Note: This episode was rerated from 3 to 2.5 stars when the season recap was written.
Nutshell: Not great, but nice, with some poignant little touches.
I'm beginning to wonder if the only time O'Brien gets the lead in stories anymore is when the writers want to torture him—as if a story break meeting for an O'Brien episode comes down to people asking each other, "Well, how would O'Brien react to this particular personal tragedy?"
Take this week's example, "Time's Orphan." Poor Miles, after nearly a year of being separated from his family because of the Dominion War, is finally reunited with his wife and two children, takes time out from his busy schedule to have a family picnic on a nearby planet ... only so his daughter can fall through a mysterious time portal and vanish before his eyes. She's transported 300 years back in time, and when Miles pulls her back with a complicated tech procedure, she's 18 years old (played by Michelle Krusiec), having been stranded in isolation for ten years.
So now O'Brien has been switched with a different version of himself in an alternate timeline (where he also saw the station destroyed), has suffered through memories of lengthy incarceration, has wrested through a high-pressure assignment while his wife was taken hostage by an evil entity, has been forced to send a family man not unlike himself to walk straight into his death ... and now faces the prospect of not being able to see his daughter grow up. And that's not all; because she has spent ten years in isolation, she has lost most of her language abilities and finds society completely foreign and ungraspable.
Do the writers give this guy a rough ride, or what?
O'Brien-torturing trends aside, "Time's Orphan" is in the tradition of using elaborate time-travel machinations to tell engaging human dramas. This episode isn't a standout example of this theme, but it's a reasonable story that benefits from some nice little touches.
I don't consider myself a social psychologist, but the premise seems believable enough on its terms. I honestly couldn't tell you if a 24th-century 8-year-old could learn to survive on her own with no resources, or if ten years of isolation would change a person in the ways it changes Molly in this story. For the purposes of the story as given, though, I have no problem accepting these given claims as realistic. It certainly seems sensible in context, so the sense that the O'Briens have their work cut out for them in bringing Molly back to society is a workable premise.
There are numerous scenes where Miles and Keiko try to get through to Molly, who simply doesn't understand. I wasn't exactly riveted by a lot of these scenes, but many of them struck me as genuine. The game with the balls showed patience, and the escape to the holodeck was plausible. And when things began to go wrong, the episode tuned into the O'Briens' desperation rather nicely. The eventual central problem—that Molly is far too difficult to control and must be institutionalized after she attacks a man in Quark's—isn't a big surprise, but is fully empathetic.
"Time's Orphan" also sports the first use of the A/B-story structure since "Change of Heart." The B-story—in which Worf babysits Kirayoshi—fits in with the episode's family-oriented theme with an amiable Dax/Worf yarn that toys with Worf's parenting abilities. Again, this was hardly standout material, but the presentation was amiable enough to make me care, and the story dodged enough clichés to keep it entertaining and rooted in believable characterization. It was good use of Worf and Dax in the lightweight sense, sort of like a lot of "Change of Heart." Dax's impression of Kirayoshi's "Gung! Gung! Gung!" was particularly cute.
But what the crux of the A-story really boils down to are a few interesting decisions made by the characters. First is O'Brien's plan to steal a Runabout and send Molly back through time to her home of ten years. Seeing characters forced with choices they would never want to make always makes me sit up and take notice (though I wonder if Miles would carry out such a plan without Keiko knowing about it, as he initially had planned to). Another good moment is Odo's decision to allow the O'Briens to steal the Runabout after they've been caught by security, which is done in a way that is perfectly in tune with Odo's personality and sly use of dialog.
The ending is a bit of a Catch-22—almost as if the episode wants to have its cake and eat it too. It allows the O'Briens to follow through with their agonizing decision, but then it also allows the episode to end happily and erase all consequences of this decision. It's a bit manipulative because the conveniences of the plot allow the various timelines to resolve themselves almost arbitrarily. Essentially, since the O'Briens manage to get lucky, they get their little Molly back without having to face any of the moral implications of willfully retrieving little Molly in exchange for erasing big Molly—an issue that seemed relevant earlier in the episode. This all feels more like a need to make the story end on a happy note than it seems like a genuine outcome of events. At the same time, having the O'Briens lose their daughter isn't exactly the way I wanted to see this episode unfold, either (just how much tragedy does one man have to endure?). Overall, the twist ending left me a bit skeptical.
On the other hand, this finale, even through the plot convenience, still hinges on two specific choices. The first is the aforementioned choice the O'Briens make in sending big Molly back "home." The second decision, however, is a little more interesting, because it's made by a character with motivations that are much more ambivalent—namely, big Molly herself. Just as O'Brien mused, I wonder if big Molly realized that she was sending little Molly home. I have a feeling she did, but I also wonder if she realized the sacrifice she was making.
Overall, I'm giving "Time's Orphan" a recommendation because it manages to keep its heart in the right place and is acted with sincerity (what more could you expect from Colm Meaney?). The episode also benefits from some nice little touches, like the striking similarity in the drawings of the picnic spot that each Molly renders—a poignant little detail. Still, there are better examples of timeline manipulation stories that put their central characters through emotional wringers (like "The Visitor," "Far Beyond the Stars," or "Things Past," for example). As for O'Brien, I think he has been tortured enough—and I think he has been tortured more effectively, too.