Sat
Mar 17 2012 1:00pm

Luck of the Irish? The Tragedies of Miles O’Brien

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and that means celebrating the best Irishman in space: Chief Miles Edward O’Brien from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine! Played by noted Irish actor Colm Meaney, O’Brien always came off as one of the most relatable and down-to-earth (put intended) characters in all of Star Trek. But, this likability and good-heartedness is often rewarded with bad luck and sorrow for poor O’Brien and his family. He certainly has the Irish gift of gab, but not the luck of the Irish. How does he suffer so? Let me count the ways.

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. 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.”

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.

And 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.

However, the whole spouse-possessed by really mean aliens thing gets switched in the DS9 episode “The Assignment. “Here, the Pah-wraiths take over poor Keiko’s body and tell him he has to do what they want or Keiko gets it. This is made even worse by the fact that not only does O’Brien have to try and destroy the wormhole against his will, but also that he rarely even gets to see Keiko. Life-threatening, space station-destroying stakes AND their quality time taken away!

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: Dr. Bashir. 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.

What’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!

This article appeared on Tor.com in a slightly different form last year on St. Patrick’s Day.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. Some of his ancestors originally hail from County Cork, Ireland.

14 comments
Jeff Schweer
1. JeffS.
"Rascals" was the episode that cemented the deal for me. I mean, I always liked O'Brien, but here, the portrayal went past good acting into really feeling it. The rest of the episode is a bit of fluff in my opinion but Miles part is stellar. The fact that he continued growing the character into and through the DS9 days shows what a good actor he is. When I see other projects he's appeared, I at least check them out as I know one character will be solid. Well done Colm, well done indeed.
john mullen
2. johntheirishmongol
Colm Meany may have had as good a career as any Star Trek actor. If you take a look at his movie roles, he's really played everything from baddies, to comedy, to straight drama. Versatile and good at all of it, he is probably the only actor you don't immediately think of Star Trek when you see him.
Tony Linde
3. tonylinde
Yeh. Only a side role but loved him in The Commitments. Class act.
Joe Romano
4. Drunes
And despite all his troubles, O'Brien was the wittiest of the whole Trek bunch... the one guy you'd really like to have a drink with. Kudos to
Colm Meaney for that.
zenspinner
5. zenspinner
Didn't he play a tinker in "Into the West"? The one about the horse and the kids, that is, not the mini-series. I enjoy any actor in a role where they make me forget about their Star Trek presence and just enjoy the movie, which he did.
zenspinner
6. Gary Ehrlich
Colm Meaney is currently playing the railroad baron in TNT's "Hell on Wheels". And doing a fine job of it.
zenspinner
7. Colin W
HOW much O'brien was there on the Enterprise?


MILES O'brien!
zenspinner
8. General Vagueness
that would be AMC's "Hell on Wheels", actually, in case anyone was flipping through the channels confused, which I think starts season 2 next month
James Whitehead
9. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I've always enjoyed Colm Meaney on Star Strek, and in whatever else he's done. His growing relationship with Dr. Bashir on DS9 always ssemed so real to me.

Kato

PS - Plus he was fabulous in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill & Came Down a Mountain.
Ursula L
10. Ursula
I didn't remember "Time's Orphan."

But there has to be an awesome essay waiting to be written, comparing it to the last season of Doctor Who, and the ethics of raising a child with time travel, and who gets to make decisions abut the young child when the adult version of the child and the child's parents are both around. Which choices each show made, and why, and who got to choose.
Michael Burke
11. Ludon
I want to second Kato's mention of his performance in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. Everyone was good in it, but for Colm Meaney fans it's worth seeing for his performance as Morgan The Goat. Funny thing about that town - a lot of the kids have red hair.
Ashe Armstrong
12. AsheSaoirse
Miles Edward O'Brien is without a doubt one of my favorite characters and one of the BEST aspects of DS9 (and I love DS9 to a crazy degree). Colm Meany is a legend.
treebee72 _
13. treebee72
Actually Miles & Keiko didn't send adult Molly back with the hope of getting young Molly back. They truly believed they were never going to see her again when she went through the time portal. It was only after young Molly came back that they discovered the other side of the portal had reset to the time she originally fell through. That's what make their
decision to send adult Molly back to the past even more heartbreaking.
zenspinner
14. Kirshy
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…”

What about Data and Geordi? Archer and Trip? I will agree that Bashir and O'Briens was the most fleshed out and actively portrayed friendship on any of the shows though. But not the only "real" friendship.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment