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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Shadows and Symbols (Review)

Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols continue to reframe the theology of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in terms of Christian iconography.

To be fair, it makes sense that Christian imagery and metaphor should so heavily influence film and television. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of entertainment, and so it makes sense that its preoccupations should filter through into the art that it creates. After all, certain plot and story threads on Star Trek: Voyager (including the Kazon, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees in Displaced and Day of Honour) are very clearly anchored in a number of racial anxieties unique to California during the nineties.

The writing’s on the wall.

However, there was something very interesting in the way that Deep Space Nine had introduced and developed its theology. The early seasons of Deep Space Nine were heavily influenced by more eastern religions, like Buddhism. They were also more ambiguous in their portrayal of the wormhole aliens, suggesting that the enigmatic creatures could be both aliens and gods, depending on one’s perspective. Even then, there was a recurring suggestion in episodes like Emissary and Prophet Motive that the wormhole aliens did not conform to human morality.

As Deep Space Nine approaches the end of its run, it simplifies its approach to religion. The Prophets become a lot less ambiguous, and the spiritual framework becomes a lot more conventional. This process really began in earnest with The Assignment and was solidified in The Reckoning, but it becomes a lot more concrete in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols.

Let there be light.
And it was good.

Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were quite atheistic in their worldview, throwaway lines in Who Mourns for Adonais? or Bread and Circuses not withstanding. Generally speaking, god-like beings who manipulated primitive cultures tended to be frauds. More often than not, Kirk would discover an evil (malfunctioning) computer that had enslaved a population through religious worship. That was the plot of episodes like The Return of the Archons, The Apple and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.

This atheistic world view became more pronounced during the eighties and into the nineties. Gene Roddenberry infused the early years of The Next Generation with a staunch atheism, perhaps best reflected in episodes like Justice. Under the pen and direction of William Shatner, Kirk would kill a being claiming to be God in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Even after Roddenberry stepped aside, the franchise continued to downplay religious belief in favour of rationalism in episodes like Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due.

Injecting a little spirituality into the franchise.

The Next Generation even featured a recurred god-like character in Q, although the series was careful to avoid labelling him as a divine authority. As Jordan Hoffman outlined:

Q, of the Q Continuum, was often referred to “having the power of a God,” but this description from Picard and others always felt like it came with an understood, unspoken “but we know he’s NOT a God” at the end. These are characters well aware of Clark’s Third Law which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Surely there must be REASONS that Q can do all the things he can do; we’re just not scientifically advanced enough to understand them.

The closest that The Next Generation came to embracing the idea of Q as divine was in the teaser to Tapestry, in which he declared, “You’re dead. This is the afterlife, and I’m God.” Picard dismissed the idea immediately.

They should call him Admiral Cross.

By and large, Voyager kept within the framework established by Star Trek and The Next Generation. With a few notable exceptions like Sacred Ground, the series adopted a very rational view of the universe. Tattoo suggested that Native American communities had been visited by sufficiently advanced aliens and built their religion around that, while Emanations suggested that the afterlife was simple an extra-dimensional dumping ground. Voyager never particularly engaged with these big ideas.

This made Deep Space Nine unique in the context of the Star Trek canon. In Emissary, Sisko comes face to face with a group of immensely powerful beings who have been worshipped as gods by the inhabitants of Bajor. While The Next Generation would have patronisingly dismissed these religious beliefs as mere superstition, the clumsy understanding of a backwards culture too primitive to grasp the concept of sufficiently advanced aliens, Deep Space Nine adopted a more open-minded approach.

A rocky road ahead.

In many respects, this open-minded philosophy distinguished Deep Space Nine from the other Star Trek series. There was a sense that Deep Space Nine was truly the multicultural Star Trek series, in large part because it refused to judge alien cultures reflexively. Deep Space Nine approached the Cardassians and the Bajorans with an eye to fleshing them out. Once Ronald Moore joined the writing staff, it took the development of the Klingons on The Next Generation and pushed it even further. Ira Steven Behr invested considerable energy in the Ferengi.

