(Or “Ruminations on a Black Jesus”)
I don’t want to set off one of those geekier-than-thou debates like “which is the best Star Wars movie?” (The Empire Strikes Back, for those in need of the answer), so I’ll just state my bias upfront: not counting the original series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the best of the modern Star Trek incarnations. The show found its groove a lot quicker than The Next Generation (whose first two seasons are practically unwatchable). It featured steadfastly unsentimental, fully developed characters like Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn), Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), Garak (Andrew Robinson) and Quark (Armin Shimerman). And it had the most action of all of the Star Trek incarnations.
One reason I believe that the show never quite got the due it deserved was because it was seen as the “black” Star Trek. Hear me out. The show was a black show like The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Streets–a predominantly black cast that didn’t create a lot of fanfare about it being a “black” show. This was the first incarnation of Star Trek to feature a black Captain, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks, though he was only made Captain later in the series, I will only refer to his as Captain; he even had to wait a few seasons to get his own ship). There was a substantial black supporting cast, including his black son Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) and a black love interest, Captain Kasidy Danielle Yates (24‘s Penny Johnson). Captain Sisko’s interests were unapologetically black (jazz, Negro League Baseball, collecting African art). This isn’t even including Worf, whose struggles with his Klingon culture (delving into it like some black people delve into their Afro-centric culture) closely mirrored the struggles that a minority faces having grown up cut off from his people.
Brooks could chew scenery with the best of them, easily on equal footing with Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) as demonstrated in the pilot episode. Captain Sisko was under-utilized the first two seasons, though I think part of it may have been his discomfort in the Star Trek universe. By the fourth season, head shaved and goatee in place (becoming, for all intents and purposes, Hawk–his character from the show Spenser for Hire–in space), Brooks had come into his own.
The premise of the show led to a lot of early comparisons to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 since both featured an orbiting space station as the only thing standing between humanity and invading forces. To understand the rest of the review, a bit of the mythology of the show has to first be explained. In the Alpha Quadrant of the galaxy, Deep Space Nine orbits the planet Bajor, which had been occupied by Cardassians who had only recently withdrawn. A stable wormhole, known to the Bajorans as the Celestial Temple of their Prophets, is discovered by the crew. The wormhole leads to the Gamma Quadrant, home of the Dominion, and intergalactic alliance of dominated species led by the Founders (Odo’s changeling people) whose will is administrated by the cloned Vorta and enforced by their elite warriors, the Jem’Hadar. The political landscape of the Alpha quadrant shifts as old enemies unite, tentative allies betray, and all out war is declared.
Another comparison to Babylon 5 is the fact that the examination of faith and the importance of religion undergirds the series. Bajorans draw their courage from their spiritual life, their life force (read: soul) referred to as their Pah. Benjamin Sisko is revealed to be the Emissary, a figure fulfilling Bajoran prophecy, to carry out the will of The Prophets. The nine orbs of the Celestial Temple have shaped the theology of the Bajoran people, basically relaying scripture and commandments from on high. So it is not a leap on my part to conclude that the Emissary is meant to be Christ. The main part of Captain Sisko’s character development involves him developing a Messianic consciousness, him growing into the role of Emissary.
Faith is a journey.
There is not just a Christian worldview represented on the show. Most of the characters have some sort of faith to their lives. Obviously, a Jewish worldview is seen through the eyes of Major Kira Nerys and the Bajoran people. Subtle in that Star Trek sort of way, the Cardassians represent the rule of Nazi Germany. Worf follows the traditions and mythology of the Klingons of old. Vorta Weyoun (Jeffrey Combs) walked and worked alongside his gods, the Founders. Constable Odo, in a way, represents a Buddhist notion. A drop of water losing itself in the ocean. Becomes absorbed in the whole of things. The goal of many Eastern religions is to lose your personal identity and become one with the oversoul. Even Quark lives out his faith (The Emperor’s New Cloak, 7-12), offering this prayer (while sticking gold laced latinum into the statue of his god) which is how some people view/treat God anyway: “Blessed Exchequer, whose greed is eternal. Allow this humble bribe to open your ears and hear this plea from your most devout debtor.” However, I wanted to examine some of the pivotal episodes that shape the essentially Christian spiritual worldview of the series.
The Emissary (season 1-episode 1)
“It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions.” –Benjamin Sisko
The Emissary is the bridge between humanity and the divine, a combination of both (we come to find out later). Sisko, at the time of his calling, exists at the moment of his greatest pain, the death of his wife. He carried it with him so long that it defined his existence. Our humanity is so often shaped by the pain that we carry with us, and the scars that it has left on our souls. His encounter with the Prophets jump started his healing process, putting him on the path to being fully human and fulfilling his created role.
