You Talking Season 5 DS9 to Me? – “Nor the Battle to the Strong”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 4

One of Deep Space Nine’s important distinctions among Star Trek series was its heavy emphasis on war. It was the first time a long-running war was depicted in a Trek series – and not just one, either. Before the Dominion War officially began at the end of the fifth season, the Federation found itself embroiled in a new conflict with the Klingon Empire. This shorter war was something that mostly happened off screen, but “Nor the Battle to the Strong” gives a close-up look of it featuring an unexpected character and is one of the most surprising, daring, and memorable episodes of the series.

The episode’s title comes from Ecclesiastes 9:11, and is one of my favorite Bible verses:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

It’s a wonderfully (and sadly) insightful bit of poetry that encapsulates the randomness of life and its inherent inequities. Its wisdom factors into multiple facets of the plot – good things do not always happen to good people, the stupid and evil often prosper, the brave aren’t always the ones who survive, and sometimes it’s only the cowards that make it out alive. Star Trek has always been about fearless heroes dealing with weekly and often life-threatening crises, so for this episode to focus on cowardice in the face of danger is a daring choice. But it makes for a great episode that focuses on an unsightly yet all too real aspect of the human condition, especially in war.

Also, this episode is basically “Star Trek M*A*S*H,” which is exactly as awesome as that sounds. It’s not just because the plot sees Dr. Bashir and Jake Sisko journeying to a mobile Starfleet hospital in a war zone, but because of its focus on non-soldier characters. M*A*S*H was notable because it was about civilian physicians that were drafted into war. “Nor the Battle” is similarly interesting because it takes the two characters of the show (outside of Quark) who are the least suited to war – a doctor and a kid. And it weaves a story about how ill-prepared one of them is for the harsh reality of the front line.

“I can see the byline now! Local Coward Exceeds Hometown’s Expectations… of Cowardice!”

Structurally, the episode is notable for its first person narration by Jake. Star Trek is of course famous for its log entry narrative device, but it rarely ventures outside of that for its voiceovers. It’s appropriate, not just because Jake isn’t a Starfleet officer, but because he’s baring his innermost fears, anxieties, and shame about what’s happening. It’s not the kind of dry catch-up details you get in a log entry, but a running commentary on his thoughts and feelings as they evolve throughout the episode.

Case in point, the episode begins with him internally grumbling about the boring medical technobabble Bashir is nerdily droning on about with zero self-awareness (I love Bashir apologizing for how heated the debate was, while Jake thought it was the most boring thing ever). They’re returning to DS9 from a medical conference, of which Jake is writing his first article about. He’s young and hungry, and wants to start his writing career off with a bang, but it doesn’t look like there’s one to be found. He daydreams of heroic life and death struggles but immediately chastises himself for rooting for an exciting disaster. A part of him wants to be Hemmingway but he’s stuck covering a high school science fair. There’s something relatable about his yearning, and anyone who can remember being young and green in their career can probably see some of themself in it. Most careers start off with a boring period of paying your dues before you can get to the exciting and interesting stuff, but what 18-year-old wants to do that?

“Hey kid, do I have anything on my liver?” *dies*

On cue, fate decides to give Jake a lesson in being careful what he wishes for when their runabout receives a distress signal. It’s from a Federation colony on Ajilon Prime that’s being attacked by Klingons (despite the recent cease fire). Bashir is wary of getting involved since Jake is with him, but Jake convinces the Doctor that they have to go and help. His motives are less than honorable, as he’s more concerned with an exciting story as he is with assisting people in a war zone. Bashir hesitantly diverts the ship, and Jake internally salivates at a swashbuckling “Surgery under fire” tale. Oh, my sweet summer child…

One of the wonderful things about this episode is how much more it fills out Starfleet life beyond what we’ve seen. In addition to the makeshift surgical hospital (and its beleaguered doctors and nurses), we also see actual soldiers of all stripes. I love the more three-dimensional portrait it gives of Starfleet and the verisimilitude is fascinating to behold here.

