Sacrifice of Angels goes like the clappers.
If Favour the Bold worked so well because it took its time and invested in character dynamics in the shadows this epic confrontation, then Sacrifice of Angels works so well because it just powers through to the end of the story. Sacrifice of Angels is an immaculately paced piece of science-fiction television, an episode that kicks into gear that the spectacular effects shot of the Starfleet fighters swooping down over those Galor-class destroyers in a haze of phaser fire and chaos. The episode doesn’t let up, powering through the plot to get back to the familiar status quo.
Sacrifice of Angels is also a meticulously constructed piece of television, with all of the dominoes aligned over the previous five episodes dropping at just the right point in a way that seems organic and natural, allowing for moments that are both surprising and inevitable. It is a very clean and sleek episode of television, one built to a singular purpose with a minimum of superfluous material. It really is a triumphant conclusion to an ambitious six-episode opening arc, one of the most daring narrative experiments in the entire history of the Star Trek franchise.
More striking is the sense that Sacrifice of Angels is very pointedly not the end of the larger arc. The Dominion War that began with Call to Arms does not end in Sacrifice of Angels, even though Sisko retakes the station and the characters return home. The Female Changeling even acknowledges as much in her dialogue, “Contact our forces in the Alpha Quadrant. Tell them to fall back to Cardassian territory. It appears this war is going to take longer than expected.” This is not over, despite the assurances that the writing staff gave Rick Berman on launching the arc.
Then again, this makes perfect sense. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was constantly and continuously reinventing itself over the course of its run, with several of the show’s season premieres serving as de facto pilots for a new and improved version of the show and several season-enders serving as de facto series finales bookending a particularly iteration of the series. The Way of the Warrior and Call to Arms are a great example, the fourth and fifth seasons bookended by the First and Second Battles of Deep Space Nine.
As such, it is probably more satisfying to look at Sacrifice of Angels as the end of another new beginning for the series, the end of an extended opening arc that is setting up themes and ideas that might hope to pay off over the following two seasons. In some ways, Sacrifice of Angels brings the show back to the end of Emissary. Once again, the Cardassian Occupation has come to an end. Sisko finds himself affirmed as the Emissary of the Prophets and the Commander of Deep Space Nine. This is the order of things.
Very little that happens in Sacrifice of Angels is surprising, on a purely storytelling level. Most of the beats over the course of the episode are entirely predictable. After all, this is an episode that ends with the Federation and the Klingon Empire retaking Deep Space Nine from the Dominion. The outcome is all but set before the episode begins, a fact reinforced by its position as the sixth episode of the sixth season; there is no way that Sisko can lose this battle, narratively speaking.
And so Sacrifice of Angels hits all of the expected plot beats. Kira’s resistance cripples the station from the inside. Sisko breaks through the Dominion lines. Odo makes some small gesture towards redeeming himself by covering for Kira and Rom. Even some of the larger plot beats are entirely foreseeable, most notably the last-minute arrival of the Klingons to save the day and even the death of Tora Ziyal at the climax of the episode. Nobody watching the episode could have been particularly surprised by these developments.
These are very much standard “epic” tropes. Indeed, the Klingons riding to the rescue plays like an overt nod to the Charge of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings, with Gandalf leading those riders to the aid of Helm’s Deep to route Sauron’s forces in The Two Towers. Although the battle had yet to be immortalised on film by the time that Sacrifice of Angels was broadcast, it was still one of the most iconic examples of that “last minute save by heroic allies” in the literary canon. There are certainly shades of it to the support offered by the High Council.
Ira Steven Behr is an acknowledged fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, suggesting that the reference may have been intentional. Behr peppered references to Tolkien’s writings into Legends of the Ferengi, a tie-in book expanding upon the culture that he developed during his seven years on the series. He even ensured that Quark’s home on Ferenginar in Family Business looked a little bit like a “Hobbit hole” from the books, right down to the round portal door. Years later, Behr would cite the film adaptations of the novels as examples of science-fiction and fantasy really going for it.
However, the arrival of the Klingon fleet is not diminished by the fact that it is predictable or even inevitable. Sacrifice of Angels is constructed so effectively that even that most obvious of plot developments feels earned. Everything about that moment is perfectly calibrated. The Klingons enter the fray at just the right moment. Even the special effects shot of the Klingons sweeping into the battle is beautifully rendered, making it look like the Vor’cha-Class cruisers are raining down upon the Dominion fleet with some alien sun at their back. It is a beautiful fist-pumping moment.
