Monday, August 24, 2015

Deep Space Nine: Season 6: Far Beyond the Stars

Deep Space Nine, Season 6
"Far Beyond the Stars"
Airdate: February 11, 1998
136 of 173 produced
135 of 173 aired


Sisko begins having visions, apparently an aftereffect of his recent experience with the Prophets. He sees himself as a science fiction writer in 1950s New York.

I just don't know about the new Ops set...


Kevin: This is probably the most complicated episode of the series for me. There's just a lot here, and I've spent the most time that I can recall of any episode trying to organize my thoughts. I'm going to start with some of the small level stuff and work my way to analyzing the bigger issues in the story. Many of the small touches in the episode really sang for me. Anyone familiar with the history of science fiction in America should recognize that this is practically a love letter to the genre. "K.C. Hunter" is C.L. Moore among many other women who wrote under a pseudonym to obscure her gender, and O'Brien's robot-obsessed character is Isaac Asimov. For a show that for better or worse delves more into character or political arcs rather than "hard" science fiction, it's certainly an interesting choice, and in the end, a highly enjoyable one.

Matthew: Yeah, I'm not going to complain when a science fiction show makes a point of referencing either the science fiction scene of the mid twentieth century, or using it as a backdrop for a story about race and social tyranny. I do have questions with respect to what point was being made exactly, and why this sci-fi writing backdrop served it, as opposed to just being fun for the creative staff. But it was enjoyable, nonetheless.

Kevin: The modern Trek franchises really haven't tackled the issue of race, certainly not so explicitly. I think the last time we got this deep into the issue was TOS' Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, and even that was done as allegory. Narratives in American media about race tend to make sure that the central white character is a good person and lean on the progress being made (See: every movie about the Civil Rights Movement ever), so I have to say I was impressed at the time, and remain so now, that the portrayal of race relations was so unflinching and didn't end on a high note or a homily. The Dukat/Weyoun pair of cops comes this close to caricature, but given what cops are apparently still doing today, I can't say the portrayal was inaccurate. What I think really sold me on this part of the episode was the fine grain way the racism Benny Sisko faces is portrayed as personally dehumanizing. The cops taking the drawing or the publisher refusing the story are both very personal dismissals of the man he is trying to be. The episode focuses on how dehumanizing racism is, and just leaves it there for the viewer to ponder. The episode does not end with an even tacit acknowledgment about how our world or the one in Star Trek is better than the one portrayed here, and that more than anything is what sets it apart from even earlier Trek on the issue of race in America. It's not designed to make me feel better about how far we've come, and as I've gotten older, I've come to understand that's actually pretty ballsy for a television show to attempt.

Matthew: I've little to add to your analysis of this episode with respect to racism. I agree wholeheartedly on the virtue of not giving us an easy resolution to the story. But one thing that stuck out to me was the way black urban life was portrayed - there were a bunch of really vibrant scenes with music, theater, commerce, sports, and street life all in evidence. This is a really nuanced and deep look at a particular time and place, especially for a television show in the 90s. The writing did a good job of giving most of the characters in Benny's life a feeling of verisimilitude and depth - especially Willie Hawkins and Cassie.

Kevin: The other major part of the plot is the hardest for me to decide how I feel about it. Other shows, particularly ones in the sci-fi/fantasy realm have done the "It's all a dream, or is it?" story before. The one that springs to mind is Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Normal Again," in which the previous six seasons of the show are depicted as her hallucination. The choice in this episode is not presented as explicitly in this episode as in that one. It never seems a possibility that Sisko will continue to live as Benny Sisko and abandon the station as his fantasy, but I think there is a still choice presented to him. Like Benny, our Sisko is facing what at that moment feels like an impossible task, and he has to choose whether or not to keep fighting, even when it feels hopeless. That's my take, at least, and I have to say that I kind of appreciate the episode for not trying to draw too many explicit morals out of the story. I think the closest it comes is also the episode's weakest link. The odd pronouncements by Father Joseph Sisko never really landed for me and were a waste of having Brock Peters on set. I would have rather just seen him portray Benny Sisko's father and let some interesting drama flow from both the characters' chemistry and a generationally different perspective on the story. That being said, whatever the episode's successes or failures, it's certainly thought provoking. My thoughts, as evidenced by the length of my review, have clearly been provoked.

