Brave New World.
To those who believe that Star Trek wasn’t concerned with ‘social justice’ issues until the newer CBS All Access series? I’ve got something for you…
Deep Space Nine’s 6th season episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (1998) broke a lot of Star Trek’s rules. Rather than deal with racism through the metaphoric lens of an alien culture-of-the-week, this episode took an atypically hard-hitting look at our own culture’s racism. Using an alternate reality premise, FBTS sees DS9’s Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) finding himself inexplicably living a life in 1950s New York City, where he is a struggling sci-fi writer named Benny Russell, working for pennies to the page. When Sisko is living as Benny Russell in 1950s New York, he is Russell, living in a century where he is continually harassed and abused for being a black man…something 24th century native Sisko has never dealt with in his lifetime. In Star Trek’s optimistic future, racism within humanity itself would be as obsolete as a horse and buggy on a modern freeway.
This episode marks the first and only time in Star Trek where we see human characters harassed and viciously beaten by other humans because of the color of their skin. It’s also the first and only time we hear the use of the N-word on the series. Star Trek has traditionally sought to be racially, culturally and (more recently) sexually inclusive, as far back as the 1966 Original Series, which makes this episode all the more impactful for setting an unflinching precedent. Conceived and pitched by freelance writer Marc Zicree (“The Twilight Zone Companion” “Sliders,” “Space Command”), the final episode was scripted by DS9 producer Ira Steven Behr and Hams Beimler, and was elegantly directed as a passion project by series’ star Avery Brooks himself.
******SPACE STATION-SIZED SPOILERS!!******
Far Beyond The Stars.
The episode opens like a typical Deep Space Nine episode of the later seasons. Despite retaking the titular space station from its Dominion occupation, the Federation’s war with the Dominion is escalating, with no clear victory in sight. With his father Joseph (Brock Peters) taking his first ever trip off-Earth to visit him, Commander Sisko (actor/director Avery Brooks) is exhausted from the war and the death of friends. Sisko tells his dad he is considering resigning. Joseph offers support and acts as his son’s conscience, just as Benjamin sees an odd-looking man (dressed in a 1950s style clothing and glasses) walking by his office…
Attributing the sight of the curiously dressed man to fatigue, Sisko walks his fiancée Kassidy Yates (Penny Johnson Jerald) down to his quarters when he is stopped by a baseball player (Michael Dorn) whom Kassidy doesn’t see. Thinking he just needs rest, Sisko opens the door to his quarters…
…and steps into what appears to be a busy traffic intersection of 1950s New York City. The disoriented Sisko is hit by a random taxi cab and lies unconscious in the street. Sisko awakens in the space station’s infirmary, surrounded by his colleagues and loved ones, who are deeply worried about him. Sisko asks Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig) if he’ll need surgery, and Sisko offers him a PADD with his sensor readings… which turns into a copy of “Galaxy” Magazine. Sisko, now dressed in 1950s clothing, hat and glasses, is holding the old sci-fi pulp mag in his hand (the magazine cover art is a matte painting of Starbase 11 from the TOS episode “Court-Martial”). Ben Sisko is now Benny Russell, fully native to this time period, with none of his earlier disorientation. A young man working at the newsstand (Aron Eisenberg) asks if he’s going to buy the issue, and Russell pays him. The young man, whose appearance echoes the young Ferengi Nog, says he doesn’t ‘get’ science fiction, preferring war movies and romance. As Russell rounds the corner, he is met by fellow writer Albert Macklin (Colm Meaney), a man who looks like Chief O’Brien. The two of them head to the offices of “Incredible Tales” magazine, where they both work as staff writers.
At the “Incredible Tales” offices, Russell greets his fellow writers Kay C. Eaton (Nana Visitor), her British husband Julius (Siddig), socially-conscious Herb Rossof (Armin Shimerman) and curmudgeonly editor Douglas Pabst (Rene Auberjonois). Each of the people in the office echoes the appearance and manner of Sisko’s colleagues on the space station; Kay resembles Major Kira, Julius resembles Dr. Bashir, Herb resembles Quark, and Pabst resembles Odo (Pabst is also the person Sisko saw walking by his office earlier in the episode). Later in the episode we meet the new, ditzy, gum-chewing secretary Darlene Kursky (Terry Farrell), who resembles the station’s science officer Dax.
