Saturday, February 2, 2013

4-19. Hard Time.

A tormented Miles O'Brien, in the prison of his own mind.


An older, unkempt Miles O'Brien is in his prison cell when the door opens and he is told that he has completed his sentence. It is time for him to go. "Go where?" he asks, stunned at the thought of leaving. That, he is told, is not the jailers' problem, and he is yanked out of the room...

...And back to reality, where he learns that he has been implanted with memories of a twenty year prison sentence after being arrested for espionage by the Argrathi, whose planet he was visiting. None of his prison experiences actually happened, very little actual time passed... but he still carries those memories.  His time in prison wasn't real, but it was real to him.

This makes his return to Deep Space 9 very difficult. He has been alone for twenty years, he tells his friends, with no one but himself for company. But that's a lie. Within those implanted memories was a cellmate, the friendly Ee'char (Craig Wasson) who helped him to adjust to and survive the hardships of prison life. O'Brien is keeping a secret, even as he does everything in his power to isolate himself from his old comrades.  It's a secret that might just drive him to self-destruction...


Capt. Sisko: When he learns that O'Brien is reneging on his agreement to visit a counselor three times per week, he sits O'Brien down, relieves him of duty, and insists that he see the counselor on a daily basis. He is compassionate throughout, but he draws a firm line with O'Brien: There's an agreement in place, and he will honor it if he wishes to return to work. If he still fails to live up to his side of that bargain, Sisko threatens to have him confined to the infirmary - and this being Sisko, he probably means it.

O'Brien: Miles O'Brien must be the unluckiest man in Starfleet. He has experienced war, alien possession, a Cardassian tribunal, and even the death of another version of himself. And now he gets one more burden added to his Job-like list of experiences: twenty horrific years in prison which he then learns never even truly happened!

I love the way the episode explores the effects of this sentence on O'Brien. It's little details - like the hoarding of food, or the sleeping on the floor, or the attempts to get the replicator to manufacture the food he had eaten in prison - that make his emotional torment feel so genuine. Colm Meaney is exceptional. The first Act sees him detached, not quite believing in the life to which he has returned. As time passes, the detachment fades, but is replaced by anger and finally pressing guilt. Meaney hits every beat with the same authenticity that has been the hallmark of his performance throughout his Trek career.

Dr. Bashir: Though the episode is a showcase for Colm Meaney's O'Brien, it is also a strong one for Alexander Siddig's Bashir. At first, Bashir tries simply to be a supportive friend to O'Brien. When O'Brien refuses to see his counselor, however, Bashir begins to push him to keep his appointments. And when O'Brien reacts badly to that prodding and keeps snapping about wanting to be left alone, Bashir does something that has to be very difficult for him: He goes to Sisko and declares his friend to be unfit for duty.


Trek regular is falsely accused and imprisioned, only to discover that the prison sentence he's been living was all an elaborate illusion and he is now free to return to his old life as if nothing had ever happened. Because nothing ever happened. The end.

...And if this was an episode of Voyager, or even TNG, that would almost certainly be the whole episode. Instead, that's the teaser. The episode is concerned with something far more meaningful: the effects the experience has on O'Brien and on those who care about him. He returns to Deep Space 9 having to struggle to reconnect with his life. He has twenty years of memory, enough time to forget that his wife was pregnant, enough time to need to drill himself on his own equipment and to need to work under supervision for a couple weeks while he re-learns his skills.

More to the point, he cannot simply shake off the emotional baggage of his twenty year sentence. Even knowing it wasn't real, it was real to him - the things he experienced and the things he did. "Don't you get it?" he snaps at Julian. "I'm not your friend. The O'Brien that was your friend died in that cell!" The revelation of O'Brien's most difficult memory, the one that explains his strong desire for isolation, is predictable enough. I knew where the episode was going as soon as we first saw Ee'char. But it's all convincingly portrayed, and flashbacks of O'Brien and Ee'char are used just enough and at just the right points to accentuate O'Brien's struggle without overshadowing it.

Now, I don't expect we'll see any future scenes with O'Brien seeing a counselor or mentioning his twenty years of hell. Still, simply by giving us an episode that's about the consequences of an experience rather than just about the event itself, Deep Space 9 shows its willingness to tread territory other Trek shows have generally shied away from.   This is done with a skillfully crafted script by Robert Hewitt Wolfe, directed with an eye for light and shadows by the always-reliable Alexander Singer.

In the midst of O'Brien's monologue near the end, there's even a tidy little slap at the utopian vision of future humanity, one that probably offended many Trek purists but that I confess delighted me:

"When we were growing up, they used to tell us humanity had evolved, that mankind had outgrown hate and rage. But when it came down to it, when I had the chance to show that no matter what anybody did to me, that I was still an evolved human being? I failed. I repaid kindness with blood. I was no better than an animal!"

Overall Rating: 10/10. 

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  1. Daniel Keys Moran wrote the story.

    1. Original story, yes. But the actual script was Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The Moran/Lynn Barker pitch (made in Season One) centered around a completely different character and situation.