Strangely, for a science fiction franchise about the future, Star Trek usually does a terrible job of predicting the future. For example, it is the year 2022 and there’s no evidence of an army of genetically-engineered super soldiers commanded by a crazed Sikh who speaks with a Mexican accent.
However, there was one Star Trek series that made a few disturbingly relevant predictions or observations about 21st Century America. The series was Deep Space Nine, a syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation spin off that ran from 1992-1999.
DS9 never achieved the kind of iconic status that The Next Generation or the Original Series attained. However, Deep Space Nine was a high-quality drama that presented many wonderful episodes.
In particular, DS9 did an astounding job of character development. Additionally, DS9 did an excellent job of raising and discussing the big moral questions. Something, Star Trek at its best does better than any other sci-fi franchise.
I think of Deep Space Nine as the little Star Trek series that could. Deep Space Nine succeeded despite odds being stacked against it. It was a syndicated show (if you’re under 30 ask your parents what that was) often stuffed into bad time spots. Moreover, the show was set on a space station, and had a larger cast so there was none of the claustrophobic but comfortable intimacy of ship-bound Star Trek.
In addition, DS9 abandoned the classic adventure of the week format for longer more, intense, and intelligent plots. In particular, Deep Space Nine stories often emphasized intrigue and politics but always maintained a strong sense of morality.
Moreover, there was no cool starship until Season Three, and often little of the space opera fans love. Finally, the producers insisted on slow burn storytelling sometimes taking years for plots to unfold or villains to reveal themselves.
Despite that Deep Space Nine succeeded in offering some frighteningly relevant predictions of 21st Century life. Interestingly, they disguised those predictions as space adventures.
Times Star Trek: Deep Space Nine accurately predicted the 21st Century
Far Beyond the Stars (Season 6 Episode 13)
Deep Space: Nine accurately forecast Black Lives Matter, frustration with police violence against blacks, and demands for more racial diversity in arts and entertainment with this complex and highly entertaining story.
Interestingly, Far Beyond the Stars is the most deceptive of Star Trek stories. On the surface, the story appears to be a gentle nostalgia trip to the 1950s with an interesting story about an old-time science fiction magazine.
However, the story quietly delves into far deeper waters as it introduces a serious discussion about race in America. For instance, the tale reimagines hero Benjamin Sisko as Benny Sisko a 1950s science fiction writer.
In a highly effective twist, Far Beyond the Stars recasts Deep Space Nine’s stars in different other roles. For example, Armin Shimerman plays an old-time Red rather than the super capitalist Quark, while Colm Meany’s working-class Irishman Miles O’Brien is recreated as an effeminate English intellectual complete with a pipe.
Sisko makes a good living writing sci-fi stories for a pulp magazine. Yet he has to hide his true identity from readers. Sisko cannot write about black characters, for example. In one bothersome scene, an editor tells Sisko and a female colleague not to come in for authors’ photos he plans to publish. Next the editor tries to get Sisko to change a black hero to white to make a story more marketable.
The moral the story offers is obvious. Art and entertainment perpetuate racism and sexism by excluding people.
Benny Sisko himself is a complex character who straddles the lines between white and black society. Sisko lives in segregated Harlem but he has a precarious foothold in white society as a writer.
Yet, Sisko’s lover wants him to abandon that opportunity for a poor but comfortable life as a restaurant owner in Harlem. The message being that the ghetto is often a comfortable place.
Impressively, Far Beyond the Stars offers no easy answers to these dilemmas. Yet it reminds audiences how much progress America has made since the 1950s. While conceding far more progress is needed.
Moreover, the writers introduce a disturbing plot about police violence. They reimagine two of DS9’s villains as thuggish 1950s police offers who enjoy beating and terrorizing blacks. In addition, they reimagine Sisko’s son Jake as a young black street punk who is slowly drifting into crime.
Effectively, Far Beyond the Stars ends with a downer. The two villainous cops kill Jake and savagely beat Sisko, sending him to hospital. When he gets out Sisko learns the pulp magazine’s publisher has suppressed his groundbreaking story about a black space station commander.
When it first aired in 1998, Far Beyond the Stars was thoughtful entertainment. Today, it’s a relevant fable about racism.
Moreover, Avery Brooks delivers a wonderful low-key performance as Benny Sisko. There’s no rage or moralistic lectures, only quiet frustration and hard work. Sisko is an honorable and decent man trying to respond to evil in an honorable and decent way.
