Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

"Hard Time"

****

Air date: 4/15/1996
Teleplay by Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Story by Daniel Keys Moran & Lynn Barker
Directed by Alexander Singer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"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." — O'Brien

Nutshell: Intense and pulling few punches, this is one of the most powerful dramas in the history of the franchise.

O'Brien is wrongfully charged with espionage by the Argrathi government and sentenced to submit to an artificial memory implant that makes him believe he has been incarcerated in a cell for 20 years. He wakes up after a few hours of "therapy" (torture would be a better word) to return to a life he hasn't known for a perceptual eternity.

It's not too often that O'Brien gets a story all to himself, and it's a wonder why not—Colm Meaney is a terrific actor, which is demonstrated in full force by "Hard Time," a powerful, engrossing tale about a man trying to cope with the psychological effects of an agonizing mental punishment.

I think the reason this episode works so well is because it is, in essence, a very simple concept: A man rebuilding a life he hasn't known, while simultaneously burying a dark secret. This makes riveting drama, especially when applying it to a character that the audience has grown to care about over the years of two television series. O'Brien is the perfect character to apply this tragedy to, because he's the series' resident "everyday man," with a family who loves him, and friends who worry about him.

The plot sticks to the essentials. (Aside from a passing reference, "Hard Time" doesn't waste any time explaining why exactly the Argrathi punished O'Brien, or if they even gave him a trial, or even who the Argrathi are.) This story is solely about the aftermath, which is empathizing to say the least.

I suppose even a sturdy character concept like this could potentially be botched, but with Deep Space Nine's creative team at work, there is never an iota of evidence that the writers, producers, actors, and director Alexander Singer didn't know exactly what they were doing. Because "Hard Time" lies in capable hands, it becomes a show with emotional substance.

Consider, for starters, the first act. O'Brien returns to DS9 for, what is to him, the first time in 20 years—and the episode drives the point home with a surprisingly simple but very effective shot of the station from O'Brien's point of view in the Runabout. This success of this shot all lies in its method: It's as if the episode is showing us the station for the first time ever (sort of like the opening scenes of the pilot episode, "Emissary"). By this point, "Hard Time" had my complete attention, and for the remainder of the show it kept it.

The show spans the weeks following O'Brien's return, as he sees Keiko for the first time in two decades (even forgetting that she was pregnant), begins the process of relearning the station, and eventually tries to go back to work. It's drama that rings very true because of top-notch execution. Perhaps part of the success lies in the episode's skill of using detail. Scenes like O'Brien's difficulty with using the replicators, his initially bizarre-seeming habit of rationing food, and the fact that he has become accustomed to sleeping on the floor may seem easy to overlook at first, but they convey emotion and uncertainty extremely well.

The other reason this works is because of Colm Meaney's performance—he's terrific. Just about every scene directly involves him, and in every scene Meaney is compelling, commanding, passionate, and believable. His ability to successfully convey a wide range of emotion—whether confusion, sorrow, anger, or frustration—is highly admirable. It's above and beyond anything he's done on the series to date; the writers finally supply him with a story that has genuinely great impact.

O'Brien claims he was alone in his cell for the entire sentence, but the episode's flashbacks prove otherwise. He in fact had a cellmate named Ee'Char (Craig Wasson) who became his best and only friend and helped him mentally survive his endless lockup. But now on DS9 he begins hallucinating; Ee'Char appears to O'Brien on numerous occasions and tells him to listen to his friends and come to terms with his experience.

But O'Brien can not come to terms with his ordeal because he refuses to fully acknowledge it. He tries to repress irrepressible memories, and doesn't want to admit how severely the experience has affected him. And it becomes evident that something else happened to O'Brien aside from his jail term—something that is eating away at his very soul.

Bashir sets him up with a counselor, but O'Brien refuses to continue going to the meetings. O'Brien becomes edgy and impatient, eventually demanding that Bashir stay the hell away from him. He threatens Quark over a petty situation. He gets impatient and nearly hits his own daughter. His inability to deal with his situation forces Sisko to relieve him of duty and mandate counseling terms.

Still, O'Brien does not want to face what he has been burying since he returned. The episode climaxes when O'Brien pulls a phaser out of a weapons locker and contemplates killing himself. And when Julian talks him down from suicide we learn why O'Brien is so tormented and overwhelmed with guilt: because he killed Ee'Char over a heated misunderstanding just weeks before he was released.

