Bottle show (n.): An episode designed to fill a scheduled time slot while saving as much production money as possible; typically by using only existing sets, props, and costumes, and utilizing special effects in a very sparing fashion. Example: see "Dramatis Personae".
This is one of the more difficult episodes for me to review, because it's always been hard for me to form much of an opinion one way or the other about it. It's not terrible; it's not great. It's just there, if you know what I mean.
The plot: Kira has just finished asking Sisko to deny docking privileges to a Valerian ship which she believes is running a weapons-grade mineral to the Cardassians, when a Klingon ship returns early from the Gamma Quadrant. It promptly explodes as its first officer beams over; said first officer dies on the Ops transporter pad after announcing, "Victory." Soon afterwards, the DS9 senior staff begin a weird game of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies--all of them except Odo, who learns that a similar set of circumstances is what led to the Klingons' demise. The cause: a telepathic matrix from an archive depicting a power struggle that destroyed a long-ago Gamma Quadrant empire.
I guess what bothers me about this episode is that it isn't really DS9. What I mean is, all you have to do is change the character names and put them on a ship, and it could just as easily happen on any Trek series. Yet, since this was the first season, when the show was still struggling toward an identity of its own, I can pretty easily forgive it.
We're also treated to some novel performances by the regulars. O'Brien turns menacing in his rabid loyalty to Sisko. Bashir is all sly hints. Dax is given to fits of rambling reminiscences. Sisko is the strangest case, going from quiet obsession (with building an alien clock), to explosive rage, to a grandiose hamminess that would make Shatner proud. ("My name will blaze across the stars long after your petty treacheries are forgotten!")
Then there's Kira, who turns into a power-hungry seductress with mannerisms Nana would later repeat in her role as the mirror-universe Intendant. Of interest to O/K romance fans is Kira's outrageous flirting with Odo in the scenes where she tries to convince him to take her side. She also displays much the same behavior when seeking Dax's support, so it's a bit difficult to make a case for Kira having an early crush on Odo from this episode. Especially since the writers have indicated that the characters were supposed to be reflecting the personalities of the original players in the ancient drama they were re-enacting. But it's still fun to wonder how much of Kira's behavior really did come from the matrix.
Anyway, if we have to have a station-in-danger story, it's always nice when our boy gets to be the one to save the day. Throughout the series, we didn't actually get all that many chances to see Odo do his thing, profession-wise, for a whole episode. Maybe Worf or Tuvok could have done as well as Odo in the same situation. But I'd still rather watch René.
Although I don't disagree with any of Tracy's specific comments about "Dramatis Personae," my overall opinion of the episode is different: I liked it a lot. In fact, I think it's an important Odo episode because it's the first prominent example of something we were given all too rarely during the run of DS9: a story in which Odo is the primary point-of-view character for the audience.
A brief definition of terms here: for me, the "point-of-view" character (in TV, films, or books) is the person the audience most strongly identifies with. This person may not be the center of the story--sometimes the most effective place for an audience-identification character is on the fringes of the action, as an observer. But such a character can't be too much of an "outsider" or the audience won't be able to get fully in sync with his/her point of view.
Although all of the major characters on DS9 had stories that centered on them from time to time, the role of audience-identification character was more restricted. For much of the first season we, the audience, were shown events through the eyes of Sisko, Kira, or O'Brien. O'Brien, of course, represented a viewpoint we were already familiar and comfortable with; we knew him from his Next Gen days. That meant we could, for instance, easily understand and identify with his frustration in trying to get the uncooperative systems of the Cardassian-built station to work as efficiently and reliably as those on the Enterprise. Kira provided a contrasting, but also fundamentally sympathetic, character for the audience to identify with. As she learned whether, and how far, she could trust these Star Fleet people (strangers to her, and to us), or came face to face with a personal crisis (as in the powerful episode "Duet"), we learned and struggled right along with her. And Sisko, of course, gave us the most familiar perspectives of all: we, the audience, were there with him, learning about Bajor as he learned about Bajor, anticipating what command decision he would make to resolve a problem, empathizing with his love for Jake and his efforts to provide a good home for his son.
"Familiar," "easy," "comfortable"--important traits for a character to have, when you want the audience to identify with him/her, and NOT the first words that spring to mind when you think of Odo, especially in the first season. In fact, the opposites of those terms just about defined him, in his behavior and self-image as well as in the way the other characters saw him. So how could the audience ever identify with him, much less view a story through his eyes?
In "A Man Alone," although the story was certainly about Odo, the point-of-view character for the audience was Sisko. With Sisko, we tried to trust the Constable, hoped to find evidence in his favor, learned things about him we hadn't known before (the 16-hour regeneration cycle), and eventually stood up for him and had our confidence rewarded when he was proven innocent. The whole story centered on Odo--but we saw it through Sisko's eyes and shared Sisko's emotions as it unfolded.
The first episode in which I consciously remember really "clicking" with Odo as the point-of-view character was "Babel," in the final scenes he shared with Quark. Although Bashir, Kira, and Sisko were arguably the major audience-identification characters for most of the story, in the end, when everyone else had succumbed to the virus, we the audience had no one left to identify with but those two unfamiliar aliens. The unlikely allies, Quark and Odo--one or the other, or both of them, depending on the personality of the viewer--became our representatives during the last frantic moments of the story. I remember how strongly I identified with Odo and his desperate efforts to save his colleagues, even though he was at a loss to deal with the control panels in Ops, hated to trust Quark for even a second, and seemed pretty sure that he was about to get himself blown to kingdom come.
In "Vortex," although we certainly were drawn into Odo's point of view at some points, the structure of the episode was such that many of the regular characters, and even the visitor, Croden, also provided moments of audience identification. It's an important Odo story--but not, for me, a strong example of Odo as p.o.v. character.
Which brings us back to "Dramatis Personae." Here we have virtually an entire episode in which the audience experiences events primarily from Odo's point of view. At the beginning of the episode we're in familiar territory, seeing things through Kira's or Sisko's eyes. We start to get into Odo's viewpoint during his conversation in the bar with Quark, just before his head turns inside out… and then, from the moment when Odo's eyes pop open in the infirmary, we're firmly "with" Odo for the rest of the adventure. Identifying with Odo, we hear how intrusive, too obviously curious, and generally unreassuring Bashir sounds as he talks about not understanding a thing about Odo's physiology--and we see, through Odo's eyes, that Bashir seems to be acting a bit odd, even for Bashir. With each of Odo's subsequent encounters with the members of the senior staff affected by the telepathic matrix, we, along with Odo, discover more pieces to the puzzle and eventually save the day.
As the seven seasons of DS9 continued, we were given more and more stories in which Odo was either the primary audience-identification character ("Necessary Evil," "Heart of Stone," "The Begotten") or one of them ("Broken Link," "His Way," "Chimera"). There are others as well, and many individual scenes in episodes that otherwise weren't particularly crucial to Odo's development as a character. But I count "Dramatis Personae" as the earliest full episode to invite the viewer to walk in Odo's shoes, and I value it for that.