"Covenant" 
Season Seven, Episode 9
Written by Rene Echevarria
Directed by John Kretchmer
Music by David Bell
Main Cast:
Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko
Rene Auberjonois as Odo
Nicole deBoer as Lt Ezri Dax
Michael Dorn as Lt Cmdr Worf
Cirroc Lofton as Jake Sisko
Colm Meaney as Chief Miles O'Brien
Armin Shimerman as Quark
Alexander Siddig as Dr Julian Bashir
Nana Visitor as Colonel Kira Nerys
 

Guest Stars:
Marc Alaimo as Dukat
Norman Parker as Vedek Fala
Jason Leland Adams as Benyan
Maureen Flannigan as Mika

Synopsis:

Kira is visited by Vedek Fala, an old friend and spiritual mentor. Fala, however, transports Kira to Empok Nor, where she finds herself amongst the Cult of the Pagh Wraiths. Kira is shocked to learn the identity of the cult's leader -- none other than Gul Dukat. Since his encounter with a Pagh Wraith, Dukat has become a changed man and believes the Wraiths have chosen him as their Emissary to save Bajor from the Prophets, which he claims are false Gods. Dukat tries to lure Kira over to his cause but she's having none of it and is appalled at the blind devotion shown to Dukat by his Bajoran followers. When a woman has a baby that is half-Cardassian, the obvious answer is that Dukat raped her but Dukat convinces his followers that this is a sign from the Pagh Wraiths, a miracle bestowed upon them. Dukat goes to extreme lengths to keep his devotees from learning the truth, even going as far as trying to kill the child's mother. As things are about to fall apart, Dukat announces that the Pagh Wraiths have called upon them to leave their physical bodies to join them at the next level. Just as the cult are about to commit mass suicide under Dukat's ministrations, Kira shows them that Dukat never had any intention of killing himself. The cult turn on Dukat who promptly beams himself off the station. Kira and the cult members are rescued by the Defiant as Kira muses that if Dukat really was working in league with the Wraiths that he is more dangerous than ever.


Review: 

Ugh. I can't find the notes I took whilst watching the episode. Oh well, I'm sure we'll get by.

Okaaay. Covenant. What did I think of it? I'm not quite sure -- at least not yet (great way to start a review, huh?). In part I found it interesting and perhaps even promising, yet at the same time it was also, shall we say, off-key. One thing is certain; the episode will inevitably live or die on the head of it's central character, Dukat. And given that I'm not at all sure what Covenant means for Dukat, it may be impossible to conclusively judge the episode until a little farther down the road.

Believe it or not, about a year has passed since Waltz, an episode which sent Dukat spinning in a strange, murky new direction. What that direction has in fact been is anyone's guess, because let's face it, it hasn't been handled very well. Let's see, at the end of Waltz Dukat becomes a crazed madman who vows that he's going to destroy Bajor at all costs. Okay. Next time we see Dukat he simply drops Kira a message to tell her that he once had an affair with her mom. Uh huh -- mind you, that one's probably best left forgotten, much like the episode itself. Next thing we know, Dukat has all of a sudden developed a burning desire to get revenge on Captain Sisko, for what precise reason we're not privvy to. Cue a Pagh Wraith, glowing red eyes and a sch-pooky synthesised voice. I don't know why The Powers That Be didn't just go the whole hog and throw in evil maniacal laughter and a pang of lightening in the background. Any rate, Dukat had sadly degenerated into a stock cartoon villain, a pathetic shadow of the three-dimensional, multi-faceted character he once was.

So, the question is, where does Covenant take the character next? I had feared it would seal the nails in his proverbial coffin but I was pleased to discover that we're not quite at that stage yet. Covenant doesn't entirely redeem the character, nor does it completely undo the damage inflicted upon him during the latter half of season six. But there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. At least, I think there is. Anyway, the latest predicament of our favourite Gul is that he's now the leader of a Bajoran cult that worships the Pagh Wraiths. This took a bit of getting used to. The sight of Dukat conducting candle-lit prayer services like some sort of Sunday school teacher was a bizarre sight indeed. So much so that one might have been forgiven for thinking that Kira had actually been transported over to the Mirror Universe! How on earth he became a member -- much less the leader -- of this cult is anyone's guess. Did he just pop along to one of their meetings and proclaim himself the new Emissary of the Pagh Wraiths? And given his notorious reputation as former Prefect of Bajor, forgive me if I have a hard time believing that any Bajoran would welcome him with open arms let alone declare their undying allegiance to him. Could you imagine Heinrich Himmler becoming chairman of the Jewish Church following the Second World War? Uh...not quite.

But as I said above, this is not to suggest I'm entirely against Dukat's latest change-of-direction. For a start, it was given some credence by the fact it was foreshadowed by Tears of the Prophets when Dukat sought ought out the Pagh Wraiths albeit for his own ends. It transpires that his encounter with the Wraith has had a profound effect on him -- having been "touched by a god" he now believes that he has been chosen as their Emissary. The fact that he genuinely seems to believe this is demonstrated in the scene where he prays to the Wraiths alone. Moreover, Dukat believes that the Wraiths are the true Prophets and that they were cast out from the Temple only because they cared about the Bajoran people and wanted to play a more active role in Bajoran society. Dukat is determined to help them reclaim their place in the Temple.

