Well, it’s that time to once again show O’Brien suffering. That guy sure does go through a lot, and this episode even has Bashir list off some of the things the Chief has lived through, some of which predate any of his TV appearances.
But these episode are often so good.
See, O’Brien went to an alien prison for the crime of espionage. If that seems unlikely, the crime is never shown or even talked about that much. The point of the episode is not to show O’Brien was framed but how he handled twenty years in a harsh prison. As much as it seems wrong that O’Brien would even be on a spy mission, the crime is never shown, nor the arrest or the trial. This isn’t another situation where the Cardassians were doing a show trial and the rest of the crew was working to prove Miles had been set-up. Instead, Miles was tried, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years. The twist is the prison is virtual, designed to be O’Brien’s own worst idea of what a prison could be, and the twenty years went by in just a few hours. We’re told there’s no way to remove the fake memories afterwards despite Bashir’s best efforts, and that’s more or less that.
Worth noting: Kira’s only appearance in this whole episode is in the beginning to pick O’Brien up after his sentence has already been carried out. As a friend of mine observed, Kira is probably the one main character in the cast that could actually be useful to O’Brien afterwards, seeing as how if anyone on the station knows about moving on from that sort of trauma, it would be her. There’s no counselor on the station that we ever see, unlike with Troi on the Enterprise, and it falls instead to other characters that are clearly in over their heads to try and help O’Brien out. That means Jake Sisko of all people is making sure the Chief still knows how the tools work, Worf is playing darts and offering to go kayaking despite the fact he isn’t really adept at either, and Keiko is there trying to be the loving wife while her husband is displaying habits he learned from a prison that doesn’t exist.
That’s probably better than what happens to other characters. Quark gets roughed up because he can’t get O’Brien a drink fast enough–man, Rom and Nog’s absence sure hurts Quark’s customer service–and Dax’s only appearance in this episode seems to be there just so she can get yelled at. Sisko is there as an understanding commanding officer, but only up to a point as he relieves O’Brien of duty.
However, the episode does show a bit of what O’Brien was going through in this virtual prison, mostly in his interactions with a cellmate named Ee’char, a more spiritual man who seemed to want to help, even offering good advice in the form of a hallucination back on the station, the man who kept saying rather bluntly that O’Brien was most definitely not as fine as he kept saying he was, even pointing out at a key moment what a good friend Bashir is.
Bashir better be a good friend. O’Brien almost killed himself after snapping at Molly.
Apparently, O’Brien murdered Ee’char under the (false) assumption his cellmate was hoarding food. I mean, the guy was, but he was hoarding for both of them. Now, O’Brien has to know on some level that Ee’char (probably) isn’t real. But he still feels the guilt, and unlike most Trek shows, Deep Space Nine will actually take a moment to point out how advanced and utopian the world is, and there was O’Brien broken and full of guilt. It’s a testament that Colm Meaney is perhaps the best actor to pull off this sort of material. His character is very much a “regular guy” sort, unlike the rest of the main cast, he’s likable as an actor, and he’s talented enough to really sell how much O’Brien is hurting right now.
Sure, this is still Star Trek, a largely episodic show, where Bashir can prescribe some medication, get O’Brien to see the unseen counselor, and this sort of trauma will be largely forgotten by the time the next episode starts, but then there’s the end of this episode where Miles hugs his daughter Molly, and the joy and relief on his face is palatable. Maybe he was hurt badly, and maybe parts of that will never go away, complete with the knowledge of what he would do under the right kind of duress, but he’s a man who has a family and friends that love him, and that may be all he really needs.