“In The Hands Of The Prophets” (season 1, episode 20; originally aired 6/20/1993)
In which Louise Fletcher is not to be trifled with
Teaching is a political act. It shouldn’t be; conveying knowledge ought to be something so clearly positive and noble that we accept its value without question. But it gets complicated when you have to pinpoint what exactly all this “knowledge” is, and what should be taught in schools and what should be left for parents. Here in the United States, ideological battles are fought over what’s appropriate in the classroom, over who controls what children know—and we’re all nominally the same species. On DS9, Keiko is teaching human and Bajoran kids, among others, and while the school is small, and Keiko has never expressed much in the way of a revolutionary edge, there are bound to be problems sooner or later. Bajor is a planet in crisis, and when people get confused or frightened, they cling to whatever gives them comfort. It’s understandable that religion would fill this role, and in some ways, it’s laudable; instead of wallowing in despair or lashing out, the Bajorans seek to ally themselves with higher powers, and work to revitalize their troubled race with purpose and compassion. Unfortunately, whenever a large group of individuals clings to an idea for support, some of those individuals are going to cling too tightly. There’s no ideology on Earth or elsewhere that can make you a better person simply for embracing it, and those Bajorans with hate in their hearts aren't suddenly going to let go of hate because of the Prophets. And even those who are peaceful believers will struggle to defend their faith against outsiders. In this case, that means Keiko, and her lessons about the wormhole, which focus on science rather than faith.
“In The Hands Of The Prophets” isn’t the subtlest episode, but it does a good job expanding the show’s world, and playing off of undercurrents and themes which have been built in throughout DS9’s first season. Keiko’s school was first introduced in “A Man Alone,” and while it hasn’t come up in every episode since then, it’s been mentioned every few episodes, to the point where it’s become an accepted part of the station. This is one of the ways serialization works for TV shows; you create a potential plot point or character, you make the sure the audience never entirely forgets it, but you also keep it largely in reserve until you need it. The last major focus on the school came in “The Nagus,” which reminded us once again that, regardless of how easy it is for us to see the value of learning, not every culture agrees with those values. In “The Nagus,” Nog’s father, Rom, pulled him out of school to save face in front of his elders. In “Prophets,” a Bajoran religious leader arrives on the station to object to what Keiko’s teaching Bajoran children. Both objections are presented as philosophical differences—Keiko isn’t teaching the “right” information—but are driven by more complicated motives. Rom pulled Nog out of school to impress his elders; and Vedek Winn Adami (Louise Fletcher) is using the fervor she can create over an easy target to help her strike at a more dangerous foe.
Louise Fletcher has had something of an up-and-down career since winning an Oscar for her career-defining role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Mostly down; she’s worked steadily, but few other roles have effectively captured her mixture of soft-spoken, unblinking authoritarianism. In Cuckoo’s Nest, she humanized a larger-than-life villain without minimizing or soft-pedaling her cruelty, and she does much the same here. Vedek Winn is the most unsettling of enemies, a true believer whose faith doesn’t prevent her from manipulation and deceit. In a way, her faith emboldens her to do more. Winn is one of a handful of Vedeks in line to become the next Kai, and the public support she rallies on the station by targeting Keiko’s school works as both a clear statement of the philosophy she’ll bring to the position of Kai, and a way to use that philosophy to make her ascension appear all but inevitable. She has another motive as well, but it’s all part and parcel of the episode’s largest concern: negotiating the continued challenges of a Bajoran-Federation relationship. As a closing note to the show’s first season, the episode looks to provide a modicum of closure—“Look how far we’ve come”—while still allowing for the difficulties to come. In this respect, the hour largely succeeds. It’s a blunt instrument, but at this point in the series’ run, bluntness still gets the job done.
While Keiko and Vedek Winn are waging their word war, Chief O’Brien has problems of his own. One of his tools, an EJ7, is missing, and while that doesn’t seem like much, an engineer never misplaces his tools. Worse, the EJ7 is specifically designed to access security systems, which means if it was taken, whoever took it might have been up to no good. The situation becomes more complicated when O’Brien and his assistant Neela find a lump of organic material in a duct. The lump contains what’s left of the missing tool, along with the remains of one Ensign Aquino. It could’ve been an accident, but O’Brien isn’t buying that, and neither (presumably) is the audience. The structure is blatant, in that the two plots serve very distinct purposes: Winn and Keiko are there for the heavy stuff, with lots of uncomfortable tension and thematic weight, while O’Brien And The Missing Thingamabob provide a lighter tone. Yes, horrible death is involved, but a murder mystery has an inherent hook that’s easier to grab on to than interracial religious and political strife. With the former, we can expect an answer to question; with the latter, the most we can usually expect is more questions. The two plots complement each other nicely, and O’Brien’s story gains suspense from its adjacency to the vedek’s. It’s not explicitly stated, and the connection between the two doesn’t become obvious until the last act, but it clearly isn’t a coincidence when someone dies right before tensions between the Bajorans and the Federation personnel erupt. Not only are we curious who murdered poor Aquino, we’re curious why, and we know it’ll be important.
This keeps the episode moving, which is a good thing, because the other storyline doesn’t have the same momentum. This isn’t a criticism: The brief war over the school isn’t really a war. Winn interrupts a class, and spreads distrust throughout the station; Keiko objects, there are some conversations; the school blows up; another vedek arrives on the station; and that’s when the two separate stories become one, as we realize the murder is part of a small conspiracy for Winn to take out her biggest opponent for the position of Kai. The arguments and discussions that occur before this are, if sometimes a little too easily split between “good” and “bad,” compelling and effective television, but unlike O’Brien’s quest, none of these scenes really go anywhere. They can’t. The biggest dramatic moment in the episode is Sisko’s speech on the promenade about how much Bajorans and the Federation have come to respect each other, and he isn’t changing anything so much as he’s reminding everyone of the real status quo. Vedeks will come and go, and it’s naïve to expect life will always (or even generally) be easy on the station, but one rabble rouser is never going to undo all the work that’s been done. For all its pyrotechnics, this is a story about people taking stock of how far they’ve come, and how far they still have yet to go.
