The Enterprise is mapping space near the Cardassian border. Everyone is tense; up until very recently, the Federation and the Cardassian Union were engaged in a long, bitter conflict, which only now is beginning to die down. In fact, the details of the peace treaty are still being ironed out as they speak, so everyone is treading lightly.
Meanwhile, Miles O'Brien and Keiko Ishikawa-O'Brien are enjoying wedded bliss. Over breakfast, Miles delicately puts forward that maybe Keiko would like to try some of the traditional Irish foods that he grew up with. Not, of course, that he doesn't enjoy these Japanese delicacies and all... and their conversation is cut short by the Red Alert klaxon.
A Cardassian warship has come out of nowhere and opened fire on the Enterprise. The two ships exchange a few hits before Picard manages to establish communications and demand to know the reason for this unprovoked assault. Gul Macet (Marc Alaimo), the commander of the warship, claims that he's retaliating for an earlier Federation attack: a nearby Cardassian science station was just destroyed by a Federation starship. Picard uses all his diplomatic wiles to get the Cardassians to stand down so he can contact Starfleet and find out what's going on.
Shortly afterwards, Picard makes contact with Vice Admiral Hayden at Starfleet Command, who confirms the worst: Starfleet has a rogue captain on their hands. Benjamin Maxwell (Bob Gunton), commander of the Phoenix and hero of the Cardassian War, was the one responsible for the attack. And he's somewhere out there now, running silent, doing God knows what else. The Cardassian government has agreed to allow the Enterprise to try and find Maxwell before he does more harm, provided they allow a Cardassian presence on board. Macet will do nicely. Before signing off, Hayden cautions Picard to tread very carefully. Still recovering from their losses at Wolf 359, Starfleet is simply unprepared for another war. The fragile peace must be maintained.
Gul Macet and his two aides, Glinn Daro and Glinn Telle, beam aboard and are immediately escorted to the conference room. Chief O'Brien is also in attendance; O'Brien served with Maxwell during the War, and has a unique perspective on the man. O'Brien recollects Maxwell as a model officer and firmly believes that if he is doing this, it must be for a good reason. Of course Maxwell did lose his family in the War, during a particularly brutal skirmish that O'Brien himself participated in, which gives him motive in the Cardassians' eyes. Before the tense atmosphere can get much more tense, Worf breaks in: they've found the Phoenix. As the main crew heads to the Bridge, O'Brien rudely turns down an offer to share a drink with the two Glinns.
Back in their quarters, O'Brien whips up a lovely potato casserole for his wife, all the while humming a tune he remembers from the War. Miles expresses his concern about how everyone (but certainly not him, no sir) is still hostile, even though the war is over. Keiko points out that the war lasted a long time and only just recently ended, so it's to be expected that there's still some lingering bad feelings... and if he's feeling that way too, it's perfectly understandable.
On the Bridge, Picard and Macet watch on long-distance sensors as the Phoenix chases down a Cardassian cargo ship. The Phoenix ignores the Enterprise's hails, and Picard has no choice but to surrender the prefix codes to the Phoenix to Macet, who can relay them to a Cardassian warship closer to the action. This proves to be no avail, however; the Nebula-class Phoenix is more than a match for the Cardassians, destroying both the warship and the cargo ship quite easily.
In the aftermath, Picard goes to talk to O'Brien about it. O'Brien is shocked to hear what his former commander has done, but he still maintains his loyalty: if Maxwell did this, he insists, he had a good reason. Later, at Ten Forward, O'Brien runs into Glinn Daro, where he offers an apology for his behavior and an explanation: he was at the infamous Setlik III Massacre—where Maxwell lost his family—and that was the first time he was ever forced to kill someone. He says to the Cardassian, "I don't hate you. I hate what I became because of you."
Meanwhile, Worf catches Glinn Telle trying to access a secure computer terminal. Macet chews him out, has him confined to quarters, and apologizes to Picard, promising that Telle will be disciplined. Picard simply lets the matter slide as a show of good faith, and Macet gains a good bit of respect for the man. Macet remarks that he and Picard share a similar view: they both want to resolve this quickly and peacefully, and neither of them wants hostilities to start up again. Then Commander Data informs them of the news: they've caught up with the Phoenix.
The oddly charming Captain Maxwell beams aboard the Enterprise and greets O'Brien and Riker warmly. He immediately requests a meeting with Captain Picard and explains the situation: he's learned that the Cardassians are re-arming. That "science station" he destroyed? A secret military outpost. That cargo ship? Carrying weapons and running a high-energy subspace field to thwart security scans. Of course he has no proof, besides his instincts. And he believed that if he reported it to Starfleet, it would just get bogged down in official investigations and diplomatic wrangling until it would be too late to do anything to stop the Cardassians. When Picard points out that his actions were unsanctioned and in direct violation of the peace accords, Maxwell accuses him of being part of the problem. Regardless, Picard tells him that his orders are to escort Maxwell and his crew to the nearest Starbase to face charges, and Maxwell can do that in command of his own ship or from the Enterprise's brig.
