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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S3E17)’

“I hate temporal mechanics.”
     — O’Briens, past and future

A franchise is exactly as versatile as fans will tolerate. Take James Bond, for example. He’s taken on several markers over the years, from espionage for Her Majesty, to special gadgets, to proto-supervillains, to bevies of beautiful women, and everyone has a weird name. At times, the formula deviates, with Bond out for revenge or in outer space, and, predictably, a certain portion of the fandom rebels. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with either embracing or rejecting a change in genre; the franchise that exists in each of our minds exists only there. We have rules those running it could not know and can’t possibly obey, since they’re bound to contradict one another.

Where it gets interesting is with a franchise like Star Trek. I’ve said before that Trek, like a sea cucumber, is nightmarishly elastic. You can tell any sorts of stories you want under the larger umbrella, but certain stories mesh better with specific shows. See, those have their own sub-rules that define a certain story as TNG versus DS9 versus Voyager and so on. The problem with every Trek show is that, early on, it always believes it is the show that came before, and its birthing pains are the new entry finding an identity of its own.

The writers criticized this week’s episode, “Visionary,” as being more of a TNG show than a DS9 one. They’re not entirely wrong, either. It’s a good story — and they also say that — but it doesn’t quite feel like the darker Trek we’ve come to know and presumably love. They cite the science mystery elements as being more appropriate to TNG’s ergonomic ideal. Yet for me, I see this as yet another entry in DS9’s most hallowed tradition: O’Brien Must Suffer. And, suffer he does in this one, perhaps more than any of the others, because he dies.

Sure, it’s a Trek death, and thus not permanent in the narrative sense. The show manages to cheat a little bit less than you might expect. O’Brien, the specific O’Brien we follow through the episode, does die. The O’Brien we follow through the rest of the show is, in fact, a version of the man from a couple hours in the future. Time travel: It’s rough. Look, we should all just be happy he didn’t end up making out with his own mom, which I’m told is more or less guaranteed to happen.

The episode opens right as O’Brien is regaining consciousness after an engineering mishap. The way it’s treated, it’s almost like this is something that happens with alarming regularity. It’s not like Bashir or Sisko are jerks about it — on the contrary, both men are concerned and restrict the Chief to light duty — but they’re not exactly shocked. You have to figure that a Cardassian space station which was the target of Bajoran saboteurs for like fifty years is probably a nightmare of wires and plasma behind every wall panel. O’Brien took a significant charge of radiation from the accident, and I love that Bashir’s like, “Yeah, that’s no problem. I can cure that.” Hey, what if O’Brien wants to turn into a Supermutant and rule the wastelands, Mr. Smart Guy? Ever think of that?

Instead, O’Brien starts periodically time traveling five hours into the future. The trips are instantaneous. In one, he travels right as he throws a dart (the famous dartboard is moved into Quark’s in this episode and will be a favorite of O’Brien’s and Bashir’s for the rest of the series) and returns when it hits the target. When he travels, he is entirely in the future and can interact with people and things. He even joins a bar fight because Chief is Irish. And, let’s be honest here, if my people ever invented time travel, it would be entirely for the purpose of finding new and better bar fights.

This couldn’t happen at a worse time, either. The Romulans have shown up demanding their end of the deal for that cloaking device: the intelligence on the Dominion. At the same time, a trio of Klingons have arrived for repairs for their ship and are generally being all Klingony.

With each jaunt, the future keeps getting darker, too. O’Brien gets killed due to a booby trap, later he finds that he’s dead by a brain aneurysm (and gets a wonderfully fun scene with Bashir, complaining about how his friend and physician let him die), and, eventually, the whole station blows up. Meanwhile, the traveling and the radiation in his system are slowly killing him. To head off the station’s destruction, they hatch a desperate plan. Flood Chief with enough of the radiation — which will do hideous damage to him — to take him into the future around the time of the explosion, determine what happened, and come back to the past and change it.

As it turns out, the culprit is a cloaked Romulan warbird. Seems their engines use some kind of weird power that reacts with the radiation, and as it orbits the station, it’s sending O’Brien on his trips. The Empire’s plan is to destroy the station and collapse the wormhole, having (correctly) determined that the Dominion is the biggest threat the Alpha Quadrant has ever faced.

I said O’Brien dies, and though he’s already died twice, he does with more finality on his last trip. He wakes up the alternate him, explains the problem, then succumbs to the radiation. It’s up to the future O’Brien to don the device and return to the present. It’s technically a different O’Brien, but as the show points out, it’s the same guy with a few extra memories. It’s the final twist that an episode like this desperately needs. It’s just enough of a hit that we get a minor moment of unease, but not so much that the character is irrevocably damaged.

The episode works largely on the back of the twist, but also with the growing ease the writers have with the characters. They have a perfect Kira smash cut with her telling Sisko, “I’m always diplomatic,” then the next shot she’s yelling at the Romulans. They also find a way to work in Odo’s unrequited love as the Romulans openly speculate about his feelings for Kira being at the heart of their escape in the first episode of the season. The best part is that they’re entirely right.

Odo also gets the perfect moment. As he explains all the hoops he had to jump through and investigative tricks that led him to the conclusion that the three Klingons are, in fact, operatives of Klingon intelligence (Yes, there is such a thing.), Sisko cuts him off, asking him to get to the point. Odo says he merely wants to remind Sisko how good he is. Hey, I’ve been saying it from the beginning. Odo is good at his job.

As is Chief O’Brien. His odd sacrifice catches the Romulans red handed and sends them away with the wormhole intact. One wonders if that destruction would have been so bad, considering how many people will die in the upcoming war.

Next up: Dr. Bashir gets a bad case of the Benjamin Buttons.




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