DS9: Season 3, Episode 11 & 12: “Past Tense”

“Past Tense, Part I” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 1/2/1995) and “Past Tense, Part II” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 1/9/1995)

Note: One of the three best episodes of DS9, herein described and analyzed by a skillful fan – in this episode Sisko travels back in time, and takes the law into his own hands… ed. 

The original Star Trek takes place in the 23rd century. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine takes place a century later, which makes it roughly three hundred years from where we are right now. Given the amount of social upheaval and technological development required to get us from the point A of the present to the point B of Trek’s fictional future, this temporal distance is a smart move. Backstory or mythology on a show is almost always better if you can keep the specifics fairly flexible, and while DS9 certainly has its share of definite history, as with all Trek shows leading up to Enterprise, there’s no real effort put in to pinning down how us poor, messy humans ended up halfway across the galaxy. It’s never been a question all that relevant to the franchise. On the original series, every so often Kirk or Spock or McCoy would mention something from Earth’s past (like the Eugenic Wars), but only if it was relevant to the plot, and there was never enough information to piece together an indisputable timeline of events. This is all to the good; the show was about our future, not its past, and the more effort writers make to pin everything down, the more easily it’ll stop making sense.

The time-traveling two parter “Past Tense”—which has Sisko, Bashir, and Dax getting beamed back to the San Francisco of 2024—tries to fill in some of the blanks. It’s a risky move, and there’s all the padding and awkward structuring that so often haunts two-parters on the series; in addition, it takes some goofy plotting to throw Sisko and the others into the past (O’Brien gives us a wad of techspeak which translates to “Just ’cause”). But while these episodes are imperfect, there’s more than enough good to outweigh the clumsiness. Because yes, trying to delve too much into what happened before can be a recipe for disaster; the past is by necessity dramatically static, which makes it hard to generate much tension from it. At the same time, by picking a year so relatively close to our own (three decades when the episode first aired, a mere ten years now), the writers are afforded an opportunity to deal with social issues which, even when clothed in the veil of genre metaphor, still feel immediate and resonant. Trek has done a number of “social issue” episodes over the years—some effective, most laughably heavy-handed—but there’s a rawness, a directness, to “Past Tense” that makes it seem fresh. It makes sense, too. DS9 has already demonstrated its willingness to show the dark underbelly of Roddenberry’s utopia; of course it would be the show to give us the hell necessary to achieve paradise.

The first part of “Past Tense” is almost entirely set-up. First, we’re given a reason why Sisko, Bashir, Dax, Kira—well, okay, everyone but Quark—need to take a trip on the Defiant. The Ferengi still manages to get a cameo in when he contacts Sisko to ask for a favor for the Grand Nagus, however. It’s an odd exchange, given that it has basically nothing to do with the rest of the episode. If I had to guess, I’d say the writers were just looking for way a to shoehorn Shimerman in, if only briefly.

The truth is, though, everything about the cold open is on the clumsy side. The sudden conference on Earth, the magical chronitons which just happen to be passing through the solar system when Sisko and the others step onto the transporter, the fact that Odo and Kira and O’Brien are all aboard; none of this makes for a dealbreaker, but it’s funny how sharply it contrasts with the effectiveness of the part of the story set in 2024. This persists through both episodes, actually, as the team left behind on the Defiant struggle to find some way to rescue their missing friends. These scenes aren’t actively painful, apart from Kira and O’Brien’s ill-advised trip to Stereotypeville (i.e., San Francisco of the 1960s, where, of course, they run into hippies and a rocking van), and the moment when O’Brien discovers that Sisko and Bashir have inadvertently changed the past enough to eliminate the entire existence of the Federation is appropriately chilling. It’s just that, apart from making sure we know the time travelers have a way back home, there’s no need for any of this. The dramatic tension of the episode arises from the ugliness of the past, and every brief foray into the “present” is a pleasant, but unnecessary distraction.