The early seasons of Deep Space Nine leaned very heavily into the ambiguity of the Prophets, suggesting that it was possible for the Prophets to be both divine figures and sufficiently-advanced aliens. In the Hands of the Prophets argued that religious belief and scientific rationalism were not mutually exclusive, despite the attempts of fanatics to argue that they were. Destiny implied that Benjamin Sisko could be both a Starfleet Captain and the Emissary of the Prophets. Rapture suggested that abstract religious visions were atemporal projections of events soon to come.

“Miles, I’m not so sure I like this losing battle simulation.”

Indeed, the best aspects of Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols play into this ambiguity. Several key plot points in the two-parter suggest the possibility that Sisko and his crew exist in a clockwork universe, directed by an unseen hand, while leaving just enough room to dismiss such synchronicity as coincidence. There are a lot of events in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols that make sense when considered on their own, but which line up with one another just perfectly enough to suggest some higher power at work.

The introduction of Ezri Dax is perhaps the most obvious example. Sisko seems to have been broken by the loss of Jadzia Dax in Tears of the Prophets. As he stands over her coffin, he wishes that she were still around to guide him. Even three months later, he reiterates that desire to his father, lamenting that he feels lost without his best friend. Sisko has been spurred to action by a vision from the Prophets directing him to Tyree, but there is a sense that he is still haunted by the death of Jadzia. Then Ezri Dax shows up, which goes a long way to restoring Sisko’s faith.

Dax appeal.

In purely rational terms, Ezri’s arrival at the restaurant at the end of Image in the Sand makes a great deal of sense. Ezri was not prepared to be a host, and is struggling to impose her own will upon the symbiont. (“I have to learn to control some of these urges,” she laments after ordering Jadzia and Curzon’s favourite beverage.) The symbiont has a strong connection to Sisko, having maintained a relationship with him across its two immediately previous hosts. It makes sense for Ezro to seek out Sisko, both as a familiar figure to the symbiont and as a friend who needs help.

However, the timing of the visit is just a little too perfect. Sisko is about to embark upon a journey to Tyree. Had Ezri arrived a few minutes later, she would have missed him entirely. “You’re in luck,” Joseph tells her. “Five more minutes and he’d have been gone.” Had Ezri been a few days early, she would have arrived before the Prophets had guided him to Tyree and he might not have been in the right mindset to welcome another Dax into his life; it is easy to imagine a disillusioned Sisko reacting to Ezri in a manner similar to the way Worf does in Afterimage.

Ensign of Command.

This sense of synchronicity recurs at the climax of Shadows and Symbols, when the three primary plot threads interact in a number of interesting ways. Sisko unearths the Orb of the Emissary just as Kira faces down the Romulan fleet, at the same moment that the Rotarran attacks the Dominion shipyards at Monac. Sisko uses the Orb to reopen the wormhole, which happens just as the Romulans bare down on the Bajorans, providing a moment of huge symbolic importance. At the same moment, the Rotarran causes a solar eruption, destroying the shipyards.

To be fair, a lot of this is just standard plotting. After all, stories build to climaxes. Good stories find ways for multiple threaded climaxes to overlap, both in terms of theme and in terms of pace. Really good stories find a way to have the audience sitting on the edge of multiple seats in the exact same moment. Of course the three climaxes of Shadows and Symbols synch up with one another, because that is just good storytelling. Having the climaxes overlap allows Shadows and Symbols to ramp up the tension.

It is a Klingon ceremony.
There Will Be Blood.

After all, the characters in Deep Space Nine do live in a designed clockwork universe, controlled by a superior consciousness. What are the writers but gods directing the action and the characters? This is something of a risk with storytelling like this, where the divine intervention in a story might easily be mistaken for the writers’ hands. In Action!, Ira Steven Behr acknowledged that this was a cause of some concern when writing Jadzia’s death:

“Her death will be meaningless unless she’s helping save someone’s life,” suggests René Echevarria. “We’ve already seen the pointless death of Tasha Yar, the ironic death of James Kirk…” His point made, his voice trails off and he allows the though to lie fallow.

