Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

"Covenant"

**1/2

Air date: 11/23/1998
Written by Rene Echevarria
Directed by John Kretchmer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"Your hair—you've changed it."
"Your ear—you've pierced it."

— Dukat and Kira

Nutshell: I'm really on the fence here.

In the course of writing a review, usually before I even start writing, I determine whether or not I like an episode. There are varying degrees of "thumbs up" and "thumbs down," but usually my review slants one way or the other—for simplicity's sake, if for no other reason.

"Covenant," however, has me right on the fence. Did I like this episode? In many ways, yes. Were there problems? Absolutely. Can I recommend it? I'm really not sure.

As an individual, Dukat is possibly the most interesting Trek villain ever conceived. He's complex and multifaceted and in a constant state of flux. Part of the success of Dukat can be attributed to the fact that Marc Alaimo delivers textured performances, but part of the credit goes to the writers, who have long made Dukat opaque and strongly motivated.

In "Covenant," Dukat's opaqueness and the sense of his ever-changing persona becomes a troubling two-edged sword. Watching the episode, I began to realize that Dukat stories these days have a tendency to come off as More Dukat Retooling [TM] on some levels, even though they work on others. This guy bounces around from one motive to the next. It's not clear who Dukat is these days. The writers themselves don't even seem to know; they change his motivations on a semiyearly basis. Watching Dukat in "Covenant" can be like watching a pivotal episode of The X-Files: What you see on the screen can be fascinating, but when it's over you stop and ask yourself what the hell it really means. What's going on in that head of his?

With the help of Vedek Fala (Norman Parker), one of Kira's trusted childhood mentors, Dukat kidnaps Kira to Empok Nor, where he has been building a small Bajoran community that worships the paghwraiths. Kira is quick to label it a cult—an accurate label given the definition of the word, which the American Heritage Dictionary calls "a religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader."

Well, we have the paghwraith worship, which in Bajoran lore is certainly considered false and extreme by most; we have the unconventional living environment, where a couple must seek permission from "Master Dukat" before they have a baby; and most importantly we have the authoritarian, charismatic leader. If there's one thing that Dukat has maintained through his years of evolution, it's his charisma.

There was a lot I found interesting about this community of paghwraith worshipers. First was the way Echevarria painted them as, well, normal people. Cult members in movies and television are often portrayed as crazed maniacs, but "Covenant" shows the way normal, intelligent people can turn to cults when they feel they can't find their answers out in the mainstream world. Kira equates worshiping the paghwraiths with worshiping evil. But in the cult members' eyes, this couldn't be further from the truth; they simply worship the gods that the rest of their world has rejected.

Also interesting is finding out how the latest of Dukat's personal transformations came about. As it happens, the paghwraith he allowed to possess his body in "Tears of the Prophets" changed his view of the universe. He could feel the paghwraith's love for Bajor. It enlightened him, tempering the single-minded thirst for vengeance that consumed him ever since "Waltz." At the end of last season, I began to worry that the transparency of an "evil madman Dukat" would tire quickly. With this episode, substantial greying has been introduced back into Dukat's behavior, which is reassuring.

What's also interesting is the way the old, self-serving Dukat plays into this new apparent system of beliefs. The case can be made (which indeed it is when Kira makes it) that Dukat taking a leadership role in a Bajoran paghwraith cult is simply his latest attempt to earn the love and gratitude of the Bajoran people—something he has long sought, but something he neither deserves nor will achieve in any effectiveness. The fact that he kidnaps Kira into his little community—essentially designating her the "ultimate challenge" in trying to win over Bajor as a people to believe in him—says to me that he's still very obsessed with the way Bajor views him, and that he doesn't really care about Bajor's problems, but just his own acceptance.

Yet Dukat is still a treacherous liar. Key in the episode is a married couple, Benyan (Jason Leland Adams) and Mika (Maureen Flannigan), who are going to bear the community's first baby. We discover that Dukat is still every bit the "ladies' man" as he was during the Occupation days; when Mika gives birth, it's to a half-Cardassian child. Mika is horrified, but Dukat turns a potential disaster into a lie by claiming the paghwraiths have transformed the child into a Cardassian as a miraculous symbol.

