Go a little deeper, and you usually find two opposite goals: protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. Well, you can do both, most people will say, and this is somewhat true. Eventually, though, these two concepts come into conflict. Sufficiently draconian systems will punish every crime, and they’ll likely get a lot of guilty people. They’ll also get a bunch of innocents too. Lenient systems will push toward the rehabilitation of criminals -- hardly a punishment or even a deterrent -- but look at Norway, for example, where recidivism rates are vastly lower than they are in the United States. Those criminals aren’t preying on anyone anymore, thus protecting the innocent. And, there’s the argument that harsh punishments for nonviolent crimes essentially manufacture violent criminals by sending them to crime college.
Science fiction has a lot more leeway in both axes. While it might be disturbing to think of technology developed just to punish or administrate our prison population, it’s not out of the question. This week’s episode of DS9 posits just such an idea, and one that makes sense in light of the prevailing technology of the Trek universe. The idea is simple and attractive in the case of a weekly television show where you can’t just up and remove a character for his prison sentence. What if you could serve a 20-year stretch over the course of a couple hours?
This is what happens to Chief O’Brien, because of course it’s him. I’ve mentioned the concept of “O’Brien Must Suffer” in the past, and this isn’t something I’ve made up. This was a commandment in the writers’ room. Colm Meaney is a very good actor, evidenced by his long and varied career, especially when compared to other Trek vets. What do you do when you get an especially good actor in the company? Why, you torture him, of course. If you look over the O’Brien episodes in DS9’s run, you have to figure the poor guy ran over the Prophets’ dog. There’s no other reason the universe could be so cruel.
The episode opens at the very end of O’Brien’s sentence, when he’s a grizzled old man dressed in rags. The aliens beat him up once more, just because they’re d---s, and he awakes to find out that none of it ever happened. It was an incredibly realistic program he lived through for what felt like twenty years. The memories weren’t implanted, they were formed, and thus can’t be eradicated with magic technology.
Quick side note here: the aliens, a race called the Argrathi which have never been seen before or since, are on the other side of the wormhole. They don’t seem to be part of the Dominion, as they released O’Brien without any trouble. He was initially arrested for espionage, actually a simple misunderstanding owing to the Chief’s curiosity, but I don’t think the Founders would be so lenient as to use fake prison sentences for their prisoners. So, these are an independent, but technologically advanced, race in the Gamma Quadrant, which doesn’t square well with what we know.
Anyway, it’s clear from the beginning that O’Brien is lying about his experience. He first claims to be fine, wanting to put the whole thing behind him. He also claims to have been alone the entire time, but the flashbacks, which are seeded throughout, show he had a good-humored cellmate named Ee’char. This Argrathi helped keep O’Brien relatively sane in the nightmarish conditions of the prison, mostly by sharing stories and drawing zen doodles in the sand on the cell floor.
While Keiko, Bashir, Jake, and Worf (in a sweetly humanizing moment for our favorite stern warrior) do what they can to help O’Brien come back from his experience, they all notice cracks. He hoards food at dinner, because in prison the guards would often “forget” to feed them for days or even weeks at a time. Keiko finds him sleeping on the floor in the middle of the night. Soon, O’Brien lashes out in anger, first at Quark, and then in an experience that instantly consumes him with self-loathing, Molly.
What his friends don’t know is that O’Brien is still seeing Ee’char on the station. The hallucination wants what’s best for his old cellie, but O’Brien is locked in gruff denial of the situation. After the final straw, which was nearly hitting his daughter, O’Brien prepares to do the unthinkable. He puts a phaser to his own head.
Bashir finds him in time, and finally O’Brien spills the whole story. He wasn’t alone in his cell. Not until the final week of his imprisonment, making me think this endgame was the crowning punishment the sadistic program had in mind. The guards hadn’t fed them in the longest time yet, and O’Brien and Ee’char were out of food. In a fit of paranoia, O’Brien accuses Ee’char of holding out on him, and in the resulting fight, O’Brien kills his best friend for the last twenty years. Then, he learns Ee’char had already separated out the portions of the food he had been hoarding -- he was going to share with O’Brien after all. And, to make matters worse, the guards fed O’Brien the next day.
The source of O’Brien’s shame is couched in the utopian language of Star Trek. Humanity is supposed to be beyond such base motives. O’Brien learned, in that moment, that he wasn’t above it all. He was, in fact, an animal.
Bashir disagrees. The guilt shows emphatically that O’Brien is human. (He uses the term, despite the weirdly racist connotations in the Trek universe. A much better word would have been the generic “sapien.”) The Argrathi subjected him to unimaginable torture, and for a single moment, they won. Killing himself would render their victory complete. I would also like to add that O’Brien is currently grieving over what amounts to a video game character. A very realistic one, sure, but Ee’char isn’t a real person and never was. That the Chief should have the capacity to feel so deeply should be a source of pride. He was going to allow that moment of simulated violence determine his own destiny. Fortunately, Bashir pulls him back from the brink, and O’Brien can function as a husband, a father, and an engineer.
The weirdest fallout of this otherwise excellent episode only hits you if you’re like me and overthink everything. Just over half the entire series of DS9 now takes place twenty years earlier for O’Brien. That has to be weird. Those memories have faded, to be replaced with the gray recollections of his time in the cell. So, whenever he recalls anything from those times, he’s reaching over twenty years. Or he read all his old logs.
Next up: Back to the mirror universe.