Nutshell: One of the series' most deftly written shows. Absolutely stellar work concerning complex issues.
"Rapture" is the embodiment of DS9's most respectable and intriguing qualities. Here is an excellent story—easily among the series' very best—with brilliantly realized layers of subtlety and complexity that will reward faithful followers of Deep Space Nine most of all with some of its finest writing. The best way I can sum things up is to say that there is so much resonating substance in this episode that it's almost amazing.
Like last season's "Accession" (a terrific show in its own right but not as great as this one), the writers of DS9 decide to return to the series' true roots—and prove that they still have the ability and desire to do intelligent, probing Bajor stories that believe in mystical spirituality and the unusual and inexplicable.
Beginning as Sisko and Kira admire an ancient iconic Bajoran painting depicting the long-lost ancient city of B'hala, the story quickly sets its tone—one shrouded in mythical larger-than-life aspects from the far past. It's interesting the way Sisko is instantly taken with amazement of B'hala. By the end of the teaser, the captain has scanned the painting into the holosuite computer, in an attempt to use the latest technology to decode a mystery Bajoran archaeologists haven't been able to do for 20,000 years... to find the forever-buried B'hala.
While in the holosuite Sisko is knocked unconscious by a powerful electric shock, and when he comes to he begins to see things in a new light. In one sense this is explainable: Bashir explains that Sisko's neurological system has been overloaded and will be more aware to sensory perception for a few days. Shapes will appear to be more focused and better defined for a while. "Enjoy the show," the doctor tells him with a slight grin (one of many subtle details that the episode gets just right).
But there's much more here. Before long, Sisko begins having powerful visions that encompass time and space, the past and the future. For brief moments he has divine understandings of the universe, and it isn't long before he begins to see the foreshadowings of Bajor's fate.
And it can't be a coincidence that it's about this time that word comes from Starfleet Command that Bajor has been accepted into the Federation—not a lightweight statement considering that this has been the ultimate goal of the series since its first episode. I must admit that it came as quite a surprise to me when that line came. I wasn't expecting it for quite some time—maybe not even until near the very end of the series' run. But as Admiral Whatley (Ernest Perry, Jr), who brings the news, states, Bajor's acceptance into the Federation is just the beginning—now the difficult tasks of integration begin. I couldn't agree more. I'm very glad to see that the writers understand that this goal represents only one leg of the issue, and that Bajor achieving this goal will lead to new issues to deal with.
But "Rapture" does not really choose to deal with this issue just yet. The episode is more about Sisko and his visions, and what happens when he begins having such foreboding, prophetic insight. A big part of the story's success can be attributed to the fact that it uses mysticism as an approach. It's particularly nice to see that the show doesn't pull its punches and try to explain these miracles using the typical sci-fi terms. These visions are visions, no doubt about it. They may be a side effect of Sisko's injury, perhaps, but that doesn't change the fact that they're miraculous gifts that, like existence itself, lie in a realm beyond our comprehension—maybe because we're just not intended to understand.
The spiritual implications alone are a major positive because we're invited to reflect upon them at almost every turn. But another big part of what makes "Rapture" such a brilliant story is the fact that these visions have such startling repercussions—repercussions that prove consistently thought-probing. For instance, Sisko's insight leads him straight to B'hala itself, the underground coordinates of which he locates after a mere few days of staring at a representation of a B'halan obelisk from the holosuite program. The story's execution of this search is absorbing; the episode works up a fascinating sense of wonder for its discovery of the lost city. What's most relevant and astounding here, though, is Sisko's character, who cares deeply about his find and its meaning. Noteworthy is the way this demonstrates how far Sisko's role in Bajoran mythology has come since "Emissary." Here he finally seems comfortable and devoted to taking his role in Bajoran mysticism (opposed to his attempts to distance himself from it in "Accession"), and that's a powerful realization that's worthy of respect and awe—of both Sisko's character and the DS9 writers.
Sisko's discovery of B'hala has a domino effect that leads to several other brilliantly realized character turns. Most notable is the change in Kai Winn's attitudes, which she voices to Kira in two separate, wonderful exchanges. Winn admits to having been wrong about doubting Sisko as the Emissary, for the one who found B'hala must be the one who was sent by the Prophets. This isn't so much a change in heart as it is something that challenges the direction of her beliefs. As she states near the end of the show, things are no longer simple. Her path is no longer clear, and she doesn't know who her enemies are.
This is fascinating stuff because it's such a perfectly truthful example of cause and effect. It's completely warranted, credible, and follows from the past actions of Winn's character—which is wise writing. It's true character evolution, the type of thing that really works while simultaneously being the type of thing that is particularly challenging to pull off. It's something that's bound to be overlooked in this episode, but one of the best examples of faith and direction that the series has displayed.
