Friday, March 23, 2012

One Of The Best Identity Issue Episodes In The Franchise, "Far Beyond The Stars" Holds Up!

The Good: The acting! Interesting characters, Good plot, Decent continuity set-up.
The Bad: Murky execution of a great theme
The Basics: Avery Brooks acts and directs in “Far Beyond The Stars,” an episode that forces Sisko to question his own existence!

Episodes of Star Trek (any of the series’ within the franchise) that attempt to mess with the viewer’s head about the nature of reality often run into a serious credibility issue. That is not to say that they cannot be done and done well; the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Frame Of Mind” (reviewed here!) ranks at the #2 episode of the series in my book. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tended to use altered reality episodes as an exploration of the character affected, like “Distant Voices” (reviewed here!) did with Doctor Bashir. But while it is hard for viewers to buy the premise that a main character within the franchise might discover their life is entirely unreal, it is much easier to accept that one of the characters is having an experience that warps their perceptions of reality and that that experience might ultimately destroy them. “Far Beyond The Stars” is the more pragmatic style of episode where the viewer understands that the alternate reality is not real, but that there might be dire consequences from the visions, regardless.

“Far Beyond The Stars” also, in true Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fashion, has consequences beyond the episode and is revisited later on in the series, which gives it a little more weight than the usual “bottle” episode, mess-with-the-head story. Directed by Avery Brooks, it is no surprise that “Far Beyond The Stars” focuses quite closely on Benjamin Sisko, though it affords the entire cast the chance to stretch their acting wings.

When Captain Sisko’s father makes the journey from Earth to visit his son and Jake, Captain Sisko begins to hallucinate. Seeing a man in a suit in Ops, his father, Kassidy and Jake become concerned about him. When Sisko collapses, though, he awakens in the 1950s. There, he is a science fiction writer and much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Cassie, he devotes an incredible amount of time to writing a story about a black captain of a space station in the distant future. When Dr. Bashir – back in reality – tries to stabilize Sisko, the Captain slips farther away from him.

In the 1950s, Benny Russell writes a masterpiece, which his editor, Douglas, refuses to publish on account of its black protagonist. While the other writers love it and Herb, the irritable socialist, fights Douglas over his lack of social conscience, Benny soldiers on. Unfortunately, he is unable to affect a neighborhood youth and the local racist police come down hard on Benny, threatening his life and Sisko’s!

“Far Beyond The Stars” succeeds largely because the episode does not insult the intelligence of the viewer. The viewer knows that Sisko is suffering from a medical issue and his mind is folding in on itself, even when Sisko does not know that. So, while Sisko may become fascinated by the idea of Benny Russell and question his own existence, the viewer never has to worry that the entire series is suddenly going to be revealed as a dream or a story told by someone else.

It is worth exploring up front, then, what does not work as well in “Far Beyond The Stars.” For a change, the story and script by Marc Scott Zicree, Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler is, of all things, too ambitious. It is rare that I complain about such things, but in the case of “Far Beyond The Stars,” the episode muddies itself by mixing too many absolutes (everything is an interethnic issue) with an issue that makes it impossible to speak in absolutes (mental illness). The result is that the execution of the episode works very strongly against its own themes. Allow me to explain.

Much of “Far Beyond The Stars” establishes a fundamental conflict of Man vs. Society. The writers at the magazine are disenfranchised and social outsiders. Benny is black, Kay is a woman, Albert is painfully shy, even Julius is an immigrant from Britain. So, Douglas is not keen to publish Benny’s story, when the staff photo is being taken, Benny and Kay are told not to come in for it. Even the baseball player, Willie Hawkins, notes that while he may be helping his team reach new highs, his teammates have nothing to do with him off the field. Amid this sharp contrast of skin color and ethnic conflict, Jimmy is a young hustler who has frequent run-ins with the local racist white cops. So, all that is fine.

“Far Beyond The Stars” clearly establishes a reasonable turf war upon which the fight for ethnic equality is to be fought. Awesome. Unfortunately, then Benny begins to go crazy. Yeah, the issue isn’t so much that Benny is black as it is that he soon begins to suffer from a crippling mental illness. Yelling, screaming and carrying on about how the story he wrote is real because he imagined it, Benny begins to suffer from a breakdown, which is exacerbated when Jimmy is shot by the cops. When told that his story won’t be published, Benny pretty much goes ape shit. Is it realistic? Sure. Does it help the cause of ethnic equality when the articulate leader of your movement degenerates into a slobbering, screaming, enraged person? No, it does not. This is why when Dr. King and Malcolm X were fighting for ethnic equality, they made sure their spokespeople were articulate and mentally balanced. It doesn’t help the cause when you are being represented by crazy. And it doesn’t help “Far Beyond The Stars.” As Benny erupts on Douglas, it is hard not to ask, “why the hell would Douglas ever hire a black person again when this is his experience with them?!” Are all black people crazy? Of course not, that would be a stupid reduction. But when your experience with any given group of people is so overwhelmingly negative as Douglas’s experience with Benny is, it does not make the struggle for equality any easier. In a story trying to illustrate the problems people living in pre-Civil Rights America faced, having Benny suffer from a nervous breakdown takes the themes out of the absolutes and into a problematically subjective place.

That aside, “Far Beyond The Stars” is fun and an impressive accomplishment for a television show. The aspect of fun has to do almost entirely with the break in the fourth wall. In “Far Beyond The Stars,” the entire cast appears without make-up. As a result, viewers who do not attend Star Trek conventions were treated to seeing Jeffrey Combs, Marc Alaimo, Aron Eisenberg, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Dorn, Armin Shimerman and J.G. Hertzler outside of their make-up! As each character is introduced, the viewer has a chance to have a little epiphany as they mentally compare what is essentially the actor outside their character. And spotting the differences in how the alternate-reality characters reflect on the established character is a lot of fun (like Armin Shimerman, who plays the fiercely capitalist Quark, playing the socialist Herbert).

Outside the novelty, the episode holds up because Avery Brooks does an amazing job as Sisko and Benny Russell. No longer constrained by the role of the reserved Benjamin Sisko, Brooks plays Benny Russell as more frequently free and happy. It is pleasant to watch and Brooks performs Russell well, making him seem like he could be a viable alternative, fully-actualized, character to Sisko! While the episode focuses on Brooks, the entire cast plays their alternate reality roles exceptionally well.

“Far Beyond The Stars” allows Captain Sisko to get a moment of mental teardown, from which he returns to life and the Dominion War effort with a new sense of purpose. That helps the seemingly incongruent episode fit in with the larger Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story, which makes it part of the essential Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Sixth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the penultimate season by clicking here!


See how this episode stacks up against others in the franchise by visiting my Star Trek Review Index Page where the episodes, films, and seasons are organized from best to worst with links back to each review!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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