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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Past Tense, Part I (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

It’s weird to think that Past Tense aired at the very end of the period where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek on television. The two parts were broadcast in early January 1995, after the release of Star Trek: Generations but before the broadcast of Caretaker, the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

In a way, these are the most “Star Trek”-y episodes of the third season of Deep Space Nine. Embracing the franchise’s utopianism and optimism, the two episodes are even structured as a gigantic homage to The City on the Edge of Forever. Unlike the somewhat cynical and jaded run of episodes leading into them, Past Tense seems to exist as an episode that could draw fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation into Deep Space Nine.

Panic in the streets...

Panic in the streets…

It would have made sense to position the episodes earlier in the season, where they might have done a better job of attracting casual Star Trek viewers jonesing for a fix after The Next Generation went off the air. Unconnected to the serialised long-form plot of Deep Space Nine, engaging with important social issues of contemporary society and playing with familiar Star Trek tropes like time travel, it’s hard to imagine an episode of the third season of Deep Space Nine better suited to reeling in viewers.

As it stands, though, Past Tense aired at the last possible moment where Deep Space Nine could truly claim to be “the only Star Trek on television”, making the two-parter feel more like a footnote than a crescendo. It’s a shame, as Past Tense remains a vastly underrated instalment of the show’s third season.

Arresting drama...

Arresting drama…

Past Tense is very much message-driven Star Trek. It’s based around the idea the humanity can be absolutely terrible, but is capable of so much more. More than that, though, it’s firmly anchored around a contemporary problem in the way that many classic and iconic Star Trek episodes tend to be. Some of the most memorable episodes of the classic Star Trek were rooted in the Vietnam War (A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy, A Private Little War) and contemporary issues (The Way to Eden, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield); in many respects Past Tense is a spiritual successor to those episodes.

There’s a tendency among particular subsets of Star Trek fandom to write Deep Space Nine off. Such criticism is typically rooted in the argument that Deep Space Nine was “not really Star Trek” or that it “betrayed Gene’s vision.” The idea was that Deep Space Nine didn’t fulfil the same expectations that The Next Generation had, and that it didn’t hit on all the expected tropes and themes associated with the franchise. While it’s true that Deep Space Nine worked very hard to find its own voice, it did try to integrate itself with the expectations of the wider franchise.

Food (card) for thought...

Food (card) for thought…

Most obviously, the writers on Deep Space Nine were all huge fans of the classic Star Trek television show. Ira Steven Behr was the writer who had fought to include the word “Spock” in Sarek. Ronald D. Moore jokes about how his great unfinished novel is a prequel to The Conscience of a King. Arguably more than any of the other shows – with the possible exception of the final season of Star Trek: EnterpriseDeep Space Nine was enamoured with the original series.

It brought back the three big Klingons for Blood Oath and made Kor a recurring character. When the time came to celebrate the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary, Voyager opted to bring back old actors and build a familiar set; Deep Space Nine opted to digitally insert its characters in to an episode of the classic Star Trek. Even in this two-parter, great care is taken to include in-jokes and references pointing backwards. A boxing poster referencing a boxing poster in The City on the Edge of Forever appears during one of Kira and O’Brien’s trips to the past.

A view to the future...

A view to the future…

And so Past Tense itself seems to exist as one gigantic affectionate homage to The City on the Edge of Forever, one of the best-loved episodes of Star Trek ever produced. Even the structure of away time (the captain, the doctor and the science officer) mirrors that classic episode; as does the way that our heroes are confused for homeless people. However, fidelity is about more than simply references and nostalgia.

Past Tense is what Behr describes on the third season DVD as “an issue show.” It’s an episode that uses the science-fiction framework of the show to make a commentary on contemporary society. It’s the sort of metaphor that people almost expect from Star Trek, one that could easily seem forced or heavy-handed, but is ultimately endearing in its willingness to engage with a big issue. It is the kind of show that is easier to do on Star Trek than on most other television shows.

