“Past Tense, Part I”
Written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Directed by Reza Badiyi
Season 3, Episode 11
Production episode 40512-457
Original air date: January 2, 1995
Station log: The Defiant flies the senior staff to Earth to address Starfleet on the Gamma Quadrant situation. Sisko, Dax, and Bashir beam down to a dinner with a particularly dull admiral (“Droner” Drazman, as he’s known), but something happens to the annular confinement beam when O’Brien beams them off.
Sisko and Bashir wake up on a San Francisco street in 2024. Their rank insignia and combadges are gone, and two cops, Vin and Bernardo, pick them up and take them in, calling them “dims,” given their state of dress (“matching pajamas”), lack of ID, and querying what year it is.
Dax is nearby, at the bottom of a subway staircase. By virtue of not being in the open, her combadge and insignia are in place and not stolen. A man named Chris Brynner sees her and assumes she’s been robbed—they got everything but her “brooch” (the combadge). Brynner offers to let her use the interface terminal in his nearby office to order new ID.
Back on the Defiant, the logs show that the trio did materialize on the other side, but there’s no sign of them on Earth. From Starfleet HQ’s perspective, the beam disintegrated partway. The ACB spike came from a chroniton particle surge from the cloaking device. O’Brien has no idea why that had the effect it did, but he eventually learns that a microscopic singularity exploded, exciting the chronitons lodged in the ablative armor and causing the transporter to send them back in time.
In 2024, Bashir and Sisko are put in a Sanctuary District, where homeless people are placed. It’s a run-down dump with people living in ramshackle tents and burned-out buildings. Bashir is, to say the least, appalled, assuming that these are criminals to be treated so poorly. Vin (having let his partner go home to see his wife) processes them, only to discover their fingerprints aren’t on file. So in the tried and true tradition of bureaucrats the world over, he hands them a form to fill out. While they’re waiting to be processed, Bashir bitches about how many of these people need proper medical treatment, but Sisko has bigger concerns when he sees the date and realizes which Sanctuary District they’re in. The Bell Riots—a brutal civil uprising in which hundreds of Sanctuary residents are killed—was a bellwether event for the 21st century. One of the reasons the riots were so important were the heroic actions of a Sanctuary occupant named Gabriel Bell. And the riots are going to happen in this Sanctuary District in a few days.
Dax is doing much better. She’s used her mad 24th-century computing skillz to fashion an ID for herself. Brynner reveals himself to be the head of Brynner Information Systems. Dax plays him like a two-dollar banjo (cleverly identifying her Trill spots as tattoos).
Sisko and Bashir are revealed to be “gimmes” (people who are looking for work), not to be confused with “dims” (what Vin thought they were, the mentally ill who are dumped on the Sanctuary Districts for lack of anywhere better to put them) and “ghosts” (who “haven’t integrated well” with the Sanctuary). They’re given ration cards that will allow them to get food and water and sent on their way. Finding a place to sleep proves harder, as each building they come to is filled up. They pass a mugging: a bunch of ghosts, led by a man named B.C., beating someone up. Sisko has to physically restrain Bashir from interfering.
Brynner gets Dax a hotel room for a few days while she looks for her friends. He also invites her to a get-together in his office the following day—he wants to know how it turns out.
On the Defiant, O’Brien narrows it down to a few dozen possible timeframes they could have beamed to. The problem is, while they can re-create the transporter conditions that created the problem, they only have enough chronitons to do it five or six times.
Sisko and Bashir spend the night in an alley. Bashir awakens to swear he’ll never complain about DS9’s Cardassian beds again. They trade their uniforms (which are funny-looking but at least they’re warm) for less warm but also less conspicuous clothes and access to the roof of one of the buildings. They come across a man named Webb caring for his son, who was beaten up by ghosts. Webb’s wife went to get help, but there’s only one doctor on duty. Bashir does a quick exam to learn that he’s just cut and bruised, no broken bones. Webb tries to recruit them for his attempt to organize the people in the district, to let the people outside the Sanctuaries know what’s going on in there but, mindful of the possibility of polluting the timelines, they decline to get involved, preferring to be left alone.
