*This post contains full spoilers for the episodes discussed, both of which are Star Trek at its finest. If you haven’t seen them before, and have enough interest in Trek to be reading this, then I highly recommend that you watch them both.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Inner Light” (season 5, episode 25)
Teleplay by Morgan Gendel and Peter Allan Fields; Story by Morgan Gendel; directed by Peter Lauritson; first aired in 1992
The Enterprise encounters a mysterious probe, which zaps Captain Picard and knocks him unconscious. He appears to wake up on an alien world, where he’s greeted by Eline, who claims to be his wife, and who insists that his name is really Kamin. Exploring his surroundings in hopes of understanding what’s going on, Picard meets local leader Batai, who claims to be Kamin’s longtime friend, and who is declaring a tree in the village square to be a symbol of resilience in the face of a drought which is sweeping this world, Kataan. Meanwhile, we see Picard unconscious on the bridge of the Enterprise, his crew trying to figure out what’s happened to him. When we return to Kataan, years have passed, and while Picard hasn’t forgotten his life in Starfleet, he is gradually settling into Kamin’s life: learning to play Kamin’s beloved flute; taking part in local efforts to deal with the continuing drought; continuing his friendship with Batai; and, eventually, starting a family with Eline. As the Enterprise crew fails in its attempts to free Picard from the probe’s influence, we watch Picard live Kamin’s life into old age. His children are born, grow up, and have children of their own; first Batai, and then Eline, die of natural causes; and Kamin confirms his fears that the long drought is merely a symptom of Kataan’s impending doom. Indeed, on the Enterprise, Data determines that the probe originated in a system whose star went nova a thousand years ago. Finally, an elderly Kamin watches as a rocket is launched, and is told by his loved ones, including a back-from-the-dead Batai and Eline, that this rocket is the very probe he encountered so many years ago … or 25 minutes ago, he learns, as he regains consciousness on the bridge of the Enterprise. The probe carries the last remaining memories of life on Kataan, to be kept alive by Picard now that he has experienced them … and it also carries a familiar flute, which a grief-stricken Picard plays in his quarters as the episode ends.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Far Beyond the Stars” (season 6, episode 13)
Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler; story by Marc Scott Zicree; directed by Avery Brooks; first aired in 1998
Captain Sisko struggles with the news that an old friend has died in a skirmish with Dominion forces along the Cardassian border, and admits to his father Joe, visiting from Earth, that he’s questioning his own role in the war effort, and his place in Starfleet. He’s also seeing mysterious, out-of-place figures strolling the station, and during an examination by Dr. Bashir – the results of which are similar to those taken when he had a previous “vision” from the Wormhole-dwelling “Prophets” – Sisko suddenly finds himself in 1950s New York City, where he isn’t Ben Sisko but Benny Russell, an author on staff at the pulp sci-fi magazine Incredible Tales. We recognize the other authors, the residents of Benny’s African American neighborhood, and everyone else in his life as our regular cast of actors, out of makeup and playing new characters. Benny initially has no memory of life aboard Deep Space Nine, though a magazine illustration of a familiar-looking space station captures his imagination. After being harassed by racist cops and weirded out by a street preacher who speaks of “the Prophets,” Benny begins to write stories of Captain Ben Sisko aboard Deep Space Nine. His stories are initially rejected when he refuses to make the Sisko character white, but he takes another author’s suggestion and frames the stories as dreams, to make them more “believable” to white readers. Increasingly haunted by images from the stories he’s been writing, Benny is badly beaten by those same racist cops – who appear to us as Dominion baddies Dukat and Weyoun – and is beside himself when he learns that the new issue of Incredible Tales has been canceled, and he has been fired, because his main character is black, dream or no dream. Insisting that the future he imagined can’t be destroyed, Benny collapses, and is taken away in an ambulance … only to awaken in DS9’s infirmary, as Captain Ben Sisko once again. After his experiences as Benny, Sisko decides he’s still needed in Starfleet, and finds himself wondering if he might be the dream of Benny Russell after all.
Let me go out on a limb here, and say that stories are important.