Arriving at Ajilon, Bashir is still wary of involving Jake in this bloody mess but Jake insists he can handle it, citing that he’s been on the station when it was attacked before. It’s an interesting contrast, because Bashir seems pretty prepared for what awaits them – despite his original green-ness when he first boarded Deep Space Nine. Like many of the show’s characters, he’s gone through a nice evolution thus far and now has some experience under his belt. He’s still young and brash (and clearly still lacking in self awareness), but there’s a grim seriousness with which he approaches his duty here as a doctor. Jake on the other hand, seems almost foolishly confident about being able to stomach the kerfuffle they’re going into.

“Oh, hey there. I’m, uh, supposed to be doing this, I swear. No need to bring it up with anyone else though, ha ha.”

The makeshift hospital is set up in a cave, and as Jake and Bashir enter, they’re immediately thrust into a chaotic, bloody mess. Seeing a bloody officer slumped down on the ground, Jake calls for help, and the head doctor Kalandra quickly confirms that yeah, he’s dead bro. Bashir tends to a frantic Starfleet soldier who got shot in the foot, and immediately determines that it was a self-inflicted wound. Not hiding his disgust, he quickly moves onto other patients. Jake is similarly repulsed by this coward, who grabs him and gets super defensive about what happened before melting into anguish as he the horror of what he’s done begins to settle in. The Klingons were advancing on his position, and his fellow soldiers ran away. He was also terrified, and shot himself. Self-inflicted wounds were a recurring thing in M*A*S*H and it’s cool to see that translated to the world of Trek. “Oh god, what did I do?!” the guy blubbers as reality sets in.

Jake moves off to the side and tries to collect his thoughts, to get in writer’s mode. But he can’t get in the head space. A young medic (Kirby) asks for Jake’s help to tend to a patient, who reaches up to leave a big, bloody, and thematically symbolic handprint on Jake’s clothing. You’re in it now, kid.

The entire scene is just crazy good, and does such an effective job of popping the sterile bubble Star Trek uses to depict wounds and injuries. We’re far beyond little gizmos erasing minor boo boos – this is war, against a warrior race who likes to fight, and with blades. We only see two living, attacking Klingons at the very end, but the episode does an effective job of creating a sense of terror at their presence and closing approach throughout.

After a while, Jake has gotten into the hang of helping out and we get a montage of him and Kirby hoisting bodies around. At one point, Jake is frozen in place when he first sees the morgue and its piles of bagged bodies as a medic casually tags a foot and zips it up. It’s intense.

“Now that all the bodies are gone, it’s time to operate.” *wiggles eyebrows*

When Jane and Kirby go to retrieve another patient, they find Bashir and the other doctors slumped on the ground together, having successfully treated everyone. I like the shot of them together, and it visually communicates the instant camaraderie and intimacy they have as medical personnel having fought and won a battle. Bashir just met these people, but he’s already one of them and they’re resting in a pile on the ground. Normal decorum melts away in extreme circumstances. Resting your head on someone’s shoulder in an office is weird and potentially deserving of an HR meeting, but in post-triage on the front line, everyone’s too tired to care. The episode is full of many human moments of all tenors and sizes, and this is a good small one.

Bashir and Jake sit down to eat, and Bashir makes a macabre little joke about making an incision in his food. Jake is immediately overcome by nausea and Bashir hurriedly rushes him outside to barf. A Bolian medic completely bereft of fucks to give asks someone to pass the salt as they run by. LOL. The mess hall was one of he main communal areas of M*A*S*H that a lot of scenes took place in, and the replicator area in this episode serves the same story function.

“This tasteless carnage has to stop, every day it gets worse. These eggs are drier than my sense of humor. Rimshot.”

Now purged, Jake is dumbfounded about the soldiers who ran away in the heat of battle, as well as the one who shot himself. He can’t understand how a trained combat officer who’s been through all the psych tests could falter in the moment. Bashir explains that no amount of training and evaluations can really prepare one for actual war. It’s a lesson Trek often imparts, the complicated and bumpy layer of reality that mere facts and knowledge can’t match.

