Friday, June 7, 2013

Essay 3, Part II: Political Faith

Speaking of political faith. Once More… and Siege... treat faith in heroes and governments in the same non-judgmental way as DS9 treats spiritual faith. They show how real people apply these faiths to their lives and struggles. The writers have Worf sum up this view at the beginning of Once More…:

“The only real questions is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crocket or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero’s death. If you do not, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.”

This is dramatized at the end of the episode when Kor sacrifices himself against a Gem’Hydar fleet. Was he squashed like a bug instantly, or did he die in a blaze of glory that turned the fleet around? Worf and the other Klingons will never know. What they choose to believe about Kor will depend on their faith in his legend, or lack of faith. The larger point is that if you are going to have faith in a hero, the facts don’t matter so much.

The Siege of AR-558 is the very next episode that aired. Despite being a “War is Hell” episode, it does not challenge blind faith in heroes or governments as misguided. It says something far more complex and useful. Siege says that blind faith in heroes and governments, especially in time of war, has its useful purposes for those caught up in the War.

A Starfleet unit has been holding a captured Dominion communications relay for five months. They’ve been living in caves, picked off by attacks and invisible mines. The point of their sacrifice is to keep the relay so that one day it might be used to eavesdrop on Dominion communications. The writers’ purposefully made the object of their mission ho-hum. AR-558 is not part of some ingenious plot to cripple the Founders. The place doesn’t have a glorious name. In the end, it might not even work. But no one in the episode challenges the wisdom of the orders to hold the relay. They have faith in the people who gave the orders. They believe that their sacrifice might make some small difference in the outcome of the war, that it might decrease the number of names of the oft-mentioned casualty reports (which bookend this and other episodes).

Nog is the faithful character in this episode, challenged by Quark, who doesn’t share his nephew’s faith in Starfleet or its officers. Quark says, “This isn’t the Starfleet you know.”

Nog: “Sure it is. It’s just that these people have been through a lot. They’ve been hold up here a long time. Seen two-thirds of their unit killed. But they haven’t surrendered. Do you know why? Because they are heroes.”

Quark argues with the facts of the situation. He says that Humans, “are a wonderful, friendly people as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working.” But if put into a dangerous, deprived environment without “food, sleep, sonic showers… those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”

Nog doesn’t accept the truth of this statement. The officers who have been on this asteroid for five months, who Dr. Bashir diagnosed with PTSD and a host of other mental and psychological stresses, are more than weak and fragile humans to Nog. They are heroes. He chooses to believe this for the same reason Sisko and the others choose to have faith in their orders—it is the only way to get their job done without going insane or deserting.

At the end of the episode, Worf comforts Sisko with this Klingonism: “This was a great victory, one worthy of story and song.” This echoes what he said about Crocket (who has plenty of stories and songs about him), but the difference is striking. You can choose to worship Crocket, or even Kor, as a hero. Whether you do or don’t is a personal choice with little effect on your day-to-day life. But the officers in Siege have no choice but to cherish their battle as a great victory, even thought AR-558 can’t be easily put into verse. If AR-588 is a pointless sacrifice, then the entire war is—and no one in Starfleet believes that. While this episode, and many others, rightly teach that war is hell, none of the episodes take the view that fighting this particular war is a mistake. It must be done. And since we are going to fight, suffer and die, we had better armor our minds and hearts with faith in the rightness and glory of the task.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Essay 3: Deep Space Nine’s Uber-Theme: Faith

Part I: Spiritual Faith
The first third of Season Seven concludes with four very different episodes about the same idea: faith. These are: Treachery, Faith, and the Great River; Once More Unto the Breach; The Siege of AR-558; Covenant.

These depict religious faith (Treachery… and Covenant), and political or mythic faith (Once More... and Siege…).

In Treachery, Nog teaches Obrien about the Ferengi belief that the Universe is a fluid, material continuum that will bring goods and profit to those who want it, creating equilibrium. Despite Obrien’s skepticism, this actually works just as Nog says it will, bringing them needed engineering parts. It works because the belief inspires and spurs Nog to act as if it works. From an outsider (nonbeliever) perspective, this is how faith works. Faith creates a cognitive framework that directs decisions and actions toward a desired outcome. That doesn’t mean you always get what you pray for. A believer can also understand this is how faith works cognitively, while also believing in the mystery and power of faith.

In the same episode, Weyoun Six explains to Odo his unswerving faith in the Founders, the Vortas’ gods. Odo rejects this because the Vorta have been genetically engineered to be faithful to the Founders. To Weyoun this makes no difference. And why should it? The Vorta were basically squirrels, transformed into a powerful sentient race by the Founders. From the Vortas’ perspective, if that is not the work of a god, what is? They may have some wires in their big brains that make them loyal, but that has to seem secondary to the fact that they have big brains at all. The Vorta could argue that this wiring is no different than the hypothetical “God gene” which predisposes Humans to belief in a deity.

In the end, as Weyoun Six is dying, he asks Odo to bless him, and Odo reluctantly does. By having him do so, the writers are endorsing the legitimacy of Weyoun’s faith. The episode actually challenges Odo’s skepticism more than it challenges the Vorta’s religion.

There is a parallel story of faith in Covenant. A Bajoran vedek tries to convince Kira that the Pah-wraiths are the true gods, not the Prophets. She challenges him with arguments that he has been seduced by evil entities (I wonder if she would call them devils or demons, since she considers the Prophets not aliens but gods), and the scheming Dukat. The vedek does not accept this, even after mounting evidence that Dukat is a fraud. In the end, like Weyoun Six, he kills himself. Kira is not sure if he did so because of his faith in the Pah-wraiths, or because he felt betrayed by his faith in them. What she does say for certain is that Dukat truly believes he is the emissary to the Pah-wraiths, and he is doing their bidding. She says his faith makes him more dangerous than before. But neither Kira, nor the episode, takes the black-and-white view that faith enables ignorance and violence. The episode suggests that faith is a powerful force in the soul, which can be put to enormous good, or perverted by evil people for their own ends.

Whether it is Nog’s faith, or Weyoun’s, or the vedek’s, or Kira’s, these two episodes respect the power of their belief. They take it seriously. None of these episodes blatantly criticize faith in general (the way some TOS and TNG episodes do). To do so is not possible on DS9 because too many of our heroes are faithful and present an unapologetic view of believers. The writers seem to have decided that by designing the show this way, which reflects the role of religion in our modern world, they are able to explore how faith interacts with people’s lives, government, war, terrorism and politics.