I had hoped for an excellent two-part story in ‘Past Tense’, and maybe a one-episode telling would have tightened things up and enabled the story to do more with the sense of tension that was for the most part missing. Instead, I thought the story was loose and baggy, and entirely too predictable in its beats and conclusion.
Putting it very simply (though the first part made time to explain in a very scientific bit of gubbins how it happened), Sisko, Dax and Bashir beam down to Earth for a conference at Spacefleet HQ in San Francisco but arrive in the City in 2024 instead.
The trio are quickly separated, Sisko and Bashir hauled off by the Police into a ghetto-like Sanctuary District, where the poor, jobless, homeless and mentally ill are kept out of the way. Dax, on the other hand, is taken in hand by a suspiciously friendly and helpful tech billionaire who, for no reason whatsoever (I mean, he dresses Dax up in a very short mini-skirt and doesn’t even make the least move towards lifting it any further) who aids here to find her friends.
Sisko and Bashir are in a version of Hell, a useless, wasteful existence of subsistence, rivalry and near-fascist rule. But Sisko, who has conveniently studied every era of human history, recognises the period as being mere days before the highly-significant Bell Riots. These were named after Gabriel Bell, who led a rising in Sanctuary District A, who saved hostages’ lives at the cost of his own, and started the historical movement towards a better, fairer society that led to the Federation.
Interesting times, eh? And all Sisko and Bashir have to do is lay low, not get involved and not, repeat NOT change the future.
Of course, you know what’s coming. There’s no need even to have read Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, there isn’t a story without this happening, and didn’t Kirk and Spock go through something similar over Joan Collins getting run down by a car in Harlan Ellison’s justly (in)famous ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ in TOS? (Which is apparently referenced in part 1 via a poster for a boxing match also seen in 1967).
So: Sisko and Bashir get attacked by thugs, a guy wades in to help them but is stabbed to death. He’s Gabriel Bell so Sisko takes over his name, his place in history and his eventual fate (oo-er).
Meanwhile, back in the correct century, Kira, O’Brien and Odo, who are trying to a) find out where their colleagues have gone and b) how to get them back, suddenly lose the Federation, thanks to the change in history. Which doesn’t affect them because of the same scientific gubbins that started this whole thing off.
Needless to say, they have x number of options and y number of time jumps (y being a smaller number than x) and hit the right time on the last shot of course. Not that they have anything to do with the finale: the National Guard storms the Sanctuary, freeing the hostages and killing all the leaders, except ‘Bell’, who is improbably spared by the polieman Vin, a deeply bitter and cynical guy, contemptuous of everyone lower than him, stubborn in his beliefs, who undergoes a Damascene conversion when the story most needs a deus ex machina.
And Vin swaps ‘Bell’s tags for a dead man, so that everybody will think he died, and history can snap back into place with no change except for ‘Bell’s face in historical records.
The show ends with Bashir asking the honest question of how the US Government allowed this situation to develop in the first place, and Sisko, with his best despairing/philosophical voice on, fudging the story in the best fudging style by saying, ‘I wish I knew’.
What I found interesting, when the pattern of US society in 2024 was first demonstrated, was that when this episode was first broadcast, the setting was thirty years into the future. Now, September 2024 is only eight years away. If Donald Trump were to be elected next month as President, the events of this story would take place in the final year of his second term. I, for one, would look no further.
But no, an interesting premise awkwardly handled and unable to come up with anything but the easy route down Cliche Boulevard. A shame.