Overall Rating: 9.4
What I like about this episode is hard to sum up in a nice post-opening one-liner. But I think what sets it apart from the many battlefield stories in genre that have explored what it is to be a hero (or a coward) is that it is deeply literary and filled with a love for prose that makes it rich and pleasant to the ear and the mind.
An eager Jake Sisko is writing his first piece for the Federation News Service - they wanted an in depth look at Dr. Bashir (a bit of a hero in the eyes of the Federation). Unfortauntely, Bashir is proving to be incredibly uninteresting to profile (perhaps because he's hiding his true nature and paving over it with platitudes and grandeur) and Jake is convinced his career in journalism will be over before it even starts if he doesn't find a new angle. Be careful what you wish for, though. Things get decidedly more interesting when Bashir's runabout receives a distress signal from a Federation border colony under attack by Klingons. Jake - thinking combat medicine under fire is far more romantic and will play better in print, begs Julian to override his better judgment and take Jake down there with him. Bashir only agrees because no one else is nearby who can assist.
Once down there, Jake is rudely...RUDELY...awakened to the horrible realities of trauma, suffering, and fear that fill a battlefield. He does well at first...helping out in triage and assisting the doctors and medics with injuries. When he encounters a soldier who shot off his own foot to avoid more fighting, he angrily (and smugly) looks down his nose at the fallen man. But when he is cut off from Bashir on a scramble to the runabout to look for supplies by aerial bombardment, he turns tail and runs for his life, stumbling over a soldier who's been cut to shreds and is near death. That soldier - his romantic idea of a hero - wrings some focus into Jake long enough to get help with a pain killer and to extract a promise from Jake that when he dies, he'll make sure his face is pointing to the sky. After witnessing this death, Jake flees again, barely managing to get back to base in one piece.
Meanwhile, upon learning that Jake is in harms way, his father mounts up on the Defiant and goes racing off to rescue his son. During the interminable flight, he spends every waking moment doing mundane maintenance on the ship to keep his mind off his own fear. Jadzia shares similar stories from her parental past lives and suggests that the warp core could use some more tweaking (awww).
Now deeply depressed, Jake is certain he is a coward - no hero like his father. His first test and he believes he has utterly failed. After realizing the soul-crushing fear that soldiers must feel in combat, Jake returns to see the "coward" who'd blown off his own foot. He finds now that this is the only man he can talk to and understand. The man grieves over the end of his honorable career and hopes that he can latch on as an asteroid miner. Driven to madness by what he believes is a reflection of his own flawed character, Jake angrily rails at Bashir and the other doctors, insisting that when all of this is over, no one will remember why they were fighting and who was the hero or the coward.
But no one has much time to linger on these ideas...the Klingons have sent reinforcements and they're coming. They breech the base perimeter while patients are still in transit to evacuation tunnels that lead away from the fighting. Doctors are forced to pick up phasers and fight the invaders, but they're about to be royally screwed and everyone knows it, including Jake, who dives under a desk clutching a phaser and fires wildly into the air, managing to topple the support beams holding open the doorway through which the Klingons are marching and buying the evacuating staff precious moments to get everyone out of there. Jake is buried under the rubble and his father finds him. Once to safety, Jake rewrites his own narrative, now uncertain what to believe about himself, the combat-dodging veteran, or even what it means to be a hero. His father reads the new work and tells Jake how proud he is of his son's ability to look inside of himself and speak honestly for the whole world to see - a whole new kind of bravery, Jake hadn't even considered.
SABR Matt: A similar personal growth story will later be told with Nog...another underdog thrust into combat...in the 7th season episode "It's Only a Paper Moon," but both of those stories are wonderful in their own unique ways. To expand upon my opening comments, this story is told through the eyes of a writer. It's filled with poetic language in the voice-overs, literary language (including in the title, BTW) and a sort of depth of character focus that can only be achieved by...Rene Echevarria (wow...what a SHOCKER!). It's far more raw...far more brutally honest - and it makes sense to play it this way. It's not just done to shock the audience or tell us in a brutal way that war sucks...it's done because we're seeing it through Jake's eyes and he is brutally honest with himself...a rare and beautiful thing.
