Friday, September 30, 2011

Classics: DS9 6:13 - Far Beyond the Stars

Overall: 4.3

Lesson the first: Some actors shouldn't be allowed to direct themselves.

Lesson the second: If you're going to portray a historical period, take the time to portray it accurately.

Plot Synopsis:

Memory Alpha has a summary here.

The Skinny:

After six-and-a-half years of (usually) high quality writing from Messrs. Behr, Moore, Wolfe, etc., I think it's wholly reasonable to expect DS9's Racism Show to surpass the very low standards set by its progenitor. (You all remember Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, right? How did you like that two-by-four to the face?) Alas, DS9's staff does not meet such an expectation with Far Beyond the Stars. I have no quarrel with Behr and Beimler's intent - who does in this day and age? - but I find the execution distinctly inartful.

First of all, Far Beyond the Stars needed another director. The visual elements of the production were just fine - excellent even - but some other authority needed to be there to reign Avery Brooks in. Over-the-top doesn't even begin to describe Brook's performance at the episode's climactic moment. What that scene was, in fact, was a moment of self-indulgent scenery chewing so egregious that I find myself feeling embarrassed for everyone involved every time I watch it. I'm sorry, but that was just bad.

Secondly, Behr and Beimler evidently suffer from Hollywood Fifties Syndrome. According to those who are afflicted with this disorder, the immediate post-war period was chiefly defined by its whitebread, Stepford-style conformity, its racism, and its McCarthy-inspired red scares. In this formulation, the 1950's were a time of social stagnation from which we were all thankfully rescued by the upheavals of the following decade.

But the above-described viewpoint is as profoundly ahistorical as the assertion that the people of the Middle Ages were universally backwards and superstitious. The 1950's were the era of school desegregation, folks. Kinsey published his radical tracts on male and female sexuality during this period, and Elvis Presley (with his gyrating hips) was already well on his way to superstardom. In other words, the seeds of the 1960's were already being sown in the 1950's, just as the High Middle Ages provided the sociopolitical foundation for the Renaissance.

Behr and Beimler's portrayal of science fiction's Golden Age is especially laughable. By the fifties, literary science fiction had moved beyond pulpish stories featuring pretty girls and bug-eyed aliens in favor of tales that were at least partially rooted in real science. Moreover, while the sci-fi writers of the Golden Age tended toward libertarianism, that was not necessarily synonymous with racism. To assert that no one in this time period would've published a story like Benny's - even with the spoonful of sugar that was the "it was all a dream" device - is to commit a gross over-simplification. Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, for example, features a Filipino main character, and it was published in 1959.

Don't get me wrong here: I'm not attempting to deny that racism existed during the 1950's. Racist attitudes were quite pervasive, as a matter of fact. But there is certainly room for nuance in portrayals of the period. Behr and Beimler didn't need to get their entirely laudable message across by painting the era with broad strokes of black and white.

There's also more than a faint stink of white liberal self-congratulation here. Behr and Beimler essentially portray their own creative output as the only hope for downtrodden black men like Benny -- and that's complete tripe. Positive literary and artistic representations of people of color certainly help things along, but political action is a thousand times more transformative.

Writing: 3.0

The script is as lazy as all hell, depending on the pop-culture version of the fifties instead of the real thing.

Acting: 5.0

The performances are fine up until Avery Brooks starts taking ENORMOUS bites out of the scenery. OM NOM NOM! SCENERY!

Message: 5.0

We all agree that racism is bad. But it would be nice if Behr and Beimler were a little more subtle when it comes to delivering that message.

1 comment:

  1. Incidentally...although I could believe that Sisko (or..Benny) might get harrassed by police in that time...I really don't think they would ever stop a black guy on suspicion of stealintg a drawing. The whole episode is constructed to make each and every aspect of the racial discrimination of the period much more unbearable and obvious. And I think you were too kind with ther acting score...Not only does Avery Brooks destroy the entire sound stage by eating it in the final moments...he is too unsubtle the entire episode. And you can top that off by my annoyance with Colm Meaney's robotic take on his character's personality and Terry Ferrell's insistance on playing her character like a ditz, rather than a smart, albeit quirky young sci-fi nut.

    I would probably give this episode a 2/3/2, not a 3/5/5...the rankings list will reflect that.