Retro Review: Far Beyond the StarsPosted by Michelle - 30/05/14 at 06:05 pm
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season: 06 Episode: 13 (s06e13)
Original US airdate: 02/11/1998
Sisko hallucinates that he is an oppressed science fiction writer from 20th century Earth who in turn is hallucinating that he’s a space station captain.
Plot Summary: When a ship commanded by a friend is destroyed by the Dominion, not even visiting father Joseph can talk Sisko out of a depression which has him considering resigning. Then Sisko sees visions of Odo dressed as a businessman and Worf as a baseball player from the 20th century. Bashir’s scans indicate that Sisko’s neural patterns look the way they did the last time the Bajoran Prophets gave him a vision of the past and future. Passing out, Sisko finds himself living the life of a science fiction writer named Benny Russell, who works on a pulp magazine with a staff that includes lookalikes of most of the DS9 senior staff. When the editor says that the publisher would like to print a photo of the staff and tells both Kira lookalike K.C. and Benny that a woman and a Nego will not be welcome, Benny becomes upset, and is further distressed when policemen who resemble Dukat and Weyoun harass him. Though his girlfriend Cassie hopes that he will help her buy and run the diner where she works, Benny writes a story about the dark-skinned captain of a space station, encouraged by a street preacher who tells him to follow the true path of the Prophets, though his young friend Jimmy tells him that crime pays more than stories. Though Benny’s colleagues all agree that his story is excellent, the editor says that he can’t print it unless Benny makes it all a dream instead of future reality. While out celebrating, Benny learns that Jimmy has been killed by the police, and is himself beaten when he protests, seeing not the policemen but Weyoun and Dukat weilding the weapons. When he recovers, Benny learns that the publisher pulped the magazine issue rather than distributing Benny’s story. The publisher also insists that Benny must be fired. Insisting that the idea of Benjamin Sisko can’t be erased, Benny collapses and is taken to an ambulance, where the preacher, who is also Joseph Sisko, tells him that he has walked the path of the Prophets. Waking in Sickbay with his neural patterns stable, Sisko tells his father that he now knows he must complete his work on DS9, even though he now wonders whether he or Benny Russell is the dreamer or the dream.
Analysis: Though “Far Beyond the Stars” certainly isn’t the first TV episode to play with the idea that its entire sernnot jies might all be a dream, I’m not aware of a time when the trope was used to greater effect, with so many thematic elements drawn in and so much impact on the character at the center of the story. Science fiction shows in general and Star Trek in particular often play with time travel, alternate histories, and hallucinations in which one character sees other characters in different places, but even among such terrific contemporary examples as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “The Inner Light,” The X-Files‘s “Triangle” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Normal Again” – the latter of which, like “Far Beyond the Stars,” calls the premise of its entire series into question – Deep Space Nine‘s contribution to the genre remains the most memorable. When I first reviewed it, my main objection was that, as with “The Visitor” in which Jake Sisko lives an alternate life of which he is left with no memory, I didn’t think “Far Beyond the Stars” really made any impact on the series as a whole, and I was particularly irritated by the limited roles into which the show’s exceptionally strong women are slotted in the US 1950s with very little comment about how sexism, like racism, is pervasive at all levels of society. I’m frustrated with the fact that, decades later, Star Trek is doing an even worse job with its female characters – the new movies don’t even pass the Bechdel Test – but I take back my objection that the episode didn’t make an impact on the series. The specter of Benny Russell haunts Sisko during all his remaining months as captain, even making an appearance when he seems once again to be considering leaving Starfleet after losing one of his dearest friends in “Shadows and Symbols,” and the continuity with other visions sent to the Emissary by the Prophets – this time not concerning the fate of Bajor, but his own people and values – makes Sisko’s final actions to safeguard the Bajorans and their gods all the more powerful.
