Sisko catches a glimpse of the divine, and his ensuing (life-threatening) quest after the secrets of the universe touches off a riveting conflict between Federation secularism and Bajoran spirituality that reaches all the way up to the Starfleet brass and all the way down to Sisko's own household. Along the way, each character and each viewpoint is treated with utmost respect. Thus, we are happy to class this episode as one of the finest DS9 episodes ever made.
Memory Alpha has a summary here.
Stephanie S.: This episode is filled with so much concentrated awesome that I'm not quite sure where to begin. But I suppose I'll start with the way this episode utterly nukes Trek's usual materialism. 'Tis true enough that Sisko's visions are kick-started by a simple accident in the holosuite. Still, the stimulation and "depolarization" of Sisko's neurons does nothing to explain the 100% accurate content of his visions. No random neural event could possibly lead Sisko to the site of a holy Bajoran city that has been lost for millenia. No random neural event could possibly allow Sisko to "see" the Dominion's connection to Cardassia. No random neural event could possibly account for the fact that Bajor's last-minute withdrawal from the Federation admissions process was the right course of action to take; given its location, if Bajor had joined the Federation, it would've been the very first major Federation planet to fall in the coming Dominion invasion. No -- Sisko's visions are genuinely supernatural in origin. Even Sisko himself realizes this. When Admiral Whatley all but begs Sisko to provide a secular explanation for his experiences, Sisko sticks to his guns: Yes, it was a vision. No, I can't "rationally" explain what's happening.
Hans Beimler clearly knows that this stark acceptance of the spiritual will create quite a shockwave within the fan community; thus, in a brilliant move, he incorporates that shockwave into the structure of the plot. Because SABR Matt is our resident Jake Sisko fan, I will let him discuss in greater detail the conflict that arises within the confines of the Sisko family; meanwhile, I'll briefly take up the task of pointing out the other ways Beimler portrays the very interesting cultural divide between Federation and Bajoran. We have, for example, the aforementioned Admiral Whatley, this episode's stand-in for the viewpoint of Starfleet Command. Given the Prime Directive and Starfleet's tendency to default to secularism, it is not only proper but also necessary that a character like Whatley be permitted to take on the role of the skeptic. We also have that classic scene in Ops in which a discussion of Sisko's dangerous condition reveals that the Federation/Bajoran cultural fissure runs right through the station's command staff. Even while exploring these profound differences of opinion, however, Beimler does not fall into the trap of favoring one side over the other. Kira's open religiosity is not mocked; Whatley is not painted a fool. Tolerance - true tolerance - is the name of the game, as it has usually been for DS9.
This episode also happens to be a triumph on the characterization front, and no where is this more apparent than in the scenes that feature Kai Winn. The royal smack down Winn delivers to Kira, for instance, is terrific, adding yet one more layer to Winn's deliciously nuanced personality. Winn's transformation from foe to reluctant believer is also superbly handled. Everything Winn says and does feels absolutely true to who she is.
But I've said enough, I think. I believe it's time for my co-author to weigh in with his own thoughts.
SABR Matt: I agree with everything my sister mentions here, but, as she rightly points out, I am a big fan of the Sisko family and their interactions. I think DS9 did something wonderful that no other Trek managed to accomplish...it humanized its' command staff by giving some of them a family. On TNG, Picard is a rogue diplomat who detests children and only slowly over the years begins to soften. Riker is a tomcat...the picture of your typical guy on the prowl at the singles bar. Troi has a mother, but never develops familial ties. Beverly has a son, but that son is the show's most idiotic and annoying character and Beverly's interactions with Wesley are so few and far between that we are allowed to remain with the peaceful idea that she's a "free woman" who has her fair share of romantic entanglements for the camera. The closest the show gets to understanding family dynamics is Worf and Alexander (and the very brief encounters we get between O'Brien and Keiko). And eventually, Worf dumps Alexander out the nearest airlock apparently, because when we see him on DS9, he's bitter about his father's abandoning him. Oh BTW, DS9 fixed that error too.
