WARNING: "You'll have to tell them about spoilers for DS9's "Hard Time" sooner or later." "The hell I will!"
In brief: Excellent. Gripping and raw.
Brief summary: After being convicted of espionage and given memories of a 20-year prison sentence, O'Brien returns to the station to attempt to live a "normal" life.
I will admit that "Hard Time" took me completely by surprise. The preview from the week before had looked more than a bit goofy, and Trek's last use of implanted memories (VOY's "Ex Post Facto") had come off so poorly that the taste of it was still sour. Add to that the fact that Daniel Keys Moran has been claiming for some time that "Ex Post Facto" was ... appropriated ... from an O'Brien implanted-memories DS9 story he pitched, and my expectations were more than a bit low.
Fortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong. "Hard Time" is among the season's best episodes, up there with "Accession" and "The Visitor". It's intense, it's emotionally powerful, and it's difficult to stop watching.
One of the reasons I found "Hard Time" so superb has its roots back in the days of TNG. After TNG's superb "The Inner Light", I grumbled for two years that it had no substantive followup. Aside from "Lessons" a year later (which certainly wasn't bad; it just wasn't enough), any hint of consequences to Picard of living out another lifetime seemed to be simply nonexistent. Similar issues like Geordi's brainwashing in "The Mind's Eye" and Picard's experience at Cardassian hands in "Chain of Command, Part II" only intensified that grumbling -- I started wondering if anyone would ever show any consequences of anything.
That was a large part of "Hard Time"'s appeal. It began more or less where "The Inner Light" ended -- with the end of the "other life". The rest of the episode was devoted to nothing but consequences. That is an astonishingly powerful, and depressingly rare, course of events to examine -- and the fact that for once we saw consequences of something I think richly deserved examination was a big selling point.
Also appreciated was the fact that the consequences were real, and irrevocable. The question of "can these memories be purged?" was a valid one -- but for once, the answer was no. Once it was established that O'Brien was stuck with them -- that, as he put it, "it's real to me" -- there was no place for the show to turn. This could easily have been something like "Ex Post Facto", where the implanted memories were part of an Evil Alien Plot [tm], and the victim was only being used as a pawn. "Hard Time" could have been that -- and I'm just glad it wasn't.
Looking at things a little more specifically ... boy, O'Brien tends to get his mind played with a lot. Between "Whispers" (alluded to in "Hard Time"), his time-jumping in "Visionary" last year, and now this, he has had a great many situations where he's been questioning what's real and what's isn't. I think there are probably two reasons why he in particular gets so picked on. The first is that he is and ever shall be DS9's "everyman" character -- he's down to earth, he gets his hands dirty, he has a family -- basically, he's "just zis guy, you know?" That makes it very easy for people to identify with him, I think -- and perhaps makes him more suitable for a role like this than, say, Picard, who was just so damned good at everything that he seemed a little untouchable at times.
The other reason why O'Brien gets targeted, I think, is that Colm Meaney's shown he can handle it and any other challenge that comes his way. I've maintained for years that he's one of DS9's hidden strengths, generally supporting a show without stealing it; now I'm firmly convinced that Meaney is the best performer on the cast. Everything we saw here, from the black humor to the rage to the tears to the embarrassment to the confusion, was extremely different from the O'Brien we usually see, but it nonetheless felt real. Never for a
moment did I feel that O'Brien's reactions didn't make sense. In a show like "Hard Time", that's a crucial thing to achieve, and everyone involved deserves recognition for it -- but Meaney in particular.
O'Brien's progression from confusion to denial to rage, as I said above, felt very real. It felt a little on the quick side, but the references to this episode taking place over a period of a few weeks helped. (It probably should have been more gradual still, but there's a limit to exactly what can be done short of a substantial change in format to the series.) We started off with little things -- the hoarding of food, sleeping on the floor, that sort of thing -- and only gradually came to realize that there was something very deep and very dark that O'Brien was still hiding. There were certainly major hints of it very early on, starting with O'Brien's very first flashback to meeting Ee'char followed by his insistence that he was "completely alone", but it wasn't clear initially exactly what he was refusing to remember or refusing to acknowledge. We got more of a sense of it as the show progressed, as O'Brien began lashing out more and more and trying to avoid interacting with any real friends -- but the buildup was gradual, only towards the end culminating with his nearly hitting Molly (every parent's nightmare, and an excellent choice of something to totally drive O'Brien over the edge). This sort of "hidden secret" has been done before in Trek (one instance that comes to mind is TNG's "Dark Page"), but I can't recall a time when it was done even remotely as well as it was here.