He makes a good point...

He makes a good point…

Homelessness was a massive issue in America in the nineties. The early part of the decade had seen the issue become highly politicised, with various institutions working hard to conceal the problem from the public or from tourists. As Jim Baumohl notes in Homelessness In America:

In city after city, municipal decisions to use criminal sanctions to protect public spaces have come into conflict with efforts by civil rights advocates to prevent the criminalisation of homelessness. Ironically, cities traditionally identified as liberal or progressive have seen some of the most bitter struggles. In Santa Monica, California, the city council fired long-term city attorney Robert Myers over his refusal to draft and enforce ordinances against camping in public places and feeding homeless people in city parks. In San Francisco and New York, recent mayoral candidates won election based, in part, upon promises to get tough with the homeless. San Francisco’s Mayor Frank Jordan’s Matrix program focused considerable police resources on citing homeless individuals for a variety of petty offenses. Between August 1993, when matrix was initiated, and the end of 1995, when newly elected Mayor Willie Brown formally abolished it, over 30,000 citations were issued for 5 “quality of life” crimes: public drinking, littering or urinating in public, blocking sidewalks, camping in city parks, and sleeping in city parks. Ironically, during Brown’s first month in office (January 1996), more citations for public drinking (1,200) were issued than at any time during Jordan’s tenure, and in January and February 1996, the number of citations issued for the 5 offenses was greater than in the same months of the previous year, when Jordan was in office. Far more citations for sleeping and camping in parks were issued under the “more liberal” Brown regime (144) than a year earlier under Jordan (89).

As we noted when discussing The Abandoned, the Deep Space Nine writing team have generally been acutely aware of the cultural issues unfolding in contemporary Los Angeles. In early 1994, the city moved against an established homeless community that was so large and familiar that it had earned the nickname “Club Homeless.”

The sleep of the just...

The sleep of the just…

As Behr and Wolfe love to point out, Los Angeles considered herding homeless people to abandoned industrial estates in late 1994, as the episode was filming. However, as Behr concedes on the third season DVD, the episode was rooted in a more general sense of apathy.

I was down in Santa Monica one day, and there were all these homeless people there. It was a beautiful day: ocean, sky, sun. And homeless people everywhere. All these tourists and people up and about; they were walking past these homeless people as if they were part of the scenery. It was like some artist had done some interesting rendition of juxtaposition of nature against urban decay right there in front of me. And nobody seemed to care at all. I said, “There has to be something about that. Where does that go? Where do you take that?”

Of course, that wasn’t the whole inspiration. As Robert Hewitt Wolfe notes in the same feature, the episode was also rooted in Behr’s love and appreciation of classic cinema. Wolfe recalls the episode clicking with Behr, “It’s Attaca! Let’s do Attaca!”

The riot stuff...

The riot stuff…

So Past Tense is very much built around these very grounded, very contemporary concerns. It’s engaged with modern America in a way that a lot of nineties Star Trek simply isn’t. The fact that Past Tense opts to set itself in Earth’s near future rather than a planet of the week undoubtedly helps. Setting it on a world not too different from the one that produced it gives the episode a bit of weight, allowing it more punch than it might otherwise have.

It also means that Past Tense is a time travel story. What is interesting about Deep Space Nine is that the show engaged in a reasonable amount of time travel, but it never landed on Earth at the time the show was airing. Past Tense lands a few decades in the future. Little Green Men lands back in the forties. Sisko has visions of the fifties. Unlike Voyager or Enterprise, which both featured episodes where the characters explored modern-day Earth, characters on Deep Space Nine tended to time travel within the history of the Star Trek franchise.

All fired up...

