Monday, May 16, 2016
Sanctification & Damnation in Season 7 of Star Trek: DS9
So, we've been introducing our kids to my favorite television series, Star Trek: DS9*, and we've finally reached the last season.
One of the reasons I love this show is that, of all of the Star Trek series, DS9 most seriously engages with the impact religion has on human experience.
Well, ostensibly, I suppose it's on alien experience, but it's no secret that the aliens on Star Trek are stand-ins for various aspects of humanity. Still, while Gene Roddenberry was alive, the Star Trek shows largely avoided tackling the subject of faith. Roddenberry was all about humanism.
And DS9 doesn't abandon Roddenberry's humanism - it's still the main faith (ha!) of the Starfleet characters. But DS9 also gives us the Bajorans, an alien race who place their faith in "the Prophets", the gods of their planet. By taking the Bajoran faith seriously, this show is able to play with a whole new aspect of life. (DS9 is also remarkable in the Star Trek universe for the fact that it stays in one place and doesn't allow its characters the easy out of skipping over to the next star system in their fancy ship, thus avoiding the consequences of their meddling in the local culture.)
DS9 was one of the first shows to use long-arc storytelling on television. You know the long arcs you get now on prestige series like "Breaking Bad"? DS9 did that first. It did still use the "freak of the week" style of episodes you'd get on bubblegum shows like "Smallville" but, more and more as it matured, DS9 pioneered long plot arcs, arcs that pulled in characters, cultures, ideas, relationships, and more into stories that spanned the weeks and months of its broadcast.
This long-arc storytelling reached its zenith in the final season, which tells the story of the final, epic conflict between the Federation (our good guys) and the Dominion (our bad guys).
And one of the most interesting parts, to me, is how it also told the story of those who served the gods well, and those who finally, disastrously, decided to serve themselves.
I love the spiritual themes and the character arcs in this last season of DS9.
One of the best is the arc of Kai Winn, a Bajoran cleric who has been, throughout the series, a thorn in the side of the series' lead, Captain Sisko.
The thing is, that though Kai Winn has been a self-serving, opportunistic, snobby pain throughout the series, she's also been largely sincere. She's a nasty politician, sure, but she's on the side of her people and their Prophets.
But in this last season, she is overwhelmed by jealousy. She has served the Prophets all her life, but what have they ever done for her? They chose a foreigner (Sisko) as their Emissary, and left her to her barren prayers.
And so she is tempted by darkness, by the enemies of the Prophets, and she gives in. The demons, at least, have a use for her.
It's a perfect picture of Milton's idea of damnation: she would rather "reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven".
Her (doomed) character is matched by the character of Major Kira, a devout woman who, despite all her flaws, is willing to offer her service to her gods without reservation. She is always willing to put her body, heart, and mind at the service of something greater than herself.
At a critical moment in the last season, when Winn is most tempted by evil, she comes to Kira, begging for counsel.
Kira, who has every reason to hate Winn (seriously, Winn has done her terrible, irreparable wrong in the past), has the most amazing reaction: when Winn professes her willingness to do the right thing, Kira is happy for Winn. She is delighted at Winn's seeming readiness to repent. Even though she could play the older brother, scowling at the prodigal's return, Kira is clearly blessed by the idea that this horrible woman is finally, finally turning around.
In this attitude of complete kinship, Kira urges Winn to renounce her station, her power, all the public admiration she's accumulated, and simply devote herself to the Prophets' service. Humbly. Willingly.
It's an extraordinary scene. Because Kira is clearly sincere. She is, despite her dislike of Winn, doing her very best to help Winn do the thing that would be best for Winn.
But Winn, who swore moments ago that she would "do anything" in order to please the Prophets, physically draws back at this suggestion that she'd give up her position and power. The conversation is over at that moment, for all that they continue talking a little while longer.
Winn thinks she wants to worship, but she really wants to be worshipped. She wants to be the gods' best servant. The one all the other servants look up to.
And the lovely thing about it is: it's not the end of the story. No spoilers, but the way Winn's arc eventually plays out is intense and well done.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that the writers of DS9 share my own Christian faith. But I am saying that, in a world made by our Lord, truth shines through everywhere, and especially in good art. And this is good art, because it shows us ourselves. It draws us in, it delights us, but it also warns us and sobers us.
I wish there were more shows like Star Trek: DS9.
Peace of Christ to you,
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*With some judicious editing, of course. It's not all fit for consumption by children.