I could say a thousand things about this episode...but I think it sort of speaks for itself. It's a wonderfully produced, written, acted and directed piece that sends the crucial message that combat is not a proving ground for heroes, nor a divide that separates the strong from the weak. It's just terrible. Always. There's no "good" war, even if there are necessary ones. And if we accept that war is INCREDIBLY hard on those fighting it, we must also look upon those who fail to live up to expectations (those who would flee from the battle) with compassion. And the best part about this...is that it does not convey those points while celebrating those to whom we should show compassion. We do need to understand the guy who blew his foot off to avoid fighting...but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be consequences and it doesn't mean he's a hero (and nor are Vietnam draft-dodgers). I think what this episode accomplishes, at least for me, is to give me a new level of respect for those who CAN stick with their training and do the kind of fighting we need them to do. The Ben Sisko types...the ones who aren't just trained, but willing and able to leave everything on the field of battle to defend something in which they believe.
And above all else, I think this episode makes it clear that heroism can take many forms, and that all of them, at their roots, are linked to INTENT. Saving a thousand people doesn't make you a hero by default. Greg House has saved at least that many people, but he's no hero (and I think my co-author would agree on that point)...it's the REASON that you are able to do such things that tells. The strength of character it requires to defend one's beliefs at any cost is what defines a hero, even if that defense comes in the form of a self-deprecating and brutally honest piece of prose for the viewing public. That's a kind of heroism too. Jake isn't trained to be a soldier - it's not in his character - that doesn't mean he can't be heroic. And THAT...is why DS9 is such a great canon - the writers see things with a greater appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of human nature and the complexity of life.
Stephanie S.: There are several nice scenes away from the front as well; the exchanges on parenthood in particular are real stand-outs. I'm single and childless myself, but I'd like to think I still understand how Sisko feels in this episode after watching Mom and Dad worry over SABR Matt and me for thirty-odd years.
Once you have a kid, that's it -- you've signed up for a lifetime commitment. When SABR Matt graduated from high school, Dad joked that he was finally "done," but of course he didn't mean it. I know he didn't mean it because he still expresses consternation when SABR Matt doesn't call after a big trip to let us know that he's safely returned to Long Island. And when I took my trip to the basilica last weekend, my phone's battery died, and you can bet Mom and Dad both stayed up waiting for me that night just because they hadn't heard from me and were afraid I'd gotten mugged in DC. Granted, going to DC is not quite like heading into a war zone, but still -- the source of the anxiety is very similar.
Does Rene Echevarria have children of his own? I bet he does; the words that he puts in his characters' mouths feel so profoundly real to me. And that, I think, is another strength of this episode.
Rather like Duet, this script just SINGS with word choices that are memorable long after viewing.
Stephanie S. Chimes In: Though this is a fantastic vehicle for Jake, I wouldn't put it on quite the same level as Duet.
HUGE props to Cirroc Lofton here. He doesn't get a huge amount of screen time, but when he gets a chance to show his chops here, he NAILS it. Absolutely perfect...no missed beats or off tones.
Stephanie S. Chimes In: Yes - Lofton is great. I don't find the guest cast especially impressive, however. Some of their performances are rather on-the-nose.
See the Skinny for full commentary on the message here...there are enough good things in this episode to last a season.
QUARK: I did the best I could. The removal of caffeine from beverages has plagued bartenders and restaurateurs for centuries. You can't expect me to solve it overnight.
O'BRIEN: I'm not paying for that.
ODO: So much for Quark-tajino.
O'BRIEN: I want to get her off caffeine, not poison her. (LOL)
KIRA: You make me sound like some kind of addict.
DAX: She has maybe two raktajinos a day.
O'BRIEN: Look, I just don't want my son to be born with a caffeine habit, that's all.
DAX: You're being ridiculous. Why does pregnancy always make men hysterical? (Seriously, Jadzia? STFU)
O'BRIEN: Excuse me, this is not the first baby I've had.
KIRA: Excuse me. Keiko had Molly.
