You Talking Trek to Me? – “Far Beyond the Stars”

***Content warning: Discussion of racism in the U.S.***

“Far Beyond the Stars”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 6, Episode 13

The most enduring aspect of Star Trek’s appeal is its futuristic utopia. In each episode (or film) the characters struggle against some obstacle or foe – and sometimes with each other – but it presented an overall vision of humanity that had put its own fundamental problems behind it. As optimistic (or hopelessly naive, depending on one’s sensibilities) as that notion is, it’s an extremely positive and appealing idea to dream of. “Far Beyond the Stars” turns this idea around in a startling way: the reality is the future utopia and the dream is the ugly and flawed past humanity worked its way out of. It’s one of Star Trek’s bravest, saddest, angering, and most memorable installments.

Trek often spotlights its utopian setting by contrasting it with an alien race of the week that is still suffering from some endemic problem – greed, addiction, the horrors of war, religious intolerance, bad healthcare, and of course, racism. “Far Beyond the Stars” upends this standard Trek procedure in a startling and unsettling manner – the people that are used as the negative, cautionary example? 20th century humanity. The lengths to which the franchise goes to use our modern day society as a comedic punching bag is often gratuitous (and not quite as funny as the producers would want us to believe). But there aren’t any clever metaphors or sly implications here, and it’s what makes the episode so powerful and painful to watch. It’s about a very specific and horrifying example of racism that is still ongoing in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

One of the refreshing things about Deep Space Nine was that it was the first series to feature a Black person in command. Avery Brooks’ gravitas and sensibilities greatly enhanced the series and his contributions as an actor and director (as he is here) were a boon to its depiction of its Black characters. Also one of the great things about the series is that there were several other Black actors among the cast, and the episode uses this to its full extent to fill out the world it presents. There are several scenes throughout the show (and this episode especially) in which a room full of people are featured without a single white person among them. As far as victories for representation in media go it seems meager, but it’s still worth noting and celebrating given the overall whiteness of Star Trek.

Full disclosure: I am a white man. And I grew up in a fairly white place and have lived a pretty white life. So there’s a very real and significant amount of uneasiness with which I approached this write-up. For a lot of white people, being made to feel uneasy where race is concerned is apparently the absolute worst thing you could to them – tantamount to an assault! – and they (over)react accordingly. Which really sucks, because being such oversensitive babies about a very real problem curtails not only the most basic discussion of the issues at play, but prevents any progress in fixing it. The first step in overcoming racism is to acknowledge its existence, to look at it without the protective filters white society (and its pop culture) likes to blunt it with to make it more palatable to white audiences.

And yeah, that involves at least some uneasiness, if not a whole lot. So the slight tinge of anxiety (and the tears in my eyes) I felt when I watched this episode once again and wrote about it? It’s a good and necessary thing. And it’s also about a millionth of the anxiety any Black person in America experiences on a daily basis, so it’s nothing to whine about. The privilege of having to think about one’s race only on certain occasions is an exclusively white luxury, for in the U.S. we live in a society that is designed exclusively for white men to exist, succeed, and feel comfy in. So if you’re white and feeling uncomfortable about race? That’s good. So shut up, listen, and maybe try to learn something when it happens. It’s what I always try to do, anyway.

As said, there are no dramatic filters for the racism in this episode and it makes for a raw, affecting experience. Captain Sisko begins having strange visions of out-of-time characters roaming Deep Space Nine that eventually crescendo into him being completely pulled into the world of 1950’s America in New York City. Here he is Benny Russell, a quiet science fiction writer at Incredible Tales magazine, a pulpy monthly anthology. The episode showcases a loving amount of detail in all its components – the set designs, costuming, and its ode to the mid 20th century heyday of sci-fi pop culture. The episode’s title is another piece of this affection and would no doubt fit right in with Incredible Tales’ monthly offerings. All of this effort succeeds in quickly and successfully drawing the viewer into the world it presents, and is just a lot of fun to take in visually (in the same way that “Trials and Tribble-ations” was).

