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Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Far Beyond the Stars

"You are the dreamer, and the dream."

The Prophets send Sisko a dream in which he is a 1950s science fiction writer trying to get his story about a space station called Deep Space Nine and its (Black) Captain Benjamin Sisko published.

This is one of the first three episodes I ever saw – the other two were "Emissary," for obvious reasons, and "Trials and Tribble-ations," because I'm an Original Series fan. I bought one of those old VHS tapes that used to have two episodes on them and gave it a watch because I was curious, and I'm so glad I did, because this episode is just heart-breakingly beautiful.

The reason it appealed to me before I watched the show is, of course, that most of the story doesn't follow the regular characters. I had no idea what was going with the Prophets or who or what they were (I'm pretty sure I watched this first, then "Emissary"), and was totally confused by the parts of the story that were actually set on Deep Space Nine, but it didn't matter, because this story isn't just about Deep Space Nine, this story is about all of Star Trek.

Star Trek, as a franchise, is about hope. Ultimately, when you get right down to the core of what this huge, growing behemoth of a Paramount property is all about, that one word sums it up. It's about hope that humankind has a future, and that future is a good one. The Original Series was made during the political turmoil of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, 90s Trek as we were becoming more and more aware of the damage we're doing to the planet, and the new series that have been coming out since 2017 – well, let's just say we've been leaving in some strange dystopia ever since 2016 and leave it at that! And we still haven't sorted out the environment. But Star Trek offers the promise, the dream, that someday the world will be a better place, and that it's worth fighting to make that change come about.

Some branches of the franchise are more optimistic than others. Discovery started out rather bleaker but has taken on a more optimistic tone as it's gone on; Picard is considerably more downbeat than its immediate predecessor TNG, but still ultimately optimistic. Back in the 90s, the only slightly less optimistic show was Deep Space Nine. Overall, the show was still about good people trying their best to do good things in the world, but it explored war crimes, terrorism, guilt and destruction and its characters were rather more flawed than in Voyager or TNG.

"Far Beyond the Stars" perfectly captures that balance of hope and despair that sets Deep Space Nine apart from other branches of the franchise. Benny Russell tries so hard to hold on to hope, both the hope represented by his fictional Black starship captain, and the simple hope that he will be able to get a story with a Black protagonist published. His breakdown when that hope is taken away is all the more gut-wrenching for being a glimpse into utter despair that's rare for this franchise.

There have been numerous Black actors in Star Trek over the years, but until 2020 Sisko was the only Black Commander/Captain to be the main lead in a series, and he's still the only Black man to do so (incidentally Paramount, if you're listening, I would watch the heck out of a series based entirely on Geordi LaForge captaining a ship of ethically dubious holograms and reading books to children at the school, but I digress). No other Black character in Trek's history has been so interested in their own history and heritage. Most tend to live quite happily in Trek's hopefully colour-blind utopia, and that's all to the good. But there's something to be said for a character who feels his people's tragic history and who can tap into and talk about the awful challenges facing Black people today.

For, depressingly, the main story of this episode – which is set in the 1950s – reflects horribly current problems. Watching Jimmy/Jake be gunned down by police officers is downright chilling, and reflects an endemic, tragic problem that has persisted from well before the 1950s, through the 1990s when the episode was made, and is still happening now. Benjamin Sisko's passion about his own history and background allows Deep Space Nine to raise these issues in a way that most Star Trek franchises don't, and bringing it up through a character living in the twentieth century makes the story a desperately sad reflection of our reality, even while the characters try to cling to the hope Star Trek as a franchise represents.