The first two seasons followed the intricacies of Bajoran religion/politics. Candidates vied for the position of Kai (religious leader of the people, basically their pope). The show followed the political intrigue of the varying interstellar governments. However, soon the show was overshadowed by the brewing war between the Federation and the Dominion, moving away from the Bajoran focus of the first couple seasons. By Season 4, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has become the most action-packed of the Star Trek franchise. To the surprise of no one. For a start, the Federation-Dominion war is heating up and you have a command staff (Captain Sisko, Major Kira, and Lt. Commander Worf) who adhere to a shoot first policy of engagement.
In the episode Accession (4-17), time lost acclaimed Bajoran poet, Akorem Laan, returns claiming to be the true Emissary. Captain Sisko relinquishes the title to him. However once Akorem begins instituting policies more indicative
of his time, such as caste systems, Sisko challenges him for the role of Emissary. They go to the Prophets to have the issue settled. Much like the spirit coming down on Jesus like a dove at his baptism, the Prophets make it clear that Sisko was the Emissary that had been prophecied.
(On a more badass note, in the episode Call to Arms, 5-26, Sisko was forced to abandon the station, but he left his beloved baseball on his desk because he intended to reclaim it. Nothing necessarily spiritual, just a favorite moment of mine.)
The Reckoning (6-21) In an earlier episode, Sacrifice of Angels (6-6), the wormhole aliens destroy the Dominion ships due to enter the Alpha quadrant, at a cost to be exacted later. By this point, Sisko is taking his role as Emissary much more seriously. Kai Winn (Louise Fletcher), her Eminence/religious leader of her people, stews in less-than-silent jealousy of his position. The Prophets announce that “The time of Reckoning is at hand” which leads to a bit of another test of faith. In a scene reminiscent of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Sisko cries out as he tries to do the will of the Prophets: “Why do you always have to be so damned mysterious? Answer me. I am tired of your riddles. If there’s something you need me to do, say so!”
Prophecy is fulfilled, but not in the way that anyone expected, no matter how hard they studied the original texts. The Reckoning (“The end or the beginning”) is a battle between the Prophets (possessing the body of Kira Nerys) and the Kosst Amojan , a Pah Wraith (“The Evil One”, possessing the body of Jake Sisko). This would be the final battle between good and evil for the fate of Bajor. Because of whom the combatants have chosen to possess, Sisko’s faith is tested to the point of breaking. Still, he tries to convince Kai Winn that they are on the right path: “Now, sometimes, it’s not easy to see the path they’ve laid out for us. Right now, I don’t know what they want from me, but I’m willing to take a leap of faith and trust that they’re guiding me and I’m asking you to take that leap with me.”
While Kai Winn and Sisko both believe that the Prophets have a plan for Bajor, Winn’s faith is found wanting, no where close to that of “an infidel, an outsider” (Sisko). She interrupts the battle due to her lack of faith and jealous (or as Kira diagnoses, the Kai has confused faith with ambition).
Tears of the Prophets (6-26) Sisko still tries to walk both worlds as Starfleet officers and religious icon, epitomizing the clash of the scientific/modern interpretation of the universe (wormhole aliens) versus the spiritual interpretation (The Prophets). Starfleet was as uncomfortable with him being seen as a Messiah figure as he was in the role, leading to this exchange between Captain Sisko and Admiral William Ross:
Sisko: “The Prophets don’t see me as a Starfleet captain. They see me as their Emissary.”
Ross: “That’s the problem, isn’t it? And for the past five years you’ve tried to be both. And up to now I’ve been patient. I’ve indulged you. I’ve gone out on a limb for you many times, but this is it. You need to make a decision. You are either the Emissary or a Starfleet captain. You can’t be both.”
Captain Sisko is ordered to launch attacks against Cardassia and the Dominion. Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), possessed by a Pah-wraith, attempts to destroy the wormhole, succeeding in sealing it shut and deactivating the orbs. Thus the people, The Emissary included, are cut off from the Prophets. A devastated Sisko takes a leave from the war, and not knowing whether or not he would return, took his treasured baseball with him.
Sisko didn’t realize how much the Prophets meant to him until he was cut off from them. By Season 7, Sisko had fully embraced his role as Emissary for the Prophets. He learns that to ensure his birth and guarantee his destiny, a Prophet possessed his mother, thus taking her form for the rest of the series. This proves a clearer image of the relationship between the Prophets and their Emissary and also called to mind the image of Mary comforting Jesus.
Covenant (7-9) Kira’s faith in the Prophets was so strong–was so much of who she was, and took up so much of her time–that it made Odo (who, in essence, worshiped justice’ logic and reason being his preferred method of communing with it) want to accompany her to her services. His detective’s mind wanted a sign, some evidence, some experience to allow him to believe in the Prophets. Kira explains that it doesn’t work like that, “Faith has to come first”, to which Odo replies “That’s too bad. I have a feeling it must be very comforting to believe in something more powerful than yourself.”
