Benjamin Sisko is now Benny Russell, an African-American writer for Incredible Tales Magazine, discussing comics with a newspaper vendor (Nog) before heading to work with his co-worker, Albert Macklin (O'Brien). Joining Benny in the office is Kay and Julius Eaton (Kira and Bashir), Herbert Rossoff (Quark), publisher Douglas Pabst (Odo), and artist Roy Ritterhouse (Martok). One sketch by Ritterhouse resonates with Benny: a space station. When a memo goes around the office that pictures of the writers are being requested, both Benny and Kay are asked to "sleep in late" by Pabst. As far as the readers know, Kay (who writes under a pseudonym) is a man and Benny is white, and Pabst would prefer to keep it that way, to Benny's chagrin. The ugly truths of the era's prejudices continue to rear their ugly heads when, while walking home from work, Benny finds himself confronted by two racist police officers (Dukat and Weyoun).
On his way home, Benny is singled out by a preacher (Joseph) who espouses the glory of the Prophets, and beseeches Benny to write the truth in his heart. Moved by the preacher's words and inspired by the drawing of the space station, Benny immediately sets to work in his modest apartment writing a story. As he comes up with the name of his protagonist, "Benjamin Sisko", he opens the blinds to look out the window — but rather than seeing his own reflection, for a brief moment, he sees his protagonist, Sisko.
Benny finishes his story and shows it off to his friends at a diner the following morning: Cassie (Kasidy), a waitress and his girlfriend; Willie Hawkins (Worf), a rising baseball star combating prejudice in the major leagues; and Jimmy (Jake), a disillusioned petty criminal. Jimmy isn't so sure that the story would make print. The suspicion is confirmed when, even though most of Benny's coworkers commend his story, Pabst takes umbrage with the protagonist of Deep Space Nine and refuses to print it on the basis that the lead character is black.
Benny is disheartened. Walking home that evening, he is approached by the preacher once more, asking Benny to walk with the Prophets and to write the words that would lead them to righteousness. Undeterred, Benny sets to work writing a new story, typing into the night another story of the adventures of Benjamin Sisko. Throughout the next couple of days, Benny keeps having strange visions, seeing the people in his life as characters from his story; Kay as the feisty Kira, Willie as the proud warrior Worf, and Cassie as Sisko's love interest Kasidy. These strange visions distress him greatly, leading Benny to think he's losing his grip on reality and becoming Sisko.
The following day, Pabst explodes on Benny for continuing to write Sisko stories. Albert suggests ending his story as though it was all a dream, which may be the only chance that Benny has to have the story published at all, so he leaps at the opportunity. Benny is beside himself with joy at finally having found success in his writing, and goes out partying with Cassie to celebrate. He is approached once more by the preacher, who cautions Benny that this is only the beginning, and the path of the Prophets would lead into darkness and despair.
Shortly afterwards, gunfire rings out. Benny goes to investigate, and sees Jimmy dead on the streets, shot while trying to break into a car by the police officers that harassed him some nights before. The two officers brutalize Benny and beat him within an inch of his life for hitting one out of anger, with Benny seeing them as the villains of his story.
After taking a few days to recover, Benny heads back to the office to see his story finally hitting the shelves. Unfortunately, when Pabst returns from the presses, Benny learns that the entire magazine had been pulped by the bosses. Benny believes the magazine was pulped because of his story. To make matters worse, the head publishers, who pulped the magazine based on Benny's story, have also fired Benny. Benny finally loses his grip, calling out everyone in the room and passionately defending not only his humanity, but Sisko and everything pertaining to Deep Space Nine: "You can pulp a story, but you can't destroy an idea!"
Benny suffers a nervous breakdown and is taken away in an ambulance. While being taken to a hospital, he is approached one last time by the preacher, who commends Benny for walking in the path of the Prophets. When Benny looks out the windows of the ambulance, he sees a field of stars zooming by him as the Prophets' preacher calls him "the Dreamer, and the Dream" ...
Benjamin Sisko awakens, having only been unconscious for a brief time. The neural abnormalities have subsided. Benjamin and Joseph enjoy one last chat before Joseph returns to Earth, with Ben, inspired by the dream he had, vowing to stay on the station and see things through to the very end. What if, however, that his dream wasn't a dream? What if Deep Space Nine, and everything Sisko knows, are nothing more than figments of the imagination of a writer from far beyond the stars?
