Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Past Tense, Part I   Rewatch 
November 4, 2015 6:47 AM - Season 3, Episode 11 - Subscribe

A transporter accident sends Sisko, Bashir, and Dax three centuries into Earth's dark past to 2024, where the United States has attempted to solve the problem of homelessness by erecting "Sanctuary Districts" -- makeshift ghettos for unemployed and / or mentally ill persons. They've arrived just days before a violent incident that will lead to a turning point in Earth's history. Now they must find a way to avoid disrupting the timeline and get back to the 24th century.

Rules of Acquisition
* #111: "Treat people in your debt like family... exploit them."
* #217 "You can't free a fish from water"

Trivia cribbed from here and here

* First episode of the series to feature Earth.

* Originally, Sisko was supposed to go back in time and end up homeless. His claims that he was actually from the future and was the commander of a space station were taken as insane ravings and he is eventually given thorazine.

* The 1971 Attica Prison riot served as a source of inspiration for the Bell Riots. It was caused primarily by inmates' ignored demands for more humane living conditions.

* On Behr's inspiration for the Sanctuary Districts: "I was down in Santa Monica one day, and there [were] all these homeless people there, and it was a beautiful day, the ocean, sky, sun, and homeless people everywhere. And all these tourists, and people up and about, and they were walking past these homeless people as if they were part of the scenery. It was like some artist had done some interesting rendition of juxtaposition between nature and urban decay right there in front of me. And the fact was that nobody seemed to care, at all. And I said, 'There has to be something about that, where does that go? How far do you take that?' And that evolved into the idea for concentration camps essentially for the homeless."

* As this episode was finishing production an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times describing a proposal by the mayor to create fenced-in "havens" for the city's homeless, to make downtown Los Angeles more desirable for business. The cast and crew were shocked that this was essentially the same scenario that "Past Tense" warned might happen in three decades, but was now being seriously proposed in the present.
- Alexander Siddig: "The episode was almost a cinematic version of that statement by the LA council."
- Behr: "...to put aside part of downtown Los Angeles as a haven, nice word, a haven for the homeless."
- Robert Wolfe: "That was what the Sanctuary Districts were, places where the homeless could just be so no-one had to see them, and literally there it was in the newspaper. We were a little freaked out."

* Bashir's rhetorical question to Sisko regarding whether the Federation would revert if faced with a real crisis, would be addressed in the fourth season episodes "Homefront" and "Paradise Lost".

* Behr said that this episode continues the investigation into the heart of Gene Roddenberry's universe which he began in "The Maquis, Part II." He points out that for society to reach the utopia envisioned by Roddenberry, it had to go through Hell first, and this episode is part of an examination of that Hell.

* Wolfe: "How did we get from where we are today to the Federation? Was it a nice easy smooth ride? Well we know it wasn't. Gene Roddenberry mentioned the Eugenics War and World War III and all sorts of bad things from here to there, so what was the spark, what was the thing that made people think, 'We've got to do better.' And that's what we tried to portray. The whole idea was that the Bell Riots were a formative thing in the history of the Federation because it was what made people feel really bad enough to try to make the Federation."

* Behr also states that there is a subtle examination of racism in this episode. When Dax is discovered, she is treated like royalty, but when Sisko and Bashir are found, they are treated like criminals. Of this situation, Behr says "the simple fact is that a beautiful white woman is always going to get much better treatment than two brown-skinned men."

* Colm Meaney: "I just thought it was a superb episode in that it captured the, you know, it dealt with the social issue and the social situation that we're familiar with today, but it kind of looked into the future and said if this continues, if this trend continues, what we could end up with, you know, the serious situation we could end up with. And I just thought it was a superb use of the idiom of the genre of science fiction, to take a contemporary situation that we're all kind of familiar with and aware of as a problem, and to just sort of let's see this as this develops a little bit into the future, and only that much into the future, thirty or forty years, whatever it was, and we don't do something about this, then we have it very serious, and the way the situation was portrayed with almost concentration camps and ghettos being cordoned off from the rest of society, it was very powerful."

* According to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, there are only seven minutes of music for this entire episode.

