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The Cardassian Chronicles (Or: Let's discuss Cardassians, novel/screen
The Cardassian Chronicles
(The novels, the new Cardassian status quo, Skrain Dukat, Cardassians and Bajorans VS Narns and Centauri, a cheery song involving dinosaurs, and attempted genocide)
In which we discuss (in my case, drone on at length; this is a big one, sorry) how each of us views and interprets the most complex and tragic of Star Trek’s alien cultures, a race who have recently been left in a far better place than we’ve possibly ever seen them, but whose future, while looking ever more solid with each passing year, is still highly uncertain. I speak, naturally, of the Pakl – the Cardassians.
My top five Star Trek books, as of the present moment (assuming such a list is possible):
A Stitch In Time The Never-Ending Sacrifice Well of Souls The Buried Age Destiny trilogy (cheating, I know, but it's one story)
As many may have noticed, the first two are the heaviest Cardassian books we’ve gotten (excluding The Crimson Shadow), the third has some very obvious and deliberate thematic and philosophical links to the prose of the first, the fourth deals, in alternate form, with a topic I will be exploring here as central to my interest in the Cardassians, and the fifth is Destiny, which is in a class of its own so far as the Trek Novel meta-arc goes.
The following essay-length post (sorry...) is prompted by an interesting question raised by a friend of mine on another forum, this one specifically about Cardassians. This is a compilation of new ideas and things which I’ve discussed on the BBS before, if not in Lit (my apologies if some of this is recognized by a long-term member or two). We’ve just concluded a five-book series that featured the Cardassians; or perhaps more accurately, since only one and a half of them focused on the race, a series that concerned itself with the Federation-Cardassian alliance and the question of whether Cardassia has finally been able to put its old sins and scars (Ishan Anjar among them) behind it, and instead look to the future. In the same way, it should perhaps be noted, that the series presents the Federation also finding the light at the end of the difficult winding tunnel it’s been traversing ever since Cardassia (there’s that name again...) joined the Dominion.
Because Cardassians like threes, and because Andor wasn't in the Federation during part of their arc, the Andorians form a third journey out of the confusion and darkness.
If there’s one quotation that sums up Cardassia (besides “Where only the military metaphors work”, thanks to Una McCormack ), it’s this piece from Babylon Five:
"We are all the sum of our tears. Too little, and the ground is not fertile, and nothing can grow there. Too much, and the best of us is washed away. My rains have come and gone".
The Crimson Shadow asks whether the last part is true. Castellan Garan (very soon to be former Castellan Garan) asks, almost distraught, how long her people will need to be answering for crimes against their neighbours (and themselves)). How long will the shadow of their past hang over them and stretch into her people’s future? Outside of The Crimson Shadow (McCormack being as good as ever),the scene in The Poisoned Chalice where Throk speaks to Nog and Tuvok was also outstanding; his reasoning and condemnation superbly written. Cardassia has come so far, but it’s still afraid of the next step.
What do the novels have to build on regarding Cardassia? Cardassia, as we saw on TV, is a harsh society defined by centuries of hardship. It struggled to build an advanced civilization, and we don't know how inevitable their world's apparent environmental depredations were: did the Cardassians create their own ecological disaster, was it inevitable no matter what, or did they slowly make an escalating crisis worse? Perhaps they could have endured as a peaceful, low-key backwater and survived happily enough, but they had ambition. They had drive. They had a vision, one that was warped by hard lessons and not enough introspection (or the wrong sort).
A singing Triceratops offers another very appropriate summary of what it has meant to be Cardassian (as singing triceratops so regularly do):
When life is tough
You gotta be tougher
If you wanna stay alive
When the trail gets rough
You gotta get rougher
To help your family survive
You can't run around in circles
Wondering what to do
Someone's gotta be the voice of reason
Is it you, or you, or you?
When things around us are going bad
We all better be strong
We could lose everything we have
If this goes far too long
Don't stand around here talking!
I say that's not enough
No tears, no sighs
Don't close your eyes
We gotta stand tough
I used to hear my father say
"Stand and fight, don't run away"
He made me what I am today
And I'm tough
When times are hard
You better be harder
You don't know what's in store
You think you're smart?
You gotta be smarter than you ever were before
You say I'm mean
You say why bother?
Well, I have a daughter
And I'm her father
I'm gonna make sure
We all have water enough
That's why I'm tough
I'm standing tough!
