A Cardassian boy who was adopted by Bajorans seeks help when his biological father learns of his existence from Dukat and seeks custody.
Plot Summary: Bashir and Garak are surprised to see a family consisting of a Bajoran father and Cardassian child visiting the station, and even more surprised when the boy attacks Garak, who is trying to be friendly. Kira identifies the child, Rugal, as one of a number of Cardassian orphans abandoned when the Cardassians left Bajor. While Bashir is still telling her and Sisko what happened, Gul Dukat contacts the station demanding that the boy be returned to Cardassia and offering to find his biological relatives. Rugal’s adoptive father, Proka, strongly resists Sisko’s interference, but when a visiting alien tells Bashir that he’s heard that Rugal’s Bajoran parents have been abusive because the boy was born Cardassian, Sisko feels obligated to investigate, asking that the boy stay with the O’Briens for a few days. Garak scoffs at the notion that Dukat cares about war orphans and asks Bashir to come to Bajor with him to seek the truth. Meanwhile, Dukat tells Sisko that the Cardassian civilian leaders gave the order to abandon Cardassian war orphans on Bajor and Rugal tells the O’Briens that he considers himself Bajoran; he hates the Cardassians, who are butchers, unlike the loving parents who raised him. While Garak and Bashir obtain orphanage records on the Cardassian children left on Bajor, Sisko is told by Dukat that Rugal is the son of Cardassian politician Kotan Pa’Dar, who had been told his son was dead following a Bajoran terrorist attack. Pa’Dar arrives at the station expecting to be awarded immediate custody, but Rugal and his Bajoran parents object and the adults agree to let Sisko arbitrate. Garak tells Bashir that Dukat is Pa’Dar’s political rival and discovers that the boy was turned over to an orphanage by an officer from Terok Nor – Dukat’s old command, now Deep Space Nine. When Dukat arrives to speak at the custody hearing, Bashir accuses him of having hidden Rugal on Cardassia in the hope of destroying Pa’Dar’s career later on. Sisko decides that Pa’Dar is innocent of any wrongdoing in this matter and lets him take Rugal to Cardassia, though O’Brien tells Rugal that he can visit whenever he likes.
Analysis: “Cardassians” has a sort of ripped-from-the-headlines feeling that I appreciate, since I like it when Star Trek feels grounded in real history and events from our own world. That said, there’s not much else that I like about the episode’s plot, particularly the ending. Proka and Pa’Dar agree to let Sisko arbitrate their custody dispute because he is a father himself, yet Sisko appears to understand nothing about family dynamics or child psychology, not only in his final ruling but in most of the decisions he makes beforehand. I think it’s fair that he decides to get involved in the boy’s fate when allegations of abuse surface, even if those allegations are from an unnamed and untraceable source. But placing the boy with the O’Briens, even though Keiko doesn’t know the first thing about Cardassian children and Miles shows active dislike toward all Cardassians? Sisko would have been better off choosing the onetime parent Dax (who’s absent for this episode), the medically trained and open-minded Bashir, or even Kira, who may hate what the Cardassians did to Bajor but has never demonstrated the sort of blanket hatred of Cardassian individuals that O’Brien expresses. I’d also think that Kira would demand a bigger say in the proceedings, given that the boy was legitimately adopted by Bajorans who raised and cared for him and that Bajor had jurisdiction on the station when it was Dax and her symbiont whose custody was in question. I can understand why Sisko would sympathize with Pa’Dar, who is willing to throw away his political career to reclaim his son, but he seems oblivious to the boy’s suffering, ordering him taken from the only parents he remembers and sent to live with people who terrify him.
