Saturday, November 29, 2014

6-13. Far Beyond the Stars.

Science fiction writer Benny Russell's
new story causes controversy...


"I don't know how much more I can take!"

So Benjamin Sisko says to his visiting father (Brock Peters) after receiving news about the loss of a friend's ship near the Cardassian border. He has lost a lot of friends recently. Despite retaking the station, he is teetering on the brink of despair.

Which is when he experiences a vision. He is no longer Benjamin Sisko, but instead Benny Russell, a science fiction writer working for a minor sci-fi magazine in New York, 1953. Benny is talented enough to write for Incredible Tales - but only so long as the reading public believes him to be "as white as they are," as editor Douglas Pabst (Rene Auberjonois) explains... It never entering Pabst's mind that some of the readers may be other than white.

A drawing of a space station catches Benny's eye, and he writes a submission featuring a 24th century captain named Benjamin Sisko. Everyone in the office agrees that the story is excellent. But Pabst announces they cannot publish it because Sisko is black. "Your hero's a Negro captain... People won't accept it. It's not believable!"

Benny continues to push the story, determined to find some way to make the magazine publish it. When Albert (Colm Meaney), a friend and fellow writer, recommends making the story the dream of someone in the present day, Benny believes he has found the answer. Pabst reluctantly agrees to publish, and Benny is overjoyed.

But as the street preacher (Brock Peters) warns: "Hope and despair walk arm in arm..."


Capt. Sisko/Benny: Sisko and Benny are very different people, and Avery Brooks' performance reflects this. As Sisko, Avery Brooks' eyes always meet whomever he is speaking to. Benny rarely directly meets the eyes of his co-workers, usually looking a little downward or at least away. Even when arguing with Pabst that there are successful black authors, Benny does so in a quiet tone, not allowing any inflection of anger into his voice. Benny knows "the rules" of his society and, save for when he loses his self-control, he is careful to follow them. For Sisko, those same "rules" simply don't exist. Avery Brooks' performance is such that the two characters never seem like the same person, and it is easy to forget that Benny and Sisko are played by the same actor.

Kasidy Yates/Cassie: Penny Johnson's brief appearance as Kasidy in the teaser reminds us that the relationship between Sisko and Kasidy is still ongoing, and re-establishes her independent nature. In the bulk of the episode, Cassie is also independent, having worked hard at a diner in a black neighborhood and pushed the owner to agree to sell it to her upon retirement. Cassie supports Benny in his writing, clearly wanting him to succeed at his passion, but she just as clearly would be happiest if he would quit his thankless job and go into the restaurant business with her.

Pabst: Rene Auberjonois' condescending editor is the closest thing this episode has to a villain. Pabst would never identify himself as a racist. He clearly feels guilty enough at rejecting Benny's story to offer him a novella and a chance at the cover as compensation - Provided, of course, that Benny abandons his Sisko character. At the same time, there's no sign that he's willing to champion the story to the owner. "I wish things were different, but they're not." This seems to be his catch-phrase when racial issues come up, and the way he recites it is pretty much by rote. When Benny replies that wishing never changed anything, Pabst clearly becomes uncomfortable and retreats from the conversation.

Herbert: Armin Shimerman is terrific as the most prominent of Benny's co-workers, a liberal Jewish intellectual who rails against Pabst's refusal to publish Benny's Sisko stories. When Herbert and Pabst clash, there's none of the good nature that underlies the Quark/Odo disputes. These two genuinely despise each other. As the argument grows more heated, Pabst puts Herbert in his place as well, intimating that Herbert is "a red" to coerce him to silence (blacks being far from the only people who can be persecuted in 1953). Herbert is on the right side of the argument, but he is too rigid a figure to be likable. When Benny accepts Albert's "dream" compromise to make the story publishable, Herbert moans that this "will gut the story." He refuses to see that a compromised story is better than nothing at all.


Far Beyond the Stars is a very different Deep Space 9 episode. That some fans dislike it is hardly surprising. If you removed the teaser and the epilogue, you would be hard-pressed to identify this as an episode of Star Trek at all.

I think it's an outstanding piece, and one that works surprisingly well within the context of the series. The themes of Benny's story resonate strongly with the themes of the Dominion War. Sisko was informed just a handful of episodes ago that it is statistically impossible for Starfleet to win the war against the Dominion. His own battle for the freedom of the Alpha Quadrant seems just as hopeless as Benny's fight to have his science fiction story about a black captain published. Sisko opens the episode in despair; Benny's story ends in much the same place.

Just as Sisko's apparently futile battle against the Dominion is worth fighting, so is Benny's futile battle to get his Sisko stories out there to a broad readership. The black neighborhood in which Benny resides is a different world from the white neighborhood occupied by his co-workers. From Benny's point of view, it's a very limited and hopeless world. The closest thing to a mainstream success is Willie (Michael Dorn), a baseball player who enjoys his celebrity in his hometown. When asked why he doesn't move to a more upscale neighborhood, Willie's response recalls Pabst's insistence that the world simply is as it exists, and that it's not his job to change it:

"(White people) can hardly get used to the idea of me playing alongside them. Living next to them? That's a whole other story. Besides, around here, when people look at me, it's 'cause they admire me. There, I'm just another colored boy who can hit a curve ball."

Jimmy (Cirroc Lofton), a small-time crook, scoffs at Benny's writing, asking why he would want to waste his time reading about "white people living on the moon." When Benny reveals that the hero of his new story is black, Jimmy becomes genuinely interested, saying that he just might be interested in reading that story - in having a black hero to root for in a world where his legal job options appear limited to "a delivery boy or a dishwasher." Cirroc Lofton is great in this scene, his quick facial and vocal changes making clear Jimmy's hunger for something more - but only showing that for a second before reverting to his "street hood" personality.

The tag raises the question of who is "real" within the fiction of this episode: Sisko or Benny. I tend to think the answer is both. The prologue shows that Sisko is once again experiencing visions like the ones from Rapture. If the Prophets/wormhole aliens transcend space and time, then it hardly defies belief that they could grant visions to two people separated by time and space - Sisko experiencing a slice of Benny's life, and Benny channeling a vision of Sisko into fiction even as he is aware that "Ben Sisko... That future, that space station, all those people... They exist!"

In the end, Far Beyond the Stars offers a strong period drama, well-scripted and wonderfully performed. Its thematic ties to the larger Deep Space 9 story make it feel relevant to the series... But honestly, I'd like this even if it was a complete digression. I know some will disagree, but I found this compelling viewing, worthy of full marks.

Overall Rating: 10/10.

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