“I have just written the best story of my life!” “You are the dreamer, and the dream.”
Far Beyond The Stars is not often listed as the best DS9 episode ever filmed - usually the honor goes to The Visitor. It didn’t even get nominated for a Hugo. (Annoyingly, that same year, Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers did.). Well, Far Beyond the Stars deserves both.
It’s one of those rare instances where an episode is meta in every conceivable way (it’s storytelling about storytelling, it’s sci-fi about sci-fi, and it’s DS9 about DS9 - not to mention the appearance of the cast without prosthetics or Starfleet uniforms), and yet all this is the least of its charms, never getting in the way of the actual story. And the actual story is more poignant than anything ever written for Deep Space 9, possibly for the entire Star Trek universe.
At first glance, it’s simply a variant of a classic question in speculative fiction (and philosophy, for that matter): What if we’re not real, but characters in somebody else’s story? What if our reality is an illusion? What if, at this very moment, somebody else is dreaming of us? How would we know? And what would that mean?
But in Far Beyond The Stars, the variant is gut-wrenching. What if the storyteller of Deep Space 9 is, improbably, a black sci-fi writer in 1953, in a still segregated America? What if his dream of Captain Sisko - a black man being the head of a space station - seems at the time less believable than aliens and space travel itself? What if the story never gets published even after he agrees to change it and make it all a black kid’s dream, lest it offend the publishers?
What if Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is not only a dream within a dream within a dream, but a dream trapped in the dreamer’s mind, a dream that no one else will know, a story that no real black kid will ever have the chance to read in 1953?
“If we had changed the people’s clothes, this story could be about right now. What’s insidious about racism is that it is unconscious. Even among these very bright and enlightened characters, a group that includes a woman writer who has to use a man’s name to get her work published, and who is married to a brown man with a British accent in 1953…It’s in the culture, it’s the way people think. I never talked about racism. I just showed how these intelligent people think, and it all came out of them.” - Avery Brooks, on the DS9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars "
During season five, Brooks also tackled nostalgic racism from behind the camera, as director of the episode “Far Beyond The Stars,” which spends an entire 45 minutes dealing with race relations in mid 20th-century America. “Stars” reimagines Sisko as a science fiction writer named Benny Russell working for a racist and sexist New York magazine in the 1950s where racism is present, but more deceptive and innocent, casually rolling off the tongues of people Benny considers friends and colleagues. The magazine refuses to publish his stories about the character Benjamin Sisko, a black starship captain.
When Benny’s editor finally does agree to publish his stories he insists that the stories must be revealed to be the dreams (not the reality) of a poor Black man in their present time–because everyone knows the idea of a black sci-fi hero is that unrealistic. With that, the episode also reminds the viewer that despite the inclusive attitude the Trek franchise has embraced, science-fiction is still very much a white man’s world. For every Octavia Butler there are five Joss Whedons. More pointedly, for every one Captain Sisko, there’s a Captain Picard, Captain Kirk, Han Solo, John Carter, and … well, you get the picture. With Sisko in the lead, DS9 is self-aware and capable of criticising the flaws of its own genre, and that’s something to appreciate.
–DS9’s “Far Beyond The Stars” remains one of my favorite episodes of any show I’ve watched, period. It’s a deeply disturbing look not only at nostalgic racism but also the contours of everyday casualness of that racism–which still operates today. I damn near cried as I watched Sisko’s creative vision dismissed, which is compounded by the daily racism tearing away at his soul. How he copes…just…it’s heart-rending, to say the least.
[The part in DS9, “Far Beyond the Stars,” when Sisko gets fired from the magazine and he breaks down is some of the most powerful acting I’ve seen in Star Trek. I cry every time. The episode is brilliant. And it’s so refreshing to see the actors play different characters.]
2 Timothy 4:6-8 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.