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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Rules Of Engagement”/“Hard Time”

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Rules Of Engagement”/“Hard Time”

“Rules Of Engagement” (season four, episode 17; originally aired 4/8/1996)

In which Worf must learn a little something about himself…

The theme this week: lies that tells us the truth about ourselves. (Hey, isn’t that all fiction?) The Klingon Empire tries to frame Worf from the destruction of a civilian Klingon transport ship in the middle of a battle; an alien race arrests O’Brien on charges of espionage, and throws him in a mental jail for 20 years—only, when upon his release, he finds hardly any time at all has passed in the real world. In both cases, no external harm is done. Worf didn’t actually kill innocents, and, as far as everyone around him is concerned, O’Brien has only been gone for a couple days. But both these illusions reveal fundamental facts about both men’s characters, in not particularly flattering ways. Television shows are often criticized for suggesting changes to the status quo before quickly walking them back; we’ve all watched episodes in which some major character is supposed to leave forever, but doesn’t, or else people confront their feelings but find a reset button before the situation gets too serious. Technically, that’s what happens in “Rules Of Engagement” and “Hard Time,” but in each case, the lack of substantial change is built into the premise. For Worf and O’Brien, having to continue on the way things were, despite what they’ve learned about themselves, is a special kind of hell.

To be fair, Worf deserves some of what he’s getting. He starts this week in a cell in Odo’s jail, dreaming about dead children and waiting for his hearing to begin later that day. While escorting a medical convoy to a Cardassian outpost, the Defiant (with Worf in command) is attacked by two Birds of Prey. The Defiant engages the enemy, there’s the usual chaos, and when fighting is at its most heated, Worf orders phaser fire on what turns out be a Klingon transport ship, destroying it and killing everyone on-board. Now the Empire wants Worf extradited to the home world, where he can be tried for his crimes. They have an ulterior motive as well. As Ch’Pok, the prosecutor (a terrific Ron Canada), explains to Sisko, the Empire hopes to leverage some sympathy for their cause by convicting Worf, and by the extension the Federation, of a despicable act of bloodlust. The outcry would allow the Klingons some breathing room to expand their efforts to annex more Cardassian space. In fact, Worf’s crime seems almost designed to generate the most horror—given his race, and his role as an outsider, he’s a perfect suspect, and the idea that he might have let his blood-lust and fury cloud his judgment casts doubt on his honor, and by extension, the honor of Starfleet.

It’s no surprise that all of this turns out to be a ruse. That’s the least interesting part of the episode, really; it’s fun to imagine Odo running between his Klingon contacts asking questions, and satisfying to have the whole mystery come out. (Although the Klingons did make themselves fairly easy to track in this case.) Plus, given the improbability of a transport ship just happening to wander into battle fully cloaked and then de-cloaking at the worst possible moment, as well as the fact the show wasn’t about to give Worf up on something as ignoble as this, some sort of explanation for the events was necessary, and it had to be more than simple bad luck. The whole thing is fishy from the start, too inconvenient for our heroes, and far too convenient for their enemies, but there’s always a minor sigh of frustration when guilt is wiped away this cleanly. Worf didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve it, it turns out, so everything’s fine, let’s have a party and move on with our lives.

Except everything isn’t fine, and that’s where “Rules Of Engagement” gets interesting. It’s a well-made episode from the start, as the in media res cold open shoves us into events post-catastrophe; the script (Ron Moore is credited with the teleplay, based on a story by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson) cleverly finds ways to fill us in on what happened, primarily through the testimony delivered at Worf’s hearing. Instead of cutting between the witness describing the scene, and the flashback he or she is recalling, the testimony is inserted into the glimpses of the past themselves, meaning that O’Brien might turn to the camera while aboard the Defiant to answer one of Ch’Pok’s off-screen questions. It’s a device that’s a little distracting at first, but it’s used well (and we get a decent joke with it from Quark), getting around the usual static of interrogations and helping to hold our attention for information which, to be honest, isn’t always fresh. Ch’Pok builds his case slowly, carefully, but while it’s important for us to see him getting the answers he wants, as pure exposition, there’s a certain superfluity in being reminded that Dax and Worf like to fight in a holosuite, or that Worf is eager to face battle. That’s why the device of commentary-in-flashback is useful; it makes events which are otherwise static more fresh and exciting.