All fired up…

This even occurs when the characters journey back to the past relative to the show’s broadcast dates. Quark lands in a cartoon-ish science-fiction version of the Roswell Incident, owing at least as much to the fifty B-movies that informed Star Trek as to the actual forties. Similarly, Sisko’s visions of Benny Russell are rooted in the history of science-fiction that would ultimately lead to the creation of Star Trek themselves. It seems like time travel for Deep Space Nine always takes place inside the franchise’s history, the history of the story itself.

So Past Tense puts the characters at a weird intersection point between the world we know and the world that would be the world of Star Trek. There’s a sense that the Bell Riots rank alongside the Eugenics Wars or World War III in the long list of fictional atrocities that separate the real world from the utopian future of the Federation. There is some nerdy joy to be had in sketching out some of the details of that hazy period between the modern day and utopia. Roddenberry may have believed that humanity could be brilliant, but he never seemed too interested in exploring how humanity became brilliant.

Ghosts of Sanctuary Districts Past (Tense)...

Ghosts of Sanctuary Districts Past (Tense)…

Past Tense very cleverly throws back Sisko, Bashir and Dax. Of those three characters, Dax is the one who most obviously doesn’t belong on twenty-first century Earth. And yet, Dax navigates the twenty-first century San Fransisco with considerable ease. Part of that is undoubtedly down to luck (she materialised out of sight) and wit (she thinks fast on her feet), but it’s hard not to get the sense that Dax has an advantage because she looks like a beautiful white woman.

In contrast, Sisko and Bashir are probably easier to shuffle off to the Sanctuary Districts because of their skin colour – skin colour that doesn’t matter in the twenty-fourth century, but might be making a subtle difference in a less perfect world. It’s to the credit of Past Tense that the point is never laboured, but is worth noting that of the five time travellers in the two-parter (Dax, Kira, O’Brien, Sisko and Bashir), it’s the only two non-white characters who land in trouble.

When Sisko said "... and I want us beamed back twenty minutes ago", he wasn't being literal...

When Sisko said “… and I want us beamed back twenty minutes ago”, he wasn’t being literal…

Of course, the combination of Sisko and Bashir works well for other reasons. Sisko is perhaps the most cynical leading character in the history of Star Trek. Following the second season – particularly The Maquis – Sisko has become a lot more jaded, and a lot more guarded. Sisko is the lead character who is probably best suited to landing in a Sanctuary District, the one most likely to land with his feet on the ground. (Although O’Brien can endure a horrific amount of suffering, so maybe he’s as good a choice.)

In contrast, Bashir serves as the station’s conscience. He’s the idealist. He’s the character most firmly connected to Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia. While touring the Sanctuary District, he confesses, “Twenty first century history is not one of my strong points. Too depressing.” In a way, he seems like the perfect Roddenberry Star Trek character – a hyper-evolved human who is far disconnected from humanity’s troubled past that he can disregard it as depressing reading.

District nine-and-a-bit...

District nine-and-a-bit…

Bashir is so innocent and naive that he seems to lack any understanding of mankind in this early stage of their development. It’s quite similar to Riker’s inability to understand the frozen relics in The Neutral Zone, only played for devastating drama rather than tired comedy. “Why are these people in here?” Bashir wonders as they tour the district. “Are they criminals?” When Sisko confirms that they are not criminals, Bashir has trouble processing it. “Then what did they do to deserve this?”

However, it’s the apathy that affects Bashir. He can’t understand the casualness of an injustice on this scale, the sense that a society is so aloof and apathetic that it would lock away those in need of assistance simply because it can’t bring itself to look at them. “Causing people to suffer because you hate them is terrible,” he admits, “but causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care? That’s really hard to understand.” There’s a sense that Bashir might be able to understand all this if there were a reason for it.

"Pen and paper; how quaint."

“Pen and paper; how quaint.”