We've got to stand tough
You don't like it?
So much of Cardassia’s history consists of desperate need, foolish mistakes and short-sightedness, and sheer bad luck. They developed a morality based on necessity and practicality (warped by tribalism and politics, of course) in an effort to keep themselves strong. They developed in deliberate opposition to the softer, more accommodating philosophies that defined the Hebitians, rejecting a way of life that had left them unprepared. Cardassians are a brutal, tragic culture, caught up in their certainty that they will survive if they greet the universe with a cold eye and an iron fist. I'm always slightly horrified by the conversation between Garak and Bashir in DS9 season 3, in which Garak mentions how humans always bolt their food, as though scared it isn't going to be there anymore. Shouldn't Cardassians be even more likely to do this than Humans? No; because they have certainty that they have the answer, that sacrifice and discipline and national pride are enough to preserve them (they damn well better be). Humans fear not having enough; in Cardassians, that fear has crystalized in them to the point that it isn’t even sloshing around in their psyche anymore, but entrenched there, so they can hardly know that it’s there, poisoning them.
Cardassians are among the richest of Trek cultures, because they're a society where so much has gone wrong, a society blindly marching to its own destruction, a society of warped values, that is yet so comprehensible, so understandable.
We had a fair amount of discussion regarding Castellan Garak in the review thread for The Crimson Shadow. I’ll leave him be for now and repost some earlier considerations for the other major Cardassian (or one of a triumvirate, if we consider Damar, which we should, since he’s far more “normal” a subject than the others, more representative, I imagine): Dukat. This is because it touches on something that is at the heart of a deprived and aggressive people.
Despite my reservations about the pah-wraith plot, I find it appropriate that Dukat was partnered with Winn for the concluding arc of season seven. Winn and Dukat always struck me as very similar; in my mind, both are essentially children - their emotional responses, the motives which drive them, seemed very infantile. And their shared tragedy is that they never learned to overcome those motives and “grow up”.
I see Dukat as a warped man with the personality of a young child, a little boy's ego in a man's body. That ego is incomplete and vulnerable, dependent on others to validate him, and very selfish, as that of an infant or a young child naturally is. Everything he does is about "being a good boy", earning approval and love. It’s somewhat muffled, at first, behind the discipline of Cardassian military society, but I think it’s always there. Dukat, I think, needs reinforcement from others, and in his case that's dangerous because he also failed to make the transition to genuine empathy with others. Empathy isn't just about the similarity between sapient beings, of course, but about the differences too, respecting the distance as much as the connection. An infant eventually learns that other people are alien, distant and the centre of their own worlds, and that empathy means acknowledging this just as much as it does understanding or sharing their perspectives and emotions. Dukat, I think, doesn't do this. He's still the centre of his universe and everyone else orbits him. So that's two ways in which he's still essentially an infant, and his need to have his worth reinforced combined with lack of true empathic understanding leads to the delusional idea that other people exist to validate him. His ego must be fed, and they must do it.
Dukat, in my opinion, sees everyone and everything else as props in his own life. Their job is to reinforce his ego and let him know that he's a heroic and noble person, either by supporting him (Damar) or antagonizing him "unfairly" (Kira, Weyoun). It's no wonder he had to create illusionary Damars, Kiras and Weyouns when he lost the real ones, because Dukat needs the reinforcement. That's what they're for. Why can't mean old Kira and Weyoun recognize his greatness?
Dukat wants to be seen as "noble" (as far as his own child-like sense of the noble can carry him), as a "good man" (really: good boy). And he surrounds himself with people to reinforce that illusion - Ziyal the blindly adoring daughter (who flat-out refuses to challenge her own vulnerable ego by recognising the various major character flaws (to put it mildly) in her father), Damar the lieutenant, who is loyal but non-threatening (he's too unimaginative to challenge Dukat’s position, yet ultimately he's more than the "typical" Cardassian military thug - he's intelligent enough to appreciate Dukat). Dukat has comfort women who will respond to his "generosity" if only because they know they're trapped and it could be far worse. The same, I assume, motivated his move to abolish child labour when he was in command of Terok Nor – he expected the Bajorans to recognize his “nobility” and love him for it.
