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Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Hard Time

"I'm real to you and that's all that matters."

Is a virtual prison better than a real one? When Miles O'Brien commits an infraction on an alien planet, his imprisonment takes moments in person – but decades in his mind.

This was a harrowing episode for me, so before I jump into that, I'm going to talk a little about the bigger picture. This episode was produced in 1996. This was three years before The Matrix came out, years before Agents of SHIELD. What it deals with – the notion that a civilization could put virtual experiences into the mind, causing the user to have their own realistic experience – is an advanced concept that television and movies are still trying to get viewers' heads around today.

In this episode, Miles is captured by the Agrathi and arrested for espionage for asking too many questions about their technology. His punishment is 20 years in prison, effectively conveyed by the aging of Colm Meaney, who looks ready to yell at Cordelia in an episode of King Lear. The Agrathi didn't give him the benefit, either, of being innocent until proven guilty. Instead they did an easy, efficient thing – they implanted 20 years of a prison experience in Miles' head. Unlike some other iterations of the concept, though, Miles' experience is truly his own. His reactions and decisions during the process of this virtual imprisonment weren't controlled.

The morality of this act and the ethical principles surrounding it interest me. Granted, it's much cheaper for the Agrathi. Granted, the actual experience is fairly short. There's a lot more to discuss, though. Why would the Agrathi choose a horrific, punitive instead of a therapeutic approach? In Miles' memories, he's abused, starved, and pushed to the point of breaking. The Agrathi get the benefit of this negative approach while not having to implement that approach themselves. They save money AND they keep their hands clean – in their mind, if not in reality (in reality, those who implement the system should be responsible, too.) They do not, however, have to examine the morals and ethics of their system; it's the ultimate in hands-off incarceration.

What's interesting is that this episode focuses more on Miles and his self-judgment than the morality of the Agrathi. He isn't angry at being sent to prison. Maybe Starfleet and the Federation train their soldiers to expect imprisonment, especially with all the questions our crews tend to ask! Instead, Miles is trying to erase his memories of prison, and specifically the alien who shared his prison, Ee'char. From the first day back on Deep Space Nine, Miles begins having visions of his friend. Ee'char helped Miles get used to and survive his environment. Eventually we learn that Miles was pushed so hard by starvation and the negative environment he was kept in that his mind and patience broke, leading him to kill Ee'Char in a moment of frustration. In Miles' struggle to suppress this memory, we see him returning again and again to that moment of frustration, and this finally results in Miles attempting suicide – to be saved only by Julian Bashir.

Even Julian's impassioned pleas at the end are harrowing. While the Agrathi did put Miles into the system, I think Miles' reactions were all his own. Julian's correct, however. Mistakes and choices – you can't let the false, broken decisions we all make, guide our lives. We have to live in a way which shows ourselves we've learned from those mistakes. Miles has a long ride ahead of him recovering from this experience, and there's no clear and easy answers.

Bits and Pieces

Miles has been through hell on this show. He's been in Cardassian prison, for example. If they ever want to change the title, O'Brien Suffers might be a good one.

Colm Meany does a fantastic job characterizing O'Brien. We've seen how O'Brien gets frustrated before, and he builds on this throughout the episode both in the 'now' and in his mind to reach the climax of his confrontation with Ee'char.

Eeseekas are geometric patterns drawn on the ground. Am I the only one who thought about tessellations?

In the beginning I started to think that Ee'char was a substitute for Keiko. How wrong I was. Now I think that Ee'char, for all that he had the body of an alien, represented Miles' humanity.


O'Brien: If it had been real, if it had been you instead of him, it wouldn't have made any difference. He was my best friend and I murdered him. 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. I repaid kindness with blood. I was no better than an animal.
Bashir: 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.

Five out of five phasers set on suicide.


  1. The ultimate O'Brien Must Suffer episode. I love this one so much. It's gripping from beginning to end, and so very, very human. Great review of an excellent piece of storytelling.

  2. The episode also shows what a caring doctor Bashir is. How he always goes the extra light year.

  3. This was a difficult episode for me to watch. I think for anyone who has ever been truly alone, I'm talking about having zero friends or family, heck no even an enemy, this was painful. The cruelty that Miles is subjected to is mind blowing. I watched with such a heavy heart, this episode sat with me for a long time.

    Dr. Bashir has grown on me. I liked the fact that he didn't sugar coat anything for Miles, he had no medicine to make things better. He did offer true friendship and that was to me the best part.


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