Friday, February 01, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part V: What Does God Need With a Space Station?

No one who watched Deep Space Nine's pilot episode, "Emissary," would have had any reason to expect a subtle, multi-faceted treatment of religion from the series. Though by no means disrespectful or dismissive of religion, "Emissary" treats it in a manner familiar from many other genre stories--the SFnal trope of alien (or human) gods who turn out to be aliens themselves, the fantasy standard of a prophecy fulfilled by our heroes (a prophecy whose existence, as Sisko patiently explains to Jake in "In the Hands of the Prophets," makes perfect SFnal sense given the Prophets' non-linear nature). The Celestial Temple is important not for its spiritual significance to the Bajorans but as a conduit for traffic and commerce. For a while, that was all Deep Space Nine's treatment of religion amounted to. When an extremist resistance fighter proposes to destroy the wormhole in order to prevent alien races from interfering with Bajor in "Past Prologue," an early first season episode, Kira is appalled not for religious reasons because he's about to destroy Bajor's greatest resource. In contrast, when Sisko proposes to destroy the entrance to the wormhole in the fifth season episode "By Inferno's Light," in order to prevent the Dominion from bringing troops into the alpha quadrant, Kira quietly prays for the Prophets' forgiveness. By that point, Deep Space Nine had cemented its position in that tiny group of intelligent, thought-provoking treatments of religion in popular fiction, alongside such works as Russell T. Davies's The Second Coming, Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, and Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God."

From the moment they started taking a serious look at religion--in the first season finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets"--Deep Space Nine's writers never lost sight of a simple truth. Religion is about people. Even if you live next door to heaven. Even if your boss is God's instrument on earth. Religion is about people, and people shape their gods just as much, or even more, than those Gods shape them. Terry Pratchett makes much of this theme in the Discworld novels, most particularly Small Gods. His gods are opportunistic beings, something along the lines of parasites, who feed off belief, and whose personality is shaped and changed by the wishes and desires of their believers. Neil Gaiman does something similar in American Gods and Anansi Boys, albeit with existing earth myths. In both cases, divinity is brought down to a human level--in order to serve Pratchett's humanistic message, or because Gaiman sublimates it to his obsession with storytelling. Deep Space Nine, however, manages to discuss the reciprocal relationship between gods and their believers without making those gods any less numinous or incomprehensible.

It does so at least in part by making those gods numinous and incomprehensible to begin with. I've already said that Deep Space Nine was, visually, a conservative and unimaginative series, but that doesn't hold for orb experiences or encounters with the Prophets. The devices used to signal the Prophets' otherness--using castmembers to portray the Prophets, the golden haze that characterizes encounters with them--are simple, but they stand out powerfully against the straightforwardness of the show's day-to-day storytelling. The effectiveness of the Prophet interludes is even more impressive when one considers what an unimaginative hash Deep Space Nine generally made of symbolic, surreal storytelling--Quark's guilt-stricken dream in "Business as Usual," or the use of a physical space to represent a person's damaged mind in "Distant Voices" and "Extreme Measures."

As I've said, Deep Space Nine starts taking Bajoran spirituality seriously in the first season finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets." Though well-made and featuring some fine performances, it isn't yet the intelligent treatment of religion we would come to expect from the series. Its premise is a straightforward evolution vs. creationism story--Vedek Winn, looking to score political points, attacks Keiko for teaching that the wormhole is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than the seat of Bajor's gods--mixed in with Bajor's political storyline, as Winn uses the resulting unrest to lure Bareil, her main rival for the position of Kai, onto the station, where he is vulnerable to an assassination attempt. The political-cum-thriller storyline soon overwhelms the religious question at the story's core, which is actually more tangled than the Inherit the Wind comparison initially suggests--there isn't actually an inherent contradiction between the scientific and religious views of the wormhole as there is between evolution and creationism, and the question is really whether it's right to demand that Keiko supplement her science class with religious instruction--and not very deftly handled.

The episode sets Winn, a power-hungry zealot, against Bareil, a humanistic progressive. In his first meeting with Sisko, Bareil sets himself apart from Winn, and Kai Opaka before her, by calling him Commander instead of Emissary and refraining from testing his pagh. These, as well as his opposition to Winn's condemnation of the school, are clearly intended as indicators that Bareil is the kind of modern, forward-thinking leader Bajor needs. They also, however, portray him as being less pious than his fellow Bajorans, an impression that is only strengthened the more we get to know him. Bareil hardly ever mentions the Prophets, and it's only in his last appearance as himself, the third season episode "Life Support," that he speaks of them with anything approaching the kind of reverence that is a matter of course from Kira or even Winn. The issues that plague Bareil are rarely spiritual--he is concerned for Bajor's survival, and worries about the threats to it from within and without; he tries to preserve Kai Opaka's memory by concealing her collaboration with the Cardassians; he negotiates a peace treaty with Cardassia. He's a politician, a good and decent man and an outstanding public servant, but not, as far as we can tell, a man of faith. What "In the Hands of the Prophets" seems to be saying is that it's not one's faith that matters but rather the ways in which it is used to express one's policies and politics. Which isn't necessarily a sentiment I disagree with, but it does leave spirituality out of the equation. The reason that Deep Space Nine's later religious stories are so much stronger than "In the Hands of the Prophets" is that they managed to describe the myriad and often contradictory ways in which Bajorans express their faith and view their religion without doing away with that religion's foundation--the provable existence of God.

