Far Beyond the Stars

From: tlynch@alumnae.caltech.edu (Timothy W. Lynch)
Subject: [DS9] Lynch's Spoiler Review: "Far Beyond the Stars"
Date: 1998/02/15
Message-ID: <6c7jl5$lu1@gap.cco.caltech.edu>
Followup-To: rec.arts.startrek.current,alt.tv.star-trek.ds9
Organization: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
Keywords: DS9 Sisko 1950s racism
Reply-To: tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu
Newsgroups: rec.arts.startrek.reviews,rec.arts.startrek.current,alt.tv.star-trek.ds9

WARNING: Spoilers for DS9 lie somewhere out there, "Far Beyond the Stars".

In brief: A compelling first four acts with a so-so fifth.

Written by:  Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler (teleplay); 
	Marc Scott Zicree (story)
Directed by:  Avery Brooks
Brief summary:  Sisko has visions of living another life:  that of a 
science-fiction writer in the 1950s dealing with racism.

"Far Beyond the Stars" faced a difficult challenge from the get-go in many ways. One way was in the premise: the very idea of putting Sisko (or someone like him) back in time to Earth's past leads to skepticism, and as such needed ample justification. The other primary obstacle was the subject matter: although Trek's dealt with racism before, it's never done so by examining Earth directly. Given that race relations are still a sensitive topic (and likely will be through the real 24th century, regrettably), the episode had to find a way to make a point while still telling an interesting story.

By those criteria, "Far Beyond the Stars" went one for two. I found the 1950s-era story both touching and compelling, rarely descending into preachiness; it presented a picture of the era in a way television SF has rarely done ("The Twilight Zone" being a major exception). On the other hand, there was little or no justification given for jumping into such a tale, and that was something of a problem. When the story is truly magnificent, I'm willing to accept a justification that is perhaps slightly shakier than normal (such as in TNG's "The Inner Light"); however, this presented even less justification and didn't quite manage the same power.

On the other hand, one thing the episode did do, and do magnificently, was capture the feel of the '50s SF-writing community. I don't know whether it was Behr & Beimler who came up with many of the little details of the episode, or Zicree who suggested them in the story, but whichever one it was clearly knows and loves the old SF pulps. (I suspect it was Zicree from having heard him talk about the episode at a convention back in November, but I could be wrong.) A partial list of the things the episode got right in this category:

-- Galaxy was a real magazine at the time, and one of the preeminent places for SF in the decade (another being Astounding). Heinlein, Bradbury and Sturgeon are listed as having written for Galaxy, so that's on target as well.

-- The reference to Benny Russell writing a lot while in the Navy mirrors the careers of a lot of SF writers of the time, including Heinlein.

-- Albert selling a novel to Gnome Press is also on-target: Gnome was a small imprint in the '50s that published a lot of seminal SF work, including Asimov's robot series. (Albert seems very strongly to have been an Asimov analogue in general.)

-- The fact that Kay was writing under the pseudonym "K.C. Hunter" resembles the situation of a lot of female SF writers of the time. Catherine "C.L." Moore is a good example. She also collaborated a great deal with her husband Henry Kuttner, just as Kay did here with Jules. (I wonder if the "K.C." here was inspired by K.C. Cole, a current science writer for the Los Angeles Times who does excellent work.)

There are undoubtedly other matches that I missed; I'm reasonably well versed in that time period, but far from an expert. Suffice it to say that as a look into what it was to be an SF writer in the '50s, "Far Beyond the Stars" did its homework.

Another treat that was perhaps more obvious was the chance for much of the DS9 ensemble cast to take a turn at different roles, including ones out of makeup. In general, that came off very well; it's a pleasure to see the actors demonstrate some range outside of their normal characters, and they're good enough that the characters felt completely different most of the time. Particularly good were Armin Shimerman (for once getting to play the conscience of the group), Colm Meaney (of course), Rene Auberjonois, and Marc Alaimo playing an entirely different type of sleazy character. Even the small cameos -- Aron Eisenberg as a newsboy, J.G. Hertzler as the magazine's artist, and so forth -- were much appreciated.

Then, there's Benny Russell confronting the racism of the time. Here, again, the choice of making him a science fiction writer in New York probably worked to the episode's advantage. It's easy to address things that were prevalent in the South at the time, like Jim Crow laws and segregation; those were so obviously wrong that they seem outdated, and it would be easy to build them up as "something that will change". But when you have an editor telling a writer that "the public" isn't ready to accept a black science fiction writer, and that "a Negro captain" of a space station simply isn't believable, that's a lot more subtle -- and as a result, a lot more insidious. That sort of prejudice is still around in a lot of ways, even in this presumably more enlightened time -- the segment of Trek fans who couldn't believe in a black Vulcan is evidence enough of that. Most people like to believe they're color-blind when it comes to judging people, but default assumptions still show up in fiction. If I'm reading something, I do tend to picture the characters as white unless I'm told otherwise -- it's not conscious, but it's there, and I'll wager it's there for most readers. That doesn't mean I find Sisko less believable than I did Picard -- but I wouldn't be surprised to find that some people do, and for no reason they can easily put their finger on.

The fact that no particular race was held up as good or bad in "Far Beyond the Stars" helped keep it from being too preachy as well. Certainly, some characters were presented as less tolerant than others -- Cirroc Lofton's Jimmy and Marc Alaimo's cop were probably the two most blatantly prejudiced -- but the range of attitudes really did vary from the crusader (Shimerman) to the implicitly prejudiced (Auberjonois to a fault, and certainly the never-seen "Mr. Stone" who owned the magazine), to those people caught in the middle who wanted things to be different but didn't think they could change anything. That strikes me as a far more realistic picture of the time than the simplistic one without shades of gray that appears quite a bit even now. As a result of that, Benny Russell's frustration with his situation, and growing obsession with making his Ben Sisko stories sell, and sell *now*, came through loud and clear. (The addition of non-racial tensions, such as the cries of "fascist" vs. "pinko" that were common at the time, also helped make the episode seem about more than "just" racism.)

