“Entangled freedom”: Whispers
Colm Meaney is an immense acting talent. We all know this. Chief O’Brien was elevated from a nameless bit part who was little more than an extra to become debatably the most lasting and memorable character in the entire series because it was evident to everyone from Day 1 on “Encounter at Farpoint” that this was a guy who had some serious chops, even before bringing in quite extensive and illustrious motion picture career outside of Star Trek.
How you respond to a talent like that probably says more about you than it does them. When you write material for a specific actor, you’re more than likely envisioning a specific subset of their range you’d like to see them give when they perform your script. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the creative team responded by giving Colm increasingly larger and larger parts until they could hang an entire story off of him, usually emphasizing his everyman characteristics by giving him a unique insight on or offhand reaction to the topic at hand. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, they invented an entire new hyperlocalized genre of story entitled “Let’s Torture O’Brien”, and actually called it that internally. This probably ought to say it all, but in slightly more nuanced and descriptive terms for the newcomers, a “Let’s Torture O’Brien” story entails coming up with a relatively strangled science fiction premise that allows the writers to put Miles O’Brien through a psychological wringer so that Colm Meaney can masterfully convey an everyday, likable, relatable person enduring extreme, oftentimes traumatic events while we watch on with rapt attention.
I’m not going to say too much more about this approach and the mindset that might attract a creator to it. You all can fill in the blanks by this point. I would ask, however, that you at least reflect amongst yourselves upon why in particular someone might think this is the best way to showcase an actor’s range. Is it not possible that an actor could potentially convey powerful emotions that aren’t extreme mental and emotional trauma? Does the category of “good acting” by definition require that he do so? But neither will I deny that “Whispers” is a damn corker of an episode or that Colm Meaney is heartbreakingly formidable in it. Though it’s frequently cited as such, this isn’t actually the first “Let’s Torture O’Brien” episode, at least not by my count. In fact, that’s a minor issue I have with it, considering it comes immediately after “Armageddon Game”, which I find to be a more down-to-Earth and relatable way of making us connect with a character’s pain: The Chief’s workmanlike honour in the face of death is unbelievably moving, and is light years beyond anything that has ever been done with the Klingons ever.
Speaking of “Armageddon Game”, I almost wonder if Doctor Bashir wouldn’t have been a better choice for this story. Sure, Siddig El Fadil may not have the pedigree of Colm Meaney as an actor (at least not yet), but he’s still damn good himself and its his very youthfulness, both as an actor and as a character, that I think would have added a layer to the story here. “Whispers” does the personal identity theory thing again (naturally, considering Star Trek: The Next Generation had recently done a heartwarming story about solving the problem in “Inheritance”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had to do a tragedy, because it just has to be different all the time), but what this episode is really about is anxiety: Anxiety that your friends and co-workers are talking about you behind your back, or feeding you white lies to let you down gently because they secretly don’t want to be around you but are just too polite to come out and say it. It’s that voice inside of you that keeps telling you “They’re just saying that to be nice to me”. “They don’t really want to be with me, they’re just being polite”. “They really only just put up with me and would probably be much happier if I just left them alone”.
This angle is something of a young person’s story, because these are feelings I think a lot of us experience quite vividly in our youth. Until we truly settle down into a relationship (of any sort: romantic, platonic, anything) and get comfortable with someone else there can be a lot of apprehension and uneasiness about things that can keep us from completely opening ourselves up. And even after that, we may still sometimes need the occasional reminder that we really are loved, wanted and appreciated. It’s the problem of other minds again, in a sense: It’s hard to judge from the absence of verbal or physical stimuli how someone truly feels unless they tell us. And opening up requires a great deal of trust because it puts us in a position of vulnerability: We all need some form of reassurance that other people are actually going to be receptive or, more likely, that we don’t make anyone else feel uncomfortable. I could totally see Julian still having some anxieties about stuff like this even though he’s lived on Deep Space 9 for almost two years. He’s still young and restless and his bravado always reads to me more as someone covering up his own insecurities. Furthermore, I could totally see him trying to “be a hero” in the big chase climax like that.
There’s an aspect of this I do connect with on some level. Though I’m far more settled in my own personal and social circles now than I ever used to be, this can still crop up for me every now and again. I think it probably does for most people. Part of my aversion to telephones is that I have an outmoded preference for in-person communication: I find it very challenging to react properly when I don’t have the normal range of human body language to work with. Likewise, I also have a really hard time discerning voice and tone from modern conversational written communication (don’t get me going on grammar, punctuation and capitalization. And no, it’s not just textspeak: Language is changing and people like me are deservedly going extinct), especially on the Internet, which means there’s always a lingering doubt in my mind as to whether or not I’ve interpreted someone’s intended meaning correctly.
