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Saturday
Jan282012

Far Beyond the Stars

Episode Guide/Review by Christopher Jones

Season 6, Episode 13
Stardate Unknown (2374) and September 1953

Episode 136 of 173 Released in Deep Space Nine
Episode 135 of 173 Released in Deep Space Nine
Production Number: 40510-538
Original airdate: February 11, 1998

Directed by Avery Brooks
Story by Marc Scott Zicree
Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler

 

Guide Sections

Synopsis
Social Commentary
Strengths
Flaws
Additional Thoughts
Memorable Quotes
Remember
Final Word
Rating
Guest Cast


Synopsis

Frustrated by continued losses in the Dominion War, Captain Sisko has doubts about his place in Starfleet. Perhaps brought on by the stress, he blacks out and finds himself in 1953 New York working as an SF writer named Benny Russell. Though his writing is published, he must conceal the fact that he is black. When inspired by a sketch to write a story about a space station, he begins to clearly see the world of Deep Space Nine and pens a story about the station run by a black captain. He populates the story with characters based on his fellow writers at the magazine, who resemble in human form the characters we know and love from DS9. When the magazine refuses to publish the story as long as the captain is black, Russell enters into a struggle of integrity and frustration as he fights for his rights as a person, rights that should be the same for all regardless of skin color. He makes concessions but still finds himself being denied in the end, resulting in a breakdown. He ultimately wakes up in the infirmary, told by Bashir that he was unconcious for only a few minutes.

 

Social Commentary

Star Trek has always been a voice for commentary on the state of our society. In its original form Gene Roddenberry filled the bridge of his starship with a collection of diverse people—an African American woman, a Russian, an Asian, an alien—all working together at a time when the world was not ready for such a concept. Neverthless, he marched forward. Though the show failed early on, it became a symbol for those who would see a more enlightened future for mankind, and ultimately embedded itself in our culture.

Of the Star Trek shows that have come since, perhaps none have taken as bold a step as Deep Space Nine, which put a black captain at the head of a space station. Not just any space station, mind you, but one that, in the Star Trek universe, is considered one of the most important locales in the galaxy. This came at a time when, though “blacks” had been accepted in such leadership roles in the real world, lead roles on television—or some would say any substantial roles—still were few and far between. Fortunately, Rick Berman and Michael Pillar hold no such prejudices and saw fit to bring us the wonderful Avery Brooks in the role of Captain Benjamin Sisko.

This served to put DS9 in perfect position to speak out about the struggle of blacks over the years to gain the respect and opportunities that all people deserve. In 1998, during Black History Month, DS9 aired what is one of the most creative stories in the franchise’s history. “Far Beyond the Stars” brought us the tale of a black SF writer struggling to make it in 1950s America. Fortunate enough to have his work published, Benny Russell (Avery Brooks) was forced to conceal the fact that he was black in order for his stories to be accepted by the public. His white colleagues had no problems with his skin color, but the general public of the day would have never been so understanding, as dialogue from the episode shows…

Having just been told that the publisher wants to run a photo of the writers in the next issue, the female member, Kay (Nana Visitor), is told that she can sleep late that day. Benny chimes in, too:

“I suppose I’m sleeping late that day, too.”

“It’s not personal, Benny, but as far as our readers are concerned Benny Russell is as white as they are. Let’s just keep it that way,” replies Douglas Pabst (Rene Auberjonois), the magazine’s editor.

“Oh, yes,” cuts in Herbert (Armin Shimerman) sarcastically, “If the world isn’t ready for a woman writer, imagine what would happen if it learned about a negro with a typewriter. Run for the hills! It’s the end of civilization!”

As the story unfolds, Benny begins seeing so clearly a story that he must tell. The story is one of a black man who is captain of a space station—a black man who has not only risen from the disrespect with which those of Benny’s day were treated but has in fact reached the highest point of respect. This world in his mind becomes so real to him that he writes fervently through the night.