Matthew: I am baffled by what point this story is trying to make. Racism is bad? OK, I got that. But the way they go about making this point is confusing. Was Sisko supposed to learn about the racism that dark-skinned people experienced on early 20th century Earth? If so, why? Is Sisko really having a vision, a la a prophet experience? If so, the point was to get him to stay on the station? I'm sorry, I'm not really seeing the connection. Why did the denizens of the vision look like human versions of the DS9 crew and its antagonists? At the end of the day, this story feels very disconnected with the larger DS9 tale. Two or three seasons ago, this may have been acceptable without a batted eyelash. Now, it's really conspicuous. Also, you're quite right, the Brock Peters stuff felt really tacked on. And the Jake Sisko stuff feels like it has even less of a point. I feel like the ending conversation was supposed to be delivering the point, but it amounted to little more than "what if we're the dream?" Yeah? What if? Why is that important, and not just a cute musing on how, ha ha, this is a TV show (a la TNG's "Ship in a Bottle").


Kevin: This is definitely Avery Brooks' episode, and it lives or dies on the strength of his performance. I think the closest he comes to over the line is his final breakdown, but given the subject, I think it works. I liked some of his smaller line readings, like when he tells his father he introduced his recently killed friend to his wife. I think Brooks really connected with the material and it shows.

Matthew: Although this had a prototypical "Brooks Moment" (it's REEEEAAALLL!!!), the rest of the performance was so organic and restrained that it more than made up for it.I think Benny Russell wasn't terribly different than Ben Sisko, but his responses and reactions to the different world were well played. I also bought him as a writer, the creativity, focus, passion.

Kevin: The other main stars and guest cast really threw themselves into the part. I actually appreciate that there was no overt attempt to make the parallels too parallel. You can see a thread of Kira in Kay or a familiar bickering between Shimerman and Auberjonois, but the new characters are distinct, and everyone did a good job. I would single out Penny Johnson for bringing the same warmth and credibility to Cassie as she does to Kassidy. Her concern is genuine and it anchors the fantasy story for me, if nothing else, by giving something that the fantasy character values in the fantasy makes the world more engaging.

Matthew: Auberjonois and Shimerman really blew me away with their turns here. Their characters were completely different, and had complete veracity as people with interior mental lives. Auberjonois had the most thankless job, of course, refusing Benny his day in the sun. He gave the Pabst character complexity and resisted making him a posterboard villain. Shimerman was great when Pabst accused him of being a "red." Everyone was pretty good, really. Colm Meaney somehow achieved making a stammer not annoying.

Production Values

Kevin: The New York set felt a bit Paramount backlot to me, but I can't be too angry. There were at least sufficient extras to make it feel like an actual place. Between the street scenes, the office, the apartment, and the diner, I was also impressed by the sheer number of locations. I also the think the cuts between main and parallel characters was really well done. The scene of Kira popping in and out to compliment herself, essentially, while reading the story always tickled me.

Matthew: The number of extras really impressed me. I found the location shoots to be effective. Benny Russell's apartment was an effective set, with lots of texture and a lived-in feel. The magazine office also felt quite real. The set designers really nailed it, there were no off sets and there was always a great deal of visual interest.

Kevin: The costumes and hair were fantastic, particularly for the women. I also liked a lot of the small details. The inspirational sketches were really spot on for the magazines of the time. I really liked the modified DS9, even down to the USAF logo on it. The art guys clearly had a field day.

Matthew: The only question mark I have is with Sisko's hat. Did mid-century African Americans really wear that kind of hat? Jimmy's (i.e. Jake's) hair was really bizarre. I know about hair straighteners and so on from other period movies (Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" goes into some detail with it) but it just looked strange here.


Kevin: Like I said, I have a lot of thoughts about this episode. Might I feel more certain had the episode tried to land more explicitly on a thesis or a moral? Maybe. But something we routinely ask for in giving out our best ratings is a vague quality we describe as "reaching" for something. I think this episode has it in buckets. It is a novel story presentation with a thought provoking set up and a fairly unflinching look at a dark part of history that deftly avoids becoming treacly by letting the viewer draw most of their of their own conclusions. Toss in some top notch acting and some great set and costume work, and I think this falls squarely into the 5 category.

Matthew: This lands on a 4 for me.  It's a really enjoyable watch, and the amount of detail in both story and visuals is impressive. I think the acting is stellar and the production values are top-notch. But I just don't know why they're telling this story within this particular narrative framework. Why is this a DS9 story, other than the fact that there are a good number of actors of color on the show? And why does it focus on science fiction writing, other than the fact that Trek fans typically enjoy sci-fi? How does it fit the universe we've been asked to invest ourselves in? In some ways, it feels just as arbitrary as "Past Tense," though of course the level of execution is far superior. Making me scratch my head this much is an indication that something's missing. So I'm going with a 4 for a total of 9.

No comments:

Post a Comment