- Actor Allusion: There's a note from the editor on Herbert's desk rejecting the idea of a story about a cheerleader who kills vampires. Armin Shimerman was playing Principal Snyder in Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the time.
- All Just a Dream:
- Probably. Sisko does wonder at the end whether his vision of Benny was all fantasy or whether Benny's vision of Sisko is the fantasy. And it was actually intended for a bit to reveal at the end of the series that the entire show (and presumably the rest of the Trek franchise) was a story that Benny wrote.
- One of Benny's colleagues also suggests this as a solution to get his "unrealistic" story about a black captain printed by adding a dream reveal at the end. The publisher still rejects it.
- Ambiguously Muslim: Russell is shown wearing a taqiyah, which was strongly associated with the Nation of Islam during the 50s, yet also seems taken-in by the Christian street preacher.
- And You Were There: The people in Benny Russell's world resemble those in Benjamin Sisko's (except without rubber foreheads, etc. where applicable). In a few instances, Benny even hallucinates a few of them as their DS9 counterparts.
- As the Good Book Says...: The preacher naturally quotes from it, but Joseph Sisko does too, surprising Ben as he never knew him to do this. It's one of the few references to a real mainstream religion in Star Trek.
- Bittersweet Ending: No question, Benny's plight is a straight-up Downer Ending. But when he wakes up as Sisko again, he feels renewed energy toward "fighting the good fight."
- Bashir finds that Sisko is experiencing the same synaptic potentials in his brain as he did during "Rapture".
- Sisko living weeks as Benny Russell within the span of a few unconscious minutes mirrors Picard living years as Kamin in about twenty minutes during "The Inner Light" in The Next Generation.
- Casting Gag: In Sisko's dream, Kay (played by Nana Visitor) and Julius (played by Alexander Siddig) are a married couple. In real life Visitor and Siddig had gotten married not long before this episode was produced.
- Celebrity Paradox: One of the writers Benny mentions when reciting the list for the current issue of Galaxy is Theodore Sturgeon, who also wrote two episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. So you have an episode of Star Trek mentioning a writer who wrote two episodes of the original series.
- Chewing the Scenery: Benny's breakdown when he's fired. He sure seems like he's going to take that table with him.
- Cigar Chomper: Roy Ritterhouse, Martok's character, frequently has a cigar while drawing.
- Continuity Nod: Worf's character, Willie Hawkins, is a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Willie Mays — same first name, team, and position, same rivalries, similar number (Mays wore number 24, while Hawkins wears number 42). It's not surprising that a Willie Mays-like character might appear in Sisko's vision of 1950s New York given his recent acquisition of Mays' rookie card last season...
- Crapsack World: This episode pulls absolutely no punches about 20th century racism, and the toll it takes on Benny and his friends. Nor the sexism, as the magazine keeps the fact that they have a female writer a secret.
- The Danza: In-Universe with Benjamin Sisko's counterpart Benny Russell. Some of the other counterparts also have similar names (Kay for Kira, Darlene for Dax, Willie for Worf, Jimmy for Jake, Julius for Julian), but others don't.
- Dirty Coward: Douglas Pabst is an example of moral cowardice; despite recognising that Benny being discriminated against is wrong, he does nothing about it and discourages Benny from making a fuss. (This is actually a bit of a leg up on his obvious real-world inspiration, John W. Campbell, who was an enthusiastic authoritarian and white supremacist.)
- Food as Bribe: Herbert threatens to quit because the donuts are stale. Pabst lures him back with a promise of fresher donuts tomorrow. "I'll even throw in a couple of crullers."
- Framing Device: Sisko's experience as Benny is framed as a vision sent by the Prophets to keep him from losing his resolve.
- Freak Out: Big time. All the racist abuse Benny deals with in his daily life comes out in a furious rant and ends up in a nervous breakdown.
- Heroic BSoD: Sisko starts going into one when he learns that his friend Quentin Swofford has been killed. The vision from the Prophets is meant to help him work through it.
- Homage: The writers here knew their '50s science fiction creators:
- Benny is based on Samuel R. Delany, right down to Delaney's story "Nova," which Analog magazine rejected for having an African-American protagonist.
- Albert Macklin, the writer of robots who eventually sells a novel to Gnome Press, is essentially Isaac Asimov; three guesses who Isaac first sold I, Robot to. (Asimov was also a science consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and inspired the concept of Data.)
