May 20, 2020
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Tribunal”
Fire up those tin whistles, because it’s time again for…
Season 2 of Deep Space Nine has really put O’Brien through the wringer, hasn’t it? He got stranded on a hostile planet and infected with a biological weapon that turned his genes to pudding. Only a week after that, he got kidnapped by Sleestaks and had to watch his clone die after a prolonged period of psychological anguish (the clone, I mean, though I don’t suppose the real Miles had a great time either). These extraordinary workplace stressors have convinced this famously neurotic workaholic that he needs to take a vacation—but fate, and this series’ least human-resembling (and therefore most evil) species—intervenes. The Cardassians frame O’Brien for delivering weapons to the Maquis terrorists and try him in a kangaroo court, and he only barely escapes a death sentence.
“Tribunal” could have been a really good episode, and indeed there’s an interesting bit here and there. However, it suffers mightily from sloppy plotting, confused character dynamics,and a deus ex machina ending that lands like a brick in a toilet. One simple fix that would’ve tremendously improved the episode is to leave open-ended till the end the question of whether O’Brien actually did the crime he’s being accused of. This is less radical than it sounds at first glance. O’Brien’s war trauma and subsequent disdain for Cardassians is well-known; indeed, being an uneducated working stiff, O’Brien is the only regular character in Star Trek’s clean, ergonomic neoliberal utopia allowed to get away with something so gauche as racial prejudice. Why not exploit that? Deep Space Nine is supposed to be a new, gritty, morally-gray Star Trek, after all. The show had already ascribed sympathetic motives to terrorists in the Bajorans, and a couple episodes ago they did it again with the Maquis, the terrorist cell that would later crew half of Voyager. O’Brien’s too much of a loyal Starfleet drone to so much as slap a Cardie lest he violate the cease-fire… but if a group arose that were killing Cardies extra-legally, and O’Brien had some means of helping them out, one could very easily see his Cardiphobia getting the better of him. Alas, if only anything as interesting as this had happened. Only a few minutes into the episode, it’s made clear that O’Brien didn’t do it.
We open in Ops, with O’Brien, newly on leave, looking harried and uncomfortable in civilian clothes, rushing around Ops and giving last-minute instructions to everyone and being a right pain in the ass. They were probably aiming for the other actors to meet O’Brien’s officiousness with good-natured exasperation, but the tone misfires and everyone comes off like they really hate this dickhead and can’t wait for him to be gone. Kira’s bitching up a storm (surprise!), Sisko’s grouching, and even butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Dax is grinning through clenched teeth.
O’Brien finally walks down the promenade to his runabout, running into a striking middle-aged man with a bad-ass mustache, and greeting him warmly. It’s Raymond Boone (John Beck, best known from Dallas as Pam Ewing’s dream fiancé).
He served with O’Brien on the USS Rutledge during the Cardassian wars, and even participated in that Setlik III battle O’Brien’s always talking about; however, where O’Brien was inspired to re-enlist out of patriotism, Boone very sensibly chose to get out. Now he runs a “ladarium” mine on a planet that’s on the Cardassian side of the new demilitarized zone. O’Brien doesn’t understand how he can stand living among those bastards, but Boone says they leave him alone, because they build warp drives out of ladarium.
O’Brien would love to catch up over a drink or nine but he has to go on a stupid vacation with his stupid wife. Boone waves as he rushes off and promises to look him up again. Then he ducks into a conveniently placed closet [?], takes out a tricorder, and reveals he’s surreptitiously recorded O’Brien’s voice.
When we come back, the O’Briens are on the runabout, and they’re having some sitcom-style bickering—“you were supposed to bring the camera”, “why’d you bring so much work on vacation”, “I know you fucked my clone”—that kind of thing. To cool the mood, Miles plays some howlingly stereotypical Japanese music and tries to do sex on her, but Cardassians rudely interrupt, attacking the ship and transporting onto the bridge to tell Miles he’s under arrest.
They refuse to tell him what he’s under arrest for, informing him that his failure to deny this mystery crime could be interpreted as an admission of guilt, while remaining silent could be used against him, and then they beam him off. There’s a germ of an interesting theme about police states and how another culture might interpret the idea of civil liberties, but it’s mostly buried under the writers’ desperate need to impress upon us that the Cardassians are evil.
An establishing shot shows the city on Cardassia Prime where O’Brien is being held, with big screens on the outsides of buildings broadcasting propaganda.
O’Brien is brought into a scary room with harsh lights, and does nothing but repeat his name, rank, and status as a Federation citizen while they strip off his clothes, strap him to a chair, scan him with the computer, and remove one of his teeth. Mostly this sequence just made me want to re-watch the TNG episode where Picard went through this.
The Good Cop steps in: Makbar, Chief Archon, gets O’Brien out of the chair, hands him his clothes, and escorts him gently to his cell. She tell him his trial is in two days and he’s been assigned counsel in the form of Kovat, a venerable Cardassian lawyer. O’Brien asks what he’s being charged with and who’s doing the accusing, but Makbar tells him, “All in good time.”
