Cardassia was never great

blog-header“Duet,” the 18th episode of Deep Space Nine, is often talked about as one of the finest pieces of television ever produced on Star Trek. To be honest, I was only humoring my boyfriend until this episode by watching Deep Space Nine.  I remember looking at him and him looking at me and us staring at each other, speechless, before turning back to the television.

The plot begins simple enough: Major Kira Nerys of Bajor thinks she has nabbed a war criminal from the Cardassian Occupation of her planet. And then it quickly becomes so much more complicated, in ways the viewer is not expecting. The episode is about dealing with a convoluted and painful past on both a personal and patriotic level. What will it take for Cardassia to admit it’s wrongdoings during the occupation? How will admitting guilt help anyone?

I watched this episode for the first time just weeks after Donald Trump was confirmed as the Republican Party’s pick for the presidential race. What incredible timing. Cardassia, in the show, has this conquerer-complex, in that it feels it must establish itself as a power within the Alpha Quadrant by colonizing other star systems. In this case, that meant Bajor. It was expelled, but only after forty years of occupation that was by no means peaceful or easy for the Bajorans. The whole, “Make America Great Again” slogan felt suspiciously similar to the Cardassian ideal of “retaking” what was once theirs.

So much of what the phrase “Make America Great Again” embodies isn’t just economic prowess, it’s also a twisted-kind of political pride. “Duet” is about the isolation that xenophobia and nationalism not only enforces, but creates. Major Kira practically hungers for retribution from her war criminal, so much so that Major Jadzia Dax, her best friend, starts to worry about her.

Kira says, “As far as I’m concerned, if he was at Gallitep [ a labor camp ], he is guilty. They’re all guilty. His punishment will let Bajor feel some… satisfaction.” She directly addresses her planet’s need for reparations. The occupation ended some time ago, but it still rebuilding from more than forty years of suffering.

Dax, the eternal voice of morality and long-term-consequences, says, “It sounds like you’re trying too hard to believe what you’re saying. You already know, if you punish him without reason, it won’t mean anything. And you already know, vengeance… isn’t enough.”

The war criminal isn’t who he says he is. In fact, he’s just a lowly file clerk, who worked for the infamous war criminal. He has surgically altered himself specifically for the purpose of being arrested and convicted in a Bajoran court. He feels the guilt of his inaction during the occupation, and sees the Bajoran need for closure.

We see Kira grow and understand that reconciling the two planets isn’t as simple as killing off a few war criminals. Instead, she tells Marritza to go back to Cardassia and be a voice for Bajor there.

“Make America Great Again” to me seems like a message of nostalgia. It also seems oversimplified. In “Duet,” Kira and Marritza together realize that to make a difference and heal their own country’s scars they must acknowledge their wrongdoings and aspire to a new ideal. Both cultures, of Bajor’s anger and Cardassia’s refusal to admit fault, need to change in order for both move on.

This is a powerful message of not only forgiveness, but the kind of galvanization that can’t fit on the brim of a trucker cap. It’s not black and white, or a matter of pretending nothing ever happened. What needs to happen between the fictional places of Bajor and Cardassia is much more complicated than that. So I can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone that’s real, like us.

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It was All a Dream

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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.star trek ds9 sisko far beyond the stars benny russellstar trek ds9 sisko far beyond the stars benny russell

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.