DAX: It's not up to you to tell Kira what she can and cannot do.
WORF: She is carrying his child, he should have some say.
QUARK: As the lessee, he does have certain rights. Back home, pregnancy is considered a rental.
KIRA + DAX: Rental? (LOL)
ENSIGN: I was stepping over a Klingon. I thought he was dead. He got me right in the foot. You people better get out of here while you still can. The Klingons, there's no stopping them.
BASHIR: This is a phaser burn.
ENSIGN: What are you talking about?
BASHIR: Just sit tight. We'll get to you as soon as we can.
ENSIGN: It's not a phaser burn! (to Jake) It was a Klingon. You weren't there. You don't know what it's like. The Klingons had us pinned down. We were done for. We all knew it. Hendriks and Pajal, they got scared. They ran. They ran! Then Sully got hit in the leg and the medics pulled him off the line. And all I could think was, I wish I were him. And I took my phaser. Oh, God! What did I do to myself? What did I do?
BOLIAN: Find someplace else to stand.
JAKE: No problem.
JAKE [OC]: Triage, the sorting of the wounded, forces decisions that. I got to get a grip (already feeling the stress...well played here).
ODO: You're worried about Jake. I'm sure that Doctor Bashir is looking after him.
SISKO: It seems just yesterday he was five years old, clinging to me because he'd just scraped his knee and I was the only one in the world who could make it better. I remember sometimes getting up in the middle of the night and slipping into his room just to make sure he was all right, and I'd sit there and watch him sleep. And I'd think to myself that no matter what, I wasn't going to let anything bad happen to this child. Now he's a sector away in a war zone, and there's nothing I can do to protect him.
ODO: Try not to worry, Captain. It won't do you or Jake any good.
SISKO: Can't help it. It comes with the territory.
ODO: But Jake is eighteen years old. Does your father still worry about you?
SISKO: Oh, all the time.
ODO: Ah. I never realised how stressful it is to be a parent. I have to say, I don't think it's for me.
SISKO: That's your choice, but you don't know what you're missing. (awwww...I love the way they write parenthood on this show)
JAKE: I'm starved.
BASHIR: Think I'll start with a lateral incision across the thigh joint. Uh oh. Hang on. Out we go. Come on. (Bashir rushes Jake out to be sick - poor kid.)
NURSE: First day?
BOLIAN: Pass the salt. (LOL...gallows humor again...and a bit later...)
BASHIR: How do you feel?
JAKE: Fresh air did me good. You remember that ensign, the one who shot himself?
BASHIR: How could I forget?
JAKE: What's going to happen to him?
BASHIR: Oh, he'll probably be court-martialed.
JAKE: He said that some of the people in his squad got scared and ran.
BASHIR: It happens.
JAKE: But they're Starfleet. They've passed psych-tests. They've spent hundreds of hours in battle simulations.
BASHIR: Simulations can't prepare you for the real thing. Nothing can.
JAKE: Some people say that you don't know what you're really made of until you've been in battle.
BASHIR: Well let me tell you, Jake. There are plenty of situations in life which test a person's character. Thankfully, most of them don't involve death and destruction. (the message enters the script...now Jake must learn it for himself)
KIRBY: It's good to see you've got your appetite back.
JAKE: I have a pretty strong stomach, most of the time.
KIRBY: Don't worry about it. Same thing happened to me my first day. You know what I heard? That ship Starfleet sent, the Farragut? The Klingons intercepted it.
JAKE: Starfleet'll send another one, won't they?
KIRBY: It won't be here for days, and in the meantime we're looking at a ground war which is just what the Klingons want. According to a lieutenant I talked to, they've got so many transport scramblers online that we can't beam troops anywhere.
JAKE: What about using hoppers?
KIRBY: He says the Klingons have been shooting them out of the sky left and right. Unless something changes, he figures the Klingons'll take the settlement the day after tomorrow. Did you see all the bat'leth wounds today? Klingons get mad, they forget about their disruptors, go hand to hand. If you ask me, they're looking to get even for what happened on Ganalda Four.
JAKE: What happened?
