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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Destiny (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The biggest problem with Destiny is that it doesn’t feel fully-formed. The show plays more like a series of vignettes than a single story. There are some nice character beats, and a sense that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is an ensemble show, but Destiny meanders far too much. It seems like it wanders around without any singular purpose, any strong central point to tether it.

Is it about Sisko’s relation to the title of “Emissary”? Is about peace between Bajor and Cardassia? Is it about O’Brien and flirty Cardassians? Is it about Kira’s faith and her position on Deep Space Nine? Is it about end time prophecies?

It seems to be about all these things, but with no real commitment to any of them above the others. The end result is that it’s not about any of them particularly well.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Destiny began its life as something completely different. Although the final credit for the episode remains with David S. Cohen and Martin A. Winer, the script was completely re-written by René Echevarria. The changes to the episode’s script were so fundamental that Cohen has conceded, “Not a word of our dialogue made it in.” Apparently Cohen and Winer had suggested a riff on Heart of Darkness (even featuring a character named Marlowe), with Sisko finding himself torn between Starfleet and Bajor.

Indeed, Cohen and Winer’s pitch for Destiny feels like it has more in common with the fifth season’s Rapture than anything that actually made it to screen – another example of the show revisiting a dysfunctional third season premise during its fifth season. (In the Cards feels like an attempt to demonstrate that the basic premise of Life Support was not flawed.) As it stands, Destiny feels more like a random collection of scenes than a story in its own right.

"We're not sure who we'd want to talk to in the Gamma Quadrant, but it's nice to know that we could if we wanted..."

“We’re not sure who we’d want to talk to in the Gamma Quadrant, but it’s nice to know that we could if we wanted…”

The episode jumps back and forth between any number of threads very quickly. We’re told that the Cardassian visit to Deep Space Nine is a momentous occasion. Sisko sees it as such. “But while the Cardassians are here, I want the Bajorans to get used to seeing them walking on the Promenade, buying from their shops, eating from their restaurants, getting to know them as something other than brutal overseers,” he tells Odo. It’s a nice thought, and perhaps a demonstration of how far things have come since Emissary.

However, we never see any of that. The Cardassians are treated as generic alien ambassadors of the week – indistinct from the kind that Bashir was shuttling around in The Forsaken. They interact with the Starfleet crew. We get to see them in briefings. They go to Quark’s with O’Brien and Dax. But we never see them interacting with any Bajorans. There doesn’t seem to be a Bajoran scientific or diplomatic liaison. Even Kira is kept at a distance from them, tied up in Sisko’s subplot (or her own, depending on how you look at it) instead.

In a bit of fix...

In a bit of fix…

Even Yarka is kept at a distance from them – despite the implication that he is unsatisfied with the peace treaty. Having protesters carrying homemade signs or anything as strong as that may have been a little excessive, but it really doesn’t feel like this is as momentous and important an event as the script would have us believe. We don’t see the Cardassians interacting with Bajorans in a meaningful way over the course of the script. There’s no nod to Bajoran spirituality or how symbolic this must be for them.

Using the treaty from Life Support as a basis for the episode is a nice piece of internal continuity, the type of thing that Deep Space Nine has been getting gradually better at over this third season. That said, the selective use of continuity does invite the viewer to wonder about the other spooling continuity threads. Most obviously, there’s no sense that the events of The Jem’Hadar and The Search have really changed the way that anybody looks at the Gamma Quadrant.

"What's this about bring Bajor into the Federation? Starfleet forgot about that years ago..."

“What’s this about bring Bajor into the Federation? Starfleet forgot about that years ago…”

The Dominion warned the Federation, in no uncertain terms, to stop messing about in their territory. And yet here they are, developing infrastructure designed to facilitate exploration (and maybe even colonisation) of the Gamma Quadrant. Sure, the Dominion over-reacted to the arrival of the Federation, but the way the Federation seems to have completely ignored their repeated stated desire for privacy and isolation is inevitably going to cause upset. The Federation would seem to be the worst neighbours ever.

