HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
“Battle Lines” does not tread new ground for either Star Trek or science fiction in general, but it does highlight the ways in which DS9 differs from TNG. “Battle Lines” feels very much like an early TNG script right up until the final scene when Camille Saviola lets us see Opaka’s unflappable demeanor fall away. DS9 lives best in this odd space between anxiety and resolve, unlike its predecessor series, and “Battle Lines” reminds us of same.
O’Brien discovers some old files in the Ops computer systems, including a file about Major Kira. Sisko lets her read it, but her resulting rant gets cut short when Dr. Bashir comms Ops to inform them that Kai Opaka has come to the station. They descend to the airlocks to greet the Kai and find her gazing out at space from behind one of the station’s viewing ports. Kira tells Opaka that she’s looking out into the area of space where the Wormhole opens, and Opaka expresses regret that she won’t see the Wormhole open. Sisko orders the Yangtze Kiang readied, and he, together with Kai Opaka, Major Kira, and Dr. Bashir head into the Wormhole. Before they board the runabout, however, Kai Opaka presents Chief O’Brien with her necklace for him to give to his daughter, Molly.
On the other side of the Wormhole, Sisko and Kira prepare to take the runabout back through when Kira picks up a signal comprised of statistical data. Despite obvious curiosity, Sisko opts to be more cautious, but Kai Opaka stops him and asks that they continue to explore. They lay in a course and discover a moon surrounded by a series of satellites. Kira deduces that the signal must have been sent by a broken satellite as it reached out to its fellows for repair. Another satellite discovers their presence and attacks the runabout, sending it crashing to the moon’s surface.
They pull Opaka’s body out of the wreckage, and Bashir verifies that she’s dead. While Kira mourns, a group of humanoid inhabitants approaches them, and they quickly gather up the DS9 crew and lead them to their hideout. Their leader, Shel-La, explains to Sisko that the Ennis are imprisoned on this nameless moon, fighting an unending war with the Nol-Ennis as part of a punishment for being unable to come to a peace. A Nol-Ennis attack interrupts this discussion, leaving a large portion of the Ennis and a few Nol-Ennis dead, including Shel-La. Just as Sisko begins to process the seriousness of the situation, Kai Opaka enters the cave, very much alive, and to the continued shock of everyone present, the previously deceased Ennis and Nol-Ennis also begin to stir. Shel-La explains that they cannot die because the creators of the prison world meant for their suffering to last as long as possible. Immortality is part of that. When Shel-La revives, Kira argues with him about setting defensive perimeters and fighting his war smarter. Shel-La observes that immortality radically changes the rules of war.
Dr. Bashir discovers some form of mechanical influence—much like nanites—have taken over control of their metabolic functions, but he wants to do additional analysis, for which he’ll need the Yangtze Kiang’s computer system. Shel-La promises to keep him safe while he works, and Bashir runs off to go do computer things on the runabout. Sisko offers to take both Shel-La and the Nol-Ennis and settle them on different worlds. Shel-La is interested, but he does not believe that Zlangco, the leader of the Nol-Ennis, will believe him. Sisko asks him to arrange a meeting, and he does.
As predicted, Zlangco doubts Sisko’s offer, and violence breaks out between the two groups. Sisko finds himself reluctantly involved, and as Bashir exits the Yangtze Kiang, Bashir tackles Sisko out of the way of a potentially fatal blow. Bashir explains to Sisko that while yes, the sort-of-nanites do keep the population alive, their creators made them location specific. If anyone who has died on that moon leaves the moon, the nanites will shut down, killing them. Sisko realizes that this means Kai Opaka can never leave.
After Sisko’s departure, Kira and Opaka talk about Kira’s experiences in the war. Opaka wonders if Kira sees herself in the warring Ennis and Nol-Ennis, and Kira confesses that she believes she has a conscience. However, she worries if the Prophets will forgive her for the things she’s done. Opaka tells her that the Prophets have simply been waiting for her to forgive herself. Sisko, Shel-La, Bashir and the other Ennis return. Opaka can tell with a look that she will never be able to leave this moon. As she comes to this realization, Chief O’Brien, comms Sisko. He and Dax have been tracking a warp eddy current, and upon discovering the satellites, O’Brien realized the Yangtze Kiang has to be on the moon. O’Brien tells Sisko that they’ll have to wait for a bit for O’Brien to come up with a way to deal with the array of satellites and expand the gap in their dampening field in order for them to beam up.
Opaka explains to Kira that the Prophets have put her on this moon to help these two groups to heal just as they directed Kira to the moon in order for her to begin her own healing journey. Bashir wonders if he can alter the program forcing the nanites to keep the Ennis and Nol-Ennis alive. Shel-La loves this idea and considers it the perfect weapon against the Nol-Ennis. Bashir, horrified, abandons the idea. Kira, Sisko, and Bashir beam away from the moon, leaving Opaka to struggle with the daunting task before her.