Indeed, Sacrifice of Angels is notable for its impressive special effects space battle sequences. Although there were references to fleet actions in episodes like Call to Arms and A Time to Stand, this episode represents the first time that the audience has seen a major clash between the Dominion and Federation not centred around Deep Space Nine. It is an incredible technical accomplishment, demonstrating just how much the Deep Space Nine production team accomplished on a weekly television budget. That budget was not increased for the sixth season.
The sequences of the Federation fleet going head-to-head with the Dominion are stunning, from fighters sweeping over the Cardassian ships to Galaxy-Class ships pushing through the enemy lines. It is a reminder of just what is possible using computer-generated imagery as opposed to model work. The computer-generated model work was incredibly detailed, even beyond what appeared on screen, which would make a high-definition remaster feasible:
If they ask one of us – and if they use a team that uses LightWave – it’ll be much easier for them to redo… because the guys who worked on it, like me, have the assets. We have the original ships; we have most of everything that was used [in the making of the series]. That would eliminate a ton of the cost of rebuilding.
So, how would I approach it? The same way I did at the time – I’d figure out what was done in CG, and we’d just start from there. And today, it would be easier! Literally, you could just load the scene files and hit ‘render’ – it would be done! I mean, not everything… but a lot more than you’d think.
Obviously, the battle sequences are not as impressive by modern standards, with shows like Game of Thrones pushing the boundaries of what is possible with computer-generated animation in television. Indeed, the sequences are also less intense and breathtaking than the brief battle sequences in Star Trek: First Contact. However, those battle sequences are still a tremendous accomplishment and were breathtaking in the context of the late nineties.
However, what is most striking about these space battles is the fact that there are relatively few of them over the course of Deep Space Nine. Of course, there are obvious practical reasons for this; these sequences are expensive, and the production team could only budget a handful of these episodes in a given season. Indeed, late in the seventh season, the production team find themselves forced to recycle and repurpose special effects shots from Sacrifice of Angels and Tears of the Prophets for What You Leave Behind…
However, there may have been other factors at play. The fleet battle in Sacrifice of Angels comes six episodes into the season, almost a quarter of the way into the year. While Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels were broadcast during Sweeps, it feels like a conscious decision on the part of the production team to push these incredible set pieces further back into the year rather than simply showcasing them from A Time to Stand. There was a sense that the Deep Space Nine writers wanted to establish these battles as the exception rather than the rule.
The Dominion War was uncharted territory when it came to Star Trek storytelling. The franchise had never done anything like it. The idea of building a story arc around an interstellar war understandably made some sections of fandom uneasy, particularly in the context of the high-profile (and hugely successful) re-release of the classic Star Wars movies around the same time. So much of Star Trek‘s identity was tied up in a utopian vision of the future that the Dominion War could be seen as a challenge to that.
The decision to wait six episodes into the war before depicting a massive space battle on this scale does suggest a sensitivity to those concerns, a desire to demonstrate that the Dominion War is not simply an excuse to transform Deep Space Nine into a “pew pew pew” blockbuster action adventure show. Deep Space Nine would continue to be character- and politics-driven, with the Dominion War serving as an opportunity to explore these characters and their world, rather than simply to indulge in empty spectacle.
With that in mind, it is worth noting that Dominion War never seems particularly concerned with the actual mechanics of war in space. As portrayed on Deep Space Nine, twenty-fourth century warfare is astonishingly conventional. It appears to take place at sublight speeds, involving large fleets of ships that line up opposite one another and square off in a firepower-driven free-for-all. Ships duck and weave, barrel and break. Standard military tactics apply, to the point that Sisko and Dukat spend a great deal of Sacrifice of Angels talking about tactics.
When Sisko very specifically orders his fighters to specifically target the Cardassian ships, Nog wonders, “Why is he only targeting the Cardassian ships?” Garak helpfully explains, “He’s hoping to get them to break formation and so they’ll after the Federation fighters. He knows the Jem’Hadar will stand their ground, but the Cardassians just might get angry enough to take the bait.” Nog finishes his thought, “… which would open a hole we can punch through.” Garak replies, “You’re getting quite an education.”
