The Atlantic

Revisiting Star Trek’s Most Political Episode

In 1995, the Deep Space Nine installment “Past Tense” stood out for its realistic, near-future vision of racism and economic injustice.
Source: Paramount Domestic Television

“It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they’ve given up.” This was how Commanding Officer Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, described early 21st-century Americans in an episode from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. When it aired in 1995, “Past Tense” spoke to contemporary concerns about homelessness by telling a story set in 2024—the near future for viewers, but the distant past for characters. In the two-part episode, Sisko and two of his companions from the U.S.S. Defiant find themselves stranded in San Francisco, where they’re reminded that the federal government had once set up a series of so-called “Sanctuary Districts” in a nationwide effort to seal off homeless Americans from the general population. Stuck in 2024, Sisko, who is black—along with his North African crewmate Dr. Julian Bashir and the fair-skinned operations officer Jadzia Dax—must contend with unfamiliar racism, classism, violence, and Americans’ apparent apathy toward human suffering.

The franchise has, for 51 years, told plenty of stories about the political, which ran from 1993 to 1999, was no different. Set on an outpost for the peaceful United Federation of Planets’ defense and exploratory service known as Starfleet, tackled subjects such as terrorism, imperialism, and the limits of democracy during crisis. It was also the first series to feature an African American commanding officer—a legacy that has been continued in CBS’s recently debuted reboot , which stars Sonequa Martin-Green as the show’s first black female lead.

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