O’Brien has memories of a twenty-year prison term implanted into his brain by aliens and has trouble readjusting to life on the station afterward.
Plot Summary: Convicted of espionage by the Argrathi, O’Brien returns to the station after his sentence has been carried out – having memories implanted of spending twenty years incarcerated, which the aliens find more efficient than actually building and maintaining prisons. Bashir decides that he can’t risk trying to erase the memories since they are so comprehensive, and O’Brien has a hard time reintegrating into his job and life on the station with his family. He keeps having visions of Ee’char, his cellmate for most of his prison sentence, though he refuses to discuss Ee’char with Bashir, his counselor, or his wife. When O’Brien argues with Bashir about not wanting to attend counseling and attacks Quark over a minor incident, Sisko relieves him of duty. Though O’Brien refuses Bashir’s help, he continues to see visions of Ee’char and nearly hits Molly. Convinced that he is a danger to himself and others, he takes a phaser to end his life, but Bashir guesses what he plans and arrives in time to persuade O’Brien to talk about Ee’char, whom O’Brien confesses he killed in prison when he believed his cellmate had stolen his food. O’Brien believes this means that he is no longer human, while Bashir interprets his guilt to mean that he is having a completely human response to memories implanted by the Argrathi. Deciding to continue treatment, O’Brien returns to his family.
Analysis: “Hard Time” has two things going for it: Colm Meaney’s terrific performance and the development of the relationship between O’Brien and Bashir, one of my favorite aspects of the series, though it’s used for comic relief more often than serious introspection. Otherwise, the plot is something of a mess, and the dull visuals and plodding pace marks the episode as bottle show filler. We’ve already seen O’Brien as a prisoner standing up to torture by the Cardassians, so the episode feels a little redundant from that standpoint, and we’ve already seen Sisko suspicious when O’Brien was blamed for a disaster while defusing deadly weapons, so it seems that rather than focusing on the outrageousness of O’Brien’s trial and torture without notifying Starfleet, the entire question of how Sisko would deal externally with having an officer returned to him in such debilitating condition gets dropped entirely. This isn’t a minor plot hole – my first question once Bashir says he can’t do anything to remove the implanted memories is whether the Argrathi can, since I assume that their judicial system sometimes make mistakes as even the best do – but Sisko never contacts the Argrathi to get more information, to express his outrage, to ask that Odo be allowed to go over the evidence against O’Brien or anything else. Why isn’t Keiko as furious here as she was in “Tribunal”? She scarcely seems to factor in O’Brien’s emotional state and vice versa.
Structurally, it’s interesting storytelling, or at least it would be if we hadn’t seen something very similar recently when Worf was on trial trying to piece together memories of a disastrous battle. The difference here is that O’Brien has Ee’char, a character whose secret he knows but we do not, though we’re given ominous hints. Still, Ee’char’s origins and function are not clear. Did the Argrathi create every memory involving the character, including the murder, as a means to torture O’Brien? Did they program only the scenario involving the food shortage and let O’Brien’s mind dictate how that situation was resolved? Does the character represent O’Brien’s empathy, since Ee’char doesn’t want O’Brien to torment himself but to recover, or O’Brien’s conscience, since O’Brien can’t let himself forget someone he killed, or is this O’Brien’s dark side – as O’Brien fears, a reminder of how he will behave when pushed to desperation? The Chief has always been written as a sort of nerdy Everyman, genuinely excited by engineering problems, delighted to have someone to play video (well, holosuite) games with, eager to share a drink, unwilling to shirk from a brawl. He doesn’t seem to have innate self-esteem problems and sometimes I feel like the writers try to force them on him, having him possessed by an evil alien in one episode, giving him a replicant in another.
As human drama, there’s no denying that “Hard Time” packs a punch. Here’s a man thrown back into a life he no longer believes he deserves, unable to share his pain with his family or friends, hating himself. Meaney conveys these emotions effortlessly, and he manages to be witty in the scenes where Bashir tries to help him, too. But in the end it’s undercut by the fact that an event like this should change a man’s life forever, while we suspected when the episode first aired and know for certain now that this one won’t. Even if he knows in his conscious mind that it wasn’t real, O’Brien has experienced twenty years of isolation and torment, the dread and resentment of being forgotten, the fury that none of his friends or colleagues has intervened to rescue him. A few weeks working with a counselor doesn’t make an experience like that go away, something he should know full well after seeing how long and how deeply Captain Maxwell was traumatized by the Cardassians after their time together on the Rutledge. O’Brien should be showing the effects of his torment for months and years, like Picard after he was transformed into Locutus of Borg. But it pretty much gets dropped, and Miles goes back to goofing off with Julian and behaving like what the writers perceive as a typical cranky male expecting a baby and facing middle age. As with Sisko in “The Visitor,” there will be no powerful transformation.