Still, that wouldn’t have much value if the episode didn’t have ambitions beyond simply putting a cast member in the hot spot for an hour before releasing them. Thankfully, it does. Worf is the one literally on trial here, but he’s on figurative trial as well, and while he manages to escape getting sent back to Gowron’s tender mercies, he still can’t avoid the simple fact that Ch’Pok was right. That’s the twist that elevates this episode from a decent courtroom drama to something more complex and affecting: yet another stage in the ongoing story of Worf Being Groomed For Command.


The challenge with trial episodes is making sure the accused is the focus of attention, even while they usually spend most of the hour staring stoically at the back wall. Deep Space Nine has failed at this sort of thing before, but “Rules Of Engagement” manages to keep Worf at the center of our attention even when he isn’t speaking. Usually when an opponent (i.e. the bad guy) casts aspersions against the hero, those aspersions are overly harsh, or flat-out untrue. But while Ch’Pok is obviously casting Worf in a more villainous light than he deserves, the idea that our favorite Klingon exile is still smarting at what his righteous choices have cost isn’t too far from the truth. As Worf himself admits in the final scene, he wasn’t eager to kill innocent civilians, but he was hoping to run into a Bird of Prey or two to get some revenge. Ch’Pok obviously realizes this, and is able to use the knowledge to goad Worf into attacking him on the stand. The fact of the matter is, while the situation was improbable and the casualties faked (all the names, including the flight crew, were taken from a Klingon transport that crashed four months ago, which is not the best way to manage a cover-up, but I digress), Worf still ordered the shot. However the case goes, he’s guilty, and he knows it.

This leads to a great final conversation between Sisko and Worf on the Defiant. The rest of the crew is throwing a party to celebrate Worf’s acquittal, and Sisko wants Worf in Quark’s, celebrating with the others. Worf, unsurprisingly, does not want to celebrate, and when Sisko asks him why, he explains that he’s still troubled by what happened, even if it wasn’t exactly what it appeared. What I love about this moment is how Sisko shifts from friendly to furious in the space of a second or two, and how that fury is so obviously controlled; the captain was waiting to see if Worf would recognize his mistake, and once Worf does, Sisko gives him the lecture he’s been holding back the whole trial. Worf needs to hear what Sisko tells him, but only if he came to that understanding on his own terms, only if he himself realized his mistake. So Sisko isn’t angry just to be angry. It’s about making sure the lesson lands. That sense of progress, of recognizing failures and working to overcome them, is something this show does very well.


Stray observations:

  • Brooks makes an excellent advocate. His sparring with Ch’Pok is a pleasure to watch throughout, especially in their final confrontation. “Tell me, Advocate—isn’t it possible?”
  • While their relationship has happened almost entirely in the background, I was disturbed to see Bashir flirting with a Dabo girl who wasn’t Leeta in Quark’s testimony. But it turned out Quark was misremembering, and it was Morn (Morn!), not Julian.
  • Ch’Pok makes it clear to Sisko early on that Worf’s guilt isn’t really the issue here. This creates a fascinating dynamic, in that the obvious threat (i.e. will the Klingons win?) is the one that takes all of our initial attention, while Worf’s actual motives only become important as the story goes on. It’s natural to assume that Worf isn’t at fault, because the crime is so heinous, but the script manages to have its cake and eat it too; Worf stays on the station, his character isn’t tarnished, but he’s still at fault. Fun stuff.
  • “I’m always suspicious of people who are eager to help a police officer.”—Odo, who is the best
  • “Part of being captain is knowing when to smile.”—Sisko, giving hard truths
  • “Life is a great deal more complicated in this red uniform.”—Worf, grasping hard truths

“Hard Time” (season four, episode 18; originally aired 4/15/1996)

In which O’Brien comes home…

The lie we tell ourselves is that we can’t be broken; that we’re strong, and that strength somehow matters. Or even if we don’t have what it takes, even if our soft lives and selfishness makes us vulnerable to torture and worse, there are men and women who could endure any torment without losing their humanity. We treat civilization as an unshakable fact, as though decency and kindness and compassion were a kind of constant energy, an unbreakable flow; as though being a good person was a choice made years ago which we never need revisit. But the truth is, we are imperfect. Bones break, and so do spirits, and if there’s one fact we could all stand to internalize, it’s this: everything fails. Apply enough pressure, and the most steadfast heart will skip a beat. It’s not even that difficult. All you need is a basic knowledge of the human condition, and time.