Reluctantly, Maxwell agrees, but once both ships set off, the Phoenix breaks formation and goes after another nearby Cardassian cargo vessel. Picard gives chase and summons O'Brien to the Bridge for his insight into Maxwell's tactics. When they both catch up to the Cardassian ship, Maxwell hails the Enterprise and offers Picard proof: come aboard the ship with him and see for himself what they're carrying, or else he'll destroy it then and there. Faced with the possibility of being forced to fire on another Federation vessel, Picard asks O'Brien for advice. O'Brien has no doubt that Maxwell will make good on his threat, but he has an idea: Nebula-class starships have a flaw in their deflector shields that O'Brien knows how to exploit. There's a narrow window where he could beam aboard the Phoenix and talk Maxwell down. Picard allows him to try.
Once aboard the Phoenix, O'Brien informs Maxwell of the situation: there's no way Maxwell can win this. Picard will destroy him to maintain the peace, and whatever good Maxwell thinks he's doing will be forgotten. Maxwell breaks down — and the truth comes out. Maxwell isn't doing this because he thinks this is right. He's doing this to avenge his family, just as Macet suggested. O'Brien sits next to him, comforting him, as they remember fallen comrades from the war. They sing together the old song O'Brien was remembering earlier, and Maxwell surrenders.
The crisis averted, Maxwell is in custody and the Enterprise is on its way back home. Macet expresses his gratitude to Picard, as well as his relief that a dangerous rogue element has been contained. Picard counters with the fact that before his breakdown, Maxwell was an exemplary commander and leader of men, and despite his recent actions, he still deserves that respect. And besides... he's not wrong.
After all, Maxwell's actions were improper, but he may have had a point: that "science station" was located in a system with no real scientific value, but great strategic value, in striking distance of three key Federation sectors. And cargo ships running with sensor-jamming fields? No one could deny that was suspicious, could they?
Macet poses the obvious question to Picard; if he really believes that, why didn't he board the ship as Maxwell suggested? Picard answers that he had he done so, the two of them probably wouldn't be having this pleasant conversation. In the end, Picard may not have any evidence for the allegations, but his mandate was and is to maintain the peace, not start another war, which he sharply reminds Macet would in all likelihood be detrimental to both of their people. So he's not going to do anything... except to tell Macet to convey a warning to Cardassian leadership: "We'll be watching."
Tropes featured in "The Wounded" include:
- Angst? What Angst?: Discussed In-Universe. Picard believes Maxwell's current unauthorized attacks on Cardassian ships are motivated by vengeance, but O'Brien insists Maxwell remained stoic and in good humour after his family's deaths and he must have a good reason for attacking the Cardassians. Turns out they're both right.
- Ambadassador: Picard wrecks everyone with diplomacy in this episode.
- Attack Hello: The Cardassians greet the Enterprise by firing on her.
- Being Good Sucks: Picard ultimately suspects that Maxwell may have been right, but he has no proof and can't risk a war just to salvage the reputation of a man he respects.
- Blatant Lies: O'Brien likes the Cardassians just fine, thank you very much. (No, he doesn't.)
- Brief Accent Imitation: Maxwell puts on an Irish accent when he suggests that O'Brien "got that silver tongue by kissing the [Blarney] Stone".
- Broken Pedestal: Downplayed. O'Brien acknowledges that what Maxwell did was wrong, but is still proud to have served with him.
- Continuity Nod:
- The Federation's military strength is still severely compromised from their losses at the Battle of Wolf 359.
- The design of the Nebula-class starship is very much an updated version of the Miranda class from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Its relationship to the Galaxy class is basically the same as that between the Miranda and Constitution classes.
- The strategy of subduing a ship by using its prefix code to lower its shields is also from Star Trek II.
- After their wedding last episode, the O'Briens are getting used to living together.
- Cool Starship: The Nebula-class Phoenix, the closest thing to a warship that Starfleet has produced before the Defiant from DS9 comes along. It shares design elements with the Enterprise and carries a similar armament, in a much more compact form.
- Crusading Widower: Maxwell is largely fueled by suppressed grief over losing his wife and children at Setlik III.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The Enterprise and the Phoenix pwn each Cardassian ship they battle, and each one after taking an unshielded hit. The Enterprise disables her attacker while the Phoenix destroys two ships.
- Dark and Troubled Past: O'Brien fought in the Cardassian War, during which he committed his first act of killing. He's never gotten over it.