Even when doing these kinds of fantastical reality-departing escapades, Star Trek always has to be so incredibly literal with the plot mechanisms that make them possible. So it’s very refreshing and liberating that “Far Beyond” barely makes an effort to explain what’s happening to Captain Sisko regarding the visions and this dream world. At one point while dancing with his girlfriend Cassie, Benny suddenly finds himself as Sisko dancing with Kasidy and reacts with confusion. It communicates the disorientation of the character(s) to us the viewer and bolsters the hazy, dream-like quality of the story. Ultimately, there’s some minimal, requisite explanation about Sisko’s brain patters and Prophet visions. But very little definitive science mumbo jumbo, and the episode is all the better for it.

The episode initially shows us that Captain Sisko is not in a good place – the Dominion has been driven from Deep Space Nine, but the war is far from over. People are dying every day, and Ben seems to feel all of those deaths (especially when they’re personal friends). His father Joseph, who is visiting the station for the first time, notes how much he is mentally bearing the burden of the entire Alpha Quadrant. It’s this emotional state that is Ben’s starting point which leads him into the world of 1950’s America. He’s feeling exhausted, beaten down, and in an unwinnable fight against an intractable foe. I can’t fathom what it’s truly like to be Black in America, but I imagine that sometimes it doesn’t feel far off from this.

Before long, Sisko is fully enmeshed in the past world and we get to meet the characters that populate it. They’re all familiar faces, and it’s a lot of fun seeing the whole main cast (and many of the secondary players) reimagined as completely different people. Rene Auberjonis slips into the villainous role of extremely white editor (and central casting ideal of a buttoned-down cranky 50’s man) Pabst eerily well. Shimmerman is of course great as a supportive but temperamental (communist?) hothead. Farrell is a blast as a ditzy New York secretary, and I absolutely LOVE Hertzler as southwest-flavored illustrator Roy Ritterhouse (that name! chef’s kiss).

But the real, same-but-different stars of the episode are the re-imagined Black cast members. Again, it’s great that there are so many existing ones that the episode was able to draw from. What’s also really nice is the varied and diverse perspectives the Black characters bring – each is from a different walk of life and their outlook is as varied and unique. Michael Dorn gets to use his immense (but rarely-seen in Trek) charisma in portraying famous baseball player Willie Hawkins (most likely a nod to Willie Mays), a swaggering cock of the walk who frequents the same neighborhood diner as Benny. Sports and entertainment were some of Black Americans’ first avenues into mainstream culture (though their routes were hardly easy). Willie revels in his success but he’s fully aware that there are very hard, defined limits to it – he sourly notes that although white people love to see him play ball, he still can’t live in their fancy neighborhoods. Ah, good ol’ NIMBY-ism.

Benny’s girlfriend Cassie is a waitress at the diner, and her concerns are primarily of that world. She’s focused on economic survival and yearns to own the diner with Benny so that they can support themselves and have a happy life, get married, etc. While Benny has his mind in the future, she admits she doesn’t much care what happens 100 years from now, she only cares about today. It’s an attitude that isn’t more or less correct than Benny’s, but it is an interesting counterpoint. From a purely class perspective, it is indeed hard to dream of a better life when you’re mired in the day-to-day concerns of survival. That’s no coincidence, but by design – as long as the masses of marginalized people (of all types) are busy and exhausted from work, it’s much harder to rise up against the ruling class. Her job as a waitress is the type of economic role Black people filled out that whites were comfortable with – servitude.

As Jimmy, Jake is a scoundrel and represents those that turn to crime as a way of life, in his case drawn by the allure of making a quick buck without having to kowtow to the economic structures of a white society. Benny worries about his lifestyle (almost like a father…), but Jimmy seems pretty unconcerned with where his path might lead, and is even less concerned than Cassie about the future. Lofton’s performance is pretty hammy, but it works well enough for me (ham in Star Trek? Why I never!). When challenged by Benny, his jocular exterior breaks and reveals his cynical street smarts about their lot in life as Black people. He finds Benny’s dreams of a better future for their people to be ridiculous, proclaiming that the only way they’d be allowed in space is to shine shoes. “As far as they’re concerned, we’ll always be n______s,” he bitterly notes. The drop of the n-word is shocking for Star Trek, but helps punctuate the ideas at play in as stripped-down and un-candy-coated a manner as the franchise has ever done. For someone at the absolute bottom rungs of society, that kind of nihilistic pessimism makes sense and is difficult to argue with.

Joseph Sisko plays the part of an intense and spooky street preacher that relays cryptic messages for Benny involving the Prophets (a clue to what’s really going on with Sisko) and encourages him to “write the words.” Religion has played a huge part for many Black Americans, and the idea of faith and hope is one that strikes a chord for Benny and indeed inspires him to write those words. And write he does!

