“Battle Lines”/“The Storyteller” S1 / E13-14
- C+ Community Grade
“Battle Lines” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 4/25/1993)
In which Mike Ehrmantraut finally meets someone he can’t kill…
This week Kira gets an episode, and it is, unsurprisingly, a fairly heavy one. Kai Opaka, the spiritual leader of the Bajorans, returns, and just as quickly dies; we learn the evils of constant conflict; and Sisko gets a bit pissy with poor Bashir. “Battle Lines” isn’t entirely centered on Kira, but her character does provide most of the episode’s emotional weight, at least as far as the ensemble is concerned. There are also a group of Road Warrior rejects trapped in what has to be the most hellish interpretation of Lazer Tag I’ve ever seen, and they serve as the episode’s cautionary tale. In many ways, this is a classic sort of Trek story, using a never heard of before, probably never heard of again alien society to serve as a metaphor for very real human problems. The Ennis and the Nol aren’t defined beyond their perpetual struggle (and their fashion sense), and as much as it’s possible to pity them, we’ve no sense of them as existing beyond their situation. Which, of course, may be the point; if you’re trying to show the ways unbending enmity can transform and reduce a culture, you’re not going to give that culture a thriving arts scene. But that still makes for an hour filled with a lot of bland angry people, one that keeps hinting at more interesting directions, but never having the courage to follow them.
What’s both frustrating and promising about “Battle Lines” is that the pieces are here for something legitimately terrific. Kira’s past association with Bajoran terrorists, her life spent waging war on the Cardassians, and the hope and uncertainty which peace brings, are all meaty, legitimately compelling subjects, and all of them are brought up in this episode to varying degrees. In the cold open, O’Brien shows Sisko some Cardassian files he discovered on the station; Kira looks at them, and is furious to learn that the Cardassians considered her a “minor operative.” This is played as a joke, and not a particularly funny one, but it makes sense. Major Kira is still struggling for ways to define herself, and she’s so unsure that she’s willing to turn to her most hated enemies for help. When Kai Opaka arrives on the station, Kira is in awe. When the Kai dies, she’s distraught, with a naked display of grief that borders on the absurd. Kira has an arc in this episode, to an extent; she’s frustrated and angry until the resurrected Kai forces her to express her sorrow. But “Battle Lines” is so invested in making sure we understand just how screwed the Ennis and Nol are that poor Kira doesn’t get her due.
Nor does the Kai. While I wasn’t entirely sold on the role of the Prophets in the pilot episode of the show, Kai Opaka is smartly conceived, a spiritual leader who is at once vaguely mystical and solidly grounded. Camille Saviola is cast somewhat against type in the role; she has the authority and the presence, but there’s nothing remotely ethereal about her, which works to her (and the show’s) advantage. She comes off a bit like the head nun of a liberal convent. She gets more screentime in “Battle Lines” than she does in “Emissary,” and she gets more of a character as well; before, she was just the calm voice helping to guide Sisko toward the next phase of his life, while here, she actually has her own journey to follow. But that journey’s impact is minimized by how little we’re given to understand the Kai, or what motivates her. Her status as wise woman and seer make her innately more mystical and distant that the main cast, but too much of what she does here is motivated by discoveries and revelations made off screen. She arrives on DS9 because of a prophecy she doesn’t really bring up; she dies; she’s resurrected by the moon’s nanobites; and then she decides to stay with the Ennis. Granted, she doesn’t have much choice, as any attempt to leave the moon would result in her death, but it’s still a decision, and a scene, which should carry more weight than it does. As it plays, only Kira’s grief, and a few scenes with Dax, O’Brien, and Odo, give us any impression of how big a deal this is.
