“Destiny”(season three, episode 15; originally aired 2/13/1995)
In which Sisko has to decide what he feels about his…
Prophecy is a lousy way to tell a story. This is a futile complaint, of course; by now, seers and sages and ancient texts are such a fundamental part of genre narratives that we just take their presence for granted, as though having someone wander by to spout vague metaphors about the direction of the plot were somehow a requirement. It isn’t, nor should it be, and in practice, it’s nearly always a weak way to foreshadow upcoming twists. The main conflict of prophecy—namely, the way it throws our notions of free will and autonomy into question, and why a god would find it necessary to provide a hint book to their followers—rarely comes into play. Instead, it’s usually just, “You are the Chosen One!” and “We must stand by the silver tree on the last full moon of next month and spin thrice clockwise, or else all is lost,” or something equally arbitrary, although sometimes there’s also violence.
Which explains why I wasn’t very keen when I found out “Destiny” was about the Prophets and the messages they’d passed on to the Bajoran people, and Sisko’s role in fulfilling those messages. By now, I’ve come to trust DS9 enough to know that it will find some interesting things to say about all of this, but that didn’t make me any happier when Vedek Yarka (Erick Avari) shows up, warning of catastrophe. Arrangements have been made with the Cardassian government for a joint Cardassian-Bajoran effort to establish a communications relay which will work through the wormhole. To that end, two Cardassian scientists are headed to DS9 to work with Sisko, O’Brien, and the others. Yarka believes that Trakor’s prophecy (his third, actually) warns of the dangers which lie ahead. There’s a lot of metaphor about vipers and swords of stars and so forth, but, according to Yarka, it all boils down to this: if Sisko allows the Cardassians to go ahead with their mission, the wormhole will be destroyed.
The first thing Sisko argues is that Trakor warns of three vipers, and yet there are only two scientists scheduled to come aboard the station. Story-wise, this spells the inevitability of a third Cardassian showing up, thus throwing all of Sisko and Kira’s doubts into question. (Even though it eventually turns out that the “vipers” probably weren’t even Cardassians in the first place.) The prospect of an hour’s worth of soul-searching, arguing over semantics, and ultimately proving that the religious fanatic was right all along isn’t a promising one. That’s the way this kind of plot nearly always goes, too; not necessarily because of any propagandist intent (I doubt the folks behind this show were trying to convince any of us that the Bajoran faith is the one true way), but because drama relies on forcing characters to deal with situations that push them out of their comfort zones. Few things would be more uncomfortable to Sisko than having to deal both with a potential intergalactic incident, as well as his role as the Emissary. If Yarka was simply categorically wrong about everything, it wouldn’t be much of a conflict.
Thankfully, it’s a bit more complicated than just “the crazy priest knows all.” He doesn’t even turn out to be that crazy, despite Odo’s discovery that he was defrocked as a vedek after pushing his vision of the prophecy too hard. One of the elements that automatically makes DS9’s religious investigations more interesting is that they are, to an extent, verifiably true. The show hasn’t really dealt with how proof changes the nature of faith, perhaps in part because it’s not like Sisko brought a camcorder into the wormhole when he met the aliens who live there, but for the audience, it adds an extra layer when we know for a fact that there are beings in this universe who can see forward and backward and all the way through time. As Kira and Sisko discuss later in the episode, this adds a level of credence to the prophecies that they might not otherwise have had. There’s still the problematic fact that the words are vague, heavily metaphoric, and have been subject to dozens of different translations through the years, but that they end up having a connection to reality is both an affirmation of faith (after all, there are no definite facts in Sisko and Kira’s final interpretation, just their belief) while still not violating the show’s essentially rationalistic perspective. The implication being that yes, the unknowable exists, but its mysteries are likely more a function of the limitations of our own consciousness than anything magical or mystic.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The two—three, sir!—three Cardassians arrive, and, as one would expect, there are some tensions. Namely between O’Brien and Gilora Rejal (Tracy Scoggins), a Cardassian female who doesn’t have much faith in the chief’s engineering abilities. If you predict that O’Brien will stand up for himself, that the episode will do a sort of funny, sort of eye-roll inducing inversion of idiot sexism (in this case, on Cardassia, women think that men are the ones who can’t do maths!), and that O’Brien’s backbone will be misinterpreted as some kind of sexual come-on by Rejal, well, you’ve watched a television show before, so congrats. In truth, this isn’t as terrible as it might be, since O’Brien is such a terrific straight man; his pained reactions to both Rejal’s dismissals and flirtation are quite funny. And the final exchange between them, as Rejal asks about O’Brien’s wife and says she’s a “lucky woman,” is both inevitable and sincere. It’s just that trying to expose our own culture’s prejudices by swapping genders or race is rarely as effective or entertaining as writers seem to think. It can work, but too often, it’s just a goofy attempt to laugh away a very real problem. This doesn’t even have that much behind it. Ha-ha, different species are weird, but isn’t it great to know that women are crazy in all of them?