Not that Destiny is too concerned about this. Despite the fact the episode is focused on building a relay to the Gamma Quadrant, the word “Dominion” is only used twice. Given one of those references is made towards a possible Dominion invasion of the Alpha Quadrant, you’d imagine that people would be more interested. In particular, it feels weird that this is a Bajoran project after the Dominion slaughter of the New Bajor colony, but nobody seems too concerned about the implications. Is this defiance or a show of solidarity? No idea.

Quark's canned Kanar has gone off...

Quark’s canned Kanar has gone off…

Then again, there’s a sense that Destiny might have used a few extra drafts to bring out the finer detail. As it stands, it’s the rough sketch of an episode. In particular, the revelation that Dejar is an Obsidian Order spy and has sabotaged the mission feels like something that needs a bit of fleshing out. To be fair, it’s not Dejar herself that is problem. The episode dutifully flags well ahead of time that she is a spy, and that her colleague know she is a spy. She is a last-minute addition to the mission, she makes veiled threats, she is overtly xenophobic.

Rather, the problem is that her sabotage feels a little contrived. Dejar takes advantage of the comet to try and sabotage the mission. She hopes to destroy the wormhole and irreparably damage the peace with Bajor. Ignoring the fact that this seems at odds with the Order’s plans for the Gamma Quadrant in Improbable Cause – which had yet to be written or even properly planned – it still feels rather contrived. The comet was not a planned occurrence, which makes this sabotage a crime of opportunity.

"Might I suggest that you could also look badass with a bald head and a beard, Commander?"

“Might I suggest that you could also look badass with a bald head and a beard, Commander?”

That seems like rather poorly conceived espionage exercise, and rather haphazard. Sabotaging a Federation ship could be considered an act of war, so it seems a strange thing to attempt so rashly. From a plotting perspective, one wonders how Dejar’s sabotage was going to play out if the comet hadn’t presented itself. Would the other two scientists have allowed her to destroy their work on the relay station by sabotaging the project in so direct a manner?

There are other structural and storytelling issue. The happily ever after ending where Gilora avoids facing any real consequences for exposing an agent of the Obsidian Order seems to exist so that the episode has a completely up-beat ending. It feels somewhat at odds with the vision of the Obsidian Order presented in episodes like The Wire or Second Skin. It also seems like the entire subplot between Gilora and O’Brien is a thread that exists primarily to justify Gilora’s exposure of Dejar to spare O’Brien potential humiliation.

Talk to the hand...

Talk to the hand…

This is underscored by the fact that subplot feels a little too cute and generic. It’s nice to get a bit more development of Cardassian society, and the revelation that they treat arguing as flirting is quite a clever piece of worldbuilding, but there’s no substance to the plot. Given O’Brien’s history with Cardassians, one imagines that Gilora’s interest and flirtation would turn out to be a bigger deal than it ultimately turns out to be.

As a veteran of an extended war with the Cardassians, a character who has expressed mildly racist attitudes towards them, and a victim of Cardassian torture, it feels like the subplot should be a little more substantial. Instead, it plays like an awkward (and unfunny) stock romantic comedy subplot – a man and woman constantly bickering, inevitably discovering that there are romantic feelings involved. It’s the kind of light character work that Bashir normally gets saddled with. It seems like it only exists to justify Gilora’s reveal of Dejar in the final act.

"I knew I shouldn't have circulated those Starfleet protocol regulations as 'commandments'."

“I knew I shouldn’t have circulated those Starfleet protocol regulations as ‘commandments’.”

All of this creates a sense of clutter around the episode, and distracts from what’s probably the most interesting aspect of Destiny: Sisko’s relationship with the Bajoran religion. Like Civil Defense earlier in the season, there’s a sense that this is a plot that probably would have worked better earlier in the show’s run. It certainly could have used a bit more room to develop. After all, Sisko is a Starfleet officer who has been identified as a religious figure by the people he has been tasked to guide into the Federation. That’s a very awkward situation.