Similarly, Dukat understands his adversary’s gambit, even teasing Weyoun over it. “It’s very clever strategy,” Dukat explains. “But I’d expect nothing less from Captain Sisko.” Weyoun agrees, vaguely, “The Captain is a very clever man.” Dukat prompts, “You do see it, don’t you?” Weyoun takes exception, “Of course I do.” Dukat calls his bluff. “Well then, perhaps you’d like to explain Captain Sisko’s strategy to the Founder yourself,” he offers. Weyoun pivots skilfully, “I could never hope to match your eloquence.” Dukat agrees, “True.”
This dialogue focusing on strategy serves a number of purposes. Most immediately, it serves to illuminate character. It suggests that Dukat clearly understands Sisko on some levels, if not others; it also nicely illustrates the peculiar tension that exists between Dukat and Weyoun behind their forced cordiality. However, it also exists to assure the viewer that these space battles consist of more than just ships shooting at one another across the void. There are tactics and logic driving these battles, skill is just as crucial as technology in determining the outcome.
However, these are tactics that could easily apply to combat on the ground, on the ocean, or in the air. There is something very old-fashioned about these gambits, that could easily be applied to twentieth-century warfare – or nineteenth-, or eighteenth- even. It is in many ways an example of the tendency to think of space as a gigantic ocean. It is certainly a cliché rooted deeply in the genre, as John Lennard argues in Of Voyages and Volumes:
Spaceships, one may note, as yet barely exist, and connections between them and real, sea-going ships remain largely speculative. The OED surprisingly credits the word ‘spaceship’ to multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, who died with RMS Titanic, citing A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future, and despite earlier extraterrestrial travel narratives variously using ‘space’ and ‘ships’ (including Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac, 1880, from which Astor borrowed his ‘apergy’ propulsion system) it does seem he first combined the syllables. The word found such favour with early US pulp SF writers like Edmond Hamilton that in 1930 Scientific American coined the more neutral ‘spacecraft’ for serious discussion, and in 1941 Wilson Tucker suggested the derogatory term ‘space opera’ for the “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.” But in the same year Robert A. Heinlein published Universe, featuring the first realistically imagined ‘generation spaceship’, wherein whole lives are lives during sub-light-speed travel; and by then E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith had already published most of his Skylark series and was several novels’ worth of stories into the Lensman series, the enormous post-war success of which in book form established a new mainstream market for space opera that Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov would exploit. Thereafter the talismanic quality of spaceships and their role in some novels as active characters developed steadily, until in 1966 Star Trek introduced the Enterprise (Captain James T. Kirk commanding). The name may derive from the USS Enterprise that served on Lake Champlain in 1775-7, the one that served with distinction in the Pacific during World War Two, or (most probably) the one that became in 1961 the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to enter service, but the more telling datum is that the NASA Space Shuttle Enterprise and Virgin Galactic Space Shuttle Enterprise were named for the Star Trek vessel.
This notion of “space as an ocean” was built into Star Trek from early on, from the naming of “Starfleet” in Court Martial to the deep-space submarine warfare of Balance of Terror to the way that The Doomsday Machine and Obsession riffing upon Moby Dick, while The Tholian Web was the tale of a deep space ghost ship and That Which Survives offers a twenty-third century siren story.
However, the franchise really doubled down on the metaphor when Nicholas Meyer offered the first reboot in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The second feature film rebuilt the franchise from the ground-up, but with an increased emphasis on the idea of Starfleet as a deep-space navy. Although the climax made a point that space was three-dimensional, as opposed to two-dimensional like an ocean, that idea was woven into the fabric of the feature film. (Quite literally, with the crew wearing uniforms that were consciously more naval in style.)
So it is no surprise that Deep Space Nine treats its twenty-fourth century war as something equivalent to war on a wide open ocean with two competing fleets squaring off against one another trying to break through. Indeed, the show’s depiction of warfare was very much rooted in the twentieth century; the ground war depicted in Rocks and Shoals was heavily influenced by the Second World War movie None But the Brave, while … Nor the Battle to the Strong was inspired by the Second World War and The Siege of AR-558 will draw upon the memory of Vietnam.
