Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.2: “And We Did It Without A Single Bilitrium Bomb Being Detonated”

Past Prologue

Star Trek DS9 Past Prologue

Woo Garak woo

“Past Prologue” is about as far from “The Naked Now” as one can get. Back there, our collection of space diplomats/explorers couldn’t match up to the basic task of simply living in space. Here, Sisko is handed a situation that starts off as a thorny diplomatic minefield and ends in a high-stakes car chase, and he barely puts a foot wrong.

This is particularly impressive when you consider how complicated a situation Tahna Los has saddled him with. Everyone who weighs in here has a point, up to and including Gul Danar. There’s no easy answer to reach for. The episode isn’t interested in anything so simple as “Bajoran good, Cardassian bad”. That option gets closed down really quickly, in fact. Tahna could have lied about his most recent actions, casting Danar in the role of potential villain, chasing after a former freedom fighter after the war has ended. But instead Tahna immediately admits he’s carried out guerrilla attacks against the Cardassians since the withdrawal. That creates a much more complicated and interesting problem for Sisko to deal with. On the one hand, Tahna has clearly crossed a line from striking against his current oppressors into enacting vengeance against former ones, which is rather harder to justify. On the other, the Cardassians have demonstrably tortured him at least twice already, so there are clear human rights issues (sorry, Lady Azetbur!) with permitting extradition.

(Speaking of which, Sisko’s conversation with Odo about the Duras sisters suggests the Federation doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the Klingons, even after years or more likely decades of close alliance. I’m actually not surprised that the Federation might be leery of sending alleged criminals to Qo’noS, actually. They were after all sticking their prisoners into chain gangs on death worlds not that long ago. It does though raise an interesting and – I think – pretty much unexplored question regarding what other unpleasant stuff this “warrior race” gets up to in and beyond its borders that the Federation might be seen as legitimating through the Khitomer Accords.)

In fact, it’s almost possible to feel a tinge of sympathy for Danar. I mean not much, obviously, he’s a member of an oppressive military regime, and he was clearly trying to execute Tahna without trial (though in the case of Cardassian law, “without trial” has a rather different meaning to the one we give to it). Even so, the situation being set up here, whereby hard-line Bajoran guerrillas can dash across the border to kill Cardassians and then skip back into Bajoran space to be feted as heroes under the watchful eye of the Federation is clearly going to be a problem for Cardassia Prime. Perhaps this is why Sisko is so courteous and honest with him. Once he’s (very cleverly) confirmed that this won’t be a week in which the station will be getting shot at by its former owners, that is.

Or maybe not. Maybe he’s just being courteous and honest-to-a-point with Danar because that’s the best way for him to handle a tricky diplomatic situation. Maybe Sisko is just that good at his job.

Certainly the commander knows the value of keeping his cards close to his chest. We can only really discern where Sisko’s actual sympathies lie through inference. Let me lay out what I mean by that. At the end of the first act, Sisko’s options are to release Tahna to either the Cardassians or the Bajoran Provisional Government. Playing games with airlock issues and docking regulations is just postponing the inevitable. As he tells Odo with reference to the Duras sisters, the station commander can’t just lock people up whenever it helps solve a problem, not if they’ve committed no crime.

But a few hours later Tahna does commit a crime. He steals Federation technology and takes it on a joyride out into the Bajor system. Sisko would be utterly within his rights to lock Tahna up and try and persuade the Provisional Government to allow extradition to a (doubtless comparatively cushy) Federation penal facility. You know, in the interests of keeping Starfleet and all its lovely photon torpedoes at the ready to defend Bajoran interests, and all. The Provisional Government might even go for it. Kira points out they’re very much not fans of the Kohn-Mah, and it’s likely they’d rather not actively (as oppose to rhetorically) aggravate the Cardassians so soon after the withdrawal. Better to let the Federation do that.

But Sisko doesn’t do any of that. So far as I can tell, Tahna ends up back on his homeworld. It’s a shame we don’t actually know that for a fact, actually. We hear no alternative mentioned, though, and it is a Bajoran deputy that slaps the cuffs onto him. So the most likely result is that Tahna still ends up with the Provisional Government. The conversation with Odo works as a hand-tip to how Sisko will diffuse the short-term crisis, but Sisko doesn’t use it to try and solve his larger diplomatic problem. What this suggests is that he really does want to see Tahna Los and people like him reintegrated into Bajoran society. He just doesn’t want to anger the Cardassian authorities by saying so. The easy narrative “third way” of shuffling Los off the board to laser rocks with Tom Paris is brushed aside in favour of keeping Sisko juggling the wishes of Cardassians and Bajorans. Because it’s his job to bring people together, or at least not push them even further apart. He doesn’t want to throw any more of the Federation’s weight around than he absolutely has to, something which must have made him even angrier about Kira’s call to his boss than he would’ve been anyway.

(Note how Rollman responds to Sisko over the incident, by the way. She has absolutely no interest in actually checking up on Sisko’s decisions. She wants him to get his house in order, but there’s no micromanaging going on. Starfleet has given Sisko this command, and they trust him completely to make it work. Based on this episode it isn’t remotely difficult to see why. He’s even smart enough to wait for just the right moment to hit Kira with the fact that he knows what she’s done.)