Subsequently, when Mika (whom we learn did have an affair with Dukat) almost dies in a mysterious airlock "accident" (which isn't an accident, because we see Dukat try to kill her), no one suspects the connection with Dukat and the possibility he tried to murder her to keep the truth about her child from being exposed. They might suspect, but they certainly don't want to believe.

Everything Kira says falls on deaf ears, which is intriguing through its troubling nature. These people see Kira as a non-believer, an outsider, and they don't want to hear what she has to say. Fala, the one character who has a personal history with Kira, asks her why it's so hard to open herself to the possibility that a miracle has occurred and Dukat's ways have changed. Fala's faith is strong, but he can't see past it (nor past his nature to forgive) to realize how treacherous Dukat can be.

Is such potentially self-destructive blindness plausible? I'd imagine so. Given recent, publicized events like the March 1997 cult suicides near San Diego, it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

Nevertheless, part of my uncertainty with this episode stems from the Bajorans' gullibility factor. While the issue of blind faith makes for a pretty powerful statement, I have a hard time believing that all of these 50 Bajoran followers would so easily swallow Dukat's miracle explanation of something that could just as easily be explained in real-world terms. The camera shows Bajoran faces with expressions of doubt, but then the story presses on without analyzing this apparent doubt—to the point where these people become willing to follow Dukat right over a cliff.

I know, I know—they want so hard to believe that Dukat and their faith will lead them in the right direction. But on several levels I just don't buy it. For one, Kira's dismay at how these Bajorans can't open their eyes and see how obviously Dukat is manipulating them is one the story never completely addresses from the Bajorans' point of view. "I have faith," doesn't seem like the only explanation, because a lot of people, like Kira, have faith and don't disconnect themselves from mainstream society. Also, given Dukat's role in the Occupation, I wonder just how he can become so easily accepted when the hardships of the Occupation caused these Bajorans to turn away from the Prophets in the first place. What else, if anything, is going on in these people's minds?

My inability to understand is partly the point the episode is trying to convey, I suppose. People who operate on this sort of blind faith aren't necessarily going to make decisions based on logic.

Resulting is my inability to decide whether I find the statements posed in this episode to be probing or unfinished.

Still, this leads up to the episode's climax, where Dukat realizes that because Mika will wake up and expose his attempt to murder her, he has no choice but to quit while he's ahead. Dukat's plan is to orchestrate a mass suicide, which the Bajorans are fully willing to do in the interests of their faith.

The idea of a mass suicide is a frightening one, but where is the doubt? After all that has happened since Kira's arrival, this cult shows no evidence of internal schisms. And then, when Kira catches on to Dukat's little trick (his suicide pill is not really poison like everyone else's) the episode pulls an oversimplified 180, where the Bajorans realize they've been duped and instantly revolt. Dukat, infuriated, beams himself off Empok Nor. The way this all unfolds had me caught up and on the edge of my seat (David Bell's dark and intense score was especially effective), but when I stopped to think it over, it seemed awfully abrupt.

Lastly, I really could've done without Kira's closing "that makes him more dangerous than ever" speech. It is obvious that Dukat is dangerous, but it's also obvious there's a significant grey area to his intentions. His devotion to the paghwraiths is obviously real (scenes of himself praying alone make a difference), even if it's a means to an end in providing himself a self-serving role to win over the Bajoran people.

But by having Kira talk to Odo about how dangerous Dukat is, I couldn't help but get the feeling the writers were trying to communicate, none so subtly, "Dukat is still a bad man." Frankly, I was hoping to understand Dukat's motives more than the story ultimately permits us to. But even if the writers wanted to keep his internal driving forces unrevealed, I didn't need to be told by Kira that he's "more dangerous than ever." That's a schlocky way to cap off a substantial grey-area topic.

All in all, the episode benefits from being engaging, thoughtful, and without easy answers. But it doesn't seem to end right, and I couldn't help but have my doubts about some of the evidence presented. Dukat ends up taking with him more internal conflict and ambivalence than recent stories have given him, yet because of Kira's final analysis the story doesn't seem entirely confident in the viewers' ability to draw that conclusion. How effective is this episode? You decide. I haven't made up my mind just yet.

