You Talking Trek to Me? – “In the Hands of the Prophets”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 1, Episode 20

The first season of Deep Space Nine was a much more coherent and watchable one than The Next Generation’s first – not just in terms of visual and stylistic consistency, but in the ambitiousness of its over-arching storyline. I was a child when it first aired and found its initial period somewhat dull and occasionally weird (if not occasionally embarrassing), but as an adult I’ve come to appreciate what the creators were attempting and how well it mostly succeeds. In contrast to TNG, DS9 was about something beyond its weekly adventures. Its first episode introduced the Bajorans, the Prophets, Starfleet’s mission to integrate the Bajorans into the Federation, and Sisko’s complicated relationship to it all. All of these threads persist in some form until the very end of the series, which is impressive. “In the Hands of the Prophets” wraps up the first chapter of Deep Space Nine and puts a pin in all of these storylines while adding several wrinkles that would change the course of the unfolding show. It offers a prescient political parable wrapped around a murder mystery with a deliciously villainous new character at the heart of it all.

The biggest and most lasting impact of the episode is of course the introduction of Winn, played by the late, great Louise Fletcher. Well-known for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fletcher became a recurring antagonist for the duration of Deep Space Nine. She brings the same cold intensity from that previous iconic role but dripping with passive aggressive venom for extra effect. As an actor, she was such a great “get” for the series and added so much to the complicated and multi-layered world of Deep Space Nine. I prefer to use the word “antagonist” to describe her; “villain” is too broad and simplistic a term to encapsulate the role she often played in the show. It’s a credit to the creators (and Fletcher) that they imbued Winn with complexity and some interesting shades of grey. She was unlike any antagonist we had seen in Star Trek before, and spoke to the more realistic and intractable evil that plagues political systems in the real world.

Her first meeting with Sisko is a great scene and through her pale smile and calm level voice Fletcher still conveys the burning hatred she has for him, this off-worlder who has been bestowed the vaunted title of Emissary of the Prophets. Sisko is uncomfortable with being called that, so of course that’s how she continually addresses him. Winn covets power, respect, and fear, and deviously conspires to attain them. On the other hand, Sisko was seemingly granted all of these things by the former Kai, Opaka. His humility and discomfort with his position is only further enraging to her, as it mocks all of her deceitful efforts.

“Oh how I’ve waited for this moment. I’ve saved this novelty incense for just this occasion – Jellybean Fart.”
“You… might want to pick up some q-tips. Just saying.”

The Bajorans were one of the main foundational aspects of Deep Space Nine and the first two seasons were heavily invested in their plight immediately following the Cardassians’ withdrawal from their world. It’s fair to say that the Bajorans as an overall storyline did not set imaginations ablaze (or break ratings records), and the series would eventually move on to more dynamic pastures as it continued. As a kid I found the Bajoran-centric episodes to be generally the most skippable, but have found greater appreciation for them as an adult. I think as plot devices the Bajorans function better as political and historical allegories, and their best episodes lean heavily into those topics. “Duet” is a series highlight because it mines the deep well of the extended Holocaust metaphor for intense drama. The three-parter that begins Season 2 is an exciting and epic adventure built around an internal military coup of the Bajoran government bankrolled by a foreign power.

“In the Hands of the Prophets” is a precursor to that event and lays the groundwork for the social and political instability of Bajor and the shifting cultural forces that threaten it. The religion of the Bajorans was their main defining feature and how well it worked in episodes was highly variable. Star Trek, for all its strengths in exploring topics, does not interrogate religion with much depth or nuance. The Bajorans’ religious faith wasn’t a plot point that was ever very exciting or interesting, but it works in this episode because of how Winn uses it as a cudgel to attack the Federation (through Keiko O’Brien) and advance her own political objectives.

“All right, now here’s something that will really blow your minds, you hourglass-worshipping savages.”

What’s nice and refreshing about “Prophets” is the twists and turns of its plot. It initially appears to be a classic (and somewhat stale) treatise on religion vs. science, as Vedek Winn strategically interrupts Keiko’s school lesson on the Bajoran wormhole and the science that powers its unique stability. Keiko is attempting to educate her students as to the science mumbo-jumbo that makes this singular phenomenon work, but Winn immediately attacks her for the blasphemy of trying to erase the Prophets’ role in making the wormhole (or “celestial temple,” as the Bajorans’ religion refers to it as) a safe passage.

