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Covenant

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WARNING: This, then, is the "Covenant" between us: I will write the spoilers for DS9's latest episode, and you will refrain from reading them if unwilling to be spoiled.

In brief: Good when it focuses on Dukat and Kira; iffy otherwise.

Brief summary: Kira is kidnapped by a Bajoran cult which worships the Pah-wraiths -- and which is now led by Dukat.

I really, really wanted to like "Covenant" a lot. It focuses in on Bajorans and in particular Bajoran faith, which I usually find interesting; it followed up on the Pah-wraiths, which seems necessary given the past half-season; most importantly, it gave us the return of Dukat, who is rarely dull. ("Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night,"
next week's rerun, is one of the extremely few cases where Dukat winds up dull.)

As a result, my expectations may be blinding me a bit. I certainly liked aspects of "Covenant" here and there, but the episode seems to be one of those cases where the parallels to 20th-century events are laid on so thick that aspects of the story get lost. (TNG's "The Outcast" was a particularly egregious example of that; it fared far worse than "Covenant", actively undercutting its own points in a well-meaning attempt to make them.)

In this case, the parallel would be to cults in general -- in particular, this struck me as a mesh of the Jim Jones cult in late '70s Guyana and the "Heaven's Gate" mass suicide a couple of years ago in San Diego. To sum up the premise, Kira is visited by an old friend, Vedek Fala (Norman Parker), who taught Kira all through the Occupation and kept her alive in the refugee camps. Unbeknownst to her, however, Fala is a member of the Pah-wraith cult, and Kira winds up being taken by Dominion transporter to Empok Nor, where the cult has taken up residence thanks to its new guru ... Dukat.

From a plot standpoint, that pretty much makes sense -- in particular, given the state Dukat was in the last time we saw him, having him wind up with the cult is very plausible. It's even plausible to have him lead it; Dukat has an awful lot of personal magnetism, and that's often what cultists are drawn to. The only stretch I have here is putting the cult on Empok Nor; it is nicely isolated, but seems to me almost as an excuse to use the DS9 set rather than create a new environment. So, I've no problem there.

After that, the story really covers two stretches of ground. The first is strictly between Kira and Dukat; Dukat wants to open Kira's heart to the Pah-wraiths, and in particular seems to have a stake in proving to Kira that his people do indeed love him. The second is the rise and fall of Dukat's little slice of heaven: we see the gradual unraveling of the cult, thanks to Kira's interference and to Dukat's own weaknesses.

The first group, the Kira/Dukat material, is by far the more interesting of the two. Dukat calls himself a changed man, and in terms of outward attitudes he is in a few ways -- but aspects of his character certainly have not changed. Ever since Dukat had Kira back in his clutches last season, he's radiated an eerie calm around her; the scene in his office during "A Time to Stand" last year is an absolutely standout example of that. That same sense of "she will be mine someday; I'll wait as long as I need to" was very much in evidence here; granted, this time he appeared to be interested in her on behalf of his gods rather than for his own personal interests, but that same ability to make the viewer's skin crawl is there.

Something else that endured despite Dukat's "changes" was interesting, too: Dukat's wish for acceptance. As Kira put it, Dukat has had a "desperate need to win the love of the Bajoran people" for a long time -- now, I think a lot of that was retroactively added somewhere around season 5, but it's been an integral part of Dukat's makeup ever since. It's been an interesting motivation for Dukat in many ways, and despite his conversion to the cult it rather clearly still exists: even now, he was willing to debate the Occupation with Kira, and even now he views her as a symbol of Bajoran obstinacy and anger: if he can convert her, he can convert anyone. If Sisko has always been a rival for Dukat, Kira has always been a goad -- and that has been true almost since day one.

So, that core material was fine. If I had any problem with it, it's that both Kira and Dukat spent too much time reiterating the past and not enough creating new challenges: the continuity is nice, but when I feel as though the dialogue's a rerun it's a bit iffy. Still, I had little if any problem here.

The cult-centered material, on the other hand, held almost no interest, and that's unfortunate. The philosophy of the cult was interesting: the idea that the Pah-wraiths were exiled because they were meddlers is a solid one (a fact to which any "Doctor Who" fan could attest), and Dukat's argument that Bajoran scripture is simply "history written by the winners" certainly has merit. I'd like to have seen more with that.