In the Real World: Far Beyond the Stars was probably inspired by left-wing critiques of American entertainment, African-American frustrations with Hollywood, and the 1992 Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles. The acquittal of white police officers who had been videotaped savagely beating King, a black man, triggered the riots.
The true moral of Far Beyond the Stars is obvious. There are no simple answers just struggle, survival, and hope for a better future.
Home Front/Paradise Lost Season 4, Episodes 11 & 12)
Interestingly, Deep Space Nine predicted the War on Terror and its destructive effects on American values and freedoms a few years before September 11. The stories also anticipate some of the conflicts unleashed by COVID-19.
In Home Front, terrorist violence rocks an unprepared 24th Century Earth. Star Trek’s future Earth is a near utopia free of ills such as violence, poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination. Hence, Earth is not prepared for evil, yet evil comes.
The violence convinces paranoid Star Fleet Admiral Leyton that the Changelings, the ruthless shapeshifters who rule the totalitarian Dominion, have infiltrated Earth. Leyton thinks a Dominion invasion is imminent because of the strange behavior of the wormhole that connects the Alpha Quadrant to the Gama Quadrant – the Dominion’s home turf. Leyton fears a cloaked Dominion invasion fleet is heading for Earth.
Leyton sends for Sisko and Constable Odo, and asks them to implement a program of oppressive security measures on Earth. This leads to a conflict with Sisko’s cantankerous father who doesn’t want to submit to a blood test for detection of shapeshifters. Predictably, Sisko begins to question the security measures.
In Paradise Lost, Earth is struck by a planet-wide blackout that is obviously the result of sabotage. Leyton responds by ordering Star Fleet troops to occupy Earth. Disturbingly, Sisko’s father welcomes the occupation and the extreme measures he formerly opposed.
Eventually, Sisko and Odo learn Leyton and a small cadre of paranoid Star Fleet officers are behind the sabotage. The sabotage and security measures could be the prelude to a coup. Leyton thinks the Federation’s President, an alien, is too weak and too far from home to provide effective leadership so he wants to replace him.
To add to the complexity, a Changeling disguised as O’Brien taunts Sisko. The infiltrator explains that there is only of handful of Changelings on Earth. Yet the infiltrators have almost destroyed the Federation.
The story ends with a near battle between a starship full of Leyton’s supporters and Sisko’s USS Defiant. Hence, the Changelings almost trigger a Star Fleet Civil War.
Fortunately, Leyton and his followers realize the error of their ways and back down. The story ends with Sisko telling the Changelings if they want to destroy the Federation they’ll do it themselves through war.
Home Front and Paradise Lost are parables for how Americans see the world. America is a utopia surrounded by violent enemies. The episodes frighteningly and accurately show how ruthless but well-meaning paranoids can turn a free society into an oppressive regime in the name of security. Deep Space Nine predicted today’s America of mask and vaccine mandates and airport security checks with these stories.
In the real world: Rising 1990s terrorism in particular the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 inspired these episodes. Additionally, the writers picked up on a trend of rising militarism and nationalism in 1990s America.
Past Tense Part I & II
In this frightening two-part 1995 episode Deep Space Nine predicted out of control income inequality, internet censorship, and cancel culture.
A transporter accident sends Sisko, Dr. Bashir, and Commander Dax to 2024 San Francisco. The city is a place of terrifying oppression and cancel culture.
In a frightening twist, police seize Sisko and Bashir and place them in a special zone of the city that serves as an internment camp for the homeless. In the zone, Authorities imprison the poor rather than help them. A prediction of the official homeless camps and homeless sweeps in cities such as Denver.
Additionally, Past Tense predicts the politics of austerity. A social worker advises Sisko and Bashir to “stay away from security because they just had their budget cut.”
Meanwhile, Dax finds herself among the city’s wealthy tech bros. She learns the tech barons enjoy wealth and freedom as long they refuse to transmit information about disturbing realities such as the mistreatment of the poor. The internet exists but it is heavily censored. Thus, Past Tense predicts China’s current regime of internet censorship and recent efforts at censorship in the USA.
Past Tense also deals with race. Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff notes authorities intern Sisko and Bashir, played by actors of color, while Dax, an alien who can pass for white, goes free.
Eventually, the inequality triggers a violent outburst called the Bell Riots, an important historical event Sisko is familiar with. A mob of poor people seizes control of the Zone and takes its administrators prisoner. In a classic twist, Sisko masquerades as Bell, the mob’s leader, to ensure history stays on track.