This episode – and much of the series – plays with the interpretation of what the Prophets are, and how that varies depending on the individual. To the Bajorans they are their gods, but to Starfleet they are simply “wormhole aliens.” They are of course, formless aliens with otherworldly abilities who exist outside of linear time. As Sisko explains to Jake in one scene here, powerful beings not bound by a fundamental force of existence sure sound like gods. And this relates to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Star Trek has often explored the interchangeability between what can be considered a God or merely a superpowerful alien.

“I won’t stand by while you poison these childrens’ minds with your Critical Wormhole Theory!”

This viewpoint, inclusive as it may seem on it surface, would seem to reduce (or even negate) the wonderment of a divine being for some. By definition, religion is beyond the bounds (and purposes) of science, so any scientific attempt to quantify religious aspects (especially God/gods) seems destined to fail.

This is of course a huge and complicated topic that I’m not qualified to discuss, but fortunately that’s not really what this episode is about. In a lesser show (or even a previous Star Trek series), the conflict would be resolved with a rousing, passionate speech that gives equal credence to believers and non-believers and imploring everyone to Just Get Along. But because this is Deep Space Nine, the real mechanics of the plot go much deeper than that. The faith vs. science conflict is just a smokeshow and a simple wedge issue that Winn uses to create a schism between the still delicate and fledgling relationship between the Bajorans and the Federation. It also demonstrates a sadly effective tactic that politicians have time and time again used to infuriating success – “What about the children???” At one point, Winn condescendingly debates Keiko in public while standing waist high in a sea of Bajoran children. The visual framing illustrates how much she’s figuratively using the kids as a personal shield to launch her attacks and it’s so gross. And effective!

“As you can see, I have the high ground, Mrs. O’Brien. If you want to get to me you’ll have to go through them. I’m at least three brats deep, so I hope you brought an extra long harpoon.”

Winn’s strategy in attacking Keiko for her wormhole lesson is outrage politics 101 and is something that somehow seems to work in the real world 100% of the time. Educators are tragically easy targets for political figures to attack, and twisting their words to create angering and controversial sound bites never fails to enrage an intellectually lazy and reactionary base. First inserting herself into a normal lesson plan and creating a scene, Winn goes on to work the Bajorans on the station into an angry lather over the Federation’s perceived godlessness and apparent immorality. Keiko’s attempts to play nice and logically refute her attacking points of course fail, because it’s not a logical argument Winn is making. Emotion trumps reason, and ambitiously unscrupulous assholes have always used that to further their own agendas.

To even debate with these people is already a losing proposition. As the saying goes, you can’t win a wrestling match with a pig – you will get dirty, and the pig will like it. The frenzy Winn causes is all a distraction anyway – she does not give two shits about any of these kids (or anyone besides her for that matter). The infuriating thing about these hot button public arguments is that the person making them doesn’t care, and only wants the controversy to divide people and create the heat that allows them to rise.

“For the last time, stop trying to ruin and murder me. I’ll lay out my reasons why once again, please listen this time.”

Case in point – when Keiko brings her concerns to Sisko, Kira (who admits she’s kind of a fan of Winn) casually suggests that maybe Federation and Bajoran kids should have different schools. Sisko bristles at this because his whole mission is to bring these two groups of people together, and it all seems to be unraveling so quickly. Everyone is burning calories and wasting breath arguing about it, but Winn doesn’t care at all about any of it, it’s just a bomb she’s set off as a distraction. This is exactly what she wants!

And soon enough, tensions between Starfleet and the Bajorans start to rise. A vendor doesn’t want to sell stuff to O’Brien anymore, and lots of Bajorans suddenly aren’t feeling well and stop showing up for their duty shifts (to Sisko’s chagrin, who grumbles at Kira over it). Sisko and Kira butt heads throughout the episode and their conflict seems insurmountable. They’re from different worlds and have such diametrically opposed viewpoints that common ground is hard to find. The tension is depicted realistically while still within the bounds of Trek, so it’s well done.