Unfortunately, we didn't. What we got after that was a virtual reiteration of the major "sins" of a lot of cults, followed by a step-by-step telegraphing of Dukat's downfall. Couples need permission to have children? Seen it. The cult leader is actually the one fathering some or all of the children? Been there. Cultists love their leader so much that they'll protect his life at the risk of their own? Check. The cult leader will covertly silence opposition rather than let it be heard? Heard it. The cult leader preaches mass suicide? Sure, why not? Once the story strayed away from Dukat and Kira, it ceased to be a story and turned into Cult Anatomy 101, and that's a pity. Once the dust has settled, the only real impact is that Kira knows Dukat's even further involved with the wraiths and that she's lost a friend the viewers never saw before this episode. I'd like more.

One pleasant exception to the parade of stock cult characters was Vedek Fala. A lot of his actions were telegraphed just as much as Mika's or Benyan's, but Fala seemed like a fundamentally deeper character. Perhaps it was the realization that he'd turned to the Pah-wraiths well before Dukat came upon the scene, but he was the only one of the cultists apart from Dukat who appeared to have given his beliefs any actual thought. His past relationship with Kira also gave their scenes more than a simple believer/skeptic feel, which helped. As a result, while I fully expected he'd wind up taking the poison anyway, I was a bit sorry to see him go: the rest of the lot could have gone belly up so far as I was concerned, but Fala was actually interesting.

Fundamentally, my other problem with "Covenant" is a lingering impression it's fostered. It may just be me, but I'm left with the same feeling that I had in "Tears of the Prophets", which had its initial birth after thinking about "Waltz": namely, that the DS9 staff isn't quite sure what to do with Dukat now that he's lost the station again. For years, we had Dukat the adversary, Dukat the occasional ally of convenience, Dukat the representative of a wholly different world-view, Dukat the almost true ally, and Dukat the patriot. Even after he joined the Dominion and became "Dukat the villain" again, he usually seemed more aware of his surroundings than most, and able to take the long view where others could not or would not. In the end, he mostly got his wish -- the Cardassian return to Terok Nor -- and then saw it all taken away from him due to his own hubris, even costing him his daughter. That's a hell of a character arc.

Since then, we've had one episode of Dukat the raging loony, one episode of Dukat telling Kira about her past, one episode of Dukat the possessed, and now one episode of Dukat the cult leader. Very little about those have been fundamentally inconsistent with his character, but there's also very little there that seems to have any direction. On those occasions when he gets to make philosophical or political points, they often still resonate: that's part of what made "Waltz" work as well as it did, and it was definitely the main selling point of "Covenant." He's running out of points to make, though, and this seemingly aimless bouncing around from role to role isn't helping.

Other points:

-- As telegraphed as it was, Dukat's attempted murder of Mika was very nicely done. It seemed a nice idea, particularly since if Mika had been blown out earlier, her body might simply never be found by the cultists: look, it's another miracle! The music for the scene was beautifully crafted, and I also appreciated that the outflow of air actually stopped, as lots of similar scenes tend to ignore that fact.

-- Where exactly did Dukat get all of this poison?

-- It's a good thing Bajoran women have short gestation periods; otherwise I'd have had real problems with Mika being in labor only a third of a season after Dukat was initially possessed.

-- The first act consisted of only one scene; we've seen that approach before, most notably in "Doctor Bashir, I Presume," but it's interesting when done well.

-- It's now official: everyone has known all along that Dukat caused Jadzia's death, and none of them had any reaction to it, at least on screen. Yes, that's annoying.

-- Kira's escape attempt was careless on her part. Rather than trying to kill Dukat, she should've taken the gun and gotten to a shuttle or the transporter; once back at DS9, she could have ordered a flotilla to head over to Empok Nor. That's not a criticism; it just strikes me as something she'd smack herself about later.

-- Odo's wish that he were a believer so that he could accompany Kira to services really was sweet.

-- Am I the only one who wanted to see the response of the DS9 crew when they got Dukat's message?

That about covers it. "Covenant" did what it was supposed to when it focused on the characters, but it got lost in the "cultisms" enough that bits of it are tedious. Still, it's probably worth the hour -- definitely, if you're a Dukat fan.

Wrapping up:

Writing: Too many "hey, let's throw in this cult trait" moments, but often good Kira/Dukat material.
Directing: The airlock scene was great; overall it was reasonable.
Acting: I didn't care for Jason Leland Adams (Benyan) much; everyone else was reasonable, and Alaimo and Parker were particularly good.

OVERALL: 7. An awful lot of episodes have scored in the 6-8 range so far this year; that's not bad, but it's a little frustrating. Let's get a knockout!

NEXT WEEK: A rerun of "Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night." Of all the choices... [On a different note, you can expect a review of "Star Trek: Insurrection."]

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
tly...@alumni.caltech.edu <*>
"So I guess the ancient texts just had it all wrong, then."
"Oh, come now, Nerys! You know as well as I do that history is written by the victors!"
-- Kira and Dukat

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