Nutshell: Excellent. Gripping, moving, and real. War themes unlike anything seen on Trek.
Last week's "Looking for Par'mach..." may have been a fun comedy episode, but "Nor the Battle to the Strong" is why I watch DS9—a real story, with real people, real problems, and real reactions.
This episode is what "The Ship" should've been. "Nor the Battle" is another analysis of the effects of war but it works just about everywhere that "Ship" did not. "The Ship" happened a situation upon its characters and then played it out. There were attempted negotiations and ultimately the episode's tragic consequences resulted from a mutual lack of trust and understanding. The idea was an intelligent one, but the presentation of the idea, unfortunately, was less than ideal and fell flat on an emotional level.
"Nor the Battle," on the other hand, captured my feelings much more effectively. Almost too effectively, in fact—this is one of the few episodes of Trek I can remember where I felt the barrier separating the people in the audience and the characters on the screen beginning to dissolve.
And that's a good thing. It's one of the primary goals in cinema—to capture the audience and draw them into the situation as if they were there.
Whereas the situation set up in "Ship" was random, the situation in "Battle" is not. When Bashir receives a distress call from a Federation colony requiring additional medical assistance because they're under attack by the Klingons, Jake wants to go. Bashir doesn't want to drag Jake into a potentially disastrous situation, but Jake prods him further, and both are soon on their way to what becomes, well, the front line of some ground combat warfare.
The danger here feels real. Very real. One of the reasons the show proves so involving is because it's shrouded in such a sense of impending doom. For the duration of the episode, the Klingons always seem close, within striking distance of the medical compound Jake and Doctor Bashir are assisting.
What's remarkable here is the way the sense of danger is conveyed. We hardly see any actual Klingons in this episode, yet their presence is evident in every scene. The anxiety and foreboding subtly surfaces through the characters' dialog and the way they talk and perform under pressure. Most characters handle the pressure well, as if it's just another day at the office. But a few characters—Jake in particular—find the situation quite overwhelming.
Much credit deserves to go to Kim Friedman, whose direction over this episode is complex and multifaceted; she builds a stunningly effective sense of danger through Jake's dialog and narration, but more than that—she also knows the guest characters and provides them with confidently drawn attributes other than the obvious sense of fear.
There's quite a bit to digest in this installment—themes that accompany the topic of war. Courage, loyalty, guilt, panic, trust. This is the most intelligent and multi-dimensioned war episode ever done on Trek. It's something that definitely needed to be attempted considering how little we've seen in terms of the fallout from the Klingon/Federation treaty disintegration. As a follow-up to the abrupt cease-fire negotiated in "Apocalypse Rising," this episode shows that despite the war being over, the problems are not; the Klingons and Federation have a long way to go before their trust of each other can be repaired.
Another very effective element of this story is its fresh perspective. The events unfold completely from Jake's point of view. As the episode opens and Jake displays a sort of superficial journalist's interest in the battle unfolding, we know that war is something he has never truly faced and something he has no real understanding of. But as the bodies start rolling into the medical compound and the death and suffering begins to sink into reality, Jake realizes that he is not prepared to face war's very real horrors. He assists Bashir and the rest of the medical staff as an elected orderly, and although he's willing to help and performs adequately, he's very stressed inside. As his narration indicates, the danger here seems much more "real" than on the station.
This leads up to the central event of the episode, when Jake and Bashir head back to the Runabout (which is sitting outside the compound a kilometer away) in order to retrieve a much-needed portable generator. The Klingons begin shelling the nearby area, and Jake and Bashir find themselves very close to some explosions. Jake panics and runs, abandoning Bashir, who quite possibly could've died.
Jake runs. And runs. Aimlessly. Lost. Through a field of dead Klingons. He falls and rolls down a hill. Eventually, he happens upon a wounded soldier (Danny Goldring). The soldier knows he's going to die, but he wants to die "looking at the sky," not with his face in the dirt, and he orders Jake to make sure that happens. But the soldier also wants to know why this kid is out on the battlefield in the first place. Jake explains how he ran from the explosions, abandoning the doctor. He doesn't know how to control his fear, and he's obviously looking for answers. The soldier, however, has no answers to give him. In fact, he all but condemns Jake for abandoning Bashir. Jake tries to make sense of it; he tries to convince himself that he ran for a "reason"—to find this soldier and carry him back for medical treatment. But the soldier's last words, as he dies a rather graphic death: "Sorry, kid. Life doesn't work like that." Indeed; there are no easy answers to be found here. It's a credit to Friedman and scripter Rene Echevarria how well they flesh out this soldier character (as well as the statements of the entire sequence) considering he had merely five minutes of screen time. Excellent work on this scene all around.
