Sunday, March 20, 2011

In theatre, there’s something called “the fourth wall.” The stage has a wall in the back, and a wall on each side. The fourth wall is invisible—it faces the audience. It is the imaginary wall, in several senses. It is the entrance to illusion, signaling a compact between the show and the audience that what’s on stage is happening in the world it depicts, and the audience isn’t really there.

When an actor addresses the audience, not as a character but as the actor, that’s called “breaking the fourth wall.” It changes the rules. It says to the audience that we know you’re here and that we’re putting on a show. It admits that the world on the stage is an illusion and that the actors know it, and now the audience is in on it, too.

This episode of DS9 plays with the opposites of reality and dream (or illusion) in a particular way. Without ever really breaking the fourth wall, it suggests what is in fact true: that the 24th century future that Star Trek depicts doesn’t exist except as a show—a creation—in the 20th or early 21st century. Benny Russell may not be dreaming this world, but Steven Behr is, as did Michael Piller and Rick Berman and Gene Roddenberry, and many others.

It is a created vision of a future—a better future in significant ways, as Benny’s vision is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As Benny insists, his DS9 does exist, because he imagined it and wrote it, and “you read it,” you saw it. It’s on film and tape and digitally recorded. Millions have shared this story.

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