“I know this is probably a bad time to ask, but can you hoist some manure sacks for me? I’d do it myself, but it’s, uh, against my religion…”

Sisko realizes he needs some help, and travels to Bajor to enlist the assistance of another Bajoran Vedek – Bareil. This episode is his first appearance and he would go on to be no one’s favorite character, but he’s probably the best and most interesting version of his character here. As I stated, I think the Bajorans’ internal politics are their most interesting aspect because it makes them a more realistic and grounded people. They’re very religious, but that faith doesn’t free them from political concerns and conflicts. Winn is very politically savvy and willing to go to any length to further her ambitions. As Kira explains she’s from an orthodox sect that is not well known, and she is concocting a controversy to raise her station and build up heat.

Bareil, on the other hand, is moderate and well-liked, and seems a shoe-in to ascend to Kai, the highest religious office of Bajor (plus he doesn’t like to grab people’s ears). The efficiency with which the episode establishes all of this is commendable. Sisko wants his support to combat the fire Winn is fueling, and Bareil explains the fear and mistrust his fellow ministers have for Sisko the Emissary (some of it administered by Winn herself). He politely declines to publicly be Sisko’s friend, at least not until he’s elected. “The Prophets teach patience,” he says. “Apparently, they also teach politics,” Sisko replies in what is one of my favorite lines of dialogue in the series. Zing!

(As always, the racial overtones can’t be ignored, and the fact that Sisko is Black adds some extra punch to the fear and mistrust he apparently engenders among the Bajoran spiritual elite, beyond his mere humanity and godlessness.)

“Aw, hell. I meant to defrost this ensign but I set it to turbo bake instead. What are the odds that he’s still frozen in the middle, eh? These things, I swear.”

While all this is happening, Miles O’Brien is dealing with mystery of his own. What begins with a simple missing tool from his box quickly turns into a murder investigation when a Starfleet engineer’s cooked remains are found in a station conduit (ew). The two plot threads of the episode represent one of the things I loved most about Deep Space Nine – its ability to deftly juggle multiple storylines, and how it creates a rich tapestry that powers its setting. DS9 the station is a big place with many visitors, and the series always depicted it buzzing with lots of activity and stuff going on. The structure of the episode is dynamic because of the two stories overlapping, even at times visually – at one point Bareil surprises Sisko by changing his mind and coming to visit the station; while they talk on the viewscreen, O’Brien’s duplicitous assistant Neela furtively eavesdrops in the background, out of focus. It all eventually converges in the climax, and it’s cool to see it steadily weaving together as the episode progresses.

Back, and to the left.

Neela had been seen in a previous episode as one of O’Brien’s techs, so it’s a nice bit of continuity that she reappears as a pivotal part of the plot here. O’Brien is fond of her (professionally) and can’t help but rave to his wife about her engineering prowess in the episode’s teaser (it cleverly foreshadows how she could pull off her technical machinations); Keiko feigns some playful jealousy in response which gets a defensive rise out of Miles. These two could be a bit of a pill as a couple, but it’s nice to see a lighter side of their combative dynamic. Also, Miles defending his wife to Winn is cool.

The extra effort to make Neela more than just a one-dimensional killer plot device is not strictly necessary, but is appreciated and makes for a better episode. She seemingly helps O’Brien try to figure out what’s happening, and in an interesting moment points out the inherent schism between the Starfleet and Bajoran officers (their physical staging is good, as they casually slump on the ground against a wall). She even seems to flirt with O’Brien (and is quite cute), who is adorably freaked out and dismisses her as quickly as possible (“On your toes, O’Brien,” he mutters under his breath, quoting Keiko from earlier). Before the climax, we learn that Neela is conspiring with Winn when they meet and she reveals some trepidation at going through with the plan. A little bit of extra characterization goes a long way, and it makes the episode richer and more memorable as a result.

“Your sacrifice will be greatly appreciated. Not by me of course, but by someone somewhere, I’m sure. Anyway, have fun killing and dying. It’s rough out there.”

Tensions seem to come to a head when Keiko’s school is bombed. This is what prompts Bareil to come aboard, and as politically shrewd as he appears to be, he still has a conscience and seems to want to extinguish the situation before it gets worse. Appearing on the Promenade to throngs of fans, he implores Winn to help him calm everyone down (her hesitation is great, as publicly allying with him is clearly a wrench in her plan). At this point O’Brien has realized that Neela is the culprit of the mysterious murder and has programmed an apparent escape plan into the station. As Bareil speaks to the audience, O’Brien busily tries to figure out the endgame and it’s a tense section. He warns Sisko, who spots Neela in the crowd with a weapon and leaps to subdue her before she can assassinate Bareil. It’s an artfully done climax as the action crawls to slow motion. Kira realizes that Winn’s whole gambit was just to lure Bareil to DS9 so that he could get killed, leaving her to become Kai without him in the way. Renouncing her membership to the Winn fan club, she accuses Winn, who offers no response and scurries away.

