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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – It’s Only a Paper Moon (Review)

It’s Only a Paper Moon is a fantastic illustration of a lot of things that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does consistently well.

It is an episode that builds off events depicted in an earlier story, picking up with the character of Nog following the loss of his leg in The Siege of AR-558. In many ways, It’s Only a Paper Moon feels like a necessary part of that earlier adventure, dealing with the consequences of something truly horrific. It would have been cheap and crass to gloss over the enormity of what had happened to Nog. In The Siege of AR-558, the loss of Nog’s leg was a minor detail; one of many reminders of how war is hell. It’s Only a Paper Moon allows that story to play out in more depth.

“I’ll be seeing you…”

It’s Only a Paper Moon is also an episode that feels quite removed from what audiences expect from a Star Trek episode. The central story focuses on two supporting characters who exist outside the regular cast, trusting Nog and Vic Fontaine to carry a story on their own terms. It is a testament to how well-developed the world of Deep Space Nine has become, recalling the focus on Martok in Soldiers of the Empire or Once More Unto the Breach, Dukat in Indiscretion or Return to Grace and Garak in The Wire or Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast.

Unfolding primarily in a holographic recreation of sixties Las Vegas, It’s Only a Paper Moon is a very surreal and unusual episode of Deep Space Nine. However, it works perfectly in the context of Deep Space Nine.

A hard day’s Nog.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is a story that spent a long time in development. The episode’s story is credited to John Ordover and David Mack, two veterans of the Pocket Books Star Trek line. The two writers had pitched a number of concepts to the various Star Trek shows over the years, including the idea that would evolve into Starship Down during the fourth season of Deep Space Nine. According to Mack, the pitch that would develop into It’s Only a Paper Moon came “from that same meeting.” It just had a longer journey to the screen.

The process of pitching and developing an episode is not always linear. Sometimes, writers sell pitches without receiving screen credit; Jane Espenson sold the story for Force of Nature without getting her name on the finished episode. Sometimes, writers pitch ideas that have no resemblance to the episode that is actually produced; Counterpoint was pitched as “the Diary of Anne Frank on Voyager”, only for the final episode to downplay the horrors and the plight of the refugees.

What happens in holo!Vegas stays in holo!Vegas.

As David Mack explains, he made three sales that had three very different outcomes:

John got us a meeting, and we made three sales in just a few weeks. The first sale was to Voyager, but that episode was never produced. (That’s another long story.) Our next sales were to Deep Space Nine; one idea they bought and produced right away (the fourth-season episode Starship Down). The other they had to think about for three years (the seventh-season episode It’s Only a Paper Moon).

It is an illustration of how complicated the pitching and development process on a television show could be.

Vic is all ears.

The writers had liked the idea behind It’s Only a Paper Moon enough that they had bought the story outright. However, they also had no real sense of how to make it work as a forty-five minute episode of prime-time television. Given the churn of weekly television production, the story fell on the back burner. Like a lot of stories in this final season, It’s Only a Paper Moon had been sitting on the shelf for a long time before the writers figured out what they wanted to do with the basic outline.

Part of the decision to press ahead with the story in the middle of the seventh season was undoubtedly pragmatic; after six full season, good ideas are a lot harder for writers to come by. After all, It’s Only a Paper Moon leads into a fairly depressing mid-season slump running from Prodigal Daughter to Field of Fire. However, part of the reason that the writers chose to revive the old story was likely down to the rapidly-approaching deadline. The seventh season of Deep Space Nine was to be the last. As such, it was the last chance to develop any long-simmering stories.

The Old Vic.

As Ronald D. Moore explained to Cinefantastique, the original pitch was quite different from what made it to screen:

The show that was originally pitched to us was called Everyone Comes to Quark’s. It was one of those intriguing ideas that everybody liked, but nobody knew how to make it work. It was a high concept show, where you just do an entire episode set completely in Quark’s, and you tell all the stories only in Quark’s. You do a whole day, from Quark opening the bar in the morning to Quark closing it down at night. We could never really make it work, but none of us really wanted to give up on it, especially me. We said, ‘Let’s do that goddamn show this year.’ I think I said, or it might have been Ira, one of us said: ‘If we set the show in Vic’s and you did the whole episode in the holosuite at Vic’s, maybe it would come off a little easier.’ We all sparked to that idea, and we decided to weave in a bunch of different stories. Ira said, ‘We need a real strong one. We don’t have a heavy one, and one that will give a spine to the episode.’

