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Apr 01

Star Trek DS9: Far Beyond the Stars (Ep 6.13)

Once in a while, an episode of Trek will turn out to be a gem, and this week’s one is most definitely a shining example. It’s Trek at its finest. It’s not just science fiction entertainment, full of geek notions and superfluous scientific sounding buzzwords. No, it’s entertainment with a social and cultural awareness that transcends technology, science, warp drives and tranporters by delving into what any human – sci-fi fan or not – can relate with: the human condition. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Deep Space Nine is not a soapie set in space. OK, sometimes it is, but not always. Its unique positioning means that it can mean so much more than an episode of Neighbours. This week’s episode is almost unrecognisable as Trek for those who don’t follow it, yet it is as Trekkian as an episode with guns blazing and weapons firing. (In fact, this episode is more likely to turn off the philistines who watch sci-fi just for the hi-tech destruction and special effects. Don’t get me wrong, I love those too, but at the same time I appreciate the other side of science fiction which happens to be purely about carnage. I don’t appreciate the people who dispense a good work of sci-fi just because it doesn’t have a shipfight.)

My roommate walked past when I was watching this episode: “What show is this?”
“Deep Space Nine.”
“Star Trek??? This is Star Trek?”

The plot revolves around Sisko having a mysterious dream that places him in the role of Benny Russell, a black science fiction writer in the early 1950s. He works for a publishing firm where, after being inspired by a drawing of the DS9 station, he goes on to write a piece about a space station captained by a black man. However, given the climate of the era, the story, despite being very well written, is straight away dismissed by the editor as implausible: “Your hero is a Negro captain… it’s not believable.”

One of Benny’s colleagues suggests that the piece is rewritten so that the story turns out to be a dream dreamt by a black man. If it’s a dream, then it can be implausible and it won’t make a difference, right? Theoretically correct, until the publisher not only cans the story before its makes it to press, but then fires Benny.

This show is commenting on racism. That is pretty damn obvious. What is interesting is that traditionally Trek has been colour-blind. Fair enough, given Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a quasi-Utopian society. The Original Series aired the first interracial kiss on television. Nonetheless, the show has seemingly consciously avoided making direct statements about racism and the race of characters in the series. Sure, there have been many episodes regarding racism, but this is the first time a character has been identified as being “black” and certainly the first time the show has used the word “niggers”.

Russell’s tragic struggle is ultimately doomed by Mr Stone, his publisher, but within him, he claims hysterically and repeatedly, the idea lives on. Nothing can stop an idea because you can’t censor what a person thinks (1984-esque societies aside). And that makes it as real as if the idea was published on paper. The allusions to black visionaries and their struggle are clear, but the point is made in a way that is not offensively blatant, but tasteful. This show could not have been aired in the 70s. Possibly, some would have found the idea of a black in command a little distasteful.

Yet, the show is introspective in that it acknowledges that in the 90s, a black can be in command of a space station on a television show – something that would’ve been impossible in the 50s. The point – that we have come a long way but there are still problems – is trite, but still needs reinforcing in today’s society.

The plot aside (which is devoid of Trekkian technology), the episode has a little fun with shoving the actors into new roles. Acting as people of the 50s, we see all the regular cast without makeup. Some are identifiable by their face and the rest by their voice. JG Hertzler stars as an artist. He is unidentifiable by appearance but luckily his voice is incredibly distinct. Combs and Alaimo (Weyoun and Dukat, normally) have accented their voice but are still identifiable as the two white cops with the typical non-subtle white supremist attitude. Eisenberg (Nog) cameos as a paperboy, Dorn (Worf) as a football player. Farrell (Dax) makes a good job acting as Darlene the ditzy secretary. The characterisation of the others is well done. If the two cops are overt racism, then Auberjonois (Odo) playing Douglas the magazine editor is the embodiment of covert racism. He refuses to publish the story, not because he objects, but because the public objects. He says “that’s the way things are”. He can live with a Negro writer on staff, but to let others know? Nuh uh. Shimmerman (Quark) is Herb the writer with views opposing his editor’s.
I like the reference to Communism and McCarthyism (Douglas insinuates that Herb is a “pinkie”). Visitor (Kira) represents feminism, which has had a history with many parallels to racism.

The reflective conclusion to the show also worked on a variety of levels. It gets Sisko thinking – he is privileged to be in the position he is in (owing that privilege to Negro activists who worked to produce the colour blind 24th century society) and inspires him out of disillusionment. Secondly, there’s the existential level – what if he is a part of a dream – a figment of Russell’s imagination? Is he real if he is an idea? Of course, there’s a third wrapper which is even jucier. Sisko is part of someone’s imagination, but not of someone far beyond the stars. He is a product of the Trek franchise, created by Trek writers. He is a dream, but for millions of viewers around the world, that does not make him any less “real”. The proof is in the pudding (did I use that expression right?) – the show, by its very existence, verifies the assertion that “an idea in the mind is still real”. Clever.

There is no B-Plot to detract from the story this week. Instead we have an engaging, intelligent episode with an atmospheric music score and the 50s was realistically portrayed in costume and set design. There’s a lot more to this episode and my review doesn’t do it justice. Watch it.