March 22, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Accession"

It's 24 February 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A three hundred year-old Bajoran starship unexpectedly emerges from the wormhole, and its sole occupant announces himself as the Emissary of the Prophets - the same religious position that Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) unwillingly occupies in the Bajoran religion. Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) returns to the station after six month on assignment, and has unexpected news for Miles (Colm Meaney).

The executives of Paramount Television positively hated Bajor-centric episodes such as this. They focused on alien religions and politics, and those within the studios upper echelons would have much rather the Deep Space Nine team focus on episodes with phaser gun-fights, ship-to-ship combat and boisterous action. Viewing figures were generally much softer for Bajor episodes, which to an extent proved the executives' point. On the other hand I am deeply grateful that a few times a year the Deep Space Nine writers and producers would firmly push back: religion is such a central part of humanity's real-life history and evolution, and it's therefore appropriate and fascinating for a science fiction series to dig into issues of faith and culture as well. It's the kind of thing Deep Space Nine did best.

The episode's focus is on Benjamin Sisko, and his discomfort over being the Emissary. He is not a religious man, and he is now deeply embedded into the religion of an entire civilization. The episode begins with him blessing a young couple's union. He does it capably and respectfully, but it is not a task he enjoys. His Starfleet superiors, of course, are even more uncomfortable with him being Emissary than he is.

When a Bajoran lightship emerges from the wormhole after more than 200 years, its occupant Akorem Laam - a noted Bajoran poet in his time - announces that he is the Emissary. He seems to have a case: his experience matches the prophecies in the Bajoran religion just as nearly as Sisko's do, and furthermore he is a Bajoran and a natural spiritual leader. It takes little convincing for Sisko to step aside and let Akorem take over. At first it seems like a solid, comfortable choice for Sisko to have made: having coffee with Kira (Nana Visitor) shortly afterwards, he seems deeply troubled by the idea that had he made any demands upon the Bajoran people as Emissary they would all have obeyed his command.

When Akorem immediately begins agitating for a return to Bajor's old caste-based society, Sisko immediately begins to have regrets. Soon afterwards a vision of the late Kai Opaka challenges Sisko over his choice to step aside. When he decides to challenge Akorem for the title of Emissary, both men travel back into the wormhole to speak to the Prophets and get a proper answer. The result is another wonderful use of the Prophets, who are non-corporeal aliens that exist outside of linear time. They are aware that Sisko is resisting becoming their Emissary, and so send him a challenger to provoke his interest. The fact that the challenger is from two centuries past is irrelevant to them, and is effectively like bringing in a person from Cleveland to challenge someone living in Boston. Time is merely geography to them. It's a rather clever use of a pretty difficult concept.

By the episode's end Sisko is not only comfortable as Emissary but actively enthused. Who knows how Starfleet is going to feel about it. It's a huge step forward for the character, pulling him closer to Bajor and potentially further away from his Starfleet duties. It is a very bold move I think, and is the sort of move unique to Deep Space Nine. A protagonist unwillingly becoming a religious icon is one thing; choosing to actively embrace the role seems like another.

Richard Libertini is excellent as Akorem. He demonstrates charisma and warmth, and completely sells the idea that Sisko could be so readily abandoned as a spiritual leader. When Akorem's demands for Bajor to return to a caste system are met with a combination of dutiful obedience and horror, Libertini continues to express the character as a well-intentioned, thoughtful man. He is suggesting something that is actively repellent, yet he never loses sight of Akorem's integrity or faith. He makes him an interesting, well-developed character rather than a simple antagonist.

If all of that was not enough, the episode also includes a wonderful side-story about Miles O'Brien undergoing 'dad shock' when his wife Keiko reveals she is pregnant. Keiko has been gone for six months on Bajor, with their daughter Molly (Hana Hatae) with her, and in her absence Miles has established a very close friendship with Dr Bashir (Alexander Siddig). With Keiko back, Miles struggles to balance spending time with her and continuing to hang out with Bashir. It is a nicely played bit of domestic comedy that balances well against the more serious religious debate elsewhere in the episode. The O'Brien-Bashir relationship has really become one of the strengths of Deep Space Nine, and this episode plays off it incredibly well.

This is a great episode, bringing the total of good episodes in Season 4 up to 11 good episodes out of 16. The quality ratio increases too: up to 69 per cent.

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