The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S7E10)’

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”
7.10 (aired December 30, 1998)

“All I can tell you is that you’ve got to play the cards life deals you. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but at least you’re in the game.”
    -- Vic Fontaine

The standard Star Trek show features around seven regulars, give or take. That’s a big number, especially when every one of them needs some time in the spotlight. Most Trek shows, by accident or demand, end up concentrating largely on a core three. TOS had Kirk, Spock, and McCoy; TNG had Picard, Data, and Worf; Voyager had Janeway, that Borg lady, and... look, I didn’t watch a lot of Voyager, and I watched even less Enterprise. I’m willing to bet those shows hewed pretty closely to the core three formula.

DS9, as should surprise no one, is the exception to the rule. There’s a certain amount of core three thinking, with Sisko, Kira, and Odo/Worf forming that triumvirate. The major difference, though, is DS9’s ridiculously deep supporting cast. Characters like Rom and Dukat were around since the first season, appeared in huge amounts of episodes, and were instrumental in the show’s endgame, but were always listed as guest stars. My favorite character - plain, simple Garak - was a guest star through the show’s run from the second episode even to the series finale.

With all of those characters, it would be easy for the writers to lose track of one or two. To be fair, they occasionally seem to -- at this point in the series, when was the last time we really checked in on O’Brien? -- but this ends up feeling more organic than anything else. Characters recede into the background during periods of calm in their lives only to surge to the forefront when crisis hits. Because the hard work of establishing them has already been done, when a formerly sidelined character seizes the spotlight, it feels like a natural outgrowth of who they are.

The crazy thing is, if you include Jake (who, despite his name in the opening credits has always been more of a guest star), DS9 had nine regulars by this point. Yet the supporting cast was so well defined they could have shows that focused around them. This had been done already with Dukat and Garak, producing some of the finest hours in the show’s run. Usually, these guest stars would pair off with a regular, forming the bedrock against which the regular would learn and grow. DS9, though, had developed its supporting cast to the point where they could hang an episode on two of them and produce an emotionally rich, thematically satisfying hour.

This is a long-winded way of saying that this is a Vic and Nog episode, and it’s terrific.

Nog had his illusions about heroic warfare shattered two episodes ago in “The Siege of AR-558” when a wound forced Dr. Bashir to amputate his leg. Now, Nog returns to the station hobbling on a cane, his future-prosthetic causing him a crippling amount of pain. While the crew wants to celebrate his return, Nog wants to be left alone. He feels weak and small and suffers traumatic flashbacks to his injury. The only thing that comforts him is Vic’s rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the haunting ballad Bashir played while Starfleet braced for the Jem’Hadar to attack. He listens to it on repeat, finally causing Jake, his roommate, to flip out and take it away.

Nog heads to the holosuite where he can hear the song sung live. At the end of fifteen different arrangements of the same song, he decides to live there with Vic, retreating into a world of hard light because reality holds nothing for him anymore. Since his counseling with Ezri was going nowhere, she supports the idea. Starfleet allows its personnel to recuperate in a facility of their choosing, and so Nog chooses a holographic casino from the ‘60s. Look, the future is weird.

Ezri gets Vic on board with Nog’s recuperation, and this is the only scene in the series where Vic seems a little flirty with a member of the crew. I suppose Ezri’s his kryptonite. Vic turns out to be a dynamite counselor (as though there were any doubt). Nog throws himself into the role of manager for Vic, doing the hologram’s books (“It’s real to me,” Vic says) and realizing they have enough money to expand. Nog even stops using his cane to get around without realizing it. The pain was allegedly psychosomatic all along, but Vic was the only one to truly accept it as part of Nog’s experience. In essence, Vic and Nog accept the parts of one another’s experiences that others never would. There is perhaps nothing more powerful one can say to a friend than, “I believe you.”

There are troubling elements to Nog’s recuperation. When Jake comes into Vic’s with a date (a Bajoran woman, because Jake has a type), what should be a friendly reunion begins with Nog completely shutting down, and ends with him sucker-punching his best friend. Nog is retreating into this unreality, and slowly but surely, it’s killing him.

Vic, however, is having the time of his life. Despite some early hiccups -- Vic’s never gotten tired before because his program’s never been on long enough -- he’s enjoying himself. He has a real life, one where he can read the paper, play poker with the boys, and generally do things for himself rather than only being activated for a few songs or a night on the town. As Nog slowly loses his life, Vic gains his, and in the process, loses sight of what he was there to do in the first place.

In one of her best scenes in the series, Ezri is the one to make him realize what he’s doing. Vic is not a selfish person, but the lure of a real life is enough to corrupt even the noblest of holographic lounge lizards. Ezri subtly prods Vic to make his own revelation, that he’s using Nog. To his credit, Vic immediately moves to rectify the situation, and tells his friend his time living in the holosuite is over. Only Nog isn’t better. He’s recovered from the pain in his leg, but he’s still haunted by something deeper.

This finally boils over in a bare holosuite, Vic having shut the whole program down, leaving the only two “real” things behind: Nog and his discarded and useless cane. Gone is the glitzy glamor of Vic’s, replaced by the industrial interior of the room. Vic tells Nog if he stays in the holosuite he’ll become as hollow as Vic. Nog breaks down. I’m a fan of Aron Eisenberg’s performance across the series, especially as the character of Nog has evolved. Back in the first season he was a shiftless, illiterate burgeoning criminal who managed to become a clean-cut young man on the track to be an officer in Starfleet. While this shouldn’t work, it’s a testament to the character created by Eisenberg and the writing staff that it does. All of Eisenberg’s hard work on the series was building to this scene. He crumbles in front of Vic, revealing first his shame over his childlike ideals about “testing himself” and then his deep existential terror at the possibility he could be snuffed out at any second. Vic, having gained a deeper appreciation of life thanks to Nog, is able to sincerely tell him how important living is. Good or bad, it’s what you have. Live it.

Nog listens to the hologram. Why wouldn’t he? Vic’s got a good head on his shoulders, even if it’s technically illusory. Nog goes back out into the world and embraces his worried family. He’s not fine, he acknowledges to them, but he will be. Later, after returning to duty, he goes to see Vic. He has a gift for his friend: now the program can be running at all times. Vic will get to live a life of his own. It’s kind of incredible to feel for a hologram, but the joy in Vic is undeniable, as well as the generosity of spirit of Nog -- and remember, he’s a Ferengi, who’s been taught from birth that generosity is a mortal sin.

In the seventh season of the show, DS9 turned the reins over to a pair of guest stars, and it felt entirely natural. Both Nog and Vic are vital parts of the series, and their struggles have as much dramatic heft as those of the regulars. Nog allowed the series to reflect on PTSD, and it did so with more maturity than anyone had a right to expect in an hour about a big-eared alien living in a fake Rat Pack-era casino.

Next up: Ezri goes home.

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