I am black, I have spent time in a mental hospital, and much of my adult life, for both sexual and social reasons, has been passed on society’s margins. My attraction to them as subject matter for fiction, however, is not so much the desire to write autobiography, but the far more parochial desire to set matters straight where, if only one takes the evidence of the written word, all would seem confusion.
– Samuel Delany, The Straits of Messina
Far Beyond the Stars is a masterpiece.
It is one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced, a neat encapsulation of the franchise’s core beliefs and humanist values filtered through a utopian lens. It is a story built upon the idea that things get better, that circumstances improve, that hope wins out. It is hard to imagine an episode of the franchise that more effective embodies this philosophy. Far Beyond the Stars is a love letter to the transformative potential of science-fiction, an ode to the capacity to imagine a world that is better than this one.
There is some irony that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine should be the series to deliver this particular story. After all, the writing staff on the show have long championed their position as the “bastard stepchild” of the franchise, taking every opportunity to subvert and undermine a lot of what fans take for granted about the fifty-year-old pop culture institution. Deep Space Nine is the version of Star Trek where currency still exists, where war still rages, where terrorism still occurs. So there is something surprising in seeing something as pure as Far Beyond the Stars.
Deep Space Nine is a series notable for cheekily toying with the assumptions that Star Trek fans have about the Star Trek universe. In Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II, the series reminded audiences that things would likely get worse before mankind could usher in the franchise’s utopia. In Homefront and Paradise Lost, the series implied that Starfleet was just as much a threat to Federation values as the looming Dominion invasion. Sisko crossed ethical lines that Kirk or Picard would consider sacrosanct in episodes like For the Uniform or In the Pale Moonlight.
However, Deep Space Nine has never been quite as cynical about the franchise’s core values as many would argue. As much as Ira Steven Behr hesitated to produce Trials and Tribble-ations as part of the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations, he eventually committed and the production team gave it their all. As much as Behr might have objected to the initial plans for the Defiant in Star Trek: First Contact, he still included a nice nod to the events in In Purgatory’s Shadow.
The writing staff on Deep Space Nine love the franchise, and its trappings. That is why they brought back old concepts like the three classic Klingons for Blood Oath or the mirror universe in Crossover. The sixth season is among the most provocative seasons of Star Trek in the franchise’s history, kicking off a two-year-long war arc that would seem to run counter to Gene Roddenberry’s wishes for the franchise. However, it remains very clear that the production team respect the franchise’s history and legacy.
Far Beyond the Stars is very much an archetypal Star Trek story. In fact, it is tempting to describe the episode as cross between The City on the Edge of Forever and The Inner Light, two episodes that can make a convincing argument for being the best episodes of their respective runs. As in The City on the Edge of Forever, the lead character finds himself thrown back to mid-twentieth-century New York, trying to reconnect with the Star Trek future. As with The Inner Light, the lead character lives an an extended adventure in only “a few minutes.”
Far Beyond the Stars unfolds against the backdrop of the fifties, which is an important era in the history of the Star Trek franchise. The original Star Trek launched in September 1966, perhaps the last gasp of the Kennedy’s Camelot. In the midst of the Cold War, Star Trek dared to imagine a future where mankind had not only survived, but thrived. However, Star Trek was just as much a product of the forties as the sixties, its perspective shaped and formed by the experience of its writers during the Second World War and by the new world order left standing in the aftermath.
There are certainly shades of this in Far Beyond the Stars. Like Gene Roddenberry or Gene L. Coon, it is implied that Benny Russell is a veteran of the Second World War. When Benny protests that he has “only been working at it for a few years”, Cassie corrects him, “A few years? More like fifteen, if you count all those stories you wrote in the Navy.” Benny shrugs off that writing as “amateur stuff”, but it seems clear that his vision of the future is heavily informed by those experiences.
Star Trek has acknowledged that its cultural foundations lie in the Second World War, both politically and culturally. Near the end of the show’s first season, The City on the Edge of Forever made the connection literal. Sending Kirk back to New York in the late thirties, the episode revealed that the American involvement in the Second World War was perhaps the most important event in the foundation of the Federation. This sentiment would be repeated almost forty years later with Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II at the start of the final season of the Berman era.
However, there is also a cultural gap that exists between the Second World War and the Kennedy administration, a period of history that inevitably led to the development and broadcast of Star Trek that stands between those two key moments in popular culture. Far Beyond the Stars plays almost as an exploration of that hidden history, of the shifts in science-fiction culture that took place between the end of the Second World War and the broadcast of The Man Trap.
Far Beyond the Stars is a celebration and exploration of the science-fiction magazine culture of the fifties that paved the way for the expansion of science-fiction into other media in the years that followed. It is story set primarily in the writers’ room of a pulpy sci-fi magazine, where the authors toil over typewriters to churn out fiction with catchy titles like “Honeymoon on Andoras” or “Please, Take Me With You.” Magazines like Incredible Tales and Galaxy recall real-world pulp like Amazing Stories or Astounding.
