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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Reckoning (Review)

The end is nigh.

As the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine draws to a close, the production team are increasingly aware that things will be wrapping up shortly. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, setting a nice target for the spin-offs. Indeed, most of the sixth season had been spent discussing contract extensions with the cast for a final season. The writers (and the cast) knew that the seventh season would be the last. As the sixth season wound down, that massive deadline loomed large.

That’s gonna leave a stain.

The long-term storytelling on Deep Space Nine was largely improvised on the fly, with the writers adding new and interesting twists to the mythology as they went; this led to strange-in-hindsight tangents like Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light. There had never really been a long-term plan, explaining why seemingly important plot points like Bajor’s admittance to the Federation seemed to just drop off the table after Rapture.

At best, the writers on Deep Space Nine knew the direction in which they were moving, but had not charted the course that they would follow. Still, a looming deadline tends to focus the mind. In the final third of the sixth season, the production team begin aligning plot points and character arcs towards the end of the story. Ira Steven Behr wrote His Way in large part because he wanted to introduce Vic Fontaine and pair off Kira and Odo, realising that time was working against him.

Who Prophets?

The Reckoning is a story about the end of days, in more ways than one. Broadcast in April 1998, it perfectly taps into the millennial eschatology that had taken root in the popular consciousness in the lead up to the twenty-first century. The Reckoning posits an epic battle between good and evil that will mark the end of an epoch, tapping into an anxiety simmering through popular culture in television shows like Millennium and films like End of Days. As the nineties came to a close, there was a clear anxiety about what the future might hold, if it existed at all.

However, The Reckoning also feels like a conscious effort to align various characters and plot beats in service of the final season ahead. The Reckoning properly seeds an entire subplot that will play through the remainder for the show, from Tears of the Prophets through to What You Leave Behind. Character motivations are made clear, stakes are heightened, mythology is explained. All of this is very much in service of where the writers plan for Deep Space Nine to go.

The wormhole in things…

There is something very paradoxical about the nineties. On paper, the nineties were a very stable and very secure decade. The final decade of the twentieth century had been ushered in with the end of the Cold War; the Berlin Wall had fallen in November 1989 and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formally dissolved in December 1991. The United States was politically unchallenged, standing victorious. The American economy was strong, enjoying the longest expansion in history. The growth of the internet made it easier than ever to communicate and share.

Of course, the reality was more complicated than those headlines would suggest. In hindsight, the economic boom of the nineties did little to help the middle classes. Globally, things were not as rosy; the economic decline in Africa continued for the first half of the decade, the economic crash in Japan set the economic powerhouse back a decade, and there was considerable political turmoil in Eastern Europe. Still, for the United States, the nineties were a very good decade.

Table that discussion for later…

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama dared to ask if liberal democracy had won, if it stood triumphant at the end of history. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock all the way back to seventeen minutes from midnight in 1991, the furthest it had been since the measure had been introduced in 1947. American military interventions in Iraq, Haiti and Kosovo were relatively contained. President Bill Clinton became the first Democrat to serve two full terms in the Oval Office since President Franklin Roosevelt.

However, whether in spite of or because of that prosperity, there was a clear anxiety worming its way through the popular consciousness. There was a palpable sense of dread and paranoia in nineties popular culture, perhaps best embodied by the work of Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, but rippling across film and television in a variety of ways. Certainly, the Star Trek franchise was not immune. The looming deadline of the new millennium probably stoked these fears, but they were rooted in something deeper and more fundamental.

A bitter tablet…

In Hystories, Elaine Showalter speculates that the spread of these dark fantasies had been enabled by the improved technological networks of the nineties spreading like idea viruses:

Hysteria not only survives in the 1990s, it is more contagious than in the past. Infectious diseases spread by ecological change, modern technology, urbanization, jet travel, and human interaction. Infectious epidemics of hysteria spread by stories circulated through self-help books, articles in newspapers and magazines, TV talk shows and series, films, the Internet, and even literary criticism. The cultural narratives of hysteria, which I call hystories, multiply rapidly and uncontrollably in the era of mass media, telecommunications, and e-mail.

