“When you cease to fear death the rules of war change.”
The narrative of the first season of DS9, and it’s a point I’ve made over and over and will likely continue to make, is the writers trying to understand the kinds of stories they can tell within the format of the show. Eventually, they’ll learn that DS9 is the great paradox of Trek shows: to work within the format, they have to break that same format, and we’ll end up with some of the most bracing, fascinating, and, yes, dark storytelling the franchise has ever seen. With this first season, the writers are stumbling around, flirting with various elements that will grow to define the series, and many that will get mercifully abandoned. To their credit, they recognize when something is working and when something isn’t (Haven’t heard from Primmin lately, have we?), and developing the show in that direction. This week’s episode, “Battle Lines,” is nearly recognizable as the series I love.
It all starts with an odd, little scene. O’Brien has found some of the Cardassian Prefect’s old files, and one of them is Major Kira’s. Remember, the Prefect was Gul Dukat (who we last saw in the pilot and will become the series’ defining villain), but I don’t see how anyone watching at the time is expected to remember this. Kira’s file dismisses her as a “minor operative” limited to “running errands.” This disregard for our favorite freedom fighter becomes strange in light of Dukat’s later obsession with her. But, then again, who knows, this might be the most elaborate negging in history. Maybe that’s how deep Dukat’s game goes.
Kira, whose tendency to fly off the handle was her establishing character moment way back in the pilot, is only snapped out of her rage when she’s informed that Kai Opaka has unexpectedly arrived on the station. Opaka, for those who don’t remember, is the Bajoran pope, although the position was implied in dialogue to be honorary. “They call her the Kai” was the line in question. An informal, religious power structure would make sense, as the Cardassians would be unlikely to allow papal conclaves to get in the way of brutal oppression. Opaka was the shining light that helped Kira (and presumably the majority of the Bajoran populace) persevere during the darkest days of the occupation.
Opaka, as it turns out, just really wants to see the wormhole. I can’t blame her, since this is where the Prophets live. I mean, if we had God’s home address, I’d think more people would show up to say hi, or at least ding-dong-ditch Him. Sisko, Bashir, and Kira take Opaka through the wormhole and decide they might as well check out a signal coming from a binary system. This comes from a net of satellites encircling a moon which promptly blow the runabout out of the sky. The crash claims Kai Opaka’s life as well as marks the first destruction of the ever-disposable runabouts. (In this case, it’s the Yangtzee Kiang, chosen, I suspect, so no one would have to say that long-ass name again.)
The moon is populated by two warring tribes, the Ennis and the Nol-Ennis. (No word on a speculative third tribe, the Garth-Ennis.) They’re identical to each other, appearing mostly human save for a small tattoo on their foreheads along with some Road Warrior costumes and hair. They might be an ethnicity of the Wadi (and a few of the Ennis are clearly shown wielding guns that will later be the sidearms of the Dominion), but I’d rather not think about them. These two groups are being held on this nightmarish penal colony, because they wouldn’t stop fighting back on their home world. True to form, they won’t stop fighting in the prison either.
The most horrifying aspect of the prison becomes apparent when Kai Opaka wanders back into the Ennis camp, all better and without any apparent craving for brains. The planet will resurrect anyone who dies. Forever. But, once the planet does the very first time, you can never leave. It’s one of the more hellish prisons ever conceived, essentially dooming these people to an immortality that consists entirely of murder and death. The irony is that the two sides have long since forgotten what started the war. At this point, they’re fighting in the name of futile revenge for the pain of thousands of deaths. There is literally no way either side can prevail.
Which is the entire point of the episode. DS9 is mining one of the central points of TOS here, namely that war is pointless, and filtering it through a more modern lens. It also fulfills the promises of serialization: it’s not a random redshirt who dies to show us the threat of the penal colony, it’s an important supporting character whose role in the pilot implied she’d be around for awhile. Nope, she’s consigned to a horrifying living death. Opaka believes it’s her destiny to heal the Ennis and Nol-Ennis and at the end of the episode, stays behind on the moon to do just that, never again appearing on the show. Before that happens, though, she has a good scene with Kira that contrasts with the latter’s earlier anger at being dismissed over a lackluster war record. Kira’s bluster is revealed to be a hard shell she put around her to insulate herself from the horrors she saw and committed as a resistance fighter. It masks the deep pain of her faith — she’s terrified that the Prophets won’t forgive her. It’s the other side to the central message of the episode: not only is war pointless, it’s deeply scarring, in this case to one of our main heroes.
The kicker of the episode comes when Bashir offers a dark, yet still Starfleety, solution to the problem. He suggests that with some research, he could find a way to disable the nanites that keep the Ennis and the Nol-Ennis in their deathless state. Shel-la, leader of the Ennis, eagerly supports the idea, but it’s not for good reasons. No, he figures that technology will be the ultimate weapon that will allow him to wipe his enemies off the map for good. So, the episode ends with Sisko, Bashir, and Kira being rescued by the ever-resourceful O’Brien (with an assist from Dax) and leaving Opaka the living saint condemned to hell with two bloodthirsty and completely insane tribes. I feel like I should post a link to a puppy picture to cheer everybody up.
The episode is a good one and, despite the gloomy ending, hews remarkably close to Roddenberry’s vision. The Starfleet characters want to do the right thing, but the situation is an impossible one. Eventually, they’re left to the bad solution they choose and can only hope Opaka can somehow prepare these groups for some kind of productive life. That’s the uniquely DS9 spin on the classic concept: some situations really are no-win, and not even Starfleet can cheat its way out.
Creator Michael Piller liked the script of the episode but objected to the performances as too operatic. I don’t know what show he was watching. The acting is a little stagey, as Star Trek often is, but there are some very solid moments. Nana Visitor really sells her childlike fear at disappointing her gods, showing a vulnerable side to her tough-but-fragile warrior. Shel-la, leader of the Ennis, is played by the great Jonathan Banks, who is most recognizable to modern TV watchers as Mike the fixer from Breaking Bad. He brings that Mike weariness to the role and has a great monologue about the futility of war. Of course, his character doesn’t think that’s what the monologue is about, but that’s what makes it so damn good.
While “Battle Lines” is mostly contained to the hour, it has repercussions throughout the show. A rather significant post has been vacated, and though it might have been ceremonial before, now it carries political power.
Next up: O’Brien gets a new job.