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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Shadowplay (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

Shadowplay is a great example of the kinds of things that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is beginning to do very well. While the main plot works very well (so well, in fact that Star Trek: Enterprise would borrow it – and Rene Auberjones – for their first season episode Oasis), it’s remarkable how much of Shadowplay is given over to the two character-development subplots unfolding back on the station. Indeed, Dax and Odo have effectively solved the mystery of the missing villagers by about two-thirds of the way into the episode.

The character-development stuff in Shadowplay is interesting because the two subplots are not written with resolutions in mind. Indeed, they don’t even kick off the respective character arcs. Kira and Bariel have been waiting to become a couple since The Siege at the latest. The last episode, Paradise hinted that Jake might not be cut out to be a Starfleet officer.

In short, what is interesting about Shadowplay is the fact that it’s really just demonstrating that the show has reached the point where it is doing the things that it does relatively well. Deep Space Nine has found its groove, that point in a show’s history when it seems like it’s relatively easy to produce an hour of television of reasonable quality.

A holo crowd...

A holo crowd…

To be fair to Shadowplay, the main plot actually works quite well of itself. It’s sort of a generic Star Trek plot, but it’s such a clever twist on a “missing persons” case that I’m surprised the franchise hadn’t done this before. The notion that people could be disappearing because they’re not real is really an inspired take on a story like this, and one that works very well with the franchise’s established scientific technology. While it’s hard to imagine that a real mystery could reach a conclusion like this without feeling contrived, the rules of Star Trek have been so firmly established by this point that it feels like an organic development.

Of course, the script is surprisingly tight. Due to the two concurrent subplots, we actually don’t spend too much time with the episode’s Gamma Quadrant mystery. So the script has to be very shrewd about foreshadowing and development. The twist is so good that it would probably work if it came out of nowhere, but Shadowplay scatters little hints through the teleplay. When Odo and Dax suggest their story could be verified by returning to Deep Space Nine, Colyus drops that line of questioning immediately. When Odo asks Taya if her mother has ever gone anywhere before, he’s told, “We don’t go on trips.” She clarifies, “No, we never leave the valley.”

That said, we never get much of an impression there's anything to see outside the valley...

That said, we never get much of an impression there’s anything to see outside the valley…

There’s quite a wonderful sort of Twilight Zone atmosphere to the story, the sense that this mystery is one less grounded in Odo’s field of investigative study and more in the surreal or uncomfortable. Our suspicions about what is happening are never directed on to one person – not even Rurigan – but rather the increasing sense that there’s something very wrong and unwholesome about this whole scenario. It’s handled very well, and it’s one of the reasons that I’m quite happy Deep Space Nine never fully moved away from the occasional episodic adventure amid all its arc-building. Done well, these sorts of done-in-one stories can be intriguing and satisfying.

There’s also the fact that the episode manages to tug at the heartstrings without seeming cloying or manipulative. A lot of this is down to Rene Auberjones’ performance as Odo, and his chemistry with returning Star Trek guest star Noley Thornton as Taya. Auberjones has a wonderful knack for making Odo seem both incredibly cynical and strangely innocent. Although he’d never admit it, it’s clear that he feels some sort of empathy for Taya, as another abandoned orphan looking for her parent. (Not for nothing, Dax’s opening log reminds us that “Odo has come along to Gamma Quadrant, hoping to find clues to his origin.”)

A (shape)shift in character?

A (shape)shift in character?

There’s something surprisingly touching about their interactions, and I like the back story the show has developed for Odo. He’s pretty much being defined as the opposite of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is a shrewd move. Both characters represent curiosities and oddities. Data saw the best in humanity, only suffering prejudice as an exception rather than the rule. Odo has had the opposite experience, taught to be wary of others who view him as some strange freak.

Although the nature of Odo’s people wouldn’t be firmly agreed by the writing staff until the hiatus between the second and third seasons, Shadowplay rather fortuitously fits within the later framework. There are more references to “Changelings” and even Taya – a second-generation hologram – can recount a mythology involving these strange creatures. (Her short story feels like a shout out to Puss in Boots, where the eponymous cat tricked an ogre into becoming a mouse so he could eat him.) These suggest that the Changelings are long gone.

Odo's not used to being on this side of the interrogation...

Odo’s not used to being on this side of the interrogation…

However, Shadowplay also represents the first time that we hear the Changelings discussed in the same episode as the Dominion. If the Changelings are ancient history, the Dominion are a more modern threat, even as they lurk in the shadows. While writers like Ira Steven Behr claim that they only had the roughest possible outline of the Dominion throughout the second season, there is one consistent thread. The Dominion have been named and hinted at throughout this season of the show, and it is already quite clear that they are not going to be just another bumpy-headed bunch of aliens.

