Vedek Winn comes to the station objecting to Bajoran children being taught that the Prophets of the Celestial Temple are mere aliens in an artificial wormhole.
Plot Summary: Orthodox Bajoran sect leader Vedek Winn interrupts a class when Keiko O’Brien teaches that the wormhole is an alien construction rather than the Celestial Temple of the Prophets. Winn accuses Keiko of blasphemy, and Kira warns Sisko that many Bajorans on the station believe that Bajoran children should be taught their own people’s spiritual beliefs alongside Starfleet science. Though Winn claims to be honored to meet the Emissary, she tells Sisko that she cannot be responsible for the consequences if the school does not change. Keiko’s husband has his own problems: one of his tools and the ensign who took it have both gone missing. He and his talented assistant Neela find the remains of both the tool and Ensign Aquino in a power conduit. Miles is distressed about the death, which Odo suspects may not have been an accident, and about the escalating protests at the school. Sisko goes to Bajor to visit Vedek Bareil, the leading candidate to become the next Kai, but the liberal Bareil refuses to risk his own career to help Sisko speak to the Vedek Assembly. When Sisko returns to the station, he learns that that the dead engineer was murdered. Miles and Neela try to trace Aquino’s steps, leading to the discovery that someone used a security bypass module to try to steal a runabout. Then Keiko’s classroom is destroyed by a homemade bomb. Sisko blames Winn’s inflammatory rhetoric for the attack. In the temple, Neela explains that she can no longer hope to escape on a runabout, though Winn insists that the work of the Prophets must go forward even if Neela will be punished. Bareil surprises Sisko with a visit to the station, asking Winn to help seek a peaceful solution. The two Vedeks go to the school to speak just as Miles discovers that someone has tampered with the weapons detectors nearby; he warns Sisko that it must have been Neela. Sisko lunges at Neela as she pulls out a weapon, causing her shot at Bareil to miss its target. A furious Kira deduces that Winn began the controversy at the school to lure her rival to the station so that Neela could assassinate Bareil before he became Kai, though both Neela and Winn deny it. Kira tells Sisko that she thinks the Bajorans, particularly herself, feel more strongly allied with the Federation now rather than less so.
Analysis: “In the Hands of the Prophets” has only improved with time, and it was pretty fantastic to begin with. Sandwiched between “Duet” – an intensely personal story of the cost of the Bajoran Occupation – and the three-parter that kicks off the show’s second season, revealing major political problems both within Bajoran society and between Bajor and the Federation, it establishes the fundamental conflict and introduces characters whose influence will shape all future Bajoran storylines, particularly where Kira is concerned. On the surface, this is a no-holds-barred story about the hypocrisy of religious leaders which seems less influenced by the Scopes Trial than by contemporary creationist politicians. At the time it aired, Winn made me think of Anita Bryant, but now unfortunately she reminds me of certain people with much greater prominence, running for public office on rigid social platforms despite having made ethical choices that would seem to be in conflict with the beliefs they want to impose on others. Louise Fletcher (one of my all time favorite actresses) plays Winn like an older sister of her other iconic role, the superficially calm, controlling, quietly sadistic Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She sounds reasonable, at first, when she asks Keiko about how the teacher balances faith and science in educating Bajoran children. Her voice stays level as Keiko’s grows shrill; it’s not an unreasonable question, since the subject of the wormhole has political ramifications for Bajor as well as spiritual ones. (Looking at the background of the Temple Mount and archaeology of the region in the Middle East, it becomes obvious that even among supposedly objective scientists, rhetoric can slant to support Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular historical claims on the land; the fictional situation on DS9 is somewhat similar.) Yet when Winn drops the word “blasphemy” into the conversation, though her level inflection doesn’t change, it’s immediately obvious that she’s come to pick a brutal fight.