But here, the family dynamic between Jake, Ben and Kassidy Sisko is so well written that you almost lose sight of the fact that this is still Star Trek. Jake tries to understand his father's spi9ritual yearnings, but he's just a kid who wants his father to be OK. Kassidy - a skeptic in her own right - must side with Jake, who she can't stand to see suffer in the name of what might...or might not! - be a sacred quest. And Ben...although he sticks to his spiritual desires and fulfills his destiny as the Emissary...spends the entire episode trying to comfort Jake like any good father should. But the family feel doesn't end with those three. No...on DS9, perhaps even more than on TNG, which is popular because of the comraderie amongst the senior officers, Kira and Dax care almost as much about Jake and Ben does...when they talk in Ops about the risk he's taking to seek out the Prophets, both of them understand how enormous that risk really is...because both of them will be there for Jake. We've seen this in other episodes and we KNOW that it's true by the way their dialogue is written and delivered. In fact, Kira, after Jake orders Bashir to operate on his dying father, turns on Winn and points out that this operation may also have been a part of the Prophets' plan and that Jake had every right to try and save his Dad. The explosion of love and support that radiates through every mometn of this episode would help us IMMENSELY if we could emulate it when discussing political and religious matters in the real world.
I would also like to point out that I like the way this episode mirrors the idea that if we ever knew God, it would destroy us. Humanity is about the quest to know God more deeply, but I definitely think that the physical limits to Sisko's ability to tolerate knowing God are the closest approximation you could ever hope for in Star Trek to the reality that our brains cannot handle infinite wisdom, that we were mnade to be imperfect and experience the world in a limited way and that when God chooses to reveal knowledge to us, he can only tell us so much or risk destroying who we are. The show's creators made a big deal of showing the contrast between humans and their linear time...and the Prophets and their infite existance. As Sisko explains through baseball, if we knew everything (the outcome of the game), the game wouldn't be worth playing. The show has some of its' best moments when it allows us, the intelligent audience, to think about such big concepts.
Given the foreshadowing, the character-based drama, and the eminently fascinating clash of cultures, this script should definitely be counted among the series' best.
There is a bit of scenery chewing on Avery Brooks' part, however, so the performance score falls just below the feature cut-off.
SABR Matt: Despite the loud sounds of Brooks consuming the sets in a few huge mouthfuls, I would still place the acting score at the feature level - mostly because we get strong performances from Nana Visitor and Cirroc Lofton in particular...hey, I'm a Jake fan...I gotta give my boy Cirroc a shout out once in a while, no?
Still, the underlying presumption of this episode - that the universe is ordered and that one can tap into said order in a moment of religious ecstasy - represents a dramatic - and very welcome - break from Trek orthodoxy. So too does this episode's open acknowledgment of the miraculous.
SABR Matt: Tag to add that the family friendly atmosphere on DS9 shows how valuable it can be in engendering a positive response.
DAX: I take it you think the Federation membership is going to be good for business?
QUARK: Of course it is. This station is going to get busier than an Alvanian beehive. I'm expecting to do five times the volume in root beer alone. You see, it's all about foot traffic. The more people come in, the more they drink. The more they drink, the more they talk. The more they talk, the more they let slip things that I shouldn't know. And that? That always leads to latinum.
WORF: Perhaps so. But there is one problem.
QUARK: What's that?
WORF: There is an ancient Klingon proverb that says, 'You cannot loosen a man's tongue with root beer.' (Heh.)
KIRA: Are you all right?
SISKO: I was there.
SISKO: B'hala. It was the eve of the Peldor Festival. I could hear them ringing the temple chimes.
KIRA: You were dreaming.
SISKO: No, I was there. I could smell the burning bateret leaves, taste the incense on the wind. I was standing in front of the obelisk and as I looked up, for one moment I understood it all. B'hala, the Orbs, the occupation, the discovery of the wormhole, the coming war with the Dominion --
KIRA: You could see the future as well as the past?
SISKO: For one moment, I could see the pattern that held it all together.
KIRA: (in awe) You were having a pagh'tem'far, a sacred vision.
SISKO: Hell, I don't know what I had, but it felt wonderful.
KIRA: The Prophets chose well when they made you their Emissary. So how does it all fit together?
SISKO: I wish I knew. (teasingly) Someone woke me up.
KIRA: I was worried about you.
SISKO: I understand. If I found you in the middle of a pagh'tem'far, I'd be worried about you, too.
WINN: Why isn't the Emissary here to greet me?
KIRA: I'm afraid Captain Sisko's busy at the moment.
WINN: Still basking in the adulation of Starfleet Command.
KIRA: Something like that.
WINN: I'm sure the Federation is very pleased with the job he's done.
KIRA: I thought everyone was.
(They set off along the corridor, slowly.)
WINN: Well, not everyone. You know, our culture has had only five short years to recover from the occupation. Only five years of freedom. It hardly seems enough time, does it?
KIRA: Well, Bajor's still going to be free. Joining the Federation isn't going to change that.
WINN: I see working beside Captain Sisko all these years has had quite an influence on you.
KIRA: I have to give you credit. You just never give up. I'm sure the Emissary will consider everything you have to say -- and then Bajor's admittance can go forward unobstructed. (Meow.)