I also think that Cardassia itself was just the same, a piece in his fantasy, where all that really mattered in the end was himself, and the feeding of that desperate, damaged ego. If daughters and comfort women and lieutenants fulfilled his need to be the noble, benevolent master (again, to the extent that he understands "noble", which is through the prism of a child-like selfishness), then Cardassia fulfilled his need to be the servant. In his own mind, he's a good son to Cardassia, just as he's a good patriarch to his extended Cardassian/Bajoran community-family. Ultimately, though, he's every bit as disloyal a son as he is an abusive patriarch - both roles are ultimately to fuel his own need to experience a sense of his great worth.
The full tragedy of Dukat, as I see it, is that due to his inability to truly see perspectives other than his own, he never, ever grasped an opportunity to actually become a better person. He always chose to pretend to himself that he was great, and get others to tell him he was, rather than trying to become great. He's completely trapped in his own lie. His mind is yoked to his runaway ego, which needs reinforcement or he'll fall apart. Weyoun has the Founders; Dukat is his own Founder.
As I say, in terms of how he relates his sense of self to his understanding of the world around him, I believe Dukat never left infanthood. Everything is made to conform to his internalized need to reinforce his worth - every value of his culture, good and bad, is warped by it, taken on in a completely selfish way that makes him a twisted, delusional idea of a "good Cardassian" who doesn't actually respect or understand the values he's adapting. And the traumatized selfish little boy in that man's body ended up, like so many traumatized selfish little boys when they grow older, leading war fleets and taking power, to make the universe acknowledge his worth - him, at the apex and the centre, his ego stoked by his power.
For Dukat in Season Six of DS9, as I see it, everything is fully safe and controlled with himself at the centre, until the universe crashes down when he loses Terok Nor again, along with Ziyal and (in a way) Damar. The loyal lieutenant can't shoot the pet daughter and I can't lose my war and my empire; that just can't happen! And Dukat ended up obsessed with taking down Sisko, who is - shock and horror - a challenger to Dukat. I honestly think the reason Dukat fixates on Sisko (something other fans often say makes little sense) is because Sisko is the only other person Dukat actually truly recognizes as another person. And that's because Sisko can't orbit Dukat like everyone else is made to, because he's a rival for Dukat’s position. Sisko is in Dukat’s office, he has Kira's respect and loyalty, the Bajorans' respect, he's a strong, noble military leader, a loving father, victorious in battle - the little boy has encountered, of all things, a rival. And this universe isn't big enough for both of them. The universe revolves around Dukat - Sisko is Cthulhu to Dukat. An other, the challenger. He usurps reality itself. And I think ultimately Dukat also knows that he'll eventually lose - because he's just a selfish little boy and Sisko...Sisko is a man. Dukat can only play at those qualities I listed - Sisko truly embodies them.
(Tangent here: As for Winn, Winn always comes across as very results-driven, very selfish in the not entirely negative (but still troublesome) sense that she expects to gain something from what she does - otherwise, why is she doing it? What she seeks, of course, is power and status, and her actions and social interactions are basically all geared towards getting it. From supporting Minister Jaro to becoming Kai, she seems to work on the basis that every interaction and personal step forward is a matter of buying up more station and influence, and that for each step she takes she will, by rights, get rewards.
She's different from Dukat in that Dukat (as I see him) is entirely self-centred, not just selfish; everyone and everything must revolve around him simply by virtue of his existence (as I say, I personally believe that Dukat doesn't have a fully functioning concept of empathy). Winn has a considerably less childish sense of how things work; she doesn't expect the world to revolve around her without her doing anything, she expects to make her way forward in the world as a functioning part of that world. Unfortunately, I think she's selfishly fixated on the idea that simply through doing so she should by rights get results. It's as if she feels entitled, not simply through existing but because she worked for it. I recall one of her few genuinely sympathetic moments (in the episode Rapture), when she tells Kira something along the lines of "you resistance types think it's all about you. Well, I fought to preserve Bajoran culture too, in my own way - by preaching the faith even though I was imprisoned and beaten for it". In other words, what angered her is the perceived impression of resistance fighters that people like her didn't work for their freedom and that she didn't struggle or suffer to get where she is today.
