the story: Sisko searches for the Orb of the Prophets, but finds himself plagued by visions from the Pah-wraiths to prevent him from succeeding.
what it's all about: This is probably the biggest creative leap of faith the series ever did. In "Shadows and Symbols," a direction continuation of the season premiere ("Image in the Sand"), Sisko discovers that his mother was actually a Prophet, which means that Sisko is the Emissary of the Prophets in kind of the same way, well, Jesus was the son of god. That's right: the main character of a Star Trek series becomes a truly messianic figure. Kind of smacks in the face of just about every franchise tenet, right?
But that's what Deep Space Nine was all about, challenging every assumption, in the very best Star Trek tradition. Gene Roddenberry created a platform that allowed any concept to be explored. The fact that often he and his follow creators in the original series tended to come down on a certain side of cultural conclusions did not make those conclusions the only possible ones; it was the ability to explore the ideas that defined the vision Roddenberry gave birth to, not the conclusions. Only Deep Space Nine really seemed to get that.
But I'll probably grant that not every fan will be willing to admit that. Not every fan is willing to admit a lot of things about the franchise. Most fans are in fact "protective" of the franchise. They think rejecting a series or a movie protects the legacy of the franchise. Right. If the franchise needs to be protected, it doesn't deserve protecting. Interesting little conundrum for you.
There's other stuff going on in the episode, by the way: Worf winning a great victory for his late wife Jadzia, spending time with the next Dax host (Ezri), Kira pulling a Kirk against the Romulans...and a kind of sequel to last season's "Far Beyond the Stars."
In "Stars," the Prophets send Sisko a vision about a life where he must choose to rise above his circumstances to reach his full potential, confront doubt and discover certainty. In "Shadows," the Pah-wraiths try the same trick, except their vision is perverse; the doubt Sisko faces isn't external, as it was in "Stars," but internal. He's made to believe he's crazy. In a lot of ways, it's a kind of Wizard of Oz story. In the controversial 1985 film Return to Oz, Dorothy is made to believe that her experiences in Oz were all a delusion. In a way, not only Sisko's experiences as a 1950s pulp fiction writer named Benny Russell in "Stars" but all his time at the station and being declared the Emissary, they're all called into question. It's as big a character moment as Sisko ever had.
I wish the whole episode had dealt with it. Instead we have other moving parts, which I think is the main weakness of both "Shadows" and "Image" before it. This was a story that should've focused entirely on Sisko. To try anything more is to dilute the potential, which is exactly what I think happens.
franchise- Casual fans may be confused or even worse, offended by this episode.
- series - But it's a crucial development for Deep Space Nine.
- character - A lot of other characters have things going on, but this is Sisko's episode.
- essential - While I wish it had been done differently, it's still the biggest thing to happen to any Star Trek character...ever, really.
Deborah Casey (Sarah Sisko)
Brock Peters (Joseph Sisko)
Casey Biggs (Damar)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Barry Jenner (Admiral Ross)