Fan Collective Unimatrix 47 Examines Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Past Tense” Episode

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

This past weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to meet the incredible Armin Shimerman, who played Quark in the Star Trek franchise. He was as lovely as you’ve all heard, and the occasion reminded me just how key Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really is to the Star Trek experience. Moreover, we are now in the year 2024, which is also the year of Deep Space Nine’s infamous Bell Riots, which take place in canon on September 1, 2024, and though I’m well aware the riots are fictional events, the episode “Past Tense” offers us a look into an America divided by socioeconomic class. The riots themselves deserve their own post, and as we get closer to the September date, I’m sure I’ll make that post. However, I think it’s important to remember that “Past Tense,” despite having started out life as a TNG story pitch, is really an episode that works better in the overall thematic context of DS9.

DS9 is a show about racial and class tensions, from the Cardassian/Bajoran conflict to the amazing episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” The Cardassian/Bajoran conflict represents a metaphoric through-line that asks us to think about how damaging violent clashes between the haves and have nots can be, but “Far Beyond the Stars” and “Past Tense Parts I and II” bring that metaphor to the United States, both past and future. Notably, DS9’s writers’ room avoided using contemporary time frames in their stories. However, that same contemporary history informs everything about how the writers approached the topic. Ira Steven Behr describes drawing inspiration from the Attica Prison Riot and the Kent State Shootings when creating the Bell Riots, but Behr also makes explicit the relationship between resources, privilege, and power via the Chris Brynner character.

Make no mistake, in DS9, power and money are intimately intertwined. It’s not accidental that the space station has an actual economy based on currency—gold-pressed latinum, but that’s not the only form of power the series explores. There’s also the fight for political power, which we see in Vedek Winn’s relentless pursuit of being the Kai. The Dominion War pits the Federation against a power that desires to impose its own version of order on the Alpha Quadrant, but underlying that desire is also a belief in the Founders’ superiority as a species. They do, after all, set themselves up as gods for the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar.

DS9 precisely is able to do this because the stories involve characters who don’t have the option to warp away. They have to be participants in the rebuilding of Bajor and act as a crossroads between the alpha and gamma quadrants. It’s not a shock therefore that these issues of inequality and power become a thematic through-line; the show frames the problem with episodes such as “Waltz” and “Past Tense Part I.” The characters have to do the work, and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what that looks like. DS9 offers a sort of solution in the form of reconciliation with the Dominion and the freedom of Bajor, but it makes no promises, which is why “Far Beyond the Stars” ends in a tragedy, with Benny Russell being committed to a psychiatric institution for daring to question the status quo.

As I contemplate the coming date of a fictional disaster, I wonder if we’re closer to the Bell Riots or the Federation. We don’t have Sanctuary Districts, but we do have a widening gap between the haves and the have nots in society, which we’ve seen time and time again is not a sustainable situation. In so many ways, DS9 feels more relevant than it did in the nineties, but this relevance feels more daunting than hopeful.

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