For all my problems with Bareil, I do love his interactions with Winn, especially this one from "The Collaborator":
WINN: (to a crowd of Bajoran children) Remember now, honor the Prophets, and they will always love you.
BAREIL: As I understand the sacred texts, the Prophets' love is unconditional. They ask for nothing in return.
WINN: Thank you, Vedek Bareil, for reminding us how the sacred texts can be easily misinterpreted.
Which, right there, in what is only her fourth appearance in the series (and her second of note, as she's not much more than a stock villain in the the three-parter that opens the second season), tells us everything we need to know about Winn and why she ends up burnt to a crisp in the Bajoran fire caves. It also expresses one of the most important themes in Deep Space Nine's religious storylines, which is also an important theme in religious fiction in general: people get the gods they look for. Winn wants to believe in gods who are wrathful and vindictive, who withhold their love from those who fail to honor them properly, because that's the kind of god she'd be, and the kind of ruler she tries to be. In "The Reckoning," she is beside herself when Sisko removes and later destroys a tablet from the holy city of B'hala. She blames him for floods and earthquakes that plague Bajor after the tablet's removal, calling them punishments for Sisko's act of sacrilege. That's the kind of religious thinker Winn is--she believes in sacrilege, in cruel and disproportionate divine retribution.

We can all think of examples of people whose own cruelty is mirrored in the god they fashion for themselves, but they are fortunate enough to be working with a more or less blank slate. Winn has the misfortune of living in a time when her gods are highly accessible to her, and their attitudes easily discernible. What a disappointment the benevolent, remote Prophets must be to Winn. Is it any wonder she turns to the Pagh-Wraiths, divinities more to her taste? But of course, even the Pagh-Wraiths reject Winn, because she approaches them with the same pride and self-importance with which she approached the Prophets. In "The Reckoning," Winn pleads with the Prophet possessing Kira to speak to her, but it doesn't even acknowledge her presence. Her injured pride is what persuades her to stop the contest between the Prophet and the Pagh-Wraith, which might have prevented much of the evil that later befalls Bajor. Watching this scene in hindsight, one is almost angry with the Prophets--would it have killed them to say hello?--but how could they have reached Winn when her heart is so obviously closed to them, too full of her own importance, lust for power, and bruised ego to accommodate anyone or anything else?

Opposing Winn's prideful mockery of faith is not Sisko--who never really comes to believe in the Prophets so much as he accepts that they have the right to direct the course of his life--but Kira, whose humility and devotion make her worthy to carry a Prophet within her. Kira is, in some ways, the character Bareil should have been, and the portrait of the kind of deeply spiritual person who truly is an advertisement for their religion. She is humble not only towards her gods but in her outward representations of her relationship with them. She never wears her piety on her sleeve, or takes her religious devotions for granted--there's a childlike wonder and a peacefulness that come over Kira when she's discussing her religion or taking part in religious worship. It never ceases to affect her, to touch something deep inside her, because she is always open to her gods. Her faith is at the root of Kira's righteousness, and it informs her moral compass, but she never seeks to impose it on others--only the moral lessons it teaches her, and she is fearless in expressing those. It's Kira who lambastes Winn for stopping the battle in "The Reckoning," correctly deducing that Winn did so because she couldn't stand to have her faith even further belittled by the comparison to Sisko's, and it's Kira who tells Winn the hard truth in "Strange Bedfellows"--that she can earn the Prophets' forgiveness only by changing who she is, and by rejecting the ambition that led her to her spiritual crisis (she makes a similar offer to the mirror Bareil in "Resurrection"). Though she's eager to help Winn find her way back to the Prophets, Kira can also see that her advice has been rejected, and rejects Winn in turn.

What's especially enjoyable about Deep Space Nine's portrayal of Kira as a person of faith is that it doesn't downplay the more disturbing aspects of that faith, and of religious faith in general. What starts with relatively benign pronouncements about the ineffability of religious faith--not just from Kira, but from Worf, who in spite of the Klingon belief that their gods became too much trouble and were eventually killed, respects the fact of Kira's faith and the strength it gives her--quickly becomes indistinguishable from insanity. It's all very well and good that Kira is honored to have been chosen as the Prophets' instrument in "The Reckoning," but what that honor amounts to is her complete abnegation and exploitation, however willingly submitted to, and it might easily have resulted in her death. In "Accession," a Bajoran from 200 years in the past, Akorem, emerges from the wormhole and lays claim to the title of Emissary. He promptly reinstates a restrictive caste system that was in effect in his era, which among other things forces Kira to resign her commission and become an artist. (It is eventually revealed that the Prophets brought this man through the wormhole to light a fire under Sisko and get him over his ambivalence about his role as emissary, which neatly expresses one of my favorite religious themes, succinctly summed up by Paul Thomas Anderson in his film Magnolia as "When the sunshine don't work, the good Lord bring the rain in.") There's something very sad about Kira's, and the other Bajorans', desperate attempts to remake themselves in the image Akorem sets out for them. "We would've tried to do whatever you asked of us when you were Emissary, no matter how difficult it seemed," Kira tells a bewildered Sisko by way of an explanation for what appears, from the outside, like communal insanity, and may very well be. Then, of course, there are the obvious parallels drawn between the Bajorans' faith in the Prophets and the Vorta's faith in the Founders--a comparison which Kira herself makes in "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River," when speaking of the rogue Weyoun's devotion towards Odo.