It’s not hard to guess why the show needs these scenes, just as it’s no huge surprise that there’s a five minute segment of the second episode which seems to exist solely to give Clint Howard a paycheck. Two-parters are tough to build, and I’d bet even if you stripped out most (or all) of the Kira and O’Brien scenes, you’d still have too much content for a single episode. Normally I’d be more critical of this, but the superfluous elements of “Past Tense” are easier to stomach than usual for a couple of reasons. For one, as I may have mentioned before, I like all of these characters, and I enjoy spending time with them. While the exchanges on the Defiant aren’t where the action is, watching Odo, O’Brien, and Kira try and work through the problem has a certain charm. Sure, you know they won’t find the answer until Sisko and the others get through their own, and the scenes are mostly a lot of techspeak without much weight, but it’s better than some of the chaff that filled the spare minutes back on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The other reason to accept all of this is that the San Francisco segments really do need all the time they’re given, and trying to cram all of this into a single episode, even if that meant losing the fat, would’ve been a mistake. The power of “Past Tense” comes from watching Sisko and Bashir struggle to deal with the horrific social conditions of the 21st century. When they arrive in the city, groggy from the trip and minus their com-badges (which are never seen again; no one seems to concerned about potential anachronisms), the captain and the doctor are picked up by a pair of police officers who immediately arrest them for vagrancy and lack of proper identification. Vin (played by professional “That guy!” Dick Miller, who gets a lot to work with and makes the most of it), the more dismissive of the officers, assumes our heroes are “dims,” which we eventually learn is a slang terms for mentally handicapped individuals incapable of holding down long-term jobs. The episode loves its slang terms—in addition to “dims,” there are also “gimmies,” clear-headed and able-bodied people looking for jobs, and “ghosts,” the violent, thieving folks who prey on the less fortunate. Dim, gimmie, or ghost, all the disenfranchised or down on their luck are herded into the slum-like, hopelessly overcrowded Sanctuaries, where they are left to rot.

This is where Sisko and Bashir end up, but not before Sisko gets a look at the date, and realizes they’re just a few days away from the Bell Riots of 2024. Inspired loosely by the 1971 riot at Attica Prison, the uprising is/was the inevitable outcome of a large group of desperate men and women forced to endure impossible circumstance. It’s notable in Sisko’s time for being the turning point when the United States government decided to finally deal with the social problems it had been avoiding and putting off for over a century. This change was driven by the martyrdom of Gabriel Bell, a Sanctuary citizen who helped take a group of government workers hostage during the riots. Bell managed to keep all of this hostages alive during the conflict, and was shot dead for his troubles when the army finally shut the crisis down. When the truth about his actions, and his murder, became more widely known, the public outcry led to change, which ultimately led to every problem getting solved and the creation of the Federation.

This is a little much; “Past Tense” shorthands decades worth of social progress and slow, hard-won change into a single event, and while it’s important for the episode to work (in that we need to believe it’s crucial for both the hostages to live and Bell to die), it still requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to accept everything Sisko is laying down. Still, time travel plots have a tendency to pivot on one crucial event, so it’s not like this is without precedent. As well, the Bell crisis never plays out in the way you’d expect. The first big surprise comes at the end of the first part, when Sisko and Bashir are pulled into a fight, and a stranger comes to their aid. The stranger is gut-stabbed by a ghost named B.C. (Frank Military, which is a really great name), and dies due both to his wound and the lack of access to medical care. And wouldn’t you just know it: The dead man is Gabriel Bell.

Bell’s death gives Sisko and Bashir a more compelling reason to stick around than simply, “We have no other choice”; one of this two-parter’s strengths is that the way the drama comes not from obvious contrivance (we know the Federation is going to cease to exist, just as we know Sisko, Bashir, and Dax will find their way back to the present), but from the suffering of the people Sisko and Bashir meet. The plot forces our heroes to become directly involved with the events of the riots, and while it may be more than a little contrived, the end result is worth it. There are a few tense moments in “Part II” when it seems like B.C. is going to shoot Vin (who’s one of the hostages, along with most every other Sanctuary personnel we’ve seen), but for the most part, the episode isn’t about suspense. There’s no serious question that Sisko, pretending to be Bell, will pull this off, and he never has to make any intense decisions to bring everything together. This isn’t a “City On The Edge Of Forever” scenario where a hero is forced to surrender to the tide of fate. It’s more a way to spend time with people, get to know some of them, and draw some inevitable comparisons between the world we see on screen and our own.

There isn’t that much difference. Oh sure, there’s a bit of sci-fi thrown in to make sure we remember it’s 2024, but the core concepts are distressingly familiar: overworked bureaucrats punished for trying to make a difference, the indigent and struggling forced into environments where crime and drug use seem like the only possible exit, a wealthy elite watching from a distance, convinced that the those in need are somehow responsible for their suffering. It’s a little heavy-handed, but the directness is part of what makes the best sections of these two episodes so powerful. For once, cloaking modern social ills in a tasty sci-fi snack doesn’t come off as cloying or cowardly. The anger and frustration that drives both hours isn’t subtle, but it is real, and often affecting, serving once again to remind us just how great DS9 is at giving a damn. Both Bashir and Sisko frequently comment on the ugliness around them, and Avery Brooks in particular is on fire; there are moments in the second half when he seems to forget his Sisko self and give over completely to passion and fervor of the moment. And it is awesome when he does.