“Where is Bashir?” Behr asks abruptly. Obviously, is he were in the same location as Jadzia, the doctor would attempt to save her life. Before the writers go to script, decisions will need to be made that place every character in an appropriate and strategic location during key scenes.

Now Behr returns to Echevarria’s earlier comment. “If she saves Worf, it will feel ‘written’,” he points out. “It will feel like a writer’s convention.”

It is a very tricky line to walk, one that could easily feel like a convoluted excuse for lazy writing rather than an organic attempt at religious ambiguity. The climax of Shadows and Symbols strikes this balance rather deftly, creating a genuine sense of synchronicity. The characters very clearly make their own decisions, but there is also a sense that everything lines up so perfectly that something else must be involved somehow.

There’s a lot of heat around this show right now.

It helps that the three climaxes are tied together through theme. Although the characters are separated by hundreds of light years, and although they each face distinct threats, there is a sense that they are all fighting similar battles. Kira stares down the Romulans to prevent them from exploiting the Dominion War for their own ends, Worf strikes a major victory for against the Dominion in honour of Jadzia, while Sisko works hard to reverse the damage inflicted upon the Celestial Temple by a sinister Dominion plot.

More than that, all three stories are anchored in the notion of religious faith. Sisko is obviously trying to reopen the wormhole and restore Bajor’s connection to the Prophets, while Worf is trying to assure Jadzia passage into “sto-vo-kor.” Kira’s plot thread exists at a remove from these direct meditations on faith, but her resolve is clearly fortified by the reopening of the wormhole at the climax of the episode. Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols are both episodes about communication with the divine; about mortals and gods in communication.

The Romulans have Kira bent out of shape.

Indeed, there is a fascinating subtext simmering beneath the surface of the two-parter, the idea of a war in heaven. At the end of Shadows and Symbols, the Prophets confirm that the wormhole was sealed by “the Kosst Amojan.” The Assignment suggested that the Pah-Wraith was effectively a fallen Prophet, exiled from the Celestial Temple. When Dukat connected with the Orb in Tears of the Prophets, he seemed to release the fallen angel directly into the wormhole, which locked them in mortal combat.

All of this combat happens off-screen. None of it is depicted in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols. The mortal characters can only idly speculate on what this conflict would look like. “Do you ever wonder what goes on?” Damar challenges Weyoun. “Inside the wormhole, I mean.” He elaborates, “The Prophets and the Pah wraiths locked in some form of celestial battle. It’s fascinating.” Weyoun is dismissive. “I never realised you had such a vivid imagination.”

That healthy “gonna blow up a star” glow.

However, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols suggest that this conflict is rippling across the mortal plane. The audience might not witness the battle between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths first hand, but they can certainly feel its impact on the characters who find themselves caught in the crossfire. Lives are destroyed, hopes are dashed, things look bleak. While none of these details can be directly attributed to the battle inside the wormhole in a literal cause-and-effect manner, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols imply a thematic connection.

There is a strong sense that the battle between the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths has serious implications, even if it is too “big” to be visible to the characters or the audience. Joseph Sisko suggests one rather obvious example of collateral damage, when he recalls his efforts to track down Sarah. “She was living in Australia working as a holo-photographer,” he explains. “She’s dead. She died in a hovercraft accident about a month before I tracked her down.” It’s never explicitly stated, but it is another example of the two-parter’s oh-so-clean synchronicity.

Write on.

With that in mind, the story’s climax makes a bit more sense. Sisko is trying to reopen the gates of heaven, as a war rages inside. Worf is troubled by the thought that his deceased wife cannot be admitted to heaven, and so embarks on a bold mission to earn her a place among the honoured dead. With that strong thematic and religious connection established, it makes sense than Chief O’Brien cannot spark the solar flare until after Sisko has reopened the wormhole. Speaking in abstract, Jadzia cannot get into heaven until the gates have been reopened.

