Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

"Playing God"


Air date: 2/28/1994
Teleplay by Jim Trombetta and Michael Piller
Story by Jim Trombetta
Directed by David Livingston

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

In an episode with a split personality that's probably even worse than "The Alternate's," Dax is assigned a Trill "initiate," Arjin (Geoffrey Blake), who she must help guide to the next step in the Trill symbiont-joining candidacy by offering her experience as a joined Trill. In the confines of this same character-oriented episode is a completely inappropriate plot centering around a "proto-universe," which Arjin and Dax inadvertently bring back from the Gamma Quadrant.

The proto-universe begins expanding, putting DS9 and (presumably) the entire Alpha Quadrant in danger of being destroyed—an overly large story idea that ends up making relatively little sense. Sisko decides he can't justify destroying a universe to save his own, so an alternate plan (putting Arjin's flight skills and plenty of technobabble to use, naturally) is concocted. The idea of an entire miniature universe with its own civilizations isn't bad in and by itself, and it even brings up some effectively interesting moments to ponder (Sisko's log about the Borg, first and foremost). But some non-addressed questions arise, like, for starters, how returning the proto-universe to "where it belongs" will keep it from expanding and wiping out the Gamma Quadrant (and beyond), and just how Sisko can have the arrogance to make a decision about the "universe" in a mere hour.

In any case, the whole premise of pondering the nature of universes doesn't at all belong in this small episode of character interaction, which, in a vacuum, is a good one. The writers supply Dax with some reasonable backstory, with the humorous notion that Curzon Dax was notorious for washing initiates—including Jadzia herself—out of the joining program. ("I'm not Curzon," Jadzia constantly reminds Arjin). The Sisko/Dax relationship is put to good use again with a believable dialog scene. Arjin turns out to be a fairly interesting character, and the dialog between him and Dax is nicely written. But forcing the tech plot and character story together is a mistake that the writers have already made too many times this season.

Previous episode: Shadowplay
Next episode: Profit and Loss

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22 comments on this review

Nebula Nox
Sat, May 19, 2012, 1:00am (UTC -6)
Yeah, I have always wondered why that other universe hasn't wiped everything out - and they could have "solved" it by somehow returning it to another "dimension" - which would have involved technobabble (magic) but that is not a problem in other episodes, and it would have been more logical.
Mon, May 28, 2012, 5:17pm (UTC -6)
So it's possible to become a Level 5 pilot without ever having flown a runabout before?
Wed, May 30, 2012, 10:35am (UTC -6)
How did Dax get to be the Defiant's main pilot with only a level 3 license? Heh heh.. I hope somebody got fired over that one.. Heh heh..
Sun, Nov 11, 2012, 9:30pm (UTC -6)
The actor playing Arjin in this episode is painfully bad. Add to that Farrell's usual semi at best competence and there are way too many cringe-inducing scenes to take this episode seriously. Plus, Jadzia comes off as a flouncy annoyance for much of the episode, rather than good-natured and fun.
Thu, May 16, 2013, 10:25am (UTC -6)
I disagree almost completely. This was a pretty terrible episode in all aspects.

The technobabble and nonsensical plot is just too much. The vole plot device was unnecessary and not executed very well, and the fact that a proto-universe that gets stuck to a shuttle like gum is bizarre enough but it's only topped by the fact that it's solved by just shoving it back in the apparently soon to be consumed gamma quadrant. Out of sight out of mind, apparently. The fact that the proto-universe could contain a civilization was an interesting plot point that was brought up and then proceeded to have no relevance or progression beyond being a reason not to destroy it. The episode reeks of wasted potential.

The interaction between the initiate and dax is trite and unconvincing (partially due to the initiate's absolutely terrible acting) and no real change or understanding is shown, we don't get any sense of revelation or character development, they just kind of go through the motions without any real conviction.

The final scene through the wormhole has no tension or real drama, and the comment about it looking good on his record seemed a very last minute way to bring some sort of relevance and growth back to his character yet it failed in both regards.
Tue, Oct 22, 2013, 4:46pm (UTC -6)

Another "meh" Dax episode.

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 6:12pm (UTC -6)
Never mind that Sisko was going to decide the fate of two universes in an hour...how was it teh decision of a Starfleet commander at all? Shouldn't he at least have contacted Starfleet Command?
Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 11:14am (UTC -6)
Jack is right...when Starfleet reviews Sisko's station logs and they get to this one, they're going to be like WTF?!? Why is this the first we're hearing about this?

