Episode 3.11: Past Tense, Part 1

When considered together as a single story, Past Tense is my second favorite episode of DS9.  Issues surrounding the poor and disadvantaged are a perennial problem in human society; a poignant social issue to address.  Simultaneously, these episodes address the importance of watershed disturbances that change the course of history.  The emotions explored by the residents, the facility employees, and the outsiders are tragic, complex, and all too real.  Mix in my favorite character as a secondary lead, throw in some time travel, and it’s a brilliant episode.  I’m going to use each of these two blogs to address one of two themes each, so thoughts will draw from both episodes.

It is both tragic and obvious that the poor will always be among us.  Selfishness and tribal thought are too deeply engrained.  Sadly, it is in our broken human nature that we will always be uncomfortable and a bit resentful at the poor.  When we see the disadvantaged lives, we empathically know the need they have.  It’s uncomfortable seeing people in those situations because we know we will ultimately walk away and nothing will change.  Simultaneously, we are resentful at even the implication that we’d give up our own “hard earned” money/status/possessions to assist someone who didn’t earn it.  Think about it.  When we do end up giving, do we give out of our surplus or our sustenance?  For most of us, giving only happens when it wouldn’t have an impact on our own quality of life.

A natural response to these feelings of discomfort and resentment is to avoid them altogether.  So the Star Trek 21st century society does that.  The homeless and jobless are shut up into sanctuaries.  This allows them to be forgotten.  Actions similar to this have actually been discussed and taken in our modern society.  An eerily similar proposal was discussed, but thankfully not implemented, by the mayor of LA to create fenced in “havens” for the homeless.  The point was to make downtown LA more desirable to business.  This happened as the crew wrapped production on the episode in October 1994.  Currently implemented is a camping ban in my town of Denver.  Homeless are not allowed to stay overnight in public spaces.  They must be indoors somewhere.  It is literally illegal for them to sleep in the streets.  No location has been created for the people to go, but it is still a policy to force the disadvantaged to be out of sight.

The people of the Star Trek 21st century have forgotten how to care because the disadvantaged of their society have been shuttered from view.  The “paradise” of the elite (seen through Dax’s eyes) is a sham; society’s failures are hidden behind walls, like cleaning a room by putting clutter in the closet.  How did it get so bad, Bashir asks?  Society became overwhelmed by the problem, and so chose to ignore instead of confront their issues.  Lee the social worker feels how I often feel.  I care, but the scale of the problem and the seeming ineffectual change from any kind action causes me to be disheartened.  While Lee is broken, Vin the elder security officer is hardened at his helplessness.  What good will it do?  Swirling around all of these employees is a sense of being powerless against a social problem that, they think, will never change.

The residents feel helpless and have few options left.  Systems don’t change; nothing ever changes, cries B.C.  No matter how hard they try, they remain trapped by their circumstance.  It is a reality that being poor makes it easy to stay poor.  In one way, the poor’s inability to deal with financial hardships creates more hardships.  Essentials are purchased on credit, which increases the cost via interest.  Paychecks don’t always line up with bills, which incur fees.  This may sound innocuous, but look up “debit resequencing”; I’ve read that up to $38 billion is lost annually due to fees, a burden mostly born by the poor.  In another way, having money makes money, which drives inequality from the other side.  The COO of the company I’m employed by owns a house in San Diego, and he rents it out through a management company.  He literally does nothing and gets a monthly check.  Having wealth makes wealth.

To bring myself back off my soapbox, the residents are helpless against their life circumstance, so they lash back at an ineffectual system.  Most residents are like Webb; they want to stand on their own, but can’t.  In reality, the system only helps perpetuate their life circumstance.  They are stuck inside walls where they can’t clean themselves up and look for work.  This leads to anger and unrest, and the eventual explosion into civil disobedience.  They know that waiting on the system would have little chance of them ever leaving the sanctuary.

Bashir and Lee’s exchange at the end highlights how society can break out of this.  Bashir tries to make her feel better by saying the situation isn’t her fault; Lee counters by saying folks always tell themselves that, and nothing ever changes.  And both statements are completely right.  Truly, it isn’t anyone’s individual fault that brought so many people to poverty.  But we bear a collective responsibility that, I think, often gets lost in American society.  We are too individualistic and forget we are part of something bigger.  That something bigger brings both benefits and responsibilities.  Social problems can be confronted, but only as a united front willing to contribute more than we think we are able.  Watching these episodes always challenges me to confront my own attitudes and the ways I foster these social inequalities.  Ways that might be explicit, but are usually implicit and I’m unaware of them.

Random Thoughts from Part 1:  1) Though they didn’t dwell on it much, I really appreciated how they incorporated a component of mental illness into some sanctuary residents.  Nice reminder that mental illness is a major cause of homelessness.  2) I like Bashir’s role in this story.  He gets to have righteous indignation and anger at the situation.  He knows humans can be better than that.  But the paradise of the 24th century is fragile.  Bashir ponders how well that will stand up when humans are really pushed.  What happens when life isn’t good?  Will they be better than their past selves and stay to the ideals, or will they falter in the worst situation?  3) Sisko has a sister in Portland.  4) Both the 111th and 217th Rules are quoted!  By Sisko, no less!  5) The Defiant’s ablative armor matrix is mentioned for the first time.  6) Bashir’s compassion runs very deep.  He’s restrained multiple times by Sisko, and can’t just “have a look” without offering help.  7) Dax (the white, attractive woman) is treated extremely well while Bashir and Sisko (the two brown-skinned dudes) are treated like criminals.  8) I pulled this from the Memory Alpha site (which I don’t do often, but this was a neat bit of trivia). The actor who plays Bell, dies, and is replaced by Sisko…apparently, the actor also stunt doubles for Avery Brooks, thus regularly replaces him in scenes.  Neat reversal.  9) Bashir and Sisko arrive on August 30th, 2024 (possibly the 29th, depending on how long they were unconscious).  Bell Riots happen the first week of September, 2024.  On the 1st, by my count.

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~ by Joshua Black on January 8, 2017.

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