Time is what Miles O’Brien is saddled with in this episode, the latest in the ongoing series of “Dear God, I’m glad I’m not him” storylines. After asking a few too many questions about Argrathi technology, O’Brien is arrested and convicted of espionage; before anyone can arrive to rescue him, he’s already served his sentence. The Argrathi have a marvelous piece of tech that allows them to simulate the passage of years in a subject’s mind, even while only moments pass in reality. So the Chief serves a 20-year sentence, locked in a cell, starved half to death, growing some really frightening Santa hair, but upon release, he finds Kira sitting next him, not aged a day, trying to explain. All of this happens in the cold open, more or less. We learn details about O’Brien’s supposed crime later, but they aren’t really important. Unlike Worf, questions of guilt or innocence are irrelevant. (Well, at least in regard to the specific charges the Argrathi used to justify the punishment.) What matters is that O’Brien has been away for what seems like to him a very long time; Bashir can’t clear these new memories away; and now the Chief has to re-integrate back into his “old” life. It doesn’t go smoothly.

This is a terrific episode, serving as both a dark companion piece to “The Inner Light,” and a more subtle, but still effective way to deal with issues raised in“Chain Of Command, Part 2.” But even before you get to the meat of what makes it so affecting, you have to marvel at its structure. The script (by Robert Hewitt Wolfe, from a story by Daniel Keys Moran and Lynn Barker) doesn’t give us any more information than what we need to know to establish O’Brien’s suffering. We don’t know anything about Argrathi culture—so far as I can tell, it’s a race that’s never been mentioned before, and will never be mentioned again. We don’t know exactly how they accomplished this implantation; we just know that, according to Bashir, the experience is designed in such a way as to be impossible to remove without erasing O’Brien’s entire brain. We don’t even know much about the process itself. Did O’Brien know the sentence would only be in his head? I’m guessing no, but I don’t think he confirms either way. How specific was the program tailored to his psychological make-up? And, in purely speculative terms, what effect would a device like this have on a culture at large? Is this punishment more or less humane than actual jail time? (I’m also imagining there must be Argrathi who use more positive versions of the device to extend their lives considerably.)


That’s all fun to think about, but in context of the episode, what really matters are the difficulties O’Brien faces in trying to return to his job and his family, and the secret of what really happened in all that time inside his head. Both of these threads are compelling, and both show what happens when DS9 decides to become truly dark, taking one of its most dependable, loveable characters (is there anyone on-board more good-natured, straightforward, and even-tempered than O’Brien? Morn, maybe, but he never has lines) and putting him through the ringer until what comes out the other end is barely recognizable. And while we understand intellectually the scope of O’Brien’s experience, it’s difficult to relate to in a way that only enhances the tension. We don’t know what he’s capable of now, and we don’t know exactly what happened during his time in prison. He tells Julian that he was alone in his cell, but in his flashbacks, we see he has a cellmate: Ee’Char (played by Craig Wasson, who you might remember as the schmuck “hero” of Body Double; he’s quite good in this), a patient, warm, and seemingly unflappable prisoner who teaches O’Brien the ropes of stashing food and keeping himself sane via sand-drawing. Ee’Char is so clearly kind and decent that you wonder why O’Brien is keeping him secret. You wonder who betrayed whom. And while that’s going on, in the present, O’Brien is snapping at his co-workers, fighting with his best friend, and yelling at his daughter.

