Faith can be a tricky issue.
At one point in Rapture, the primary cast take a moment to reflect upon it. Kira tries to explain her belief in Sisko and the Prophets to Dax and O’Brien. She struggles. They have difficulty understanding how Kira can invest so much certainty in something so intangible. Eventually, Worf interjects. “Do not attempt to convince them, Major,” he urges her. “They cannot understand.” Dax is a little surprised by Worf’s interest in the topic. “Since when did you believe in the Prophets?” she asks. Worf responds, “What I believe in is faith.”
It is a short conversation, but one that reveals a lot about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As a rule, the Star Trek franchise tends towards a strong atheism, rejecting notions of religion and spirituality as the hallmarks of an underdeveloped civilisation; Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky, Who Watches the Watchers?, Devil’s Due, False Profits, Chosen Realm. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the franchise prides itself on its rationalism. However, it also feels a little narrow-minded.
Rapture might just be the franchise’s most compelling exploration of unquestioning faith, a harrowing portrayal of devotion and inspiration that captures at once the ecstasy of unwavering belief and the discomforting aspects of watching someone embrace something outside a rational frame of reference. Rapture is a mesmerising piece of television.
Deep Space Nine is a fascinating television show in a number of ways, existing at once of its time and outside of that. While certain aspects of the show have a very timeless quality, others are firmly rooted in contemporary realities. In terms of its handling of religion, Deep Space Nine is very much a nineties television show. Although television networks had provided religious programming that was “mainly confined to Sunday mornings”, and evangelical broadcasters set up shop in the eighties, but they generally remained quite removed from regular broadcasting.
Religion had long been a touchy subject for broadcasters, particularly when it came to popular dramas airing either on major networks or in syndication. “Religion is generally avoided on TV because of the potential to offend the faithful or turn off viewers who aren’t in the same flock,” reflects Cynthia Littleton of classic television’s attitude towards the subject. As such, observes David Marc, it could often feel like “the only time a church was on the air was when a church was damaged during the civil rights struggles.”
To be fair, there was an ambient religious background noise to a lot of television, firmly rooted in the United States’ firmly Christian majority. This was apparent even in early Star Trek episodes, despite Gene Roddenberry’s avowed atheism. James T. Kirk might topple psychotic computers and super-powered aliens, but the show made it clear that Kirk was a god-fearing man. Confronting Apollo in Who Mourns for Adonais?, Kirk offers, “Mankind has no need for gods. We find the one quite adequate.” It is quite clear which “one” to which he is referring.
However, by the time that the nineties arrived, things were beginning to change. It became increasingly common for scripted prime-time drama to grapple with religion in a way that was more than just the occasional line affirming the beliefs held by the Christian majority. Religious matters could be discussed and debated in ways that teased out complicated questions for the audience, affording characters the opportunity to embrace diverse perspectives on matters of belief and spirituality.
In some ways, the major networks lagged a little behind the more adventurous discussion taking place on Fox’s two breakout nineties hits. The Simpsons treated religion as part of the eponymous family’s everyday life, something that was at once subject to the same well-observed satire that the show directed to other institutions and treated with a surprising amount of consideration and tact. Even the show’s portrayal of church attendance was a break from the norm, with John Dart observing that mass was “a practice rarely seen or mentioned in other TV shows.”
Similarly, The X-Files dealt with faith in ways both literal and oblique. “I Want to Believe,” promises Mulder’s iconic poster. “The Truth is Out There,” the opening text assures viewers. Mulder might have been chasing aliens, but he was looking for something to believe amid the existential ennui of the nineties. The fourth episode made these parallels specific, with closing on a scene of Mulder crying in a church as he longs to see his sister again. Later seasons became more explicit, exploring Scully’s religious faith and likening the aliens to divinity.
The American public seemed quite interested in exploring facets of faith through television. As Don Closson noted in 1997, surveys by TV Guide suggested that audiences wanted more exploration of religious matters mixed into their entertainment:
TV producers are finding out that typical TV watchers are hungry for programming that includes spiritual themes. In TV Guide’s own survey, they discovered in a national telephone poll that 56% of adults feel that religion does not get enough attention on prime- time TV; only 8% feel that it gets too much. Of those responding 61% desired more references to God, church attendance, and other religious observances; 68% were eager to see more spirituality as long as it was not tied to organized religion, and 82% wanted more emphasis on moral issues. One of the most successful programs at attracting these viewers has been Touched by an Angel.
What had been considered a taboo subject to be kept separate from mass entertainment was now considered a subject for exploration and discussion in a way that it had not been previously.
This tied into broader cultural shifts during the nineties. Church attendance declined dramatically in the nineties, after somewhat stabilising during the eighties. American faith in organised religion and religious institutions only dropped below sixty percent for the first time in 1986, but would remain below sixty percent for the entirety of the nineties. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans began to “rise noticeably” during the nineties. Over the course of the decade, Buddhism and New Ageism became fixtures of American life.
As such, religion in the nineties was a complicated and multifaceted thing, where it seemed like a significant portion of the population was chasing spirituality rather than religion. There are any number of reasons that this might have been the case, from the same underlying existential ennui that fueled the decade’s fascination with subjective concepts of reality to a sense of listlessness following the end of the Cold War to a creeping sense of apocalyptic dread as the new millennium loomed large of the decade.