They each share traits with their future counterparts as well. Kay is writing under her initials of “K.C” for fear her readers won’t accept her as a woman (much like pioneering Star Trek story editor/writer Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana). Macklin, like the Chief (and Isaac Asimov) shares a passion for hardware (“robots”), while Julius has Julian Bashir’s aristocratic aura about him. There are a few curious switches in personalities as well; Herb, unlike greedy Quark, is an avid Marxist, while publisher Pabst’s main concern is for the business end of the publication.
In house artist Roy Ritterhouse (J.G. Hertzler), whose voice echoes Klingon general Martok, offers a series of pencil illustrations which serve as the writers’ inspirations for their next story. Each illustration is given to the writer who feels they can turn it into a story. Most of Roy’s illustrations are of slimy monsters menacing beautiful women, typical of pulp sci-fi covers of the era. One illustration sparks Benny’s curiosity…the image of a graceful, round-limbed “United States Air Force” space station that echoes Sisko’s Deep Space Nine, but with a Chesley Bonestell styling about it. Benny is immediately inspired by the illustration…
Per readers’ request, Pabst tells his staff that the magazine is publishing photos of the writers, so Kay and Benny are told they can “sleep late” that day, since Pabst assumes their readers would prefer to think of both of them as white men. Pabst tells Benny “it’s nothing personal” when, in fact, it couldn’t be more personal. Benny points out other great black writers in literature, which Pabst casually dismisses. Herb slams the casual racism of his boss, sarcastically warning about the dangers of “a negro with a typewriter.”
This notion of using aliases or omitting certain biographical info was common practice of the time, when many in the entertainment industry would hide behind pseudonyms for their very survival in a white, male-dominated business, much like some entertainers (even today) still adopt anglicized names in order to appeal to more ‘mainstream’ (i.e. white or gentile) audiences.
Exiting the “Arthur Trill” building, Sisko is headed home on a windy evening when his space station drawing flies out of his hand and under the heel of one of a pair of racist cop (Marc Alaimo). The cop and his sleazy partner (Jeffrey Combs) echo DS9 villains Dukat and Weyoun, respectively. They grab the drawing and wonder aloud what a “janitor” is doing wearing a suit. Doing his best not to provoke them, Benny calmly asks for his drawing back. With more slurs hurled his way, Benny is let off with a warning, as the first dirty cop tells him, “Next time you won’t be so lucky.”
If anyone dismisses this portrait of racism as too over the top, then I’d say they haven’t been keeping up on current events. Tragically, it’s even more timely now than it was in its 1998 broadcast. This is one time where I wish Deep Space Nine’s knack for staying relevant wasn’t so acute.
Continuing his walk home, Benny meets a preacher who appears as Sisko’s father (Peters). The mysterious preacher enigmatically says “Write the words, Benny,” the words of God “and the spirits of the Prophets.” Ironically, this cryptic message gives some clarity to the viewer; this whole scenario may, in fact, be a vision of an alternate lifetime from the Bajoran Prophets.
Benny arrives home and sits down in front of his typewriter to begin his story, the story of “Captain Benjamin Sisko”, a black commander of space station Deep Space Nine. He looks out his window and sees a mirrored vision of that 24th century Starfleet captain staring back at him. Rubbing his tired eyes, the vision of Sisko disappears and Benny resumes his freshly inspired typing…
The next morning Benny arrives at his local diner to see his waitress girlfriend Cassie (Johnson Jerald) with good news; he’s finished his story. Cassie has news of her own; she spoke to the soon-retiring owner of the diner, and thinks she may have a shot of running the place herself, which means Benny would have to give up his writing career to run the restaurant with her. Benny is dismayed. While co-managing the diner would be a steady income, it isn’t his dream. He’s a writer, it’s in his DNA. Before they can continue, all eyes in the diner turn to local baseball-playing hero, Willie Hawkins (the same ballplayer Sisko saw earlier, in the corridor aboard the station). Despite his sports hero status, Hawkins laments to Benny and Cassie that he still can’t move into a better neighborhood simply because he’s black. Hawkins then half-jokingly flirts with Cassie, but soon leaves to regale his other fans in the diner with stories of his baseball heroics.
Benny also meets young, would-be hustler Jimmy (Cirroc Lofton), who looks like Sisko’s teenaged son Jake. Jimmy teases Benny for writing stories about “white men living on the moon,” which Benny refutes by saying his latest story is about them, with a black hero commanding a space station. Cynical young Jimmy already knows better than to dream big in a world of few options for a black man. Benny refuses to give in to Jimmy’s understandable pessimism.