These periodicals had a tremendous influence on the evolution of on-screen science-fiction. It seems reasonable to argue that films like Forbidden Planet would not exist without these stories, as Richard Scheib contends:
It comes with a plot that could have been taken out of any copy of Amazing Stories or Astounding in the previous decade. It is clear that the authors have read the pulp magazines of the 1940s. There is a love of science-fictional gadgetry and wondrous technology – brain-boosting devices, moving sculptures, forcefields, rayguns, the planetary energy wells and of course Robby the Robot whom one expects could quote Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics at the drop of a mechanical hat.
Naturally, Forbidden Planet would go on to be a major influence on Star Trek, making these magazines part of the franchise’s cultural genealogy.
More than that, these magazines were home to key influences on Roddenberry. Richard Mathieson published his first short story Born of Man and Woman in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, embarking on a career that would include a teleplay credit on The Enemy Within. Jerome Bixby was a fixture of these magazines, editing Planet Stories and publishing prose in magazines like Worlds of Tomorrow, before contributing scripts and story ideas for episodes like Mirror, Mirror and Day of the Dove.
When Benny arrives with “the new issue of Galaxy”, Herbert Rossoff rhymes a list of the authors credited on the latest edition. “Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon.” Sturgeon wrote Shore Leave and Amok Time. Ray Bradbury was invited to write for Star Trek, but declined; he would be cited as an influence on J. Michael Straczynski and Bryce Zabel’s proposed reboot of the franchise. Similarly, Roddenberry invited Heinlein to write for the show, but Heinlein turned Roddenberry down; writer Manu Saadia has described Star Trek as “above all a critique of Robert Heinlein.”
Even the characters in Far Beyond the Stars are intended to evoke these forties and fifties magazine writers. With his interest in robotics and his distinctive pipe, Albert is clearly meant to evoke Isaac Asimov. Asimov had a very long and involved history with the franchise, enjoying an affectionate and constructive relationship with Gene Roddenberry. Hiding behind her initials to disguise her gender, Kay Eaton evokes both Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana and also magazine writers like C.L. Moore.
Even the production design of the episode is absolutely saturated with in-jokes and references that seem to position Benny Russell’s work as part of a broader cultural movement pushing towards Star Trek. Pabst’s reference to “Andoris” evokes “Andoria.” The cover to Galaxy teases the story Court Martial along with an illustration that evokes the matte backgrounds from the original Star Trek. In March 1953, Incredible Tales published The Cage, The Corbomite Manoeuvre, Journey to Babel, Metamorphosis, and Where No Man Has Gone Before.
All of this suggests that Benny Russell is working at time when all the influences that will inspire Star Trek are coming into play, but they have not yet coalesced into a vision for the future. Far Beyond the Stars suggests that Star Trek had to be willed into being, that it had to come from some unconscious hunger for a better future than that suggested by the staid mood of the nineteen fifties. Far Beyond the Stars insists that Star Trek is the dream of a better future, an invocation of a world more hopeful and more idealistic than the immediate future plans to be.
Indeed, during his breakdown, Benny repeatedly insists that Deep Space Nine is real simply because he can dare to imagine it. “You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea,” Benny warns Pabst. “Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea. That future, I created it, and it’s real.” As far as the episode is concerned, the most potent and powerful conception of Star Trek lies the way that the very idea of this utopian future speaking to “someone without a lot of hope” or “someone dreaming of a better future.”
It is a very romantic approach to Star Trek, suggesting that the very idea of a utopian future can be subversive gesture of resistance or empowerment. Interestingly enough, this is a theme to which Star Trek: Enterprise returns in its own final season. As the Star Trek franchise was facing cancellation for the first time in almost two decades, and as the War on Terror raged, episodes like Babel One, United, The Aenar, In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II insisted that the idea of the Federation was subversive in its own way.
There is something beautiful in the suggestion that ideas can change the world, that daring to imagine a better world has the power to change this one. In some ways, this is a very ideologically pure defence of the Star Trek franchise, one that skips past all the moments when Star Trek has fallen well short of that idealism by indulging in reactionary rhetoric or pandering to racism or sexism. Far Beyond the Stars is a stirring defence of Star Trek from first principle, contending that its shortcomings cannot undermine the hope embodied by its core premise.
In many ways, this optimism evokes the way that writer Grant Morrison talks about the power of Superman as a very concept. Morrison has described Superman as “our greatest-ever idea as the human species”, and talked about how as a child he represented the very idea of hope in the face of annihilation:
My parents were anti-nuclear activists, so the bomb was a big frightening specter in our household. Then I discovered superhero comics and realized that here was an idea that was bigger than the bomb. Superman can withstand an atom bomb explosion. They literally saved me from the horror of the atom bomb.
There is something very pure in that idea, in the suggestion that the very act of imaging something bigger and stronger and better than the atomic bomb represented some sort of victory. Far Beyond the Stars suggests that Benny Russell finds some strength in daring to imagine a future better than that presented to him.