Meanwhile, in the future The Defiant crew realizes history has changed and the Federation does not exist. Instead, the Romulans rule the Alpha Quadrant. Sisko and Bashir’s presence in the Zone has changed history and derailed social and political progress.
Dax convinces a tech baron to publicize the true nature of the riot to the public in defiance of a regime of internet censorship. This puts history back on track by forcing America to confront and deal with poverty and income inequality.
Past Tense is an effective story but it reminds us that progress is not free. Instead, societies often progress through blood, sweat, and tears. More importantly these stories remind us that progress is only possible when a society confronts its problems. Of all the time travel stories Star Trek has attempted, Past Tense is by far the best.
In the Real World: Los Angeles’s growing homeless problem and the recent Rodney King Riots probably inspired Past Tense. Plus, there are reflections of 1990s’ San Francisco, which was full of homeless people and gentrification. Additionally, government policies reflect the austerity policies of politicians, such as Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and President Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas), that were popular in the 1990s.
For the Uniform (Season Five Episode 13)
The DS9 crew suffers a shocking act of betrayal. Star Fleet Security officer Michael Eddington sabotages The Defiant and helps human terrorists steal powerful technology.
On the surface, For the Uniformis a classic space chase story. Underneath, it is a long musing on the nature of Star Trek, freedom, and progress.
During the chase, viewers learn the Maquis terrorists have deep and legitimate ideological and philosophical differences with the Federation. In particular, the Maquis reject the Federation’s technological utopia as antiseptic and conformist.
Eddington compares the Federation to the Borg, alleging the society’s vaunted diversity is really conformity. In addition, he claims the Federation destroys humanity, freedom, and individuality in exchange for comfort and security.
Instead of colonists angered by the Federation’s decision to give their colonies to the Cardassians in the name of “peace.” The Maquis are shown as rugged individualists who reject progress as dehumanizing.
Thus, the Maquis are similar to the more intellectual American Trump supporters and British Brexit backers. They are fighting for what they see as their traditional society and individual rights against what they view as an oppressive regime.
The most frightening aspect of For the Uniform is how Sisko turns into a ruthless bastard, he calls himself a villain, to catch Eddington. The Captain proves Eddington’s critique of the Federation by becoming as ruthless as any Cardassian or Romulan.
In one scene, Sisko threatens to poison all the Maquis planets with biological weapons unless Eddington surrenders. To prove his point, Sisko uses a bioweapon on a Maquis colony.
In an entertaining subplot, Sisko and Dax realize the key to defeating Eddington is the traitor’s favorite novel Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Sisko realizes Eddington views himself as the book’s hero.
To beat Eddington, Sisko must become Hugo’s villain the ruthless Inspector Javert. Eddington the romantic is so caught up in his vision of freedom fighting he does not realize the damage he is doing. To do the right thing and his duty, Sisko must become the villain.
Just as Home Front and Paradise Lost anticipate the War on Terror. For the Uniform anticipates Trump era post January 6 America. To elaborate, some American progressives faced with violent radicals who reject their values, will become authoritarians. Like Sisko, those progressives will betray their ideals to protect society from those people.
For example, all the journalists demanding that social media and internet platforms remove any pro Trump content in violation of the First Amendment. Others are demanding the expansion of the surveillance state and the use of War on Terror tactic against “domestic terrorists.”
For the Uniform predicts many ordinary individuals’ rejection of technocratic progress. For example Brexit and anti-vax movements, and the extreme reaction to it. For instance, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok’s decision to remove former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) from their platforms.
No story does a better job of deconstructing Star Trek’s technocratic utopia than For the Uniform. In the end there are no heroes or villains here, only confused people trying to do the right thing.
In the Real World: The anarchistic Militia movement and the growing popularity of paleoconservatives; such as presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who made waves in the 1990s probably inspired For the Uniform. Deep Space Nine’s sympathetic portrayal of Eddington and the Maquis was in stark contrast to the media’s standard portrayal of the militia and paleocons as racist thugs.
Deep Space Nine lives up to its reputation as the best Star Trek series by being the most successful science fiction. DS9 offers thrilling and thought provoking adventures that preserve Star Trek’s morality and idealism without resorting to simplistic happy endings. Like all good science fiction Star Trek: Deep Space Nine predicts the future by critiquing the present.