Introduced midway through Star Trek: The Next Generation, the proud and draconian Cardassian race became one of the franchise’s most important factions during Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and went on to be as popular as classic Star Trek races like the Romulans and the Klingons. However, due to the fact that they were introduced to the series a lot later, and that they do not play a major role in any of the movies, The wider science fiction community has not been able to assimilate as much information about this species by osmosis as they have the aforementioned Klingons or the Borg. So for the benefit of those who are not as familiar with this fascinating species, we will be answering the question: Who Are the Cardassians?
To begin, let’s cover the basic details first – the Cardassians were introduced in the TNG episode ‘The Wounded’, a very influential episode in the show’s fourth season that also developed the backstory of popular character Miles O’Brien – so to say that this episode laid a lot of the groundwork for Deep Space Nine is an understatement. The episode establishes that the Cardassians recently fought a brief but brutal war with the Federation that ended following the signing of a treaty that established a shaky but lasting peace. However, a rogue Starfleet Captain and friend of Picard is convinced that the Cardassians are preparing for another war, and takes his ship on a vigilante mission to destroy as many Cardassian ships as possible whilst the crew of the Enterprise follow in hot pursuit, desperately trying to maintain the peace.
The political nature of a lot of the interactions between the Cardassians and the Federation in this episode would go on to establish a defining aspect of their personality as a species – snide, deceitful and callous but with an almost Machiavellian understanding of the intricacies of intergalactic diplomacy. Unlike the Romulans, who are almost all presented as being rude and crass in their xenophobia, the Cardassians often maintain a charming external visage when talking with their rivals that masks their sinister scheming. A perfect example of this is the Deep Space Nine character Garak, who weaves complicated webs of deception and engages in quick-witted diplomatic spats with other characters while wearing a devious wide-eyed grin. In some ways Garak embodies everything that defines the Cardassian psychology – he is almost transparently deceptive, but to the extent that it is often hard to know when he is actually telling the truth. However, what differentiates Garak from your average Cardassian is that he is eventually able to gain some facet of trust from the Federation.
One of the traits that Cardassians are best known for, particularly among Alpha Quadrant races, is their untrustworthy nature. Almost every race, even the Ferengi and the Romulans, regard the Cardassians as among the most untrustworthy races in the Galaxy. This is perhaps an unfair assessment, as even though Star Trek often utilises a simplistic ‘planet of hats’ style of species design, there have been examples of Cardassians that are honourable and trustworthy, but as a species they are defined by their guile and political double-dealing, which comes into play most commonly when they are negotiating with neighbouring civilisations like the Federation. But arguably their most notorious trait is their clinically efficient ruthlessness. In wartime, Cardassian soldiers are generally known for their sickeningly eager brutality, and no conflict better emphasises this than the Occupation of Bajor, the conclusion of which kicks off the plot of Deep Space Nine.
During their time on Bajor, the Cardassians set up labour camps, executed and tortured prisoners, enforced martial law and essentially drained the planet’s resources – despite the fact that the Bajorans presented no threat to them whatsoever. This occupation had been largely ignored by the Federation, who have no authority over what goes on in Cardassian space, but following the Cardassian-Federation war the Occupation began to gradually decline until Cardassian authorities finally decided to withdraw. By this point, the Cardassians had almost completely reshaped Bajor both physically and socially. The once entirely peaceful and spiritual Bajorans had learned much of violence and brutality from their Cardassian occupiers, and as a result the post-Occupation Bajor was a very different planet. In fact, had it not been for a belated but honest intervention from the Federation, Bajor may have descended into despotism, and all because the Cardassians not only conquered the planet, but also unintentionally taught the Bajorans their ways.
Naturally, this attitude makes the Cardassians quite unpopular in the Alpha Quadrant. By the time of TNG, the Cardassians are perhaps the most aggressive military race in the Federation sphere, and would perhaps be one of the most dangerous in the Galaxy were it not for external threats like the Borg and the Dominion. For one reason or another the Cardassians are loathed by almost every other race – the Klingons mistake their guile for cowardice, the Federation races dislike the Cardassian’s aggressiveness and even the Romulans, who share many traits with the Cardassians, regard them as a brutish race. However, there is far more to the Cardassian species than guile and warfare. Cardassia Prime has seen its fair share of poets, artists and philosophers, all of whom were either devoted supporters of the Cardassian Government or had their works edited to make it seem as though they were. As an authoritarian society, Cardassians show little regard for democracy or even due judicial processes – all trials on Cardassia Prime have a guilty verdict pre-decided, the trial itself is merely a formality – and yet as a culture they are still capable of self-expression and creative flair, as shown by the intricate designs of their ships and space stations. Ironically, warfare does seems to be the primary source of Cardassian arts, although their stylistic architecture is seen on all of their ships, military or otherwise.
For more about the recent history of the Cardassians in Star Trek, a good place to start is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, watching the series from start to finish tells you all you would ever hope to know and more about the Cardassians, particularly how they respond to threats both within and beyond their Empire. Also, the TNG episode The Wounded provides a comprehensive (though undeveloped, due to it being their first appearance) account of the antics of the Cardassians up until TNG.
- How to Fix – Star Trek: Voyager
- How the 2019 Picard TV Show could change how we look at Star Trek
- Top 7 Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes
- Star Trek – First Impressions of Deep Space Nine