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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "It's Only A Paper Moon"/"Prodigal Daughter"

Illustration for article titled iStar Trek: Deep Space Nine/i: Its Only A Paper Moon/Prodigal Daughter
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“It’s Only A Paper Moon” (season 7, episode 10; originally aired 12/30/1998)

In which in general, we prefer the lie

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

I love big novels. Thousand-page plus ones, the sort that give you back problems from lugging them around all day; the ones you have to figure out how to read in bed, because they’re so big you can’t just lay back and prop them up, and it turns into this negotiation with your arms and physics that means you’re always just a little uncomfortable. I love it when I read a review of a video game and find out it’ll take over 40 hours to play through. I love buying full seasons of a TV show, and knowing I have it there for me, waiting, even though I also know I’ll probably never get around to watching the whole thing. I love getting lost in safe places. And while I’ve made fun of the concept before, and criticized the writers for all the soft science behind it, I would dearly love a holosuite of my own. I’m sure most of us would. Putting aside the troubling psychological implications and the near impossibility of the technology, who wouldn’t want a machine that can take you anywhere, let you do anything, and keep you absolutely safe at the same time? (Forget, for a moment, the fact that so many holo-stories hinge on safety protocols collapsing.) It’s pure fantasy. And pure fantasy is hard to walk away from.


“It’s Only A Paper Moon” has some problems. Once again, we have a holo-program whose parameters and flexibility are mind-boggling, a fact that no one in the episode seems to regard with much more than passing curiosity. Nog spends days—weeks, maybe—living inside a program that, as Vic tells it, was never supposed to be running for more than six or seven hours at a time; and while it’s plausible that the programmers designed the system so that it would be capable of self-sustaining, it’s hard to imagine the resources and foresight that would be required to make something like that work. But really, that’s more a “just go with it” kind of problem. Either you accept that a holosuite program can pretty much simulate a world (at one point, Vic mentions his and Nog’s plans to go to Tahoe, because I guess they can do that?), or you don’t. It’s the future, so I’ll roll with it.

That’s harder to do when it comes to Vic Fontaine, a character who I like (he’s pleasant and no fuss, which is cool) but am still suspicious of. His supposed self-awareness is raises any number of complex issues, but the show hasn’t been interested in addressing any of them. His consciousness was accepted as a simple fact, and while that’s easy to overlook when he’s doing occasional cameo appearances, the more a storyline focuses on him, the weirder it gets. One of the subtler arcs of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” deals with how Vic reacts to being “on” more than he’s used to; the longer the program runs, the more of a life Vic gets to lead apart from his duties as a performer, and the more he gets a taste for existence. Which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense if you think about it. I mean, you could hand wave the whole thing as the program adjusting to Nog’s demands, and providing him with the escape hatch he so desperately needs by simulating a more fully realized Vic, but the strong implication here is that Vic himself (itself?) is experiencing an expanded consciousness. It’s why he goes along with Nog’s need to hide for so long—partly because he’s built to please, and partly because he’s getting into Nog’s plans for a new casino, and enjoying having a life. Everyone on the station who talks to him is fixated on Nog’s well-being, and while that’s understandable, Ezri treats the program (who actually contradicts her advice) as a kind of vaguely benevolent deity; not something she worships, but also not a piece of tech to be ordered around and ignored. (Though she does attempt to force the issue, and it’s Nog who insists on staying.) To really enjoy this, you need to turn your brain off, or at least the parts of it that get caught up on story logic and philosophical implications and whatnot, and that’s not something I’m a fan of. Hell, I don’t even think it’s possible.


Putting that can of worms aside, there’s also the frustrating fact that Vic is the one who finally forces Nog back out into the real world. This is a mixed blessing. If you can overlook the terrifying possibilities of Vic’s existence (he’s a program who can turn himself off and turn himself on! Here’s hoping he doesn’t ever decide to start messing with life support), it’s nice to have the seductive nature of the holosuite fully realized. Of course Nog wouldn’t want to leave such a comfortable, insulating world. Who would? But turning Vic into the world’s most unflappable life coach makes Nog almost a passive figure, someone whose grief and terror are so overwhelming that he becomes incapable of making the best decisions for his own well-being. If he’s refuses to leave the holo-world of his own free will, what’s to say he’ll be able to function back in reality when he’s forced to do so? The episode takes the shortcut approach to psychological discovery, spending so much time building up Nog’s problems while keeping their underlying causes secret, that when the reveal finally comes, the act of confession is intended to function as a kind of cure-all. Nog is troubled; Nog hides for a while; Vic forces him out; Nog breaks down and monologues about how scared he is; everything’s fine. I realize the limitations of television, even the serialized kind, and that this sort of approach is typically meant as shorthand for a longer therapeutic process. And hey, I’m just grateful and impressed that the writers were willing to spend as much time as they did on something which could just as easily have been shrugged off entirely. But trying to combine Nog’s story with Vic’s awakening shortchanges both stories.