Quotes
Bashir: "If push comes to shove, if something disastrous happens to the Federation... if we are frightened enough, or desperate enough... how would we react?"
--
Bashir: "What is this place?"
Sisko: "A Sanctuary District."
Bashir: "21st century history is not one of my strong points. Too depressing."
Sisko: "It's been a hobby of mine. They made some ugly mistakes, but they also paved the way for a lot of the things we take now for granted."
Bashir: "I assume this is one of those mistakes."
Sisko: "A bad one. By the early 2020s, there was a place like this in every major city in the United States."
Bashir: "Why are these people in here? Are they criminals?"
Sisko: "No, people with criminal records weren't allowed in the Sanctuary Districts."
Bashir: "Then what did they do to deserve this?"
Sisko: "Nothing. They're just people without jobs or places to live."
Bashir: "So they get put in here?"
Sisko: "Welcome to the 21st century, doctor."
--
Bashir: "There are any number of effective treatments for schizophrenia, even in this day and age. They could cure that man now, today, if they gave a damn."
Sisko: "It's not that they don't give a damn, Doctor. It's that they've given up. The social problems they face seem too enormous to deal with."
Bashir: "That only makes things worse. Causing people to suffer because you hate them is terrible. But causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care... that's really hard to understand."
posted by zarq (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Regarding Rule of Acquisition #217 ("You can't free a fish from water")... in his book Small Gods, the late, great Terry Pratchett includes the following exchange between characters:
“Slave is an Ephebian word. In Om we have no word for slave,” said Vorbis.
“So I understand,” said the Tyrant. “I imagine that fish have no word for water.”
Small Gods was published in 1992. This episode aired on January 2, 1995.

Don't know if one inspired the other, but it wouldn't surprise me.
posted by zarq at 6:49 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


"21st century history is not one of my strong points. Too depressing."

I think about this a lot.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:50 AM on November 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


I love this two-parter for so many reasons, but one that immediately comes to mind is that this is one of those kinda rare instances where Trek aimed for a high concept (in both a tech sense and in a social-commentary sense) and slam-dunked it in the execution, both story-wise and setting-wise. Even the relatively good VOY two-parter with Ed Begley Jr. just ... felt too fakey and too goofy too often. Maybe this is a roundabout way of saying that "Past Tense" has aged really well.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:53 AM on November 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Bashir and Sisko accidentally getting Gabriel Bell killed is one of those great "oh shit" moments in time travel.

Of this situation, Behr says "the simple fact is that a beautiful white woman is always going to get much better treatment than two brown-skinned men."

I noticed this on rewatch and wasn't sure if it was intentional or not, and I'm delighted to see that it was. Star Trek did a great job with sort of really obvious commentary on racism, but it's nice to see more subtle commentary as well.

Maybe this is a roundabout way of saying that "Past Tense" has aged really well.

Yeah, when you look past the superficial (why is no one asking Dax why she isn't trying to find her friends on their mobile devices?), and get to the overall themes, it feels pretty topical.

I'm a little more cynical than the writers, because I think that the rioters getting their stories out would not result in immediate change. We'd get the media engaging in character assassination of Bell and the other rioters, and a whole lot of spin from the people in power.
posted by creepygirl at 8:40 AM on November 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


"How did we get from where we are today to the Federation? Was it a nice easy smooth ride? Well we know it wasn't. Gene Roddenberry mentioned the Eugenics War and World War III and all sorts of bad things from here to there, so what was the spark, what was the thing that made people think, 'We've got to do better.' And that's what we tried to portray. The whole idea was that the Bell Riots were a formative thing in the history of the Federation because it was what made people feel really bad enough to try to make the Federation."

I like that they had that idea, although there's still a lot of bad to get through before you get even to United Earth, let alone the Federation. Roddenberry was good at throwing in things showing how bad things used to be (such as the drug-snorting soldier in the trial scene in "Encounter at Farpoint") and, of course, plenty of testimonials about how good things became, but was pretty fuzzy on the path from Point B(ad) to Point A(wesome). There are also some comments regarding Sisko's knowledge of the era, and the original idea to have him hospitalized for thinking that he was really a space captain, that will show up as plot points in later episodes.

Other tidbits: Dick Miller is a character actor of very long standing who's been in a lot of things, particularly with Robert Picardo (as members of Joe Dante's troupe), and The Terminator, which significantly involves time travel and a near-future dystopia (he's the gun store owner). Also, just a coincidence, there's a good cartoonist named Gabrielle Bell.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:36 PM on November 4, 2015


I remember when this was new, thinking it was over-the-top preachy, like a bad episode of Quincy or something with the characters just speechifying endlessly. (And as a fan of shows like TOS and The Twilight Zone, I have a high tolerance for self-righteous speechifying!) Then I saw it in reruns and liked it about 1000% better. I don't know if it was trimmed for syndication and those two or three minutes made all the difference, or if my perspective was just different somehow, or what. But the difference was kind of amazing. It went from being one of my least favorite DS9 stories to one of my favorites.

Weird to think that according to the Trek timeline established in TNG, this episode is set just a year or two before the big nuclear holocaust that's supposed to nearly wipe out humanity and eventually usher in the new age of enlightenment. That would be yet another very good reason for our guys to be desperate to get the hell out of there.

It's funny, but I was living in LA when this was new and I think the homelessness situation here was just more... urgent, back then. I don't mean that things have gotten better, we still see homeless people all over the place. But I think widespread homelessness was still just new enough then (thanks, Reagan!) that even as we stepped over people in gutters we knew this was a terrible situation and we were swallowing a lot of sadness about it. The feeling was, "This problem is so huge... What can I, as one person, do to change things?" Now I think we're more numb to it. You notice homeless people mostly when they're crazy and you're afraid of them.

