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).

Fandom and Media Criticism

Fan enthusiasm is a wonderful thing; it’s great to discuss the stories and hobbies we love with others who also love them. Unfortunately, fandom love and enthusiasm sometimes leads people to unquestioningly defend their favorite stories and hobbies from criticism, with fans sometimes making false accusations of censorship against those who are engaging in analysis and criticism. This essay is my response to what I see as the problem of fandom reluctance to engage in important discussions about beloved media.

It’s important to mention upfront that part of the problem is that fans remember actual attempts (sometimes from not too long ago, or even current ones) at censoring their favorite creative works. There are many books, films, television shows, video games, songs, comics, and works of other media that have been targeted for censorship throughout history. (In some cases, entire mediums have been targeted as being “bad for kids” and so forth.) Fans have become so used to defending our favorite works from those who advocate bans that some fans see censorship in totally valid media criticism. We have to realize that not everyone who criticizes a work is trying to censor it. I’ll use one of my favorite stories as an example: I’m a big fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The books in this series are among the many on the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books list.[1] There are people who consider them immoral. (Laura Mallory is one of the more well-known people who have attempted to censor the series. Melissa Anelli interviewed Mallory for her wonderful book Harry, A History[2] and had the courage to point out Mallory’s double standard directly to her face.) However, that doesn’t mean everyone who criticizes the Harry Potter series is trying to censor it, even if their criticism is off-base. Harold Bloom, for instance, wrote negatively about Harry Potter (see “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.[3] and “Dumbing down American readers[4]), but to my knowledge, he hasn’t tried to have the books banned or tried to restrict access to them. I would not, therefore, accuse him of censorship. (I do accuse him of being wrong about the books.) Fans shouldn’t use false accusations of censorship to silence criticism, not least because it’s insulting to the actual struggles against censorship that take place, but also because it’s just inaccurate and makes fans seem like uncritical and unthinking consumers of media. Related to this point, fans should realize that a work that we may defend on principle when it’s targeted for censorship may actually have some or many bad elements that deserve to be criticized. Just because a work has had to be defended against censors doesn’t make it good by default, and people who point out its flaws aren’t necessarily trying to censor it.

Certain fans have also targeted people who analyze and criticize media from an equal rights and media representation perspective, inaccurately accusing such critics of supporting censorship and of playing the victim. There’s a certain sad humor in all this: People accuse those who discuss media representation and diversity of playing the victim, of remembering past injustices against minority groups and bringing that into the discussion; however, it’s often the people making the false accusations of censorship who are remembering past attempts at censorship and basing their false accusations on those memories of being targeted. An added frustration is the fact that fans accuse people who’ve been historically been (and even presently are) excluded from positive media representation due to censorship of being censors. For instance, positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters and their romantic relationships have been (and still are, in many places) considered inappropriate, often excluded to due fear of offending people who are against approval of LGBTQ+ people. There is both de facto exclusion, and even government censorship. Similar statements can be made for other marginalized demographics as well, who may be portrayed more often than LGBTQ+ characters, but whose portrayals may be censored based on discrimination or stereotypes (such as not allowing non-white characters to be main characters). Creators have also been discriminated against, with people of certain races, gender, and so on having a harder time getting their work included in media. Creators who’ve bravely attempted to challenge discrimination in their works have faced censorship. When people argue that they would like a smaller percentage stories with a white, straight, cisgender male, able-bodied protagonist and a larger percentage of stories with characters of other demographics, they are doing so because they hardly ever see characters like themselves portrayed in a realistic and positive way. They are then accused of being censors, of being politically correct, of being the “real bigots” and so forth. In other words: Fans accuse fellow fans who’ve been left out due to censorship of being censors when all the second group wants is to see some more positive portrayals of well-developed characters like themselves. Fans attempt to claim that increasing representation of a group excluded due to censorship would actually be censorship.

Even the people who may be okay with other analyses become defensive if people bring up diversity and equal rights. So, if someone wants to analyze certain symbolic references in a work (e.g. the significance of the number seven or the color green in the Harry Potter series) that’s considered fine. However, if we bring up the lack of LGBTQ+ characters in a story with an ostensible message of diversity published in the 1990s, then that’s an agenda. If someone says that a book was badly-written, that the artwork in a comic wasn’t that great, or that the mechanics in a video game were poorly programmed, that’s considered fine. People disagree (sometimes vehemently) in their opinions about these things, but they’re considered fine and relevant topics to have an opinion about. However, if someone points out underrepresentation or discriminatory portrayals of characters of certain demographics in a work, then there are people who consider that type of criticism irrelevant. Criticizing writing is generally considered okay, but criticizing writing that is discriminatory isn’t okay; criticizing the artwork is generally considered okay, but criticizing artwork that sexually objectifies or otherwise degrades people of certain demographics isn’t considered okay; criticizing gameplay is generally okay, but criticizing gameplay for how players are encouraged to treat characters of certain demographics isn’t okay. There are fans who consider it impolite or unfair to criticize media from an equal rights perspective, even though media portrayal can affect what people think of people of other demographics, as well as how people see themselves.

