Star Trek, its tackling of racism and why 'Far Beyond The Stars' is still hugely important viewing today
Growing up and falling in love with Star Trek, in the 90s, I never quite understood the significance of Benjamin Sisko, the franchise's first black lead character and commander of Deep Space Nine. Not because I didn't think he was a character deserving of headlining Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but because I didn't understand why the colour of his skin mattered. He was a great character in what soon became my favourite Star Trek series. Perhaps, somewhat naively in my teenage years, I didn't think it was such a big deal. After all, Nichelle Nichols had led the way with Uhura in the 60s, the hot bead of racial debate. As a white male, I naively thought that the days when the likes of Martin Luther King needed to stand up for black rights was long passed. People were more accepting. It didn't matter if Sisko was black or white or any other ethnicity. Society had moved on and it wasn't the issue it once was.
Of course, the stark reality of today shows a very different story. It's heart-breaking that we need the statement Black Lives Matter to drive societal change. Right wing extremism, transphobia, racism - these are just some of the terrible things we are witnessing unfolding across the globe. Quite simply, we need to do better. As a white male with a solid job, mortgage, wife and two kids, I recognise the privilege I have in society. I absolutely believe in equality, in being good to one another, in acting with compassion, but I know as a white male that I have more to learn (everyone should read our article No more hiding - it's time for white people to take a real stand against racism).
But what has this to do with Star Trek - or entertainment in general? As much as it has sought to entertain, the franchise - like so much sci-fi - can be a lens through which we view our world, a lens by which we can see a world that we want to be part of. Star Trek in the 1960s not only offered an optimistic future of humanity, but it also wanted to push boundaries and show that race in particular didn't need to be a factor in how we viewed each other. While Gene Roddenberry might have lost the fight to have a woman as second in command after the creation of the original pilot The Cage, when it came to rebooting the series with William Shatner's Captain Kirk in command, he made an even more powerful change. Uhura was a black woman in a senior position; she might not have the same position as the original Number One (who is now only getting a revisit with Rebecca Romijn playing the role in the upcoming Star Trek: Strange New Worlds), but she had influence. Nichols was a title character, a woman, who also happened to be black in a time when Black Lives Matter was a huge part of cultural change in the US. Along with George Takei's Sulu and later Walter Koenig's Chekov, Uhura epitomised a world where humanity worked together, lived together and race and culture wasn't a divide between them.
It's interesting that when Nichols considered quitting Star Trek, it was Martin Luther King that convinced her to stay, recognising the symbol she represented. Like Sulu and Chekov, Uhura wasn't there to make an impassioned speech about racism and how it could be overcome; Roddenberry's vision was much subtler. All of humanity can exist in harmony; Star Trek portrayed that with simple effectiveness. The franchise's response to racism was to present a world where it might not exist. Certainly the show ventured into the topic of racism, as it did many cultural themes; the conflict between aliens Bele and Lokai in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is certainly an overt look at how racial hatred can cause so much damage. Plato's Step Children gave viewers the first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura; it was done in a way to show that they were under alien control, but it was a powerful image none the less. And kudos to Shatner; when network executives ordered director David Alexander to shoot a take where Kirk and Uhura did not kiss, Shatner crossed his eyes at the camera, making the take useless.
There were times when Star Trek stumbled; take the awful, racist Code of Honour from the early first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The cast have been vocal about their hatred for the story, with Jonathan Frakes referring to the episode as a "racist piece of shit" and attempting to ensure it was never aired again. Fortunately the franchise moved from that disaster, most significantly in second spin-off series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was certainly the most diverse, socially challenging of all the Star Trek shows. Not only did it cement Avery Brooks as the first black male lead, but it also delivered the most convincing portrayal of parenthood - single or otherwise - in the franchise, through his relationship with Jake (Cirroc Lofton). As well becoming the first commanding officer of a Star Trek series, Benjamin Sisko was also raising his son alone following the death of his wife Jennifer. Over the course of the seven seasons, Benjamin and Jake's connection was one of the most heartfelt, believable relationships on the entire franchise. Certainly, there was some uphill battles to overcome with Sisko; he's the only lead to start off as a commander, only rising to the rank of captain at the end of season three (and despite getting his own ship at the start of that season). It also took three years to convince executives to let Brooks shave his head and grow a goatee; a fear that audiences might not connect with him was certainly a problem in the 90s as the decades that preceded it. There's certainly a sense that Brooks feels more natural in the role of Sisko in the final four seasons, once he is able to act and look more like himself.
