Of the successor series, DS9 was always the most concerned with utilizing this element of the genre. They slipped in references to current events, with Bajorans able to stand in as nearly any colonized peoples, with Ferengi lampooning late-stage capitalism, with the Dominion War providing a basis to examine war as a concept. Best of all, DS9 rarely, if ever, kept themselves from telling a ripping sci-fi yarn, so you didn’t really notice when you were getting a heady dose of philosophy. Except, occasionally you did. This week’s episode, “Far Beyond the Stars,” stopped the series in its tracks to comment not just on race, but on the entire nature of storytelling -- its past, future, and even its purpose.
I initially was going to begin this review with the idea that somehow, in the eighteen years since “Far Beyond the Stars” aired, it had become more relevant. Only, this isn’t really true. It’s only true from the standpoint of me, a white guy. The issues that this hour raises -- representation, black masculinity, and the relationship with law enforcement -- are not ones that were part of the national conversation about race until relatively recently. I had no idea they were even a thing. I mean, sure, Ben Sisko being black was a big deal when the show debuted, but I had no idea how much of a big deal. I just liked him because he was cool. He was the captain of my show. My little corner of Trek. Really, the idea that it’s more relevant says more about the way passive racism can creep into the psyches of even the most well-meaning among us. We just don’t see what’s in front of our faces.
This episode begins with another bad report from the Dominion War. This time, it’s news that the USS Cortez was destroyed along the Cardassian border with all hands lost. This included the captain, an old friend of Sisko’s, who was out there on Sisko’s orders. The war is beginning to take its toll on the Emissary. He’s considering walking away from the crushing responsibility, something he shares with his visiting father. This is Joseph Sisko’s first time off Earth, and to underscore how badly the war is going, his reasons are darkly fatalistic: “It was now or never.”
This is only the prelude to the real episode. Sisko suffers a series of seizures in which his brainwaves display the same activity they had last season when the visions from the Prophets nearly overwhelmed him. Finally, he passes out and awakens in 1953 New York City with a different identity, different life, and different concerns. Here, he’s Benny Russell, a struggling writer working for Incredible Tales, a sci-fi magazine. His friends, enemies, and family are also there with him, each one in a new guise sort of informed by who they once were, while occasionally, in periods of intense stress, flashing back to their familiar identities. The main crew (plus Quark) are the staff writers on the magazine, Dukat and Weyoun are a pair of racist cops, Jake is a small-time hustler, Kasidy is Benny’s angelic girlfriend, Worf is a great ballplayer in the recent-integrated major leagues, Nog is a newspaper vendor, and Joseph Sisko a mysterious street preacher whose words sound like they’re much more about the Bajoran Prophets than a Christian God.
The staff on Incredible Tales get their assignments from the in-house artist (Martok) who draws whatever he likes, with Pabst, the editor (Odo), coming up with a title, and these are up for grabs by the writers to do whatever they like with them. It’s a fascinating look at how fiction used to be mass produced in a mill, and inspiring the way great writers could take prompts like this and work magic. When the artist produces an untitled sketch of a station very much like Deep Space Nine, Benny’s enraptured. He grabs it and pens a story called, of course, Deep Space Nine. It’s the best work Benny’s ever done, with every one of the other writers flipping over it. Only one problem: the protagonist is Captain Ben Sisko, and Incredible Tales refuses to publish anything with a black hero. “Make him white,” the editor tells Benny.
Benny refuses, of course. He has to. Because it matters that Sisko is a black man, something underlined in an earlier scene where Jimmy (Jake) scoffs at the idea of someone like him in space, allowing only that maybe black people will be allowed to mop floors and shine shoes. Star Trek was one of the first shows to break this barrier and show there was a place for every kind of person in the bright future. There’s a famous story about a young Whoopi Goldberg running to her mother shouting, “There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!” She was, of course, talking about Lt. Uhura, the fourth in command of the USS Enterprise. That’s the power of representation. It’s not something that a person like me can ever truly understand, as there’s never been a dearth of white guys being heroes. But for someone like Jimmy, or Whoopi Goldberg, or Benny Russell, representation provides models for people to aspire to. Heroes that look like them and come from the places they came from. Someone like Mae Jemison might never have touched the stars without Nichelle Nichols showing that it was possible.