This turns out to be one of those "human situation" messages, and it works quite well. It's about how O'Brien needed to feel like an evolved human incapable of murder despite what the Argrathi put him through. Yet, in one moment of rage, he killed his best friend over some scraps of food—and now he is unable accept it or accept himself. He feels no better than an animal. Bashir's point, however, is a relevant one: that an animal wouldn't have given killing a second thought, whereas O'Brien believes he deserves to die. Now this is strong storytelling.

The episode ends the way it should: with no miracle cures to O'Brien's problems, but simply the assurance that over time he will survive, recover, and return to his normal life.

Technically speaking, the episode is nicely structured so that flashbacks and current time fit together properly and smoothly. Also lending a helping hand is a poignant score by Dennis McCarthy—one of his best in a long time—which often sets an appropriately dark mood. But the overwhelming reason "Hard Time" is a winner is because of its human and emotional qualities wrapped up in a positively gripping hour.

I have only one worry about the outcome of this episode, and I worry because I've seen it happen all too many times on TNG, DS9, and Voyager: I worry that next week we may see no evidence of O'Brien's experience, despite the fact that this type of experience should noticeably change his personality. If O'Brien is walking around next week as if nothing has happened, I will not buy it, and I will not be pleased. Still, in such a case that would be a fault of the series in general, definitely not the fault of "Hard Time."

Previous episode: Rules of Engagement
Next episode: Shattered Mirror

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33 comments on this review

Jakob M. Mokoru - Fri, Nov 9, 2007 - 4:54pm (USA Central)
Great episode - a shame that you've been right with your worries: Next episode we had "Dart throwing, Holosuite going" - O'Brien again!
Eddy - Wed, Jan 9, 2008 - 9:58pm (USA Central)
Definitely one of my favorite episodes in all of Trek.
Paul - Wed, Feb 27, 2008 - 12:51pm (USA Central)
Great episode. I always thought Picard needed similar reorienting after "The Inner Light"
Jake - Sat, Mar 1, 2008 - 12:17pm (USA Central)
Ummm..., didn't "The Inner Light" end with Picard reorienting himself in his quarters("I find I'm having to rediscover that this is truly my home.")?
AeC - Thu, May 22, 2008 - 9:23pm (USA Central)
I almost never hear any kudos for Craig Wasson's performance as Ee'char in this episode. Yes, it was a Colm Meaney vehicle and he gave us a tour de force, but Wasson's performance, though more understated, may have been its equal. It's not easy to play a serene character without making him a complete cypher, but Wasson did it, imbuing Ee-char with humor, patience, and, in the "real life" scenes on the station, an overwhelming concern and compassion, often with nothing more than his eyes, that was as wrenching as watching O'Brien slowly eating himself from the inside out. The character was almost a Bodhisattva, and Wasson played him as such perfectly.
Paul - Sat, May 24, 2008 - 6:25pm (USA Central)
Sure he did, but I meant more than a 2 minute reorienting, surely something like the experience Picard went through would take him a year to reaquaint himself with the matters at hand.
matt - Tue, Jun 24, 2008 - 5:59pm (USA Central)
one of my favorite episodes of trek for sure, good review
Jake - Tue, Sep 30, 2008 - 5:13pm (USA Central)
Then surely something like the experience O'Brien went through here would also take him a year to do some similar reaquainting with "the matters at hand."
Nic - Tue, Sep 15, 2009 - 9:13pm (USA Central)
Regarding your comments on "The Inner Light" (which probably applies to "Hard Time" as well), here's what Ron D. Moore said:

I've always felt that the experience in "Inner Light" would've been the most profound experience in Picard's life and changed him irrevocably. However, that wasn't our intention when we were creating the episode. We were after a good hour of TV, and the larger implications of how this would really screw somebody up didn't hit home with us until later (that's sometimes a danger in TV – you're so focused on just getting the show produced every week that sometimes you suffer from the "can't see the forest for the trees" syndrome). We never intended the show to completely upend his character and force a radical change in the series, so we contented ourselves with a single follow-up in "Lessons".