The remainder of the show focuses on Jake's attempts to cope with his guilt for abandoning Bashir. Miraculously, Bashir survived and was able to bring the generator back to the compound himself. But while this relieves Jake to an extent, it sure doesn't help him feel better about himself. He's convinced that he's a coward. He bottles it up inside, wishing he could reveal to everyone what he did, but he can't bring himself to disappoint Bashir and the others.
The great thing about the way the episode progresses is that every scene has a significant point that helps Jake learn. Take, for example, the soldier who is brought into the compound with a badly injured foot. He had been hit by phaser fire. But guilt causes him to confess: he shot himself in the foot to avoid more combat. He'll probably face a court-martial as a result. It's funny, he muses, how well he did in those battle simulations back in the academy days. Yet when the real explosions were going off around him, all he could think about was getting away. Jake can relate, whereas the rest of the medical staff looks at him with an angry eye.
And then there's scene where the other medical staff discusses how close the Klingons are getting to the compound—and they joke about the best way to die. Jake is not amused. He blows off some steam, voicing his thoughts of how pointless war is and how, ten years from now, no one will remember anything that happened in this little skirmish. While he may have some valid points, there's a simpler reason why war makes no sense to him: because he's completely inexperienced when it comes to it.
The beauty of Jake's character is that it's the one most people in the audience will identify with. I'm willing to presume that a majority of the people watching Deep Space Nine are not combat veterans, and I think that most people will understand Jake's problem and could see themselves acting similarly if they were in his shoes. The entire arc for Jake is wonderfully realized, exploring courage, duty, loyalty, and guilt. Lofton's performance, while not always perfect, is good enough to get the job done very nicely, and considering the depth of the material I'm sure he had his work cut out for him. This is easily the heaviest show he's had to carry.
There's also a B-story here, exploring Sisko's parental distress that his son is in danger. He decides to take the Defiant to assist the colony. This subplot isn't really fresh like the main plot is, but it is a necessary part of the story and it works just the same. It's also very true-to-life. Just because Jake is 18 doesn't mean his father is going to stop worrying about him. It's every parent's duty to worry about their children, and every one of Sisko's actions in this episode is to be expected.
The episode's climax, in which the Klingons do indeed reach and storm the medical compound—opening fire on Jake and the medical personnel—is quite riveting. The reason it's so riveting, though, is because we've become so connected to Jake. When the character we've been following and exploring for an hour is suddenly right there in the line of fire, we wince. Why? Because we fear for his safety, perhaps that we fear for our own safety (at which point the aforementioned "barrier" comes crashing down). This is all accomplished by building the story and making it real (a big reason last season's "Homefront" was also so effective), and that is quite an awesome feat.
"Nor the Battle" has a good ending, too. It does exactly what it's supposed to—it refuses to cheat. Jake's fear is not miraculously rectified by the end of the show. When he picks up a phaser to defend himself from the Klingons, he does so because he has to. He's not trying to be a hero, he's just trying to stay alive. This is a big part of the show's point—the basic survival response of "fight or flight" and how it gets the best of Jake. Jake isn't really a coward (which is demonstrated by his willingness to share his tale with his father and Bashir after the rescue); he's simply naive to the horrors of war, and, hopefully, this experience has given him some insights.
"Nor the Battle to the Strong" is a fine episode. It provides a meaty role for a typically underutilized regular character. The presentation is genuine in nearly every aspect. Some nice montages and shots make a difference, too. (I really liked, for example, the brief, subtle shot of Bashir reading Jake's story and reflecting upon it.) The show has a variety of interesting and intelligently realized themes, plus a general statement that war is hell. Here lies an episode among DS9's best installments.