In the twentieth and final episode of the first season of Deep Space Nine, everything hurts. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.Â
Trigger Warning: For talk of religious fundamentalism, terrorism.
This show really knocked it out of the park at the end.
I think this episode is perhaps the most appropriate follow-up to the disturbing and challenging story in “Duet.” While it might not be a direct sequel, it’s a spiritual successor to it, and it shows a brilliant willingness for serialization in worldbuilding. This episode builds deliberately off of all the development we’ve seen in this show, particularly in how the Bajorans adapt to Federation presence within their life. At the same time, it manages to be a parable of sorts, a warning about the anxieties around cultural assimilation, fundamentalism, and the desire of some people to force their beliefs on other people.
That’s always going to be a hard thing to depict because there’s a fine line between actually forcing beliefs on someone and merely exercising one’s right to believe as they like. I often think writers confuse the two. Hell, it wasn’t until the second half of “In the Hands of the Prophets” that I felt like this script distinguished between the two. Then I think this story handles the concept with care. Up to that point? I was far more sympathetic to Vedek Winn and the Bajorans than the Federation. Look, these people had been fighting for years for independence from Cardassian occupation. That fight was inherently about their right for their culture to exist. It was about their right to be spiritual. So it makes sense to me that they would resist any attempt to erase or diminish Bajoran culture. Sure, in many of our eyes, it seemed an overreaction for Vedek Winn to go after Keiko in such a brutal manner. Was the act of teaching scientific concepts truly an act of blasphemy?
To Keiko, it was not. And I admire someone who is as dedicated as she was in this episode to resist that kind of absurdity. I think there is room for faith and science to live side by side or even hand in hand! But there were too immovable forces within this episode. Keiko believed that she would be diluting her role as an educator if she taught Bajoran religion to her students. Vedek Winn believed that the Bajoran culture would be diluted by an emphasis on concepts that sought to divorce elements of faith from their spiritual meaning.
Truthfully, neither of them are wrong from their point of view, but this situation rapidly became a disaster because neither side wanted to compromise. If there’s to be any progress between the Bajorans and the Federation, it’ll come from that. But “In the Hands of the Prophets” takes a different route to tell us a different story. How far would Vedek Winn be willing to go in order to preserve her idea of Bajoran culture? How would Sisko deal with the increasingly hostile environment onboard DS9? Where would Major Kira fall in all of this? These aren’t easy questions to ask, and they’re even more difficult to answer. How does Sisko fulfill his duties to the Federation without turning into another version of the Cardassians to the Bajorans?
The exploration of such questions introduces us to Vedek Bareil, a much more moderate/liberal Bajoran who isn’t interested in an Orthodox approach to his religion. His contrast with Vedek Winn is obvious and might become a source of conflict in the future. But I was far more interested in his role when contrasted with Sisko’s. We can’t ignore that Sisko was “chosen” as the emissary to the prophets because of the events at the beginning of this show. But unlike every Bajoran in this episode, he has no interest in the religion himself, and he has little desire to be the emissary. Vedek Bareil, on the other hand, is a pragmatic leader, one who seems quite popular with this new generation of Bajorans, and he certainly wants to be a part of this new world. So how can they both be a part of the struggle that the Bajoran people will inevitably go through? Bareil faces opposition from Winn, who is so convinced of the death of her culture that she’s willing to assassinate her opponent. On top of that, Sisko is an outsider. Sure, he may have gained the trust of some of the Bajorans for his work on DS9, but that won’t ever change the fact that he’s a human and part of the Federation, who exist in a precarious arrangement alongside the Bajorans.
Look, this is a tough situation, and the actions of Winn and Neela don’t make it any easier. The last third of “In the Hands of the Prophets” is unbearably tense. Once we know Neela is not who we thought she was, it’s a suspenseful waiting game. How does she know Winn? What did the two of them plan? Why was it necessary for Neela to murder the ensign and try to cover up his death? WHAT WAS SHE DOING IN THE CROWD THAT SURROUNDED BAREIL? It’s clear that Winn had a shortsighted view of this conflict because this act could not have worked in their favor even if they succeeded. Wouldn’t that have turned Bareil into a martyr? Wouldn’t it have solidified the more liberal faction against the orthodox Bajorans? Eliminating Bareil as a “threat” to Winn’s path to the Kai might have worked in the immediate future, but what about in the long run?
I suspect that this is not the end of this story, either. Despite that there’s no cliffhanger at the end of this season, I’m hoping that the final two episodes of season one are a sign. Both of them provide an in-depth look at Bajoran culture and history, and they give this show an added intensity. Do I expect every episode to be as thrilling as these two? No, I don’t, and I don’t even know if I could handle that. (I mean, I have The 100 for that.) But I want to see a further exploration of these themes, of these cultural complications, of these complex political nightmares. Deep Space Nine doesn’t have to be immensely serialized to be enjoyable; I just need it to care about the world it’s building.
And goddamn, does it do a good job of that here.
The video for “In the Hands of the Prophets” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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