This week’s DS9 sends Sisko, Bashir, and Dax to earth in the distant year of 2024, and it’s wrong in all the ways you expect Trek to be wrong. Because our computers have caught up with, or even surpassed the ones in the 24th Century of the show, the bulky desktops and the wand-activated touchscreens of 2024 look like something you’d get at RadioShack back when those were a thing. The slang makes a game attempt to be edgy, with “logo” meaning identification, “jacked” meaning robbed, and the most eyeroll inducing one, “check your email” meaning, basically, “get a clue.” In addition, dividing up the poor into categories -- “gimmes” for normal people on hard times, “ghosts” for career predators, and “dims” for the mentally handicapped -- sounds shockingly insensitive by modern standards.
It’s in the way that the story is accurate that is far more chilling. When a transporter accident beams those three back in time, Sisko and Bashir are immediately picked up by two cops (one played by the great Dick Miller, who you remember from every ‘80s movie ever) for not having any ID. Sorry. “Logo.” Sisko and Bashir are thrown into a “Sanctuary District,” a nightmarishly overcrowded ten-block area where the destitute are sent as a de facto jail. Oh, it’s not considered that. No, food and places to sleep are provided, and there are even job placement programs. Only in practice it’s a lawless, brutal place where people are thrown and forgotten, an undermanned and underfunded program helpless to keep up with them. And, here’s the thing: after this episode was written, my hometown of Los Angeles proposed the creation of what amounted to a Sanctuary District. It never went anywhere, and I like to think it was because there was at least one Niner on the City Council.
Sisko quickly realizes that the date they’ve been sent to is significant. He explains it to Bashir, who never studied 21st Century history, because it was too depressing (Hey, that’s now! And, accurate!): They are on the eve of the Bell Riots, where the very Sanctuary District they went -- how’s that for bad luck -- will explode into violence over . . . well, everything. Hostages will be taken, but a man named Gabriel Bell will sacrifice his life to save theirs, becoming a hero in the process. He paves the way for the utopian Federation. And, when I say, “Paves the way,” I mean it. Gabriel Bell is literally one of the most important people in Star Trek history.
How do I know this? Well, in an altercation with some ghosts, a man saves Bashir’s life and gets stabbed to death for his trouble. That man was Gabriel Bell. Back in the present, the crew of the Defiant realizes that every sign of the Federation and human life on Earth is just gone, the only signals being Romulan ones from Alpha Centauri. Yeah, that’s how important this guy was. So, when the riots do break out, Sisko, being the straight up badass that he is, boldly declares himself to be Gabriel Bell. He knows he might have to die, but this is Benjamin Lafayette Sisko, a man so awesome, he had to be given a ridiculous middle name just to keep him from ascending to godhood too soon.
The episode’s quote touches on a central theme of DS9 as a whole. It’s a place the show keeps returning to: that humans are not so different. I personally like to see the overweening arrogance of the Federation at least slightly deconstructed, so long as it’s followed by the heroism of those same characters living up to their principles. The Sanctuary Districts might represent humanity at its absolute worst. As Bashir says, “Causing people to suffer because you hate them is terrible. But, causing people to suffer because you’ve forgotten how to care . . . that’s really hard to understand.” For all of Bashir’s flaws, he is a compassionate man, a Starfleet doctor committed to eliminating suffering wherever he can. He can understand reckless hate, because he is not sheltered -- he knows about the atrocities committed during the Occupation, and the depredations of the Borg -- but the idea of being indifferent is truly alien to him. This is an undeniably dark moment, but it paints the Federation as even more wonderful than the lightest moment ever could.
The episode also makes a subtle point about racism. Notice I said that while three crew members went back in time, only two were put in a Sanctuary District. Dax is found by a rich businessman and treated like royalty. Why? She’s an attractive white woman. Sisko is a black man, and while Bashir’s ethnicity is never explicitly stated (a fact I love), the actor is British of North African extraction (and related to Malcolm McDowell of all people). It’s easy to see that cops might not be very nice to two clean-cut men of color wearing what look like fancy pajamas. It’s such a pointed commentary about appearance and race -- something that neither Sisko nor Bashir would ever have to deal with in their real lives -- subtly put into an episode already brimming with commentary.
This episode falls victim somewhat to the problem of Part Ones: it’s mostly setup. Fortunately, the setup here is interesting, a precarious arrangement of dominoes that you can practically see the writers’ hands twitching to let fall.
Next up: Riot!