Ira Steven Behr once said that the biggest problem The Next Generation suffered from was that the Enterprise always leaves at the end of every episode, so they never get to see the long-term effects of whatever solution they knocked together in the fourth act before getting out of Dodge.
As an argument I’m not sure it’s entirely free of problems, but surely there’s at least a germ of truth there. Forward motion is not always a good thing. Often it’s all too easy to mistake velocity for progression. “Look forward, not back!” is the cry of solipsistic motivational posters and justice-dodging politicians alike. It’s a motto for those who think escaping the past is more important than learning from it, or even processing it at all.
Commander Benjamin Lafayette Sisko is a paradox. This is clearly a man who is going forwards. The full importance of the Deep Space Nine installation will not become clear until this episode’s end, but even from the very beginning it’s clear that the station is an important assignment. The Federation want Bajor to sign up for their post-scarcity paradise, whilst simultaneously not pissing off Bajor’s former occupying power, a civilisation Starfleet recently went to war with at horrendous cost. That’s not a job you give to just anyone. Only the merest fraction of Federation citizens are good enough to be in Starfleet, and only a few of those are good enough to reach the rank of commander. And even at that level, not everyone would have the necessary skills to command a mixed Federation and Bajoran Militia crew on a Cardassian-built station days away from Federation space. Starfleet tapped our protagonist because he’s one of the absolute best. Benjamin Sisko is a man who is going places.
Except that he isn’t.
The Prophets are likewise a paradox. A species that claims to have no understanding of the progression of time, but which can hold a conversation, acquire new information, and understand the concept of searching – something you do during time periods you don’t have access to, until you do have access to it. How can all that be reconciled? If you have no concept of past or future, what purpose can the Orbs serve for you? If there’s no before you’ve contact new life and after you’ve contacted new life, what meaning can sending out probes possibly have?
The answer is deceptively simple. It’s not that the Prophets can’t fathom progression; how one thing can become another, possibly in stages. It’s that for them the distance between one state and the next is measured not in seconds, but in concepts. They exist not in time, but in Ideaspace, where length between locations is measured not in the time it takes to move from one to other, but by the similarities in their concepts.
(For those not familiar with Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, here’s a quick example for you. The idea of a dog is not a long way away from the idea of a wolf – they are both canines, and indeed several dog breeds look very much like wolves – they do after all share a common heritage. On the other hand, the idea of a dog is a very long way away from the idea of London; a major metropolitan sprawl which generally neither slobber all over your crotch nor demands to be taken for walks. That said, however, many people in London have dogs, and dogs can form a very large part of what a person thinks of when they consider the idea of “home”. So for someone in Hammersmith who owns a bearded collie, the terms “London” and “dog” might actually lie very close to each other, according to one definition of the “closeness” of ideas, which is how much they remind someone of where they live. This in fact is the true beauty of Ideaspace – there are as many ways to measure distance in it as there are things that exist there, and there are people to think about them. You can’t think about Ideaspace without understanding the uniqueness and importance of other people’s worldviews.)
This is why the wormhole connects two points in space seventy light-years apart. It’s not to slash travel time; the Prophets wouldn’t even understand what that meant. No, it’s because for some reason – a reason we never really learn, because how could we understand it anyway? – the Denorios Belt and a section of deep space near the Idran system are adjacent in the Prophets’ Ideaspace, and to us simple corporeal beings the Prophets’ thinking on this is conceivable only as compression of distance. Sisko is as distant from the Prophets according to their frame of reference as Bajor is from Idran according to ours. This would be to some extent true for any of our heroes, of course, including Dax, which makes it interesting that she is dismissed in favour of interrogating Sisko (we shall return to this later). It would also be true for more or less anyone chosen from Starfleet at random. But what if the person that discovered the wormhole had been the type to fixate on forward motion? The kind of person who simply discards ideas behind them, half- or completely unformed, in the rush to grab at the next shiny concept in front of them. Someone, that is, who entwines velocity and amnesia.
That approach is bad enough – dangerous enough – from our own human perspective. If you don’t value the past, you can’t learn from it. But to the Prophets, such an attitude would be existentially terrifying. We don’t have the vocabulary necessary to describe a person that would affect our reality the way the Prophets would see someone like that affecting theirs. It would have to be someone who could somehow discard time as they moved through it, eating away the past like Stephen King’s Langoliers. They would be the impossible goal of that sad, endless parade of Goebbels that sought to wipe away history finally realised. The propagandist raised to the level of a god.