This is a very interesting way of approaching the conflict between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths, treating it as something that ripples into the lives of the characters in a very abstract sense without a clear causal link. It is certainly more interesting, and more ambitious, than the climax of The Reckoning. An existential conflict that warps the outside narrative is far more compelling than wide shots of two actors firing colour-coded energy beams at one another across the Promenade.

Counselling against it.

This conflict between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths fits comfortably within popular culture’s fascination with the “war in heaven” at the turn of the millennium. The Assignment had already established the Pah-Wraiths as demons in the Miltonian sense, angels cast out of heaven into the pits of “the fire caves.” As such, it makes sense that the conflict between the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths should take on a mythic structure that recalls the “war on heaven” in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a war that exists beyond humanity’s comprehension.

As such, the contours of this conflict express themselves through metaphor and synchronicity more than through the doctrine of cause and effect. There is an endearing ambiguity to all of this, particularly with regard to which conflict is impacting and influencing the other; do the events inside the wormhole influence the events outside, or do the events outside the wormhole make an impact on what is happening inside? Do the mortals exist at the whims of the gods, or do the gods exist in a way shaped by the mortals?

Heaven help us.

Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols suggest an intriguing ambiguity that transcends normal understandings of linear action and reaction. As Stephen Dobranski outlines in Milton’s Visual Imagination, this level of abstraction reflects Milton’s approach to the war in heaven:

Within Paradise Lost, Milton dramatises the difficulty of his narrative endeavour through the angel Raphael. Attempting to describe the war in heaven and explain his life as a spiritual being, Raphael wonders whether he can communicate in a language that Adam and Eve will comprehend: “how shall I relate / To human sense th’ invisible exploits / Or warring spirits” and “how … unfold / The secrets of another world, perhaps / Not lawful to reveal?” The imagistic approach that the angel settles on reveals Milton’s own poetic strategy: “what surmounts the reach / Of human sense, I shall delineate so, / By lik’ning spiritual to corporeal forms, / As may express them best.” Milton in Paradise Lost similarly turns to the corporeal to depict “invisible exploits” that transpire in hell, heaven and Paradise. The theological doctrine behind such a poetics is called accommodation – that is, the translation of infinite truths for a finite understanding through anthropomorphism and anthropopathy. As with Longinus’ claims about the efficacy and affect of visual images, the theory of accommodation holds out the possibility that inspired language, transcending the literal and figurative, can express a higher reality and make the invisible visible.

Beyond the religious symbolism, this speaks to art as a concept and to humanity’s understanding of the world. In some ways, art is ultimately the attempt to distill down the complexity of the world to a narrative or an image. Similarly, in an age of globalisation, the individual can often feel removed from cause and effect.

Drink it in.

This might explain why popular culture was so fascinated by the concept of the “war in heaven” at the turn of the millennium. The idea reverberated through film and television, through novels and video games, as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first. Philip Pullman reworked the idea for His Dark Matrials, launched in July 1995. Nancy Willard published The Tale of Paradise Lost in late 2004. There were even plans for a Christian-themed “war in heaven” video game to be released in late 1999.

Voyager hinted at the idea repeatedly over the course of its run. In The Q and the Grey, a civil war in the Q Continuum manifested itself as a series of unexplained interstellar phenomena, while Q struggled to represent the conflict in a way that Janeway could comprehend. In Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, Annorax waged war upon the concept of time itself. For the bulk of the first episode, the characters did not even perceive Annorax, instead feeling the ripples of his actions as they reverberated through the timeline.

“Mightier than the orb?”

Chris Carter built the concept into the mythologies of both Millennium and The X-Files, most obviously in episodes like Lamentation, Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, Patient X and The Red and the Black. Russell T. Davies would apply that logic to “the Last Great Time War” when he resurrected Doctor Who in March 2005, and while the threat of the “Temporal Cold War” lingered across the run of Star Trek: Enterprise. The idea permeated popular culture.

It could reasonably be argued that this fascination with the “war in heaven” reflected the same millennial anxiety that drove the Christian eschatology behind The Reckoning, a slowly mounting sense of apocalyptic dread from a culture that believed itself to be standing at “the end of history.” After all, the nineties were a period of relative political stability where the biggest threats seemed to come from the random problems affecting infrastructure and interconnectedness; the spread of ebola, the millennium bug, the breakdown of civil order.

