems to be something there I just can't see. I like it that he is the one still alive at the end though, as he is surely above all things a survivor - and his despair at the planet he finally gets to go home to is very moving, especially in the face of the trademark Bashir optimism.

Damar I love - especially as he starts off as just someone to say 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir' to Dukat - it's seeing him become his own man that is as fascinating as anything else. It seemed such a waste when he was killed. Which particular exchange with Kira were you thinking of? I must rewatch that one.

As you say, both Sisko and Kira have blood on their hands. Sisko's development was very well done, I thought - as someone from a very idealistic system thrown into a world which gets darker and murkier, where he has to work out just how far he is prepared to go. Kira does not change so much - she is well aware of what she did in the resistance, but that is counterbalanced by the fact that (I think) nothing ever happens to make her really question the rightness of her cause, or whether it was worth it. It would have been interesting if the series had gone on a few years to show, for example, a newly-confident Bajoran administration demanding exorbitant reparations from a crippled Cardassia - I can imagine that she might have despaired of Bajor then. As it is, I find her too sure of her own views to be wholly attractive.

Yes, I think this is my favourite Trek too - although they all have their moments.
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