"It's Only a Paper Moon" 
Season Seven, Episode 10
Teleplay by Ronald D Moore
Story by David Mack and John J Ordover
Directed by Anson Williams
Music by Jay Chattaway
Main Cast:
Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko
Rene Auberjonois as Odo
Nicole deBoer as Lt Ezri Dax
Michael Dorn as Lt Cmdr Worf
Cirroc Lofton as Jake Sisko
Colm Meaney as Chief Miles O'Brien
Armin Shimerman as Quark
Alexander Siddig as Dr Julian Bashir
Nana Visitor as Colonel Kira Nerys

Guest Stars:
Aron Eisenberg as Nog
James Darren as Vic Fontaine
Max Grodenchik as Rom
Chase Masterson as Leeta
Tami Adrian George as Kesha.


Nog returns to DS9 having spent several weeks on a starbase following the incident at AR-558 in which he lost his leg. Although he has been fitted with an artificial leg, Nog's psychological injuries are not as easy to heal. He is detached, sullen and moody and refuses to open up to his friends. He does, however, find comfort in the holographic world of Vic Fontaine and quickly establishes a close friendship with the Vegas crooner. After a time, Nog is totally immersed in this fantasy world and it's not until Vic picks up on one of Ezri's comments that he realises that it's now time for Nog to go back to the real world. This suggestion horrifies Nog. He doesn't want to go back out there -- it's dangerous out there. If he can get shot and have to lose his leg, then anything can happen to him. Vic gently tells him that it's time he faced up to his mortality, embraced it and got on with his life. At Vic's coaxing, Nog musters the courage to leave the holosuite. But Vic's kindness and support is not unrewarded -- as a gift Nog has made arrangements for Vic's program to be left running the whole time.


It's Only a Paper Moon provides some much-needed follow-up to The Siege of AR-558 and as such it's pretty much everything I hoped it would be. Charming, moving and thoroughly entertaining from begining to end, this is a powerful character piece and a beautifully-observed story of life, death, mortality and, of course, the consequences of war. Oh, and the music's pretty good, too. :-)

The Siege of AR-558 could well go down in my book as the most gut-wrenchingly painful episode of Trek ever to see the light of day. It's not as if we hadn't seen stories of the like before, because we certainly had, but I can't think of any that had half the visceral impact of The Siege of AR-558. For once the age-old tale of combat in the trenches felt disturbingly real and I was left sitting in numbed silence after having watched my friends (yes, these characters feel like my friends. And, yes, I know I need to get out more :-)) undergo such horror. A large part of the emotional wallop came from Nog's injury due to which he lost his leg. In that horrifying moment I knew that the eager, brash young boy who'd been determined to prove himself as a warrior was no more. Nog could never be the same again. The Siege... was a story that demanded follow-up; it demanded consequences. Hell, the whole point of the episode was that war has consequences. To not show those consequences would have been not only self contradictory but downright idiotic.

A part of me was concerned that these consequences were going to be overlooked, that the next time we'd see Nog he'd be back to normal with only a throwaway reference to his injury. After all, Trek doesn't have a good track record when it comes to dealing with consequences (although DS9 is a very notable exception -- for the most part, that is). Remember in TNG when Worf broke his spine and was paralysed? Why, he was good as new by the end of the episode and jumping over trees by the following week. We're all familiar with the Trek "reset button" and that is but one example of it. Fortunately, the DS9 writers have had the sense to deal with the consequences of Nog's devastating injury and the result is a first rate examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, of coping with disability, of coping with life, you name it. 

It's very interesting to note that It's Only a Paper Moon couldn't be more different in style, content and tone to The Siege of AR-558. Whereas the latter was a profoundly dark, deeply disturbing tale of death and carnage, this is an upbeat, feel-good, life-affirming look at learning how to cope with what life throws at you. I was left feeling depressed and traumatised after The Siege..., but after this I was left positively glowing. These two episodes are as good as any an indication that DS9 is truly the most eclectic show on television and has a very rare ability to tell a wide range of different stories and to do so very well indeed.

The episode starts with Nog's return to DS9, following several weeks at a starbase where the surgeons were able to fit him with an artificial leg. His friends and family are eager to see him and they greet him with a hero's welcome, but young Nog is a changed man. The once-outgoing, gregarious little tyke is now sullen, moody and withdrawn. A particularly nice piece of directing sees Nog limp off, leaving behind his baffled friends and, as the door shuts behind him, it's clear that he's quite literally shutting them out his life.