Still, if the show is going to go through the now-familiar growing pains of finding itself, it helps that the TOS-style plot that gives “Battle Lines” its spine is as decent as this one is. The episode is, unsurprisingly, fairly heavy handed. It’s not black-and-white racists heavy-handed, but as metaphors go, you don’t need to put a lot of interpretive work into unraveling authorial intent. The Ennis are battling the Nol. Shel-la, the leader of the Ennis, lays it out for Sisko with a world-weariness befitting an actor who would go on to play one of television’s most beloved hitmen. (Jonathan Banks, as always and ever, is the man.) The two groups were exiled from their home world to serve as an example of eternal war. The moon they live on is infested with a kind of nanobite technology which keeps every living being perpetually alive, no matter how much damage they take from fighting and explosions and pointy rocks. They’ve been beating on each other for years now, and there’s no end in sight. War is hell, and so on.
Okay, the idea here is somewhat predictable, but I like how it has a nasty edge to it. Shel-la certainly seems reasonable enough when he’s talking with Sisko, Kira, Bashir, and the Kai, but the more he talks, the clearer it is how much the perpetual struggle has taken over his view of life, and how much he’s invested in two ideas: Life is agony, and the Nols are to blame for that agony. This makes trying to mediate a truce between the two groups somewhere between impossible, and really, really not possible. Sisko, who mistakenly believes he can help the Ennis and the Nol escape their punishment, tries to get Shel-la and his counterpart, Zlangco, to come to terms, if only to stop the fighting long enough to get everyone to safety. While it’s not a huge surprise that the meeting goes sour, there’s something convincing, and more than a little depressing, at just how easily attempts at communication can go awry. Also creepy is She-la’s reaction when Bashir discovers a way to turn the nanobites off; while this would offer the Ennis and the Nol a chance to finally end their suffering, She-la is more interested in using the knowledge as a weapon.
This is all handled well, but it’s an earnest attempt to teach us the same lesson so many shows, movies, and books have taught in the past, which means its hard to get too worked up about the poor Ennis and horrid Nol. (No, wait, strike that, reverse it.) These characters are ciphers by design, stripped of personality to demonstrate how war turns people into ghosts (or something), and while that’s symbolic, and true in its own way, it doesn’t make for great drama. That leaves us with our main ensemble, and, thankfully, they do a decent job picking up the slack. Sisko is angrier than usual, nearly taking off Bashir’s head when the doctor loses perspective in a moment of scientific curiosity, and yelling at Kira when she flirts with taking part in the fight against the Nol. In spite of Sisko’s irritation, Bashir is likeable enough, and the episode even allows him a serious moment near the end, when he shows his disgust at Shel-la’s desire to use medical aid as a weapon.
Kira gets the big moments, however, and even if I wished the episode had done more with those moments, they remain effective in their own right. The only one I’m not sold on (apart from her silly freak-out about the Cardassian records) is her grief over the Kai’s death. Nana Visitor goes all out, and while I respect her commitment, it’s an awkward scene, too brutally vulnerable to fit in with the rest of the hour. It doesn’t help that Kai comes back to life some 10 minutes later. That’s the main problem with Kira, though—her handful of scenes have a clear direction to them, but they don’t connect properly with each other, or with the rest of the episode. I like them on their own, particularly Kira and Opaka’s conversation near the end, when she talks about how confused and upset she is, but they’re the start of something that never has a chance to get going. I don’t mind the occasional sci-fi heavy-handedness—if I did, I wouldn’t have watched this much Star Trek. But I do mind pushing aside interesting and potentially powerful character development in favor of the same old story about how war makes men into monsters. I don’t care if people I haven’t met before have lost their souls. I’m much more interested in how Kira goes about finding hers.
- All of this happens on a moon, which makes you wonder what’s going on back on the homeworld. Did everybody murder everyone else? Is Frank Gorshin chasing Lou Antonio through the ruins?
- Kai Opaka says her and Sisko’s paths will cross again, which is nice. I wonder, though, how easily she’ll be able to let go of Bajor. She didn’t ask Sisko or the others to keep quiet about her location, and it’s not that far through the wormhole. Given how important she is to her people, it wouldn’t surprise me if that moon saw a sharp increase in crash-landings.