“Do you really believe that I am the Emissary?” Sisko asks Kira in one of the episode’s stronger scenes. Again, this feels like something that probably should have come up at some point earlier in the run – possibly over the course of In the Hands of the Prophets or during The Circle. This is something that both characters should really know about each other at this point, even if it hasn’t been expressly confirmed. It’s a nice conversation – and one very worth having, but it’s hard to shake the sense that this should have happened sooner.

"I've had these in storage for three years. You'd be surprised how a little age ripens the flavour."

“Yes, I’ve had these in storage for three years. You’d be surprised how a little age ripens the flavour.”

Still, even if it comes quite late in the show’s run, at least Destiny seems to settle the issue of Sisko’s divinity. In The Sisko, The Christ, biblical scholar Jeffrey S. Lamp, who has written extensively about Deep Space Nine, argues that Destiny contends Sisko can be both the Emissary and a Starfleet officer:

The vision allows the Bajorans, a religious subculture within the Star Trek universe, to ascribe to Sisko religious significance, while allowing the Federation to interpret his role apart from the viewpoint of that religious subculture. The subculture can interpret persons and events in a manner appropriate and meaningful to its world view, while the dominant cultural paradigm is permitted to interpret the same persons and events in a manner appropriate to its own world view. The net effect of the portrayal of Sisko achieves for the framers of the Star Trek vision of the universe a profound result: it removes from the religious subculture the right to make absolute claims about truth and reality for anyone beyond its own subculture. In this respect, the messianic portrayal of Sisko more closely resembles the messianic portrayal of Cyrus, the Persian king who was chosen by God to fulfil a redemptive role for the exiled Israelites, than he does the messianic depiction of Jesus, the cosmic ruler of all creation whose claims are absolute. Sisko is a mere human being who, because of his position, is able to function redemptively for a faith community to which he does not himself belong. All parties may evaluate the figure and interpret him in a way meaningful to the interpreter.

It’s a wonderfully tolerant way of looking at the whole situation, and it fits with the way that Destiny approaches all of its theological matters.

"Major, you mean you were referring to me every time you said 'Oh, my God'? This is awkward."

“Major, you mean you were referring to me every time you said ‘Oh, my God’? This is awkward.”

Destiny is underpinned by the idea of an ancient Bajoran prophecy predicting unfolding events. The original idea was for the prophecy to be optimistic and upbeat. As René Echevarria explained to Cinefantastique, this made it very difficult to break the story:

“It was structurally impossible to make it work,” said René Echevarria, “and I think it was Ron who said, ‘What if it was a prophecy of doom.’ I think the three of us broke that — Ira wasn’t around — and saw what they were going for and went with it, saving the twist that it was a prophecy of good tidings for the end. It was a good show for the franchise. Sisko as Emissary was something we had not touched on in a long time.”

However, changing the nature of the prophecy – making it a “prophecy of doom”, to quote Moore – actually gives Destiny a bit of resonance that it might not otherwise have.

When Gilora asks "What are the chances that both a primary system and its backup would fail at the same time?", I'm surprise O'Brien didn't answer "About once a week."

When Gilora asks “What are the chances that both a primary system and its backup would fail at the same time?”, I’m surprise O’Brien didn’t answer “It happens about once a week.”

Deep Space Nine is inevitably a product of the nineties. As such, the Bajoran religion is imbued with a decidedly nineties attitude towards religion and spirituality. It is – a broad sense – very New Age-y and laissez faire; at the same time, it is also prone to the occasional traditionalist and extremist. It is also tied up in the sorts of millennial themes that were playing out in popular culture through the mid-nineties.

The prophecy of doom in Destiny warns that “a sword of stars will appear in the heavens, the temple will burn and the gates will be cast open.” It sounds quite similar to the kinds of doomsday prophecies that were circulating at the time, often couched in vaguely Christian imagery. With the year 2000 approaching, doomsday prophecy had become something of a cottage industry in the nineties.

The Chief was always proud of his handy work...