It doesn’t always feel that way, these days especially. Some of us are gradually coming around to seeing what others have seen for a while, what they tried to tell us before we were ready: how daunting and serious a place our world can be. How much might go wrong in the future. How much has gone wrong already, whether in the distant past or just yesterday. It can feel like stories are the last thing we need, a frivolous luxury we can’t afford in such a serious world – or worse, a distraction, an anesthetic keeping us calmer than we should be. And yes, stories can be frivolous. They can be a distraction. But they can be other things, too, and some of those things are damned important. They can help us process and make sense of the world, even as it seems increasingly senseless. They can reassure us that we are not the only ones who see what we see in the world, and who feel the way we feel about it – something of real, vital importance to anyone who doesn’t feel entirely comfortable, or entirely safe, being who they are where they are. Stories can give us a common language, a way to talk about things we otherwise might not, with people we otherwise might not. And if nothing else, at the very least, stories can be, for us, what the community tree is for Kamin’s people in “The Inner Light”: an affirmation that beauty is always possible, whatever else happens; a beautiful middle finger, held up in defiance of the ugliness around us. A futile gesture? Maybe. Maybe not. Like any gesture, its power lies in who sees it, and in what they take it to mean.
“The Inner Light” and “Far Beyond the Stars” are among Star Trek’s most important stories. They are two of the most critically celebrated stories the Star Trek universe has told in its half-century-plus of existence, a pair of fan-favorite episodes that epitomize what The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were capable of at the height of their story-telling powers. “The Inner Light” is often pointed to as a showcase for the serious acting chops of Patrick Stewart, who struck a chord with diehard fans and mainstream audiences and critics alike, at a time when science fiction was still largely relegated to the fringes of pop culture; I think it’s fair to say that there would be no Picard series, nearly three decades later, without the depth, seriousness, and potential for growth invested in the character by Stewart’s performances in episodes like “The Inner Light.” “Far Beyond the Stars” isn’t as widely recognized, since Deep Space Nine never quite crossed that fandom-mainstream divide in the way that TNG miraculously did. But DS9 has aged as well as, if not better than, any other series of Trek, given its early embrace of the sort of serialized, character-driven, big-picture storytelling which has become a hallmark of contemporary prestige television. And to say that “Far Beyond the Stars” has aged well, in particular, would be an enormous understatement; its head-on handling of systemic racism (the real kind, not metaphorical space-racism) would be bold and courageous if it were first airing today, and I’ll be happily impressed if Picard or Discovery tell stories in 2020 that feel as timely as this episode, which was set in the 1950s and produced in 1998. It, too, serves as an excellent showcase for the acting and directing talents of DS9’s own lead, Avery Brooks, and while we sadly don’t seem to be getting a Sisko TV series, this and other significant Captain Sisko-centric episodes, like “The Visitor” and “In the Pale Moonlight,” are pretty consistently listed among the best and, again, most important episodes Star Trek has ever produced.
But “The Inner Light” and “Far Beyond the Stars” are also stories about stories, and about the importance of stories. Star Trek has, from its very beginning, made a strong argument that stories can be much more than just a pleasant distraction from reality. We see this in the lasting, meaningful connections fans have formed with the franchise and its characters over the years, certainly, but we also see it in many of the stories themselves. Sure, sometimes Star Trek just wants to shrink its characters down to a comical size, or kill off expendable alternate-universe versions of them. But it’s notable that both pilot episodes which were shot for The Original Series – the earliest arguments made, to network executives and viewers at home alike, for why they should watch the show – focused less on the action-adventure aspect of the series than on its roots in a metaphor-and-message-based tradition of sci-fi short stories and novels (roots which were also evident in the writing credits for later episodes of TOS, which included renowned sci-fi authors like Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison). I can see both “The Inner Light” and “Far Beyond the Stars” as metaphors, themselves, for that tradition of using other worlds to make statements about our own. But what these two episodes have to say about that tradition, and how they say it, tells us a lot in turn about The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the differences between the two series.
