Morality in Science Fiction
I mentioned this in a previous post, but I love Star Trek. I love science fiction in general but Star Trek will always have a special place in my heart. I grew up watching it. I was even named after one of the characters.
Growing up, my parents wanted me to watch smart TV. They were and are nerds.
Now that I’m older, I really do appreciate the writing that goes into most of the science fiction genre. Some science fiction is really cheesy and poorly written or produced but when science fiction gets it right, it really gets it right.
The episode I am going to discuss, “In The Pale Moonlight,” is one such example of “really getting it right.”
I think that when a story of any genre stays with you and really speaks to a part of you, it accomplished something.
There are so. many. Star Trek episodes and movies that do this.
Gene Roddenberry was ahead of his time. While the Original Series may seem cheesy and too drawn out for today’s audience, if you look at the THEMES that Roddenberry employed, you should be impressed. He used classical philosophy, sociology, psychology, and really deep themes that a lot of TV never attempts… even today.
There are some episodes that are forgettable and fairly cheesy (even with updated special effects) but there are also those episodic gems that really, really stay with you.
An episode that I dearly love to ponder is from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series.
It is titled “In The Pale Moonlight.”
It is often considered one of Star Trek’s darkest episodes. It is also considered to be one of the most directly anti-Gene Roddenberry concepts. Roddenberry believed in an optimistic humanity and a future where humanity would continually better itself. In this episode, the main character, the hero and a beloved character, lowers himself to a level that is considered unworthy of a “better humanity.” I don’t know what Roddenberry would have thought of the episode.
Interestingly, this episode is consistently one of the highest rated among fans.
Personally, I view this episode as a commentary on human nature and the various range of possibilities thereof.
Despite the debate among Trek fans regarding the episode’s rating and “Trek-ness” consistent with Roddenberry, this episode is one of those episodes that makes me think.
In my opinion, when a piece of art makes you think, it has reached the height of artistic purpose.
The episode title is actually a nod to the Joker (Jack Nicholson) asking Batman: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” This concept of performing a “villainous act” when no one is watching and then dealing with the resulting consequences is often a topic that makes for great stories.
When the “good guy” must “sell his soul” or “turn evil” because he believes it is still the “right thing to do,” the audience holds their breath and later discusses the results.
Also, this saying, “In The Pale Moonlight,” has roots in referring to “witches” performing a ritual or dance that the church or society didn’t approve of in the middle of the night.
The full story plot can be found here. However, a brief summary goes like this:
Humanity is badly loosing a war against another species and their affiliates. There is a neutral party that is staying out of the conflict. They see that humanity is loosing, so why side with them when asked? Ben Sisko, a human Captain on the front lines, must convince this neutral party to join his side or all of humanity and their allies will be wiped out. However, there is no honest way to convince them to side with humanity. The only way to get them to join his side is to essentially lie to them with false evidence which betrays his military and personal values.
This becomes a slippery slope. The plan goes by innocently at first and then Captain Sisko is forced to betray more and more of his values if he wants his plan to succeed. When Sisko reaches the point of no return, he realizes that he may have saved his race, but he betrayed everything he is to do it.
Another character, Garak (who is one of the most fascinating Star Trek characters for me), is also Ben’s confidant through this process. Needless to say, he encourages this moral downward spiral. Sisko conceives the plan. Garak ensures that he does not back out at the last minute.
So many things to talk about!
Where to start??
One of the big questions is: was he right to do what he did?
To emphasize the scope of his crimes, here is one of the climactic quotes:
“So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all… I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. Garak was right about one thing, a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it. Because I can live with it. I can live with it… Computer, erase that entire personal log.”
I doubt he thinks he was right.
Do the ends justify the means? Do they?
He doesn’t think so even though he is reluctantly satisfied with the results. There is even a great moment when Sisko states outright that he can’t afford to debate the finer points of morality when people are dying (it is also a great acting moment for Avery Brooks because the character is clearly struggling with that thought).
This episode brings into question what war does to human beings and what “right” is when all the possible options are “wrong.”
I think about all the wars humanity has seen and I often wonder how many of these situations have actually happened in one form or another. Do I really want to know the answer to that? No.
But I wonder…
The episode does not attempt to answer these tough questions. It ends on a contemplative note for the viewer and the viewer must decide what was right or wrong and if it was worth the price Sisko paid.
Whether you loved or hated the episode, the fact that this story has fans talking states that it was a worthwhile episode. That is what a good story does: it lives beyond the time it was created. It sparks conversations. It speaks to parts of ourselves we do not often explore, if we can safely explore them at all.
That is one of the things that I like about drama and film and theater and to some extent, music. It is a safe and fairly acceptable way to explore some of the darker sides of human nature. Those darker parts of humanity are there whether we want them to be or not. They might as well be explored in a safe medium.
Roddenberry may have envisioned a utopia and I do hope we are heading in that direction. However, I think this episode is sorely needed in the normally positive genre of Star Trek, even if it is only to comment on the possible price of that utopia. Humans may be capable of wonderful things, as Roddenberry envisioned, but there is always a ying for the yang and a flip side of the coin. There is balance.
In some ways, there is no light without darkness. Sometimes light may only appear “in the pale moonlight.”
CBS has the full episode here.