It's interesting to note that we never actually see Dukat receive a vision or guidance from the Pagh Wraiths, so it's never a hundred percent clear whether his actions are indeed motivated by the ministrations of the Wraiths or by his own ego. Kira points out that Dukat has created some kind of twisted, "idealised version of the Occupation", with Dukat back on his station on charge of Bajorans. It's clear that Dukat still has a lot of "issues" when it comes to the Occupation and his role in it, so it could well be that part of him is trying to win the love and adoration of the Bajorans that he was never given during the Occupation. Perhaps it's a little frustrating that we're left unclear as to what's really going on in Dukat's mind, but in this case I think that ambiguity is good and infinitely preferable to the pantomime histrionics of Tears of the Prophets. Following his last appearance I was seriously worried about Dukat, and whilst what we have here is a little difficult to swallow, I am delighted to see the character regain some complexity and ambiguity. The writers seem determined to cast Dukat in the role of arch villain, which is all very well but it will only work if he has a good motive for being the villain, or the "anti-Sisko" as this would seem to suggest. Covenant supplies Dukat with that motive and that much of it is interesting and promising. A lot of it will obviously depend on how things play out when Dukat returns in the "Final Chapter", but for now I feel a lot easier than I have done for a while.

Still on the subject of characterisation, the next order of business is Kira's involvement in the story. I initially was a little confused as to why she'd been brought to Empok Nor and what the purpose of her involvement was other than the outward necessity of incorporating a main character in the story. In short, I didn't understand why Dukat would bring Kira there when it should be obvious to anyone who's ever spent five minutes in her company that she'd vehemently disapprove of what he was doing and would try to stop him. It was during a conversation that Dukat let slip that to him Kira represents everything he "admires" most about the Bajorans -- her passionate determination, strength and her fiery spirit. With a resounding "click", it suddenly became clear to me exactly why Dukat has an almost disturbing, unnatural obssession with Kira. It goes beyond a mere physical attraction. It's because, to Dukat, Kira basically embodies Bajor. And more than anything he wants to win, if not her heart, then at least her respect and forgiveness. Forgiveness for the things he did during the Occupation. Dukat basically needs to make peace with his past and it's almost as though he can only do this by having Kira forgive him. 

If I sound like a psychologist here I do apologise, but this sort of crystallised the Dukat/Kira relationship as it has played out over the past few years. The only problem for Dukat is that just as Kira embodies Bajor to him, he embodies Cardassia and the very Occupation itself to her. I find this dynamic fascinating and both Nana Visitor and Marc Alaimo are always exceptional when their characters come face-to-face. The only problem is that the script falls a little short and despite some nice insight into their relationship, many of their scenes felt like old conversations grafted on from previous episodes. At times the "new" Dukat seemed to clash with the remnants of the "old" Dukat, which further threw us off-balance as to what exactly Dukat was doing and why. Additionally, I can't say I was happy with the references to Wrongs Darker than Death or Night (which, as I said, was an ill-conceived episode that is best forgotten) and whilst I'm glad that Jadzia's death was mentioned, I felt that Kira let Dukat off the hook far too readily. If I confronted the man who'd murdered my best friend -- alien possession or no alien possession -- I doubt I'd be as lenient.

There, having discussed the character dynamics, it's probably about time I actually considered the plot. I've already said that Dukat's status as leader of the cult tends to beggar belief but I guess it's not beyond us to suspend our disbelief, something which we're not wholly unaccustomed to doing when it comes to Trek. With Dukat and the cult in place on Empok Nor, writer Rene Echevarria clearly attempts to explore issues of faith and trust and how those samesuch virtues can be misused and betrayed. There was certainly a fair bit of potential, but I don't think Covenant was entirely successful in its lofty aims. I think there are a few different reasons for this.

Here we have all the fundamental basics of the "average" cult -- the charismatic leader that has a need to control others, the blind indiscriminate followers who are as obedient as well-trained sheepdogs can be, the leader forcing himself upon some of his female followers and, of course, the obligatory mass suicide. Rene Echevarria has clearly done his research, but whilst he certainly seems to have mastered the basics of cultism, I was left feeling that he was so busy depicting the cult that he neglected the deeper underlying issues. For instance, we never for a second got to consider why these people were willing to turn their lives so readily over to someone else. It does happen, you know. Perhaps because life is difficult and painful some people look to others for all their answers. In extreme cases they basically let other people control their lives, make their decisions for them and dictate how they live their lives. Perhaps this is to avoid responsibility for their actions or decisions, I'm not sure. 