Far Beyond the Stars consciously frames this utopian idealism in the context of fifties America. In particularly, the story finds Benjamin Sisko reimagined as Benny Russell, an African-American science-fiction writer working in a culture that is openly hostile to him. Benny lives in a world where successful African-American athletes cannot even live in the same neighbourhood as their white team mates, where young black men can be gunned by the police for breaking into a car, where he can be stopped and demeaned by the authorities for no reason.
Far Beyond the Stars is an episode that is consciously built around the fact that Sisko is a black man in a position of authority that would have been unimaginable to audiences less than half-a-century earlier. It is a surprisingly candid piece of social commentary, given that Star Trek has tended to dress up it commentary in metaphor and allegory. The franchise could deal with homosexuality in the abstract through episodes like The Outcast and Rejoined, but it could not produce scripts like Blood and Fire or show two members of the same gender kissing in The Offspring.
However, Avery Brooks worked very hard to ensure that Sisko retained a distinct sense of his cultural heritage. Sisko was not written or presented in a way that was “colourblind.” Sisko was explicitly African-American, even in the twenty-fourth century. This was important to Brooks, and it inspired him to take the role:
“Certainly the fact you have a black man in a command position is very important. That is something that goes far beyond just having black people working on a show, which itself is also very important. It goes to children being able to see themselves on screen and visualize that in the future they will be doing something of importance to the world at large. It addresses the situation of having all kinds of people interacting and cooperating for the mutual survival of the planet. The writing was exceptional, and the funny thing is I initially said no to Star Trek. My wife convinced me to go to the audition. She was the one who said, ‘You can’t say no to this.’”
Sisko’s quarters are decorated with African artwork, with the writers even drawing attention to its arrival in The Search, Part I. Sisko has a long-standing interest in culinary art of his home in New Orleans, and even his casual costuming reflects a distinctly African-American heritage as compared to the casual ware of Kirk or Picard.
Deep Space Nine exists in a future where racism no longer exists, where Sisko no longer faces the sort of institutional prejudices that apply to minorities in contemporary societies. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a tendency to assume that this utopia was built upon the establishment of a singular human mono-culture; that a French character like Jean-Luc Picard could speak with a British accent like Patrick Stewart, and where everybody shared the exact same values and perspective.
One of the strongest aspects of Deep Space Nine has been the emerging realisation that it is possible for cultures to peacefully coexist while retaining their own identities. Worf can partake in Klingon customs, within reason. major Kira can worship her gods in her own way. That cultural diversity trickles down to the human characters as well. Benjamin Sisko is human, just like James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard or Kathryn Janeway, but that does not mean that they all share the exact same culture.
Indeed, this was part of the reason why the producers asked Avery Brooks to direct Far Beyond the Stars. As Steve Oster acknowledges in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Brooks brings some authenticity:
“We discussed the possibility of Avery directing, knowing that he was going to be in every frame of film,” Steve Oster acknowledges. “We don’t like that combination, because it’s very hard to direct yourself. However, this was a story about racism and prejudice and we felt very strongly that it would be wrong if it came from a bunch of people who didn’t necessarily know about that experience. We knew that it was imperative to the story and imperative to the integrity of television for it to be done right.”
After all, Far Beyond the Stars was an episode about the African-American experience in fifties America, but it had been written by a bunch of white writers. Brooks was a creative individual who would put his own stamp on it.
Indeed, Brooks worked very hard over the course of Deep Space Nine to shape and mould the character Sisko in collaboration with the writers. Ira Steven Behr has talked about arguing with studio executives on Brooks’ behalf to let him “shave his head and keep the goat”, a choice that was obviously of importance to the actor. Brooks was particularly invested in the relationship between Ben and Jake Sisko, even insisting that the producers alter What You Leave Behind so that Sisko would not be seen to entirely abandon his son.
And so it was important to Avery Brooks that Deep Space Nine recognise Sisko’s blackness, to acknowledge his cultural heritage and not to treat him as a generic television protagonist that happened to be played by an African-American actor. The result is a truly compelling and fascinating character. Sisko is never defined by his ethnicity, but his culture is very much a part of his identity and heritage. Deep Space Nine was arguably the first truly multicultural Star Trek series, and that was reflected in Sisko himself.
Deep Space Nine has acknowledged Sisko repeatedly as an African-American, but never as explicitly as with Far Beyond the Stars. Cast into the role of Benny Russell, Sisko and the audience are confronted with reality of a prejudice and hatred based solely on a person’s skin colour. As Mark Anthony Neal argues in Looking for Leroy, Benny Russell is part of the cultural context of the genre’s mid-twentieth century history:
In terms of black science fiction writers, Benny Russell anticipates the careers of Samuel Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, and the late Octavia Butler, and brings into greater focus some of the experimental fiction of early-twentieth-century writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, whose short story The Comet was published in 1920, and George Schuyler, whose 1930 novel Black No More centres on a scientist who is capable of turning black people white.
