Star Trek Deep Space Nine: In the Hands of the Prophets

An episode about censorship and religion in the future wraps up the first season as a terrorist attack on the station's school becomes a tool for a political opportunist from Bajor during the process of choosing a replacement for Kai Opaka.

On first watch it was tough to tell why this episode wrapped up the first season; on second watch it was impossible to tell why I missed it. We return to the question of the wormhole addressed in the first episode, then left somewhat unmentioned for the rest of the season. Now, much later, we're seeing the repercussions of having this aspect of Bajor's beliefs concretely instead of physically explored.

I think this type of episode is what distinguishes DS9 from TNG or TOS or Babylon 5. Babylon 5, to which DS9 is often compared, engaged in what was essentially high space opera. It was beautiful and stunning. What DS9 is doing feels more like a balance between space opera and a more down-to-earth series that includes the little people. We've explored the experiences of refugees, citizens, gamblers and others as the high space opera plays out. Here, the issue is censorship, and how to frame what the crew of DS9 is learning about Bajor's stable wormhole. We shift from the perspective of Keiko O'Brien in the classroom to the wider view of the Bajoran world. I have problems with both extremes, but I think the show does a great job of moving between them.

Keiko's perspective is simple: she's a teacher, it's her job to expose students to objective knowledge. But there isn't that much objective knowledge; almost all knowledge, if not everything, exists in context, even the directions of the compass. Vedek Winn's perspective is just as hardlined: teach her perspective or don't teach on the subject at all. I wouldn't have a problem with teaching what the Federation learned about the wormhole and what the people of Bajor believe. Both are truths from different perspectives, and that kind of intersectionality is supposedly what the Trek franchise is about. That seems to be what Sisko is trying to explain to Jake, later in the episode, when they discuss Galileo. Getting to this stage of the dialogue is never easy.

Vedek Winn is one of the better antagonists so far this season, coming across as a DS9 version of Dolores Umbridge, quite happy to put the wishes of The System into action and even manipulate others as long as she personally reaps the benefits and the power. Kira and others on the station are very willing to listen to her, but I was completely unsurprised when Winn used connections to bomb the school and plotted the death of the other potential Kai.


It's the relationship between Miles O'Brien and Neela which had the most impact on me, though. O'Brien has a strong conservative streak which we saw now and then in TNG and in this series. I think he really opened up to Neela, and her betrayal was a serious shock - even the idea that someone might borrow his tools without permission was a shock. O'Brien doesn't do well with betrayal.

If there's a flaw to this episode, it's that we don't really learn enough about Keiko O'Brien.  We know she's a passionate teacher and mother and cool wife with a good sense of humor. But what drives her to teach the way she does?

Bits and Pieces

The distinctions between Bareil and Winn are well drawn - as are their similarities. While I see more of Kai Opaka in Bareil, I also see the political opportunism evident in Winn in Bareil as well.

Throughout the whole episode Odo doesn't have any one strong particular role - but his presence as an investigator and participant in the investigation is felt throughout.

Quotables

Winn: Excuse me. By entities, do you not mean the Prophets?
Keiko: Yes, on Bajor the entities are worshipped as prophets. Our studies of the wormhole have shown that it was formed by unique particles we call verterons that are apparently self-sustaining in nature. This begins to explain how a ship at impulse can safely pass through
Winn: Ships are safely guided through the passage by the hands of the Prophets.
Keiko: In a manner of speaking.
Winn: Not apparently in your manner of speaking.

Keiko: I'm not going to let a Bajoran spiritual leader dictate what can or can't be taught in my classroom.
Kira: Then maybe we need two schools on the station. One for the Bajoran children, another for the Federation.
Sisko: If we start separating Bajoran and Federation interests–
Kira: A lot of Bajoran and Federation interests are separate, Commander. I've been telling you that all along.
Sisko: Nobody's saying that there can't be spiritual teaching on this station, Major, but can't it be in addition to what's taught in Mrs O'Brien's classroom?
Kira: But if she's teaching a fundamentally different philosophy...
Keiko: I'm not teaching any philosophy. What I'm trying to teach is pure science.
Kira: Some might say pure science, taught without a spiritual context, is a philosophy, Mrs O'Brien.
Sisko: My philosophy is that there is room for all philosophies on this station.

Winn: I admire you for standing by your convictions even though I disagree with them. Please believe me, I want to find a way to allow these children to stay in your school.
Keiko: I'm sure the children and their parents are happy to hear you say that.
Winn: Let me be the one to make the first concession. I will no longer request that you teach anything about the Celestial Temple. Just don't teach anything about the wormhole at all.
Keiko: Ignore it?
Winn: Find other ways, other things to teach the children.
Keiko: And when we get to theories of evolution or creation of the universe, what then?
Winn: We'll face those issues when we come to them.
Keiko: I'm a teacher. My responsibility is to expose my students to knowledge, not hide it from them. The answer is no.

Overall

This episode left me feeling as if I'd just had a great conversation. It wasn't the end of season cliffhanger type of episode we're used to in the decade of 2010, but it set up a lot for Season 2, which is clearly going to focus on the political turmoil of Bajor. And Sisko and Kira seem to be moving beyond simple professionalism to a true friendship and respect.

Four out of four tools stolen from the Chief.

2 comments:

Patrick said...

This is one of the episodes that I love even more now than I did back when the show first aired, because I appreciate the religious elements of this series more as I've gotten older. I love that because this series deals with a completely fictional religion, it's able to tell powerful stories about faith vs. science and the nature of religion & society safely without offending anyone's specific real-world beliefs.

The whole science vs. religion debate was interesting, but it's also one I find frustrating to a degree, both in this episode and in real life. I was raised Catholic, and never found the supposed "conflict" between science & religion all that difficult to reconcile. One teaches us the "how" of the universe, the other teaches us the "why" of the universe. Now was that really so hard? :) Yes, I know it's actually more complicated than that, and I don't want to start a holy war by bringing it up, but it's hard to talk about this episode without broaching the subject. In the episode, if both Keiko & Winn had been a little less hard-headed, a tragedy could have been averted. OK, also if Winn hadn't been so power-hungry, devious and immoral, but those are just details. I'm trying to make a point here! To this day, I think this episode illustrates my frustration with the real-world versions of this debate that we keep having. In fact, it may be even more relevant now than when it first aired.

Billie Doux said...

Excellent review, JRS. And congratulations on finishing the first season of Deep Space Nine! You're absolutely right that one thing DS9 did very well was explore that science versus religion dynamic. It's what good science fiction does. I haven't seen DS9 in awhile but I plan to do a rewatch when our Next Gen reviews get to that point.