It is an interesting illustration of how stories evolve from the germ of the idea to the finished product.

Nog’s darkest hour.

As with Starship Down, it is clear that Ordover and Mack knew what they were doing. The appeal of that story is fairly obvious to anybody with any understanding of television production. The idea of building an entire episode about one day spent at Quark’s is pragmatic and cost-effective. It is a “bottle show.” It is an episode that could be filmed on standing sets, with a minimum of special effects, with very few guest stares. Starship Down was a similar story, just using the Defiant sets rather than those on Deep Space Nine.

The writers on Deep Space Nine made an effort to include Ordover and Mack in the development process. This is in keeping with the team’s approach to writing. Lisa Klink got the opportunity to develop her story for Hippocratic Oath from her original pitch to a teleplay. When David Weddle and Bradley Thompson sold the story for Rules of Engagement, Ronald D. Moore was kind enough to provide them with notes on his various drafts. Bryan Fuller has talked about his experience working with Ira Behr after pitching The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor.

Music to Jake’s ears.

As Mack recalls, the two original pitch artists were invited to reshape the story in the context of what the production team wanted to do with it:

Well, truth be told, the major force on Paper Moon was Ron Moore. John Ordover and I had pitched a story years before that bore only a passing resemblance to the episode that it became.

By the time the DS9 writing staff had finished “revising” our original pitch, the basic idea was in place. Ron asked us to draft a full outline based on the premise of Nog coming home after The Siege of AR-558 with a cybernetic leg, and seeking solace in the Vic Fontaine holoprogram.

What John and I added to that premise was the reason why Nog was in the holosuite: PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. Essentially, Nog had confronted the truth of his own mortality, and it had destroyed his youthful illusions about being invulnerable and about the “glory” or “heroism” of warfare.

But the truth is that it was Ron Moore who took that idea and put it into words and images, giving it such resonance and honesty. It was also Ron’s courage as a writer that enabled two supporting cast-members to become the leads for an episode. I am simply honoured to have been part of the process.

This is a very involved process, and something that speaks to the professionalism and the consideration of the Deep Space Nine writing staff.

“Don’t ever ask me about what I do, Jake.”

(This was a trait inherited from Michael Piller’s fostering of creative talent on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Piller famously allowed Ronald D. Moore to sell a number of unsolicited stories to the production team, such as The Bonding and The Defector, before drafting him on to the cast. When René Echevarria pitched The Offspring, Piller allowed Echevarria the opportunity to write the teleplay; what made it to screen had been heavily rewritten by Michael Piller and Melinda Snodgrass, but Echevarria was allowed to keep his credit.)

The decision to anchor It’s Only a Paper Moon around the character of Nog makes a great deal of sense. After all, Nog went through a life-changing trauma in The Siege of AR-558. While twenty-fourth century technology might allow Nog to walk unaided through advanced cybernetics, it still represents a profounfhis wad and dramatic change for the character. More than that, it is a story that makes sense within the context of the larger war story unfolding against the backdrop of the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine.

Nobody’s been this mean to Bashir since the third season, at latest.

Deep Space Nine has embraced serialisation to the point that this sort of episode-to-episode continuity can almost be taken for granted. After all, It’s Only a Paper Moon is the episode that casually turns the discussion about the Alamo from the teaser to Once More Unto the Breach into a recurring motif across the rest of the seventh season. One of the episode’s best gags has the ensemble complaining about Bashir’s embarrassing past obsessions; Las Vegas from His Way, the secret agent from Our Man Bashir, the Vikings from Bar Association. It is a very casual playful continuity.

The relationship between It’s Only a Paper Moon and The Siege of AR-558 is endearingly elastic. It is not a conventional two-parter, with Covenant comfortably slotted between them. Even beyond that, there are major differences in focus, tone, location and cast. It’s Only a Paper Moon does not continue the central story from The Siege of AR-558, instead focusing on one storytelling strand and choosing to build an episode exploring the consequences of that particular element.

Vic gives Nog a lighter cane.

