Retro Review: Past Tense

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A transporter accident sends Sisko into Earth’s past, where he accidentally causes the death of the man who led the social revolution that triggered vast economic reforms.

Plot Summary: On the way to Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco, a transporter accident sends Sisko, Bashir, and Dax into Earth’s past in the 21st century. Sisko and Bashir are taken by policemen to a Sanctuary District, where the homeless and unemployed are trapped in a cycle of poverty from which there is no escape; Dax is rescued by wealthy media mogul Chris Brynner, who helps her retrieve the identification documents she needs for freedom of mobility and to work. While Dax hacks Brynner’s computers to learn about the century in which she finds herself, Sisko and Bashir are taken to a processing center, where Sisko realizes that they have arrived days before the Bell Riots – a world-altering event in which a homeless man named Gabriel Bell sacrificed himself to save hostages taken by angry Sanctuary residents demanding their freedom. After receiving ration cards, Sisko and Bashir set out to blend into the Sanctuary without changing history, but during a fight over food, a bystander who tries to help them is killed and Sisko recognizes the man as Gabriel Bell. Meanwhile, Kira attempts to send a message to Starfleet about the missing crewmembers and is shocked to discover that Starfleet no longer exists. Guessing from particle residue that Sisko and the others have been trapped in an altered past, she and O’Brien decide they must visit the most likely dates where their crewmates might have materialized. Dax learns from Brynner that Sisko and Bashir have been put in the Sanctuary District and insists that she must try to find them. Behind the walls, Sisko realizes that he must try to keep history on course despite Bell’s death, and assumes Bell’s identity at the processing center, where a group of Sanctuary residents led by the unstable B.C. have just taken the workers hostage.

As the angry residents begin to riot, Sisko insists that B.C. protect the hostages and asks Webb, a socially conscious resident, to round up reliable people to testify about the conditions in the Sanctuary District. A police detective named Preston cuts off their net access but agrees to meet with Webb, who says they want the Sanctuaries closed and the Federal Employment Act reinstated so that they can have jobs and proper homes. Preston warns that if the hostages are not released, the governor will send in National Guard troops. When Dax sneaks in through the sewers, Bashir introduces Sisko to her as Gabriel Bell and helps her track down her missing comm badge, taken by a mentally ill Sanctuary resident. Sisko stops B.C. from shooting a hostage and asks Dax to persuade Brynner to give the residents net access so that they can tell their stories, which is what the real Bell did to sway public opinion in favor of closing the Sanctuaries. But the stories incite unrest in other districts, and the governor decides to send in troops just as Kira and O’Brien successfully locate Dax in Brynner’s office. When the troops burst into the processing center, Sisko and Bashir are able to protect the hostages, though Sisko is shot in the arm and both B.C. and Webb are killed along with hundreds outside in the streets. The policemen who initially apprehended Sisko and Bashir agree to let them go after switching their ration cards with those of two men killed in the violence. The policemen promise to tell Gabriel Bell’s story, and Kira is able to retrieve the DS9 crewmembers who find that history as they know it has been restored.

Analysis: The first time I saw “Past Tense,” I thought it was a brilliant allegory of the possible consequences of Newt Gingrich’s economic policies, so imagine how much more relevant it seems on the eve of the Obama-Romney election when we’re debating the same issues about how best to help people who want to work but can’t find jobs or afford homes or health care. As much as I appreciated DS9’s use of Bajor as a parallel to Earth history and some of the problems of the contemporary Middle East, I was delighted to see social issues explored on Earth, with some attempt to explain how we got from the mess of the late 20th century to the paradise of the 23rd century in which the original Star Trek was set. There’s no doubt that the two parts of “Past Tense” are political episodes, but rewatching them now, it’s apparent that the writers did an excellent job of not rooting them too deeply in the events of their own moment in history; the date may be 2024, but it’s easy to believe that the events of the story could take place a few years closer to Zefram Cochrane or even a few years earlier, closer to our own era. The device that triggers the time travel seems pretty contrived since they’ve beamed on and off the Defiant lots of times after using the cloaking device and going through the wormhole, and I’ve never understood why in some time travel episodes, like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” let the crew keep their memories and/or their technology, while in others, like “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” everything changes simultaneously. But it doesn’t really matter, because once the storyline gets going, the past Earth becomes more interesting than the mechanism by which the crew gets there. And Sisko, at least, doesn’t have to let anyone get hit by a truck to restore the timeline.