Wade Clarke Roof argued that the spirituality of the nineties was more firmly rooted in self-discovery than religious doctrine, searching for a way to make sense of the world in an individualised way rather than through the confines of a rigid structure:
All of this suggests that religious life has become more oriented to the inner life – to feelings, to experience, to the self. Of course, it is easy to criticize popular spirituality, to find it shallow and lacking in substance, more of a fad than of any lasting significance. And while I am sympathetic to this point of view, I am convinced that something more fundamental is going on. Among many Americans there is a serious religious ferment, a quest in search of a deeper spirituality. For sure, there is much experimentation, but beneath much of what we observe at present, I believe, is an authentic quest for wholeness. Americans, like people elsewhere, yearn for a more holistic world and meaningful interpretations of life in the face of all the challenges we now confront with modernity.
The emphasis was very much on religious belief as a deeply personalised experience, one that was uniquely tailored to the individual rather than prescribed en masse to entire congregations.
At the same time, the War on Terror had not established religious extremism as an enduring threat to liberal democracy. There were, of course, any number of high-profile religious controversies during the nineties from the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway to the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. However, the decade was far removed from the anxieties that would find expression following the 9/11 attacks, with heated debates about the extent to which organisations like ISIS are fundamentally religious to arguments over the use of phrases like “radical Islam.”
As such, nineties pop culture could more comfortably romanticise devout faith and religious fervour, as religious extremism was not presented as an existential threat. There were times when this romantic fascination could become creepy, as if television shows were advocating for extremism because at least that offered some sense of spiritual fulfillment. The X-Files skirted this line on a number of occasions, most notably in episodes like Revelations, All Souls and Signs and Wonders. In a godless age of existential ennui, it was better to believe wholeheartedly than not at all.
The Star Trek franchise flirted with these ideas during the second half of the decade, mostly following the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A lot of this seemed to be driven by writer and executive producer Michael Piller, who seemed fascinated with this modern nineties spirituality. Piller tended to embrace New Age philosophy, something that came up repeatedly in the early seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. Piller’s writing was often clumsy and ill-judged, particularly approaching Native American spirituality in shows like The Cloud, Tattoo and Basics, Part I.
Indeed, Piller’s interest in New Age spirituality would even bleed through into Star Trek: Insurrection, his final contribution to the franchise that featured (a disconcertingly white) society clearly inspired by New Age stereotypes on Native Americans who even had the ability to teach outsiders to stop time. To be fair, the franchise would steer away from these trite New Age clichés once Piller departed; there is no small irony in the fact that the last episode produced by Piller to broadcast was Sacred Ground, which is perhaps Voyager‘s least offensive New Age episode.
To be fair, Piller’s interest in New Age spirituality can be keenly felt on the Bajoran religion in Deep Space Nine, particularly in the early seasons. As Emily McAvan argues in The Postmodern Sacred:
Like many of the fictitious religions in the postmodern sacred, the Bajoran faith’s chief real-world referent is Buddhism, with Buddhist style robes, references to meditation and chanting. But is Buddhism seems the chief referent, references to Christianity nevertheless abound (say in the Catholicism-recalling realpolitik that occurs behind the scenes in the election of the Bajoran spiritual leader). While the series is limited by the necessity of conforming to an identifiably “Star Trek” style, it nevertheless suggests an interesting sea-change within science fiction – direct atheism is to be avoided, and an ambivalent relationship to the sacred, refracted largely through the New Age, is to be attempted. Peter Linford suggests that in Deep Space Nine “religion is significant only to the extent it impacts on the [individual] believer.”
In fact, later seasons see Deep Space Nine moving away from this ambiguous New Age cosmology and towards a more traditional Christian narrative, a trend that really begins with the introduction of the pah-wraiths in The Assignment.
Still, it would be a while before the pah-wraiths really took hold of the show’s religious mythology, with their influence solidifying in The Reckoning late in the sixth season. As such, Rapture is an episode very much rooted in the spirituality that defined so many early episodes of Deep Space Nine. It touches upon the ambiguity of interpretation that informed In the Hands of the Prophets and picks up Sisko’s acceptance of his role as Emissary that was explored in Accession. It is an episode that really feels like the culmination of these ideas.
Working late one night, Sisko is struck by a stray bold of energy from a holosuite computer panel. As a result, Bashir diagnoses Sisko with “post-neural shock syndrome.” It is not particularly serious, although it does have a number of side effects. “All external stimuli are going to seem more pronounced,” Bashir promises. That certainly seems to be the case. Energised by the blast, Sisko seems gripped by inspiration. He fixates upon his search for the lost city of B’Hala to the exclusion of all else. He has a number of breakthroughs.
Through this fixation, Sisko manages to find a mythical metropolis that had been buried for twenty thousand years. Naturally, the Bajorans treat this as religious affirmation. When Kira stumbles upon Sisko locked in a trance, she frames his hallucinatory experience in religious terms. “You were having a pagh’tem’far, a sacred vision,” she states. “The Prophets chose well when they made you their Emissary.” There is a divine hand at work in the universe, and in this moment it is working through Sisko.
