Husband and I have been rewatching the archives of Deep Space Nine, and recently came upon a two-parter in season 3. We put off watching it for a while because we usually only have time for one episode per evening, and really like giving multi-part episodes their due respect by watching all of the parts at one sitting.
Also, we knew this one was kind of heavy and intense, and so not always the most pleasant thing for a weeknight after a stressful work day.
When we eventually did carve out time for Past Tense, it struck me far more profoundly than it has done in the past, and I've probably seen this episode at least four or five times. Past Tense is an extremely poignant commentary on social justice.
I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, given that Roddenberry's franchise was always designed in a sort of fable-ish way in that the show always imparted some kind of moral lesson about what is right. Granted, the original series (and nextgen to a certain extent) also had its issues with colonialism, an artificially happy-go-lucky crew and presentation, and a Humans Are Always The Best At Everything Evar kind of racist (speciesist?) undercurrent.
One of the things I've always liked about DS9, other than its story-arc focus over the more pure modular model of the past series, is its willingness to delve into darker issues and wrestle with them. Far from ignoring the problems in the current and 'future' universe, DS9 embraces the tension and really tries to figure out how the hell to deal. And the answers aren't always neat or clean or worked out to absolutely everyone's satisfaction because sometimes things just don't work out perfectly. I like that element of realism and courage.
Past Tense deals with a time-travel-inducing transporter accident (yeah, that's always a pretty thin plot device, but run with me here) that sends a few of the crew back in time to the 21st century. In this time, the United States (and perhaps more of the world, but all we see is San Francisco) is wrestling with some pretty major social problems, and really does not have its shit together at all. The homeless, unemployed, poor, and sick are all shoved into these 'sanctuary districts' to be forgotten about so that the privileged rich people don't have to think about them. Because of not having any identification, our heroes find themselves going through this system and winding up in a sanctuary district.
I'm not going to delve too deeply into the details of the plot, because that's not what's important right now.
What I want to talk about is the perspective the show chose to take.
So often, treatment of social issues in media takes on a Wisdom Handed Down From On High By A Benevolent Ruler kind of air. Someone with power and privilege sees some injustice, and says No! This injustice is bad. All you bad people over there stop doing it, and if you argue with me I'll make you obey with the use of my power because I am an important person. Now everything is solved forever!
Star Trek itself is bitten by this trope at times with the whole humans are super-moral and also pretty powerful politically thing, but. While it's a nice fantasy to think about how if all the people in power noticed, cared, and threw their weight behind social justice issues then shit would change (and it totally would, don't get me wrong), this is fundamentally not how things tend to work. Those with privilege are both insulated from the knowledge of anything being wrong, and invested in maintaining that privilege, and so Magical Benevolent Rulers who want to save the little people are actually the exception rather than the rule, and honestly even when they do exist it's usually in a patronizing and ineffective kind of way.
In this episode, our heroes are put in the position of experiencing a social justice problem from the receiving end. Our heroes, who are usually fairly powerful (senior crew in a powerful space navy), assumed to be competent, and treated with respect are suddenly having to deal with major injustice and bigotry in a way they can't escape. This is an important distinction. The Benevolent Ruler chooses to care and to do something, but could just as easily go on completely ignoring the issue. Those with the short end of the stick absolutely cannot help but notice and give a shit because it's their own asses that are on the line. Our heroes, here, don't get to be the morally superior Super Awesome Good Guys. They're just people in a shitty situation that they have no easy way out of (plus the added perspective of being from the future), and it's pretty awful.
I like that they did this. Sisko and Bashir had no emergency escape clause (it's complicated, but they had every reason to believe they were stranded in the past, possibly forever), and had to deal with shit they didn't ask for on its own terms.
This is something so many people have to deal with all the time. This is why many (not all!) feminists are female, many (not all!) anti-racism advocates are people of color, and many (not all!) fat acceptance activists have bodies society deems unacceptable. It's not because they're better people, or that these are special-interest topics, or that they're 'just' angry. Yes, they are affected by the issue, and it also affects society at large and brings everyone down. Yes, they're angry, and it's for a damn good reason. They have to deal with heaps of shit each and every day simply because of who they are. They can't help but notice that there's a problem here.
In this episode, there's a lot of time spent wandering around the sanctuary district while Bashir (who is generally almost comically naïve) questions Sisko (who studied history more) on what exactly is going on here and why the hell people let it get this bad. The perspective offered of people who are simultaneously outside the situation and know it gets better but also trapped in it is an interesting one, and I really enjoyed these conversations. My favorite line from the movie is a quote from Bashir, after he's gotten a handle on the situation:
"Causing people to suffer because you hate them... is terrible. But causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care... that's really hard to understand. "
This is why it's so damn important to care. Even when it seems like it won't help, like your opponents are too powerful, like your stubborn ounces just don't matter enough. A society that forgets how to care is an extremely sick one, and even though we still have problems that need working on, problems that at times seem insurmountable, caring matters. It matters.