Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Season 4 Episode 19

Hard Time

Aired Weekdays 11:00 AM Apr 15, 1996 on Syndicado
out of 10
User Rating
156 votes

By Users

Episode Summary

Stardate: 49680.5 The Argrathi falsely accuses Miles O'Brien of espionage. His sentence is a brain implant which causes him to believe that he has served a 20 year prison sentence, including memories of his time served.

Watch Full Episode

Your Autoplay Preference: On | Off

Who was the Episode MVP ?

No results found.
No results found.
No results found.
  • One of DS9's Best

    This extraordinary O'Brien character piece serves as a dark mirror of sorts to TNG's "Inner Light", exploring such a powerful life-changing experience that it challenges the boundaries of conventional television.

    Like DS9's second season episode "Necessary Evil", it features a "Lost" like structure, alternating between the past and the present, with the twist (known in advance) being that the past never actually happened. Sticking to essentials, the episode doesn't waste time explaining how O'Brien was caught by the aliens, what he really did, or even who these aliens are. The story is instead about the aftermath, about Chief O'Brien attempting to rebuild his life while simultaneously harboring a dark secret. This effectively puts the episode on the shoulders Colm Meany (O'Brien) and lets him run the gamut of emotions. Whether confused, sad, angry, or frustrated, Meany is compelling, passionate, and believable, and turns this episode into his most memorable outing.

    Bill Maher impersonator Craig Wasson is nearly as good as O'Brien's fictitious friend Ee'Char, essentially playing the setup man, giving O'Brien something to work off of. Wasson plays a clich role: the friend who turns out to be imaginary in the end, but the beauty here is that instead of revealing this at the end as a sucker punch to the viewer, writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe makes no secret of Ee'Char's nature from the beginning. What's important isn't what we think of Ee'Char but what O'Brien thinks of him.

    Still, twenty years in a virtual prison seems a bit overboard. After all, the O'Brien is part of the future of the series, and the events of this episode would seem to have messed him up too drastically for the character we know and love to ever return. Perhaps ten years would have been better, particularly with starvation periods driving him mad. Either way, the idea of a "virtual experience" to punish criminals is a fascinating sci fi idea. It benefits the family of a criminal by not taking away their time with their loved one, it benefits society by avoiding the incarceration expenses of jails, guards, food, and medical care, and it can be argued that it benefits the punished as well. Best yet, there are no appeals to worry about, and nobody has to look the prisoner in the eye on a daily basis and see what is happening to him. But what is the end effect? That, of course, is what this episode is all about.

    Unfortunately, the DS9 writers do stick in a rebuttal of what they believe is Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek philosophy: O'Brien comments how he was taught that humanity had evolved and outgrown hate and rage, but he believes this might be wrong. In fact, the idea behind Star Trek has never been that our emotions change with successive generations; it's instead about how we mature as a society, and why punishments such as that in this episode are cruel and unneeded.

    But that's a minor quibble. "Hard Time" is a DS9 standout and one of the best dark Star Trek episodes ever.

  • Original story idea, but disappointingly underacted on the part of Colm Meaney.

    This episode in many ways reminded of "The Inner Light" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Picard lives about half a life time in a span of maybe an hour.

    The plots are similar, except in this case, O'Brian spends 20 years in prison. The sad part is you can't even begin to compare Meaney's performance with Stewart and that's what killed it for me.

    Imagine, you've spent 20 years in prison, only to awake and find out it was really only 20 minutes. You have your life back, just where you left it. That would have to be emotional whiplash. But you don't get that from Meaney. He seems a bit confused and surprised, but hardly emotional.

    But frame that against the scene in "The Inner Light" where Picard becomes aware that the last 30 odd years have only been an illusion. It damn near brought a tear to my eye.

    Maybe it's unfair to compare them, but if you're going to do storyline that similar, you can't help but draw comparisons and clearly Meaney just wasn't up to the performance.

    And it's even worse when he finally sees his wife after what, to him, has been twenty years. You'd think they hadn't seen each other for a couple weeks. Even a tough guy like O'Brian would probably shed a tear for that. But apparently not.

    Even some of the other characters' emotions were flat. Keiko chuckles and says, "What are you doing Miles?" when he starts putting food away in a napkin. Clearly a habit from his 20 years in prison. Hardly the act of caring and concerned wife.

