Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges”/”Penumbra”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges”/”Penumbra”

“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” (season 7, episode 16; originally aired 3/3/1999)

In which Section 31 is calling

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

I wonder what Bashir would do if he learned the real reason why the Romulans aligned with the Federation in the Dominion War. Bastard that I am, I almost wish the truth would come out, just to see what would happen. “In The Pale Moonlight” probably works best if it’s never mentioned again; part of the episode’s power (which I fumblingly tried to explain in my review) comes from the realization that something terrible happened, and no one will ever know about it. Sisko being forced to live with that secret makes for a more distinct, unsettling conclusion. It suggests a universe in which crime and punishment are not an inevitable pairing, and that’s an unusual argument for a Trek show to make. I wouldn’t want to lose that just to kick off a lot of scenes of people yelling at each other about betrayal. Still, it would crush Bashir, and I’d be curious to see how he’d get over it. If he ever did.

“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” (a quote from Cicero which translates to “In time of war, the law falls silent) features the return of Section 31, and it’s about damn time. Their introduction in last season’s “Inquisition” marked a sharp turn for the series, and suggested a level of intrigue and darkness lurking behind Federation politics that no previous Trek series had before. There had been betrayal in the past, and conspiracies, and the occasional over-zealous asshole, but nothing like this: a secret organization willing to use any means necessary to achieve its ends, without oversight or any clear adherence to the law. Sloan and the others weren’t just spies. They were enforcers, kidnappers, and torturers, and none of them showed even the slightest remorse about their behavior. Especially not Sloan. Sadler is as good here as he was in his first appearance on the show—the actor’s innate brusque authority serves as an excellent to Siddig’s increasingly wounded naivete.

Maybe it’s unfair to call Bashir “naive.” After all, up until fairly recently, he lived in a universe where groups like Section 31 only happened to other races; cabals were a Romulan or Cardassian obsession, not something you’d expect from the clean-cut above board Federation of Planets. The big reveal of “Inter” is that Admiral Ross, the heretofore unimpeachable face of Starfleet’s anti-Dominion forces, is perfectly willing to work with Sloan and his methods if those methods garner the right results. Bashir only realizes this after Sloan pulls off his Romulan-frame job (faking his own death in the process), and it would have to be a painful discovery to learn that the very authority he’d counted on to help him bring Section 31 to justice is, in fact, sleeping with the enemy.

This is a necessary twist. If Section 31 was just some cultish outlier made of deluded psychopaths, the threat they represent would be limited; they’d be dangerous in their own right, but as soon as they could be contained, that would be the end of their story. The point of Section 31 isn’t just that they’re a bunch of scary dudes (and ladies) dressed in fascist black leather (trust me, the cows were all very mean). The point is that they suggest a grim expediency to the supposedly pure and incorruptible idealism of Starfleet. The fight against the Dominion is as much about ideology and it is about practical matters, or at least that’s what our heroes tell themselves. Sisko and the others want to maintain their way of life, because they believe that way of life is morally superior. So do we; while it’s possible to have some sympathy for the Founders, their controlling, dictatorial are just another iteration of the kind of enemy the Federation has always faced off against. The Dominion wants to dominate—the Federation wants to give everyone the chance to go their own way.

At least, that’s the assumption. But Section 31 implies that the “good guys” (the ones in command, anyway) aren’t as ideologically pure as we’d like. For Admiral Ross to ultimately be working with Sloan, and worse, using Bashir to make sure Sloan’s plan comes to fruition (and worst of all, damning an innocent Romulan in the process), is a continuation of the initial fall from innocence. First Bashir discovers there’s a secret sect who claim to be working in the best interests of the Federation; then, after he reports that sect to the proper authorities, those authorities betray him, thus completing the lesson that power corrupts. Actually, the true capper in all of this would be for Bashir to discover the truth about Sisko, thus forcing him to reckon with the idea that even the people he trusts the most can do horrible things for complicated reasons. But as I said, I doubt we’ll ever get that moment, and that’s probably for the best.

On those terms, the episode is a gratifying example of the writers refusing to back off from a challenging premise. As a story, it’s a little less successful, if only because it follows the structural arc of Bashir’s last encounter with Section 31. There’s no holodeck program involved, but the good doctor spends most of the hour with the wool pulled over his eyes—the main difference being that this time, he’s foolish enough to believe he’s one step ahead of Sloan’s plans. Long cons are often entertaining to watch, and there’s a grim satisfaction in Bashir discovering the truth a few hours after it’s possible for him to do anything constructive about it. At the same time, the dynamic of the bad (or gray, if you like) guys being five steps ahead of the hero the whole running time remains the same, so as necessary as certain twists are to the greater story, the overall impact of the episode is lessened compared to Sloan and Section 31’s first appearance. Ross’s betrayal is a big deal, but everything leading up to that is a bit old hat.