KIRBY: They had to retreat. Klingons hate that.
JAKE: At least we don't have to worry about them in here.
KIRBY: Don't be so sure. Medical personnel are fair game as far as Klingons are concerned. They'll even kill wounded right in their beds. They think they're giving them an honorable death. So, how'd you wind up here?
JAKE: I, er, I'm writing an article about Doctor Bashir.
KIRBY: You're a journalist?
JAKE: Not exactly.
KIRBY: What does that mean?
JAKE: I write stories mostly. You know, fiction.
JAKE [OC]: I wonder if Kirby knew that the whole time we were talking, all I could think about was how close the Klingons were (I suspect he did know).
BURKE: Medkit. Over there. Now.
(Jake grabs the kit.)
BURKE: Hypo. Sit me up. Do it. I'm not going to die with my face in the dirt. Okay.
(Burke gives himself a shot.)
BURKE: How's your head?
BURKE: You're lucky I didn't kill you. I thought you were a Klingon. Have you seen any?
BURKE: Klingons. Are there any patrols around? What about Starfleet?
BURKE: It's just you and me then. What are you doing out here? Why'd you leave the settlement?
JAKE: I was outside when the shelling started. I guess I got lost looking for cover.
BURKE: Lucky me. I could use the company. Here. Water.
JAKE: What about you?
BURKE: Go ahead.
BURKE: Probably would've leaked out of me anyway. Don't let me fall over. I want to go out looking up at the sky, not at the ground.
JAKE: Don't worry.
BURKE: You didn't see a crashed hopper around here, did you?
BURKE: They made it!
BURKE: My platoon. The Klingons had us pinned down. We couldn't beam out because they had a transport scrambler running. We called for a hopper. As soon as it set down, the Klingons came after us. CO ordered me and Brice to lay down cover so the squad could get up the ramp. By the time Brice got in, the Klingons were practically on top of us. The hopper was taking such a pounding, I didn't think it would make it off the ground.
JAKE: You stayed behind on purpose, so they could get away.
BURKE: The hypo, where is it?
JAKE: It's empty.
JAKE: I'll get you out of here. I'll make a stretcher
BURKE: With what?
JAKE: Then I'll carry you.
BURKE: Kid, you try carrying me, my guts are going to spill all over your shoes.
JAKE: But I have to do something. I've got to try.
BURKE: Forget it.
JAKE: But I have to. That way this'll all make sense. Maybe I ran for a reason, so I could find you and save your life.
JAKE: From the explosions. We had to get to the runabout for the generator, and the shelling started and I couldn't see Doctor Bashir and the explosions, they kept getting closer. I had to get out of there, so I ran. I ran and I kept running until I found you.
BURKE: The doctor. You left him.
JAKE: It was a mistake.
BURKE: That's what you call it.
JAKE: I didn't mean for it to happen.
BURKE: And now you think bringing me back is going to make everything all right. Sorry, kid. Life doesn't work like that.
(Burke dies coughing up blood, and Jake flees the crater.) (WOW! That is harsh stuff...)
DAX: I know what it's like to worry about a child. Raifi put Tobin through hell. When Neema was six, she came down with Rugalan fever. Audrid spent two weeks in the hospital with her, never left her side. It was hundreds of years ago. I still remember how helpless I felt. I read her all seventeen volumes of Caster's Down the River Light, even though I knew she couldn't hear me. It made me feel like I was doing something, that we were still connected. It wasn't until much after that that I realised that I was doing it as much for me as I was doing it for her.
SISKO: Just to keep busy. So, how did it turn out with Neema?
DAX: She pulled through.
SISKO: Phew. I was hoping you were going to say that. Because if this story had an unhappy ending, I would have never forgiven you.
DAX: Of course, by the time she was twenty one, she wouldn't even speak to me.
SISKO: For how long?
DAX: About eight years.
SISKO: Do me a favor. Tell me about it some other time. Right now, all I care about is seeing Jake. (awwww)
DAX: You will, tomorrow, when we get to Ajilon Prime. You know, Ben, coffee can never be too hot. Are you sure you got the replicator buffers synchronized?