That last part is the hardest to take. By now, we’ve been conditioned by various grim dramas to know what child abuse looks like on screen, but the way O’Brien stands up shouting at Molly, and for half a second you think he might hit her, is still shocking. There has never been an indication that O’Brien had ever even considered violence against his daughter or his wife. We’ve barely seen him show his temper. He’s been irritated, yes, and often frustrated, but irrational, out-of-control fury is a new look, and it doesn’t suit him. What makes it even more effective is that, for all the cynicism DS9 has entertained in the past, it’s never questioned the fundamental warmth of its ensemble. Even Quark will only go so far, even he has a heart under all that greed. And yet here is a good man suddenly twisted and hateful almost beyond recognition. I realize I’ve overused the word “dark” in these reviews (it’s far too easy for me to riff off of some imaginary, assumed fan criticism), but this is dark. This is sad and tragic and fucked up, and the worst part is, it begins where most stories end: O’Brien is rescued from danger at the start of the episode. The crisis is seemingly in the past. Yet things keep getting worse.


And they have to get even worse than that before they’ll improve. As if the Molly incident wasn’t harsh enough, O’Brien, realizing how far he’s sunk, goes into one of the store rooms, wrecks up the place, and then points a phaser at his throat on maximum setting. Have we seen a Star Trek character without a terminal illness threaten suicide before? (Apart from Worf and his broken back?) It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be completely out of place on the original series, where everyone on the Enterprise was always getting up to desperate shenanigans, but not on DS9. Bashir stops him just in time, but the idea that things had gotten so far out of hand, that someone who hadn’t done anything wrong, and who had always been as strong and reliable as anybody, could be driven to such an awful place, is deeply upsetting. But it’s upsetting for an important reason, the reason that makes this hour more than just another sci-fi brain trip. There is a fundamental truth in all of this that we don’t often see in fiction.

Pushed beyond endurance, haunted by the ghost of his former cellmate, O’Brien finally tells Bashir the truth. He said he was alone, but he was only alone for the last week or two of his sentence; until then, he had Ee’Char. And Ee’Char kept him sane, mostly, and Ee’Char was always supportive and thoughtful and good. Until the food started to run out, and O’Brien saw his friend going for a secret stash; thinking Ee’Char was betraying him, O’Brien snapped and killed his cellmate. Then he discovered that Ee’Char had actually saved up enough food for both of them. O’Brien killed his only friend for no reason.


I’ve been trying to decide where Ee’Char came from. The one who appears to O’Brien on DS9 is obviously a figment of the Chief’s imagination; he says so, and everything he does is designed to help O’Brien on the path to mental health. But the one in the cell? Maybe O’Brien’s mind, revolting at the thought of solitary confinement, created a companion. But I don’t think so. I think Ee’Char is part of the program specifically designed to break O’Brien. This seems counterintuitive at first, given how helpful and useful this imaginary best friend is, but have you ever spent time without someone who you know is better than you? Not more talented or more attractive, but fundamentally better, more decent, more noble, more giving and helpful. You love them, but the more time you’re stuck with them, the more you start to hate, because you can’t live up to their standard. You can’t be perfect all the time. You can’t always say the right thing, you can’t maintain perfect composure, and so you start to resent someone who can. Ee’Char is far too perfect to be real, and O’Brien spent two decades in a cell with him. He was incredibly grateful, I’m sure, but the rage must’ve built over time. And when finally something bad happened, when the program pushed the right buttons and all of O’Brien’s goodness was stripped away, that rage came out; and after, all he had was the knowledge that he’d murdered someone who never wished him any harm.

The reason all of this makes me think of “Chain Of Command, Part 2” is because this is just another kind of torture, and as with that earlier episode, the moral is the same: everyone breaks. In the end, O’Brien makes his confession and Bashir absolves him, and points out that 20 years is a long damn time to exist under anyone’s complete control. Because this is a TV show, O’Brien will be back next week, and he’ll be basically fine, and that’s okay. The final scene of him coming back home, and his daughter running to him and giving him a hug, helps put us back on even footing; while it might have been more realistic to have the Chief spend the next few years in intensive therapy, living alone and drinking himself to sleep every night, I’d much rather have the softer sell. But the truth remains. Our goodness is a promise we make to the world. It’s helpful to remember how fragile that promise can be.


Next week: We go back to the Mirror Universe in “Shattered Mirror,” and face the return of Lwaxana Troi in “The Muse.” So… yeah.