Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why Star Trek Is Special

I was going through some sixth season episodes of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (in my opinion the best of the Star trek spinoffs) and I came across an old favorite, “Far Beyond The Stars”. Over the years Star Trek has been criticized, sometimes rightly so, for being a bit cliched. At it’s worst ST writing has produced some downright silly episodes such as the infamous Spock’s Brain. But Star Trek is also filled with examples of episodes that very much lived up to gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. Perhaps none more so than Far Beyond The Stars. For those of you who have never seen it I am reprinting a plot synopsis below from the Star Trek Wiki.

Benjamin Sisko is talking to his father about leaving Starfleet, but before he makes a decision, he is distracted by a vision of a man who is dressed in 20th Century clothes. The visions rapidly increase in number. Dr. Bashir's tests of Sisko show the same synaptic potentials as he had when he had visions a year ago (in the episode "Rapture").
The vision, from the Prophets, show him as Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction writer on Earth in 1950s New York City. (Benny Russell appears in another vision in the episode "Shadows and Symbols").
Benny Russell writes for the science fiction magazine Incredible Tales, in a New York City populated by human versions of different characters from DS9: Herbert Rossoff (Quark), as a left wing Jewish writer, who often threatens to quit; Julius Eaton (Dr. Bashir), considered to be maudlin in his writing and pretentious in his dress and mannerisms; K.C. Hunter (Kira Nerys), a tough woman writer who has to adopt a nom de plume to disguise the fact that she's a woman from her readers; Albert (Miles O'Brien), a socially awkward stutterer who prefers to write stories about robots; Darlene Cursty ( Dax), a ditsy, giggly secretary whose intelligence everyone underestimates, who is constantly chewing bubble-gum and who recognizes Benny's story for the masterpiece it is; Pabst (Odo), the editor of Incredible Tales, who expresses sympathy for the discriminatory treatment experienced by Benny (and K.C.), but refuses to help them or take responsibility for his own role in their treatment; an artist (Martok); a newsboy (Nog); two policemen ( Gul Dukat and Weyoun); a waitress and Benny's girlfriend (Kassidy Yates); a ball player (Worf); a hustler ( Jake); and a fiery preacher who preaches about the will of the prophets (Joseph Sisko).
Pabst announces photo day and Hunter takes the hint that she should not show up that day so that the readers don't learn she's a woman. Benny Russell realizes he's not expected to show up for photos either because he is black. He is appalled and angered.
Russell is inspired to write a story about a space station called "Deep Space Nine", whose commanding officer is Benjamin Sisko, a human of African descent (or Negro, the term used in the show). The other writers like the story, but Pabst refuses to publish it and gives Benny a new assignment. Instead of completing the new assignment, though, Benny writes six new stories about Sisko. This causes a passionate argument in the office among the various employees. Albert suggests that Benny make the ending of his first Sisko story a dream, a compromise that both Benny and Pabst accept after it is clarified that the dreaming is being done by a negro person.
A hustler (Jake Sisko) friend of Benny's is killed by the police, ostensibly because he was trying to break into a car. When Benny protests this injustice, the police severely beat him. On his first day back at the office, excited to see his story in print, he learns that Pabst's boss did not like the story and ordered a whole month's run of the magazine “pulped”, preferring to take a loss rather than sell a magazine featuring a negro hero. Angry over this news, and the news that he is being fired over writing the story, Russell has a nervous breakdown and is taken away by an ambulance. As he falls unconscious, he looks through the window and sees not a cityscape, but stars streaking by as if traveling at warp speed. Sisko wakes up, to the relief of his father and his son. He is deeply disturbed by his vision, and now wonders what is real, his life on Deep Space Nine, or his life as Benny Russell. – End of Synopsis

This episode tackles the issue of racism and gender discrimination in a very powerful and entertaining way. We look back on the 1950’s in a very nostalgic manner but the fact is that it was a time of great fear and paranoia in our society. It was the time of the House Un-American Activities witch hunts, the Cold War, and rampant discrimination. It was not, in fact, “Happy Days”.

Things would BEGIN to change in the early Sixties through the efforts of JFK and MLK and a growing legion of Civil Rights activists of all races. But the steps were...baby steps. Then one day in 1966 a new show premiered on NBC that showed a vision of the future in which not only was everyone equal, but no one could even CONCEIVE of a time that this was not so. That show was Star Trek. On the bridge of the Enterprise we had a White man, an Asian man, a Black Woman, a Southern Man, an Alien and even a Russian man, who were not only colleagues but in a very real sense FAMILY. Any of them willing to give their lives for the other. The most striking thing was that this was NATURAL to the crew of the Enterprise. In the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battle Field” Kirk and Spock were genuinely mystified when Ambassador Beale was attempting to describe why he was superior to the man he was chasing because he was black on the opposite side than his countryman. In Roddenberry’s vision people not only tolerate, but embrace diversity. That message came to be known as IDIC (A Vulcanism) that means Infinite Diversity In Infinite Combinations. It is not only the cornerstone of Vulcan philosophy, it is the central idea behind Star Trek.

When looking at the DS9 episode “Far Beyond The Stars” it is particularly effective that the 1950’s characters are ALL played by the actors who have roles in the “future” Deep Space Nine universe. We are so used to seeing them functioning in the utopian future of Star Trek that watching these same actors deal with the all too real problems of racism and discrimination is doubly jarring. Avery Brooks in particular does a magnificent job of a man who watches his dreams and dignity systemically taken from him for the ridiculous and idiotic reason that he happens to be of a different color than the publisher of the magazine where he works.

Star Trek has always been by example an active advocate of true equality. And not just in the stories. The people who MADE Star Trek have always been truly blind to discrimination. As I stated earlier the original series gave us an integrated crew. It may seem silly now but AT THE TIME, it was unheard of to have main characters who were that mixed and not stereotyped.

You see Uhura just HAPPENED to be a black woman, Sulu HAPPENED to be Japanese. Their ethnicity was not the reason for their characters. It was just a part of who they are as people. Just like in the real world. Star Trek gave us the first inter racial kiss on TV. The first instance of a female lead in an action adventure show as the Captain of a Star Ship and Cisco as the commander of DS9, a man who just happened to be black. It is a subtle distinction but very important to note. There are no stereotypes on Star Trek among the human characters.
Star Trek exists in a universe that takes it for granted that NO enlightened mind is capable of bigotry. That is a powerful statement because it is true that an individual cannot be both intelligent and a bigot. A bigot and an intelligent individual cannot exist in the same person..

If the only thing that Star Trek is remembered for is a vision of the future where we are not only all equal in each other’s eyes, but that we embrace our differences, it will be one hell of a legacy.

I doubt if you could find another show that has a finer legacy than that.

That’s 30!


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