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  • Ric Crossman

4.1.12 Pro Nihil Mori

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Battle Lines

Golin Shel-la reminds me of someone.
"Oh HAI, Ben."

War, huh? What is it good for? Killing recurring characters in order to generate cheap drama, it turns out.

The Vengeance Factor

“Battle Lines” was never going to be a personal favourite, given its decision to shuffle Kai Opaka off the board in only her second appearance. This show is now two for two in killing off its significant (possibly) non-white women [1] – even if, rather interestingly, both actors get the majority of their lines after their characters have died.

(The fact I’m editing this entry the week Camille Saviola passed away doesn’t exactly help – I was always irked that we didn’t get to see more of Kai Opaka, and now we never will).

It’s true the resulting power vacuum at the highest level of Barjoran religion proves fertile ground for later stories, but none of that actually required the Kai be ignored for ten episodes and then abandoned. Quite the reverse, actually; giving the Kai more to do in the immediate aftermath of the Cardassian withdrawal would have provided real weight to her fate here.

Therein lies the paradox, though. It’s precisely because Kai Opaka was considered “expendable” that she was chosen to be the one who’d be, well, expended. The cheapness was part of the point. That’s a decision simultaneously so cynical and so incompetent that the rest of the episode would have had to be pretty damn sweet to balance out the sour taste Kai’s death leaves.

Sadly, “Battle Lines” is probably best described as “essentially edible”. You wouldn’t send it back if it was served to you in a restaurant, but you wouldn’t eat there again for a while, either. Aside from Opaka’s fate, the central problem with this episode is its theme. “War is bad” is about the most obvious, banal position Trek could possibly take. It’s not that I disagree, as a general rule. It’s that almost nobody disagrees.

(Though of course it didn’t do Deep Space Nine any harm in the long run. There’s a grim irony to watching the show be so po-faced about the futility of conflict fourteen months before the Jem’Hadar are introduced.)

This does not make every piece of art with an anti-war message worthless. That would be an utterly ludicrous position to take. What it does mean, though, is that good anti-war art has to be more than just opposed to war qua war. And to be fair, “Battle Lines” realises this, at least in part. The endless conflict between the Ennis and the Nol-Ennis is basically presented as a limiting case for the justification of war. It’s not just that Shel-La (and by extension everybody else) has forgotten the original casus belli. It’s that it’s difficult to conceive of what it could have been, for it to still actually be relevant. Both of Shel-La’s suggestions, water and land, are clearly no longer an issue. The water flows on another world. Any land they once craved is now just a smear on a pinprick, orbiting a twinkling dot. Even the second order goal of wiping out the enemy is gone – the fighting is as pointless tactically as it is strategically. All that’s left now is two camps of sadist-hating sadists, inflicting endless pain and suffering to demonstrate their bone-deep loathing of those who inflict suffering and pain.

As a comment on the absurdity of warfare, this certainly gets the job done. This idea is strengthened further still by the naming convention adopted here (YES I AM GOING TO GO ON ABOUT NAMES AGAIN). The use of the syllable “Nol” here is interesting. It would seem to suggest a complement of some kind – Zlangco’s people are labelled as literally “Not Ennis”. The problem is that this only works until Zlangco himself refers to Shel-La’s people as “Ennis”, and doesn’t blink at his opposite number calling him “Nol”. This isn’t actually proof that “Nol-Ennis” is the name Zlangco’s people use for themselves, but absent any counter-evidence and given the episode’s reliance on the symmetry between the two sides, it seems likely that they do.

And that’s hugely important. This is by no means a blanket statement, but as a rule, social groups tend not to self-define according to what they’re not. Martin Luther didn’t suggest those who agreed with him called themselves “Not Catholics”. There’s no ethnic group who defines themselves as simply “non-white”. This is less true of political movements, admittedly – Antifa being the most immediate example. Even then, though, the fight over abortion is not being waged by those who refer to themselves “Anti-choice” and “Anti-life” (which is not in any way to suggest both sides are equally valid). Indeed, Antifa in at least approaching a rule-proving exception, in that it’s explicitly a rainbow coalition whose only entrance requirement is an opposition to a very specific ideology.

Given the above, it seems unlikely that the formulation “Nol-Ennis” represents opposition to the Ennis. More likely, it represents kinship. This is the Starks and the Karstarks, or the Baggins and the Sackville-Baggins, depending on your literary touchstones. This war isn’t ridiculous simply because of the lack of a goal, but because “Ennis” is a family name. “Nol-Ennis” doesn’t represent opposition to “Ennis”, it represents their closeness – two groups who share the blood they’re now spilling.

It would be hard to imagine a more effective demonstration of how war can be perpetuated far beyond the stage where there exists even the thinnest excuse for it to continue. Which is the point, of course. It’s a point made within the text, in fact; Shel-La explains their erstwhile peers expelled the Ennis and Nol-Ennis to this barren rock specifically so as to provide an example to others. And yes, all societies say the punishments they dole out to criminals constitute an example. But here there’s a second meaning – the two warring groups serve to demonstrate the sheer pointlessness of a struggle waged in the name of vengeance.

