Nutshell: Wonderful, classic Trek. A socially aware issue episode that's also an engrossing reflection upon Trek's own spirit.
Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko: portrayed by the engaging African-American actor Avery Brooks. Does it matter that Captain Sisko is black? In the color-blind 24th century, it's a non-issue. The word "black" (which, to my knowledge, has never directly been used to describe a Trekkian character) might as well be in the same group of descriptive words as "tall" or "bald." No character sees Sisko as a "black captain"—he's just "the captain." The case is similar for Voyager's female Captain Janeway. For the purposes of Trek, I think that's absolutely the way it should be. In 400 years, I hope we will have improved race and gender relations to the point that everyone can immediately accept people for who they are, rather than scrutinizing their ethnic background. I know—it sounds like a trite, obvious sentiment, but aren't the most universal statements always trite-sounding after they've been said so many times?
Next question: Does it matter that actor Avery Brooks is black? Deep Space Nine may take place almost 400 years from now, but let's face it: Reality is 1998, and no matter what your stance is, race issues are still relevant to most people in our society.
On a personal note, I find it very refreshing to see a black hero as the lead for a mainstream television series. In my opinion there are not, for whatever reason, enough impacting black characters in television drama (excepting Homicide: Life on the Street), so when DS9 premiered in 1993, I was pleased to see an African American leading a Star Trek series—a franchise which has always prided itself on forward thinking and social commentary.
But before this review turns into a column on race relations in the 1990s, let me frame my point in terms of this week's story. This episode, for the first time in DS9's run, utilizes Avery Brooks' character as "black." It accomplishes this by putting Brooks' in the role of Bennie Russell, a science fiction writer trying to make it in 1953, when racism built up the walls blocking opportunity.
"Far Beyond the Stars" is what it's all about, people. This is a perfect example of what makes Trek what it is: not just entertainment, but entertainment with a social awareness that goes beyond the technology, adventure, and space journeys, and into the exploration of the human condition.
The slice of Bennie's life is a dream that Sisko has when he falls unconscious, exhibiting medical readings and bizarre mental activity similar to when he had his visions in last year's "Rapture." The dream idea is itself interesting, and even though this was intended as a single-shot, stand-alone episode, there are little details within "Far Beyond the Stars" that make one wonder if the Prophets weren't somehow set on giving Sisko this vision for a specific purpose.
Bennie Russell's daily troubles begin with the editor of the sci-fi magazine he writes for: a man named Douglas (Rene Auberjonois), whose cowardice epitomizes the dangers of embracing a slanted status quo. He's a prime example of covert racism: Sure, he has a Negro writer on his staff, but he's unwilling to acknowledge that man's identity. "As far as our readers are concerned," he says, "Bennie Russell is as white as they are. Let's just keep it that way." He explains away all social responsibility for his own actions and opinions by blaming society—simply excusing his own close-mindedness on "the way things are."
Early in the episode, Douglas explains that the writing staff will be in a photo to be published in the next issue. Nobody is surprised when Douglas tells Bennie and Kay (Nana Visitor), the staff's only woman, to "oversleep" the day the photo is to be taken. "It's nothing personal," he tells Bennie. But that's the point—racism (and sexism) is rarely a personal issue.
When Roy, the resident artist (J.G. Hertzler), shows Bennie an intriguing drawing of a space station, Bennie is hit with an overwhelming inspiration. The next day he comes to work with a completed story about this space station—a place called Deep Space Nine—which is commanded by a black captain. The other writers love it. But it doesn't matter, because Douglas won't print it. "Your hero is a Negro captain ... It's not believable." Left with no option but to either make the captain white or not have the story published, Bennie suffers a defeat while maintaining his integrity. Because Douglas isn't willing to make a difference, Bennie's story is rendered useless.
Armin Shimerman portrays Herb, a forward-thinking liberal who represents the antithesis of Douglas. Throughout the episode, Herb hounds Douglas for his conservatism, and encourages Bennie to tell his story just as he wants to. Herb is interesting because he represents the other view—the side that realized that individuals had to make personal efforts to overcome the generally held opinions of the masses.
Also appropriate given the era of McCarthyism is Douglas' suggestion that Herb is a communist. "Far Beyond the Stars" benefits from a number of such historic touches. The casting of Michael Dorn as a Negro baseball player who has been inducted into the Major Leagues makes sense, and adds to the running commentary dialog.
