Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky actually wrote this review next week—and just messed with your timeline.
"Is that all this meant to you? Another temporal anomaly, another day at the office?"—Q (John De Lancie), "All Good Things…"
My friends, future events like these will affect you—in the future! No seriously, I mean, they will affect you in the future, because somewhere down the road you are likely to end up buying a few of these episodes again in yet another Star Trek set. Sucker.
Facts of the Case
You've already seen these. Now you are seeing them again. But they are exactly the same. Are you caught in a temporal loop? No, you are watching recycled episodes of Star Trek in yet another Paramount "fan collective" multi-disc set. Thrill to the exploits of James Tiberius Kirk and his original posse as they face the American military-industrial complex so that the future Federation can boldly go. Watch Captain Picard and company overanalyze to the point of stopping time entirely, at least for the audience. Chuckle knowingly as Deep Space Nine gets back Trek's sense of humor—and goes a little pomo. Finally, endure Voyager. They don't call it "Year of Hell" for nothing.
This is the point in the review where I cart out the theoretical apparatus. I am supposed to talk about the structure of time, perhaps quote from my book on science fiction, like I did back in the Star Trek: Fan Collective—Borg review. I am supposed to tell you how our psychological awareness of time operates in reverse of our physical experience of time. We anticipate the future, and thus psychological time depends on the future first, then present, then past. And it is in the fact that our sense of time is flexible, reversible, that the "time travel" story is anchored. We use the time travel plot to reassure ourselves that the past really does affect the future, that the continuity of time is a safe means of achieving closure and reinforcing causality.
I could talk about all that stuff, but I won't. Oh, you seem to recall me doing that? Well, that was in another time line. We've gone back and changed it. You see, if we take a look at this chart…
It wouldn't do me much good to apologize at this point in the review for the crucial problem with time travel stories—even the ones on Star Trek: continuity problems. Most time travel stories have logical gaps that you could pilot a Dyson sphere through. So, up front, I just want to say, don't think too hard about the plot points in these episodes. The effectiveness of any Star Trek time travel episode is not how much scientific sense it makes. This isn't hard SF by any means. Any Trek time travel episode works by how effectively it uses the time travel conceit to tell a fun story.
Got it? Now…away we go.
First, given Paramount's penchant for organizing these episodes in order of "stardate" (a silly notion to begin with, given all the time hopping), you may notice the absence of any of the "temporal cold war" episodes of Enterprise. One point to the fans who allegedly voted on this one.
The Original Series Adventures, or The Timeless Sex Appeal of James T. Kirk
We forget sometimes that real science fiction writers penned episodes for the original Star Trek, not the TV-trained guys who wrote for the later shows. Technobabble was minimal, and hard science was almost non-existent. In the case of "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," a "black star" slingshots the Enterprise to Earth in the present day (that is, the late 1960s). Stock footage jets chase the ship. Every time travel episode invariably hinges on a paradox. In this case, as in most such stories, the paradox in DC Fontana's script is how to avoid changing the past.
Looking back, I am impressed by how much the energetic acting on Trek sells the story, where the threadbare sets might otherwise detract. Compare this to the later shows, where the hard edges of the performances have been sanded down, and the sets and production design sell us on the story more than the actors. People give William Shatner a hard time, but he is thoroughly convincing as Kirk. (His notorious excess would come in the third season, when Rodenberry was pushed upstairs and Shatner became de facto leader of the cast.) Check his hilarious "here we go again" shrug when the Enterprise beams up a second 60s military guy. But there are some unintentionally surreal moments too. In one weird exchange, Kirk greets the rescued pilot Captain Christopher with the same seductive voice he deploys on alien lovelies in go-go boots. Slash enthusiasts should savor the moment. The amount of exposition provided by Kirk to Christopher makes this a nice starter episode for newcomers who might have only grown up with the newer Trek shows. Still, the episode does play a lot of this for laughs. Technical advisors Michael and Denise Okuda play along on their text commentary, gleefully pointing out continuity errors and ways the producers tried to create the future on a low-budget.