I guess if Dukat strikes me as a traumatized selfish little boy who demands attention and never mastered empathy, then Winn is the slightly older girl who has mastered it and has fixated on the lesson that "if I'm a good girl who works hard, I'll get a reward - and I will deserve that reward, because I've worked for it". For Winn, not getting something back for her troubles, her hard work, or even her compassion, is unacceptable. And because what she wants is security and power, she thinks that the reward for service is status. I think she was never satisfied because her faith wasn't truly getting her results. The other Bajorans loved the Prophets just for existing, while Winn expected the Prophets to "give something back". But the Prophets made her Kai only after stripping the post of its meaning by having the Emissary become Their voice instead. In the first few seasons, Winn refused to believe Sisko was the Emissary. In "Rapture", she finally accepted it, and she must have resented the Prophets strongly for that - she served them for decades, loved them even, and then they bestow rewards not on her but on this alien who didn't even follow the faith).
Anyway, that's how I view the two characters, and a large part of why I loved them as villains was the sense that these selfish (and in Dukat's case, for however you wish to define it, evil) people were really just young children who never learned how to grow up or cope with themselves and the world around them. In that sense, they evoke sympathy, of a sort. Back to the central topic: while Dukat is not, as I see it, at all representative of Cardassians (he’s a Cardassian where the thing that’s gone wrong is far more rooted in him than in just his culture and its worldview), the image of the selfish, traumatized, needy child is a suitable one.
Cardassians and other imperialist powers in popular sci-fi
This is a topic that came up elsewhere on the BBS. It got a few responses, the longest from myself, but there was little discussion. I thought it was worth once again laying out my thoughts here. I don't know how many of our regulars are familiar with Babylon Five, but even if you're not, I'd be interested to see if my conclusions regarding Cardassians strike anyone as accurate. Funnily enough, the comparison doesn’t concern the culture to which my earlier quote is attributed, but to a second culture who are an interesting contrast with the Cardassians – the Centauri.
The two races have similar thematic arcs in their respective shows; being an established part of the political setting with a history of aggression against their neighbours, yet who seem, in earlier seasons, to be slowly mellowing and showing signs of progress - in large part due to a general decline that prompts re-examination of their political values. However, both races then enter into questionable alliances in order to kick off a new round of expansion and aggression, leading to disaster as they end up being pawns of other powers and eventually wind up on the wrong side of a planetary bombardment.
In the original thread, someone had posted the immortal question: who wins in a fight? I gave a reply which I'll reproduce below:
The biggest weakness of both cultures (besides their tendency to piss off neighbouring races with their arrogant aggression and ruthless treatment of other populations, of course) is their apparent lack of capacity for racial unity. Backstabbing power plays and vicious competition between bloodlines, power blocs and individuals are the norm in both Cardassian and Centauri societies, and this endemic in-fighting weakens their ability to wield the influence they otherwise could. Too much of their scheming is channelled into petty retributions and jostling for position within their own hierarchies, rather than the cause of bettering their people. Bashir points this out to Garak in A Stitch In Time, Sisko makes similar points in Hollow Men.
The Cardassians call themselves a Union, drawing together in mutual discipline and sacrifice to ensure their shared survival, but in practice they're still at each other's throats, seemingly unable to play nice or put the needs of their population above their own ambition. The Centauri are perhaps more honest about their nature but less sympathetic, having a society dedicated to flaunting resources and power for their own sake rather than as a means to survival. That said, they have a system wherein people are supposed to accept their position with grace (nobility loyal to the emperor, lesser nobles respectful of greater houses, commoners and slaves accepting their place in the scheme of things), but in practice they're completely unable to live in the sedentary and structured system they've created, and behind the scenes they're desperately grabbing for power and influence wherever they can.
Both races, I think, have desperately imposed a static, repressive and rigid social structure over their peoples - Cardassians a conformist militant police state, Centauri a class-based hierarchy. They've both further insisted that duty to this system is among a citizen's highest values. In truth, they've both slapped this system over a viciously competitive mindset that is unable to overcome the urge to knock others down in order to climb higher yourself, and it always shows through.
As for who "wins" in a fight, if we're still doing that (and we are, because it teases out interesting points about the Cardassians):
The Centauri are ruthless, but they're also hedonists. They delight in decadence, ostentatious display of impracticality, pointless tradition for the sake of tradition. Excess and waste is practically a requirement for their nobility, and their celebrations are based on an "eat, drink and be merry, because, hey, we're alive and that's great!" mentality. And with the defeat of rival race the Xon in their early history, they triumphed over the only real competitor they ever knew. So they believe it's now their birthright to be on top. They're apex predators, at least as I see them, and like all predators they don't expend energy unless they feel they need to. If their status as top dog is threatened, then they "need" to, and they're ruthless and driven (no doubt falling back into Xon War thinking) until the opponent is crushed. The military thoroughness for which they're renowned seems a display of precision and power that points to real dedication...but when the threat is over, then it's time to party again.
