the story: Sisko and Bashir must figure out how Gabriel Bell originally resolved the historic hostage crisis that helped end the oppressive Sanctuary Districts.
what it's all about: The second part of the story is obviously the resolution, but it also serves to emphasize the significance and impact of "Past Tense" as a whole. Technically, Gabriel Bell is a character we barely glimpsed last time. We spend this episode with Sisko posing as Gabriel Bell, and yet for any fan of the series, this becomes an iconic name. So does B.C., the guy who antagonizes him every step of the way, the guy who makes it so easy to believe all the assumptions that made the Sanctuary Districts possible. Which is to say, why it's so easy to believe stereotypes, believe whatever you want to believe, the worst of everything, without even needing someone like B.C. to confirm it for you. He becomes a convenient excuse. But there's Sisko/Gabriel Bell, fighting that idea tooth and nail, summoning all his great abilities, but mostly his humanity, to end the cycle of oppression we find it so easy to impose on ourselves. (I write this particular review days after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. The irony of this is not lost on me.)
If the first part of the story spelled everything out, the second part is about realizing that the first part wasn't kidding around. The desperation of the hostage crisis, which in and of itself is a fairly common trope in storytelling, is amplified by its context, not merely the desperation of an isolated individual or even criminals, but the fight for positive change. If this seems like wishful thinking, so be it. That's Star Trek in a nutshell, which always put forth the theory that the path to radical change involved radical events, such a third world war. Actually, in a lot of ways "Past Tense" might be viewed as a dramatic retelling of the classic episode "Mirror, Mirror," in which change comes about because someone finally took a moral stance on an immoral situation. That both happen to feature characters literally ripped away from their own realities and forced into nightmarish scenarios is merely a quirk of fate, like the rest of it.
But "Past Tense" may best be understood as the clearest statement of the third season on the nature of Sisko's leadership, of Sisko himself, who stakes a personal claim on the battles he wishes to win. In the later Dominion War it became personal because the enemy literally beat at his doorstep. Here he willingly internalizes someone else's struggle, regardless of the possible consequences to himself. That goes beyond the impulsive heroics of Kirk, the intellect Picard usually employed, the sheer willpower of Janeway, or fearlessness of Archer. This is not so say he was better than any of them, but this speaks to why Deep Space Nine came to mean something more to its fans, why it remains a cult within a cult. It has uncommon courage, both in storytelling and characterization. It wasn't afraid to make a stand.
- franchise - The social element, again.
- series - The characterization.
- character - Of Sisko, chiefly.
- essential - It's a classic.
Frank Military (B.C.)