However, other characters look at what is happening to Sisko and see something different. They see an obsession developing. They see something approaching mental illness. They see an monomanical fixation upon something that limits Sisko’s ability to function. Sisko’s newfound religious devotion becomes all-consuming. It causes tension with his old friend Admiral Charlie Whatley, who has come to oversee Bajor’s admittance into the Federation. It causes Sisko to miss Kasidy when she arrives back on the station after half-a-year in prison.
This obsession is not healthy. Indeed, it borders on a mental health issue. Discussing the episode at The A.V. Club, writer Zack Handlen likened it to his own experiences with bipolar disorder:
I’m bipolar. Very mild case, not a big deal, and I’ve been on the same level of medication for years now. But I notice every few weeks or so, the world suddenly gets a lot sharper. I make connections easier, and I come up with more ideas; the sentences I write come to my fingers almost fully formed. Which is great, but the longer this goes on, the faster those connections come, and the more irritated I get with the outside world. Everyone around is me slow, or a distraction. Worst of all, at some point, the speed is so much that I can’t match it with my methods of expression. This is a minor version of manic behavior, and if I weren’t medicated (or if my illness was more severe), I’d mostly likely find myself hugely over-confident, shouting a lot, and generating work that would seem brilliant in my head, but make absolutely no sense to an outsider. But I don’t get that bad. I just get a little wound up, until I start to think I almost have everything right, that I can make the whole world make sense. And then it slips away.
I thought about this some watching Rapture, which details Sisko’s efforts to find the fabled lost Bajoran city of B’Hala.
Sisko’s experience is obviously a lot more intense, but it borders on a form of mania. To an outside observer, Sisko’s behaviour is something deeply unsettling and disconcerting.
Of course, everything that the audience knows about Deep Space Nine makes it very clear that Sisko is having a religious experience, no matter how uncomfortable that might make the supporting cast. The show has been running for over one hundred episodes by this point, and the viewers are familiar enough with the way that the show works to recognise that Deep Space Nine takes place in a more overtly spiritual corner of the Star Trek universe than The Next Generation ever did.
Deep Space Nine is a show very much invested in religious interpretations of events, with Keiko making a convincing argument in In the Hands of the Prophets that the mysterious entities residing in the wormhole can be both the Wormhole Aliens to the secular Starfleet crew and the Prophets in the Celestial Temple to the Bajorans. One does not negate the other. Given that the Prophets have been shown to interfere in mortal affairs in episodes like Prophet Motive and Accession, it seems more than likely that there is a divine force working through Sisko.
Rapture seems to support this reading. After all, Sisko is granted a keen insight into the lives of the people around him, seeming to know their most intimate secrets. He assures Admiral Whatley that his son has already forgiven him. He promises a farmer that the harvest will be plentiful. He directs one member of the Bajoran militia to simply turn his life around. More than that, Sisko is granted a glimpse of things to come, the “swarm of locusts” that will arrive in By Inferno’s Light and the “coming war with the Dominion” that will begin in A Call to Arms.
To be fair, it could be argued that Sisko’s observations and predictions are outside the realm of possibility. His remarks to the assembled bystanders are suitably vague that they could simply be the result of keen observation. After all, if a religious leader argues that their follower doesn’t belong there, what are the odds of that follower disagreeing? While Admiral Whatley has difficulty understanding how Sisko could know that he had been disagreeing with his son, but the episode also makes it clear that Sisko knows Whatley personally; perhaps he could deduce as much.
Rapture explicitly acknowledges this sense of ambiguity, making it clear that Sisko’s actions are a canvas unto which an observer might project their own beliefs. When Sisko discovers B’Hala, Worf remarks to Kira, “Your gods have granted the Captain a powerful vision.” Odo seems less convinced. “Or else he made a very lucky guess,” Odo scoffs. Similarly, when Kira broaches the subject in Ops, the crew adopt differing attitudes towards what is happening to Sisko. The events can be rational or irrational.
Indeed, one of the nice aspects of Rapture is the way that it consciously avoids directly acknowledging the involvement of the Prophets. The audience is never subject to Sisko’s visions, instead forced to take the character at his word about his visions of being in B’Hala on “the eve of the Peldor Festival”, how he could “smell the burning bateret leaves, taste the incense on the wind.” While this might have been a budgetary concern owing to the high cost of episodes like Apocalypse Rising or Trials and Tribble-ations. But it works in the context of the episode.
Rapture cleverly avoids directly involving the Prophets in the plot. There are none of the visions that viewers have come to expect from episodes like The Collaborator and Accession. Denying the audience an “objective” encounter with these nonlinear beings, as much as any encounter with them could be considered objective, allows the episode to focus purely on the human drama at the heart of the story. The narrative conventions of Deep Space Nine suggest that the Prophets really are speaking through Sisko, but Rapture offers a slight hint of ambiguity.
Still, even without a sequence depicting Sisko’s visions, Rapture is a beautiful piece of television. Rapture is directed by Jonathan West, fresh off his work on Trials and Tribble-ations. The cinematographer treats the obelisk at the centre of the story with an almost religious reverence, shooting it from strange angles to create a sense of mystery and power that recalls the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also does some nice work with lighting, particularly in the sequence of Sisko discovering B’Hala, phaser light illuminating the cave set.