As we approach our own millennium, the epidemics of hysterical disorders, imaginary illnesses, and hypnotically induced pseudomemories that have flooded the media seem to be reaching a high-water mark. These hystories are merging with the more generalized paranoias, religious revivals, and conspiracy theories that have always characterized American life, and the apocalyptic anxieties that always accompany the end of a century. Now they are dispersing globally to infect other countries and cultures.

This is undoubtedly a legitimate concern. Advances in media technology allowed these irrational fears to spread like wildfire through bulletin boards and web pages. It is a problem that has only worsened in the ensuing decades.

The Kosst is too high.

While the spectre of the twenty-first century and advances in communications technology made it easier for these ideas to spread, they found fertile soil in which to grow. It seems likely that at least some of this anxiety was a result of the American prosperity in the nineties. Without a clear enemy against which the country might define itself, without a singular existential struggle to provide purpose, attention turned inwards. Conspiracy theory and apocalyptic paranoia provide structuring narratives in a world where traditional frameworks have been dismantled.

There was a clear religious element to this millennial anxiety. The religious right was in the middle of a vicious battle to impeach the President of the United States for effectively having an affair. Although they would lose that particular battle, President George W. Bush would succeed President Bill Clinton, positioning himself as a strongly religious and moral leader. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins published the first Left Behind book in 1995, a tale of religious rapture that became a cornerstone for an entire movement.

Kira has a strange energy today.

As Alex Heard and Peter Klebnikov explained, there was a very strong correlation between religious belief and the millennial dread:

According to a 1997 Associated Press poll, nearly 1 in 4 adult Christians — upward of 26 million people — expect Christ to return in their lifetimes, fulfilling the complicated End Times scenario that many people glean from prophetic Bible texts like Revelation and Daniel. The Christians are joined by lesser but impressive numbers of apocalyptic others, with their own scripts of doom and redemption. Ted Daniels, a folklorist in Philadelphia whose Millennium Watch Institute has monitored millennial activity for years, says that his database alone holds the names of more than 1,200 self-proclaimed prophets.

It may seem absurd in hindsight, but there was a palpable sense of anxiety about the looming promise (or threat) of divine judgment at the end of the twentieth century. (There were secular fears of course, most notably Y2K.)

Apocalypse how.

The Reckoning is very much positioned as a part of that larger framework. Excavating the ruins of B’hala, the Bajorans discover a tablet that holds some very vague (and ominous) prophecies about the looming end times. “During the Reckoning, the Bajorans will either suffer horribly or eat fruit,” Dax explains, struggling with the translation. “Given the tone of the rest of the inscriptions, I would bet on horrible suffering.” The prophecy is vague, but it alludes to events that promise (or threaten) a radical shift in the social order.

There are obvious parallels between that prophecy and the eschatology of the nineties. In the lead up the twenty-first century, quotes and references to the Bible and Nostradamus would spread through the internet as proof of some larger looming disaster just waiting to befall mankind. These prophecies were often outright fabrications, but even the accurate quotations were so vague that they might be applied to anything. Still, they had a raw power to them, promising certainty and insight if only they could be decoded.

Stars his destination.

The Reckoning is framed as an apocalypse for Bajor. The planet is thrown into chaos once the tablet is removed. “Two thirds of the Rakantha wheat harvest has been destroyed by floods,” Kai Winn reports. “Earthquakes have devastated Kendra Province, leaving hundreds homeless.” There are also references to how “a tornado struck Tamulna.” These natural disasters fit very much within a framework of apocalyptic thought, the fear that the end of the world would be the world’s rejection of mankind. (It’s also a handy way to avoid talking about climate change.)

Ultimately, The Reckoning suggests that the end of days will come down to a battle between the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths for the future of Bajor. When Sisko challenges the Prophets as to what exactly the Reckoning is, they explain, “The end. Or the beginning.” Kai Winn translates, “If the Evil One is destroyed, it will bring a thousand years of peace.” As such, this doomsday prophecy is ultimately a clean battle between good and evil in order to determine the course of history. Again, this is very much in keeping with Christian eschatology.