Instead, this is the most banal sort of evil It’s locking people away so that their suffering doesn’t bother you any longer. It’s the ultimate expression of the disaffection and apathy that swept through mainstream American culture in the nineties. Studies suggested that “Generation X” was just more apathetic than its fore-bearers:

Although political and civic engagement began to decrease among those at the tail end of the Baby Boom, Xers appear to have enshrined political apathy as a way of life. In measurements of conventional political participation the youngest voting-age Americans stand out owing to their unprecedented levels of absenteeism. This political disengagement cannot be explained away as merely the habits of youth, because today’s young are markedly less engaged than were their counterparts in earlier generations. Voting rates are arrestingly low among post-Boomers. In the 1994 midterm elections, for instance, fewer than one in five eligible Xers showed up at the polls. As recently as 1972 half those aged eighteen to twenty-four voted; in 1996, a presidential-election year, only 32 percent did. Such anemic participation can be seen in all forms of traditional political activity: Xers are considerably less likely than previous generations of young Americans to call or write elected officials, attend candidates’ rallies, or work on political campaigns. What is more, a number of studies reveal that their general knowledge about public affairs is uniquely low.

That’s the real evil at work in Past Tense, a sense of a society that has given up on its idealism and enthusiasm. Even those pro-active youngsters who had campaigned and engaged in earlier decades have accepted that this is just the way that world is.

I do love fancy rich people future collars...

I do love fancy rich people future collars…

“Got it in high school back in the nineties just like everybody else,” industrialist Chris Brynner tells Dax. “Of course, I had to have it removed. Well, you know how it is. To get the government contracts, you have to look like all the rest of the drones. So I guess that makes me a sell-out.” He’s joking, but it’s that sort of cynicism that makes the Sanctuary Districts possible. It’s the sense that the only thing to do with anything that doesn’t fit the image society expects is to remove that object; whether it’s an offending tattoo or homeless people cluttering up a metropolitan area.

Bashir gets to make a prescient observation early in the two-parter. “If push comes to shove, if something disastrous happens to the Federation, if we are frightened enough, or desperate enough, how would we react?” Bashir wonders. “Would we stay true to our ideals or would we just stay here, right back where we started?” Not only does Bashir foreshadow the moral conflicts that would emerge towards the end of Deep Space Nine, he also alludes to the moral complexities that would await America in the early years of the twenty-first century – shocking events that brought a decade of detached prosperity into sharp contrast.

Home away from homes...

Home away from homes…

The other interesting aspect of Past Tense, apart from all the potent social commentary, is the whole time travel aspect of the plot. This seems like a rather blatant homage to The City on the Edge of Forever. The captain, the doctor and the scientist are displaced in time. History is altered. The fabric of reality is thrown into question. Our characters must find themselves intervening to preserve the integrity of history. It’s pretty much your standard Star Trek time travel episode, at least on the surface.

However, under the surface, things get a bit more interesting. Sisko finds himself thrust into the role of a historical figure, and is forced to play out a particular role to maintain the timeline. However, it’s interesting that we never see a picture of Gabriel Bell before the incident. Sisko isn’t able to recognise Gabriel Bell from his physical appearance, despite Sisko’s fascination with this period of history. He only recognises Bell by his food card.

"Double dumb ass on you!"

“Double dumb ass on you!”

Given that the only time we see a picture of Gabriel Bell – who now bears an uncanny resemblance to Sisko – is after the time travel, it’s logical to suggest that Sisko simply replaced Gabriel Bell. According to that theory, the present that Bashir and Sisko return to is slightly altered from the present they left. This fits quite well with the whole “same but slightly different” philosophy that the show adopts when it wants the illusion of change at the end of an episode, but little in the way of actual change. (Visionary comes to mind.)

However, another possibility presents itself. What if Sisko was always Gabriel Bell? What if the picture of Gabriel Bell always looked like Sisko? What if Sisko never recognised Bell because he was simply looking at a much older version of himself? After all, would any of our younger selves recognise anything beyond a passing similarity if we we say a version of our future self labelled as a key historical figure? Bell is an important figure in Earth history, but he is not so important that he is mentioned outside of this two-parter and a quick gag in Little Green Men. It seems possible that nobody would have noticed that Sisko was always Bell.