Just dumping it in the Gamma Quadrant, problem solved? The guy that wrote this episode would never be allows near pencils or keyboards again.
Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 2:10pm (UTC -6)
This whole season seems to reek of the TOO MANY PLOTS syndrome so far... Not only that, but I feel this moral dilemma of taking out a universe was already explored far too many times in TNG in some form or another for me to feel any impact from it.
Sun, Jun 29, 2014, 7:29pm (UTC -6)
I didn't mind the Dax/initiate story. Arjin came off as believable.

Had there been a decent "B" story this episode might have earned 3 stars.

...but the whole proto universe thing was almost laughable. As was their solution. Why did they "have" to take it back to the gamma quadrant?

2 of 4 stars.
Thu, Nov 6, 2014, 2:10pm (UTC -6)
Just plain weird, this one. DS9 showed that it could juggle 3 different stories successfully in Shadowplay, but it's always a big risk, and here they stumbled--badly. The space voles are actually pretty funny, but they get put on the back burner halfway through with no payoff. The mini-universe is a barrage of technobabble that I don't understand or care about. The Jadzia/Arjin story was okay on its own but like Yanks said, there was nothing backing it up. Too bad.
Adam C
Sun, Apr 19, 2015, 8:49pm (UTC -6)
Might’ve been fun to revisit this later on, not for the proto-universe thing but to see what happened to Arjin. Maybe he got drummed out and turned, like Verad, to stealing a symbiont to realize his (father’s) dreams. Maybe he got a symbiont but went insane from incompatibility, making for a massive cover-up by the Symbiosis Commission. Or maybe, whether he got the symbiont or not, he decided that the whole process was unfair and became a black-market symbiont broker. (Perhaps it could have had some interesting implications between seasons 6 and 7, for example.) As it is, it’s not one of the better Dax episodes, and it’s not one of the worst. It just exists.

I do, however, love the Klingon restauranteur. He should have been a recurring character, at least until Worf showed up.
William B
Sat, Aug 8, 2015, 10:30am (UTC -6)
Another A/B/C episode, though the C-plot about the voles is dropped partway through. More so than in "Shadowplay," I think that the themes match up pretty well: the A-plot basically has Dax put in a position where her word will determine the full course of Arjin's future, and both of them struggle against how much power that gives Dax over his life ("playing god"), and so the B- and C-plots similarly have DS9 crew making decisions that will impact the course of other life forms, on a small scale with the non-sentient voles (C-plot) and on an unimaginably large scale with the proto-universe (B-plot). Deciding whether Arjin is recommended or not for joining is seen as a higher responsibility than deciding whether or not to put phasers on kill on the voles and a lower responsibility than DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO DESTROY A UNIVERSE OR TO LET IT DESTROY YOUR UNIVERSE, which I guess seems fair.

The big problem, which pretty much everyone here seems to agree on, is that the proto-universe plot introduces impossibly high stakes which the episode has no way of dealing with. A proto-universe with potential sentient life will continue expanding, swallowing up this universe, and so it's destroy-or-be-destroyed on an unimaginable scale, for which Sisko takes an hour, strolls the Promenade and chats dating with Jake, then finally decides "let's take it back where it came from" which is, apparently, sufficient to deal with the problem. No explanation is provided for why dropping it in the Gamma Quadrant will stop the universe's expansion from wiping out this universe, rather than delay the problem for a pretty short time. If "bring it back to the GQ!" was seriously an option that would have no negative consequences, why did no one advocate for it? The episode's attempt to position this as a Major Ethical Dilemma, with distraught personal logs making Borg comparisons and all, is embarrassing given the non-resolution and the way the story is dropped immediately. I think that a good story about destroying one universe to save another could certainly be interesting and affecting, but this is not it.

(On a minor point -- even if we accept the premise that a proto-universe forms within the larger one but it has time at an incredibly rapid and contains enough material to have actual lifesigns/civilizations, could the transporter *really* be able to store/recreate a whole universe's worth of information?)

Alas, the model of "just put it back where you found it" as, somehow, the solution to the lower-stakes dilemma Dax faces, with how she deals with Arjin. It is hard to get a handle on how Dax handles Arjin throughout the episode, partly because it never seems exactly what it is that Dax is supposed to *do* with her initiate. She says it's not her job to confront Arjin about her concerns about Arjin's performance. So, what is her job?