The value, then, comes from seeing how far the writers will go to fool the audience (and Bashir), as well as the characters Bashir meets along the way. Koval (John Fleck), the Romulan Sloan and Ross are working to put on the ruling council, is a bit of a wash; entertaining enough as a heavy, with a disdain for humans that’s so obvious you can practically hear his stomach turn at the mere sight of Bashir, Koval’s true identity (he’s an inside man for the Federation) doesn’t come out until after he’s left the episode, which means the subtext of his performance only becomes relevant in retrospect. Adrienne Barbeau’s Cretak is more interesting—as a supporter of the Alliance with the Federation she represents the kind of politician which you’d think Star Fleet would want on the council. And yet, with Bashir’s inadvertent help, Section 31 has her stripped of her powers, and possibly even executed, all for doing what should’ve been the right thing.

Bashir eventually confronts Ross with what he’s realized must be the truth, and it’s a good scene. But it’s strange how almost childlike Bashir’s outrage is; while I agree with the doctor’s objections and passion, his righteousness is oddly disappointing, like hearing a college freshman rant about wage slavery and the capitalist system. Bashir is a smart, smart man, but his efforts to shame Ross seem less about changing anything, and more about getting a chance to show off just how much better a human being Bashir is. Maybe years of more cynical genre television have worn me down, but after a while, I just wanted him to shut up and actually do something about all of this, as opposed to being disappointed and judgmental.

More satisfying is the episode’s final scene, in which Sloan comes to thank Bashir for his help, and Bashir just looks tired. The sequence parallels Sloan’s first appearance in the episode: sitting in a chair in the doctor’s bedroom, watching him sleep. (He’s the vampire Edward of government operatives.) Whereas Ross appeared somewhat abashed by Bashir’s accusations, Sloan has no compunctions whatsoever about what he’s done, and the contrast between the two characters makes Bashir’s moral certainty all the more necessary. “Inquisition” offered the hope that our heroes could band together and remove this temporary anomaly of evil from the otherwise pristine Federation government. “Inter” suggests the blight goes far deeper than anyone wanted to believe. Bashir’s rectitude may sometimes make him hard to take, and it may drive him to despair, but at heart, he’s a good man in an impossible situation. Hopefully he’ll react better than Sisko did.

Stray observations:

  • Everyone can legally drink Romulan ale now. Huzzah!
  • Sloan going undercover as “Wendell Greer” of the Dept. of Cartography, was a nice touch. It gets him closer to Bashir to make sure the operation is unfolding as planned, and also gives Sadler more screentime.
  • I’m not sure I ever really believed that Sloan’s stated plan—to assassinate Koval via a fatal disease and install Cretak in his place—was the Section 31 end goal. Maybe I’ve just seen too many of these kinds of stories, but I spent most of the running time waiting for the other shoe to drop. If Section 31 appears again on the show, I hope Bashir is a bit more skeptical.
  • Nice to see Garak again, however briefly. Very helpful of him to state what the episode will be about, too.

“Penumbra” (season 7, episode 17; originally aired 4/7/1999)

In which the beginning of the end, um, begins

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

The final third of DS9’s seventh season is, from what I can tell, entirely serialized; “Penumbra” checks in with some characters, and generates some cliffhangers, but it doesn’t operate as a standalone, and I suspect few of the individual hours leading up to the finale will either. Which puts me in an odd spot. I’ve reviewed my fair share of serialized television, but most serialized TV at least tries to run in episodic format, with a beginning, middle, and end. “Penumbra” is largely beginnings, and it’s constructed in such a way to make it clear that the payoffs will all come later. While I firmly believe any single episode can be judged on its own merits, there’s not a lot I can say about what happens here that doesn’t come with a hefty dose of “We’ll have to see where it goes.”

Sisko and Kasidy, sittin’ in a tree, g-e-t-t-i-n e-n-g-a-g-e-d: Well isn’t this nice. The episode starts with Sisko telling Kasidy about some beautiful land he just bought on Bajor, and while the actual proposal doesn’t happen until their next scene together, he’s clearly laying some groundwork. (Or building up the courage to take the plunge.) Given how long the two have been together at this point, marriage makes sense; I believe this may even count as the longest courtship in the show’s history thus far. (Odo has been pining for Kira for longer, maybe, but they aren’t engaged yet.)

The real meat here isn’t the romance, as nice at that is. What matters is the almost immediate conflict between the life Sisko wants to lead, with a simple wedding and a lovely house on Bajor, and the life fate has planned for him. When he and Kasidy discuss their plans in the Promenade, they both indicate a preference for something low key and intimate—but before those plan can be finalized, a young Bajoran girl approaches them and pleads to be allowed to be one of Kasidy’s 51 dias bearers. Then Sisko realizes he and his fiancee are being closely, reverently observed by the stations Bajoran population. He’s still the Emissary, and the Emissary doesn’t get to have a quiet ceremony. He’s a symbol of something larger than himself, and that demands a certain degree of pomp.

