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In Praise of “Far Beyond the Stars”

“You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea.” (Benny Russell)

“You are the dreamer, and the dream.” (Preacher)

“For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” (Benjamin Sisko)

In the Star Trek canon, there are (thus far) over seven hundred episodes and twelve films. It’s difficult to choose a favorite, but there is one episode that I think encapsulates what I think Trek is all about. That episode is “Far Beyond the Stars” from season six of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.[1] I just rewatched it a few days ago, and my high opinion of it was reinforced further. Let me tell you how much I love this episode and why.

The framing of “Far Beyond the Stars” is that most of the episode is a vision of Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. Captain Sisko is the Emissary of the Prophets, and he’d had visions from the Prophets in prior episodes. At the beginning of the episode, Sisko has received news about the destruction of the USS Cortez, which was captained by a friend of his named Quentin Swofford; the Defiant searched for six hours but found no survivors from the destruction of the vessel. Sisko feels despair and doubt due to the repeated deaths and setbacks in the Dominion War; he doesn’t know if he can take it any longer and considers leaving Starfleet. He then starts seeing weird things and then finds himself in 1950s New York as Benny Russell, a science fiction writer for Incredible Tales of Scientific Wonder. The Deep Space Nine characters have counterparts in this 1950s storyline. Albert Macklin (Miles O’Brien), Kay Eaton (Kira Nerys), Julius Eaton (Julian Bashir), Herbert Rossoff (Quark) are also science fiction writers at Incredible Tales. Douglas Pabst (Odo) is the editor of the magazine, and Darlene Kursky (Jadzia Dax) is his secretary and a fan of science fiction. Roy Ritterhouse (Martok) is an illustrator at the same magazine. Cassie (Kasidy Yates) works at a diner, which she’s hoping to buy, and is Benny’s fiancée, hoping to settle down with him. Willie Hawkins (Worf) is a baseball player for the New York Giants. Jimmy (Jake Sisko) is a friend of Benny’s, and Benny is concerned that Jimmy is involved in some criminal activity. Burt Ryan (Dukat) and Kevin Mulkahey (Weyoun) are police officers who harass civilians, and especially target African-Americans. The Preacher (Joseph Sisko) speaks the word of the Prophets, and Benny encounters him several times. An unnamed news vendor (Nog) sells science fiction magazines. A major theme of the story is the discrimination faced by Benny and other African-Americans during the 1950s, with a message about the importance of equality and hope for a better future.

This episode is clearly one of the special episodes about an important issue that many television shows attempt to include every once in a while. Episodes of this type are notoriously difficult to pull off, in my view; it’s too easy to be overly simplistic or too cautious or too preachy, despite good intentions. Even in a story like Trek, in which many episodes have some sort of theme or message, when the creators consciously try to create an episode which very obviously addresses a current controversial social issue, the results are mixed. Even in a story that generally has a theme of people who are different being allies and working together, attempts to include obvious real-world equality messages can end up being unsuccessful. (There are, for instance, Trek episodes which attempt to address LGBT issues; to the frustration of many fans, myself included, the results ranged from half-heartedly decent attempts to frustrating failures that seemed sometimes to imply the opposite message of what was intended.) One of the reasons I love “Far Beyond the Stars” is because it’s a special important-issue episode that manages to do it right—in fact, not just right, but wonderfully right. It’s not just good compared to the other okay episodes of this type, but is one of the best in the canon.

“Far Beyond the Stars” is effective in showing that when a society has institutional discrimination against certain people, that discrimination can manifest in many different forms. There is horrendous violence done against people based on race, including by police officers who killed Jimmy and brutally beat Benny. There are also various forms of discrimination, and reminders that others think less of you, all throughout one’s life. A group photo of the writers of Incredible Tales is planned, but Kay Eaton (who writes under the name K.C. Hunter) and Benny Russell are not included, so that the audience doesn’t find out that Hunter is female and Russell is African-American. Benny’s story about a space station is not published because the main character is a black Captain. The baseball player Willie Hawkins, in response Cassie asking him why he continues to live in Harlem when he could afford to live in a different neighborhood, says that white people wouldn’t want an African-American living among them; where he lives right now, he’s respected, but if went to live in a predominantly-white neighborhood, his neighbors would look down on him. In this world, it’s understandable why someone would be doubtful that things will get better. As Jimmy says when Pabst doesn’t want to publish Benny’s story, “I told you you were wasting your time. A colored Captain! They only reason they’ll ever let us in space is if they need someone to shine their shoes. […] Today or a hundred years from now, it don’t make a bit of difference. As far as they’re concerned, we’ll always be niggers.” A future like the one in Benny Russell’s story seems far-fetched, but it’s one that he holds on to, even when the magazine’s publisher decides to pulp the issue rather than put out an issue that includes a story with a black Captain.