Benny then takes his completed Deep Space Nine story to his colleagues at the office, where they each eagerly pass it around, calling it one of the best stories they’ve ever read. Office secretary Darlene especially likes the “disgusting” part about the woman with “a worm in her belly” (another meta-joke in an episode that is loaded with them, though not distractingly so). Even editor Pabst is impressed with Benny’s work, just as he rejects it. When pressed by Benny for a reason, he dismisses the notion of a “colored space captain” with his typical casual racism, saying that no one would believe it. Herb angrily retorts that their readers will accept Martians but not a black space captain? Pabst offers to print the story only if Benny makes the hero white, saying “It’s your call.”
Later, at the diner, Benny tells Cassie and Jimmy the bad news. Cassie presses her beau to reconsider her offer of entering the restaurant business, while Jimmy isn’t surprised at all. A sullen Benny is shaken by a black gloved hand slapped on his shoulder, as he turns to see a brief vision of fearsome Klingon warrior Worf (Dorn) from his story! Benny reacts to the sight as any 20th century man would; he’s terrified. Composing himself, he realizes the “Klingon” from his story is only Willie Hawkins, who apologizes for scaring him, and that he only wanted to know if he caught his latest game. A shaken Benny walks home, and encounters the enigmatic priest again before he gets to his apartment and launches into a marathon writing session…even forgetting his date with Cassie. She comes over later, only to find him asleep on the couch with pages and pages of new Captain Sisko “Deep Space Nine” stories. He wakes up, and she tries to take his mind off of things with some music and dancing. This seems to do the trick until he begins flashing between his reality and the reality of being Captain Sisko aboard Deep Space Nine, dancing with his fiancée Kassidy Yates. Cassie asks Benny what is the “Dominion” he mentions, and Benny wonders if he’s losing his mind…
The next morning at the office, editor Pabst begins to wonder the same thing about Russell, as he is presented with no less than six new Deep Space Nine stories…with the black Captain Sisko still firmly in charge. Six sequels to a story Pabst had already rejected. Undeterred, Benny works with Pabst for any way to get the stories made. They finally agree on a meek solution offered by Macklin; what if the entire story was a dream… dreamt by some poor black man, wishing for a better future? Benny agrees that the compromise might get his story published, at least, so he agrees to reframe the story as a dream (such hefty concessions are everyday realities in a writer’s life as well). He goes to Cassie with the good news, and the two of them are off to celebrate, when he is once again met by the preacher. The cryptic preacher warns Benny that “the paths to the Prophets sometimes leads into darkness and pain.”
Just then, Kassy and Benny hear gunshots ring out nearby. As they approach the source, they see a crowd gathered around a body. The body on the pavement is young Jimmy, who was shot dead for breaking into a car by the two crooked cops we saw earlier. Russell kneels by the young man as the two cops grab him and begin to rough him up.
Fearing for his life, Benny tries to break free of their grip, but is repeatedly punched and kicked within an inch of his life, right in front multiple witnesses who do nothing to interfere. During the beating, Benny sees the cops as villains from his story, with the first cop assuming the reptilian visage of the Cardassian Gul Dukat, while his partner appears as the Vorta Weyoun. The beating seems to go on for an eternity, until Benny succumbs to unconsciousness. Once again, one wishes this were an image belonging to humanity’s shameful past, but with increasingly prevalent phone cameras and social media, such instances of blatant racial abuses and hate crimes are more visible than ever.
We see Benny Russell in his apartment, weeks later. He is recovering from the beating, but his hand remains bandaged, and he’s now walking with a cane. Benny Russell is no longer the strong optimist we saw at the beginning of the story. His first day back to the office sees his coworkers offering their moral support to their talented colleague. In a bit of good news, Macklin has just published a novel (about robots, of course), and even in his current state, Benny is happy for his longtime friend.
Today is the day that Benny’s “Deep Space Nine” story is due to be published, and the staff are awaiting Pabst’s return from the publisher. Pabst arrives, but without any copies of the new issue. The entire run was “pulped” by their publisher, Mr. Stone, because he felt it didn’t “meet their usual standards.” In other words, Benny’s story of a black space captain isn’t going to be read by anyone, ever. The bad news keeps rolling in as Pabst tells Benny he is also being fired from “Incredible Tales.” Benny begins to break. This is the final indignity.
