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The Trek Nation - The Wounded

The Wounded

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 23, 2009 - 11:39 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Wounded' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While on a scientific mission near Cardassian space, the Enterprise is attacked by a Cardassian vessel whose captain tells Picard that he presumed a state of war with the Federation after a Starfleet vessel destroyed a Cardassian science outpost. Starfleet orders Picard to maintain the peace at all costs, even if it means pursuing and attacking the starship Phoenix, which is under the command of O'Brien's former captain, Ben Maxwell. Picard invites the Cardassian captain, Gul Macet, to come on board with his aides so that they can aid the Enterprise's search for the Phoenix. O'Brien tells Picard that Maxwell lost his wife and children to a Cardassian attack, but he doesn't believe Maxwell would attack blameless Cardassians as an act of vengeance. When the Enterprise locates the Phoenix, Picard and Macet are both horrified to witness it destroy a Cardassian cargo ship, then the warship to whom Picard reluctantly gives the Phoenix's codes. The Enterprise hails the Phoenix and beams aboard Maxwell, who explains his actions by claiming that the Cardassians are arming for war, but Starfleet bureaucracy refuses to deal with the threat. Picard tells Maxwell that he must follow the Enterprise to a starbase to face a possible court-martial for his actions. Soon after Maxwell is returned to the Phoenix, his ship changes course to pursue another Cardassian cargo ship, insisting that if Picard boards the ship, he will see that it is carrying weapons. When Macet insists that this is a lie, and Picard threatens to fire on the Phoenix if Maxwell does not back down, O'Brien is able to convince his former captain to turn himself in. With Maxwell in custody, Picard tells a departing Macet that based on its location and shielding, he knew there were indeed weapons on the cargo ship, but he was determined to keep the peace; however, now Starfleet will know as well, and will prepare accordingly.

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Analysis: I had remembered "The Wounded" as a fairly typical Next Gen "issue" episode, memorable primarily for our introduction to the Cardassian menace and the character development of Miles O'Brien. But upon rewatching it, I'm moving it immediately into my TNG Top Ten. As a story, my recollection had been that it was like a watered-down version of "The High Ground," which explores some of the causes and conditions of terrorism with greater complexity. Indeed, "The Wounded" is very much a personal drama about O'Brien and his former captain (played by Broadway veteran Bob Gunton, whom I think of as Evita's Juan Peron), with what had initially seemed to me a more narrow real-world parallel.

Although "The High Ground" was banned in Ireland for many years because of a line about how a successful terrorist campaign led to the reunification of that country in 2024, "The Wounded" is more transparently Irish in theme. It features O'Brien reminiscing about his mother cooking ox tails and cabbage, then singing a very old song with Maxwell that was written in memory of those who died in a late 1700s uprising of United Irishmen. Because those scenes are so memorable, I had recalled this particular Next Gen installment as "the Irish episode." Though it was written on the verge of the first Gulf War, parallels with the situation in the Middle East seemed more elusive, and in contrast with "The Maquis" and later stories that complicated and deepened the Cardassian-Federation relationship, it certainly seemed to be pointing at a particular human conflict as its source.

So it was surprising to me to find myself bawling while watching "The Wounded" in the midst of the current conflict between Israel and Gaza, thinking that this episode - even more than Deep Space Nine's brilliant "Duet" and "Things Past" - perfectly hammered home the immensely complicated, terrifying situation of trying to make or maintain a peace with a neighbor after a long, bloody struggle. Maxwell, who lost his family to an outrageous Cardassian attack on civilians, seems incapable of understanding that in the current situation, he is the terrorist murdering Cardassians who have committed no crimes against the Federation. Macet, who declares himself a man of peace like Picard, seems incapable of facing the reality that one cannot carry on an arms race under the nose of a recent adversary without the risk of immediate reprisal. Picard is caught in the middle: he is under orders from Starfleet to keep the peace at the moment no matter the cost, which in this case may be the life not only of a Starfleet captain who feels certain of the rightness of his own actions, but of that captain's crew.