Sisko and Kira are both caught in the middle, though for very different reasons. He is forced to explore a role with which he has never been comfortable, that of Emissary to the Prophets – the only claim he has on the attention and respect of Winn, who makes clear her loathing of the Federation and its values even if (as Kira points out) Starfleet’s presence may be the only thing keeping the Cardassians from returning. He tries to reason with her until she pushes him too far, accusing him in front of witnesses of betraying the Prophets and threatening the Bajoran people; then he points out that the Bajorans who have worked on Deep Space Nine know full well that the Federation is neither their enemy nor the devil, but devoted to exploration and mutual understanding. His speech is intended for a wider audience of Bajorans as well as Winn – Kira and Neela among them – but he also seems to be reminding himself of something he repeatedly questions with Kira during this incident, the fact that Bajoran and Federation common interests are much greater than their conflicts. As for Kira, she initially takes a position that surprises me – we’ve seen no evidence that she’s orthodox in her religious beliefs, in fact she expressed doubts to Opaka, though she may be presenting what she thinks is the most widespread opinion among the Bajorans on the station rather than her personal philosophy, suggesting that if Keiko O’Brien refuses to teach Bajoran spirituality alongside Federation science, then maybe there’s a need for two schools on the station. Sisko seems to take Kira’s initial willingness to listen to Winn very personally, and it’s not clear whether he feels frustrated as Captain Sisko at his first officer’s insistence that what’s best for Starfleet may not be best for Bajor or whether he feels personally betrayed by his friend’s willingness to side with separatists, make excuses for Bajorans who call in sick as a form of political protest, and imply that she supports him mostly as a matter of protection from the Cardassians. That these events make them acknowledge their personal rapport as well as what they’ve accomplished professionally is a nice way to wrap up a television season.
I’ve always thought it was a pity that Winn’s a psychopath as well as an extremist – we see that from this introduction, that she is willing to kill without regret or apology, and though she seems to become more moderate when she achieves power over people, the megalomania and ruthless belief in her own sense of righteousness will return again and again. It’s not clear here whether she actually believes the Prophets want her to kill Bareil to protect Bajor from his heresies or whether she’s fully aware that she’s exploiting the Prophets to gain clout for herself and her relatively small order. Once Winn starts advocating censorship, Kira stops defending her position on the teaching of Bajoran children, but as Sisko says, she is able to elevate her influence within the Vedek Assembly by stirring up trouble with other Bajorans on the station. She’s a far more compelling figure as a religious extremist than a would-be-murderer, since those actions throw the depth of her faith into question. She tells Sisko a story about how Opaka had said no one should ever look on the face of their gods and suggested that Winn sit in darkness for a day to understand it, something she apparently never does, for seven years hence she will betray everything she ever stood for because she feels her gods aren’t giving her the attention she deserves. Bareil, whose moderate policies are much more comfortable for everyone – he doesn’t even grab people’s ears – is something of a mystery; his beliefs are clearly less xenophobic, but does he want what’s best for Bajor? At this juncture, we don’t know, though in subsequent seasons he will become a romantic figure and then something akin to a saint. Now he makes clear to Sisko that he wants to be Kai, perhaps to counter people like Winn, but in some ways he’s just as ambitious as she is, knowing there’s an opportunity for speech-making on the space station. It’s fun to have so many forceful personalities all in play.
The line that made me laugh aloud on this reviewing was one that I had forgotten all about, from when Quark sees all the Bajorans gathering to support Winn and asks Odo (who doesn’t have a terrific day, having his security system sabotaged from within) whether there’s some sort of Bajoran convention on the station and whether he should get more Dabo girls. Odo says that they’re an orthodox spiritual order, at which Quark rolls his eyes and announces that in that case, he’ll need twice as many Dabo girls: “These spiritual types love those Dabo girls.” It’s clearly meant as a commentary on the religious hypocrites on whom Winn is based – she doesn’t like Dabo girls, and Bajoran women seem to be treated as complete equals in religious as well as secular life – but it figures that the cynical capitalist will articulate what Sisko and Kira won’t, which is that even among the very observant, no matter how important a role faith plays in their lives, there’s generally a time for prayer and a time for Dabo. That’s not a form of distraction brought by the Federation, but left over from the Occupation and even before. Winn’s real problem isn’t the Emissary and his doubt or Bareil and his liberalism, but the fact that in a society entering a period of prosperity, it’s hard to find people like Neela who are unhappy and vulnerable enough to throw their lives away in the name of eternal rewards. Her tragedy – and O’Brien’s, for he considered her a trusted friend and colleague – gets lost in the bigger picture.