This one…whew. Let’s just say that with every DS9 rewatch I do, it gets more and more depressing. It’s a great episode! Just — WHEW.
“Welcome to the 21st century, Doctor.”
I’ve said this half-jokingly on Twitter previously, but every time I watch “Past Tense” it becomes less and less of a joke: the most depressing thing about this two-parter, frankly, is how downright optimistic this dystopian vision of the 2020s has come to seem. Off the top of my head:
- Bashir and Sisko, a brown and Black man behaving strangely and lacking proper identification, are never in danger of simply being murdered by the cops.
- The aforementioned cops do not appear to be equipped for military combat.
- Apparently there are no NIMBYs in this San Francisco to protest several blocks of beautiful old buildings being turned into a concentration camp (which, let’s be real, is what the “sanctuary districts” actually are).
- Webb tells people to bring their children to the protest, to show the public that they’re just ordinary people with families — because, of course, Americans will never stand for children in concentration camps.
- Public outrage over the deaths of people in concentration camps is widespread enough to prompt major social change, rather than, you know, half the country blaming the people in the concentration camps for their own deaths.
- Brynner’s party, filled with rich tech people, has far too low a white-dude-to-everyone-else ratio.
- The rich white tech guy was self-aware enough to have his Maori tattoo removed. (Although given that he had it removed not because he was a white guy with a Maori tattoo but because there were too many squares in his industry and it was affecting business opportunities, this might actually be more believable.)
The one thing that strikes me as dead-on accurate is the fact that Sisko and Bashir, the Black and brown men, are treated as criminals and carted off to the concentration camp, while Jadzia, who is to all appearances a pretty white woman with unusual tattoos, meets with solicitude and is rescued by a tech billionaire (though on that note, the notion that a tech billionaire would take public transit, instead of some privatized version that is both significantly more expensive and significantly worse, is a bit overoptimistic). Apparently that was, in fact, intentional on Ira Steven Behr’s part; he said that “The simple fact [is] that a beautiful white woman is always going to get much better treatment than two brown-skinned men. That’s the reality of life.”
Well played, Behr.
The ethical duties of time travelers
Actually, upon reflection, there’s one more thing I found painfully realistic, and it’s Bashir’s indictment of the 21st century American health care system:
Bashir: There’s no need for that man to live like that. With the right medication, he could lead a full and normal life.
Sisko: Maybe in our time.
Bashir: Not just in our time! There are any number of effective treatments for schizophrenia even in this day and age! They could cure that man now, today, if they gave a damn.
Sisko: It’s not that they don’t give a damn, Doctor. It’s that they’ve given up. The social problems they face seem too enormous to deal with.
Bashir: That only makes things worse. Causing people to suffer because you hate them is terrible, but causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care? That’s really hard to understand.
Whew, Star Trek is going for our throats from twenty-five years in the past.
The entire exchange presents an interesting twist on the Prime Directive — we’ve seen characters, both on DS9 and in other Treks, struggle with the policy of non-interference in the affairs of other planets, but now, the planet is Sisko and Bashir’s own.
I also liked the occasional check-ins with the crew members back on the Defiant. (Who…initially seemed hilariously casual about the fact that their crewmates had just vanished in transport?) I thought it was an interesting idea to actually show O’Brien, Kira, and Odo dealing with the consequences of the others interfering — however much they tried to avoid it — with the course of history. As with TOS’s “City on the Edge of Forever”, the consequences of getting involved — even though, again, Dax, Sisko, and Bashir are all trying hard not to interfere! — are enormous.
It also sets up why Starfleet takes the issue of such interference seriously enough that Academy training includes time travel protocol — and why they have a whole Temporal Investigations division, as DS9 will show later.
That said, when they lost contact with Starfleet, I definitely thought at first that it was a “oh hm it kind of sounds like you said not to do the thing but we can’t hear you so we can’t be sure, guess we’re gonna do the thing” situation, and did not appreciate at first that it was a situation where the timeline had changed.
A few lighter notes
- The Console-esque font on everything, to make it look just the right amount of ~futuristic~, was hilarious.
- Fun fact: the actor who played the original Gabriel Bell also occasionally worked as Brooks’s stunt double, and played Kozak in “The House of Quark”!
- Quark seemed genuinely impressed that Sisko made the effort to learn the Rules of Acquisition. It struck me as a really interesting follow-up to the events of “The Jem’Hadar”, when Quark confronted Sisko about how “you Federation types…talk about tolerance and understanding, but you only practice it toward people who remind you of yourselves.” Sisko has previously shown a certain dislike for Ferengi, and to see him make an effort to better understand them by learning the Rules of Acquisition is a lovely, subtle bit of character growth.
There’s very little horniness in this episode! Mayyyybe Brynner for Jadzia, a tiny bit? But he genuinely just seems to be helping her out of general concern.
3 thoughts on “3.11: “Past Tense, Part I””
Mayyyybe Brynner for Jadzia, a tiny bit? But he genuinely just seems to be helping her out of general concern.
This also seems a little too optimistic, imo.
But this is one of the Treks which have really aged badly for me, because I HATE how less-awful their vision of the 2020s was. I don’t watch Star Trek to be punched in the face with how awful our time is! Come on, guys, be less optimistic about humanity.
I forget, did you ever read any Discworld books? Terry Pratchett stole the plot of this episode wholesale & made a good job of it.
This felt like a TNG episode more than it felt like a DS9 episode, some of which is down to the time travel gimmick to begin with (which frankly I almost never think works well for stories in Star Trek, and is particularly absurd here) and the enormous amounts of time wasted on technobabble trying to explain why the time travel happened in the first place. Seriously, guys, no one cares. If you are running a whole episode around a time travel gimmick, just make it a temporal anomaly, or Q (or like in TOS: “Captain’s log, stardate 1967 – we went back in time this week! We do that all the time and it’s cool”) and shut the hell up about it and get out of the way of the rest of the plot.
It’s also a very Message story, and although the Message is a good one, the presentation is iffy, and laden with a lot of clunky happenstance that are designed to put Sisko and Bashir at the center of a vast, history-altering watershed event, because of course. In the spirit of thinking the episode is actually too optimistic, the whole time I watched it I felt like the takeaway from the Bell riots being that America confronted the social problems it had been struggling with “for more than a century” (uh, yeah, for about 200 years more than a century, Benjamin) and fixed things was way, way wrong. The takeaway probably would have been that the Sanctuary districts were full of dangerous people who needed to be controlled more tightly, not released back into society with an employment package. (Maybe they all wind up carrying e-Scooters around for the next 30 years.)
Besides, the series chronology teaches us that World War III obliterates most of the country 30 years after this episode anyway, which essentially makes the entire plot meaningless. (Perhaps San Francisco survives; its landmarks appear largely intact in the 23rd century and onward.)
The one part I liked – foreshadowing, maybe? – was Bashir and Sisko’s conversation about whether “we” (meaning the Federation, although he – somewhat racistly – shortcuts that to “humanity”) might respond to a massive external threat and the fear that it generates by turning “our” back on our values. Which of course is exactly what happens later in the series, to some extent anyway – usually dramatized in smaller and more effective ways.
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