Good episode, but I thought the 'distressed person tries to commit suicide and is talked out of it by a friend' was a little cliché. The other thing that bothers me (and again, not a problem with the episode itself, but with the series as a whole) is that just a few episodes ago in "Sons of Mogh" Bashir easily erases a Klingon's memory because he was suicidal, but here he excludes that option almost immediately. I think I would prefer to lose all my meories than to remember 20 years of torture in prison.
Firestone - Sun, Dec 27, 2009 - 4:08am (USA Central)
Although it was a good episode with a strong performance, I found the premise of a 20 year imprisonment a little to much to make for a truly believable story. The O'Brien after it would never be the same again. They should have made it much shorter, say 4 or 5 years. Granted, not all the behaviour seen in this episode would occur after 'only' 5 years, but it would be just enough not to mentally wreck him.
Nic - Tue, Apr 27, 2010 - 2:40pm (USA Central)
I complete agree with you, Firestone. Maybe 6 years would have been ideal.
Elliott - Sun, Dec 26, 2010 - 2:27am (USA Central)
This episode is a masterful display of deception. It appears to be about O'Brien and his ordeal, but really nothing about it makes much sense. As some of the other commentators have pointed out, the sentence of 20 years is unbelievable. Such a length would have made Miles insane without question, in which case his murder of Ee'Char would have been the result of his finally having lost his humanity--his EVOLVED humanity.

But no, this is really an episode sticking its middle finger up at Gene Roddenberry...again. We are told that in school, Federation teachers tell students that humanity is super awesome and doesn't ever succumb to rage or hatred. What? Nothing about that is what the Star Trek premise is about--humanity experiences the same emotions as it ever has or will--as cavemen did, as they did during the crusades, during our time and the future--but the "evolved" part is about the society we create, not our feelings. That such an arduous torture caused Miles to loose the humanity he had been taught is not a comment on the flimsiness of the premise at all; he was TORTURED, he went insane after 20 years of it. Geesh.

There were a number of very tender and poignant moments in the episode, especially the very quiet responses of Bashir and Odo, but the ending felt ridiculous; if we are to accept this story as being true, Miles must either abandon his old life or kill himself (abandon it all together). Julian's little pep talk in the cargo bay is not enough to evoke the kind of healing Miles would need to even begin a journey to normalcy.

In VOY season 3, Kes is forced to endure a different kind of trauma; at the end, Tuvok tells her she will never be the same, and sure enough Lien's portrayal after this episode is noticeably different from before even though the scripts thereafter never mention the actual events of the episodes. THAT's continuity, that's character development. I'm sick and tired of this show's fans claiming that rehashing past events constitutes good story telling.
Keleigh - Tue, Jan 25, 2011 - 8:05pm (USA Central)
I was reminded of 'The Inner Light' of course, but also of the original series episode 'A Taste of Armageddon'. Like the war without mess in that episode, the Argrathi developed a way to mete out punishment with almost no cost to themselves. They can sentence a man to 20 years of psychological torture with no jails, guards, food, medical care or other support, and no need to look anyone in the eye and explain why this is happening to them. It all happens in an afternoon, with an 'outpatient procedure'. The wider ramifications for their society are left unexplored, but it's clear they have no compunction against meting out the most severe punishment for relatively minor infractions. This is why the 20 years that seems so 'cruel and unusual' to us seems trivial to them. There are always those in any society for whom no price is to high to pay to ensure their security. When that price is so low, a lot of people can be tempted to think that way.
jon - Thu, Jan 27, 2011 - 6:46pm (USA Central)
Elliot why do yoy make a tin god of Gene Roddenberry OK how does Voyager honour Gene Roddenberry then
Justin - Mon, Apr 23, 2012 - 1:08pm (USA Central)
Elliott, the only deception here is your attempt at crafting yourself as an objective viewer. You're not. At all. Nearly everything you post about the show is reactionary and colored by your arrogant preconceptions of what a Star Trek show *should* be.

You took what most people here agree is an excellent hour of television and reduced it to a collective "Screw You, Gene Roddenberry" by the writers. Honestly, how dare you? Many of the DS9 writing staff worked with Gene Roddenberry. They knew Gene Roddenberry. Gene Roddenberry was a friend of theirs. Elliott, you're no Gene Roddenberry.
Elliott - Mon, Apr 23, 2012 - 6:10pm (USA Central)
@Justin:

The show did not have to bring up the values O'Brien was taught in grammar school in order to show a very moving and personal hour of television, which for the most part this is.