DAX: My job is to show him what it's like to function as a Joined Trill. That's all. I can show you the guidelines. They're very clear.

Oh, that's all then. I'm not exactly clear on which part of her behaviour in this episode demonstrates what life is like as a joined Trill -- joined Trills, I guess, do science in Runabouts on space stations and drink Ferengi drinks. Seriously, going in order, here is what Dax does in her job as Initiate Trainer:

* berates him for showing up early too much
* tells him never to call her ma'am and to call her Jadzia instead
* offers to set him up with her wrestling coach, offers him Ferengi drink
* introduces him to other people on the station
* fly in a Runabout doing Science together
* tell him he doesn't have to impress her
* have dinner and ask him about his plans, then get chilly when she doesn't like the answer
* do more science in the lab and berate him for trying to tell her what she wants to hear
* gives him speech about how he can't try to impress other people but have to figure out what he wants out of life, with the example of how Jadzia was tortured by Curzon and then came back and "tore through" the program, by, um, whatever it is that represents good initiate-ness
* fly a proto-universe through a wormhole without hitting any verteron nodes, which Dax says will look really great on his initiate record

After which, as Arjin is *leaving*, Jadzia finally says:

DAX: I'm nothing like I expected. Life after life, with each new personality stampeding around in your head, you get desires that scare you, dreams that used to belong to someone else. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone but in time I might recommend it for you. When you're ready.

Which, if I'm not mistaken, is the one time Jadzia actually talks explicitly to Arjin about what it's like to be a joined Trill. At which point Arjin says, "I know what I have to do." Well, it's great that he does, because I have no idea. Seemingly, the training has left Arjin exactly where he was before, except more aware that he has to have his own goals beyond joining, which is surely good advice, but hardly actually says *anything at all* about what joining is like or whether he would be appropriate for it. What careers or desires are appropriate for Joining and which are better left to the Unjoined? What personal qualities, beyond this platitudinous Being True to Yourself stuff, will make him good to be joined? What have we learned about Joining? Based on this episode, I guess we can gather that if you become a Joined Trill, you will do wormhole science and drink Ferengi drinks and eat racht.

Now, the essential conflict within Jadzia in this episode is that she does Not Want To Be Like Curzon, but apparently the way to Not Be Curzon is to just to refrain from blackballing a guy from the initiate training because he failed to live up to her unspoken, never-identified standards. As with the proto-universe plot, inaction (or, I guess, resetting the situation to what it was before the episode started) is the solution, but it's a dramatically unsatisfying solution because it is hard to believe this is how the mechanics work: if all Jadzia had to do to resolve the situation is "not be a jerk," then, well, what was the problem?

The vagueness of the Initiate training more or less makes the Arjin training seem like a low-level nightmare of spending a week interviewing for a job where one is not told *any* of the qualifications required. Now, I wouldn't actually be surprised if this is how the Trill really did run things, especially if we read the Trill's Joined Class as a kind of aristocratic caste who decide on the unjoined masses' futures entirely on whims, which seems increasingly likely with each Trill episode. Look, Arjin does seem nervous and he also seems like he might not know what to do post-Joining, but there's something incredibly cruel and arbitrary about the process as we see it, which seems to amount to asking people to first win Olympic gold medals and then win a beauty pageant and then flatter a judge in order to win the presidency -- the rarity of the symbionts makes essentially any "contest" unfair and ungainly. Similarly, while attempting to paint herself as Not Curzon, Jadzia spends her time passive-aggressively instructing Arjin to treat her like her best bud she doesn't need to impress, criticizing him when he tries to impress her and criticizing him when he's "honest" both. She comes across like the type of person who makes fun of a person for being fat and also looks askance at them when they diet. And, yes, this does turn out to be a "flaw" of Jadzia's in the episode, but the fuzziness of the thinking behind this program and what exactly is required means that her "redemption" hardly has any impact. It's not that I find Arjin that appealing anyway, but the contradictory standards Jadzia sets up for him basically means that it's hard to tell what he could have done, except be a fun-loving racht-eating tongo player, that would have impressed her.