Worse is to come; Sisko gets a vision from the Prophets, this time appearing solely in the guise of his birth mother, Sarah. She flat out tells him that he can’t get married, can’t share his path with Kasidy, and it’s striking how comparatively to the point her warning is. Other times, the Prophets have been mystical to the point of opacity, but here, no matter how Sisko tries to deny, the message is clear. The marriage can’t happen. Given what happened the last time Sisko disobeyed, you’d think he’d pay attention, but that’s the trouble with visions—they’re so eerie and detached from real world experience, they’re easy to ignore. It used to be, Sisko followed the Prophets because their wishes didn’t conflict with his own. But lately they’re demands have seem to stand directly in the way of what he wants, and never more so than now. Something’s being set up here; my only hope is that it isn’t entirely devastating. The last time Sisko went his own way, Jadzia died.

Weyoun and Damar, the oddest couple: In some other universe, maybe there’s a show that just focuses on Weyoun and Damar squabbling. I would watch that show. There’s little variation in their conversations; Damar drinks, complains, and accedes to Weyoun’s demands, and Weyoun sneers at him with barely restrained contempt. But it’s still delightful to watch. Sitcoms have been built on less.

The big developments here are the return of Dukat, still preaching the Pah-Wraiths, and the continued ill health of the Female Changeling. We’ve seen the Female Changeling suffering from her illness once before, but the effect remains striking. Where before there was unbroken smoothness is now a mess of pockmarks and cracks, suggesting decay and disease in a way that requires no further explanation. (Okay, I do hope there’s a source for this sickness; the idea of it happening entirely by coincidence is a bit much.) When Weyoun visits her, we find out that a team of Vorta has been working round the clock to find a cure, without any success. The Changeling orders Weyoun to eliminate the Vorta team, and bring in their clones, on the possibility that a fresh perspective might jump start the process. Losing cohesion hasn’t made her soft.

Less obviously unhealthy, but just as disturbing in its way, is Dukat’s transformation from Cardassian to Bajoran. It’s nice to see Marc Alaimo (mostly) out of makeup, but there’s no immediate sense of what his plans are. Nothing good, I’m guessing. (It’s fascinating how he was able to pressure Damar into helping him. Damar’s become one of the show’s best villains, even though he rarely gets more than few minutes of screentime each episode; he’s so clearly in over his head, and going from true believer to self-loathing drunk is a fun arc.)

Ezri saves Worf, news at 11: Of everything that happens in “Penumbra,” this was my least favorite development. If anything, the attempts to create chemistry between Ezri and Worf have been even more forced than whatever Jadzia and Worf had; but at least up until now, it was clear that there was no serious romantic feeling between them. That made sense. Ezri needed to be her own character, and for her to jump into bed with a former host’s husband would be far too confusing, not to mention the fact it would be a violation of Trill law. Yet here we are. When Worf goes missing, Ezri decides to find him. Then they argue a lot. Then Ezri slaps Worf. Then they fuck. Then they get captured by the Breen.

That last part has promise, and I have no objections to the first part, either. It’s entirely in character for Ezri to believe she has an obligation to keep Worf alive even when (nearly) all hope is lost. Sisko is maybe too cavalier about letting her steal a runabout and go off to look for him, but people are always pulling that sort of thing, and since Ezri does ultimately find Worf, all should be forgiven, provided they don’t get murdered by the Breen.

But that make-out session and presumed post-make-out sex irks me. The “we’re so mad at each other we just have to engage in physical intercourse” set-up isn’t one of my favorites, although I don’t deny there’s some truth in it; there are plenty of relationships built more on passion than good sense. It just doesn’t make sense with these two characters. Or, to put it more specifically, the only ways it makes sense strike me as deeply, deeply unhealthy. I’m not sure if it’s the actors or the script, but the passion between Ezri and Worf is highly questionable. Most of the time the two are together in the scenes leading up to the kiss, Ezri is needling Worf because he’s reluctant to discuss things, and she refuses to accept his reluctance.

Maybe that counts as foreplay for Klingons, but it makes Ezri look foolish—worse, actively unpleasant. And having them screw around suggests the return of a romance I’d be more than happy to forget. Thankfully, getting captured by the Breen means they have other things to worry about (I’m amazed, utterly amazed, that Worf didn’t propose marriage immediately after coitus), and I’ll just assume for now that this was a one-time, stress-induced, my-last-host-who-was-your-wife-was-abruptly-killed-so-I-really-needed-closure kind of thing. We’ll find out next week.

Stray observations:

  • “She’s a Dax. Sometimes they don’t think. They just do.” Is this like Tiggers and bouncing?
  • Sisko asks Jake to be his best man. The father-son thing they have going on is one of the show’s best, and more reliable, relationships; I’m going to miss it a lot.

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