I can’t help but read “Armageddon Game” in the context of the Cold War, or rather, in the context of the perceived end of the Cold War that would have permeated the zeitgeist of the early 1990s. I say “perceived”, because a lot of the geopolitical climate we currently live in as of this writing stems directly from the Cold War, or from multinational powers operating like the Cold War is still on. Which, by definition, means that it is.
Perhaps some of this is due to the title’s similarity to that of the Original Series episode “A Taste of Armageddon”, which was likewise about apocalyptic wargaming with thinly-veiled stand-ins for nuclear weapons. But “Armageddon Game” goes well above and beyond the average Cold War fears over Mutually Assured Destruction: In this story, the analogs for the United States and the Soviet Union are entering their process of disarmament, a certainly timely topic in early 1994, yet are still engaged in heinous acts related to their earlier displays of diplomatic aggression. In order to ensure such a protracted conflict can never happen again, they can’t just destroy their stockpile of weapons, they want to erase all record that their weapons ever existed in the first place. This includes…disposing of…anyone who had any contact with the weapons or the process through which they were created, which unfortunately includes Chief O’Brien and Doctor Bashir.
(It is perhaps worth noting that mere weeks after this episode aired, the CIA arrested Aldrich Ames at the end of a nearly ten year investigation into his perpetration of the second biggest act of espionage of the Cold War. The biggest ever espionage case, which would result chief investigator and double agent Robert Hanson playing cat-and-mouse with his own superiors for literally decades, would not be resolved until 2001.)
It’s significant that these supposed arch-enemies, the T’Lani and the Kellerun, would actually be working together behind the scenes to manipulate information about their activities during the Cold War. State governments look out for each other, not for the people they claim to govern, and it’s no different from the United States and the Soviet Union, who spent the majority of their Cold War constructing narratives about themselves they then imposed upon their people. Constructing narratives-That’s what’s going on in “Armageddon Game” too: Whoever writes the textbooks, or pays the people who write the textbooks, gets to decide what is and isn’t history, because that’s the narrative that gets taught to children in history classes and disseminated through the public discourse. Were the T’Lani and Kellerun to be successful in their efforts (which I hesitate to call “revisionist”, because there’s never any such thing as pure history-It’s only what gets written down and repeated by those with the power to do so), they would erase their Cold War from lived memory itself, and saved their own backsides in the process. No, your beloved governments would never do such a terrible thing as bring about widespread destruction on their populaces with chemical weapons-Best you just keep trusting them implicitly and enjoying the status quo.
This is a markedly cynical statement for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to be making in 1994. But, unlike the usual ways the show tries to by cynical, this is isn’t petulance just for the sake of being pouty, this is actually cynicism with a utopian angle in sight: “Armageddon Game” is reminding us not to put our trust in authoritarian centralized power structures and not to accept the master narratives they try to force feed us about our history, culture, heritage and potential. Remembering that is, and always has been, the first step towards breaking our chains and realising we control our own destinies. It’s OK to be cynical of the status quo so long as you see a way out of it and take the initiatives to show others how to follow you there. This is the fundamental truth Star Trek absolutely must keep in mind during this time of uneven transition: We, and it, are approaching a fork in the road in our collective future, and the path we choose will determine how we shape our lives and our attitudes to the cosmos henceforth. Smash binaries in all things except these: Optimism, utopianism and anarchism or pessimism (which is one with complacency), grimdark and fascism. Think hard and well on this.
On a lighter note, we have another Miles and Julian adventure! This is the angle most commentators like to focus on for this episode, so it’s specifically the one I wanted to downplay. Not because it’s bad, of course: Everyone is right to point to “Armageddon Game” as a key moment in the development of a relationship that’s become one of the most beloved in the series. Siddig el Fadil explained the nature of Doctor Bashir’s friendship with Chief O’Brien exquisitely in an interview on one of the DVD sets:
“It’s as if these two love to hate each other, and they always seem to be stuck together, and although they voluntary walked into the bar together. But nevertheless, it’s ‘What am I doing stuck here with you?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I guess people have friends like that.”