Still, this is a minor subplot in an episode that’s more focused on weightier matters. Inevitably, this means things can get somewhat ponderous; while the conflict which drives Kira and Sisko is a deep one, it’s also a largely internal issue, which makes it more difficult to engage with. Kira is quickly convinced that Yarka was on to something, although her commitment to Sisko and her job prevent her from taking action on this. Sisko is more skeptical, but as the apparent evidence mounts, he starts to question his own prejudices, and how his desire not to be the Emissary may be shaping the way he looks at events.
All of this is intellectually interesting, and the actors do well by the material (Visitor’s increasing awe around Sisko over the course of the episode is nicely done, and a good reminder of how important he is to her people and her faith), but there’s precious little drama in any of this. In a way, I like that; I expected the plot would have a lot of yelling and people storming off and the possibility of an intergalactic incident hovering over everything, but it’s much more low-key. There’s some tension when the relay system goes wrong, and a comet is inadvertently redirected to head towards the wormhole, but at no point do Sisko and the Cardassian scientists engage in heated philosophical discussions, and neither Kira nor Yarka (who spends most of the episode hanging out at the station off-screen) try and sabotage the mission. The wormhole is in danger; there’s some stress about it; but ultimately, everything works out okay.
While I’m glad the episode avoids hitting the drama too hard—and I certainly don’t think every episode needs to be about the end of the world or some equivalent calamity—this does make for an hour with curiously low stakes. Yes, the destruction of the wormhole would be catastrophic, and the sequence in which Kira and Sisko fly a shuttle through it to guide three pieces of the comet to the other side is intense enough, but this is a small part of the hour, and there’s no growing sense of paranoia or danger as the prophet’s words appear to come true. There’s also the weird fact that a member of the Obsidian Order (the third Cardassian “scientist”) tries to sabotage the mission, and nobody seems all that upset over it. Sure, there’s some griping and stares, but the reveal comes so easily and immediately after the first sign of a problem that it robs the scenario of any suspense.
Maybe that’s the point; maybe the writers are more concerned with Sisko’s uncertainty than they are with politics. To that end, the episode has its moments. Sisko’s situation is a unique one, and it isn’t often dealt with on the show, so it’s nice to see the episode try and deal with it head on. And there are some effective scenes. I especially liked the last conversation between Kira and Sisko when they both decide to reinterpret the prophecy in the light of new evidence. As I mentioned before, it’s a nice way to allow for both skepticism and belief, and it’s gratifying that “Destiny” doesn’t insist you accept their interpretation. (I’m skeptical, although the fact that the Prophets literally exist changes things.) It simply presents how the characters would respond, and allows us to draw whatever conclusions we’d like.
- “I assure you, I’m quite fertile.” Ha! Aliens! (I like how she seems to approach the situation logically, and then storms off humiliated, or something, because ha! Women!)
- The Obsidian Order is a lot less frightening than usual this week. They should get on that.
“Prophet Motive” (season three, episode 16; originally aired 2/20/1995)
In which Zek acts like Scrooge on Christmas morning…
Sometimes, comic relief works. It doesn’t always; in fact, the phrase probably makes anyone whose watched enough movies and TV to recognize it cringe, haunted by the memory of a thousand bad jokes and worse pratfalls. As general rule, whenever something is labelled by a viewer as comic relief, it’s not really doing its job—humor designed to lighten the mood, or enrich character dialogue, shouldn’t draw attention to itself, and when it does, that usually means it’s not working.
But sometimes, it works, and “Prophet Motive” is one of those times. It helps that nothing in the episode is supposed to be distracting us from more serious issues in the episode itself; by which I mean, Quark’s determination to figure out what has driven Grand Nagus Zek insane isn’t a secondary plot to Sisko running around, trying to save lives. Quark and Rom and the rest are the main focus, so the distracting gear-shifting is kept to a minimum. (The actual subplot, with Bashir dealing from the stress of being nominated for a major award, is mediocre stuff, but it doesn’t last very long.) It also helps that most of what is supposed to be funny here is funny, a subversive look at the Prophets through the eyes of a culture not particularly interested in vague religious awe.
The reason why it’s so funny? Stakes! In that the story has them. In case you’ve somehow missed everything I’ve written about the Ferengi before, the problem with the race as they were originally conceived on Star Trek: The Next Generation is that they were designed to be laughed at. Comical creations are one thing, but an entire race composed of punchlines is not a good idea, especially on a show which otherwise worked so hard to be respectful and compassionate to all kinds of made-up species. (It didn’t always succeed, but at least it usually tried. With the Ferengi, the writers and producers never bothered.) So, DS9’s choice to foreground the Ferengi was a daring one, and what’s even more impressive is that this has basically paid off. Quark is as valuable to the show as anyone, and his small circle of family have been getting more interesting with each passing year. The difference between this and the cringe-inducing caricatures on TNG is that DS9 actually makes an effort to take Quark, Rom, and Nog’s concerns seriously. The writers may poke fun at Quark’s greed and his less than honest business practices, but they’re also not afraid to let him have his say. He has as much a right to happiness as anybody else, and that’s a crucial distinction.
