Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “It’s Only a Paper Moon”
On the 21st September 2019 another actor from the Star Trek franchise was lost. Aron Eisenberg who played Nog on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 died at the age of 50 which has prompted me to write this article. This isn’t a review in the traditional sense so there will be no rating. It’s just a chance for me to write about an episode I consider to be a classic.
Before I begin I’ll make it clear that I didn’t know Aron Eisenberg nor had I ever met him but I’m keenly aware of his work on Deep Space 9 and would like to highlight what I consider to be the best of that. The episode I’ve chosen to talk about, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is the 10th episode from the show’s seventh and final season is focused on Eisenberg’s character Nog as he recovers from the trauma of losing his leg in “The Siege of AR-558“.
This episode holds significance within the franchise for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that Nog wasn’t actually a main character in the show in that his name didn’t appear in the opening credits with the likes of Avery Brooks and the other top billed cast. Even though Nog was present since the first episode and had a significant presence on the show he was still considered a recurring guest star which means that devoting an entire episode to him on his own was significant as it typically wasn’t the done thing on Star Trek. Another recurring guest star, Vic Fontaine (James Darren) shares the majority of the screen time so this episode could be described as an anomaly.
Another reason the episode stands out is that its roots lie in consequences. The episodic nature of prior Star Trek stories meant that for the most part things would return to normal by the end of a given episode and the characters would be more or less reset to how they were at the beginning of the episode. There were exceptions to this but broadly this was the case. One notable exception was Picard’s assimilation by the Borg during the events of “The Best of Both Worlds“. Following that there was an entire episode devoted to Picard processing what had been done to him and it would periodically come up throughout the rest of the series. Such coverage was a rarity which makes it all the more special when it happens.
The set-up of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is really simple which allows the character story a lot of room to believe. Nog returns to Deep Space Nine after an extended stay in a Federation hospital where he was given a prosthetic leg. He has been granted an indefinite amount of medical leave to deal with what he has been through and get to a point where he is comfortable returning to duty. This is part of the larger narrative of the Dominion War that took place in the latter part of the show and was one of the ways the writers chose to explore the impact War has at almost every conceivable level. In the case of Nog it was the perspective of a newly commissioned officer who was eager to serve and overcome by the excitement that comes with combat. That viewpoint changed after his leg was lost in combat during “The Siege of AR-558” because that was the point where things became too real for him. He was a young inexperienced Ensign who thought he was untouchable especially considering all of the combat he’d seen up until that point with no visible scars to show from it. In one moment he went from naive Ensign to wounded soldier and the scope of the dangers he was routinely facing became real in that moment. How could he be blamed for being in no hurry to return to that and wanting to escape to something that was the furthest from his real life he could find.
It turns out that the furthest you can get from the Dominion War and Starfleet duties is a holographic 1962 lounge singer program starring the aforementioned Vic Fontaine who entertains the Deep Space Nine crew with renditions of classic Jazz and Swing songs delivered in a delicious Frank Sinatraesque. It’s worth pointing out that Vic Fontaine was a divisive character among the audience at the time but I always enjoyed him and really liked the musical touch his presence brought to the show. It gave Deep Space Nine more personality than it already had and it was good to see that something besides Classical music made it to the 24th century.
Nog makes the decision to live in Vic’s world for his rehabilitation which doesn’t sit well with many of the other characters but is nonetheless deemed as a good enough idea to try for a while. Ultimately he feels comfortable there which is important for his recovery so it’s something that everyone agrees to try. In Star Trek the Holodeck -or in this case Holosuite- is an interesting piece of technology because of what it represents. It basically allows the characters to enter a virtual world that may be indistinguishable from the real thing. There have been examples of how powerful that fantasy can be and how easily people can become addicted. It’s easy to see how that could be the case as there exists a piece of technology that can grant practically any wish and cater to any desire so how could such a thing not be addictive to the user? In the Star Trek universe the answer seems to be appropriate context but there are those who still slip through the cracks and this episode is actually about that though not for the reason of it being addictive on its own.
At this point in his recovery Nog is desperate for an escape. The real world is cold, uninviting and scary. It’s clear early on that he feels like a bit of a charity case causing a burden on those around him. Many of those early scenes show people walking on eggshells around him either trying too hard to appear normal or regarding him with uncertainty and caution. It’s all perfectly understandable from that point of view but also easy to see how dealing wit that would be exhausting. Vic is noticeably different as his interactions with Nog are far less forced than anyone else seen talking to him. He still shows sympathy but doesn’t try to talk around it and his empathy is much more natural. Vic cements himself as a great judge of character as he is quickly able to assess Nog’s mental state and cater to that by treating him like a peer while also not ignoring everything he has been through. It’s a clever variation on how everyone else deals with it and it proves to be an important distinction as Nog decides that he would rather be around Vic for his rehabilitation than anyone outside the Holosuite.