In a way, building special camps for the homeless is more compassionate than how it ended up. Now the cops just keep moving them along, moving them along. Wherever they go, they're not supposed to be there.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:00 PM on November 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


If push comes to shove, if something disastrous happens to the Federation... if we are frightened enough, or desperate enough... how would we react?


This should be the main theme of the new Star Trek series.



I did enjoy that Julian was really bad at being homeless, and how easily Jadzia was able to integrate herself into the 21st century tech elite.

Also, who would ever use a transporter?

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:44 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


This should be the main theme of the new Star Trek series.

Oh please, no. DS9 stopped short of grimdark, and that's about as grim and dark as Trek should go. Let some other franchise follow people as they scrape out a sorry existence and kill each other over dwindling resources.

how easily Jadzia was able to integrate herself into the 21st century tech elite.

Behr said it was a "fact" that a beautiful white woman would escape the camps and integrate into society more easily than two POC dudes, but this really could have gone either way for Dax. She was lucky to meet the rich guy and she had the looks and charm to make him want to help her, but if she'd met somebody else things could have easily gone much, much worse for a homeless, beautiful white woman. (Although Sisko says that people can't get into the camps if they have criminal records, so that does significantly lower the dangers she'd face there.)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:07 PM on November 4, 2015


I'm a little more cynical than the writers, because I think that the rioters getting their stories out would not result in immediate change. We'd get the media engaging in character assassination of Bell and the other rioters, and a whole lot of spin from the people in power.

Yeah, I had the same feeling. I didn't see it mentioned in the Memory Alpha link, but I wonder how the writers were influenced by the events of the 1992 L.A. riots. Not saying they weren't inspired by the Attica prison riot events, but, since this episode aired in 1995, it must have been in their minds somewhere.

(Although Sisko says that people can't get into the camps if they have criminal records, so that does significantly lower the dangers she'd face there.)

Why so? This episode has already shown that the Sanctuary system turns people into criminals even if they didn't go in that way. (If you mean the danger of sexual assault, it's not like there aren't plenty of rapists without criminal records.)
posted by oh yeah! at 8:55 PM on November 4, 2015


I didn't get Attica from it so much as Les Miserables, what with it being set largely in the streets (albeit streets that were turned into a sort of open-air prison) and the barricades and so forth. Les Mis, of course, will figure largely in the self-mythologizing of one of the DS9 characters later.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:47 PM on November 4, 2015


Why so?

Well, I said it would LOWER the dangers, not eliminate them. My thinking being that this was more like a refugee camp than a prison. This camp obviously isn't a safe place at all, but it's still better than being locked in with a bunch of confirmed criminals. Perhaps the distinction isn't really worth pointing out.

Thinking about this story in the context of the upcoming nuclear holocaust really takes the hope out of the ending. Even if the stories of the camp inmates did spread and start to make a difference, none of it matters really. In two years, the world goes boom anyhow.

Yeah, I'm sure the LA Riots were on the minds of the writers. Funny how the riots have kind of slipped out of the public consciousness. They seemed like a huge thing at the time, but these days you hear more about the OJ trial than Rodney King.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:42 PM on November 4, 2015


One of the other things that I was thinking about this morning (as I've been doing these rewatches, they've been prompting shower speculations, my version of Fridge Logic) was more about Jadzia's role in this, and the people that she meets. The point about her not being hassled by the Sanctuary guards because she isn't brown is mitigated by her not being physically in the same place as Sisko and Bashir when she beams in (this is never really explained), and she also seems to adapt a lot more quickly to the reality of her situation, which is a subtle and clever reference to her having the experience of several lifetimes to draw on. (I doubt that she has direct experience of early 21st century Earth; the Dax symbiont was born in 2018--three years from now!--but its first host was Lela, and they joined in 2168.) But it's still something how quickly she's accepted by dot-com magnate Chris Brynner and his party pals.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:17 AM on November 5, 2015


The Most Political Star Trek Episode
The creators of “Past Tense” confronted the story’s real-world analogues as they filmed it. Ira Steven Behr, one of the episode’s writers, recalled reading a Los Angeles Times report on then-Mayor Richard Riordan’s push to have the city’s homeless moved to enclosed spaces, both for their sake and for the benefit of local businesses. Behr also acknowledged the episode’s implicit racial commentary, noting for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion book that Sisko and Bashir—being people of color—were treated more harshly than Dax. He also recoiled from criticism that the two-parter was too one-sided in its portrayal of a country dealing with homelessness, telling Star Trek Monthly magazine in 1996 that, “People are still even writing that we only presented ‘one side’ in ‘Past Tense’ and that we should have presented ‘both sides’ and not just the ‘liberal’ point of view—and I’m still trying to think what that means.”
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:30 AM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


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