Curiously, though I thought the storyline about how Dax’s pretty face got her right into the halls of power was annoying the first time I saw the episode – not that it’s unrealistic, just that watching Sisko work so hard while Dax can bat her eyelashes and save the world is frustrating – this time I really liked seeing that side of the social revolution, the role of the futuristic internet in conveying information and bringing people from very different walks of life together. How fascinating that Paramount in the 1990s was so willing to acknowledge the shallowness and insensitivity of corporate media moguls and to acknowledge the growing role of the news cycle in creating as well as reporting the news. Star Trek’s second-generation communications technology can start to seem awfully retro, considering the internet explosion that took place during TNG and DS9’s era, the fact that communicators and library computers were becoming reality, even if we’re probably still lifetimes if not universes away from warp drive and replicators. When these episodes first aired, the real power of all that technology was only just becoming apparent to individuals and corporations alike, so it’s great to get a storyline that looks at both the opportunities for open communication and the dangers of regulation all at once. It’s a shame that the actual past is shown in such broad cliches – O’Brien gawping at flappers, Kira trying to talk over blasting Hendrix music – and how regrettable that we don’t get to see the alternate future they visited after Bell’s death, since an image of the dangers of time tampering would be more effective than yet another lecture about it. These are small complaints, though, and it’s fair enough not to distract from an alternate future that’s already disturbing enough.

I wish we got to see more of Kira and especially O’Brien, since Earth is his planet; it’s understandable that Quark and Odo can’t really be a part of the story, since for obvious reasons they can’t visit Earth looking the way they do. But the supporting cast is excellent, though most of the characters have to reveal great depths of personality too quickly to be believable. Vin, the bitter older cop, is the most interesting of the lot because his anger and disgust ring entirely true; B.C.’s violent tendencies are too quickly muted and Lee gets awfully hysterical for someone who’s counseled Sanctuary residents for a long time – I wanted her to contribute positively. Really, though, Bashir doesn’t do much beyond token medical stuff – every time he says, “I’m a doctor…” I have the perverse hope that he’s going to follow it up with, “…not a terrorist!” or something – and he serves primarily as an excuse for Sisko to explain the history of the Sanctuary Districts, which Avery Brooks does with appropriate outrage. Overall I like the pacing of the second half of the two-parter, directed by Jonathan Frakes, better than the first, but perhaps that’s unfair since the first has to do so much background and setup of the crisis; on the other hand, it seems like it’s perpetually night in the first episode and the scenes with Dax in Brynner’s office really drag even though he has a killer view. It’s a bummer that her brief angry intensity is tossed aside for the silly “I’m an alien, may I have my brooch back?” scene, with the mentally ill guy used for comic relief rather than representative of how bad life in the district can be. The discussions of baseball, including the uncanny prediction in a 1995 episode that the Yankees would have a great year in 1999, makes for a much better break in the tension.

This is Sisko’s episode, or perhaps I should say Sisko-as-Bell’s episode. What an interesting Occupy Sanctuary movement he leads after initially having to seethe on the margins because of his fear of interfering with a history that seems destined to have been altered from the moment they arrived, making me wonder whether we’re supposed to think this is one of those time loops where it was always Sisko-as-Bell who created the world as we know it, and it was his desire not to be involved rather than Bell’s death that caused the timeline changes. We’ve seen Sisko as a capable 24th century Starfleet commander but we see so many more sides of him as a leader here, both the sacrificial hero and the man who’ll take a policeman aside to shout sense into him. Interesting that although sexual double standards seem to linger in 2024, there’s no racism apparent in the Sanctuary gangs (and surprisingly few people of Asian or Latino descent in San Francisco). Money and access to its perks are shown to be the great social dividers, which is a comforting thought because unlike long-held ethnic and religious prejudices, that’s a situation that can be resolved with a strong economy and growth, like, oh, perhaps, a thriving space program. I usually deplore gratuitous violence in science fiction, but the National Guard scenes in these episodes are effective if surprisingly bloodless, not quite scary enough to be believable as a police state; I was betting that it would be Webb’s son, not Webb, who would die, and that that would be a catalyst for change even among people who didn’t trust Webb himself. The show chooses to put verbal politics ahead of terrorism, even though Dax learns that student protests in Europe have become frightening enough to discourage tourists. We were told on TNG that Ireland would reunite the same year – 2024 – because of political violence. I have concerns about what starts to seem like the inevitability of violence before true unity is possible – on Earth, on Bajor, even on Vulcan – as a bridge to Roddenberry’s idealism, so I greatly appreciate the extent to which Webb and Bell are the heroes of this revolution.

What do you think? Chat with other fans in the Star Trek: Deep Space nine forum at The Trek BBS.

Michelle Erica Green

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Michelle Erica Green

Writer, mother, reader, traveler, teacher, partner, photographer, activist, friend, fangirl, student, critic, citizen, environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, enthusiast. TrekToday staffer for many years, former news reporter, current retro reviewer.

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