Dax mingles at Brynner’s party, and after telling her story of being “mugged,” she finds out about the Sanctuary Districts, and asks for Brynner’s help to see if Sisko and Bashir were sent there.
While waiting on the food line, B.C. comes back to attack Bashir and Sisko. In the ensuing fight, a man helps them out, only to get stabbed and killed by B.C. The man who saved their lives at the cost of his own was Gabriel Bell.
This has an immediate effect on the timelines, as the Defiant finds that all hint of Starfleet presence is gone from the entire Earth star system. The ship itself was unaffected thanks to the chronitons, but the nearest subspace signal O’Brien can find is in Alpha Centauri, and it’s Romulan. But Bell’s death has changed history, causing the Federation to never have happened—or if it did, Earth was not part of it.
Sisko and Bashir decide to join up with Webb’s protest. There’s going to be a rally outside the processing center to remind folks that they agreed to live in the Sanctuary District because they were promised a job, but Webb hasn’t been on any job interviews lately, and neither has anyone else. They’ve been forgotten, and Webb wants to remind them that they’re there. Webb wants Sisko and Bashir to help spread the word, and to tell people to bring their families and to dress as nice as they can.
A fight breaks out between Bernardo and some dims. Sisko and Bashir break it up, with Sisko getting his hands on Bernardo’s rifle. The attack on Bernardo turns out to have been a distraction so B.C. can take over the processing center. He takes everyone hostage, and Sisko and Bashir bring Bernardo in to find this, and Sisko quickly joins with B.C.’s endeavor rather than try to start a fight that will get a lot of people hurt.
Sisko identifies himself to B.C. as Gabriel Bell.
To be continued...
Can’t we just reverse the polarity? As established in TNG’s “The Next Phase,” cloaking devices sometimes emit chroniton particles. Apparently, they’re very much like dust mites, as they get caught in the Defiant’s ablative armor matrix. A microscopic singularity explosion gets the chronitons all hot and bothered enough to interfere with the transporter beam and send Sisko, Dax, and Bashir back 347 years.
The Sisko is of Bajor: Sisko is apparently a student of 21st-century history—more than Bashir can say, as he found the era too depressing—which proves handy in knowing what’s about to happen, and why the guy who saved their lives dying is such an issue.
Don’t ask my opinion next time: Kira takes charge of the Defiant in Sisko’s absence, and makes a very valiant effort to keep up with O’Brien’s stream of technobabble. She also takes great joy in bowing out of dinner with the admiral (as do O’Brien and Odo).
The slug in your belly: Dax’s super science officer-ness comes into play here, as she not only effortlessly creates an identity for herself with a computer interface, (no Montgomery Scott saying “Computer” into a mouse here...), but she also never misses a beat when explaining her situation, unhesitatingly referring to her combadge as a brooch and her spots as tattoos. So often these things are played broadly, in a manner that realistically would raise red flags to the person being spoken to, but instead Dax slides effortlessly into the 21st century, as you would expect a professional science officer (and person with three centuries’ experience) to do.
Rules of Acquisition: We get two Rules, quoted by Quark and Sisko to each other: #111 (“Treat people in your debt like family: exploit them”) and #217 (“You can’t free a fish from water”). Sisko tells an impressed Quark that he’s been reading up on the Rules.
No sex, please, we’re Starfleet: It’s pretty obvious that at least part of the reason why Brynner helps Dax is because she’s pretty damn hot.
Tough little ship: This is the first mention of the Defiant’s ablative armor, an additional layer of protection beyond the shields. (And also apparently something that gets chronitons all stuck in it.)
Keep your ears open: “Full dress uniforms, fine table linens, and a different fork for every course—thanks but no thanks. That’s why I stayed an enlisted man. No one expects us to show up for formal dinners.”
O’Brien gleefully turning down the invite to come along to dinner with the admiral.
