“Who is to say that our definition of life is the only valid one?”
— Constable Odo
When genre fiction is about ideas, it’s about the big ones. The definition of life as applied to artificial organisms has been an important convention in both science fiction, horror, and fantasy since Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece. I’ve toyed with the idea myself, somewhat glibly in Get Blank, and with far more depth (and gore) in The Dollmaker. Why? Because it’s fascinating. To me, there is nothing more tantalizing than the idea of a creature made by human hands that has both free will and the intelligence to use it. What would their thought processes be without millions of years of evolution shaping them? What kind of being would deeply flawed humans be capable of creating? What the hell do they want? It’s a well Star Trek would return to over and over, most notably with Data. DS9 dips its toes into it this week, in an uncharacteristically lighthearted, but still very good episode.
Dax and Odo are on a mission on the other side of the wormhole, just looking around, like you do. While Dax’s mission is very on point — she’s a Starfleet science officer after all, and there’s a lot of sciencing to be done in the Gamma Quadrant — Odo is mostly tagging along just in case he gets any clues as to his origins. Pairing these two characters pays unexpected dividends, too. Dax is a very people-oriented person. She’s very interested in the lives of others and points out that after seven lifetimes of her own, impersonal questions aren’t very fun anymore. Odo is pathologically afraid of intimacy of any kind and would mostly prefer to gruffly solve crimes by his lonesome. The two of them detect a field of omicron particles (the Particle of the Week) and investigate, finding a small village of humanoids just hanging out.
Well, not so much. It seems that people have been steadily disappearing from the community, and there’s no precedent for that kind of thing. At first the town Protector Colyus (kind of a sheriff, but far folksier) reasonably suspects the aliens who just showed up. I mean, it was the early ‘90s, and if a couple aliens appeared in town, the only surprise would be that they weren’t clutching anal probes. The most recent disappearance was only six hours before, the daughter of town patriarch and gruff old man Rurigan. Odo questions the woman’s daughter, Taya, an adorable, little moppet who spends a lot of her time spinning a rather large top. Maybe she thinks she’s being incepted?
. . . that actually makes thematic sense.
Taya is initially frightened of Odo and asks him what’s wrong with his face. (Cue the Plinkett clip.) He explains, in what was almost this episode’s quote: “I’m a shapeshifter. I just don’t do faces.” Shortly, the two of them bond. Taya tells a story of a shapeshifter (based on a Perrault story about a shape-changing ogre) in which a man tricks a changeling into turning into bread and then eats him. Incidentally, she does use the term “changeling” but claims they’re make believe, so that’s yet another hint about Odo’s past. At this point, the writers knew exactly what they were doing, and these little seeds are a treat to rewatch.
The central relationship of the episode, between Odo and Taya, is pretty perfect. A gruff character like Odo, who has been revealed to have a wounded, childlike, gooey center, is perfect to pair with a kid. It helps that the child actor portraying her is charming without being cloying. The writing keeps her from being shrill, so she’s left to cultivate a real friendship with the strange visitor. Rene Auberjonois always brought such a humanity to a character that could have easily just been makeup and special effects, and it’s rewarding to see him able to explore it in a new way. He is able to tell Taya about his painful past of shapeshifting for the amusement of others but couched in terms that a ten year old can understand. In the end of the hour, when he takes the form of her toy, he does it as an act of friendship, a sacrifice to his dignity he would have thought he could never make. I’m trying to say that it’s heartwarming as s–t.
Meanwhile, the station deals with two smaller plots. Kira spars with Quark in Odo’s absence. To distract our favorite Bajoran, Quark calls in a favor and gets Vedek Bareil tocome to the station. Kira, it should be remembered, is a conservative when it comes to her faith and Bareil is basically a cuddlier version of Pope Francis. They disagree on the meaning of prophecies, but then bond over a love of the Bajoran sport of springball (both characters played in refugee camps). This ends with their first kiss, and I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I don’t buy them as a couple. Never did.
The other plot is between Jake and Chief O’Brien. In a refreshing change, O’Brien isn’t being hunted this episode. Jake begins his apprenticeship, which was mentioned in the last episode, and he is not into it. First, he comes clean to O’Brien. Jake does not want to join Starfleet. O’Brien encourages him to talk to Sisko, and Jake does. Sisko is understanding and supportive, because he’s a good dad. I’m serious. He’s in the top five TV dads of all time. What I enjoy about this is that from a fan’s point of view, Starfleet is the only career in the future. It’s nice to see someone who doesn’t want that, especially the son of the greatest Starfleet officer of all time. The irony is that later we will find that Jake isn’t the weirdo in his family, but Ben Sisko himself is the black sheep for wanting a career in the Federation.
Back on the planet, Odo and Dax shortly discover that the entire town is a holographic projection. I just want to point something out here: this is basically a giant, outdoor holodeck. No one has gone evil. Seriously, the Enterprise can’t go a week without some hologram breaking out and wrecking shop. Can’t the Federation use this technology? Anyway, the disappearances are being caused by the mechanism breaking. To repair it, Dax will have to shut it down, and there’s always the possibility that she won’t be able to get it back on. After some understandable debate, the townsfolk agree. Everything vanishes.
He’s the only “real” person by our definition. He relates his origin story to Dax and Odo, explaining that his planet was conquered by the Dominion (the third and final mention before the big reveal), and he fled, recreating his village on this remote planet. He bitterly plans to move on now. Odo argues with him, pointing out that the program has been creating people — like Taya — and that Rurigan has an undeniable affection for them. Who’s to say who is real and who is not? Odo is not just talking to Rurigan here. He has real feelings of paternal affection for Taya, and though he would deny it, he wants to turn the machine back on. Rurigan relents, but under the condition that they not tell the others that he isn’t like them. They agree and the machine is turned back on. Because this is a happy story, everyone is back.
What I love about the end is that the Protector is like, “Welp, guess we’re holograms. That’ll take some getting used to.” There’s no angsting about it, it’s just something that is. He tells Odo that he’s always welcome back, and this, combined with his love for Taya, is affecting. After all, Odo is an outsider. He has never been welcome anywhere, and granted, a lot of this is due to the fact that he won’t let himself be welcome. But here, in the holographic colony, they are as strange, as outsider, as he is. Though they are not him, they are like him, and Odo sees real kinship there.
But, that’s the last we see of them.
Next up: Dax lets someone else down.