The Ennis and the Nol-Ennis seem only too happy to oblige in their jailers’ demonstration. The suffering Sisko finds appalling enough to render the Prime Directive irrelevant is almost entirely self-inflicted. Both armies could end the war at any moment and go their separate ways – there’s an entire planet out there, they don’t need Ben’s help to ensure neither side ever has to lay eyes on the other ever again.

But they refuse to try. Their need to inflict pain is greater than their desire to avoid it, even as they insist they’re fighting for the sake of all the pain they’ve suffered. The two groups can’t even discuss escape without demanding ludicrous concessions from each other as an excuse to get back to the murdering. In doing so the two sides demonstrate their pointless bloodshed isn’t merely a crime, it’s its own punishment as well.

War And Inner Peace

There’s some real potential in this setup, then. Given the intention was for this episode to deliver an anti-war message, however, there’s something rather critical that’s missing. Yes, pointless and unwinnable wars are quite clearly a bad thing. The problem, though, is the number of people on both sides of such a war that fail to actually recognise it as pointless and unwinnable. And for those people, the kind of criticism “Battle Lines” offers is never going to hit its mark. The people you want to get the message to aren’t going to realise they’re the ones you’re addressing. Put bluntly, there’s too many ways the warmongers can delude themselves the butcher’s bill is worth the paying – that yes, there is such a thing as a bad war, but that their war clearly can’t be one of them. Why else, after all, would they be fighting?

If you want an anti-war message to hit home, then, it does little good to tackle the worst arguments for war. You need to present the best arguments, and see which, if any, actually hold.

This is important not just to ensure a more powerful anti-war message, but also because we need to be clear-eyed about the exceptions to the rule that wars are pointless. Somehow “Battle Lines” misses this necessity, despite the fact it spends some of its run-time exploring the psychological damage Kira picked up in an obviously justifiable and necessary armed rebellion against fascist oppressors. Not only does the episode not notice it’s implicitly condemning the Bajoran Resistance, it goes so far as to play for laughs the idea that Kira didn’t really achieve all that much as a resistance fighter. The overall effect is to push the idea that war is always bad, and that those who fight it (and become horribly damaged by the experience) fail to achieve anything useful. Given who and what the Cardassians are serving as obvious allegories for, that’s an outrageous position to take.

It’s not all bad news, fortunately. As terrible as the implications are, Saviola and Visitor still do great work with what they’re handed. Saviola is particularly impressive. Opaka was a fairly underdeveloped character in both her appearances – neither script really offered her actress any angle other than “stoic holy woman” – but Saviola absolutely does her best with what little is offered her. In particular, she entirely sells the idea that Opaka knows she’ll never see Bajor again, but has accepted it as the Prophets’ will [2], a decision nicely supported by the orb-vision-esque lighting effect as the Yanghtzee Kiang goes down. Visitor, meanwhile, absolutely nails Kira being simultaneously delighted and terrified about hanging out with the Kai, just as she does the mixture of ecstasy and horror her character feels when Opaka reads her pah.

It’s also notable just how good a job Opaka does with helping Kira out here. I mean, OK, this is literally her job, and you’ve got to figure that in the days since the occupation ended the Kai has had a lot of variations on this conversation already. Still, though, for someone who got her spine shattered in a shuttlecraft crash just hours before [3], Opaka is remarkably on her game. She not only makes the link between Kira’s experiences with the Resistance and her angry criticisms of the Ennis’ defensive precautions, but realises Kira hasn’t made that link herself. She then moves on – with lovely irony – to tearing down Kira’s own defences. Notice how poor Kira’s answer is when Opaka asks if she sees herself in the Ennis? “They’re content to die; I’ve always fought to stay alive”. That’s an utterly terrible way to differentiate the Ennis and the resistance, and thereby demonstrates how desperately Kira doesn’t want to have to think about the question at all.

Clearly, this isn’t enough for Opaka. She knows full well Kira has to think about the question. So she keeps pushing. Subtly, through the medium of a question, sure. But it’s still pushing. Kira’s next answer is more considered. She argues she’s not defined by what she felt she needed to do, and that an understanding of a war’s necessity doesn’t preclude an understanding of that war’s horror.

This still isn’t enough, though. Opaka knows Kira is using the righteousness of the fight against the Cardassians as a reason to not confront the damage that fight did to her, and the way it has shaped her thinking. She knows Kira can’t find peace within herself until she admits that, in her heart, she’s still very much at war.

It’s both tragic and entirely believable that Kira can’t reconcile who she was with what she believes her religion demands she be. Little wonder she has responded by shutting down a piece of herself. And as saddening as seeing Kira in such straits is, it’s equally joyous to watch her Kai explain that this was never a question of religious censure, but of accepting one’s past – that we can accept even the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, and thereby move on to become better people. It’s even arguable that, by charting Kira’s gradual realisation of her own position, the episode at least approaches an appropriate level of subtlety on the subject of warfare.