Another strength the show had was in Craig Wasson's guest turn as Ee'char. I've only seen Wasson in a few things before (most prominently, of all things, a Brian DePalma movie called "Body Double" -- not exactly Oscar territory), but he's generally struck me as someone relatively capable but not amazing. "Hard Time" may have just changed that assessment. Ee'char, even though he wasn't "real", was nonetheless powerful, proving exactly the voice of reason O'Brien needed to cope and exactly the tool put to use by the Argrathans to hammer down O'Brien's humanity. From the drawings, to the advice about food, to his impression of a hawk, to his quiet "maybe I'll dream about food" ... well, O'Brien put it best: through it all, "there was Ee'char", both within and without his prison experience. (The scene where O'Brien is stalking through the station halls with Ee'char reappearing at every corner was especially effective in terms of a nagging conscience; to call it jarring would be an understatement.)
Then, at the last, there was the fifth act (or more specifically, starting from the end of the fourth), which was just superb. For one, I don't think we've ever had a situation depicted before where a regular character is contemplating suicide; yes, there was the stunt pulled with Troi in "Eye of the Beholder", but that was both hackneyed and caused by external forces. Here, there was nothing forced at all; O'Brien's despair was so strong that it was making it through even the smallest television screens, and I never doubted for a moment that he was prepared to die. As Bashir attempted to talk him down (nicely managed, by the way; he felt like just the right mixture of doctor and friend) and we finally learned what secret O'Brien had been hiding all this time, everything fell into place -- and everything in the episode came down to one conversation.
Some might call the ending a little too much speechmaking; I'm not one of them. Yes, it was a pair of monologues by O'Brien and Bashir, but that's what worked. Each one of them had to be allowed to say his piece: O'Brien so that we understood just what he felt he'd sunk to, and Bashir so that O'Brien could recognize the hope that still existed. O'Brien's lament that he'd failed to prove his humanity "when it came down to it" felt like a more personal version of Sisko's "It's easy to be a saint in Paradise" speech from two years back, and
Bashir's soft "if you do [let that moment of savagery win] ... if you pull that trigger, then the Argrathans will have won. They will have destroyed a good man. You cannot let that happen, my friend." felt just uplifting enough to give O'Brien (and the viewer) hope without being cloying. Add to that Ee'char's final "be well, Miles" and stroll into nothingness, and you have the ingredients for one of DS9's most powerful scenes of the year.
All that said, I have a few small criticisms, but all exceedingly minor. The first is that the scene where Bashir explains the situation to Keiko felt stilted. The dialogue itself was fine, but the delivery was off -- whether that was the actors or the director is difficult to say. The second is more a criticism of the series, not of the episode: as powerful as the show was, and as open-ended as Bashir's "it's a treatment, not a cure" was, I'm not at all sure we'll see this ever brought up again, and that's regrettable. The third is more humorous: by the end of O'Brien's tenure in prison, he looked quite a bit like Monty Python's "It's" man, which made those few scenes hard to take as seriously as they should have been. :-) When that's about all I can come up with, though, that's extremely impressive. (There are things I would be curious to know more about -- for instance, how much of the prison simulation was keyed specifically to O'Brien -- but a little ambiguity in those spots is letting our imaginations fill in the blanks, and I can't fault that.)
A few shorter takes, then:
-- As nice as more dramatic gestures like Worf's removal of his badge in TNG's "Redemption" are, I actually think O'Brien's grabbing his combadge and throwing it onto the floor of the turbolift as it moved worked even better. A nice way to get across "son of a BITCH" without having to risk censors' ire by saying it.
-- "Gaze into the circle." <O'Brien stares at him> "Do you want to learn, or not?" "I'm gazing." I don't know why I liked that exchange so much, but I did. :-)
-- Quark's bedside manner left a bit to be desired, didn't it? He didn't deserve O'Brien's initial lunge, but I can't fault the second one quite so much. "Chief, just because your life's in shambles right now -- ugh!" heh.
That should about cover it -- just as well, since this is getting quite lengthy. "Hard Time" is a keeper; if you haven't seen it yet, do.
So, summing up:
Writing: Gradual, intense, and real. You can't argue with that.
Directing: Taut as a bowstring.
Acting: Superb from all three of the most crucial players (Meaney, Wasson, and Alexander Siddig), and certainly fine from everyone else.
OVERALL: 10, easily.
A time to reflect?
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"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 anyone did to me,
I was still an evolved human being -- I failed."