There are classics, and then there are classics.
“Duet” needs no introduction. Even those who would be inclined to slag off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s first season, either on its own merits or due to some rule of thumb about first seasons, readily admit that this is one of the very best episodes in the entire series. Any Star Trek fan worth their salt is going to go one step beyond and will likely posit “Duet” as one of the very best episodes in the *entire Star Trek franchise*. I’m not about to rock the boat on this one, not this time. “Duet” is absolutely superb.
The biggest reason why this episode is so phenomenally successful is that it’s completely unafraid to do something that Star Trek in general, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in particular, can do effortlessly well so long as it’s given the chance. “Duet” is a bottle show, one of many commissioned at the back end of the season to make up for the ludicrously expensive and overbudget episodes from earlier on in the year (c.f. “Emissary”, “Move Along Home” and “The Storyteller”): No new sets, no major effects shots to speak of and only a couple of guest stars, which is frankly heresy for US television sci-fi at this point in time. And it absolutely doesn’t need any effects shots or fancy effects to be one of the most chillingly gripping and powerful things ever. 80% of “Duet” is held together by nothing more then Nana Visitor and Harris Yulin talking to each other, and that is absolutely all this episode needs. Is there any joint performance in Star Trek that’s even remotely comparable to the show they put on here? I submit to you there may well not be.
We of course have to single Nana Visitor out here. Two weeks in a row she’s gotten some pretty unprecedented showcase episodes for her range, which is is two more than anyone who wasn’t named Patrick Stewart or Brent Spiner got at this point in the game six years ago. Nana also got “Progress” and “Past Prologue” to herself earlier on in the year, so things are already looking great for Kira Nerys. That’s a great indication of how quickly Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has attained a level of egalitarianism in comparison to Star Trek: The Next Generation: Although there are still a few characters this team struggles with (*ahem* Jadzia Dax), this is still a great sign. Again though, this is no indictment of The Next Generation, but rather a regret that really nobody who’s worked on it (*including* this team, who have obviously proven themselves fully capable on this side of the lot) ever got comfortable enough with those characters to afford them the same treatment. But either way, “Duet” is in a class of its own for Visitor: None of her previous showcases are on this level and, while some will come close, none of them really ever will be again. Visitor is captivating, poignant, emotive and human, her power here absolutely unparalleled.
Except, of course, perhaps for Harris Yulin. It should say something that he’s as much remembered as an essential component of “Duet”’s success as Nana Visitor is. It takes an incredible actor to stand up to, let alone match, the passion Visitor is pulling from in every single scene, and Yulin completely delivers. This story wouldn’t be anywhere near as perfect as it is had he not been able to. In Yulin’s Aamin Marritza we see every single facet of imperialist modernity’s dehumanizing weight conveyed in the single portrait of a man who feels his culture heavily and painfully on every aspect of his life. And that’s the titular duet: Both Kira and Marritza are individuals whose lives have been badly damaged by the forces of modernity. Angry and guilt-ridden, they’re both looking for answers and someone to blame, because otherwise they feel helpless and voiceless. And there’s that theme of performativity again, because what is Marritza doing if not improvising a performance with Kira through the recursive artifice of the role of Gul Darhe’el? and who is Gul Darhe’el but a man who became something larger than life in two very different ways for two very different groups of people?
And though they necessarily must play a supporting role to Visitor and Yulin, it must be noted how formidable the rest of the cast is, as strong as they’ve ever been. Avery Brooks and Sidding el Fadil are engaging to watch as they play Commander Sisko and Doctor Bashir progressively piece together the mystery alongside Kira. Brooks even gets to act alongside Mark Alaimo’s Gul Dukat, whose intimidating and powerful one-scene wonder relating the funeral of Gul Darhe’el in the capital city of Cardassia Prime is as memorable as anything else in the story. But who stands out to me the most is of course Terry Farrell’s Jadzia Dax, sensing Kira’s confusion and anger and coming to visit her at the most beautiful spot on the station. This entire scene, where Dax asks Kira “what [she’s] looking for”, and Kira confesses to her that she wants Marritza to be Darhe’el so that he can embody the sins of Gallitep, is so beautifully oversignified, so loaded with meaning from beginning to end and such a perfect demonstration of the relationship these two women have with each other. It’s yet another in a long line of brilliant scenes for Kira, but for simply being there and offering wisdom, comfort, support and guidance to a friend in pain, it may well be Dax’s greatest moment on the series to date.
And yet in spite of how singular “Duet” feels, it’s something that could only have happened now. This cast, though always civil and friendly, lacked the instant kinship and intimacy of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast and needed a year or so together to get acquainted with themselves and their roles. Only now could the scenes in “Duet” between Kira, Sisko, Odo and Dax really work on the level they needed to. In the history of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Duet” straddles the line between the show’s more diffuse identity-mysticism of its first season and the gritter politics of its second and marks the point at which one form begins to turn into the other (and indeed, the changeover is complete in the very next episode). And we needed a show this comfortable with mercurial performativity, associative narrative and pataphor honed through six years of experimentation to be able to arrive at something so structurally flawless and unmatched in its elegance.
As such this is a very liminal and very powerful place to be, and “Duet” embodies the very best of both incarnations. And as a result of coming here, “Duet” is perfect, definitive and defining Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is the first moment where the show is truly able to be this peerless and this holistically iconic, and also the last. The material process of history is even now making it so this is one solitary moment in time that can never, ever be repeated in this state of being. We have well and truly peaked: In “Duet”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has quite possibly just given us not just its own finest hour, but that of all of Star Trek itself. A fantasy world brought to life through one set, and a human tragedy of utopianism cast against it as a backdrop. A science fiction television play that, through sheer accident, has transcended itself and its own limitations to become something greater than the sum of its parts was ever designed, intended or meant to be.
Here, in the wilderness, On the Edge of the Final Frontier, something magical has happened. The mission complete, this congress a memory, its intertwined fate and destiny now lies with us, and within us.