- A Day in the Limelight: This is the first episode with a major focus on Miles O'Brien, and lays much of the groundwork for his later role on DS9.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: A minor example. In some human cultures, like Keiko's, cooking food by hand instead of with a replicator is seen as weird and kind of gross.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- This episode introduces the Cardassians to the Trek 'Verse, and much of their characterization here is at odds with how they were eventually canonically depicted.
- Their brown, leather-covered outfits and "crash helmets" don't match their eventual standard uniform.
- Their coloration is pinkish rather than grey.
- Macet is the only Cardassian who ever has facial hair.
- Pronunciation hasn't been figured out - Cardassian kanar is ordered in Ten Forward, but it's pronounced "kay-nar," rather than the more familiar pronunciation of "kah-nar."
- In this first appearance, the Nebula-class starship's "AWACS" pod is round, and thins out toward the edges, like a lens. The producers were dissatisfied with the final product and the model was refurbished with a new, more triangular pod in all subsequent appearances.
- This episode introduces the Cardassians to the Trek 'Verse, and much of their characterization here is at odds with how they were eventually canonically depicted.
- The Extremist Was Right: Picard privately concedes to Macet that Maxwell was right that the Cardassians are rearming themselves. When Macet asks why Picard didn't do what Maxwell asked, Picard replies that maintaining the peace was more important.
- Fallen Hero: Benjamin Maxwell—O'Brien simply cannot believe that his old CO is capable of acting out of revenge.
- Fantastic Racism: O'Brien and Maxwell both have a fair amount of prejudice towards the Cardassians. O'Brien handles it better, but it still comes out.
- A Father to His Men: Maxwell was this to the crew of the Rutledge. O'Brien still feels that way about him.Macet: His [O'Brien's] loyalty is admirable, even if it is misplaced.
Picard: Gul Macet, the loyalty that you would so quickly dismiss does not come easily to my people. You have much to learn about us. Benjamin Maxwell earned the loyalty of those who served with him. You know, in war, he was twice honored with the Federation's highest citation for courage and valor. And if he could not find a role for himself in peace, we can pity him, but we shall not dismiss him.
- Foreign Queasine: Miles and Keiko have this reaction to each other's cooking. To their credit, they're both trying to keep an open mind about it, but there's clearly some discomfort.
- General Ripper: Played with. While Maxwell is shown as being a paranoid wreck who never recovered from the murder of his family by the Cardassians, as it turns out, his suspicions were right even though his methods were wrong. Also, unlike most examples, he knows when to fold them, at least after a trusted former crewmember confirms that his situation is unwinnable.
- Good Is Not Dumb: Picard and the Federation wish for peace. That doesn't mean they've turned a blind eye to what the Cardassians are doing.Picard: Maxwell was right. Those ships weren't carrying scientific equipment, were they? A 'research' station within arm's reach of three Federation sectors? Cargo ships running with high energy subspace fields that jam sensors?
Gul Macet: If you believed the transport ship carried weapons, why didn't you board it as Maxwell requested?
Picard: I was here to protect the peace, a peace I firmly believe is in the interests of both our peoples. But if I had attempted to board that ship... I am quite certain that you and I would not be sitting here now, having this pleasant conversation. And that ships on both sides would be arming for war. [...] Take a message to your leaders, Gul Macet: We'll be watching.
- Good Old Ways: O'Brien mentions his mother, the family cook, not trusting the food replicator. Keiko is surprised (and a little grossed out) to learn that she handled and cooked actual meat for her family.
- Great Offscreen War: The FederationCardassian conflict apparently lasted many years and cost many lives, including at least one massacre of civilian colonists. This episode is the first mention of it in any Star Trek continuity. Later episodes of TNG pepper references to the war into dialogue and backstory—and obviously, DS9 makes it a major part of its universe—but episodes before this one give no indication that there's a significant conflict going on anywhere.
- Happily Married: Miles and Keiko, despite their vastly different tastes in food, are still enjoying wedded bliss in this episode. They're also giving the other's food a try.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Maxwell tries to justify his actions to Picard this way, arguing that they both know what it's like to be under fire. Picard retorts that Maxwell wasn't under fire—he was in no immediate danger, but unilaterally decided to kill nearly seven hundred people and jeopardise the already-fragile peace treaty.
- I Have This Friend...: O'Brien tells Keiko that the officers around him seem uncomfortable around Cardassians and wonders aloud why anyone should feel that way. She doesn't quite seem to figure out that he's trying to work through his own feelings.
- Innocuously Important Episode: While presented as a one-off for the most part, the introduction of the Cardassians leads to their becoming a primary antagonist race later on, and eventually sets the stage for the Maquis and Dominion War story lines that would be more central to the plots of DS9 and Voyager.