Meanwhile, on DS9, Sisko is trying to comfort Keiko, who, if I may remind you, has presumed her husband dead twice already this season. Odo the Tact King blithely tells Keiko that, based on what he knows of Cardassian law enforcement, they’re probably torturing him. A transmission comes in from Cardassia, and Makbar tells the gathered people that O’Brien’s trial will begin in two days’ time. Keiko may attend, but there’s no need for anyone to know the charges yet. Keiko asks how they can prepare to defend Miles against an unknown charge. Makbar tells her not to bother, because Miles has already been found guilty, as is customary in Cardassian jurisprudence. And the sentence is death.
Odo asks if Miles has a “nestor”, which is an advisor to the condemned that’s somehow different from a lawyer. He volunteers to fill that role, as he was made an officer of the Cardassian court some years previously while the Cardassians were still running Deep Space Nine. This sounds like an instrumental development in the plot, but it won’t affect much of anything at all. Odo and Keiko leave, while Sisko orders Kira to begin an investigation that might exculpate O’Brien. Kira brings up the possibility that, given O’Brien’s well-known anti-Cardassian bias, he actually did do something. “Then we need to know that too, don’t we?” says Sisko.
Back on Cardassia, O’Brien finally meets with his “conservator”, Kovat. He asks why he needs a lawyer, and indeed what the point of a trial is if he’s already been convicted and sentenced. Kovat explains that Cardassian trials aren’t meant to determine guilt or innocence, but instead to serve as a public display of state power and to edify the spirits of ordinary Cardassians by showing them criminals being punished. Kovat’s job is to ensure that O’Brien puts on a good show. This scene could’ve been written in such a way as to draw parallels to our own legal system, in particular the high-profile televised trials which were such a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist in the ’90s. It was not. Oh well. Since when does Star Trek ever do social commentary anyway?
Back on DS9, Kira has discovered that crates in the weapons locker that are supposed to be full of photon warheads are instead full of scrap metal. The metal is of equal mass to the warheads, so one could theoretically beam each crate simultaneously into the other’s place to fool the perimeter sensor, like a more science-y version of Indiana Jones switching the idol with a bag of sand. This feat, however, would have required a “transporter expert” like O’Brien.
Furthermore, the logs show that O’Brien requested voice access to the weapons locker mere minutes before his runabout left. After he went in, there was a Treknobabble bomb that kajiggered all the security sensors until he left. Bashir, who’s here for some reason, asks what O’Brien would do with photon warheads. Kira says that the Maquis recently acquired photon launch tubes, and that going on vacation would’ve provided a perfect cover for delivering the warheads. Bashir is aghast at the implication and vociferously defends his buddy.
The frame-up plot is falling into place, and by “falling into place”, I mean “had almost all its details revealed in one huge graceless dump, murdering any tension or intrigue that we may have experienced”. Sisko points out that if this story is true, then O’Brien must have had a Maquis contact waiting to receive the warheads. Also, they don’t know how the Cardassians knew about this. Sisko orders Kira and Dax to find out these two things, because a little bit of tension still exists, and the risk that someone might be entertained is unacceptable.
Odo goes to visit O’Brien in his cell on Cardassia. O’Brien tells him about his tooth getting taken out and Odo says yeah, they do that. Most Cardassians have to give a molar to the government at age ten, in fact. He inflects this sentence in a very hey-audience-remember-this-for-later fashion.
Their conversation quickly turns into an interrogation. Odo tells O’Brien about the missing warheads and that O’Brien was recorded as being in the weapons locker where they went missing. I was under the impression that defense attorneys didn’t usually ask their clients straight out whether or not they did it. Regardless, O’Brien goes into a long, boring pillory speech. He’s served Starfleet for his entire adult life, he says. No one has ever had cause to question his loyalty and he’s got a little girl who looks up to him and blah blah blah, you all know how this goes. It would’ve been a lot more affecting and more richly subtextual if we didn’t already know he was innocent.
When the act break is over, Dax is looking at the sound wave of O’Brien’s voice and says she’s able to prove conclusively that the clip is edited. Damn, that was quick. Kira comes in with the news that she’s already rounded up twelve suspects who live in the DMZ and narrowed things down to Raymond Boone, who was seen talking to O’Brien the day he left. Wow, also quick. Introducing so many questions and resolving them all so quickly makes the episode feel both overstuffed and uneventful. Quite a feat.
Back on Cardassia, O’Brien’s trial has begun. There’s no prosecuting attorney, and in fact, no one else is here except Odo, Keiko, and three random Cardassian spectators, so it’s not clear how this is supposed to generate a good show. Odo tries to ask to confer privately with the conservator, but is told that addressing the court isn’t permitted in Cardassian jurisprudence, but also they’ll totally let him. He says he has new evidence that can prove O’Brien is not guilty, but Kovat tells him new evidence can’t be entered after the verdict is already read.
