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™ 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).