I’m also a natural extrovert, or at least I’ve trained myself to constantly be extroverted in order to hold attention and convey a point, because, given my particular set of interests, I usually wind up talking about something so unbelievably esoteric, obscure and arcane no-one could possibly give a shit unless I make myself charismatic and entertaining. An entire adolescence defined by ’round-the-clock public speaking, theatre and oral presentations (as well as two of my biggest teenage role models being talk show hosts) is probably at least partially to blame for that. One of the problems I run into with this is that, because of the social circles I frequent, I usually wind up talking to people way more quiet and introverted than me so I’m constantly worrying about overwhelming and scaring them off by coming across as too open or too forward or because of my assumed privileges. Or conversely, I fear I’m not always letting myself be sincere because I feel obligated to put on yet another act, and even though I have a diverse array of acts in my repertoire that all showcase some facet of me, it can start to feel exhausting and unsatisfying.
Give me a podium and I can sing and dance with the best of them, but that’s not always what I want to do.
It also doesn’t help that I actually have associated with a lot of people who do the very things I talked about the young and socially anxious being terrified of (justly or not) over the course of my life: People who passive-aggressively talk about you behind your back. People who pretend to humour you while trying to let you down gently with white lies. People who tell me one thing even though I know for a fact they’ve told somebody else something completely different. People who would probably much rather I shut up, stopped bothering them and went away forever, but never wanted to actually come out and say so. Yes, I’m one of those people who gets really nervous about cold emails that go unanswered or panics when a contact conveniently signs out of instant messenger the exact moment I sign on. And I’ll blame myself before I’ll blame anyone else (after all, I’m mostly terrible, aren’t I? Why am I deserving of someone’s care and attention?), although I’m sure we’ve all done thoughtless things in our younger days. But the end product of it all is that, while I wouldn’t say I have trust issues (at least not extreme ones) and even though I pride myself on my openness, it can take a long time before I’m completely comfortable letting my hair down in front of someone, and even so I typically need someone who is as brash, boisterous, outgoing and straightforward as I am in order to feel truly safe and secure in a connection.
Which brings me back to “Whispers” and its “Lets Torture O’Brien” brief, actually. In spite of that fact I personally rate this episode very highly and do recommend it as a well-written, incredibly acted dramatic mystery, in spite of the fact that this is without doubt one of the most iconic and memorable episodes of the season for me (there are scenes here, especially the ones captured in the PR stills, that have stuck with me since 1994: Keiko’s suspicious look when Replicant Miles hugs her, replicant Miles getting shot in the chest, all those sparks and wiring and Doctor Bashir tending to him on the surface of the planet)…In spite of all of that this is not an episode I voluntarily go back and rewatch of my own volition. I wouldn’t even say I dislike it necessarily, even though parts of the brief do smack of the dreaded G-word. In fact, I might even say I like it a lot. But I can’t watch it, and I can’t watch it because I can’t bring myself to watch it. It’s not even that it reminds me about parts of myself I don’t want to be reminded of and am afraid to confront, it’s precisely because I have confronted them and have made peace with them (at least as much as I think anyone can) that I don’t want to see them anymore. Stories like this physically hurt me. I don’t want to see anyone going through pain and trauma, not in real life, not in television I watch for entertainment and *certainly* not on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
April 4, 2016 @ 10:53 pm
Colm Meaney is excellent. That Bashir-based paranoia direction would have been fascinating, due to revelations in later Seasons! Not that anyone was thinking of that development at this stage of production/writing.
April 8, 2016 @ 10:27 am
I'm sort of anxious about rewatching this and actually applying the anxiety metaphor to it. I've always disliked this episode, not for its quality – I recall it's quite good – but for weird personal reasons that I realize are probably because it's a bit close to home.
April 9, 2016 @ 7:57 am
"The Chief's workmanlike honour in the face of death is unbelievably moving, and is light years beyond anything that has ever been done with the Klingons ever."
Bang on the button. I find that nowadays I have little time for the so-called heroics of Kilngons. The Chief has always had way much more grace and depth of being than the Klingons have.
Interesting to hear you talk about your own reflections on yourself in response to the story. Despite seeming to be in a lot on my work and public life an eccentric and outgoing performer and person who is always with people, it was really my journey of exploring oral storytelling and eventually performing that developed my self-confidence. Prior to that I was pretty crippled with regards to my ability to reach out to people, mainly through the low sense of self I had and the poor state of my my own internal monologue. I know what it's like to go through what O'Brien went through.
I do happily also love my quiet time and having the opportunity to not be the performer and to be in the background.
I did find this stunning, touching and also hard to watch – especially seeing such a heartful character as the Chief being put through the wringer – but do love this episode.