WARNING: This article contains heavy spoiler information regarding DS9's season finale "In The Hands of the Prophets". Those without the gift of prophecy who want to avoid knowing the future of the episode, steer clear.
(And, as with "Descent", an extra thirty lines of blank space are being thrown in free of charge.)
One hell of a good show, and one that hits very close to home for me.
Of course, the fact that it got to me so strongly will be no surprise for anyone who read my review of TNG's "The Chase" earlier this year. As this episode tackled issues equally close to my heart and mind, the commentary is likely to be as strongly worded -- so be warned. (Since the show also deals directly with issues I mentioned in "The Chase" rather than suggesting them, it may also prove difficult to separate them out, so take extra care when reading or responding.)
First and foremost, I have to say that for the last ten minutes of the show my heart was pounding faster than I think it has in any time since "The Mind's Eye" two years ago. I'd pegged Neela as the assassin somewhat before it was made obvious, but what I was far more concerned about was exactly what she had planned, and more importantly, given DS9's penchant for nasty endings, whether she'd succeed. I warmed very quickly to Vedek Bareil, and I didn't want him taken down by a fanatic's phaser. This was also one of the first times in a very, very long while that we've had any sort of slow-motion effect used at all, much less to the wonderful ends it was put to here; and seeing that somehow added to the nervousness I was feeling.
There. That takes care of the end; now back to the beginning. :-)
I can't really discuss the show at all without getting heavily into my own views on the place of religion and religious thought in schools, so I'm afraid you're stuck with me. Hang on.
My own feelings fall in line almost perfectly with Keiko's here: there is no place for "the Prophets" in the classroom. I have no objection to religious doctrine being taught at all -- but not in a secular environment which is supposed to avoid favoring any spiritual belief. To quote Keiko again, "I don't teach Bajoran spiritual beliefs; that's your job."
As such, I (probably not surprisingly) felt that Sisko was being a little too equivocal in early portions of the show, when the school issue was still the focus of the show rather than Bajoran religious politics. I'm referring specifically to the Kira/Sisko/Keiko scene in Sisko's office.
There, Keiko's position was pretty clear, and in my opinion completely justified. Kira seemed too far over on Vedek Winn's side, particularly given her devotion to the not-nearly-so-extreme Kai Opaka. Sisko, however, gave Kira far too much slack, in my view.
I'll explain. Kira's claim that perhaps two schools were needed on the station strikes me as an "if we ignore this information, hopefully it'll go away" answer to the problem -- and Sisko should have made that point clear. Keiko does, somewhat later -- her answer to Winn's "compromise" sums it up perfectly. "I'm a teacher -- my responsibility is to expose my students to knowledge, not hide it from them." (Actually, that's not quite my own philosophy, which is simply to show students how to ask the right questions and obtain knowledge themselves, but that's a different issue.)
Sisko's point about "all philosophies" being welcome on the station was good, but in my opinion was incomplete. For one point, I think Kira's claim about "pure science without a spiritual context is a philosophy" is simply wrong. (Science is a way of reasoning, not a belief system. I've known scientists who subscribe to a great many religions, and none have a problem with "science vs. religion", as long as they realize where in their own thinking one stops and the other begins.) For another, however, Sisko needed to point out that nothing was keeping Vedek Winn from teaching Bajoran spiritual views to anyone who wanted to listen, and thus letting the children hear both Keiko's and her teachings. (And if they contradict? Well, that's why it's called thought -- the kids can decide which one holds water. That's what the marketplace of ideas is for.)
Much of this is simply my own philosophy being slightly at odds with that of the show, it appears, and it's not at all akin to the situation I flamed to high heaven in "The Chase". Here, all sides were presented, and thus the
marketplace of ideas I just alluded to last paragraph is open for business -- I just felt uncomfortable with elements of it. (That may be a sign, perhaps, that I'm not as tolerant as I should be. I certainly hope not, but I'm probably not the one most qualified to judge.)
Getting back to "In the Hands of the Prophets" as a show, it succeeded very well in arousing strong emotions towards the various characters, at least in me. I was as hurt as O'Brien was when Neela was revealed as the killer (although as I said, I saw it a bit earlier than he did), and as warmly towards Vedek Bareil as Sisko. As for Vedek Winn, well ... as I said, my viewpoint this episode was paralleling Keiko's, so draw your own conclusions.
The plotting was definitely good. Although I pegged Neela as the killer about five or ten minutes before the episode itself did (to be specific, it was when she and O'Brien were working on the runabout pad), I don't think she was meant to be an incredible secret. The bigger points, namely the linkage between Aquino's death and the school issue, and the fact that the school issue itself was just a diversion, were well hidden, at least to me. As Bareil arrived on board, I thought very briefly that the whole thing might have been to draw him out of hiding, but then decided that wasn't the case. I was fooled. (That's twice this week -- I must be doing something wrong.:-) )
One bit of slightly "off" thinking struck me, though -- once O'Brien knew Neela had done something to security, particularly to weapons, he shouldn't have just told Sisko -- he should have told Odo as well. Odo's the much
more logical choice, and he might have been able to do more than leap in slow motion towards Neela as well. Ah, well.
To offset that, though, I think Neela's very presence and significance suggests a surprising willingness towards long-term plotting and planning on the part of the DS9 staff. Neela's presence would have been an immediate
giveaway as the killer, I think, were it not for the fact that we've been seeing O'Brien working with various Bajoran assistants for the last several episodes. None of them was Neela, granted, but we've been seeing new ones virtually every show for a while, all present and helpful, but not significant to the plot. It appeared that Neela might be the same way. If this tendency pans out, we'll have to start looking a lot more closely at little tidbits in the show that could later turn out important. Bravo to this, I say.
