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Past Tense, Part I

WARNING: This article contains large amounts of spoiler information for DS9's "Past Tense, Part I". If your travel plans do not include receiving such information, please disembark at the rear of the cabin.

In brief: 'Sokay? 'Salright. 'Svery all right.

Quick summary: Due to a transporter accident, Sisko, Bashir and Dax find themselves in early 21st-century San Francisco at the cusp of a pivotal moment in Earth (and thus Federation) history.

Although I'm still a bit frustrated by how vigorously DS9 is avoiding virtually all the political wrangling that was the heart and soul of the show last year, I have to admit that "Past Tense, Part I" was terrific. Yes, there are certainly nitpicks that come to mind, some of which taste a little sour on a second viewing -- but nothing of such earth-shattering consequence to overshadow a cautionary tale that was rather gripping ... and all too plausible.

This is definitely the single most direct commentary on the times _as a commentary on the times_ I think I've seen in Trek history. Although Trek is no stranger to pointed morality plays in any era ("Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" comes rather strongly to mind in TOS as one example, and TNG had "Symbiosis" and "The Outcast" among many others), they've generally been done allegorically. Not so with "Past Tense": by setting itself a scant three decades from now, it's "telling" us something about our current situation very bluntly.

I'm not sure if that's a style I'd want to see on Trek routinely, but in this case it worked extremely well for me. In particular, even though we basically had Bashir spelling out the moral for us with his line "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," it worked for me. Perhaps that's because I believe very firmly that his point is well taken; our society is getting meaner by the day, but more through inertia than anything else, since that seems to be "the way to go" right now. Perhaps not.

In any case, though, the depiction of San Francisco circa 2024 was a frighteningly plausible one. While some of the external trappings of society have changed -- "Interface" accounts, terminals everywhere, and the fact that the U.S. had finally gone metric :-), for instance -- many of them had not, and none of the _personal_ things had changed. The Sanctuary districts, while ostensibly a refuge for people with nowhere else to turn, is clearly a way to let everyone else forget about the homeless and the destitute -- and is that really all that different from walking quickly by a homeless person on the street to avoid having them ask you for something? Only in its scope and in the lengths the public as a whole is willing to go to to make it happen, I'd claim -- and, if you'll forgive me for dwelling on current events, the passage of California's Proposition 187 last year and the fashionable talk of orphanages really "being the best thing for the children" suggests that justification for a Sanctuary program wouldn't be completely impossible to come by now. As such, this show resonated for me quite a bit.

Back to the 24th century and the plot for the show. :-) This, perhaps not surprisingly, is where the nitpicks can come in. Two that come to mind immediately are the following:

First ... if the entire senior staff has come to Earth to update Starfleet on the Gamma Quadrant situation, who is running the station? Quark? Jake? Rom? Morn? Garak? (Granted, some of those could be fun...) What's more, Sisko left the station undermanned by senior officers, _and_ went and took the Defiant with him. Were I a Dominion strategist, I'd be likely to think now was a mighty good time to cruise on in and take over the station and Bajor, and it would have been nice to have heard some sort of reference to precautions being taken.

Second, not at all surprisingly, is the Technobabble Monster [tm], which was in full force. Granted, nothing O'Brien said was totally absurd, but it was definitely a case of "okay, Miles, we get the POINT already!" It's not like time travel has any scientific validity ("as yet", he said to hedge his bets in case Kip Thorne and cohorts come up with something strange in the next decade or two :-) ), so this doesn't need to get "justified" in a plausibility sense, certainly not any more so than justifying other plot points would be necessary. It felt a little extraneous, that's all.

The main historical "jeopardy" plot was not a gigantic surprise -- in fact, Lisa pegged the way the story was going to go as soon as the explanation of the Bell Riots was made. "They'll somehow end up contributing to Bell's death, and Sisko will end up becoming Bell," she posed as one serious possibility. However, I don't see this as a problem, particularly since it was only apparent because the show reminded her of other, similar good stories she'd read or seen (a JFK-centered "New Twilight Zone" from a few years back being the most prominent of the lot). Done badly, this idea could have looked distressingly hokey -- but done right, it's still compelling, and as far as I'm concerned it _was_ done right. (The death of Bell in particular was extremely well staged.)