When the story is finished, Benny is on a high and takes the piece in to share with his fellow writers and to offer it to Pabst for publication. Everyone praises the work—even Pabst—but Benny is quickly brought back to Earth:

“Douglas, you’re not going to stand there and tell us you don’t like this story,” says Herbert.

“Oh, I like it alright. It’s good. It’s very good. But you know I can’t print it.”

“Why not?” asks Benny.

“Oh, come on Benny! You’re hero’s a negro captain—the head of a space station for Christ’s sake.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“People won’t accept it. It’s not believable.”

“And men from Mars are?” cuts in Herbert.

Once again, it all comes down to skin color (and to imagine that in this case green is easier to swallow than black). How many times in our history has a great idea been discarded because the person who thought it up was not of the right pigmentation? And how many bad ideas were put in its place because the person who thought them up was? In fact, that’s in effect the option given to Benny in “Far Beyond the Stars.” He is told by Pabst that if he wants the story published—and they all admit it is a fantastic story—that he must make the captain white. Otherwise, he is told, he can “put the story in a drawer for the next 50 years, or however long it takes the human race to become color blind.” White captain: good. Black captain: bad.

Benny continues to fight for his beliefs through most of the story, but towards the end, after he had written six more DS9 stories that featured the black captain, his colleagues suggest to him that self publishing with a small press would be a way to get his work out there. He doesn’t like the idea, and someone else suggests that he might as well write the story on the sidewalk in chalk. “More people would read it that way.”

While he ponders this, it is also suggested that he make the story end with the revelation that the whole thing was a dream. That way it’s not real. (Kind of reminds me of Newhart or that great episode of NewsRadio in which the whole radio station—and all the people in it—turned out to be a daydream of Mr. James.) Of course, this implies that the dream of blacks in America to be treated as equals with others is not worthwhile. Benny can see this and doesn’t like the idea of selling out, but when asked what he ultimately thinks, he replies, “I think it’s better than chalk on a sidewalk.”

So he makes the story a dream and Pabst agrees to run it. Benny goes out with Cassie (Penny Johnson—Kassidy Yates) to celebrate, but is harshly reminded of his place in society when he is brutaly beaten by white police officers when he confronts them for killing a black teenager who he knew (Cirroc Lofton—Jake Sisko). It takes him weeks to recover enough to leave home.

Finally, on the day the publication was to be picked up from the printers, Benny makes a trip to the office. Unfortunately, Pabst comes back empty-handed, informing everyone that the publisher had the whole run pulped and that there will be no issue for the month. Even worse, Benny is fired. Knowing that the publisher’s racist views are the reason the issue was scrapped, Benny goes into a tirade:

“I am a human being,” he says. “You can deny me all you want, but you cannot deny Ben Sisko. He exists. That future, that space station, all of those people, they exist, in my mind. I created it.

“You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea.”

And with that outburst of emotion, he collapses. Benny had become so confused as to whether he was Benny Russell or Benjamin Sisko, and so stressed over his fight to be seen as simply a person, not just a “black” person, that his body could take no more.

We are then taken to a view of a barely conscious Sisko being rushed to the hospital, accompanied by a preacher (Brock Peters—Joseph Sisko) who he had encountered several times earlier. And here the entire episode is summed up in one brief exchange:

“Tell me please,” said Benny/Sisko, “who am I?”

“Don’t you know?” replied the preacher. “You are the dreamer—and the dream.”

Had the episode ended there, it would have been perfect. What an ending. But the writers took it a step farther and used Benny/Sisko’s experience to make us question who we all are—not limited just to the plight of black’s in America. Talking to his father back on the station, peering out of the porthole, Sisko ponders:

“But I have to wonder, What if it wasn’t a dream? What if this life we’re leading—all of this—you and me, everything—what if this is the illusion? Maybe we are nothing more than figments of his imagination. For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.”