In the mess hall again, Jake talks with the medic Kirby, who shares some gossip about how close the Klingons are getting to them and how it’s only a matter of time until they overrun the front lines. Jake is nervously incredulous that they’re not in any danger, but Kirby immediately dashes his hopes. A recent defeat has gotten the Klingons extra ornery and they’re spoiling for revenge. Not only that, they don’t give a shit about medical personnel and are gleefully willing to kill anyone they come across – even patients in bed. After summing up how doomed they are, Kirby casually pivots to getting to know Jake. The actor hits a perfect balance of grave concern, but also conveys the sense that this is just life for him. There’s a certain desensitization that occurs when you’re in a long-term high pressure situation. The approaching Klingons are like the weather – you can’t really do anything about them. It’s a messy storm of murder that’s going to get here soon. Anyway, how’s things with you?

“All I could think about was how scared I was of not being able to make enough hilarious wisecracks during surgery. Klinger only has so many dresses and slut-shaming Major Houlihan is its own can of problematic worms I haven’t even begun to dissect yet.”

Internally, fear begins to grip Jake as Kirby blabs on. He’s no stranger to danger, as Deep Space Nine has come under attack numerous times (and let’s not forget Wolf 359, where his mom died). But he realizes that it’s never felt as real as it does now, and it’s because his dad isn’t around to protect him.

On cue, an explosion outside signals that the Klingons have started attacking again. The hospital’s reactor has been taken out and unless they get a new source of power they will lose a lot of patients. Bashir decides to retrieve a generator from their runabout, and needs Jake’s help to carry it.

As they venture outside, they suddenly come under fire by the Klingons. We don’t actually see them, just the explosions from their weapons as they rain down on Jake and Bashir. Jake loses sight of Bashir in all the smoke, and in a moment of panic turns tail and runs away.

“I UH, FORGOT THE HOTDOG BUNS! I’LL BE RIGHT BACK, I PROMISE!”

It’s an extremely gutsy decision of the episode to have one of its characters act out of cowardice. Quark is the show’s resident coward, but as is the case with all Ferengi, his lack of bravery is always played for laughs. The stakes here are grave, as Jake turns his back not just on Bashir but the entire hospital that’s depending on the two of them for power. But at the same time, it’s 100% understandable – this is a child with zero preparation or training who has never truly been in a war zone. What the fuck would any of us civilians do? I don’t have any illusions about how much braver I would be in the same circumstances. It recalls Data’s fearful paralysis in Star Trek Generations – having never experienced mortal terror, he’s overwhelmed and unable to save La Forge. It’s essentially a new emotion for Jake as well. Being in the vicinity of violence is a lot different than being shot at, and he completely buckles under the pressure.

Running away from the battle, Jake falls and finds himself on top of a dead Klingon’s body. It’s only one in a smokey field of dead bodies – Starfleet and Klingon. It’s yet another grim sight of the episode, and gives it a sense of gritty reality we hadn’t seen in Trek before. Jake continues running and falls into a foxhole where he’s immediately brained in the head by a wounded Starfleet officer.

“Say big guy, you didn’t happen to pop in on Hot Lips while she was changing, did you? She’s decapitated Frank Burns for less!” *wiggles eyebrows*
“This grisly battlefield is an even more horrific sight than Hunnicutt’s mustache!” *adjusts collar*

It’s one of the most memorable bit parts of Star Trek, and this Burke guy looks (and sounds) like he was plucked right out of some 1950’s war movie. He’s as grizzled and craggy as they come, and barks at Jake to give him a hypospray. He’s all torn up and in bad shape, and demands that Jake turn him over so he can die facing the sky. He explains that he was giving cover fire to a “hopper” filled with his platoon trying to escape, and seems pleased that they may have made it. Jake wants to help him, but the hopelessness of doing so quickly sets in. He admits to having run away from the doctor that was with him, and Burke admonishes him for his cowardice (thanks, bud). Jake yearns to find some meaning in what he’s done – maybe he was meant to fall in this hole so that he can save this poor guy. His writer side is trying to spin some sort of narrative and theme about what’s going on, but there isn’t any. As Burke tells him, life just doesn’t work that way and proceeds to choke on his own blood as he dies painfully in front of Jake. His haunting eyes continue to stare at him. Fucking yikes! It’s horrifying, and Jake can’t help but take off running again.

