Far Beyond the Stars (***½)
It's the framing story that holds this episode back for me. The writers wanted to do a story about racism in the 1950s, but they unfortunately found themselves working with a post-racism society in the 24th century, so that necessitated some creative thinking. But I personally feel that what they came up with doesn't mesh well with the Benny Russell story, and since the framing story is the entire point of the Benny Russell story, it hurts the entire episode.
In summary, kudos on the Benny Russell story, boo on the Benjamin Sisko story.
When I first watched this episode, I was rather young. The visceral quality of the racial violence and Benny's breakdown kind of overwhelmed everything else for me. I understood that it was a great episode, with a very striking story, but the bright lights of those relatively disturbing aspects of the episode really blinded me to being able to look at the rest of the episode, particularly the framing sequence.
A few years later, I noticed the same problems you identified, GodBen
. What the hell did Quentin Swofford have to do with the 1950s?
This bothered me for a long time. However, I have come up with an analysis that I believe is satisfactory. As a caveat, I should say that I think the writers/producers could have been a little more explicit in making these connections during the episode, but ultimately I'm not sure it would've been necessary, nor should it have been the point.
(Spoilers for the rest of the series ahead.)
The inciting conflict is Sisko's fatigue at fighting The Good Fight. Everything seems to be "turn[ing] to ashes." Assuming we take him at face value, he is very seriously considering leaving. (For the purposes of argument, let us assume that it is a crucial part of the Prophets' plan for Sisko to be on the station at least until Dax dies. Therefore, if he leaves the station, he would be straying from their path and that would be a Very Bad Thing in their eyes.)
So, in response to his fatigue, the Prophets send Sisko what is essentially a pagh'tem'far
, a vision. In this vision, Sisko is shown viscerally what it is like to be oppressed, to not be free. The Prophets even specify that Weyoun and Dukat (though, interestingly, not Damar) are oppressors. (Perhaps more interestingly, they say/suggest/imply that Odo is ambiguous. Consider this alongside his actions during the Dominion Occupation, and his actions at the end of the war. Where are his loyalties? You might argue first and foremost to himself, but, when push comes to shove, he will cave to what is easiest.)
The setting of the pagh'tem'far
is significant as well, and clearly tailored specifically to Sisko: Sisko is clearly well-read on the histories of the peoples of the African Diaspora, as well as the histories of the 20th and 21st centuries on Earth in general. Consider:
- the Yoruba mask that he brought from Earth to DS9 when DS9 became "home," and that he then brought to Starbase 375 when he was assigned to Admiral Ross; the Yoruba are a major tribe in Nigeria, and Sisko's possession and admiration of a Yoruba mask suggest an awareness and appreciation of that culture (and perhaps even an identification with it, although that is a question for another time).
- Sisko's attitude in "Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang"; he knows the history of the American Civil Rights Movement down to the specific years, over three centuries after the fact. The topic is clearly important to him.
- his detailed knowledge of the Bell Riots, their background and their repercussions; again, his level of knowledge suggests quite a bit more than a passing interest.
- though this is weaker evidence, it could be argued that Sisko's familiarity with the Bell Riots resulted from a careful study of African diaspora leaders, of whom Gabriel Bell would surely qualify as.
- lastly, and this is rather weak evidence, and is very subjective: Sisko's off-duty attire has always struck me as being influenced/inspired by traditional African fabric designs. Again, this is very circumstantial, but it fits into this overall image of a man who understands, values, respects and admires the histories and cultures of the African diaspora.
is crafted to be uniquely understandable and relevant to Sisko. In a way, its effect is heightened: something that was previously presumably a solely academic endeavor (the study of Africana history) is made vividly real. Quite a contrast.
Furthermore, the Prophets use the vision to remind Sisko of the need to have faith in the righteousness of his cause and in the inevitability of his eventual victory, through the character of the Preacher. The Preacher provokes Benny to "write the words that will set them free," to "open their eyes." The Preacher reminds Benny to continue the struggle, despite the darkness, just as Joseph reminded Sisko what Quentin Swofford would've said to him at the beginning of the episode. Critically, Benny follows through where Sisko had tossed the words back at his father.
Here, the Prophets use a simple psychological tactic understood by leaders everywhere: sometimes you simply must be irrationally hopeful in order to stand any chance of prevailing against nearly impossible odds. They reinspire some level of irrational hope in Sisko, in order to get him to stay on the station.
Essentially, the Prophets need to shake Sisko up enough that he is able to actually hear the verse from 2 Timothy that Joseph recites to him at the end:
I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.
The Prophets need Sisko to keep fighting The Good Fight, they need to him to finish out the course and they need him to keep faith in them. So they give him a vision that he would be uniquely sensitive to and understanding of.
The vision reminds Sisko what the costs of losing the Dominion War will be for those who survive: the entire Federation reduced to a civilization of Benny Russells.
I realize that, this being Deep Space Nine, there may not, in fact, have been this level of forethought put into the episode. But I think the episode is actually rather gracefully elegant in its subtext. If we step back from the specific form of oppression (racism) and interpret the vision as a commentary on the destruction that any type of oppression creates on a fundamentally personal level, the parallels with the Dominion War suddenly become much more apparent. In a lot of ways, the Founders are the epitome of racism; destroy the Others because they are not like Us.
Maybe the writers should have spelled that all out more explicitly for us. But I think that would have mitigated, if not ruined the effect, and made the episode overly preachy. As it is, the subtly makes us think, and that's one of the best things a Trek episode can do for us.
Sisko, who just two weeks ago was absolutely determined to stop the forces of evil and protect Bajor, suddenly recants on that and considers retiring. The Prophets don't want him to because they have future plans for him, so they send him a vision of a guy that is so put-upon by racism that he has a mental breakdown and is committed. This convinces Sisko to continue the good fight for some reason or other. A story with the gravity of the Benny Russell story needed to mean something more than what we are presented with here. What obviously happened in was that the writers wanted to tell Benny Russell's story, so they conjured up a problem out of nowhere and used the Benny Russell story to fix it. In some ways all storytelling is like this, it's just not always this obvious.
Given all that's happened to the guy in recent years, I can see Sisko developing a sort of bi-polar condition where he's fine one day, then the stress of everything sends him into a sulk.
I actually don't see a need to attribute his changed attitude to a psychological condition. During Operation Return, Sisko was high on adrenaline. Now he's comparatively low and
he's dealing with the consequences of a massively destructive war, without being able to do anything about it
. He's experiencing huge levels of stress, and he even admits that everyone might have been expecting a let-up in the conflict after DS9 was retaken, which would then add disappointment on top of the stress.
I know I personally have experienced burn-out a few weeks after being gung-ho about something, so I don't find Sisko's feelings inconsistent, though I can certainly understand the critique. (Also, it's worth noting, from a devil's advocate point of view: we only see Sisko showing these despondent symptoms for a brief time. We have no idea if they have persevered for hours, days or weeks. Modern psychopathology usually requires these sorts of problems to be present for a matter of weeks before they can be diagnosed. For all we know, Sisko had felt in the dumps for no more than a day at this point, but the Prophets decided to nip this problem in the bud early before it became a bigger problem.)