What I do like in the episode is that we learn a bit of Jadzia's backstory with Curzon. The idea that Jadzia *was* a shy and driven person before joining, and that it was the result of the Joining that made her into the fun-loving party animal she is now, helps also to join her s1 characterization to her s2 (especially when Arjin mentions that he expected her to be serene), suggesting (perhaps) that Jadzia Dax started as closer to Jadzia's quiet drivenness combined with an attempt to put on the serenity she *expected* to have post-joining, and she gradually became more of the post-s1 Jadzia Dax that we come to recognize. That's cool. The notion that Curzon rejected her and then came to accept her application is an interesting backstory, one which "Facets" complicates in ways that are maybe good, maybe not (will decide when I get there). The Sisko/Dax scene is pretty good.

Oh right, also, the voles thing: what is up with that in this episode? Not enough material with a whole universe moral dilemma, huh? The idea of the voles disrupting the force field and thus causing problems suggests that leaving well enough alone is *not* the solution to all life's problems, which I guess is good but is also kind of a wtf moment when compared with the apparent "messages" of the other two stories.

I dunno. I feel like I've nearly talked myself down to 1 star, but I don't think it was all that painful to watch until the proto-universe started and the main plot fell apart. I will say 1.5 stars for now.
William B
Sat, Aug 8, 2015, 11:31am (UTC -6)
I feel like I should say, I feel a bit bad being so down on this string of episodes. In my defense, the reason I have not written about Cardassians, Necessary Evil and Whispers is that I quite like all three, and want to do them justice.
Thu, Aug 13, 2015, 10:50pm (UTC -6)
I find your write-ups of episodes thoughtful, William B.

"At which point Arjin says, 'I know what I have to do.' Well, it's great that he does, because I have no idea. Seemingly, the training has left Arjin exactly where he was before, except more aware that he has to have his own goals beyond joining, which is surely good advice, but hardly actually says *anything at all* about what joining is like or whether he would be appropriate for it. What careers or desires are appropriate for Joining and which are better left to the Unjoined? What personal qualities, beyond this platitudinous Being True to Yourself stuff, will make him good to be joined? What have we learned about Joining? Based on this episode, I guess we can gather that if you become a Joined Trill, you will do wormhole science and drink Ferengi drinks and eat racht."

I think you picked up what's important in Jadzia Dax's eyes: that you're a whole, fully developed person before you're ever joined. If you do that, you bring something new and distinct into the joining, qualities that can be remembered and perhaps (to some extent) carried on after the hosts' death into the lives of future hosts.

If you don't develop yourself first, you're just a blank slate. The joining doesn't form a new and distinct personality (a partnership of symbiont and host); instead, the symbiont dominates. This is a great loss of opportunity in the eyes of Jadzia Dax; Curzon Dax apparently felt the same way.

I think the purpose of the initiate spending time with Jadzia Dax is 2-fold: the initiate gets to talk to Jadzia Dax about joined life and get answers to any lingering questions he has, while Jadzia Dax reports back whether she feels he should get one of the few symbionts available. There aren't any firm principles in her decision, it's all her impression.

(yes, it's awkward, but I felt it was necessary to write 'Jadzia Dax' out every time, instead of just 'Jadzia' or 'Dax', since those terms technically refer to 3 different life-forms, which is a point of this episode)

And I agree this is probably a 1.5 star episode, maybe 1.0.
William B
Fri, Aug 14, 2015, 8:47am (UTC -6)
@methane, thanks.

I think you're right about what it is that Jadzia Dax believes is necessary in an initiate, and that her overall impressions of whether or not Arjin is a "complete person" that will not be overwhelmed by the symbiont are what actually matters. Which...I mean, that was fairly clear from the episode, BUT it also doesn't quite make sense to me in terms of using any kind of fair standard for measuring his success, or even what it is that Arjin is *supposed* to do. Perhaps Arjin's failure to ask questions is another mark against him, but he is also clearly trying to suss out what is expected of him in the initiate training. I think it maybe comes down to a pet peeve of mine, which is when people with all the power in a situation expect the other person to "impress them" without any indication of what it is they expect, while also *denying* that they expect the other to impress them, in an open-ended feelings-y talk. However, this is what some job interviews or internships are *like*, where a person has to somehow neither be too rebellious nor too spineless and do as they are told only so much when they have no clear job description, so it is somewhat true to life.
Fri, Aug 14, 2015, 11:36am (UTC -6)
I agree that it would be frustrating to be in Arjin's role.

I do have one more observation on the story. I would guess the idea of this plot came from the writers thinking about the advice given to modern women: "develop yourself independently of a man, don't expect marriage to give you direction in life." It seems like they were applying that, in scifi fashion, to the joining of host & symbiont (a far more intimate union). The parallel would have been more apparent had the initiate been female rather than male, but it would have lost subtlety had they done so.

