In the season 4 episode "The Wounded", it is revealed that Chief O'Brien was once the tactical officer under Captain Maxwell, one of the finest captains in Starfleet. Maxwell spoke of O'Briens skill as a brilliant tactical officer. By analogy to other tactical officers like Malcolm Reed (admittedly 200 years before) he should surely have been around lieutenant grade as a tactical officer.

So how come he starts off his career in TNG as a chief petty officer, operating a transporter all day long? (not including his very early cameo on conn in season one). It seems a rather backward step, both in terms of responsibilities and in rank.

  • 27
    This is a good question! I remember a dialog between O'Brian and Garak, where Garak tries to creep O'Brian out by calling him a hero and a soldier. O'Brian obviously doesn't want to be called a soldier/hero, and dislikes to be reminded of that time. Quite possibly he asked for a different assignment, where he would have nothing to do with war or battles. Transporter-chief qualifies...
    – Einer
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 7:38
  • 8
    I just wanted to say that this is a fantastic question, and has also attracted three fantastic answers. It's not often we get such a thoughtful, yet simple, question on here, and even less often that every single answer and comment is this good. Of course, I've now ruined the streak with this comment, but oh well. Upvotes for all! Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:47
  • 7
    @JamesSheridan: group hug guys, group hug. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 12:04
  • 6
    I always assumed it was like Steven Seagal's character in "Under Siege" - he struck a superior officer in anger and the only way he could stay in Starfleet was as a cook or a transport engineer.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 13:30
  • 8
    Transporter operator has to be a punishment duty. You spend days in that room with nothing to do an no place to sit. Then, with no warning the senior officers all rush in with some killer robot that has to be beamed into space before it destroys the ship. And then they just push you aside and run the controls themselves!
    – Kenster
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 14:38

4 Answers 4


I think it’s important to note that O’Brien enlisted in Star Fleet, rather than attending the four-year Starfleet Academy course. This is explored more in Deep Space Nine, where O’Brien was a regular character.

As such, when he was Tactical Officer under Captain Maxwell (and indeed for the rest of his career), he was a non-commissioned officer, and (if I understand it correctly) would technically be expected to refer to even Ensigns (like Nog) as “Sir”.

I think that means that his rank is specifically tied to his current role, rather than something which would likely only increase as his career goes on. So when he stopped being a soldier and started being a transporter monkey/engineer, he was back to square one, rank-wise.

See also this page on a wildly inferior Q&A site, and the other answers to this very question, for more background on the enigmatic Mr O’Brien.

  • 4
    I had never fully gotten my head around the whole enlisted crewmen thing, what with the constant references to Starfleet Academy and how demanding it was (how many times did Wesley Crusher mess it up?!), one would sometimes think that's the only way into Starfleet. Thanks for the links, I get it now!
    – PulseLab
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:14
  • 5
    @PulseLab: yeah I don’t think the writers did until they developed O’Brien’s character more. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:14
  • 4
    Also this does help explain it - his enlisted status and so potentially fluid rank depending on what he has to do, coupled with Liath's suggestion of him needing to go to the transporter room to get a foothold in engineering, and Einer's point that he probably wanted to get out of a red shirt because he didn't like the feeling of being a soldier... it seems to make sense now. Only problem now is, which answer do I accept?!
    – PulseLab
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:17
  • 5
    @PulseLab That's easy: This one. Mine is speculation, this is not. Whatever Miles motivation for a change was, this answer explains, why he is 'demoted' when he's on the Enterprise - and that was your question.
    – Einer
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:21
  • 2
    Works for me. Thanks for your help everyone. I caught a repeat of "The Wounded" last night and this has been bugging me. Good that what may at first seem like discontinuities can always be explained somehow!
    – PulseLab
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:37

In DS9 Empok Nor Garak tries to provoke Chief O'Brien by reminding him of being a soldier in the Federation-Cardassian War.

