WARNING: "It's Only a Paper Moon," but this DS9 review is only photons. Top that.
In brief: Surprisingly strong; too many musical interludes, but a good hour's worth of consequences.
Brief summary: Nog retreats from the harshness of reality into Vic Fontaine's holosuite program.
Heading into "It's Only a Paper Moon," I had fairly mixed expectations. On the one hand, it was supposed to deal with Nog losing his leg, which had the potential for a lot of meat. On the other hand, Mack & Ordover's previous work, "Starship Down," left me somewhat cold, and the episode also promised an extended visit with Mr. Vic Fontaine, of whom I've never been particularly fond (to say the least). All in all, I had very little idea what to expect. As it turned out, we got one of Nog's strongest appearances, and easily Vic Fontaine's best use to date. "It's Only a Paper Moon" isn't perfect, but unlike many episodes which are a little clunky at heart but win by execution, this one has an extremely solid core.
At its heart, the episode is in some ways similar to "Hard Time" from three years back; like "Hard Time," "It's Only a Paper Moon" is all about consequences. "Hard Time" began with the end of O'Brien's "imprisonment" and gave us an hour of Miles' difficulty readjusting to civilian life. "It's Only a Paper Moon" didn't even need to set up Nog's problem, really, since we already saw Nog lose his leg; all it needed to do was re-establish the problem. The rest of the episode let Nog struggle with his loss, and seeing that struggle rather than simply leaving it with a "we'll work this out together" a la Geordi's brainwashing in mid-era TNG made all the difference.
More stunning to me personally is that for once, I found myself liking Vic. The problem I've always had with Vic is that he's been played as an annoying super-character; he can advise anyone on anything, he can play with his own internal reality in a way no one else this side of the Delta Quadrant can, and everyone thinks he's the cat's pajamas. (Damn ... now he's got me doing it!) As amiable as James Darren may be, that's a character who's basically too silly a concept to be allowed to live.
This time, Vic was set up so as to be -- gasp! -- plausible. First, Nog's attachment to him is understandable: since he'd already been calmed by the music while lying on a biobed, he was predisposed to like the guy. Second, with the exception of "he can turn off and stay off," there were no Superhologram [TM] elements this time around; Vic was just a fantasy figure who was fairly self-aware. Third, Vic was treated as a fantasy character, which he is. It's one thing when you have as well-grounded a figure as Odo turning to Dr. Vic's advice for the lovelorn column; it's quite another when you have a wounded character like Nog taking a retreat into a fantasy which just happens to be familiar. If Vic had been used this way from the start, I'd have had minor if any objections.
As a result of that new plausibility, it became rather interesting to watch Vic at work. No, not the singing -- I still think that Vic's presence is an excuse to fill the screen with song rather than with story much of the time, although most of the music had secondary uses this time around. Rather, Vic wound up being a more than effective counselor, in part because most of the time, he simply created situations where Nog could make the right choices. (Compare that to "His Way," where he basically led Odo around by the nose.) Weaning Nog off of his cane by giving him a weaker but more glamorous walking stick was a case in point; that's something that people with 24th-century sensibilities might not have thought of.
The secondary characters did suffer a bit as a result of Vic's magic, however. At the top of the list is Ezri: as station counselor, she really should have been more instrumental in Nog's recovery than she was, and the middle of her three scenes with Vic, where she bulls in trying to take Nog home, reflected rather badly on her. However, in most other respects, Ezri turned out fine: her advice to Sisko seemed pretty much on-target and professional, and the way she neatly got her points across to Vic in their final scene together was impressive, if a little obvious. For the most part, her inexperience as counselor came off as a bit overplayed in spots, but not much more problematic than that.
Jake was also a concern, and in this case it's one that has been growing all season. While it's a staple of television that teenagers are going to be blunt, unsympathetic louts unless they have their own show, it's a staple that Jake's been blessedly free of for most of his on-screen life. This season, that seems to be changing a bit: when he's around at all, Jake's been boorish all too often. "It's Only a Paper Moon" was no exception, particularly in the Jake/Nog scene in their quarters. As with Ezri, later scenes with Jake tended to mitigate a lot of those concerns, but I'm just concerned that we're not seeing any of the sympathetic, insightful Jake this year.