It’s always a pleasure to see a Star Trek cast get to do something very different than their usual roles, and this cast has exceptional depth of talent, with Auberjonois who’s almost unrecognizable as Odo playing a magazine editor, and two actors usually disguised as Klingons – Dorn and Hertzler – playing an affable baseball star and a nebbishy magazine illustrator. We also get to see Alaimo and Combs out of alien makeup, suitably terrifying as racist cops while showing off their versatility with accents…something that Farrell, who plays a squealing secretary, gets to do as well. Shimerman is a standout, in part because his socially outraged character is so different from Quark, and Lofton seems ten years older than Jake, not because of the moustache but because of the show-offish, cynical attitude he projects. Siddig plays a character with more confidence and debonair British mannerisms than Bashir has ever had, while Visitor shows us a more relaxed, amiable character who didn’t grow up in dire straits like Kira – though Benny pictures her as the Major – who is more conditioned to put up with the everyday oppression of being a woman in a man’s world; I’m not a fan of Johnson’s Cassie, who’s written as simple and unimaginative while played very similarly to the much more privileged Kasidy. Yet this is Brooks’ episode, not just because of the skill with which he directed it. His performance as Benny, both expressing quiet yet building rage when he’s told no one wants to know that there are writers of color and exploding with fury when his firing precipitates a breakdown, is as good as any on television. On a different series, both the acting and directing might have earned Emmy nominations. It’s frustrating that even decades after the fictional events at the pulp sci-fi magazine, this storytelling is dismissed from serious consideration for superficial reasons.
The script isn’t perfect – Benny’s speeches get a little preachy, especially when he’s talking to friends and loved ones rather than cops and crowds, though the actual preaching by the alternate history’s Joseph Sisko, merging Christian evangelism with the prophetic traditions of Bajor, is eerily effective. Its biggest flaw is that we get to hear so little about Benjamin Sisko in Benny’s own words. How does he characterize what everyone else recognizes as a Negro captain: by identifying the man’s skin color, his birthplace, his ancestry? What constitutes race to Benny, or does he believe deep down that it’s entirely a construct created by those who wish to disempower others? It’s obvious that the writers of this episode consider gender an absolute, considering all the cliches they pile on to Cassie – Benny’s ideal woman is both flirtatious and nurturing, desirable to other men, and her life goals seem limited to being comfortable and having a family. She isn’t any more resentful than the giggly secretary or the pseudonym-bearing writer of the limitations that have been placed upon them because they’re not men. KC may pay lip service to her annoyance, yet moments before Benny’s first big speech about the suppression of his own voice, her voice – the voice of a woman who also dreams of the stars – is effectively silenced by an editor citing commercial concerns. The moment serves as a valuable reminder that Star Trek too is a commercial concern and that women’s roles from Number One to the present have been dictated by that fact. The writers’ mocking of the pulp sci-fi industry while seeming oblivious to the position of women right down to the present era creates a conundrum that detracts from the overall impact of the episode, at least for viewers like me who have trouble overlooking the ways that people are erased from Star Trek’s idyllic future – not only based on sex and sexual orientation, but ethnic and religious backgrounds and social attitudes.
Where does that leave race and ethnicity – as something that’s passable when it exists only as skin color, dramatic noses or freckles, perhaps accompanied by a taste for certain foods and preference for one style of music? Surely Benny’s sense of what it means to be “Negro” must be vastly different than the one he projects for his captain of the future, yet we see only superficial trappings in his own life of the rich black culture of his era. And if racism against humans of African ancestry is a thing of the distant past for Benjamin Sisko, how does it affect his own sense of race? The episode starts with him angry at the Dominion for the death of his friend and fellow captain, particularly angry the Cardassians, who are constructed, much like the Klingons, as a group of belligerent aliens – a projection of a 20th-21st century attitude about inbred traits and inculcated behavior. I’m not comfortable with how secure the writers seem to be with the idea that Sisko’s future represents the antithesis of Benny’s past. Racism exists in hundreds of little assumptions, not just big gestures of bigotry like police abuse and literary censorship. Jake’s eye-rolling about colored people on the moon only being allowed to shine shoes aside, it’s true that Uhura’s initial role was so insignificant that Nichelle Nichols nearly left the show before being persuaded that her mere presence was serving as an inspiration to viewers. Kira doesn’t want to date men with transparent skulls, Worf is uncomfortable by genderless societies…in a future of few broad prejudices, are these looked upon merely as personal quirks?
Tags: Retro Review