May 16, 2019
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “The Storyteller”
Chief Petty Officer Miles O’Brien. What is to be done with you?
The only regular Star Trek character who’s in Starfleet but not an officer. A blue-collar toiler living incongruously in a post-scarcity utopian future. A loser. A dum-dum. A talentless but faithful drone scrounging away while sexy geniuses half his age rise through the ranks.
He graduates from being a glorified elevator operator on the Enterprise to being Deep Space Nine’s janitor. He’s the one calibrating this and reversing the polarity on that and doing all the unglamorous tasks that keep Starfleet running. He distinguished himself in two wars, served on the Federation’s flagship, saved the galaxy countless times and what does he get? Perennially dumped on. Scolded by his wife. Belittled by the senior officers. Blown up. Phasered. Mind-jailed. Real-jailed. Killed a couple of times. And on top of everything else he’s got a bad shoulder that apparently you can’t fix even in the future, and he keeps re-injuring it over and over because he’s too God-damned stupid to stop kayaking on the holodeck! Imagine that—the man can’t even succeed at his own hobbies. He’s lucky that he’s both an engineer and an Irishman, because this double serving of masochism is the only thing propelling him through this hell of a life.
If you, the viewer, sometimes get the impression that O’Brien has a particularly rough go of it, it’s not just your imagination. According to interviews with co-showrunner Ira Behr, the writing staff tried to write a minimum of one episode per season that put O’Brien through some horrible trauma. (These were charmingly known as “O’Brien Must Suffer” episodes.) Regular Deep Space Nine writer Robert Hewitt Wolf elaborated the rationale behind this: supposedly, since O’Brien was such a regular, relatable dude, seeing him suffer would have greater emotional impact than the same thing happening to one of the high-achieving space dorks we usually see. That’s what he said, anyway. I think the writers were secretly trying to make a thematic point too cynical to be spoken out loud on Star Trek: even in our fabulous future of automated luxury space communism, some poor slob still has to eat shit or the system falls apart. Omelas needs its tortured child.
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In this series of recaps, I’m going to explore some of O’Brien’s most undeserved indignities. I call it…
The 13th episode of season 1, “The Storyteller” opens with Sisko’s narration over shots of the station. (Fun Trek activity: imagine the ship’s computer is a sentient being who’s listening to everybody’s logs and silently judging them.) The Bajoran government has asked Sisko to mediate between two rival Bajoran factions: the Paqu and the Navot. They’re having a right old slap-fight and war will break out unless Mommy Starfleet intervenes and makes them share their toys.
The Bajorans don’t come off very well in this episode, all told. It’s partially because, during the first season, DS9 was still stuck in TNG forehead-of-the-week mode, and the Bajorans merely stood in for their usual rube backwater species that stood around helplessly terrorized until an away team identified the culprit as a computer or a ghost alien or some damn thing. Where Next Generation promoted Gene Roddenberry’s strident humanist hostility toward religion, DS9 took care to establish the Bajorans as a sophisticated people with a mature, complex spirituality… except in “The Storyteller”, which portrays their religion as little more than a cargo cult and Bajorans as superstitious goons ready to worship any rando who falls out of the sky.
As Sisko goes to meet the Paqu delegation, O’Brien rushes up to talk to him. Apparently he’s got some errand to run on Bajor that he doesn’t want to do. All he has to do is stay sober long enough to fly a runabout to Bajor, but he tries to pawn it off on “Ensign Boyer” because he’d be little more than a “chauffeur”. Wow, you’re learning, Miles.
Sisko smells a rat and starts in on some follow-up questions, the necessity of which is soon obviated by Dr. Bashir showing up, ready to investigate some vague medical emergency on Bajor. It might be weird to see O’Brien not wanting to spend any time with Bashir, given how bromantic their relationship became in later seasons…
…but of course, this is first-season Bashir, where he’s still an arrogant, womanizing prick. He hasn’t had any time to mellow out and get boring yet.
