The kind of storytelling Discovery is hanging its hat on, with flawed characters, multi-episode story-arcs, and a grittier outlook, was pioneered (for Star Trek at least) with Deep Space Nine. With Sisko at the helm, the series also introduced new concerns about race, family (Sisko was a widower and a loving father to his son, Jake), and what it means to be the representative of a far-away government on the (final) frontier. Looking back today, “Past Tense” still stands out for its surprisingly realistic, near-future vision of racism and economic injustice. And unlike the typically optimistic characters that occupy most of Star Trek, in “Past Tense” the people of 2024 are beaten down, exhausted, and weary of their world.
In science fiction, it’s common for the problems of the human condition to be addressed through allegory. Star Trek did this regularly. Throughout the series, aliens would stand in for different elements of an all-too-familiar debate about race, class, or gender. For example, the 1969 Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” tries to make a point about the absurdity of racism—via a ham-fisted story about an alien population that’s divided between individuals whose faces are half-white and half-black, and those who have the color scheme reversed. The allegory was obvious, but it elided the complexity of how racist societies operate.
“Past Tense” aired 26 years later, in the third season of Deep Space Nine. Combining a searing look at homelessness with an indictment of America’s refusal to tackle the crisis head-on, it was arguably the most straightforwardly political story Star Trek ever told. It dispensed with clumsy metaphors to examine public health and mental illness; it also confronted the effects of the country’s waning optimism following Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” a series of domestic programs meant to end poverty and inequality in the ’60s. The script was also written and produced only two years after the Los Angeles Riots, which clearly influenced the story. The episode could perhaps have dug even deeper into its critique of bigotry. Still, “Past Tense” was notable for depicting racism not from the perspective of a well-meaning white liberal, as seen in previous iterations of Star Trek, but through the eyes of people of color directly threatened by violence and indifference.
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Seeing the main characters thrust from the relative comforts of the 24th century into the despair of the 21st is jarring. Sisko and Bashir end up in a Sanctuary District, lacking the necessary identification cards to keep them from being rounded up by the local authorities. Dax, a member of the alien Trill species who looks like a young white woman, is lucky enough to be found by a wealthy member of the media who gives her new clothes and food, and makes her part of upper-crust San Francisco society. Bashir’s incredulousness at the plight of people in the Sanctuary Districts is meant to reflect the viewer’s outrage. “Why are these people in here? Are they criminals?” he asks Commander Sisko, who replies, “They’re just people without jobs or places to live.” The district’s inhabitants come from a variety of backgrounds, a reminder of how poverty cuts across race, gender, and age. What everyone there has in common—whether they are homeless, law enforcement, or an administrator—is anger at how the U.S. government has left them behind.