Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Hard Time   Rewatch 
March 6, 2016 11:13 AM - Season 4, Episode 19 - Subscribe

O'Brien was forced to endure a virtual-reality simulation of twenty years in prison in a matter of hours, a sentence which he insists was solitary confinement--so why does he keep seeing a hallucination of an alien? [TW: suicide]

From Memory Alpha:

- The character of Ee'char hadn't been in the original pitch, Robert Hewitt Wolfe himself added that character. He also introduced elements from a completely separate pitch that had been purchased, but which never made it into production. This other story concerned the discovery that Ensign Sito Jaxa, from the Next Generation episodes "The First Duty" and "Lower Decks", was still alive. After being presumed dead, she was found to have been held in a Cardassian prison since the events of "Lower Decks". This episode would have detailed her struggle to reintegrate into normal life, and was basically a study of Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, there was no motivating factor for why Sito was suffering from this condition, so Wolfe had decided that she had killed her cellmate, to whom she had become very close. The episode was never produced, but when composing "Hard Time", the idea of Sito killing her cellmate resurfaced in his mind, so he took that idea and imported it into the O'Brien story.

- Celeste Wolfe, Robert Hewitt Wolfe's wife, who works as a psychotherapist and is a licensed family counselor, acted as a kind of unofficial consultant on the script.

- Bashir makes reference to TNG: "The Wounded", as well as DS9: "Whispers" and "Tribunal". Obviously, this is another 'O'Brien Must Suffer' episode. Ira Steven Behr sums up the rationale for these episodes; "Every year, we like to drive O'Brien totally mad. We did it with "Whispers", we did it with "Tribunal" and "Visionary", and we did it again the following season in "The Assignment". We just like to hammer him because he's such a great character. And he's so accessible. You feel his pain, and even though it's a TV show and you figure he's gonna come out all right at the end, you're still compelled to root him on."

- This episode shares a similar premise to that of TNG: "The Inner Light" in that Captain Picard also experienced a lifetime of memories within a short period. Interestingly, both episodes feature actress Margot Rose.

"I'm not your friend! The O'Brien that was your friend died in that cell!"

- O'Brien, confronting Dr. Bashir

"When we were growing up, they used to tell us... Humanity had evolved, that mankind had outgrown hate and rage. But when it came down to it, when I had the chance to show, that no matter what anybody did to me, that I was still an evolved Human being... I failed. I repaid kindness with blood. I was no better than an animal."

"No. No, no, no. An animal would've killed Ee'Char and never had a second thought, never shed a tear... But not you. You hate yourself. You hate yourself so much you think you deserve to die. The Argrathi did everything they could to strip you of your Humanity and in the end, for one brief moment they succeeded. But you can't let that brief moment define your entire life. If you do, if you pull that trigger.. then the Argrathi will have won. They will have destroyed a good man. You cannot let that happen, my friend."

- Bashir listens and sets things right with O'Brien
posted by Halloween Jack (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This episode is really the most extreme version of the "O'Brien Must Suffer" episodes in my mind. Poor guy.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:11 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

On my rewatch I just skipped this episode. It's horrifying! Well done but horrifying.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:50 PM on March 6, 2016

Yes, I also skipped this one on rewatch. It is certainly well done and Colm Meaney is an excellent actor. Having a Federation officer consider suicide felt shocking, but it pushed the boundaries in a good way (better than the TNG Worf episode where he considered suicide over being disabled).

I just don't entirely get the "O'Brien Must Suffer" episodes, but I also don't see O'Brien as my strongest self-identification character on DS9. Since the main person I work with at my office refers to me as a "chipper Boy Scout" I probably most resemble Bashir. Now that I think about it, I also did a lot of hopeless romantic pining in my youth, too... I'm quick to butt in with my own ideas... Hmm...

Anyway, Bashir might have been a great character to do this episode with, especially since it closely parallels "Tribunal" from a previous season. It could have been interesting to see Bashir truly break down and give up.
posted by Slothrop at 6:16 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Though it's well-acted and well-written, it's a perfectly reasonable one to skip on rewatch. There's no effect on character or continuity. The Argnathi are never heard from again (so it's not like Tribunal where we learned some things about Cardassian society), we never hear the slightest mention of O'Brien having counseling appointments after this episode, and O'Brien appears to be utterly unchanged by the ordeal after this episode.
posted by creepygirl at 8:40 PM on March 6, 2016

There's no effect on character or continuity.