As Benny becomes justifiably angry and emotional, Pabst threatens him with that favorite standby of the privileged…he will call the police. But Benny is a man with nothing left to lose, and he challenges Pabst to “Call anybody you want, they can’t do anything to me, not any more, and nor can any of you. I am a human being, dammit! You can deny me all you want, but you can’t deny Ben Sisko – He exists! That future, that space station, all those people … they exist in here! In my mind. I created it. And everyone of you knew it, you read it. It’s here. Do you hear what I’m telling you? You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea, don’t you understand, that’s ancient knowledge, you cannot destroy an idea. That future…I created it, and it’s real! Don’t you understand? It is real. I created it. And it’s real! It’s REAL! Oh God!” Benny then collapses on the office floor, curled up and sobbing in utter agony. He is a destroyed man.
We see a sedated Benny on a gurney being taken into an ambulance. As the doors close behind him, Benny looks to see stars streaking behind him in the ambulance windows. He looks down at himself to see he’s wearing the uniform of Captain Benjamin Sisko. The mysterious preacher is riding along in the ambulance with Russell/Sisko, and tells him, “You’re the dreamer…and the dream.” Benjamin Sisko awakens in the space station’s infirmary, and is met by Dr. Bashir, Kassidy, Jake and his father Joseph standing nearby. Bashir tells the captain he was unconscious for only a few minutes, but the brain scans are normalizing.
The final scene sees Sisko recovering in his quarters with his father, telling the elder Sisko that his visions made him reconsider his resignation, and that he would stay and continue to fight. Benjamin Sisko also wonders if “Benny isn’t the dream, (maybe) we are. Maybe we’re nothing more than figments of his imagination. For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.”
The final image is of Sisko looking into the window of his quarters and seeing the reflection of the bespectacled Benny Russell, staring back at him…
A Star Trek Like No Other.
“Far Beyond the Stars” unflinchingly deals with the issue of racism head-on. No metaphors, no green-skinned or bumpy-headed aliens to stand in for a particular race. FBTS deals with racism within the United States of America, not some alien world. While the episode was set in 1950s New York, it could just as easily be our 21st century right now. In this so-called ‘science fiction’ story, we see a black writer beaten savagely beaten by a pair of white cops, who’d just killed a young black man on suspicion of auto theft. Sadly, this is something we still see all too often in the news and all over social media today, most recently with the traumatic murder of George Floyd, captured on multiple cameras and broadcast all over the internet.
That same writer also sees his passion project rejected because his magazine’s readers “aren’t ready” for a “negro” writer. The only black character who gains any measure of respect is a black baseball player, and even he isn’t allowed to live in a nicer neighborhood. The writer’s girlfriend Cassie is a waitress in a diner who lives in fragile hope of running the diner herself. Living on a hope and a prayer… a common story for those struggling to make a life for themselves above the poverty line.
The most raw and powerful scene is when Benny Russell learns that his story has not only been rejected, but that he has been fired as well. Suddenly this promising writer is a man reduced to hopelessness in a single morning. Avery Brooks directs his own performance to perfection. In fact, it’s so raw that is downright uncomfortable to watch, and that’s intended as a high praise. Challenging works of art, including performance art, should leave their viewers unsettled. The emotions on display in the breakdown scene are so intense that we are inside of Russell’s agony, as he crumbles to the floor a broken man. The former Starfleet hero reduced to a sobbing, all-too-real man. In bringing Star Trek down to Earth, “Far Beyond the Stars” succeeds like few Star Treks before it.
Far Behind The Stars…
Two years ago, I had the chance to interview writer Marc Scott Zicree in Las Vegas, and we spoke on a variety of topics including the making of this episode. I’m cutting and pasting excerpts from that interview in this article, as well as links to the complete two part interview below.
Part of the genesis for “Far Beyond the Stars”:
One of my mentors when I was a teenager was Ted Sturgeon, as I mentioned earlier. One of the great writers of Star Trek and science fiction in general. He was an amazing man but he also wrote for those magazines in the 1950s; Galaxy, Worlds of If, Astounding. And he told me stories of writing for like, a penny a word, five cents a word. And when I knew him, he was sort of living this life of poverty. But he was this giant science fiction writer, so when he’d go to conventions he’d be idolized. But then he’d be living this life of struggle. And so, I realized the writers back then were doing it for the love of it. Because now we have Star Trek and Star Wars, and people are getting rich off of them, but a lot of the writers who wouldn’t have had Star Trek or Star Wars if it were not for those writers writing for a penny a word, five cents a word back then… and I wanted to show that world. And so I was very interested in showing that world and where science fiction came from, and what it meant to write for the love of it, and the truth of it, and just let everyone know, because Star Trek fans didn’t generally know that world, and I wanted to show them that world because it’d never been dramatized.