In terms of characterization, I've no complaints. The three regulars stranded in the past were particularly good; Sisko's brooding and interest in a "too depressing" period of history seem very realistic for him, as does Bashir's UNwillingness to think about this particular part of Earth history and his youthful outrage. As for Dax ... well, it's hard to believe that this sharp, quick-witted and forceful character here is the same one we saw "counting the spots" of her love-of-the-week back in "Meridian" and slithering over Sisko in "Fascination" -- thank heavens. Almost from the instant Dax woke, she was the smartest of the three in her behavior, ready to fit in at a moment's notice until she could figure out what was going on and where her friends were. This is the best treatment Dax has had all year -- praise to those concerned.

The 21st-century characters, for the most part, were somewhat less defined, but were still good foils for the regulars to play off of. The riot's leader, "B.C." (at least, I *think* that's his name, based on the press release) proved a slight surprise at the end, at least if he's serious about making an actual "political statement" with his assault -- given that his portrayal for the rest of the episode was mostly that of Strutting Thug [tm], if he really has a deeper motive I'll be pleasantly surprised. As for the rest of the Sanctuary personnel -- the cops, the social worker, the concerned father -- they're not much defined beyond their identifications above, but neither do they need to be all *that* much. The show isn't about them, it's about Sisko and company lost in time, and as long as you can show the contrast, you're fine.

One exception to that, to some extent, is Chris Brynner, Dax's rescuer and financial successor to Bill Gates. :-) Although he's generally meant to be a sympathetic character, it's not clear whether he's going to completely remain so, or how aware he is of the real problems his time is facing. Certainly, the fact that he never even *thought* of Sisko and Bashir being in a Sanctuary district is a telling point; since, as I said, the Sanctuaries seem to be there so that "problems" can be forgotten, it's no surprise that he's managed to put them out of his mind very successfully. Of all the characters I saw in the 21st century, he's the one whose future I'm most interested in seeing.

Speaking of futures, there's also the 24th-century side of things to consider, though not much. The main function Kira, O'Brien and Odo served was to let us know exactly what was going on on a "technical" level and to see the impact Sisko's actions were having on the future. About the only real action they took was in planning to send search parties back to look for them -- and to be honest, I'm with Starfleet there. Given the circumstances, it *is* too risky; or rather, it *was* until Starfleet up and vanished. Given that occurrence, I imagine we'll see O'Brien and Kira go back themselves next week.

That's about it for the major points. A few minor ones, then:

-- When Sisko and Bashir were being given instructions on the forms, it quickly became obvious to me just _which_ organization's bureaucracy was moved over. That room was clearly a 21st-century DMV. :-)

-- I liked the reference to "Starfleet temporal displacement policy". Given the number of times we've seen people splashing around in the timestreams, it's both amusing and very sensible to see that the Fleet has tried to standardize the way it deals with such situations.

-- A temporal issue: why was there a delay in 24th-century time between Sisko et al. vanishing and the future altering? I mean, I know the *dramatic* reasoning for it -- but in any other Trek situation like this I can think of ("Yesterday's Enterprise" and "City on the Edge of Forever", for instance), the future changed _immediately_ as soon as a party went back. Why not here?

That's about it. To sum up, then:

Plot: Not the most original of ideas, but so what? A good time-travel tale, and a nice caution. A few minor holes. Plot Handling: Very nice indeed -- I was riveted. Characterization: Solid all around. OVERALL: The first (and hopefully not only) 10 of the season. And about time, too.

NEXT WEEK:

Resolutions and revolutions.

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what's on the other side? R.I.P. Jim Henson, 1936-1990; we shall never see your like again. "Our children come to us for answers Listening for freedom but they don't know the sound" -- Nanci Griffith, "Time of Inconvenience" Copyright 1995, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.

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