Better translate than never.

It recalls biblical prophecies about the rise of the Antichrist and the return of Jesus Christ in the midst of Armageddon, that mythical moment in which the complexities and nuances of the modern world might be stripped away and everything becomes clear. As Damian Thompson argues in The End of Time, Christian eschatology is so vague and mythic that it can almost be applied to any set of circumstances:

At first glance, there is something ludicrous about the notion that this surrealistic text is designed to make anything clearer. Its visions of creatures with many wings and eyes, of angels, dragons, glass seas and ‘foul spirits like frogs’, have an authentically psychedelic quality in that they are by turns breathtaking, tedious and frightening. Even as allegory, they verge on the incomprehensible. As with the Book of Daniel, Revelation’s clues to the time of the End really leave us none the wiser; yet it clearly suggests that the End-time sequence has already begun, and subtly invites its readers to interpret its images in the light of their own times. One wonders whether the author intended to keep successive generations of Christians in a state of apocalyptic expectation, and therefore created images with a certain reusable quality. If so, he succeeded brilliantly, as the history of his most enduring creation, ‘the Beast whose number is 666’, demonstrates. The Beast, a devil in human form who will rule the world just before Armageddon and the Second Coming, has had an astonishing career, being identified at various times as Nero, George III, Napoleon, Hitler and Henry Kissinger. Comic as this seems, we should not underestimate the enduring power of Revelation’s depiction of the Antichrist (as the Beast became known). Its message is that the personification of evil will arise in our midst as a commanding figure with an international following. Millions will yield to his persuasive charm, only to discover that they have thereby condemned themselves to an agonising death and everlasting punishment.

The Reckoning suggests that Bajoran theology can be reduced down to this similar metaphysical brawl between the powers of good and evil. To be fair, this has been brewing for quite some time. The Assignment suggested that the Pah-Wraiths had been cast as demonic figures in Bajoran folklore, cast out of “the Celestial Temple” in much the same way that Satan had been cast out of heaven.

A man of vision.

There is something very frustrating about the way in which The Reckoning embraces Christian eschatology without any interrogation or exploration. The Reckoning takes a familiar playbook and executes it beat-for-beat, with little innovation or experimentation. There is something very underwhelming in the way that The Reckoning insists that the fate of Bajor comes down to two people staring at one another really intensely on the Promenade, much like there is something underwhelming in the way What You Leave Behind reduces it to a wrestling match in a cave.

There is something very tidy about all this, something very easy in the resolution to this crisis. One of the more interesting aspects of Deep Space Nine is the willingness to really push past black-and-white notions of good-and-evil. The show always had a very strong central morality, but it was also invested in concepts like relativism and context. While Deep Space Nine most definitely understood that evil was a force that existed, it also understood that values are not inferior just because they are different.

Antichrist Almighty…

The appeal of these doomsday narratives largely lies in the ideological certainty that they afford. The end of the world promises an accounting, in which divine authority will materialise and provide answers that are not always forthcoming in the real world. In Naming the Antichrist, Robert C. Fuller makes a compelling argument:

Sociological studies indicate that apocalyptic writing commonly originates during times of crisis and tension. It appears to be a cultural response to severe persecution, a threat to the group’s welfare, a decline in religious enthusiasm, or a growing awareness of the discrepancy between the group’s eschatological expectations and current sociopolitical realities. Apocalyptic thinking helps the believing community by locating its problems in a transcendental or mythic context in which a victorious outcome is assured. Its purpose is to show that people can and must endure such crises, secure in the knowledge that their tribulations are part of God’s plan for the final triumph over evil. The promised day of the Lord is thus still at hand, regardless of how bleak the prospects of victory may seem. When evil is at its height, he will come to defeat the wicked and return worldly power to his people.

In the context of the nineties, it seems fair to read the religious fixation upon a looming apocalypse as the hope of imposing a perceived moral order upon an increasingly disorganised world. It was very much a reaction to social and political trends like recognition of gay rights, of divorce, of birth control.