It helps that the story is very much rooted in the character drama around Sisko. While Rapture features the discovery of the lost city and plans to induct Bajor into the Federation, the episode never loses sight of the very human drama nestled at the centre of the episode. Is Sisko having a religious experience or a nervous breakdown? What do those around him make of his eccentric behaviour? Just how far is Sisko willing to follow this divine inspiration? And just how far are his friends and family willing to allow that?
Avery Brooks is phenomenal. Brooks’ performance style is one of the most polarising in the franchise, adopting a heightened approach to the material that can occasionally draw attention to the artifice of the setting. (It is worth noting that Brooks makes a phenomenal Klingon in Apocalypse Rising.) Brooks tends to pitch his performance roughly halfway between those of William Shatner and Patrick Stewart, veering between the scenery-chewing energy that defines Shatner’s work and the solemn gravitas that marks Stewart’s approach.
Brooks is capable of delivering just about anything that a script my require of him. His dramatic performances in In the Pale Moonlight and Far Beyond the Stars are among the finest dramatic work in the franchise, up there with Partick Stewart’s work in episodes like Family or The Inner Light. Similarly, Brooks is capable of turning in larger-than-life performances in episodes like Dramatis Personae and Facets that recall some of Shatner’s most consciously energised work in episodes like The Enemy Within or The Enterprise Incident.
As such, Brooks is well equipped to handle the character’s religious devotion in Rapture. Brooks perfectly captures the strange feeling of certainty and insight that tends to radiate from individuals wholly invested in religious belief, the conviction that is at once perfectly logical and utterly baffling to those who do not share that faith. Sisko’s religious mania is by turns heartwarming and unsettling, with Rapture perfectly capturing the extremes to which faith can drive its adherents and the turns by which is can seem romantic and horrifying to outside observers.
That is perhaps the key strength of Rapture. It is an episode that refuses to offer any broad generalisations, one way or the other. On the subject of Sisko’s religious certainty, the episode is ultimately ambiguous. There is a sense that the writers understand the appeal of such rock-solid belief, which must seem particularly appealing in an age of global uncertainty. There is a tendency to romanticise that which is exotic or unknowable. However, Rapture is also aware of the dangers of such untempered belief.
For all that the episode deals with concepts important to the mythology of Deep Space Nine, from Bajor’s admittance into the Federation through to the looming Dominion War, it ultimately comes down to a very personal choice. Sisko is dying, and rejects a treatment that would save his life but rob him of the visions. Jake and Kasidy find themselves weighing these options, forced to choose between allowing Sisko’s religious experience to continue and saving his life. It is a powerful emotional pivot point, one that very much grounds the story.
There are obvious parallels that might be drawn to any number of present-day real-world scenarios concerning religious belief systems that reject certain medical practices. The most obvious point of comparison is perhaps the stance that Jehova Witnesses have adopted towards blood transfusions, which became a point of cultural clash as blood transfusions became increasingly common following the Second World War:
After the war, donated blood became an integral part of Western medicine. Advances in care, including open-heart surgery, artificial kidney replacements, and trauma work “consumed huge amounts of blood,” Starr writes. Doctors also transfused patients to top off their hemoglobin levels following procedures like tonsillectomies, appendectomies, and even childbirth. Yet, in the thrall of wartime transfusion, blood had never been treated like an experimental drug and subjected to rigorous, randomized clinical trials assessing risk and benefit. Its power was intuitive. Doctors observed that patients with anemia seemed to feel better following transfusion. “The patients looked rosy and felt full of energy,” one older doctor told me. No one was thinking yet about adverse effects.
This made it difficult for Jehovah’s Witnesses who developed anemia or needed major surgery. The religion’s governing body had decided that passages in the Bible, which instruct adherents not to consume blood, meant that they should avoid transfusion. The mixing of blood seemed to them a form of existential contamination. Yet most Witnesses still wished to receive medical care. And “in some doctors’ minds, there was confusion,” Zenon Bodnaruk, of Hospital Information Services at the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ world headquarters, in Brooklyn, told me. Some doctors believed that the religious objection to blood transfusion was tantamount to a refusal of care. One frequent scenario involved patients with heart disease who needed coronary-artery bypass grafts or cardiac-valve-replacement surgeries, both of which involved substantial blood loss and were nearly always accompanied by transfusion. Jehovah’s Witnesses were repeatedly turned away by cardiac surgeons or “asked to reconsider their religious position on blood,” Bodnaruk said.
The issues could become particularly controversial where the denial in question was not made by the patient in question, but by a parent or guardian. There were a number of high-profile trials in the early nineties, including those of William and Christine Hermanson and Ginger and David Twitchell, who were found guilty of manslaugther for refusing their children medical treatment.
Of course, Rapture presents a very different scenario. Benjamin Sisko is most definitely not a child. However, there are legitimate questions to be asked as to whether he is in the proper state of mind to make decisions about his own healthcare. As a result, Jake Sisko is put in the position of having to decide the question. This is an intriguing inversion of the classic moral dilemma, where the life of a parent who believes is placed in the hands of a child who does not. There is something delightfully wry in the reversal.
