To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, every week throughout 2016 we are looking back at a Star Trek episode picked by one of our team or by a guest contributor. Today David Bastin goes far...
Like the countless time travel episodes seen in many Star Trek series,
Far Beyond The Stars has some fun with the characters and conventions of
its show, placing them in unusual roles and environments. But this
episode may be vying for the title of most creative, as it re-imagines
the crew of Deep Space Nine as writers for a pulp science fiction
magazine. Whats more, almost the entire cast of DS9 portray human
characters, without their alien costumes. It's the ultimate moment of
metafiction in the fictional Star Trek universe.
The story sees Captain Benjamin Sisko, who distraught by the death of a close friend in the Dominion War, speaks with his father about possibly leaving Starfleet. He becomes distracted by a vision of a man who is dressed in 20th-century clothes, and as the visions rapidly increase they show him as Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction writer on Earth in 1950s New York City. A period in history where both black people and women were struggling to gain equal acceptance in the workplace and everyday life.
Benny Russell writes for the science fiction magazine Incredible Tales, he's joined in this vision of New York by human versions of different characters from DS9: Herbert Rossoff (Quark) as a left-wing short-tempered Jewish writer; Julius Eaton (Dr. Bashir), a British writer; K.C. Hunter (Kira Nerys), Eaton's wife and a tough woman writer who has to adopt a nom de plume to disguise the fact that she's a woman from her readers; Albert Macklin (Miles O'Brien), a socially awkward stutterer who prefers to write stories about robots; Darlene Kursky (Jadzia Dax), a secretary whose ditsy, giggly personality belies her intelligence; Douglas Pabst (Odo), the editor of Incredible Tales, who shows sympathy for the discriminatory treatment experienced by Benny (and K.C.), but refuses to help them or take responsibility for his own role in their treatment; Roy Ritterhouse, an artist (Martok); an unnamed newsboy (Nog); two racist policemen, Officer Burt Ryan (Gul Dukat) and Officer Kevin Mulkahey (Weyoun); Benny's girlfriend Cassie (Kasidy Yates); Willie Hawkins, a baseball player (Worf); Jimmy, a local hustler (Jake Sisko); and a fiery preacher who preaches about the will of the Prophets (Joseph Sisko).
The costumes and production design of 1950's New York City are impeccable and the main cast clearly has fun playing characters very different from their usual roles. It's a pleasure to watch Bashir and O'Brien trying to pull off American accents, Dax talking like a stereotypical airhead secretary, and Michael Dorn as a dashing, Sidney Poitier-type ladies' man ballplayer.
Far Beyond The Stars is something of an eye-opener, to say the least. Obviously this period in (recent) history has been tackled by multiple shows and movies, but as a huge Trek fan I suppose this episode hit home with me a lot more than most other depictions. Little things like photo day, when K.C. takes the hint that she should not show up so that the readers do not learn she is a woman! Benny Russell himself realises that he's also not expected to show up for photos either, because he is black. And to think that this was only set 40 years before the episodes actual production. It's before I was born, but it's just so sad to think that it really wasn't that long before.
The exploration of an African American person trying to get their work published is the primary focus of Far Beyond The Stars. Russell writes a story based on a drawing of a space station, he calls it "Deep Space Nine". The idea that DS9 was invented by a socially progressive-thinking writer
during a racist period in American history is a nice nod to Gene
Roddenberry's vision of a future in which Earth's 20th century problems,
like racism, are nonexistent.
"Deep Space Nine" is about the station's commanding officer, Benjamin Sisko, a human of African descent (or Negro, the term used in the episode). Although all the other writers consider it a strong and important work, Pabst refuses to publish it due to its racial content, but eventually agrees after Albert suggests that Benny make the ending of the story "a dream by a Negro person".
While out with Cassie to celebrate his story being published, Benny overhears gunshots. He rushes to the scene to find that Jimmy has been killed by Officers Ryan and Mulkahey, ostensibly because he was trying to break into a car. When Benny protests this injustice, they beat him savagely.
On his first day back at the office, excited to see his story in print, Benny learns that the whole month's run of the magazine has been pulped, as the owner preferred to take a loss rather than sell a magazine featuring a Negro hero. Worse still, Benny is fired for writing the story.
This, understandably, crushes Benny emotionally. As he breaks down, with all of his heart and soul he insists that the characters he
invented for his story are real and no one can take that away from him,
no matter how much society tries to suppress his freedom of expression. He collapses to the floor sobbing and is taken away by an ambulance. As he falls unconscious, he looks through the window and sees not a cityscape, but stars streaking by as if the vehicle is traveling at warp speed.
Far Beyond The Stars was directed by Avery Brooks himself, and his final inspirational speech given as Benny is one of the most powerful given by any actor across any series of Trek. I'm sure this hour of television must rank right at the top of the work Brooks is most proud of in his career. Deservedly so. It shows just how far we have come in such a short period of time, and maybe Star Trek's vision of a united future for all men and women regardless of race has played a small part in that.
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