First contact: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Emissary” (1993)

This will be the first post in a series exploring various first contact scenarios. As those who have read my novella, The Joining, might surmise, first contact is one of the aspects of science-fiction that I find most interesting and compelling. To me, one of the important aspects of first contact is that it challenges some part of the human experience and this is what I will be discussing here. I start with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s pilot episode “Emissary” for no reason other than I began rewatching the series a few weeks ago.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine logoA quick recap and scene setting for those who may not be familiar with the series: ST:DS9 takes place on a space station the Federation has taken over from the Cardassians, the main enemy of Bajor, the planet nearest to DS9. Commander Sisko, our brave protagonist, has assumed command of DS9 to assist the Bajorians, now recovering from the Cardassian occupation. The challenges Sisko faces in assuming command of the station is the Bajorians, some of whom believe that the Federation’s help will turn into another form of exploitation, and the fact that he is troubled by the death of Jennifer, his wife. In a meeting with the spiritual leader of the Bajorians, Kai Opaka, she declares Sisko to be the Emissary of the Prophets and shows him the Orb of Prophecy and Change, a seemingly mystical object that allows him to relive a memory of the first time he met Jennifer. Kai Opaka explains that the Orbs have mysteriously appeared above Bajor and as the Emissary Sisko is destined to find where they come from, the Celestial Temple of the Prophets.

ST:DS9 was unique among the Star Trek series in its heavy use of religion in the main story arcs. In Gene Rodenberry’s envisioned utopia, it seems that religion is something that the enlightened members of the Federation have transcended, instead embracing the new spirituality of logic and science. Sisko clearly respects Bajorian religion and beliefs, but does not himself believe. It is in this religious light that Sisko’s encounter with the Prophets is shaded.1

In tracking the origins of the Orbs with a fellow crewmember, Sisko finds the Celestial Temple where he speaks with the Prophets. Of course, in true Star Trek fashion, the Prophets are not religious deities, but aliens. They are non-corporeal, being without body or a sense of time. They did not intentionally contact the Bajorians, insisting “We seek contact with other lifeforms, not corporeal creatures who annihilate us.”2 They define life as non-corporeal and transcending time. The humans and other Federations species, restricted by body and the passage of time, are non-entities to these beings: both entities exist outside of the other’s experience of being.

The exchange between Sisko and the wormhole aliens, as they come to be called by the DS9 crew, is a good example of the challenge posed in communicating a truly alien concept. The wormhole aliens struggle to grasp the concept of time, of a “linear existence,” as Sisko tries to explain it to them. For the aliens, “what comes before now is no different than what is now, or what is to come. It is one’s existence.” For them, existence is defined by the transcendence of time. This is antithetical to human existence, as Sisko explains: “My species lives in one point in time. And once we move beyond that point, it becomes the past. The future, all that is still to come, does not exist yet for us.” For beings who have transcended time, this is a near impossible concept to grasp.

The aliens skip back and forth in Sisko’s memory, emphasizing the fluid nature of their timeless existence. Visiting the memory of Jennifer’s death and next a memory of her in the park, the aliens cannot grasp the idea of the past and of Jennifer being dead, no longer a part of Sisko’s existence. They insist that she is still a part of his existence, which he denies, saying “she is a part of my past. She is no longer alive.” Sisko believes existence is grounded in the present here-and-now. Death removes an individual from the here-and-now, thus removing Jennifer from Sisko’s existence.

The exchange culminates with the aliens and Sisko returning to the memory of Jennifer’s death. He wants to leave to another memory, but the aliens state “We do not bring you here. You bring us here.” Sisko must explain why he returns to the memory again and again in spite of it being the past, no longer a part of the linear existence he purports to lead:

SISKO: I never left this ship.
JENNIFER: You exist here.
SISKO: I exist here. I don’t know if you can understand. I see her like this every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her like this.
JENNIFER: None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.
SISKO: And I have never figured out how to live without her.
JENNIFER: So you choose to exist here. It is not linear.
SISKO: No. It’s not linear.

The aliens come to an understanding of the linear, and non-linear, existence of humans, as Sisko reveals his own trauma and ongoing struggle with Jennifer’s death. Sisko’s sob of the line “No. It’s not linear” is wrenching. In this moment, Sisko’s conceptualization of time is challenged: when humans live in the shadow of things past, and in anticipation of the future events, can we truly call our existence linear?

Through this, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Emissary” fulfills one of the most important aspects of first contact: that the human character(s) and the viewer’s understanding and conceptualization of the human experience is challenged. In his initial explanation of human life and perception of time, Sisko believed in its linear nature and limitations. But ultimately he comes to accept that there are parts of human existence that transcend time. For humans, time is not entirely a straight line, but something that we weave in and out of as day by day we fall back and forth from the present into memories of the past and forward into anticipation of what is yet to transpire.

1. For further reading on the theme of religion and transcendence in Star Trek and other science-fiction, I recommend Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television by Douglas E. Cowan.
2. All quotes drawn from this transcript of “Emissary.”

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