A holographic little girl discusses the nature of imaginal reality with a formless being and a goddess. This is an interesting one.
We should begin with the personal identity theory and problem of self themes which naturally always crop up in any story like this. As one might expect from this show, particularly this show this season, the problem is addressed and dealt with rather easily. As a direct thematic follow-up to both “Inheritance” and “Whispers”, it’s never portrayed as ambiguous whether or not the colonists really are sentient beings. That is, if you discount Odo. Odo’s apparent uncertainty over this fact is a reflection of his own inner nature, not necessarily a statement of judgment: He’s accompanied Dax to the Gamma Quadrant to look for clues about his history and identity, and he wants hard and clear answers. Of course, Dax has helped him in this regard before, earlier in the season in “The Alternate”. But seeing “The Alternate” is not a necessary prerequisite for enjoying this episode.
Odo is a neoplatonist here, out searching for an objective reality he can define himself in accordance with. He’s also a detective, heavily invested in solving mysteries and getting to the bottom of a capital-T Truth he sees as being wrongfully withheld from him. It’s of little surprise that the mask he crafts for himself involves serving as a constable, an elected law-enforcement officer with changeably defined responsibilities. This is, of course, and always has been, the key to understanding who Odo is: The naturally fluid and amorphous shapeshifter yearns for form and rigidity because of his own reflexive questions and self-conscious insecurities. Odo likes hard facts and hard truths, things he can hold onto and be absolutely sure of. So naturally he’s going to be less than thrilled with the colony of holograms whose holographic nature is being hidden from them. To him, this is a willful Obfuscation of The Truth, a crime being committed that someone must be held accountable for.
Except Taya tells Odo that shapeshifters aren’t real. Which means, by definition, Odo isn’t real either. And things suddenly got all “Ship in a Bottle” up in here. Although then Taya says she wants to be a shapeshifter, because that would mean she could be anything and everyone would want to be with her. And maybe the better analogy is Promethea…
Taya and the rest of her people are real because Rurigan treats them as if they’re real. He designed them to be exact duplicates of his deceased family and friends on his homeworld and loved them the same way, which means the holographic villagers have become them. This is personal identity theory working on the plane of the imaginal: Not only the psychical continuity of one person, but an entire world kept alive through one person’s perspective of it. The imaginal is dynamically formless: Shaped by positionality, it can also influence it in turn. Gods inarguably exist in the realm of the imaginal, and gods can reshape themselves into new identities through mythopoeia. In essence, they are shapeshifters, with a myriad of different contextual lives identities-Not one Self, but a plurality of selves. Which is an altogether fitting bit of oversignification, considering Odo is accompanied in this episode by an actual goddess.
Yes, you read that right, and no, there’s no need to act so surprised about it. She’s not textually divine, of course, and yet Jadzia Dax is constructed out of a series of allegories and analogies that really make the most amount of sense if you read them as pointing to her coded divine nature. She’s a living series of nested metaphors about the divine. She’s an Otherworldly role model who exists on a higher plane of existence (this was, in fact, one of the very first things she told us about herself, if you recall). As a Trill, Jadzia Dax has not one identity or self, but a plurality of them, and like all powerfully divine figures she exists as a sacred union of masculine and feminine energies. She can even change her shape and form. Jadzia only ever exists in the margins of a story (when people try to write stories about her things tend to get awkward and wonky, she’s someone you have to just know), as is always the case for goddesses in the written record, yet her presence is always keenly felt.
Layers and layers of parallels, mirrors and symbolic association point to the underlying reality we search for. Star Trek claims to be an ensemble show, but loves to hero worship its (male) Captain figures: On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Commander Sisko is the Emissary to the Prophets, the one who travels to the Otherworld and consults with the gods. Many cultures consider the hero archetype a semi-divine or divinely ordained figure, and there are other similar stories of prominent figures earning respect and authority through symbolic union with the gods. Celtic mythology has its semi-divine heroes travelling to the Otherworld and back for counsel, and tutelary deities who could grant or remove sovereignty to local authorities through ritualized matrimony. Myanmar has the legend of the God-King, who invokes Shiva through the ritualized joining of male and female totems, where divinity is explicitly equated with the union of masculine and feminine energies.
But in modern narrative, the feminine side is suppressed. We love our gods and heroes, not so much our goddesses and goddess energies. Commander Sisko entered the Bajoran wormhole with Jadiza Dax, yet only Commander Sisko officially gets to be called Emissary (notice also, please, how the Prophets can change how they present at will). And yet Jadzia remains, a Goddess-Queen to his God-King. She is the unspeakable Other, the one who cannot be spoken of, yet who also cannot be ignored. But Jadzia is more than feminine, or even sacred feminine, she herself is an embodiment of the divine union. She remains and exists to remind us of our latent potential, and what we’ve forgotten under the clattering wheels and grinding engines of the master narratives of history (why else would Jadzia Dax be paired with Odo here, who displays this power in a different way? Both she and he are pan-gendered, and thus a simultaneous male and female spirit). The sacred becomes profane and feminized, and then reappropriates that femininity to reclaim its awesome power.
It helps this power come through that there is genuine evocative craft here. A recursive myth, “Shadowplay” imagines an entire world for us in much the same way Rurigan does for his community. In this case, the world of Deep Space 9. A rare A-B-C plot, and an even rarer one where the story’s themes and motifs permeate at every level. Not only is this episode boldly mystical in a way Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has largely stopped trying to be this season, it also gives us a vertical slice of life in this world, another hallmark of the series that it proved to us early on. Aside from the Dax/Odo stuff on Rurigan’s planet, there’s also the story about Jake admitting to Ben he doesn’t want to go to Starfleet Academy, and Kira trying to keep things in order in Odo’s absence, particularly where Quark is involved (as well as some more development of her relationship with Vedek Bareil). And each and every story deals with the nature of illusions, reality, and perceptions making reality.
“Shadowplay” then does what Star Trek has been seemingly desperate to do for so long: It reminds us of the ancient truths that have been the birthright of humanity for as long as they have existed on Earth, and it does so by showcasing the potential of genre fiction. And not just any genre fiction, horrid dime-store serialized pulp genre fiction that’s Star Trek’s real ancestry. Whose presence is more revealing than Kenneth Tobey’s, storied character actor and veteran of such shlock classics as The Thing from Another World, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea, not to mention cornerstones of United States myth and legend Disney’s Davy Crockett and Gunsmoke? The hard-broiled product of the pulp serials beholds the entheodelic and dreams the world. Even in the meat-and-potatoes staples of capitalized, mass-market fluff storytelling, there remains an essential power that seeps through. Art has power no matter what form it takes, all it requires is someone to understand and channel it to reconnect with the divine.