|Fort Apache: Sanctuary District, 2024.|
Starfleet has invited Sisko and the Deep Space 9 command crew to Earth to discuss current developments in the Gamma Quadrant. Sisko, Dax, and Bashir beam down to attend an official dinner in San Francisco. But a transporter disruption causes them to materialize at the correct destination... but more than 200 years in the past!
Early 21st century America is not a pleasant place to be. The economy is in bad shape, and Europe is in political and economic chaos. Problems of homelessness and poverty have become so vast that the system has effectively surrendered, dumping anyone with no home and job into a "sanctuary district." This is where Sisko and Bashir find themselves, in a poverty and crime-ridden ghetto. Dax, meanwhile, was fortunate enough to materialize out of sight and to catch the eye of a local media figure.
As Dax figures out where Sisko and Bashir must have been taken, Sisko makes an even more sobering realization. They have arrived mere days before a riot in the sanctuary, one which will end in a tragedy that will nevertheless begin the transformation of Earth's society. A large part of the reason for this transformation rests with a man named Gabriel Bell, whose adherence to nonviolence keeps the protesters from being viewed as the villains in the public eye. But when Sisko and Bashir are attacked by a criminal, a man is killed trying to come to their rescue. That man? Gabriel Bell...
Commander Sisko: For the sake of plot expedience, Sisko is revealed to be an armchair expert in 21st century history. Bashir knows nothing about this period of history, which allows Sisko to deliver reams of exposition throughout Part 1. This feels a bit labored, but it's necessary to give us the context to really invest in the action of Part 2. Sisko tries hard to keep from interfering with history. But when the brutish B. C. (Frank Military) forces interference on them, resulting in Bell's death, Sisko promptly steps into the role of Bell and rapidly takes charge of the hostage situation. Avery Brooks is at his best in these scenes, alternately manipulating and confronting B. C. and rather marvellously losing his temper at Vin (Dick Miller), the most argumentative of the hostages.
Dr. Bashir: A fantastic episode for Bashir. His horror at the treatment of the Sanctuary District residents is palpable. Seeing mentally ill homeless people wandering around the ghetto-like streets, he bitterly complains about a society that doesn't care. When Sisko reminds him that this is a very different time with very different resources, Bashir reminds him that the medical technology exists even in the early 21st century to help many of the people around them. The flipside of Bashir's moral outrage is his compassion. The best of many good scenes comes in Part 2, as Bashir observes the distress of one of the hostages and quietly engages her, calming her down and diagnosing both her underlying medical condition and how to help her. It's very hard to reconcile this character with the callow fop of Season One, but it does show just how far the character has come and how well the writers did at revamping him.
Dax: In contrast to the two men, who are hauled away to a ghetto when they are discovered, Dax is treated like a princess and taken to the equivalent of a palace. In part, she's just lucky. She materialized out of sight, so the police don't see her when they take Sisko and Bashir away. But there's also the other part, as writer Ira Steven Behr noted in interviews. "A beautiful white woman is always going to get much better treatment than two brown-skinned men," Behr observed, and it doesn't feel like much of a reach that the man who finds Jadzia is focused on helping her. For her part, she's not above flirting pretty heavily, and Terry Farrell has Jadzia giving a lot of nonverbal looks and cues to her wealthy benefactor that are more than a little flirtatious.
Past Tense was written and shot in the mid-1990's, but a lot of it seems quite prescient in 2011. Bad economy? A lack of jobs? People who had always been middle-class suddenly unemployed and slipping into poverty? There are even mentions of chaos and protests in Europe. All right, we don't have concentration camps for the homeless. But a lot of the context created for this episode matches up eerily well with today's situation. If things were to continue deteriorating for another 13 years, it wouldn't be a stretch to see a world much like the one glimpsed in this episode.
As a 2-part piece of television drama, Past Tense works very well. It's not perfect. There isn't quite enough story to fill two full episodes, and Part 2 has some very visible padding. The Kira/O'Brien scenes are particularly weak. The "comedy" of their search of different time periods is thin and obvious, and these scenes clash horribly with the bleak tone of the overall story. Worse is the sheer volume of technobabble O'Brien spouts to justify the time travel. There's also a frankly horrible scene in Part 1 in which Jadzia attends a "rich snob" party. The two snobs who chat with Brynner (Jim Metzler), Jadzia's rescuer,are horribly overwritten, and the acting of the two bit players is gratingly artificial.
That scene stands in stark contrast to the main body of the episode, which is filled with performances that are very sharp and feel heavily rooted in reality. The scenes in the Sanctuary District are marked by a gritty, filmic quality that's rare in Star Trek. Talk about job searches, hunger, and desperation is easy to relate to. The directing is very good, both by Reza Badiyi (Part 1) and by Jonathan Frakes (Part 2). Frakes' direction is more dynamic, but that's largely because his half is more action-heavy. Badiyi's half is largely about setting up the world in which the story occurs. Music is sparse, largely confined to the action sequences, which emphasizes the almost documentary-like nature of the early Sanctuary District scenes.
This is a very message-heavy episode, and that message is delivered with all the subtlety one expects of Trek - which is to say, none. If things are bad, no one can entirely blame you for ducking your head and telling yourself that it's not your fault. But if everyone does the same, then nothing will change. Is it heavy-handed, even perhaps bordering on trite? Perhaps. But it's still a worthy message, one that seems even more relevant today than when this episode was made. The brief exchange between Sisko and Detective Preston particularly lingers in my mind:
PRESTON: Change takes time.
SISKO: You've run out of time.
Overall Rating: 9/10