Russell even explicitly cites some of his contemporaries in an argument with Pabst. “What about W.E.B. du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright?” Benny demands of his editor, who claims that the public is not yet ready for “stories written by Negroes.” Benny challenges him, “Did you ever heard of Native Son?”
Benny is a professional. He works in a white-collar job, writing fiction that is distributed to a mass audience. He dresses neatly. He is polite and respectful. However, he is still demeaned and humiliated. Locking up after work one night, he is stopped by two racist cops. “Nice suit,” notes Mulkahey. However, the compliment comes with an accusation, “Where’d you get it?” It is a particularly nice touch that Far Beyond the Stars names its racist cops Ryan and Mulkahey, decidedly Irish names. The Irish had once been subject to such racism, but now they dish it out.
When Benny dares to imagine a future where a black man could be the commanding officer on a space station, other African-American characters scoff at his optimism. “A coloured captain?” chuckles Jimmy in disbelief. “The only reason they’ll ever let us in space is if they need someone to shine their shoes.” The black characters in Far Beyond the Stars repeatedly find themselves subject to prejudice and racism, in various forms. Sometimes, that racism is overt, as with the police officers. Sometimes, it is more subtle, as demonstrated by editor Douglas Pabst.
Pabst positions himself as a neutral party in this contemporary culture. He insists that he is not racist, but that he is beholden to public that is not ready for such progressive science-fiction. When Benny lists off the successful African-American writers who are allowed to embrace their blackness, Pabst dismisses his writer’s concerns out of hand. “That’s literature for liberals and intellectuals,” he reflects. “The average reader’s not going to spend his hard earned cash on stories written by Negroes.”
He pleads with Benny, “Look, Benny, I’m a magazine editor, I am not a crusader. I am not here to change the world, I’m here to put out a magazine. Now, that’s my job. That means I have to answer to the publisher, the national distributors, the wholesalers and none of them are going to want to put this story on the newsstand. For all we know, it could cause a race riot.” Pabst tries to present himself as a reasonable person with legitimate concerns, who is only operating within a larger framework. He is, as Herbert Rossoff calls him out, “a coward.”
Pabst is also the face of a more subtle form of racism than the law enforcement officers who casually drop the word “boy” into conversation. He is a figure that many African American writers will recognise. Science-fiction writer Samuel Delany recognised a similar figure from his work in the sixties, as he outlined in Racism and Science Fiction:
I submitted Nova for serialisation to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and a phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialised form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against me being black, you understand. (There reputedly exists a letter from him to horror writer Dean Koontz, from only a year or two later, in which Campbell argues in all seriousness that a technologically advanced black civilisation is a social and a biological impossibility. … ) No, perish the thought! Surely there was not a prejudiced bone in his body! It’s just that I had, by pure happenstance, chosen to write about someone whose mother was from Senegal (and whose father was from Norway), and it was the poor benighted readers, out there in America’s heartland, who, in 1967, would be too upset.
There is perhaps an element of self-criticism to the characterisation of Pabst. Pabst recalls those stories about David Livingston rushing down to the set to prevent two same-sex extras holding hands in The Offspring or Ronald D. Moore’s pointed observation that the only thing stopping gay characters from appearing was Rick Berman.
It is tempting to believe that the politics of Far Behind the Stars are relatively outdated, that the experiences of Benny Russell can be consigned to the history books as an expression of closemindedness that would no longer occur. By the time that Far Beyond the Stars aired in February 1998, during Black History Month, most Americans would have hoped that the country had moved far past the bigotry and hatred that slowly chips away at Benny Russell over the course of the narrative. Things have to have gotten better, surely?
In some ways, they have. It is hard to imagine a publisher pulping an entire magazine run because the lead character is revealed to be black. Indeed, those barriers were arguably in the process of being broken down at around the same time that the story is set. The famous (and controversial) comic Judgment Day was published in April 1953, featuring a black astronaut standing in judgment of an alien society as an explicit commentary on racial prejudice. The Civil Rights movement would emerge in the later part of the decade.
Quoted in The Fifty-Year Mission, writer Ira Steven Behr acknowledges that the morality of Far Behind the Stars might seem a little awkward and heavy-handed, coming more than forty years after the bulk of the story is set:
To an extent it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel, because who the hell is going to say that racism is good at this stage of the game? So you’re kind of preaching – you would imagine – to the converted already, but I thought it was an interesting way to do it.
Behr might have something of a point in this regard, given the overt nature of the episode’s moral and the fairly unequivocal prejudice that Benny finds himself facing.
However, Far Beyond the Stars works as a cultural allegory about prejudice. More than that, it works on multiple levels. Most superficially, it works as an affectionate period piece mapping out a cultural history of Star Trek as something that emerged from the political consciousness of the fifties and sixties. Star Trek was in many ways an expression of the liberalism and idealism that arose from the younger generation in response to the staid conservatism of the fifties.