This is a fascinating blend of episodic and serialised storytelling. Both The Siege of AR-558 and It’s Only a Paper Moon are very distinct episodes of television. Each of those two episodes tells their own story, with a clear beginning and middle and end. Both episodes have their own dramatic arcs, spanning from the beginning through to the end. After all, while It’s Only a Paper Moon is a story very clearly centred on Nog and Vic, it would be misleading to suggest that either character was of central importance in The Siege of AR-558.

However, they are not entirely self-contained. While the teaser and the flashbacks provide a sense of context and set-up, It’s Only a Paper Moon still depends on The Siege of AR-558 to supply its premise. This is an approach to serialisation that is perhaps a bit softer than most modern prime-time television shows. The episodes are certainly more loosely connected than any two episodes from a given season of Game of Thrones or The Wire, even they do share some structural similarities with the storytelling on shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men.

They also share a production design aesthetic with Mad Men.

Television critic Alan Sepinwall has argued that the push towards serialisation on television has diminished the episode as a unit of storytelling:

When you look back over the last 16-odd years of TV’s current golden age of drama, you’ll find plenty of great serialized shows, but most of them, regardless of where they originally aired, had no problem generating terrific episodes that stood alone – whether in plot, structure, or both – from the rest of a given season. That kind of storytelling hasn’t gone extinct – last week’s riveting Fargo expertly carved out a piece of the season’s gang warfare arc and placed it in a siege plotline that was resolved by the hour’s end, and this week’s crazy The Leftovers found a way to pay off an ongoing character arc with an episode that had its own very specific form, unlike anything the series had done before – but it’s becoming much rarer than it should.

Deep Space Nine demonstrates an approach that combines many of the strengths of serialisation with the strengths of the episodic model.

Punching up the dialogue.

Many of the stories on Deep Space Nine fit together like building blocks. Sisko’s crisis over his role as Emissary in Destiny sets up the situation where he has to fight to reclaim a role that he did not want in Accession, which sets up his decision to trust the Prophets over Starfleet in Rapture. Dukat’s illegitimate child is found in Indiscretion, which leads to his disgrace in Return to Grace, which leads to him negotiating a deal with the Dominion in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. However, these stories can all be enjoyed on their own terms.

When Sisko objects to the presentation of sixties Las Vegas in Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang, it makes a great deal of sense given his experiences in Far Beyond the Stars, but the audience does not need to know that to appreciate his argument. When Sisko makes a none-too-subtle suggestion that Worf should “do whatever it takes” to protect the Alpha Quadrant from Gowron’s ambitions in Tacking into the Wind, that suggestion is coloured by the character’s experiences in In the Pale Moonlight, but the subtext is quite clear to the viewers at home.

“It’s okay, I’ll just sit on the photonic futon.”

It’s Only a Paper Moon simply uses the events of The Siege of AR-558 to tell its own story, a tale about trauma and recovery that builds upon the consequences of the horrific violence that occurred earlier in the season. After all, one of the biggest problems with the episodic model of television storytelling, where every story must be self-contained, is the fact that characters often seem insulated from having to deal with the consequences of their actions. Deep Space Nine is arguably guilty of this in some cases, such as the aftermath of O’Brien’s suicide attempt in Hard Time.

It’s Only a Paper Moon plays almost as a commentary on this narrative tidiness, pointing out the absurdity of stories that refuse to deal with the consequences of violence. Watching Shane, Nog seems almost confused by the iconic final scene. “Didn’t he just get shot a minute ago?” he wonders, nursing the pain of his own wounds. “Yeah,” Vic confirms. “He took one in the arm.” Nog is surprised. “He’s not bleeding. He’s not even in pain.” Vic reflects, “Noggles, take it easy. It’s only a movie.”

He cane’t believe it.

While cinematic explorations of trauma do exist, the medium is not perfectly suited to meditate upon the consequences of violence. Sequels and franchises aside, films tend to be self-contained narratives. Few films have the time or the inclination to meditate upon the characters wounded during the action beats. Those characters who lose limbs in movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line will never be seen by audiences again. The initial shock of their disfigurement is the extent of their narrative arc.

