In the Hands of the Prophets first aired 30 years ago this week.
The Star Trek community celebrated the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s premiere episode, Emissary, earlier this year—with good reason. The Deep Space Nine pilot episode is arguably still the franchise’s finest. But this week marks the 30th anniversary of In the Hands of the Prophets, the final episode of Deep Space Nine’s first season, which first aired in broadcast syndication on June 20, 1993. No less than did Emissary, In the Hands of the Prophets demonstrated how Deep Space Nine was moving Star Trek into deeper and richer realms of storytelling and characterization than it had known before.
If for no other reasons, fans should mark the 30th anniversary of In the Hands of the Prophets because it introduced two important Deep Space Nine recurring characters. Philip Anglim made the first of his eight appearances as Bareil Antos, a caring and charismatic but politically cautious Bajoran spiritual leader who would also become romantically involved with Major Kira.
It’s hard not to like Bareil in this episode, even though Commander Sisko is frustrated with the vedek’s initial unwillingness to publicly support Keiko O’Brien’s school on the station because such a move might hurt Bareil’s chances of succeeding Kai Opaka. Bareil is a voice of reason who is, like too many voices of reason in real life, drowned out by voices of intolerance and fear—and who, when he finally does speak out, becomes the target of an attempted assassination for his troubles.
In the Hands of the Prophets also introduces the late Louise Fletcher as Winn Adami. Vedek (and future Kai) Winn is just as politically adroit as Bariel, but uses her skills to manipulate and magnify some Bajorans’ fears and prejudices for her own ends. Over the course of her 14 Deep Space Nine appearances—which still seems a shockingly small number, given the character’s importance to and impact on the series’ overarching storylines—Winn proved her own ends were all that ultimately motivated her. She cloaked her self-interest in pious talk about the Prophets, but what she always wanted most, as her deadly dabbling in the Kosst Amojan at the series’ end confirmed, was power.
In the Hands of the Prophets continues to be relevant to our society
As Deep Space Nine’s most prominent self-professed religious character, Winn could be interpreted as embodying a Star Trek critique of religious belief. But in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion by Terry J. Erdmann and Paula Block, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who wrote In the Hands of the Prophets, explained the episode is not some dramatized diatribe against religious belief—not even Winn’s strictly legalistic and moralistic variety of it:
"I have no argument with someone having a fundamentalist belief in Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or anything else, but I do have a serious objection to people trying to impose their values on other people. And that’s what this episode is about. No one has the right to force anyone to believe the things that they believe . . . . Sisko does everything he can no to impose his values on the Bajorans, but Vedek Winn is determined to impose her values on everyone (page 68)."
As a society, we continue to struggle with how to live peacefully with those who have different beliefs and values than we do. Competing visions of which philosophies and ideologies, if any, should be privileged continue to create tension and conflict. Sometimes, as in the attack on Keiko’s school and the attempt on Bareil’s life in this episode, they lead to open violence.
At one point, Sisko tells Kira, “My philosophy is that there is room for all philosophies on this station.” They are fine words, in the noblest Star Trek tradition—but In the Hands of the Prophets shows how difficult they are to make real, while still inspiring viewers to try. As timely and as urgent as it was 30 years ago, it is even more so today.