“Tell my wife… I… hated her cooking…” *dies*

The subplot of the episode focuses on the other Sisko, Ben – and his struggle with knowing that Jake is in potential danger. It feels a bit like padding, especially a monologue from Dax about one of her previous hosts‘ children having a serious illness. I like the idea of the Trill and their multiple lives, but the execution never measured up and episodes always slow to a crawl whenever Dax waxes on about her past. Farrell at least gives an emotional, tearful performance. More entertaining is a meeting Ben has with Odo, who painfully recounts how he tried to apprehend two cheaters at Quark’s but momentarily forgot he wasn’t a shapeshifter anymore and took a nasty spill. Brooks is great here, and I love that he already knows the story, but just wants to hear Odo tell it because he could use the distraction. However, he’s quickly reminded of Jake as Odo notes how fragile human bodies are. And when he hears that the reinforcement ship Starfleet sent to Ajilon was destroyed, he bolts out of his seat to go to the colony himself. Aboard the Defiant, he tinkers with the ship’s systems in order to busy himself. Some of it’s cute, but none of it is necessary. I could have gone for a lot more Star M*A*S*H instead. Alas.

“Girl, do not even TRY to deny what happened on the Promenade last night! You were a quantum mess and we have the sensor logs!”

Jake finally returns to the hospital, and Kirby is shocked and relieved that he’s alive. He tells him that Bashir somehow made it back with the generator all by himself but is recovering from his injuries. OOF. Jake can’t bring himself to face Bashir, but Kirby – unaware of Jake’s cowardice – insists. Bashir is overcome with relief to see Jake alive, and berates himself for putting him in this whole situation in the first place. Jake angrily lashes out, and thinks to himself how his overwhelming shame couldn’t allow him to stand Bashir’s apologizing. Jake leaves him and lambasts himself for his cowardice, wishing that everyone knew about it because that’s what he deserves.

Jake brings some food to the soldier who shot himself. He mopes about how he can become an asteroid worker now that his Starfleet career is all but over. He reflects on how his life seemed to be going according to plan until all this happened. Jake now understands what it’s like to be terrified in a fire fight. The guy tells Jake that he’s the only person who isn’t regarding him with disgust, and he can’t stand the way everyone is treating him. We certainly saw Bashir’s reaction, but I wonder if people are really giving him bad vibes, or if he’s projecting his own self-loathing. Probably both. At any rate, Jake now understands what the guy was feeling, and no longer has any moral authority to judge him. It’s nice that this is all communicated through Lofton’s acting and the dialogue, instead of told to us through the narration. The soldier absolutely hates himself, but seems briefly relieved that Jake can somehow understand his feelings. Jake tries to assuage his guilt, but the guy’s not having it. He doesn’t feel he deserves to be in Starfleet, and therapy isn’t going to change what he did. Even if they don’t shit-can his ass, he’s going to quit and be an asteroid miner. He then wishes that instead of shooting his foot, he had aimed higher. Holy shit!

“You Klingon bastards… you’ve. Killed my foot!” ‘You Klingon Bastards’ being what I call myself when I look in the mirror.”

It’s all pretty fucking real, and I appreciate how stripped down the sci-fi elements of the episode are. You could pretty much take this scene and plop it into an episode of M*A*S*H and it would function exactly the same. There’s something disappointing about the reactions of everyone else besides Jake, that in this enlightened future there’s not much understanding or empathy for the breakdown this guy had. But it certainly is realistic – no one likes a coward. But it’s easy to judge when you haven’t been there. It fits in with Deep Space Nine’s more nuanced and less idealistic depiction of humanity, and how difficult things get when you leave the paradise of Earth. It’s not squeaky-clean or perfect as The Next Generation liked to imply.

