Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Hard Time”
Bloody hell, it’s another wee bit of…
“Hard Time” is considered a landmark Star Trek episode and regularly dominates “best of franchise” lists in the way that only an episode featuring a man almost killing himself with a Dirt Devil can do. It really helped take the whole franchise forward. The capture and virtual twenty-year detention of O’Brien is used not in service of an allegory or a thematic meta-narrative; the episode’s not about carceral systems or extradition or the epistemological implications of false memories or anything like that. It’s not even played for pure adventure. The whole story takes place after what we would normally think of as the “action” is already over. “Hard Time” pounds against the walls of episodic television and dares to leave our hero adrift at the end of an ordeal without hitting the reset button. There’s no small amount of meta-commentary here: Starfleet is the deadliest job still allowed to exist in this miraculous utopian future, and the very fact that Star Trek has trained us to expect our heroes to weather one beyond-the-pale trauma after another and still be bright, chipper, and functioning one episode later ironically generates a lot of the episode’s pathos. This willingness to play with our expectations, to portray the realistic psychological aftereffects of space adventure, helped move Star Trek into a new era. (Those fans who are less than enamored of Star Trek: Discovery’s angsty tone and PTSD-riddled characters might question whether this was a positive development in the long run.)
As the episode opens, a bedraggled old man sits in a semi-enclosed cell. The bottom of the floor is covered with sand and the old man is tracing an intricate pattern in it. A voice on the PA announces “decontamination” and an energy ray sweeps across the room, erasing the man’s work.
A couple of green-skinned guards step into the cell and request Miles Edward O’Brien.
Miles looks up, looking not entirely unlike Karl Marx.
O’Brien was convicted of espionage twenty “cycles” ago, but now is free. O’Brien doesn’t know where he would possibly go, but the greenies stun-gun him and herd him out of the cell into the bright light…
…where he wakes up on a bed with electrodes attached to his head.
He’s back in his Starfleet uniform and his hair and beard are back to normal. Major Kira is here, looking just as she did twenty years ago, which confuses O’Brien. The green woman says that only a few hours have actually passed. She explains that in Argrathi society, rather than maintain an expensive prison system, they Total Recall their prisoners with memories of having been in jail. Informed that his memories aren’t real, O’Brien says, “It’s real to me, Major.”
Back on DS9, Sisko explains to Keiko what happened. The Argrathi interpreted O’Brien’s boyish curiosity about their technology as an attempt at espionage, and by the time the Federation was aware of the charges against him the sentence was already carried out.
Cut to the ship carrying O’Brien back through the wormhole. He says he used to dream about this: going through the wormhole, and coming back to the station. He stares dazedly at the station. “I’d forgotten how beautiful it was”.
Once there, O’Brien meets Julian, who wants to examine him. The solicitous Bashir asks him some questions about what it was like, whether he was able to talk to anyone. “I was alone,” he says.
We flash back to the first day in O’Brien’s mind-cell. The Agrathi throw him in and he collapses unconscious on the ground. A male Argrathi kneels over him and dribbles some liquid in his mouth. (You get your mind out of the gutter right now—it’s not that kind of prison story.) He hands the dripping object to a revived O’Brien, and identifies it as a “cheelash fruit”. He introduces himself as Ee’Char, and says he’s been alone for six cycles.
Bashir walks with Keiko on the promenade. He says there’s nothing he can do to get rid of Miles’ fake memories and that it will take some time for O’Brien to readjust to normal life. He tries to cheer Keiko up by mentioning some of the other traumas Miles has outlived: Setlik III, getting taken prisoner by the Paradans, and then the Cardassians.
Back in Sickbay, O’Brien asks the replicator for chee’lash fruit. The computer doesn’t have the pattern, and O’Brien can’t describe it well enough to replicate it. Then Bashir walks in with Ee’Char.
O’Brien does a double-take and discovers it’s merely Keiko. It’s been so long in O’Brien’s mind, he’s forgotten Keiko was pregnant when he left her.
Later, O’Brien’s having dinner with his family and trying to get used to family life again. Keiko catches him stashing some food for later, a habit from when he was underfed in prison. There’s another flashback to jail—O’Brien’s still got his uniform on, but is working on a respectable level of bachelor scruff—with Ee’Char hiding food as the PA announces severe repercussions for anyone who does just this. O’Brien asks what he can do to pass the time and Ee’Char says he can draw eeseekas, an Argrathi art form consisting of abstract patterns sketched as a form of meditation. They try it out some. O’Brien’s bad at it and Ee’Char laughs at him. Their drawing is interrupted by the PA telling them it’s time to go to sleep.
O’Brien turns out to have been dreaming about this, as we find in the next scene, when Keiko wakes up to discover O’Brien sleeping on the floor.
At Quark’s, O’Brien is playing darts with Worf. They’ve lost track of the score and give up, as neither feels much like playing. Worf suggests going kayaking in the holosuite, while O’Brien peers over and sees Ee’Char behind the bar. O’Brien pursues him but he disappears. Worf asks who it was and O’Brien says “somebody I used to know.”
Later, O’Brien is sitting with Jake next to an open box of tools to see if he can still remember what they all are. He nearly gets stumped by a particularly dildo-like device that he eventually identifies as a Quantum Flux Regulator.
Still later, he demonstrates his knowledge in front of the rest of the operations crew, who laugh and joke that “another week or two, you’ll be running the place”. Bashir drops in to ask O’Brien why he hasn’t been attending his appointments with the counselor. O’Brien says they’re boring and useless. He just wants to plug away at his job and be left alone. Bashir expresses surprise at this attitude after being alone for 20 years, and O’Brien explodes at him for his “smug, superior attitude”.