Quark of fate.

However, there is probably more to it than that. The idea of mankind caught in the rippling consequences of actions and consequences beyond their comprehension might in some way reflect anxieties about an increasingly globalised world, in which individuals feeling increasingly disconnected from the consequences of their decisions and which complex international relationships and dynamics have unpredictable impacts upon the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Although economists and academics can make causal connections, they appear random to most observers.

It makes sense that this idea of the war in heaven should take root in shows as cynical about authority as Deep Space Nine, Millennium and The X-Files. The conspiracy mythologies of The X-Files and Millennium suggested a world full of complex and secret systems intended to diminish and undercut the power of the common man. Deep Space Nine had been much more cynical about organised power structures and centralised authority than other Star Trek series, wary of how power might corrupt and how the interests of an organisation might conflict with those of its citizens.

Borderline inappropriate.

The “war in heaven” suggested across these shows was just another illustration of how contemporary lives seemed to be governed by mysterious and unknowable forces. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the butterfly effect meant that people’s lives could be affected by the smallest of economic factors in a seemingly unrelated field and seemingly unrelated location. As systems became more complex, the law of unintended consequences came to have an exponentially increased effect. Correlation and causation seemed abstract.

Similarly, it could be argued that the fixation on the notion of the “war in heaven” in nineties pop culture in some ways reflected the simmering “culture wars.” As with the “war in heaven”, this was an abstract conflict over something that did not actually exist. Even more than the Cold War, which was an ideological conflict played out on the real world, the culture wars were ideological conflicts played out in ideological spaces; in journals, in speeches, on the internet, on the airwaves.

Having a deep space dust-up.

Although not literal conflicts, their influence was keenly felt in a number of direct and indirect ways. The “culture wars” were in many ways presented as “a war for the soul of America.” They led to President Bill Clinton becoming only the second President of the United States to be impeached, effectively over an extramarital affair. However, that debate also played out in the background of countless other big news stories of the decade, from the influence over violence in film and video games on real-life violence to the politics of remembering the Second World War.

There is something powerful in the more abstract ways that Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols approach the religious ideas underpinning Deep Space Nine, suggesting that the series unfolds in an ordered universe that is controlled by (or at least reflected in) the spiritual beings that live in the Bajoran wormhole. Deep Space Nine‘s approach to religion works best when it captures that grey area of faith, providing just enough evidence to support belief, but not so much detail as to offer assurance. Ambiguity is the key.

A character ark.

However, there are points at which Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols lean a little bit too heavily into the concrete religious elements of the mythology. In particular, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols build upon the developments of The Assignment and The Reckoning to codify the show’s religious perspective as explicitly Christian in nature. It undercuts a lot of the nuance and a lot of the power of Deep Space Nine‘s approach to faith. All of a sudden, the cosmology of Deep Space Nine is transformed from a nuanced study of faith to pop Christianity.

Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols lean into the Christian iconography. Sisko discovers that he is part divine, that he was conceived through divine machinations in a weird pseudo-reverse-virgin-birth. The Reckoning had cast Benjamin Sisko as Abraham from Judeo-Christian theology, but Shadows and Symbols positions him as Jesus Christ. He even wanders into the desert to find himself, only to be tempted by visions from the demonic forces at play in this eternal battle between good and evil.

Just desert.

While earlier seasons had left the role of the Emissary ambiguous, the seventh season commits to this idea of the Emissary of the Prophets as a messianic Christian figure. As Ross Kraemer, William Cassidy and Susan L Schwartz outline in The Religions of Star Trek, his journey ultimately parallels that of Jesus Christ:

In a manner that parallels hero stories the world over (as well as the death and rebirth of Spock), particularly the narrative of Jesus Christ, Sisko sacrifices himself for everyone’s salvation, goes willingly to a horrible death, and is saved by divine intervention and transported bodily to a heavenly realm where he has much to learn. There’s even a postresurrection appearance that is quite in line with canonical descriptions of Jesus that emphasise women as the first witnesses to his resurrection. It’s Kasidy Yates (Mrs. Sisko), who has a vision of the Celestial Temple in which she and Ben embrace. Then he tells her of his necessary sojourn there but promises that he will return: “Maybe a year, maybe yesterday, but I will be back.” This recalls what the Gospel of Mark says about the timing of the return of Christ: “But about that day or hour no one knows, whether the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Sisko, like Jesus, was foreordained to do these things. As is typical of mythological heroes, his birth was extraordinary; he is no ordinary human, although he appears to be such.

