From “Far Beyond the Stars” to “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow:” Where did we go wrong?

I’m going to start out by stating, in no uncertain terms, that I do not intend to definitively answer the question posed by the title. Partly that’s because it’s not about us per se, but Trek, and talking about what’s wrong with Trek is a good way to dig yourself into someone else’s hole. Partly it’s because I feel like it should be obvious what went wrong, and trying to explain that to someone who doesn’t think it was wrong at all is another case of banging one’s head against a wall. But mostly it’s because the episodes, taken together, explain the point exactly…if you’re listening.

And just to be clear, because there are new fans out there and not every old one binges at the same rate: SPOILERS. (For the episodes of DS9 and SNW in the title, and many things that lead up to them.)

We’ve been rewatching Deep Space Nine for a while now and just got to “Far Beyond the Stars.” I’d sort of remembered that it existed, but watching it for what was probably the first time was…a wallop. Several of the folks involved with DS9 have said at multiple points over the years that the episode hasn’t gotten any less relevant, and they’re absolutely right. Airing years after the similarly impactful I’ll Fly Away, it says out loud what the 1990’s had been working to unseal from the Get-Along-Gang legacy of the 1980s: that racism destroys by design and must be confronted to be pushed back. It’s rather clever that it does so through two lenses it’s hard to argue with: the better integrated and less overtly bigoted world of an airdate 40-odd years after the episode is set, and the more equitable future of Trek itself. Humans love to look back and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve progressed, even if we haven’t progressed very far at all. If we’d really improved enough to congratulate ourselves for, the mores of the past would be as unfamiliar to us as they are to Sisko reflecting on the world of Benny Russell. Instead, we find ourselves knowing what’s coming, because it would still come if Benny Russell were writing today, in the 2020s. Except today, Officers Weyoun and Dukat would’ve shot him. Some progress, that.

I could go on for a while about little things in the episode. The cleverness of having Armin Shimerman’s character be the leftist in this reality. The multiple layers of white monied gatekeeping and self-protection, that don’t care who else gets hurt as long as the black guy does. The laying bare of the depth of duty writers can feel for their creations (“You wrote six sequels to a story we can’t publish?” OUCH, that spotlight hurts my eyes) and the level of scorn we get for it. But the point, the big one, is that even if we don’t know who’s been dreaming of how far we can progress, having a dream to guide us is never bad. No matter who tells us we don’t get to dream that dream, they’re wrong. It’s real, Trek is here and it’s always been valid, even if real history doesn’t unfold in a way that can get us there.

That brings me to Strange New Worlds, and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” Apparently the timeline itself is as worn down as a certain Scottish king by this point in the play. So is the question of whether someone would go back in time to kill a certain German dictator, which the episode beautifully inverts. La’an has clearly thought about this with regard to her own ancestry; you can see her weighing possibilities in little Khan’s bedroom. She’s already come to terms with the self-sacrifice that would theoretically save millions, but now she knows it would doom a different subset of the galactic population. So she stays on the trolley, and her own sacrifice is her assured and continued existence, possibly the most heavily youth-aligned concept I’ve seen in Trek to date.

There’s more that the episode gets right. Letting Toronto be itself. Actually having the characters be more or less smart and discreet, rather than arguing about everything. I found myself loving that we see La’an, rather than Kirk, doing some wanting; it’s a sly reminder of the ship-spouse he is in text, and it’s more welcome for being shown in an episode that’s otherwise an exposé of the problems with making Trek in today’s world. And of course having the Vermont connection actually pay off, if in a semi-predictable way. (Though it’s awesome that Pelia’s advice on how to steal a starship doesn’t just come from knowing centuries of regulations and human behavior, but also from an extended lifetime of actually stealing shit.)