Except, that is, for two problems. The first is the fact that Hilary J. Bader, who gets the story credit here, was explicit on the fact that the whole point of “Battle Lines” is to expose war as pointless. The second is how difficult it is to believe an episode can have a useful position on the nature of war when it does so badly in understanding how war is perpetuated – and how war is stopped.

“If You’ve Had Enough Of Suffering…”

I’ve already nodded at a fair few aspects to this episode that I unambiguously love (and let me add two more: the crashed runabout looks great, and O’Brien and Dax are a lot of fun as a pairing – I wish we’d got to see them interact more often). None of them are my favourite, though. That would be the moment where Sisko realises Shel-La and Zlangco are liable to sink any chance for peace with their petty posturing, and responds by directly addressing their troops:

If you’ve had enough of this, then make your leaders stop and listen. Your only reason to live is to make each other suffer. If you’ve had enough of suffering, then make them stop. I’m not here to be a mediator, but if you ask for an alternative I’ll give you one.

This is utterly brilliant. This is Star Trek remembering, just for a moment, that it’s never the “great men” who write history. Or at least, if they do, it’s done exclusively via dictation. The real power is in the people who, en masse, hold the pen. I’ve been reading up on the First World War a lot recently, so I see in Sisko’s brief speech echoes of the knowledge that it wasn’t Tsar Nicholas who pulled Russia out of that vile sinkhole of mud and viscera, it was the Bolsheviks. Likewise, the Kaiser didn’t get to smear his blood-drenched hands all over the Armistice of Compiegne because the German Revolution had already ran him out of town. “Great” men start wars, but most often it’s the people who end them, one way or another.

Hooray for Sisko here, then. Trek doesn’t often get this close to acknowledging these kinds of issues. It comes at a cost, though. By allowing this to surface, however briefly, it makes the fact it’s ignored at the end of the episode all the more frustrating. I mean, sure, Shel-La’s reaction to Bashir’s plan to deactive the nanites – asking that only the Nol bots get turned off, so he can wipe them out once and for all – is appalling. He’s just one guy, though. There are clearly at least dozens of people on this moon – quite possibly hundreds – and deciding they should continue to suffer indefinitely because Shel-La proves to be awful seems like a pretty transparent case of collective punishment. Even leaving my own politics out of it, it’s astonishing that an episode that thinks it’s anti-war would end up embracing the idea that an entire population should be condemned to fight and bleed just because their leader is a warmonger. Somehow “Battle Lines” manages to go from a position of essentially total pacifism, to one which was used to justify pretty much every Western military action in the Middle East since 2003.

It’s just so disappointing. I can’t think of another episode I’ve covered so far that I’d be so happy to see a sequel to, just so the disastrous mistakes made in the final moments here could be corrected. Perhaps the production team figured having the Kai around made further action unnecessary – that ultimately she’d be able to summon up all her truly impressive levels of competence and empathy, and broker a peace. And I honestly wouldn’t bet against that. For all the respect I have for Opaka, though, expecting she can sort everything out is just one more way of arguing wars come to an end because of individual rather than collective action.

The final result is an episode that tries to make a simple, even trite point, and fails to stick the landing. In part, though, that’s because the show’s complexity and potential don’t allow such a lack of ambition to work. Which is an interesting problem to have. It’s not that “Battle Lines” could never have been pulled off satisfactorily. It’s that it has the misfortune to be tried on a show that’s already, just twelve weeks in, blessed with too much complexity and intelligence for so simple a message to not end up being self-defeating. By failing to work, the episode demonstrates just how good the show it’s part of really is. Characters like Kira and even Opaka, and situations like the first days of Bajor’s post-occupation existence, are simply too full of potential for anything but the best to be acceptable.

Thank the Prophets, then, that we have “The Storyteller” coming up next.


2. Battle Lines

[1] I want to note here that I’ve not been able to find any verifiable details about how Camille Saviola defined her own ethnicity. Memory Alpha describes her as Italian-American, which perhaps makes her history of playing Latinx characters somewhat problematic. I don’t feel it’s my place to make that call, though. I’d argue that, if only on the level of cosmetics, Saviola enriched Deep Space Nine in a way that made pushing her out of frame an issue.

[2] I very much doubt it’s escaped her attention that she has once again become a figure of peace and hope amidst a brutal war. This would work rather better as a narrative parallel were the episode not so insistent on generating a bunch of other, far weaker parallels, of course.

[3] Note by the way how Opaka becoming a Christ figure here, with her first ascending (via the wormhole), then returning from the dead, and finally getting stuck amid a bunch of people who hate each other and won’t listen to simple messages of peace. Sure, she’s doing it all backwards, but that’s the kind of thing you have to expect when your gods have no concept of linear time.

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