Avery Brooks' direction is also worthy of note. For such a non- traditional DS9 offering as this, it's important to make the setting seem as real as possible, and Brooks did exactly that. Every locale, from the magazine offices to the diner to Benny's apartment, created the perfect atmosphere; no accidental anachronisms were present, either in objects or in attitudes. The jumps between the "reality" of the 1950s and Benny's visions of DS9 were also well handled, whether it was Kay becoming Kira becoming Kay or the policemen beating Benny turning into Dukat and Weyoun and back. The real felt real, and the unreal felt unreal; as with TNG's "All Good Things", that's crucial to pull off a show like this.

The one thing that the show didn't manage to do well, I think, was firmly establish any sort of connection back to the usual cast of DS9 characters. On the surface, the episode seemed to be nothing more than the Prophets helping Sisko through a crisis of conscience; while that's all well and good, one wonders why the Prophets would choose such an incredibly roundabout route to lead him there. We as viewers know that the setting was chosen because someone liked the pulp SF magazines of the '50s, but without Sisko showing an interest in the period, why send him there?

Until the fifth act, that was a fairly minor annoyance in the back of my mind; in that act, however, my unease took a sharp jump up. For one thing, there was Benny's breakdown in the offices after the story is pulped and he's fired: while it makes perfect sense that he'd finally reach a breaking point, the manner of it made me keenly aware that I was watching Avery Brooks Acting [TM] and not Benny breaking down. (His final sobs were an exception; for whatever reason, I found those wrenching.) Later, Sisko's return to consciousness felt extremely anticlimactic; Bashir's bemusement may have made sense, but Sisko's lack of any real reaction didn't. Were I Sisko, I'd want to know what happened next to Benny Russell, and to the stories -- and as the viewer, I want to know whether those stories are ones we've seen, or perhaps ones Sisko is yet to experience. (Imagine Sisko realizing three episodes down the line that the stories his alter ego wrote were in fact prophecies...) As it is, all the exhortations from the Prophets to "write the words" wound up leading to ashes; the words were written, but never seen, and "the dreamer and the dream" has now just gone back to his old job without much understanding of what has transpired. I'm not sure exactly what a good ending would have been to the episode, but I know I was disappointed with what we got.

On the whole, though, even a weak ending doesn't hurt the episode as much as it could. As an examination of an era, a look back at the history of prose SF, and an acting showcase, "Far Beyond the Stars" shines; it's only when trying to connect it back to the characters we already care about that the show falters. Things could be a lot worse, to be sure.

Finally, despite some of the rest of the act, Sisko's final speech about Benny Russell "dreaming of us" hit home surprisingly well. There may not be a real Benny Russell out there, but Sisko, his father, the station, and everyone and everything else on DS9 *are* being dreamed up by people, many of them wishing for a better future. The fact that Trek can last for three decades and counting is proof that it's touched some kind of chord in a lot of dreamers -- at its best, it often *does* show a future people might wish for. (At its worst, of course, it's got people evolving into salamanders ... but I digress.)

Other thoughts:

-- Another thing about the fifth act that bugged me was Benny's dark glasses. Initially, I took it as evidence that he'd been blinded in his beating; given the rest of the episode, however, I'm not sure what to think. It seemed an extremely odd and jarring costuming choice.

-- Albert's suggestion to make the Sisko stories a dream was interesting; I'm not sure why it would make a difference to an editor, but it nonetheless felt reasonable that it did.

-- Willie, the ballplayer played by Michael Dorn, may well have been intended to be Willie Mays; certainly, he was playing for the Giants in 1953 and on the way up. In any case, his experiences were also helpful to establish the period's casual racism.

-- It's so rare to see Avery Brooks playing someone truly overjoyed that his small celebration scene after selling the story was a real treat.

-- Terry Farrell's secretary was great. "She's got a worm in her belly! Oh, that's disgustin' ... that's interestin', but that's disgustin'." :-)

-- The episode's made me realize that written SF is *still* very much a white person's game. Perhaps I'm simply assuming authors are white unless hearing otherwise, but I can only think of two black authors in the SF community, namely Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. One wonders why.

-- Another great quote: "Tell them we look like writers: poor, needy, and incredibly attractive."

-- The other two story assignments for the magazine -- _Take Me With You_ and _Honeymoon on Andorus_ -- felt completely right. Those are just the sort of titles you'd expect to see in '50s pulps, particularly with those pictures.

That about covers it. "Far Beyond the Stars" could have been one of the best things DS9's ever done; it fell a bit short of that level, but it's nonetheless so different an offering and made with so much care that it's definitely worth a look or three.

So, wrapping up:

Writing: More of a connection to the "real" DS9 events would have helped a lot, but the tale was poignant and lots of the little details were extraordinary. Directing: A tad over-the-top towards the end, but generally excellent. Acting: Dorn came off as a tad bland at times, and Brooks went out of control towards the end; most of the time, however, everything was great.

OVERALL: 9, I think; we'll see how it ages.

NEXT WEEK:

Fantastic Deep Space Voyage Nine.

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu	<*>
"Your hero's a Negro captain -- the head of a space station, for 
Christ's sake!"
"What's wrong with that?"
"People won't accept it.  It's not believable!"
"And men from Mars ARE?"
Copyright 1998, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...
This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net
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-----

Hans-Wolfgang Loidl <hwloidl.glasgow.ac.uk>
Last modified: Sat Aug 19 17:15:44 1995 Stardate: [-31]6158.38