About the only thing that Nog seems to take comfort from is listening to Vic Fontaine's "I'll Be Seeing You", the song that was playing when Nog was lying in the makeshift hospital at AR-558. This connection made sense; it's something Nog can't let go of, something he can't come to terms with.  More importantly, it serves as a plausible way to introduce Nog to Vic (it would seem that the song was put into The Siege... with the intention of setting up this episode, which demonstrates some clever forethought). It's not difficult to understand why Nog would find comfort and a degree of peace in the fantasy world of Vic Fontaine. Think about it, Nog has had a very rude awakening to the harsh realities of war. He has suffered a devastating injury and even though the physical scars have healed, the psychological wounds have clearly not. How do you cope with that? I don't suppose you can say until you've been in that situation yourself. I think it's safe to assume that not many people will have been shot down on the battlefield and lost a leg, but who hasn't at one time or another suffered some severe trauma? It could be bereavement, injury or sudden disability, but I think most of us have had times where life just about comes crashing down around our ears. We all have our own ways of coping. Some people grin and bear it and seem to have a remarkable abundance of inner strength. Some might simply crack up, unable to cope. And others somehow retreat inside themselves into something of an inner, fantasy world. 

When I was a teenager I was diagnosed with Hodgekin's disease, which is basically cancer of the lymphatic system. The cancer was at quite an advanced stage so, as you can imagine, it came as something of a shock (to put it mildly). At the time I surprised everyone with how well I seemed to cope with it. I just kept fighting on, and I refused to concede to the possibility that my days might in fact be numbered. Of course, I missed a lot of school and I didn't see much of my friends and looking back I can see how I almost fell into something of a "fantasy" world. I watched a lot of television and videos and I read a lot, as well. As I grew more and more disconnected from the outside world, I felt almost a kind of safety in my videos and books. Now, it wasn't exactly the same as Nog (though I would love my own holosuite, yeah!) but I can relate to what happens to him. Life can be painful, traumatic and at times it can shake you to your very core -- and it's only now that I realise just how much I was shaken by my illness. In times of deep stress, it is only natural to withdraw from life a little, to shift your focus into a safer, more secure direction. I'd be very interested to hear if anyone else knows what I'm talking about here. 

Let me tell you something else, when you have disconnected a little from the world and built a comfortably secure "fantasy" environment it's hard as hell to get back to your life as it was before. Even if you are feeling better, you simply don't want to leave the safety of this place and it takes a great deal of courage to step back out into the real world with all its associated pain and risks. So, although my situation was obviously different, I could really understand and empathise with Nog and I thought Ron Moore did an absolutely superb job portraying this. Either he's done some research into the psychological effects of severe trauma or else he was writing from his own experience. At any rate, this is a beautifully sensitive, realistic human drama. I was impressed.

Now to stir up a bit of controversy! :-) A large factor that contributes to the episode's success is none other than Mister Vic Fontaine! Now, I'm well aware that there are a good number of people out there who simply despise Vic, but I've never been sure why. I know that the "super hologram" aspect is a little dodgy at times and occasionally he has been somewhat rudely forced into episodes for what seemed to be token appearances (for an example of this at its most jarring, go watch Tears of the Prophets). But when the character is used well -- as he most certainly is here -- I simply adore the old pally! He's like everyone's favourite uncle, a guy who brightens your day whenever you see him. He's charming, endearing, good-natured, easy-going and someone you could really feel able to confide in and be assured that he'd find some way to cheer you up. 

It's no mystery why Nog feels so much more comfortable around Vic than he does his friends. Vic treats Nog just like anyone else; there's no tip-toeing around him, walking on eggshells, no hero worship or frayed tempers. It's clear from his interaction with Ezri and Jake that Nog simply isn't ready to deal with people, with the exception of Vic. The friendship that develops between the two is touching and heartfelt as opposed to maudlin and contrived. Something I was afraid might happen with this episode was for Vic to be like the guy with all the answers, the guy that turns Nog's life around, the master counsellor of counsellors. That would have stretched it beyond all realms of credibility. Something that made me slightly uncomfortable with the character in His Way was that he was just a little too clever, too on the ball. Part of me was afraid that this episode was going to be "His Way, Mark Two" with Vic teaching Nog how to overcome his disability. Instead, Moore wisely takes a different tack and underlines that this is an equal friendship and that Vic has no agenda of any kind, he's simply being a friend to Nog. And this is, of course, precisely what Nog needs above all else.