Ruining the fun.

The political and social framework of Deep Space Nine has always been complex and multicultural, built upon the idea that peace is built upon understanding and empathy. The history of the Cardassian Union is as tragic as it is villainous, with Damar evolving from a gruff nationalist in Return to Grace to a self-hating alcoholic in Behind the Lines to leader of Cardassia in Statistical Probabilities to hero of the revolution in The Changing Face of Evil. While Deep Space Nine believes in concepts like good and evil, it seldom expects them to be enforced by outside forces.

Garak is a great example of this ambiguity and nuance. Garak is a character who has quite explicitly done terrible things, as he confesses to Bashir in The Wire and as he demonstrates to Odo in The Die is Cast. Garak is a patriot and a nationalist, a man who would readily betray his new friends and colleagues to go home in Profit and Loss and who would not hesitate to murder in cold blood in Second Skin. However, there is a creeping sense in episodes like The Die is Cast and The Way of the Warrior that Garak has somewhat softened in his beliefs and his extremism.

Okay, maybe Dukat’s arc doesn’t always make sense.

The early seasons of Deep Space Nine explored the character of Gul Dukat. Dukat was a monster responsible for millions of deaths. However, Deep Space Nine made it very clear that he was also a person rather than a platonic ideal of evil. In The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II, Dukat works with Sisko to avert an unnecessary war. In Defiant, Dukat laments missing his son’s birthday party to focus on a diplomatic emergency. None of this redeemed Dukat, with Return to Grace suggesting he could never embrace modernity, but it did develop him.

As Deep Space Nine approaches the end of its run, it allows this nuance to erode and decay. Waltz ended with Sisko affirming that Dukat was “truly evil”, effectively restating Kira’s summary of his character to Ziyal in By Inferno’s Light. Just because Dukat had a personality and emotional attachments, he was not a good man. That would have been a good place to leave Dukat. However, later episodes like Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, Tears of the Prophets and ‘Til Death Do Us Part turn Dukat into something resembling a cartoon supervillain.

That healthy glow.

Scripts like The Assignment and The Reckoning are a major part of that erosion. In its early years, Deep Space Nine suggested that the Prophets were an ambiguous force at work in the universe. They were truly alien, entities that existed beyond mankind’s comprehension. The Prophets were obtuse, as demonstrated through visions in episodes like The Collaborator. The Prophets were also scary, as suggested in their manipulation of Zek in Prophet Motive. The Prophets were ambivalent, effectively forced to play the role of divine authority in Sacrifice of Angels.

There is an interesting story to be told about the conflict between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths. After all, the basic premise evokes Paradise Lost, with Kosst Amojan cast out of the Celestial Temple and forced in exile. What did he do? How did he challenge orthodoxy? For a creature who had existed outside of time, what must it be like to be thrown into the time stream in a fallen world? Did Kosst Amojan argue for a more proactive engagement with mortals? Did Kosst Amojan argue against the selection of Sisko as Emissary?

Hell bent.

There is a lot of interesting nuance there, a lot of fascinating material to explore. Much like Deep Space Nine would toy with the idea of the Starfleet and the Federation as the standard-bearers in the Star Trek universe, it would be interesting to explore the Miltonian underpinnings of that conflict between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths, particularly if it is going to be a major focus of the show going forward. The Assignment and The Reckoning are setting up a plot thread that runs to the series finale. It should at least be compelling.

Instead, The Reckoning follows the path of least resistance. The Prophets are unimpeachably good. The Pah-Wraiths are unimaginably evil. Even when the series flirts with subverting that expectation in Covenant, it refuses to commit to the possibility. Even at the climax of The Reckoning, the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths are colour-coded for the audience’s convenience. The energy that flows from the Prophet is handily coloured a soothing and peaceful blue, with the Pah-Wraith spits out a fiery and hateful red.

“Don’t cross the streams!”