When Rurigan explains what happened to his world, he doesn’t talk about mass murder or genocide or occupation. “I was happy living on Yadera Prime,” he tells Odo and Dax. “That is, until the Dominion took over and changed our whole way of life.” While it’s clear the Dominion control his former world, there’s no indication that his family are dead or that he’s seen too much suffering. The threat the Dominion poses isn’t measured in the number of bodies left behind. The fact that Rurigan could leave Yadera Prime suggests that it hasn’t been conquered in a strictly military sense.

Topping it all off...

Topping it all off…

Instead, the threat posed by the Dominion is defined as a threat to the “way of life.” Which makes a great deal of sense, given that the Dominion was first alluded to as some massive ethereal entity in Rules of Acquisition. The Dominion seems to have been designed as a contrast to the Federation – even the names are similarly nebulous. The Dominion already seems to function through negotiation and trade, but with a murky and shadowy influence extending between the stars.

Given how sceptical Deep Space Nine could be about the Federation’s philosophy of incorporation and homogenisation, it’s not too difficult to imagine the Dominion conceived as an “anti-Federation.” This would be borne out when the show finally introduced some of the major players in the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar at the end of the season.

At least it's got a great location...

At least it’s got a great location…

Another reason that the main plot works so well is that the episode treats the guest cast as people. Even when they are revealed to be holograms, the show doesn’t take that as license to discard them. These people are alive, even if they don’t necessarily conform to our conception of life. It’s nice to see Star Trek embracing that sort of philosophical position, recognising that just because something isn’t flesh-and-blood doesn’t make any less “real.”

Given that Odo’s not technically flesh-and-blood, any other moral would seem a little hypocritical. It would also feel somewhat against the spirit of Star Trek. Star Trek: Voyager would make much of the rights of holographic life forms in the Star Trek universe, but it’s reassuring that it’s such a non-issue to both Dax and Odo. These people have lives, and they love and feel. The episode peppers little details of the interpersonal relationships that define the village, giving us a sense that it’s more than one nice set and a handful of actors with speaking lines.

She could do with a hand...

She could do with a hand…

That said, the episode’s generally tight script did leave me with one question: when Taya held out her hand past the edge of the field, why did the branch she was holding disappear? It’s probably a practical problem, due to the nature of special effects in the nineties, but it’s interesting to wonder if the holographic village grows holographic food to sustain itself. The script is somewhat ambiguous on the matter:

She holds out the berries and her arm DISAPPEARS to the elbow.

Taya looks at her own arm in curiosity, apparently in no pain.  As she raises her arm to her face, the arm REMATERIALIZES, a little bit at a time.

Still, probably thinking a bit too much about it.

It doesn't quite scan...

It doesn’t quite scan…

However, the main plot is just one of three plots running through the episode. Again, we get a sense that the show has a bit of a handle on its characters. Even character interactions that don’t form the crux of the episode feel like they make sense. The opening conversation between Dax and Odo, for example, says a lot about both. In particular, it seems the writers have settled on a personality for Dax, one carefree and free-spirited. “I’m sorry, but after seven lifetimes the impersonal questions aren’t much fun anymore,” she explains to Odo.

The smaller interactions work quite well. I like the acknowledgement that Quark’s time with the Cardassians hasn’t been forgotten about, and that his involvement with the Occupation can’t help but colour Kira’s attitudes towards him. Asked to explain how she feels towards him, she handily provides a fairly convincing list of reasons to hate Quark. “You collaborated with the Cardassians, you cheat your customers, and you’re a danger to this station.” I like that Kira’s third point demonstrates that she has at least been watching the show, given Quark’s penchant for getting the crew into trouble.

Vedeks assemble!

Vedeks assemble!

Even little scenes like Bashir’s one-scene appearance in this episode make sense. The notion of Kira sort-of (but not whole-heartedly) playing to Bashir’s romantic view of life on the frontier by casting him as an undercover operative says a lot about both characters. Although including Bashir in this one sequence suggests the writers couldn’t find a way to integrate him with the rest of the episode, it does play well to the character’s still youthful enthusiasm. (Bonus points for how quickly Kira realises that asking him to play spy was a bad idea.)

It’s interesting that Kira’s small interactions with the regular cast work so well, because it draws attention to the fact that her chemistry with Philip Anglim’s Vedek Bareil is… non-existent. Anglim has always felt weirdly miscast as Bareil in the carious roles the show has tried to cast the character. In In the Hands of the Prophets, Bareil was written as something of a liberal free-spirited radical, but Anglim played him as a stuffed shirt. His subsequent appearances attempted to compensate. Here, the show casts him as a romantic interest for Kira and… well, Nana Visitor tries her hardest.

I think he likes Odo a little better...

I think he likes Odo a little better…

None of Kira’s love interests really worked, until she eventually hooked up with a member of the main cast. I don’t know if it was down to the casting of the show, or the really weird character dynamics the writers were working with, but both of Kira’s Bajoran love-interests seem incredibly bland. To be fair, I can see what the writers are going for. Kira’s had a tough life. She’s lived in refugee camps and been a terrorist. Her mother disappeared and her father died while she wasn’t there. It makes sense she’d want something approaching “normal” in her life.