If he’s thinking of precedents on Earth involving interracial adoptions – if there’s a political statement here about whether children are better off being raised by people from the ethnic group from which they are biologically descended – it’s never explicitly stated, though I can think of no other reason for Sisko’s decision. It makes me uncomfortable, particularly in a future when “race” as such is meaningless to humans and when humanoid species interbreed across the quadrant, creating children like Spock, Deanna Troi, and K’Ehleyr who belong to several different, sometimes divergent, cultural backgrounds. Rugal’s parents don’t see a Cardassian when they look at him, but their own son; according to Kira, many other Bajorans feel the same about the orphans they took in, though evidently not all Bajorans are so feature-blind if so many Cardassian orphans remain in institutions instead of being taken in by families. Would Sisko have approved of taking Worf away from the Rozhenkos and placing him with distant Klingon relatives? Sisko says his decision is based purely on the fact that Pa’Dar did nothing wrong and therefore deserves a chance to raise his son, but I bet Kira and other Bajorans would argue that by taking part in the Occupation, then by refusing to bring home all the Cardassian children on Bajor at the time of the withdrawal, Pa’Dar has already shown a callousness that leaves his parental fitness in doubt. Pa’Dar may not have been directly involved in atrocities like the commander of Terok Nor, but with millions of Bajorans dead at the hands of Cardassians, it’s understandable that Rugal would hate the very thought of being Cardassian and resent any claim on his loyalties from a member of the Occupation government.
Sure, Rugal may grow up to discover that he is just as feared and despised as any adult Cardassian on Bajor, but at that point he will be able to make his own decision to leave, and if Pa’Dar is truly a loving father, he will have visited the boy, supported the Bajorans who raised him from childhood, waited for his son to work through the complicated issues behind his abandonment. The fact that we’re not shown any public outcry on Bajor about Sisko’s ruling makes me think that maybe these adopted Cardassian children really are despised and possibly even threatened in their own communities, but then there’s no excuse for the fact that nobody follows up with the orphanages (run by sour-faced Miss Hannigan types) to return the remaining children to Cardassia, as one little girl so woefully requests of Garak. Despite some superficial parallels with the then-contemporaneous “Baby Jessica” case, in which a less affluent birth mother sued for custody against the couple who had adopted her daughter though she had tried to stop the proceedings, Deep Space Nine doesn’t explore any of the issues of adoption in depth, and the series never returns to the fate of the abandoned children even when it is revealed that Dukat, too, fathered a child during the Occupation. What looks at first glance like a story relevant to our own times ultimately winds up being superficial and all the more cynical for its suggestion that such issues can be wrapped up neatly, with no long-term ramifications. We’re even supposed to believe that the incident helps Miles O’Brien get over his lingering distrust of anyone with Cardassian features. I remember half-expecting an ending in which the boy killed himself rather than let himself be handed over to a stranger who once worked for the government that oppressed his parents; it would have been more believable than the passive acceptance he shows upon Sisko’s ruling, after the rage that led him to bite Garak at the start.
What saves “Cardassians” is the presence of DS9’s resident Cardassian, who enlivens every episode in which he appears and is particularly delightful in this one. I can’t say I’m sorry to see him get bitten by a suspicious child after watching him insist to a wide-eyed Bashir that he’s just “plain, simple Garak” – a posture he maintains even as he’s taking Bashir on a wild ride (including a late-night visit to Bashir’s bedroom) so that the Starfleet doctor can reveal Dukat’s role in Rugal’s fate. We have no idea at this point in the series why Garak and Dukat dislike each other so much, but their mutual distrust does as much to make Garak sympathetic as his sense of humor (in the midst of the drama, Garak fixes a Bajoran computer with what he claims is a tailoring tool, telling Bashir he’d be surprised how often people need their pants let out). I’m not sure whether the writers had worked out Garak’s past in the Obsidian Order or much else beyond the fact that having a Cardassian on the station would be a good story catalyst. His chemistry with the naive Bashir is enjoyable from the start, and Andrew Robinson’s enthusiasm makes him great fun to watch. He can make viewers believe instead of roll their eyes at lines like, “Just notice the details, they’re scattered like crumbs all over this table we regularly share.” Paired with the measured, scenery-chewing flamboyance of Marc Alaimo’s Dukat, the Cardassians are regular scene-stealers. DS9 might actually do well with a Deanna Troi to help cope with them and their shenanigans.