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Ensign O'Brien, during better times

Chaos in engineering

12-minute read

Let us, for a moment, consider the fate of Miles O’Brien.

Not “The Passion of the O’Brien,” as his time stationed on Deep Space Nine became known, as it took him through the 24th Century equivalent of the Stations of the Cross, such as spending 20 years in a virtual mind prison or having his daughter fall through a time portal.

We’re going to talk about his other fate: How he was a once-promising officer and bridge crew member who was stripped of rank and sent to exile, first as a glorified elevator operator in the Transporter Room and later to a crumbling space station orbiting a backwater planet, where only after years of struggle does he finally regain his stature and dignity.

O’Brien came aboard the Enterprise on its first mission, an honored hero of the Cardassian War and former tactical officer on the USS Rutledge. Appropriate to someone of his stature and skill, Ensign O’Brien is a helmsman in the series debut episode Encounter at Farpoint (Stardate 41153.7), seen in a red command uniform manning a key bridge station during a moment of crisis.

Yet, only a few months later on Stardate 41249.3 (Lonely Among Us) we see him stripped of rank entirely, serving as a security officer. He’s not seen again for another year when he re-emerges, this time as a transporter chief. But he’s been busted down to a noncommissioned rank – senior chief petty officer – as confirmed in the fifth season episode Family.

Something went down, but it’s never explained and he never speaks of it, even as he toils away far from his former post and former glory days on the bridge. His job mainly involves standing around for hours – days even – waiting to work a few buttons and send others off on amazing adventures. He watches as others like that perpetual screwup Lt. Barclay are promoted past him, his hopes and dreams fading away to nothingness like a crew member on one of his transporter pads.

While it’s possible O’Brien was entirely responsible for his fate, a far more likely explanation was that he was caught up in the turmoil and dysfunction that swept through the lower decks of the Enterprise during its inaugural year of service in the United Federation of Planets fleet.

We see a veritable revolving door of chief engineers, five in just a year, sometimes with tenures lasting only a few weeks. They are repeatedly shown as undependable, absent or, worse, openly mutinous in a crisis. Senior officers exclude them from ship’s business and away teams and are shown going around them to make sure that orders are carried out. And, like O’Brien we later learn they have been busted down and sent to often-humiliating duty posts.

Even the most hardened Star Trek fan must wonder what the fuck was going on in Engineering.

That same fan might also be saying “wait, I don’t remember that episode.” Indeed they would likely be right. The problems in engineering are rarely overtly depicted.

Rather, it’s shown in bits and pieces, just kinda there as a slow burn in the background across Jean-Luc Picard’s entire first year in the captain’s chair. Taken together, they clearly show a department in utter chaos.

Why would the Engineering Department become such a problem? Aren’t Starfleet officers the epitome of professionalism? What could possibly make them go rogue?

One reason: Wesley Crusher.

We see Wesley 1 repeatedly endanger the ship and crew. He’s even responsible for the entire ship being stolen. Yet he suffers no repercussions. He isn’t banned. He isn’t grounded. Rather he’s honored again and again and again, credited with saving the ship. Often from problems he caused.

One can only imagine the howls of impotent rage as engineering members would slam their fists again and again and again into their pillows at the end of their shifts.

It didn’t have to be that way, but it was, right from the start, during the ship’s second mission.

In the episode The Naked Now (Stardate 41209.3) the Enterprise crew is infected by a contaminant that causes symptoms akin to drunkenness. Leadership fails to take even the most basic precautions, such as not letting infected patients simply wander out of sickbay. Senior officers Lt. Cmdr. Data and Lt. Tasha Yar are too busy boning to notice the ship is headed to certain destruction thanks to Wesley, who has shut off the engines and barricaded himself in engineering.

Despite all this, Chief Engineer Lt. Cmdr Sarah MacDougal is seen patiently and professionally dealing with the problem despite being infected herself. Yet, in a move that had to have been galling for a seasoned engineer of the Federation flagship, Wesley is left entirely unpunished. He’s lauded for saving the ship.

Worse, she is apparently held responsible. This is the last we see of MacDougal until years later. During the episode Galaxy’s Child (Stardate 44614.6) when her name pops up on an Engineering screen as a third-shift duty engineer responsible for aligning subspace phase coils.

And, we’ll be returning to that crew shortly.

Enter Lt. Cmdr. Argyle, who was placed in charge of Engineering by the episode Where No One has Gone Before around Stardate 41263.1 – about a month after MacDougal’s banishment. Apparently having learned nothing from her downfall, Argyle allows Wesley back into Engineering to work on a school project. Once again, through irresponsible inaction, Wesley directly places the Enterprise and its entire crew in mortal danger. He fails to report when his friend, an alien creeper called the The Traveler, does all kinds of weird shit that fucks up the warp engines.

Despite this, the episode ends with Wesley being promoted to acting ensign for “conduct in the true spirit and traditions of Starfleet” and is assigned the helmsman position on the bridge.

It’s not hard to picture the engineering crew sitting around in the junior officers mess, five or six Synthahols under their belt, raging. “I spent four fucking years at goddamn Starfleet Academy. I polished statues’ asses with my toothbrush. And for what? So that whiney little shit Wesley Crusher can get to steer the ship!”

O’Brien, sitting in a dark corner alone, overhearing this conversation, sheds a single tear, thinking of his career that could have been.

Alas, Argyle too is busted down and during Galaxy’s Child2 is also listed as working alongside MacDougal as a third-shift duty engineer.

