By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Irish people in space are far and few between so thank God for one Miles O’Brien. Played by the wonderful Colm Meaney, O’Brien began life as literally a background extra in Star Trek The Next Generation’s pilot episode Encounter at Farpoint before progressing to the main transporter chief.
He is only one of three actors to appear in more than one Star Trek pilot episode, the others being Patrick Stewart, Picard (Next Gen and DS9) and Armin Shimmerman, Quark (DS9 then Voyager).
He was there when Picard was assimilated by the Borg and slowly became an integral part of the show as Star Trek’s everyman. And he was exactly that. He got married (Data’ Day) and became a father (Disaster). His character went some way to addressing the question as to why Starfleet allowed entire families on starships. The eloquence of the character was to be found in the fact that the marriage wasn’t perfect. He and wife Keiko, played by the under-rated Rosalind Chao, had fights and arguments as bad as any married couple but he was her soulmate even when they were separated for months at a time either by the Dominion War or because he left to study botany on Bajor.
O’Brien sort of slipped in under the radar and became as much a part of the Enterprise crew as the main characters, so it’s no surprise that his character was chosen to join the crew of new spin-off Deep Space 9 as chief of operations on the battered space station.
Colm brought a reality to O’Brien that suited DS9 much better as here was a family fighting to stay together and keep their love alive in the harshest of environments. He loved Keiko completely and their scenes together are some of the most heart-warming of the series. Keiko had shown she could stand on her own as a character and bring a comedy element just like her husband as seen in the birth scene in Disaster. In that episode, the Enterprise is crippled by a quantum filament. The crew are separated all over the ship and Keiko is trapped in Ten Forward along with Worf when she goes into labour. The startled Klingon has to deliver her baby while Miles is trapped on the bridge desperately trying to stop the warp core from exploding. Her scenes with Worf are comedy gold especially when Worf tells her she is now fully dilated and can now push thinking the baby will just pop out. Again, in Power Play when Troi, Data and O’Brien are possessed by aliens she stands up to them, willingly ready to sacrifice herself to protect her baby. Neither of them gushed like love sick puppies, but rather brought heart to their performances where you truly believed these characters were husband and wife.
When they moved to DS9, Miles helped Keiko set up a school which earned her the wrath of religious fanatics led by Kai Winn – played by Oscar winner Louise Fletcher.
During their time, the O’Briens were firebombed, shot at, kidnapped, put on trial on Cardassia, possessed, separated due to their respective careers, lost their daughter in a time warp and gained a son. But their love was strong enough to survive. O’Brien was a stubborn, pig-headed officer who lived by his instincts.
In the first DS9 episode Captive Pursuit he disobeys Sisko’s orders to help an alien called Tosk who has been bred to be hunted and when Q turned up he asked O’Brien “Weren’t you one of the little people?”, a sly dig at his extras beginning. Sisko came to rely on him and O’Brien was fiercely loyal to his new commander. Everyone loved O’Brien as seen when Jadzia Dax, played by the beautiful Terry Farrell, shared a rare quiet moment where they discussed sending letters to their loved ones every time they headed out on what seemed to be a suicide mission. She tells him he will never die in battle but in a bed, of old age, surrounded by his loved ones.
He takes Jake Sisko under his wing to teach him mechanics and is quick to grab Quark by the throat or stand up to Worf at any given time when he thought the Klingon went too far. He was afraid of no-one and nothing because at the back of his head was his love for his family. It gave the writers that something extra for him to fight for as seen in the episode If Wishes were Horses when Rumpelstiltskin appeared on the station seeking to steal young Molly.
There was nothing O’Brien wouldn’t do for people and the most wonderful thing about DS9 was the character arcs. O’Brien drank with anyone, anyone, that is, except eager young doctor Julian Bashir. He hated the man with a passion, rolling his eyes when they were teamed up in episodes like the Storyteller and Armageddon Game where the two men become firm friends. From that episode in Bashir and O’Brien were inseparable playing World War Two pilots on the holosuite and playing with toy soldiers, an iconic image that would bring one of the most poignant moments in the series finale, What We Leave Behind. Again, the marriage thing was made more real by the realization that Bashir knew O’Brien better than Keiko did and they loved each other dearly. Their parting in the finale was heartbreaking as you, the viewer had gone with them on their journey from enemies to the odd couple, although Bashir was miffed his best friend hadn’t realized the doctor had been replaced by a Changeling for several episodes.
O’Brien, because he was the most human of all characters, has some of the most heartbreaking stories in the series run. In Whispers, he becomes paranoid when the entire station seems to have turned against him, in Hard Time Meaney gives the performance of a life-time as he tries to commit suicide and only Bashir can talk him round. In that episode, O’Brien has been implanted with memories that he has spent twenty years in an alien prison and murdered his cell mate in error. He cannot return to normal life and goes to blow his head off with a phaser. It is to Keiko’s credit that she calls upon Bashir to save him as she knows she can’t, again making them real characters and not ciphers. It is performances like this that raise sci-fi shows to drama and should be acknowledged in award ceremonies.
We also saw a different version of O’Brien via the Mirror Universe from the original Star Trek where humanity are slaves thanks to Kirk’s interference. Bashir and Kira become trapped there but inspired by Bashir’s tale of a better life, Meaney puts in another award-winning performance. In the classic Children of Time, O’Brien and crew meet their descendants from a timeline where the Defiant crashlands two hundred years in the past and, despite his initial reaction to ignore them and go home thus condemning the colony to never having existed, he yields, realizing he must give up his family to ensure the survival of this new one. With the arrival of his new son Michael, we saw the first ever surrogacy story in Star Trek when Keiko is injured in a shuttle accident and Kira must carry their baby to full term.
O’Brien has been an undercover agent in Honour Among Thieves, a shy journalist facing racism in the classic Far Beyond the Stars, blackmailed by an evil Pah Wraith in the Reckoning when Keiko is possessed and almost lost his friendship with Bashir under the stress of war in the Sound of Her Voice.
At at the end of it all, Miles Edward O’Brien gave it all up to return to Earth with his family to teach the new generation at Starfleet Academy.
I bang on about sci-fi with a heart and Miles exemplifies this perfectly. Colm Meaney sir, we salute you.