Upcoming: Four weeks of reruns, starting with "Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night." See you at the beginning of 1999 (or next week on the Voyager side).

Previous episode: The Siege of AR-558
Next episode: It's Only a Paper Moon

Season Index

27 comments on this review

Jakob M. Mokoru - Wed, Feb 11, 2009 - 1:26pm (USA Central)
This was the point when the Dukat arc really started to annoy me!
Also this "Pagh-Wraith-cult": When that Ex-Vedek asked Kira something like: "What have the Prophets ever done for us?", I really had liked it to hear Kira mention the salvation from a 2000 ship strong dominion fleet a bit over a year ago. That should have made SOME impression on the Bajorans, one would think...

But no...
Jay - Sat, Aug 22, 2009 - 10:16pm (USA Central)
Considering the things Kira has believed on faith alone ("Accession"'s 'he's the emissary - no he his - no, he is' comes to mind), it's rather hypocritical for her to condemn the warped logic beliefs on display here regarding Dukat's ludicrous excuse about the baby...it's all the same...when you're brainwashed by a cult (be it fringe like this or mainstream like Christianity), it's in for a penny, in for a pound.
Aldo Johnson - Sat, Dec 5, 2009 - 6:13am (USA Central)
The problem with this episode is that it only has 50 minutes or so. A subject like this needs more time to develop. Up to the attempted murder, the episode was fine. It was in trying to wrap it up within 1 episode that the show pulled a 180.

@Jacob: The Vedek did mention the Dominion Fleet being destroyed.
Craig - Sun, Jun 27, 2010 - 1:15pm (USA Central)
@Jay: you said: "it's all the same...when you're brainwashed by a cult (be it fringe like this or mainstream like Christianity)"

It's a shame that you don't grasp the brave thing that DS9 was trying to do when it was on air, which was to move beyond the dogmatic secularism of previous Trek series and allow a more open-minded and sympathetic - if still secular - view of religion. This expansion allowed for new storylines and characterisation that would have been impossible on TNG, Voyager or TOS or indeed most other TV sci-fi at the time.

You should also tell the hundreds of millions of sincere and thinking Christians that they have been brainwashed by a "cult". (Not like freethinking atheists, who believe the Universe in all its wonderous mathematical complexity was created out of nothing and for no reason, and that's that, end of story, oh and people who don't agree with us are dangerous and mentally ill... ^-^ )
Marco P. - Tue, Aug 24, 2010 - 4:29am (USA Central)
Jammer wrote:
"Also, given Dukat's role in the Occupation, I wonder just how he can become so easily accepted when the hardships of the Occupation caused these Bajorans to turn away from the Prophets in the first place. What else, if anything, is going on in these people's minds?"

Hit the nail on the head right there. Quite simply, we're not given enough material to truly understand how desperate these people are, and why turning to worshiping paghwariths was their only solution. And with that I also agree with Aldo Johnson: this episode needed more time to develop. It is not only the ending that is too abrupt, it is the entire thing.
Nic - Sun, Oct 31, 2010 - 12:25am (USA Central)
Man did this episode fly of the rails. Despite it being about a religious cult (a concept that I, with all due respect, usually can't help but find laughable) I was actually taken in during the first few acts. But then they took it way too far and really strains credulity. We've seen other episodes where the Bajorans were gullible, but never this badly.
Elliott - Thu, Jan 13, 2011 - 8:53am (USA Central)
This episode had the potential to teach Kira a lesson about her own blind faith. I'm not saying she would abandon her religion based on one experience, but where's the comparison? Jay is absolutely right; the rhetoric used by Dukat is of the same caliber and nuance as that of any Vedic or believer we have seen (not only Bajoran, but Klingon as well).

Religious beliefs demand this kind of polarising good v. evil. If the prophets are all good, benevolent and nurturing (I can't help being reminded of the Caretaker), then there must be a counterpart which is "the devil."