- Herbert Rossoff, with his brusque demeanor, outspoken liberal politics, and uncompromising dedication to his craft, is Harlan Ellison by any other scream.
- Kay "K.C. Hunter" Eaton is based on Catherine "C.L." Moore, and the same reasoning underlies the use of initials. For the same reason, she's also a reference to Original Series and TNG writer D.C. Fontana.
- Jules Eaton, her husband, is Moore's husband Henry Kuttner, who was one of H. P. Lovecraft's proteges.
- Douglas Pabst is John W. Campbell, both at his best (a dedicated and influential writer and editor) and worst (eccentric, racist, sexist, and authoritarian). Campbell was the editor who rejected "Nova," and, through his effective monopoly, ensured there was almost nowhere else to go.
- The plot line about Benny's story is also inspired by the real world controversy surrounding the Comics Code Authority's refusal, on openly racist grounds, to allow publication of the EC Comics comic story "Judgement Day", by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando. The story in question was a Robots Enslaving Robots satire of racism, in which the twist ending was that the disgusted human observer of the racist alien robots, whose face had been hidden in a spacesuit throughout the story, was revealed to be a black man. William Gaines's disgust at this caused EC to finally stop publishing comics altogether.
- Finally, Rossoff lists the writers in the September 1953 issue of Galaxy when he threatens to join them: Theodore Sturgeon (writer, "Shore Leave" and "Amok Time". Also making it a case of Celebrity Paradox), Isaac Asimov (see above), and Ray Bradbury (who never had a direct association with Star Trek, but he did have a starship on The Next Generation named after him). Sturgeon really was the writer of the cover story of the real-life September 1953 issue of Galaxy.
- Historical In-Joke: It's difficult to read, but according to Word of God the note from the editor on Macklin's typewriter is saying that "Four Laws of Robotics is one too many."
- Hope Spot: For a time, Benny is overjoyed that it looks like his story will be published after all. Then he's savagely beaten by two racist cops who have just killed Jimmy, spends weeks laid up, returns to work only to learn that the publisher had pulped the entire month's issue of the magazine rather than print Benny's story, and is then fired as well. On top of all that suffering, he suffers a breakdown and is carted away to a mental hospital.
- Hypocritical Humor: Rossoff derides the cliched picture of a scantily-clad beauty menaced by a bug-eyed monster, then immediately picks it for his story.Rossoff: That is the worst piece of garbage I have ever seen.
Ritterhouse: Thank you.
Rossoff: I'll take it.
- Insane Troll Logic: The idea of a Negro commanding a space station in the future is rejected by the editor because it's not realistic. Rossoff retorts, "And men from Mars are?"
- It Will Never Catch On: Played for laughs with the Buffy memo (see Actor Allusion), and far, far more seriously with Benny's story.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
- Herbert Rossoff is abrasive, self-important, and ill-tempered, but he's also Benny's staunchest defender, disgusted by Pabst's moral cowardice.
- Willie Hawkins is pretty arrogant and constantly hits on Cassie, but he's friendly enough to Benny and seems genuinely concerned for him when Benny freaks out at one point. He's also quite friendly and appreciative towards his young fans, happily indulging them mobbing him for autographs.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Sisko is looking directly at the camera when he's pondering whether his life is merely the creation of some science fiction writer.
- Mars Needs Women: One of the sketches Roy Ritterhouse comes up with (which the writers then have to create stories for) is of a beautiful, scantily-clad woman being menaced by what looks like a giant praying mantis. The writers scoff at the cliche, but that doesn't Herbert from offering to write it.
- Match Cut: Dr Bashir hands Sisko a PADD showing his symptoms, and we instantly cut to Benny being handed a copy of Galaxy in 1950's New York.
- Most Writers Are Writers: In the alternate timeline, most of the main cast members are writers or other staff for a science fiction magazine.
- Mythology Gag:
- The March 1953 cover◊ of Incredible Tales and the September 1953 cover◊ of Galaxy feature references to the original series. The stories listed on the Incredible Tales cover are all original series episodes, credited to their actual writers—including "The Cage" to Gene Roddenberry. "Court Martial", listed on the Galaxy cover, is credited to "Samuel T. Cogley," Kirk's attorney in that episode.
- The Incredible Tales cover also features the Delta Vega station from "Where No Man Has Gone Before", and Galaxy has a painting based on Starbase 11 from "Court Martial" and "The Menagerie".
