Written by Daniel Keys Moran & Lynn Barker and Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Directed by Alexander Singer
Season 4, Episode 18
Production episode 40514-491
Original air date: April 15, 1996
Station log: O’Brien—with wild gray hair and a thick beard—sits in a prison cell, drawing an elaborate design in the sand that covers the floor. A decontamination procedure wipes out the design, and so he starts again.
But then two people walk in and tell him that, after twenty cycles in prison for espionage, he’s free to go. They toss him out of the cell—
—and then he awakens, looking just like he normally does, in uniform, with a device attached to his head. The same woman is there, along with Kira. O’Brien’s confused, as it’s been twenty years, yet Kira looks the same. It turns out that Agrathi prisoners are punished by implanting memories of being imprisoned rather than actually maintaining a prison system. So O’Brien only thinks twenty years have passed—it’s actually only been a couple hours. But even though none of what he remembers really happened, it was real to him.
Sisko explains what happened to Keiko: O’Brien had asked some questions about Agrathi technology, questions O’Brien thought were just innocent queries, but were enough to get him convicted of espionage. By the time the Agrathi informed Starfleet of what happened, the sentence had already been carried out.
Bashir meets with Kira and O’Brien at the runabout pad. The doctor doesn’t want him to be overwhelmed, so he keeps his exposure to others minimal at first. He’ll let him see Keiko after he’s run some tests. Bashir asks if O’Brien had any company during his imprisonment, and O’Brien says he was completely alone the whole time.
We then flash back to O’Brien’s arrival in the cell, where we see he had a cellmate, an Agrathi named Ee’char, who gives him a fruit. Ee’char’s been alone for six years, so he’s grateful for the company. So he lied to Bashir.
After his examination of O’Brien, Bashir reveals to Keiko that the Agrathi didn’t just implant memories, they ran him through a time-compressed simulation of the prison experience. O’Brien’s memories are genuine, and Bashir can’t remove them.
In the infirmary, O’Brien asks the replicator for the Agrathi fruit that Ee’char gave him, but the computer doesn’t have the pattern for it. When Bashir brings Keiko in, at first O’Brien sees Ee’char before realizing that it’s his wife. He’s forgotten that she’s pregnant.
At dinner that night, O’Brien unconsciously sets food aside in a napkin. He wasn’t fed regularly, sometimes going days without being given food, so when actually was fed, he would eat as little as possible and hide away the rest. In flashback, we find out that he learned that particular trick from Ee’char, who also showed him how to draw geometric shapes in the sand to occupy his time and his mind.
Back in the present, Keiko awakens to find that O’Brien isn’t in bed with her, but instead curled up on the floor, like he was in the cell. She puts a blanket on him.
Worf plays darts with O’Brien in Quark’s, and O’Brien again hallucinates Ee’char. O’Brien works with Jake to recall what the various tools are in his box (an amusing reversal from when Jake apprenticed with O’Brien) before going to work. Muniz checks on one of his repairs, and says, “Keep up the good work, Crewman—inside a week, you’ll be running the place.” O’Brien smiles and says, “Don’t you forget it,” but as soon as Muniz walks away, the fatigue and exhaustion of keeping up appearances catches up with him.
Bashir checks up on O’Brien, concerned that he hasn’t been to see Counselor Telnorri in ten days, when he was supposed to go see him three times a week. But O’Brien just wants to forget Agrathi and get on with his life, which he informs Bashir of in the nastiest manner possible before storming off. We then flash back to a very similar meltdown he had in the cell, exploding at Ee’char. Back in the present, he snaps at Odo, and physically assaults Quark when he doesn’t bring his drink fast enough. Then he hallucinates Ee’char again, but this time they converse, with Ee’char insisting that O’Brien needs him, and O’Brien insisting that his erstwhile cellmate is the last thing he needs. But Ee’char’s image won’t leave him alone.
Sisko has no choice but to relieve O’Brien of duty and order him to attend daily sessions with Telnorri until the counselor says he’s ready to return to duty. O’Brien is exceedingly unhappy with this, going so far as to toss away his combadge before heading to the infirmary to yell at Bashir. But walking out on Bashir doesn’t get rid of the Ee’char hallucination.
