As the Star Trek Villain Showdown continues, this week sees two Cardassian operatives facing off against each other. In one corner, we have Gul Dukat, the cunning and charismatic military leader who became the embodiment of evil on Deep Space Nine. In the other, we have Seska and her nefarious, traitorous schemes to undermine Captain Janeway and defeat Voyager. While their journeys were quadrants apart, they were both united in their support for the Cardassian government.
Curious about the Cardassians? Want to know just what motivates both Dukat and Seska? Read on, and then let us know @StarTrek on social media what your favorite Cardassian centric episode is!
The Cardassians, as a whole, are a complicated culture in Star Trek lore. We are first introduced to them in The Next Generation, but the species and their world gets fully fleshed out in Deep Space Nine, which features several recurring Cardassian characters. In Voyager, Seska is the only major Cardassian player, as the Cardassians hadn’t infiltrated the Delta Quadrant yet. There would be no reason to have one on a Starfleet vessel at the time, unless they were undercover.
In the era of TNG, DS9, and Voyager, the Cardassians were an enemy of the Federation. Prior to the events of TNG, Starfleet had been involved in multiple skirmishes with the Cardassian military, despite an existing peace treaty. In the first episode featuring the characters, “The Wounded,” a rogue Starfleet ship had begun attacking Cardassian ships. Interestingly, the actor playing the main Cardassian in the episode was Marc Alaimo, who would go on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine.
It was in the fifth season of TNG that Bajor, and the Cardassian occupation of the planet, was introduced. This would be explored more in Deep Space Nine. Similarly, the Maquis, a rebel group who fought back against Cardassian occupation, was introduced in the show’s seventh season; revealing that the Cardassians' treaty with the Federation left several Federation colonies stranded in Cardassian territory.
Perhaps the most famous appearance of the Cardassians in TNG was the two-parter “Chain of Command,” which revealed not only details of the Cardassian government but their government’s brutality as well. Captain Picard is captured and tortured by Gul Madred, a Cardassian officer, on a mission. Picard is ultimately saved, but not before he survives horrific treatment at the hands of his captor. This episode was undoubtably on the minds of fans when the Cardassians played a larger role in Deep Space Nine.
Cardassians and Bajorans provided the beating heart of Deep Space Nine, as the series is set on a former Cardassian station turned over to the Federation. Gul Dukat, the former prefect of the station, resents turning it over to Starfleet, and resents the end of the Bajoran occupation even more. We’ve recapped his journey previously, but Dukat’s evil stretches across all seven seasons of the show.
However, despite the backdrop of atrocities, Deep Space Nine also served to deepen our understanding of Cardassians outside of the military. One key figure was Garak, an exiled former member of the Obsidian Order (the Cardassians' secret military spying organization), who became a tailor on Deep Space 9 with a passion for literature and getting into everyone’s business. Garak is an incredibly popular character in the Star Trek franchise, beloved for his moral ambiguity and for his intense relationship with Federation doctor Julian Bashir. What makes Garak interesting is his devotion to Cardassia above all else, though, he ultimately aids in the revolution that destroys the more imperialist and militant Cardassian government.
Deep Space Nine spent multiple episodes exploring what it meant to be a Cardassian and what the government’s evils had done to both Bajor and its own citizens. In one key Season One episode, “Duet,” Bajoran revolutionary Kira Nerys is faced with a Cardassian who claims to have run a prison camp on Bajor. However, it is revealed that he was a clerk who worked at the camp, who had hoped to return to Bajor to die as punishment for the atrocities he did not oppose. A key moment in Kira’s development, this episode is a powerful and painful look at what justice looks like.
The Cardassian government, during Deep Space Nine’s run, allies itself with the Dominion and tries to help them seize control of the Alpha Quadrant. However, through the actions of both Starfleet and the Cardassians — including Garak — as well as Bajorans who will not stand for more oppression, Cardassia’s independence was restored. However, the Dominion heavily bombed the planet, leaving it in a state of disarray and panic. Garak ultimately returned to Cardassia to help his people heal, leaving us with hope for a better, more egalitarian future.
The U.S.S. Voyager disappeared prior to the Dominion War. Seska was embedded in the Maquis to feed information back to the government, showing loyalty to her leaders’ more militaristic goals. Her motivations were either selfish or to help Cardassians wipe out their opponents; read up on her deep dive.
Besides a reference noting plans to sign a treaty on Cardassia in Lower Decks, we don’t know much about what happened to Cardassia following the events of Deep Space Nine and the Dominion War. However, we do know that in the 32nd Century, the Federation is led by half-Cardassian, half-Bajoran President Rillak. This would imply that not only did Cardassia join the Federation at some point, but that Bajoran and Cardassian relations had improved following the end of the Dominion War. Rillak doesn’t share much about her family history, but we’re sure it is fascinating.
The Cardassians are a key part of the TNG/DS9/VOY era of Trek. While ostensibly the antagonists of many episodes, they are also afforded a great deal of depth as well, leading to some of Trek’s finest hours.
Julian Gardner (they/them) is on the editorial team for StarTrek.com