Yet I wouldn’t say this is a terrible hour of television, or even a mediocre one. More than any other holosuite/holodeck episode I’ve seen this captures the pure pleasure of hiding in fiction, of detaching yourself from the concerns of the real world and embracing the lie for as long as possible. Nog’s post-traumatic stress has some real edges to it, and some aspects of it should be familiar to anyone who’s suffered a period of severe depression; the uncomfortableness around others, the sleeping, the fixation on a certain song or film (or book; I tend to reread stuff, usually by Stephen King, when I’m feeling awful). That familiarity gives Nog’s eventual decision to move into Vic’s program extra resonance. Fiction serves any number of purposes—enlightenment, increased empathy, helping you out with the ole vocabulary—but one of its more maligned, and I think most important, functions, is as a way to disrupt the frequency of real life, an opportunity to disengage and be alone with the dreams of our innermost selves.


In a way, the fictional world Nog inhabits for a brief time is too well-realized; not because it’s unbelievable, but because the distinction between “real” and “fake” is so thin that it threatens to take the episode in directions it has no interest in going. One of the creepier aspects of holosuite tech is trying to figure out just what would happen if it became available in the real world, and how quickly people would just disappear into the machine, growing more and more fixated on an existence where there were no coincidences, no failures which didn’t just lead to greater successes, and no heartbreak. This is troubling stuff with no easy answers, and Trek has always shrugged it off in the past. Here, the question comes to the forefront, and the answer is merely, “You’re better off living in the real world because it’s real,” with no other justification. Sure, Rom and Leeta miss Nog, but it’s not like he isn’t easy to visit; the most explanation we get is Vic saying, “You should live your life because I really wish I had one.” It would’ve been nice to see some sort of limitation inherent in the simulation, to show Nog missing the reality he temporarily abandoned, and watch as his homesickness fought against his fear until he was finally motivated to face his problems on his own terms. Instead, he hangs out in the Garden of Eden until God pulls the plug. Or the snake does. Or maybe it’s an angel. Anyway, this episode is decent, and the central idea is actually quite cool—I just wish the writers hadn’t taken the easy way out in the end with the magical all-knowing computer program.

Stray observations:

  • We’re not supposed to try and “fix” the episodes we review, for understandable reasons, but now I’m imagining a scenario in which Nog comes to his senses when he realizes that Vic, for all his coolness, is just a simulation of a person, and not the real thing. But then that would mean undercutting the show’s apparent infatuation with the character, so we get this instead.
  • Aron Eisenberg is excellent; he’s really come a long way.
  • I believe there’s a mention of Bashir and O’Brien’s Alamo program at one point. I’m trying to keep up on these.
  • Jake has a date! And Nog picks a fight with that date, and then with Jake. At times, Nog’s anger threatens to turn into something darker than even this show would’ve been willing to handle.
  • Ezri does some counseling, and she’s not terrible? It’s weird how nobody brings up medication, though it’s not a huge surprise.
  • I love how Nog goes back to his roots in times of stress, working through Vic’s books and coming up with a crazy plan about building a new casino.
  • To thank Vic for helping him, Nog arranges to keep Vic’s program running “26 hours a day,” so he can experience the joys of life for himself. This is sweet. I’m not going to think about it any more than that. It’s just sweet.

“Prodigal Daughter” (season 7, episode 11; 1/6/1999)

In which we learn more than we need to know about Ezri

(Available Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

To sum up: Ezri’s mother is a controlling, judgemental twit, one of her brothers is kind of a doofus, and the other one is a sensitive soul driven to commit murder by his mother’s never-ending judgements and expectations. Ezri has been avoiding going home for a long time, but when Chief O’Brien goes missing while on the hunt for Bilby’s missing wife (remember Bilby?), and Ezri’s family has connections in the area where O’Brien disappeared, well, you do the math. It all ends sadly, and Ezri is back on the station with a few more pounds of guilt on her back, and not much else.


