I regularly re-watch the Star Trek series in the background as I do chores, and lately it has been Deep Space Nine. In many ways, this is my favorite Star Trek series, though admittedly, The Next Generation’s optimism had to exist before this one could be it’s often darker counterpart.
One of the episodes that always stuck out to me comes from Season 3. There are many spoilers to come, so I’d even recommend you stop reading now and go watch it for yourself.
The “Past Tense” arc sees Captain Sisko, Dr. Julian Bashir, and Science Officer Jazdia Dax end up in the past due to a transporter accident while visiting Federation Headquarters in San Francisco. What I remembered about this arc is the dark future it painted about the United States when unemployment rates have skyrocketed and social issues have spun out of control. The City on the Bay and the country at large has been divided up into “sanctuary districts” where 10,000 out-of-work and mentally ill people must remain in derelict, overcrowded buildings walled off from the rest of the city. If you are caught outside without ID, you get thrown behind the walls, too. Though the people are provided with “food cards” that give them some access to resources, these are often stolen by thugs, and aren’t really enough to live on. Eventually, riots break out and the armed guards are taken hostage. We are told that hundreds of people will eventually be shot and killed by the military response. (You can read more about it and analysis from an article in The Atlantic from 2017)
All of this stuck with me long after the first time I saw these episodes. What I didn’t remember is that it is set in 2024, and the echoes of our current situation during the George Floyd protests and pandemic are eerie.
The episodes aired in 1995, just about 30 years before the events they portrayed. Though many fans saw its deeply pessimistic view of Earth’s future as a “betrayal” of the Star Trek franchise, it is an incredible piece of fiction.
Though race relations are not directly addressed in Past Tense, there is definitely some not-so-veiled references. Sisko (black) and Bashir (brown) are picked up by police (one white, one latinx) and sent to the sanctuary district, while Jadzia (an alien, but for all intents and purposes, a beautiful white woman) is rescued by a bystander. He’s a billionaire to boot. While the men are subjected to hostility and a demeaning stint in processing before being shoved out the door to scrounge for a place to sleep, Jazdia goes to a skyscraper on the outside, is able to get ID, goes to a fancy party, and gets put up in a nice hotel.
Her being the one the police missed can be chalked up to chance (she materialized inside the subway tunnel and the men were on the sidewalk), but I also believe the writers made this choice deliberately. I also don’t believe it was an accident that the “ghosts” (the thugs who don’t want jobs but steal from others) are mostly white, especially the trigger-happy hothead who wants to kill the hostages.
“I really think we should kill this guy,” says the ghost, responding to a police officer/hostage who talks about the National Guard on their way who will make short work of them.
And what are their demands, you ask? 1) Breakfast for everyone in the Sanctuary District. (Just think about that for a second. ONE MEAL.) 2) the Sanctuaries closed and 3) the reinstatement of something they call “The Federal Employment Act.” (This is a reference to a real piece of legislation passed in 1946 in the wake of WWII that declared that it was the responsibility of the US government to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power. In this timeline, it was repealed at some point before 2024.)
“That’s asking a lot,” says the negotiator.
“I don’t think so,” replies Sisko. “What we want is to get out from behind these walls…”
Another man trying to keep the peace interjects, “That’s right, all we’re asking for is a chance to get back on our feet again.”
But it’s just fiction…right?
Considering the high rate of unemployment right now and the continuing uncertainty in the face of the pandemic, the prospect of something like the establishment of Sanctuary Districts doesn’t feel nearly as far-fetched as the last time I saw these episodes. And considering the mounting violence during the Black Lives Matter protests and the summoning of the National Guard to suppress them, the terrible fate awaiting the Sanctuary District in this arc doesn’t seem hard to imagine either.
After rumors surface that the hostages are already dead, the guard blows up the front of the building and start firing indiscriminately. Sisko jumps in front of a bullet to protect one of the hostages, and another of the peaceful members of the protest is shot to death. As they exit the now “pacified” building, bodies litter the street and child is heard crying, “Mommy.”
“How could we have let this happen?” asks the cop who just dodged the bullet.
Bashir responds, “The question is, how do we stop it from happening again?”
After the next cut, which has all of Deep Space Nine’s people safely back aboard their ship, Bashir asks, “Having seen a little of the 21st century, there’s something I just don’t understand. How did they let it get so bad?”
“That’s a good question,” Sisko replies, but has no answer.
But perhaps the answer actually lies in an exchange that Bashir had with one of the hostages in a moment of calm. This hostage is one of the processing clerks, and she tells a tearful story about a woman who had to abandon her child. The clerk let her disappear into the system rather than get her arrested despite the warrant. Since then, she’s kept her head down and didn’t make waves.
Bashir comforts her. “It’s not your fault that things are the way they are.”
“Everybody tells themselves that. And nothing ever changes.”
Beautiful, poignant, and thanks for bringing this to my attention. Mark Hayes recently wrote “Here is a truth I think we as a society need to consider, think on it a moment if you will…” in regards to another piece of fiction.
Fiction, I believe, needs to provide some escapist qualities, and those escapist qualities allow us to experience reality from a sufficient distance that we recognize what needs to be changed, and act.
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One of my other favorite Star Trek episodes is on Next Generation. They are working with a race of asexual beings that punish anyone for identifying as either male or female, and subject them to re-education if they are caught. Fiction is such a wonderful way to explore issues, like you said, because of the distance it can provide to examine “what ifs” rather than “what ares.”