In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 6 episode “Far Beyond the Stars”, Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is at a precipice—the Federation is in the midst of a war that has no end in sight, and worse, people he was close to keep dying. Sisko doesn’t see the point of his work anymore, but just when he begins losing faith in his job as a Starfleet captain, Sisko finds himself transported into a vision where he is a Black science-fiction writer in the 1950s. And thus begins one of Star Trek’s most poignant, and meta takes on race and inequality in America.
What Is Far Beyond the Stars About?
“Far Beyond the Stars” is a heart-rending story of a Black man whose dreams of publishing a story with a Black lead are constantly quashed. In the vision, Sisko is Benny Russell, and his colleagues and friends from Deep Space Nine transform into characters in Benny’s life. Benny works at Incredible Tales, a science-fiction publication owned by the unseen Mr. Stone, and edited by Douglas Pabst (René Auberjonois). It’s obvious from the early moments of the vision that the world Benny inhabits is unequal, not just for him, but for others as well. In our first introduction to the Incredible Tales editorial room, Julius Eaton (played by Sudan-born British actor Alexander Siddig) is shocked to learn his white colleague Herbert Rossoff (Armin Shimerman) is earning four cents a word for his stories.
Later, Pabst mentions that magazine readers want to know what the writers look like and hence they’ll be taking photos of them. And then he immediately turns to Kay Eaton (Nana Visitor) and tells her to stay home the day of the photo shoot. Kay is a female writer who writes under the ambiguous moniker K.C. Hunter to hide her identity—this is a direct reference to Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana, who had to do the same, but also a reminder of how far the franchise has come. Kay is rightly incensed, but then Benny asks if he should stay home as well. It’s interesting that Pabst doesn’t even think to make the request of Benny; it’s almost as though Benny’s absence is a given, and he doesn’t deserve such courtesy.
The Racial Discrimination Doesn’t End at Incredible Tales
A running theme of the episode is Willie Hawkins’ (Michael Dorn) exploits on the baseball diamond. He’s clearly doing better for himself than Benny if his sharp suits are anything to go by. But despite being a renowned baseball player, when Benny’s girlfriend Cassie (Penny Johnson Jerald) asks why Willie hasn’t moved out of Uptown, Willie explains that he’ll never be accepted in the city, or treated like an equal. In Uptown people look at him with pride, that is unfortunately not the case elsewhere. Racism permeates every echelon of society, as Willie’s story demonstrates.
The microaggressions that Benny faces at work are only compounded by the political situation outside. Benny lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood Uptown. The residents are plagued by police who are blatantly discriminatory. Benny encounters two particularly vile cops, Officer Mulkahey (Jeffrey Combs) and Officer Ryan (Marc Alaimo), who accuse Benny of stealing a sketch that belongs to him and even threaten to arrest him. For what? Instances of excessive policing, threats, and violence are daily news in the US. “Far Beyond the Stars” came out in 1998, and yet it feels like a reflection of today. The trigger-happy cops eventually shoot Benny’s friend Jimmy (Cirroc Lofton), a hustler who may (or most likely may not) have been breaking into a car. But instead of simply arresting Jimmy, the cops shoot him dead, and when Benny intervenes, they beat him almost to death. Benny ends up recuperating at home for weeks and appears to have life-altering injuries, simply because he came between two officers and their bigotry.
Benny’s Life Is Shockingly Familiar
Benny’s life is shockingly similar to our present-day—being underpaid and underappreciated due to the color of his skin, dealing with police harassment, losing friends, and almost his own life, to police violence. But the theme of the episode isn’t simply a showcase of racism. No, Star Trek has always been about holding a mirror to the world as it was and projecting hope into the future. The episode is ultimately about a dream, and whose dreams are allowed to come true.
Benny is a writer and when struck with inspiration, he writes his sci-fi truth, about Deep Space Nine, a story set in the future with a Black captain. His colleagues are enwrapped, but Pabst is unmoved. He likes the story but doesn’t think it’s believable because the hero is Black. People from Mars are believable, but a Black captain? The memes write themselves.
As editor and the man who has to answer to the higher-ups, Pabst is overly cautious—he’s a gatekeeper curating what the audience will enjoy without giving them a choice. Since Pabst believes the Deep Space Nine story could be incendiary, the Incredible Tales team comes together to suggest alternatives, until finally concluding that Benny turn it into a dream. Even Pabst is convinced by the change and promises to pay Benny for the story. But, in the end, the issue with Benny’s story is ‘pulped’ by Mr. Stone and Benny is fired. For 15 years, Benny has been trying to get his big break in writing, and just when he thinks he’s made a difference, the powers-that-be destroy his dreams. Interestingly, Albert Macklin (Colm Meaney), Benny’s other white colleague, sells his book to a publisher while Benny is recovering from his injuries, though his stories haven’t been as resoundingly well-received as Benny’s.
News of the pulping is shocking to the editorial team but coupled with his firing, Benny is driven to speak his mind openly. Benny’s impassioned speech, delivered with such emotion and raw pain by Avery Brooks, is heartbreaking. He is a human being who deserves to have an equal chance to tell a story, to share an idea, or to dream. He pleads for Pabst, Mr. Stone, and the viewer to see a future where Black people are leading characters in stories; where they can simply exist. Watching “Far Beyond the Stars” feels particularly prescient of current discourse surrounding genre properties. In light of the reactions to any diversity in media, be it Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid or Black actors playing Elves in Rings of Power, an episode like this demonstrates how dehumanizing it can be for entire communities to be erased from entertainment, and how this impacts the way those communities are treated in their workplace and in the world.
Of all the characters in the 1950s timeline, Jimmy is the most cynical. He constantly mocks Benny’s science-fiction writing because he doesn’t believe that there will ever be a future where Black people will be ‘on the moon;’ that is, not unless white folks need someone to ‘shine their shoes.’ Despite being a young man, Jimmy can’t imagine such a world because he has no context to dream big—he doesn’t have stories and entertainment that show him he too belongs in space. And that’s the fight that Benny, and all creators of color, are constantly fighting for.
The Episode Shows Us How Power Dynamics Can Affect the Entertainment We Consume
Benny’s colleagues are supportive of him, and Herbert goes out of his way to antagonize Pabst for toeing the company line. But all that support comes to naught if the decision-makers are bigoted. Benny dared to dream, and he was punished for it. But his struggles teach Sisko a valuable lesson to persevere in his dreams.
“Far Beyond the Stars” mirrors the strides that Star Trek made (and continues to make) to cast actors of color in the franchise. Star Trek was a game-changer in popular media, there’s no denying that. Nichelle Nichols’ appearance in the original series as Lt. Nyota Uhura inspired an entire community to dream. The franchise isn’t perfect, but it continues to evolve by making more people of color and the LGBTQ+ community a visible part of the shows, be it on-screen or behind the scenes.
At a time when New Trek, Star Wars, superhero stories, and The Little Mermaid are constantly under attack for being too ‘woke’ simply for having a representative cast, “Far Beyond the Stars” is a powerful reminder about what genre fiction has always been—ideas and hopes for the future. Despite attempts to review bomb properties and vile Twitter threats, as Benny Russell says, ‘you cannot destroy an idea.’