The problem is that “normal” needn’t be synonymous with “boring.” Kira’s love interests occasionally seem like you’d need to measure their pulse to determine if they’re still breathing. To be fair, the writers seem to realise this. Neither Bareil nor Shakaar get to stick around too long once they get bumped up from “guest star” to “Kira’s boyfriend.” While I like the idea of developing the main cast – and Kira’s romantic subplot is nowhere near as terrible as Sisko’s in Second Sight or Bashir’s in Melora – it feels like a bit of a misfire.

Spare the isolinear rods...

Spare the isolinear rods…

Which brings us to the episode’s third and final thread, the subplot involving Jake. This is arguably the most interesting, because it is the plot that feels most unique to Deep Space Nine. We’ve had mysteries in space and romantic plots before, but this is the first time we’ve really had a major human character concede that maybe Starfleet isn’t for them. (That said, Wesley comes to a somewhat similar conclusion in Journey’s End, which aired exactly a month later.)

In Coming of Age, a rejection letter from the Academy was enough to drive one young member of the Enterprise’s complement to steal a shuttle and almost get themselves killed. It seemed like anybody who was anybody in the future would be a member of Starfleet, which makes sense when you consider that the Star Trek franchise is typically centred around those who work inside Starfleet. Deep Space Nine is somewhat different. Not only does it feature several main adult crew members who don’t serve in Starfleet, but the show seems to embrace and relish a multicultural future.

Badge of honour...

Badge of honour…

It’s willing to question and explore the things that some of the other shows take for granted. When Jake asks “why does everyone assume that I’m going to go to the Academy?” he’s not just asking a personal question, he’s raising a concern about the whole Star Trek tapestry. Perhaps by virtue of being sandwiched between The Next Generation and Voyager, Deep Space Nine seemed able to get away with querying assumptions that the other Star Trek shows took for granted.

It’s nice to see the show explore a future for a main character that isn’t Starfleet. Once again, as in the dealings with Nog, Sisko stands in for the audience members who are familiar with how Star Trek works. There’s some indication that Sisko had taken his son’s desire to wear the uniform for granted. He’s shocked when Jake suggests working at Quark’s before assisting O’Brien. When Sisko secures him the work placement, he adds, “Besides it’ll look great on your application to Starfleet Academy.”

Holo man...

Holo man…

Again, Sisko isn’t being unfair here. He’s just being a bit blinded by his own perspective. Much like experience taught him to be wary of the Ferengi, he probably never questioned the assumption that Jake would end up in Starfleet. When Jake finally works up the nerve to tell him, Sisko is nothing if not supportive. “It’s your life, Jake. You have to choose your own way. There is only one thing I want from you. Find something you love, then do it the best you can.” When Jake promises to try, Sisko adds, “Good. Then you’ll make the old man proud.”

Once again, it’s the wonderful chemistry between Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton which makes these scenes work. it’s easy to imagine Sisko seeming a bit cold or indifferent to Jake’s needs and wants, but Brooks makes it clear that Sisko’s simply blinded by his own affectionate ambitions for the boy. Lofton makes Jake’s fear of disappointing his father seem palpable and relatable. Lofton does some wonderful work as Jake, as a character who really grew up with the show.

What are little girls made of? Photons, apparently...

What are little girls made of? Photons, apparently…

There are some other nice touches here. I like, for example, the way that the show retroactively takes a small appearance from O’Brien in The Ensigns of Command and makes it seem like a character moment. In the third season of The Next Generation, it seems like O’Brien played the cello because Colm Meaney happened to be around when they were shooting the scene. Here, the writers manage to weave that somewhat anomalous appearance into his back story.

“I was supposed to be a cello player,” O’Brien confides in Jake, cementing the idea that O’Brien really is a bit of an oddity as far as Starfleet officers go. He’s the franchise’s first working-class character, and his career trajectory has been defined as somewhat atypical. In Paradise, he confessed to Sisko that he wound up an engineer by chance rather than design. The show’s second (or third) episode, A Man Alone made it clear that O’Brien isn’t working on the station because he wanted the assignment, but because it’s the only way for a working-class stiff like him to get ahead. His wife won’t leave, because Starfleet would revoke his promotion.

Kira sure has a lot on her plate...

Kira sure has a lot on her plate…

There’s not really too much exceptional about Shadowplay. While the main plot is well-handled and quite smart, it isn’t one of the strongest plots of the season. Instead, the episode is really defined by the fact that it does a lot of fairly basic stuff quite well. It advances two character arcs for the show’s supporting players and it tells a science-fiction mystery to boot. Not bad for a day’s work.

You might be interested in our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:


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