The story of Captain Sisko and Deep Space Nine flows from Benny’s typewriter, but quickly crashes into the cold hard reality of Pabst’s unwillingness to publish a story about a black man in a position of power. He even fears it could inspire a race riot (given the current racist white hysteria over Critical Race Theory, this doesn’t seem far-fetched). Again, Auberjonis is so scarily good in this role and it’s a daring choice for the episode to turn one of its own heroes into a villain. Pabst isn’t an evil man per se, but he is completely dedicated to upholding the power structures and systemic oppression of white society. He exists in a very limited sphere and is comfortable in his complacency and unwilling to step outside of that for anyone, least of all Benny. It does cleverly relate to Odo’s personality and role – both as a security officer and as a rigid and unyielding Changeling. Pabst is upholding law and order the way Odo does, but it’s twisted into a much more nefarious type.

And speaking of the Dominion, the real out-and-out villains of the episode turn up as a pair of racist dirtbag cops played by Marc Alaimo and Jeffrey Combs. It’s fun to see them out of their alien makeup, although the feeling quickly curdles as they cruelly harass Benny over simply existing. Of course Dukat is a big ass racist (and general creep) when it comes to the Bajorans, so this tracks. The fact that they eventually murder Jimmy (an all too common end for many Black Americans) and beat Benny within an inch of his life personalizes the battle that is weighing down Captain Sisko. It’s an incredibly gutting and hard to watch scene as they mercilessly brutalize him while the crowd watches helplessly and Cassie wails for them to stop. The brief shots of them as Dukat and Weyoun punching and kicking Benny is an effectively artsy, thematic touch that really nails the conflict at play.

Benny’s spirit is indomitable for much of the episode, even as he physically recovers from his injuries. But it finally breaks when he returns to the office after several weeks of rest. Excited to see the issue that contains his story of Captain Sisko, Pabst informs him that not only did the publisher totally scrap the month’s issue, but they’ve fired Benny. It’s the last straw for him, and he can no longer contain his rage and anguish. It’s a remarkable scene and one of the most intense of in all of Star Trek.

Although the other staff are sympathetic and supportive, they can’t really help him. Like Pabst, they’re also bound by the systemic racism of society. As Benny breaks down, Julius attempts solidarity and suggests he remain calm, but Benny shoves him away – “Calm never got me a damn thing,” he shoots back. Although Siddig is a POC, the fantasy of the episode essentially treats him as white along with the rest of the cast (which is interesting) and his attitude aligns with that of a white person – stay calm, let’s figure this out, talk it out. It’s a well-meaning but naively white outlook that overlooks the true despair of Benny’s situation. Benny has been quiet and servile the entire episode (aside from his audacious writing), and he’s still lost everything.

Avery Brooks shines in the scene, and the line that’s really crushing for me is him sobbing “I am a human being, dammit.” It’s such a basic and effective line of dialogue that distills the evils of racism and how destructive it is for this poor man. His pain and vulnerability are laid completely bare here as a lifetime of hurt over being treated as less than human pours out. It’s heartbreaking. The racism of America towards Black people is designed to strip them of their humanity. It’s incredibly easy to do all kinds of unspeakable things to a person when you’ve convinced yourself that they’re not really human, that they don’t have the same kinds of thoughts and feelings that you do. All the legal and cultural oppression of racism flows from this basic, insidious idea – they are not people, and therefore don’t deserve to be treated as such. Benny has suffered this torture his whole life and just can’t take it anymore. His passion and the greatest work he’s ever done has been cruelly snuffed out by a system that can’t tolerate anyone stepping out of line. Black people can’t have anything nice, even their own hopes and dreams.

But even in his angry, tearful tirade he still maintains a burning ember of hope – that ideas cannot truly be destroyed. He created Captain Sisko – he exists and is real. It’s an idea that encompasses the appeal and magic of all art and entertainment – none of what we see in film, TV, or any other media is technically real. But it also is. We watch things and they make us laugh, cry, and evoke about a million other feelings and thoughts. And those are real things. They have meaning for us and can affect our lives in profound ways. The characters we latch onto aren’t actual people, but they endure in the minds of countless fans for years, decades, even centuries after the fact. In that way, couldn’t they be more real than “real” people?

