the story: O'Brien is sentenced by an alien culture to have a virtual memory implant of a quarter century prison sentence, which leaves him suicidal in the real world.
what it's all about: Let's-Torture-O'Brien was a favorite theme of not only Deep Space Nine but Next Generation, too. This is the ultimate Let's-Torture-O'Brien episode. As Colm Meaney gave the most relatable performances of any actor in the franchise, the sadistic rules of storytelling meant he'd be sympathetic enough to sell this concept over and over again. Starfleet personnel suffering unjustly under alien penal concepts is hardly a unique concept, but "Hard Time" brings the trope, and Let's-Torture-O'Brien, to truly epic proportions, thanks to Meaney's ability to sell the emotional damage and O'Brien's increasing isolation. In a lot of ways, it's a PTSD episode before "It's Only a Paper Moon" in the final season.
Because the fix was truly in, O'Brien's family, which had been absent for about a season's worth of material, was right there to experience the torture along with him, as is Bashir. The trauma they share this time, unlike "Hippocratic Oath" earlier in the season, occurs organically rather than as a random instance of their diverging thought processes. There's every justification for every creative decision in the episode, in other words, and it's as devastating to watch as it is for the character to endure. I can think of only one other episode in the franchise, Voyager's "Mortal Coil" (which centers on Neelix, of all characters, the Jar Jar Binks of Star Trek), that plumbs this existential depth, despite numerous other attempts, which I won't mention, at the same basic concept. This is the emotional maturity of Deep Space Nine at one of its highest points, a kind of mirror image of "The Visitor" earlier in the season.
"Hard Time" is also a kind of answer to the earlier "Whispers," in which O'Brien (or a replicant who thinks he's O'Brien) finds himself equally isolated, but so convinced he can gain control of the situation he never freaks out. Well, "Hard Time" is one long, fascinating freak-out. Think of Spock's bloodlust in "Amok Time," but without a cathartic fight ready to take it out of him, or a handy fake-out aided by a sneaky doctor friend. That's the big difference between the storytelling of Deep Space Nine and the rest of the franchise (other than another Voyager episode, "Latent Image"), that the characters never get easy solutions to their problems.
- franchise - Part of a long tradition of Starfleet officers suffering because of the decisions of an alien culture.
- series - As well as the running theme of throwing the worst at O'Brien in Deep Space Nine as well as Next Generation.
- character - Needless to say, is an important O'Brien experience.
- essential - It's kind of O'Brien's greatest traumas, and those of the other characters in this series, condensed into a nutshell.
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Hana Hatae (Molly)