The idea that science fiction “predicts” the future is a misnomer.
Understandably, when a work of science fiction eerily and accurately seems to predict what happened in the world, there’s an unsettling feeling of magical prophecy to it. Back to the Future II didn’t nail everything about 2015, but it did get some things right, and isn’t that interesting? And that’s before we consider that film’s portrayal of the villainous Biff Tannen as a megalomaniacal casino magnate whose characterization drew plenty from one Donald Trump, which has made the movie feel even more prescient.
But the idea that a sci-fi story can “predict” the future misrepresents the genre’s strengths. Science fiction is almost never really about the future, and shouldn’t aim to be — it’s much more effective as a way to make sense of the present. A book like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents (about a brutally racist, fascist United States, ruled by a president who ran on the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”) doesn’t act as a crystal ball. It acts as a mirror. Butler wasn’t really writing about an imagined 2030s, when the book is set. She was using dystopian fiction to create a lens through which the readers of 1998 (when the book was published) could see the rot that had already taken hold in their own world.
Science fiction has been pointing toward a dystopian America, ruled by prejudice and often outright fascism, for decades now. But that trend hasn’t always made its way to television — especially not to the Star Trek franchise, which boasts a utopian worldview of a humanity that settled its many conflicts and united to explore the furthest reaches of space. Star Trek is not completely devoid of dystopias, but they typically pop up only in the form of one-off planets of the week.
And yet one of the pieces of science fiction that has best seemed to herald the 2020s is a two-parter from the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The episodes are set in 2024, but they were filmed in 1994 and aired in early 1995. They depict an America where inequality has spun out of control, where homelessness is a problem that no one is particularly interested in tackling compassionately, and where divisions centered on race and income spiral into violence.
The “Past Tense” pair of episodes isn’t just remarkable for how uncannily it reflects the world we live in now. It’s remarkable for how it’s been sitting there for nearly 30 years, in plain sight, within one of the most popular TV franchises of all time.
“Past Tense” is all about a world where wealth inequality is out of control
“Past Tense, Part I” and “Past Tense, Part II” aired on January 2 and January 9, 1995. They’re part of a long line of Star Trek time travel episodes, but only a few of those time travel episodes visit an Earth that is in the characters’ distant past but the audience’s near future. As such, they are among just a handful of Star Trek stories that take place during the part of the Star Trek mythos where humanity had to overcome its differences to get to the utopia awaiting us in the 2300s.
Due to a transporter malfunction, three crew members of the Deep Space Nine space station are dropped in San Francisco in the year 2024. Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), both men of color, are deposited in what amounts to an internment camp. Chief science officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), who presents as a white woman, ends up hanging out with the mega-rich. (Dax is a Trill symbiote, meaning that while her body may seem human, her mind has been joined with sluglike alien that contains the memories of seven past lives. Just go with it. It’s Star Trek.)
Sisko realizes that they have been sent to the past mere days before what are now known in the Star Trek universe as the Bell riots, an event that will bring knowledge of the inhumane conditions within the “sanctuary districts” to a national audience, leading to an early flowering of social change. (Bashir, for his part, has never studied 21st-century history, dubbing it “too depressing.”)
Eventually, Sisko and Bashir meet Gabriel Bell, the man whose death will give the Bell riots their name. But by the end of “Past Tense, Part I,” Bell has died before the riots begin, altering the timeline irreparably. To preserve the timeline, Sisko must adopt Bell’s identity — with all the risk that entails.
While Sisko and Bashir are struggling to survive the frequent violence within the sanctuary district — which usually occurs at the hands of the police — Dax finds herself rubbing elbows with some extremely rich citizens of the Bay Area. As someone who seems to be a beautiful white woman, she is granted access to high society and luxury. That choice was intentional, says one of the writers who worked on the episodes.
Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who co-conceived of the story for “Past Tense” (with Ira Steven Behr) and wrote the teleplay for the first installment, pointed out to me in an interview that if there’s one thing these two episodes got desperately wrong about the 2020s, it’s the computers, which woefully lag behind what we have right now. And yet they seem to have anticipated the wealth disparities in Silicon Valley all the same.