 

Strengths

“Far Beyond the Stars” is without a doubt one of Star Trek’s finest moments. The story itself is so strong and so well put-together that it works on a whole other level. It’s one of those stories that essentially transcends Star Trek—much like “The Visitor” (DS9) and “The Inner Light” (TNG)—though in this case it probably couldn’t work without the Trek elements due to the Sisko tie-in. An added bonus—and delicate touch—that we get in this episode are the many lines sprinkled here and there, delivered by the preacher, that connect this vision that Sisko is having with his role as the Emissary of the Prophets.

The message is so well presented, without the concern for ruffling feathers by using terms or situations considered taboo in our politically correct society of today. “Far Beyond the Stars” is refreshing. The decision to hand the director’s job to Avery Brooks, despite the fact that he is in every scene, lends to the story a certain identifiable connection with the reality of racism that could have been lost had direction gone to the hands of someone without the real life experience.

Additionally, the fact that the story takes us through the hardships, hopes, and search for identity of blacks in America but then goes beyond that to address the search for identity that we all struggle with as living beings provides the added dimension that makes “Far Beyond the Stars” more than just another commentary on racism, but a commentary on the feeling of insiginificance humanity faces as we learn how vast the universe really is.

 

Flaws

None really. Avery Brooks said in the Deep Space Nine Companion that this should have been a two-parter. I tend to agree that they could have done even greater things with this story, but it is great as it is. For a little more detail, pick up a copy of the novelization by Steven Barnes, which is also excellent.

 

Additional Thoughts

One of the things that makes Deep Space Nine such a special part of the Star Trek universe is the way in which the ideas that it explores is so much larger than what we get in the other series. Certainly all of the Star Trek series have addressed racism in various ways, but I don’t believe any episode delivers as poignant a message as this one. Not only that, but—as DS9 so often does—the bigger picture is always in play here as well. We see Benny’s colleagues and Sisko’s crew shift in and out of realities at key moments, and even Sisko’s role within the Bajoran religion is not lost on the streets of 1953 New York. And, as we will see later in the series, this little excursion to the past will play a role in the resolution of the larger DS9 story.

 

Memorable Quotes

“Wishing never changed a damn thing.” —Benny

“The Lord, God of the spirit of the Prophets that sent an angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” —The preacher to Benny, further mixing one reality with another.

“Ewww! She’s got a worm in her belly. That’s disgusting! That’s interesting; but disgusting.”
—Pabst’s secretary Darlene, who is the basis for Dax in Benny’s DS9 stories.

“Calm down dear boy. We’re writers, not Vikings.” —Julius to his agitated colleagues.

“This is only the beginning of your journey, not the end.” —Words of wisdom from the preacher to Benny.

“It’s not about what’s right, it’s about what is.” —Pabst to Benny when telling him that the publisher no longer requires Benny’s services.

“Rest easy, Brother Benny. You have walked in the path of the Prophets. There is no greater glory.”
—The preacher to Benny as he is being rushed to the hospital after his breakdown.

“You are the dreamer—and the dream.” —Preacher to Benny

 

Remember

Benny Russell. It’s not the last time we’ll see him.

 

Final Word

“Far Beyond the Stars” is one of Star Trek’s finest moments. It makes a strong statement in an elegant way. Avery Brooks does a fantastic job both directing and acting, and it is wonderful to see the DS9 cast out of makeup. The entire thread of the story is superbly crafted, weaving delicately between 1950s New York and the 24th century. Without a doubt one of a small handful of Trek episodes that everyone—fan or not—must see.

 

Rating

 (10 out of 10)

 

Guest Stars

Brock Peters as Joseph Sisko/Preacher
Marc Alaimo as Gul Dukat/Officer Ryan
J.G. Hertzler as Martok/Roy
Aron Eisenberg as Nog/Street Vendor
Penny Johnson as Kassidy Yates/Cassie
Jeffrey Combs as Weyoun/Officer Mulkahey

 

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