June 13 2024


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Retro Review: Tribunal

7 min read

Miles O’Brien is arrested, tortured, and tried by a Cardassian court for a crime he knows nothing about.

Plot Summary: Just before he goes on leave with Keiko, Miles O’Brien bumps into a former crewmate from the Rutledge. His onetime colleague secretly records O’Brien’s voice patterns. As Miles and Keiko travel away from the station, their runabout is intercepted by a Cardassian ship under the command of Gul Evek, who arrests Miles and takes him to Cardassia Prime. Miles is tortured without being told the nature of his supposed crime while Keiko returns to the station, where Sisko and Kira begin an investigation into O’Brien’s activities. Because Gul Dukat made Odo an officer of the court on Terok Nor, Odo requests permission to serve as O’Brien’s adviser. The Cardassians reluctantly agree, so Odo and Keiko travel to Cardassia Prime. Prosecutor Makbar is prepared to prove why O’Brien should be executed – a sentence already handed down by the court, since the verdict was decided before the public trial began – and O’Brien’s advocate Kovat suggests that he confess, since he’s already been found guilty. But Sisko, Kira and Dax discover that when photon warheads were smuggled off the station using O’Brien’s voice commands, the voice was faked – pieced together from the recording by Boone, whom several people spotted talking to O’Brien. Sisko brings in Boone for questioning, assuming he must be Maquis, but Bashir receives a visit from an anonymous Maquis member telling the doctor that Boone is not one of them. At Sisko’s request, Bashir then performs a medical exam on Boone. During the trial, Odo attempts to present evidence that O’Brien had nothing to do with the weapons smuggling, but Makbar blocks him until Sisko arrives with Boone, at which point Makbar announces that she believes O’Brien can be rehabilitated and releases him into Sisko’s custody. In the runabout, Sisko tells Miles and Keiko that Boone was a Cardassian surgically modified to look like the man Miles had known. Once the Cardassians realized that Sisko knew the truth, they elected to let Miles go rather than risk public exposure of their lies. Now the O’Briens can take their vacation in peace.

Analysis: Miles O’Brien is so reliable in insisting that he doesn’t want to be a hero – even in his holodeck adventures, he plays martyrs, not victors – that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he is one. Similarly, Colm Meaney is such a skilled actor that it’s easy to forget his range is much wider than O’Brien’s usual solid, unflappable personality, so although I really dislike seeing him tortured – shades of Picard in “Chain of Command” – it’s great to see the subtle degrees of O’Brien’s growing anger and frustration. The highlight of the episode unfortunately comes too early, for it’s not the unraveling of the mystery but O’Brien’s impassioned speech to Odo about the sort of person he is. “No one has ever questioned my loyalty,” he says. “I took an oath to defend the Federation and what it stands for…I’m no angel, but I try to live every day as the best human being I know how to be. I need my little girl to wake up in the morning and look up at me and see a man she can respect.” This is something that should have been declared before the Cardassian court (and thus all of Cardassia), particularly since the guilty verdict is never reversed but merely set aside in favor of clemency. The writers tip their hand early when they show Boone manipulating O’Brien’s voice, and we know full well that O’Brien’s no Maquis. Yet in the eyes of all of Cardassia, O’Brien will remain a criminal, which makes me wonder what it was all for. Why do the Cardassians need to convince their own citizens of Starfleet perfidy regarding the Maquis unless they want to escalate the situation, to convince Cardassian citizens that it’s worth going to war? Some Cardassian senior official must have decided to let Sisko walk into the courtroom with his evidence, rather than simply have Makbar announce that in the interests of keeping the peace, the court had decided to show leniency despite O’Brien’s crime. It’s much too rushed, very clumsy plotting at the end.

Still, as entertaining as it is to see the Cardassian reactions to O’Brien’s “crime” – Makbar knowing from the start that he’s innocent yet convinced she can break him, Kovat knowing nothing yet caring less about the truth than upholding the system which has made him famous – it’s more telling to see the reactions of the people O’Brien works with. Keiko is unsurprisingly outraged about the arrest, though it’s a disappointment that she is then assigned only the role of supportive wife, not given an active part in investigating whether and why her husband has been set up. Since she lives with him, she’s the logical person to ask to trace his steps, and if I were her, I’d go directly to someone in the admiralty, since he was arrested in a Starfleet runabout and she witnessed the illegal abduction. Sisko seems to believe that O’Brien is innocent, but he retreats behind regulations, insisting that he can do nothing without proof even though he knows the torture to which O’Brien is being subjected surely exceeds any crime of which he might be guilty. Is this because Sisko never saw Cal Hudson’s betrayal coming? Dax calmly sets out to piece together scientific evidence; Bashir, who’s outraged about the entire situation, fumes at everyone until he’s given the two pieces of information necessary to destroy the Cardassian case; Odo, who is naturally suspicious of everybody, needs to hear from O’Brien’s own lips that he had nothing to do with the alleged crime, but once Odo does hear it, he never wavers in his determination to find a way around the absurdities of Cardassian justice. And Kira, who has always shown sympathy for the Maquis, is concerned that O’Brien might in fact be smuggling weapons for them, needing to know what Sisko will do if it’s true. When I first saw the episode, I was angry that Kira seemed so distrustful of O’Brien’s loyalties, yet now I wonder whether she was thinking about launching a Bajoran defense if Starfleet wouldn’t save their own. Plus we hear that the Enterprise-D has been sent to patrol the border to intimidate the Cardassians, but I’d love to imagine that Picard, too, may be planning a jailbreak if things don’t go well.

