WARNING: Spoilers for DS9's "Nor the Battle to the Strong" are breaching the perimeter; be warned.
In brief: Much better -- in fact, very good.
Brief summary: Jake convinces Dr. Bashir to detour into a war zone to give medical assistance, and then comes face to face with the reality of battle.
Most Trek fans are aware of the alleged "pattern" of Trek films, where the odd-numbered ones are bad and the even-numbered ones are good. I've never paid much attention to that pattern myself (for instance, I think the first and third films are somewhat underrated and that the fourth one is somewhat overrated), but a similar pattern seems to be developing where this season's DS9 is concerned. So far this season, we've had in the odd-numbered slots "Apocalypse Rising", which while reasonable was somewhat disappointing, and "Looking for par'Mach in All the Wrong Places", which was abysmal. In the even-numbered slots, on the other hand, there's been the incredible "The Ship" and now "Nor the Battle to the Strong", which was very nearly as good.
One trait which both of this season's really good episodes share is a willingness to cut away the surface actions of the characters and get at deeper issues. We saw it in the stress-ridden actions of O'Brien, Worf and the rest in "The Ship", and we saw it here in Jake's actions when faced with imminent death. Both times, the pervasive myth that Starfleet is perfect was challenged -- we see that it's more of a model than a reality. And both times, as a result of this, the characters come out seeming more realistic than usual. That, I think, is an excellent trend, and one I'd like to see continue.
I'm also starting to think that whoever originated the idea of making Jake Sisko a writer should be knighted. Jake's avocation is a reasonable and perfectly valid excuse to have Jake put himself in risky situations, and also to let us hear the "inner voice" of the character -- if the voice-overs we hear are notes of some sort, they seem more realistic than simply hearing a "thought balloon" in some ways, at least to me. What's more, if the statements I've heard about Rene Echevarria doing an uncredited rewrite of "The Visitor" are true, then Echevarria is rapidly becoming the writer for Jake. He has a good grasp of the father/son dynamic between the Siskos, and of Jake's struggles to find his voice. (Okay, so he also co-wrote "The Muse" last year, but I'm not sure anyone could have really saved that.) With character growth on this kind of level, the plot starts becoming almost secondary.
If anything seemed really iffy about "Nor the Battle to the Strong", however, it was that the jump away from "perfect Starfleet" ideas was almost too sudden. There's always been a certain argument about just how military Starfleet is, which is an issue I frankly don't care enough about to really argue, but this is one of the very few times we've seen much of a reference to battlefield grunts and "platoons" of Starfleet soldiers. As a result, bits of the episode almost felt like they'd been grafted in from elsewhere -- particularly when the performance felt like it was sent in from an old war film as well, as was the case with the dying soldier Jake found. (Babylon 5's "Gropos" had similar problems -- fewer with plausibility, since the military there was a bit
more "traditional", but more with the performances.) Most of the story, however, fit in with the more established Trek universe: a hospital under fire is easy to have happen regardless of how "perfect" your society is, and a ground war isn't entirely surprising under any circumstances. (The references to "hoppers" and "transport scramblers" were somewhat new, however -- again, that felt like an attempt to work around Trek's norms. I'm not at all convinced this is a bad thing, however.)
The growth of the story felt natural and even predictable, but generally in the mode of "okay, that's a sensible reaction" rather than anything else. As soon as Jake assured Bashir that he'd be fine, I knew Jake was due for a comeuppance, and it wasn't gigantically surprising that Jake would eventually find himself under fire as a result -- but seeing Jake's thoughts change from "I'm a Sisko" to "I'm a coward", and from "how could X have run?" to "how could I have run?" felt totally unforced. Many of the other characters' concerns -- Kirby's interest in rumors and Dr. Kilandra's concern for her husband on the Tecumseh, for instance -- seemed somewhat familiar, but the sort of familiar that springs from being appropriate rather than from being run into the ground.
The gallows humor of the various medical personnel also fit the situation quite well. Not having been in that situation myself, I don't know if it actually takes place -- but when you're surrounded with that much blood and death, I'd imagine that some people simply have to find some humor in it or else go a little insane. As a result, Bashir's "I think I'll start with a lateral incision" on his food and the debate about the best way to be killed by a Klingon had just the right tinge of being really sick to ring true.