The show certainly wasn't afraid to push the boundaries of Star Trek. It led to a two-season war with the Dominion that saw the characters fighting for everything Gene Roddenberry's Federation stood for. It showed the corrupt underbelly of Starfleet in the creation of Section 31. It has a former terrorist for a first officer in Nana Vistor's phenomenal Kira Nerys. It allowed Odo to keep his severe, very non-Starfleet authoritarian approach to security or Quark to maintain his criminal enterprises, despite both being title characters. It also pushed against what was socially comfortable at the time. Sci-fi can present ideas that audiences might not be comfortable with on a regular medical drama or cop procedural. There's an argument that Jadzia Dax is a proto-transgender character, much like the female Doctor is now on Doctor Who. A former male friend and confidant of Sisko's, she joins the show now a female science officer. Terry Farrell has often spoken of fan's appreciation of her character, particularly the franchise's first same sex kiss in season four's Rejoined.
But like its 60s predecessor, one of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's most significant contributions to tackle social issues is the theme of racism. If you're wondering where I am going with this article, then allow me to present season six's Far Beyond the Stars, a powerful exploration of racism and bigotry and arguably an essential piece of viewing of anyone. As a teenager in the 90s, I viewed this with the understanding - or certainly an assumption - that times had moved on and what happens in that episode should never happen again. On my latest re-watch , it is a very different and sobering experience. If there's ever an argument that entertainment can educate, challenge and stir us out of complacency, it is this key episode.
Far Beyond the Stars sees Sisko transported back to 1950s New York thanks to a vision from the Prophets. Living the life of sci-fi writer Benny Russell, the episode sees him attempt to tell the story of Deep Space Nine and its black commanding officer Benjamin Sisko for a sci-fi magazine. Against extreme prejudice and hatred, his experiences sees his world torn apart; the fear that the public would stop reading if they ever found out Benny was a black man, eventually loosing his job for daring to speak out. It is the most Star Treky exploration of racism in the franchise's history, an attempt to explore a hopeful future where the colour of one's skin is not an issue, where humanity can live and work together.
Against the backdrop of 50's America, Far Beyond the Stars examines the subtle and overt realities of embedded racism. Michael Dorn's famous baseball player Willie Hawkins is still a second class citizen even with the fame and fortune he achieves. Benny must remain hidden for fear the public might find out who he really is. Police brutality against black people - perhaps the hotbed of the current issues in America - are reflected here in the cruel Jeffrey Coombs and Marc Alaimo's brutal police detectives, who search and seize Benny on a whim and shoot Cirroc Lofton's Jimmy dead with no consequence for their actions.
"They can't do anything to me! Not anymore! And nor can any of you? I'm a human being, dammit. You can deny me all you want. But you cannot deny Ben Sisko. He exists. That future. That space station. All those people. They exist. In here. In my mind. I created it. And everyone of you know it. You read it. It's here.
Do you care what I'm telling you? You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea! Don't you understand? That's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future! I created it! And its real! Don't you understand? It is real! I created it! And its real! It's real! Oh, God!"
Avery Brooks' performance is phenomenal, a raw, emotional breakdown of one man that has suffered subtle and overt racism his entire life. It's made all the more powerful by the fact that the episode is directed by Brooks too. This is clearly a work of passion, something deeply personal to Brooks and one that was always certain to resonate with audiences' worldwide. In light of current events, watching Benny's breakdown is a sobering, eye-opening reflection on the suffering so many continue to endure.
As a white man, I know that I won't experience this hatred and systemic abuse that Benny endures in Far Beyond the Stars, but I am also painfully aware that this is not a throwback to older times that the episode might have been perceived to be. The racism happening in Far Beyond the Stars is happening right now and if Star Trek can open up our eyes, show the reality of what racism really is - and a way to live beyond it - then it is doing its job.
Far Beyond the Stars is essential viewing for anyone, just like Doctor Who's Rosa or superhero show Black Lightning's exploration of police brutality and racism on society. Entertainment - and sci-fi in particular - is a window through which we can have our eyes opened and perhaps find a way understand what is happening and help support a way forward. It's the least we can do. It's the least I can do.