This is somewhat underwhelming, given the ubiquity of Christian iconography in popular culture. This is particularly true in science-fiction and fantasy settings, where Christian imagery has become a narrative and thematic shortcut, where it seems like every protagonist from Superman to Luke Skywalker invites the comparison.

“You know Worf, this is a little bit of a fire hazard.”

It is incredibly reductive and predictable, perhaps the most obvious parallel to draw in a narrative about faith and heroism. It undercuts a lot of the ambiguity of Deep Space Nine‘s spirituality, a lot of the nuance and the shading. The Prophets work best when their role is open to interpretation, capturing the uncertainty of faith. In contrast, casting Sisko as a stand-in for Jesus Christ codifies the spiritual cosmology of Deep Space Nine as a twenty-fourth century reimagining of Christianity. Sisko is Jesus, Sarah is God, the Kosst Amojan is Lucifer.

More than that, the use of such imagery overwhelms the substantive narrative. If the Prophets are to be reimagined as the Christian God standing in opposition to the Pah-Wraiths as Lucifer, then there is little room for any in-depth exploration. The lines have been drawn, and the teams have been divide. The Prophets stand on the side of the light, while the Pah-Wraiths embody the darkness. Good and evil are squaring off against one another, one epic battle for the fate of the universe.

Just Trilled to be here.

However, one of the most aspects of the Prophets has been the sense that they are not the conventional Christian God. The Bajorans worship them, and believe they offer guidance, but the early seasons suggested that the Prophets were ambivalent about their followers. Emissary suggested that the Orbs were really probes, that they had never meant to inspire a religion among the Bajorans; their first response on meeting outsiders is to cut themselves off from the universe. Sisko has to negotiate with the Prophets, convince them to keep the wormhole open.

Time and again, the early seasons suggest that the Prophets have little emotional investment in the affairs of mortals. In Prophet Motive, they rewire Zek’s brain without a second thought. Quark only convinces them to restore his personality by threatening to send more Ferengi to talk with them. In Sacrifice of Angels, Sisko has to plead and barter with the Prophets to intervene in the affairs of mortals. Sisko has to implore them to accept the role of gods to Bajor. It is a fascinating dynamic, one that suggests the Prophets exist beyond the mortal plane.

“We’re gold, baby.”

However, episodes like The Reckoning and Shadows and Symbols reconfigure the Prophets to make them more conventional religious deities, treating them as short hand for absolute and unquestioned good. This is particularly obvious in the context of Shadows and Symbols, when Sisko discovers that the Prophets manipulated his mother in order to ensure that he would be born. “You took over her body, made sure she married my father so that she’d give birth to me,” Sisko challenges. The Prophet responds, simply, “The Sisko is necessary.”

It is worth dwelling on this. The Prophets took over the body of Sarah Sisko. They manipulated her life so that she would come into contact with Joseph Sisko. They did not just tweak events, they controlled her body and soul. They ensured that Sarah married Joseph and became pregnant with Benjamin, that she gave birth to a son. Once they had fulfilled that basic biological function, they abandoned her. There is no indication that they explained what happened to her. Sarah was so shocked by all this that she just left, abandoning her husband and her son.

Wipe out.

This is horrific and monstrous, a violation on par with the rewiring of Zek’s brain in Prophet Motive. There is even the subtle suggestion in Image in the Sand that the Prophets might have murdered Sarah before Joseph could find her and talk to her about what happened. This is not something that the “good guys” do. This is not a heroic action. This is not a justifiable decision, even if the fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant is at stake. However, the Prophets have moved beyond ambiguity and ambivalence. As such, Sisko cannot really call them out.