(Deep Space Nine would go on to offer a more conventional (and far less satisfying) metaphorical examination of the topic in the sixth season. Reckoning is in many ways a clumsier reiteration of the core themes of Rapture, with Ben Sisko faced with the prospect that Jake Sisko might die while partaking in an important religious ritual. The Reckoning lacks a lot of the skill and nuance of Rapture, and continues the trend of dumbing down the religious subtext of the series that began with The Assignment.)
In the end, Jake chooses to save his father. And the show does not judge him for that choice. (After all, it seems highly unlikely that Deep Space Nine would ever allow Ben Sisko to die in the middle of the fifth season, even if that reality prevents the character from achieving true oneness with the universe.) Jake’s motivations are honest and sincere, and Rapture refuses to dismiss them as mere cowardice or uncertainty. This is the beauty of Rapture, refusing to condemn Ben Sisko for his absolute devotion and also refusing to condemn Jake for refusing to respect it.
Rapture is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of how Deep Space Nine approaches issues of culture and religion. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that Deep Space Nine is the first truly multicultural Star Trek show. While The Next Generation and Voyager tend to adopt a rather absolutist stance in terms of Federation cultural norms, Deep Space Nine is more interested in exploring the idea of finding a common ground between differing viewpoints than it is in advocating for one particular perspective.
Deep Space Nine takes various perspectives at face value, and explores the kind of negotiation and compromise that is necessary for differing cultures to coexist with one another. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not. It is perhaps telling that Deep Space Nine ends on a rather ambiguous note, with several characters returning home while others make a conscious choice to remain on this multicultural space station. This willingness to explore these challenges without resorting to easy answers makes Deep Space Nine so effective.
In many ways, Rapture represents the last time that Deep Space Nine will tackle religion in this manner. There are shades of this ambiguity and relativism in seventh season episodes like Covenant and Treachery, Faith and the Great River, but it is never explored quite as directly as it was in early Bajor-centric episodes like In the Hands of the Prophets or Accession. In many ways, the introduction of the pah-wraiths in The Assignment is to blame. Introducing the concept of Lucifer and demons into the Bajoran religion made it seem a lot less alien.
Rapture represents the end of the line in a number of other respects. Most notably, it is the last time that the issue of Bajor joining the Federation is seriously broached on the series. The episode reveals that the Federation has accepted Bajor’s application for membership, and Admiral Charlie Whatley is dispatched to oversee the ceremony. It is a big deal, representing the culmination of five years of hard work on the part of Sisko. This is the culmination of the mission that he was assigned in Emissary, to guide Bajor out of the Occupation and towards the Federation.
As with a lot of the fifth season, Rapture underscores just how much time has passed since the show began. The characters have been allowed to grow and evolve over the past one-hundred plus episodes. Rapture draws attention to Kira’s own change, when Worf asks if she favours admission. “You know, five years ago I wouldn’t have been. I didn’t think Federation membership was right for Bajor. It hadn’t been that long since the occupation and I thought it was important for us to learn to stand on our own two feet.”
This is precisely the sort of evolution that Voyager refuses its lead characters. Even characters like the EMH and Seven are denied that level of development. It speaks to the priorities of Deep Space Nine that this sort of evolution can be allowed to occur over so long a period in a way that feels organic and natural. No character on Deep Space Nine is the same between Emissary and What You Leave Behind, and it feels like the passage of time is a recurring fascination of the show. The passage of time means change, and the show embraces that. Prophecy and change.
At the same time, the fifth season also underscores how time does not heal all wounds. Episodes like Things Past and The Darkness and the Light emphasise how the Occupation is still an open wound for the planet, even half a decade after the atrocity came to an end. Even in Rapture, Kai Winn makes it clear that the Occupation still informs social divisions on Bajor. The mass murder visited upon the planet by the Cardassians cannot be entirely forgotten or brushed aside, even after years have passed.
“Those of you who were in the Resistance, you’re all the same,” Winn reflects. “You think you’re the only ones who fought the Cardassians, that you saved Bajor singlehandedly. Perhaps you forget, Major, the Cardassians arrested any Bajoran they found teaching the word of the Prophets. I was in a Cardassian prison camp for five years and I can remember each and every beating I suffered. And while you had your weapons to protect you, all I had was my faith and my courage.” Bajoran society is still shaped and defined by those past wounds.
Of course, Rapture would ultimately be the last time that the show seriously considers the issue of Bajor joining the Federation. In many ways, that is a very strange choice. After all, Deep Space Nine prides itself on long-form storytelling, and Sisko was first assigned to the station in Emissary with the responsibility for ensuring that Bajor became a Federation member. However, Bajoran membership of the Federation is largely dropped from the final two seasons of the show, perhaps to make room for the Dominion War.
This is one of the strongest and most frequent criticisms of the show’s final seasons. In fact, Keith R.A. DeCandido singles out the handling of Sisko’s relationship with Bajor as one of the show’s greatest failures:
Back in Emissary, Sisko was given two purposes: to become Emissary of the Prophets and to get Bajor ready to join the Federation. The former was handled ineptly with an inane storyline involving glowy red eyes and pretentious sounding prophecies that boil down to “we picked you because we needed someone to tackle a guy holding a book into a big fire,” and the latter was totally ignored. The final episode of the series should damn well have had Bajor actually entering the Federation.
