(Note: I added some extra points retroactively to compete with SABR Matt's review of The Siege of AR-558.)
I think this is the best episode in the entire series. SABR Matt thinks it's the second best. But whatever our individual differences, we both believe In the Pale Moonlight deserves to be in the top three for daring to go there.
Memory Alpha discusses the episode here.
As SABR Matt discusses at length below, this episode beautifully illustrates why Sisko is the man to put on the front lines in a time of total war -- and why none of the other Trek captains could've possibly filled his role. But In the Pale Moonlight is a masterpiece for two other reasons. Number one, it expertly utilizes the show's in-house alien perspectives. Obviously, Garak's background as a spy for a non-Federation (and totalitarian) government - and his consequent willingness to pull off the "very messy, very bloody" solution - plays a central role in the unfolding of the plot. But I feel it is Quark who really delivers the coup de grâce. Bringing Quark in as a collateral victim of Sisko and Garak's scheme - and allowing the Ferengi to gloat over Sisko's moment of moral compromise - is a brilliant way to twist the knife.
Secondly, this episode underscores - with at least two bold lines - the Federation's vulnerability. As the events surrounding the fall of Betazed indicate, the Federation's status as the Alpha Quadrant's benign hegemony has lulled its members into a false sense of security. But let's look beyond the casualty lists, the constant retreats, and the Dominion invasion of a semi-major and centrally-situated Federation planet and consider this: Sisko is not a lone wolf here. He lies, cheats, bribes men to cover the crimes of other men, and - oh, yes - also becomes an accessory to murder, but he does it all with Starfleet's blessing. I seriously want you, dear reader, to ponder that for a moment -- and then tell me whether or not you too feel this sinking feeling of "oh, crap" in the pit of your stomach. I honestly don't think there's a more effective way to communicate the reality that the Federation has found itself in a conflict with a truly existential threat than to show its military officers - from the brass on down - violating Federation principle out of sheer desperation. Damn.
For daring to go there and much much more, this is one of the great moments in Trek history. Not the greatest moment...that's coming in season seven (Steph disagrees, but Steph is simply wrong. :) ) - but one of the greatest, and I think the chief reason that I love it so much is that it paints a much more realistic, more mature picture of great leadership. TNG gives us the mild mannered diplomatic Picard...filled with (in the early seasons) sanctimonious speechifying and inaction and (in the late seasons) self-loathing and quiet strength. That's fine...but in a time of war, there are other needs. You need men of action and of an inner strength that makes them capable of making the tough decisions and doing things that others dread to do. And most of all, you need men who are driven by conscience - who, when they fall short of their own expectations or make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and own the consequences of their actions.
Ben Sisko is a man of action -- a flawed, sometimes petulant man who hold grudges, can't abide personal betrayal, makes big mistakes on occasion, and learns from those mistakes. And most importantly, he's a man who owns his choices with conviction - whatever the consequences of those choices are, he will live with it. Because he can live with it. That, right there, is the very definition of a great military general in a time of war. Because war is always...ALWAYS...a very messy, very bloody business, and every choice a man makes in that world will be fraught with life and death consequences. It's important that a leader like Sisko not lose sight of the human cost of his decisions or of winning the war, but he'll still need to make those calls and keep the big picture in mind. And the bottom line is...the Dominion is going to destroy the entire Alpha Quadrant and remake it in a totalitarian image that none will much like if they are not stopped...and that includes the Romulans that Sisko and Garak so artfully play into the war. While we may not like the way in which the status quo was broken, we like the alternative much less...including from the position of the Romulan Senator Vrenak...who would surely have died when the Dominion conquered Romulus sooner or later. It takes a powerful man to live with the pain of compromising his own ethics because the alternative is much...much worse. That is Sisko...and that's why we love Deep Space Nine. That's it right there in a nutshell.