In another jail flashback, O’Brien’s uniform is even more tattered and his Taliban beard has grown even further. Ee’Char tells him his pacing around is distracting him from the drawing he’s trying to do. O’Brien explodes and kicks the sand away. The camera zooms in at a very un-Trekkian Dutch angle as he unloads on Ee’Char and eventually shouts his grievances to the ever-present surveillance team. Ee’Char hushes him up so they don’t get punished.
In the present, O’Brien goes to Quark’s again and orders a drink. Quark’s a little busy at the moment, but O’Brien wants his booze now. He nearly breaks Quark’s hand trying to get served first. “Chief, I know your life is in shambles right now, but…” Quark says, which surprisingly fails to calm him down. Finally, O’Brien gets his drink and shambles over into the corner to glug it. Ee’Char takes his place in the other seat.
“You’re all in my head,” says O’Brien. “That’s all I ever was,” says Ee’Char. O’Brien asks him to go away but Ee’Char says, “I can’t; I’m your friend. You need me.” Odo and Quark look over and see O’Brien talking to seemingly nobody.
Ee’Char won’t be so easily dissuaded. He appears to O’Brien again in his quarters when he gets a call from Sisko asking to see him in his office. Sisko tells O’Brien that Bashir has placed him on medical leave until he stops bumming everybody out. O’Brien’s going to make up for all the counseling he missed by going to daily therapy until further notice. “What happened to you on Argratha affected you a lot more than you’re willing to admit,” Sisko declaims, “and it’s not going to get better overnight. You need help.” A desperate O’Brien pleads to be let back to work, but Sisko threatens to confine him to the infirmary if he doesn’t go to counseling. He storms out, snaps at Dax, and throws his Starfleet pin away.
O’Brien goes to Bashir and yells at him. “How do you know what’s best for me?” O’Brien demands. “You have no idea what I’ve been going through!” Bashir assures O’Brien that he’s just trying to help as his doctor and his friend. Ee’Char appears over Bashir’s shoulder. “You should listen to him, Miles,” Ee’Char says. “Don’t make the same mistake you made with me.”
“You’re not my friend!” rages O’Brien. “The O’Brien that was your friend died in that cell!”
Ee’Char follows O’Brien out of Bashir’s office and on the promenade. “Listen to him!” he pleads. “We’re both your friends!” “Yeah,” says O’Brien, “and look what happened to you.”
O’Brien goes up the elevator to the habitat ring and Ee’Char’s there already. “You know sooner or later you’ll have to tell someone about me,” he says. “Like hell I will,” O’Brien snarls. Ee’Char throws up his hands. “Don’t you see,” he says, “if I keep coming back it’s because some part of you keeps bringing me here!”
He walks around fuming for a bit and comes back to his quarters to Keiko’s frenzied worrying. Molly wants to show him some drawing she made, but O’Brien is so frazzled he snaps and yells at her. An aghast Keiko scoops up Molly protectively.
Cut to O’Brien in a cargo bay with a giant wrench, going on a darkly hilarious rampage. He grimaces and knocks over one conspicuously empty crate after another, getting five or six before his beef-clogged heart lets up. He comes to a conveniently-placed weapons locker and enters in his security code and removes a phaser. He stares at the phaser longingly before pointing it under his chin.
When the show resumes after the act break, Bashir is suddenly there in the room. He says what the chief is going through isn’t worth dying for. O’Brien says he needs to do it to protect everybody. “I’m not the man I used to be,” he says. “I’m dangerous. I nearly hit Molly today.”
Bashir says he doesn’t deserve to die. “You sound like Ee’Char,” O’Brien says, finally admitting that he wasn’t quite alone in his cell. “What happened to him?” asks Bashir.
Flashback to O’Brien, now in his full Marxist glory, frustratedly abandoning a sand drawing. Neither he nor Ee’Char has eaten for a week. O’Brien grouches at Ee’Char to try to suss out any hidden food he has. They both go to sleep per the PA announcement, and as O’Brien lies half-awake, he sees Ee’Char furtively go to one of his hidey-holes. This causes an enraged fight that ends with O’Brien’s hands around Ee’Char’s neck and the sound of cracking bones.
O’Brien scurries over to the bundle that Ee’Char got out of the spot and looks inside. Startled, he sees two identical portions of food laid out.
“You were saving it for the both of us,” says O’Brien. He then shakes Ee’Char, urging him to wake up, but Ee’Char will not wake up ever again. “I killed him…” says O’Brien in the present, “for a scrap of bread he was going to share with me.”
“It was a mistake,” says Bashir. “You didn’t mean it.” “Oh, I meant it,” insists O’Brien. “I keep telling myself it wasn’t real, it didn’t matter. But that’s a lie. If it had been real, if it had been you, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
“Growing up,” he continues, “they told us that humanity had evolved. That we had outgrown hate and rage.” He starts to cry. “I repaid kindness with blood.”
Bashir protests. The fact that O’Brien thinks he deserves to die for what he did proves that his humanity is still there. “The Argrathi did everything they could to strip you of your humanity…if you pull that trigger, the Argrathi will have won. They will have destroyed a good man.”
Gently, Bashir takes away the phaser. Ee’Char smiles. “Be well, my friend,” he says, then disappears off into the distance.
Later, Bashir and O’Brien are walking down the hall in the habitat ring and he’s holding out a hypospray full of antidepressant. O’Brien supposes he’ll have to start seeing Counselor Telnorri again. “Unless you want to talk to me,” says Bashir. Telnorri is acceptable. O’Brien thanks Bashir for everything, and is released back into the arms of his loving family.
Wow. What can you say after an episode like that? If you’re a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine writer, you might say “More pain!” We’re going to be pinching even harder on O’Brien’s last nerve in our next installment, “The Assignment”.