I think we really needed to be exploring this to get under the skin of these people. What we are presented with is a bunch of lobotomised zombies that are almost laughably gullible. Perhaps Echevarria was so busy focussing on Dukat that he neglected to give the followers much attention, but I think for Covenant to have been truly successful, we needed more insight into why these people were willing to follow Dukat without question. Hell, they even believe his story of a "miracle from the Pagh Wraiths" when Mika's baby turns out to be half-Cardassian. A miracle, indeed!

At the core of the story is the issue of faith and I don't feel it was represented particularly well. Every time someone mentioned "faith" it was in a somewhat glib and clear-cut manner. I could be wrong here, but it struck me that Echevarria was writing about something he doesn't quite understand himself, at least that's how it comes across. This is something I've noticed on DS9 before, that faith is often portrayed as like a badge you are given to wear when in actual fact it's something that is much more "grey" (for lack of a better word). It also seems to me that faith is often confused with blind faith when there is actually a world of difference. Blind faith is what the cult members displayed when they basically turned themselves over to Dukat -- quite willing for him to control their every action and quite willing to do so without question. Blind faith is obviously a very, very dangerous thing -- particularly when you give it to someone as unwholesome as Dukat. I don't quite understand how anyone can be willing to do such a thing, but it goes without saying that it can lead to tragedy. Blind faith is trusting unquestionably, with your eyes firmly closed.

As for true faith? Think of a person you really trust and have faith in and then ask yourself why you have faith in them. The answer will most likely be "because they earned it". That's the difference, at least in my opinion. True faith is earned and it's a feeling of inner knowing, of trust. It does NOT mean being blind and not questioning that faith. Discernment is absolutely necessary all the time. That's the thing that some people lack when they look for answers, be it in religion or, as in the case of Covenant, a charismatic person claiming to have all the answers. Many people do look to others for answers while in actual the only person who is qualified to provide those answers is YOU and your own conscience. These are very important, relevant issues that are central to the theme of this episode, but sadly I didn't feel they got as much consideration as they ought to, in favour of a barrage of old cliches about cults and "faith".

Ironically, although this entire story was probably only devised as a means to get Dukat back into the picture, I actually think that it might have worked a little better had Dukat not been the leader of the cult, or at least had his involvement in the story been played down. Think about it, by making Dukat the leader of the cult and bringing in Kira, it's basically a given that Kira will immediately disbelieve Dukat and try to stop him while he will desperately try to lure her over to his cause. Now don't get me wrong, I really enjoy the Kira/Dukat dynamic, but in this case I think it may have come at the expense of fully developing the storyline. Consider this -- Vedek Fala. Fala has evidently been Kira's mentor and teacher since childhood and she's long admired him for his conviction to his faith. But it transpires that his faith lies not with the Prophets but with the Wraiths. Fala claims that he cannot understand why the Prophets would stand by and let Bajor endure the horrors of the Occupation and do nothing. He's come to realise that maybe the Pagh Wraiths are the true Gods and did want to stop the Occupation. 

There's a lot of potential in this and by further exploring Fala and his conversion to the Wraiths Echevarria could have better fleshed out the cult followers, which as I said before, was something that really needed to be done. If Fala had been leader of the cult instead of Dukat, this would dramatically have made things a lot harder for Kira. She despises Dukat, so there's no way she'd ever listen to him, but if the cult leader were Fala, a man she admires and respects greatly, we could further have explored Kira's faith and maybe even have had her question her beliefs. Because as it stands, Kira's unwillingness to even consider that the cult's beliefs might be valid makes her look as blind as Dukat's followers. At the begining of the episode, she claims to respect other beliefs, but there's not much evidence of that. Mind you, this is an attitude a lot of "religious-types" display, ie. their faith is the ONLY faith. Blind faith again? At any rate, it's a complicated subject with no easy answers, and that's something I don't think the episode accurately reflected. Fala was a character that had a lot of potential and I think that the key to better handling the story would have been to focus more on him and his relationship with Kira. As such he's somewhat wasted, including his eventual fate which felt crudely tacked on and ambiguous only for the sake of being ambiguous. Had the episode taken a different tack, I think the story and its themes might have been better served. 

Not to say that what we've got is bad, because it's not. It's quite entertaining watching Dukat slowly set up his own fall from grace and trying desperately to avoid revealing that he isn't all he's cracked up to be in the eyes of his followers. The episode was nicely brought to life by John Kretchmer, who did a capable job directing and I particularly liked the scene where Dukat tries to kill Mika -- very nicely shot. A pity it doesn't actually make sense. Why wasn't she pulled out into the vacuum space? She just sort of slumps to the ground. I don't get that. Anyway, David Bell delivered his typically striking score while the lighting guys really deserve credit for making the DS9 sets look and even feel different just by altering the lights. Good job. As for the acting, the guests were somewhat average whereas Visitor and Alaimo were their usual excellent selves, giving a flawed script quite a boost.

The final verdict? As I said, unavailable at this point. The episode itself was interesting and engaging but ultimately failed to live up to its potential -- worth a look, but rather disappointing. In many ways, Covenant felt a lot like set-up. So whether the episode will ultimately live or die depends largely on how this set-up is resolved at the end of the series. We shall see. 

Rating: 6


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