Although there were several time travel episodes in the original series—all of which deserve a spot in this collection (at least more so than Voyager's "Endgame")—if you had to only choose one, it would be "City on the Edge of Forever." Hell, if you only had to choose one episode of any Star Trek series to represent the best elements of the show, it would be this episode. "City on the Edge of Forever" begins in a fury: McCoy gets nailed accidentally with too much of a dangerous stimulant, flies into a paranoid rage, and escapes through a time conduit on the planet below. The script, famously penned by the irascible Harlan Ellison, moves quickly, sparing little time for exposition (something Next Generation never quite learned how to do without).
You know the rest: Kirk and Spock hop through the "Guardian of Forever" in search of McCoy, Spock cobbles together technology in Depression-era America, and Kirk flirts with Joan Collins. If "Tomorrow is Yesterday" played time travel for camp (the Enterprise as a UFO and Kirk as, in his own words, "a little green man"), "City," taking its cue from Jack Finney's classic novel Time and Again, plays time travel as romantic tragedy. The Depression-era setting (and references to the coming World War) adds a dark tone. And because the episode can use backlot city sets, it looks more realistic than the cardboard sets the show is usually stuck with. The script dances around Edith Keeler's obvious utopian socialism, probably because openly making her a socialist in the late 60s would have been trouble. She is always haloed in light, saintly and pure: Major Barbara without the religious baggage. And Kirk, motivated as always by his groin, wants to save her and wreck history.
Speaking of which: given "City's" interesting production history—or at least Harlan Ellison's well-worn tales of making this episode—I am surprised that there are no supplemental features (text commentary or whatnot) to go along with this one. Point to the fans for picking this one (although it was almost too obvious); point against Paramount for treating this like a minor effort.
The Next Generation Years, or Can Expository Hot Air Close a Temporal Rift?
Star Trek: The Next Generation handed out temporal anomaly episodes like they were candy. Most of these were not really "time travel" stories, which were more of an original series thing, but some sort of logical paradox that might arise from a glitch in causality. This was always implied in actual travel episodes (how can we avoid changing the future?), but the focus was invariably more narrow. Not so much a tour of the past as some logical puzzle arising from our misunderstanding of the rigidity of causal order.
In "Yesterday's Enterprise," the real continuity glitch is one created by the producers two seasons before. When Denise Crosby wanted out of her contract as security officer Tasha Yar, the powers-that-be decided to use her departure as an opportunity to show that Next Generation was not your daddy's Star Trek. So they killed off Yar. When Crosby's movie career stalled, she was available to drop by for a cleverly written episode which reverses the usual time travel set-up: our heroes stay still and somebody else travels through time to come to them. To wit: a wormhole dumps an earlier Enterprise in front of Picard's crew. The resulting change in the timeline (the other Enterprise was supposed to be destroyed in a battle that would prevent conflict with the Klingons) turns our heroes darker and more militant. Worf never makes it to the Enterprise, although Michael Dorn makes up for it with a cute scene in the teaser where he trades sexual innuendo with bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg).
But the temporal paradox of the week does allow Tasha Yar to stride the bridge once again (since she wouldn't have died back in Season One). This time, she gets to go out heroically. Although, if you've seen later seasons of Next Generation, you know that the producers cancel out Tasha's heroic death completely with an ill-used subplot about her half-Romulan daughter. Let's not talk about it.
Moving along, we've got "Cause and Effect," a Season Five entry. A time loop results in the Enterprise repeatedly blowing up. I suppose this is a concession to fans who, well, wanted to see something blow up. So they get it—over and over. I suppose it is better than the endless stretches of exposition you get on this show. Kirk was too busy flirting to listen to technobabble. Apparently, they put saltpeter in the food about Picard's Enterprise, because everybody defers their libidinous energy into talking and talking and talking.
