Dukat’s monologue lit a fire under the writers, as well it should. It’s the best part of a solid episode and, like the best swatches of information, ridiculously tantalizing. There really was only one thing to do after dropping a hint like that, and that was showing the Cardassian justice system from the inside. But, who do you pick for the unlucky person? There are two logical candidates for it: Kira and O’Brien. Both hate the Cardassians (though, ironically, Kira’s loathing has since been tempered by her encounter with a file clerk), both fought the Cardassians, and both have a very good idea of how they treat their prisoners. O’Brien has a dubious advantage though: he must suffer.
It was a decree in the writers' room, “O’Brien Must Suffer.” It’s already emerging as a trend, and we’re only through the second season. Think about the episodes that have focused on the man: he’s already been poisoned, replaced by a double, hunted (twice), and worked as a slave in Cardassian mines. If insurance existed in the 24th century, O’Brien could not be covered. Ever. This week, he’s captured by the Cardassians and shown through their justice system, which somehow manages to be worse than Dukat described.
First, he’s unceremoniously arrested on his way to a vacation. The Cardassians who do it -- led by Gul Evek, who helpfully points out they’ve spoken before (on the subject of voles, but still) -- decline to tell him the charges. First, they demand to know how he answers to the crime, which they still refuse to actually name, and he doesn’t have the right to remain silent. They take him off to Cardassia Prime, leaving a traumatized Keiko to return to the station for help. Then, O’Brien is processed, meaning they forcefully strip him naked, take a hair sample, extract one of his molars, and then give him some rubbery S&M gear to wear. He still has no idea what he’s charged with. Then, Chief Archon Makbar shows up -- she’s the local equivalent of a judge, albeit with more power and extremely unlikely hair -- and informs him that he’s been convicted and his execution is scheduled for a week later.
The closest thing to a defense lawyer is his Conservator, in this case a man named Kovat, with the reputation for being one of the best on Cardassia Prime. Like all older Cardassians, he has gray hair and his facial ridges are more pronounced. The Conservator’s job is to “get [O’Brien] to concede to the wisdom of the state” -- in other words to get the best show for the propaganda-makers. He’s even the one who questions O’Brien in the courtroom, doing his best to get the reasons for O’Brien’s guilt rather than trying to prove him innocent. Remember, this is Cardassia, and all trials end in guilty verdicts. Actually, all trials begin with guilty verdicts, but that’s neither here nor there.
Oh yeah, and at the trial, three creepy Cardassian kids observe and periodically drum on their chairs. They’re never identified or referred to. It’s just to be scary, I guess.
Odo manages to get named to O’Brien’s defense team as Nestor. Initially, Makbar tries to block him, but Odo is an officer of the Cardassian courts -- he had to be to testify in trials -- and Cardassians are all about law and order. During the trial, Odo oversteps the authority of the position at every turn. The Nestor is not allowed to address the court, but Odo does anyway. Kovat turns their sidebars into grandstanding, doing his best to show how sneaky these offworlders are. Odo wants to introduce new evidence that exonerates O’Brien, but Makbar sneers at it as a trick. Cardassians don’t make mistakes, and O’Brien was already found guilty. Q.E.D.
O’Brien’s crime was allegedly smuggling photon warheads to the Maquis. The fact that his own people suspect, even for a moment, that he might be guilty really underlines that this is DS9 and not any other Trek show. Kira points out that O’Brien hates Cardassians and Odo is a guilty-until-proven-innocent kind of guy. Bashir is the one who gets angry over the accusation, staunchly refusing to even consider O’Brien’s guilt. It speaks well of our doctor, and the writers were smart in giving him a scene like this. Anyway, that new evidence was that the voiceprint used to access the stolen photons was faked, and O’Brien had recently run into an old friend from the Cardassian war who was acting strangely. Long story short, this was actually a Cardassian agent surgically altered to look like O’Brien’s pal, technology that will return in later episodes to traumatize our heroes.
As soon as Sisko brings this agent into the courtroom, Makbar ends the trial with a speech about Cardassian mercy and lets O’Brien go free. Better to have the first not guilty verdict in Cardassian history than admit that they tried to start a war with Starfleet. Kovat doesn’t get a happy ending. When Odo explains what happened, “You won,” Kovat collapses with a whispered, “ . . . they’ll kill me.”
I’m a big fan of this episode. I love Orwellian civilizations in fiction, especially when they’re ultimately defeated or embarrassed in some way. I’m nothing if not an optimist. The Cardassian system makes a warped amount of sense, and Trek is at its best when it allows the aliens to experience lessons on their terms rather than ours.
Keiko and O’Brien have some nice moments early on, really acting like an adorable married couple still very much in love. Their marriage has gained more resonance with me as I’ve gotten older and my own relationship has matured. Keiko talks about O’Brien’s terror at being captured by the Cardassians, and it’s not something you usually see out of the perfect Trek protagonists. O’Brien saw firsthand the brutality, and he has lost sleep over it. The only person he could tell was his wife. Now, she feels the fear as deeply as he does.
Odo and O’Brien bond a little, as well. Initially, the constable suspects he might be guilty, but when O’Brien gives a speech about never having been doubted, Odo relents. Because our changeling is so gruff, any softening in his facade is rewarding. He was able to glimpse what so many others have: Miles O’Brien is a decent man.
This is one of my favorite hours of the second season, and it’s a great way to head into the third. The show has found its footing and is telling, with confidence, the kinds of stories it is uniquely able to tell.
Next up: The Dominion is coming! The Dominion is coming!