However, what’s not pointed out anywhere near as often, or at all, really, is that “Armageddon Game” is more of a climactic crest than a turning point. This is a relationship that’s been building since “The Storyteller” last season, and it’s not even the first time we’ve seen it this year. There was “Rivals”, of course, though “Rivals” was pretty passable and forgettable even with the O’Brien/Bashir stuff. But there was a lot of banter between these two even as far back as “The Homecoming”/“The Circle”/“The Siege” that hinted at the wonderful odd couple dynamic they were always poised to have.
The standout moment for me in this regard is the motif of Julian telling an ailing Miles about his life at the Academy, and in particular his lost love with a lovely ballerina whom he felt he couldn’t marry because of his commitment to Starfleet. In particular, it’s Miles’ rejoinder near the end of the story: All episode he and Julian had been bickering about the benefits of being in a committed relationship while in Starfleet (mirroring, incidentally enough, a debate that had been raging in the writers room and in fandom since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered), but near the end, Miles delivers this character defining speech:
“Listen to me, Julian. You’re always talking about adventure… well marriage is the greatest adventure of all. It’s filled with pitfalls and setbacks and mistakes, but it’s a journey worth taking… because you take it together. I know Keiko’s been unhappy… about our coming to the station… we still argue about it… But that’s all right… because at the end of the day, we both know we love each other. And when you get right down to it, that’s all that matters.”
It’s a brilliant little piece of writing that gets at the heart of a man like that, and it’s absolutely something I would expect from writer Morgan Grendel. Domesticity as an adventure has always been a big theme for him, and is what a lot of people love about “The Inner Light”. To me though these sorts of sentiments are far better expressed coming from someone like Miles O’Brien than someone like Captain Picard. Granted Grendel isn’t the only writer responsible here as Michael Piller, Ira Steven Behr and James Crocker were all involved in the teleplay (and in fact Chief O’Brien wasn’t even going to be in his original pitch, his role being filled by Jadzia Dax instead, which would have been utterly appalling-Thank the prophets for rewrites on that count), but it sounds much more like something Grendel would say.
Speaking of friendships, there are a couple other ones highlighted here I’d like to briefly note as they don’t get talked about in the context of this story anywhere near as much as the Bashir/O’Brien “bromance”, and I think they really should. It’s the friendships between Commander Sisko, Jadzia Dax, Major Kira and Keiko O’Brien, and in particular the permutations therein. Given Commander Sisko has the duty of reporting the apparent deaths of his officers to their family, you would think he would turn to Jadzia in a time like this for guidance and support. But Jadzia actually has more of an ancillary part this week, and actually spends most of the time talking to Major Kira about Miles and Julian (though she does get her badass cred back by helping Ben pull off an audacious Big Damn Heroes rescue moment). There’s a little more of that dangerous Dax/Bashir ship tease here, but in that, given the fact she’s tacitly “representing” Julian, this means that Kira must be talking about Miles. And there’s an interesting pairing.
Miles and Kira have a lot of parallels in their personal histories, and a lot of similarities in their demeanor, outlook and personality, and they make a great Bash Bros. couple. Obviously Miles loves and is devoted to Keiko, but there is a potential avenue worthy of exploration here, and what did I say about enjoying projecting queer poly readings onto Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Likewise, although on a far, far less shippy route, I really enjoy how it’s Commander Sisko and Keiko O’Brien who work together to solve the mystery here and how it’s such a firm rejection of the grieving widow stereotype that crops up so often in stories like this. Considering how Keiko O’Brien is typically written, this is honestly an enormous shock, but again, it’s another manifestation of how surprisingly upfront “Armageddon Game” is about its utopianism. And yet even so, that crucial bit of information about Miles’ coffee drinking habits that’s so essential to figuring out the security footage was tampered with, something only a wife would know…Keiko turns out to be wrong about!