I don't know what else to use as evidence of this other that what is said in the episode; Federation children are taught that modern humans don't succumb to hatred or rage. This is just stupid. When has this been true? It SOUNDS sort of like something that might fit in with a society which vaunts its own peaceful values, which the Federation does, but when you take an opposing argument and reduce it to childish dribble like that, your counterargument is virtually meaningless. That's par for the course in this series.

There are also, some evident flaws in the episode which have nothing to do with philosophy or Gene Roddenberry--like the pep-talk I mentioned.

Overall, it's a pretty darn good episode with some flaws and one hugely offensive and stupid philosophical counterargument to what I attribute, out of convenience, solely to Gene Roddenberry, but which has grown up in the hands of many others. Who his friends and coworkers were is not particularly relevant. He made no attempts to be ambiguous with his beliefs or his axioms for Trek.
Latex Zebra - Wed, May 23, 2012 - 8:46am (USA Central)
You've got to love a good contrarian.
Duge - Thu, May 24, 2012 - 9:55am (USA Central)
It probably wasn't supposed to be the point of the ep but it would have been nice to understand a little more about what O'Brien did to warrant such a punishment and,more importantly, why the Feds would not have been able to get the Agrathi to reverse the procedure. Seems like there should have been an extradition hearing before his mind was messed with in the first place too. No Fed recriminations for what the Agrathi did to one of its officers? However, substance-wise the ep made for a good dramatic ep.
Gaius Maximus - Sat, Jul 21, 2012 - 9:59pm (USA Central)
This episode really does feel to me like a dystopian counterpart to "The Inner Light," but to me it's just way too depressing. It's not one I enjoy seeing come round when I rewatch DS9. Although Meany certainly does an excellent job, and I really like Siddig's performance as well, seeing O'Brien and his family suffer is just too grueling an experience for me. The message of the show seems to me to be that 20 years of brutal imprisonment will really mess a guy up, and I didn't need 40 minutes of show to tell me that. The journey is painful and the destination seems obvious, so I can't say that I see much good in the episode.
ian - Tue, Jul 24, 2012 - 1:44am (USA Central)
Where is Mr. Spock and his "forget," when you need it?

All in all A rather useless, pointless episode...
...I seem to recall...
Cindi - Mon, Aug 13, 2012 - 4:10am (USA Central)
Another Inner Light-like episode but I dunno...I tend to agree with Gaius Maximus - "The message of the show seems to me to be that 20 years of brutal imprisonment will really mess a guy up, and I didn't need 40 minutes of show to tell me that."

Personally I didn't mind that much the depresiveness. Much of DS9 is dark and depressing and I like it. The biggest problem for me was that the episode is so damn obvious and therefore boring. First few minutes are intriguing but then you have pretty good idea what's gonna happen. Sure, you don't know how precisely would O'Brien's mental condition manifest itself but it's clear that he'll be confused and his family will be hurting. The rest is just like an illustration of the book you've already read.
John - Fri, Aug 24, 2012 - 10:01am (USA Central)
Brilliant idea, brilliant execution.

And a brilliant use of Science Fiction: How many shows can take a character you've come to care about, put him through such a profound experience and still resonate and ring true?

Definitely one of the best of series. Hats off to the writers and Colm Meaney in particular.

Oh and good review Jammer.
Jack - Sat, Dec 22, 2012 - 12:31pm (USA Central)
A decent episode, but I spent the whole time thinking "why is the crew allowing O'Brien to suffer like this when they could perform Pulaski's mindwipe on him...surely Bashir could pull it off. The actual answer, of course, is that it would remove the entire point of the episode, but I can't give 4 stars to episodes that violates canon like that...
Nick P. - Wed, Mar 27, 2013 - 11:46pm (USA Central)
1st off, don't know if I agree with Elliot even though I want too. Yes, there was the whole "losing my humanity" crap, but at the end of the day, he killed a fake person, and one implanted by the program for a purpose. At least that is the way I took it. If an alien forces you to kill a fake person in your mind, I have a hard time arguing humanity is still "barbaric". In fact, I think Gene would have LOVED this episode. Which brings up my second point....

I get so sick of the peace-nik federation sometimes. So these aliens kidnap a starfleet officer for nothing, mind-rape him, almost destroy his career and life with NO apology, and the federation does what.......NOTHING. F-that. this is why I sometimes prefer original Star Trek. Hell, the Talosians did that to Pike for 2 days and they quarantined the quadrant!!!!!

