Mar 17 2011 2:20pm

Luck of the Irish? Must Miles O’Brien Suffer?

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and that means celebrating the best Irishman in space, Chief Miles O’Brien from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The working class O’Brien, played by noted Irish actor Colm Meaney, always came off as the most human of all the human characters on Star Trek. However, it seems like the universe seriously mistreated O’Brien and his family. He certainly has the Irish gift of gab, but the “luck of the Irish”? When you take a look at his life, it seems like poor O’Brien was a pretty unlucky guy!

John Lennon’s little-known protest song “The Luck of the Irish” points to the irony of this famous phrase by outlining just how incredibly unlucky the people of Ireland have been throughout the years. And when it comes to the 24th century, all the unluckiness of the Emerald Isle seems to be heaped all on the shoulders of Miles Edward O’Brien. And we’re not just imagining this. According to both the special features on the DS9 DVDs and the book The Deep Space Nine Companion writers of the show actively sought to make sure at least one episode a year would feature an “O’Brien must suffer” plotline. According to Ira Steven Behr, “If O’Brien went through something torturous and horrible, the audience was going to feel that, in a way they wouldn’t feel it with any of the other characters.”

O’Brien’s tennis fail

While this is certainly true, it’s also possible that the tremendous acting chops of Colm Meaney allowed us to really believe that what he was going through was real, as opposed to the stiffer characters in the series. (Or, for that matter, all Star Trek series.) But another important reason why O’Brien’s various plights seem particularly relatable is because there are actual stakes for his character. Unlike a lot of other Trek regulars, O’Brien has a family, and fairly “normal” one at that. When things on the Enterprise or Deep Space Nine go pear-shaped, it feels really scary for O’Brien. Sure Sisko has a family too, but his son Jake is a little older and savvier. Miles’s daughter Molly is just a little kid!

In DS9’s “Time’s Orphan” the notion of the O’Brien family getting seriously screwed up by a science fictional premise is particularly heartbreaking. Due to a freak time vortex showing up and ruining a perfectly good picnic, a feral 18 year-old Molly suddenly replaces little kid Molly. Despite their efforts at reintegrating Molly back into civilized society they make no headway and Miles and his wife Keiko eventually send the feral version of Molly back into the vortex in hopes of swapping her for Molly’s younger self. Basically, Miles exiles a version of his daughter. Heavy.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s also been tortured, held captive, betrayed and possessed a whole slew of times. In the TNG episode “Power Play” O’Brien is one of three crewmembers whose body is occupied by malevolent aliens hell-bent on taking over the Enterprise. With bad-O’Brien pointing a phaser at his wife Keiko for pretty much the entire episode, it’s a minor miracle they stayed together. In fact, Keiko must be some kind of saint for putting up with O’Brien. Now, I’m not saying O’Brien isn’t a stand-up guy and good father and good husband. He totally is. 

Miles O’BrienAnd though she does suggest moving back to Earth a few times, Keiko is a pretty good sport about pretty much everything that happens to her family. Though when she was turned into a little kid in “Rascals” you could really feel O’Brien’s pain in just how weird that relationship was going to be!

Basically, every member of the O’Brien family has to be put through some kind of time-futzing shenanigans. In “Hard Time” Miles himself experiences 20 years in an alien jail cell, even though almost no time has passed at all. With all the perspective shifts in this guy’s life it’s amazing he keeps it together at all. Which is why he has a drinking buddy. And even though we all love Kirk and Spock, Miles and Julian just might be the best Trek bromance of them all. Actor Alexander Siddig backs me up here by saying “…O’Brien and Bashir are the only real friendship that’s ever happened on Star Trek. Those two are really friends…”

Even in a bizzaro universe, Miles O’Brien can’t escape from being the nice guy who sort of gets screwed over all the time. In the various mirror universe episodes on DS9, “Smiley” might seem more hardcore than our Miles, but he’s still an everyman and stand-up person, despite kidnapping the regular-universe version of Sisko. Notably, the alternate version of drinking buddy Bashir is a total jerk in the bizarro universe.

O’Brien as SmileyWhat’s also demonstrated here is how unjudgemental the character of O’Brien is. It’s not that he’s amoral about bizzaro Sikso having a mistress, it’s just that he sort of looks past it. The same goes for O’Brien’s relationship with his former Captain, Benjamin Maxwell in the TNG episode “The Wounded.” Despite the terrible things that Maxwell has done, you really get the sense that O’Brien will be able to separate his fond memories of Maxwell from the crazy person the rogue captain eventually became. It’s not just that O’Brien is crazy loyal, it’s that he gets people. Space station Deep Space Nine didn’t really need a counselor for six years because most of the characters probably just went and got plastered with Miles. (We see Worf do this at least once.)

But despite the massacre on Setlik III, his family being screwed with by time vortices and jerky aliens, getting captured and tortured over and over again and not even having a name in “Encounter at Fairpoint,” Miles O’Brien endured. Did he have the luck of the Irish after all? Whatever the answer is, it’s clear we certainly needed him. And on this St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be lifting a glass in a toast to the one and only Chief O’Brien!

Ryan Britt is a regular blogger for His ancestors hail from County Cork, Ireland.

1. Shard
Poor Miles, he is amongst one of my favorite characters of the show. You hit it right that he's the most human and because of that the most relatable. I think that explains perfectly why DS9 is my favorite of the Treks, it's the most fleshed out.
Joe Romano
2. Drunes
MIles O'Brien was the best character on TNG because he's so much like us... a normal guy doing his job while taking care of his family. Glad you mentioned Hard Times, too, an incredible episode.
3. politeruin
Yeahhh i always liked Miles. Particularly the small detail in DS9 where he always had his sleeves rolled up which showed he'd get his hands dirty as chief engie. You never seemed to see trek characters playing with their uniforms like that, i wondered if it was the actor's suggestion. It added to his everyman charm i suppose.
4. Your Mom
O'brien was one of my favorites too. Excellent blog, Ryan. From your number one fan!
5. Freelancer
Sarcasm is an artform among the Irish, which perhaps explains why most folk don't know the truth. The phrase "The luck of the Irish" is a maudlin joke, and always was. The Irish were beset throughout their history by plagues, invaders, disasters, more invaders, conquerers, etc. It is the world's most sarcastic statement, though few are aware of that today. The writers of DS9 seemed to understand it, which is why they always had unlucky things happen to the Chief.
6. Demerara
I love Miles, but I have to say describing him as 'unjudgmental' kind of takes a key part of the character's personality out of the equation. Along with the 'normal' family and 'normal' friendship, another thing that made Mile particularly human to the audience (and therefore more easily identified with) is that he does have some snap judgement tendencies. Most notably, he is pretty racist towards Cardassians, particularly in the early seasons. Part of the thing we love about Miles is his vulnerability and occasionally flawed nature, and this is a fairly key part of that because it resonates with a lot of us for one reason or another.

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