DeCandido makes a reasonably valid point, from a storytelling perspective. Bajor’s admittance to the Federation is clearly established as Chekov’s plot development. It is an idea positioned in the opening act to “go off” in the third act.
However, that is not necessarily how television production works, and so it is not necessarily how television storytelling works. Films and novels are single units of story. They are general the work of a single author (or creative team) that curate the process from beginning to end. Of course, this is very much a simplification of the process; writers can be re-written, directors can be replaced during filming, the final cut can be delegated to somebody else. But, by and large, films and novels come with an internal continuity of vision.
These days, the same is true of a lot of television shows. The era of the television producer as auteur has encouraged audiences and critics to think about television shows as the work of a singular defining creative vision. There are a lot of examples from the so-called “golden age” of television. Mad Men is very much the vision Matt Weiner. The Sopranos is largely down to David Chase. It even extends to earlier shows. The West Wing is infused with Aaron Sorkin. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is heavily Joss Whedon.
However, television has traditionally been a bit more fluid in terms of development and evolution than novels or films, in large part due to the fact that it is not delivered (or even produced) as part of a single production process. A television series rarely emerges fully formed, and often evolves over time. The production team working behind the scenes might have new ideas about where they want the show to go. The production team might change almost entirely, as happened with the writing staff on The Next Generation.
Sometimes these changes are low key and understated. Sometimes these changes are not dramatic. Sometimes it is possible to maintain a sense of continuity in spite of these changes, as The Next Generation did with its final episode. All Good Things… might have been the product of a different show than Encounter at Farpoint, but Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore were still able to bring the show back to its roots. However, sometimes the series has moved to a point where it is impossible to reconcile what it has become with what it once was.
Deep Space Nine changed dramatically over the course of its run. The series had always been more cynical than The Next Generation, but the series very quickly developed its own unique perspective on the Star Trek universe. Part of that perspective was the idea that the Federation was not the only ideological game in town. Indeed, Deep Space Nine had grown increasingly cynical in its attitudes towards the Federation, as demonstrated in episodes like Homefront, Paradise Lost and For the Cause.
With all of that in mind, it makes sense that Deep Space Nine would feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that Sisko had been assigned to the station in order to induct Bajor into the United Federation of Planets. Deep Space Nine was a show that tended to value autonomy and challenge authority, so Sisko’s original mission must have felt increasingly uncomfortable as the show went along. It was simply not something that aligned with what the show had become as the years went by.
Even Rapture seems quite cynical in its portrayal of Bajor’s admittance to the Federation, suggesting that these talks are putting Sisko in a position of having to choose between what is best for Bajor and what is best for the Federation. Whatley’s introductory conversation with Sisko makes it clear that Sisko represents Federation (rather than Bajoran) interests, “There are thousands of details that have to be overseen and you’re our point man here. That means we need to depend on you more than ever.” Sisko responds, “Don’t worry. I won’t let you down.”
One of Sisko’s big character arcs across the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine finds the character moving further and further away from Starfleet, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the institution. He transitions from being Starfleet’s “point man” to being the Emissary of the Prophets. Increasingly, Deep Space Nine seems to suggest that Sisko must choose to be one over the other. Whatley seems to make a similar argument, stating that Sisko is not serving as a mediator between Bajor and the Federation, but as an instrument of Federation policy.
To be fair, Deep Space Nine never explicitly addresses this concern, instead simply letting it slide. As the Dominion took focus in the third season, the emphasis on Bajor began to wane. At the same time, the audience and the studio had grown increasingly apathetic towards plots centring on planet, so the production team simply turned their attention elsewhere. Indeed, Rapture is really the last point in the series where Bajor’s admittance to the Federation is treated as a primary concern.
The dropping of Bajor’s admittance to the Federation as a plot point is never explicitly explored. It is just taken for granted. When Sisko discusses retiring to Bajor in Penumbra, nobody broaches the subject that he still hasn’t completed the task that Captain Picard assigned to him. Even at the end of Rapture, after Sisko has scuttled this attempt to induct Bajor into the Federation, Sisko promises Whatley, “It’s not over. One day Bajor will join the Federation. That I’m sure of.”
To be fair, Deep Space Nine frequently dropped plots and characters that were not working. After all, George Primmin never appeared again after Move Along Home. Sub-Commander T’Rul was presented as a big deal in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, only for the series to never even mention her in any other episodes. This was the way that the production team approached long-form plotting for Deep Space Nine, largely improvising their arcs. Elements that worked were kept, elements that did not work were jettisoned.
In many ways, this was a key strength for Deep Space Nine, particularly in its middle seasons. It frequently seemed like the show’s best ideas were happy accidents, and the production team’s willingness to capitalise on those happy accidents led to any number of storytelling opportunities. This was a show unwilling to let something like an on-screen death prevent J.G. Hertzler and Jeffrey Combs from becoming recurring fixtures as Martok and Weyoun. The character arc for Gul Dukat across the first five seasons is another example.
However, this improvisational approach could leave certain elements of the mythos feeling underdeveloped and overlooked. Rapture seems like a reasonable place to leave the issue of Bajor’s admittance to the Federation, but it feels like the show’s decision to abandon that particular plot thread should be explicitly acknowledged in some small way rather than quietly dropped after promising to come back to it. All it would have taken was a small tweak to the conversation between Sisko and Whatley towards the end of the episode to make the show’s position clearly.