    Had the emotion been there, like "The Inner Light", this could have been a "best of" episode. "The Inner Light," wasn't a great episode because of the story. It was the acting on the part of Stewart and Margot Rose. Meaney really had a chance to pull off a great performance like that and I think he's capable of it. For some reason, he simply chose not to invest the emotion into it. Instead of a great episode, we get a mediocre one.

  • O'Brien returns to DS9 after 20 years of "imprisonment" which in reality took place only in his mind. He has trouble readjusting to his old life; at first we think it's just the mental scars, but it turns out that he's keeping an even darker secret.moreless

    This episode starts out with a fascinating sci-fi premise -- O'Brien, accused of espionage, is released from prison after 20 years. Only it turns out that he didn't really serve the time; instead, it was "all in his head", a program induced by his captors. He experienced those 20 years, but nobody around him did.

    This is a similar starting point to the classic Next Generation episode "The Inner Light" -- a "lifetime spent in the blink of an eye" -- but it takes a completely different course. For much of the episode, the story deals with O'Brien's difficulty in readjusting to his old life. He no longer wants to play darts, feuds with his old friend Doctor Bashir, physically (and unjustifiably) attacks Quark, and yells at his younger daughter.

    This in itself is an interesting story (a sort of sci-fi "Shawshenk Redemption") and would have made a worthy episode, but the episode takes a great twist near the end. O'Brien prepares to end his own life before Bashir stops him. We think O'Brien's suicide attempt is driven by his frustrations at readjusting, but the truth is much more disturbing. Near the end of his "sentence" he committed a despicable act, all in his head and perhaps understandable given the circumstances. How can he live with himself, knowing what he did? (Even if it didn't REALLY happen.)

    The episode doesn't really answer that. Nevertheless, this was a very well written episode. Colm Meaney gave a great performance as the tormented O'Brien and Alexander Siddig did a very good job in a supporting role. His old friend from prison was somewhat annoying (perhaps an intentional plot device), but aside from that an excellent installment of this series.

    If you like "Hard Time", you may want to check out other "O'Brien gets screwed" episodes like "Tribunal" and the classic "Whispers".moreless
  • Season 4 gives us another emotional powerhouse of an episode after "The Visitor". It's also another great example of a really relevant science fiction story that delves into the human psyche in ways otherwise impossible.moreless

    I love watching these episodes on DVD, because I get to see real gems like this; episodes I was too young to appreciate back when they first aired.

    Like most true Star Trek classics (see "The Visitor" from this show -- this season, actually -- and "Cogenitor" from Enterprise), this one is rooted in a brilliant and original science fiction concept. As capital punishment, Chief O'Brien is sentenced to 20 years in a cell -- the twist is, it's not a real cell and not a real 20 years, but a psychological treatment that simulates this punishment.

    This alone raises many questions. Does it matter that these years never really happened if they had such profound impact on him? Does it matter that he killed an imaginary person while in this imaginary cell? Should he be held guilty for the fact that he theoretically would have done the same in real life? Is this punishment more or less cruel than actual jail time?

    But thankfully, the episode doesn't stop there. On top of that solid foundation of thought-provoking ideas is a deeply emotional story of a man trying to get on with his life while hiding what he's done. And it's so easy for him to hide what he's done because he didn't really do it. Perhaps that makes it even more torturous for him.

    This would all be for naught if the acting weren't superb, and thankfully, it is. Colm Meaney gives an Emmy-worthy performance, as does Alexander Siddig. Both performances are brilliantly understated and very real. O'Brien's suicide attempt is completely believable and provides a weighty climax to this dark, intense episode.

    Brilliant writing, believable acting, and a foundation of solid, well-developed characters make this a fine example of what Star Trek is all about. It's deeply sci-fi and deeply human.moreless
  • An underrated gem.

    O'Brien attempts to re-enter his former life after awakening from a 20-year simulated prison term.

    Launching off from a brilliant concept, this episode doesn't fail to deliver. "Hard Time" has been called DS9's answer to Star Trek: The Next Generation's classic episode "Inner Light" - a compliment to be sure, but one better applied to "The Visitor." Where those episodes were about experiencing a complete life and growing from the experience, "Hard Time" is about coming to terms with emotional and psychological scars, and attempting to reclaim a life that is no longer one's own.