By its nature, Shane has neither the time nor the inclination to focus on that bullet in the eponymous character’s arm. It is something that happens in the film to generate stakes, to demonstrate that the character is human. However, once the gunshot has served its purpose, the narrative shifts its focus elsewhere. The tragedy at the very end of Shane is more existential than medical, and there is no attention paid to whether the gunshot wound might become infected or might have led to nerve damage. Shane is not that type of story.

Best laid plans.

The wonder of television is that television is not bound by such rigid limitations. In spending weeks and weeks over years and years these characters, any individual episode can be any type of story. The Siege of AR-558 is a story about the immediate horrors of combat, but then It’s Only a Paper Moon can gently segue off that story and explore how those horrors linger beyond the immediate carnage of combat. This is a form of storytelling to which television is uniquely suited. Even novels, due to the extended production time, would struggle to balance these demands.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is also notable as an episode that is built up around two supporting performers. Aron Eisenberg first appeared as Nog in Emissary, and has been a recurring fixture of the show from early episodes like The Nagus and Progress. Surprisingly, Nog has had one of the most compelling character arcs on the show, developed in that familiar building-block way; he admitted to wanting to join Starfleet in Heart of Stone, left for Starfleet Academy in Little Green Men, returned in The Ascent, earned a promotion in Favour the Bold.

Going around in circuits.

Deep Space Nine has always made an effort to cultivate and develop its supporting cast. Rom grows a great deal over the course of the run, slowly revealing hidden depths and even starting a second career. Damar goes from a background extra with a few lines to a galactic leader to a revolutionary, an arc that feels very rational and well-drawn. Deep Space Nine has never been afraid to hand over episodes to these supporting players. After all, Weyoun just got a character-centric episode with Faith, Treachery and the Great River.

However, Deep Space Nine has generally made a point to pair these supporting characters with a credited lead for these stories. Even when the major character beats belonged to the supporting player, the lead was still there. Kira bore witness for Dukat in Indiscretion and Return to Grace, Worf served with Martok in Soldiers of the Empire and Once More Unto the Breach. Quark partnered with Rom for Bar Association. Jake travelled with Nog for Valiant. Garak rotates through regular cast companions, from Bashir in The Wire to Odo in Improbable Cause.

The sound of not-quite-silence.

Of course, as Deep Space Nine got older, the show grew more comfortable sharing the spotlight. Nog and Jake are arguably supporting characters in Valiant. In many ways, Once More Unto the Breach was so focused on the dynamic between Martok and Kor that Worf felt superfluous. Still, It’s Only a Paper Moon is striking as an episode that centres so completely on two guest stars. Both Nog and Vic are relatively well-defined characters at point, and well capable of supporting the episode.

It’s Only a Paper Moon unfolds primarily in the holodeck. Its central characters are the nephew of a credited lead character and a holographic representation of a sixties lounge singer. This should feel more radical or more extreme than it does, which is a testament to the production team working on Deep Space Nine. When Voyager used a musical montage in Counterpoint, it felt radical for such a conservative Star Trek show. When Deep Space Nine sets a montage to the title track, it just feels like good televisual storytelling.

“I eat your holo program! I eat it up.”

Even if It’s Only a Paper Moon makes all of this look easy, the actors were still cognisant of how much faith the writers were investing in two supporting players. Eisenberg confessed as much to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:

“I was honored,” the actor says. “It was my biggest episode in all seven seasons. I was working every day, and I was in almost every scene. I had a ball! They trusted that James Darren and I could carry an episode, and I gave it everything I had.”

Eisenberg does great work. To be fair, a lot of what appeals about Nog is largely down to the performer. A lot of potentially recurring guest stars on Deep Space Nine disappeared into the ether, but Eisenberg managed to create something genuinely compelling in the young Ferengi, and the writers responded to that.

“I called this meeting because it appears like most of us aren’t in this episode otherwise.”

It’s Only a Paper Moon feels like a convincing portrayal of trauma. To be fair, there are some cheesy elements employed. The use of flashbacks to footage from The Siege of AR-558 feels like a very conventional and cliché way of conveying the horror of what happened, of demonstrating the trauma that Nog is trying to drown out by playing I’ll Be Seeing You on a constant loop. However, they are also effective and employed sparingly enough that they do not distract from the rest of the episode.