@Craig: being different isn't necessarily brave. Star Trek itself is brave and different for its secularism and rationality; by countering that, DS9 was MORE conventional than the other incarnations, the mirror of the mirror. There is an arena on Star Trek for intelligent discussion about religion. The possibility existed on DS9, but it was always circumvented by a kind of political correctness with respect to faith for its own sake which sabotaged it.
jon - Thu, Jan 27, 2011 - 5:54pm (USA Central)
Elliot i find it fascinating that people like you condemm anyone who believes in religion as a fanatic Kira's religous belief is respected and there and GR's approach to religion was it's crazy and worshiiped by loonies and secularism was wonderfull.

Elliot you yourself show little or no tolerance towards religiion
Elliott - Thu, Jan 27, 2011 - 6:03pm (USA Central)
@Jon

I have a great deal of respect for people who are able to lead lives of compassion, intelligence and morality whilst retaining their religious beliefs for personal reasons.

As I have said before, spirituality in its best light is an internal matter providing a personal access to the nouminon, to the metaphysical world. It has no place in policy, government, science or medicine, the machinations of the physical world.

Secularism is not atheism. Secularism is not what I would call "wonderful" but it is necessary to the evolution of society.
jon - Fri, Jan 28, 2011 - 7:54am (USA Central)
And Kira fulfills those functions like you ask
Jay - Sun, Feb 6, 2011 - 12:15pm (USA Central)
We're still talking about Odo "not believing in" the Prophets, even though they are manifestly holding the Dominion forces at bay. They may not be "prophets" per se, but whatever they are, they are clearly real, and the same entities the Bajoran worship.
Overthinker - Sun, Feb 20, 2011 - 10:24pm (USA Central)
I can buy these Bajorans as being that gullible if we assume that through a process of "survival of the thickest" those that have gathered under Dukat are rather more credulous and accepting than the average Bajoran.
Nebula Nox - Fri, Apr 6, 2012 - 10:31am (USA Central)
I thought many aspects of the cult were extremely realistic. It seems that several "religions" were founded in order to get easier access to women...

It's also very difficult to change your feelings about religion. Which would make these Bajorans more gullible, and make it harder for Odo to "believe in" the prophets.
Justin - Tue, May 1, 2012 - 11:53am (USA Central)
This is the lamest episode in the entire Prophets arc. That Bajorans would follow Dukat as a religious leader is beyond preposterous. It would have been far more believable if his followers had been Cardassians or a mix of Cardassians, Bajorans and other AQ races.
Jay - Thu, Dec 27, 2012 - 1:27pm (USA Central)
Dukat must not have wasted any time...The episode "Waltz" was just 10 months before this, but here he'd already impregnated a woman long enough ago that she'd come to term in this episode...
RStretton - Wed, Jun 5, 2013 - 10:05pm (USA Central)
I thought this episode was better than the two either side of it because at least it had something interesting to say. I can believe that these bajorans may follow Dukat as faith can be used to cover almost any failings. For me that critique of religion is very powerful and something DS9 had increasingly moved away from in its seeming belief that they were prophets and not wormhole aliens after all. I also thought the cult followers were quite well portrayed as misguided rather than as nutters. I can't say I care much for this or later versions of Dukat though and the whole Pah Wraith arc is a hokey mess they should have best left out. Still Nana Visitor is as always great and even bad Dukat is still watchable. 7/10
Kotas - Thu, Nov 7, 2013 - 8:45pm (USA Central)

I really dislike the direction they are taking Dukat. Very poor and predictable episode.

