I'm definitely not the first to say it, but watching Deep Space Nine now, it's amazing to see how stories about toppled regimes, provisional governments, terrorists and freedom fighters, political and religious corruption have become even more meaningful now than when they were first written. I thought something similar about the socio-economic issues dealt with in "Past Tense." Re-watching this story also raised some questions in my mind about the time travel involved.
"Past Tense" - Future Imperfect
Here we have an interesting glimpse into the near future. Of course, it was the near future back when the show first aired in 1995, but it's even closer now. One thing the show failed to predict is the prevalence of cell phones and other wireless devices. We see one wireless phone in the episode, but we don't see a single mobile phone. There's also not a flat screen to be seen - just a lot of bulky terminals.
I'm sure it made sense at the time, but as far as connecting to the Net goes, we already have a much more advanced looking world - just walk into any Panera or Starbucks and you can see that. But in terms of the social relevance of this story, you can see that at Panera and Starbucks too. At the end of each day Panera donates baked goods to local charities - a noble gesture but also a powerful reminder that poverty, homelessness, and inadequate care for the mentally ill is a persistent problem.
On the DVD special features, Ira Steven Behr explains that while this episode was filming the mayor of L.A. suggested setting aside a portion of the city as a Haven for the homeless. (You can read more background on the episode here.) While I am not aware of anything specifically like that happening now, there is something very familiar about the social worker saying to Sisko and Bashir, 'You know, with the economy the way it is . . .'
The gap between the Chris Brynners and Gabriel Bells of the world does not seem to be getting any smaller.
A Matter of Time Travel
Regarding the time travel in this episode, I have this question: Was the time-line actually changed? I have always assumed it was when the real Gabriel Bell died, and then restored (more or less) when Sisko took his place. But watching the episode again I wondered if perhaps Sisko was really supposed to be there all along.
Sisko works to establish a connection to the Net so Sanctuary residents can broadcast messages about themselves and their families. He recalls that this happened the "first" time around and had a major impact on public opinion of the Sanctuary Districts. He wonders if Bell was the one who somehow got them a connection.
(Of course, all he really needed was a video phone with Internet access and a YouTube account, but as mentioned the realities of wireless communication were obviously not anticipated.)
As things work out it is Jadzia - working on Bell/Sisko's behalf - who convinces the communications executive Chris Brynner to illegally establish a connection. If Sisko and company never went back in time, how did Gabriel Bell pull this off? If Sisko is the one who got a connection to the Net (with Jadzi'a help), then doesn't this suggest he was the one who kept the hostages safe in the first place?
Now it could be argued that if the time travel that was "supposed" to happen (if it was "predestined"), it should not have produced an alternate future that needed to be restored. On the other hand, it's already strange that the effects of Sisko's interference weren't immediately noticed.
There were instantaneous effects from similar interference in "The City on the Edge of Forever" (TOS), "Yesterday's Enterprise" (TNG), and First Contact (as seen by the sensor readings of an Earth completely transformed by the Borg). Here there is an abrupt change in the "present" some time after Sisko was already in the past, as if it took time for the changes in the time-line to be felt. Why? Why didn't O'Brien detect the transporter malfunction, and immediately thereafter detect that all of Starfleet was gone?
From a story telling standpoint this allows us to track the parallel stories of Sisko in the past with the Defiant in the present until the moment of the decisive change, and then see its consequences. It makes for a dramatic cliff hanger, but it's really a very strange way for time to behave.
We can rationalize that these strange side-effects may be peculiarities of the already strange cloak-transporter-random-singularity method of time travel. But imagine for a moment that the time travel effect didn't protect the Defiant from the changes in the time-line. The Defiant would have vanished with the rest of Starfleet when Sisko and Bashir changed the time-line, then it would have reappeared when Sisko and Bashir restored the time-line.
All this would have happened in the blink of an eye. O'Brien and Kira would continue there rescue mission unaware of the impact Sisko had on the time-line. The peril would be just as real, but not as effectively dramatized because we wouldn't get to see the Defiant crew react to the broken time-line. At best we would just see the Defiant disappear (as the omniscient audience, along the lines of "Yesterday's Enterprise").
In other words the temporary creation of an alternate future may be part of the predestined time loop. Maybe we should call this the "Pluperfect Past Tense," as in "What in pluperfect past tense was that?".
To me, the "changes" in the alternate time-line are not as strong an argument against the idea that this was predestined as the fact Sisko never noticed his own picture in the historical records. This episode establishes him as an avid student of 21st century history, and he knew a lot about the Bell riots specifically. How did he never see that? I have no satisfactory answer to that question, other than the possibility that he just so happened to never look at a picture of the man before (or he never scrutinized the picture(s) he saw - none of us would expect to see ourselves in a history book anyways).
I guess the question is: What is harder to believe? That the real Gabriel Bell had some connection to Brynner or someone else with enough power to circumvent the government lock-out, or that Sisko never noticed that Gabriel Bell looked just like him? Either way we have a lot of explaining away to do.