Odo and Dax visit a planet whose inhabitants are mysteriously disappearing. Meanwhile, Quark tries to hide a criminal scheme from Kira.
Plot Summary: While investigating an unusual particle field in the Gamma Quadrant, Dax and Odo find a powerful generator on a nearby planet. When the residents see them studying it, they are questioned by local leader Colyus, who explains that 22 people have vanished – most recently the mother of a girl named Taya, whom Odo questions. Taya’s grandfather, Rurigan, isn’t pleased about the Starfleet officers meddling but allows Odo to establish a rapport with Taya, though he warns Odo that there is no point in searching outside the valley because no one ever leaves it. Odo and Dax soon discover why: the village and its people are holographic. Dax believes the missing have vanished because the reactor is breaking down; she offers to try to fix it, though to do so, she must turn it off. The villagers agree, but when Dax shuts the holographic generator, she and Odo are astonished to see Rurigan still there. He explains that the Dominion took over his home, so he recreated the civilization holographically on a new planet, though that that life is now over. Odo insists that if the people of the village have developed feelings and sentience, they should be allowed to survive, and Rurigan agrees to let them turn the reactor back on, restoring his missing daughter and the others. Back on the station, Sisko suggests that Jake get a job in preparation to apply to Starfleet Academy, but Jake confesses first to O’Brien, then to his father, that he has no interest in joining Starfleet. Meanwhile, Quark – who plans to sell stolen goods acquired by his cousin – tries to distract Kira – who has taken on Odo’s duties during Odo’s absence – by inviting Bareil to Deep Space Nine, but although Bareil and Kira start a romance, she guesses Quark’s scheme and has his cousin arrested.
Analysis: “Shadowplay” is a more enjoyable episode than I had remembered, though it remains disjointed and unevenly scripted, as if the writers felt they had to give air time to characters they’d been neglecting so they threw together three story fragments to give everyone something to do. A lot of groundwork is established for future developments – Kira and Bareil’s love affair, the Dominion’s aggression, Jake’s avoidance of serving in Starfleet, Odo’s acceptance of holographic life forms as deserving of the same rights as changelings – but the storytelling seems choppy and arbitrary even when one knows what’s coming in later seasons, and the idea of “shadow play” doesn’t hang together well for the subplots. What I like best are the character interactions, though Quark’s walk on the criminal side is pretty shameless even for him, and the two characters we’re supposed to believe are falling in love actually have the least chemistry.
Oddly, considering that she’s caught him flagrantly disrespecting her authority, Kira generates more sparks with Quark than with Bareil. It isn’t just the fact that she and Bareil seem far more comfortable talking than kissing – in fact, they keep interrupting their first kiss to gossip uncomfortably – it’s that Kira seems so out of character shying away from a lively theological argument just to avoid irritating Bareil. Since when does she back down from a challenge? I have trouble watching her do so in the name of love, let alone believing she’d want a man who agrees to chat about springball rather than risk a heated debate about something as important to them both as their religion. If they’d spent two hours shouting about the interpretation of prophecy and then kissed, I’d be more inclined to think they were a great couple. The fact that she tells him she’s honored rather than delighted to see him is very telling, because I think she does have a certain degree of awed reverence that she never quite loses for Bareil, even after she knows many of his secrets; as with Shakaar, I can’t imagine that would have been good for a long-term relationship, though sadly the two won’t be together for enough time to find out.
The storyline with Jake is very nearly a throwaway, which wouldn’t matter so much except that it concerns an enormous turning point in his life, something about which I’d expect not only his father but everyone else involved in his life to offer advice and make suggestions, for better or worse. I agree with O’Brien that Benjamin Sisko seems unlikely to be seriously upset at having a son who chooses a path other than Starfleet, but I can’t believe Sisko doesn’t suggest that Jake at least keep all his options open at such a young age in case he changes his mind or decides he wants to do something for which a background in Starfleet might be advantageous (like, you know, reporting on an intergalactic war for which Starfleet connections would prove invaluable). I’d also think that O’Brien himself would have some perspective about civilian life as an outsider among Starfleet officers, since his wife has occupied that position for many years. And I’d think Sisko might suggest that Jake talk to Dax, who’s a family friend and who has a broad perspective on many different careers. The rapid movement from disgruntled teenager not wanting an apprenticeship to independent young man whose father instantly accepts his decisions happens much too rapidly for belief.
The lengthiest plot, at least, is much better constructed. Dax and Odo have lovely chemistry, since Dax is an old soul in the body of a giddy young woman while Odo often seems old before his time, distrustful and irritated where Dax is enthusiastic about people and their foibles. I really thought she was trying to find out whether he was interested in Kira, whom he cites as his one female intimate, though she suggests that he notice a female officer who visits the security office may have her eye on him as well. Odo’s relationship with Taya reminds me of the Next Generation episodes where Data bonds with little girls, but Odo’s vulnerability makes this one more touching; whereas Data can’t really be wounded emotionally, Odo reveals more about his own scars than about Taya’s suffering over her mother’s disappearance in the course of his questioning. Rurigan, too, is sympathetic and believable, a dying man facing the end not only of his own life but of the dream-world he’s created that has taken on a life of its own. It’s interesting that Dax and Odo both treat him not like a Barclay, whom the Enterprise crew usually talked to like a stunted child who couldn’t cope with the real world, but like a leader who didn’t know the value of his own life’s work.
The episode has the good sense not to try to explain the technology behind the endlessly running holographic projector, nor to guess how a man whose civilization was decimated by the Dominion had the resources to flee with such a powerful tool. Ultimately, this storyline has the least consequence for the series as a whole – we will never see this planet again, and Odo won’t interact so closely with a hologram until Vic Fontaine appears – yet it’s the most memorable, and Odo’s questions about the independent lives of holograms, whom he considers life forms whether they’re made up of cells or omicron particles, resonate with things the EMH says on Voyager when his own “humanity” is called into question. I’m sorry we don’t get a bit more philosophy and a bit less unenthusiastic kissing.