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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S3E12)’

“Having seen a little of the 21st Century, there is one thing I don’t understand. How could they have let things get so bad?”
“That’s a good question. I wish I had an answer.”
    — Bashir and Sisko

I’ve said time and again that much of sci-fi, and DS9 in particular, uses the far-future format to explore many different genres. Well, you probably never guessed that would include a Dog Day Afternoon-style hostage drama with Sisko and Bashir in the roles of Al Pacino and John Cazale. That’s exactly what Part 2 of “Past Tense” turns into.

I have vivid memories of watching this episode at my grandparents’ house, probably when it first aired. I have no idea why, as I don’t have these kinds of memories for any of the other episodes. It’s an undeniably good hour, and though much of it has the stagey, smoky look of TV from the early ‘90s, it does what it sets out to do. Avery Brooks’ acting is a bit less mannered here, perhaps because grounding Sisko in a recognizable milieu helped him access the crusader/martyr streak that would drive the character to accept his status as Emissary and inform him for the rest of the show’s run. Bashir also improves, and the actor has said that he feels this is the beginning of “New Bashir,” a little less sheltered and arrogant, a little more worldly and good. In any case, it is one of the many turning points that ushers DS9 from TNG – it also ran into my favorite entry into the franchise.

Last week, Sisko had just impersonated Gabriel Bell, one of the most important men in Federation history. A riot had broken out in the Sanctuary District — a place where homeless and mentally ill people are shut up out of sight and out of mind — and hostages were taken. Gabriel Bell is the man who kept those hostages from being murdered and was eventually killed himself when SWAT, believing the rumors that the hostages were killed, attacked the building. Bell’s sacrifice paved the way for utopia. Problem is, Bell was killed last week by BC, the lead “ghost” in charge of the hostages. So now, Sisko is staring down the barrel of history: he dies or the Federation does.

Those are stakes that most hostage dramas can’t even touch.

Sisko instantly calls on Webb, a “gimme” he met last week who personifies the problems of the Sanctuaries. Webb’s a normal guy with a family, but he fell on hard times, and with no job, he got locked up. Using Webb and a bunch of other gimmes, Sisko hopes to counteract the unpredictable malevolence of the ghosts. Make it harder for them to just up and kill all the hostages for a trip to Tasmania. That’s seriously BC’s goal here.

Vin (the great Dick Miller), the cop that brought Sisko and Bashir in, is one of the hostages, and he’s not amused by this whole situation. As far as he’s concerned, the people in the Sanctuaries are trash, and they deserve what they get. This makes Sisko’s job of keeping the hostages alive even more difficult, since Vin basically asks BC to shoot him on several occasions. And, man, Gabriel Bell must have been a saint. Sisko would never let an innocent man be killed if he could help it — even an asshole like Vin — but he has the advantage of knowing the stakes. Bell was just some guy, and he kept Vin alive. So, yeah. Get Bell fitted for that halo.

Dax eventually gets into the Sanctuary via the sewers, where she’s instantly caught by Clint Howard, playing a mentally-ill “dim.” It’s the one part of the episode that really doesn’t work for me, this sort of broad comedy built on the back of a Hollywood “kuh-raaaazy” person. The role was originally intended for Iggy Pop, and needless to say, that would change my mind. Nothing against Howard, who is a better actor than Pop, but the godfather of punk would have been a more interesting presence, and considering he once decorated a wall with his own blood sprayed from heroin needles, is kind of actually crazy. Anyway, Dax helps out with the one thing Sisko and Bashir can’t get done. The cops have blocked net access, and in the original history, the people in the Sanctuaries were able to hack in and broadcast their stories. Sisko theorizes that Bell might have been the one who did it. Now, Dax is able to do it (Remember: genius and the symbiont might actually have experience with computers almost this primitive.), and the residents tell their simple, heartbreaking stories. They’re not criminals. They’re not monsters. They’re ordinary folks who are being brutally punished for a little bad luck.

History unfolds as it’s supposed to. The cops, personified by genre-stalwart and winner of Most Impressive Name Deborah Van Valkenburgh, follow the path of history. SWAT attacks, and while Sisko and Bashir move the hostages, SWAT could care less. They spray bullets like they’re playing paintball, killing BC, Webb, and everyone else. They nearly kill Vin, but Sisko throws himself in the path of the bullet. Vin is wonderfully cranky at the SWAT guys here too, chastising them for the cowboy tactics. This originally aired in 1995, so long before police got the truly scary military equipment that’s led to so many overreactions. This scene is pretty prescient, or an indication that this has been going on for longer than we recognize. The SWAT guys are bigger dangers to the hostages than the desperate poor people with shotguns, and it costs several good people their lives.

The good guys get home through the actions of O’Brien and Kira. He’s figured out that filtering the beam through the chronoton particles on the hull (from the cloaking device, and don’t ask), he can go back to different eras to find the missing crew. Problem is, there are more options than there are particles. He tries 1930 first (and there’s a poster from the same boxing match that’s advertised in the TOS classic “City on the Edge of Forever,” hinting that this is the same year), then 1967, and an unseen trip to 2048, before they get the right spot. Kira adopts the classic Star Trek alien in the past gambit, with some tape on her nose and loudly telling people she broke it.

A grateful Vin takes Sisko and Bashir’s ID and swaps them out with some of the dead guys. This leads to Gabriel Bell now looking exactly like Ben Sisko in the history books. That’s a joke they’ll get back to later, too. Just another acknowledgement of DS9’s expanding universe.

When I was thinking of this episode, I remembered the character of BC quite strongly. I had no idea why. I was probably reacting more to his impressive voice and funny lines at the time, but he ends up as the most important character in the hour. When we first see him in Part I, he is a bully, one of the predators that hunts the Sanctuary. Later, he stabs Gabriel Bell to death. Yet this episode is not about Sisko and Bashir trapped with a maniac. On the contrary, BC is far more of a pessimist than anything. If he’s violent, it’s because he’s angry, angry at his unfair circumstances. Just being around the simple humanity of Sisko, Bashir, and Webb softens BC to the point that right before SWAT attacks, he gives Webb’s son (who was beaten by ghosts, and possibly that ghost) his hat before sending him out of the building to safety. BC is not an inherently evil person. He is just what happens when you treat people like animals.

I teased these episodes at bit last time for historical inaccuracy, so I did want to call one thing out. There’s a friendly debate between Vin, fellow cop Bernardo, BC, and Sisko over the greatest baseball team of all time. Vin says the ’99 Yankees, while Sisko predictably picks the ’15 London Kings, who had rookie Buck Bokai. In ’95, the Yankees were good, but they weren’t pantheon good, and there was no real sense they would be; however, many sports fans would number the ’98 Yankees among the all-time great team list, and the ’99 Yankees did win the World Series.

The episode quote comes from the last lines of the episode. It’s especially poignant now, as we’re looking at problems that will change how humans live on this planet, or even if we can. Los Angeles, where I live, is in the middle of a crippling drought caused in no small part by climate change. What’s the response from the government? A whole lot of nothing. One party is committed to denying the problem exists, and the other is too weak to force any solutions. How did things get so bad, Doctor? Apathy. Ignorance. Or, most damning: Because we let them.

Next up: Kira picks the worst time to break up.


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