As you might expect it doesn’t take long for Nog to become fully immersed in this artificial world. He involves himself in the day to day business of Vic’s Casino by turning his Ferengi brain to the books which leads him to discover that the Casino is a very profitable business that it ready to expand. He gets so caught up in it that his real life becomes increasingly distant to the point that it’s clear he may never return to it on his own. Despite this the therapy is shown to be effective through a simple visual cue. At the beginning of the episode Nog appears with a cane that he doesn’t need according to all factual medical information. He has convinced himself that he needs it because he is aware of the absence of his natural leg and his mind conjures up pain to help him deal with that. Vic encourages this by providing him with a snazzier cane that he eventually starts to all but ignore as his comfort levels increase. The more confident he becomes the easier it is for him to walk and no longer needing it symbolises the end of that recovery.
Naturally becoming fully immersed in a fantasy in order to hide from the horrors of the real world is far from healthy and Ezri (Nicole de Boer) pops into Vic’s lounge as a reminder of that which snaps Vic out of being immersed in the fantasy as well. Nog being around him non stop has allowed Vic to have a life involving sleeping, socialising, watching TV and other such mundane pursuits that flesh and blood beings take for granted. As a hologram he has memories of doing all of those things but has never actually experienced them because he is turned off whenever the attendees are suitably entertained. Debating whether Vic is alive or not is probably best reserved for another article but the important thing here is that he gets to live like a normal person would and that’s something he is greatly enjoying. For everyone else the program is a fantasy but for him it’s his life so the prospect of making more money and expanding his business is appealing to him. His conversation with Ezri reminds him that it is all a fantasy and he will continue to exist in this form regardless of how well the Casino is doing. Vic’s existence is for the benefit of others and Ezri helps put him back on track to his original purpose of helping Nog return to his life.
The scene that follows where Vic adopts a tough love approach in order to force Nog to leave is incredible. He talks about Nog needing to face the outside world again and is able to bring a different perspective to it as he has experienced life recently and can see how precious it is. Vic points out that Nog will slowly lose himself in the fantasy world until the point where he is no longer a person and that’s not something that can be allowed to happen. When Nog still refuses to see that point of view Vic literally sacrifices his life and turns the program off. He is so committed to helping Nog that he is willing to return to mere existence to makes sure that Nog gets what he needs.
When the program ends Nog’s original stick is lying on the floor as a cold reminder of the world that he has to return to. The image of Nog alone in the Holosuite looking at his original stick is really powerful as it highlights how terrified he is to go back out there while also showing how far he has come. He has discarded that stick and hasn’t thought about it since his therapy began so it no longer represents what he has lost but also qualifies as a manifestation of his fear and self doubt.
I personally find this episode so memorable because it’s a great character study. Nog is a man in serious pain who finds a way to deal with it by escaping from it for a while. When the episode ends that pain isn’t magically gone because he will always be affected by what happened to him. When he’s asked if he’s OK he responds with “No, but I will be” which serves as a final reminder that what we’ve seen isn’t the end of his recovery. He has taken significant steps in the right direction but has a long way to go before he’ll feel like himself again. I’ve had no personal experience dealing with a permanent injury such as this but I know that this episode is celebrated because of the things it does right. Nog is a relatable example of someone suffering from PTSD and struggling to find a way to contextualise their experience in a way that allows them to function on a daily basis. Star Trek at its best explores relatable issues through a science fiction lens and this is a really strong example of them doing that. Outside of the science fiction flourishes this is a really simple story about a man in pain finding a way to deal with that pain. It touches on the horrors of War, the impact War has on those who fight it and explores how being in that situation can fundamentally change a person. Nog will never be the same after this and the episode makes that abundantly clear.
The title of the episode “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is a really clever touch as it works on a couple of levels. It’s a clear reference to the Holosuite as the moon in the sky is only a projection so everything around Nog is artificial. The lyrics take on extra relevance throughout the episode especially during the montage where Vic sings it while highlighting the normal day to day life he now has. “It wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me” is especially poignant as Vic is more real because Nog doesn’t see him as a hologram. When he looks at Vic he only sees a friend so he is the one that believes in him making the program so much more than “make-believe”. I’m not about to argue that this makes Vic a sentient being on its own but he is important to Nog and becomes something more than the fantasy because of how Nog sees him.
Aron Eisenberg’s performance throughout this particular episode is absolutely spot on. He nails the depression and anxiety early on then believably transitions to delusional before ending up at the reluctant acceptance. Every step of the journey is performed brilliantly which combines perfectly with the sharp writing to produce an episode I have no problem calling a classic.
I think this is the finest example of Aron Eisenberg’s acting ability on the show and that’s basically why I felt compelled to write about it upon hearing the tragic news of his death. Nog is a character who developed significantly throughout the run of the show and Aron Eisenberg’s commitment to the role was never in doubt. He was always engaging and fit in well with the eclectic cast.
As I said in the intro I never had the pleasure of meeting him but by all accounts he was a lovely man who was good with fans, always great to be around and lived a full life. His passing means that we will unfortunately never see Nog again but his contribution to the franchise is significant and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is to my mind the best example of that so I’d definitely recommend revisiting it as a way to commemorate what he brought to Star Trek.
A fundraiser exists to help his wife and family with funeral costs so if you would like to contribute then you can do so here.
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