A religious story set in a universe in which God's existence is in question can only describe two scenarios--good people worshipping a good god, and bad people worshipping that god. Because it made its gods into actual characters, Deep Space Nine was free to add bad gods into the mix, and much like the Prophets' followers, those who worship the Pagh-Wraiths are neither uniformly good nor evil. In the seventh season episode "Covenant" we get a close look at a community of Wraith-worshippers, and the plain truth is that apart from the fact that these people are being duped--first by Dukat and secondly by the Pagh-Wraiths--there's really nothing wrong with them morally. One can even sympathize with their argument for rejecting the Prophets--that throughout the occupation the Prophets did nothing to aid Bajor though they clearly had the power to do so, and that the Pagh-Wraiths are willing to actively intervene in Bajor's affairs (which is true, though that interference would have involved mass murder--which is my chance to say that one of the most important flaws in Deep Space Nine's treatment of the Prophets' struggle with the Pagh-Wraiths is that it never really explained why the Pagh-Wraiths were so hell-bent on destruction). The result is a somewhat dizzying story. The Wraith-worshippers' faith is as pure as Kira's--her friend Vedek Fala even kills himself for it--but they're worshipping the wrong god. You could go back and forth forever about whether that fact invalidates their faith.

"Covenant" is the fullest expression of the tension that permeates most of Deep Space Nine's religious storytelling--the awareness that no matter how permissive, how progressive, how respectful of other beliefs one's own beliefs are, ultimately they boil down to something irrational. It's the antithesis of "In the Hands of the Prophets," which deals only with the temporal expression of religious beliefs and argues that it's only that expression that matters. At the beginning of "Covenant," Kira is sitting with Bashir, Ezri, and a disgruntled Odo, who wishes he believed in the Prophets so he could attend services with her. Ezri takes this as an invitation to pitch Odo on some other religions, and asks Kira if it would bother her if she and Odo had different faiths. "Not as long as he gets something out of it," Kira says, which is one extremely comforting way of looking at it--religion as an emotional crutch, something to help you get through the day, regardless of whether the god you believe in exists or is anything like what you imagine them to be. Towards the end of the episode, a furious Kira is the prisoner of the Pagh-Wraith cult, and is faced with the inadequacy of her previous nonchalance. Here are decent, moral people, who obviously get something out of their faith. "You believe the Prophets are the true gods of Bajor, I believe the Pagh-Wraiths are. Let's just leave it at that," Vedek Fala tells her, and Kira, to her and to Deep Space Nine's credit, says the one thing that popular depictions of religion hardly ever say: "I'd be happy to. There's just one thing: we can't both be right."

5 comments:

sartorias said...

Fascinating--thank you.

Anonymous said...

I would like to second that remark.

RichM said...

With this series of articles, you've got me wishing they would rebroadcast this on cable TV. (I don't feel up to buying the disks, or joining one of those DVD services just for this, however.) Ah well.

Mister Who said...

Here's a comment 5 years later noone will read. As are religious person who can usually set that aside to enjoy some good sci-fi, "In the Hands of the Prophets" was borderline unwatchable for me. Specifically, the "creationist" side was entirely populated with self serving extremists, while the "evolution" side was supported by essentially every protagonist in the main cast. I think its always been a big weakness of Trek, that for a series that tries so hard to preach tolerance, they so consistently end up giving one sided political messages. The Ferengi for example, always seemed to me to be a bad political cartoon against capitalist/free market stereotypes. Look at "The Neutral Zone" from TNG for another strong example. That being said I don't disagree with their negative portrayal of Winn's actions, but when you're so clearly copy/pasting a debate from the real world, more care should be taken.

Mister Who said...

Here's a comment 5 years later noone will read. As are religious person who can usually set that aside to enjoy some good sci-fi, "In the Hands of the Prophets" was borderline unwatchable for me. Specifically, the "creationist" side was entirely populated with self serving extremists, while the "evolution" side was supported by essentially every protagonist in the main cast. I think its always been a big weakness of Trek, that for a series that tries so hard to preach tolerance, they so consistently end up giving one sided political messages. The Ferengi for example, always seemed to me to be a bad political cartoon against capitalist/free market stereotypes. Look at "The Neutral Zone" from TNG for another strong example. That being said I don't disagree with their negative portrayal of Winn's actions, but when you're so clearly copy/pasting a debate from the real world, more care should be taken.

Post a Comment