At its simplest, a dramatic foil is someone or something in a piece of literature that serves as a contrast to another. As with many literary techniques, while the idea behind a foil is simple, the execution can be anything but. Writers from Shakespeare to Mary Shelley have used the concept to help define their protagonists by comparing them to other characters that surround them. Harry Potter is filled with them, for crying out loud.
What about Star Trek? The entire franchise consists of 726 episodes, spread across thirty seasons and six series. That’s a lot of writing, so surely there must be the use of a dramatic foil in there somewhere. Of course there is. Given that the dramatic foil is a commonly used device by franchise writers, watching just a few episodes of any of the Star Trek series reveals several of them. There is one pair that stands out in my mind: Captain Sisko and Gul Dukat.
From the beginning, Star Trek has attempted to create reoccurring villains against whom their captains regularly faced off. Kirk had Kor and Picard had Tomalak, but neither of those pairings happened with enough frequency to really help define the captain. Sisko and Dukat on the other hand, happened far more regularly. Tomalak was in just four episodes while Dukat was in thirty-five, more than all but three other secondary characters.
The first thing I find that makes this pair a great set of foils is how similar they are at times. In the series premiere Dukat reminds Sisko that just a week earlier he had Sisko’s job and his office (later, it’s mentioned they had even had the same quarters, at different times). Both men are fathers, officers, and highly dedicated to the job at hand. All of these qualities give the characters plenty to talk about. Dukat almost makes a habit of pointing out all the similarities between the two men and wondering what else they have in common. If things were different the two might have actually been good friends. (Or at least that is the idea that the writers want to plant in the audience’s brain.) By painstakingly pointing out the areas in which these characters are the same, the creators allow the audience to pick out for themselves those difference that make one man a hero and one a villain.
Now of course this is Star Trek, which means a fair amount of over the top drama is required. Occasionally, this results in the writers being very blunt, such as declaring Dukat to be a murder and a dictator (both of which have a basis in story) and beating viewers over the head with the character differences, but for the most part the writers do take the high road and let the viewer figure things out for themselves.
Not only are the characters great foils for one another, but so are the actors. The biggest complaint I’ve heard about Avery Brooks (Sisko) is that he can be an over-the-top melodramatic. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the episode “In the Pale Moonlight” in which Sisko is recounting to his personal log some questionable actions he took as part of the war effort. Brooks swings from quiet contemplation to manic yelling and pacing, all within the same scene. This is not an uncommon occurrence for Sisko, and Dukat (played by Marc Alaimo), while he doesn’t appear in this episode, plays against it well.
To be fair, Alaimo is not without his own share of mustache-twirling, villainous moments. Again, both characters are men of great passion, but it becomes a question of how they use that passion. Sisko uses it for the betterment of The Federation, often at a cost to himself; while Dukat is focused on self-promotion and advancing his own desires. Sometimes that is good for his people, but most often it is catastrophically bad.
By the end of the series, the idea of dramatic foils is taken to another level. Sisko and Dukat are the designated avatars for two groups of opposing deities (ok, really wormhole aliens and their enemy, but just go with it). While Sisko has been the Emissary of the Prophets (wormhole aliens) for the entire series, it isn’t revealed until halfway through the last episode (though there were hints for several more episodes) that Dukat is chosen as the Emissary of the Pah-Wraiths (those expelled by the Prophets a long time ago). It is up to Sisko alone to defeat Dukat and prevent the destruction of Bajor. This is the epitome of a dramatic foil, two men who are so alike in most things and yet are different enough that they are chosen by diametrically opposing factions to champion against each other. Even their fates are different but connected. Sisko and Dukat both plunge into the flames of the Fire Caves. Dukat is consumed, and Sisko is saved by the Prophets.
While Star Trek may not be considered high literature or drama by most, it is none-the-less capable of creating and developing nuanced characters like Sisko and Dukat. I would highly recommend taking some time and watching Star Trek with a more critical eye. I think new or formerly casual viewers will be surprised with what they find is hidden there.