More than that, Star Trek was in part driven by the response to this sort of historical prejudice and long-standing injustice. Star Trek certainly had its flaws and its blind spots in this regard. It struggled with how best to embrace youth culture in episodes like This Side of Paradise or The Way to Eden; it repeatedly did an injustice to Uhura in scripts like The Changeling or Plato’s Stepchildren; its sexual politics were decidedly muddled in episodes like Dagger of the Mind or A Private Little War. However, the series was very earnest in its desire for a better world.
This was particularly apparent in the third season, with preachy idealistic episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield and The Day of the Dove. In Yesterday’s Enterprise, Jan Johnson-Smith argues that this is a valid context for Far Beyond the Stars:
The episode confronts America’s history of bigotry and the dreams of its population for equality by contrasting it with the equality of the ‘real’ Deep Space Nine diegesis and characters with which we are familiar. The significance of Russell/Sisko being ‘the dreamer and the dream’, and the parallels with the famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech of martin Luther King in January 1963 are hard to miss. The episode also confronts its own series’ history, the dream of equality and the dream of the future; as Michèle and Duncan Barrett say, ‘the dream is the dream of science fiction: it is an analogy for Star Trek itself.’ The concern is whether the dream is aspirational or delusional.
In its exploration of the political and cultural climate of the fifties, contrasting it with the idealism of the Star Trek universe, Far Beyond the Stars provides a powerful and compelling historical context for the franchise. This is a perfectly reasonable argument.
However, there is more to it. The United States might have moved past the more overt racism on display in Far Beyond the Stars, but the truth is that far too much of the episode still resonates. Drawn to gunshots, Benny finds himself standing over the body of Jimmy. The young black man was killed by two trigger-happy cops. “He had a weapon,” Mulkahey insists. “A crowbar?” Benny protests. It recalls the high-profile murders of young black men by law enforcement in recent history, many of whom were unarmed.
Contemporary society might have moved past the stage where a black (or female) science-fiction writer is news, but not everybody has been accepted. Star Trek waited fifty years for an explicitly gay regular character, with Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek Beyond and Lieutenant Stamets in Star Trek: Discovery. Marvel Comics has argued that their audience simply does not want prominent female or minority characters. GamerGate exists as a backlash against feminist critics of popular culture, chasing them out of a predominantly male space.
There are probably a lot of contemporary writers and journalists who will empathise with the plight of Benny Russell, having been shouted down by angry mobs and hounded by those opposed by perspectives beyond their own. Female gamers are frequently subjected to rape and death threats for presuming to intrude into the medium. Recent months have seen Jewish journalists targeted with anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery for daring to comment on contemporary politics.
Sadly, progress is not always assured. The horrors of fifties racism cannot be brushed aside and forgotten, even if the particulars have changed. “Every time I achieve a real victory, something like this happens and everything seems to turn to ashes,” Sisko reflects early in the episode, and it is hard not to empathise. The election of Barrack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States was supposed to signal a new post-racial moment for the United States. Instead, paranoid response to his presidency sparked the creation of white identity politics.
Much less seriously, there is still a culture of consciously downplaying the race and gender of the writers of genre fiction. A striking example from recent history is the pen name of “J.K.” for author Joanne Rowling. Rowling is author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, but her publisher suggested she initially disguise her gender:
Bloomsbury, the publishers of the Harry Potter series, said the author took her grandmother’s name. A spokesman said: “Clearly it was not her name given at birth but it could have been her confirmation name. When we asked her for her initials, she said J K.”
She added that the publishers decided to use initials instead of a name to attract boy readers. “As it happened the first book was such a success that within two months of publication she was on Blue Peter, so it was blown. There are many examples of authors changing their names.”
There is something very disheartening in this. Rowling is undoubtedly one of the most successful authors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, it was still deemed advisable that she conceal her gender in order to avoid alienating her potential audience.
Even in the context of the nineties, far removed from the overt racism of the fifties, it should be stressed that Benjamin Sisko was very much an aspirational figure. African-Americans were under-represented as television leads at the time. Writer Steven Barnes argued that white viewers had to be prepared for Brooks as a Star Trek lead, that the character was cautiously introduced in a way so as not to threaten white audiences:
I have enjoyed DS9, and felt that they soft-pedaled Sisko for the first few seasons, bringing him slowly to a more and more macho characterization. They knew the audience had to be carefully primed to accept such a thing. Avery Brooks is marvelous. Virile, intelligent, humorous-what a waste that A Man Called Hawk show was! He was EASILY the best thing about Spenser for Hire (which I enjoyed), and if they ever make a Spenser movie, only Brooks or Larry Fishburne could play Hawk convincingly. He is simply wonderful.
Now that Deep Space Nine has been airing for almost 6 years, what are your thoughts on the show and the character development of Captain Benjamin Sisko?