While all this is going on—while Sisko, Bashir, and a bunch of the ghosts (including B.C.) are holding hostages and trying to persuade the government to accede to their (pretty quixotic) demands—Dax is hanging out with the rich folks, trying to find out what happened to her friends. When Bashir and Sisko were picked up by the security personnel, Dax was rescued by a very rich, very white television executive, who immediately spirits her to his home, allows her use of his equipment, dresses her in pretty clothes and takes her to parties. This is intended as a commentary on how the Caucasian Dax would be treated differently than the darker-skinned Sisko and Bashir; I’m not sure that entirely works (the way it’s framed, it looks like Dax was beamed to a different area than the other two, and her rescue was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time), but the fact that’s it intentional but not underlined is a smart choice. More importantly, the ease with which Dax is able to get what she wants and move through the upper echelons of society, while Sisko and Bashir struggle to get breakfast, is telling.

Most impressive of all is the way “Past Tense” routinely avoids providing us with easy villains. Dax’s rescuer, Chris Brynner (Jim Metzler), could’ve been a corrupt, hypocritical ass; I was half-expecting him to make a move on Dax at some point, given how helpful and friendly he was. But he never does, and while Dax meets a few people in his company who fit the stereotype of the ugly rich, Brynner himself is courteous and helpful, even allowing Sisko and the others to get the stories of the citizens of the Sanctuary out onto the network. He’s just too accepting, too oblivious of the problems, in the same way the bureaucrats Sisko and Bashir meet vaguely know that something is wrong, but feel powerless to change it. Even B.C., the violent creep who keeps on about how much he really wants to shoot somebody, has a decent heart underneath it all; you get the sense that with some direction and some hope, he might’ve amounted to something more. While the episodes aren’t any kind of dry polemic or sociological study, the writers do make the effort to show how this kind of crushing poverty comes about, and how hellishly difficult it can be to change anything. The people aren’t villains or conspiring to destroy each other. They’re just regular people being ground under the wheels of a machine they no longer even see.

It’s not hopeless, of course; this isn’t The Wire, and given that this is time travel, the happy ending is already built in. But “Past Tense” works by addressing the ugliness of a broken system without pretending it’s anything but hellish; and it also succeeds in providing some hope for change, even while acknowledging that change always has a cost. There are people in the episode who realize the error of their ways by the end, and their ability to change speaks to the fundamental optimism of this series, and of all Trek. Vin, who is suspicious of Sisko and Bashir from the start, and openly contemptuous of the rest of the Sanctuary denizens, is finally won over by the decency and humanity of the people he sees, and by something as simple as a conversation about baseball. It’s a transition which should be predictable to the point of formula, but somehow isn’t. Miller doesn’t shy away from making the character cantankerous (though still charming, in that Dick Miller way), so that his eventual conversion doesn’t play out as an inevitability. In the end, that may be “Past Tense”’s greatest success: It’s about history, but it also serves as a reminder that nothing is set in stone.

Stray observations:

  • I also took Dax’s success as evidence at how much better she was at adapting to new situations; considering how many memories she has, I doubt anything much surprises her.
  • Sisko’s reference to the “Starfleet Temporal Displacement Policy” made me laugh. Given how many times various Enterprise crew members have gotten their DeLorean on, it’s no surprise that somebody decided it would be worth setting up some rules. Of course, those rules would be nearly impossible to reinforce, but it’s still a nice idea.
  • “It’s not your fault things are the way they are.” “Everybody tells themselves that. And nothing ever changes.” A great exchange between Bashir and a social worker.
  • “I thought we were on the same side here!” “We are, but you get on my nerves and I don’t like your hat.”—Sisko, on edge.
  • I didn’t even mention Michael Webb (Bill Smitrovich), the nice guy who works with Sisko and Bashir, and gets killed for his troubles. He was good.
  • While I like how the second episode shortcuts Sisko and the others getting back home (we know Kira has found Dax, but the last we see of Earth, Sisko and Bashir are talking with Vin), it emphasizes how extraneous the Kira/O’Brien stuff is.
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