WINN: My child, you and the Emissary are close, are you not?
KIRA: I consider Captain Sisko a friend.
WINN: So you know his mind, how he thinks, how he reacts in certain situations?
KIRA: I'm not really sure what you're asking.
WINN: I'm asking if you think the Emissary will forgive me.
KIRA: Forgive you?
WINN: For doubting him. He must have been aware that I never truly believed he was the Emissary.
KIRA: I'm sure it crossed his mind.
WINN: I was wrong, I know that now. Only someone touched by the Prophets could have found B'hala.
KIRA: Does that mean you're not going to try to block Bajor's admittance into the Federation?
WINN: I'm going follow the path the Emissary has laid out for us.
KIRA: I must admit I'm surprised to hear that. It takes a lot of courage to admit you're wrong.
WINN: And you think I lack courage?
KIRA: I didn't say that.
WINN: But it is what you think. Those of you who were in the Resistance, you're all the same. You think you're the only ones who fought the Cardassians, that you saved Bajor singlehandedly. Perhaps you forget, Major, the Cardassians arrested any Bajoran they found teaching the word of the Prophets. I was in a Cardassian prison camp for five years, and I can remember each and every beating I suffered. And while you had your weapons to protect you, all I had was my faith -- and my courage. (Awesome scene.)
WHATLEY: So this is the ancient city of Balla.
WHATLEY: Missing for twenty thousand years and you found it. Pretty impressive. Sure as hell impressed the Bajorans. How'd you know where to look?
SISKO: You might say it came to me in a vision.
WHATLEY: I know that's what the Bajorans think. But just between you and me, what really happened?
SISKO: I know it's hard to understand, but it really was a vision. For the past few days, I've had these moments of insight, flashes of understanding.
WHATLEY: And they started after that accident. I don't know, Ben. This is a little strange.
SISKO: You didn't come here to see B'hala, did you, Admiral?
WHATLEY: No, I came to see you. I was surprised you weren't on the station when I arrived.
SISKO: I'm sorry about that.
WHATLEY: Not sorry enough to return my comm signals. All three of them. That could get an officer in a lot of trouble. Look, Ben, I need to know that I can count on you. Bajor's admission is only the beginning. Now comes the hard part. Federation council members have to be chosen, the Bajoran militia has to be absorbed into Starfleet. There are thousands of details that have to be overseen, and you're our point man here. That means we need to depend on you more than ever.
SISKO: Don't worry. I won't let you down.
WHATLEY: I'm glad to here that. Now, what do you say we get back up to the station?
SISKO: I can't go back to the station. Not just yet.
WHATLEY: Why not? I'm sure the Bajorans can take it from here. Or were you thinking of digging up this entire city all by yourself?
SISKO: Charlie, I just need a little more time.
WHATLEY: For what?
SISKO: For answers. There's clarity here. I wish I could explain it better, but I can't.
WHATLEY: You're scaring me with this, Ben.
SISKO: I'm a little scared too, Admiral.
WHATLEY: What's wrong?
SISKO: I'm fine. Admiral.
WHATLEY: What is it, Ben?
SISKO: (beatific) Your son. You can stop worrying about him. He forgives you.
(Sisko goes into the Infirmary.)
WHATLEY: How the hell did he know that Kevin and I weren't getting along?
BASHIR: He's the Emissary.
SISKO: That's where it was going. The cloud.
WHATLEY: What cloud?
SISKO: I was on Bajor. B'hala had been rebuilt. The people were in the streets, celebrating. But then a shadow covered the sun. We looked up and saw a cloud filling the sky. It was a swarm of locusts, billions of them. They hovered over the city, the noise was deafening, but just as quickly as they came, they moved on. Now I know where they were going. Cardassia. (Nice bit of foreshadowing. The writers have fully embraced long-range planning at this point.)
KIRA: What do you think it means?
SISKO: I don't know.
KIRA: At least the swarm was moving away from Bajor. That's a good sign. Isn't it?
SISKO: But what do these locusts represent? And why Cardassia?
WHATLEY: You were dreaming. And dreams don't always make sense.
SISKO: This was not a dream.
BASHIR: Captain, why didn't you tell me about these headaches of yours?
SISKO: I guess I was too busy.
BASHIR: Well, if you'd stayed busy much longer you could have died. The area of unusual neural activity has increased another eight percent. As a result, your basal ganglia are starting to depolarize. I'm going to have to operate - try to repolarize your neural sheaths.
SISKO: How will that affect my visions?
WHATLEY: That's not really the issue here, is it?
SISKO: It is to me. Doctor?