The Chief was always proud of his handy work…

Various religious figures had predicted the end of days in the year 2000, or the years leading up to it. Among those preaching that the world would end were figures like Lester Sumrall, who proposed the apocalypse in his 1987 book I Predict 2000 AD;  Ed Dobson, who conjured up doomsday imagery in is 1997 book The End: Why Jesus Could Return by A. D. 2000; Sun Myung Moon marked the date in a sermon in 1989. In 1998, Chip Berlet noted the trend:

Visit a large bookstore and scan the titles in the religion, prophecy, new age, and occult sections and you will see a cornucopia of books anticipating the year 2000. Surfing the Web reveals a pulsating multimedia cacophony of millennial expectation. The topics range from secular to spiritual and from cataclysmic doom to transcendent rapture in what Michael Barkun has called an “improvisational style” of millennialism and apocalypticism.

Of course, these sorts of end of the world prophecies were nothing new in the nineties, despite the surge in their popularity. The year 2000 had also been named by other older figures like Edgar Cayce and Ruth Montgomery. In the vast majority of cases, the projected apocalypse tended to be biblical – drawing from imagery in Revelations. This is the sort of context that informs Destiny, and it’s not too hard to imagine Vedek Yarka touring the talk show circuit in the mid-nineties to launch his latest high-profile book.

Quark's got some bottle...

Quark’s got some bottle…

It goes without saying that the fascination with prophecy and prediction never quite went away, even if it never hit the same fevered heights that it did in the mid-nineties. 2012 was another popular date projected for the end of the world. There are strong links between these sorts of prophecies and conspiracy theories – often prophecies are invoked to foreshadow paranoid fantasies about the “new world order” or some such.

Tellingly, both paranoid conspiracy and religious prophecy overlap in fringe discourse on September 11th. A supposedly ancient prophecy by Nostradamus circulated in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, as if to suggest that the French prophet had foreseen the horrific events. Of course, as tempting as it was to buy into that narrative, the truth was more surreal; it was actually a made-up prophecy from a college paper submitted in 1997, with the goal of demonstrating how a suitably vague prophecy can retroactively apply to anything.

"We may have a Major miscommunication here..."

“We may have a Major miscommunication here…”

Sisko alludes to this sort of retroactive validation in conversation with Kira. “But that all hinges on how you interpret an ancient text that’s been translated and re-translated over the centuries,” he argues. “Words that were couched in metaphor to begin with.” It’s easy to ascribe symbolic meaning to abstract phrases and imagery. It’s particularly tempting to do so after the fact, applying obvious confirmation bias.

(Much like conspiracy theories tend become self-justifying, so do prophecies. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point to rejection of their theories as validation that they are being targeted and silenced – never mind the tendency to treat the absence of evidence as evidence itself. After all, it’s all a little too neat, isn’t it? Similarly, prophecy tends to be phrased in vague enough language that it can apply to anything, whether proactively or retroactively. Human beings have a fantastic ability to connect dots that don’t exist.)

Through the wormhole...

Through the wormhole…

There’s something very appealing about prophecy, the notion that horrific events can be foretold ahead of time suggests that everything has a reason and there is some secret order to the universe. In many respects, it’s a companion feeling to the interest in paranoid conspiracy that surged during the nineties – the idea that the world must be run according to some secret plan. (After all, the only think more terrifying is the idea that there is no plan and nobody has any idea what is going on.)

As with the conspiracy theory undertones seeded in episodes like Whispers and The Search, there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine has its finger on the pulse – it’s very much in tune with the culture and politics of the nineties. Indeed, the prophecy in Destiny is interpreted in an explicitly political manner. “I realise now I let my distrust of the Cardassians blind me to the Prophets’ words,” Yarka concedes during the episode’s surprisingly upbeat ending. Yarka learned a valuable lesson.

"Remind me to tell Chief O'Brien to stop packing the consoles with C4."

“Remind me to tell Chief O’Brien to stop packing the consoles with C4.”

