Deep Space Nine: s01e13 – Battle Lines

Kira and the Kai

After one week off for Xmas (did you miss me?) we resume following Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with a potentially very powerful episode that somehow didn’t quite hit the emotional depths that it should have (though I suspect that had I watched this in its own era, instead of looking back, I would have found it more effective then).

The open starts in typically light-hearted manner as Cardassian files come to light and Major Kira, lifelong resistance fighter, discovers just how offhandedly her oppressors regarded her rebellious efforts. This quickly transmutes to an unheralded visit from the Kai Opaka. Ostensibly, she’s just taking up Sisko’s offer of a tour of DS9, but as the episode unfolds, it’s clear that she’s follow a prophecy, with momentous effect. For the moment, she just wants – and gets – a trip through the Wormhole, with Sisko, Kira and Bashir.

It’s meant as nothing but there and back again, but once in the Gamma Quadrant, the Kai persuades Sisko to do a little exploring, which results in the discovery of a small moon, surrounded by a strange network of artificial satellites, one of which promptly shoots the runabout down.

The party crashes onto the moon’s surface, wrecking the ship. The crash also kills the Kai.

Kira’s reaction to the loss of her people’s spiritual leader is heart-breakingly desolate, but it is cut short when the survivors are taken prisoner by a band of ragged people, carrying primitive hand-weapons. These are the Ennis, under their leader, Seel-Ar, and they are engaged in perpetual war with their hereditary enemies, the Nol-Ennis. Indeed, the Nol-Ennis attack, leading to much loss of life, some of it inflicted by Kira, reacting aggressively to her loss.

It is at this point that the Kai appears, alive. And all the dead return to life as well.

Bashir diagnoses this as the influence of some kind of biomechanical organisms, similar to nanites. Seel-Ar confirms the truth of this: neither his people nor the Nol-Ennis can truly die. It is part of their punishment that they can never be released, and must fight and die and fight and die.

Horrified at this barbarity, and knowing that his team will be along sooner rather than later with a rescue party (the search, by O’Brien and Dax, is a parallel sub-plot), Sisko offers a solution: that the Federation will teleport both the Ennis and Nol-Ennis away from their prison, their sentence having been served many times over, and send them to live in peace on different planets of their choice, no longer warring.

Seel-Ar was welcoming but disbelieving that the Nol-Ennis would agree. Indeed he’s all too correct, since they regard the suggested cease-fire as a trap. But then, Seel-Ar is of the same mind. Neither of the two sides can outgrow their hatred and their overwhelming urge to utterly destroy their enemy.

And anyway, there’s a catch, and entirely too-easily foreseen catch. Bashir finally diagnoses the biomech as making a permanent alteration on the first activation, and of being environment specific: if they were to remove the warring people from their prison moon, the biomech would fail and they’d all die. Saw that coming. But it doesn’t just apply to the Ennis/Nol-Ennis, it also means the Kai.

But before Sisko can tell the Kai that she has to stay behind, she announces it herself as her choice. It is her prophecy, it is where her work now takes her. We have already had a foretaste of it, following Kira’s aggressive outburst over the lack of efficiency, lack of passion in the Ennis towards their war, after which, fearfully, Kira tries to tell the Kai that she is not like that, she is a good person, she is not all violence, only to collapse in the face of the Kai’s warm impassiveness and admit that violence is all she knows, is all the life she has lived and that she fears being unable to grown beyond that.

The Kai helps bring Kira onto the path of healing. She is staying with the hating tribes because theirs has not even begun to begin and that is her sacred task.

In its various parts, this episode made many powerful points, about the nature of hatred, about the blessing of death, and about Major Kira’s personal journey. Though I recognised, and was impressed by all of these, I wasn’t directly moved by them, did not feel them, as I should have done. This I think is because of the way television drama has changed in the past twenty-five years.

Part of this is the increase in realism brought about by the improvements in special effects. Once the runabout crashed on the moon, it was obvious that Sisko, Kira and Bashir were playing on a cheap, artificial set that, in quality terms, had moved little from those of the original Star Trek of the Sixties. The same went for the caves. The blatant artificiality of the scene took me out of increased empathy by flagging by just how much this was a TV set: we have become spoiled.

But I think the more important factor was how much more accelerated TV has become. Let me put forward a slightly outdated but still pertinent example. In the late Eighties, I got hooked on St Elsewhere about halfway through its run, watched it almost as avidly as I did its superior contemporary, Hill Street Blues. St Elsewhere‘s obvious successor was E.R., which I also watched avidly for nearly ten seasons. Then St Elsewhere was repeated and I started watching that. I lasted about three weeks before dropping it. Why? Because it was so dreadfully slow. Because I had become used to the pace of E.R. and because the content of an entire episode of St Elsewhere would have been burned through by the first ad-break in E.R.

That’s an extreme example, but it’s undeniable that, as techniques have grown more sophisticated, the overall pacer of TV drama has quickened, and we as audience have quickened with it. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this DS9 episode, save for our subliminal recognition that it is moving at what we would now recognise as a sedate pace and that, as a consequence, it has so much less content, and a lack of depth because the story is intrinsically shorter and thus simpler.

This isn’t a universal rule: sometimes, slower is better, and time to understand is more effective, but I think in this instance what I would have found involving in 1991 becomes intellectually, but not viscerally impressive at the beginning of 2016. And that’s a shame.


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