In “The Inner Light,” the story of Kamin and his loved ones, as lived by Captain Picard, serves as the last remaining record of Kataan and its civilization, destroyed when their sun went nova a thousand years earlier. And in a bold, unconventional move, that story, and Picard’s experience of it, is allowed to pretty much be the episode. Kamin’s life story isn’t a source of clues needed to solve some puzzle the Kataanians left behind, or to reach an understanding with some misunderstood or misguided antagonist; the puzzle of the probe’s origin solves itself as Kamin’s story unfolds, and aside from that probe, whatever antagonists there are in this story – the short-sighted Administrator from the Central Government, maybe, or, you know, Kataan’s sun – are a thousand years gone by the time the episode begins. Making the experience of living, and watching, Kamin’s life the main focus of the episode is something of a narrative departure for The Next Generation, but the way that story is told also makes clever use of some typical TNG tropes. A tendency towards simplistic, monolithic portrayals of whole alien cultures is something Star Trek is pretty commonly criticized for (though later, more serialized series like Deep Space Nine and Enterprise would make at least some progress on that front), and we’ve seen before that TNG often struggles to convey the scale and complexity of the worlds and communities it visits (with “The Ensigns of Command” serving as one of the more frustrating examples of this). But in “The Inner Light,” the small scale and lightly-sketched details of Kataan actually make perfect thematic sense. The memories contained in the probe are meant as a slice of simple, everyday life on Kataan, not a comprehensive overview of its culture. Kamin’s story is supposed to be a small, quiet one. That’s the point.
And like much of the rest of the series, “The Inner Light” is remarkable, from a contemporary TV viewer’s perspective, for just how quiet and calm it is, and for the way it builds so much of its character dynamics not on contrived conflict, but on straightforward conversations between mature, thoughtful people. With the possible exception of that aforementioned Administrator, the episode goes out of its way to make everyone in Kamin’s life seem like someone you’d enjoy spending time with (and I’d argue that this tone is set even before Picard begins living that life, by Riker’s touchingly gentle concern for his fainting captain – a brief moment, but a relatively rare one between two men on TV). This is achieved, in large part, by the absolutely top-notch acting of Patrick Stewart and the episode’s two main guest actors, Margot Rose as Eline and ubiquitous character actor Richard Riehle as Batai. There’s not much I could say about Stewart’s performance here that hasn’t already been said more eloquently by others, but suffice to say that his portrayal of Picard, as he gradually settles into Kamin’s life, is impressively reigned in and understated (even under some distractingly heavy-handed old-age makeup). In contrast with flashier performances like, say, his harrowing torture scenes in “Chain of Command, Part 2,” Stewart keeps Picard’s emotions largely beneath the surface at first, and slowly allows him to open up to the people in Kamin’s life, in a way that mirrors the viewer’s experience of becoming accustomed to these characters just in time for them to be tragically taken from first Kamin’s life, then Picard’s. And as for the people in his life, Rose and Riehle each do a masterful job of fully realizing those characters in such a short time, as they must if this story is to have its proper impact on us. It’s easy to imagine a version of this episode in which its supporting characters, in the hands of less capable writers and actors, could have been cardboard cut-outs, at best (Eline in particular, as the “surprise wife,” could very easily have ended up a sexist caricature). Instead, their characters are made to feel solidly real through simple but wonderful moments of touching, believable familiarity like this one, when Eline interrupts Batai’s visit with Kamin so she can have some time with her husband:
Batai: Yes, ma’am.
Eline: [smiling] Go home.
Batai: [smiling back] Yes, ma’am.
It can be easy, and fun, to get caught up in the world-building of Star Trek, the ever-expanding lore behind its future history and its alien civilizations. But Star Trek is, at its heart, about people, which I think is why “The Inner Light,” this quiet, contained character study, is so often held up as one of the franchise’s most successful pieces of storytelling. In-universe, the story of Kataan, and its people, isn’t just a piece of historical trivia, a mere curiosity from a thousand years ago; and to us, the viewers, that story isn’t important for what it adds to Trek lore. The people of Kataan still matter, even after being gone for a thousand years, simply because they were people. They matter because they made music and did science. They matter because they cared about their friends and family, and were cared about in return. They matter because they insisted on keeping their community tree alive and healthy, even as the sun that was supposed to nourish it was going nova. They matter because they lived their lives for as long as they lasted, and contributed love and beauty to their world for as long as they could. When we talk about what Star Trek is saying about the future, much of that talk tends to focus on Trek’s optimism that the future will be better than the present. I understand the appeal of that optimism, of course, but I’ll admit that it rings less true to me as time goes by. And while it would be a stretch to take Kataan’s environmental crisis as a metaphor for our own – the sun going nova is one of the increasingly few disasters I’m not worried will happen any time soon – I still find it deeply unnerving to watch Kataan’s doom unfold today, in 2020, as it becomes painfully clear that most of our own leaders are just as woefully, willfully incapable of addressing such crises as Kataan’s Central Government seems to be. But even if I find that element of the episode depressing, “The Inner Light” offers a message about the future that makes sense to me, and is hopeful in its own, restrained way: whatever happens, people, and their stories, will always matter.
