In the nineteenth episode of the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, this is one of the most fucked up episodes of Star Trek ever. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of mental illness, incarceration, consent, nonconsensual medical procedures, PTSD, trauma, torture, unreality/gaslighting.
Good fucking god. I don’t even really know what to say about this episode. It’s a shocker, obviously, both in terms of how far the writers take this idea and in their decision not to magically cure O’Brien in the final moments. And you know, I guess I should start there, despite that it’s the end of the episode. Even though Deep Space Nine has been more than willing to toy with expectations, I still went into this believing that by the end of “Hard Time,” the writers would determine a method to cure O’Brien of what the Argrathi did to him.
Except they don’t, and it makes this whole episode sting so much more than I was ready for. To say this is an upsetting story is the understatement of the century. It’s so disturbing because it’s not a metaphorical representation for something that happens in the real world; it’s extremely literal. Yes, the impetus by which O’Brien experiences trauma is fictional, but at no point do the writers devise a way to suggest that what happened to him wasn’t real. It doesn’t matter if it was an implant; O’Brien’s PTSD is a real thing, his hallucinations are a real experience, and his guilt and shame over what he did in an imagined reality still matters.
That’s what makes this episode such a real and satisfying thing for me. I suppose it’s strange to say that watching someone’s suffering is satisfying, but it’s not because I enjoy that by itself. (This show really seems to torment O’Brien, doesn’t it?) There’s a validation achieved through “Hard Time” because this story is so respectful of the fact that for many people, there’s no “cure” to their PTSD or the trauma they went through. Maybe if I could actually do therapy, I might get closer to getting better, but the truth is that I’ve lived with PTSD for most of my life. There’s no easy solution for me, and thus, it’s easy for me to relate to an episode that tells me that this is okay.
Because while O’Brien has a difficult time assimilating back into life on DS9, at no point does this show say it’s impossible. It’s challenging, and that’s an important thing to acknowledge, too. O’Brien picked up habits from his “time” in prison that are going to be hard to break. (If he chooses to break them, of course.) He’s lost trust in other people, not because they did anything to hurt him, but because that’s been his default state for twenty years. That is often a very difficult thing to explain to people! I get why folks might be offended or hurt when interacting with me and I feel the need to pull away or set boundaries that make interactions complicated. Hell, it’s something I still cope with in my relationship, since I’m thorny about a whole host of issues surrounding the trauma I’ve been through. Asking someone to deal with your own trauma is a scary thing to do because… well, it didn’t happen to them. Trauma is so isolating and personal that once you add anyone else to the equation, there’s always that threat of pushing them away looming over every interaction.
That’s what I saw throughout this episode. O’Brien’s guilt over killing Ee’char consumed him, so much so that he devalued himself. His outbreaks aren’t him just lashing out at a frustrating, scary situation; they’re acts of self-sabotage. He truly believes that he does not deserve the friendship that Julian offers him. The same goes for Jadzia and Sisko and Quark, and especially for his own family. I don’t know if there is a specific term for this – I’m still learning about my own mental illness and how it manifests! – but it’s a distortion. O’Brien’s perception of reality was distorted by traumatic external forces, and then his mind continues that distortion when he looks upon other people. His whole reality has been molded into a new, unrecognizable shape, and it hurts. Badly.
Look, I’m sure there’s a lot more to this, and I am by no means an expert on any of this shit. But I appreciate that I can now point to an episode of Star Trek if I need to describe what an experience is like. I can say that my PTSD sometimes looks exactly like what happens to O’Brien in this episode. And if that helps me and other people understand the world a little better, then bless “Hard Time.” I certainly felt like the experience was worth it.
AND THEY DIDN’T MAGICALLY CURE HIM EITHER. I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE THIS.
The video for “Hard Time” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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