The 13th episode of the 6th season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is titled “Far Beyond the Stars”. In it, Captain Benjamin Sisko experiences hallucinations in which he is a science fiction writer in the 1950s names Benny Russell, and the other real DS9 staff are his coworkers and colleagues at a pulp magazine publishing house. Benny Russell writes a story entitled “Deep Space Nine”, about a black space station captain named Benjamin Sisko. This is, to date, the only time in my life that I’ve enjoyed this plot device. In fact, it moved me to tears and I want to talk about why.
The 6th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a similar episode, in which Buffy is shown as a hallucinating mental institution patient, and the entire plot of the show is her hallucinations. At the end, it’s even implied that this mental-patient Buffy is the real Buffy, and that the events of the show really are imagined (beyond the sense that it’s a fictional TV show). This, uh, to put it bluntly, sucks. It’s a cheap cop-out that’s meant to be edgy, when in fact, all it does is suck. And Buffy is very much not the only time that it sucks. It’s happened in numerous TV shows, including multiple iterations of Star Trek itself.
DS9 episode Far Beyond the Stars focuses on Benny Russell’s struggle with race in 1950s America. He cannot be photographed with the other magazine staff (nor can a woman writer who uses her initials to publish her stories). He’s constantly harassed by police for no reason other than his skin color. The publisher will not print his story about a black space captain unless he makes him white, undermining Benny’s artistic vision. At the climax of this plotline, Benny’s friend (also black) is shot for trying to steal a car. “He was stealing a car, that’s why you shot him!?” Benny asks incredulously of the police at the scene. “He had a weapon,” they respond flatly. “A crowbar!” Benny insists. In the year of our lord 1998, the audience was intended to recognize this as a ludicrous overreaction by the police, nearly 20 full years ago. The police beat Benny senseless as a response to his protests.
The episode comes to a conclusion with Benjamin Sisko wondering if maybe, far beyond the distant stars, he is a dream of Benny Russell’s, a dream of a better world and a better future (a callback to a scene where the other writers suggest making Russell’s story a black boy’s dream in order to sell it). It’s intended to be a wonderfully optimistic moment – after all, Russell’s dream comes true (the episode works, in my mind, because it is not trying to be edgy or shocking, unlike any other examples of this plot device – it is used here to be truthful). There is a future where equality, where equity is a reality and not just a possibility. The triumphant, hopeful music plays, the credits roll, and we’re intended to believe that maybe, just maybe, we’re making progress towards that enlightened era, where that dream can become a reality. And I’m weeping, because if anything, we’ve regressed.
I want you to think about that scenario mentioned above. A black man was shot for attempting to steal a car; the police claimed a crowbar was a weapon, and narratively, this is considered ridiculous, a shameful overreaction by racist police. In the last several years, we’ve seen huge, nationwide news stories about numerous black CHILDREN murdered in cold blood by police because they thought that toys, or candy, or hoodies posed a threat. In 2017, an adult man with a crowbar is practically a reasonable target compared to what we’ve seen in reality. We’ve regressed; we’ve moved back even past the 1990s idea of the 1950s. And I don’t see it getting any better any time soon.
The thing about Star Trek is that it has always been idealistic and hopeful in the most progressive possible way. The original series showed women and people of color on equal footing with white men; Russians and Americans serving alongside peacefully on our TVs during the Cold War, a black woman with the same rank as a white man in the decade of the Civil Rights movement. Star Trek has always envisioned a peaceful, prosperous future, where we’ve overcome the struggles of our current time. I’ve always wanted to believe that even though the Star Trek future is far off, that we’ve made progress towards it. This is one of the first instances since I started watching everything over again this year that I feel that we’ve gotten worse.
Benny Russell’s story is initially rejected on the grounds that it could start a race riot. In a world where I’ve become increasingly convinced we’ll see an American civil war within the next 20-30 years, that kind of hit me. White supremacists are not just lurking in the dark underbelly of our cities; they’re being elected to higher office and driving our country’s policy. We’re going back, and it terrifies me, and I’m clinging to the idea of that beautiful utopian future because I know there are dark times ahead. The stories we tell ourselves shape who and what we are; they show us the things that are possible instead of merely how they are.
In Terry Pratchett’s young adult book Nation, there is mention of seeing a silver thread, a line that can pull you into the future if only you can grasp it, a clear path of action that will lead you to where you are supposed to be. I used to think that silver thread was something called progress, and that it moved forward in a linear fashion, but it is not. Progress was never a line; it’s a spiral, continually moving forward and back, and hopefully more forward than back but you really never can tell. I have to believe that we’re moving more forward than back, and that this future exists, where everything is as it should be, because if I don’t I will lose my goddamn mind. If there is no end in sight, if there is no meaningful progress, then the entirety of human history is for nothing, and that doesn’t make for a very good story. I refuse to accept anything else.
There’s an article going around lately that most people in my circles are using to sum up how they feel about the current news climate. “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People” reads the headline. “There is a divide between our worldviews that can never be bridged,” the article says, and I have been inclined lately to agree. But I (and you and we) need to keep working towards that peaceful and prosperous future, if for no other reason than for our own sanity. But truly, because maybe the dreams we have for a better world exist somewhere, far beyond the distant stars.