While this makes the Dominion War easy to parse for viewers at home, who can contextualise it within a preexisting framework of war stories in popular culture and public consciousness, it is in some ways hard to reconcile with the wonders of twenty-fourth century technology. After all, war should logically be different for societies with phasers and warp engines. Faster-than-light travel and light-based weaponry should be fundamental game-changers:
The best terrestrial analogy for space warfare would probably be a battle on a perfectly plain at night, fought between sports cars painted with phosphorescent paint, with machine guns mounted on their hoods. All sides will be aware of the movements of the other. The battles will likely consist of long periods of boredom while the ships chase each other, accelerate towards each other, or vie for an intercept that favors them, punctuated by a few minutes of terror as they scream past each other at many kilometers per second and fire away. The primary weapon will probably be missiles, which will be fired in huge volleys. Depending on the vessels’ relative speeds, a warship will probably need to shoot dozens or hundreds of missiles to be sure of one getting through. In such an exchange, the winner is likely to be the ship with the heaviest missile throw weight, best PD, or both. Victory and defeat will be a question of cold arithmetic: can you can kill all the other guy’s missiles before they reach you and visa versa.
This is even before considering the tactical possibilities. Given that A Taste for Armageddon and Requiem for Methuselah established that phasers could effectively “clean” the surface of a planet, why would any twenty-fourth century power fight so many ground wars? That is before even considering the tactical possibilities of faster-then-light travel, like what might happen if a ship hits a planet. (As speculated in the Romulan War novels.)
Truth be told, this approach makes a certain amount of sense. Star Trek has always played somewhat fast and loose with the impact of its advanced technology upon society. The transporter is perhaps the exception, with an entire subgenre of “transporter” episodes from The Enemy Within to Daedalus. However, Star Trek tends to treat technology like replicators and warp drives as convenient plot devices; there is little consideration of how an economy works with replicators or the scientific ramifications of traveling at multiples of light speed.
There is also a sense that treating the Dominion War as a conventional war in science-fiction trappings (rather than a war fundamentally altered by its science-fiction elements) is a conscious effort to declutter the narrative and avoid getting too caught up in the mechanics of the war. Deep Space Nine tends to avoid unnecessary techno-babble, trusting that pseudo-science is the least interesting aspect of the series. It is clear that the academic possibilities of twenty-fourth century war mechanics are of secondary concern to constructing an allegorical Star Trek war story.
It’s a fair question. As I’ve pointed out before, the phasers are way too powerful for the way we normally portray them. Given that a real knock-down, drag-out, phaser fight would not only chew up a huge chunk of real estate, but also force our characters to be far, far away from each other and in general be unproduceable, we have to make some concessions to dramatic license. The story was about soldiers in a difficult situation and the decisions they were forced to make, not an exploration of the realities of 24th century ground combat. So I bent the rules on phasers and how powerful they’re really supposed to be in order to tell a better story. You bring up a valid point and I concede that the phaser fight wasn’t that realistic given the nature of the technology involved, but I also think I made the right decision and I wouldn’t change it.
Moore is entirely correct. Keeping the Dominion War framed in terms of modern warfare eases the flow of the story that they want to tell.
So the sound and fury of Sacrifice of Angels is very much a secondary concern to the larger war arc, which the production team using the war as a vehicle to tell character-driven stories about moral compromise and life in the shadow of these events. Indeed, it is telling that the “sacrifice” in the title of the episode is not the space station or the Dominion fleet or the likely thousands of lives lost in the epic space battle, but instead the death of recurring character Tora Ziyal. It is the loss of one member of the secondary cast.
Ziyal’s death is interesting. On the one hand, it provides a necessary sacrifice that dramatically justifies the heroes overcoming incredible odds, allowing the audience to accept that the victory was not one without a cost. It is a standard way of offsetting a major reversal like Sisko staring down a Dominion fleet and retaking Deep Space Nine almost single-handed. After all, Spock’s death played a similar function in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as did the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of David Marcus in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
However, there is also something extremely cynical about it. The death of Ziyal is an example of the tendency of narratives to kill off (or hurt) female characters in order to motivate male characters. It isn’t quite “fridging”, in that the technical definition of the term tends to insist that the death (or victimisation) of the female character exists to “solely for the purpose of the male character being able to have his revenge story.” There is ultimately no revenge story for Tora Ziyal, with Damar never facing any direct consequences for her murder.