His early characterization was quite soft-spoken. I think this was no accident-they were trying to create the first African-American lead in an hour-long dramatic series. Quite a balancing act. Very slowly, they’ve let his strength-his true character-emerge.
Barnes has something of a point here. There is something disheartening about the fact that the studio took so long to fully trust Brooks to make the role his own. More than that, it is frustrating that this was still an issue in the early nineties. Far Beyond the Stars suggests that Captain Benjamin Sisko was too much for fifties readers, but there is some suggestion that nineties audiences still needed to be acclimatised and prepared.
To be clear, this is an issue with nineties popular culture in general and not with Deep Space Nine in particular. Shows like The X-Files and Bufy: The Vampire Slayer had predominantly white casts. Deep Space Nine has enough black cast members that it can tell a story like Far Beyond the Stars using regular and recurring players. Benny is able to interact with figures from the black community like Cassie or Jimmy or Willie or even the Preacher. It would be hard to name five regular and recurring African American actors on any other Star Trek show.
Despite the studio’s attempts to temper him earlier in the run, Brooks is absolutely phenomenal when he is given the freedom to cut loose. Brooks has a performance style that is all his own, a beautiful hybrid of the heightened staccato rhythm of William Shatner and the raw Shakespearean power of Patrick Stewart. When really cutting loose, Brooks feels very much of a piece with the heightened universe around him, a larger-than-life figure in a fantastical world. Sisko is one of the most compelling and engaging major characters in the franchise, in part thanks to Brooks.
Far Beyond the Stars is very much a showcase for Brooks’ performance as Benny. Brooks brings the character to life, perfectly following Benny his numb acceptance of the status quo towards his epiphany and his embrace of the idea of Benjamin Sisko. According to Nana Visitor, his performance of the breakdown scene was something to behold:
There are only two things that come to mind. One was that I fashioned my look on a self-portrait my mother had done of herself when she was my age at that time period — and I looked eerily identical. In one of the shots I took the pose she was in — hand to chin — and it was a little secret homage to my mother. The other thing was how on-the-edge Avery’s performance was. When his character collapses, I remember being alarmed and unsure that the actor was OK. I’d never gotten scared like that for another actor’s welfare in all my experience. It was chilling to watch.
Brooks does phenomenal work in the role. In some respects, Far Beyond the Stars is his defining performance. The sheer anguish of his breakdown at the episode’s climax is perhaps Sisko’s most mimetic moment. Along with Vreenak’s “it’s a faaaake!” from In the Pale Moonlight, it is a truly iconic moment for Deep Space Nine.
Even beyond the power of the central metaphor and Brooks’ central performance, Far Beyond the Stars is a spectacular piece of television that has been put together with a great deal of care. The fifties setting of Far Beyond the Stars might have been intended to support a single episode, but the writers and the production design team put a lot of effort into fleshing out the world. The Paramount back lot looks beautiful, filled with vintage cars and loving recreating the period décor.
It speaks to how well Far Beyond the Stars is constructed that all of the characters in this vision mirror their Star Trek counterparts in some way or another, with even this dreamscape serving to illuminate some of the core character beats on Deep Space Nine. There is some fundamental truth in how Far Beyond the Stars portrays these characters, making it seem like more than just a clever throwaway. For example, Pabst is very clearly designed to mirror the character of Odo. Pabst may not literally be Odo, but he reflects some of Odo’s core aspects back.
Like Odo, Pabst is primarily motivated by a pursuit of order rather than justice. Like Odo, Pabst is willing to tolerate a perpetual state of injustice so long as the appearance of order is maintained. Pabst and Rossoff fight over the donuts, a regular occurrence fought to “a draw, same as always.” Like Odo and Quark, Pabst and Rossoff represent the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Pabst represents the establishment, but without any real underlying moral core. Rossoff is very much the quirky outsider, but with a surprisingly strong moral character.
Rossoff labels Pabst a “fascist”, and he might not be wrong. Pabst’s collaboration with the powers that be perhaps mirrors Odo’s compromise with the Cardassians during the Occupation, as explored in Necessary Evil and Things Past. Odo has always been the most morally flexible character in the Deep Space Nine ensemble, and that is reflected in Pabst. In many ways, Pabst betrays his writers like Odo betrays his friends in Children of Time or Behind the Lines. Pabst is a certainly very interesting read on Odo.
There are parallels with other characters, of course. Rossoff is very clearly a twisted reflection of Quark. He takes offence to Pabst calling him “a pinko”, but the truth is that Pabst might have a stronger conscience than the rest of the writing room. This is the central irony of Quark. Deep Space Nine has repeatedly suggested that Quark is not nearly selfish and greedy enough to be a Ferengi, with episodes like Business as Usual and The Siege of AR-558 suggesting that Quark has a much stronger moral centre than most of the other characters would acknowledge.