    The episode is brilliantly written, following realistically the realities of what O'Brien would be faced with after such an experience, until its heartbreaking climax where we come to understand just how deep O'Brien's scars go. The flashbacks to his prison term seem a little cheesy at first, but we are quickly engrossed as we begin to glimpse the inevitable conclusion towards which they are driving. And at the end, O'Brien's breakthrough doesn't feel unlikely or oversimplified as in some of the other more psychological episodes of the series, but completely believable.

    Mention has to be made of Colm Meaney's performance: his best of the series. Here, Meaney has to play a man coming to terms not only with the horrors he has experienced, but also with the terrible ways in which they have changed him. Meaney's low-key performance truly makes us believe O'Brien is a different man: not one simply overwhelmed and enriched like Picard in "Inner Light," but one broken by the weight of his experience.

    In a way, this becomes one of the few shortcomings - not of the episode, but of the series as a whole. My thought midway through this episode was, "I can never look at O'Brien the same way again," so profound was the story. But in reality, unlike many of the serial-style episodes of DS9, "Hard Time" exists in something of a bubble: afterwards, O'Brien returns basically back to the man he was, with no further mention of his experience here or sign of the scars he must still carry.

    As a result, it's easy to forget about this episode, and to "look at O'Brien the same way again" after all - that may be why "Hard Time" is such an underappreciated part of Deep Space Nine. But I will always remember it for what it is: a true gem, and absolutely one of the best episodes of the series.moreless
Armin Shimerman

Armin Shimerman


Terry Farrell

Terry Farrell

Lt./Lt. Commander Jadzia Dax (Season 1-6)

Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn

Lt. Commander Worf (Season 4-7)

Rene Auberjonois

Rene Auberjonois

Constable Odo

Nana Visitor

Nana Visitor

Major/Colonel/Commander Kira Nerys

Avery Brooks

Avery Brooks

Commander/Captain Benjamin Sisko

Craig Wasson

Craig Wasson


Guest Star

F.J. Rio

F.J. Rio


Guest Star

Margot Rose

Margot Rose


Guest Star

Rosalind Chao

Rosalind Chao

Keiko O'Brien

Recurring Role

Hana Hatae

Hana Hatae

Molly O'Brien

Recurring Role

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (3)

    • When O'Brien gets the phaser, 16 LED's light up in sequence as he is raising the power. It has been stated numerous times that Starfleet phasers have 16 settings, but this is the first episode to show it.

    • Goof: When O'Brien opens the weapons locker, the words "Action Packer" can be seen on the inside of the lid (upside down and backwards), making that 24th century phaser locker a Rubbermaid product.

    • If the Argrathi placed O'Brien in prison for 20 years, surely a memory of confinement and starvation would suffice. Why place a memory of O'Brien killing someone?
      Maybe they just provided the environment and interacted dynamically on Miles' actions, hopes and fears to provide the most realistic memory possible. This is what nearly gets him in the end, the possibility that he could be capable of killing a friend under the right (or wrong) circumstances.

  • QUOTES (3)

    • O'Brien: When we were growing up, they used to tell us... humanity had evolved, that mankind had outgrown hate and rage. But when it came down to it, when I had the chance to show, that no matter what anybody did to me, that I was still an evolved human being... I failed. I repaid kindness with blood. I was no better than an animal.
      Bashir: No. No, no, no. An animal would've killed Ee'Char and never had a second thought, never shed a tear... But not you. You hate yourself. You hate yourself so much you think you deserve to die. The Argrathi did everything they could to strip you of your humanity and in the end, for one brief moment they succeeded. But you can't let that brief moment define your entire life. If you do, if you pull that trigger.. then the Argrathi will have won. They will have destroyed a good man. You cannot let that happen, my friend.

    • Ee'char: After six years in a place like this, you either learn to laugh or you'll go insane. I prefer to laugh.

    • Argathi: The crime of espionage requires a minimum of fifteen cycles of correction; you've been here for twenty. It's time for you to go.
      O'Brien: Go? I can't leave. Where would I go to?

  • NOTES (3)