The story was really about "being your own person"; the writers couldn't spell it out at the beginning to poor Arjin, because then there would be no story.
William B
Fri, Aug 28, 2015, 12:08pm (UTC -6)
One thing I want to add, while I'm on the subject of Dax episodes, is that part of this episode is about fully demonstrating what a capital-P Personality Jadzia Dax is, all tongo and gagh and possibly-naked morning wrestling. And so some of the episode's success or failure resides on whether this personality seems convincing or merely grating. Some of the episode plays almost from Arjin's perspective, with Jadzia's off-the-wall-ness functioning like Lwaxana Troi's or something -- that the story is about how she's intimidating because she's nearly too much to handle -- and the first few acts almost ask us to be SHOCKED over and over again by how much personality she has, as if we didn't already know Jadzia. It's a pretty similar structure, too, to "Melora," with Jadzia in the Melora role and Arjin in the Julian one, minus romance. It makes me think a little of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. It's mostly annoying in both places, for me personally. I enjoy Jadzia's personality when it's part of the story rather than the whole subject of the scene, as if LOOK SHE HANGS OUT WITH KLINGONS AND FERENGI! is everything we need to know. Knowing that Jadzia used to be shy and was presumably intimidated by Curzon Dax's forceful personality, it does seem as if she is unconsciously repeating the Curzon/Jadzia dynamic with herself and Arjin, intimidating Arjin and finding his shyness to be proof of his lack of direction in life, and so part of her arc here I guess is realizing that throwing a Trill who has *had* to make his whole life be about duty in order to get into the Initiate program (which has its parallels to women who devote themselves to landing a man, as methane points out) into situations where he has to feel at ease with Ferengi and Klingons and then criticizing him for not speaking up about his discomfort might not be entirely fair. It sort of works, but is not enough to sustain the episode.
William B
Fri, Aug 28, 2015, 3:44pm (UTC -6)
I guess one other thing to add is that Jadzia finding it in her to break out of Curzon Dax patterns assures that she is correct that she is strong enough not to be overwhelmed by the Dax personality entirely, which means that she has to relearn the lesson she teaches Arjin, which is a pleasing structure.
Mon, Sep 21, 2015, 8:24am (UTC -6)
Don't like this episode one bit.

The Dax-lives-life-to-the-fullest-shtick is annoying. So she's playing a game with Ferengi and she's eating in a Klingon bar. Wow. That's the kind of amazing that's plaguing Facebook. We get it, George, you like to travel and "experience other cultures". You're a real Marco Polo, aren't you.

Also, can we drop the bullshit that joined Trills merely blend personalities of host and symbiont. Jadzia is Curzon in a hot new body, nothing less.

There was no life to the Jadzia-initiate-relationship. The guy was 32 when the episode was filmed and he was too old for me to make his role work. But even if he was more appropriately aged, what exactly was it that the episode tries to explore?
They spent way too much time on HIS feeling, character, situation. He's a one-off throwaway character. I don't care about him. They could have explored Trills, their society, their rules more. They could have explored Dax more.
But they didn't.

And to add insult to injury, the wasted a great possible story-idea - the one with the universe - to give this lame ass episode a Sci-Fi backdrop.
Thu, Nov 5, 2015, 5:20pm (UTC -6)

I agree, the Jadzia's character is at its worst when she is trying to be this bombastic person she isn't in other episodes.

A few episodes later, we'll see that in "Bloodoath", Jadzia can take part if cultural adventures of her previous host without getting totally lost. That Dax, tempered by Jadzia, is much more believable and relatable to the viewers.
Diamond Dave
Sat, Nov 14, 2015, 9:23am (UTC -6)
A slightly strange amalgam of stories that doesn't quite hang together as a whole. The bit that works best is between Dax and Arjin. I don't feel that the Jadzia character suffers at all from an excess of personality - indeed the verve and playfulness inherent adds life to what could be a blank page. Playing off the story angles that presents with Arjin gives a strong story with some good scenes.

The proto-universe story is intriguing but way to big to be squeezed in here. As such, it is never properly explored and the solution - "put it back where it came from" - seems to make no sense at all. And at least some time could have been gained from excising the voles story, which, while fun, is just taking up space here. 2.5 stars.

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