Saturday, December 18, 2010

1-20. In the Hands of the Prophets

Introducing Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher),
the pleasant and smiling face of evil.


Keiko is teaching her students about the wormhole when her classroom receives an unexpected visitor: Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher), an orthodox Bajoran religious leader. Winn calls upon Keiko to teach not the science of the wormhole, but the Bajoran beliefs about the Prophets. When Keiko refuses to either teach Bajoran religion or avoid science completely, Winn stages an escalating protest, putting Sisko in a difficult position.

Meanwhile, O'Brien discovers that one of his tools has vanished, along with one of his men. The ensign is found reduced to an organic mass, the apparent victim of an accident. Odo investigates further, uncovering evidence that the man was actually killed by phaser fire before the "accident" was staged.

Before the murder investigation can progress, the Bajoran unrest snowballs, resulting in an act of terrorism on Deep Space 9!


Commander Sisko: Sisko's thoughtful side is shown in a scene with his son. When Jake complains about the protests against the school, calling the orthodox Bajorans "stupid," Sisko refuses to allow his son to dismiss it so easily. He understands that the Bajorans' faith is strong in large part because it had to be under the Cardassians, in order to see them through the hell of the Occupation. That understanding is a double-edged sword, though, as it keeps Sisko from dealing firmly with Winn at the outset. Once the situation erupts into violence, Sisko makes it clear that he has had enough and publicly denounces Winn - possibly an example of Sisko's temper getting the better of him, since Winn immediately uses that to denounce him as "the enemy."

Kira: Initially swayed by Winn's rhetoric, which echoes some of her own fears with regard to Bajor being subsumed by the Federation. She agrees with Winn about the need to teach Bajoran children in line with their faith, and she challenges Sisko's attempts to block Winn's influence by parroting his own words back to him: "Aren't all philosophies welcome here?" Once the situation becomes violent, however, Kira firmly supports Sisko in attempting to get things back under control.

O'Brien: His innate stubbornness proves an asset. It's his persistence in searching for the missing seal that turns up the dead ensign's body. When everyone else, even Odo, is willing to accept that the death was an accident, O'Brien voices doubts: "He borrowed my tools without asking... You never borrow a chief's tools without asking." It is that which leads to Odo uncovering the murder. O'Brien remains dogged, ferreting out hidden files in the system, which gives Sisko the clue to exactly what Winn is doing on his station.

Villain of the Week: Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher) is the single most frightening villain I've ever seen on a Star Trek show. Forget planet killers, superbeings, and genocidal robots. They're science fiction creations, with very little basis in reality. Genocidal war criminals and fanatical terrorists hew closer to reality - but even then, these are villains we're more likely to read about than to actually have any direct contact with.

Vedek Winn is a religious fanatic who masks her intolerance behind a pleasant face and a quiet, lilting voice. Her every move and gesture is finely calculated, and she is always, always on stage. Look at the way she meets with Keiko to discuss the school issue. She doesn't allow Sisko to arrange a conference room. She confronts Keiko in the hallway, surrounded by followers. It's not an attempt at compromise. It's pure theatre. A gesture of self-promotion, a way of announcing herself to the Bajorans as a serious candidate for Kai.

Fletcher is magnificent. You don't get many Academy Award Winners playing Star Trek villains.  Then again, you don't get very many Star Trek villains like Vedek Winn. Her performance shows the value of getting a very fine actress in a role like this. She's absolutely believable, which makes her absolutely terrifying.


Given how often Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5 are compared, it is perhaps fitting that Deep Space 9's first season ends with an episode that shares a big structural similarity with B5's Chrysalis: It starts out looking like a routine episode, maybe even a bit of a boring one. But from that beginning, the situation rapidly snowballs into a situation that's completely out of control, to the point that you can actually feel the fabric of the larger series shifting underneath its weight.

This is yet another episode expanding what we know about the Bajoran culture. In this case, the focus is on the religious culture. Emissary introduced us to the likable and wise Kai Opaka, who represented the best side of religion. Genuinely spiritual without being judgmental, Opaka was the sort of leader who could focus her people's spiritual side in order to make them stronger, wiser, and better. Then the series took Opaka away, leaving a void in the religious power structure.

This episode presents the two people vying to take her place. Vedek Winn is the fundamentalist voice, absolutely unyielding, seeing any dissenting opinion as "blasphemy." And any reader of The Old Testament knows what to do with blasphemers, right? Vedek Bareil (Philip Anglim) is the moderate voice, seen as the favorite to succeed Opaka. He's more reasonable than Winn, but lacks her fiery conviction.  When Sisko goes to him for help, he plays politics, guarding his position and refusing to allow Sisko to address the Vedeks. Winn's plan relies on his lack of conviction. Had Bareil granted Sisko's earlier request, his visit to the station would have been unnecessary. But he does nothing until matters become extreme. When moderates say nothing, the only voices heard are those of the extremists.

It's an excellent episode, but it doesn't quite match the intensity of Duet. Part of that is because it's a plot-driven episode, and as such simply can't match the intimacy of the Kira/Maritza interplay.  But I do feel the climax is resolved a bit "safely" when something far more interesting might have been done instead.  In short, Sisko wins, if not cleanly - but imagine how much more interesting things might have been if he had simply been too late.

Still, it isn't a clean win, and we are left with a sense of unease regarding Bajor's shifting religious politics and Sisko's relationship with Bajor.  I have no doubt there will be repercussions.  Overall, an excellent finale to a very good first season.

Rating: 9/10.

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