In which Odo collaborates on a mystery, Kira and Jake get through some personal stuff (not with each other) and everybody knows that Changelings are mythical.
Dax is in charge this episode. She’s investigating a particle field along with Odo on the other side of the wormhole. She’s also regaling him with stationwide gossip. He seems at first annoyed and then picking up on the entirely wrong aspect of the story. Apparently, someone on-station is romantically interested in someone who can change his… ahem… shape, at will, and Odo hasn’t even noticed.
Given the timing of these conversations, I’m really starting to wonder if Dax waited until she detected the field before starting the personal conversation just in case there was an awkward silence she couldn’t recover from. Whatever the explanation, the field seems to be made of Omicron particles, which only result from matter/antimatter reactions, and they only come from a small valley region. They beam down and find a complex-looking machine in the middle of an otherwise quite pastoral town square. It appears to be some sort of reactor, and it is defended by an old man with a phaser and a Victorian-style nightcap.
Back on the station, Quark is waiting for a shady deal to go down when Kira drops by to let him know his cousin Kono had come aboard, but ran away at the first sign of the fuzz. And to let Quark known that Kira is watching him. She hasn’t forgotten that he was a Cardassian collaborator. Given that Odo worked directly for Gul Dukat, one wonders what her criteria are. Meanwhile, Sisko tells Jake that he needs to get a job – the payoff for Sisko asking O’Brien to take him on earlier, and a career path towards Starfleet Academy.
Back on the planet, Odo and Dax have been taken in for questioning, but Odo beams out just to make the point that if they had anything to hide, he would have just left. But the disappearance is an interesting effect – the local ‘protector’ has 22 people missing, and a real shake-up to his community. Once he accepts that Odo and Dax aren’t the culprits, Odo offers to help. They cover the obvious – transporter traces – first.
Odo first interviews the daughter of the latest disappearance. The daughter, Tea, didn’t notice anything unusual, and doesn’t much like talking with strange new aliens. Her grandfather cuts the interview short.
Ben gives his son a communicator for his first day on the job and tells him to go have fun, and Kira asks Bashir to keep an eye on Quark. He’s enthused to try out some of the surveilance techniques Garak has been telling him about, and Kira seems amused to hand over the responsibility to yet another person collaborating with Cardassians, so that she can go meet Vedek Bariel since he’s just come aboard so they can continue their extremely awkward courtship. This is a weakness Quark can exploit.
Next day, Odo tracks down the little girl to ask her more questions. She asks about his face, and she corrects his use of the word ‘shapeshifter’ to ‘changeling’ and tells him he’s mythical. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as Changelings. This conversation both allows him to build a rapport and tell us that Changelings are a thing that everyone in the Gamma Quadrant has heard of. Getting back to the subject at hand, we also find out that nobody ever leaves the valley
O’Brien takes Jake through some isolinear rod classification. They’re color coded by contents, and Jake lets slip that he doesn’t necessarily want to go to Stafleet Academy. This is a welcome change from Wesley the Wunderkind, plus it lets us explore some fun teenage pathos. Also, we find out that young Miles O’Brien’s parents wanted him to be a musician – got into the interstellar equivalent of Juilliard and instead signed up for Starfleet as an enlisted man. He tells this story as a way to encourage Jake not to let Ben Sisko run his future. At the same time, Kira and Bariel continue to flirt and are about to play a friendly game of Springball – also known as getting hot and sweaty alone in a holosuite.
Odo is questioning the oldest guy at the colony – one of the founders, who breaks instantly and gives a cryptic clue to the events unfolding. There’s ‘nothing he can do,’ you see. Plus, he’s on his way out. And he reinforces that nobody’s ever been outside the valley. Next shot has Odo and Dax and Tea wandering out of the valley, while she regales them with legends of changelings, including a variation on the classic “I bet you can’t change into something small enough to fit into this bottle” story. As Dax passes the outskirts of the community with a locally-manufactured scanner, however, it fizzles and vanishes. Tea is also approaching the perimeter, and stops just in time. She appears to be a hologram.
Dax finds this difficult to explain to the villagers, because apparently nobody can be told what the Matrix is. You just have to see it for yourself. So in explaining the situation to the Protector, she steals and de-rezzes his cloak by adjusting their reactor’s holographic projection. Everyone in the town appears to be holograms, and the reactor is slowly breaking down. Now, it seems from that line like they’re going to fix the reactor and everyone will go back to living, but let us merely pause the episode here for a moment and ask ourselves the question: If the reactor is capable of simulating dozens of people and their interactions, why not just turn off the projection part and let them keep on living inside internal memory? All the calculation is going on inside the internal computer anyway.
Kira has defeated Bariel at Springball, because it was the only game she played back in the refugee camp aside from ‘who can collect the most Cardassian heads.’ Shortly thereafter, they start making out, and in the least-advisable small-talk ever, Bariel mentions that the guy who invited him to the station is really bad at Dabo. Which is to say, he was blackmailed into inviting Bariel in order to keep Kira distracted. Good thing Bashir is on the case, though! Bashir can be trusted to keep his eyes on the prize, right?
Dax and Odo’s discoveries have clearly caused something of a stir. Nobody is willing to (or programmed to) believe it. Dax has a plan – they can fix and reboot the system. It’s that or a slow, lingering vanishing as villagers disappear one by one. Tea is the bravest one about it, and soon the old community leader/founder guy agrees, and everyone falls into line. And he’s the only one left, (along with all his stuff, so apparently that’s not holographic either) when they reboot.
He lived on a different planet until The Dominion took over, when he left along with a holographic generator set to the longest-running game of The Sims ever, and he’s ready to go back and abandon the game. Odo argues the counterpoint – that the holographic people are real enough for anyone’s definition – mind made of computer, body made of the omicron field, but a real person nonetheless. Odo does a damn good job of backing up Picard’s argument from that time with that guy, despite not being Stafleet.
Time for the wrap-up. Jake has to break the news to Ben Sisko about not wanting to be Starfleet. Ben Sisko looks scary for a moment, but he is a good parent after all. Kira lets Quark she knows exactly what he did, caught his cousin, and still managed to get some sack time with her boyfriend. And Dax reboots the generator, suitably repaired, and promises not to tell everyone that they had one real person among them. They might eventually figure it out when he dies and they adopt a new funeral custom of chucking the body outside of the field, though.