Star Trek: Deep Space Nine S1E20, “In the Hands of the Prophets”

Dir. David Livingston. Starring Avery Brooks, Louise Fletcher, Rosalind Chao

(I’ve had this blog for three years now, and I have never written a post on Deep Space Nine. Not once! That amazes me.)

There’s a wonderful scene in “Q-Less,” the sixth episode of DS9, where Q shows up with Vash for reasons not much better than they showed up from time to time on The Next Generation. Sisko blames Q (needlessly, it turns out, because Vash had a glowing space manta ray in her luggage), for sudden power outages on the creaky station, and for generally being a nuisance. Q enjoys pushing Sisko at least as much as he enjoys pushing Picard. He puts them in a boxing match together. The result is one of the series’ most memorable moments before the Dominion show up.

Q: You hit me. Picard never hit me.

Sisko: I’m not Picard.

Of course, despite Sisko’s protestations, he still is Picard, at least as long as he has hair, and Deep Space Nine is not very much unlike the Enterprise-D. The twist is that the Bajoran wormhole allows interesting (and ultimately, extremely dangerous) beings into the Alpha Quadrant and allows nifty excursions out of it. Over time, all of that changed as the Defiant became more important – as Quark, his family, and Ferengi culture were sketched out – as Sisko’s place as the Emissary started to mean something more than “what if Bosniaks decided an American was their savior?” – as overarching, seasons-long plots became the norm – as Starfleet became a place full of actual bad people, not just the occasional unfeeling and infuriating Admiral Nechayev type. It took a while, but eventually DS9 became the best of the Star Trek TV series, and it happened when they realized that Sisko was not Picard.

The finale of Season 1 is not quite there yet either. But it’s a step, a marker of progress that DS9 fans can look at and compare to the way that Sisko describes the growing relationship between the Federation and the Bajorans. The episode itself combines a pretty fair mystery for Odo and O’Brien to work out while Sisko has to manage the fallout between Keiko and Vedek Winn. It’s a neat synopsis of the season at large: something’s technically wrong with the place, perhaps even deadly, while Starfleet personnel have to find a way to act justly with Bajorans whose fundamentally different experiences make them think very differently. Take those characterizations back a step further – a technical mystery wreaks havoc and the Federation tries to work with new civilizations – and we basically have the history of Star Trek in a single episode. In that way it is very Picard, very TNG. And in some others – in the way that it features a terrorist school bombing years before that idea would scare any S&P department out of its wits – it is very much proving to be its own show.

Tellingly, DS9 has to go to a totally new character, someone who makes sense in the new framework of what DS9 is trying to accomplish but who would have been an alien of the week on a different Trek, to make that step. Louise Fletcher’s Vedek Winn is a canny religious leader who loves power, a hypocrite who shrouds her own ambition under the guise of doing what’s right for her people, who is totally devoid of a perspective beyond her own. There may not be a more repulsive species of villain in literature; it goes all the way back to the Pharisees, a group of people who have been written into history as so odious that they make Pontius Pilate look like an okay guy. Fletcher, who speaks in this role with a sweetness that reminds me of the way vomit smells, is perfect as a far-right religious fundamentalist with the ability to cast any issue in her favor, as long as her audience is angry or sycophantic enough to buy in. She is utterly infuriating not just because she decides to butt into Keiko’s classroom to score political points (all in the service, as we find out, of trying to assassinate the more centrist Vedek Bareil, the favorite to become Kai), but because she makes even reasonable people, like Kira Nerys, fall under her spell. Kira likes that Winn is morally strident; in her mind, it matches her own burgeoning pride in an independent Bajor. What Kira does not understand that her patriotism is merely fodder for Winn’s ambition, a sentence which is so broadly true that doubtless you can replace “Kira” with someone you know and “Trump” (or “Pence” or “Clinton” or “Ryan”) for Winn.

The episode is famous primarily for the action intrigues. Vedek Winn and Keiko have a very public stand-off in the Promenade; the school is blown up by a homemade bomb; O’Brien’s talented Bajoran assistant, Neela (Robin Christopher) turns out to be the one who killed a Starfleet crewman, blew up the school, and would have killed Vedek Bareil if not for Sisko’s timely tackle. Kira accosts Winn, who doesn’t deny any of the following: she created a stir on Deep Space Nine to draw Bareil to the station so he would be killed and thus remove her primary competition. It’s as soapish and convoluted as you could hope for, and it drags you in. What you stay for is a discussion about religion that DS9 had been warming up to for a whole season and which was finally reaching a head.

Ronald D. Moore is the rare sci-fi showrunner who has an interest in bringing religion into his programs, or at the very least some vague idea of spirituality. It’s hardly the first time that Star Trek has addressed the idea of a god; Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is all about looking for God, and then discovering that the “god” everyone had been looking for the whole time was a sham. Until Moore got there, though, it’s not an idea that anyone in Star Trek offices really spent much time on, and after Moore it’s still not an idea that anyone in Star Trek wanted to spend much time on. Star Trek, at its preachiest, fancies itself sci-fi’s secular humanist standard-bearer; what room is there for God in a universe where the Milky Way is teeming with billions of souls who couldn’t know who Jesus or Muhammad or Vishnu or Moses are? Monotheism is a dead relic in the 24th Century; it was easy to call him the god of the universe in church, but it’s a big universe out there, and the other races of the Milky Way don’t seem terribly familiar with the Abrahamic god or the Hindu cast of gods. DS9 really decides to play in this space, and that boldness to go where Star Trek had not gone before is one of the best parts of the series. Keiko, a remnant of TNG, is never going to recommend a view of the wormhole that sounds like anything but “Bajoran religion believes…but science tells us…” It’s the kind of “gotta hear both sides” fairness that Sisko calls for when he says that all opinions are welcome on Deep Space Nine, but no one in Starfleet seems interested in giving real credence to the Prophets as genuine religious beings; even Sisko, the Emissary, is more on Keiko’s side than Winn’s. Yet he cautions Jake about becoming  closed-minded towards religion. It’s the kind of conversation Picard might have had with Wesley if the former didn’t so dearly long to shove the latter out an airlock, but TNG would have made it into a conversation about politeness; DS9 makes this a conversation about possibility.

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