“Battle Lines” covers no new ground in terms of story, and the theme of the futility of war isn’t even new for Star Trek. “Day of the Dove” served as a source of inspiration for the scriptwriter, Hilary J. Bader. “Battle Lines” also shares substantial thematic similarities with another TOS episode, “A Private Little War,” in which Kirk arms a planet’s indigenous population as part of a proxy war with the Klingons. McCoy worries about whether the war will ever end, and “Battle Lines” proves his hypothesis correct. Granted, “A Private Little War” serves as a commentary on the Vietnam War, and while I don’t think “Battle Lines” targeted a specific conflict, the theme remains a significant one in Trek.
Despite these strong ties to TOS, “Battle Lines” reminds me most of “Loud as a Whisper.” Both episodes feature opposing sides in a conflict that has gone on too far, and some parts of the factions don’t really want the conflict to end. In “Loud as a Whisper,” Riva, the mediator remains on-planet to help the factions work through their conflict as Kai Opaka does in “Battle Lines.” Certainly, there are differences. The episodes do not share the conceit of effective immortality and unending punishment, and “Battle Lines” lacks the thematic emphasis on communication that we find in “Loud as a Whisper.” I’d argue that the most telling difference between the two episodes lies in their respective resolutions. In “Loud as a Whisper,” a TNG episode, Riva remains on the planet with two factions who have agreed to work together. Opaka has no such support. Both Shel-La and Zlangco have demonstrated that neither side has any interest in ending the conflict. Neither does Opaka have anything approaching Riva’s status. He traveled to Solais V at the express invitation of the two factions, and he has what is apparently a well-enough earned reputation as an accomplished mediator that even the population on Solais has heard of him.
Though we know that Opaka largely kept the Bajoran soul alive during the brutal Cardassian occupation, so if there’s someone who would understand the toll endless fighting would take on a soul, it would be Opaka. Unfortunately, neither the Ennis nor the Nol-Ennis knows this, nor would they have the capacity to appreciate it. Not only do they not care who Opaka is, they themselves have zero interest in ending the conflict peacefully. We know from Shel-La that the source of the conflict has disappeared into the mists of time, so neither group is fighting to obtain an objective. Shel-La frankly acknowledges that he and his people live a hellish existence, but when it turns out that Sisko cannot relocate the two groups onto different planets, Shel-La’s only interest in reprogramming the mechanical devices keeping them all effectively immortal is in weaponizing death once again. He knows the conflict is meaningless, but he cannot let go of it.
Opaka’s self-assigned task is therefore not just difficult but actually Sisyphean, and she knows it. The Enterprise leaves Riva on Solais resolute in his purpose. Opaka fakes that same optimism for Sisko and the others, but the real gut punch moment occurs at the very end of the episode. “Battle Lines” ends with Camille Saviola showing us all the cracks in Opaka’s composure. Prophet-ordained duty notwithstanding, Opaka does not know whether she can help the Ennis and Nol-Ennis begin to heal, and that’s a huge difference between TNG and DS9 that looks directly into the heart of what makes DS9 so unique in 90s Trek. For that moment alone, the episode merits a rewatch.
I confess that I dislike the prophecy business. That feels like an unsubtle hook to get Opaka on the station. Prophecy becomes a motif throughout DS9, but there’s just not enough development of it here. Admittedly, if any character would be so driven by prophecy, it would be Opaka, but that’s a relatively thin support on which to balance such a significant part of the story. That said, I do like the exchange between Opaka and Kira. Nana Visitor’s Kira messily breaks down in guilt and anxiety over what the show has told us is a bloody past, and her frustration with the unprofessional way in which the Ennis wage war lends support to Kira as a blooded resistance fighter. The best part of the entire sequence is actually Opaka’s comment; she tells Kira that the Prophets have been waiting for Kira to forgive herself. That’s an incredibly empowering response. The Prophets aren’t going to forgive Kira; Kira has to do the work to forgive herself. As I’ve mentioned before, that journey will be a central character arc for the rest of the series, and Opaka gives Kira permission to start on it here, which is a lovely character moment.
All in all, “Battle Lines,” while perhaps not the most innovative of DS9 stories contains enough gems to be worth forty five minutes of your time.
A solid double
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- ”Battle Lines” marks Opaka’s last appearance as herself rather than a vision, which means we’re gearing up for the election of the new Kai and Louise Fletcher’s delightfully awful Winn Adami.
- The naming in this episode is a Trek as it gets, by which I mean not subtle in the slightest. “Nol-Ennis” purposefully invokes “not-Ennis,” making the conflict between the “Ennis” and the “Not-Ennis.” Yep, we gotcha.
- Casting Jonathan Banks as Shel-La really saves that character from sliding into completely ridiculousness. He conveys Shel-La’s exhaustion with his fate and still manages to make his devotion to savagery believable. That’s a hard balance to strike, and he nails it.
- While I like that O’Brien gets to flex his own genius chops in this episode, I dislike that Dax gets shoved so hard to the rear. Most of her contributions to this episode can be summarized as, “Yes, Chief. Tell me more!” It’s a weird story choice.
- I apparently have been having my own Berenstain Bears moment. I’ve been convinced that Armin Shimerman’s name was spelled “Shimmerman” for my entire adult life. Watching the opening credits, I discovered that I was entirely wrong. My apologies to Mr. Shimerman.