Monday, February 14, 2011

Top 5 Trek: Time Travel Stories

This is a list of what I (Elizabeth Calderon) consider to be the Top 5 Star Trek Time Travel stories. In compiling this list, I had to differentiate between episodes that could be considered “Anomaly Stories,” e.g. “Cause and Effect” (TNG), “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (TNG), “Time Squared” (TNG) and stories that are considered to be “Time Travel.” For instance, in “Time and Again” (VOY), Janeway and Tom Paris, through cracks in the space time continuum, are sent about twelve hours into a devastated planet’s past (before the disaster). Is this an “Anomaly Story” or a “Time Travel story?” Sometimes it’s a little difficult to make the judgment call, and ultimately it’s up to the viewer. So without further ado…

5. Trials and Tribble-ations (DS9)
“Aren’t you supposed to be an attractive young brunette?”

This is an episode that must belong on any “Top 5 Time Travel Episodes” list.

Plot Breakdown: The Defiant is thrown back in time by an embittered Klingon ex-spy. The spy plans to get his revenge by killing Captain Kirk, change all of history, and become a hero of the Klingon Empire. The crew of the Defiant must ensure that Kirk lives to keep the timeline from being irrevocably changed.

The technical hurdles of putting these two episodes together are impressive. The model of Deep Space Station K-7 no longer existed. The model had to be rebuilt, and the designers had to watch the original episode repeatedly to get the model exactly perfect. They were unable, at first, to figure out what the symbols on the upper portion of the station were. They eventually figured out that it said K7, but because of the windows, the letter and number were obscured.

They also had to rebuild a model of the original Enterprise. Because the model that hangs in the Smithsonian has been subtly altered and refurbished over the years, the designers again had to review old footage to ensure that their model was perfect. They knew how rabid Star Trek geeks are, and that any and all inaccuracies would be lambasted.

They also had to reproduce the Klingon uniforms, and apparently the belt buckle was a bit of a mystery. It was figured out that it was made of something ridiculously simple, like cardboard or something. I apologize, but I’d have to rewatch the special features to remember exactly what those buckles were made out of.

The end result is amazing. The overlaying of new footage onto the old is seamless. The picture is stunning. The attention to detail is flabbergasting. Dax and Sisko’s reaction when they step into the corridor of the Enterprise for the first time is genuine; the actors hadn’t seen the set yet, and they were stunned.

Furthermore, the tone of the episode is lighthearted, which remains true to the spirit of the original. There are many zingers thrown in (“songs of the Great Tribble Hunt,” “He had the hands of a surgeon,” “I’m a doctor, not an historian), and it lends to the overall greatness of the episode.

The time travel aspect is also entertaining and relevant. If Kirk dies, then the entire history of the Federation will change. No one can argue that Kirk wasn’t one of the most influential Captains in Federation history. If he dies in the middle of his original five year mission, the course of the Federation’s future is drastically altered. Who even knows what the consequences could be? (Then again, if Kirk dies then the events of ST:V The Final Frontier would have never happened, but who are we to quibble?)

Lucsly and Dulmur from Temporal Investigations are also a hoot. When Sisko says that his crew would have been the first to know of any changes to the timeline, their combined reaction is great. “Why do they always say that?”

The one small problem I have with this episode involves the Orb of Time. If the Cardassians had had the Orb of Time in their possession for who knows how long, why didn’t they use it to go back in time and prevent the Bajoran uprising? Or go further back in time and plunder Bajor earlier in its history? Arne Darvin and Kira seemed to have no problem operating it, so what was the deal with the Cardassians? Are we to assume that the Prophets prevented the Cardassians from using it to inflict more harm on the Bajorans? If that’s the case then why did the Prophets allow Bajor to be exploited and ravaged in the first place? Why didn’t the Cardassians use the orb to turn the tides in their war with the Klingon Empire? TOO MANY QUESTIONS!

4. Future’s End (VOY)

“What do you mean we don’t have time to go rent a Katharine Hepburn movie? I do a great impression!”
I’d like to point out that I wasn’t necessarily trying to have all series represented on my list (you’ll notice that Enterprise does not make an appearance), but rather I was down to two Voyager episodes that I had to choose between. I’d already decided the other four stories.