So my idea was, let’s show the world those magazines of the ‘50s. And we’d have all of the actors from Deep Space Nine playing writers and the editor. So you could see what they looked like, their real faces.
On dealing with black characters in Star Trek’s non-racial society:
Star Trek ostensibly was a non-racial society by then. This is where Sisko’s character Benny Russell gets to say, “I’m black.” This was dealing with black characters. And the idea was that he’s writing white future in his day job and hanging out with white writers, but then he goes home to Harlem and all of his friends say, “Why are you writing a future where we’re not in it?”
On the casting switch between the roles of Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman:
One key difference was that the magazine editor was inspired by H.L. Gold of “Galaxy” magazine who was a little short Jewish guy, and so Armin was going to play that role Rene Auberjonois (Odo) was going to be the liberal, may have been a communist in the 1930s. Ira was afraid that if we had Armin in that role, it might seem anti-Semitic, and that it was pitting blacks and Jews, and all this stuff. He didn’t want any whiff of that. He wanted the controversy to be the right kind of controversy, not the wrong kind of controversy. So we thought, yeah, we’ll switch those roles. So Rene Auberjonois was much more like a John W. Campbell of Astounding (magazine). Tall, thin, non-Jewish guy. So that was very much in the Campbell mode, so then Armin became the firebrand.
Writer, producer, creator, director Marc Scott Zicree is a talented motivated man, and he was a joy to interview. Current global pandemic notwithstanding, he is still working on his crowdfunded space opus Space Command which I’ve had the pleasure to see at live screenings and it is amazing. You can find out all about this and other projects of his on Marc’s YouTube channel Mr. Sci-Fi.
Mr. Sci-Fi is worth checking out for Marc’s fascinating stories of his friendships with Billy Mumy (“Lost in Space”), Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s “Lt. Uhura”) as well as sci-fi legends Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison and many others.
Seeing “Far Beyond The Stars” With The Stars.
At the Las Vegas Star Trek convention in August of 2018, I attended a live-screening of “Far Beyond the Stars” for the episode’s 20th anniversary. In attendance afterward for a Q & A session were writer Marc Zicree, actors Cirroc Lofton, Aron Eisenberg (1969-2019), producer/showrunner/writer Ira Steven Behr, actors Terry Farrell, Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois (1940-2019), Marc Alaimo, Jeffrey Combs and Armin Shimerman. More details of that screening can be found here.
On a personal note, 2019 was a very hard year for Star Trek; in addition to the loss of Aron Eisenberg (whom I’d interviewed twice for this site), we also lost Rene Auberjonois as well as pioneering “Star Trek” writer and story editor Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, who was one of the clear inspirations for the character of Kay “K.C” Eaton (Nana Visitor). We fans are consoled by the fact that their talents are preserved forever.
With smartphones in every pocket, we’re seeing recorded daily instances of black men and women (and other diverse peoples) being harassed, attacked and in the very recent case of George Floyd, killed right in front of our eyes. The truth is that there isn’t really more or less racism today, but it is now being recorded and shared in a way that was technologically infeasible in earlier times. This episode of DS9 speaks to a time when there were no smartphones and no internet, so the overwhelming majority of these incidents went completely unseen, let alone reported. 22 years after this episode was first broadcast in 1998, the ongoing ugliness of racism is still very much a part of human life. If anything, outrage over racism has exploded across the United States in unprecedented ways recently, far outstripping what we saw during the L.A. Riots of 1992 (which occurred after the acquittal of four police officers who brutally beat Rodney King within an inch of his life in 1991). “Far Beyond the Stars” speaks only too well to the 21st century as it did to the late 20th.
One hopes that humanity will collectively survive to see a 24th century where we can look back upon this time as our angry adolescence, outgrown generations ago. Only then, when we get our act together here on Earth, will we be truly fit to seek out what lies ‘far beyond the stars.’
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic as well. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States surpassed 108,125 as of this writing. So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. Take care!