When the Prophets take control of Kira, the characters acknowledge that Kira would gladly have sacrificed herself for the Prophets. “The Prophet said she was willing to be their instrument,” Sisko states. Odo agrees, “I know how important her faith is to her and I have no doubt that she would allow the Prophets to use her as their instrument.” When the Pah-Wraiths seize control of Jake, it is practically an act of scenery-chewing villainy. “Leave my son and take me instead,” Sisko pleads. Kosst Amojan taunts, “Your Emissary offers himself to us. His faith wavers.”

This is all very neat and very tidy. It also fits within another trend within these final few seasons. Emissary suggested that the Bajoran religion was very influenced by Eastern beliefs; in particular, the robes worn by religious officials recall stock pop culture depictions of Buddhist monks. This largely reflected the pet interests of producer Michael Piller, who was very invested in new age theology as his work with Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager and with the Ba’ku in Star Trek: Insurrection attest.

They haven’t a prayer.

However, the final seasons see the Bajoran religion becoming more Christian in nature. The Emissary is rendered as an explicitly messianic figure, while Kosst Amajon emerges as Satan. In Cinefantastique, the writers acknowledge another explicit parallel to Christian theology:

Added Thompson, “That was nice to work off the biblical story of Abraham, when he had to sacrifice his son to test his faith. Sisko has changed so much from the beginning. He’s made quite a journey in these six years.”

Early seasons suggested that Sisko had no singular fixed purpose as the Emissary, that he was effectively fulfilling a function rather than a destiny. The later seasons of Deep Space Nine make it very clear that the Emissary has a singular destiny. Shadows and Symbols even reveals that it began before his birth.

The darkness and the light.

The later seasons of Deep Space Nine borrow heavily from Christian iconography. In Rapture, Sisko images a plague of locusts descending upon Bajor. It is obviously an allusion to the distinctive Jem’Hadar ship design, but it also evokes the biblical wrath visited upon ancient Egypt by an angry God in Exodus. In Sacrifice of Angels, Sisko calls upon divine authority to stop the Dominion from advancing through the wormhole. The Prophets agree, destroying the enemy fleet in much the same way as God washed away the Pharoah’s soldiers as they crossed the Red Sea.

Things get even more overt in The Reckoning. When Sisko smashes the stone tablets and unleashes untold power, it recalls the story of Moses shattering the Ten Commandments, which were subsequently bundled up within the Ark of the Covenant. Similarly, the suggestion that Sisko would willingly sacrifice Jake in order to appease the Prophets is lifted from the classic story of Abraham and Isaac. As in that classic fable, a last-minute intervention prevents the death of an innocent child.

Man of faith.

As Ross S. Kraemer, William Cassidy and Susan L. Schwartz outline in The Religions of Star Trek, the supernatural and religious framework of the final seasons of Deep Space Nine is lifted directly from Christian belief systems:

This cosmology is directly based on the Zoroastrian ethical dualism, especially as it is found in Christianity. The Prophets have an eternal plan to destroy the infernal Pah-Wraiths once and for all, and the human being Sisko is created as a central part of that plan. He is to become the Emissary, the Deep Space Nine analog of the Christian messiah. Cosmic good and evil battle through the medium of humanoid agents: first Kira and Jake, then Winn, Dukat, and Sisko. In the Christian story, according to God’s plan Jesus is created as a man sent by God to destroy the infernal power of sin and thus save all humanity. His enemies, inspired by Satan, are all too human. The cosmic battle is finally played out on a time-bound, human scale, and good wins.

There are crucial differences between the stories, but the parallels are striking. After three decades, the Western default narrative has finally taken hold of the Star Trek universe.

In some ways, this is hugely disappointing. Deep Space Nine worked so hard to be the first properly multicultural Star Trek show. This move towards a consciously American- and European-centric theology feels like a regression.

“Where’s your messiah now, eh?”

This plot thread that runs through the final seasons of Deep Space Nine can be directly attributed to writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson. They were the last two writers to join the Deep Space Nine staff, and are the least experienced television writers in the room. There is a credible argument to be made that Weddle and Thompson were the weakest writers on the Deep Space Nine writing staff. However, they were also the writers most responsible for the restructuring of the Bajoran religion, credited on both The Assignment and The Reckoning.

