“You live without a soul, Commander. You and your Federation exist in a universe of darkness, and you would drag us in there with you, but we will not go.”
— Vedek Winn
Star Trek can feel pretty homogenous at times. It’s just that every Klingon you meet is a proud warrior, every Ferengi a greedy criminal, every Borg a . . . well, a Borg. It’s understandable, as the writers only have a fraction of your typical 44-minute episode to devote to designing a new race, and variation in a single species can actually be detrimental to the show’s point. When it annoys me is when it persists beyond a one-off appearance into the signature races of a television show. No part of the franchise was better at developing its core species than DS9.
The Bajorans are at the center of the story from the very beginning, and it would be easy to anoint them with the halo of the martyr. They suffered unduly under the Cardassian Occupation, and they do appear to be the chosen people of some pretty godlike aliens. The temptation would be strong to present the Bajorans as a culture without blemish, but again, this is DS9. No one gets out of this show without some warts attached. With the finale of the first season, the show introduces one of its great villains, someone who can’t be shot with a phaser, abandoned on an alien world, or even reasoned with. And, she is Bajoran.
The episode begins with the arrival of Vedek Winn in Keiko O’Brien’s classroom, objecting to the curriculum. Winn is upset that Keiko is treating the wormhole as a scientific phenomenon rather than the Celestial Temple of the Prophets and promptly inflames the tensions between the Bajoran and Federation personnel and citizenry. Winn is a Vedek (a Bajoran religious rank roughly equal to Cardinal) and leader of an Orthodox order. She’s played by Louise Fletcher, who won the Oscar for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and she brings the same infuriating mixture of condescending words and sanctimonious attitudes to Winn. She always comes off like she’s addressing a particularly slow and badly behaved child. It was like the writers wanted to design someone with every trait I find repellent. I generally spend Winn episodes wishing Sisko would just shoot her, but knowing that the minute he does, she’s won.
While Winn stirs s–t up on the station, O’Brien and his Bajoran assistant Neela discover that a young Starfleet engineer, Ensign Aquino, has been murdered. The murder seems without motive, but, eventually, Odo determines that Aquino must have interrupted someone who was attempting to steal a runabout. More violence follows when a bomb goes off in the school. Fortunately, no one was there at the time. And, after every instance, there’s Winn, front and center, offering “forgiveness” to any who will listen.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to see who is behind everything. It’s the red shirt problem again. There are these scenes with the entire regular cast and Neela’s there, lurking behind everything like a vulture. It’s a shame, because the writers had intended to introduce her in the episode “The Forsaken,” (Odo and Lwaxana get stuck in an elevator.) and there is a named Bajoran engineer with a few lines. Apparently, the actress didn’t “work out” (and I can’t figure out if they disliked her performance, or she wasn’t hitting the gym), and they recast and renamed the role. Neela does pop up in “Duet” for a scene, but she doesn’t make much of an impression. The idea was if she was established in the audience’s mind as a reoccurring character, her betrayal would come as a shock.
The tragedy really comes from the reaction to Neela’s treachery, and the reasons behind it. O’Brien had really taken a shine to her, to the point that Keiko even teases him a bit over it. There’s a wonderful scene when O’Brien and Neela are investigating the runabout, and Neela pretty much gives O’Brien the signal to slide into home plate. O’Brien shakes it off and gently suggests that Neela leave. Later, when he makes the connection, his face crumbles. He feels at once disappointed in himself, in her, and stupid that he could have been taken in so completely. It’s a great showcase for Colm Meaney, who often does some of the best and least showy acting in the series.
Betrayal is a theme here. Neela was doing everything at the behest of Vedek Winn, and we see a single scene between the two of them. Winn is not only willing to sacrifice Neela, she’s downright eager to do it (though the whole time she has her sad face on). The scope of Winn’s true plot isn’t clear until the end. Sisko reaches out to Vedek Bareil, the leading candidate for Kai now that Opaka is off helping out Mike from Breaking Bad. This cements the Kai as less of a ceremonial position (as it originally appeared) and more of a political one. It’s possible Bajoran society is changing, or it could be a simple retcon. In any case, the Bajoran religious heirarchy is modeled after Renaissance Catholicism, where the cardinals vied to elect a pope from their specific orders, and the pope himself had serious political clout. Bareil is everything Winn is not: he’s refreshingly humble, he has no ambition, and he refuses to grab Sisko’s ear on their first meeting. In an effort to be as symbolic as possible, Bareil is introduced in reflection and planting a plant. Sisko eventually convinces him to come to the station to calm everyone down.
Problem is, that was Winn’s plan all along. In the beginning of the episode, Kira defends Winn, and we get yet another side of our beloved Major (and the one that’s hardest to reconcile with my enduring crush). Kira is deeply religious, edging toward the orthodoxy that Winn espouses. Kira’s not thrilled with teaching the wormhole as science and offers the same mealy mouthed platitudes (“Science without spiritualist is a philosophy.”) that can still be heard today. So, when Kira figures out that this whole thing, the outrage over the school, the murder, the bombing, was all an attempt to assassinate Bareil and remove Winn’s opponent on the road to becoming Kai, she is devastated.
I’ve barely discussed Sisko, and he has some fine moments here, as well. When the fight over the school begins, he takes the time to talk to Jake about it. While Jake thinks the whole thing is stupid, Sisko urges him to see both sides of the situation. The Bajoran faith was the only thing that kept them going during the Occupation and trying to take that away is pointless, cruel, and counterproductive. Sisko also points out that the Prophets are pretty godlike, and I enjoyed the erasing of a distinction between a god and an alien. Anything significantly powerful/alien might as well be a god, right? Sisko also gets a great speech in the Promenade, basically accepting that while there are differences between Bajor and the Federation, they’ve grown to trust and rely on each other. It works well with Avery Brooks’ Shakespearean delivery. Of course, it’s topped off with a ridiculous, slow-motion “NOOOOOOOO!” when he spots Neela with the phaser which is . . . a miscalculation.
With this season finale, we finally have a show that’s finding its voice. DS9 is comfortable enough to comment on a debate that, twenty-one years later, is still somehow happening. It shows the dark side of faith, without entirely dismissing it as an artifact of the past. More to the point, it’s an entertaining hour, mixing a murder mystery with a political plot, to craft a great capstone to a shaky freshman season.
Next up: Kira and O’Brien go on a road trip.