“Past Tense” fits the general Star Trek genre, but it’s a particularly odd outing for Deep Space Nine. The Defiant is back at Earth for no particularly good reason, other than to set up the episode’s time travel premise. Often an episode filmed in 1995 would see our crew travel back to that time period (e.g., TOS: “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” “Star Trek IV: The Journey Home,” VOY: “Future’s End”). “Past Tense,” by contrast is set in 2024, which was nearly three decades in the original audience’s future.
Normally I’d be thankful for that bit of originality. Unfortunately, in this case, the writers fail to give us a glimpse of the Star Trek universe’s near future. Other than Jadzia’s time in Chris Brynner’s apartment, we see nothing of the year 2024 outside the dilapidated Sanctuary District. The so-called “sanctuary” for homeless people is the focus of the episode, but as a future historical prediction, it seems unlikely. Why would every major U.S. city rope off valuable real estate to create lawless zones for squatters? Since the zones are effectively lawless, what’s to stop residents from simply burning them down?
The point, of course, is to be preachy, Star Trek style, by making the point that Americans need to address the problem of homelessness, instead of just ignoring it. As the police keep reminding Sisko, that’s easier said than done. The episode reminds us that many of the homeless are mentally ill. But even Sisko decides to ignore the plight of these individuals in order to focus attention (and sympathy) on people who could work but are simply unemployed. One of the sanctuary residents asks Sisko, “Don’t you get it, there are no jobs.” That possibility seems vastly more realistic than Sisko’s play for national sympathy. In other words, if the government in 2024 actually were exiling people who are perfectly fit to lawless zones, the underlying economic situation probably includes a chronic surplus in the labor market. If so, what the world of 2024 needs is a way to create jobs; not just publicity for the plight of the unemployed.
If the history were cool and the cause were handled well, we may well be able to forgive the fact that the time travel here is totally absurd, even by Star Trek standards. The fact that Sisko changes the past wipes out the Federation. Bizarrely, however, this doesn’t happen in the Defiant’s “present” immediately after Sisko’s time jump, even though anything Sisko did in the past is long since done in the Defiant’s present. Instead, the changed future happens only after the point in the episode where the important historical figure Gabriel Bell dies, changing history. This effect is completely different from what we normally see in Star Trek, e.g., TOS: “The City on the Edge of Forever,” where incursions alter the timeline immediately. (As an additional insult to injury, just as the writers fail to show us much of anything in 2024, they likewise fail to do anything with the alternate timeline. Earth is a void and we’re told nothing beyond the fact that there’s apparently a Romulan outpost on Alpha Centauri.)
While Sisko and Dr. Bashir are raising awareness about homelessness, Kira and O’Brien are attempting to rescue them by beaming into different timelines. This is meant as comic relief, but it’s never really funny. Even though they don’t have enough “chroniton particles” to check all the timelines, they decide to guess — and fortunately guess right! — rather than simply acquiring records from one of the later times and using those to trace the change in the timeline. (They could potentially even get those records from the Earth they are orbiting in their own, alternate present, if they decided to check.)
“Past Tense” is meant to be a weighty and dramatic 2-part episode, but it doesn’t achieve half of what it sets out to do. TOS: “The City on the Edge of Forever” seems like the clear inspiration, but this ain’t no city on the edge of forever.
- Remarkable quote: “Twenty-first century history isn’t one of my strong points. Too depressing.” (Dr. Bashir)