The episode’s title (and theme) of the randomness of fate is underlined with the opposing fates of its soldier characters. Burke, the tough-as-nails asskicker who saves a whole platoon dies in agony in some random hole. While Foot Boy here folds like origami under pressure, survives, and gets to rest comfortably in a bed. The strong don’t always survive, and it’s sometimes the weakest ones who squeak by relatively unscathed. Likewise, Bashir performs heroically to save the hospital and almost dies because of it while Jake runs away and is coddled with concern and worry. None of it is fair or logical, but such is life – and war. This is largely what eats at Jake – the fact that he’s skated through this mess when he feels that he deserved far worse. It’s not unlike the survivor’s guilt that is part and parcel with war. Why does one person get to live when so many around them don’t?

“They say binging the entire second season of Picard is the worst way to go. You can actually feel your brain melting…”

The medics sit around and contemplate the worst way to die via the Klingons. The gallows humor here definitely recalls that of M*A*S*H‘s and is funny. The droll Bolian is one of the standouts of the episode, and I love how dry this fucker is. He’s incredulous that getting beheaded from a bat’leth would be a clean death, since the last thing you could see would be your own decapitated body. Jake’s not amused by the dark jocularity, and snaps at Kirby when he starts joshing him. He yells at everyone (but mostly himself) how stupid and pointless the whole situation is, and how none of it will matter in a few years – whether you saved a hopper full of people or shoot yourself in the foot.

Bashir pulls him aside, knowing that something is wrong. But Jake is far too ashamed to want to talk about it and cries afterward. Given the at times unrealistically idealistic depiction of Wesley Crusher, it’s refreshing to see Deep Space Nine handle a youth’s characterization in a much more realistic and relatable way.

“Oh god… some type of pun between Klinger and Klingon was there the whole time and I didn’t see it. I’m no writer…” *cries*

He awakens later as the Klingons are attacking the hospital. They have to evacuate, and the medical personnel are rushing the patients out as only two Starfleet troops protect them. Jake hides under a table, which is not a great look. But of course, that’s the point. He’s forced out of the room when it starts to cave in and is one of the last people to leave as the Klingons enter and take out the Starfleet security guys. Hiding behind some stuff, Jake grabs a phaser and starts blindly firing it at the ceiling as the Klingons close in on him. He inadvertently causes a cave in and screams as he gets buried in rubble.

“I’m invisible! Virtually undetectable so long as you sit on this table and look directly at the ceiling!”
“Eat phaser, cave set! Let’s see you get re-used next week now!” [Next week on DS9: the crew wrestles with a morally grey crisis inside of a burned up lava tube.] “Arghhh!”

Bashir and Sisko wake him up, and explain that the cease fire has been reinstated and that the Klingons have left the system. Ben congratulates Jake for caving in the ceiling and saving everyone. He’s a hero! Rather than feeling vindicated, Jake feels even worse because he knows he’s not. He still acted out of fear, just as he did when he ran away. But it makes him realize that the line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people think.

The voiceover narration, as it turns out, is the article Jake wrote about the ordeal. Ben reads it as Jake anxiously sits beside him. His father tells him that what he’s written would be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a battle before, even though they might not care to admit it. If nothing else, Jake at least realized his goal from the beginning of the episode of writing something emotional that people can relate to. Benjamin tells Jake that writing truthfully about yourself the way he has takes courage, and that he’s proud of him. As always, the warmth between these two is great. Jake smiles at the vindication from the person he loves and admires the most.

“Thanks for the suggestion, dad. But I think I’ll call it something other than ‘The Yellow Belly of Jake-o.'”

“Nor the Battle to the Strong” is a startling and gritty portrait of life on the front lines, a self-contained tribute to M*A*S*H and an unflinching character study on one of Deep Space Nine’s least featured players. War is such a fascinating subject for drama because of the entirety of the human condition it encompasses – from horror to glory, and from grace under pressure to cowardice. The series wasn’t afraid to take risks, and the one it does with this episode pays off in a harrowing way. War is hell, and Deep Space Nine never shied away from that basic truth. It’s only human to be afraid of it, something we should all share.