On the turbolift, Kira warns Sisko that the Paqu and the Navot are really rough customers, and Sisko is basically like “bitch please, I’m the Emissary, that counts for something”. The Paqu leader turns out to be Varis Sul (Gina Philips), an adolescent girl. Kira and Sisko stare at each other, looking only slightly less surprised than they’d be if she were a baked potato.
The runabout is headed to Bajor, and the tension inside is thicker than Klingon cheese. Bashir takes a leap and asks Miles if he finds him annoying. Miles, decent guy that he is, gives some excuse about being preoccupied with DS9’s phase coil generators and goes back to just staring out into space. Bashir just won’t let it go, however, and he asks O’Brien to please call him by his first name instead of his rank, which O’Brien does in the snottiest manner imaginable.
The two beam down and check on the supposed “medical emergency”. Bashir waves his tricorder and instantly deduces that there’s no airborne, soil, or water pollutants. These tricorders sure work quick when there’s plot to get moving. The village mayor quickly hurries them away to see an old man dying in a bed. He’s the only one who’s sick, mind you, but his death would spell doom for the whole village.
Meanwhile, back on DS9, the sparks are flying in the negotiation room. The issue here is that a treaty spells out a certain river as the border between these two tribes, and thanks to the river being diverted by Cardassian mining, the river is now 20 km off course. Guys? Guys, I think I can solve this one. Are you ready? Here it goes: Divert it back! There we go, wrapped this one up.
Varis is being a bitchy little flibbertigibbet. It’s her tribe that’s benefited from the river moving, but the idea of giving up an inch of the ill-gotten land is hateful to her. She gets so mad she throws a drink on Quark.
While all this is going on, Jake Sisko and Nog have gotten bored with replicating gross things to dare each other to eat (“double or nothing to chow some Klingon boogers!”) and are now on the promenade throwing stuff at people. Nog spots Varis storming out of negotiations and his seven-chambered Ferengi heart goes a-twitter upon seeing her. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful!” he says. Side note: it’s always alarmed me how readily people on Star Trek shows throw lustful glances at aliens. She’s another species, Nog! She could be three, or she could be 300. You don’t know!
Meanwhile, back on Bajor, the old man wakes up mumbling some dementia bullshit about the “Dal’Rok”. He looks at Bashir, but pushes him away; he looks at O’Brien, examines his hands for some reason, and declares that he’s found the one that the Prophets sent.
Bashir regretfully informs the mayor that the old man is dying of old age and there’s nothing to be done. The mayor whines that the old man is needed to save the town from the Dal’Rok, which is a monster that terrorizes the town for five nights every year, and only the “Sirah” can defeat it.
Meanwhile, the creepy boys have tracked Varis down and rung her doorbell. She answers and Nog collapses into an annoying sack of hormones. Jake is somehow the one to play it cool, even though he’s dressed like this:
Despite Nog’s blubbering and Jake’s tragic fashion sense, they successfully manage to ask Varis to join them in watching a ship go into the wormhole. A three-person date? The future’s pretty groovy.
Down on Bajor, it’s dark and the Dal’Rok is about to appear. The Sirah is being helped into the amphitheater in the village square, against Bashir’s protests. O’Brien gets a tricorder out and sneers at the storm. Suddenly, a white blob appears in the sky looking like a Windows 98 screensaver. O’Brien scowls at the tricorder again, saying that it shouldn’t be here according to his readings. And it’s not a hologram, because he can’t find any power source.
Sirah gets up and has a fine bit of ACTING!!! while talking up the Dal’Rok’s menace and pledging to stand against it. The villagers gain heart, and the pillars around the amphitheater start issuing beams that hit the Dal’Rok and start to drive it away.