So it’s for the best that who they meet instead is Sisko and Dax. Neither officer can be accused of discarding the past, indeed a major foundation of their personalities is that they do the opposite. How they do that, though, couldn’t be more different. Sisko is forever trapped at Wolf 359; there’s no forward motion because he’s spinning in place. When the Prophets bring him to them the geography that seems closest to his mindset in Ideaspace is a rocky crag in the middle of a lightning storm. Dax instead gets an idyllic garden. She’s not discarding the past in a blind forward dash – there’s little point in becoming a Trill host if that’s your approach – but neither is she staying in place as she turns. Instead, like Yeat’s falcon, Dax is swinging further and further outwards from her past, one eye on where she began, the other on where she is going. She’s moving forward, but in the sense that the circles she makes around her past are gradually expanding to take in new ideas, and new connections between them. A circle can expand in Ideaspace just as easily as in our reality. And unlike the raptor in “Second Coming”, things do not fall apart, because Dax is always his/her own falconer as well.
Which might make her one of the best corporeal beings for the Prophets to talk to, actually. So why do they send her back and question Sisko? I think its simply how much he baffles them. Dax they understand, as much as they can when dealing with a corporeal entity. Sisko is a conundrum. He’s moved forward in time, not just because everyone does but because he held a post after the loss of the Saratoga and apparently did it so well Starfleet have decided to hand him a sensitive diplomatic challenge. But he’s been doing it all on autopilot. He’s clearly very good on autopilot, having progressed in his career and also raised a son alone, but whilst body and career and family dynamic have all progressed, his mindset hasn’t, not really. Which means in Ideaspace, he hasn’t budged an inch. He’s still stuck on his ruined starship. Even his clothing gives this away; note that that whilst he’s trying to explain the value of not being able to see what comes next using baseball as an example/metaphor (played of course in a square, rather than a circle, another hint Sisko isn’t actually practicing what he’s preaching here) he does it in the uniform he wore on the Saratoga, not the jump suit he wore into the wormhole. No wonder the Prophets are baffled. To them, Sisko must present a puzzle akin to us meeting someone literally frozen in time. Someone whose circles never expand.
Circles are everywhere here. The architecture and operating systems of Terek Nor are an obvious recurring motif, of course, but you also have the wormhole itself – a circle, remember, that itself temporarily stops itself from expanding in part as a reaction to Sisko (elements of the Cardassian military share some of the blame here too, of course, an organisation utterly incapable of honestly engaging with its own past). The orbs are named after the three-dimensional equivalent of circles even though they’re not actually spheres, but hour-glasses. The obvious visual link is to time, but time is something their creators explicitly don’t understand, so that can’t be what they intended.
What else is an hourglass, though? It’s the three-dimensional shape you generate by taking a circle and expanding it as you move up and down.
Also appearing in the circle column is the spiral staircase Sisko descends with Kai Opaka. Which, of course, is another way of moving onward whilst still going in circles. It requires the Kai to show this to Sisko, though; without her he would just have seen the holographic image of a round water feature – one more fixed circle, going nowhere. Instead, with Kai Opaka’s help, Sisko is moving again. Not forwards but down, down in fact into himself. This is exploration not as a dash, but as a delve. If exploration is ever going to be more than exported imperialism we need to, trite as it sounds, discover ourselves before we go anywhere else. “Find answers from within yourself”, the Kai says, and could her meaning possibly be more clear? Before we go forward, we must go down (and note how the Enterprise-D is on an upper docking pylon here, framed in each shot to be the highest point of the image).
We can’t get all the answers within ourselves, of course, and thinking otherwise is catastrophic – the kind of breathtaking arrogance that leads to the self-evidently impossible “view from nowhere”. We need to understand ourselves through descent into ourselves, but we also need to move forward to meet others and understand them through dialogue. The Prophets apply what they know about themselves to what they’ve learned about Sisko. This allows them to recognise his paradox, and from their help him through it. You could make some facile point about the benefits of religion here, but that’s manifestly not what’s happening. Sisko isn’t undergoing conversion, he’s undergoing revelation, neither pro- nor anti-theist, but pro-communication. Exploring through cooperation, moving forward whilst staying where you are, so you can do it all over again in, say, one week’s time.
The station has moved out of its orbital circle for the first time, moving forwards into a future in which a thousand species can bring a hundred thousand conceptions of Ideaspace to the same place and compare their conceptions of reality with everyone else’s. For now, though, the station’s inhabitants have only just begun to spin outward. They’ll still be busy spinning and delving when a small, sleek ship fresh out of Utopia Planetia comes to visit. A ship that we’re told will return to the model of endless forward progress not because of philosophy, but necessity.
Let’s follow that ship into the Delta Quadrant.
2. Encounter At Farpoint
3. Beyond The Farthest Star
4. The Man-Trap
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