- I’m disappointed that the next episode doesn’t mention the Kai’s absence. I would’ve assumed her being gone would have an enormous impact on Bajor.
“The Storyteller” (season 1, episode 14; originally aired 5/2/1993)
In which Chief O’Brien is the (temporarily) Chosen One…
This is a silly episode. While “Battle Lines” had the Moon of Doom, here we have the town where nobody got on well until someone made up a monster for them to hate. Well, something like that, anyway—it’s a goofy conceit, made all the goofier by the outfits everyone’s wearing. (Trek has never been a hotbed of fashion, but Bajoran style is like the wardrobe from a kid’s show—minus the influence of LSD.) Thankfully, this unsubtle tale of fiction’s power to do good in the world is leavened by the presence of a pairing I hope (and know) we’ll be seeing more of: Dr. Bashir and Chief O’Brien. It’s been a while since Trek dealt with the fact that, sometimes, colleagues don’t like each other. While you could never be sure that McCoy didn’t hate Spock’s guts, on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Enterprise, everyone got on swimmingly with everyone else. Oh sure, Picard could be standoffish, and Barclay was a pill, but it was chums all around, generally.
Things aren’t quite that comfortable on Deep Space Nine. Oh, it’s not out and out war or anything, and so far, the personnel conflicts have largely been along the lines of “I respect you, but I have a problem with your judgment on this one.” But still, Kira and Sisko yell at each other on occasion, and Odo and Sisko yell at each other sometimes, and, okay, Sisko has more of a strident command style than Picard ever did. (Which is not a criticism, by the way.) And, more importantly to the episode in question, O’Brien doesn’t like Bashir. Prior to “The Storyteller,” we’ve only seen evidence of this back in cold open of “Q-Less,” where Bashir’s (entirely successful) attempts to impress a Bajoran woman with his medical-school history irritates O’Brien to no end.
We don’t get further justification for O’Brien’s clear unhappiness at being assigned a mission with Bashir at the start of “The Storyteller,” nor do we need any. Sometimes people just rub us the wrong way. Not that it’s hard to understand the Chief’s antipathy. I’m warming on Bashir—I have a soft spot for awkward characters, and I like how unabashedly tone-deaf the good doctor can be—but he’s still not someone I want to share a runabout with if I can help it. So you’ve got two characters with differing views of each other, and, even better, differing views of the nature of their relationship (Julian thinks everything’s cool), forced to spend time together in a strange place. That’s dramatic and comedic gold right there, and it doesn’t hurt that the two actors have solid chemistry. Much of their storyline is hard to take seriously, but their presence eases the pain, and turns “The Storyteller” from a chore to something mildly pleasant.
A Bajoran village is in danger, and Sisko sends Bashir and O’Brien to see if they can help. Turns out the danger is more complicated than a simple plague or epidemic. The village Sirah, a storyteller with an important job, is dying. The village needs the Sirah to fight off a mysterious, malevolent entity known as the Dal’Rok. For five nights after each harvest, the Dal’Rok assaults the village, and it’s only through the Sirah, and his ability to join the people together, that the creature is forced back. But now the current Sirah can no longer fulfill his duties, and the village is in a panic. Bashir can do nothing for the storyteller, as he’s old and his organs are decaying, which isn’t something you can walk off. It’s up to the Sirah to chose his successor, and, for some reason, he picks O’Brien. Cue ensuing wackiness.