Writing: 10.0 / 10.0
This script is a work of absolute perfection. Sisko dives right into that moral grey area, but the writers are very careful to establish the reasons behind his actions. Meanwhile, the roles penned for the key supporting characters (like Garak and Quark) are also fabulously conceived.
Acting: 9.7 / 9.7
SABR Matt: My one complaint (aside from "it's a FAAAAAKE!!!") is the occasional scene chewing of Avery Brooks....who, for his part, is mostly solid, but has a few lines that he hits too hard ("there's NO GUARANTEE OF THAT!!!") But still...all in all, the cast does a fabulous job.
Stephanie S.: I think I'm going to let SABR Matt's comment speak for the both of us.
Message: 10.0 / 10.0
You don't have to agree with Sisko's every decision here to recognize the admirable way in which the writers tackle the special ethical challenges of a major war that could end civilization as we know it. Bravo!
GARAK: I must say I'm flattered, Captain. I had no idea you held such a lofty opinion of me. Your faith in my ability to retrieve classified information from my former homeland is most gratifying.
SISKO: Mister Garak, let's dispense with the usual repartee and concentrate on the issue at hand. Can you do it or not?
GARAK: No one wants to see the Dominion destroyed more than I do, but to go to Cardassia Prime, penetrate one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the quadrant, steal top secret war plans and then return them safely to you is not just another job. It's more like a suicide mission. And that is well outside my field of expertise.
SISKO: I didn't say you had to go there yourself. I have to believe that a man like you still has a few contacts at home. A colleague from the Obsidian Order, an old friend, a reliable informant. Someone who might owe you a favor.
SISKO: Then I'd say it's time to call in a favor.
GARAK: It would mean calling in all my favors, Captain. To do what you're asking would use up every resource I have left on Cardassia. And it may be a very messy, very bloody business. Are you prepared for that?
SISKO: I posted my fourteenth casualty list this morning. I'm already involved in a very messy, very bloody business.
SISKO: Mister Garak, it's been three days. Have you made any progress?
GARAK: Well, I suppose that depends on how you look at it.
SISKO: This is how I look at it: Betazed has just fallen to the Dominion and we need to get this operation underway.
GARAK: I share your desire for swift action, Captain. In fact, after our last conversation, I made a few discreet inquiries among my former associates still living on Cardassia. As I anticipated, they shared my loathing for the current government and were willing to take on an assignment aimed at its destruction.
SISKO: That sounds like progress to me.
GARAK: Doesn't it? Unfortunately, they're all dead now.
GARAK: Yes. All killed within one day of speaking with me. I suppose that's a testament to the effectiveness of Dominion security. One should admire such efficiency.
SISKO: I'm sorry.
GARAK: I hope you're not giving up that easily. After all, the stakes are much higher than a few dead operatives. The fate of the entire quadrant hangs in the balance. Or at least that's the case you made to me.
SISKO: Do you have another plan?
GARAK: As a matter of fact, I do. But I suspect you won't like it.
SISKO: Try me.
GARAK: If you want to guarantee that we obtain evidence of a Dominion plan to attack the Romulans, I suggest that we manufacture that evidence ourselves.
SISKO, VO: Maybe I should have put a stop to it right there. Maybe I should have said, 'Thank you very much for your input, Mister Garak. I will take your suggestion under advisement,' and gone back to my office and forgotten about the whole thing. But I didn't. Because in my heart, I knew what he was saying made sense. (As noted earlier in the episode, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.)
SISKO: May I speak to Quark?
(Odo nods. Sisko goes over to Bashir and Quark.)
SISKO: How is he?
QUARK: How do I look? I'm a man who just had a brush with death.
BASHIR: He'll be fine. His ribs deflected the knife from his major organs. The bleeding was superficial.
QUARK: Superficial? Do you know how much this shirt cost?
SISKO: Will you excuse us for a moment, Doctor?
BASHIR: I'll check on you tomorrow.
SISKO: Do you intend to press charges?