And caught just as much in the middle is O'Brien, who likes to think of himself as a tolerant man, a reasonable man, a man without prejudices, though he readily admits he prefers Irish food to the kelp and berries his Japanese bride has been trying to feed him. He tells Keiko he doesn't have a problem working side by side with Cardassians, then he bites the head off a Cardassian who asks for fairly innocuous technical advice about transporters. He can't quite look them in the eye, though he doesn't voice nearly as much concern about them being on the Enterprise as, say, Worf, who declares that they are without honor and wants to post guards around the doors of all ship's systems (a not-unwarranted plan, considering that in short order Worf finds one of the Cardassians poking around a console, claiming he was just admiring the design). This is a bigger storyline for O'Brien than his wedding; in addition to continuing that bit of shipboard drama, the couple flirting over breakfast while conspiring to serve their own favorite meals, it gives him backstory directly connected to that of a newly introduced adversary and shows us how highly he was regarded among former shipmates, even if he's only been a transporter tech so far on the Enterprise.

Why does O'Brien hate the Cardassians? Not because of anything they did to his family, nor even for what they did to Maxwell's family. It's that during an attack that his new Cardassian acquaintance calls a terrible mistake - they were told that a village contained hidden weapons - O'Brien was doing his duty, trying to get the women and children to safety, and when a Cardassian soldier burst in on them, he incinerated the man. His mother might have cooked with real meat, but Miles didn't even like to swat mosquitoes; he had never killed anything before, let alone anyone. "It's not you I hate, Cardassian; I hate what I became because of you," he says. It's one of the finest scenes on this series, and Colm Meaney plays it brilliantly; he, as well as this episode, goes onto my list of things I failed to appreciate properly the first time I watched Next Gen.

The man to whom O'Brien is speaking does not take offense, but appears to understand. The other Cardassians, however, are more difficult to trust. Is the man Worf apprehends really just curious about Federation technology like O'Brien's new acquaintance is about the transporters, or is he trying to steal secrets? And is he acting on his own initiative, or might he secretly be under orders from the very Gul who so dramatically berates him and confines him to quarters? Macet is a very slippery character; like his successor Gul Dukat, also played by Marc Alaimo, it's difficult to decide whether he's lying outright or telling his own version of the truth. Like Picard, he's self-controlled. He does not lose his temper when the Enterprise brings its more powerful weapons to bear on his ship, then demands an hour to talk to Starfleet to clear up the misunderstanding that Macet perceives as a Federation violation of their peace treaty. Is this because Macet genuinely does not want conflict, or is it because he's the weaker combatant in this case? Is he privately as enraged over the deaths of hundreds of Cardassians as Maxwell is over the deaths of human civilians, or is he aware all along that the Cardassians are arming for war and accepting of Picard's self-righteous anger as a smaller price to pay than direct conflict?

It seems not very bright of Picard to let Maxwell return to command his ship back to a starbase, which also makes me wonder how slippery Picard is being. Sure, maybe he's just trying to give a fellow captain a dignified exit, but he has a very close eye on Macet as well as Maxwell. At what point does Picard begin to suspect that Maxwell's accusations are true? Clearly he doesn't believe that slaughtering Cardassians is warranted even if they're lying and smuggling weapons, and I find it hard to believe that he wants to give Macet a scare enough to risk Maxwell going rogue again, but he simply must know that it's a possibility when he sends Maxwell back to the Phoenix. Maxwell may be crippled by grief, but he isn't crazy and he isn't vicious; his actions make sense to him, and to some extent to O'Brien, who isn't aware of Picard's orders to hold on to a temporary truce no matter the underlying situation. "You watch your back," O'Brien says, which is essentially what Picard does.

But O'Brien also tells Maxwell that the Cardassians assume the Federation exists to make war just as much as Maxwell believes that of the Cardassians, and therein lies the real conflict, and the real enemy. It's not something Picard or Starfleet are able to answer, now or ever; the Federation and the Cardassians will only achieve a lasting peace when a bigger enemy threatens them both.


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Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.