Continuity, probably not. But we learns things about O'Brien here that can't help but color how we see him later. We've seen him be broken, and do something terrible, and struggle to accept it. We know that O'Brien still carries the scars from this episode, and all the other awful things he's survived, even if he rarely demonstrates that in obvious ways.

On the one hand, it's kind of weird it never comes up again. On the other hand, it's SO big, it's hard to deal with it without it becoming a whole arc for the character. I suppose they could have done some callbacks where he was doing sand paintings and stuff, like Picard had little callbacks to stuff from The Inner Light. They didn't, but I don't think that really diminishes this episode.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:32 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

This was a very difficult episode to rewatch; there's no sugar-coating a character putting a gun under his chin, even if it's a ray-gun that looks like a miniature dustbuster. And I think that Meaney completely sells it, too, even though the Annual O'Brien Torture Episode has become such a thing by now that, as noted above, they cite just some of the previous incidents in the episode. The way that he seems increasingly trapped by his guilt and shame is painful, even before he pulls out the phaser.

One thing that I got out of the rewatch that I didn't before, though, is in one of the quotes above. It's obvious that the Argrathi are stand-ins for the human tendency to use incarceration as punishment; they use the VR devices purely to save money, but design the experience to be as humiliating and uncomfortable as the real thing, and even fast-track the prosecution (if you want to even call it that) so that the punishment is carried out completely before the accused even has a chance to appeal, something that I can see certain people in, say, American completely being in favor of. So there's that. But there's also a very pointed critique of Trek itself--at least the first few seasons of TNG--in this: "When we were growing up, they used to tell us... Humanity had evolved, that mankind had outgrown hate and rage." That was the sort of thing that was promoted by Gene Roddenberry (or his lawyer) quite a lot in those early episodes of TNG, although they moved away from it in later seasons; in particular, one of the TNG episodes that really put notice to the "Humanity has evolved beyond all that" stuff was "The Wounded", which is one of my favorite TNG episodes in no small part because it focuses on O'Brien (it's also a sort of proto-DS9 episode in that it introduces the Cardassians, and even has Marc Alaimo as a gul; if you have access to it, such as through Amazon Prime, I highly recommend watching it if you haven't, although I'd warn that the ending is a real gut punch). One of the great lines from that episode is when O'Brien is recalling the battle of Setlik III (which is also mentioned in this episode) for a Cardassian crewman, and ends the conversation with, "It's not you I hate, Cardassian. I hate what I became because of you." So, yeah, it's too bad that the events of this episode aren't directly followed up on, but there's some acknowledgement, at least, that the wishful thinking of Bashir and others that O'Brien's past experiences might have toughened him against PTSD don't hold water.

Also, too, I like how everyone was pulling for O'Brien even as he was in heavy denial about the extent of his damage. It might have been a little humiliating to have Jake Sisko assist him with recognizing different tools, but it was probably out of Jake's comfort zone, as well; Worf offers to go kayaking with him, which seems like a very un-Worf-like thing to do. Even Quark and Odo not throwing him in jail for assaulting Quark (over a beer) shows a great deal of compassion.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:01 AM on March 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Well, pretty sure this was a first watch for me - I knew about the premise from previous thread discussions of the "O'Brien Must Suffer" trope, but I didn't know what the deal was with Ee'Char until watched it.

