the story: Dax plays host (heh) to a potential symbiont initiate who ends up baffled by her approach to life.
what it's all about: "Playing God" is one of those peculiar episodes that is absolute fantastic for a given character (in this case, Jadzia Dax) but kind of only ends up serving to set up a better episode ("Facets") later. We learn a great deal about Dax, her backstory with previous host Curzon (but again, "Facets" does a better job of that, too), but more importantly, it's the episode in which the character really crystalizes. If there's a downside, it feels, ultimately, like half an episode, one that shoehorns formulaic elements into the story in the theory it'll make things more interesting, proving once again the series had yet to find its stride, trust its own instincts.
But the elements that work, work really well. Not only do we get to explore the life of Dax, but like "Rivals" before it allows us to revel in the possibilities of the Promenade, a kind of mall within the station that not only includes Quark's bar but an environment that dwarfs any other such recreational facility in Star Trek lore (read: move over, Next Generation's famous Ten-Forward). This is actually the episode that's most pertinent five seasons later when the next Dax host, Ezri, is trying to find her place and everyone is still dwelling on their memories of Jadzia. Simply put, she really was a tough act to follow.
What's great about "Playing God" is that it completes Dax's transformation from just another pretty face to a three-dimensional character who along with Kira helped redefine the role of women in Star Trek well before Janeway headlined Voyager. Dax and Kira's team-up during "The Siege" at the start of the season started the process, but what was needed was something exactly like "Playing God" to finish it. Other Dax spotlights like "Dax" and "Invasive Procedures" had a knack for exploring the nuances of Trill culture, but tended to leave Dax herself out of the equation. Well, not anymore. It took Troi six seasons in Next Generation to reach a similar point. It's very telling that Deep Space Nine as a whole was on the verge of finally figuring itself out. I don't think it's a stretch to call "Playing God" the tipping point.
franchise- Since Star Trek tropes are the least effective elements of the episode, it's safe to say you don't need to like the rest of the franchise to like this one.
- series - Helps crystalize what works about Deep Space Nine.
- character - Best Dax showcase to date, by far.
- essential - Will help you love the series, so yeah, it's essential in that regard.
Richard Poe (Gul Evek)