Hello and welcome once again to ‘Final Frontier Friday‘! In the five months I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been guilty of a rather serious oversight: I have yet to cover an episode of ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘. Well, no more!
For my inaugural ‘DS9’ column, I’ll be covering the third season episode ‘Visionary’. Like ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Deep Space Nine’ had its share of growing pains, but by the third season had largely found its footing. By this point, the show had also begun building toward the Dominion War storyline that would dominate its final seasons, though ‘Visionary’ is only loosely connected to that arc. In fact, it’s largely a standalone story, dealing more with Romulans (I know, you’re shocked) and a particularly clever approach to the old sci-fi bugbear of time travel.
In fact, the episode’s approach to time travel is largely why freelancer Ethan Calk (who, incidentally, would later contribute the similarly time travel-centric ‘Children of Time’) was able to sell the pitch in the first place. Combine that with a budget-friendly script for what is more or less a bottle show, and you have a winner! Interestingly (both for ‘Trek’ historians and regular readers of this column), the villains in the original pitch were actually the Nausicaans, who we’ve previously dealt with in ‘Tapestry‘. With this in mind, it’s easy to see the bones of their role in some of the story’s Klingon action, but I doubt anyone would argue that the episode is stronger for having traded the fairly straightforward Nausicaans for intrigue involving both Klingons and Romulans.
Now on to the episode!
We open as Chief O’Brien is being treated for radiation exposure following a routine repair gone wrong. After insisting the Chief remain on light duty, Sisk and Kira leave Ops to greet a delegation of visiting Romulans. On the way, Odo informs the Commander that a Klingon ship has also put in for repairs at the station, overlapping with the Romulan visit. Meanwhile, O’Brien is installing a dartboard at Quark’s. While explaining the game to the bartender, he collapses, after experiencing what he believes is a hallucination of Quark complaining about the Klingons damaging his facilities.
Bashir attributes O’Brien’s symptoms to the radiation exposure and tells him to take it easy. Sisko meets with the Romulans, who are at the station to receive intelligence briefings on the Dominion (which they are owed as the result of a treaty permitting the use of a Romulan cloaking device aboard the Defiant). Feeling that they are getting the short end of the stick, they demand greater access to information and ultimately interviews the crew members who were aboard the Defiant during a recent mission into Dominion territory (which Kira finds particularly bothersome). When O’Brien has the same conversation with Quark that he saw in his “hallucination” before briefly seeing himself standing across the Promenade, Dax reviews the sensor logs and confirms a temporal disturbance, meaning that O’Brien did, in fact, jump into the future. As Dax explained the technobabble, O’Brien has another time shift, this time to a bar fight at Quark’s. Sometime later, O’Brien and Bashir are playing darts at the bar. Despite the increased security precautions, O’Brien is uneasy, lingering in Quark’s to see if a fight does break out. And of course, once the Klingons spot a group of Romulans at the bar, that’s exactly what happens. During the fight, O’Brien time shifts again. This time seeing himself killed by a phaser blast from behind a wall panel he was working on.
While checking the panel in question, Odo confirms that it has not yet been booby trapped. Realizing that O’Brien’s time shifts have each taken him roughly five hours into the future, they decide to surveil the corridor and see what happens. At this time, Dax reports that her sensors found some science that may be partially responsible for the time shifts, but this raises as many questions as it answers. With this information, though, Bashir is able to find a way to nullify the lingering radiation in O’Brien’s system and thus put an end to the time shifts (though he says there may be one or two more). When Odo notices that something has been planted behind the wall panel, despite a lack of obvious tampering and realizes that the device was beamed into the wall. Meanwhile, at about the time he saw himself being killed, O’Brien time shifts once again, this time finding himself in the infirmary with his dead body lying on a bed.
Five hours from now, Bashir is relieved to find O’Brien standing his own corpse. He quickly explains that he hadn’t realized the extent of the damage O’Brien had suffered from the radiation and tells him to have his past self-run a particular scan that will allow Past Bashir to detect and treat the radiation poisoning. Back in the present, Odo’s investigation leads to some vacant quarters near the booby-trapped bulkhead. Here, he finds that the food replicator was modified to function as a small transporter. A piece of equipment left in the replicator provides the missing link, allowing Odo to confirm through a variety of sources that the visiting Klingons are, in fact, a black ops team that reports directly to the high council, sent to spy on the Romulan delegation. While working with Dax in Ops, O’Brien time shifts again, this time to a runabout that is evacuating the station as it explodes, collapsing the wormhole in the process.
