In the nineteenth episode of the fourth season ofÂ Deep Space Nine, this is one of the most fucked up episodes ofÂ Star TrekÂ ever. Intrigued? Then itâ€™s time for Mark to watchÂ Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of mental illness, incarceration, consent, nonconsensual medical procedures, PTSD, trauma, torture, unreality/gaslighting.
Good fucking god. I donâ€™t even really know what to say about this episode. Itâ€™s a shocker, obviously, both in terms of how far the writers take this ideaÂ andÂ in their decision not to magically cure Oâ€™Brien in the final moments. And you know, I guess I should start there, despite that itâ€™s the end of the episode. Even thoughÂ Deep Space NineÂ has been more than willing to toy with expectations, I still went into this believing that by the end of â€œHard Time,â€ the writers would determine a method to cure Oâ€™Brien of what the Argrathi did to him.
Except they donâ€™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. Itâ€™s so disturbing because itâ€™s not a metaphorical representation for something that happens in the real world; itâ€™s extremely literal. Yes, the impetus by which Oâ€™Brien experiences trauma is fictional, but at no point do the writers devise a way to suggest that what happened to him wasnâ€™t real. It doesnâ€™t matter if it was an implant; Oâ€™Brienâ€™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 stillÂ matters.
Thatâ€™s what makes this episode such a real and satisfying thing for me. I suppose itâ€™s strange to say that watching someoneâ€™s suffering is satisfying, but itâ€™s not because I enjoy that by itself. (This show really seems to torment Oâ€™Brien, doesnâ€™t it?) Thereâ€™s a validation achieved through â€œHard Timeâ€ because this story is so respectful of the fact that for many people, thereâ€™s no â€œcureâ€ 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 Iâ€™ve lived with PTSD for most of my life. Thereâ€™s no easy solution for me, and thus, itâ€™s easy for me to relate to an episode that tells me thatÂ this is okay.
Because while Oâ€™Brien has a difficult time assimilating back into life onÂ DS9, at no point does this show say itâ€™s impossible. Itâ€™s challenging, and thatâ€™s an important thing to acknowledge, too. Oâ€™Brien picked up habits from his â€œtimeâ€ in prison that are going to be hard to break. (If he chooses to break them, of course.) Heâ€™s lost trust in other people, not because they did anything to hurt him, but because thatâ€™s been his default state forÂ 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, itâ€™s something I still cope with in my relationship, since Iâ€™m thorny about a whole host of issues surrounding the trauma Iâ€™ve been through. Asking someone to deal with your own trauma is a scary thing to do becauseâ€¦ well, it didnâ€™t happen to them. Trauma is so isolating and personal that once you add anyone else to the equation, thereâ€™s always that threat of pushing them away looming over every interaction.
Thatâ€™s what I saw throughout this episode. Oâ€™Brienâ€™s guilt over killing Eeâ€™char consumed him, so much so that he devalued himself. His outbreaks arenâ€™t him just lashing out at a frustrating, scary situation; theyâ€™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, andÂ especiallyÂ for his own family. I donâ€™t know if there is a specific term for this â€“ Iâ€™mÂ stillÂ learning about my own mental illness and how it manifests! â€“ but itâ€™s a distortion. Oâ€™Brienâ€™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, Iâ€™m sure thereâ€™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 ofÂ Star TrekÂ if I need to describe what an experience is like. I can say that my PTSD sometimes looksÂ exactlyÂ like what happens to Oâ€™Brien in this episode. And if that helps me and other people understand the world a little better, then bless â€œHard Time.â€ I certainly felt like the experience was worth it.
AND THEY DIDNâ€™T MAGICALLY CURE HIM EITHER. I STILL CANâ€™T BELIEVE THIS.
The video for â€œHard Timeâ€ can be downloadedÂ here for $0.99.
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