Fans have to realize that the status quo of their favorite medium or genre may target others for bigotry, because such bigotry is in larger society, and our favorite works are a part of that society. As fans, we talk frequently about why certain stories mean a lot to us and how they’ve affected us (e.g. they had a message that resonated with us, they helped us through a difficult time in our lives). There are even fans who credit certain stories with saving their lives, inspiring them to pursue certain goals, and motivating them to do good things. When others dismiss our love of our favorite stories and hobbies, we cite our personal experiences and the effects these stories had on us as reasons for why they should not be dismissed. But when someone discusses ways that media can affect us negatively, too many fans use the excuse that it’s “just a story” (or “just a game” and so forth). Stories are worth paying attention to because of how they affect us, and they can affect us in many ways. Fans need to realize that we can discuss how media affect us positively and negatively without agreeing with efforts to wrongly scapegoat certain works for all of society’s problems or problems that are contributed to by many factors. The same story that may have some positive aspects that deserve to be praised may also have some troubling aspects that deserve to be condemned. We can’t have a double standard when discussing the effects media have on us, acting as if they only have good effects and never bad ones.

Another thing fans have to understand is that there’s a difference between someone being ignorant about a fandom interest and someone having a different opinion of it. Many critics are also fans of the works they are criticizing; they are fans who recognize that nothing is perfect. Fans have become accustomed to media coverage of their hobbies by reporters who know little about them and who make elementary mistakes in their reporting. However, someone who is knowledgeable (and who may even be a fan themselves) but just has a different opinion or interpretation shouldn’t be accused of being ignorant. We also have to realize that works that have been considered the stereotypical examples of a particular genre or medium may not be a fellow fan’s favorite, and that’s just fine. Certain works or sub-genres have become almost synonymous with certain media and genres (e.g. pseudo-medieval, Tolkien-esque stories in the fantasy genre; first-person shooters in video games; superheroes in comics). Part of accepting criticism as a part of fandom is realizing that fans who are critical of (or sometimes don’t even particularly like) the classic examples of a genre or medium aren’t inferior fans. Even the classics can contain certain harmful tropes, and all too often, these tropes have been frequently reused due to their association with the classics. Part of believing there can be good stories, part of believing that our favorite genres and media can improve, is criticizing bad content. Fans are the people who are often the most knowledgeable about the source material, and so it’s a shame when fans ostracize fellow fans who participate in critical discussion of media. Fans who are also critics (whether professionally or as laypeople) are well-placed to be representatives of fandom, helping others to realize the value of a certain genre or medium.

Fans know our favorite genres and media aren’t always taken seriously, especially if we’re fans of some niche or less-known hobby. We spend a lot of time trying to prove that our hobby has merit, just as valid as other artistic expression. Media criticism and discussion are part of a work being taken seriously. (As many people before me have pointed out: Fans of certain media that have been looked down upon, such as video games and comics, have wanted people to take these media seriously for a long time. Now that people are taking these media seriously and subjecting the content to the same criticism that other media have received for a long time, certain segments of fans don’t like their beloved medium being held to the same standard as others.) Work from every medium is discussed, analyzed, and criticized. These works become a part of our culture, both reflecting and shaping it, and therefore it’s important to discuss them. Fans believe our favorite genres and media have stories worth paying attention to, and so we shouldn’t be upset when people give them the respect of actually paying attention to them and holding them to high standards.

When people believe a genre or medium is capable of telling great stories, they have high expectations. Fans, of all people, should want great stories to be fans of.

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Notes, Acknowledgements, and Recommended Reading

I recently went on a bit of a rant on Twitter regarding fandom responses to media criticism, and this essay basically expands on some of the thoughts I expressed there.

Thanks to Kate Elliot (@KateElliotSFF)[5] for the kind shout out during my rant. She wrote that she hoped to see a Storify, but I decided to just write an essay, as I’ve wanted to write about this topic for some time.

There has been much discussion about fandom and criticism by many people. Here are a few links to creators, websites, articles, and videos that are relevant to the topic of fandom and media criticism.

