My four-year-old daughter only likes the shiny things in Star Trek. “Star Strike” as she calls it (the mispronunciation is too cute to correct) really only fascinates her when the ships are jumping to warp or firing photon torpedoes. The rest of it, all the talking stuff in the middle, she doesn’t much care for. But of course, one day she’ll see that all that talking stuff in the middle is what makes the stories of “Star Strike” so enduring.
“Waltz” is one of those classic Trek episodes where two characters are stranded and have to talk to each other. But it’s no run of the mill talk-heavy story. It presents one of the most important confrontations in Deep Space Nine’s serial storyline. This is the first appearance of Gul Dukat after he lost control of the Cardassian empire, was defeated by Sisko and the Federation, and, critically, lost his daughter Ziyal in the conflict. And it is Sisko’s first chance to observe what has become of this broken man he recently defeated. It’s classic hero-debates-villain stuff. It’s Batman and Joker, Sherlock and Moriarty, Clarice and Hannibal Lecter.
Dukat: My name and reputation have been slandered and twisted ever since the end of the occupation of Bajor. I have been vilified by ignorant, small-minded people throughout the quadrant for the past six years. I just want to know if you are one of them, Benjamin.
Sisko: I wasn’t there during the occupation. I didn’t see all the things you had to struggle with day after day. I don’t think I can pass judgement.
Star Trek at its best will never let you judge a character superficially. To say Dukat is evil, full stop, is to misunderstand the character and his journey. This episode offers several moments that make you feel a tinge of sympathy for Dukat. In Sisko’s opening log, he wonders whether Dukat’s immense losses are enough punishment for the crimes he has committed. Dukat’s initial remorse and gratitude towards Sisko seems genuine, and his mental brokenness is obviously tormenting him. But soon we see his true intentions. Dukat craves Sisko’s acknowledgement for his reasoning behind his crimes. He wants acceptance in order to satisfy his pride.
A Clenched Fist vs. An Open Hand
Sisko refuses this acknowledgement, of course; but not outright. This is a not only a credit to Sisko’s character, but a testament to Starfleet’s mission. The easy reaction would have been to dismiss any good Dukat might have, but that’s not the Starfleet way. Throughout the episode Dukat is visited by ghosts of his psyche in the form of Kira, Weyoun, and Damar. At one point, Damar tries to convince Dukat that the Bajorans would only have understood a clenched fist, not an open hand. This is the perfect example of the diametrically opposed ideologies of Cardassia and Starfleet.
Dukat consistently refers to Bajorans as an “inferior race,” which he uses to try and justify conquering them to Sisko. Oh, how often human history has seen the effects of that mindset. This clenched fist mindset is a far cry from Starfleet’s quest to seek out and learn from new civilizations. Just as Sisko tries to understand Dukat, trying to find some remaining good in him despite his history of evil deeds, so too does the Federation extend an open hand to others, treating them as equals.
The open hand is a practice that Christians are also called to. In Romans 12 we follow Paul’s words to live peaceably with all if possible. And that’s an important distinction: if possible, because sometimes you meet Dukats.
Pride Goes Before a Fall
Dukat: I hated everything about [the Bajorans]! Their superstitions, and their cries for sympathy, their treachery and their lies. Their smug superiority and their stiff-necked obstinacy. Their earrings, and their broken, wrinkled noses!
Sisko: You should have killed them all, hm?
Dukat: Yes! Yes! That’s right, isn’t it? I knew it! I’ve always known it! I should’ve killed every last one of them! I should’ve turned their planet into a graveyard the likes of which the galaxy had never seen! I should have killed them all.
Sisko: And that is why you’re not an evil man?
Dukat sure talks a lot about the “stubborn, unyielding pride” of the Bajorans for someone whose own pride is probably greater than the whole of Bajor combined (if you discount Kai Winn, that is). Pride can be a valuable thing if used in its positive application, but Dukat’s is decidedly wicked. And as scripture warns us many times, there is no peace to be found along the path of wickedness. Soon after this dance with Sisko, his path leads where pride does—to his downfall (with a short detour as a cult leader).
But it’s here where the downfall of Dukat’s pride begins. “Waltz” is worth watching for that alone, and to see the ever-brilliant Marc Alaimo portray his Dukat on the brink. By the end of the episode, we’re back to Joker and Batman at odds with each other. Both Sisko and Dukat leave the planet resolute in their opposing missions and it is evident that it’s just not going to be possible to live peaceably with Dukat. This certainly isn’t an episode with photon torpedoes and ships jumping to warp, but watching these two great characters waltz verbally with one another proves that the greatness of Star Trek doesn’t always need special effects.