“Star Trek” is a sci-fi universe with a positive outlook on Earth’s future. The United Federation of Planets uses its Starfleet armada of spaceships for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. Many of the storylines are allegories of contemporary culture. I will repeat what I said yesterday: from the very beginning, Star Trek has held a firm belief represented by the symbol representing IDIC: infinite diversity in infinite combinations. I agree with the idea that Star Trek can teach us so much about what humanity can become. However, Star Trek often had to deal with the problems of the past to create this future Star Trek universe. As was well-established in the Star Trek universe originally envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, society had to go through Hell before reaching a state of utopia, and the episode “Past Tense” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is part of an examination of that Hell.
“Past Tense” shows what the United States was like in the 2020s through the lens of the 1990s. The year is 2024. Sisko, Bashir, and Dax find themselves trapped 300 years in the past confronting one of the darkest hours in Earth’s history. The time period is best explained by Sisko who teaches Bashir about 21st century history and the Sanctuary Districts:
Sisko: 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 comments to Sisko, “21st century history isn’t one of my strong points. Too depressing.” Bashir would definitely be horrified at the way the United States government and other governments around the world have dealt with COVID-19. But back to the episode, the conditions of the Sanctuary Districts lead to an event known in the Star Trek universe as the Bell Riots. As Sisko explains to Bashir, “The Sanctuary residents will take over the District. Some of the guards will be taken hostage. The government will send in troops to restore order. Hundreds of Sanctuary residents will be killed.” The dialog between Sisko and Bashir continues:
Sisko: I sympathize, Doctor, but if it will make you feel any better, the Riots will be one of the watershed events of the 21st century. Gabriel Bell will see to that.
Sisko: The man they named the Riots after. He is one of the Sanctuary residents who will be guarding the hostages. The government troops will storm this place based on rumors that the hostages have been killed. It turns out that the hostages were never harmed, because of Gabriel Bell. In the end, Bell sacrifices his own life to save them. He’ll become a national hero. Outrage over his death, and the death of other residents, will change public opinion about the Sanctuaries. They’ll be torn down and the United States will finally begin correcting the social problems it has struggled with for over a hundred years.
The riots over the death of George Floyd and others killed by police may be the start of a change in American history like the Bell Riots were in 2024. We can only hope. In 1995, when this episode aired, who would have predicted that only a few years before the fictional Bell Riots, the United States would see nationwide protests on racial injustice?
Ira Steven Behr, executive producer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and one of the story creators for “Past Tense,” was inspired to come up with the idea for the Sanctuary Districts through his real-life experience in the early 1990s. In an interview for a Season 3 DVD special feature about “Past Tense,” Behr said:
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.
Behr also stated there is a subtle examination of racism in this episode. When Dax is discovered, she is treated like royalty and taken in by a wealthy San Francisco businessman, but when Sisko and Bashir are found, they are treated like criminals. Of this situation, Behr said, “The simple fact is, a beautiful white woman is always going to get much better treatment than two brown-skinned men.” We see the contrast between the life of the wealthy San Franciscans Dax meets, and the discarded people of the Sanctuary Districts whom Sisko and Bashir encounter.
At the end of the second part of “Past Tense,” Bashir asks Sisko, “You know, Commander, having seen a little of the 21st century, there is one thing I don’t understand: how could they have let things get so bad?” Sisko replies, “That’s a good question. I wish I had an answer.” And, it is a good question. We may not have Sanctuary Districts, but we still have massive inequality. There are serious problems in the United States which our current president has made worse. Trump has highlighted inequalities and injustices in the U.S., at least for some of us. Alternatively, Trump supporters relish the inequalities, because for them, it means someone is less fortunate than they are. It’s the same reason that poor white men who owned no slaves fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. As long as there were slaves, they weren’t the lowest social class. It was a similar situation in the Civil Rights Movement. Poor whites favored discrimination and segregation because it put them above black people. The same is true today with Trump’s followers—many of whom would rather suffer from the damage done by Trump to the nation’s economy, healthcare status, and many other issues rather than to allow equality in America.
When the episode aired, it received some criticism for being too preachy, liberal, and “soapbox like” something which disappointed Behr, who felt the show had important things to say, and treated a serious situation in a realistic manner; “We’re not going to solve anything with two hours of TV. The homeless are still there. The problem hasn’t gone away. But maybe just one person saw this and started to see the problem in a different way.” The real 2020s may not have Sanctuary Districts, but there are segregated sections to every city; whether they segregate the rich from the poor or blacks from whites or whatever the dividing line is, we still live in a society segregated by race, income status, and a host of other perceived differences. We continue to have homeless and displaced persons. We need to do better.
I will say this though, through most of the Star Trek universe, LGBTQ+ issues were rarely, and never directly, dealt with. Yes, Commander Riker of The Next Generation did fall in love with a nonbinary individual, and Jadzia Dax did have a same-sex kiss, and there were a few other instances, but none dealt with LGBTQ+ individuals. When Voyager and Enterprise premiered, rumors circulated there would be an LGBTQ+ individual on the crew of those ships; it never materialized. It wasn’t until Discovery that we see fully-fledged LGBTQ+ individuals in the marriage of Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber, plus the character of Jett Reno. I also recognize in Star Trek Beyond Sulu is seen, ever so briefly, in a same-sex relationship which was done as a homage to George Takei, the original Sulu. The Star Trek universe is becoming more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s been a long time coming.