- Nightmare of Normality: The crux of the episode, with Ben Sisko (Emissary and Starfleet captain) deluded into believing himself a sci-fi writer in the 1950s.
- Nothing Personal: Pabst tries to argue this over Benny being excluded from a photograph being published of the staff writers, but Benny certainly takes it personally.
- Police Brutality: The detectives shoot Jimmy to death because "he had a weapon" (a crowbar used to break into a car) though it's indicated he wasn't actually threatening them. Benny hits one of them in anger over this, and they then brutally beat him, even when he's on the ground. Earlier, they give Benny trouble outside his place of work even though he wasn't doing anything.
- Politically Correct History: Defied, unlike TNG's visit to the past, in which Geordi and Guinan both seem to have no difficulties in Mark Twain's San Fransisco. The widespread societal and institutional racism against African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights US, both in its subtle and open forms, is openly acknowledged and is the main theme in the episode's plot. Additionally, the second-class status of women is shown.
- Precision F-Strike: Douglas Pabst/Odo utters the religious-based epithet "for Christ's sake". This was the first (and to date, only) time it was uttered in Trek franchise history and was one of the few times it had ever been heard on an American commercial television series. Even in the late 2010s it is rarely heard, even on cable/streaming.
- Precision N Strike/N-Word Privileges: Jimmy tells Benny exactly what white people will "always" see black people as, even in the future. This marks the only time the N-word is used in the entirety of Star Trek. Notably, this went uncensored on a PG-rated family show (although both this and the previous entry are sometimes bleeped out in reruns).
- Race Lift: In-universe, Pabst only agrees to publish Benny's story if he changes the captain's race to white. Benny doesn't budge.
- Raygun Gothic: Particularly in the drawing that Roy Ritterhouse does of the space station, which looks just like it would have had the series been created in the Fifties.
- Reality Ensues: During the Cold Open, Sisko and Kira are going over casualty reports. Sisko notes that while the cast (and writers) have been acting as though retaking Deep Space 9 was the lynchpin that would cause the Dominion War to fold in the Federation's favor, it's still going strong.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Even as he's slipping into a Heroic BSoD, Benny Russell delivers an epic one to Pabst, and by extension the magazine and the entire system, before losing it completely."To hell with you, and to hell with Stone! [...] Call anybody you want! They can't do anything to me. Not anymore. And nor can any of you. I am a human being, damn it. You can deny me all you want, but you cannot deny Ben Sisko. He exists! That future, that space station, all those people, they exist, in here (points to his head), in my mind. I created it, and every one of you know it. You read it! It's here! You hear what I'm telling you? You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea! Don't you understand? That's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is real! I created it and it's real! It's real!"
- Red Scare: A newspaper headline announces REDS TEST H-BOMB. Later Rossoff loses it when Pabst accuses him of being a Communist.
- Schrödinger's Butterfly: The episode ends with Sisko wondering whether he is real or merely the creation of Benny Russell.
- Shout-Out: The red model rocket◊ that sits in the middle of the office resembles the X-FLR6 from the Tintin stories Destination Moon and Explorers On The Moon.
- Something Completely Different: The main story of this episode is about a writer facing racism in the '50s, with the main cast playing a different set of roles.
- Spot of Tea: As an Englishman, Julius is unimpressed by one particular vision of the future—instant iced tea!
- Streaming Stars: As he's being carried off in the back of an ambulance, Benny looks out the rear windows and sees stars streaming past the window like a spaceship at warp.
- Then Let Me Be Evil: Jimmy has chosen to embrace a hoodlum lifestyle, since he feels that white people are always going to treat him as a criminal and/or inferior person just because of his skin color and will never give him any quarter even if he is a perfectly law-abiding and well-behaved citizen, so he has decided that since it is seemingly no use leading an honest life, he might as well try to profit off of dishonesty and crime. Sadly, his choice leads to him being gunned down by racist police officers without just cause.
- United Space of America: The drawing of a space station has USAF markings.
- Visions of Another Self: A nearly episode-long instance of it.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: The writers spend a great deal of the episode sniping at each other (especially Julius and Herbert), but they're clearly fond of each other despite it.
- Why Didn't I Think of That?: One of the writers wishes he'd thought of using It Came from Outer Space as a title.
- You Cannot Kill An Idea: Invoked almost word-for-word during Benny's rant.