There is a clear sense that the production team on Deep Space Nine are consciously building towards the end of the series. The first five seasons of Deep Space Nine were spent building consciously outwards, pushing characters and ideas as far as they might go, culminating in the sprawling arc that ran from Call to Arms to Sacrifice of Angels. The middle of the sixth season often seemed to struggle against the limitations of nineties television, discovering how difficult it was for Deep Space Nine to push any further. The final third of the sixth season seems to look inwards.

Temple of Not-Quite-Doom-Yet.

The Reckoning is effectively a table-setting exercise. It is about setting up ideas and plots that will fuel other stories, and which will lead in the general direction of the series finale. As René Echevarria explained to Cinefantastique, the script set up ideas that would pay off later:

“It was a huge test of faith, and Sisko followed it to the very end. There were a lot of interesting and evocative moments. It ended up helping to set up the season finale. There is trouble in heaven. Because the Reckoning didn’t happen, it’s almost like the Prophets are blind. Their ability to see through time is not necessarily there any more. In a strange way, they are not necessarily all knowing. They are vulnerable. The season finale and the first two hours of season seven have a lot to do with the repercussions of the battle in Heaven.”

The failed final confrontation between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths reverberates across the run of the series. Kosst Amojan attacks the wormhole in Tears of the Prophets, cutting off Bajor from the Prophets until Shadows and Symbols. Dukat positions himself as the Emissary of the Pah-Wraiths in Covenant.

“Hey, look, Dad. This is a nice reversal from what usually happens when the Prophets talk to you.”

That said, there is an appealing ambiguity about the nature of Sisko’s relationship with the Prophets. There is a question about how much of this arc has been predetermined and set in stone, how much of the future is set and how far back this chain of prophecy might be traced. Sisko made a deal with the Prophets in Sacrifice of Angels, in return for their divine intervention. Sisko is aware of that long-standing debt, but there is a lingering question about when (and how) exactly that bill comes due.

“They listened, and they saved Bajor and the rest of the Alpha Quadrant,” Sisko confesses to Dax. “Now they’re asking me for something in return. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m not going to return the tablet until I do. It’s the key. I can feel it.” So did the Prophets intend for Sisko to honour his commitment to them by ensuring that the Reckoning took place? Had Sisko allowed Jake to die as part of that epic struggle, would that have balanced the cosmic books? Or was the debt always intended to be something more?

Following the (in)script(ion).

After all, this chain of events leads to the death of Dax at the hands of a Pah-Wraith-powered Gul Dukat in Tears of the Prophets, which makes it all the more ironic that Sisko discusses the debt with Dax in The Reckoning. Did the Prophets always intend for the death of Jadzia Dax and the closing of the wormhole to count as Sisko’s marker? Or was that simply a stepping stone towards the larger price to be paid? After all, the writers had no idea that Terry Farrell would be leaving when they wrote the ominous warning in Sacrifice of Angels.

More than likely, it seems that the debt in Sacrifice of Angels was always the bill that could come due in What You Leave Behind. The Prophets warned their Emissary that “the Sisko is of Bajor, but he will find no rest there.” That would seem to fit What You Leave Behind far more than The Reckoning or Tears of the Prophets, even if both of those stories offer endings where Sisko could easily have become restless and abandoned Bajor. After all, had Jake died in The Reckoning, it is hard to imagine Sisko wanting to live in the resulting paradise.

“In a few years, we’ll look back on this and laugh. Well, at least one of us will.”

So, the real question is whether the Prophets always knew how the contest in The Reckoning would unfold. After all, if the Prophets defeat Kosst Amojan in The Reckoning, it seems unlikely that Dukat could become their Emissary in Tears of the Prophets. If the Pah-Wraiths were already vanquished, then there is no need for a confrontation in the Fire Caves in What You Leave Behind. As a result, Sisko could potentially have lived a long and fulfilling life. Of course, his son would be dead, so arguably the debt would still be settled.