By this point engineering was clearly in a full-blown leadership crisis as evidenced by the senior officers’ reluctance to even deal with the department.

For instance, the chief engineer is nowhere to be be seen when Klingon Korris threatens to destroy the Enterprise by blowing up the dilithium chamber in Heart of Glory (Stardate 41503.7). In the episode The Last Outpost, Engineering sits on their hands during a crisis and Picard has to send LaForge down to take control of the department and concoct a solution to free the ship.

In the episode 11001001,3 Picard doesn’t even consult with anyone from engineering during a major computer upgrade. He leaves Wesley, a teenager with no official rank, to oversee the work. When the antimatter containment pods head toward collapse, it’s Wesley, not Engineering, who notices.

Or perhaps Engineering crews did notice, but sat sulking at their workstations, muttering about leaving a teenager in charge of the Federation flagship and that if “Wesley is so goddamned smart let him fix the fucking containment pods.”

Events like these, as well as Picard’s apparent lack of faith in engineering, allows the rift to grow into outright rebellion.

It all comes to a head during the episode The Arsenal of Freedom (Stardate 41798.2) in which LaForge is left in charge of the ship during a routine away mission that quickly escalates into a ship-endangering crisis. Chief Engineer Lt. Logan, his sneering contempt for LaForge and Picard’s leadership boiling just under the surface, shows up on the bridge in an ill-fated coup attempt. He demands the conn due to his role as chief engineer and superior rank, a ballsy move considering he was a mere lieutenant to LaForge’s lieutenant junior grade.

Whatever his motive, Logan not only disappeared from his chief engineer role but the ship entirely, suggesting Picard quietly took care of the problem.

Despite this leadership change, problems in the department persisted. The fourth chief engineer in less than a year, Lt. Cmndr. Leland T. Lynch, began resorting to more passive-aggressive actions. On Stardate 41601.3, Lynch and his crew is seen recklessly and needlessly tearing the warp engines apart.

Lynch suggests a repair time of 20 minutes. Picard flies into a rage, and only then does Lynch relent and complete the repair.

Unfortunately this leads to a delay in rescuing a downed shuttle crew on Vagra II, and directly to the ship’s chief of security Yar being killed by a stagehand wearing an oil-covered trash bag.

This incident was apparently Picard’s breaking point with “the Engineering problem.” Lynch was busted down to what was at this point clearly the favored “fuck you” to failed Enterprise chief engineers, third-shift duty engineer alongside Argyle and MacDougal according to Galaxy’s Child.

LaForge, the fifth chief engineer in less than a year, was placed in charge.

Seen in the light of the events that preceded it, LaForge’s ascension to chief engineer makes more sense. It was always an odd promotion for someone on a bridge command track who had no experience in the Engineering chain of command.

Stranger, it happens off screen and is given no explanation.

All we see of it is in The Child that Riker makes an offhand comment to Picard that chief engineer LaForge has “a nice ring to it.” While it could be simply paternalistic pride, in context of events it reads more like relief.

LaForge’s proximity to Picard and Riker as a member of the bridge crew, the fact that the two used him as an end-run around Engineering, suggests he was chosen less for his prowess, and more for his loyalty. Picard needed someone down there to be his hatchet man, his consigliere, his enforcer. That also explains why he was suddenly skipped ahead two levels in rank, from lieutenant junior grade to lieutenant commander.

“Lt. LaForge,” Picard said sharply before LaForge could even settle into the Ready Room chair. A cup of tea, Earl Gray, hot sat steaming on the desk.

“I have a difficult assignment for you. I need you to bring Engineering to heel. Immediately. Do what you have to. This is …” he paused as if considering the full weight of what he was about to say “… off the books. Lt. Worf will assist. Dismissed.”

LaForge’s enforcement of discipline was apparently absolute. That’s why former, failed chief engineers were kept on board in humiliating roles, toiling away on the night staff as a warning to others who step out of line.

Further evidence of this is found when in the episode Elementary, Dear Data4 (Stardate 42286.3) just a few weeks after being named chief engineer, LaForge endangers the entire ship and crew by turning over control to a Holodeck character. As LaForge sits there terrified he’s about to go the way of Capt. Needa, Picard lets him off the hook, saying the Enterprise is “ship-shape and Bristol-fashion,” before adding menacingly “As are we, Mister LaForge.”

His message is clear: He’s Picard’s man in Engineering. He can fuck up he wants as long as he remembers who has his balls in a vise.

  1. Pre-acting ensign, Wesley Crusher had the worst cable knit sweaters to appear on TV that were not featured in an episode of The Cosby Show.
  2. It’s worth noting that Riker was in the Holodeck trying to bone a smokin’ hot [hologram][34] when all this went down.
  3. We need to talk about LaForge in this episode. He’s a total creeper. He makes repeated unwelcome sexual advances at a woman, a woman he probably fell in love with by boning hologram version of. This isn’t the only creeper behavior he’s shown doing. He wants to bone some woman after watching her personal logs in Aquiel. Additionally, it’s notable he’s the only primary character other than Wesley Crusher who is explicitly shown as not getting any during the run of the series. He must have masturbated constantly.
  4. What is with Dr. Pulaski constantly shitting all over Data? What did he ever do? In one episode she intentionally gets his name wrong, calling him long-a Data. In one she tells Data to leave sickbay because her patient doesn’t need the “cold touch of technology.” In yet another, she rags on him about not being able to play poker properly. And in this one she’s busting on him about just being a mere computer with no intuition or insight.