This probably bothers me more than it should, but for a storyteller in an episode called “The Storyteller”, he’s not getting anywhere close to telling an actual story. Coming up with a simple folklore narrative was obviously too much to ask of the writers; what the Sirah is doing is much closer to motivational speaking. “We shall stand against the Dal’Rok! We are strong!” That kind of thing. But the Sirah’s strength gives out, and the Dal’Rok, now unopposed, starts shooting out little comets that land amongst the gathered villagers and blow shit up.
The Sirah calls upon his appointed successor O’Brien to finish his bombastic little monologue for him. O’Brien declares, “The village shall not be destroyed! Despite our fears, we shall stand our ground and face the Dal’Rok!” et cetera. And the easily led villagers immediately accept O’Brien as the Sirah’s representative, even though they can all see the old man talking into O’Brien’s ear and telling him what to say.
As soon as the Dal’Rok is gone, the Sirah finally keels over dead. The village mayor loudly proclaims O’Brien to be the new Sirah.
Meanwhile, back on DS9, Kira shows up in Quark’s bar, ready to unwind from the stress of negotiations. She orders a “stardrifter”, which sounds like some sort of cocktail, but Quark uncorks a single bottle and pours out some liquor which looks like rum mixed with blue Gatorade.
Varis Sul shows up in Sisko’s office at his request, and while wearing Avery Brooks Grumpy Face #41, Sisko finds the most delicate way to tell her that she’s being a real See-You-Next-Tuesday. She bristles and spouts some puffery about never giving that land up.
Jake and Nog are outside on the promenade, with Jake having changed into an even stupider onesie. Varis shows up after leaving Sisko’s office and they start to have a nice talk about their fathers. Varis has no father—he was killed by the Cardassians. Nog’s father is a bit useless. Jake, unsurprisingly, is a total daddy’s boy and says he consults his father whenever he himself has a problem he can’t solve. Nog, meanwhile, suggests that Varis’s dispute could be leveraged with a little bit of good ol’ fashioned Ferengi greed. Jake’s supposed to be the sensible one here, but it’s Nog who’s actually being helpful.
Back on Bajor, O’Brien is moaning to Julian about the horrible mess he’s gotten himself into. Best case scenario, he somehow saves himself and the whole village from violent death, but he still has to stay and be the Sirah forever. Julian reacts to O’Brien’s anguish with an ear-to-ear grin.He’s kind of a turd, isn’t he? The Bajoran villagers come knocking, and at Bashir’s insistence they parade a series of gifts before O’Brien, including flowers, some squash, fluorescent colored vase-filling stones from Pier One, and three Bajoran girls they clearly want O’Brien to sleep with.
And as much as we may want him to jump at this opportunity, O’Brien can feel Keiko’s sour disapproval across the light years, and blubbers as much to the mayor. The mayor sends the girls out and says O’Brien should bring his wife and daughter here so they can live in the village with him. And you might think this is a good deal, given that Keiko hates DS9 and actually moves to Bajor in later seasons, but then who would clear the chroniton buildup in the power coupling? Someone else? Pah!
On the station, Nog and Jake are bothering Varis again. Varis asks Nog how Ferengis know which opportunities are worth the risk, and Nog quotes a Rule of Acquisition, telling her to trust her instincts. Overjoyed at finally having an in with the girl, Nog suggests they celebrate by pulling a prank with a “security rod” he swiped from his father. Nog pressures them to break into Odo’s quarters and steal the bucket where Odo sleeps in his liquid form. Nog fetches the bucket, but then trips and spills Odo all over Jake’s onesie.
Jake looks horrified and paws at the inert fluid on his chest, convinced it’s Purée d’Odo. But nope! Nog filled the bucket with oatmeal. This is what passes for a good prank in the dweeby hall-monitor world of Star Trek. The three teens crack up so hard they don’t notice the real Odo walk right in behind them. Nog makes a break for it, but Sisko catches him while making Avery Brooks’s Grumpy Scold-Face #45.
