Nutshell: An engaging and realistic follow-up story of combat consequences.
Invigorating, how Nog has grown as a character since this series began. His Starfleet path has not only been well documented by an abundance of episodes, but the transition has been one that strikes me as gradual and realistic. It's the sort of growth that makes his character a well-defined person rather than something to drive a plot for an hour. Five years ago if you had told me Nog would become this solid a character, I would've thought you were crazy. (What's interesting and somewhat worrying is that Nog these days gets so much more screen time and meatier stories than Jake. Something needs to be done about the Jake-as-cipher problem—and soon.)
"It's Only a Paper Moon" is an episode that proves DS9 still remembers how to deal with consequences. In this case, we see how the loss of Nog's leg in "The Siege of AR-558" has affected him. Sure, 24th-century medicine has replaced it, but the emotional scars are still there, and Nog is simply not ready to dive back into reality.
An episode like "Paper Moon" requires little synopsis. The plot is simple: Nog retreats into the holosuite, where he finds comfort in Vic Fontaine's fantasy world. Living in a fantasy helps his recovery process (his psychological limp begins to go away, for example), but before long Nog finds that he's so caught up in helping Vic run his holographic lounge that he doesn't want to leave. His clinging to fantasy shows the early stages of a dependence upon it.
A lot of this story's success boils down to good sense. It's hard to underline moments of sensibility without simply pointing to them and saying, "Look—that's sensible," so I'll take the easy way out and do just that.
First was the good use of Dax as a counselor. If there ever were a counselor's situation on DS9, this is it. But I appreciated the fact that Nog was utterly sick of talking about his feelings to Starfleet shrinks. I imagine that he'd been over it and over it by this point, so Dax's brief, unsuccessful interview was a sensible idea that ultimately had a believable outcome.
Next was the good use of Jake, something we need to see a lot more of (and soon, please). Jake has been patient with Nog, who refuses to let other people reach out to help him. But Jake just can't take it anymore: Listening to his roommate play a recording of Vic singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over and over and over again is enough to drive him up a wall. (Don't they have headphones in the 24th century?) The idea of Nog seeking comfort in Vic's "I'll Be Seeing You" is particularly real; it seems to me that Nog is reliving a life-changing moment in his mind over and over again, trying—and failing—to come to terms with it.
Later, after Nog retreats into the holosuite to hear Vic sing the song "live," Jake decides to try to be a nice guy and visit his friend. He brings with him a date for a night of entertainment at Vic's lounge. He goes to get drinks, and by the time he gets back, Nog has twisted everything she has said into some sort of inquisitive comment about his artificial leg. When Jake tries to straighten things out, Nog tells them both to leave. Then he dumps the table over and slugs Jake.
It's about here that it becomes clear Nog is no longer the Nog of before "Siege of AR-588." He lost his leg, but he also lost a great deal of inner peace. And no one can sort it out but him.
Maybe Vic can help him. Granted, Vic doesn't seem like the most obvious candidate to work someone through a post-traumatic episode—and it would be nice to see Ezri in action as counselor—but the story has already told us that in Nog's mind he's past the point of counseling. Vic is the break from reality; and if there's one thing that Nog perhaps has had too much of, it's reality.
There have been times in the past where I've said the use of Vic has come across as too incidental, seeming like unnecessary filler. That certainly isn't the case here. Vic is the perfect dramatic device for this story. Even when his cameos have seemed gratuitous, Vic has represented an escape from the daily grind of war, which is exactly what he provides here. His musical numbers are appropriate, especially considering the lyrics as applied to the situation.
What also works is the story's juxtaposition of fantasy and reality as concepts of our perception. Losing oneself in the fantasy world of holodecks has long been considered something of a danger in the Trek universe (dating all the way back to Lt. Barclay in the TNG days) and here, Ron Moore quietly comments on the nature of fantasy worlds, particularly in one scene that subtly scrutinizes the consequences of violence in reality versus in fantasy: Nog watching the movie Shane on television is appropriate on several levels, most importantly the level that has Nog wondering how Shane can act as if nothing has happened right after he's been shot. The very simple answer: no realistic consequences.
Of course, one cannot avoid the consequences of reality forever, and Ezri's clever and timely visit to Vic (the psychiatrist uses a cleverly worded technique to prod the hologram into realizing Nog needs to return to his life) drives home the point to Vic that Nog cannot hide forever. Next it becomes Vic's job to drive the point home to Nog. The way Vic does this is with a sympathetic but pragmatic approach that is appropriate for the situation and in tune with Vic's direct-approach personality.
And speaking of the nature of reality, another mysterious and challenging question of "Paper Moon" is of course the same question I find myself at times asking about Voyager's Doctor: At what point is an artificial entity sentient? Is Vic growing beyond his program? What are the consequences of that? "Paper Moon" asks some of these questions, but prefers a mystery and does not supply us with the answers. (Nog: "When you sleep, do you dream?" Vic: "Good night, kid.") It's just as well; I don't think I'd want definite concrete answers trying to explain such complex questions. I appreciated, however, the idea of Nog's extended visit giving Vic the chance to "live a life" in the holosuite, which only serves to reinforce Vic's understanding of why Nog has to get back to reality.
I also very much liked the use of (gasp!) Rom and Leeta. For once, they're treated as people rather than bad comic caricatures. When they come to visit Nog, there's an understated but genuine sense of concern for his well-being. (It's amazing how un-annoying these two can be when they're toned down to a sensible level. That's all I've ever asked for.) All the supporting characters come off well simply because they're allowed to react realistically to Nog's situation.
But what this is really about is Nog, whose course as a character has been charted with confidence and realism. It comes as no surprise that by the end of the story he is ready to face his troubles rather than hide from them, and when he does, it rings true. He confesses how he was eager to prove himself when the war started—which he was. He explains how he was convinced that even though people were dying all around him, he was sure it wouldn't happen to him—which youthful naivete can do. And he knows that a taste of his own mortality has changed him—which it has. His role in life feels different to him. He's wiser and, as he himself says, feels older once he has returned to duty.
All of this is vivid, believable character evolution—something we suspect could have happened all along, and something that makes perfect sense in retrospect. The best characters are the ones that change and learn over the years, and the writers have done a particularly good job of realizing that through Nog. "It's Only a Paper Moon" is one of the most effective "small" DS9 stories in quite some time.
Next week: Ezri's homecoming.