"Far Beyond the Stars" is, of course, obviously intended as a Trekkian "message" episode, but there's much more to it than that. Anyone who sees this purely as a soapbox preaching is missing a lot of the story's more general elements. After all, this episode is also wonderful entertainment. Dropping all the DS9 regulars into these new roles is interesting for the novelty value alone, particularly giving human roles to the actors who are usually in makeup. I greatly enjoyed Shimerman as the lively liberal; and Auberjonois in that '50s-looking haircut and glasses; and Farrell as the ditzy New Yorker secretary Darlene, and Meaney as Albert, the "robot" writer who can never come up with the words he's looking for; and even Aron Eisenberg as a newsstand boy.
Then there's the Harlem setting, featuring Penny Johnson as practical woman Cassie, who just wants to marry Bennie and settle down; Dorn's engaging turn as Willie, the baseball star with the big ego; and especially the impressively convincing Cirroc Lofton as the charismatic but troublesome Jimmy—a cynic with little hope who is spiraling down into crime.
The atmospherics alone are worth the hour's view. The period costuming and production design looks great, and Dennis McCarthy's score is like a breath of fresh air. It's always enjoyable when the series gets off its standing sets, and even more enjoyable when such special settings are utilized for a story.
All things considered, I'm giving "Far Beyond the Stars" four stars because it falls into the category of great Trek. However, I think I'd better address one issue that may be on some people's minds: There's a melodramatic overture in "Far Beyond the Stars," and some are undoubtedly going to find it a little excessive and possibly obvious.
The two cops played by Marc Alaimo and Jeffery Combs, for example, are little more than shady, two-dimensional characters used to further crush Bennie's character into his tortured place in the world. Their racially motivated evil actions—shooting Jimmy for breaking into a car, and then severely beating Bennie when he reacts to his friend's death—are anything but sudden and subtle. But in the end, isn't that the whole point? Racism in the 1950s was hardly subtle, either.
The episode's climax follows from the idea of Bennie as a symbol of despair. The structure of the show sets him up for a terrible fall. There's a point when Douglas finally permits Bennie to go forward with submitting his Deep Space Nine story for the month's magazine run—provided he turns the premise into a dream (supposing people will be more open to it if "it never really happened"). Bennie is overjoyed with the hope of a major breakthrough that could have meaningful aftereffects. But then the publisher pulps the issue and, furthermore, orders Bennie's termination.
I'll admit that I think Avery Brooks may have overacted his payoff scene a tad more than he needed to. It seemed a little uneasy upon first viewing. But when I watched it again, it seemed to work better. If you think it through, Bennie is an example of one man who has reached his limits and can't take any more. Just when a lifetime of frustrations and fruitless patience finally seemed like it was going to pay off, he finds himself starting all over again with nothing gained, and no progress made. He loses it. "Nervous breakdown" would probably be an applicable '90s term.
But I think it goes even further than that—something that extends into destiny or prophecy. The mysterious street preacher (Brock Peters) offers cryptic words of foresight on more than one occasion, and much of what he has to say is reflected in Bennie's struggle. The fact that "hope and despair walk arm in arm" is particularly interesting given Bennie's defeat when considered alongside the implicit, unseen results of his writings. Indeed, there seems to be more at stake here than what concrete events can explain. As Bennie is reduced to a broken, crying heap on the floor, he professes that his characters cannot be destroyed—because he created them, they're real, and they exist somewhere, whether his story was published or not. And that's something that I think may have more literal implications than what anyone but Bennie can know. After all, these fictional characters had become a part of Bennie more than Bennie himself could ever have expected. When he was inspired with the idea of DS9, he began having hallucinations—seeing Sisko's reflection when he should've been seeing his own, and sometimes seeing his characters in his friends and co-workers. At one point he finds reality skewed, believing he is inside his own story.
This is Star Trek taking a leap into an unknown that only the truly great sci-fi ideas strive for. When Sisko wakes up, there's a sense that Bennie's existence goes beyond that of a simple dream. Given the mystical DS9 lore involving Bajoran prophecies and wormhole aliens, I seriously wonder if this wasn't a pivotal part of Sisko's own existence—and maybe even the Trekkian fictional history. The ending makes one seriously wonder about the nature of Bennie Russell's existence.
It's strange how many levels of poignancy Sisko's final reflection conveys. At one level, Sisko ponders his dream about this distant, tragic person who had a hopeful vision. On another level, Sisko wonders if he and everything he knows is just a figment of this person's imagination. And on a third level, it's a nonfictional reflection upon the real truth—that Sisko really is just a fictional dream, created by the DS9 writers at Paramount Pictures. There's something strangely bittersweet about that last sentiment. This is a story that wants to keep dreams alive.
Next week: Looks kinda silly. Two words: Runabout shrinkage.