- It's Personal: Maxwell's wife and children were killed in the Setlik III massacre, which the Cardassians point out gives him plenty of motive for destroying Cardassian installations. They're right, he does have a grudge, but at the same time they are rearming in preparation for future conflict.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: Maxwell's final move is to hold a Cardassian transport hostage, demanding Picard board it or he'll destroy it. O'Brien instead beams over and convinces him to stand down, since Picard will never board the ship and will reluctantly destroy the Phoenix if it comes to it.
- Leitmotif: "The Minstrel Boy" becomes O'Brien's leitmotif in this episode, continuing through Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The tune comprises the first five bars of the episode's score.
- Military Maverick: This trope gets utterly deconstructed with Captain Maxwell. Countless other works of fiction have made the maverick a hero, but in this episode we see how his actions can have extremely negative consequences, even if he's not wrong about the enemy.
- Mister Exposition: Admiral Hayden of "The Defector" returns to give Picard more bad news.
- Moment Killer: Miles and Keiko start having a romantic moment... and the Enterprise rocks from Cardassian fire.
- Oh, Crap!: Gul Macet is surprised that Starfleet can read Cardassian IFF codes well out of engagement range.
- Override Command: Like in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Enterprise uses the Phoenix's prefix codes to force its shields to lower, giving the Cardassians an advantage. It's not enough, however, as the Phoenix still destroys the outgunned Cardassian ships despite the handicap.
- The Paragon Always Rebels: Picard describes Maxwell as "one of Starfleet's finest captains." Turns out that he does better in war than peace.
- Properly Paranoid: Maxwell. As Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would later illustrate, there's no such thing as being too paranoid where Cardassians are involved.
- Punch-Clock Villain: Despite being on the "bad guy" side, Gul Macet and his aides seem to be pretty decent guys. Certainly in comparison to the warmongering Space Nazis that the Cardassians eventually become.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Gul Macet is outraged that one of his men tried to steal data from the Enterprise and intends to punish him. Whether it's because of the attempt or because he got caught, that's another matter.
- Remember the New Guy?: The Cardassians apparently have been at war with the Federation until just recently and are another major alien race in the sector. This episode was the first time they'd been mentioned.
- Retcon: Earlier seasons presented the Federation as having been pretty much at peace until the Borg invasion. The Klingons had allied with the Federation, the Romulans had taken up decades-long isolationism and most other conflicts had been very minor. In "Peak Performance" Riker goes so far as to claim that starship combat is a "minor" province of a Starfleet officer's duties. This episode establishes that not only was the Ferengi incident not the first time that Picard's former ship the Stargazer had nearly been destroyed by an enemy attack, but that a Great Offscreen War against the Cardassians had only just concluded within the last year!
- Revenge Before Reason: Maxwell goes on a rampage against the Cardassians, ostensibly because they are preparing to start another war. But this is a rationalization to cover up his desire for revenge.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Maxwell tries to justify his behavior with "I prevented war!" even though his behavior almost restarted the war.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: O'Brien and Maxwell are both traumatized by the recent war, though O'Brien seems to be dealing with it better than his Captain.
- Significant Background Event: When O'Brien first beams the Cardassian delegation aboard, Troi starts staring at him... leading to a not background event where she stops before leaving the transporter room, shocked by what she senses from him.
- Stepford Smiler: O'Brien assures Picard that Maxwell took the loss of his family well, to all appearances, kept doing his duty without stopping, and kept smiling and joking. That itself ought to have been a huge red flag.
- These Hands Have Killed: During the war, O'Brien was involved in a fight with some Cardassian soldiers who were attacking Federation colonists. O'Brian grabbed a phaser and fired it without checking the settings first; the Caradassian was vaporized. When recalling the incident to one of Macet's aides, O'Brian mentions that he'd never killed anyone before then.O'Brien: I don't hate you, Cardassian. I hate what I became because of you.
- Tranquil Fury: O'Brien is quietly fuming in several scenes when he's near the Cardassians.
- Vast Bureaucracy: Maxwell's opinion of Starfleet as a whole is diplomacy and paperwork. After Picard refuses to go along with him, he looks around the Ready Room and scornfully says, "It smells musty in here. Like a bureaucrat's office."
- Villainous BSoD: "I'm not gonna win this one, am I, Chief?"
- Well-Intentioned Extremist:
- Maxwell, who goes trigger-happy on the Cardassians over what he sees as Starfleet's near-sightedness. In fact, Starfleet is well aware that the Cardassians can't be trusted, but that doesn't mean they want the shooting to start again.
- Picard is one as well. He's ordered to keep peace between the Federation and the Cardassians, no matter the cost. When he's given the choice of protecting the Phoenix and shooting Cardassian vessels, he chooses to lower the Phoenix's shields.
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Picard comes to see Maxwell as this. He suffered a great tragedy and nearly causes a war, but Picard is left sympathizing with him.
- You Fool!: Maxwell tells Picard that history will judge him as a fool for not listening. Picard, trying to keep the tenuous peace, says he will accept the judgment of history.