2/10
V_Is_For_Voyager - Fri, Nov 15, 2013 - 1:05am (USA Central)
I love this episode. I don't think it was ever intended to be a serious and probing look at religious cult leaders and their followers, but rather the final maturation of a supervillain. I mean, seriously, a leader who presides over a suicide cult -- and then tries to trick all his followers into killing themselves, while he escapes to safety? And all to cover up his adultery with one of his followers, whom he earlier tried to murder? This is larger-than-life, comic book level villainy in the best traditions of space opera. When did Darth Vader ever do something so despicable?? Although Voyager was and remains my first love with Star Trek, I must admit, DS9 beats them all in the villain department. And Dukat stands head and shoulder above them all!
Better Scum & Villainy - Thu, Jan 9, 2014 - 1:52am (USA Central)
In many ways, I do think this episode was the writers' way of letting us know that Dukat hadn't really shed any of his complexity in "Waltz" though he'd let his mask of affability slip a bit. As Kira herself notes at one point, he's basically reliving his rose-tinted idealized version of the Occupation through the cult. There, as here, one comes to understand both how he fully earned the majority of the Bajoran population's loathing for him, and yet managed to win over the sympathies of so very many of his Bajoran mistresses. Here, his capacity for being very persuasive and seductive extends not only to his latest adulterous mistress Mika, but to the other cult members as well.

One plot point which is easily overlooked is that Dukat didn't actually start the cult, but joined it and rose to be its leader because he'd been in contact with an actual Pah Wraith and as such believed in the cult's deities even more fervently than they did. Considering the seemingly insane things some cults in the real world have believed, is it really so difficult to understand how persuasive Dukat could be to this fictional cult when his own experiences so powerfully reaffirmed their own beliefs? Their perception that his conversion was genuine was not false, though it proved to be misleading; Dukat really was a changed man, albeit not changed for the better.

For that matter, one of the other important points this episode is making is that religion is neither inherently good nor bad in itself: it's what you do with it that makes the difference. The reason I say Dukat is a changed man is that he and all the other Cardassians are indicated to have been atheistic up to now, though more passively than actively. (They never so much hated the Bajoran religion as just viewed it with smug and indulgent amusement as one of those silly superstitions their own culture had outgrown centuries ago; which also reaffirmed their racist notions that they were naturally superior to the Bajorans and therefore entitled to rule them.) Now, as he told Damar earlier, he has come to see that the Bajorans' deities are very real and that the Cardassians made a big mistake in underestimating the power of their religion.

Moreover, the gods and demons of Bajor are repeatedly demonstrated to be quite real. While Kira affirms that faith comes before miracles, the fact is that the Bajorans' Prophets have done some very real and very public miracles for their followers by this point, and the Pah Wraiths could quite conceivably be expected to do the same for their followers. As such, Dukat's claims that the Pah Wraiths have now performed some miracles are by no means so easy to dismiss as would be similar claims from some newly-minted New Age cult. These Pah Wraith cultists are analogous to Satanists, not the Hale-Bopp Heaven's Gate cult.

What shows Dukat to be no better a man for now being religious is that he has in fact sided with Bajor's demons. Kosst Imojin, who possessed Dukat for a time and is heavily implied to be the Pah Wraiths' leader, is basically the Bajoran equivalent of Satan, and the real reason Dukat has sided with Kosst Imojin & Company is that he and they are both Bajor's enemies and both share the desire to punish Bajor for rejecting them. Sincerity, like religion, is here shown to be neither good nor bad in itself, but only in relation to what purpose it serves. The Prophets and Pah Wraiths are basically flip-sides of the same religion, and Dukat sincerely serves the evil side.

Is it really so difficult to believe that if a militant atheist who hated Christians could be put in a time machine and shuttled back to ancient Israel to witness Jesus Christ's miracles and crucifixion and resurrection for himself, he might choose to side with Satan? Seeing the beliefs of the people you hate reaffirmed might only serve to increase that hatred and make you seek an alliance with their enemies. Really, it makes a disturbing amount of sense that any Cardassians who stopped dismissing Bajor's religion as superstitious nonsense out of hand might decide to side with their demons.

As to how any Bajorans could side with the Pah Wraiths even after seeing the Prophets pull the incredible miracle of making a whole Jem Hadar armada disappear, it's worth remembering that the Occupation lasted for a couple generations at the very least, during which it might seem to some of the Bajorans that the Prophets were sitting on their keisters and stealing credit for all the Bajoran resistance's hard work. As with the Cardassians, seeing the Prophets affirm their existence by doing a miracle might not serve so much to turn unbelievers into believers as atheists into anti-theists.