This repetition is best captured in one of Next Generation's most popular methods of establishing continuity: the poker game. Poker is, in a way, a repetitive game. Hand after hand, the same structure: shuffle, pass the cards, bet. But each cycle also differs in slight ways, as the cards form new patterns. Statistically, over a long period, the anomalies would appear to smooth out, but they are always there. And they in fact do not smooth out: they cause increasing entropy, so that a system no longer becomes predictable. This is a natural consequence of closed mathematical systems: disorder undermines the predictability of the system. Cause and effect assumes a predictable order to time. But entropy destabilizes causality—and therefore predictability. Our ability to predict the future is thus really only an anticipation. We can expect a particular future, but that future will always be waylaid by the destabilizing effect of otherness, alterity, the random and unexpected occurrence. In narratives, that other, the alienness out there, takes many forms. In science fiction, as I have pointed out elsewhere, it often takes the forms of actual others, subjects that invade our familiar space. However, the episode "Cause and Effect" localizes the problem to a particular psychological effect: deja vu. In deja vu, predictability is reversed. The present is redefined as a future experience somehow happening now. That is, I know this happened once before, and that past now brings this present into relief as if it is the future. We are living in a future that is replaying some event from the past. Deja vu traps us in a time warp. "In deja vu, you only think you are repeating events," says Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). But in a Trek narrative, "you actually are." Narrative can make the psychological and philosophical problem manifest. And the solution to this problem is couched in the logic of entropy: the anomalies in the closed system progressively pile up until the characters notice the repetitions, change their behavior, and collapse the loop.
Ironically, this interesting puzzle, which you will note we deliberately talked to death, makes for a strangely dull Trek episode. Seeing the same sequences repeat (without the benefit of commercial breaks to break up the pattern) gets tiresome. It is a clever problem, and I suppose the conceit of blowing up the Enterprise was meant to spice things up. But this episode points up the key difference between the original series and Next Generation. The original series tried to create an aesthetic experience first and layered its intellectual inquiries inside that (at least in the better episodes). Time travel was an excuse for Kirk and company to get in trouble. "Cause and Effect" has all the adventure of doing a sudoku puzzle.
The only unexpected treat is a cameo by Kelsey Grammer.
When Next Generation did do an old-school time travel episode, the result was a bit of a mess. In the two-parter "Time's Arrow," Starfleet finds Data's head in a San Francisco archeological dig. The Enterprise heads off to a planet of shapeshifting, energy-sucking aliens who have set up shop in the 19th century, just at the doorstep of Mark Twain (Jerry Hardin, who was much better as Deep Throat on The X-Files). While it might have been neat to see some of 19th century San Francisco (Emperor Norton would be a welcome sight), instead, we spend most of the time, probably due to budget constraints, hanging around indoors with Twain and Guinan. Yes, here we establish that Guinan is extremely long-lived and has been hanging around as the Enterprise bartender all this time basically waiting to close this time loop. And forget about that love affair with Ted Danson.
I suspect that "Time's Arrow" began as two scripts—energy vampires and time travel—that were stuck together in order to make two fairly cliché premises seem fresher. But that is not the worst of it. I know a bit about Mark Twain's biography, which makes me wonder exactly when this episode is supposed to take place. This is the white-suited, elderly Twain, the public celebrity, who covered personal bitterness and financial ruin with a joking manner. I suspect the real Twain would have been delighted to meet real aliens and time travelers, not get upset and try to stop them. But this Twain is neither clever nor complex. He is a gimmick. And the joke of making the bellboy Jack London (in reality an angry man who eventually committed suicide) is pretty shallow. This smacks of writers who did not actually do much research sitting around and saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if we threw some historical figures in here?"
Instead of "Time's Arrow," I would have recommended Paramount include "Parallels," a better late-series effort in which Worf slips into parallel realities. Sure, it introduces that creepy relationship subplot that paired off Deanna Troi and Worf (was there ever a more mismatched couple in Trek history?), but you do get to see another Enterprise blow up toward the end. That's got to be worth something, right?
Speaking of that Troi/Worf relationship, the series finale actually opens with—brace yourself—a romantic scene between this icky pair. Then, we go into the inevitable exposition: Picard (Patrick Stewart) tells us about being unstuck in time before the episode actually shows it. Welcome to "All Good Things…"
Twenty-five years in the future, the retired Picard tends his family vineyard; a younger Picard visits Enterprise for the first time. All three Picards are really a showcase for Patrick Stewart, an actor whose talent was often muffled by the inanity of technobabble and moral fortitude that came from Picard's mouth. For the most part, "All Good Things…" hits enough emotional resonance to make a solid series finale. We bring Next Generation full circle, with Picard's plight a further step in the trial of humanity staged in the series pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," by the Q (John De Lancie, who always chews scenery with gusto). It also jumps ahead to show potential fates of the Enterprise crew, although subsequent events in the movie franchise have undermined these predictions.
