Review: “In The Pale Moonlight” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 6, Episode 19

The episode “In The Pale Moonlight” is definitely one of those episodes, not just in Star Trek canon, but in science fiction, that truly stands out as amazing for many reasons. For one, it flies in the face of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of what Star Trek was supposed to be about; a utopic paradise where everyone gets along, conflicts were always quickly resolved, and no one has any moral qualms or conflicts that last longer than the commercial break. And the fact that the episode so defiantly (no pun intended) stands in contrast to that vision, on top of some amazing acting & writing, are why fans & critics have consistently put on lists of the top 3 Star Trek episodes ever put to film.

Now I have to tell you, this is very spoiler heavy, so if you haven’t seen the episode yet, don’t read on, I’m warning you!

A Moral Dilemma

The episode begins with Capt. Sisko starting to dictate a personal log, and he is so stressed, so mentally and emotionally drained from the previous few weeks’ events, he literally has to ask the computer for the Stardate out of a palpable frustration. He begins by saying that for the umpteenth time, he had to post the weekly casualty report for his crew to check if anyone they knew was listed as missing, wounded or KIA during the Dominion War, which the Federation was beginning to lose, and lose badly.

Sisko is informed by Ensign Nog through a rumor he heard that the Romulans had signed a treaty of friendship & non-aggression with the Dominion. This meant that the Romulans could just sit on their collective butts, watch everyone else duke it out, and they’d be sitting pretty while the Dominion crosses their proverbial backyard to give the Federation a bloody nose. It was at that moment Sisko has a light bulb moment and decides that he’ll bring the Romulans into the war on the side of the Federation-Klingon alliance. During a mock debate with Dax (who takes on the part of a Romulan politician, though she admits she’s partial to her own spots over the pointed ears), Sisko concedes that convincing the ever-cautious Romulans that they’ll be the Dominion’s next target will be no easy task. Any evidence of such plans by the Dominion to attack the Romulans (if the evidence even exists at all) would be so heavily classified and buried so deeply in Cardassian Central Archives, getting it would be a monumentally difficult task at best, but Sisko knows just the man for the job, someone who is an expert in getting into places where he is NOT welcome.

A Very Bloody Business

Sisko meets with Garak to discuss how to obtain such evidence, and Garak warns Sisko that he’s wading into a very messy, very bloody business. Sisko counters that after posting yet another casualty report, he’s already neck-deep in a very bloody business. They meet a couple days later, and with bad news in hand, Garak informs the good Captain that despite using every contact he had, and pulling in every favor he could among what few remaining colleagues he had left on Cardassia, every single person he spoke to had been killed within a day of speaking to Garak. Garak couldn’t help but grudgingly admire the efficiency of Dominion intelligence for such thoroughness. Not taking the loss as a dead end, and with the recent fall of Betazed, which put the Dominion in prime position to strike Tellar, Andor, Vulcan, and several other core Federation worlds, the situation became that much more desperate, so a new plan is hatched: If they can’t find the evidence, they’ll simply manufacture it!

The Road To Hell

Garak convinces Sisko to spring one Grathon Tollar, an expert in holographic forgeries, from a Klingon prison, wherein he was due to be executed. Despite growing unease on the Captain’s part, Sisko informs Tollar to work with Garak to construct the forgery, and that the forger was working for him, and not that of the Federation, which had given the plan its blessing. Despite this, Sisko’s unease was confirmed when a few hours later, Sisko is alerted by Odo that Tollar tried to stab Quark in the bar after getting drunk and trying to get handsy with one of the Dabo Girls, M’Pella.. This would normally necessitate a police report if Quark decided to press charges, but owning to the secrecy of Tollar’s work, Sisko manages to bribe Quark, much to Sisko’s increasingly visible discomfort with the entire situation.

During this time, Garak had need of acquiring a special optolithic data rod, which is used for high-level record keeping by Cardassians. These rods are so rare and hard to come by, that when Garak manages to find one available for sale and informs Sisko of the asking price of 200 liters of biomimetic gel, a substance so dangerous & strictly controlled by the Federation, there wasn’t even 200 liters of it in the entire sector, Sisko balks and initially refuses to even consider the proposition. After some further moral qualms, much haggling over the quantity, and an official protest lodged by Dr. Bashir (who insisted on being informed in writing to package the gel for transport by Sisko), they obtain the rod, and record the forgery Tollar has created.