What finally convinces O’Brien that something is really wrong is when he explodes at Molly, coming within a hairsbreadth of hitting her, and still scaring the crap out of her. He runs to a cargo bay and starts smashing everything in sight before going to the weapons locker and pulling out a phaser. He puts it on his maximum setting and points it at his neck.
However, Bashir walks in on him. O’Brien insists that he wants to kill himself to protect Keiko, Molly, and the other people on the station from the monster he’s turned into. O’Brien finally tells Bashir about Ee’char. Not long before he was released, O’Brien and Ee’char hadn’t been fed for more than a week. O’Brien discovers that Ee’char has been hoarding food without telling O’Brien about it, and O’Brien attacks and kills him, and then discovers that he was hoarding enough for both of them, but by then it’s too late. The very next day, the guards started feeding him again.
Bashir tries to tell O’Brien that he didn’t mean it, but O’Brien did mean it. If it had been Bashir instead of Ee’char, he would’ve done the same thing. O’Brien thinks he’s no better than an animal, but Bashir points out that an animal wouldn’t have regretted killing Ee’char. For one moment, the Agrathi did strip away his humanity, but he can’t let that moment define his life or cause his death. The hallucination of Ee’char then says, “Be well, Miles,” and disappears. Bashir takes the phaser away, and gives O’Brien a treatment that will help with the hallucinations. O’Brien agrees to continue seeing Telnorri.
Then he goes home to his family.
There is no honor in being pummeled: At some point, every member of the crew tries to help O’Brien out, but (aside from Bashir at the very end) Worf is the only one who seems to succeed, as they are seen playing darts together—Worf also offers to go kayaking with him. At different times we see Odo and Dax trying to be nice to O’Brien and getting snapped at for their trouble.
Rules of Acquisition: When Quark—who is quite overwhelmed with customers—doesn’t bring O’Brien his synthale fast enough, O’Brien assaults him.
No sex, please, we’re Starfleet: Keiko does everything she can to ease O’Brien’s transition, and is generally supportive and understanding.
Keep your ears open: “After six years in a place like this, you either learn to laugh or you’ll go insane.”
Ee’char telling O’Brien his theory on how to survive prison.
Welcome aboard: Rosalind Chao and Hana Hatae are back as Keiko and Molly, and F.J. Rio makes his second of three appearances as Muniz, following “Starship Down”; he’ll be back in “The Ship.” Margot Rose, last seen as Eline, Kamin’s wife in TNG’s “The Inner Light,” plays Rinn, while Craig Wasson plays Ee’char.
Trivial matters: The story for this episode was one of several pitched by screenwriter Lynn Barker and science fiction author Daniel Keys Moran in the first season to Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Evan Carlos Somers. Wolfe championed it, but Michael Piller wasn’t interested in buying it. When Ira Steven Behr took over show-running duties from Piller, Wolfe convinced him to buy the story. However, by this time the very similar Voyager episode “Ex Post Facto” had aired, with Somers listed as the co-writer. Moran considered legal action, but decided not to pursue—and then was really surprised to find out that Paramount wished to, years later, finally buy his story (which was called “Injustice” at the time). Moran’s contract, which gave him and Barker story credit, and which promised a future teleplay deal for either DS9 or Voyager (which then never actually happened), wasn’t signed until after shooting had begun on “Hard Time.” Two drafts of the story and the process of it being bought can be found online here, here, here, and here.
The character of Ee’char was not part of the original story, but grew out of another story that was never produced. The writers room had been batting around a sequel to TNG’s “The Lower Decks,” where Sito Jaxa was found in a Cardassian prison, and one of the story beats was that she was suffering PTSD in part because she killed her cellmate, someone she had previously befriended. The Sito story never came together, so Wolfe used that plot point here.
Bashir makes reference to O’Brien’s past traumas when talking to Keiko: the Setlik III massacre, first mentioned in TNG’s “The Wounded,” his imprisonment by the Paradans in “Whispers,” and his trial on Cardassia in “Tribunal.”
Bashir says that he can’t remove O’Brien’s memories of his imprisonment without wiping his entire memory, which makes one wonder if he’s unfamiliar with Dr. Pulaski’s technique used on Sarjenka in TNG’s “Pen Pals” (and which failed when Crusher tried it in “Who Watches the Watchers?” which may be why Bashir didn’t consider it here).
