Trigger Warning: This week’s episode deals with suicidal thoughts. If that’s not safe for you, give this one a pass and come back for next week’s column.
I’m still on a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine kick, folks, and this week, I want to take a look at the episode “Hard Time,” which is a difficult watch, even for one of the “torture O’Brien” episodes. The concept is an interesting one—an alien species has developed a criminal justice system that punishes via implanted memories, meaning that chief of operations Miles O’Brien experiences what feels like twenty years in prison in the space of a handful of hours. There’s a lot at play behind this story from the idea of the mind as a prison to questioning the nature of perception and reality, and frankly, as with the episodes “Past Tense” and “Far Beyond the Stars,” “Hard Time” is very much a story that fits with DS9 so much better than it would have any other Star Trek franchise installment.
The overall plot is that the Argrathi, a species talented in mental manipulation, wrongfully convicts O’Brien of espionage and subjects him to twenty cycles of correction. However, that correction takes place entirely in O’Brien’s mind, meaning that he awakens with twenty years of memories in a body that hasn’t aged.
O’Brien returns to the station and tries to throw himself back into his life, but the lingering effects of his experience manifest. He struggles to sleep in his bed, and he has to be reminded of the names of tools he uses every day. However, more importantly, O’Brien begins seeing a mysterious figure named Ee’char everywhere he goes. The hallucinations progressively agitate O’Brien, and at one point, he very nearly strikes his daughter Molly in frustration. O’Brien then decides that he cannot survive this trauma and seeks out a phaser.
Dr. Bashir finds him and talks him down, giving O’Brien space to confess that during his sentence, he had a cellmate, Ee’char, who’d taught him how to survive. However, O’Brien discovered Ee’char hoarding food, as the guards didn’t always remember to feed the prisoners, and in a moment of rage, he murdered his cellmate only to discover that Ee’char intended the stash of food to sustain both of them. O’Brien breaks down, wracked by guilt only to have Bashir remind him that his grief and regret are just as important to his humanity. Yes, O’Brien’s mind is telling him he did something terrible, but he himself is not awful, no matter what the Argrathi did to make him believe he was.
O’Brien agrees to seek counseling to work through the emotional ramifications of the experience given that Bashir cannot remove the memories.
What happens to O’Brien here is objectively awful, no matter that the Argrathi try to frame their punishment as being more civilized as it causes no harm to O’Brien’s physical self. The point of the story is that the harms to his mind and to his emotional well-being are real, real enough that it causes O’Brien to contemplate suicide. As such, “Hard Time” is an excellent metaphor for the experience of depression. O’Brien’s mind is telling him that he did something terrible, never mind that it never happened. He never harmed Ee’char because Ee’char never existed in the first place, but to O’Brien, that experience is as real to him as his wife’s pregnancy or his experiences in the Cardassian War. His brain is telling him that he did this awful thing, and he experiences all of the grief and shame that goes along with it.
“Hard Time” is hardly the first time Star Trek has addressed this idea of living a reality entirely in one’s mind. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” sees Captain Picard live an entire lifetime on a dead world. Tom Paris gets to relive the last memories of a dead man in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Ex Post Facto,” but what separates “Hard Time” from both of these episodes is the emphasis on how O’Brien’s mind becomes the prison, perhaps more than the Argrathi intended for it to be. Picard’s experience is about life and affirmation; “Ex Post Facto” views Paris’ memories more as a clue in a murder mystery. In “Hard Time,” O’Brien’s suffering is the point, which is a very DS9 take on the trope.
More importantly, however, is that the episode insists that O’Brien is going to have to put in the work to reconcile these memories that he acquired through no fault of his own. They can’t be removed through Bashir’s magic; O’Brien will have to come to terms with the experience through hard work and therapy. Bashir even offers him medication to help restore his mind to equilibrium. Y’all, the metaphor here isn’t subtle, but the message is, I think, incredibly important. O’Brien, like many people suffering from depression, will have to struggle with this experience, but there remains a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. I also find it important that O’Brien’s conviction was wrongful because O’Brien’s innocence here is key to the metaphor. O’Brien has done nothing to deserve these feelings, but he has them and must cope with them as best he can.
The other issue, aside from the mental prison as metaphor, is the question of O’Brien’s humanity. O’Brien now has a very real idea of what he’s capable of doing, and it’s not a pretty picture. That’s a deeply DS9 concept. Sisko also wrestles with the depths to which he’ll sink in DS9’s episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” and Quark has a great speech in which he reminds Nog and by extension the audience that without the trappings of civilization, humans are just as violent as any other species in the galaxy. Fittingly, he makes that speech during the episode “The Siege of AR-558,” which is an exploration of exactly that point. Star Trek often flirts with this idea but tends to treat those who stumble into this darkness of the soul as lesser. The Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode “Among the Lotus Eaters” is a great example of this treatment. DS9, however, really digs down into the trope and forces its characters to wrestle with their capacity for evil. I love that Bashir never minimizes the horror of O’Brien’s actions. He rather focuses on the much more nuanced idea that having done a terrible thing does not necessarily make one a terrible person.
O’Brien is certainly culpable, and he’ll have to wrestle with that guilt for the rest of his life. That culpability does not mean that he is unworthy of redemption or that his grief and regret don’t matter. It makes for compelling television, but it also serves as a reminder that all of us, even our heroes, are capable of truly terrible actions. It’s choosing to confront that capacity that makes us better, and there’s nothing so Starfleet as making that choice to do better.
Four crates of self-sealing stem bolts and a tub of yarmok sauce
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- This is just such a good episode.
- Please note, O’Brien finds the phaser in weapons locker 47.
- In some ways, I think Ee’char represented O’Brien’s will to survive. Ee’char became the still, small voice reminding O’Brien to seek help even while he was drowning in self-recrimination and trauma. In others, Ee’char symbolizes the best of O’Brien, so when O’Brien murders him, he’s symbolically slaying his own best self.
- “Among the Lotus Eaters” is “Heart of Darkness” done badly. I will not take criticism on this point.