3rd, I also am bothered by the fact they couldn't mind-wipe Obrian, when we have seen it at least 10 times in Star Trek.

That all being said, those are conceits you must accept as the audience, and if you can accept them, which I do, the episode is truly marvelous and thought-provoking! 4 stars!
Sintek - Sat, May 18, 2013 - 1:55pm (USA Central)
It was nice of the Agrathi to give Miles Bill Maher as a cellmate.

An all-around superb episode that is engrossing for the entire 45 minutes.
chrispaps - Tue, Jul 9, 2013 - 7:52am (USA Central)
Just watched this again. Its now more than 7 years since this was originally aired (!) and it is still as powerful and brilliant as ever. A true classic. I thought Craig Wasson as Ee'Char was also brilliant.
eastwest101 - Sun, Oct 6, 2013 - 5:32pm (USA Central)
Just saw it recently and still stands up as a very strong episode, the musical score in particular was brilliant.
Kotas - Wed, Oct 23, 2013 - 6:08pm (USA Central)

Leave it to O'Brien to give us another good ep.

7/10
Dusty - Mon, Feb 17, 2014 - 5:41am (USA Central)
There's no question that Colm Meaney can give a wonderful performance. My question going in was, why did this all happen?

The first thing I feel is anger and dismay over what happened to O'Brien--he was punished with 20 years of simulated prison time for a crime he didn't even commit? And the Argrathi didn't even tell DS9 until after they carried out his sentence? I wish that had been explained. (Also, Bashir could selectively erase Kurn's memories in 'Sons of Mogh', but not O'Brien's?) Then I just feel sorry for him, and intrigued by him repeating old habits from prison in order to function. It was kind of a guilty pleasure when he told off Bashir, even though he obviously wasn't himself.

O'Brien's revelation at the end is harrowing, and contradictory to Roddenberry's vision in a big way, but that doesn't bother me. Thanks to Bashir, O'Brien doesn't let the experience destroy him and begins to move on. A stunning episode with the most moving plot since 'The Visitor'.
Vylora - Mon, Feb 24, 2014 - 9:02pm (USA Central)
A comment on an earlier post - I don't think the Federation just sat by and 'did nothing' after what the Agrathi did to O'brien. It was never implied one way or the other what may have transpired between the two governments after the fact. And within the context of the story being told here it is unimportant. I feel, in my opinion, that any screen time being devoted to that particular thread would have greatly detracted from an otherwise riveting episode. The Agrathi plot point was simply the how and why of it all and is all that is needed.

This episode also brings up the memory-wipe option. I do not remember if it's a complete wipe only or if you can pick and choose memories to wipe. This episode states the former yes but I'm not sure if that's been contradicted in earlier episodes. If it's the case that only the whole memory can be wiped, then I can see that it not being an attractive option despite what he went through. Then it becomes an added internal struggle of: Do I erase my whole life as I've lived it (wife, kids, career, friends) to rid myself of the time in prison or do I end it altogether (suicide)? Being intensely emotionally distraught I'm sure compounds matters even further.

What happened in "Sons of Mogh" was unfortunate the way it was handled at the end. It is further unfortunate because I understand how it can cloud the viewpoint on that aspect of this episode. They were completely different circumstances, nevertheless, and as I posted in that thread I really wish it was at least implied Kurn had a say in the matter.

Anyway, another great review and a classic episode.

4 stars.
Eric - Mon, May 26, 2014 - 3:36pm (USA Central)
Bashir explains in the episode why he can't erase his memories. It has to do with the way the memories were formed - through a compressed simulation - they're harder to pinpoint and erase than memories that occurred naturally. That's good enough of an explanation for me.
Nonya - Wed, Jun 25, 2014 - 12:35am (USA Central)
I don't like this episode at all. I don't like the idea of O'Brien being forever scarred, despite not doing anything worthy of that scarring. I don't like the melodramatic pandering. And I certainly don't like that nothing much happens besides scribbling in the dirt.

This episode is an exercise in emotional indulgence, all with no point.
Elliott - Wed, Jun 25, 2014 - 12:48am (USA Central)
@Nonya :

I get on DS9's case all the time for its Trek apologism and a few other annoyances, but even I am a little dismayed that you don't seem to like any of it--are there episodes of this or other Trek series you do like? I'm curious to know what your cup of tea is.

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