Avery Brooks does a terrific job directing the torture and courtroom scenes in which parallels with 1984 are obvious. Yet there’s also a warning here that seems ever more relevant about a justice system more interested in public theater than in fairness – shades of many more recent cases, from the American journalists held in North Korea to Casey Anthony’s “trial” in the media, cases where verdicts were pronounced by television broadcasters before the law was brought to bear. The fact that the Cardassians are more concerned with a good public display than with justice, even if it means allowing a trial to be thrown into disarray by unexpected testimony, shows the risk that Judge Judy-type shows pose – not in terms of the small-claims cases they present, but in the ways they skew the judicial system in favor of the best performers. It’s hard not to admire Makbar, who never loses control of the narrative even when she loses control of the case, and that makes it all the more frustrating that Keiko isn’t allowed to speak more, to give reasons for the unwavering faith she has in her husband. The verdict on the O’Briens’ marriage is still out, considering that he’d just as soon be reading technical manuals or playing with his daughter as making love to his wife, while she’s more focused on claiming his romantic attention than she is on making a more satisfying life for herself on the station she didn’t want to move to in the first place. Later on, the writers will do a much better job showing characters balancing work and personal lives, when Sisko and Yates, Kira and Odo, Dax and Worf, even Rom and Leeta manage to maintain intimate connections while busy with jobs that sometimes put them in opposition to one another, but Miles and Keiko continue a long balancing act where on many occasions it looks like they’re only surviving as a couple because part of being someone their daughter can look up to means sticking through the times when Miles and Keiko don’t seem sure they want to be together at all.

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5 thoughts on “Retro Review: Tribunal

  1. I always interpreted it as Keiko and Miles NEVER questioning their love for each other, or their desire to be together. It’s a marriage of give-and-take. Keiko seemed to do most of the sacrificing early, then definitely got the chance to spread her own wings later at Miles’ expense. What I like are the throwaway lines, particularly Keiko’s “You DO?!” as she learns something new about her husband.

    This is another episode I yawned through as a teenager, but rewatched recently. I’m struck by how, post “The Maquis,” the writers started to throw off the shackles of TNG storytelling and started doing things their way. Second season DS9 is a turning point for the whole franchise.

  2. Miles and Keiko was still the most neglected of the relationships on that show. And an unfortunate casualty of the Bashir-O’Brien bromance. But who wants a lot of the same old happy family storylines that have been done to death in other genres? At least it was made up for with Sisko & Kasidy, Kira & Odo, Dax & Worf, etc.

    While the approach to telling the story did have its flaws, it still ranks as one of my top episodes of the whole series.

  3. It wasn’t just Bashir & the Chief competing with the relationship between the Chief & Keiko (+ Molly): Ms Chao decided she only wanted an occasional role on the show; & even Mr Meaney had negotiated a mid-season break each year to do a film or play in the UK. Its a tribute to the brilliance of the DS9 writers – & the complexity of the show’s ultimate concept – that Keiko seems a more important character in the show than her limited screentime would suggest

    (She doesn’t even appear in Emissary, yet the Chief’s Kumomoto line is not only one of the show’s best but keeps Keiko firmly in the narrative context)

    Tribunal is a pretty obvious, TNG-style story with plot holes you could drive a pretty big starship through, but its carried by the dramatic writing & acting (especially of Mr Meaney). Not a masterpiece but lovely nonetheless

  4. The episode also features a wonderful performance by the marvelous actor Fritz Weaver as O’Brien’s much-put-upon defense counsel.

  5. Thanks for that, Wordsworth. Mr Weaver is one of that great selection of USAmerican character actors which blessed Star Trek (in general) & DS9 (in particular). I for one should have acknowledged the excellence of his performance in this episode

    (… &, i must admit, acknowledged the Emissary’s role in bringing all of these fine performances to TV. I only really credited the writers but directors like Mr Brooks were crucial to this great show)

    With thanks

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