"Many of my friends are homeless..."

“Many of my friends are homeless…”

This would fit quite well with the show’s version of time travel, where time seems to exist as stable loops of non-linear events. Not only does this fit time as perceived by the Prophets in Emissary, it winds up fitting Sisko’s own existence. Indeed, Waltz sees Gul Dukat making reference to an event from his past that couldn’t have occurred until after the events of Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night later in the season, suggesting some level of pre-determination in the show’s approach to time travel. Deep Space Nine is fond of the idea that history moves in arcs and circles rather than straight lines, so it would be appropriate.

Of course, this far from a water-tight theory. The death of the “real” Gabriel Bell causes the destruction of the future, leaving the Defiant alone in a seemingly empty universe – another shout-out to The City on the Edge of Forever. That would seem to imply that the death of the real Gabriel Bell throws everything into flux, and the timeline is not secure until he has been properly replaced. This would suggest that this is not a stable time loop. If the universe can blink out of existence at any point, then this is probably not a logical or logical flow of events.

It's not the end of the world...

It’s not the end of the world…

However, there are any number of explanations for the fact that universe ceases to exist. Although it happens directly after the death of Gabriel Bell, it also happens right after O’Brien informs Kira that Starfleet has ordered them not to try to retrieve Sisko and the others. The crew first realise that something has gone wrong when Kira tries to voice her disagreement with that order, contacting Admiral Wright. It’s quite possible that the timeline was disrupted by the possibility of not retrieving Sisko, rather than the death of the real Gabriel Bell.

Of course, this is all speculation, and there’s relatively little to support it. Still, Past Tense is notable because it requires our leads to throw themselves into history. There’s no sense of passive disengagement here. Sisko’s conflict is distinct from that faced by Kirk. Kirk had to stand by and do nothing; the tragedy of inaction, allowing an idealist to die for the future to live. In contrast, Sisko is thrown right into the middle of things. He’s not just a neutral observer – he can’t be a neutral observer. He has to do something. Even if that something involves changing history, Sisko has to act.

It doesn't all compute...

It doesn’t all compute…

In essence, Past Tense is a firm rejection of the philosophy of The City on the Edge of Forever. The City on the Edge of Forever was a tragedy about have to stand by and allow history to unfold as it must – witnessing the high cost of utopia. Past Tense rejects the morality of this action. Sisko doesn’t know that the death of Gabriel Bell has caused the destruction of Earth, even if he might suspect it had dire consequences.

Sisko’s intervention is not based on the same dispassionate arithmetic that forced Kirk to stand on the sidelines. Instead, Sisko acts based on more immediate moral concerns. “Without Bell, there’s a good chance those hostages are going to die,” Sisko explains. “We have to save them. Whatever it takes, we have to make sure those hostages survive.” The greater good doesn’t exist as an abstract ideal against which human lives can be measured. Instead, the greater good lies with the most immediate good – saving as many lives as possible. Similarly, Bashir cannot stand by and allow Webb’s son to die, even if he might have otherwise.

Name rings a Bell...

Name rings a Bell…

Past Tense is an absolutely wonderful piece of Star Trek, and a fitting closing note for this briefest of periods where Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek show on the air. It’s a hell of a number to close your solo set.

You might be interested in our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:


2 Responses

  1. Homelessness is still a major issue in the US.

    As for the two parter, it’s pretty good. It apparently has its early Genesis in a TNG pitch involving Picard and Geordi traveling through time and crashlanding in Watts during the Watts riots, and then later became an episode idea involving Sisko being trapped in the 50s mentally and everyone thinking he was insane. Both are good ideas, but I like how the episodes came out in the end.

    • Yep. I think Past Tense is horrible underrated. It’s one of the most “Star-Trek-y” Deep Space Nine episodes, proof that the show could do everything that fans expected of the franchise.

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