“Far Beyond the Stars” agrees with that message, even if the story it builds around it is much bleaker, much more explicitly political, and much more firmly rooted in the history, and the present, of our own world. This is a direction Deep Space Nine had already shown itself willing to take, in eerily prescient and ever-topical episodes like “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost,” and particularly “Past Tense,” which had already gone where Star Trek had arguably never gone before, addressing inequality and systemic injustice not metaphorically, not through an allegorical alien society, but by looking directly at Earth itself. Yes, it’s the Earth of our fictional near-future (and of the characters’ past), but that fictionalized future is deeply rooted in our contemporary reality, and feels far too plausible for comfort. “Far Beyond the Stars” doubles down on that discomfort, tackling documented, real-world injustice in an often-idealized setting: 1950s New York. The Next Generation’s “The Big Goodbye” had previously used the holodeck to show its characters reveling in a romanticized take on 1940s America, uncritically blurring the lines between period fiction and actual history by bringing along the ship’s 20th-century historian as a guide to a program based on a pulp detective novel. In stark contrast, DS9 uses “Far Beyond the Stars” to deromanticize the 50s, from the specter of McCarthyism to a strain of racism and sexism both casual and deeply institutionalized.
In the process, DS9 uses the relative diversity of its cast (by the standards of most Star Trek series, at least) to portray an experience of being African American in 1950s America with a complexity which is impressive for a single hour-long episode, and with a no-nonsense frankness that still feels fresh in the context of today’s television, more than 20 years later. If “Far Beyond the Stars” were being made today, I’d be amazed if it didn’t go out of its way to sugar-coat the reality of real-world racism, by, say, adding at least one police character who wasn’t openly racist (and who wasn’t played by Marc Alaimo or Jeffrey Combs, easily recognizable to viewers for playing two of the series’ most heinous villains), or by allowing Pabst, the Incredible Tales editor (played perfectly by Rene Auberjonois, taking a break from his Odo makeup) to redeem himself and ultimately stick up for Avery Brooks’ Benny Russell, instead of selling him out for the sake of a systemically racist status quo. Call that an overly cynical assumption if you want to, and of course there’s the occasional counter-example, like HBO’s superlative Watchmen series (though that’s an outlier among TV shows, if ever there was one). But I’d point to Discovery’s 2019 episode “New Eden,” which walks back the bold secularism of TNG’s “Who Watches the Watchers,” 20 years later, with a much less provocative approach centered on the religious beliefs of individuals, rather than on the power of religions as institutions.
Where much of popular entertainment similarly prefers to avoid taking on institutions by limiting its portrayal of racism to individual characters – whose virulent, unambiguous racism can be thwarted by other, unambiguously non-racist individuals – “Far Beyond the Stars” acknowledges both individual and institutional racism. Yes, its aforementioned police characters are pretty 2-dimensionally bigoted (though if there’s anything the last few years should have made clear, it’s that 2-dimensional bigots aren’t nearly as rare, in the real world, as we might hope). But through the setting of the Incredible Tales offices, populated by sci-fi authors played wonderfully by series regulars Nana Visitor, Alexander Siddig, Armin Shimerman, and Colm Meaney, the episode also portrays a somewhat more complex status quo, in which publishing companies gladly make money off the work of writers of color like Brooks’ Benny and women like Visitor’s K.C. Hunter, while instructing them to “sleep late” on the day author photos are taken, and explicitly forbidding their stories from featuring protagonists of color. And while Benny’s fellow authors are sympathetic to his situation, the episode harbors no illusions about how much they can do, or are willing to do, to change that situation; while Shimerman’s Herbert Rossof, in particular, raises a stink with Pabst about Benny’s treatment, I don’t think it’s an accident that the first time we see him, he’s raising almost as much of a stink about stale donuts. However sincerely he, and the others, might be outraged about Benny’s treatment, it’s still just an issue to them, while it’s Benny’s life, his lived experience.
