Miles and Keiko O'Brien's vacation is interrupted when the Cardassians arrest O'Brien from his Runabout and throw him in a cell—following a brutal prisoner processing procedure. They offer him no explanation of the charges against him; they simply leave him confined to a cell for days, awaiting his trial.
This episode depicting the Cardassian legal system has shades of Orwell and 1984 everywhere. The themes running through "Tribunal" are less than subtle, but effective nonetheless. They show a man's futile plight in a society that has already sealed his fate. The Cardassians tell O'Brien that his guilt has already been determined; the trial is merely a display for the public's benefit. The notion that the trial system has been designed strictly to give the public the feeling that "justice is being served"—even in the face of blatantly false accusations—is a chilling prospect.
O'Brien's frustration is completely understandable, as is Odo's, who takes advantage of his membership to the Cardassian court by getting himself appointed as O'Brien's legal advisor. The dark lighting and decidedly Orwellian images (the high architecture of the trial room and large public viewscreens) supply the episode with large and intense visual splendor. Particularly intense is the aforementioned surreal "processing" scene, which highlights Avery Brooks' effectiveness in his freshman directing turn on DS9.
Colm Meaney delivers another strong performance, particularly in a standout scene between him and Constable Odo. Surprisingly, a few moments of unexpected humor finds its way into the darkness of the trial when Kovat, O'Brien's Cardassian defense attorney (Fritz Weaver), exhibits an ironic role of uselessness to the client but dedicated service to the state. Neat. The overall impact of the episode is blunted, unfortunately, by a rather convenient and ineffective deus ex machina ending, but the imagery and dramatic undercurrents of the Cardassian legal proceedings are far too strong to be undermined.
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