Sisko should be outraged by this. Sisko should be horrified by what the Prophets have done. Sisko should want no part of their larger schemes. It would make sense for the revelations in Shadows and Symbols to shake Sisko even more profoundly than the events of Tears of the Prophets. However, there is simply no room to manoeuvre in this story. There is no room to talk about consent, or power, or violation. Introducing those issues so quickly after establishing Sisko as space!Jesus would invite uncomfortable (and complicated) questions about Christian beliefs.

The march to war(d).

So Sisko glosses over the implied violation. He treats as a plot point to be explained rather than an emotional reality. “Once you didn’t need her anymore, you left her,” Sisko reflects. “No wonder she walked out on my father. She didn’t chose him, you did.” These are very simple statements of facts, no matter how much emotion Avery Brooks might invest in his line reading. “What you’re telling me isn’t easy to accept,” he states, which seems like he might be getting to the substance. However, his concerns are self-centred. “You arranged my birth. I exist because of you?”

The dialogue is consciously designed to minimise the conversation about Sarah and about what the Prophets did to her, because Shadows and Symbols understands that having that discussion would undercut the power of the Christian iconography. It would also open up legitimate debates about the morality of the Prophets, which would in turn invite discussions about the Pah-Wraiths. It would make the cosmology more complicated, at a time when Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols were trying to simplify it.

Same as it ever was.

It is a decision that weakens the central mythology of Deep Space Nine, undercutting the show’s more nuanced and ambiguous exploration of faith in faith of some very stock religious imagery. That imagery is undoubtedly powerful, but it is also overwhelming. These symbols cast a long shadow.


16 Responses

  1. Having finished watching season seven, I’m not sure that the criticism of the conflict between the Prophets and the Pah Wraiths as being a simplistic “good vs evil” story is entirely valid. To me, it felt more like a case of “black and grey morality” or perhaps even “grey and grey morality.” We the viewers never really learn all that much about the Pah Wraiths’ goals or motives. The primary reason why they seem “evil” is that they use Gul Dukat and Kai Winn, two morally bankrupt individuals, as their servants. We really don’t see enough of the Pah Wraiths themselves to figure out exactly what they want, other than to displace the Prophets.

    As you say, there is a HUGE amount of moral ambiguity, a genuinely unsettling element, to the horrifying manner in which the Prophets manipulated Sisko’s parents to ensure his existence. That alone is enough to demonstrate that the Prophets do not simply conform to human perceptions of “good,” but instead things are much more complex. As you say, the Prophets non-involvement in the Bajoran people’s lives before Sisko’s arrival also muddies the waters. One could say that the Pah Wraiths offer a legitimate criticism when, speaking via Dukat, they argue that the Prophets did nothing to help Bajor during the occupation, so why should the Bajorans worship them.

    So, yes, there is that ambiguity. But I agree with you that the reason why some viewers don’t really pick up on it too much is that the DS9 writers, having introduced that uncertainty, proceeded to quickly gloss it over.

    • I don’t know. I feel like Sisko’s straightforward acceptance of this is meant to signal that the audience shouldn’t worry too much about, coupled with the fact that the climax of the series features literal caves filled with fire associated with the Pah-Wraiths.

      There’s definitely room for an ambiguous and interesting story here, even if the series just cribbed from Milton. However, I don’t think that the show earns that ambiguity.

      • The whole thing is just ill-conceived. For all of the many things DS9 did well, it didn’t do cosmic struggles well. It could do character studies (Crossfire), tragedies (Duet, Rocks and Shoals), comedies (In the Cards), Political Intrigue (Improbable Cause), action-adventure (Treachery, Faith, and the Great River), romance (Chimera), morality tales (In the Pale Moonlight), and sci-fi concepts firmly wedded in the DS9 universe and its characters (Children of Time, Far Beyond the Stars). Out of all of those things DS9 could do so well, the climax hinges on pulp fantasy. An odd choice to be sure.