BASHIR: Well, there's no way to tell for sure. But I assume if I can complete the procedure, your brain activity will return to normal and the visions will stop.
SISKO: Then you can't do it.
WHATLEY: Ben, that's ridiculous.
BASHIR: If I don't operate, sir, you could die.
SISKO: I understand that. But something is happening to me. Something extraordinary. I have to see it through.
JAKE: What do you mean you're not going to let Doctor Bashir operate on you? You have to.
SISKO: Don't you see? These visions are gifts. I can't refuse them.
KASIDY: (aghast) I cannot believe what I'm hearing. Listen to yourself, Ben! Sitting there, telling us that this mystical journey of yours is more important than watching your son grow up.
JAKE: Dad, please think about what you're doing. These visions, they're not worth dying for.
SISKO: I remember the first time I held you in my hands. You were only a few minutes old and when I looked down at your face, it was almost as if I could see your whole life stretched out in front of you. All the joys it would bring, and the bruises. It was all there, hidden in that scrunched up little face. The baby that I'm holding in my hands now is the universe itself. And I need time to study its face.
KASIDY: Look at the face of your son now and then tell me you're doing the right thing!
KIRA: I've never seen the Temple so crowded. Seemed like every Bajoran on the station was there to pray for the Emissary.
DAX: Glad to hear it. He's going to need all the help he can get if he's going to survive this.
KIRA: The Captain is not going to die. He is the Emissary. The Prophets will take care of him.
O'BRIEN: With all due respect, Major, I'd rather see Julian take care of him.
KIRA: Chief, I know you're worried, but the Prophets are leading the Emissary on this path for a reason.
WORF: Do not attempt to convince them, Major. They cannot understand.
DAX: Since when did you believe in the Prophets?
WORF: What I believe in is faith. Without it there can be no victory. If the Captain's faith is strong, he will prevail.
DAX: That's not much to bet his life on.
KIRA: You're wrong. It's everything.
O'BRIEN: I hope you're right, Major. I hope you're right. (Interesting conversation.)
WHATLEY: May I have your attention. I've been looking forward to this day for many years, as I'm sure all of you have. Welcoming a new planet to the Federation is the happiest assignment an Admiral could hope for. The Federation is not just a union of planets, it's much more.
(At this point, Sisko stumbles into the room, interrupting the admiral's speech in mid-stream.)
WHATLEY: Get him to the Infirmary!
SISKO: No! I have to tell them!
WINN: What is it, Emissary? Have the Prophets revealed something to you?
SISKO: Locusts! They'll destroy Bajor unless it stands alone!
WHATLEY: Ben, what the hell are you talking about?
SISKO: It's too soon! Bajor must not join the Federation. If it does, it will be destroyed!
WINN: Any news about the Emissary?
KIRA: He's still in surgery.
WINN: I hope the Prophets will forgive us. We never should have allowed the Federation to interfere with the Emissary's visions.
KIRA: It wasn't the Federation. It was his son, and he had every right to make that decision.
WINN: It was a selfish act.
KIRA: He's an eighteen year-old boy who doesn't want to lose his father. What would you have done in his place?
WINN: I would trust the Prophets.
KIRA: Maybe we're the ones who need to trust the Prophets. For all we know, this is part of their plan. Maybe they've told Captain Sisko everything they want him to know.
WINN: Perhaps. I suppose you heard that Bajor will not join the Federation today. The Council of Ministers has voted to delay acceptance of Federation membership.
KIRA: You must be very pleased.
WINN: I wish I were. But things are not that simple. Not anymore. Before Captain Sisko found B'hala, my path was clear. I knew who my enemies were. But now? Now nothing is certain.
KIRA: Makes life interesting, doesn't it?
WHATLEY: Look, Ben, it's not too late. You could contact the Chamber of Ministers. Tell them you were wrong. Convince them to accept Federation membership.
SISKO: I can't do that. The visions may have faded, but everything I said, everything I did, still feels right. When I said that Bajor should wait before it joins the Federation, I have never felt so certain about anything in my life.
WHATLEY: I was afraid you would say that, Ben. I could have your commission for this.
SISKO: I know.
WHATLEY: But considering how the Bajorans feel about you, if I pulled you from this post we'd probably lose Bajor forever.
SISKO: Admiral, for what it's worth, I wish things had turned out differently.
WHATLEY: So do I.
SISKO: But it's not over. One day Bajor will join the Federation. That I'm sure of.
WHATLEY: Are you speaking as a Starfleet Captain or as the Emissary of the Prophets?
WHATLEY: In that case, I'll keep the champagne on ice.