Science Fiction has always used thought-experiment stories. These stories allow us to think about society, history, and our own lives in a different way. A common version of this type of story is to present alternate interpretations of reality, and invite us to ask if our reality is real at all? A character is forced to question if what they experience as reality may not actually be true reality. The very first Star Trek episode, The Cage, did this with Pike and the Thalosians. Sometimes it involves psychosis, like Riker in Frame of Mind; or alternate realities, like the Mirror Universe and Worf in Parallels; or time travel like in Yesterdays Enterprise or All Good Things.
The Holodeck allowed for this type of story to be told many times. Star Trek Holograms achieved an archetypal status that rivals robots in the annals of sci-fi. The hologram allows us to imagine a situation where a human’s self-awareness could be called into question. It allows us to question the veracity of our surroundings. It makes us question how free freewill truly is. From the Ricker’s date in 11001001, to the mobsters in The Big Goodbye, to Morarity, to Barcly’s creations, to the pinnacle of this archytype in the Doctor—these themes were hit again and again. The best example is Ship in a Bottle where Moriarty tricks Picard, Data and Barclay into thinking a holographic Enterprise is the real thing. The title captures the concept. Is the crew on the deck of the ship in the bottle any less human than the rest of us? What is our bottle? What is beyond it? Who put us inside of it? The metaphysical frame allows our imaginations to flirt with the fundamentals of existence, limits of understanding, creation, God, etc. Picard sums it up at the end of that episode by saying, “Who knows, we may all exist only inside of a device sitting on someone’s table.”
The truth is that Picard and crew do exist inside of a device sitting on someone’s table—our DVD boxsets and streaming Netflix boxes.
I want to explore the one time when Star Trek experimented with the notion, in an on-screen canonical way, that all of Star Trek was a fictional product created by an actual, “real” science-fiction writer. It was done in Deep Space Nine’s Far Beyond the Stars and Shadows and Symbols. In the end, the serious storytelling implication of those episodes were then quietly forgotten and ignored.
In FBS, Sisko flashes back to the 1950s. He is Benny Russell, a struggling pulp writer in the Golden Age of science fiction. The people in his life are all played by actors who portray characters in Siskos’ life, from Nog to Kira to Dukat. When Russell/Sisko (literally wearing the Starfleet uniform and Russells’ glasses) asks the Prophets who he is, they respond: “You are the dreamer and the dream.”
Later, in the DS9 universe, Sisko says to his father:
“What if it wasn’t a dream? What if this life we’re leading, you and me, everything, what if all of this is the vision?... Maybe just maybe, Benny isn’t the dream, we are. Maybe we are nothing more than figments of his imagination. For all we know, somewhere beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” Then we actually see Benny Russell reflected in the glass of Sisko’s window into space.
That last line taps into the ancient wonder that a starry night inspires in all of us. Is it like a ceiling that we might punch through one day? What would we find on the other side?
This dialogue coming at the end of the episode might have been similar to Picard’s dialogue to Barclay at the end of Ship in the Bottle, and we the viewer are supposed to enjoy the thought experiment but not take it literally and apply it to all of Deep Space Nine or all of Star Trek.
But this time was different. FBS and its implications could have been another stand-alone episode that was not meant to be interpreted as having ramifications for the series as a whole—but for two reasons. First, Sisko’s vision of Benny Russell came from the Prophets. Whenever the Prophets sent characters visions there was a purpose behind the vision. It was always to set up plot that was coming later in the season or series. It’s why they are called Prophets. They exist with an awareness of all time. They know what is coming while Sisko doesn’t, so they dribble visions like bread crumbs to affect his and others’ choices. Second, Benny Russell returned next season in Shadows and Symbols. He was writing DS9 stories on the walls of his asylum cell. When the doctor, played by the same actor as Damar, gets Russell to stop writing and consider painting over the story, Sisko actually stops doing what he is doing in the DS9 universe. Sisko only commits his next action when Benny Russell chooses to write that action on the wall. What are we to make of this?
Absolutely nothing. Because the writers—the real “real” writers Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler—because of a lack of chutzpah, or excess of prudent wisdom, or both—chose not to follow through with what they started.
Here is a thought experiment for you. Imagine if the DS9 writing room had decided to confirm that Benny Russell actually wrote all DS9 stories. You say, wait a minute, Deep Space Nine is not a self contained sci-fi show. It contains Star Trek in its title. Picard was in Emissary I and II. Bashir was in TNGs Birthright. Quark was in a TNG and VOY episode. Spock and Kirk were both mentioned in DS9 episodes, and four TOS Klingons actually reprised their characters in DS9 episodes (Kor, Kang, Koloth and Arnie Darvin). Canon links DS9 to all other Trek series. So Benny Russell must be responsible for all of Star Trek. Imagine if after Russell wrote DS9 in the 1950s—most of it inside of his asylum—he was released and went to Hollywood, where he met an ambitious, idealistic TV writer named Gene Roddenberry. By this point, Russell has given up on the idea of the public accepting a black captain, but he still wants his idealistic future vision to survive. He gives Roddenberry the concept, introduces him to Nichelle Nichols, and the rest is the history we all know.
This could have been done, but it would have been all that DS9 Season 7 could be about. The last episodes of DS9 would have been about the first episodes of TOS. Interesting, maybe, but it would have betrayed the DS9-centric characters, stories and actors that built that series, and the fans that followed it (in the same way ENTERPRISE’s finale became about TNG).
Realizing this quagmire, the writers decided to chalk Benny Russell up to “The ways of the Prophets are strange” and leave it at that. Probably wise. Even in Russell’s second and last episode, his narrative logic was breaking down. Dramatic tension was created when Sisko stopped an action because Russell stopped writing his action, but the B-plot about Kira’s standoff with the Romulans, and the C-plot about Worf attacking a Dominion shipyard both continued even though Russell wasn’t writing. Russell was never mentioned after this episode.
I’ve always felt like the writers saved face by having Sisko say to Kasidy in the finale that since “time doesn’t exist here” he might return “in a year” but that “it could be yesterday,” implying that his work might be in the past. Maybe the Prophets sent him back to Benny Russell’s reality.
For years, Star Trek has provided us with opportunities to imagine that our reality is not special, that it is but one perspective among many. They did this by placing “real” characters in false realities. For a brief moment, Star Trek writers flirted with the idea of going completely through the metaphysical looking glass and declaring that all of Star Trek “reality” in all of its canonical glory was purely fictional. These writers dared to suggest that this purely fictional imaginative playground we beam into through our television sets, which we have to trick our brains into accepting as real as we watch it, is actually a fiction created by a fictional writer that we have to trick our brains into accepting as a real one, who will remain one dimension removed from the actual Hollywood writers that created the whole thing. In this way, Benny Russell is not a meditation on God and creation, but on storytelling and storytellers. Too bad the writers couldn’t figure out how to maintain this concept while also doing justice to DS9 seven season arch.