Winn is a terrific villain, though—maybe a little too terrific. For most of “Prophets,” the vedek’s arrogance and unflappability are both infuriating and utterly on point. People like Winn exist in the real world, which is frustrating; worse, they tend to rise to positions of power, because their determination, patience, and utter faith in their own infallibility give them a distinct advantage over everyone who pauses to think they might not be perfect. But by the end of the episode, we learn Winn has resorted to plotting assassination attempts to get her way, and there’s something unfortunately convenient about it. While it’s not hard to believe that Winn is so convinced of her superiority that she’d assume another vedek’s rise to the Kai position would be disastrous for Bajor, and would thus use any means necessary to remove her rivals from the field, making Winn an outright criminal gives us a pass to dislike her. The issues she raises are troubling, as they should be, but as Sisko explains to Jake, we can’t just dismiss people like Winn as “stupid,” no matter how good that makes us feel. The cost of wanting to do the right thing is realizing you can always be wrong. Giving the audience and characters such an easy out with Winn—it’s not a matter of philosophical differences, she’s a killer—reduces the complexity.
Still, Winn is a great character, and I hope to see her again next season, no matter how unpleasant her visits might be. Besides, even if the murder plot is too broad, the character work is strong. We first met Neela (Robin Christopher) in “Duet,” and while she’s too new for her betrayal to carry a huge amount of weight, Christopher manages in a few short scenes to leave an impression. In particular, her mildly flirtatious chat with O’Brien while the two are (unbeknownst to him) investigating her crime gives us a sense that she isn’t just an unthinking acolyte. She tells O’Brien she likes him because he isn’t like other Federation personnel, and she talks in the awkward, sort of surprised way people tend to have when revealing a truth about themselves. This doesn’t make her any less committed to Winn, and while she argues with the vedek when she realizes her escape route has been cut off, she doesn’t hesitate when it comes time to try and assassinate Vedek Bareil (Philip Anglim). Even when she fails, she remains undaunted. If Winn allowed us to get out of the conflict too easily, Neela pulls us back in. She’s kind, cute, and friendly, and she still fires her phaser. These are complicated emotions, and they can ruin lives.
If “Prophets” is essentially about the conflicts which arise between cultures even when everyone has the best of intentions, Sisko and Kira serve as the representative figures in those conflicts. Both have good scenes in this season finale. Sisko gets a speech, and he also gets to stop Neela from killing Bareil; for my money, his best scenes are the quieter moments, first between him and Jake, and then later with Kira. Avery Brooks has tremendous presence and a terrific voice, but I’m not sure “big speech” sequences really suit him. Or maybe it was just the speech itself. Either way, he remains a strong leader in an ensemble series which, unlike earlier Trek shows, doesn’t have a single dominating presence. Nana Visitor is great as always, although she spends most of the episode in the background. Her initial faith in Vedek Winn is a new wrinkle in her character; Kira’s faith has been established before, but it’s troubling to see her so willingly embrace a fanatic, no matter how much she longs for certainty. But she recognizes her mistake by the end, and while Vedek Winn walks away free of charges, and poor Neela goes off to jail, the episode still finds room for some hope in its final moments, between the two characters who have the most reason to be at odds. Sisko and Kira are back on the same team, and we have a relationship which has developed from barely muted antagonism to mutual respect. Their problems haven’t been solved, but they, along with rest of the cast, are prepared to face what happens next together, which is all you can really hope for.
- I didn’t talk much about Vedek Bareil. He’s fine for what he is, and it’s a nice touch that even though he’s largely sympathetic to Sisko’s concerns, he’s still held back by politics. Back in my review of “Emissary,” I criticized the show’s less-than-adept use of religion. I think it works much better here. Not because religion is shown in an unfavorable light, but because the drama that comes out of it is motivated by earthly concerns. I’d much rather deal with people squabbling over how to worship their gods than I would be dealing with the gods themselves, at least in fiction.
- Kira: “‘Okay’? I’ve forgotten ‘okay.’ Seems like I haven’t seen ‘okay’ in years.”
The First Season: There isn’t a whole lot to say that I haven’t already said in my reviews, but my overall impression of Deep Space Nine so far is favorable. Better than favorable, actually. Covering the first season or two of Star Trek: The Next Generation could be a slog, but with this show, I find myself looking forward to watching each week’s episodes, to the point where I sometimes have to stop myself from jumping further. It’s true that this isn’t a great show yet, but it is a solid one, and, more importantly, the areas in which it’s strongest are the ones most important for a series’ success. By its first season finale—hell, by halfway into season one—DS9 has the characters, and it has the world. Yes, Dax doesn’t exactly pop, and Bashir is a gray area, but they work well enough that it’s not unreasonable to expect them to develop further down the road. Even better, everyone else is clearly defined and brings something distinct to the table. And while the area around the space station which the show calls home is still iffy (I liked what little we saw of Bajor in “Prophets,” but I have a hard time reconciling it with the Bajor of “The Storyteller”), the station itself already feels like a home.
There were dull stretches in these 19 episodes, a few missteps and a handful of crummy, campy scripts. I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of those in the second season. But this show has all the necessary equipment for great drama, and what’s more, it’s delivered on its potential at least twice so far, with “Duet” and “Progress.” Unlike TNG, this isn’t a wreck that needs to right itself. It’s a promising debut that just needs to finish finding its voice.
Next week: We dive into the second season with “The Homecoming” and “The Circle.”