The only—and I repeat only—reason this development is tolerable is because Colm Meaney is good at his job, and Alexander Siddig does great work just standing of to one side, smirking. Otherwise, this is ridiculous, and weirdly insulting, as it comes down to one guy deciding that the only way to save his people is to make a monster that will convince them to stop fighting. This happened years ago, but the village has kept up the practice, and the only people who seem to know it’s all a sham are the Sirah and his apprentice. But it’s worse than that, as the Dal’Rok has actual physical presence, and does some decent damage when one of the storytelling nights goes badly. Hopefully the monster wouldn’t go as far as destroying the village, but we’re never given real assurance that it won’t. None of this is connected to the Prophets, and it’s hard to align it with what we know of the rest of Bajor. It’s sort of like an old Western or safari movie where the civilized men stumble over a bunch of savages, and get mistaken for a god. It’s not offensive so much as childish and dumb, but we’re lucky Meaney has such a fun time being uncomfortable.
While all this silliness is going on, Sisko is attempting to aid in negotiations between two other Bajoran villages. One of them is led by a teenage girl, and this, astonishingly, creates some difficulties. Weirdly, most of those difficulties stem from the girl herself. The two towns are meeting over a border dispute; the official boundary is the river that runs between both towns, but that river has shifted, granting Varis’ people, the Paqu, more land. The Navot aren’t happy about this, but Varis is insistent that the land belongs to the Paqu. She assures Sisko and the Navot leader, Woban, that her people are willing to fight to the death to preserve their rights. This sets a confrontational tone for their, and is motivated less due to land, and more due to Varis’ insecurity at taking over her father’s job without any of his experience, or commanding the same level of respect as he once did. Instead of having her struggle to prove herself against a suspicious and doubting opponent, “The Storyteller” is more concerned with Varis overcoming her own fears. Woban is a jerk, sure, but Varis is as much, if not more, to blame.
This allows for an interesting, and not entirely awful, series of sequences in which Varis learns to accept her doubt through the magic of Nog and Jake. Not really kidding here: Nog takes a fancy to Varis as soon as she comes onboard the station, and he spends a lot of effort dragging Jake to the girl’s quarters in an attempt to impress her. It’s painfully awkward—Nog’s sweaty, too-eager-to-please nervousness strikes close to home—but it’s also subtler than I was expecting. The kids talk about their fathers, they play a silly prank (and we finally see Odo’s bucket!), but Varis never tells Nog and Jake much about her political troubles, and they don’t ask. That helps give their scenes together a light subtext; in particular, Gina Philips’ (who still gets regular TV and occasional movie work—she was the sister in Jeepers Creepers) performance as Varis does a nice job straddling the line between barely teenaged and old beyond her years. Of the episode’s two storylines, this one is the one that’s best in hindsight. It’s predictable (although I like that Varis’ eventual solution is a compromise, not a capitulation), but in a satisfying, believable way, that ups our esteem for Varis, Jake, Nog, and even Sisko.
O’Brien and Bashir fair similarly well with their storyline, although in their case, it’s more due to the actors and the characters than it is to the plot. The Dal’Rok stuff is silly, in the tedious, let’s underline our themes for extra credit way that so much socially conscious Trek can be. None of the characters involved outside the regulars make an impression, although I was intrigued by the vaguely homoerotic vibe coming off the Sirah/apprentice relationship. Besides, the title is a lie. Storytellers are important because the make up lies that tell us more about the world and ourselves. The old Sirah, the one from ages ago who created the Dal’Rok, he just gave a lie flesh to distract people from ever having to really change. We’re supposed to walk away thinking that it’s a good and noble thing that the apprentice has become the master, and that the village will continue its long tradition of yelling at clouds. But all I get is that a bunch of morons got to go on being morons. Ah well. At least Bashir and O’Brien are chummy afterward.
- Something else to like about the Varis story: We don’t see the resolution. Sure, you can be confident that she manages to get the compromise she wants, but I like that the episode doesn’t feel we have to see it. The important part has already been accomplished. Everything else is just paperwork.
- Ha ha, it’s funny when they offer O’Brien women, because… um… he’s married and can’t have sex with them? No, that’s not it. Dang. I’ll get back to you.
Next week: Kira tries to make some “Progress,” and Dax gets to the bottom of what might happen “If Wishes Were Horses.”