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January 18, 2013

Star Trek: DS9 - Ep 19 - In the Hands of the Prophets

The conflict between religion and science is centuries old, and will perhaps last for centuries into the future. There is no easy solution. One man's "god" is another man's theory of how nature works. There may never be a solid answer, because something taken on faith is, essentially, unprovable. Star Trek has always been a secular show, Gene Roddenberry being an avid secular humanist. Thus religions on Trek have usually been shown as misguided, with the Federation coming along and showing that the God these people believed in was false and science could lead them to salvation.

Deep Space Nine changed all that. No, it didn't become the New Religious Hour. Instead, it deigned to show a religion and its worshipers as real people. It showed that there are different points of view, but that nobody is inherently right. The show was deeply respectful of the Bajoran religion and its "Prophets." However, you knew that, eventually, there would have to be an episode about the uneasy tension between the two. "In the Hands of the Prophets" is that episode, made all the more powerful because it ended the first season of the show after building up the Bajorans throughout the season. It's a wonderful episode, tying up very neatly the ongoing storyline of the first season, leaving us with some of the uneven ends that this conflict always does.

Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) is teaching her class about the wormhole when she has an unexpected visitor. Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher) has come with an important mission: to either get Mrs. O'Brien to stop teaching blasphemy about the Wormhole Aliens (the Prophets) or to remove the Bajoran children from the school. This has the effect of heightening tensions between the Bajorans on the station and the Federation personnel, as it seems that the "godless Federation" is trying to remove the Bajoran religion from its society.

Winn starts to win over a lot of people on the station with her ideas, including Kira (Nana Visitor), despite the fact that she's the leader of an ultra-orthodox sect that doesn't have a lot of support in the Vedek Assembly. Along with this is the suspicious death of a Starfleet engineer. Are they related? When Sisko (Avery Brooks) tries to elicit help from the Vedek who is the frontrunner in the race to be the new Kai, Bareil (Philip Anglim), he is rebuffed. When the school is bombed, however, Bareil reconsiders. This leads to an explosive conclusion that could bring the crew of the station back together again. Or it could force them further apart.

"In the Hands of the Prophets" brings up a lot of interesting points about issues of faith versus reason, but it doesn't even attempt to answer them. We haven't been able to answer them for this long, so why would we think a 45 minute episode of a television show could do it? Some shows might, but Deep Space Nine does not fall into that trap. Instead, it brings to light the various issues in a more "normal" plot. Sisko's impassioned speech after the bombing opens a few more eyes, including Kira's, about how the Bajorans and the Federation can work together, despite their differences.

The real eye-opener for any Trek fan used to the Trek tradition of looking down on religion is when Jake (Cirroc Lofton) says what every other Trek episode has hinted at before: that belief in the Prophets is stupid when it's obvious that the Prophets are really wormhole aliens. Sisko sits him down and corrects him, saying that the Bajoran faith is what got them through 70 years of occupation. The wormhole aliens' view of time is so fluid that they can see the future as well as the past, so why shouldn't they be called Prophets? He then reminds Jake that everything is a matter of interpretation, and that if Jake continues along that line, he's no better than Winn, just from the anti-religious side. It's a wonderfully played scene, displaying Sisko's worry about what's happening on the station as well as educating a boy about the value of a religion, even if you don't follow it.

In fact, there are so many standout scenes in this episode. The acting is simply wonderful, with the actors evidently finding a script with a lot of meat to it and sinking their teeth into it. Everybody, from Visitor, Fletcher and Brooks to even Shimmerman and Lofton in roles where they only have one scene, are very good. Fletcher is simply electrifying as the smarmy yet true-believing Winn, who has an agenda even more than just keeping blasphemy away from her "children." It is a bit disappointing that the writers turn her into more of a power-hungry character than a religious zealot, but she is still interesting, and that's the most important thing.

Visitor plays Kira with passion as she defends Winn at first ("Some might say pure science, taught without a spiritual center, is a philosophy, Mrs. O'Brien."), but then comes to terms with the fact that the Federation actually does deserve her support. She's come a long way since the first episode where she didn't want the Federation there, as the final, touching scene between Sisko and her shows us.

Even those with fewer scenes did well, adding some much needed humour to a dramatic episode. When O'Brien (Colm Meaney) asks what the now-dead Ensign Akino was doing in a runabout at four in the morning, Odo (Rene Auberjonois) looks at him and says "Apparently, he was getting murdered." The one Odo/Quark (Armin Shimmerman) scene in the episode is also priceless. Terry Farrell is the only one short-changed in this episode, not having much to do but saying her lines with conviction. She certainly wasn't weak. She just didn't have anything to really say.

That's obviously not Rosalind Chao
I have to give kudos on the production front as well. First, there's Neela (Robin Christopher), O'Brien's assistant. She was certainly decent, but the compliments on the production come from showing a little foresight. She was in Duet as well, and it was nice to see them showcase her in an episode before she becomes an important part of another one. She is very important in "In the Hands of the Prophets," and it was nice to see a familiar face. She was still a bit obvious, but at least the regular viewer had a little bit invested in her.

Also, the direction was great, staying out of the way for the most part (and that's good in a dramatic episode like this). There were two wonderful scenes that the director made even better, though. The first is when Sisko visits Bareil in the garden. Sisko throws a stone in the water and it disturbs his reflection in the pond. When it stabilizes, Bareil is walking up behind him and we can see that in the restored reflection. The second is the slow-motion climax, which was very effective.

I can't say enough good things about this episode. Everything works, from the plot to the script to the acting, the entire package is so juicy. Deep Space Nine ended its first season on a high note, with two first-class episodes. It bodes well for the show as it enters its second season. We leave Season 1 with a realization that, despite our differences, it is possible to get along and get some work done. It's even possible to bridge those differences and become unified.

Memorable Quotes:

"The Prophets teach us patience." Bareil

"It appears they also teach you…politics." Sisko

5 Stars

Stay tuned next week for the Season 1 wrap-up!!


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