Sana Amanat, an editor at Marvel, gave a talk titled “Myths, misfits & masks” about media representation, specifically about superhero comics.[6]

Katherine Cross wrote an article a couple of months ago titled “The nightmare is over: They’re not coming for your games” about gamers who are afraid that positive reception of video games they don’t like will lead to games that they like being taken away. Cross also makes the point that fans are afraid of any type of criticism, due to their memory of past censorship attempts that scapegoated games for all sorts of problems in society.[7] Cross also wrote the article “Violence is how we get ahead” about the frequency with which violence is used in gameplay and explains why it’s a good idea to encourage creativity to expand the types of games in the medium.[8]

Kameron Hurley frequently comments on fandom and media representation. Perhaps her most famous essay on the subject is “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”.[9]

Foz Meadows frequently writes about fandom and criticizes various works.[10]

Aja Romano[11] is a fandom reporter for The Daily Dot[12] and previously wrote for The Mary Sue.[13]

Anita Sarkeesian’s discusses media from a feminist perspective in her Feminist Frequency videos.[14]

Saathi1013 on Tumblr has written many relevant meta essays about fandom, which are great reads.[15]

Kelly Thompson wrote an article titled “She Has No Head! — No, It’s not Equal[16] (and a follow-up two years later)[17] to discuss the overly-sexualized portrayal of women in comics.

Disability in KidLit discusses the portryal of people with disabilities in books for middle grade and young adult readers.[18]

We Are Comics is a campaign to show the diversity of the creators and fans of comics.[19]

We Need Diverse Books is a campaign in favor of greater diversity in literature.[20]

The Women of Marvel podcast discusses female creators and female characters in Marvel Comics.[21]

[Originally Written: 28 September 2014]

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References

[1] American Library Association. “Frequently Challenged Books”. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks.

[2] Anelli, Melissa. “Chapter Nine: Banned and Burned”. In: Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 2008, Ch 9, pp. 177-201.

[3] Bloom, Harold. “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2000. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~rebeccal/comp/108f10/Assignments/BloomArticle.pdf.pdf.

[4] Bloom, Harold. “Dumbing down American Readers”. The Boston Globe, 24 September 2003. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/.

[5] Elliott’s website can be found at http://www.katelliott.com. Her Twitter can be found at http://twitter.com/KateElliottSFF.

[6] Amanat, Sana. “Myths, misfits & masks”. TedxTeen 2014. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://tedxteen.com/talks/tedxteen-2014/217-sana-amanat-myths-misfits-masks.

[7] Cross, Katherine. “The nightmare is over: They’re not coming for your games”. Polygon, 29 July 2014. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/29/5947661/the-nightmare-is-over-theyre-not-coming-for-your-games.

[8] Cross, Katherine. “Violence is how we get ahead”. Polygon, 24 September 2014. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://www.polygon.com/2014/9/24/6833845/violence-is-how-we-get-ahead.

[9] Hurley, Kameron. Dribble of Ink, May 2013. Retrieved 28 September 2014 from http://aidanmoher.com/blog/featured-article/2013/05/we-have-always-fought-challenging-the-women-cattle-and-slaves-narrative-by-kameron-hurley/.

[10] Meadows’s blog can be found at http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/.

[11] Romano’s Tumblr can be found at http://bookshop.tumblr.com/.

[12] Romano’s articles for The Daily Dot can be found at http://www.dailydot.com/authors/aja-romano/.

[13] Romano’s articles for The Mary Sue can be found at http://www.themarysue.com/author/aja-romano/.

[14] The Feminist Frequency website can be found at http://www.feministfrequency.com/.

[15] saathi1013. “My Meta: Greatest Hits”. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://saathi1013.tumblr.com/mymeta.

[16] Thompson, Kelly. “She Has No Head! — No, It’s Not Equal”. Comic Book Resources, Good Comics, 21 February 2012. Retrieved on 29 September 2014 from http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/02/21/she-has-no-head-no-its-not-equal/.

[17] Thompson, Kelly. “She Has No Head! — Revisiting “No, It’s Not Equal”. Comic Book Resources, Good Comics, 16 June 2014. Retrieved on 28 September 2014 from http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2014/06/16/she-has-no-head-revisiting-no-its-not-equal/.

[18] The Disability in KidLit website can be found at http://disabilityinkidlit.wordpress.com/.

[19] The We Are Comics Tumblr can be found at http://wearecomics.tumblr.com/.

[20] The We Need Diverse Books Tumblr can be found at http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/.

[21] The Women of Marvel podcast episodes can be found at http://marvel.com/podcasts/12/women_of_marvel_podcast.