Much like many of the prophecies and conspiracy theories popularised during the nineties were rooted in demonising particular groups and subcultures, Sisko shrewdly suggests that Yarka is using the prophecy to justify his mistrust of the Cardassians. When Odo points out that Yarka “was defrocked because he led a series of protests against the Vedek Assembly when they endorsed the peace treaty with Cardassia”, Sisko instantly makes the connection, “So Yarka may be using this prophecy as a way to scuttle the peace treaty.”

However, what is fascinating about Destiny is the way that the episode makes a point to close on a happy ending. The relay station works. The Obsidian Order agent is identified without fear of reprisal. O’Brien makes a new friend. Sisko makes peace with his title. Yarka realises that his doomsday prophecies were routed in his real-world concerns. Even the ominous prophecy ultimately turns out to be optimistic – the temple gates are gladly opened to facilitate communication.

"Don't worry, we've got lots techno-babble and needlessly complex diagrams to help us explain this simple concept."

“Don’t worry, we’ve got lots techno-babble and needlessly complex diagrams to help us explain this simple concept.”

In Biblical Interpretation in the Star Trek Universe, Lamp suggests that the ending is an attempt to stress that religious faith need not be destructive or pessimistic; prophecy does not need to be apocalyptic or grim. It’s an ending that stresses tolerance and the importance of how people approach religious matters:

The model proposed does not deprecate a faith community’s right and responsibility to interpret the sources of its faith, but rather suggests an open-mindedness when interpreting symbolic and figurative language. Moreover, such an interpretive shift greatly benefits the function of larger society. If prophecy were seen as constructive rather than destructive or cataclysmic, then the faith community would certainly work in accordance with prophetic utterance for the betterment of conditions for all human society. In this respect, the Star Trek vision can be seen to advocate the handling of prophecy in a manner similar to that of a significant portion of mainline Christianity as it pursues the agenda of the “social gospel”, the outworking of the social and ethical content of biblical texts apart from acceptance of the supernatural claims and worldview of these texts.

In general, Deep Space Nine adopts a more tolerant approach to religion and faith than the other Star Trek shows. It feels much more balanced in handling ideas of belief and spirituality.

"So... this is an awkwardly silent shuttle trip."

“So… this is an awkwardly silent shuttle trip.”

While episodes like Who Watches the Watchers? and The Apple seem to present religious belief as inherently destructive, Deep Space Nine suggests that faith is simply a perspective on the universe – it is neither inherently good or inherently bad. All that matter is how that faith inspires people to act. Faith can be at the root of terrible actions, but it can also be the inspiration for incredible behaviour. The key is tolerance and respect – both of those outside the religion for the beliefs of the faithful, but equally of the faithful towards those who do not share their beliefs.

As an aside – and speaking about the ability to retroactively spot patterns and symbolism everywhere – it is a nice touch that what little we hear of “Trakor’s fourth prophecy” lines up quite well with the events of What You Leave Behind. That said, it’s not as if the Emissary doesn’t face “a fiery trial” (at least metaphorically) and a tough decision every other week. It’s a nice demonstration of how suitably vague prophecies can become self-fulfilling, but also a nice little – entirely coincidental – indicator towards the show’s future.

How doth it prophet a man, indeed?

How doth it prophet a man, indeed?

Destiny is a very flawed episode. Like Life Support, it seems cobbled together rather than skilfully constructed. At the same time, it has some wonderful ideas and some great moments… it just can’t bring them together successfully.

You might be interested in our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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2 Responses

  1. Admiral Ross didn’t think Sisko could be a Starfleet officer and the Emissary, and practically had to bully him into leading the invasion of Cardassia rather than heed the Prophets words in the S6 finale. End of Days was about the millennial apocalypse that seemed inspired from the fears of the Millennium Bug, so it hasn’t aged that well. 2012 was supposedly the end of the world? Where was I? “Human beings have a fantastic ability to connect dots that don’t exist”, like much of M Night Shyamalan’s career. Didn’t one of the characters forsee something profound in the directions on a cereal packet in Lady in the Water, for example?

    • Never mind the climax of Signs. Yes, your dying mother meant for you to use a baseball bat to splash water on an evil invading fleet of aliens. That’s exactly what she meant.

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