The problems of making Trek in today’s world…are many. I’m not talking about the impossibility of our timeline going Federation-ward, now that we’re more than caught up. I’m not even talking about the franchise roasting itself over revisiting the 20th and 21st centuries so much (at which I was like, jeez y’all, if you’re tired of doing the time plot you could just…y’know…not?). The real problem is that TOS moves forth from the idea that humans can substantially better ourselves, and in the decades since then we’ve seen wave after wave of global-scale evidence that while that may be theoretically true, it’s not happening. Trek has got darker as a result, because audiences are less likely to accept a brighter future for the real universe when the hope is seeping out of it like Dust. We still want more Trek, but we also want it to feel attainable, and so we add more and more hoops to be jumped through, and eventually even the Department of Temporal Investigations won’t be able to keep the whole obstacle course from collapsing under its own weight. Khan as a necessary evil stands in for a whole host of problems we’ve made for ourselves, that we had a better chance of solving in 1986. Except we have to make him necessary, because all the shit we’re actually going through sure didn’t have to be.

Did you catch it? Did you see where we lost the essence of Trek? I did.

It’s one thing to say we can pull together as humanity even in the face of tyranny and oppression and mass destruction. It’s entirely another to say that we will not pull together without it. And while the episode is clearly aiming for “we don’t have the Trek future IRL because we didn’t have Khan,” it misses, in part because we still get Kirk (and the Enterprise for godsake. Someone please point me to the comic that tackled the problem of “you were there, and you were there” in alternate universes, because I can’t fucking find it). I’m not a true believer in the power of story to effect mass changes of heart, not because story is frivolous bullshit but because people are harder to sway than that. But for a franchise like Trek, that has been blazing trails and depicting everyone’s right to follow them since the beginning, to align itself with the notion that we must accept a little fascism in order to reap the unparalleled benefits of overthrowing it…that’s fucking dangerous.

I know, I know, I’m overreacting: that’s of course not what it’s saying, or not what it meant; and in any case I just said people aren’t going to take it seriously. But I write this in an American election year that may very well be its last because people aren’t taking the threats of fascism seriously. Again. The last thing we need is to be told it’ll be okay once millions more of us have died and the rest have tasted the blood of our friends and neighbors, because we’ll have done it together. Ask Ukraine and Gaza how powerful they feel with all that unity through oppression. And yeah, I write about a society that self-destructs and rises up better, but the destruction was utilitarian, not…inspirational, a distinction that’s always on my mind. Evil is necessary sometimes, but we get to choose our evil and how it plays out.

It’s true that DS9 had more freedom in choosing its evil, and its goodness, than SNW will ever have. It’s true that the show drew on current events and ideals the way all Trek does, and made people think with the directness and perspective it employed. That isn’t an excuse for SNW to kludgily justify its own existence when it seems it would rather throw its hands in the air and say “what’s the use, we’re not getting here.” And I have to ask: what’s so bad about embracing the alternate timeline? The essence of Trek is the dream, the thing we’re reaching for, not the probability that we, ourselves, can reach it. Benny Russell knew he wouldn’t reach it himself, any more than the dude he inserted to be the dreamer. And that was just fine. But in the name of giving people what we think they’ll accept, we’ve gone from “write the words” and “the dreamer and the dream” to “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” Benny Russell doesn’t fucking matter anymore because dreams are stupid and so is having them. Normally I like self-deprecation in media but this isn’t just edgy, or bold, or a challenge to your darling hobgoblins: it’s an argument for Trek not to exist. In the series being most vehemently held up as “real Trek” by the angry side of the aisle, no less. Not that I should be surprised to hear it from the same demographics that would happily be those monied gatekeepers if they’d been nepo’d into the positions they’re mad don’t work that way anymore. (Hint: if you really want the Trek dream to be attainable, you’re gonna have to give up more than just that.)

You could take the optimist’s road here too, and say that no number of Romulan assassins is great enough to kill off the idea of human spacefaring. Just like Mr Stone the Incredible Tales editor could pulp whatever he wanted but would never touch the story itself. Most likely, even if he didn’t know it, he didn’t like Benny’s story being a dream because people he didn’t like might think they get to have that dream too. And there’s a lot I could say about the series without which SNW wouldn’t have launched, and people not wanting to share the Trek dream with people they don’t like. But that would come too close to answering the question I said I wasn’t going to answer. So instead I’ll say that a utopia that’s not for everyone isn’t a utopia, and while SNW is grappling mightily with that problem, I have yet to see an indication that they’ll be able to give us a direct answer either. And that’s disappointing.

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