Let’s talk some more about Kira, actually. Her attempt to grass up Sisko aside, she has a pretty good episode of it herself. She shows tremendous restraint in not punching Sisko in the face when he grabs her arm and pulls her aside (which would have been totally fair and reasonable, by the way; that was an ugly move on Ben’s part), for instance. But it’s seeing her work through her position on an incredibly difficult and complicated problem that I most enjoy here. As with everyone else in this episode, her position makes perfect sense from her perspective. She’s absolutely right that post-occupation, extremist groups like the Kohn-Mah need to be at least offered repatriation. Even if you can see no other reason to do it, there’s the self-preservation angle to consider. Highly-experienced, well-motivated guerrillas with access to large arsenals and a willingness to kill for political goals are generally people you want to ensure you have on-side whilst building a whole new society (they’ve already killed one Bajoran minister, as we know). The only mistake Kira really makes here is in not realising that Sisko understands this too, mistaking his diplomatic remove for genuine indifference. Which is entirely forgivable, really. You’ve got to figure that almost every time Kira has heard someone saying something other than what’s really on their minds it’s either been political doublespeak from the provisional government or actual Cardassian propaganda. It’s no coincidence that she considers Odo so good a friend. They both see pretense as suspect.

Ultimately she makes the right decision, of course. In part this is because she belatedly works out Sisko was probably on her side all along, but more important is the realisation of how totally unacceptable Tahna’s approach to politics is.

It’s kind of hard, writing this at the tail end of 2016, to not see the parallels between Tahna’s “Stuff the economy, foreigners out!” rhetoric and the insistence of those like Nigel Farage, those who claim it’s worth becoming poorer if it means fewer immigrants. It’s a position that underlined much of the Leave rhetoric during the referendum campaign, and seems ever more commonly voiced as we barrel towards the economic nightmare of a hard Brexit. “What good is our own prosperity if we have to share it with foreigners?”. And this is only one way in which “Past Prologue” seems to predict the UKs political climate more than two decades later. Much of Tahna’s rhetoric parallels Farage’s, right down to the cries of “True independence!” and “I want out homeland back!”, soundbytes fired off without any coherent sense of what independence actually is, or who has taken his homeland away in the first place. Just as unpleasantly familiar is the doublethink two-step Tahna dances here – he might insist the EU Federation is just as bad as the Nazis Cardassians, but that doesn’t stop him from taking their money using them for protection when its convenient. You can even draw parallels between Farage’s claims that violence can only be avoided by capitulation to his wishes with Tahna threatening to murder thousands of Bajorans if he doesn’t get what he wants. Farage’s bombs are merely rhetorical, but the message is the same: we must get what we want, or people are going to die.

(Tahna even insists Kira would be to blame for those deaths, of course, for daring to not do exactly what the guy with the bomb is telling her to do. Rule one of the extremist is that nothing you do can ever be your fault. You’re only threatening people’s lives because others won’t give you what you want. What choice do you have?)

Obviously, whilst much of Tahna’s rhetoric and evasion of moral responsibility echoes that of Farage, I don’t want to imply the two are the equivalent. After all, Tahna genuinely did lose his homeland to a cruel regime which erased his voice. Tahna really has suffered at the hands of the oppressor. If Tahna looks at modern Bajor and panics that the new boss of Terek Nor is going to be just like the old boss, then his cynicism can surely be understood.

It’s also worth noting that even if the Federation proves to be less malign than the Cardassians, Tahna’s basic point that there could come a time where severing ties with them could become more difficult than Kira realises is a totally fair one. After all, there was never any way the UK could cleanly disentangle itself from Europe either, even in a perfect world where Leave received a mandate following a referendum free of demagogues stoking the flames of racism in their stampede for power. It was always going to be the ugliest, messiest, most damaging divorce imaginable. The same seems to be true in the 24th century. The closest we’ve seen to a world voluntarily exiting the Federation is Tasha Yar’s homeworld, and we’ve heard how that turns out. Getting in is easy. Getting out is not. And Tahna can’t see anyone else saying that.

But that’s what makes this episode so powerful, as I say. Everyone has competing positions, different ideas about how best to represent their people. And no-one is entirely wrong.

So much for the political analysis. I could end things here and have an essay I’d be happy with, but there’s absolutely no chance that we’re going to move on before we talk about Garak and Bashir. Andrew Robinson is simply sublime here. He’s mentioned in interviews that he deliberately played Garak as omnisexual here, but that “people” freaked out, leading him to him to dial it back. That’s a massive shame, because as wonderful a character as Garak is and as brilliantly as Robinson portrayed him, the road not taken here looks like it could have been even better than the joys we have ahead of us. Garak here is tremendous fun just on the surface, but he gets even better when you realise what else is going on. Because it seems to me that the kind of small talk a spy might use to develop an asset might sound very similar to the kind of small talk a non-spy might use to flirt with someone. Bashir can’t tell if he’s being invited to betray his government or simply for a bout of interstellar sexy-times. So when he dashes breathlessly around Ops looking for validation, is he hoping his peers will agree he’s about to enter a spy novel? Or is he hoping people keep shooting down the spy theory because that suggests he’s headed for a romance novel instead? Or – and this my preferred reading – is he hoping to end up into the intersection between the two?

Perhaps that’s what happened in the end, actually. This time round “Come to my shop for a new suit” wasn’t the new “come inside for coffee”, but business on this occasion doesn’t preclude pleasure on another. Why else would the first thing Garak offer the Duras sisters (whilst Julian is listening) be lingerie? It’s certainly a more interesting and less aggravating approach to the combination of espionage and seduction than James Bond ever managed with his clumsy double entendres and his string of sexual assaults (we will, of course, return to this point in the future). In fact, it’s easy to read Bashir as a young James Bond here, just in a story that has had all the masculinity drained out. Plus with a Bond girl given the dominant position and played by a man, which makes things all the more wonderful.

Sigh. What could have been. Goodbye, Omnisexual Garak. We shall not see your like again.

Which doesn’t mean the opportunities for shipping completely disappear, obviously. In fact, since the subject’s been raised, let’s nip over to the USS Voyager and see how Captain Janeway is getting on with choosing a new chief engineer…

Ordering:

1. Past Prologue

2. Yesteryear

3. Charlie X

4. The Naked Now

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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