Stray Observations:

  • One of the most interesting unanswered questions of the episode is how Bashir feels after reading Jake’s article. We briefly see a befuddled reaction from Bashir, but it’s very nebulous and the events of the episode aren’t referenced again. I can’t imagine he’s thrilled about it – either at Jake for abandoning him or at himself for putting a kid (his boss’ son, mind you) who was so very not ready for war in the thick of it. There’s no enmity about it suggested in any future episode, and I’m normally fine with open-ended questions. But I felt like some closure between the two of them might have been nice.
“Wait a minute… this doesn’t have the totally true sex scene I described in lurid detail to Jake…”
  • Interestingly, the second scene with Foot Guy and Jake was added simply to pad out the short running time of the episode. But thematically, it seems like the most significant one of the episode for Jake.
  • Speaking of more shit added to the episode, there’s a mercifully brief storyline about Quark trying to devise a decaf Raktajino coffee drink for Kira, all because O’Brien doesn’t want his kid to be born with a caffeine habit. Dax can’t help but chide men for being all weird and emotional about pregnancy, and it quickly devolves into a dumb as hell argument of the sexes involving Odo, Quark, and Worf. It’s just one scene but I hate it so much. O’Brien being controlling over what Kira eats and drinks is deeply weird and gross. Plus, why is it up to Quark to create a decaf version of a popular Klingon drink? Does this not already exist? You’d think the esteemed beverage warriors of Klargh’bucks Coffee would have solved this problem and decaf Raktajino would be a widely available alternative.
  • Alexander Siddig was disappointed that a Bashir-Jake friendship didn’t develop from this episode. Indeed, it would have been interesting. Overall, Jake did not have any longstanding unique relationships with any of the other main characters aside from his father. He was O’Brien’s apprentice for an episode or two, and Kira was invested in his well being in the alternate future of “The Visitor,” but that’s about it. He was also Quark’s confidant later in the show which I liked, but nothing notable came from that. I always felt like Jake was a secondary character who got first billing. He had more screen time than Nog or Keiko, but the series never did a whole lot with him. Even when he marooned himself on the Dominion-controlled DS9, which seemed like a ripe opportunity to come into his own.

    At the end of the season, Bashir and Jake do get a very brief scene together as they prepare the infirmary for the Dominion assault on DS9. It seems like a direct follow-up to this episode, but that’s about it.
  • No detail is given about what publication Jake is writing for, and I think a single line of dialogue would have sufficed. Up until now, Jake’s interest and writing was limited to fictional storytelling, but now he’s an aspiring journalist? The series goes back and forth on this, and although writers can have more than one interest/specialty, it seems a little unfocused. We’ve seen very little of the press in Star Trek, and it would have been both a good opportunity to depict that aspect of the world, but also give Jake more to do. I guess it pales in comparison to the swashbuckling action Trek normally has, though. Ironically, the writers of the show didn’t seem to have much interest in Jake’s writing. “In the Pale Moonlight” was originally going to be a Jake-focused journalism episode where he comes to blows with his father over his conspiracy machinations, but the writers went in a different direction. Which was the right decision, but it’s interesting how Jake’s career could have been incorporated into the series better.
  • The USS Farragut that is destroyed by the Klingons here was the ship that beamed up Picard and Riker at the end of Star Trek Generations. Pour one out for the big F, you shall be missed.
  • One would think that by the 24th century they would have figured out if a body-less head’s brain was still briefly functional/conscious or not (spoiler: it proooobably is…). I like the scene too much to care, though.
  • Jake mentions Starfleet psych tests, and I wonder if this is a reference to the goofy ritual we saw Wesley endure in Season 1 of TNG.
I… forgot what I was going to caption…. 🤩 Say doctor, is it beautiful in here or is it just you? *wiggles eyebrows*