Welcome aboard: Veteran character actor Dick Miller—last seen on Trek as the 1941 holodeck news vendor in TNG’s “The Big Goodbye”—appears as Vin. Frank Military play B.C., Jim Metzler plays Brynner, Al Rodrigo plays Bernardo, and Tina Lifford plays Lee. And our Robert Knepper moment is Bill Smitrovich as Webb. I’d forgotten that the great Smitrovich was in this; to me, he’ll always be the cigar chomping (but never smoking) Inspector Cramer on A&E’s A Nero Wolfe Mystery series. All of the above will be back in Part 2.
The original Gabriel Bell is played by John Lendale Bennett. While Bennett has had a couple of actual roles, most notably as Kozak in “The House of Quark,” he mostly served on the show as Avery Brooks’s stunt double, photo double, and stand-in, which makes his casting as Bell extra entertaining.
Trivial matters: While this episode was being filmed, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan proposed a fenced-in area for the city’s homeless that was eerily similar to the Sanctuary Districts of this two-parter.
This is the first DS9 episode to show Earth, and the first not to have any scenes at all on Deep Space 9.
Bashir’s question to Sisko about humanity reverting if faced with a real crisis will get a practical answer in the “Homefront”/“Paradise Lost” two-parter next season, in the sixth-season episode “Inquisition,” and the seventh-season “The Siege of AR-558.”
Several of the people in this episode are named after characters in The Magnificent Seven (Chris, Vin, Lee, Calvera), with the name Brynner also coming from Yul Brynner, the lead in that movie. B.C. was named after first assistant director B.C. Cameron.
This is the first mention of Starfleet’s temporal displacement policy, which will be mentioned again in “Trials and Tribble-ations.”
Walk with the Prophets: “Welcome to the 21st century, Doctor.” It was incredibly bizarre to watch this episode realizing that it’s now closer to the “future” date the crew travel back to (eleven years) than it is to when the episode was filmed (nineteen years). This causes some cognitive dissonance, especially with the things that weren’t predicted—styluses rather than touchscreens, the computers, while smaller than those of the mid-90s, aren’t quite small enough, and nobody saw the ubiquity of cell phones coming. (Seriously, every time our heroes were told they had no way of getting in touch with their friends, I kept waiting for someone to be confused as to why they didn’t have their phones with them.)
Still, the details are less important than the message, and much as I’d love to say that the notion of Sanctuary Districts is unrealistic, I can’t do so with a straight face. And it’s depressingly realistic that the pretty woman gets the benefit of the doubt and the two brown-skinned men get tossed in with the homeless people.
And what makes the episode work is that it sells both the beaten-down hopelessness and the fact that this isn’t the result of malice but being overwhelmed. We do have a straight-up bad guy in B.C., but most of what we see are people who are just trying to get through: Webb, who was hoping for a place to stay while he found his way back to his feet, and instead got lost in the shuffle; Vin, a veteran just doing his job who sees Sisko and Bashir’s slog through the bureaucracy as a means to more paid overtime; Bernardo, who just wants to go home after an overnight shift to see his wife; and Lee, who knows the system sucks, wishes the system didn’t suck, but muddles through to do the best she can within the sucky system.
And then there’s Gabriel Bell, whom we first see as one of the dims, writing on pretty much any surface that presents itself except a piece of paper, who later doesn’t even hesitate to put his life on the line to save two guys he’s only met once before. It’s the same instinct that would lead him to become an important historical figure, and one that Sisko gets to try to live up to—but that’s Part 2.
Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t trust itself to create the world of 2024 without hitting us over the head. We get everything we need to know about the setting from Sisko and Bashir’s intake interview with Lee, from Webb’s plaintive call for a rally to remind people they’re alive, and probably most efficiently by a simple dialogue exchange at the high-class party Brynner throws, where one person mentions that Dax might have been sent to a Sanctuary District and his companion blithely asks, “Do they still have those?” But rather than trust the dialogue and the situations to spell it out, they hit us over the head with two really overlong expository conversations between Sisko and Bashir as they walk through the Sanctuary.
Structurally, this two-parter is very much like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and it would seem to be ballsy to try to redo one of the two or three best Star Trek episodes ever done. But it’s still a strong story with a strong—and still depressingly relevant—message.
Warp factor rating: 7