That’s it, basically. Strip away the plot complications and a Sisko rant (he’s not happy when O’Brien disappears), and that’s your episode: a so-so family drama about people we will almost certainly never see again. It’s bitter and loaded with subtext, and the actors are fine (Kevin Rahm, best know ‘round these parts as Ted from Mad Men, is great as the wounded, vulnerable, and murderous Norvo), but it’s hard to get much worked up about any of it. This is slow motion tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that’s largely designed to paint Ezri’s mother (Leigh Taylor-Young) as domineering and destructive without ever bothering to give her a character beyond those terms. I’ll give them credit: Yanas’s cruelty is psychologically convincing, and it’s believable that, intentionally or not, she’s mentally beaten two of her children into the shapes she wanted for them. But the coldness the episode shows to her, the complete indifference towards giving her even the slightest justification for acting the way she does, makes her into a caricature of an abusive parent. She’s not a human being, she’s a monster, and that makes her family’s story significantly less interesting.

And really, it needs all the “interesting” it can get. Pull away the sci-fi elements (of which there are hardly any to speak of), and this is an old, old plotline, something that could’ve easily showed up on an episode of The Incredible Hulk back in the day. The family owns a once powerful mining company, and the Orion Syndicate has been trying to muscle in on their profits; without anyone else in the family realizing it, Janel (Mikael Salazar), the eldest son, borrowed money from the Syndicate when the company fell on hard times, and is now struggling to maintain autonomy in the face of increased pressure and sabotage. As part of the payback deal, Janel hired a woman named Morica for the Syndicate—she didn’t do a job, exactly, but she did get paid. But then she started asking for more money, and wouldn’t you know it, she ends up dead, murdered by Norvo in an attempt to make us overlook his goofy name and see him as more than just a drunken failed painter.


There’s nothing compelling about any of this. The best bits are Ezri’s conversations with Norvo before the truth comes out; the two actors have decent sibling chemistry, and there’s a growing sadness to their scenes together as it becomes increasingly obvious that despite Ezri’s wishes, her brother is just not going to be able to save himself from whatever trap he’s fallen into. But otherwise, the relationships and conflicts are so obvious and shallowly rendered that they never get beyond the perfunctory. Norvo’s confession is sad, but it’s not so sad that it justifies the time it took to get there. These people and their problems are not enough to warrant the investment of an entire episode. And without any cool hook or twisty premise, it’s mostly just a slow slog to a painful conclusion.

O’Brien’s involvement certainly doesn’t help. He’s as reliable as ever, but by using his efforts to rescue the wife of an old friend as an excuse to force Ezri back into orbit with her upsetting family, the episode leans heavily on coincidence (the dead woman, Morica, is Bilby’s ex; small universe, huh?), and reduces an unseen corpse to a plot point. That isn’t offensive or anything—Morica is barely even a name—but it does make the investigation of her murder a lot harder to give a damn about. O’Brien, the only person with any emotional investment in her death at all, spends most of the hour on the sidelines, demanding answers as Ezri tries to fix people who were broken years ago. The only urgency to the case is in finding out how far the damage goes, and even the final reveal plays more like an afterthought than a devastating discovery of rotten lives.


Which means the only possible point of any of this is to tell us more about Ezri. This is probably the most successful aspect of the episode, although that isn’t saying much. We know by now that she’s a bit nervous and over-compensating and eager to please, but much of that could’ve come from the mental disruption and anxiety brought on by the Dax symbiont. After meeting her family, though, it’s clear that Ezri’s insecurities come from years of criticism and emotional abuse from dear old Mom. These patterns start to cycle up again as soon as she returns home, but Ezri has more backbone and experience now (at least in part thanks to Dax), and she’s better able to stand up for herself. She tries to get Norvo to do the same, but it’s too late for him.

That, then, is the sum total of our gain from “Prodigal Daughter”: we know Ezri is the way she is because she had a difficult childhood. Which sucks for her, but sucks more for us, because we had to waste time when there’s a war going on, and genetically engineered super soldiers, and shape-changing aliens, and Jeffrey Combs, and time-warping wormhole pseudo-gods, and, ugh, literally just about anything would’ve been better than this..


Stray observations:

  • At the start of the episode, Bashir is worried about O’Brien (another mention of the Alamo program), and there’s a brief, fleeting hope that the story might be about them. But alas.
  • “Hello, Mother.” “I hate your hair.” Says it all, really.

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