It is probably not worth getting too hung up on the “timey wimey” logical motivations of aliens who can perceive the whole of existence from a single instant, but it is fun to think about. The prophecy logic of Sacrifice of Angels seems to fork over the rest of the show’s run, inviting the audience to speculate as to what the Prophets knew and when they knew it. More than that, it raises the question of whether free will and self-determination could ever co-exist with the Prophets’ view of the branching timeline.

“Dammit, if I hadn’t been promoted in The Adversary, I’d have a kick-ass Commandments pun now.”

The Reckoning is an effective as a reminder of just how adept the production team have become at handling continuity and serialisation. Although the episode works very clearly as a stand-alone piece of story, it is also structured in such a way that it builds on what came before and what will follow after. The branching prophecy is just one example of many. The Reckoning is populated with lots of little touches, demonstrating that The Reckoning is really just one piece of a much larger tapestry.

For example, the teaser casually acknowledges the events of In the Pale Moonlight and His Way, while also foreshadowing a subplot in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols. Sisko observes that the Romulans are making great progress against the Dominion. “The Romulans have forced the Dominion to retreat from the Benzite system,” he reflects. Odo responds, “The question is, will the Romulans be willing to leave Benzar after the war is over? Once they capture territory, they very rarely give it up.” The Romulans later try a similar land grab on Derna.

“War = bad. Thus concludes the briefing.”

The Reckoning also sets up a character arc that will determine Kai Winn’s trajectory across the remainder of the series. The episode introduces the idea that the Prophets have never spoken directly to Winn. “The Prophets aren’t always clear,” Sisko warns Winn early in the episode. Winn responds, “Since they have never spoken to me, I’ll have to take your word for it.” Later, Winn begs the Prophet to even acknowledge her existence. “Speak to me. Tell me what I should do.” The Prophet ignores her, shunning the woman appointed Bajor’s spiritual leader.

This is a very clever character detail, one that explains a lot about the Kai while also nicely setting up future character beats. It makes sense that Winn would never have spoken to the Prophets, she is much too invested in her own moral certainty to ever acknowledge something greater than herself. It is also a powerful irony for Bajor’s spiritual leader. The Prophets’ refusal to acknowledge Winn becomes a powerful motivation across the final stretch of Deep Space Nine, most notably in episodes like ‘Til Death Do Us Part or Strange Bedfellows.

Some Kai characterisation.

Winn has a fixture of Deep Space Nine since In the Hands of the Prophets at the end of the first season, but The Reckoning gently reframes her adversarial relationship with Sisko. Discussing the Kai with Sisko, Kira very bluntly spells out Winn’s character motivations, explaining that Winn sees Sisko as a usurper to power that should be rightfully hers. Indeed, in the closing scene of the episode, Kira goes so far as to suggest that Winn considers Sisko to be “an infidel.”

“In a way, I feel sorry for her,” Kira explains to Sisko. “She spends her whole life in service to the Prophets. Then one day, after years of self-sacrifice and commitment, she’s gets her reward. She’s elected Kai. It should have been the greatest moment of her life.” Sisko sees where the story is going. “But my being the Emissary spoiled it for her,” he concedes. Kira elaborates, “The Kai has always been the spiritual leader of Bajor, but Winn has to share that role with you.”

Gods among us.

To be fair, a lot of this had already been implied in earlier episodes. In the Hands of the Prophets made it clear that Winn was not a big fan of outsiders, and she has repeatedly drawn attention to her discomfort with the fact that the Prophets chose a non-Bajoran for the role of Emissary. However, there is also a sense that Winn is just as concerned by threats to her political power; her manipulations of Bareil in Life Support, her anxiety over the threat posed by Shakaar Edon in Shakaar. Sisko is not the only rival to Winn, and this is not the only battle that she fights.