Reflecting Bashir, Julius is a bit of a snob. “White Rose Redi Tea,” he muses after his wife makes some instant tea. “What an appalling concept.” When K.C. insists that “H.G. Wells would’ve liked it”, Julius rejects the idea out of hand. “I doubt that. No self respecting Englishman would.” Like Martok, Roy is gregarious and larger-than-life. When the writers object to the buxom beauty in his sketch for “Honeymoon on Andoris”, he shrugs, “So I had too much sauerkraut on my franks that night. What can I say?”
Beyond Pabst and Rossoff, perhaps the most insightful character commentary comes in the form of Albert Macklin, who is mirrored with O’Brien. In the world of Deep Space Nine, the decency of Miles Edward O’Brien is treated as a universal constant. It is that basic decency that bleeds over to the mirror universe in episodes like Through the Looking Glass and Shattered Mirror, and which makes the obligatory “O’Brien must suffer” episodes so compelling. It is no surprise that Albert Macklin seems like the nicest guy on the writing staff.
More than that, Far Beyond the Stars suggests that Macklin shares O’Brien’s interest in technology. “Albert’s got the right idea,” Pabst advises Benny. “He’s not interested in negroes or whites. He writes about robots.” In fact, Macklin even seems to share his counterpart’s desire to fix things. While the entire staff argues over Pabst’s refusal to publish the “Deep Space Nine” stories, it is Macklin who ultimately proposes a solution. “I’ve got an idea,” he suggests. “Why not make them, you know, a dream?”
This is quite clever of itself, but Far Beyond the Stars goes a little further. It suggests that Macklin is primarily interested in robots and machines because he has difficulty interacting with people. He is incredibly socially awkward, from his introduction to Benny at the start of the episode. “I thought you might be going… eh… to the… office…?” he asks Benny. He stutters repeatedly. When Rossoff takes a cheap shot at Macklin for writing about robots, he responds, “I like robots. They’re very efficient.” The implication is that humans are… not.
This is interesting in the context of O’Brien, if only because it seems to hint at a nice little character detail. Episodes like Empok Nor have repeatedly insisted that O’Brien became an engineer because he did not want to be a soldier any longer. The implication would seem to be that O’Brien liked fixing things instead of destroying them. However, through the character of Macklin, Far Beyond the Stars asks the audience to consider whether O’Brien is more interested in mechanics because they are fundamentally simpler than people. They lack the complications.
However, the character seem to exist in a space between the Star Trek universe and the real world. The characters not only mirror their Deep Space Nine counterparts, but also the actors. As The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion demonstrates, the sets were populated with lots of little in-jokes and references:
Visible everywhere are pinned-up memos from Mr. Pabst. One memo to Albert Macklin advises him that “four laws of robotics is too many”, and suggests that he lose one. The memo brings to light the similarity between Albert and famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote a series of novels in which robots operated according to three “Laws of Robotis.” Asimov’s groundbreaking novel, I, Robot was published by Gnome Press, as was Macklin’s first novel. Another Pabst memo, this one to Herb Rossoff, advises that “no one would believe that a cheerleader could kill vampires.” This inside joke works on two levels, given that Rossoff’s counterpart, Armin Shimerman, appeared for several seasons on the series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.
Armin Shimerman cites this little in-joke as “the only time the production or anyone (except the actors) ever acknowledged my other existence on Buffy.” It is a very clever reference to Shimerman’s career beyond Deep Space Nine.
Indeed, Rossoff’s advocacy for Benny could be seen as a nod to Shimerman’s off-screen advocacy. Shimerman is one of the most socially-conscious members of the Deep Space Nine cast, having served for six years as a member of the National Board of the Screen Actors’ Guild and serving as the organiser (and representative of) the Trek Against Trump campaign in late 2016. It makes perfect sense that Shimerman would be cast as the member of the Incredible Tales writing staff most sensitive to Benny’s plight.
Less seriously, there is something very clever in casting Nana Visitor and Alexander Siddig as a married couple. The two actors got married during the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, and had started a family together. Although the marriage did not last, the Deep Space Nine writing staff would work in a number of sly references to the relationship over the final four seasons of the show. In Fascination, the two characters almost hook up. In Apocalypse Rising, Kira blames Bashir for her pregnancy. Far Beyond the Stars takes the in-joke to its logical conclusion.
Far Beyond the Stars is a remarkable piece of television, and it made an incredible impact on both the writers and the fans. Indeed, the concept of Benny Russell was so striking and effective that the production team even returned to it for a few scenes in Shadows and Symbols, drafting in Casey Biggs to play a fifties equivalent of Damar. The fifties setting has even been used in tie-in fiction, making an appearance in the Millennium trilogy along with Unity and Raise the Dawn.
Most strikingly, the writers even considered returning to Benny Russell at the very end of Deep Space Nine. The intention would obviously have been to pay-off the suggestion that Benny Russell was both “the dreamer and the dream”, that he was every bit as real as Sisko and that the two characters were somehow recursive. Perhaps all of Deep Space Nine existed inside the mind of Benny Russell, while Benny Russell existed inside the mind of Benjamin Sisko. It certainly would have been a sly and winking ending, bordering on cheeky.
