the story: O'Brien starts to suspect a massive conspiracy has been woven against him.
what it's all about: This has long been one of my favorite episodes of the whole franchise, on the basis of its cleverness alone. That and the fact that it's one of O'Brien's best episodes (which tend to be among the best of the franchise, too).
The whole thing is a mystery, and yes, you find out what's really going on at the end, and yes, it absolutely delivers, in a way that surpasses any other Star Trek mystery you could think of, because suddenly everything makes perfect sense without even needing to be explained at any great length. In the meantime, however, "Whispers" also functions as one of those quintessential O'Brien-is-having-a-hard-time episodes. You'd think, because he technically just had one of those (with Bashir) in the previous episode ("Armageddon Game"), the impact might be dulled. But this was a character who thrived on having miserable experiences (there's another near the end of the season!).
At heart, O'Brien was one of the most relatable characters in the franchise, which is why this sort of thing was so easy to pull off. It's not so hard to imagine things going wrong in your life, is it? O'Brien was known for being humble (eventually retconned to be one of the few crewmen, which is to say he enlisted Starfleet, to be regularly featured, which is why in Deep Space Nine he's referred to as "Chief" rather than by rank).
So anyway, for the majority of this episode he's faced with, yes, a massive conspiracy that just seems to get deeper and deeper, so that he can't even trust his own wife Keiko. The clever thing about this is that it may be the first time in the season Sisko is portrayed in a way that truly flatters him. There were moments when even Picard was less than fair, at least apparently, to his crew, when otherwise he was presented as the consummate professional. But here's Sisko being the most professional of anyone aboard the station, not only as he should be, but in a way that is totally in-character for him, certainly as he was originally depicted, someone who came to the station just to do a job, who has yet to find a real reason to care, but who nonetheless performs his duties impeccably and with remarkable compassion. The same goes with O'Brien in this case, even though O'Brien eventually sees through it. (In a lot of ways, Sisko's first few seasons saw him behave in exactly the way management in the real world was to start performing thanks extensive corporate training, although never as well as he did, but then Sisko had the benefit of being a fictional character.)
I'd rank "Whispers" with the likes of Next Generation's "Conundrum," an unexpectedly stellar experience that seems to have nothing much to say, just excellent storytelling behind it, the kind of sci-fi Star Trek often aspires to but doesn't really nail as often as you'd think.
- franchise - Can easily be held up as exemplary of Star Trek storytelling.
- series - By exploring O'Brien's plight you get a window into the whole series.
- character - But this is certainly an O'Brien showcase.
- essential - A typically great one.
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Hana Hatae (Molly)