Of course, despite the fact that the long-form plotting of Deep Space Nine was largely improvised, Rapture still sets up a number of ideas that will pay off further down the road. Bajor declines the join the Federation in Rapture, a decision that makes it possible to sign a non-aggression pact with the Dominion in A Call to Arms. The swarm of locusts in Sisko’s vision foreshadow both the Dominion fleet pouring through the wormhole in By Inferno’s Light and the Dominion Occupation beginning in A Call to Arms.
In an interview with Cinefantastique, Robert Hewitt Wolfe insisted that this was a very deliberate call forward to a plot development that the production team knew was coming:
Said Wolfe, “We always knew what the locusts were. The locusts always were the Jem’Hadar fleet coming through the wormhole. I think that the whole thing with Bajor will become pretty clear, and most people who watch the show carefully will get the special delight of saying, “Ah hah!”
To be fair, it would not have been a surprise had the production team improvised that prophecy. After all, they introduced the massive Cardassian fleet in Defiant without any idea what they were going to do with it before the writers hit a block on early drafts of Improbable Cause.
That said, there is an element of opportunism to the imagery. As Ira Steven Behr explained to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the “swarm of locusts” idea did not originate during the development of Rapture:
“They’re from this idea for a show that we never did – about space locusts,” says Behr. “These things like locusts were going to come to Bajor and destroy everyone, and the Bajorans refused to anything about it because it was something that had been predicted in the Prophecies. So they were willing to die. And Sisko was trying to figure out how to deal with these superstitious, spiritual people. We never did it because we couldn’t figure out a way to ‘space locusts’ that would make some sense and wouldn’t look goofy. But we finally got to mention the locusts in Rapture.”
To be fair, given the muted reception to other Bajor-centric stories and the special effects limitations of nineties television, it is hard to imagine that the idea could ever have been properly realised. Perhaps it works best as a vision only Sisko can see.
However, even if the incorporation of the locust imagery into the script was an excuse to use an old and unworkable idea, it is still in service of a larger game plan. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is building slowly and inexorably towards the Dominion War. The series has repeatedly underscored this point, with The Ship and … Nor the Battle to the Strong experimenting with the idea of telling war stories within the familiar Star Trek framework. In Rapture, Sisko just comes out and candidly acknowledges “the coming war with the Dominion.”
There is no avoiding that particular conflict. It looms on the horizon. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine has a very clear destination from the outset, but in a manner that is not as rigid or structured as a season-long arc. The fifth season has a sense of purpose, but is not beholden to the specific beat-for-beat demands a larger arc. As a result, the fifth season perfectly blends Deep Space Nine‘s interest in long-form storytelling with its more improvisational stylings, creating a fusion that speaks to the very best of the show.
In fact, Rapture seems to be preparing for the Dominion War even beyond Sisko’s prophecies. Rapture marks the point at which the characters swap uniforms, replacing the costumes that they had worn since Emissary with the more muted grey fatigues that made their first appearance in Star Trek: First Contact. This is a subtle aesthetic shift, one acknowledged in only a stray line of dialogue. “Let me ask you something, does my uniform look any brighter to you?” Bashir teases Sisko at one point. However, it is an important transition.
In many ways, the change in uniforms signals a change in the general tone and purpose of the show, much like the change to the opening credits and theme in The Way of the Warrior. The revamped fourth season credits served to recontextualise and reposition Deep Space Nine. The slower and more sombre (and less busy) opening credits of the first three seasons suggested a lonely outpost on the edge of frontier. The busier and faster credits of the final four seasons underscore just how much has changed; Deep Space Nine is the hub of the universe, not the fringe.
The costume switch in Rapture signals something very similar. The uniforms from the first four seasons suggested the tone of the show. While Captain Picard and his crew looked like frontline representatives of the Federation with bright colours and sharp lines, Commander Sisko and his staff looked more like maintenance workers who operated in overalls that could better hide dirt and grime. The uniforms spoke to the character of the show as much as the production design. (They looked out of place in the sterile surroundings of Star Trek: Generations and Voyager.)
In contrast, the black and grey uniforms that make their debut in Rapture feel more like military uniforms. They have less colour than any previous Star Trek costume. One suspects that a Jem’Hadar sniper would have more difficulty spotting a command officer as a result of the switch. They look a lot less busy, while still looking more professional than the overalls that the crew had worn to this point. They feel very specifically and very pointedly tailored to this crew and this show, at this particular time.
Despite the fact that the uniforms technically premiered in First Contact, they are perhaps more associated with Deep Space Nine than the Next Generation movie franchise. Even costume designer Bob Blackman seems to talk about them in those terms, outlining how they fit the aesthetic of the show:
When they went on to Deep Space Nine, we switched the colors out, to make it more serious, to make it darker. So that’s where I came up with the quilted shoulder panels and the dark jackets, and then having the division color just as a turtleneck. That came out of wanting to have a new look for the new series. And quite frankly, some of that was driven by the fact that they were looking for ways to keep their ancillary income coming in. They needed a new look so that they could make more toys, make more toys, make more of that stuff. So that’s one of the reasons why there was a uniform change with every series. That was one of the reasons. There were character reasons as well, but there was the notion that we needed to have a new look.
