“The line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe.”
— Jake Sisko
What is courage? Ask most people, and you’re likely to get the same answer, whether they’re five years old or fifty. It will have something to do with not being afraid in the face of danger. Sounds right, but it’s not. Courage is about facing one’s fears, whatever those might be, and doing what needs to be done anyway. Without fear, there is nothing to overcome, and thus courage could not exist. Unless one feels fear, or understands danger, they will never truly be brave.
This is true in fiction as well as real life. In my tastes, I tend to skew to one end of the spectrum. I love it when the hero is frightened, outmatched, and desperate. I am a junkie for underdog stories. I have learned recently that this is a minority opinion, that more and more people seem to prefer straight up audience surrogate fantasies, where the hero is never truly tested and marches toward inevitable victory against an overwhelmed foe. Then again, I’m from a Die Hard generation, and we are in the midst of the era of A Good Day to Die Hard.
In that first movie, McClane can’t take on more than one terrorist at a time. In fact, he has to let a good man die because if he intervened, he would have been killed himself. Or so he tells himself, as, clearly terrified, he retreats from conflict. Instead, he has to get resourceful. Even then, he becomes increasingly battered, and by the end he’s little more than ground pork in human form. McClane never has a chance but wins anyway.
Jake Sisko, though, is from the far future, where they kept making Die Hard sequels until McClane has turned into a literal 20-foot-tall Robocop with nukes for arms. He’s grown up with Starfleet. It’s like one of those episodes of TNG when Picard calmly waits while a smaller ship blasts away at the Enterprise, knowing the shields will easily hold against so pathetic an attack. That Starfleet is the John McClane of later installments, the unkillable iron man who routinely violates physics and biology on route to racking up a body count that would be the envy of many tin pot dictators. Jake has seen danger, with Wolf 359 and the various battles for the station, but he has always had the most terrifying warrior humanity has yet produced — Ben Sisko — close by, with a vested interest in keeping Jake alive. Jake sees courage through this lens: from the outside.
Jake somehow successfully pitched a profile of Dr. Bashir to some publication and accompanied our favorite doctor to a conference. This has inevitably resulted in a string of medical babble that makes Jake’s eyes cross whenever Bashir starts going. There’s no story, or at least none that Jake wants to write. I can feel for the guy. Every professional writer at some point has to write something they don’t care about, but have to do it anyway. Granted, my motive tends to be “pay my rent,” while Jake’s is more about professional reputation. Oh, those silly, post-scarcity economies.
The runabout receives a distress call, and Jake, sensing a story he wants to write, is more eager to respond than Bashir is. When they land, they learn this Federation colony is under attack by Klingons, so I guess those peace talks aren’t going as well as Dax was hoping last week. They find a situation even worse than Jake could imagine. The medical center is in a series of caves, and hideously wounded people are getting brought in all the time. Though the episode has some (mostly unneeded) voiceover, Jake’s facial expression says it all the instant he beholds the horror: he was so not prepared for any of this.
This entire hour is about Jake confronting his misconceptions about the nature of courage. He is horrified when the other medical personnel — Jake gets drafted to serve as a combat nurse — cope with the stress with gallows humor. He comes under fire for the first time in his life and breaks, running away, and leaving Bashir behind. His one act of combat heroics was entirely unintentional, when he fires blind and accidentally causes a cave-in that covers the field hospital’s desperate retreat.
Standing in stark contrast is Dr. Bashir. The brash, young medic is the perfect Starfleet hero. He instantly helps upon arrival to the hospital, and though he’s in terrible danger, never seems to let it touch him. When Jake abandons him, he was on the way to fetch the runabout’s generator a kilometer away, something they assumed would be a two-man job. Bashir does it alone, and after suffering terrible plasma burns from a Klingon mortar. Bashir is a man who seems to rise above entirely by instinct.
Also standing in contrast to Bashir is a young Starfleet officer (possibly a marine — the soldiers in this episode wear a distinctive uniform with only single horizontal stripe, but they are never explicitly identified as Starfleet ground troops) who comes into the hospital with a wounded foot. Bashir instantly diagnoses it as a phaser burn, and the young man comes clean. He shot himself to get off the front lines. This is not the kind of behavior one would expect from any soldier, let alone the exemplars in Starfleet. The soldier hammers home that he had always done well in simulations, but these were not simulations. Jake finds a new depth of despair: even Starfleet officers are mortal and are as flawed and frightened as he.
Sisko arrives in the Defiant to save the day, right as the ceasefire goes back into effect. That’s the worst part to Jake, that all of this horror and suffering was ultimately pointless and soon it will all be forgotten. A minor flare-up at the end of the Federation-Klingon hostilities. Jake won’t let it lie, though. He learned something about himself, and though it’s unpleasant, he’s going to face it. The story he writes, instead of the Bashir profile, is about the nature of courage and cowardice, and the extremely narrow line between them. He could have allowed everyone to believe he heroically stayed behind to stop the Klingons, but, in reality, he panicked and got lucky.
This theme is far deeper and darker than most TNG would tackle, but it’s right in DS9’s sweet spot. So much of Trek’s weird cousin’s mission statement was deconstruction. Here, it strives to show the psychological cost of war. Jake never wanted to be in Starfleet, but it’s a dangerous galaxy. He doesn’t face horror as he would have liked, but no one truly does. Sisko tells his son that anyone who has seen combat will see themselves in Jake’s story, and it’s a larger kind of courage to bear something so culturally shameful.
Next up: You know what the Trekverse needs? Demons.