The conflict between Sisko and Winn was built up well, with Sisko not becoming particularly hostile towards her until things started getting out of control, and especially once the school was bombed. (That bombing sequence chilled my blood, by the way -- far too close to home for my liking, given how easy it's been for public places to be bombed in the last few years.) His speech to her outside the bombed school, unlike his earlier scenes I've mentioned, was absolutely stunning. Winn, like many real-life parallels, was a picture of arrogance: she truly did "claim the Prophets as [her] *personal* constituency". (She also, in coldly sending Neela to a likely execution merely to gain political power, is in my opinion a monster; but I digress.)
It's tough to pin down specific scenes that really touched me, because so much of the show managed it. The scene where we first met Vedek Bareil was particularly strong. Bareil, unlike Winn, is the absolute best kind of religious leader: he leads and teaches by example, or so it appears. I hope we see more of him next season, and I hope he does become the next Kai. (It's been suggested that Winn might get the job to give the show some extra conflict. I hope this is not the case -- there's plenty of juicy conflict on the station without cutting off Sisko from the planet below. Besides, nobody on the station seems to be on Winn's side now.)
Louise Fletcher did a wonderful job playing Vedek Winn, even if she made me angry (perhaps especially then). While I haven't even seen the film version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", I have seen a stage adaptation of the novel, and based on her performance here I suspect Ms. Fletcher was a devastating Nurse Ratched in the film. Brr. Winn seemed a perfect example of what can happen when the forms of religion are observed without any respect for the substance. Winn became so caught up in the effort to become Kai that she lost sight of everything Kai Opaka might have wanted in a successor. She was closed-minded, willing to sacrifice her "flock" for her own ends, and willing to threaten others as well, even the "Emissary who walked with the Prophets". She reminds me of most of the "controversial" religious leaders who make the newspapers every month with a new boycott or a new protest, and who steadfastly "regret" the violence done in their name.
Winn wasn't quite as repulsive a character for me as "Gul Darheel" was last week, but she was close.
As far as other characters go, the O'Briens were wonderful, together as well as separately. Keiko's little bout of fake jealousy ("just keeping you on your toes, O'Brien") is the sort of thing I could easily expect to hear in
any number of married households (though in my case, it's usually a friendly "oh, really?" :-) ), and the concern they had for each other when things got difficult was never so clear as just after the bombing. It's about time those two finally clicked together.
Kira was generally good, but her initial scene with Sisko seemed a bit extreme for her. I'd have expected her to demand that Bajoran teachings not be banned from the station (as if Sisko would do such a thing), but not to
demand concessions from Keiko -- that seems too far, even for someone as strident as Kira. Once that scene was behind us, however, everything was fine, particularly the closing scene of the show.
Sisko, as the other main regular featured, was also generally good, although that one scene I've mentioned got to me. He seemed to have fewer difficulties than Kira, however -- his main fault was being too willing to compromise. He was in rare form (both in terms of writing and Avery Brooks's performance) pretty much everywhere else, though.
Robin Christopher was excellent as Neela as well. She was confident while working with O'Brien, but very much a lost soul whenever her "duties" for Winn took precedence. While I felt nothing but enmity for her in the actual climax of the show, I pitied her more than anything else -- and given that she had a relatively small role in terms of speaking parts, that I felt anything at all is a sign of how well she did. Good job to her, especially
the nonverbal cues.
The closing scene was nice as well. If this had been anything other than a season finale, I might have thought it was a little hokey -- but as it is, it was a nice summing-up of "here's where we stand, let's see where we're
going." Besides, regardless of context, it is cute to see Kira telling Sisko "I don't think you're the devil", as if it's an issue. :-)
Finally, I'd like to note that it's interesting that the school issue was never resolved. It made perfect dramatic sense for it to be used solely as a front, and although I was disappointed not to see it completed here, I think
it makes some sense in the analogy to real life as well. Given my characterization of Winn above, you may not be surprised to read this, but I think that in many cases, issues such as evolution vs. creation in schools, boycotts of "offensive" television programs, etc., are often not about beliefs or religion when you get to the top echelons. I think that more often than not, they're about power, and as such the show followed life pretty well.
There -- now that I've probably managed to offend almost everybody who reads this, it's probably time to get ready to go. :-) So, some short takes:
-- The music was all right in general, but particularly good during Neela's attempt on Vedek Bareil; it added that much more to the suspense.
-- The final act of the show was a full *15* minutes long. That's a third of the show! While I'm sure there have been others, the last time I remember a show being this heavily weighted towards the final act was waaaaaaay back in TNG's first season, in "Conspiracy" -- and it was certainly effective back then as well. Interesting.
-- A question. Just what was Bashir babbling about with "reconstructing Aquino's DNA" to find the cause of death? If Aquino was turned into a pile of goo, why would the DNA be able to tell you anything? Sigh...
-- Once the details of the power struggle became a little more obvious, I actually began to be reminded of David Eddings's Elenium series. Certainly, there's a great deal of Church intrigue there, and nearly as interesting to read, though for different reasons. Just a thought.
That should about do it. So, the numbers, before I head out of town:
Plot: 9. Except for the one glitch with not telling Odo, top-notch.
Plot Handling: 10. Riveting.
Characterization: 9. Kira and Sisko were a little off early on, but no more.
OVERALL: 9.5. Not bad at all ... not bad at all.
Well, that's it for me. See you in a few weeks for the TNG and DS9 Season-Wrapup reviews. Until then...
"One must never look into the eyes of one's own gods."
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"I am a teacher. My responsibility is to expose my students to knowledge, not hide it from them."
-- Keiko O'Brien