Leaving Jake and Bashir aside for a moment, the remaining scenes of the show had varying degrees of success. I'm still having a little trouble with the "let's give everyone some air time" scenes like Quark's attempt at decaf raktajino, though Kira and Dax's stereo reaction of "rental?" to Quark's definition of pregnancy was cute. The remaining sequences with Sisko were quite strong, however. The Sisko/Odo scene was good both for its depiction of Odo not quite adjusting yet and for the transition into Sisko's worry for his son (with "humanoid bodies are so fragile" proving a more or less perfect line to change the focus from Odo to Jake), and the later Sisko/Dax scene was genuinely touching.
Getting back to Jake, the core issue of his running away and leaving Bashir in the lurch had a lot of power, and was used almost to its fullest extent. To an extent, Jake's guilt might have been even greater if someone had been killed as a result of his running, but I don't think that's really the point. As Jake put it himself, "the line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe" -- and much of the show hinged on the fact that Jake's actions, while something he rightly wished later he hadn't done, is something that almost anyone new to battle could have done given the right circumstances. No one really knows how they're going to react to a situation like that until and unless they're actually in it -- and as a result, the person who condemned Jake the most was Jake himself. (Okay, so part of that is because no one else really knew what Jake had done -- but those familiar with battle would probably have understood, and those who'd never faced death like that would be a little hypocritical to condemn. I think that was part of the show's message.) As for Jake's "redemption" at the end -- part of me wishes that it hadn't been necessary to do at all, but without it Jake would
never have gotten over his initial accusations of cowardice -- and since it was made relatively clear (I think) that his "heroism" was more or less accidental, I think it's about the best compromise that could have been made. Likewise, although I feel Jake's relief in the final scene with his father might have been a tad too quick, it might not be for a short-term reaction. I'd like to see some followup on this sometime -- perhaps the next time the station faces an attack, as it almost surely will. On the whole, "Nor the Battle to the Strong" was quite strong in its own right, and is well worth the hour.
Some shorter thoughts:
-- While most people will probably appreciate Jake's "I have absolutely NO idea what he's talking about" line regarding Bashir, and I did as well, I was amused by Bashir's statement that the meeting's politeness was just "a veneer" over ruffled feathers. There was a cosmology symposium at Caltech about five years ago that I attended, and one of the speakers managed to very politely and very diplomatically get across the message that "nobody else here knows what they're talking about." I got the same sense Bashir did, and I particularly liked the moderator's response between speakers: "Those whose pet theories have just been maligned are now free to speculate on the speaker's youth and ancestry." :-)
-- I like the fact that the Federation/Klingon conflict did not simply end as a result of Martok's unmasking three episodes ago. "Apocalypse Rising" hinted that it wouldn't, but I wasn't sure how much I could trust that hint. It seems that we may see occasional skirmishes for a while, and I can certainly deal with that.
-- Having "Babylon 5" right after DS9 here in Los Angeles is usually interesting no matter what, but it was doubly so this week given that Kim Friedman directed this week's episode of both shows. The themes also made for an interesting point/counterpoint about war as well, I thought.
-- When Kirby started making friends with Jake and talking about the battles, I was certain he was doomed. I'm glad it wasn't so.
That about covers it. So, to close:
Writing: Occasional moments that felt like they were not quite in the same universe as Trek, but on the whole a nicely intense character study.
Directing: Sharp. Tight, worrying, claustrophobic when necessary, light when necessary.
Acting: The dying soldier Jake finds (I don't know the actor) was a bit off, but most everyone else was good. Lofton was excellent, as always.
OVERALL: 9, I think. Quite good.
Keiko is possessed, and O'Brien is forced to betray someone. Does the odd/even pattern hold? We'll see...
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"Anyone who's been in battle would recognize himself in this -- most of us wouldn't care to admit it. It takes courage to look inside yourself, and even more courage to write it for other people to see. I'm proud of you, son."
-- Benjamin Sisko