SISKO: You want to check for yourself?
DAX: I think I will. Can I borrow your decoupler?
SISKO: Get your own. I have to check the sonic shower relays.
DAX: Good idea. (how sweet)
BASHIR: Jake! Oh, thank God. I thought you'd been killed. Once the shelling had stopped and I couldn't find you, I assumed the worst. I am so sorry.
JAKE: It's all right.
BASHIR: No. No, it isn't. I should never have brought you here in the first place. Now we're stuck here, the Klingons are massing to attack. What was I thinking!
JAKE: Forget it, okay! What's done is done.
JAKE [OC]: I couldn't stand hearing him apologize to me like that. Not after what I'd done to him.
ENSIGN: Maybe I'll get a job as a cutter. Could be interesting work.
JAKE: What's a cutter?
ENSIGN: You know, on a mining team. They're the ones who split the asteroids up with phasers so the excavators can get at what's inside. You've got to have good aim. No matter what else you can say about me, you can't say that I don't have good aim. If I hadn't hit my foot just right, I would've taken my whole leg off. It's funny. One minute your life's moving along just like you always thought it would, and the next you do something that changes everything, that makes you realize you're not who you thought you were. At the Academy, I did really well in the battle simulations. I never had any problems. But when you're out there and the live shells are detonating all around you, it's a whole different thing.
JAKE: All you can think about is getting away from the explosions.
ENSIGN: Yeah. That's pretty much it. You know something? You're first person I've talked to since I got here who hasn't made me feel like I'm taking up valuable bed space. The way everyone looks at me. I can't stand it. After the court martial, I'm definitely signing up for the next mining expedition to the Gamma Quadrant.
JAKE: Maybe there won't be a court martial.
ENSIGN: You're right. None of us may get out of here alive.
JAKE: No, I mean Starfleet could decide to send you to counseling instead.
ENSIGN: I won't go. I don't deserve to be in Starfleet. Therapy won't change what I did. Nothing will. I just wish I'd aimed that phaser a little higher. (ouch....seriously...ouch)
KIRBY: What do you think, Jake?
JAKE: I think it's not funny.
KIRBY: Of course not. There's nothing funny about having your throat slit
JAKE: Cut it out!
KIRBY: I was just kidding.
JAKE: You think this is some joke. It's not. People are dying! It's all so stupid. This whole stupid war is such a waste. In ten years, no body's going to remember what anybody did here.
JAKE: Maybe you saved a hopper full of people. Maybe you shot yourself in the foot. No one's going to remember! (the way this is delivered still lingers in my mind years after my first viewing)
BASHIR: Jake! Let's take a walk. (they go outside)
JAKE: I'm sorry.
BASHIR: Look, I know you're scared. We all are.
JAKE: No, it's not that. I
BASHIR: What, Jake? What is it?
JAKE: I just didn't think what they were saying was funny.
BASHIR: Come on. That's not what set you off. Something's eating at you, I can see it.
JAKE: I don't know what you're talking about.
BASHIR: Ever since you came back you've been walking around looking miserable.
JAKE: Leave me alone.
JAKE: Leave me alone.
BASHIR: All right, if that's what you want. But if you want to talk you know where to find me.
(Bashir leaves. Jake sits down and finally cries.)
BASHIR: The timing could have been a little better, but he seems to be all right.
SISKO: Sealing the entrance way was a risky thing to do. You nearly brought the whole ceiling down on yourself.
BASHIR: We never would have got these patients out alive if you hadn't done it. You're a hero.
JAKE [OC]: More than anything, I wanted to believe what he was saying. But the truth is, I was just as scared in the hospital as I'd been when we went for the generator. So scared, that all I could think about was doing whatever it took to stay alive. Once it meant running away, and once it meant picking up a phaser. The battle of Ajilon Prime will probably be remembered as a pointless skirmish, but I'll always remember it as something more. As the place I learned that the line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe.
JAKE: I wasn't sure whether to show it to you or not.
SISKO: Anyone who's been in battle would recognize himself in this, but 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. (I always get a bit choked up at the conclusion here)