It's wonderful to watch the turnaround in Nog as immerses himself in this fictional world. He's found a friend, a new purpose and he slowly but surely begins to unwind and let go -- before long he's even stopped limping. Special mention must be made to the delightful montage of Vic and Nog going about daily life accompanied by the titular song "It's Only a Paper Moon". Clearly his stay in the holosuite has done him the world of good. But there's a danger that he's becoming too immersed in this world. The fact that he treats holosuite characters with more esteem than his own parents is evidence of that. Vic doesn't seem to realise until he picks up on a comment that Ezri makes about Nog being better and ready to leave the holosuite. The thing is, Vic had gotten so used to having him around, to having his program run continuously that part of him had been blind to the fact that, sooner or later, it had to end.

Of course, Nog is very reluctant to leave. He's happy and content there -- and, of course, above all he's safe. It's in his final breakdown that Nog admits that he's scared to go back into the real world. It's no great surprise that his experience at AR-558 has deeply shaken him and forced him to confront his own mortality. Up to this point, he's skirted round the issue (hence throwing himself into an escapist, fantasy environment) but he can't hide from his feelings forever. "If I can get shot, if I can lose my leg...anything can happen to me, Vic! I could die tomorrow." It's quite a thought isn't it? There comes a point when we all must face our mortality. That Nog is finally able to express these feelings outwardly and open up to someone demonstrates that emotionally he's come a long way since he first returned to the station. My heart really went out to Nog and Aron Eisenberg was particularly good as he unburdened his feelings. 

Vic's response was dead on-key: "If you stay here, you're gonna die. Not all at once, but little by little. Eventually you'll become as hollow as I am." His point? "You've got to deal the cards life deals you. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose -- but at least you're in the game." How true. In other words, embrace your mortality and make the most of what time you have. Oh, life can be painful and traumatic, but in truth the knocks and the bruises often only go to make you a stronger, better person. At Vic's gentle coaxing, Nog takes a deep breath and musters the courage to leave the holosuite and face the world once again. If anything, his turnaround seemed a little abrupt, as though the director lost his timing a little (or had it edited!), but that's only a minor quibble. The scene where he is reunited with his family was genuinely heart-warming and it's good to see an acknowledgement that although Nog has made a break-through, there are no easy answers or quick fixes when it comes to emotional and psychological healing.

But the episode isn't solely about Nog and perhaps the most touching aspect of the episode is the two-way nature of Nog and Vic's friendship. Not only is Vic helping Nog, but Nog is essentially enabling Vic to live. Until now, Vic's program had only ever been run for a few hours at a time. In a way, he was nothing more than an animated jukebox. But Nog didn't stay with him to hear him sing all the time (although that's how it started off), Nog stayed with him for his company. Instead of treating him like an entertainment commodity, Nog treats him like a person. The words to the song "It's Only a Paper Moon" are particularly relevent and revealing. When it comes time for Vic to get Nog to leave, he encounters the expected resistance. He has to remind him that he is getting too caught up in what is all an illusion. Nog responds that it's not an illusion; it's real to him and he knows it's real to Vic, too. Vic admits that it is real to him and tells him how much he's enjoyed having a life. The only problem is "I'm not real. I'm a hologram, not a person." 

You know, it hurt hearing Vic say that! I suppose it helps that I am one of those that likes the character, but I think it's come to a point where we, the audience, accept him as real (well, as real as a fictional character can be!). I wanted to reach over, give him a hug and assure him that he is real! The fact that he is clearly a sentient, self-aware being opens up a whole can of worms, some issues of which have been dealt with on Voyager with regards to the holographic Doctor. I mean, just because a being isn't like us, does that mean it isn't "real"? Who can define "reality", anyway? Reality is a subjective thing. And you could also question the moral implications of creating a sentient hologram -- what the hell was this guy Felix thinking? Didn't he watch Elementary, Dear Data? :-) The episode presents us with these questions, but leaves us to draw our own conclusions. We could have had a nice debate on the nature of reality, but that's been done before on Trek and might have detracted a bit much from the core of the story, which is Nog's recovery. Nevertheless, it's this nice juxtaposition of fantasy and reality that drives the story. The interesting thing is that as Nog throws himself into a fantasy world, Vic gets a taste of what it's like to live in the real world.