The episode also subtly prompts viewers to consider our own biases. Throughout the story, the justification given for the discriminatory decisions at the magazine is the audience. This is the same justification often given today for being exclusionary when deciding which stories are worth publishing and filming. As fans, the episode encourages us to look at ourselves and what we choose to read. The question is brought up of who is ultimately responsible for these discriminatory actions, both in the story and in our own world. People never want to blame themselves; the editor blames the publishers and the readers, the publisher blames the readers, and the readers claim they’re not actually discriminating while they keep receiving and reading content that caters to their biases. There is a seemingly never-ending cycle of discrimination, as the way things are becomes a justification for continuing to do what we have always done. Things can only improve if someone stands up and says something, if writers and readers want a better future. Just as Benny Russell keeps up hope, so does Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine, deciding that he’s going to stay and finish the job he started. In response to his decision, his father Joseph Sisko says to him (referencing 2 Timothy 4:7), “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”

In addition to the more serious themes, there were also some humorous and fun scenes; I enjoyed scenes and dialogue that make references to Star Trek and other science fiction. The fictional science fiction writers in the 1950s read Benny Russell’s story and comment on their counterparts in the twenty-fourth century; Kay Eaton likes Major Kira Nerys, because she thinks science fiction could use more strong female characters, while Darlene Kursky finds the idea of Jadzia Dax having a “worm in her belly” (the Trill symbiont) interesting but disgusting. Julius Eaton comments in one scene, “We’re writers, not Vikings” (a reference to the “I’m a doctor, not a …” catch phrase of Trek physicians). Some of the fictional science fiction writers have reminded viewers of famous writers, and there are also overt references to various famous writers of the time period when the writers at Incredible Tales are discussing the latest issue of Galaxy. The fact that Kay Eaton writes under the name K.C. Hunter is a reference to female writers, including C.L. Moore, who wrote under initials to hide their identity; in fact, there have been female writers of Star Trek who’ve done the same thing, including D.C. Fontana, who wrote for The Original Series. These scenes provide some amusement, while also adding to the commentary on the episode’s own series and genre.

Another reason why I think this episode was well done was that it is connected with the rest of the story, rather than seeming out of place in the way that some special important-issue episodes sometimes do. Because the 1950s portions of the episode are a vision of Captain Sisko, we see how the vision affects him and inspires him. Rather than being a random episode interrupting the larger narratives of the series, the episode is built into Sisko’s story arc, connected with several other episodes with visions or historical references, in addition to showing him dealing with the loss of his friend and the despair of fighting in the Dominion War with repeated setbacks. The vision of Benny Russell influences his decision and inspires him, just as the story of Deep Space Nine is Benny Russell’s vision of a better future and gives him hope.

Finally, of course, there are the fans watching the show and our acute awareness of what we are seeing. We are watching the story of an African-American science fiction writer who is told that his story can’t be published because the Captain is black, but that story is part of a television series with a black Captain. Things in our world have improved, but at the same time, we are closer to the 1950s United States than the twenty-fourth century of Deep Space Nine. This episode is one of the ones that address real-world problems of inequality in a show that often promotes diversity and inclusion in metaphors. This is also an excellent example of how having a diverse cast of characters can reinforce the messages of equality that is found in the metaphors. Because Deep Space Nine has a diverse cast of characters, the real-world diversity and metaphorical diversity reinforce each other for a good message. In this episode in particular, that is shown very well through the story. We look at our recent past and a fictional far away future, seeing a past world in which a story about aliens and robots can be accepted but a story about a black Captain is unacceptable, in contrast with a future in which Earth is united and part of the United Federation of Planets, with humans working together with people from hundreds of planets. And we despair just a little, because we recognize in our own society the problems of the past. But there is also hope. “Far Beyond the Stars” represents what Star Trek is at its best, what it aspires to be. Like Benny Russell, we hope for a better future—not just one with starships that let us visit other planets and meet people from other planets, but one in which things are better for more human beings.

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Acknowledgements

With thanks to Foz Meadows (@fozmeadows) and Kate Elliott (@KateElliottSFF), with whom I participated in a fun Twitter conversation about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in October 2013.

[Originally written: 2 March 2014]

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References

[1] The Memory Alpha wiki entry about “Far Beyond the Stars” can be found at http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Far_Beyond_the_Stars_(episode).

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