In the Pale Moonlight is the epitome of the change in Star Trek that arrived in the 90s. It is centred around the lead character, Avery Brooks, who plays, Captain Sisko. It focuses on his decision to use lies and deceit to bring a third species into the war with the Dominion, on the side of the Federation.
His character enlists the help of shady station resident, Garak, to bring the Romulans into the conflict. Prior to this episode, the Federation had been on the losing end of the costly conflict, and this had taken a toll. The point is not in the detail here. At its simplest level, the morally incorruptible humans, who are the galaxy’s heroes’ resort to lying in order to get ahead.
The message for all of us in this episode is that when the chips are down, we are capable of anything.
The shattering of perception
There were hints of deceit and people being corrupt before this episode, such as those seen with the Maquis, but this is the ultimate blow to humanity’s incorruptible image.
The pious lead character does what he needs to in order to save his species. He does so at the cost of millions of lives. Lives that are not from his race but from another. Despite being allied in temporary friendship, he is indirectly responsible for every life lost. He stops short of pulling the trigger, but he is willing to lie and create a fake recording, showing invasion plans, to convince a visiting dignitary.
This scheme is found out and the viewer is left wondering if Avery Brooks’ character has created the opposite problem. This is until he discovers that the visiting dignitary’s shuttle has exploded on its way home and the pieces fall into place.
The shady character Garak never believed that the fake evidence would work and so he had an alternative plan. This plan created a narrative that ties into the paranoia prevalent within the Romulan psyche and ultimately gets them to join the war, on the ‘good’ side.
It is at this point that Avery Brooks’ character vents his anger, before realising that even though it was not as he intended, the goal has been achieved. He may disagree with the means but ultimately, he says nothing.
My favourite episode
In the Pale Moonlight is my favourite episode of Trek, helped greatly by Avery Brooks, who I rate as an actor. For large portions of the episode, he is speaking directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall. It is as though he is speaking directly to the audience and confessing his sins. He needs to tell someone as he cannot trust that anyone else who hears won’t rat him out and listen to their conscience.
It is this moral line in which he crosses, framed with the confession approach that drew me in. As much as I loved Deep Space Nine, the later seasons weren’t great and ultimately paled in comparison to the Next Generation. Despite this, this episode stands out above all others. It is a great example of what one actor can do with a monologue. Avery Brooks nails every part of the direct to camera scenes, right down to the hopelessness in his voice when he ends the recording.
The episode ends with Brooks’ character repeating the words, ‘I can live with, I can live with it’, before deleting the whole recording.
To emphasise the point that he never talks about the decisions made here to trick the Romulans into the war, the show does not revisit this plot. The episode is a one-off and never spoken of again, despite the intrigue it would have created to revisit. This emphasises to me the reflection in human nature. We keep secrets and never mention things again, sometimes ever, in order to protect those that we love.
This episode began a trend of showcasing how humanity was not perfect. In Voyager we see a serial killer storyline played out, in Enterprise we see Captain Archer steal technology in order to complete a mission and in Discovery we see yet another war. This episode, In the Pale Moonlight, started Star Trek’s mission to showcase a more realistic portrayal of humanity.
Star Trek has endured
Bablyon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly, these have all come and gone, but Star Trek has endured. This is because it has changed with the audience. With all the troubles in society such as the Civil Rights movement in America, it was easy to escape into a show that showed a utopia for the future.
Following on from this we had the Next Generation, which was followed by Deep Space Nine. At the time, the Gulf War was happening, but it was not a sustained conflict and therefore the holes in perfection were visible. The Clinton scandal was emerging on the grandest stage and selling this vision of perfection was a non-sustaining reality.
By adapting to the times, Star Trek has stayed as relevant as possible. It was ultimately cancelled but came back swinging, following on from three blockbusters and two new televised shows. Entities that continually re-invent themselves stay relevant and by adding reality to proceedings, In the Pale Moonlight remains my favourite episode.
In the Pale Moonlight is my favourite episode of Star Trek. It is the moment in which the illusion of perfection was broken. Humans are flawed and always will be. We can have the best intentions but if we are desperate, then we are capable of anything. This is the reality of the world and one that is personified through Star Trek.
Rather than being a vision of perfection, it is the quest to be the best that we can be through working together. The addition of wars and conflict can be taken as a metaphor that really, there is no room for all visions of the world and how we should live our lives.
Regardless of how we interpret things, we can all agree that there will never be perfection in our lifetimes. I would go further and say ever, but I am attempting to be an optimist in life. Whether optimism will win out, I have no idea. In the Pale Moonlight is my favourite episode because it is an accurate vision of humanity, not just in the future but right now.