As the crew acts to prevent the station’s destruction, O’Brien and Bashir devise a way to trigger a time shift, this time to just before the station explodes, though the doctor warns that this could cause permanent to his nervous system or even kill him. O’Brien is willing to take the risk, and the two cobble together a device to trigger a controlled time shift. Bashir again warns that O’Brien will experience symptoms of severe radiation poisoning, and thus needs to trigger the shift, find out what destroys the station and return to the present as quickly as possible. Triggering the time shift, he finds himself in his quarters, wakes his future self, and heads to Ops. No sooner do the O’Briens arrive in Ops than the station is rocked by an explosion. Romulans! A warbird decloaks and attacks, revealing the quantum singularly that was orbiting the station (part of the time shift technobabble) as part of the Romulan warp core. But it’s too late. O’Brien is succumbing to the radiation poisoning. He gives the time shift device to his future self, who returns to the past with the necessary information. Sisko confronts the Romulans, with what he’s found, though they deny everything and ultimately leave without incident. As the episode draws to a close, O’Brien shares his unease with the idea of replacing himself, though Bashir reminds him that him that the only thing settling him apart from the “original” O’Brien is a handful of memories.
While ‘Visionary’ is an overall solid episode, it’s also a pretty standard issue for ‘Star Trek’ in the mid-90s. This isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it does mean that it’s not the most ‘Deep Space Nine’-specific episode ever. In other words, it’s a story that could have just as easily served as an “anomaly of the week” episode on any ‘Star Trek’ series. In fact, even as Romulan episodes go, this is fairly standard. They show up, they scheme, they’re thwarted, and they leave. Though unlike the other Romulan episodes we’ve covered, this one does something with the longstanding standing tensions between the Romulans and Klingons. In fact, had it not been for the Klingons’ attempts to spy on the visiting Romulans, the station crew may not have realized something was amiss until it was too later (even with O’Brien’s time shifts). Having said that, the premise is nonetheless rather clever. After all, the default setting for time travel, particularly in ‘Star Trek’, is usually “the crew visits the past/future” or “a guest star visits from the past/future”. ‘Visionary’, in its own way, does a bit of both, sending O’Brien involuntarily into the near future for a few minutes at a time, usually just long enough to see something important.
Owing to his status as the series’ resident everyman (something that dates back to his time on ‘The Next Generation), the ‘DS9’ writing staff developed an informal tradition of what were dubbed the “O’Brien Must Suffer” episodes. These came about because the character’s aforementioned everyman status (for example, unlike most of the franchise’s characters, he is an enlisted man rather than an officer, and a family man on top of that) and the inherent likeability that Colm Meaney brings to the role made him an especially relatable figure. And while ‘Visionary’ may not be an archetypal “O’Brien Must Suffer” episode (for one of those, check out ‘Tribunal’ or ‘Hard Time’), it certainly doesn’t shy away from the idea. After all, the entire plot is built on the fact that a conduit blew up in his face and soaked him with radiation, which is not only dragging him through time but also slowly killing him. And he literally stands over his own corpse three times in the course of the episode. In fact, ‘Visionary’ could be said to take the idea of torturing O’Brien for the sake of the story to its logical extreme, given that it (sort of) kills him. Because while it may be easy to forget, the O’Brien we see from this point on is technically the O’Brien of a different timeline. This could have added an interesting wrinkle to the character if only in the short term had it ever been brought up again. It just feels like there’s a bit of missed potential there. Though as Bashir rightly points out, this guy is Miles O’Brien, give or take a couple hours worth of memories, so maybe I’m overthinking things. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Okay, that about does it for this week. What are your thoughts on ‘Visionary’? Did you walk away from this episode with a greater appreciation of the existential horror that is Miles O’Brien’s life? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to check back in two weeks, when I swear I’ll give the Romulans a break. I promise. You have my word that I will not be covering either of their nonsequitur appearances on ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ anytime soon.