the story: Sisko experiences the life of a struggling black science fiction writer.
what it's all about: The above description makes "Far Beyond the Stars" sound like Next Generation's "The Inner Light," and to a certain extent it is, but it's perhaps more akin to the classic "The City on the Edge of Forever." At any rate all three are about on par as far as transcendent Star Trek experiences go. For me, because of its direct commentary on a real scenario from the past, "Beyond the Stars" resonates further, an evolution of the two-part "Past Tense" from the third season, which postulated a near-future San Francisco with "sanctuary districts" for the poor. This is the only episode that addresses contemporary racial issues, which obviously haven't gotten much better than when it originally aired some twenty years ago. It was basically Sisko in a "black lives matter" scenario.
And yes, it gives us a chance to see the cast, and a selection of the familiar guest cast, without makeup or prosthetics, but that's almost beside the point. "Beyond the Stars" helps the sixth season compete with the third in terms of dynamic spotlights for Sisko. Along with "Waltz" it's one of his best dramatic turns of the whole series, regardless of whether or not race is considered. The moment where he breaks down is sometimes cited variously as Avery Brooks' best and worst acting of the series, but either way it epitomizes the scope of the episode and its ambition. Sisko was even more controlled emotionally than Picard (but far warmer than any Vulcan), so to see him lose control is fascinating, and it's completely justified.
The greater point of the episode, that the experiences he has as a 1950s pulp fiction writer, is actually tied into the Dominion War, and as such doesn't have to be viewed on one level alone, is also part of its brilliance, that it works beautifully on multiple levels, and as such reflects the complexity of the series itself. Now that the war has been going on for a while, Sisko begins to reflect on all the death mounting up around him, and this is before...
No, sorry, if you don't know what's coming up at the end of the season, I'm not going to spoil it.
Even if you want to view it as a neat trip to an earlier era, the pulp fiction era, before the problems really mount, that's fascinating, too, because that's the root of Star Trek, too, which is its own layer. As much trouble as Sisko gets into, you're reminded that women had it rough then, too, and you're all the more grateful that Deep Space Nine ushered in a new era for the franchise where strong women were in crucial command positions. Fans tend to forget that. If they give Voyager any credit at all, they acknowledge the obvious fact of a woman in the captain's chair. Kira got there first.
- franchise - Joins an elite and storied group of Star Trek episodes.
- series - Reflective of the Dominion War from a unique angle.
- character - One of Sisko's best episodes.
- essential - One of Avery Brooks' finest hours.