GARAK: This is maddening. Asking a Ferengi to play a Cardassian game is like asking a Klingon to chew with his mouth closed. Kotra is not about regrouping or hoarding assets. It's about bold strategy and decisive action. Chief, would you like to take on the winner? I'd love to play Kotra against the hero of Setlik Three.

O'BRIEN: What is that supposed to mean?

GARAK: Oh, we all know your distinguished war record. How you led two dozen men against the Barrica encampment and took out an entire regiment of Cardassians. If you play Kotra with half that brazenness, we'd have quite a match.

O'BRIEN: I'm not a soldier anymore. I'm an engineer.

O'Brien makes it very clear: he doesn't want to be a soldier, and no hero. Later that episode he put some emphasis to that statement by disabling Garak with a MacGyvered trap rather than a shoot-out.

It is speculation, but it is quite possible, that after the war, he asked for a reassignment, where he has nothing to do with battle or fighting. Since this is his area of expertise, doing something completely different would mean, that he'd have to start his career at the scratch. The position of the transporter-chief on the flagship would be as far away from battle as you can be, so he starts his way upwards there - as a petty officer.

  • 26
    And a few years later ends up as chief engineer on a space station and experimental warship right in the middle of the Dominion War. Poor guy doesn't have much luck!
    – PulseLab
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 8:47
  • 1
    @PulseLab: There's a world of difference between an Engineer on a warship and a grunt soldier...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 8:01

I doubt there's going to be a canonical explanation for this beyond "the writers wanted a transporter chief and liked him as as an actor/character". so I'm going to suggest a hypothesis.

If you think of it in terms of career progression it's not necessarily a backwards step.

Let's assume he always wanted to be a Chief Engineer somewhere, he isn't qualified for that position yet - he's got no experience. However applying for a transfer from tactical to an engineering role like the transporter room would stand him in much better stead to apply for that role in the future.

As to whether it was a demotion, I've always assumed the tactical position varied in importance based on the ship you were on. On the Enterprise which spends large amounts of time out at the frontier the tactical officer is a very prestigious role - on a small science ship which spends its time scanning moons it's probably a lot less important.

  • 2
    Thanks - this idea of him changing career tracks would work. You could even argue this is why his first appearance on the Enterprise was at conn wearing a red (command) shirt. Perhaps he made the transfer then persuaded Picard/Riker/LaForge to transfer to engineering subsequently. One slightly tedious point of contention though - the USS Rutledge (the ship he was on with Maxwell) was a New Orleans class starship, which I believe was built specifically for military use in the Federation/Cardassian war. So tactical officer must have been a pretty prominent and demanding role...
    – PulseLab
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 8:10
  • 3
    @PulseLab - I knew I should have looked it up. Do we know he was Chief TO? Perhaps he was a talented Red/Gold shirt who wanted to progress? Bearing in mind he was enlisted this may have been the easiest way to join?
    – Liath
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 8:14
  • 4
    @Liath: plus it was wartime. He may have progressed to Tactical Officer quicker than would usually be expected thanks to officers of higher rank getting taken out. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 10:21
  • 3
    I'd put your initial remark "the writers wanted a transporter chief and liked him as as an actor/character" the other way round: Without the backstory, there is no problem with O'Brien starting out as a transporter chief, so I think one could rather say "the writers wanted a backstory related to a previous post in O'Brien's career and happened to pick tactical officer". Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 20:27

O'Brien started out on Star Trek: The Next Generation as a Lieutenant (he was called that rank by Commander Riker while serving as transporter chief). It's only when they started to build a backstory for O'Brien that he started to get demoted. When Worfs foster father talked to O'Brien (in Family's)about being enlisted that the whole idea of him not being an officer took hold. In the first two episodes of TNG he served as Operations officer then he transferred to be transporter chief. In Star Trek parlance chief means being in charge, not rank. Engineering Chief, Tactical Chief, there are lots of chiefs. If you look at his collar he is always wearing the pips of a Lieutenant and it's not until DS9 that his rank was signified with Chevrons.

  • 1
    In modern military terms, "chief" is his rating while lieutenant is a rank Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 21:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.