As for the ending? I was delighted to see Nog make his breakthrough, but it was hard not to feel a little sorry for Vic. Whilst Nog was staying with him, he was able to experience life; he ate, slept, watched the TV and read the newspaper -- and at one point he even told Nog just how much this meant to him. But once Nog left, it was all over and he had to revert to the jukebox he had been before. Except for one thing -- Nog made arrangement for Vic's program to be left running twenty-six hours a day! This is just the perfect ending as I would have hated to have seen Vic go unrewarded for what he did. Just as Vic had metaphorically given Nog his life back, Nog has literally given Vic a life! I can't think of a more wonderful way to cap the story.

Anyway, once again time is getting the better of me. If I'm doing my job at all well, I think you can guess that I was thoroughly impressed by Moore's excellent script. It showed a great deal of sensitivity and understanding of the healing process that must take place when someone undergoes a trauma such as Nog. He also did a superb job in his handling of Vic and should be commended for keeping the story balanced between both characters and in his subtle, yet insightful exploration of fantasy versus reality. The directing was quite competent, with several nice touches and the acting was generally solid. For the most part, Aron Eisenberg did a good job in the lead role, even if at times I was left wishing he'd done slightly more with his material. Some of the early scenes with the depressed Nog came across as slightly monotonous rather than revealing and I never felt he quite reached out to his co-star James Darren. The Nog/Vic relationship certainly worked well, but I suspect that was largely due to deft writing and Darren's performance. Eisenberg didn't really seem to try to connect with him as much as he could have. That said, there were moments he absolutely shone. In his breakdown scene at the end, he did a superb job and really tugged at the heart strings. As for Darren, he was simply a gem. A gem. He was charming, funny, sincere and touching, displaying an impressive degree of sensitivity when it came to Nog. If I had been at all resistant to Vic in the past, then now I'm completely won over. He's also a great singer, if you hadn't noticed! I particularly loved the title song and on the basis of this episode alone have decided to go and buy myself the Vic Fontaine CD. So there you go.

Having discussed the characterisation of Vic and Nog, here's a quick run-down of how everyone else fared. We'll start off with Ezri, a young lady I'm a little concerned about. The bottom line is, as a counsellor, she's about as much use as a feather duster. Alright, so the story dictated that Nog wasn't in need of counselling, but rather a break from reality. Fine, but everything about Ezri suggested that she didn't have a clue what she was doing. Some of the blame has to go to Nicole deBoer whose "cutesy" approach simply doesn't gel with portrayed a supposed professional (even an inexperienced one). It would seem that Sisko's reasoning that what Ezri lacks in training she makes up for with seven lifetimes of experience was flawed. The one instance where Ezri could have had the upper hand was when she pointed out to Vic that it was time that Nog left the holosuite. If deBoer had played it differently, it would have made Ezri look a lot smarter rather than just coming across as an innocent observation. 

Next up -- Jake. Jake? Oh yes, I remember Jake!! Where's he been all this time? Seriously, Cirroc Lofton is a talented young actor who deserves a hell of a lot more than he's given. Jake appears in two scenes (three if you include the one in the docking bay) and in the first of these comes across slightly unsympathetic. I suspect anyone who's ever had to look after someone when they're ill will understand that there comes a point when you simply lose patience. His outburst at Nog was understandable but what was not understandable was the fact he didn't show any remorse about it. We all lose our tempers sometimes and invariably feel awful afterwards. The second time we see him he brings a date to the holosuite which was perhaps a slightly insensitive thing to do given that Nog came to the holosuite to be alone. Nog has come a long, long way since he was first introduced and as a character has been remarkably well-developed. It's a pity the writers have all-but lost Jake. Incidentally, it's nice to see Rom and Leeta in straight roles although Rom was quite right to be worried about saying something stupid -- at one point he comes away with "my son's insane! He's a one-legged crazy man!" I think that counts as stupid, Rom baby. 

That's about it. I've said enough, so take from it what you will. For my money's worth, I thought this was an excellent episode which dealt with an important, relevant issue in a sophisticated, enjoyable and well-observed manner. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm away to order my Vic Fontaine CD. See ya later, pally!

Rating: 9

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