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DS9: A Show of Two Tales

DS9 is a show about many things, but broadly speaking it wants to tell two kinds of stories. The first is a show about religion and faith. The other is a show about politics, the Federation, Cardassia, the Dominion and other groups. You only need to watch the pilot, ‘Emissary’ to see this. On one hand you have Benjamin Sisko finding himself becoming a part of the Bajoran religion as he comes face to face with the Prophets in their Celestial Temple, or wormhole aliens in a stable wormhole if you prefer. At the same time he’s been instructed to bring Bajor into the Federation and is fighting off Cardassian attempts to reclaim the station. The show stays with these two things throughout its run but it does less than ideally, to say the least. This disharmony happened for two main reasons, so let’s not waste any time and jump right into it.

Spoilers for all of DS9 follow

First, are the problems with the presentation of the Bajoran religion, or rather, the lack thereof. We know basically nothing about the tenets of faith: there are Prophets, or a nonlinear alien species, who live in a Celestial Temple/wormhole that have been guiding Bajor for eternity and there’s a schism in their ranks as a group, known as the Pah Wraiths, were banished a long time ago. Also there’s something about Orbs and grabbing people’s ears to read their energy. These are things you can hang on a plot on or use as a shorthand for being religious, but it’s none of these things are actual articles of faith. All in all, this is fine; outside of ‘In the Hands of the Prophet’ the fact that there is a religion that characters believe in is good enough.

It’s important to talk about ‘In the Hands of the Prophets’. Not only is it’s A-Plot cringe-worthy as it attempts to raise a parallel between Creationism and Bajor’s belief in the Prophets; but because it centers around the notion that the Prophets are just advanced aliens. This is Star Trek after all where “the Enterprise goes into deep space, finds God, and God turns out to be insane, a child or both” as Harlan Ellison described it. Between a metatextual trend like that and the in universe ideal of vaguely nonspiritual Christianity, of course you wouldn’t believe in God. If the Bajorans want to believe that the Prophets are gods or at least some sort of benefactor is fine. That the Bajorans get an uncritical view of their religion while the Dominion never gets a shred of credence shows the limitations of what the writers wanted to do.

‘Faith, Treachery, and the Great River’ is silently one of the better episodes in the entire series. The relevant part being how it gives some depth to Vorta beliefs, Weyoun’s response that of course gods would engineer their creations to worship them. It hints at a deeper belief system. This also shows the limits of what the writers wanted to do with the topic. The Dominion didn’t interact with religion cause the Dominion was a part of the second tale. The problem is that these two issues converge on the wormhole. On one hand, it’s a transit point between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. On the other hand, it’s the home of alien species who have taken an interest in corporeal affairs. That the wormhole serves these two different functions and is only recognized as both rarely and to poor effect is a perfect illustration of the problem. The Prophets sweeping away the Dominion fleet after the minefield falls just makes one wonder why they were content with all the previous Dominion forces going through.

Sisko’s personal arc answers that question, as his entire existence had been orchestrated by the Prophets, which does explain the selective intervention if nothing else. This isn’t a plot that lends itself well to playing with other parts of the series. The biggest attempt at unifying these two tales is with Dukat. After his reaffirmation of being a villain in ‘Duet’ becomes fixated on the Pah Wraiths; but his relations on the show withered to just Kira and Sisko. Dukat’s part of the finale is again self-contained, and tacked on in the last half hour of the show.

All of this comes back to points I’ve made before about the show, albeit in other contexts, that the show is really good but its approach at some things can be haphazard. Granted in this case part of the problem can be attributed to the writers not being aliens who exist outside of linear time; so writing non-corporeal aliens can be tricky. The issue is that in theory this is one of the things that DS9 sets out to do based on the pilot, and it doesn’t. That’s because DS9 tells a very good story about politics, with rich characters that people like me talking about it 20 years after the fact.

I don’t know what I’ll be talking about next week, and there’s a possibility that I end up skipping next week because of MAGfest Classis. Till next time.

 

 

 

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