There is a debate to be had about whether this makes the decision to kill of Tora Ziyal any better. The death of Tora Ziyal provides a downer ending to Sacrifice of Angels, with Kira and Garak standing over her body in the infirmary while Dukat is finally driven insane. However, Ziyal’s death ultimately becomes a footnote in the larger epic. By the time Dukat comes face to face with Damar in Tears of the Prophets, he is already handwaving Ziyal’s death into his crusade against Sisko. When Kira and Garak meet Damar in When It Rains…, it never comes up.
Reportedly, the decision to kill Tora Ziyal was made quite late in the production process. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the writers settled on the idea while working on Sons and Daughters:
“At the point we were working on Sons and Daughters, we suspected that we were going to kill Ziyal,” says Behr. “When we talked about the arc, we knew that there was going to have to be a price to be paid. And then we went through all the names. Were we going to kill Nog? Were we going to kill Garak? What would be the emotional cost if a character was killed? And then it occurred to us that the strangest thing would be to kill the villain’s daughter. So we set out in this arc to make her the pure innocent, to make the audience invest emotion into the innocence.”
The death of Ziyal poses a challenge, in large part because Deep Space Nine never properly follows up on it. Whatever myriad issues exist with the death of Jadzia Dax in Tears of the Prophets, at least the writers treated her death as having lasting repercussions.
To be fair to the writing staff, there did need to be some sort of sacrifice in narrative terms for the retaking of Deep Space Nine. When Sisko received assistance from the Prophets, there needed to be an immediate cost. Of course, the bargain that he strikes in Sacrifice of Angels comes back to haunt him in What You Leave Behind…, but is not enough of itself. In the context of this story, there needed to be a very tangible trade-off in return for the significant divine intervention in mortal affairs.
So, what should that price have been? It might have made some sense to destroy the Defiant, given the emotional weight attached to ships within the larger Star Trek framework. In fact, the writers would destroy the Defiant in The Changing Face of Evil to escalate the stakes. There is no reason why Deep Space Nine could have gone the rest of the season without a ship, perhaps getting a replacement in Tears of the Prophets. After all, there are only a handful of sixth season stories that absolutely hinge upon the Defiant.
However, if the show required a blood sacrifice to justify the ending, there are any number of potential candidates. There is a reasonable argument to be made that Gul Dukat’s arc should have ended with Sacrifice of Angels, even if that came at the cost of the superlative Waltz. Then again, Gul Dukat is a bad guy, and so his sacrifice would not mean that much in the larger scheme of things; it would be a little counter-productive to trade off the Dominion fleet for Gul Dukat, as much as the audience would feel his death.
Assuming that the character had to be a hero, there are any number of candidates. Leeta would raise many of the same issues as killing Ziyal, and without any of the emotional weight. Garak is simply too interesting and compelling a character to kill off in such a manner. The best candidates would seem to Nog or Rom. In fact, Rom is the perfect choice; it is Rom who designed the mines in Call to Arms and who tried to prevent the disarming of them in Behind the Lines, it was Rom who was sentenced to death in Favour the Bold.
Killing off Rom would hit a lot of the necessary boxes for a story like this. It would be ironic on a number of levels, most notably for the clever reversal of the character’s long-standing status as bumbling comic relief by turning him into a martyr and also in terms of subverting his last-minute stay of execution when Quark rescues him from the holding cells in Sacrifice of Angels. However, there are also some compelling reasons not to kill Rom; most obviously, it would dramatically alter Quark’s character in a very fundamental way.
So Ziyal is the obvious choice for the role of sacrificial lamb, even if Rom would be a much more comfortable fit. It is perhaps the most questionable aspect of Sacrifice of Angels, the death feeling very clinical and calculated in a way that undercuts its potential power. Still, the episode moves quickly enough and skilfully enough that this isn’t too big a problem. As much as Sacrifice of Angels is an episode driven by spectacle, it is also one that is very carefully structured with absolutely everything fitting into its place for maximum impact.
One of the best examples of the skill with which Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler have structured the episode concerns the simple matter of disabling the station’s weapons array. After the jailbreak, Kira and Rom find themselves racing against time to stop Dukat from dismantling the minefield. It is a tense race-against-time sequence, with Rom disabling the weapons just a half-a-second too late. The mines come down, in one of the episode’s most effective moments. It would be a tense sequence, even if that were the end of it.