      • Yep. It’s a shame, because the first hour of the finale is pure gold. If you just cut it with the farewells and assumed Dukat starved to death in those caves, you’d have a much stronger episode.

      • I don’t think anyone would have minded. Despite the show doing pretty much nothing with them, I think the story-line was still salvageable up to The Reckoning. But after that? No. No, we don’t get to see more of Damar’s rebellion. We’ve got endless scenes of Dukat and Winn talking about nothing to watch. *That’s* what people want to see.

      • I get that it’s just editing, but I also kinda love the implication that Dukat and Winn get lost in the caves for about a week waiting for other plot lines to tidy themselves up.

  2. Fascinating insights.

    I do wonder if the religious ambiguity of the early seasons is itself as much of a Nineties element as the ‘war in heaven’ tone of the later years. I’d say we here in the West do live in climate that is much more hostile to religious belief of any stripe – not simply socially conservative and/or organised religion – than in the Nineties.

    • That’s an interesting point. I mean, the new-age-ism of the early seasons definitely overlaps with the work of Carter on The X-Files or Michael Piller on Voyager, so there was definitely something in the air.

  3. Fascinating insights. I’ve never seen this show before so I don’t know specifically where it’s going but it’s already clear we’re fulfilling the theme from season six. Season six was Sisko’s increasing disenchantment with Starfleet, culminating in him going against his instincts and choosing them over his role as the Emissary, costing him Dax. As he starts his path back toward his calling, Dax is returned and doors are opened for him and his friends. It seems like DS9 isn’t the story of how Bajor joins the Federation, it’s the story of how Sisko leaves it. Not immediately apparent maybe, but kinda low-key subversive.

    The end is reminiscent of what George Lucas would do with The Phantom Menace around the same time. Victory in each thread subconsciously emboldens the characters in other threads.

    Also for all the crap thrown Ezri Dax’s way I thought I’d be in for something painful, but I don’t see what the problem is.

    • Personally, I suspect the problems with Ezri are two-fold. Most obviously, fandoms don’t tend to like change on principle, and having a literal replacement character is just asking for trouble. However, in the specific case of Ezri, it doesn’t help matters that the three weakest episodes of the season land smack bang in the middle of the season and are all built around Ezri. Which is a shame, as her stuff at the start and the end of the season is really good.

  4. I don’t mind the religious stuff in the episode as much as you do. I think this is because I’ve never liked the Bajoran religion. I thought that right from the start, it was a burden on the show. It’s vague, poorly defined, and rarely leads to nuanced explorations of faith. The best exploration of faith on DS9 is to be found in the Dominion.

    • Maybe. I do like the earlier Bajoran stuff, which feels like an agnostic approach to faith in a vast and diverse universe. Are the Prophets really gods? Does it matter what we think, if the Bajorans choose to see them as such? The Judean Christian stuff just wipes that away from a Star Wars knock-off.

  5. Great review again. The synchronicity of events is very fascinating indeed. But I wonder: Is it not four instead of just three storylines? Is the Benny Russell-storyline (which you did not mention at all) merely a vision? Is it not a reality in its own? The moment where Benny is undecided whether to wipe out his story or not was so powerful. The whole way it was cut reminded me somehow of the flashbacks in the “Lost”-series.

    I found Tyree to be a little too much of Tatooine-looking and completely arbitrary. Why not make it Bajor or some planet the Bajorans have been before?

    Thanks for pointing out the similarity of reopening the wormhole and bringing Jadzia to Stovo’kor. Never noticed that. Also it seems like Jadzia could not be redeemed until after the Pah-wraith who murdered here was banished/killed.

    • I think I folded Benny’s story into Sisko’s, but it also probably works in that sense as well. He is writing the script, after all.

      • I guess at that point in time they (=Behr) still wanted to leave the door open for all of DS9 being just part of Benny’s imagination. Still uncertain about that idea, it might be a good alternative end. At least not as tear-inducing as the real one with Nerys and Jake at the promenade…

  6. Ever notice that the Orbs of the Prophets look kinda like a grail?

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