The impact when that hope is taken away from Benny is truly one of the most heart-breaking scenes the franchise has ever produced. One of the things Avery Brooks' fellow cast members have often said about working with him is that he is "intense" – and never more so than in his performance here, directed by himself. You can really see that Brooks feels every bit of the pain that is flowing out of Benny Russell, and because he feels it, we feel it too. As a privileged white woman from England, I have never experienced pain and prejudice on this level, but that's what stories and performances like this are for – to reach out to viewers of all backgrounds and draw everybody in to empathise, as much as possible, with people in this position, to feel just a fraction of what they feel. Brooks' fellow actors have talked about how much of himself he threw into that scene and how he was almost breaking down for real, and all of that comes across to the viewer in what must be one of the most memorable scenes in the whole show, if not the whole franchise.

There's so much of Star Trek, with more appearing all the time (and, frighteningly, I've seen just about all of it!), and there are loads of really good episodes scattered throughout the franchise. But there are a very few that, if someone asked you to make a list of the ten best episodes in all of Star Trek, you know would be on that list. This is one of them.* It's not just a great episode, it's a really important episode. And I can say from personal experience that it's well worth a watch, whether or not the viewer has any interest in Deep Space Nine! It's a deeper and richer experience if you know the show, but a great episode for any Star Trek fan even if you don't. This is what Star Trek as a franchise is all about.

Bits and pieces

- Alongside the deeply serious themes of this episode, it's also great fun seeing everyone out of their usual make-up. Deep Space Nine has quite a large proportion of characters in fairly heavy prosthetics, it's lovely seeing them in their human forms!

- Racism is the primary theme of the story, but it does have time to nod briefly towards sexism and anti-Semitism as well.

- I have watched all of Deep Space Nine now and have a better understanding of where this fits into the ongoing story arc, and how this experience motivates Sisko. But honestly, it stands alone perfectly well and works either way. For anyone who's not worried about spoilers, it's a great introductory episode for the show.

- The writers considered ending the entire series by revealing Benny Russell with a script for the show outside a television studio, but perhaps wisely decided that implying the whole Star Trek franchise was a dream probably wasn't a good idea.

- I do love how much Albert/O'Brien is really in to robots.

*Other episodes on that 'Best in All of Star Trek' list would include "The City on the Edge of Forever," "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Best of Both Worlds," "In the Pale Moonlight," "Year of Hell," and "Living Witness."

Quotes

Benny: Wishing never changed a damn thing.

Julian: Calm down, dear boy. We're writers, not Vikings.

Benny: You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea!

Sisko: For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.

Final analysis: I don't even know how to score this one. Five out of four 1950s science fiction stories.

8 comments:

Billie Doux said...

What a lovely review, Juliette. You brought me to tears, and it's been a long time since I saw this episode.

JRS said...

I loved this episode - and this review - I want to watch this all over again now.

DreadPirate said...

DS9 is the only Star Trek series I’ve never seen. This review has motivated me to start!

PS - Any “Best of Star Trek” has to have “The Inner Light”!!

Billie Doux said...

DreadPirate (Roberts), my favorite TNG episode is definitely "The Inner Light." It was intensely moving.

Juliette said...

Billie I have to confess, I cried while writing it!

Good point about The Inner Light, that is a classic. Though for me, it would be just edged out I think - but i think it would be on a lot of people’s top tens!

magritte said...

DS9's willingness to tackle themes like this is why it's my favorite Star Trek. I can't help but contrast this episode with TNG's Time's Arrow where Guinan hanging out with the elite in 1890's San Francisco was jarring. In some ways, DS9 is a less hopeful version of Star Trek because it reveals that the Federation isn't always perfect and its freedoms need to be guarded. But it's also the only version of Star Trek that has thought about how we get from here to there (in the 2-parter Past Tense).

Inner Light is by far the best 1-episode romance any version of Star Trek has ever done

Victoria Grossack said...

This is a fantastic episode on its own. But were the Prophets trying to give Sisko a particular message? If so, what was it?

Juliette said...

Victoria I think they might have been encouraging him to keep fighting. Though to be honest that's probably the episode's only real weakness - it's a bit vague and an odd way to do it, it's so clearly just an excuse to tell the 1950s story!