However, the skill of the episode’s construction ensures that the this is more than just a nice small subversion of the “just in time!” cliché. The fact that Rom has disabled the station’s weapon systems becomes vitally important when the Defiant emerges from the wormhole and begins attacking the station. “The Defiant is no match for this station,” Dukat reflected earlier in the episode. However, it is a match for the station once the weapon systems have been disarmed. (Of course, the mechanics of the Dominion retreat are left somewhat ambiguous.)
Sacrifice of Angels balances the conclusion to this introductory story arc with setting up ideas that will pay off across the remainder of the series’ final two seasons. After all, the sixth and seventh seasons represent a clear change to Deep Space Nine, effectively a tweaked and reimagined version of the series much like the fourth and fifth seasons before them. If The Way of the Warrior and Call to Arms neatly bookended each other, it makes sense that the sixth season’s six-episode opening arc would set up ideas played off in the seventh season’s closing ten-episode arc.
The six-parter sets up a number of ideas that pay off later down the line, from Damar’s alcoholism to Dukat’s psychosis. In some cases, the characters’ closing arcs are mapped out in surprising detail. “After the war is over, do whatever you need to do,” Kira promises Odo during a heated conversation in Behind the Lines. “If you feel you need to go and join the Great Link, I’m not going to stop you.” Kira goes one step further in What You Leave Behind…, actually taking Odo to the Great Link herself.
Similarly, Sisko outlines his retirement plans in Favour the Bold, discussing what he plans to do after the war. When Ross asks what Sisko will do when his work is complete, Sisko responds, “I don’t plan to say goodbye. I plan to build a house on Bajor.” When Ross asks what Sisko would do if Starfleet reassigns him, Sisko replies, “I will go wherever they send me, but when I go home, it will be to Bajor.” Again, this is very effective foreshadowing, with Sisko procuring the land and designing the house itself in Penumbra.
This is a very impressive piece of set-up and pay-off, but one that feels essential to Sisko’s character arc. After all, Sisko was introduced in Emissary as a man who didn’t want the assignment of bringing Bajor into the Federation. However, over the course of the show’s first five seasons, he came to see Bajor as his home. He fought to reclaim the title of Emissary in Accession, and embraced the visions sent by the Prophets in Rapture. Despite his reluctance upon his initial posting, the sixth season’s opening arc finds Sisko desperately fighting to get back.
According to Ronald D. Moore, the writers had been looking to incorporate that beat into the series for quite some time and simply took advantage of the opportunity presented by the quieter character-driven script for Favour the Bold:
Sisko’s desire to build a home on Bajor was something we’d been talking about within the writing staff for quite some time. It was actually inserted into Favor the Bold at the last minute, as an additional scene when we realized that the episode was running short and needed more material.
In some ways, it is a classic war story cliché, the question of what a given character plans to do after the war and the resulting tension about whether or not they will actually be able to do it.
Of course, Sacrifice of Angels not only foreshadows Sisko’s plans for what might happen after the war, it also strongly suggests that Sisko will not get to enjoy that retirement on the idyllic planet. Riding the Defiant alone into the wormhole to square down the looming Dominion fleet, Sisko prepares to face death. However, at the last minute the Prophets intervene. They summon Sisko into their realm and insist that he stand down. “The game must not end,” one Prophet insists. “The game must continue,” another (or maybe not) continues.
The divine intervention at the climax of Sacrifice of Angels is one of the episode’s more controversial elements, and a large part of the reason why an immediate sacrifice (like Ziyal) is necessary. Some critics read the scene as a gigantic (and literal) deus ex machina, with Sisko talking his way out of an impossible situation by petitioning the gods to intervene on his behalf. In a second and a flash of light, the Prophets obliterate the Dominion fleet that has loomed so large over the show since Call to Arms.
However, the production team strongly objected to the idea that this resolution was a forced contrivance. In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Ira Steven Behr argued that it was a carefully-considered plot point:
“I felt that it was the perfect next step in the evolution of the relationship between Sisko and the Prophets that began in the pilot,” he says emphatically. “Hearing people refer to it as some dopey deus ex machina is really annoying, because I would think they’d give us more credit for being on the ball. We didn’t have to end it like that, we chose to end it like that. Because we wanted to say that there was something going on here. And ultimately that would lead to our finding out that Sisko is part Prophet [Image in the Sand]. They wouldn’t have done this for just anyone. This was the man going out into the wilderness and demanding his God to interfere, to do something, for crying out loud. The corporeal characters had done so much in this episode; surely, they’d earned the help of the gods.”