On Bajor, a grouchy O’Brien is scanning a residual neutrino trace on the rocks that were blown up by the Dal’Rok. A Bajoran woman asks O’Brien to bless her child and he confusedly lays a hand on her and says “I’m sure she’ll make you very proud”.
More credulous dupes line up to take advantage of O’Brien’s holiness, with the exception of one sullen man who’s dressed in a set of tropical-colored curtains to make sure we’ll recognize him. O’Brien takes a desultory poke around the artifacts inside the Sirah’s apartment, including a plexiglass pyramid and a cigar box, before the guy in the curtains reveals himself and tries to stab O’Brien. They have a good little tussle before Bashir rushes in and their combined strength disarms him.
The man turns out to be Hovath, the Sirah’s former apprentice who studied under him for nine years. He wanted to control the Dal’Rok, but couldn’t do it when put on the spot, and the Sirah punished him for his failure by giving the job to literally the next person who came along, driving Hovath insane with envy.
We additionally learn that the Sirah wore a bracelet with a fragment of the Orbs of the Prophets, which are the artifacts responsible for whenever supernatural shit happen on DS9. Many years ago the village was divided by hate, so the first Sirah used the orb fragment to create the Dal’Rok, which is a physical manifestation of their fears. The story that the Sirah tells makes the villagers think good thoughts, which in turn makes the mind beams that repel the Dal’Rok. It has to be a bit depressing for O’Brien to find out he doesn’t really have supernatural powers, but he takes it in stride. And now, glad to find someone who actually wants the job, O’Brien drapes Hovath with the Sirah uniform, which appears to be an old lady’s bathrobe.
But the mayor, coming by at the wrong moment, runs in protesting. Hovath failed and can’t be the Sirah, because the people won’t make mind beams for a Sirah they don’t perceive as legitimate.
Back on DS9, Sisko has Varis in his office and he’s giving the young girl a dressing-down in the exact same tiresomely patient schoolmarm tone that he always uses on Jake. No, go ahead, dude, it’s not like she’s a visiting dignitary or anything. Varis gushes over how highly Jake looks up to him, and it reminds her of how she misses her own dead parents. She wants to compromise, but she’s afraid she’ll look weak if she does. But in a breakthrough, she thinks she can use Nog’s advice to make an agreement that everyone will want to sign onto. And it’s hilarious that the Federation is such a bunch of post-scarcity commies that Varis had to talk to a Ferengi to grasp the concept of trade.
On Bajor, the fifth and final night of the Dal’Rok’s reign of terror is about to begin and Miles has the bathrobe on. To no one’s surprise, he’s failing. “Once upon a time,” he stammers, “there was a Dal’Rok! And it lives over there.” The villagers don’t put up with this for long before they start muttering and making protest noises. Bashir brings up the possibility to Horvath that the Sirah orchestrated all this. He knew O’Brien would fail, and Hovath would have to rescue him, restoring both his confidence and his popularity.
O’Brien flounders, and the Dal’Rok sends a meteor that explodes near him and knocks him over. Well, I say “knocks him over”, but it’s more like “it lands on the ground an unspecified distance behind him, and a second later his knees buckle and he falls down”. Seizing his chance, Horvath grabs the bracelet with the Orb fragment and takes over from O’Brien, and within seconds the easily-led villagers have transferred their loyalties to him, shooting out mind beams and dispatching the Dal’Rok.
Back at the station, Varis proposes to give the Navot their land in exchange for free trade access to both sides of the river. At the same time, Bashir and O’Brien return from Bajor. After that little bonding experience of theirs, Julian tells O’Brien he doesn’t have to call him “Julian” anymore, which the subservient and masochistic O’Brien is clearly uncomfortable with. O’Brien, relieved, says “Right, sir.” Thus ends our first baby steps into the cavalcade of darkness in store for Chief Petty Officer Miles O’Brien.
Next up in the Trials of Miles: O’Brien falls victim to biological weaponry in “Armageddon Game”.