“It’s Only a Paper Moon” begins a mid-season stretch of seven episodes before the final arc. The writers have much to accomplish in these seven shows: wrap up the Mirror Universe and Section 31 stories, not to mention have a little light-hearted fun while they still can. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” has a different agenda. Though this was originally supposed to be a comic episode with a few silly plot lines intersecting in Vic’s lounge, the weight of Nog’s story took over. For the writers, this was important because it validated and extended on the moral of “Siege of AR-558,” where Nog lost his leg. If Nog had been in the next episode without any consequences from his injury, it would have sent the message that war in the 24th Century is cheap and easy. Worse, it would have been an admission that the Dominion War story arc was just an excuse to show epic space battles, with no interest in exploring deeper themes.
That the episode succeeds in this—with a performance that proves Aron Eisenberg is just as talented as any Star Trek principal actor—is not as surprising to me as two other things I noticed.
First, Ron D. Moore wrote a tight, confident script. I’ve been impressed by how clean the writing is in the last couple seasons of DS9. The episodes have an internal logic and all the pieces fit to deliver the story, including tight dialogue. In this one, there is no B plot. Nog’s recovery is the only story. There is no threat of physical danger to anyone or anything. There is a nice scene in the ward room. Usually this is the set where weighty decisions about war and peace, life and death are made by the uniformed regulars, admirals and generals. In this scene, there are a few uniforms, but most of the lines go to Jake, Rom, Leeta and Quark. The only suspense in the episode’s plot structure is summed up by Ezri: “Let’s see what Nog does next.” And it is more than enough to carry us through.
I think I have read somewhere that the TNG writing room had a rule that the Enterprise or a regular character always had to be in danger, or else the episode couldn’t have suspense. They only broke this rule a couple times, “Data’s Day” being a stand out. Even “The Inner Light” contained the threat to Picard’s life. There is nothing wrong with ginning up suspense this way, even doing it in most of the episodes, but when you have to do it ALL of the time—well, that’s why the 1701D was always having to save a planet from an the asteroid/volcano/earthquake/supernova/spatial anomaly plot device of the week. These kinds of stories allowed for some good character stuff in between, but always ended with meaningless technobable solutions. It’s extremely fitting that TNG ended with the Mack Daddy of spatial anomalies that was going to destroy the whole universe (and very telling that Moore did not want that anomaly, and its requisite tech-tech solution, in the episode at all). DS9 went out of its way to abolish this old TNG rule, and instead fond suspense in character interactions. Of course this allowed for much more drama than on TNG, and I’d argue more compelling characters. [Note to future Trek TV series writers: If you are going to write a danger-of-the-week series, solved by characters pressing buttons and spouting technobable, then your crew will become a bunch of bland sieves no matter how interesting you make them out to be in your show bible.]
Now, about the SIRI comparison. By which I really mean the responsive, friendly SIRI-like operating system imagined by Spike Jonze’s “Her” where the computer actively learns about its owner and forms a relationship with him. Vic was programmed this same way. Bashir wanted the character to be self-aware so the lounge singer could have natural conversations with the crew, instead of phony role playing.
This was an episode where a flesh-and-blood person, Nog, forms a dependent relationship with the hologram because he is suffering PTSD. Unlike so many hologram-centric episodes, this one did not even pause to give credence to the idea that Vic should be considered a sentient being on par with a human (or Ferengi). And Vic is the one to make the case against himself. When Nog tries to persuade Vic to let him stay in the holosuite because Vic seems just as real to Nog as people off the holosuite, Vic says this: “Compared to you, I’m as hollow as a snare drum.” The moral of the episode is that forming emotional bonds with a computer program is a feature of mental illness.
In light of the creep of technology into our lives today, I find this extremely refreshing. Just because a computer can act and speak intelligently, does not mean it is has attained artificial human intelligence, to say nothing of a soul. This episode correctly envisioned how humans will program our computer toys to better serve us by being more like us. But it also warns about the dangerous temptation this will pose to the most vulnerable.