The two episodes I was torn between were “Future’s End” and “Relativity.” How did I solve this conundrum? I did what any rational person would do and watched them back to back. In the end, my decision was quite clear – “Future’s End” was the winner.

This episode has already made an appearance on Matthew’s Favorite Tom Paris episodes, and it is (in part) Robert Duncan Neill’s performance that elevates the episode to the level it is at. The other contributing factors to this episode’s greatness are the humor and drama. Anytime a Trek episode blends drama, science fiction, and humor as well as it is here, the episode becomes one of the greats.

The drama? Well, the ship is attacked by another Federation vessel without provocation or seeming cause. Voyager makes it back to Earth, but, oh wait, it’s 1996! Starling is more concerned with his profit margin than the future’s end (sounds like he’d make a great Ferengi)! Captain Braxton is a crazy homeless guy! Paris makes an ill-fated romantic connection (usually Kim’s forte)! The doctor gets a mobile emitter and feels pain for the first time! Furthermore, I think it’s great that Rain wasn’t brought into the future with Voyager. I was never really completely comfortable with the concept of removing people from time (like Gillian in ST:IV). The fact that Paris and Rain can’t be together makes the drama more palpable and real.

The science fiction? Well, I think it goes without saying that time travel itself is science fiction.

The idea that future technology is actually responsible for the technological leap in the 20th century is science fiction. Although, this seems to present a paradox. How can the future where there shouldn’t have been a technological explosion, have developed advanced enough technology to travel back in time (and pollute the time line) in the first place? As Janeway said, “Time travel gives me a headache.”

The humor? The episode is loaded with it. Tuvok is called a freak-a-saurus. Paris’ idioms are a few decades out of whack. Janeway has a throwaway line concerning keyboards that I didn’t even recall until I’d rewatched the episode. She referred to “bearskins and knives,” which is an obvious reference to “City on the Edge of Forever.” Tuvok thinks burritos are appropriate breakfast (which, I don’t know, I guess McDonald’s eventually agreed).

3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (TOS)

This is the Star Trek movie that really brought more Trekkies into the fold. It has cross genre appeal.

Plot Breakdown: The crew of the Enterprise (returning home in a stolen Klingon vessel following the events of ST:III), must save the future from an evil probe by retrieving humpback whales from the past and bringing them back to the future. Because for some reason the probe can only communicate with humpback whales.

Errr… now that I just typed those sentences, the broken down plot sounds a little ridiculous, but somehow it works.

This movie makes the list in part because of the message it is trying to send, the strength of the performances, and the lightheartedness of the humor.

Some may argue that message is a little too preachy. Save the whales, save the environment, blah blah blah. But I also think that this is a creative way to present the message. After all, it’s not like this is the first time, nor the last that Star Trek has been preachy (unless J.J. Abrams remains in charge, then there will probably never be a coherent message in Trek ever again). But, you know what? It is important that we preserve our environment and not destroy it. This really is the only planet we have, and unless we learn to bend the laws of physics (as we understand them), we won’t be able to leave Earth for a new planet.

You can take the message even further and perhaps what the writers were also saying is that in reality you can’t travel back in time and correct the mistakes of the past. The present is all we have to rectify the problems on the past. If we continue to plunder our natural resources, future generations will suffer.

The performances are really spot on in this movie. Leonard Nimoy stands out as a Spock who is trying to figure out his identity. James Doohan also gives a terrific performance; a scene of note is when he provides the formula for transparent aluminum. Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley also give fine performances. I’m not leaving William Shatner out of this, but you know… his acting is pretty much the same, so there’s not much praise to dole out there.

The humor, ah, the humor. This is the original series cast at their lighthearted best. The actors seem to have formed an easygoing and comfortable rapport with each other. I know that much has been said about William Shatner being kind of a pain in the ass, but I’m thinking that by now, perhaps the actors have found their comfort zone with each other. The humor in this movie is exactly what perfectly counterbalances the preachy “save the whales, save the environment, blah blah blah.”

2. Star Trek: First Contact (TNG)

If only we could travel to the future and prevent Nemesis from ever happening.
This was, perhaps, the last good Next Gen movie. I think most people can agree that Insurrection wasn’t anything special and that (the horror) Nemesis was abysmal (I think Kelly put it best when she said something along the lines of, “The backwards E in the title was my first clue that something wasn’t right.”).

