A most curious episode, full of good writing, strong and important themes and some courageous character development, yet one that I personally felt almost entirely missed the mark.
It’s some time since we had a Jake Sisko-oriented episode. Captain Sisko’s baby boy is now eighteen, and Cirroc Lofton has shot up until he’s clearly taller than Doctor Bashir, and he’s gangly and spider-like with it. He’s followed the Doctor to a medical conference in order to write a magazine profile about him, but finds the specialist aspect too specialised, incomprehensible and lacking in any point for his presumed reader. This is when their Runabout receives a distress call, summoning all doctors to Ajilon Prime, where a Klingon attack is piling on the casualties. Bashir demurs because he has his Commanding Officer’s untrained, unskilled, un-anything son with him, but Jake sensing something hot topic to write about, convinces him he’ll be alright.
Immediately, we know much of what will follow. This is to be a test-of-character story, and Jake’s immediate assumption that he can handle things will be shown to be naive and foolish, and he will Learn a Lesson.
So it proves to be, but once again the episode’s biggest flaw is its inbuilt refusal, or rather inability, to follow through. Modern era television really has spoiled us, with the cumulative effect of stories replacing the old self-contained series: consequences carry forward, change stays, and we no longer start each new episode with the slate wiped clean and previous lessons learned scrubbed from the curriculum.
Because what Jake undergoes – the exposure first hand to death, wounding, bombs and the fear of imminent death – is less test-of-character than test-to-destruction, and his illusions about his competence and his character and his courage are swiftly exploded.
At first, he seems to adapt successfully: lacking any medical skills, he’s pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer, and develops quickly. He encounters, and is disgusted by, a Starfleet ensign who’s cracked, and given himself a self-inflicted would to get out of combat. But this seeming calmness is abruptly exposed when Bashir makes a black joke about a lateral incision in his leg of lamb, and Jake’s stomach starts chucking out everything in it.
Jake can’t take it. That’s all there is to it. When he and Bashir head out to the Runabout to collect its portable generator, the shells start flying and Jake cracks, runs away, scared as anything. He thinks he can redeem himself by saving a wounded soldier, but the guy is dying, and he sees through Jake, and tells him so before expiring. Meanwhile, offscreen, Bashir has been the perfect hero, brought the generator back alone, suffered wounds and is torturing himself over his responsibility for Jake’s seeming death.
Knowing he’s a coward, but that everyone else thinks he’s just like them, unable to stand their morbid, M.A.S.H.-style humour, Jake sinks deeper into his self-loathing. The compound is attacked, everybody evacuates, and the by now so-desperate-he-should-be-shitting-himself Jake becomes an inadvertent hero when his panicked firing off of a plasma rifle at random brings down the ceiling and seals the entrance against the Klingons.
Jake has been tested and has been shattered. The episode is powerful but innately pointless, because this is a life-changing experience. Jake has had his self-image undermined at the very core. He will not be, cannot be the same again. Will that be reflected next time we see him? You know the answer to that.
To his credit, though it’s overplayed into an artificial and unconvincing happy ending, Jake comes clean in his article, concluding that “the line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe.” That’s his great insight? I can’t decide whether to describe it as flat, trite or banal, though I’m leaning towards the last of these.
Oddly enough, probably the most thematically strong scene in the episode was the result of a mistake. As shot, the episode wound up three minutes short, so the time was made up by a hastily-written second encounter between Jake and the ensign who shot himself in the foot. Jake is no longer contemptuous of him, but sympathetic, but the ensign is so bitterly ashamed of himself for his failure that he wishes he had shot himself ‘higher’. His sense of shame is unbearable: the fatal flaw of this episode is that Jake’s only lasts until his father says he’s proud of him for confessing to his fears.
Just imagine how good this could have been, which is why it’s so disappointing.