This nebulous and tantalizing idea is at the heart of the episode, and punctuated when Benny is wheeled away in an ambulance. He appears dressed as both Benny Russell and Captain Sisko and the preacher is there in the car with him. When begged for an explanation of who he really is, the preacher tells him that he is the dreamer and the dream. It’s a profound idea that can be interpreted in many ways, textually and subtextually.

Captain Sisko awakes in the real(?) world, having only been out for a few minutes (we’ve heard that one before!). Later on, his father checks in with him. Benjamin seems in a better place than he was at the beginning of the episode, and is committed to finishing the job he started – defeating the Dominion and the tyranny they represent. But he’s distracted by the idea that maybe Benny wasn’t the dream – he is. That somewhere, far beyond all those distant stars, Benny is writing all of this at his typewriter. It’s a fourth wall-breaking chunk of profundity that explicitly acknowledges the fundamental reality of Star Trek itself. No, it’s not real, and none of the characters and setting actually exist. It’s all fiction being generated by machines – typewriters of all sorts – operated by real people somewhere. But it doesn’t make it any less real or valuable. If you’re reading this, then a fondness Star Trek most likely occupies a portion of your mind. It means something to you, like it means something to me. Perhaps it means a great deal to you, even. And that makes it real.

“Far Beyond the Stars” ultimately boils down to the power of dreams. At its surface level, the episode is about a dream world that Captain Sisko gets drawn into. But going deeper, it’s about the juxtaposition of thought and reality and how they interrelate in the realm of art and entertainment. And it’s about the dream of a better world, an idea that has always powered Star Trek’s appeal. We all need to dream of a better future for ourselves and all of humanity. It’s these hopes that keep us going in bleak moments. Sadly, for Black Americans life is a bleaker affair because of this country’s systemic racism and its historically cruel inequities. As far-fetched as it may be to imagine a world where this kind of awfulness is completely behind us, it is absolutely worth doing. Reality always begins with dreams, and we must continue to dream of a place far beyond hate and intolerance.

Stray Observations:

  • Surprisingly, we do get a sequel to Benny’s world in the seventh season premiere (and we get confirmation that this was all a Prophet-related vision but it doesn’t put too fine a point on it). The producers even toyed with having Benny and his typewriter be the final image of the series. I love the ending we did get, but it might have been cool to check in with Benny one more time in the finale in some other capacity. I mean, the last we see of him is in a mental hospital, and that’s not great.
  • The sets, cars, and background extras are fantastic; it almost looks like a feature film budget was spent. I love the packed, frenzied energy that gives the sense of the hustle and bustle of NYC.
  • It’s a quick bit, but the episode makes a point to show that Kira’s character suffers some oppression as a woman. The story wisely doesn’t try to equate the experience of a white woman to that of a Black man, but it’s good to illustrate that American society is built around white (straight, cis) men exclusively, and how everyone else suffers for it in varying degrees. It’s also a nod to the gatekeeping that exists in culture, especially around fantasy and science fiction. Like American society itself, fan communities of sci-fi properties can be incredibly toxic and hostile towards anyone who’s not white, straight, cis, and male. And those communities are ultimately harmed by their own intolerance, depriving themselves of talented creators full of wonderful stories who don’t fit the preconceived mold.
  • I also love Eisenberg as the spunky little newsstand guy.
  • The episode is absolutely stuffed with material and characters and I don’t know if it could handle any more, but… what about Andrew Robinson??? It’s too bad he got left out. They could’ve shoehorned in a Commie spy, right?
  • I enjoy the scenes of the writers hashing things out, like when O’Brien’s character comes up with the dream idea. Everyone has varied reactions to it – some think it kills the story’s appeal and others think it makes it better. It’s an interesting depiction of how people can have completely different reactions to art.
  • I love, love, LOVE the art in the episode. The illustration sketches are great (especially the 1950’s version of DS9), as well as the Original Series matte painting callback on the Galaxy magazine cover.
  • Joseph Sisko quotes the Bible, and it’s perhaps the first, most explicit reference to the Good Book in Trek. The franchise’s relation and attitude to religion is worth its own considerable write-up (don’t worry, I’m not gonna), but it’s at least interesting that not only does the Bible still exist in human culture, but that some humans are well-versed in it.