Most notably, “Past Tense” reveals an extremely rigid caste system built atop race and class, a real-world problem that has taken on incredible urgency in recent years. Yet the impetus for its story, according to Wolfe, was the large unhoused population in Santa Monica, California, more than two decades ago.
“We weren’t being predictive. We were just looking out our windows in the ’90s,” Wolfe says. “My wife worked with homeless and mentally ill people as a psychotherapist. Ira [Steven Behr] said what convinced him to do the episodes was walking through Palisades Park in Santa Monica and seeing all the homeless people there. They’re still there. It hasn’t changed. We weren’t being predictive. We were just being observant.”
“Past Tense” also suggests that knowledge of brutal inequality will lead to a demand for it to change. So far, reality hasn’t borne this out.
Deep Space Nine is unique in the Star Trek franchise for the view it provides of the worst aspects of humanity’s present (or, within the Star Trek universe, its past). Sisko was the franchise’s first Black captain, and his knowledge of America’s long history of racism drove some of Deep Space Nine’s best episodes, including the “Past Tense” two-parter. Wolfe told me that having Sisko paired up with the much less knowledgeable Bashir was deliberate, so that Bashir could learn, in real time, lessons that Sisko has always known, even though both exist in a more tolerant future.
But Sisko’s knowledge of his history only goes so far in helping us understand our present. Implicit in “Past Tense” is that so long as the Bell riots happen and so long as Gabriel Bell dies trying to defend hostages that the rioters have captured to ensure their safety, the world will learn just how bad conditions are in the sanctuary districts, and a grassroots groundswell will lead to sweeping social change.
Certainly, the scenes in “Past Tense” where the riots break out now read as reminiscent of last summer’s ongoing protests against police violence, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Star Trek’s fictional world, as in our real one, a group of people who have been systemically oppressed rose up and caught the attention of those who might not normally have noticed. (In “Past Tense,” Dax is our link to the world of those who might ignore the sanctuary districts.)
But a point of view that looks optimistically toward real-world reform seems hopelessly naive in 2021, when presenting a coherent narrative that might lead to social change is harder than ever.
Deep Space Nine existed in a world with much more homogeneous media consumption. There were still only a handful of major television networks. Most towns of any size still had their own newspaper, and sometimes a radio station. A story like the Bell riots really might have garnered widespread frustration with the ruling class and spurred measurable change in a world with such a controlled media ecosystem. That world is not our world.
The protests of summer 2020 successfully directed Americans’ attention toward police violence against communities of color, especially Black communities. But the country’s media ecosystem has become so bifurcated in recent years that it was far too easy for anchors on Fox News to push the idea that protesters were a lawless mob, while left-leaning outlets too often focused on minute questions of whether the slogan “Defund the police” was too confrontational for the sorts of moderate voters who ultimately helped elect Joe Biden to the presidency. Finding a singular narrative amid all that noise ended up being impossible.
Since he wrote that episode of Star Trek, “the militarization of police has gotten even more advanced. They have even more weaponry and seemingly more willingness to use it,” Wolfe told me. “As the SWAT team was coming in [to the Sanctuary District during the riots], they were somewhat careful at least. Today, we probably wouldn’t portray that the same way.”
Yet even if “Past Tense” didn’t predict the future with 100 percent accuracy (which, again, shouldn’t have been its goal to begin with), it remains a chilling look at our present by a TV show looking out its own window in the past and seeing the problems we’re still dealing with today. In many cases, those problems have even gotten much, much worse.
“As a writer, all you can do is be a voice in the wilderness, sometimes. You can yell, ‘Fire!’ but you can’t put it out,” Wolfe says. “It’s disappointing that we’re still grappling with this problem. I certainly would have hoped it would be better by now, and people would be like, ‘Ha! Remember that Deep Space Nine episode that said homelessness would still be a problem in the 2020s? They were so gloomy!’ But one of the themes of the show is that paradise doesn’t come for free. Even if it does get handed to you, you have to continually work to protect it and renew it and advance it.”
Correction: The original version of this article implied that Dax is human, while her brain is joined to a Trill. The truth is that both Dax’s body and mind are Trill. She is a humanoid, but not human. I have never meant the phrase, “I regret the error” as much as I do now.