It’s Only a Paper Moon understands that Nog’s trauma is best expressed through inaction and silence, trusting Eisenberg to convey that character shift through body language and very sparse dialogue. It’s Only a Paper Moon is an episode that manages to convincingly close the teaser with a shot of Nog slowly limping away to be by himself, and which populates the first act with a lot of reaction shots of Nog sitting in stony silence. This is a script that demands a lot of an actor, and the writers clearly trust Eisenberg to carry it off.

“Computer, play The Lonely Man from The Incredible Hulk.”

It’s Only a Paper Moon also trusts the audience to by sympathetic and understanding of Nog, to appreciate what he has been through. Nog is abrasive and insulting during the early scenes of It’s Only a Paper Moon, as if trying to alienate the people around him so that he might be left to wallow in his own depression. “I’m trying to help you here, Nog, but you’re not making it easy,” Jake explains. Nog responds, “You want to help me? Fine. Leave me alone.” Later, Nog insults Jake’s date and comes to blows with his best friend. It is very affecting.

Indeed, It’s Only a Paper Moon makes a very convincing argument for the comfort and security of the holodeck. Much like those old movies playing on the television set, the holodeck provides a safe environment where Nog doesn’t have to worry about the chaos or pain of the outside world. Vic alludes to this when he tells Nog that “it’s only a movie”, evoking the eponymous lounge standard and suggesting that the holosuite is really nothing more than “a canvass sky.” However, there is nothing dangerous lurking in that world.

Lounging around.

It is a logical extrapolation of the holodeck as employed by Barclay in Hollow Pursuits. In that episode of The Next Generation, a socially awkward engineer used the holodeck to imagine a world where he was popular and loved. In It’s Only a Paper Moon, Nog uses the holosuite to imagine a world where he can avoid all responsibilities or obligations, where he never has to worry about the people around him or about any threat to his own life. It is a comforting fantasy.

In some respects, It’s Only a Paper Moon is an interesting choice for an episode of the final season. As it becomes clear that Nog cannot stay in the holosuite forever, Vic tries to convince him to surrender the fantasy. “I’m perfectly happy here,” Nog assures Vic as they have that inevitable conversation. “What here?” Vic responds. “There is no here. Don’t you get it? This is nowhere. It’s an illusion and so am I. In fact, the only thing in this entire programme that is not an illusion is you.”

It’s only a paper world.

Given the connection suggested between the holosuite and television set that Nog is watching, it feels like the episode might be alluding to the end of Deep Space Nine. To many of the writers working on the franchise, and to many of the fans watching at home, Star Trek had become its own world. It had a texture and a feel to it. The writers (and some of the fans) could live inside that fantasy. It was comforting. In Where No Fan Has Gone Before, Fry explained his own fondness for the franchise. “When I had no friends, it made me feel like maybe I did.”

Much like Nog would have to confront the end of the holosuite programme, the writers and the fans would have to face the end of Deep Space Nine. For many of the writers on Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek franchise had been the sum total of their work in television. Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria had both been recruited by Michael Piller on The Next Generation. David Weddle and Bradley Thompson had both taken their first television jobs on Deep Space Nine.

Perfect harmony.

Ronald D. Moore acknowledged this anxieties in interviews, confessing that part of the reason that he went to work on Voyager was because he was worried about leaving the franchise:

I should have left on Deep Space Nine because that was a high point. I could have left the stage with the audience still applauding and feeling good about the performance. You take your curtain call and you get off . That’s why I didn’t do the next movie, for just that reason. Rick asked Brannon and me to make the next movie, and I said no because I was happy to leave First Contact as my swan song to the Trek features. I should have been smart enough to do that and not take the Voyager gig. But I just didn’t want to leave. I loved it so much and I just didn’t want to go away from the franchise, and I just really enjoyed it. I was afraid to leave the nest on a certain level.

Moore probably empathised with Nog. Certainly, he has acknowledged that the outside world was a cruel place for veteran Star Trek writers.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly how to not handle this case.”

It’s Only a Paper Moon is also notable as an episode focusing on Vic Fontaine. While Nog has been around since Emissary, Vic Fontaine is a relatively recent addition to the ensemble. Vic joined the cast rather late in the sixth season, in His Way. However, the character has turned up with considerable frequency since his debut. It is no surprise that he knows about Nog, even though this is the first time they share a scene. Vic is now part of the texture of Deep Space Nine, a character as familiar as Morn or Garak.