Odo appeals directly to Makbar, who reiterates that he can’t introduce any new evidence, and that he would do well to keep order. “Wouldn’t you ask that we respect your rules if we were in your court?” she asks. Undaunted, Odo tries for a change of venue, which again fails. Makbar refuses to accept his new evidence on the grounds that the Federation probably faked it.
Makbar and Kovat are probably the best parts of this episode. Caroline Lagerfelt as Makbar is doing an enjoyable sneering ice princess routine, curling her mouth and spitting out her sentences with disdainful aplomb. Veteran actor Fritz Weaver as Kovat is deftly portraying a manipulative and nihilistic character wrapped in the cloak of a kindly old man, lending his booming voice to long, sophistic diatribes. One wishes they had more to do than just say “nuh-uh!” to our heroes. The writers don’t even pretend like the Cardassian courtroom has any real procedural rules. They’re just playing legal Calvinball, forever making the most dickish move they can make in any given moment, never mind whether they contradict themselves two lines later. You could argue that the writers intended it that way, but I don’t think the rest of the teleplay is nearly smart enough to support that claim.
Back on Deep Space Nine, the investigation is moving at a frustratingly fast clip. They’ve already picked up Boone and are interrogating him. He is of course cool as a cucumber, which of course makes sense—how can a man not feel confident with such a glorious mustache?—but also because they don’t have any actual evidence against him. Sisko nonetheless orders him held indefinitely, making all this episode’s moralizing about Cardassia’s lack of civil liberties a bit fucking rich if you ask me.
Elsewhere on the station, Bashir steps into a room. The lights don’t come on. A darkened figure behind Bashir says he’s from the Maquis, and they didn’t know about the theft, and the man they’re holding for questioning isn’t one of them. Wow, solving mysteries sure is easy when you don’t have to actually figure anything out!
The Cardassians seem to have the same idea over in their kangaroo court. A Cardassian military officer finally reveals that yes, they did find photon warheads in Miles’s runabout, because he was tipped off by “reliable sources” whose identity he can’t reveal for fear of compromising national security. Makbar says this sounds legit, and censures Odo for asking follow-up questions.
The Bajoran militia brings the still-detained Boone into a room with a chair in it. If not for the lighting in the room, it would look very much like the scene where O’Brien’s taken in to Cardassian custody. Apparently, around eight years previously, just after Setlik III, Boone split up with his wife of 15 years, stopped talking to his parents, and failed enough performance reviews to get kicked out of Starfleet. These details tumble out context-free like a cat dropping a dead animal into our laps. It’s really astounding how badly they’ve managed to bungle this plot. Sisko orders a physical [?!] in order to “answer some questions”. They’re the good guys, right?
Back in the Cardassian courtroom, Miles is on the witness stand, being examined by his conservator, who tries to bait Miles into losing his temper by asking how he turned out a criminal: Did his parents abuse him? Does Keiko put him through “psychological distress”? The Archon begins examining him as well, and asks him about his experiences in the war and anti-Cardassian statements he’s made in the past, such as “the bloody Cardies can’t be trusted”.
Since they’ve already found O’Brien guilty, it’s not clear what they’re even doing here besides eating up runtime. The lack of any defined goal or endpoint is a real tension suck, and Kovat seems to agree, because he implores Makbar to end the trial (already the longest in Cardassian history) (feels like it, too!). At that moment, Sisko shows up with Boone, having somehow gotten into the courtroom without encountering any guards outside or anything.
Makbar sees Sisko show up with Boone and she’s like, whoa. Right in the middle of her big sentencing speech, she does an about face and says that since O’Brien shows potential for rehabilitation, she’s decided to suspend his sentence and release him into the custody of the Federation. Kovat, having won his first case ever, looks horrified, as this likely spells death for him.
Sisko explains everything on the runabout. “Boone” was a Cardassian spy planted in the real Boone’s place after they captured him eight years ago. The Cardassians surgically altered him to appear human, but didn’t replace his molar, which is what made Bashir initially suspicious. (But why would that be suspicious, since we just saw that they remove molars from their human prisoners?) They did the whole frame-up job to insinuate that the Federation was supplying the Maquis as a pretext for running Federation colonies out of the demilitarized zone. So basically, eight years ago they put a spy in Starfleet (who almost immediately left) on the off-chance that he might someday be in a position to frame one of his coworkers for collaborating with a terrorist group (that didn’t yet exist) in order to manipulate a political situation (that they couldn’t have known about at the time).
O’Brien’s just relieved that he gets to go back to work, but Sisko, bastard that he is, pulled strings to extend his leave so he can go on vacation after all. A good week’s vacation by the lake ought to clear all his post-traumatic stress right up. But worry not; he’ll get plenty more trauma in our next installment, “Visionary”.