I’m really glad the Dominion possession of Terak Nor didn’t last long, because it would have denied us episodes like these.
“Who Mourns for Morn?”
I don’t know if the title of this one is meant to be a riff on the original series’ “Who Mourns for Adonias?” but the two scripts couldn’t be more different. This is another screwball caper centered around Quark, propelled by the off-screen death of silent bar regular Morn, and while it doesn’t really go anywhere unexpected, it has fun getting there. Morn names Quark the sole beneficiary of his estate, which kicks into gear a search for secret assets that eventually leads to a cache of 1000 bars of gold-pressed latinum (and an explanation what precisely gold-pressed latinum is). It also brings a lot of shady people to Quark’s doorstep, all with a curious knowledge of the exact sum Morn stashed away and an increasingly preposterous claim to having rights to it (e.g., Morn’s “ex-wife”, a royal “security agent” acting to reclaim “prince Morn’s” treasures).
The story’s twist and outcome — including the fact that Morn isn’t actually dead — hardly come as a shock. But, again, the journey is amusing, with lots of great moments: Worf’s jealousy at learning Dax used to have a crush on Morn, Bashir and O’Brien constantly assuming the best of Quark and assuming he’s out of sight because he’s heartbroken at Morn’s death, etc. I would think this one comes too soon after “The Magnificent Ferengi,” but nah — it’s a completely different kind of ridiculous caper about Quark, a fun standalone fill-in story.
“Far Beyond the Stars”
Ah… this is one of those episodes.
I was wary of this one at first, because it comes right on the heels of “Waltz” and initially looked like some sort of misguided attempt at maintaining parity between Sisko and Dukat. Dukat had hallucinations, so now Sisko does, too. Thankfully, this episode goes a lot more smoothly than “Waltz.” It helps that the mechanism for Sisko’s visions feels more internally consistent: They’re a message from the wormhole entities meant to push him back from the edge as he contemplates quitting Starfleet following the death of a close friend to the Dominion.
If anyone ever asks you why Star Trek at its best is great sci-fi, this is it. This was an hour of television that resonated more powerfully for me today than it would have when it originally aired. It feels like a story written in response to the current social and political climate in the U.S. Of course, I realize that the experiences it draws on are things black Americans have always had to deal with, experiences that sheltered, privileged people like me are only now beginning to fully understand thanks to the internet, social media, and active pushes for greater social awareness. But even so, I don’t remember the issues that create the plot friction here being nearly so prominent in the ’90s as they are now — which isn’t to say they weren’t there, just that they were rarely discussed in the way “Far Beyond the Stars” tackles them. By taking on sexism and racism in pop media head-on, DS9 feels like it was working 20 years ahead of its time.
And what a fascinating, powerful episode emerges. It’s especially interesting because of the way it reverses sci-fi’s favorite tool: Normally, science fiction uses a far-flung futuristic premise to address a modern-day social ailment. “Far Beyond the Stars” uses a modern-day social issue to give Sisko guidance for his far-flung life in the future. But then, his 20th century perspective involves peddling visions of DS9‘s far-flung future… so it’s a bit of a conceptual ouroboros. It is sort of surprising to see Star Trek, which has a long history of dealing with racism metaphorically, take on the topic directly — but if any Trek could and should do it, it would be the one with a black captain.
Sisko’s vision casts him back into the mid-20th century (I’d guess about 1956 or ’57, since Michael Dorn plays Willie Mays during his
Brooklyn Dodgers New York Giants years) where he and the rest of the DS9 cast mostly work as writers for a pulp sci-fi magazine. This isn’t like a holodeck episode where everyone is cast as themselves or aware of the situation; here, they’re all simply people living in the ’50s, trying to make a living. But the script is quick to establish the frustrations that Sisko and Kira’s proxies experience as a black man and a woman writing sci-fi in that era. When the magazine staff is asked to take a group photo for their next issue, Kira and Sisko are pushed to recuse themselves. After all, as Kira — or rather, “K.C.” — says, it wouldn’t do for the readers to learn the author of the stories they love was a woman. And when “Benny” presses the case, pointing to the success of literary giants like Ralph Ellison, his editor — Odo’s proxy — counters that Ellison wrote for educated liberals, not the audience to which sci-fi catered.
There’s a lot of fun to be had here in seeing series regulars without their usual prosthetics: Armin Shimerman and Rene Auberjonois work with Benny, Marc Alaimo and Jeffrey Combs are racist cops, Dorn plays the aforementioned Mays, and even Aron Eisenberg shows up momentarily as a newsboy. Still, despite the novelty, this isn’t really a fun episode. It’s heartbreaking, as Sisko becomes absorbed in his alternate persona and begins cranking out short stories inspired by an off-model drawing of DS9 — stories that his editor rejects immediately. After all, the idea of a Negro lead character in sci-fi would never be accepted. Maybe a hundred years in future, but not in 1950s America! Even the great Willy Mays, a genuine baseball hero to the people of New York, has to live in Harlem — off the field, as he says, he’s just another black man who would never be allowed to buy property in the wealthy white neighborhoods of downtown Manhattan.
Eventually, Benny and his coworkers come up with a workaround for his stories: In the end, these “Deep Space Nine” stories would turn out to be the dream of a shoeshine boy or con man — acceptable roles for a black man in America, where everyone can dream big… but where not everyone can actually succeed on the level of white men. In the end, even that isn’t enough; after recovering from a beating administered by the cops (who briefly flash back and forth to visions of Dukat and Weyoun), Benny returns to the office only to learn the magazine’s publisher pulped the issue featuring his first “Deep Space Nine” short story and insisted on his being fired.
Wracked with physical and emotional pain, Benny delivers a powerful, emphatic declamation, vowing that while he can be belittled and disrespected, his ideas — the realities he’s envisioned in his imagination — are real and can’t be denied. (It’s always interesting to imagine how differently Avery Brooks and Patrick Stewart play speeches like this; in this case, Brooks’ full-on torrent of raw emotion — he rants until he collapses! — hits a lot harder and more earnestly than I think Stewart’s preference for dramatic build-up might have.) Eventually, he comes to on DS9 as himself, as Sisko, the words of his vision’s street preacher proxy for his father having stuck with him. The preacher spoke about completing the story in Benny’s mind regardless of its acceptance, and Sisko realizes these were the words of the Prophets, urging him to stay the course.
It’s a great episode, one that manages to do a whole lot of things at once. It (perhaps unintentionally) contrasts Sisko with Dukat: Where Dukat was driven mad by his hallucinations and abandoned his ethical constraints, Sisko finds new resolve to carry on and remain true to himself. It subtly hints at whatever grand plan the Prophets have for Sisko with far less hammer-and-anvil obviousness than his vision during the showdown with the Dominion invasion force did a few episodes back. And, finally, it tells a layered and nuanced story about race, gender, acceptance, power, and integrity that (1) very likely addressed contemporary responses to DS9‘s casting during the show’s run, (2) painted a blunt historical picture of America before the Civil Rights movement, and (3) painfully resonates in 2018 as we deal with the miserable outcries of bigoted, misogynistic genre fans (mostly recently shrieking about Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time) and the racist gatekeepers who run so many media empires.
Anyway, a truly great episode.