It’s also what makes this episode so funny. The Grand Nagus arrives on the station, commandeers Quark’s quarters, and sequesters himself for a week. When he comes out, he offers Quark a new set of Rules of Acquisition—only these rules are, well, nice. More than nice, they’re generous, kind, and charitable to a fault, all things which are the exact opposite of what a Ferengi is supposed to be. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Zek uses Quark’s apartment as the headquarters of the Ferengi Benevolent Association, and sets to work trying to help as many strangers as he can. This unsettles Quark, to say the least, and he becomes determined to figure out just what sort of game Zek is playing. It has to be a game, right? The Grand Nagus would never make such a bold move without some kind of ulterior motive. Right?
The discovery of the new Rules, and Quark’s desperate, failing attempts to reconcile them with his deepest beliefs, is delightful, as is Quark’s ongoing horror of his leader’s apparent change of heart. It’s funny because Armin Shimerman (with assists from Max Grodénchik and Wallace Shawn) is very good at comic despair, but it’s also funny because he absolutely means it—and it’s impossible not to sympathize with him. This may be the episode’s greatest joke. Everything Zek is doing should make him more likeable, a better person, someone who fits in more appropriately with a human value system. Yet it’s unnerving to see the conniving, greedy so-and-so running around gleefully throwing around goodwill. It’s not right, and, as with Quark, we want to know what drove this change. The most obvious assumption is that there’s some kind of profit scheme at work, but that’s so obvious it almost can’t be the solution; in order to use that twist, and have the story be satisfying, the episode would’ve had to push it to a far extreme indeed, so far I’m not even sure it’s possible.
“Prophet Motive” goes in a different direction when Quark breaks into Zek’s ship, and finds one of the Bajoran orbs. This is where things get really interesting. Putting together what he knows about Zek, and what he knows about the aliens who the Bajorans call the Prophets, Quark reasons that Zek had found the orb on Cardassia, and decided to use it to get in touch with the wormhole aliens in order to learn the future so he could exploit that knowledge. Instead, the Prophets changed him to make him more agreeable. When Quark takes Zek back into the wormhole and confronts the aliens directly, they explain that they didn’t like Zek’s avarice and his hunger for power; it made them uncomfortable, so they gave him a personality makeover.
Given that Zek’s transformation has so far been played with a light tone, it’s easy to miss how creepy this is, and what it says about Sisko’s old friends. When Sisko met up with the Prophets, he helped them grasp the linear nature of time, and gave them a greater appreciation of sentient life. When Zek met them, he got pushy; they didn’t like it; so they lobotomized him. That they not only have this power, but are completely willing to use it when faced with even a minor inconvenience, is startling. It changes the alien’s mystical nature and makes it a bit more Old Testament; or, if you like, a bit more akin to the little boy in The Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life,” wishing people into the cornfield when they displease him. The aliens aren’t quite so callous, but that really makes it worse. They think they have a moral imperative to change who Zek is, because he’s “wrong.” There’s nothing worse than an apparently omniscient being with a god complex.
On the plus side, this forces Quark to do what he does best: defend himself, and his way of life. The speech he gives here isn’t nearly as angry as the speech he gave Sisko last season, but it’s still smart, and hard to argue against. As well, it serves the meta purpose of putting the Ferengi way of life in the best perspective for the audience as much as for the Prophets. He doesn’t build an airtight case or anything, but he does challenge us to rethink our assumptions (assumptions which, it’s worth pointing out, were essentially created on TNG): Why is the Ferengi drive for profit so wrong? They’re an ambitious race, but ambition has its place. It inspires us to better ourselves, to improve our situation and accomplish great things.
Something like that, anyway. It’s a good speech, and Quark wins the day, and Zek is restored to his normally cranky self. The sequence of the wormhole aliens talking to Quark through various cast members is a good one, as is Quark’s earlier encounter with the orb; the latter is quite a lot sillier, but it’s the right kind of silly, I think—just a little creepy and weird and never dull. The episode manages its tone well throughout, generating suspense and humor out of a familiar setup (character who always behaves one way shows up behaving exactly the opposite!), injecting some fun into one of the show’s most pompous elements, and serving once more to prove Quark’s value to the station, and the series. He stood his ground against the Prophets and convinced them to admit their mistake. The Ferengi are still comic, but for the most part, the laughs are with them, not at them.
- There is an entire storyline about Bashir being up for the Carrington Award which is apparently some kind of inside joke about TNG once getting nominated for an Emmy. It’s cute, but the plot itself is mildly amusing at best, and goes nowhere.
- I still get creeped out when we see Quark getting his ears fondled. It’s weirdly pornographic.
- Well, Rom may be a nicer guy than his brother, but he still knows how to take advantage of opportunity when he sees it; the episode ends with a sweet moment between brothers, as Rom reveals he’s managed to embezzle a large amount of money from the good ole F.B.A.
- The Prophets don’t just change Zek; they devolve him back to an early state, when the Ferengi weren’t so greedy. Makes you wonder what happened that forced them to change.
Next week: O’Brien has to deal with his role as a “Visionary,” and Bashir is troubled by “Distinct Voices.”