Shades of Grey – Examining the Moral Complexities of Star Trek Characters
Over the years, Star Trek has presented some fantastic villains, like the sleazebag scammer Harry Mudd, the powerful “Pope Karen” Kai Winn, and “Space Hitler” Gul Dukat. However, there are also characters who aren’t simply good or bad. Star Trek doesn’t fear grappling with these complex personalities.
An episode that explores such unclear morality is Deep Space Nine‘s “Duet”. It tackles one of the foundational ideas of DS9, of how a weak, newly formed nation works with its former aggressor. It also is my favorite episode to show friends who have never seen Star Trek before, so that they know it isn’t just a show about forehead prosthetics and Shatner’s girdle.
In “Duet”, a Cardassian man named “Aamin Marritza” arrives on the station with a disease only contracted by people who were at Gallitep, a Bajoran forced labor camp. Our heroes, after some clever sleuthing (including an excellent use of the enhance button), discover that Major Kira’s insistence that this man must be guilty of something was in fact correct. Marritza is really Gul Darhe’el, the man responsible for the atrocities at Gallitep. Instantly, Darhe’el neé Marritza transitions from casual racism to full blown genocidal supervillain.
Constable Odo does some of his own digging and discovers that, actually, Marritza isn’t Darhe’el at all, but Marritza. It turns out Marritza was indeed at Gallitep, not as an evil mastermind but as a run-of-the-mill file clerk. He dissolves into tears at the memory of the horrors he witnessed.
Kira does the Right Thing and frees him, but Marritza doesn’t get very far before a Bajoran drunk kills him, announcing that all Cardassians are guilty. Surprisingly, Kira is not so sure about that.
The central question of this episode is how far down the chain of command the guilt goes. In reality, this was the central question of the denazification program and Nuremberg trials after World War II. Initially, the United States deemed that any member of the Nazi party was complicit, but it eventually became clear that, if they wanted experienced workers in German government and industry, they needed to draw the line between direct perpetrators and followers.
Kira, at the end of “Duet”, takes this view. Even though Marritza was at Gallitep and was a member of the military, his recognition of guilt is enough. He knows what happened at Gallitep was wrong and was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to force the Cardassian government to confront its own guilt.
Marritza and our Bajoran drunk take the opposing view. Marritza is guilty; anyone who didn’t try to stop the Occupation was guilty.
Thus, Star Trek allows us to question whether Marritza was a hero or villain. Ultimately, he’s both the coward who felt powerless to save a single Bajoran life and the brave, would-be martyr who upended his life to try to force truth and reconciliation.
Where Marritza is portrayed as a repentant coward, Seven of Nine is portrayed as the ultimate victim. As a small child, her parents demonstrate a shocking lack of foresight and take her along to study the Borg. Unsurprisingly, this family vacation goes badly and Seven ends up assimilated, coming of age, as it were, in the Collective.
Unlike Marritza – who, as a full individual, might have managed to obstruct the Occupation from the inside – Seven loses her individual self to the Collective, which is the basis of the writers positioning her fairly universally as a victim. Seven herself isn’t responsible for the actions she took while part of the Borg Collective. She was a drone, not that little girl with irresponsible parents, nor the woman we see grow throughout Voyager.
This is Star Trek, though, so the writers couldn’t make it too easy, bringing us to the episode “Survival Instinct”. While still Borg, Seven is one of four drones who survive the crash of a Borg Sphere and are separated from the Collective. Whereas the other three become nostalgic about their lives before becoming drones, Seven, having mostly grown up in the Collective, is panicked by the situation. She reassimilates the other three in something of a mini Collective, separate from the larger Borg system. The process of pooling their memories with Seven causes damage that gives them two unenviable choices: either rejoin the Borg, or die within a month.
All three accept death and individually choose how to spend their final days. They also approach Seven and the life-destroying wrong she did to them. This results in Star Trek, and us, being, once again, uncertain about Seven’s status as either a hero or villain.
Lansor seems to feel both anger and gratitude; Seven both took and gave back his life. P’Chan chooses to fall back on his cultural background that forbids the holding of grudges and wishes Seven well. Marika, though, understands why Seven did what she did but can’t forgive her. Seven accepts all these perspectives with grace.
Comparing the Characters
Arguably, both Seven and Marritza are victims of unscrupulous systems. However, Star Trek clearly establishes that both are guilty by deciding to take the path of least resistance against those systems.
Star Trek doesn’t take the easy path of placing blame and being done with it. It assigns guilt but gives both characters a path to redemption and the chance to explain their choices. Just as Seven would likely have died on that planet had she not reassimilated her compatriots, Marritza would likely have not gotten very far in rebelling against the Occupation before ending up on the wrong side of the Obsidian Order.
Equally so, they both choose to take actions in the present to attempt to right the wrongs of the past, even if they can never truly do that; to quote Marritza, “The dead will still be dead.” Star Trek nevertheless puts the primary focus on their actions in the present. While alive, they can do better in the future. As we are all imperfect people, I’d like to think we all can do the same.
1 thought on “Shades of Grey – Examining the Moral Complexities of Star Trek Characters”
I love the complexity of many of the characters in these Star Trek shows. Leaving the answer up to the audience is a very powerful way for us to consider their actions or lack thereof. Very thought provoking article!