Interesting analysis at the AV Club recap:
"I’ve been trying to decide where Ee’Char came from. The one who appears to O’Brien on DS9 is obviously a figment of the Chief’s imagination; he says so, and everything he does is designed to help O’Brien on the path to mental health. But the one in the cell? Maybe O’Brien’s mind, revolting at the thought of solitary confinement, created a companion. But I don’t think so. I think Ee’Char is part of the program specifically designed to break O’Brien. This seems counterintuitive at first, given how helpful and useful this imaginary best friend is, but have you ever spent time without someone who you know is better than you? Not more talented or more attractive, but fundamentally better, more decent, more noble, more giving and helpful. You love them, but the more time you’re stuck with them, the more you start to hate, because you can’t live up to their standard. You can’t be perfect all the time. You can’t always say the right thing, you can’t maintain perfect composure, and so you start to resent someone who can. Ee’Char is far too perfect to be real, and O’Brien spent two decades in a cell with him. He was incredibly grateful, I’m sure, but the rage must’ve built over time. And when finally something bad happened, when the program pushed the right buttons and all of O’Brien’s goodness was stripped away, that rage came out; and after, all he had was the knowledge that he’d murdered someone who never wished him any harm."
posted by oh yeah! at 6:11 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like the idea of this episode, but the actual episode was weak. As mentioned, there was very little impact on the character or the continuity here. The only real good was the development of Bashir into something like an actual character, with his talks to O'Brien, and how he helps him deal with what has happened to him. So happy to see him moving away from how he was in the earlier seasons.
posted by marienbad at 2:49 PM on March 16, 2016

A solid Black Mirror plot embedded in an episode of DS9. In other words, I’m definitely never watching this again.

If this is the apex of the “O’Brien Must Suffer” trope, GOOD – I can’t take much more of it I can’t say I agree with the decision to make O’Brien the most human, flawed, and relatable character on the show, and subsequently subject him to unthinkable forms of torture. If this was a running-joke among the writers, it’s an extremely fucked-up one.

Do we ever get an explanation for why Keiko looked like Ee'char at one point?

I’m a little surprised we didn’t hear Sisko expound about how shockingly inhumane the Argnathi justice system is. This form of punishment actually seems like it would be considered unbelievably cruel by any of the [non-Borg] races in the Star Trek universe.

Maybe we never hear from the Argnathi again because Sisko had the entire planet yeeted into the wormhole.....

I will give the show major credit for finally figuring out how to conclude episodes.

Even though we apparently never hear anything about the events of this episode again, it has a solid closing scene – O’Brien and Bashir have a great conversation that ends with O’Brien agreeing to take psych meds and talk to a therapist (which seems it would have been a big deal when this aired), and the final shot is an adorable hug between O’Brien and Mollie.

I can all but guarantee that scene wouldn’t have happened in Seasons 1 or 2. We’d have gotten a halfhearted attempt to erase the plot, without actually tying up any loose-ends, or committing to any sort of moral or character-development.
posted by schmod at 7:29 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I watched this episode with a group of people I'm rewatching DS9 with, and we usually have a fair amount of chatter about what's going on (let's be honest, mostly shouting at the TV), sometimes to the point that we have to hit the pause button and get stuff out of the way. We said almost nothing for this episode. I know DS9 is one of the grimmest Star Treks, but even so this was grim. I don't see how someone could recover from this experience, or rather, how he could fit back into his old life, at all. Twenty years! It would be more believable if it were ten years, I think.

Coincidentally, I stumbled on these stickers right after watching the episode. A weird bit of timing -- I wouldn't've known what they referred to if I'd seen the page two hours previously.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:16 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Congrats to Ensign Muniz for getting a 2nd appearance! I clicked over to Memory Alpha to see what more we can look forward to...Bummer! Only one more episode. Not exactly a Nurse Ogawa, but if a crewman can stick around for 3 episodes then the staff retention on DS9 must be improving.

I thought the episode was just great, and it showed that an actual psychotherapist consulted on the script. The previous ep, where Worf might have been extradited (except of course that wasn't going to happen), was decent but I think maybe they failed to consult any experts on war crimes & international law?

They did such a good job of selling the idea that O'Brien's never going to be the same again, that I have a smidge of real disappointment to hear that everything is going back to normal next week. I mean, I know that Geordi is in continuous counseling after he got brainwashed into becoming an assassin for the Romulans, and of course Picard is permanently haunted after, oh, being turned into a Borg and getting tortured by Cardassians, etc etc. I think "Inner Light" should be pretty distressing for him, but between all the times he's been possessed by aliens and having his starship full of people almost blowed up, "Inner Light" is something like a 3rd tier trauma for him. Anyway, fool me 50 times, Star Trek--shame on you. Fool me this time--won't get fooled again!
posted by polecat at 3:19 PM on March 6

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