Of course, Vic presents a unique set of challenges for Deep Space Nine Most obviously, he is an incredibly redundant character. He fills several niches in the cast that have already been allocated. Deep Space Nine already has a guy who runs a bar. Quark has been around since Emissary, and his bar has been (and continues to be) a social hub on the station. It feels a little excessive to have Quark operating a holosuite that runs a programme simulating a bar. It seems like a bad joke. Does Quark charge for drinks that are served in the holosuite?

“Now I know how Deanna Troi felt when Guinan showed up.”

It’s Only a Paper Moon introduces a new level of redundancy to Vic, as he usurps the narrative position of another regular character. When Ezri Dax properly arrived on the station in Afterimage, she was assigned as a Counsellor. This was a risky move. After all, most of the writing staff on Deep Space Nine had worked on The Next Generation. As a result, they understood from first-hand experience how difficult it could be to right for a therapist on the show. However, with the Dominion War raging, Ezri arguably made more sense than Troi as a major character.

It’s Only a Paper Moon feels like an episode that should centre around Ezri trying to help Nog. That is her job. That is her role on the station. However, the episode drifts from that, once Nog wanders to the holosuite. “Sometimes a patient can help guide his own treatment,” Ezri tells Sisko literally right before Nog goes to the holosuite. “Let’s see what Nog does next.” Nog is driven to the holosuite when Jake can no longer stand the lounge music playing. It is funny to think that It’s Only a Paper Moon hinges on the fact there are no twenty-fourth century headphones.

To be fair, where would you find headphones that big?

Of course, the entire point of the episode is to get to the relationship between Nog and Vic. The entire thematic arc of the script hinges on the appeal of a fake world over a grim reality. It would be very difficult to tell that story while still allowing Ezri to serve as Nog’s Counsellor. More than that, It’s Only a Paper Moon makes a point to include Ezri as a secondary character in that larger arc. Ezri still advises Vic on how best to work with Nog, and still plays a role in how the adventure plays out. Still, she does feel distractingly marginalised.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is a compelling episode for Vic Fontaine. James Darren was hired primarily as a lounge singer, but episodes like His Way demonstrating that the actor had a very easy charm in the role. However, It’s Only a Paper Moon marks the first time that the writers have asked Darren to do any seriously heavy lifting on a script. This is an episode in which Darren plays a larger role than any of the regulars, and in which he has a very clear arc over the forty-five minute runtime. That is a lot of weight to put on what had been a fringe character.

No longer needs a crutch.

Darren was aware of how much trust had been placed in him, although he was hungry for even more material:

It is extremely rare for a Star Trek episode to feature a guest star so prominently, and Darren was duly honored. “Ira was very concerned about that, with Aron Eisenberg [who plays Nog] and myself. But he’s a wonderful actor, that kid! He is so good!” Darren had hoped to get one more episode, because “they promised me that I would have a girl, a love interest, and it wasn’t going to be a hologram. I was going to have real contact!” Unfortunately that never happened…but maybe Vic can be Captain Janeway’s next holo-lover.

Darren does very well bouncing off Eisenberg.

“Turn me off, tout suite.”

In particular, Darren suggests a paradoxical innocence to Vic. Earlier episodes suggested that Vic was something of an all-knowing sage, a wise and experienced artist who had an answer for any riddle that life might pose for his patrons. It’s Only a Paper Moon preserves that sense of worldliness, as Vic very carefully manipulates and manoeuvres Nog in such a way as to (literally) get him back on his feet again. However, there is something more to Vic in this episode.

It’s Only a Paper Moon repeatedly suggests that Vic is nowhere near as worldly as he claims to be. Towards the end of the episode, Ezri very skilfully manipulates him through the power of suggestion. Vic is excited about breaking ground on the new casino with Nog. “I should know better by now than to ask you to give away your secrets,” Ezri reflects. “You probably have the whole thing all mapped out. I mean, what am I thinking? That this new casino is anything more than a ploy? That you’d actually let him live out the rest of his life in a holosuite?”