Looking ahead, it is interesting, actually distressing, to see how much the Voyager finale borrowed from this one, minus the ambitious "saving the universe" stuff. Captain from the future engages with past version of self; first officer is heartbroken over death of sexpot true love because of the alternate time stream. Ok, now I am getting irritated, and I'm not even at the Voyager episodes yet.
By the way, Star Trek: The Next Generation ends with the poker game.
The Deep Space Nine Stories, or Here's Where We Remind You That This Is Star Trek
I sometimes get the impression that Deep Space Nine was a little insecure. The premise of the show initially tried to change the ethical dynamic of the Trek cosmos. Instead of visiting other worlds (and imposing Federation moral order on them), aliens—presumably novel aliens from another galactic quadrant—would come shopping. Yes, DS9 was a giant orbiting shopping mall. Consider it another form of colonialism.
By late in the series, the shopping mall concept was mostly dropped for a darker war story. And the aliens turned out to be, well, much like us, which is par for the course on Trek. The Ferengi, for example, were meant to be a sophisticated trading empire. But they were really a joke, their culture an illogical mess. (If any race openly cheated as much as they did, nobody would deal with them. Let's not mention their obsession with "human females.") And, while its initial premise was to set itself apart from the rest of the Star Trek universe, the show spent an awful lot of time reminding us that it was a spin-off. Hmm, Michael Dorn is done with Next Generation? Let's move Worf over to DS9, so fans can see that we are really a part of Star Trek continuity. Audiences think Trek should be about trekking? Let's give Sisko and company a ship (the Defiant), so that they can fly around to other planets. We can even throw in the "mirror universe"—you know, the parallel timeline where the Federation is evil?
Speaking of which, how about those time paradox episodes? Got to have a few of those. Hey, let's drop Sisko (Avery Brooks) into the past (in "Past Tense") and make him the Edith Keeler-style revolutionary. Or what about the premise of "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," with Trek characters as, um, little green men?
Yes, "Little Green Men." Quark (Armin Shimerman) and company visit 1947 and are mistaken for Martians by Area 51. Charles Napier is the gruff general, of course. It is a funny episode, played for pure camp. The Okuda commentary focuses on the truth behind the 1947 Roswell cover-up. Hopefully, the real aliens had better personalities than the Ferengi.
The other episode included here "Tribbles and Tribulations" recycles, well, "The Trouble with Tribbles." The story is a flashback. Sisko relates the plot to a pair of "men in black" from the Federation temporal anomaly department: in order to catch a Klingon spy, the crew has to time travel back to James T. Kirk's Enterprise. According to the Federation, Kirk had "17 separate temporal violations." Of course he did. But he did it with style.
Another manifestation of the temporal anomaly story that we should mention here: revisionist history. Few films have so egregiously abused this as Forrest Gump, which put Tom Hanks into Boomer history in an effort to whiten it up. "Tribbles and Tribulations" uses the same digital insertion tricks to place the DS9 crew into the original Trek's most memorable comedy episode, including a face-off with Kirk himself. Here is also the first effort to acknowledge the differences between original series Klingons and new Klingons (although Worf begs off on details). The episode itself is cute and holds up on its own. And best of all, it is fairly reverent towards the original "Trouble with Tribbles" while maintaining a sense of humor.
The Journeys of Voyager, or The Myth of Sisyphus
The original Star Trek looked to time travel as a way to situate the utopian future of the Federation within the context of Earth history. Next Generation used the temporal anomaly storyline to explore character identity: how does the individual evolve through linear time. DS9 treated time travel as a postmodern lark: how does DS9 play off of narrative structures within the science fiction genre (b-movie alien invasions; older Trek plots). Voyager reduced the time travel story to mere plot device and an opportunity to rip large chunks off the hull of the ship. That is, what if Voyager does not make it through the galaxy with its shiny paint job completely intact week after week?
You know the myth of Sisyphus, right? The guy rolls a bolder up a hill, it rolls down, and he rolls it up again. Over and over. It is often a metaphor for the futile gesture. Just going through the motions, repeating the same actions but getting nowhere. That point is truly brought home with this set's pair of Voyager stories in one clear way: one of the two stories is repeated from the previous "fan collective" set. Yes, "Endgame." It was not a particularly good example of a Borg episode; it is not a particularly good example of a time travel episode.