This new problem is something that Winn doesn't take lightly. Indeed, faith is all that she has, or has ever had. During the Occupation she had the strength and will to continue teaching her beliefs at the price of Cardassian beatings. And unlike those in the Resistance, as she pointedly explains to Kira, she didn't have weapons—all she had was her faith. Kira's response is one of the many sensible subtleties of reality that makes this episode such a winner—she's disquieted with solemn surprise, perhaps understanding Kai Winn for the first time in her life.
Winn has always appeared to be a tad underhanded, ever since "In the Hands of the Prophets." But "Rapture" implicitly explains a lot about Winn and her motives and history, and the results are stellar.
But turning back to Sisko, as he's the real focus of the story, it should be noted that Avery Brooks turns in an interesting, textured performance. After the visions begin appearing, Sisko has a sedate and peaceful aura about him, mostly in the way he speaks. It's indeed spiritual, as if he has briefly seen something—or everything—that has given him an understanding of, as he puts it, the very universe itself. One serene, engaging sequence has the captain literally walking through the promenade telling fortunes to complete strangers.
It isn't long before Sisko becomes obsessed with his new gifts, and the new problem becomes trying to balance his interests in Bajoran mysticism with his Starfleet job. Admiral Whatley is obviously not pleased with Sisko's visions interfering with his duties, but I think there's even more to this conflict than meets the eye. In some ways, I think Whatley is a symbol for Starfleet and their possible dismissal, even fear, of Bajoran faith. (Even if Ernest Perry, Jr. is a tad wooden as Whatley, what he represents is quite effective. Granted, Sisko's problem is an extreme circumstance, but I can't help but be reminded of Eddington's speech on Federation assimilation back in "For the Cause.") If the Federation does represent a sneaky, even if unintentional, assimilation of culture, then Benjamin Sisko represents the true liaison between Bajor and the Federation. Here is a man who can "be a Starfleet officer" yet values and heeds the Bajorans' beliefs at all costs. This is great stuff.
It's no doubt, then, why Sisko allows his obsession with his visions to escalate to the point of threatening his life. He sees something disturbing in the future: a horde of locusts hovering over the rebuilt B'hala on Bajor before leaving to fly to Cardassia. But what does it mean? He's not sure, but Bashir may not be able to let him find out. The electro-neural activity in Sisko's brain is all wrong, and Bashir needs to perform a crucial operation or Sisko could die. Sisko refuses. The changes in his brain would likely cause his visions to stop, and that's something he can't allow until he understands the meaning of the locusts.
This is where the family scene enters the picture. With the return of Kasidy Yates (who has completed her six-month prison term for helping the Maquis in the aforementioned "For the Cause"), Sisko would be leaving behind two loved ones if he traded his life for these visions. Is it worth it to sacrifice himself? Jake sure doesn't thinks so, nor does Kasidy. Understandably, they suddenly find themselves looking at a man they thought they knew everything about with a sense of total incomprehension. But there's a bigger question here: What if risking your life would put the understanding of the entire universe in your hand? That's a pretty tough argument. It's a credit to the writers that they came up with something so audacious yet so human.
Speaking of tough arguments, there's also an intelligent scene in ops where Worf argues on Kira's side for faith against a reluctant Dax and O'Brien. "Since when did you believe in the Prophets?" Dax asks him. "What I believe in," he answers, "is faith." "That's not much to bet his life on," Dax says. "You're wrong. It's everything," Kira responds with a distinct aura of certainty. The subtle complexity of the acting in this argument is interesting. And by commenting on the plot, the characters not participating in it are put to a very reasonable use.
Eventually, with the surprise help of Winn and a Bajoran Orb, Sisko realizes that the swarm of "locusts" will destroy Bajor if it joins the Federation now. "It's too soon!" Sisko desperately tells the Bajoran ministers. The vote to join the Federation is later defeated by the Bajoran chamber of ministers based on their faith in the Emissary. Sisko collapses unconscious and near death.
Jake, as the closest relative on the station, allows Bashir to override Sisko's ultimatum that he not operate and "take away" Sisko's visions. It's an inevitable step that Sisko loses his gifts, but putting the choice in the hands of Jake because he needs his father is a dramatic point—further proving that life-in-jeopardy plots are best when having character choices and meaning within them.
All around, "Rapture" is one of the most complex and multi-dimensioned episodes of any Star Trek that I can remember. It's riveting and adds up to a lot. I'm also interested by the allusion to the coming war with the Dominion. (Could the "locusts" perhaps have been a Dominion strike, with Bajor being the first Federation casualty? Interesting... but never mind that now.)
The closing scene—where Kasidy reminds Sisko that although he has given up something important, he has also held on to something important—is a little schmaltzy in execution, but it works fine in context nonetheless. After all, a little schmaltz can be warranted considering such a unique and wonderful outing.
"Rapture" is about as perfect an episode as I could hope for.
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