Getting back to the story, however, it was certainly no surprise that Nog grew attached to Vic's world and wanted to stay there full-time, especially after the only Ferengi in Las Vegas found a use for his business skills. One of the episode's strengths, however, was that it made Vic fallible. As I said before, normally Vic's been a hologram ex machina when it came to psychology; this time, experiencing a fuller life made Vic himself a little more prone to human frailties. The final Ezri/Vic dialogue brought that out beautifully, and gave Vic a chance to essentially play "bad cop" for a change.
If I have any other objection to "It's Only a Paper Moon," it's a long-standing one. While I think Nog as a character has come an exceptionally long way since the first couple of seasons, I'm not sure Aron Eisenberg has the chops to really bring all of that potential out. Eisenberg is convincing when he's happy, when he's furious, and when he's sullen -- but his sobbing speech to Vic about being afraid was really erratic. At times I was in there feeling for Nog, but at other times, particularly early on, it didn't feel particularly real to me. Eisenberg has certainly come farther than I would have ever predicted six years ago, but in a few small areas I think the material may have been a little beyond him. It happens.
In a lot of other ways, however, the episode pulled off nearly everything it tried to do, in part thanks to a lot of nice little details. Some examples:
-- Nog's attack on Jake. While it was somewhat unexpected, the telling point is that Nog didn't use or need the cane while beating up
-- Some good use of flashbacks, both to Nog's wounding and to his first exposure to Vic's music. (And no, the latter flashback wasn't aired before; given the production values, I assume it was filmed with the first episode and simply held for this, which shows nice forethought.)
-- Meetings that seemed to show an awareness of what Nog was doing. It's nice for a change to have the medical personnel agree with each other. :-)
-- Everyone teaming up to slam Bashir's tastes in holosuite programs -- though to be fair, the Alamo one was Miles' idea, not Julian's.
And some other points...
-- If Vic is to remain a solid character (no pun intended), the "he's a really different hologram" stuff has to stop, or at least get toned down incredibly. I find it extremely difficult to believe that Starfleet would sanction a hologram as self-aware and internally powerful as Vic Fontaine's been in spots. (Rather than say "he can keep himself off," for instance, you could simply have him turning himself off every time Nog turns him on. Same idea, more plausible.)
-- I could have done without the what-religion-is-Nog camera angle as he gets ready for bed.
-- I was a little surprised to see that Nog didn't wind up with a replicated version of the glamorous walking stick.
-- Have we ever seen old film footage before on Trek? I'm not thinking of any. Stills, yes, but not film.
-- I don't recall how many mentions we've had of the Alamo program, but it's been quite a few now. I'm forced to agree with others who are speculating that this might be leading somewhere.
-- "Where's your computer?" "Right here. It's 1962, whaddya want from me?" Can't argue with that. :-)
-- I really hope that Nog's arrival was filmed along with scenes from other episodes. Otherwise, Auberjonois and Dorn spent hours in makeup for a whopping one and zero lines, respectively. That can't be fun.
That about covers it. Overall, "It's Only a Paper Moon" is a solid tale of recovery, and one that was strong enough that I may rethink parts of "The Siege of AR-558". Any show that can actually make me warm to Vic Fontaine must be doing something right. (Of course, I said the same thing about "Children of Time" and Odo/Kira; we later wound up with "His Way," so maybe I should just keep my trap shut. :-) ) Wrapping up, then:
Writing: The occasional "off" moment with Ezri or Jake, but the two central figures worked just fine.
Directing: No complaints.
Acting: There were a few spots where Eisenberg seemed to falter, and Chase Masterson had a few annoying moments (surPRISE, surprise), but overall very solid.
OVERALL: A 9; one of the season's strongest so far. Here's hoping it's the start of a trend.
Ezri's family secrets come back to haunt ... Miles?
A happy 1999 to all!
"What got into you, anyway?"
"I don't know. She started calling me a hero, and things just went downhill from there."
"She called you a hero, and for that you slugged your best friend?
Remind me never to give you a compliment."
-- Vic and Nog