The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars” tells the story of a struggling black science fiction writer (Avery Brooks, who usually plays the captain of the titular space station). He sells stories to a local magazine with the caveat that his characters are always white. They have to be, in order to sell. Breaking his usual form, “Benny” (usually “Ben” on his space station) writes a story about a future in which a black man is in charge of a space station. This is, incidentally, is his actual “future” in the sense that he is actually writing the story of Deep Space Nine. However, the magazine won’t publish it because his main character occupies a position of power and isn’t white. Eventually the magazine changes the story to have been the day-dream of a shoe-shine boy, “Dreaming of a better life.”
“But this will gut the story,” another writer from the magazine says in protest.
“I think it makes it more poignant,” offers another.
“Benny, what do you think?” the editor asks. Benny assents to the change in the story.
The story is literally ripped off the presses, and the owner of the magazine fires Benny.
The episode ends with Captain Sisko, the one we’re used to- not Benny, waking up. The Prophets (long story) have been playing with his “neural transmitters” again and have been sending him visions this entire time. It was all just a dream.
Most people dislike the “it was all a dream” ending. There are good reasons for that dislike. It does delegitimize the entire experience the viewer just watched and it probably does take away from the meaningfulness of the story. However, I think in this case it offers up an interesting point of conversation. Does making Benny’s struggles into a dream invalidate the lessons we learned?
During the episode, I found myself thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM activists have often been criticized not for their goal of addressing police brutality but about their particular brand of protest. They are often associated with the less-than-peaceful demonstrations that rocked the cities of Boston, Charlotte, and the town of Ferguson. Critics say their protests grow too violent; their goals are too nebulous. Of course, this stems largely from the fact that BLM is a very large, segmented movement. There is no one “leader” and there is no one “set of rules.”
I’ve always felt there’s been this underling message of, “Go back to capital hill and make your difference there, like those before you did.” However, BLM activists maintain that this only just worked for their forefathers. They say the system is still broken.
Danielle Fuentes Morgan writes on Al Jazeera, “They are physical proof that respectability politics are invalid and that the system was never built with black people in mind.”
Coincidentally, a character named Jimmy from “Far Beyond the Stars” argues the same thing. He’s shot by police ten minutes later in the episode.
Benny protests his circumstances by writing a story about a strong black character. Other black characters in the episode try to dissuade him from doing so, arguing that white people will never publish a story about a black man. Instead, Benny’s girlfriend is trying to buy a diner and become a business owner. One of their friends is a major baseball player in the city. The unspoken mentality is, If we can keep our heads down and just take what they’ll give us one step at a time, we’ll get there eventually. The only opposing voice is Jimmy, who is portrayed as suspect and a thief. Jimmy’s character stands for the, They won’t give it over until we take it from them mentality, most like BLM. And we know how he ends up.
So which is the most effective way to make a difference in the world? Is it not a matter of attitude, but a matter of technique? The civil rights activists of the 1960s were considered revolutionary for merely sitting in a public place marked ‘Whites Only’. The BLM movement is decidedly less passive. I think few would say their cause is a useless one, but they are endlessly associated with the more negative effects of their protests. Does the pushback actually harm their cause, or does BLM need to be loud and proud to make a difference?
“Far Beyond the Stars” poses the question of valid protest through the trope of It Was All a Dream. Captain Ben Sisko takes his lessons learned in his visions seriously, but the audience is left to decide for themselves. Did the episode have a point if there are no actual consequences from story, because it was all a dream? But how far can we go to make a point, before the lessons learned become too preachy, or the methods used to get there too extreme?
Is it even possible to have protest that makes a difference when there are no consequences from a protest? Could sit-ins even work today in the 24-hour news-cycle that is our societal consciousness? That is, do we learning anything from “Far Beyond the Stars,” even though it was all a dream? I think it’s possible to. I also think it’s possible to disagree. I personally believe it’s impossible to have one uniform set of rules for protest throughout all of time. What worked for fictional aliens probably wouldn’t work for us.