Trapped with Bashir on a planet under attack, Jake panics and must come to terms with his cowardice.
Plot Summary: Jake is returning from a very boring conference with Bashir, on whom Jake is writing an article, when their runabout receives a distress call from Alijon Prime, a colony under attack by the Klingons. Though Bashir is worried about Jake, the boy convinces the doctor that saving lives should be their top priority. But when they find the survivors, Jake is horrified by the dozens of dying people in the understaffed hospital and sickened by a Starfleet officer who shot himself in the foot to escape from the fighting. Jake tries to help Bashir and the other medics, but a power outage leaves them with no generators to run medical devices because they need the portable generators for the shields. Bashir takes Jake to try to retrieve the generator on the runabout, but before they reach it, a Klingon attack makes Jake panic and abandon Bashir, fleeing in search of safety. Instead he finds a dying soldier whom he tries to save in the hope that this will make up for his terror, but the man dies anyway. Meanwhile, Sisko learns of the Klingon attacks and takes the Defiant in search of his son and the doctor. Jake manages to return to the makeshift hospital and pretends that the explosions knocked him out, though Bashir can tell that he’s been traumatized by something else when Jake shouts at the medics for making jokes about death. As the Klingons attack the hospital, the doctors try to evacuate the patients through a cave tunnel while a terrified Jake fires a phaser randomly in the direction of the Klingons, repeatedly striking the mouth of the cave. An avalanche seals off the cavern, killing the Klingons and knocking out Jake. When Sisko and the Defiant arrive, Bashir says that Jake is a hero for blocking the Klingons and saving the patients, but Jake knows the truth, and writes an article not about Bashir but about his own cowardice during the battle.
Analysis: “Nor the Battle to the Strong” is the first of a number of truly exceptional episodes about war and the military, and the beginnings of a sometimes disturbing examination of what it means that Starfleet’s mission of exploration takes place under a military structure – the scientists and doctors are all trained in warfare, something it was easy to overlook on the previous Star Trek series where we mostly saw the security officers dealing with conflicts while the scientists were largely portrayed as sharers in if not bringers of peace and prosperity. It’s brilliant that this situation is largely explored via Jake and Nog, whom we have watched grow up on the series thus far, and who both suffer some pretty significant disillusionment about Starfleet. Cirroc Lofton grows tremendously as an actor, with such seeming ease that it’s sometimes tempting to overlook how much he contributes, but that’s not the case with this episode, which he carries almost single-handedly despite the initially clunky structure of a writer’s interior monologue, narrating the events from his private perspective as we see them unfold. The idea of a young writer discovering that war is hell is very nearly cliche, and though Hemingway and Crane may have done it better, this is still quite skillful and moving. Sometimes what’s cliched is also true, like the scene in which Dax recalls a previous host’s terror of losing a child. The first time I saw the episode, I didn’t have teenagers, so I thought that dialogue went on too long and slowed down the story; now it seems utterly real and powerful, and kudos to Terry Farrell, who also did not have teenagers when the episode was filmed, for getting that so right. When I see her give a nuanced, subtle performance like this one, it makes me resent even more episodes like “Looking for Par’mach” which reduce her character from this complicated woman who’s lived many lives.
I won’t even talk about the scene in which Dax, Quark, Worf, and O’Brien debate whether Kira’s body is her own or on lease to someone else for the duration of her pregnancy; I’ll block it out. As I said, this is Jake’s episode and therefore Lofton’s to own, though it’s also impressive to see Siddig’s Bashir, who was a sort of enfant terrible in his personal life during the show’s first season, taking on a mature, paternal role in regard to his commanding officer’s son. As in “The Visitor,” Jake experiences devastating events that leave him an emotional wreck. He stands helpless in a hospital as people die around him, a situation for which he is in no way prepared despite having been on the station during several attacks. He meets a man whose behavior is contemptible, according to everything he has been taught and has absorbed from the Starfleet officers and Bajoran Resistance fighters around him, and doesn’t know how to respond to the man’s agony. Then he finds himself in the middle of a battle and abandons Bashir, though it’s because of his assurances that Bashir landed on the planet in the first place. Rather than try to complete the mission to get the generator, which could save hundreds of lives, he tries to hide and comes across a grievously wounded Starfleet officer whose last request is to die looking at the sky. Though Jake had been longing for some fighting or at least a plague so that he’d have something more interesting to write about than Bashir’s medical conference, where all the fighting was genteel and academic, it all seems meaningless and horrible, and he lashes out at the medics who joke darkly about all the terrible ways they too might die. Jake is the protagonist yet at the same time his character is entirely reactive; we get to hear his thoughts spoken aloud, but everything that happens to him once he asks Bashir to answer the distress call is because of a choice someone else made. The actor must convey the full weight of the character’s emotions, and Lofton does so superbly.
The directing is top notch too, which I don’t often feel about battle-heavy episodes, where violence is often glorified, particularly where Klingons are concerned. I appreciate the reminder that these aren’t just proud warriors; they are sometimes bloodthirsty devotees of a hierarchy that quite often seems arbitrary, and as we saw last week, even violence against loved ones is expected and sanctioned. The human family ties deserve more attention than they often get, particularly since we often see the O’Briens at odds and most of the others live far from home. Here we see a doctor whom we barely know worrying about her husband on a starship far away, plus a group of medics who’ve become like siblings in the trenches. There’s a lovely scene between Sisko and Odo in which Odo wonders why Sisko is so worried about his now-adult son (and worried entirely as a father, not as a diplomat and officer who had hoped Gowron would make their recently-discussed ceasefire stick). Odo asks rather scornfully whether Sisko’s father still worries about him so much, to which Sisko says that Joseph worries about him all the time, leading Odo to doubt that he himself will ever want children of his own. If it seems odd that Sisko is so restrained in showing his emotions here when he was so much more forceful with Gowron and with the Vorta from “The Ship,” I would like to believe it’s because Sisko is even more careful with his child than he is as a military leader. No matter how stressful his job may be, it’s been apparent that he doesn’t take that home to Jake; he’s repeatedly insisted that he wants to put his family first. Captain Sisko’s values may be dictated in part by Starfleet, but Ben Sisko has an entirely different set of priorities. At the end as well, Sisko reacts not as a Starfleet officer but as a parent, admitting to Jake that everyone who’s been in battle could relate to Jake’s terror whether or not they’ll admit it. Those of us in the audience who have not been in battle undoubtedly can, too, since Jake is not a Starfleet officer but a boy who grew up surrounded by heroes. He is our Everyman.