Plot Breakdown: The Enterprise-E travels back in time to save Earth from assimilation by the Borg. That plot breakdown sounded so much cleaner than the breakdown for ST:IV.
Again, this movie lives up to what I’ve decided are my criteria for great Trek: drama, science fiction, humor, great performances.

Drama: Oh, there’s plenty here. Picard comes to terms (well, sort of – he kicks the tar out of them anyway) with his excessive hatred of and anger towards the Borg. Zefram Cochrane’s warp ship is damaged and can’t fly to make first contact with the (do I really need a SPOILER ALERT?) Vulcans. Data is seemingly seduced by the dark side (oops, wrong franchise).

Science Fiction: Again, anything with time travel and changes to the future pretty much classifies as science fiction. The Borg: cybernetic life forms = science fiction.

Restoring the timeline factors heavily into this episode. If the Borg are allowed to assimilate Earth in the past, the Federation will never come to be and it’s very likely that by the 24th century the entire galaxy will be assimilated. Humanity will be destroyed, along with pretty much every other species.

What bothers me a little (and keeps this from being in the number one spot) is that it seems relatively easy for the Borg to travel back in time. What’s to stop the Borg from attempting this same scheme over and over again until they finally get it right? I mean, the Borg have an almost unlimited resource with their drones, so sacrificing a few to benefit the many wouldn’t be a stretch for them. In fact, that would fit perfectly within their hive mentality and general philosophy.

Humor: In a relatively serious movie, there really is some good humor. “Stop criticizing my counseling techniques!” Frakes and Sirtis really have an opportunity to show how well they play off each other in this movie. Also, Zefram Cochrane turning out to be a drunk. James Cromwell happens to be a gifted actor, and really plays Cochrane with the right amount of swagger, drunkenness, and intelligence. I could have perhaps done without the line, “Assimilate this,” but I’ll let it slide.

Performances: I think everyone does a fine job in this movie. Alfre Woodard is tremendously talented, and very admirably holds her own against Patrick Stewart. Their chemistry was very convincing and very heartfelt. I’ve already mentioned James Cromwell, and I’ll reiterate, he is incredibly gifted. Frakes and Sirtis give good performances. Stewart, I think, acts the hell out of this movie. This is one of his tour de force performances, and probably his last great Trek performance in general.

And finally:

1. The City on the Edge of Forever (TOS)

“You might be my one true love today, but I’ll have a new piece of ass lined up next week.”
There is just no possible way to not believe that “The City on the Edge of Forever” is the best Star Trek time travel episode. When an episode happens to be the greatest Trek episode of all time, it stands to reason that if it has an element of time travel, that it is also the best time travel episode.

So… drama, science fiction, humor, great performances.

Drama: This an episode chock full of drama. McCoy goes crazy, the past is altered in such a way that the Enterprise doesn’t even exist, Kirk falls in love (perhaps for real this time), Kirk has to sacrifice his one true love to save the future. Yup, that’s drama folks.
It’s also an interesting idea that a person who seems so normal and average, can end up being a potentially pivotal figure in history. If Edith had lived, the entire tide of World War II would have changed, and apparently the future would be drastically altered. But does this episode seem to indicate that pacifist ideas can be dangerous, or just dangerous at the wrong time? What political ideology can be taken from this?

Science Fiction: Not only does this draw on time travel, but it introduces the Guardian of Forever. This is a concept that many fans (myself included) wish had been expanded upon in future Trek episodes. What a neat concept! What beings created this incredibly powerful portal? Was the Guardian always sentient? What is it? Is it machine or being? This is a tool that could have been grossly abused, but somehow sat unknown and undiscovered for millions of years.

Humor: There certainly is a touch of humor in this episode. The attempt to explain Spock’s ears, Kirk not knowing anything about Clark Gable, the stealing of clothing, the comment about stone knives and bearskins.

Great Performances: Not only does Shatner give what may be his ultimate Trek performance, but Joan Collins is amazing. She brings such… hope and naivety to the woman who may be Kirk’s one true love. She is so convincing in her role, that you forget she is Joan Collins. The way Kirk falls for Edith is so utterly believable, that when you have to watch him let her die, it brings a legitimate tear to your eye. This is tragedy at its best.

No comments:

Post a Comment