A Very Thick Skin

Simultaneously, Garak convinces Sisko to invite Romulan Senator Vreenak, the very same Romulan Senator who negotiated the nonagression treaty between the Romulans and the Dominion. By his usual covert means, Garak discovered that Vreenak had been on Sukara, a Dominion world, and on his way back to Romulus, but of Capt. Sisko asked Vreenak to come to DS9, Vreenak just might be convinced to come. Incidentally, Vreenak happened to also be the vice-chair of the Tal Shiar, and one of the biggest pro-Dominion voices in all the Romulan government. If he could be swayed by the forgery, then the entire Romulan Senate would surely follow. But, Vreenak was no certainly fool, and he would surely want to examine the rod and the contents therein, and make sure everything is on the up & up. Garak also cautions Sisko that when Vreenak visits the station, Sisko would be on the receiving end of a very acerbic attitude on the part of Vreenak, which is something of an understatement.

Vreenak & Sisko sit and share a bit of replicated Romulan Ale, and the Senator is almost convinced by the replica… almost, but admits the aroma of the replicated ale was starting to grow on him. Sisko wryly admits that they’d have better luck doing Romulan beverages if the Romulans & the Federation were better friends, and tells the good Romulan Senator that the Federation found proof that the Dominion is planning, at that very moment, the invasion of Romulus. Vreenak, ever the cautious Romulan, demands proof. Sisko promptly hands over the data rod.

And then the waiting begins. Sisko admits in the personal log that, despite being off the hook due to the Federation Council & Starfleet Command giving the operation their blessing, they weren’t the ones handing a high-level Romulan Senator a data rod with forged information, they weren’t the ones lying to that Senator’s face, and they certainly weren’t the ones walking back into the room to see whether the good Senator Vreenak discovered their ruse.

It’s A Fake

Sure enough, Vreenak discovers that the rod was indeed a forgery, and he tells Sisko in no uncertain terms that he was going to expose him and the deception to the entire quadrant. Dejected that after everything he had to do, all the sacrifices he had to make, Sisko returned to work, reasoning that it’s the only thing he really could do at that point. A few days later, after posting yet another casualty report, Sisko is informed that Senator Vreenak’s personal shuttle exploded on its way back to Romulus and Dominion involvement is strongly suspected. Sisko, realizing what happened, silently gets up, leaves the ward room, and with a barely-contained rage, heads straight for Garak’s tailor shop.

He promptly pummels Garak, and accuses him of assassinating Senator Vreenak as well as Tollar, whom he had also found out was killed. Sisko surmises that Garak just wanted to get Vreenak to DS9 to plant a bomb on his personal shuttle, and that he knew the rod wouldn’t pass muster. Garak had his doubts as well that Tollar might not have been up to the job, but tells Capt. Sisko nonetheless that the Romulans will enter the war. Despite Sisko’s initial disbelief, Garak correctly surmises that after painstaking forensic examination, the Romulan government would find the burnt remains of the data rod, and any imperfections or errors in the datasets on the rod would be chalked up to being a result of the explosion. So Garak & Sisko figure with a dead senator in one hand, and seemingly definitive proof of an imminent Dominion invasion in the other, that the Dominion assassinated Vreenak to prevent him from returning to Romulus after he stole the data on Sukara. And all it took for them to fool the Romulans, was the life of one criminal, one Romulan Senator, and the self-respect of one Starfleet Captain. And according to Garak’s math, that’s one hell of a bargain when compared to saving billions of Federation lives across the entire quadrant.

Sisko then continues his log by stating that the following morning, the Romulans broke their treaty, simultaneously striking 15 Dominion bases along their border, and that the rest of the alliance was going to have a welcome to the war party for them on DS9. Sisko admitted that this may be THE turning point of the entire war. And Sisko finally admitted as well that Garak was right, an uneasy conscience was a small price to pay for saving the lives of billions of Federation citizens, and he could live with it… he could live with it. He then promptly deletes the entire personal log.


Between the writing, the direction, and the fact that this was written as a recap in the lens of a personal log, the entire episode was expertly done. The acting done by Avery Brooks & Andrew Robinson was superb, and it’s easy to see why “In The Pale Moonlight” is consistently ranked as one of the top Trek episodes ever filmed, since not only does it contrast so sharply with Roddenberry’s original vision of paradise, but it also shows the lengths someone will go to in order to save that paradise, the rules they’ll have to bend or break, how far they’ll have to go to make sure the ones they love are safe, and the values they hold most dear are are preserved.

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