QUARK: You bet I do.
SISKO: What will it take, uh -- to convince you otherwise?
QUARK: Are you offering me a bribe? (Sisko doesn't respond.) I knew it. Captain, I've always liked you. I suspected that somewhere deep down in your heart of hearts there was a tiny bit of Ferengi just waiting to get out.
SISKO: What's your price?
QUARK: Well, let's start with replacing my clothes -- and M'Pella's clothes.
SISKO: All right.
QUARK: I'm not finished. I think I should be compensated for the loss of business I suffered today, which I calculate as no less than five bars of gold pressed latinum.
QUARK: I'm also having a problem with station security. They're holding some cargo containers which I've been waiting for because of some missing import license or something.
SISKO: I'll handle it. Anything else?
QUARK: No. I think we can call it a bribe. And thank you, Captain. Thank you for restoring my faith in the 98th Rule of Acquisition: Every man has his price. (Snap!)
TOLAR: Well. It has been a pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen. Call me again if you ever need --
SISKO: You're not going anywhere.
TOLAR: What? What do you mean?
SISKO: I mean you're not leaving until your work is accepted by our client.
TOLAR: That isn't fair. You can't keep me here against my will! I haven't done anything wrong. We had an agreement.
(Sisko throws Tolar up against the bulkhead.)
SISKO: I'm making a new agreement: If that program passes inspection, you walk free -- but if there's even the slightest flaw, then I will send you back to that Klingon prison and tell Gowron to take his time while he executes you. (Damn.)
SISKO: Welcome aboard, Senator. I'm Captain Benjamin Sisko.
VREENAK: So, you're the Commander of Deep Space Nine, and the Emissary to the Prophets, decorated combat officer, widower, father, mentor, and - oh yes - the man who started the war with the Dominion. Somehow I thought you'd be taller.
SISKO: Sorry to disappoint you. (Heh.)
SISKO: You killed him!
GARAK: That's right.
SISKO: That's what you planned to do all along, isn't it? You knew the data rod wouldn't hold up to scrutiny. You just wanted to get him on the station so you could plant a bomb on his shuttle.
GARAK: It wasn't quite that simple. I did have hopes that the rod would somehow pass inspection, but I suspected that Tolar may not have been up to the task.
SISKO: And what about Tolar? Did you kill him too?
GARAK: Think of them both as tragic victims of war.
(Sisko punches Garak again.)
GARAK: If you can allow your anger to subside for a moment, you'll see that they did not die in vain. The Romulans will enter the war.
SISKO: There's no guarantee of that!
GARAK: Oh, but I think that there is. You see, when the Tal Shiar finishes examining the wreckage of Vreenak's shuttle, they'll find the burnt remnants of a Cardassian optolythic data rod which somehow miraculously survived the explosion. After painstaking forensic examination, they'll discover that the rod contains a recording of a high level Dominion meeting at which the invasion of Romulus was being planned.
SISKO: And then they'll discover that it is a fraud!
GARAK: No, I don't think they will, because any imperfections in the forgery will appear to be a result of the explosion. So, with a seemingly legitimate rod in one hand and a dead senator in the other, I ask you, Captain, what conclusion would you draw?
SISKO: That Vreenak obtained the rod on Soukara and that the Dominion killed him to prevent him from returning to Romulus with it.
GARAK: Precisely. And the more the Dominion protests their innocence, the more the Romulans will believe they're guilty because it's exactly what the Romulans would have done in their place. That's why you came to me, isn't it, Captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren't capable of doing. Well, it worked. And you'll get what you want, a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant -- and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don't know about you, but I'd call that a bargain.
SISKO, VO: At 0800, station time, the Romulan Empire formally declared war against the Dominion. They have already struck fifteen bases along the Cardassian border. So, this is a huge victory for the good guys! This may even be the turning point of the entire war. There's even a 'Welcome to the Fight' party tonight in the wardroom. 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.