Ira Steven Behr argued in favour of this ending, but lost. According to The Fifty-Year Mission, one of the deciding factors was the existence of a larger shared universe:
At one point I pitched the idea that at the end of the series everything would have been from the imagination of Benny Russell. Of course, they wouldn’t let me do that idea – it would have taken away the entire franchise. But what’s so crazy about the idea that DS9 was part of Benny’s mind? It’s part of Rick Berman’s mind and Michael Piller’s mind and my mind, Robert’s mind, Hans’ mind, René’s mind, and Ron’s mind. So, of course it’s part of someone’s mind.
Behr makes a very valid point, and there is something to be said for expanding the theme of Far Beyond the Stars to encompass all of Deep Space Nine and arguably all of Star Trek.
There is a lot to be said for Behr’s argument. Star Trek is not real. It is a multimedia franchise. It is not a documentary from the future, it is a drama that is authored by staff writers. Given the almost mythic quality of the franchise, and its unique place in popular consciousness, there is something to be said for suggesting that the strongest interpretation of Star Trek is the dream of a hopeful future from somebody who has lived in a world without that hope or that dream.
Of course, there any number of counter-arguments. A dream ending might be seen to undercut all of the stories that came before, particularly undercutting any sense of tension or drama. While the audience is aware that Star Trek is not real, actively reminding them of that fact at the very end of the last episode would seem the perfect way to sour the mood. More than that, revealing the entire franchise to be an extension of Benny Russell’s imagination would arguably be the sort of sly twist that Behr would never tolerate from any other Star Trek production team.
Understandably, the production team were divided on the issue of whether Deep Space Nine should be considered the dream of Benny Russell. Discussing the finale with Cinefantastique, Hans Beimler opposed the idea:
Said Beimler, “At one point we were considering ending the series with Benny Russell walking the station, what he had imagined. But Benny Russell was something that was introduced in the sixth season. It’s not an element from the beginning. It’s important that this series be a seven-year arc, not a two-year arc, so to end on that note I think would have been inappropriate. It’s an interesting way to go, but you have to look at the series in its entirety, and I think that’s why we made the decisions that we made.”
It is a fair argument. It seems unreasonable to hang the big final twist of the final episode on an episode that aired in the middle of the sixth season, ignoring the one-hundred-and-seventy-odd episodes around it.
At the same time, Beimler’s logic is not entirely convincing. After all, What You Leave Behind does not really pay off Emissary in any substantive way. Sisko’s one job in Emissary was to bring Bajor into the Federation. That narrative thread was left untied, last discussed in Rapture. If Beimler is arguing that a series finale has an obligation to go right back to the start in order to wrap up a “seven-year arc”, then the choices made by the production team do not reflect that.
More to the point, What You Leave Behind ultimately hinges on a set of plot point introduced in the fifth season and clarified in the sixth season. The Dominion War was declared in Call to Arms, but took over the show in A Time to Stand. The Pah-Wraiths were introduced in The Assignment, but the promise of an epic showdown with the Prophets was cemented in The Reckoning. However the twin climaxes of What You Leave Behind were the end of the Dominion War and the final battle with the Pah-Wraiths.
There’s inherently nothing wrong with delivering on these more recent threads. Indeed, Deep Space Nine has been quite good at improvising as it goes, picking up plot points as it moves forward. The production team have never been afraid to drop elements that weren’t working and add new details to the overall arc. The Maquis plot was wrapped up in Blaze of Glory, while Rapture seems to put a pin in the idea of Bajor joining the Federation at any point in the near future.
With all of that in mind, there’s certainly no reason why What You Leave Behind couldn’t include a callback to Benny Russell and Far Beyond the Stars. The episode is certainly strong enough to support that eight, and deserves to be singled out as one of the defining stories from the seven-season run of Deep Space Nine. Certainly, a small shot at the end of What You Leave Behind would not feel unnecessarily intrusive. It would not be like awkwardly shoehorning William T. Riker and Deanna Troi into These Are the Voyages…
My own opinion is that this is one of the best things about the episode. I always liked the idea that all of DS9 may be nothing more than the fevered imaginings of Benny Russell. I still get a kick out of the ending and think it is one of the key ingredients to elevating the show to something very special.
Perhaps that might have been cheapened by deciding one way or another at the end of What You Leave Behind.
There is something powerful in that twinned image of Benjamin Sisko staring out of the window of his quarters, looking at Benny Russell staring back from inside his apartment. Which one of those reflections is real? Is either of them? Are both? Are they both figures of some greater slumbering imagination, neither having a great claim to being “real”? If the future of Star Trek is real because Benny can dare to imagine it, does that mean that Benny is real because Sisko can dare to imagine him?
It is beautiful stuff. Like Star Trek itself, Benny is at once the dreamer and the dream.