It should be noted that the uniforms generally worked a lot better on Deep Space Nine than in the Next Generation movies. They work very well in the darker context of First Contact, but they do not fit with the more playful tone of Star Trek: Insurrection or even with the campy vibe of Star Trek: Nemesis.
The uniforms could be considered one last gift to Deep Space Nine from The Next Generation, given that they premiered in First Contact and a lot of the cost involved in designing them was likely swallowed by the film’s budget. Given that the launch of Deep Space Nine overlapped with the pinnacle of The Next Generation, it makes sense that the two shows remained quite closely intertwined across their runs. Deep Space Nine benefited a great deal from The Next Generation, inheriting characters and races along with a central mythology.
At the same time, Deep Space Nine seemed to rail against its older sibling. While The Next Generation took a great deal of pride in crossing over with Deep Space Nine characters in episodes like Birthright, Part I or Firstborn or even trying to reference the events of the Dominion War in Insurrection, the production team on Deep Space Nine always seemed a little anxious about their ties to The Next Generation. They blew up a Galaxy-class ship in The Jem’Hadar. Their crossover with Generations involved Riker’s evil twin in Defiant.
On the audio commentary for First Contact, Ronald D. Moore recalled asking Ira Behr for notes on an early draft of the script and getting a rather strong (but very specific) response:
I do remember on an early draft… Ira Behr, who was the executive producer on Deep Space and who I was working for at the time, he read an early draft of this. And, it’s the same sequence played out, but somehow we had implied that the Defiant was destroyed or something. And he got very upset. We didn’t mean to destroy the Defiant, but I said to him, “What do you think?” And he ranted at me for destroying the Defiant. And it was really his only note. So we went back, we were very careful that the Defiant did actually… “Tough little ship.”
Behr seemed to take a bit of umbrage at the use of the Defiant in First Contact, lamenting in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, “I didn’t see the point in bringing it on just to kick the crap out of it.”
From the perspective of twenty-first century multimedia franchising, it is remarkable how little crossover actually occurred between the various Star Trek series during the nineties. Characters would occasionally guest star in multiple series, and Worf migrated from The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine, but it is striking how firmly the shows stand apart. In fact, the most ambitious multi-series arc involved the founding of the Maquis, across the seventh season of The Next Generation and the second season of Deep Space Nine into the first season of Voyager. This was the exception.
In this day and age, when characters spin off from popular film franchises like Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers into shows like Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this level of independence and autonomy is quite striking. It is strange to think that modern film franchises can bring together characters like Iron Man and the Hulk and recent television can overlap Arrow with The Flash, but that there was never a live action Star Trek story in which two crews solved the same problem by working together.
Even at the time, there were rumours of a tighter crossover between Deep Space Nine and First Contact. In September 1996, Michael Dorn teased Ian Spelling with hints of some ambitious storytelling:
“I can’t tell you exactly how we’re going to get Worf from the space station to the ship, but I can tell you that we’ll be doing something that’s rarely, if ever, been done,” Dorn says.
“About two weeks before First Contact opens, we’ll do an episode of DS9 that shows Worf leaving Deep Space Nine to meet up with the Enterprise.”
For better or worse, that never actually happened. Indeed, given Behr’s objections to how the Defiant was used in First Contact, it seemed unlikely to happen. And maybe it isn’t a bad thing that Deep Space Nine insisted on standing alone.
There are points at which Deep Space Nine seems almost stand-off-ish in its efforts to set itself apart from The Next Generation, like a rebellious teenager insisting upon its own identity following the success of their elder sibling. However, there is no denying that the approach worked. A large part of what makes Deep Space Nine so interesting and exciting is the show’s willingness to push against the expectations established by The Next Generation. At the same time, there are moments when it seems like Deep Space Nine is dismissive of all that The Next Generation has afforded it.
However, perhaps teenage rebellion is preferable to blind devotion. After all, Voyager was a show that devoted itself to the memory of The Next Generation. In fact, even they managed to pull of a cameo from the real William Riker in Death Wish, despite the notable handicap of being on the other side of the galaxy. Voyager would rabidly embrace the success of First Contact, building a mini-arc across its third season involving the Borg and turning the Collective into recurring foes across the remaining four seasons of the show. The result was unsatisfying.
To be fair, Behr would acknowledge the events of First Contact later in the season. In In Purgatory’s Shadow, Sisko makes a passing reference to “the recent Borg invasion” in a throwaway line. In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Ira Steven Behr acknowledged that it was a cheeky little nod:
“That’s the ‘imp of the perverse’,” grins Behr. “I tend to rail against any connection between the movies and our show, but every now and then, when no one’s looking, we’ll put in our own reference, just for the hell of it.”
It is a very small reference. In fact, Deep Space Nine seems to reference First Contact fewer times than Insurrection references Deep Space Nine. Still, it is nice to see even a passing acknowledgement of the show’s elder sibling.
Still, Rapture makes it clear that Deep Space Nine is charting its own course into its own future. It is an episode that is very firmly rooted in the philosophy of Deep Space Nine and heavily anchored in the continuity of Deep Space Nine. It is a reminder of just how spectacularly the show is working this season, while hinting at what is still to come.