Star Trek Guide

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Greatest Episode Is Distressingly Relevant

For more than 50 years, Star Trek has been telling stories about the present. Although set in the 23rd and 24th centuries, many of the franchise's stories reflect humanity’s modern-day struggles. When watching or reading the news, one can’t help but see that some of Star Trek's classic episodes are just as relevant today as they were when they premiered.

A startling example of this comes from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the third live-action series in the franchise, in the episode "Far Beyond The Stars." Unlike "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" from The Original Series and "The Outcast" from The Next Generation, which dealt with race and gender discrimination on alien worlds, "Far Beyond the Stars" depicts racial injustice and police brutality from America’s history.

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"Far Beyond the Stars" sees the main character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, transported to the past, where he is not the commanding officer of DS9, but Benny Russell, a black science-fiction writer working for Incredible Tales magazine in 1950s New York. Benny hides his race from readers to maintain his career. Is this alternate reality a vision from the prophets, or is Deep Space Nine a product of Benny Russell’s imagination? The episode never officially answers that question.

We see that Benny is an intelligent, compassionate, talented, brave and frustrated man, surrounded by opposition. His editor is a spineless coward, his significant other is supportive but would rather he join her in the restaurant business and the police hassle him just for being a black man in a nice suit. It is his first confrontation with police that hits especially hard during a rewatch.

After seeing a sketch of a space station, Benny is inspired. He takes the picture with him when leaving the office, but it is blown from his grip and lands on the ground, only to be stepped on by a cop. When Benny attempts to retrieve the picture, the officers question him. Where’d he get the suit? What’s he doing in the neighborhood? He’s too well-dressed to be a janitor. If they didn’t have somewhere to be in fifteen minutes, the scene could have turned ugly.

Just like the vast majority of black men who have been hassled, beaten and murdered by the police in the United States, Benny’s only crime was crossing their path. While this may be a science-fiction story set in the 1950s, it might as well be a drama about right here and now.

Until seeing that picture, Benny had been writing about "white people on the moon," as Jimmy, a young man Benny tries -- and fails -- to look out for, says. "I’m not doing that anymore," Benny responds. "I’m writing about us." Benny writes a story about a future where skin color doesn’t hinder someone from being in a position of leadership and respect, where humanity has united and is living among the stars.

What he’s doing is important. He encounters a mysterious Preacher on the street who knows his name and repeatedly urges him to, "Write the words that will lead us out of the dark onto the path of righteousness." As great science fiction does, Benny’s story creates a world that should and could be -- if the human race stopped ignoring its problems and did the work to get there.

Benny has to turn his story into a dream in order for it to be accepted by his editor. Thrilled, he and his girlfriend go out to celebrate. Gunshots shatter his perfect moment. The same cops from before have just gunned down Jimmy for trying to break into a car with a crowbar. Overcome with emotion, Benny rushes to the young man’s side, only to be viciously beaten by the police in front of dozens of witnesses.

One doesn’t have to try very hard to see the similarities between this and the recent deaths of black people at the hands of police in America today. Unarmed black men and women have been murdered by the people who are supposed to protect them time and again. Very often, there are witnesses, including by-stander videos. Outrageously, shamefully, almost nothing has been done about it. As difficult as the scene in the episode is to watch, it is tame when compared to what happened to men like George Floyd and Eric Garner. After all, Benny walks away with his life.

In the end, Benny’s story isn’t published. The entire magazine is pulped and Benny is fired. With his rage and anguish boiling over, he unleashes a fury of words on his editor and colleagues. He doesn’t care what they do to him. They can pulp a story but they can’t destroy an idea. Ben Sisko, Deep Space Nine, that future is real. It exists because he created it.

The hope of this episode is just as relevant as its despair. A future where private citizens don’t need to fear the police is real. A future where the color of your skin, sexual orientation or gender doesn’t hinder you from living the life you deserve is real. Sci-fi writers and activists have been telling humanity about it for years, and now streets all around the world are flooded with brave people willing to risk their lives and do the real work to make sure we get to see it.