This is the first time there has been any mention of a counselor assigned to DS9, in the person of Telnorri, who’s never seen, nor is ever mentioned again. The next time a counselor will be seen on the station, it will be in the person of Ezri Dax in the seventh season.
Walk with the Prophets: “Daddy’s home.” Modern Trek has loved its regular (usually annual) traditions: the Q episode, the Barclay episode, the Lwaxana episode, the Zek episode, the Mirror Universe episode (which we’ll get next time)—and, of course, the “let’s abuse the holy crap out of O’Brien” episode. We got “Tribunal” in the second season and “Visionary” in the third, and now we have this. (“The Assignment” will be next.)
And it works because Colm Meaney does such a wonderful job of playing O’Brien’s quotidian qualities that it’s particular fun to watch him get his ass kicked.
Plus we have a great science fictional concept here. If you have abandoned the notion of imprisonment as anything but punishment, and you have the technology, this method of VR imprisonment makes perfect sense. As Rinn points out in the episode, it saves a lot of management and infrastructure, as long as you don’t really care about rehabilitating.
Part of me would’ve liked a bit more about the Agrathi, about what O’Brien was doing there by himself, about whether or not there were consequences to their imprisoning an alien for twenty years without even alerting his government before passing sentence. It’s made worse by our never seeing the Agrathi before or since.
But that would’ve taken time away from O’Brien’s PTSD story, and that’s where the story meat is anyhow. Wisely, most of the screen time is given over to O’Brien, his family, and Bashir, so the focus can be entirely upon how O’Brien readjusts to life on the station.
What I especially adore about this episode is that it examines the consequences. Too often in episodic television, that’s ignored because of the need to finish the story in the allotted time. As great an hour of television as “The Inner Light” was (ironically, also with Margot Rose as a guest), the one thing that was missing from it (or, more accurately, from subsequent episodes) was showing how Picard reintegrated into life on the Enterprise. This episode provides us with that (without shortchanging the actual experience O’Brien had, as the flashbacks do a superb job of showing what he went through).
Everything in this story just works. Meaney absolutely sells O’Brien’s trauma, showing how he’s changed, but allowing the old O’Brien to bleed through periodically—like when he snarks off Jake and Muniz. And I love how everyone is patient with him, and helpful, but not to the point of obnoxiousness—nor do they indulge him past the point where it might hurt him. Keiko simply is there for him, letting him work through what he needs to work through. Worf—the one who’s known him the longest—does the same, while both Bashir and Sisko refuse to let him hurt himself more and force him to take care of himself whether he wants to or not.
But the heart of the episode is Craig Wasson’s stellar performance as Ee’char. He’s the perfect companion for O’Brien, someone who will help keep him sane, give the always voluble O’Brien someone to talk to—and, of course, we know from the first act that something horrible happened to him, because O’Brien spends the bulk of the episode denying his existence. However, the actual fate is something we don’t expect, as it’s something O’Brien would normally never do, and it’s something he can’t forgive in himself. It’s left to Bashir to remind him that it wasn’t a normal circumstance, and that he regrets the action is all he needs to prove that it isn’t an action he would usually take, and it’s one he can recover from.
Daniel Keys Moran’s story, submitted with Lisa Barker, had Keiko be the one to have the climactic conversation with O’Brien, and when they pitched the story in the first season, that made the most sense, as the O’Brien-Bashir bromance hadn’t developed yet. But I still think that this scene should’ve been between O’Brien and the woman he chose to spend his life with, not the guy he plays in the holosuites with.
That is, however, a minor complaint, and one probably dictated by the fact that Alexander Siddig is in the opening credits and Rosalind Chao isn’t, though it’s more evidence of the writers’ ability to only sporadically write a good marriage. Overall, this is the best of the O’Brien abuse episodes, not because of any particular flaws of the others, but because this one just fires on all thrusters.
Warp factor rating: 9
Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at LI-Con 1 in Rockville Center, New York this weekend, alongside fellow authors Jody Lynn Nye, C.J. Henderson, John Grant (a.k.a. Paul Barnett), T.J. Glenn, Roy Mauritsen, Paul Levinson, Anatoly Belilovsky, and Alex Shvartsman, voice actors Kristen Nelson and Amy Howard Wilson, editor/packager Bill Fawcett, science writer/editor John Rennie, game publisher Oscar Rios of Golden Goblin Press, and bunches more. His schedule can be found here.