Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Past Tense (Part I and II)

"They made some ugly mistakes, but they also paved the way."

A complex two-parter of Deep Space Nine sees Sisko, Dax and Bashir going back to the twenty-first century – and an event that changes the future forever.

This is honestly my favorite two-parter at this point in the Deep Space Nine series. Not only do we get an episode that, once again, harks back to TOS (in this case, "The City on the Edge of Forever") and builds and develops the series mythology, we also get a story that complicates and deepens our understanding of how and why the Federation became the Federation.

The essential plot is familiar: a transporter malfunction sends someone back in time. This is a giant MacGuffin explained by Technobabble which gives us the opportunity to get an interesting double perspective on the Bell Riots, a challenging time in Earth's history when the poor and unemployed are rounded up into 'Sanctuaries' where they lead a purgatory-like existence, never really punished but never really helped and with no wherewithal to improve their own lives; Sisko, Dax and Bashir are zooped back to go through the entire experience.

Now, I am watching all these episodes for the first time in 2018, in a time where newspapers report cities putting spikes in areas known to be frequented by the homeless to prevent their sleeping in such spaces, visually disturbing those who are employed, and where race and gender are gigantic issues, and when The Handmaid's Tale is being revisited, remade, and re-sending Atwood's vision of similar cultural oppression out on the airwaves. So this is punch-in-the-gut relevant to me at the moment. What was fascinating for me were the different reactions Sisko, Dax and Bashir had to their environment.

Dax is the ultimate chameleon. Spock in "City on the Edge of Forever" used a simple hat to cover his ears; Dax wakes up, figures out the situation in a couple of blinks, and just turns on Jadzia's charm and beauty and calls her spots tattoos, and even uses them to flirt. It's the ultimate version of hiding in plain sight. She's an alien, of course, so she doesn't have much personal connection to what's happening; her primary goal is finding her friends and getting back to the ship. As a matter of fact, I was thinking while watching Dax that the symbiote was inside her going Not another transporter malfunction... oh well what did we do last time we were lost in history? I do not know if that was the goal of Terry Farrell in this episode, but that's what I got, and it was action-hero awesome. She winds up with identity cards, a rich friend named Brynner, and starts hunting for her friends.

Meanwhile Sisko and Bashir end up a few feet away, and get herded into a sanctuary district. Bashir reacts with the baffled frustration of a young idealist who's grown up in an era where this type of oppression has been 'dealt with' (at least on the surface; we're starting to see the Federation isn't all that perfect, through this series.) He's known in an abstract way about these atrocities, and has had some experiences in the past few seasons to give him insight, but this hits him in the history, and as a doctor, He Who Makes Things Better struggles to understand why the situation was even allowed to arise.

The first episode is all setup until the final moments of Part One. Bashir and Sisko are mugged for food cards in the Sanctuary District and are protected by a stranger, who's killed. The stranger turns out to be... none other than Bell himself, the person who prevented the riots (mentioned above) from becoming too deadly and wound up instigating change.

In "City on the Edge of Forever," a life was saved that shouldn't have been, and this changed the world. In "Past Tense," it's the opposite; a person dies who should have lived; as a result, in our time, the Federation disappears, and Kira and the team remaining on the Defiant can find no evidence of civilization. This is harder to fix, and this is when Sisko makes a decision and moves the episode into the stages of confrontation and resolution: he decides that he will take on the role of Bell and, in so doing, save the world – and, while we know there will be A Solution Somehow, it's intimated he won't be able to return to today.

Part II is a whirlwind as Sisko and Bashir go through the motions of the riots and try to manage the various personalities involved. And this is where "Past Tense" really shines – not in just the overarching story and history, but also in its showcasing of various personalities from the time, with some unexpected results – the bank clerk who started questioning her own complicity, the high-class friends of Brynner's, the strong but silent Michael Webb, the Clockwork Orange nature of B.C. Even Dick Miller, who I mostly attach to Gremlins mentally, elevates his usual character actor schtick into something a little bit deeper. And the subplot of Kira and O'Brien pulling a Legends of Tomorrow in the Search for Sisko was honestly hilarious – Kira became SO self-conscious! It was beyond cute.

Eventually the crew make it home, with one change – it's now a picture of Sisko instead of Bell in the history books.

Ethics and Morality

Is any civilization really any different from any other? asks Bashir in this episode. I don't think we ever know if we will remain true to our ideals. We try because we know those ideals have value. And then we test ourselves and judge ourselves.

Bits and Pieces, aka Kira and O'Brien Through The Ages

1930's San Francisco. Kira and O'Brien meet a young couple coming out of a bar. They stare at Kira. She becomes extremely self-conscious.

1960's San Francisco. Kira and O'Brien meet another young couple coming out of the same bar. They stare at Kira and O'Brien, give them flowers, which the two accept gratefully, and the two beam out.



2048 Earth (not shown.) After the Bell Riots in an alternate timeline. Kira and O'Brien report an Earth going through an extremely rough patch. Apparently no alcohol or couples or bars involved.

Quotables

Brynner: Hi. Sorry to keep you waiting. Were you able to order new ID?
Dax: Just finished. It took me a while to convince them I was who I said I was. They'll be expressing a transit pass and a couple of credit chips in a few hours. I asked them to send it here. I hope you don't mind.

Bashir: This is ridiculous. I mean, we've been here three hours and the line has barely moved at all.
Vin: I got one word for you, pal. Plenty of overtime.
Bashir: That's three words.

Bashir: Causing people to suffer because you hate them is terrible, but causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care? That's really hard to understand.
Sisko: They'll remember. It'll take some time and it won't be easy, but eventually people in this century will remember how to care.
Bashir: But it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Are humans really any different than Cardassians or Romulans? If push comes to shove, if something disastrous happens to the Federation, if we are frightened enough, or desperate enough, how would we react? Would we stay true to our ideals or would we just stay up here, right back where we started?

Overall

A fantastic, thought-provoking two parter. Five out of five Dax pompadour haircuts slightly disguising her spots but not really.

1 comment:

magritte said...

This pair of episodes is among my favorite in the series, too. I'm not usually that fond of Time Travel episodes because I feel like they tend to be a little lazy. But this episode has a strong thematic purpose in showing us a little of what preceded the Federation and caused it to come into being. And--remarkably for a twenty-five-year-old show, the future it depicts seems more depressingly plausible than it did when it was written. It's because of episodes like this one that I feel DS9 has aged much better than TNG or Voyager.