“Hey everyone, I think it’d be awfully groovy if you all joined me for a nice sing-along!”
“”Scuse me, pardon moi, just trying to kill someone here…”

It’s an interesting conclusion, for the bad guy gets away with it unscathed. Neela is arrested of course (but doesn’t reveal her co-conspirator), but Winn is too clever and insulated to take any heat for her crime. Instead, she escape to fight another day, and the entirety of Deep Space Nine would be that much more interesting and colorful as a result. It’s the first of many instances where Winn will use people as pawns to advance her aims and cruelly discard them after the fact. Earlier Neela implies that she will get the death penalty for her crime, to which Winn callously agrees.

But the episode (and season) ends on a more positive – if conflicted – note. Kira sits in Ops, lost in her own thoughts as Sisko approaches. She can’t help but take stock of how much her life has changed in the past year, and how disillusioned she is of Winn. Referencing Sisko’s earlier speech, she awkwardly tells him she doesn’t think he’s the devil. Sisko gamely replies that apparently they’ve made some progress after all!

“Hey, mopey-butt. You up for some late night burritos? I got the Prophets’ charge card, so they’re paying.”

It’s such a great conclusion because of how low key it is, and because there isn’t any big, satisfying victory. The crisis was averted, but the person who caused it is still walking free. The lingering schism between Starfleet and the Bajorans still exists, and it’s only going to be solved with time and work. Like rebuilding the ravaged planet of Bajor, it’s a slow grind that won’t be fixed with a heartwarming speech in a single episode.

Deep Space Nine was initially unique among Trek series because it eschewed bold exploration every week and instead focused on a single place – and all the vagaries and problems it had. There wasn’t any warping off to a new world and leaving the previous one behind. The conclusion here underlines the permanence of the setting and situation, and there’s a greater feeling of realness and significance because of it. As Kira says, her physical location hasn’t changed much, but her mindset and lot in life are totally different than they were a year ago. It was a different kind of exploration that was featured in Deep Space Nine, something far more complex and nuanced than we had seen in Trek before. It was as much about building as it was exploring. Sisko and Kira seem to finally build the beginning of a bridge of trust between them here. It’s an earned victory that would pay dividends, just like the first season of Deep Space Nine.

Stray Observations:

  • I like how much romantic interest O’Brien attracts from alien ladies – Neela, that Cardassian scientist, even Kira!
“I’ve always had a thing for humans. Irish ones. With dad bods. Who suffer constantly.”
“Huh? You don’t say. Now whatever happened to that pet tarantula I had…?”
  • There’s a nice scene between Ben and Jake in his office, where Ben encourages Jake not to be small-minded. Their dynamic is always great, and it’s nice to see them supporting each other as a family.
  • One of my favorite thematic threads of Deep Space Nine are the mirrored parallels between Sisko-Dukat and Sisko-Winn. Sisko’s role as Emissary is wholly rankling to both of these antagonists, who each covet the role he was seemingly given. Thus, the way in which Dukat and Winn’s storylines eventually intertwine as the series ends is so appropriate and clever.
  • Lovely location shooting. Always makes for a grander and memorable time.
“Yeah, it looks nice, but I’m getting absolutely killed on landscaping fees. I gotta find a cheaper fern guy.”
  • I love how after getting publicly roasted by Winn, Keiko teaches a lesson on Copernicus and his persecution from the Catholic Church to her remaining (non-Bajoran) students. So salty! But maybe not a great lesson in tolerance, as it convinces Jake that the Bajorans are being dumb before Ben sets him straight. Of course, her attitude is understandable given what she’s been put through. It’s a good illustration of Deep Space Nine’s theme of disparate characters having diverse and even incompatible worldviews and agendas.
  • Cool shot:
Two enter, one leaves. Followed by the other. Because it has a narrow door.
  • Those jumja sticks look kind of good.
“It tastes so good you’ll forget a tree sneezed it out!”