Cardassians, though, never party. They believe the supposed needs of Cardassia are justification for militant acquisition of resources, and the ruling parties justify their position through military service history rather than birthright. They're constantly pressured into continuing their militancy, either by the genuine desire to stave off scarcity or the knowledge that they hold on to their power only by seeming to serve the needs of Cardassia. Where Centauri are dedicated and ruthless when they feel their power is threatened or else feel the need to flaunt it and remind everyone who's boss, the Cardassians are dedicated and ruthless pretty much all the time, because they constantly have their backs to the wall, partly due to factors beyond their control, partly due to their own messed-up society and its expectations.
So what it comes down to, I think, is: who has the greater need to win? The old lion fighting to retain leadership of his pride, who would otherwise be lounging about but is NOT going to let anyone challenge him and still knows how to show everyone else who's boss, or the lean, starving lion whose life has been one long battle for survival and who is driven to take that leadership position no matter what? Who wants it more?
(The OP responded to this by pointing out, quite rightly, that "Cardassians never party" wasn't really true, as Dukat and company's behaviour on Terok Nor demonstrates. I offered a reply:
"Fair point. Yes, I probably exaggerated there; you're right that we do see indulgence and even displays of luxury and excess among Cardassians. Still, that seems to be a periodic release from the pressures of discipline and duty rather than a lifestyle, and it apparently tends to happens on frontier outposts and colonies; I always got the impression that, like the extramarital affairs with Bajoran women, the drinking and gambling wasn't exactly socially acceptable, only people shrugged and turned a blind eye to it so long as it stayed out in the colonies.)"
Cardassia is an imperialist power that may have proposed that it was uplifting and educating other races, but it’s ever unclear how many believed it. At heart, Cardassians are still struggling to survive, to claim resources and keep competitors at bay, to dominate and find security. They can’t even truly commit to their “Union”, despite that patriotic motivation underlying everything they do.
In Brinkmanship, we see this refusal to compromise, this endemic urge to fight, apparently rising from the grave alarmingly in Ambassador Detrek. It’s finally revealed, though, that she was deliberately being unreasonable as part of a larger gambit that demonstrates a firm yet dangerous partnership between the UFP and Cardassia. At the conclusion of this book, Akaar notes that he envisions a “special relationship” between the two powers, one where it will eventually be the case that no-one can recall them being anything other than close allies. In a sense, the True Way are right when they see the Federation’s eye on Cardassia as more (if only slightly) than the desire for friendship alone...
So, as Castellan Garak continues to step out of the shadows and enter the light, coaxed by Parmak, Bashir, Picard, and the memory of Bacco, where will his people go from here? We're leaving them in a better place than they've been for some time, but how long until all the scars are faded? And is a "well-behaved" Cardassia, a "redeemed" Cardassia, a "gosh, am I glad to see you, Tigger" Cardassia, something you're interested in reading about?
Re: The Cardassian Chronicles (Or: Let's discuss Cardassians, novel/sc
USS Firefly wrote:
I would like to read a book about the war/ conflict between Cardassia and the Federation.
I think the issue I'd have there - and this may seem odd coming from someone who obsesses over continuity and likes seeing hidden corners of the Trek 'verse illuminated - is that I wonder what a focus on the wars would actually teach us about Cardassia or the Federation that we didn't already know.
"Your powers are useless on me, you silly billy".
Re: The Cardassian Chronicles (Or: Let's discuss Cardassians, novel/sc
I liked what Una McCormack said in one of her interviews about Cardassia, that what fascinated her about Cardassian society was how it could produce brilliant, kind, noble people at the same time that it could also produce people responsible for terrible atrocities. What happened to break Cardassia?
Stories showing how Cardassia gets unbroken are interesting to me. Cardassia was quite literally taken to a dead end in S7 by the catastrophic end of the Dominion War; the old military model was no longer viable, could no longer be viable if Cardassia was to survive at all. How will Cardassia get unbroken?
The general success of The Fall series, showing how Cardassia getting to a better place can still have issues, suggests that stories about unbreaking can be quite compelling to more people than me.