For those who have somehow forgotten, I'll refresh you on the plot: Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) from the future, after Voyager got home, decides to go back in time to help stop a Borg threat that killed Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). She succeeds in helping the ship return home earlier, thus saving humanity from 23 more consecutive seasons of a lousy show.
It is not clear exactly what motivates the elder Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) to visit this particular moment in history. Sure, she apparently has aims to save Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan)—and thus save Chakotay (who survived the trip home but apparently spent his whole life pining for Seven, which sounds rather implausible). Her goal is to save her whole crew. Well, why not just go back to some earlier point in Voyager's journey? Why that point, if there was no guarantee that the conduit (which in the elder Janeway's timeline was never used) would work in the manner intended. Why not just—oh, I give up. The writers of "Endgame" just did not know how to end their show, so they decided to cram in a bunch of "finale" moments—defeat the lead villain, have a temporal paradox, kill off a major character, and so forth—rather than construct an organically coherent story. Besides, if you bought that Borg set, you already paid for this, so the fourth disc, which only contains this series finale, is pretty much useless.
Instead, enjoy the more tolerable "Year of Hell." Voyager undertakes a brutal journey through a sector of space formerly ruled by a small empire. Kurtwood Smith guests as a mad captain with access to a temporal weapon that he is using to alter the timeline to restore his empire to greatness. The story is really an excuse to tear up Janeway's ship, as the ship is progressively shredded with each battle against the aliens, the crew picked off, and Janeway reduced to sending most of the survivors off in escape pods. This is exactly the sort of entropic attrition that the show threatened when it first premiered: without resources or respite, Voyager's journey through the Delta Quadrant was supposed to show us a downhill slide for a crew that would become increasingly desperate and tense as the series continued. But Trek could never stomach being that dark, and so no Lord of the Flies situation arose. Instead, everyone quickly made friends and seemed to improve their ship and conditions the more the series wore on. Thus, Voyager became actually less suspenseful as it progressed. (Compare this to the much more interesting Battlestar Galactica, where Ron Moore and David Eick have been sure not to improve conditions too much for the humans as they run through the galaxy, offering just enough hope to prevent emotional collapse, but not making our heroes too successful or comfortable. So far, the balance has worked, keeping the show tense.)
If "Year of Hell" succeeds, it is because it finally delivers on the promise to give Voyager exactly what the episode's title promises. On the downside, knowing that this is a temporal anomaly episode defuses much of the genuine suspense: you suspect from the start that Voyager will eventually stop the bad alien, restore the timeline, and restore itself in one CG-enhanced stroke. Still, there is some good writing in this episode. For example, some time is devoted to exploring the interrelationships among beings in a causal system. Erase one element from the timeline, and causal threads reconnect in new ways. When Chakotay (Robert Beltran) joins forces with the evil Annorax (after being kidnapped), he offers to erase a comet that might have diverted Voyager so as to not interfere with Annorax's plans. The proposed new timeline would erase 5000 civilizations, all the result of that comet's interference in the timelines of other worlds. An interesting ethical problem. And unlike Next Generation, it doesn't get talked to death, since we have to move along to more fightin' and blowin' stuff up.
Did the fans really pick "Endgame" twice? And "Time's Arrow?" Oh well, I guess sometimes democracy has its downside. In any case, there is at least one classic episode in this set ("City on the Edge of Forever"), several pretty good ones, and only a couple of duds. What is really disappointing is the lack of supplemental features. Text commentaries are nice, but these really tend to lack substance. For example, the commentary for "Yesterday's Enterprise" spends way too much time talking about fanboy-turned-writer Eric Stillwell. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but was this really a viable substitutive for some background on "City on the Edge of Forever" or "All Good Things?" How about a featurette on the special effects behind "Tribbles and Tribulations?"
On the whole, as with the Borg set, this Star Trek: Fan Collective—Time Travel set is for the casual fan of the show who doesn't want to collect full seasons. There is nothing here for hardcore fans. Besides, temporal anomalies being what they are, I'm sure we'll see Paramount repackaging all this stuff yet again. You just cannot escape "Endgame."
The court warns Paramount against catching fans in a time loop by packaging the same stuff over and over. Charges are dropped against the original series and Deep Space Nine. Warnings are issued toward Next Generation and Voyager. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Text Commentary on "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," "Yesterday's Enterprise," and "Little Green Men"
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