In some respects, this feels like a conscious flattening of Winn’s character. The Reckoning reduces Winn to a much more basic set of impulses than earlier episodes, providing a much more simplistic understanding of her psychology that anchors her more firmly to the show’s moral cosmology It could be argued that it reflects the similar approach taken to Gul Dukat. Much like Waltz was used to streamline Dukat by paving his road to cartoon villainy, The Reckoning does something similar with Kai Winn. No wonder the two end up together.

Everybody Winns.

In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, René Echevarria seems to acknowledged that The Reckoning offers a much simpler version of Kai Winn:

“In Rapture, she seemed to be coming around to Sisko’s side a little bit,” points out Echevarria. “But here she just cannot stand to see that once again he’s going to steal her thunder. That was the biggest dodge we did, because we didn’t really explain why she had a change of heart, but it set up what we needed to do with her later on in the series.”

As with Gul Dukat, the decision to shackle Kai Winn to the Pah-Wraith plot thread reduces her complexity and her nuance. Winn becomes a piece on a chessboard that has been very rigidly defined into squares of black and white.

Heart of Stone.

Much like The Assignment before it, The Reckoning is ground zero for a series of very frustrating creative choices on Deep Space Nine. There is a solid argument to be made that about ninety percent of the unsatisfying elements of the sprawling ten-part epic finale can be traced back to those two episodes, and that the remaining ten percent of those poor choices would have to have been made differently regardless. It is interesting to wonder whether those flaws were baked into the premises of these episodes, or if they were down to flaws in execution.

Could the Pah-Wraiths ever have worked as a concept? Was there an interesting story to be told about Prophets that had been cast out from the Celestial Temple? Would the spiritual subplot running through that final stretch of Deep Space Nine been more satisfying if there had been more nuance and consideration, if the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths had been more interesting than a collection of Pop Christianity filtered through the softest of science-fiction lenses? What if Dukat and Winn had not been tethered to this dead weight of a story concept?

Looking out for number one.

To a certain extent, the problems with The Assignment and The Reckoning are matters of execution. Weddle and Thompson are the weakest writers on Deep Space Nine, and there are any number of storytelling choices that should never had made it past a first draft. This is most notable in their handling of expository dialogue, which is also a problem in scripts like Sons and Daughters or One Little Ship. Here, for example, one character helpfully tells Sisko, “You had a vision, Emissary. We saw nothing.” Not only does Sisko know this, but that is how visions work.

Similarly, the pacing of The Reckoning seems strange. The script cleverly builds atmosphere across its first half, but it also struggles to draw out the climax. Once the Prophet arrives on the station, there should be a much tighter flow to the story. However, the pace seems to slow down, allowing for small character scenes that repeat information that has already been outlined. That time might be better spent outlining the stakes of the conflict, or developing a sense of apocalyptic dread. By the time Kosst Amojan appears, the episode is almost over. He has two lines in total.

The end is Nerys.

The Reckoning becomes a bedrock for the remaining season of the show. It is a foundation upon which an entire arc is built. It needs to be sturdier than this. The Reckoning lays a lot of groundwork for what lies ahead, but the work is so shoddy that the endeavour already seems certain to end in disaster.

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2 Responses

  1. I have less of a problem with the pah wraiths than you do, but I do find this episode to be pretty poor. Why on earth do the creators make those poor actors wear those really silly contacts whenever they get possessed? It makes a show that generally has pretty high production values seem like a really silly B movie.

    Also, I think this episode suffers from the audiences’ sympathy being with Kai Winn. I know when I saw the episode I thought she did the right thing in releasing the technobabble particles. I mean if the station had been destroyed, the the Dominion could have won the war. Therefore, Kira’s scolding falls completely flat.

    • To be fair, the very idea of the Pah-Wraiths assumes that Sisko is right and Kai Winn is wrong. It is one of the things that I really dislike about them, because they reduce everything to a generic “good vs. evil” argument. Whereas there was some ambiguity around the Prophets as recently as Sacrifice of Angels, The Reckoning confirms that they are effectively literal and conventional gods, and so Sisko basically has the will of gods on his side while Winn is opposed to him.

      I’d love a version where there was ANY ambiguity over what Kai Winn did, but I don’t think that’s the version that makes it to screen.

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