To be fair, the intervention of the Prophets in Sacrifice of Angels does seem a little too trite if the episode is treated as a self-contained story. However, it makes a lot more sense when considered in the larger context of the arc and the surrounding series.
In purely practical terms, it could be argued that the resolution does not play fair with the audience. Sacrifice of Angels marks the first time that the Prophets have appeared on the show since Accession in the middle of the fourth season. More than that, the Prophets are only mentioned three times over the first five issues of the arc; Yassim invokes their name in Rocks and Shoals, Ziyal acknowledges Sisko as the Emissary in Sons and Daughters, while Sisko consults their prophecies in Favour the Bold. The Prophets are hardly set-up for this massive pay-off.
However, the twist does not come entirely out of left-field. Most notably, the six-episode arc hits repeatedly upon the theme of divinity. Over the course of these six episodes, characters repeatedly brush up against the boundaries that exist between the world of gods and the world of men. Major and minor characters touch upon the issue in various ways, with varying degrees of earnestness and awareness. In a way, this is one of the luxuries of the extended and decompressed storytelling style, allowing room for seemingly random conversations that explore broader themes.
After all, the Prophets are not the only gods to appear on Deep Space Nine. The Founders have positioned themselves as gods to their followers. Repeatedly over the course of the six-parter, characters muse on how exactly the Founders interact with their subjects. In particular, Odo grapples with the challenge of action and inaction. In A Time to Stand, Kira argues, “He’ll listen to you. As far as he’s concerned you’re a god, and that gives you power.” She then laments that Odo is unwilling or unable to use his power.
Indeed, it’s telling that Odo’s betrayal in Behind the Lines is one of inaction. As Odo becomes closer to the Female Changeling and embraces his role as a Founder, he becomes an increasingly remote figure. He is inaccessible to his former friends, or to the people who depend upon him. “He doesn’t want to see anyone,” explains the guard posted outside in Favour the Bold. “Not until his guest has left.” He adds, “As far as I know, the female changeling has not left his quarters for three days.”
The Female Changeling insists that gods exist at a remove from their subjects, disengaged from mortal affairs. “You’ve been living with the solids’ concept of time for too long,” she warns Odo. “Let them worry about their meetings, their schedules, their obligations. None of that has anything to do with you. You are a changeling. You’re timeless. As am I.” Standing on the promenade, Odo acknowledges his shifting perspective. “It’s odd. I’ve stood here countless times, and yet somehow it all looks different.” She elaborates, “It’s the solids. They look small, don’t they? Insignificant.”
The Female Changeling takes little interest in the running of the war. She is content to leave that to her underlings. “I’m content to leave the details of the war to the Vorta,” she tells Odo in Behind the Lines. She certainly seems true to her word. Odo is indifferent about the risks of linking with the Female Changeling. He assures Kira thatthe Female Changeling could not learn about the resistance that way, but it does not matter; at the end of Behind the Lines, the Female Changeling eavesdrops on an incendiary conversation between Odo and Kira. She does nothing to stop Kira.
When Weyoun suggests that her manipulation of Odo is part of a larger strategy in Favour the Bold, she explains her priorities to her subordinate. “Neutralise Odo?” she scoffs. “Is that why you think I’m here? Odo is a changeling. Bringing him home, returning him to the Great Link, means more to us than the Alpha Quadrant itself. Is that clear?” Not only is that a very effective foreshadowing of how exactly the Dominion War ends for the Founders, it also does an excellent job illustrating how far removed the Founders are from the management of this sprawling intergalactic conflict.
In fact, it should be noted that the start of the Dominion War marks the end of the Founders’ active campaign against the Alpha Quadrant. Earlier seasons featured any number of shapeshifter infiltrators; Lovok in The Die is Cast, Krajensky in The Adversary, the changelings in Homefront and Paradise Lost, Martok in Apocalypse Rising, Bashir in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. After that point, the Founders remove themselves from the conflict. More than that, it is heavily implied that the Female Changeling is the only Founder stranded on this side of the wormhole; barring Odo and Laas.
This sense of remove permeates other episodes, as the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar ponder what it means to serve at the whims of gods who have no interest in their suffering and no compassion for their plight. Ramata’klan lays down his life in Rocks and Shoals, insisting that it never belonged to him in the first place. Weyoun considers what it means to have no sense of taste in Favour the Bold, but refuses to condemn the Founders for engineering it out of him. There is something poetic in the devotion that the Dominion show to their gods, only to be answered with silence and the demand for more bloodshed.
