Sci Fi and powerful writing

I caught an episode of Deep Space Nine today, for the first time in ages, and was totally blown away by the power of the episode.

Like all good science fiction, this particular program succeeds because it shows ordinary people in recognisable situations, which can be seen all the more clearly for the unfamiliar setting.  I’ll give a little background, but the real life parallel will be obvious.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, it’s a Star Trek series based on Deep Space Nine, a space station (think motorway service station) near a planet, Bajor, and a wormhole (think motorway) to another quadrant, where the Cardassians originate.

A few years earlier, Cardassians occupied Bajor, and the Bajorans were freedom fighters standing up against the oppressors. Now Cardassia has retreated, and Bajor is trying to rebuild.

Kira is a Bajoran working on board Deep Space Nine (which is run by the Federation, a neutral group), and when a Cardassian calls in and asks for medical treatment, she accuses of him being the leader of a concentration camp.

At first the Cardassian insists he was just a filing clerk at the camp, and asks Kira how many Cardassian civilians she killed during her days as a freedom fighter (or terrorist). These are hard questions for Kira, but she sticks to her guns, researches, and eventually turns up a photo to prove the Cardassian really is the camp leader. Sure enough, he confesses and gloats about his crimes to her.

Just as they’re ready to hand him over to the Bajoran authorities for trial, further evidence turns up – the real camp leader died several years ago, and the guy claiming to be him seemed to have undergone plastic surgery, wound up his affairs and then deliberately sought passage to Deep Space Nine, where he was likely to be recognised and picked up.

So who exactly is he? In a moving conversation, Kira discovers that the Cardassian really was a filing clerk at the camp, who was horrified by the treatment of Bajorans but helpless to do anything about it. In despair, his conscience pricking him, he decided to pose as the camp leader and turn himself in, hoping that the ensuing trial would force Cardassia to face up to its crimes.

Kira ends up sympathising with him and assuring him that he was not to blame for the crimes. As she escorts him to the ship to take him back home, one of the Bajorans who lives on the station rushes up and stabs him in the back. “What did you do that for?” cried Kira. “He’s not the camp leader.”

“He’s a Cardassian,” replies the man. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” says Kira, cradling the dying man in her arms. “It’s not enough.”

And at that moment you realise that while at the beginning of the episode she too felt that the only good Cardassian was a dead Cardassian, she and we had travelled on a journey that led to the conclusion that there is  good and bad on both sides, and that it pays to look far more deeply.

That, to me, holds all the power of a true science fiction story – just as Kira is absolutely certain at the beginning and has her attitude changed by the end, so we too realise that there are two sides to the story, and that you can’t lump everyone together, label them and feel secure in that labelling.

The tension between Bajor and Cardassia plays a large part in the show, as does the religious beliefs of the Bajorans, and while DS9 may not have the excitement of a new planet to visit every week, I do believe it helps the stories themselves to become much deeper, with very strong characterisation and situations that truly reflect society.

I would love the ability to write stories of that calibre. And I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks at home, when I can catch up with more DS9 episodes.