A Star Trek writer revisits his 20-year old vision of a futuristic, tech-ruined San Francisco


Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 6.26.31 PMIn 1994, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine showrunner and executive producer Ira Steven Behr had a profound experience along the Santa Monica boardwalk. The weather was beautiful, and daytrippers and tourists were frolicking and taking pictures.

There was also a sizeable homeless contingent sprawled about the scenic coastline, and it was the interaction between these groups that struck Behr, and prompted him to write the “Past Tense” episodes of DS9, first broadcast in 1995.

“People were just ignoring them completely… stepping over them to get better views through their cameras. I found it very disturbing. It was like now the homeless aren’t even considered dangerous. They’d reached the point of not even existing,” he says.

In “Past Tense,” an African American Star Fleet Captain, British Arab ship’s Doctor and Trill symbiont Chief Science Officer find themselves stranded at the Embarcadero Bart station in San Francisco, 2024.

Captain Sisko and Doctor Bashir are picked up by shotgun-wielding police officers and processed into the city’s main ‘Sanctuary District’. Meanwhile, Dax is rescued by a young tech executive and taken to his opulent downtown offices. The crewmembers must not only find each other and get back to their ship, but in so doing take care not to alter history, the traditional time-traveller’s dilemma. This is no small feat, since they’ve arrived on the eve of the violent Bell Riots, which Sisko recalls as “one of the most violent civil disturbances of the 21st Century.”

Twenty years have passed since Behr took his walk in Santa Monica. When I caught up with him on the phone this past Thursday, he was hunkered down in Glasgow with a head cold, taking a break from his current role as executive producer of Starz show “Outlander”. The timing is uncanny. He was running DS9 at the dawn of the Internet era, and now on Scotland’s “day of destiny”, he was producing a show that dramatizes English-Scottish civil strife of the 18th century (as well as time-travel). With still ten years to go until 2024, I wanted to ask Behr what he thought today about the future described in Past Tense.

The episodes, Behr recounts, were  inspired by the social issues of LA in the early nineties – the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, homelessness, mental health, addiction– but have a special resonance in 2014 San Francisco, the year of the bus protest.

Past Tense takes an ambivalent view of the social side-effects of technology. We learn that the Sanctuary Districts – euphemistic ghettoes for the unemployed, the mentally ill and socially undesireable – have proliferated across the country in response to a jobs crisis resulting from widespread automation. At the same time, the ‘Net’ presents Sanctuary residents a way to broadcast their plight directly to world.

I first saw Past Tense shortly after watching a ‘fireside chat‘ with Sergey Brin and Larry Page. About 15 minutes into the discussion, Page turns to the possible social consequences of Google’s efforts towards developing machine learning.

“I fully believe that we should be living in a time of abundance. If you really think about the things that you need to, like, make yourself happy, things like housing, security, opportunities for your kids..anthropologists have identified these things… I mean its not that hard for us to provide those things, like, the amount of resources that we need to do that, the amount of work that needs to go into that, is pretty small…

“There is also like kind of a social problem that a lot of people aren’t happy if they don’t have things to do. So we need to give people things to do. You need to feel like your needed and wanted and have something productive to do. But the mix with that and the industries we actuallly need — theres not a lot of correspondence.”

The degree to which contemporary Silicon Valley thinking reflects the Star Trek universe can be striking.

“In the Star Trek universe, technology had reached a point where not everyone needs to work. It was all a bit genteel – it seemed like everyone played violin and had artistic intrests – while they worked for this benevolent quasi-military interest,” says Rene Echevarria, who cowrote the “Past Tense” episodes and also spoke to me over the phone.

Chris Brynner, the earnest tech billionaire that rescues Dax in the Star Trek version of San Francisco professes a vision in creepy harmony with that of Larry Page when he reassures Dax that her friends are in good hands in the Sanctuary.

“Your friends are fine, that’s what the Sanctuaries are for: to give people food and a place to stay,” he says.

With these particular episodes, the writers consciously set out to challenge the underlying messages of Star Trek. Today the episodes serve to challenge some of the underlying thinking of tacit tech philosophy.

“The reason Star Trek has been such a powerful franchise and people have flocked to it, its secret, is the idea that ‘technology is good’. It promises that 400 years from now, in spiite of all advances, we will be recognizeable human beings with recognizeable relationships and emotions. And that is a supremely optimistic view and it makes people feel safe and that there is hope for the future,” Behr says.

“It’s a self-medication, and it’s prepared us for ‘Silicon Valley is going to fix it all.”

When I ask how the last 20 years of ‘tech’ color his vision of the future, Behr doesn’t pull any punches.

“Eventually what they are going to do is put fucking chips in our brains, they will have to modify us, and they will be doing it for the best reasons and that will be a kind of evolution, a self-made evolution…people will love it and people will learn to accept it. and life will go on,” he says.

Biologically, he thinks that evolution may encounter some difficulties.

“How are kids gonna get laid in the future? Maybe that was the nerd’s master plan: If we don’t get laid no one does. It’s as good a reasoning as any for why any of this is happening. Kids growing up today will be too busy with computers and even more uncomfortable when it comes to the physical reality,” Behr says.

“There’s so much feedback now and it really affects the way people think. To try to live a life of authenticity, you have to keep your head down more and more, to give yourself an opportunity to see the world through your own eyes.”

Past Tense is built around the concept that things on Earth had to get a lot worse before humanity would enjoy the world of abundance familiar to the Star Trek audience. This is not a popular view in Silicon Valley today, as scads of startups compete to change the world in all sincerity while enriching themselves.

Captain Sisko explains that in the 21st century, people gave up because social problems seemed to be too enormous. The watershed events of 2024 would bring attention to the inequalities that hampered human society for far too long, and while technology has a role in that, it’s not technology but something far more fundamental that sparks the Star Trek utopia.

“People will eventually remember how to care,” Sisko says.