In that context, Sisko’s plea to the Prophets serves as an effective counterpoint. The Prophets will not be aligned to diametrically oppose the Pah-Wraiths until The Reckoning, and the epic six-episode arc that introduces the sixth season suggests that the Prophets should be measured against the Founders. The Prophets are “good” gods, those open to hearing about the suffering and plight of their people, and those willing to take action to stop it. “You want to be gods, then be gods,” Sisko urges, in a brilliant moment for Avery Brooks. “I need a miracle. Bajor needs a miracle.”
As such, the divine intervention at the end of Sacrifice of Angels feels almost justified, a glimpse of the franchise’s optimism and utopia. It is a moment in which the gods hear the impassioned pleas of their followers and decide to intervene. This is a very Deep Space Nine conclusion to this arc. Deep Space Nine is frequently accused of cynicism, but it remains optimistic about an individual’s capacity to change the world around them. Episodes like Rocks and Shoals and Behind the Lines tie inaction to collaboration, suggesting that there is a clear moral obligation on a person to act if they have the power to do so.
Of course, this appeal to the Prophets also marks a clear step forward in Sisko’s larger character arc. Sisko accepted the responsibility of being Emissary in Accession and allowed himself to listen to the Prophets in Rapture. However, it is something else entirely for a man to petition his gods to intervene. For Sisko, this represents a huge character beat. Sure, the plea is made in desperation without any alternative, but it still pushes Sisko even further into the role of “Emissary” and marks another example of how Sisko has been changed by by his mission as much as the Federation has tried to change Bajor.
However, there is more to it than this. Sacrifice of Angels might be the end of this epic and sprawling arc, but it is also just the beginning. The intervention of the Prophets is not a deus ex machina, because it is not the end of the story. As Ronald D. Moore argued at the time, this was just the first step on a new journey for the show:
The intervention of the Prophets was something we discussed at length during the development of the six episode arc. As I said above, the Sisko/Prophets story is something we consider to be a key element of the series itself. To us, the finale of Sacrifice was something that came organically out of the overall story of DS9 and that’s why we did it. The journey that Sisko has made from Emissary to Sacrifice is a profound one — he’s gone from a man who questioned the very existence of the Prophets to asking them to behave like gods and save their “children” down on Bajor. There will be a price exacted from Sisko for daring to bring the Prophets into this conflict and we’ll play that out as the series continues.
Moore is entirely correct. The deal that Sisko makes at the end of Sacrifice of Angels has lasting repercussions. In fact, the script is fairly close to explicit on this particular point. “The Sisko is of Bajor, but he will find no rest there,” offers one Prophet towards the end of Sisko’s vision. Given Sisko’s fantasy of retiring to Bajor, this is heavy foreshadowing.
This is an example of Deep Space Nine pushing itself boldly towards serialisation, acknowledging that it can dangle threads from one episode to the next and that not every ending needs to be definitive. More than that, the writing staff have begun to contemplate what ending the show might look like. Of course, there are changes and diversions along the way; Terry Farrell had not signaled any serious attempt to leave yet, to pick an obvious example. At the same time, the threads tying this opening arc to What You Leave Behind… are much stronger than those established in Emissary.
Sacrifice of Angels is very much the end of this ambitious storyline. It restores something resembling the status quo, with Dukat returning Sisko’s baseball as a symbolic gesture demonstrating the return of order to this fictional universe. As a six-episode story, the arc holds together remarkably well; Sons and Daughters was the only dud of the set, with the other five episodes impressing to a very high degree. As the credits roll on Sacrifice of Angels, it is clear that some semblance of normal life will return to the station with the broadcast of You Are Cordially Invited…
And yet, with all of that acknowledged, there is a sense that this is only really the beginning of something. The rules have been changed, and the Dominion War rages in the background. However, it is more specific than that background detail. The writers are already moving pieces around the board so as to line them up for the final few episodes. Deep Space Nine might not have a specific game plan for the season finale waiting at the end of the seventh year, but it is keenly aware of that looming deadline and has begun forming ideas about how that last episode might look.
Sacrifice of Angels is a triumphant success, but one that very graciously sets up any number of future triumphs.