Warning! Spoilers Ahead!
I was going to wait until I finished the entire series, but I watched an amazing episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine yesterday. Admittedly, the series is 20 years old, but I only got into the entire Star Trek universe only about ten years ago. I found out about the significance of Deep Space Nine at a WisCon panel in late May and am finishing a viewing of the entire series I began two months ago. As much as I have grown to love the series, I did not expect this one episode to have such an impact on me. I have to say that I am glad I first saw this as an adult in order to fully appreciate its nuance.
“Far Beyond the Stars” is not only a fan favorite but also a favorite of series star Avery Brooks (who also directed the episode) as well as cast member Armin Shimmerman. One of the standouts about this show is that it takes place in a rather contemporary setting, 1950s New York. Captain Ben Sisko has an unexplained vision that takes him to this setting as a science fiction writer Benny Russell. Interestingly, Benny has “hallucinations” of the space station he is inspired to write about when he takes an illustration of a space station that looks exactly like Deep Space Nine.
At this point, I have to say that I’m glad that I’m watching the show chronologically because it is significant how the characters in this show portray their contemporary counterparts. Benny Russell is meek and soft-spoken compared to Ben Sisko, but he is also hopeful. Major Kira becomes Kay “KC” Eaton, a direct reference to original series writer Dorothy Catherine “DC” Fontana who hid her identity as a woman by using her initials. Miles O’Brien becomes Albert Macklin who prefers writing about robots even when he cannot find the words he needs.
Ben’s son Jake Sisko becomes a local young street hood named Jimmy while Cardassian Gul Dukat and Vorta overseer Weyoun are police officers. Klingon commander Worf is a successful baseball player Willie Hawkins and his Klingon friend Martok works as illustrator Roy Ritterhouse.
However, three counterparts are particularly interesting. Shapeshifter Odo takes the form of editor Douglas Pabst who prefers to go along with the status quo rather than challenge authority, much like Odo did during the Cardassian invasion of Bajor. Doctor Bashir becomes Julius Eaton, which is interesting in two ways. Not only is it suggested that he and Kay are married (which they were in real life at the time), but he is the British man among them and coded as white. The Ferengi Quark becomes Herbert Rossoff in this scenario. Rossoff is practically the opposite of Quark who lives for profit; Rossoff is a radical liberal who constantly fights on Benny’s behalf, which is probably why this is Shimmerman’s favorite episode.
Yet, these character counterparts are only the beginning. Both Benny and Kay are told to sleep late on a day in which the publisher wants to have a photograph taken of the staff so that readers will not find out that *gasp* KC is a woman and Benny is black. It’s interesting that in this 1950s setting the “woman problem” is white and the “Negro problem” is male. It makes sense given the time period that the non white males who managed to get accepted into the office as writers are a white woman and a black man.
Still, what I love about this episode is how Benny is inspired to write about a black captain of a space station named Benjamin Sisko. He becomes bent on having this story published and forges ahead with a series even after his first story is rejected. Another thing I love about the episode is how connected Benny is with the black neighborhood. He frequents the diner where his girlfriend Cassie (who is Ben Sisko’s girlfriend Kasidy on the station) and he enjoys banter with Willie who also still lives in the neighborhood because he enjoys the perks of being a local hero and knows he would not be accepted in a white neighborhood even though he has integrated a baseball team.
The contrast between Benny and Jimmy is also striking. While Benny sees hope for what his work can mean for black representation, Jimmy is deeply steeped in his current reality. The exchange between these two is such a brilliant depiction of Star Trek’s intentions for showing a brighter future while existing in a very troubled contemporary context. While Benny thinks it is possible to see a black captain of a space station 100 years into the future, Jimmy can only see that they’ll still only see us as niggers. Quite frankly, I love that this insight comes from Jimmy because this is something we would never hear from Jake Sisko, but it reminds us that this is a young black actor (Cirroc Lofton) who understands his current reality as a young black man near the turn of the century.
What completely drives this episode is Benny’s passion and dedication to seeing his vision come to life. I wondered if this was supposed to mirror creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision in a way since his first series was a kind of utopia on Earth. However, Deep Space Nine leaves that utopia and deals with issues that still plague other worlds and non-Earthlings. Benny seeks to create that utopia and wants to show everyone that a black man is capable of being a leader even in a fantasy context.
Of course, all does not go well with Benny’s plans. Interestingly, it is Benny’s colleagues who finally convince Douglas to publish the story. Albert convinces Benny to make the story a dream. Julius agrees that the dream would make the story more poignant, but Herbert feels it would be a copout. Yet, Benny agrees and is the happiest he has ever been when the story sells. But after celebrating with Cassie later in the evening, he finds that the police officers have shot and killed Jimmy who was trying to break into a car. In his grief, Benny attacks the officers and is viciously beaten.
Benny returns to the office after a few weeks when he is mostly recovered and finds that the publisher decided to pulp the entire run of the magazine rather than run the story of a black space captain. This is the last straw and the moment ends in the only way it can: Benny has a nervous breakdown in which he has to say out loud to his colleagues that he is a human being. There is no happy moment in which he finally gets to see his work in print. He is taken away in an ambulance to be institutionalized.
However, it is also at this moment that we are reminded that this is Benjamin Sisko having a full sensory vision. He experiences life as Benny Russell, but the preacher (who is actually is father Joseph Sisko) accompanies him. When he asks who he is, the preacher replies, “You are the dreamer and the dream.” In fact, the episode ends with Captain Benjamin Sisko seeing the reflection of Benny Russell in the glass window looking out into the stars from Deep Space Nine.
This line, “You are the dream and the dreamer” is what Star Trek is all about for so many. I can imagine that for actor Avery Brooks, he is the dreamer and Captain Sisko is the dream. It is moments like this when I remember why I am so invested in pop culture and why it matters so much to me and so many others. It comes back to one simple fact: representation matters. Mae Jemison saw Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in the late 1960s on a space ship and she became an astronaut. John Cho saw an Asian man on television driving a space ship and he not only became an actor but he also got the chance to live that dream he saw as a little boy.
I know I want to write another piece about the entire Deep Space Nine series, but I have to give props to “Far Beyond the Stars.” I watched it twice in a row when I usually roll on to the next episode when I’m watching a series even when I really enjoy an episode. This is one of those moments when I see the potential for creating great media that addresses the messiness of life and does not shy away from looking at the ways race, gender, class and other -isms complicate lives. Interestingly, this episode truly does represent the dream Roddenberry had when he created the original series 50 years ago even if he still did not see anything other than white male leads.
It is also worth mentioning that this episode is 15 years old. Has there been anything else like it on television since then? In any case, this is why it is very important to show people of color in sci-fi and fantasy. We need these representations and I am so glad that I have finally gotten into this show – even if I am 20 years too late.