I met a man who wasn’t there.

Vic awkwardly plays along. “I mean. The casino’s just a ploy, like you said, you know.” Of course, he is not particularly convincing. For all that Vic deals with the little things, weaning Nog off the cane and giving him a renewed sense of purpose with the accounts, Vic misses the big picture. Vic can talk a good game, but he is really just drawing from algorithms and data records. He has no understanding of how life actually works. It is a very clever way of adding complexity and nuance to Vic, giving the character a compelling core contradiction.

It’s Only a Paper Moon even gives Vic a little arc, as Nog allows his programme to run for days and weeks without being turned off. He plonks down on the couch. “You know, I’m beat,” he confesses. “That’s never happened to me.” He explains, “My programme’s never run this long. Usually people come in, they ask for a song or two, sometimes a night on the town, but I never have to put in a full day.” Vic has never had a quiet moment, never been active for a moment where he was not performing at the behest of a specific character.

Trying to repair a damaged relationship.

Without consciously trying, Nog leaves the programme running long enough that Vic actually comes to have a life. “Until you came along, I’d never been on for more than six or seven hours straight,” he admits. “It’s incredible. Since you’ve been here, I’ve slept in a bed every night, gone to work every day, had time to read the paper, play cards with the boys. I’ve had a life. And I have to tell you, it’s a precious thing.” There is a nice moment early in the episode, when Nog asks, “When you sleep, do you dream?” Vic smiles, hiding the fact that he doesn’t actually know.

It’s Only a Paper Moon avoids getting too bogged down in metaphysical questions about Vic. When O’Brien explains that Vic has the power to turn himself off, Nog is confused. “You mean he has free will?” Nog wonders. O’Brien shrugs, “I’m an engineer, not a philosopher.” To be fair, Voyager was tackling these questions more specifically and more directly with the EMH. It’s Only a Paper Moon is not particularly interested in the sorts of abstract debates that define episodes like The Measure of a Man or Author, Author.

Lighten the mood a bit.

However, It’s Only a Paper Moon is an episode that seems to suggest that life is just something that happens inevitably. People live their lives unguided by purpose or programming. It’s Only a Paper Moon suggests that the only way to truly become a person is to let life run its course, to see where the adventure goes. This is very much in keeping with the central philosophies of Deep Space Nine, that meaning and purpose is perhaps best found in the smaller moments and the more modest experiences.

It is also, in some ways. how the writers on Deep Space Nine approach character and characterisation. The characters on Deep Space Nine tend to be built up through smaller moments that lead to bigger stories. Character is revealed through seemingly minor interactions that suggest major possibilities. Michael Eddington was introduced in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II as a potential fill-in for Colm Meaney, but he gradually found a character through small moments in episodes like The Adversary, leading to a major arc in For the Cause.

Hug it out.

The writers on Deep Space Nine tended to treat character development as a process of gradual discovery, through watching the actors play off one another. The suggestion of an attraction between Odo and Kira really began with how Rene Auberjonois and Nana Visitor played the closing scene of Necessary Evil. Bashir’s secret family history as revealed in Doctor Bashir, I Presume was seeded in Alexander Siddig’s delivery of a single off-hand line in Homefront. There is a sense that these characters become real over time, accumulating facets and experience.

Vic does not become a fully-rounded person due to a computer malfunction or a coding error. Instead, Vic seems to ascend to personhood by virtue of doing those things that a person does; he sleeps, he works, he reads the paper, he hangs out with friends. Those smaller moments make up a life, adding some sort of strange cumulative value that makes Vic more than he had been before. It is a very humanist philosophy, rejecting the technobabble that Voyager might use to justify this character arc. Vic is alive, It’s Only a Paper Moon seems to suggest, because he lives.

“So, eh… who is going to pay Quark to leave the program running all the time?”

It’s Only a Paper Moon is a beautiful, warm, humanist piece of television.


4 Responses

  1. I seriously loved (I think it’s the Philip K. Dick fan in me) when Nog asked Vic whether he dreams. Best line in the episode.

    • It’s also so casual. Voyager has been doing this arc for five years at this point, and Deep Space Nine hashes the bones of it out in the space of a scene.

  2. Beautifully written review of a beautifully written episode by Ronald Moore.

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