“What you call genocide, I call a day’s work.”
— Aamin Marritza
DS9 is often dismissed as the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek franchise. They are in a space station, after all. It’s nigh impossible to trek anywhere in a stationary environment. Yet, there is one episode that consistently makes the lists of best hours across all of the shows, even in the most virulently anti-DS9 corners of Trek fandom, and it is this one, “Duet,” the penultimate episode of the first season. I still remember watching it when it aired and getting the distinct impression that I was watching something truly special, and no matter how many times I have revisited it since, that opinion has not wavered in the slightest. It is an hour that crystallizes what makes DS9 both distinct and great, telling a baroque tale of cowardice, regret, and ultimate redemption.
It’s a normal day on Deep Space Nine when a Kobheerian freighter arrives carrying a passenger who needs treatment for his Kalla-Nohra Syndrome. Kira immediately grows solemn: the only known cases of Kalla-Nohra in the entire galaxy come from a single mining accident in Gallitep, a Bajoran slave labor camp that Kira liberated during her time with the Resistance. She wants to personally greet the survivor, as all those who lived through the hell-on-Bajor that was Gallitep have become symbols of strength and courage, but when she arrives, she finds that the patient is not Bajoran, he’s Cardassian.
Kira has the man arrested for war crimes. He claims to be Aamin Marritza, an innocent Cardassian unfairly persecuted for his race. This episode, more than any that have come before, does more to crystallize the personality of the Cardassians. Not just the atrocities — which Kira lists at every opportunity — but their tendency for duplicity and fondness for long speeches. Cardassians love to talk, a character trait that goes through all the great Cardassian characters on the show. Marritza’s first lie is that he doesn’t have Kalla-Nohra, but Bashir proves that false with a single medical test. The prisoner’s arrogance conceals the salient (and clever) point: who would attempt such a transparent lie?
At first, Marritza deflects all attempts at proving his guilt, yet he needles Kira with a few choice barbs. He soon admits to being at Gallitep but warns Kira she would be disappointed to learn what he did. He was a mere filing clerk. He praises his commander, Gul Darhe’el, brutal war criminal and apostrophe enthusiast, yet denies that any atrocities took place at Gallitep, laying the blame for injuries on accidents and feuds between the workers. He claims that the rumors of atrocities were just that: rumors started by Darhe’el to keep the Bajorans in line. Kira is visibly disappointed. She doesn’t want a filing clerk. She wants the Butcher of Gallitep in a Bajoran cell, ready to hang for all the awful things he perpetuated on her homeworld.
Just as Marritza’s story seems to be confirmed — there was a filing clerk named Aamin Marritza at Gallitep, and he did later teach filing on a military academy at Kora II — a picture surfaces that identifies the man in the cell as not Marritza, but Gul Darhe’el himself. This is exactly what she wanted, and when she confronts him with this information, he goes full on supervillain, ranting about the glory of Cardassia, and the necessity, even joy, of grinding “Bajoran scum” under the bootheels of civilization. The great part of this scene is that it plays a little big, veering uncomfortably toward camp, but in light of the final twist, it makes perfect sense: the Cardassian in the cell is giving Kira, and Bajor, the bogeyman of their nightmares. This isn’t Gul Darhe’el as he was, this is Gul Darhe’el as he has become in the minds of his victims. When in doubt, print the legend.
And, “was” is the operative word there. This episode marks the second appearance of Gul Dukat, DS9’s resident anti-villain, Sisko’s foil, and Kira’s nemesis, the oily former commander of Deep Space Nine. Dukat, after contacting both Sisko and Odo — and true to form, Dukat is never less than cordial to both men — claims that not only is Darhe’el dead, half of Cardassia viewed the body. The next clue comes from the greatest detective in the Alpha Quadrant: Odo. Latching onto an offhand comment, Odo starts digging and soon learns that the man in the cell researched Kira in advance, specifically requested passage on a freighter that would stop at DS9 (an odd choice for a Cardassian to say the least), put all his affairs in order, and is using a dermal regenerative for plastic surgery.
The man in the cell is not Darhe’el, but he not only wants everyone to think he is, he wanted to be captured by the Bajoran government. Armed with this information, Kira confronts the Cardassian one last time. While he tries to launch into another Hannibal lecture, she persistently breaks his story down, piece by piece, until finally, in the episode’s best moment, the sneering Cardassian breaks down into helpless tears. “It’s Marritza who’s dead! Marritza, who was good for nothing but cowering under his bunk and weeping like a woman! Who would every night, cover his ears, because he couldn’t bear to hear the screaming for mercy of the Bajorans . . . I covered my ears every night, but . . . I couldn’t bear to hear those horrible screams. You have no idea what it’s like to be a coward, and do nothing.” This man is Aamin Marritza, Gul Darhe’el’s filing clerk, crippled with the guilt of standing by during the horrors of Gallitep. The irony is that his plan is suicidally brave: he wants Cardassia to own up to the crimes they committed during the Occupation, and he will be tried and convicted for what Darhe’el did, all while playing the gloating monster. To this, Kira, a woman who spent her life since the age of twelve killing Cardassians, a self-described terrorist who murdered civilians says, “What you’re asking for is another murder. Enough good people have already died. I won’t help kill another.”
The episode ends on a gut punch, too, because this is DS9 and this is the dark side of utopia. But, there’s light there, too. Marritza is heroic in his way, and the palpable anguish when he breaks down shows that this race is capable of — and I hate that I have to use this word, because it feels racist in the context of sci-fi — humanity. It gives the species depth and allows Kira to grow. It’s not enough to want to kill a man simply because he’s Cardassian. There are monsters like Darhe’el, and then there are good, soft-hearted men like Marritza, who want to do the right thing even if it means being executed for something they didn’t do.
“Duet” would not work without the performances, since it’s almost entirely on the backs of two characters. For Marritza, they cast the great character actor Harris Yulin, who handles the big monologues, the supervillain posturing, and the breakdown with incredible aplomb. Nana Visitor does her best acting since “Progress” (That’s the one about the old man on the moon.), really selling the tension between old-school terrorist Kira Nerys and first officer. There’s a great scene between her and Sisko early on, when she asks him to be assigned to Marritza (thus explaining why Odo isn’t the one in the interrogations), and it’s heartbreaking and gratifying seeing her promise to conduct herself as his first officer and as his friend. “I’m asking for all the Bajorans who can’t ask.” It’s powerful stuff, and Avery Brooks is admirably generous in this scene, ceding the spotlight to Visitor.
The great irony of this, the best episode of DS9’s first season and one of the top ten of the entire run of the series, is that it was intended as a bottle show. For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, a bottle show is intended as a cost-saving measure, with few to no special effects, sets that have already been built, and minimal guest stars. “Duet” was making up for cost overruns on such hours as “The Storyteller” (a.k.a. the one where O’Brien fights a shaving cream monster with the power of bedtime stories), “Move Along Home” (a.k.a. mustache aliens make the crew play hopscotch), and “If Wishes Were Horses” (a.k.a. the genesis of the Emu Resistance). Cost, as it turns out, has very little to do with value.
This episode is not only why I love DS9, why I love the characters and the drama, but why I love science fiction as a whole. It takes huge events and combines them with the underpinnings of emotion to ask, and then answer, the questions that define us. The monsters of history are easy to see and even easier to hate, but it’s more rewarding to seek out the heroes, quiet though they may be.
Next up: A difference of opinion regarding educational standards.