Kira’s faith is challenged by the Pah-wraith cult, led by Gul Dukat (still seeking to be loved and accepted by the Bajorans despite his role in overseeing their occupation). The Pah-wraiths claim to be the true gods of Bajor, cast out of heaven for trying to assert themselves. As evidence, they ask the tough questions such as why would the Prophets, who claimed to love the Bajorans and have a plan for them, allow the Cardassian occupation of them that killed tens of millions of their chosen people? What if everything you have been taught was wrong, not just wrong, but the inverse to how you were taught?
However, Kira knew what she believed and had no time for their attempts at deception. “In fact, I’ve always found that when people try to convince others of their beliefs, it’s because they’re really just trying to convince themselves.” There was no room for compromise between their two faiths because “There’s only one problem: we can’t both be right.”
Til Death Do Us Part (7-18) “Your path is a difficult one. She cannot share it with you,” the Prophets inform Sisko in the episode before this one (Penumbra (7-17)). This typifies the classic “hero’s journey” wherein part of the cost of being a hero is that while you may have a love interest, you don’t get the “happily ever after”. In Sisko’s case, the Prophets tell him that “If you do, you will know nothing but sorrow.”
Sisko is forced to count the cost of his devotion. The Prophets didn’t say that he couldn’t marry Kasidy, only that he shouldn’t. He still had a choice and like all choices, it has its consequences. Kai Winn also had choices to make regarding her faith. She had long lamented, after scrapping and scheming her way into the role of religious head of her people, that the Prophets had never spoken to her. Sisko regularly communed with the Prophets, yet the (co-)spiritual head of her people didn’t. She finally has her ecstatic experience, and “Prophets” speak to her. Unfortunately, the “Prophets” where actually the Pah-wraiths. Hearing from spirit beings is a tricky business, since it is difficult to tell the difference between a “good spirit” and a “bad spirit”; for example, the Pah-wraiths were only fallen Prophets, but could easily be taken as Prophets themselves. Without commenting on the nature of Kai Winn’s faith, one can see how easy it is to stray from the path of your faith. Deceptive spirits speak with just enough truth around their lies to sound true and with just enough error to make you stray from true doctrine.
Sisko and Kira debate his chosen course of action, and the possible consequences of going against the
will of the Prophets. They both know that the Prophets wouldn’t ask him to do something without a reason. He could trust in the past (since the Prophets have never led him astray) or doubt his present situation (there’s always a first time). He opts to marry Kasidy.
What You Leave Behind (7-26) “We live in uncertain times.” –Garak
The war between the Federation Alliance and the Dominion comes to its bloody end. If this show were truly about the war, the episode would have ended there. However, the second half of the episode focuses on the climactic role of the Emissary. Initially aided by a fallen Kai Winn, Gul Dukat evolves into an anti-Emissary, with all the attendant imagery of a demon from the flaming pits. In a pitched one-on-one battle, Sisko topples himself and Gul Dukat into the fiery pits. The Emissary’s triumph and death fulfills his earthly mission and binds the fire demons. His story doesn’t end there. Following his death, the Emissary ascends to the Celestial Temple. He learns that he still has a great deal to do, so he promises to one day return.
The two-part series finale proved unsatisfactory to some. Probably because it didn’t have any tidy happy endings, but in fact, wrapped up the series with a less than pretty bow. The episode concluded all of the story lines bringing a sense of completeness, wholeness, to the series. It also remained true to each individual character’s arc, as each walked the paths they were meant to walk.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the lone inheritor to the mantle of Star Trek: The Original Series, no matter how hard Star Trek: Enterprise may try. Many people debated who was the better Captain, Kirk or Picard, but who else but Sisko would’ve punched the near-omnipotent cosmic trickster Q upon his first encounter with him (leaving a stunned Q to retort “Picard never hit me.”)? Deep Space Nine explored and fleshed out the mythos of the alternate universe. Deep Space Nine’s single greatest episode (Trials and Tribble-ations, 5-6) was an ode to The Original Series classic, The Trouble with Tribbles, when the Deep Space Nine cast walked into the original episode and mingled with the original cast. Deep Space Nine didn’t stick as closely to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s commandments, such as everyone having to get along. There is nothing sentimental about the series. Not the characters, not the storylines, and when the show tries (such as the farewell/memory montage in the finale) it doesn’t come off well. The show had multi-episode arcs and had season/series long meta-narrative (the other comparison to Babylon 5). In short, it demanded more of the viewer.
With themes involving fathers and sons (unlike other Star Treks, Captain Sisko had a son, the relationship between them being a key dynamic on the show) and rebirth/growth (the characters, like each of us, have a past, a convoluted history that we want to shed and grow past), the show’s most important lesson is that all people not only have the capacity for good and evil, but have a need for something greater than themselves. The show is about having and respecting faith.
I’m still waiting for Captain Sisko to return and collect his baseball from his desk.
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