The magazine can’t have that, fretting that white readers won’t bond with a black protagonist. This echoes an earlier scene where the magazine was going to post a picture of its staff, while allowing Benny and writer K.C. Hunter (Kira) to sleep late that day. This is entirely accurate; there were both black and female pioneers in the science fiction genre at the time, and they had to present to the world as white men. Hilariously, it’s Herb (Quark), the left-wing firebrand, relentlessly haranguing the editor for his backwards priorities. Even his privilege only gets him so far when Pabst makes a remark about Herb being a Communist. In 1953. For non-history majors, that was the height of the McCarthy Era, when innuendo like that could end your career.
If “Far Beyond the Stars” stopped there, it would still be a passionate plea for the power of representation. It chooses to go deeper. Even Worf’s ballplayer, a man doing very well for the standards of the time, shoulders the weight of racism. He lives where he always did; the whites will let him play with them, but not live next to them. In the old neighborhood, he’s still a hero. He’s a bit too shallow to realize it, but he’s the representation the locals need to strive for more.
For Jimmy, though, it’s too late. He ends up the victim of his own schemes and a pair of overzealous cops when he’s shot breaking into a car. Benny happens upon the murder just after it happens, screaming at the cops for the fact that Jimmy was unarmed save for a crowbar, but the cops shot him anyway. Does that sound familiar? If not, it’s only because a crowbar is much closer to “armed” than a black man has to be to be killed by the police. Again, this was eighteen years ago, depicting a scene forty-five years before that. Yet it could have been about something that happened yesterday. And when I say “yesterday,” I mean the day before I write these words, the day before they’re published, the day before you read them. Because it doesn’t matter. Because this happens every day.
The police viciously beat Benny (while flashing back to their faces as Dukat and Weyoun), to the point where he takes three weeks to recover, and even then gets around gingerly with a cane. He goes into the office, and while his friends are happy to see him, it’s telling that none of them actually visited him when he was on the mend. Benny, though, finds that he’s been fired.
Avery Brooks often gets hit with the accusation that he’s a stilted performer. That’s true to an extent, as he’s clearly meant for the stage, with his sonorous voice, meticulous elocution, and commanding presence. Here, though, he does some amazing work, all the more incredible in that he directed this episode, as well. He lays the groundwork through the hour, slowly coming unglued, which can lead to his final breakdown. In the beginning, there’s none of Sisko’s bluster, none of his power. When faced with white characters, especially those in authority, he’s disconcertingly meek. He hunches his shoulders, his eyes dart away from contact, and he speaks in low, non-threatening tones. He opens up when he’s around other African-Americans, showing humor, joy, and a restless physicality. Around whites, he’s in a straitjacket of expectations. He can’t be demonstrative. He can’t be happy, or angry, or agitated. He has to avoid upsetting those around him with the inconvenience of his emotions. So here, when he does fall apart (which he does in a single take with the camera sitting unblinkingly six inches from his face), it’s stunning to behold.
The speech he gives is about the power of stories. They are real, and they do exist. Ideas are not human. They’re immortal and no amount of small-minded bigotry can make them go away. He’s not just talking about representation -- though that’s a vital part -- he’s talking about the stories themselves. They have the power to change the world. He’s right. Some of the purpose of fiction is to inspire, and to that end, the democratic utopia of Star Trek is at its best when it’s showing that hatred and intolerance are things of the past.
Benny has to be taken away in an ambulance, and the preacher is in the car with him. This scene gives the impression that the vision is fraying at the edges. Catharsis has been reached, and its power is receding. Outside, the windows show stars streaking by at warp. Benny wants to know what he is. “You’re the dreamer... and the dream,” the preacher tells him. In short, you’re both. What does this say for the reality of Star Trek? Whatever you want it to. At least for now, until they answer with the sequel to this episode.
For the reality of DS9, though, this is what Sisko needed. He awakens, his neural patterns returned entirely to normal. Now, he has the strength to go on with the Dominion War. Benny, and every other person like him, needs Sisko to. He is a hero, and this is what heroes do.
Next up: The crew discovers the Pym particle.