As the Pah Wraith cultists might well point out, "These Prophets did nothing for decades while two generations of our children grew up and suffered and died under Cardassian oppression, and now they finally emerge from their comfy wormhole just to do *the Federation* a big favor!? Where in the flaming Fire Caves were these Prophets back when we needed them, huh?" It's the same problem Christianity faces nowadays.

Of course, one shouldn't carry any analogies from the series too far. While Gene Roddenberry's death and the subsequent loosening of his restrictions on portraying religion in the Star Trek universe have greatly improved it in my opinion, writers might paint themselves into a corner if they examine them too closely. Bajoran religion, which is suspiciously similar to Judeo-Christianity, shares some reality and credibility with the affirmed-to-be-real Klingon Heaven and Hell, the existence of the Vulcan Katra and Ocampan Comra, and possibly a few other species' religions' claims as well. That would be like living in a world where Judaism and Christianity and Islam and a couple other religions all happened to be simultaneously true, even though they contradict each other.
Jons - Sat, Feb 8, 2014 - 5:14pm (USA Central)
I've sad it already, but I still can't get past it so I'm saying it again: I can't believe how DS9 has jumped the shark.

An interesting, original ST show has become a ridiculous Americanist religion-based jingoistic piece of drivel. I'm really struggling to keep on watching season 7... But after 6 seasons, I really want to see the end, although so far not a single season 7 episode has had me entertained.

Here Dukat is reduced to some ridiculous caricature of a meanie, and we have to go on and on and on hearing about "faith" and the idea that this cult are a "bad faith" vs. the "good faith" of Kira. Remember when Star Trek was a-religious and religion was (rightly) seen as primitive local superstition? Now we have a show that legitimates religious beliefs (look! Sisk really is a prophet!) and has shed not only credibility but any interesting nuance in the process...

Sorry to be so negative but season 7 is making me hate DS9 and feel ashamed of liking Star Trek.
Ric - Sun, Feb 23, 2014 - 10:58pm (USA Central)
Preposterous episode. There is no need for further comment besides quoting Jons above in order to acclaim his accurate definition:

"An interesting, original ST show has become a ridiculous Americanist religion-based jingoistic piece of drivel. I'm really struggling to keep on watching season 7... But after 6 seasons, I really want to see the end, although so far not a single season 7 episode has had me entertained.

Here Dukat is reduced to some ridiculous caricature of a meanie".

Yap. That's exactly it.
eastwest101 - Fri, May 30, 2014 - 11:52pm (USA Central)
An interesting if somewhat flawed attempt to look at religious fundamentalism or weird cults, but it was ultimately unsuccesfull as it was just boring and passive, was waiting for Kira to "do something", and she eventually did but it was all a bit thin and underdeveloped.
Phillip - Sat, Jun 14, 2014 - 10:23pm (USA Central)
Both the paghwraith's and prophets are aliens. This doesn't belong in Star Trek unless it portrays the believers as idiots. Some fans will say Sisko is the better captain than Picard. We all know Picard wouldn't believe the wormhole aliens were Gods. And he definitely wouldn't risk the life of his son or any person for these aliens to play out their war. Sisko, dukat and Kira are all loony for believing these aliens are gods unless the word god had a different meaning in the future.
Yanks - Fri, Aug 22, 2014 - 12:05pm (USA Central)
For gods sake, just how stupid ARE the Bajorans?

I so wish someone would have made Jim Jones (I mean Dukat) take one of those Promazine pills he gave everyone else.

I wish Kira would have killed him.

I don't like this character turn for Dukat.

2 stars. I really don't like watching this episode.
Yanks - Fri, Aug 22, 2014 - 12:09pm (USA Central)
Downgraded to 1 star.
DLPB - Wed, Aug 27, 2014 - 2:32pm (USA Central)
I've sad it already, but I still can't get past it so I'm saying it again: I can't believe how DS9 has jumped the shark.

An interesting, original ST show has become a ridiculous Americanist religion-based jingoistic piece of drivel.
=========

It got what was coming from the day it stole B5 writer's ideas and plot. Karma, I guess.
Eric - Sun, Sep 28, 2014 - 1:23pm (USA Central)
Awful right from the first act...I rolled my eyes more than once during this episode.

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