So, as “The Inner Light” does for Kamin and the people in his life, “Far Beyond the Stars” contends that those lived experiences of Benny’s are important, that they’re worth knowing about, whatever became of him, and however unfair it was. In “Far Beyond the Stars,” of course, that importance isn’t just philosophical, but historical as well, in a world where it can be all too easy (for some of us, at least) to imagine that past injustices are just water under the bridge – that their pain isn’t still felt, and that they don’t directly inform present and future injustices. But this episode goes further than “The Inner Light” in another way, as well, by arguing not just for the importance of Benny’s life, and of the lives of the episode’s other characters of color, played, again wonderfully, by familiar actors Penny Johnson Jerald, Cirroc Lofton, and Michael Dorn (Dorn, in particular, is great fun to watch, as he plays a character so radically different than what we’re used to from Worf, one of the most widely-recognized characters in all of Star Trek). It also argues for the importance of Benny’s fictional stories, the importance of his ability to imagine a better life, and a better world.
This message could sound trite and self-congratulatory if it were coming from a less emotionally intense episode of Star Trek, or from an episode which hadn’t already acknowledged the inequities of the very sci-fi publishing traditions which inspired this franchise in the first place; I find it impossible to hear the intentionally gender-nonspecific pen name “K.C. Hunter” without thinking immediately of hugely influential Original Series writer D.C. Fontana, and of all other women who’ve adopted similar pen names in the hopes that their writing might be judged on its merits, and not according to their gender. And I can see how the “it was all a dream” aspect of both “Far Beyond the Stars” and “The Inner Light” could lessen some viewers’ enjoyment of these episodes, as I, myself, often find it hard to take an episode seriously if I can’t be sure how much of what I saw on screen is meant to have actually happened, in-universe. But I think the message of “Far Beyond the Stars,” in particular, is actually strengthened by that ambiguity. However real Benny was or wasn’t, the injustices illustrated by his life still persist in our world, in spite of the progress that’s been made. And while Captain Sisko is inspired by Benny’s life story, just as we might be inspired by the stories Star Trek tells, he is, importantly, inspired to make his own world better by continuing to fight against the oppressive Dominion. Again, this isn’t the sort of utopian optimism we so often attribute to Trek. If the Federation is, in whatever sense, the better future imagined by Benny Russell, and by others like him, even that better future isn’t a perfect utopia devoid of injustice. It’s a world better equipped to fight injustice, but the outcome of that fight is still uncertain. There’s no bravado in Sisko’s decision to stay in Starfleet; he’s just as aware at the end of the episode as he was at its beginning of how difficult his future in Starfleet will be, and how much might have to be sacrificed (and it’s worth noting that DS9 is only a few episodes away, here, from “In the Pale Moonlight,” in which Sisko will make probably the most ethically controversial choice in all of Star Trek, for what he sees as the good of Starfleet and the supposedly utopian Federation).
Imagining a better world certainly doesn’t guarantee us one. Maybe it helps get us there, little by little, though even that is far from assured. Maybe it makes the world we’re in a little easier to live through, for ourselves and for others, if we share our imaginings, as Benny does (or at least tries to). But even if imagining fails to bring about what’s imagined, doesn’t it still have value? Isn’t our imagination more than just a tool, but a right? Like breathing, isn’t imagination both a basic necessity and, therefore, the ultimate act of defiance? The ultimate refusal to go away until dragged away? And doesn’t that defiance, like Batai’s community tree, have its own inherent value?
Julius: Try to stay calm, Benny.
Benny: No. I’m tired of being calm. Calm’s never gotten me a damn thing.
Pabst: I’m warning you, Benny, if you don’t stop this, I’m going to call the police.
Benny: You go ahead! Call them! Call anybody you want! They can’t do anything to me. Not anymore. And nor can any of you. I am a human being, damn it. You can deny me all you want, but you cannot deny Ben Sisko. He exists! That future, that space station, all those people. They exist, in here. In my mind. I created it. And every one of you know it. You read it. It’s here. You hear what I’m telling you? You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge! You cannot destroy an idea. That future, I created it, and it’s real. Don’t you understand? It is real! I created it and it’s real! It’s real!
Whew. This was a heavy one. Thanks for bearing with me! Next time, we’ll keep things a little lighter, as we get stuck in the turbolift with Deep Space Nine‘s “The Forsaken” and the Short Trek “Q&A”!