Friday, May 27, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: Yesterday's Enterprise

The Next Generation, Season 3
"Yesterday's Enterprise"
Airdate: February 19, 1990
62 of 176 produced
62 of 176 aired

Introduction

The Enterprise encounters an odd space anomaly. While investigating, a ship emerges. It appears to be the Enterprise-C, a predecessor to our Enterprise...or so reports Lt. Yar, suddenly standing on the bridge of the Enterprise-D. Somehow, history has been changed. Yar never died on Vagra II and the war with the Klingons never ended. The only person onboard who seems to sense the change is Guinan, who must now convince Picard that the Enterprise-C is somehow connected to the changed timeline and convince Picard to set things right.

Sorry, Wesley-haters... this is the only main cast death you'll get.

Writing

Kevin: Well...where to start? This is a serious contender for best episode of TNG, hands down. This episode is great on just about every level. The time travel/alternate timeline plot is a clever twist on the standard restore the timeline plot. What I find most appealing is how the hard science fiction and the emotional core play off each other. The emotional scenes are given tension and high stakes by the science fiction elements, and the science fiction is lent vitality and energy by the emotional currents between characters. It's a great example of how neither Asimov's austere narrative nor "soap opera that happens to be in space" are the only two settings for science fiction (Disclaimer: I love both Asimov and several space operas, I'm just saying their synthesis is a hell of lot of fun). The romance between Yar and Castillo is a great example. Both the romance itself and the science fiction plot that stands in the way of it were credible and engaging, and both benefit as a result.

Matthew: Apparently the writers and producers were not big fans of Roddenberry's kiss-off to Tasha Yar the first time around, so they tried to amend it somewhat here. She definitely got a better send-off here, and it set up a pretty cool Sela story that allowed Crosby to come back. I do think, though, that there could have been more interesting ways to handle that. Why not just bring Crosby back and say she's 20 years older? The had the makeup to do it. Why not send the ship back empty and let it get destroyed? That way you bypass the whole "kill 125 to save 20 billion" ethical quandary. The whole science aspect of the alternate universe was left a little undeveloped. Is that an alternate quantum history that will persist beyond sending the C back, or is it a closed time-like loop that ceased to exist when its cause is eliminated?

Kevin:  A highlight of the episode is how well the alternate universe was realized and how perfectly pitched the differences were: captain's logs that reference the Enterprise as a warship, not a starship, the masculine computer voice constantly announcing briefings and trainings, etc. Picard displays none of the academic curiosity about a ship that traveled through time that our Picard would. One of my my favorite changes is setting the briefing in the ready room and not the conference room. Aside from the awesome claustrophobic feel, it telegraphs some important differences. It's not a round table discussion, it's a lecture. Picard explicitly rejects the idea of consulting his crew on his decision. Our Picard would never do that, and it's a subtle but really effective way of displaying how the war has changed everyone.

Matthew: One thing I really like about this episode is that there's no shouting. The drama plays out in the same format as any TNG show - relatively hushed tones, conference room scenes, and the like. There is no reason to have people running around like headless chickens, and shaking the camera to indicate "You Are Supposed To Feel Drama Now!" The drama arises organically from the situations, the dialogue, and the acting. I do find it a bit odd that the same characters are on the Enterprise. You'd think that some more military types (like a non-alien MacDuff) would be there. Or that Data would have been taken to Maddox's lab and duplicated, so that there would be a dozen on each ship. If Ten Forward is just a place to eat TKL rations, what is Guinan's job? None of these are fatal flaws - it would just have been nice for this to be an arc, so that we got more episodes and time to explain these sorts of things.

Kevin: The philosophical elements are pretty daunting and really well presented. Are the lives of the Enterprise-C crew worth the billions of lives cost in the war? Does Picard get to decide that? To really drive it home, there should have been something that was completely better in this universe, or at least known to the viewer that way. I suggested in the podcast, and I still think it would have rocked, they could have thrown in a scene or dialogue snippet that reveals Jack Crusher is still alive. But that's not really a criticism; it's more that the episode is so awesome, I just want additional footage.

Matthew: He should have been the first officer, and Riker would be "number two" (heh, heh). Or Riker could have been captain of the Aries or something. Picard's resoluteness in sending them back should have been backed by a bit more from Guinan. It seemed to be implied that there was "more" of the verification that Picard was demanding from Guinan, but that it maybe got cut for time.

Kevin: I also like the restraint the episode showed. They did not go out of their way to make sure everyone and everything had a counterpart, e.g. Worf commanding a bird of prey. It's a sin they are going to commit A LOT in the DS9 mirror universe episodes. Some scenes showing Troi as the battle-hardened interrogator would have been neat, but again, I just want this episode to be longer because it was so awesome.

Matthew: Outside of the fact that the bridge crew was mostly the same, I agree. They may have been saved by this by the savage economy they had to demonstrate. Given five more minutes (a la TOS), we might well have seen Worf demanding they surrender. I say this also because of the gratuitous deaths that were cut for time and budget - I think if the writers had been given more to play with, they might have filled that time with "cool" but ultimately silly stuff (for some reason, the initials J.J. enter my mind here). But this is a strength - each of this episode's 45 or so minutes was necessary and well-utilized. There isn't a boring or slow bone in this show's body.

Acting

Kevin: Patrick Stewart was fantastic. He pitched his intonation just the tiniest bit differently and made Picard simultaneously recognizable but completely different. We he stage whispers "The war is going very badly for the Federation," I still get chills. It's a credit to his delivery that a foreboding of doom about a fictional universe inside a fictional universe should be so affecting. Whoopi Goldberg also turns in another awesome performance. Her scenes with Worf and Geordi that cap the episode were lovely, and particularly for Worf, character building. Her intensity, like with Q and the Borg, is so gripping because it is so rare.

Matthew: Indeed, Patrick Stewart's is the performance that will either sink or sell this episode. He can't be the  erudite archaeology buff, but he also can't go off the deep end too much and become Captain Ahab (I'm looking at you, First Contact... and Insurrection... and Nemesis...). He hits all the right notes in order to seem like the same "basic person" (whatever that means) but one who is responding to a whole new universe. Gates McFadden stands out as someone who is doing this, too. She is less outwardly empathetic and gushy, but still reads as the same person. Speaking of empathy, I feel a bit shortchanged as well by the lack of Troi - she could have been a uniformed member of Crusher's staff, counseling soldiers with PTSD and shell-shock.

Kevin: There's something lovely, but bittersweet, about Denise Crosby's return. She's really good, no two ways about it. Her chemistry with Christopher MacDonald was solid, and her confusion and eventual resolve about her death were well played. Additionally, she slipped into place with the other main cast so well. It's like she never left and it's probably due to her friendship with the cast. It pays dividends in the episode insofar as I found that Enterprise crew to have as much history and ours, even though we had never seen it. The sadness comes from realizing it was in fact just some singularly shitty dialogue they put in her mouth first season that made Yar so two-dimensional and from thinking about what might have been had she stuck around.

Matthew: All of this is true, which makes her vampy Sela a bit of a downer. She can clearly act. I could see her doing really well in a show like The Twilight Zone - which is a little bit of what she got here, hearing the "alternate history" of her life.

Kevin: Tricia O'Neil and Christopher MacDonald possibly ended up with the most technically challenging guest acting jobs in franchise history. Going in cold, they had to make sure the audience believed them as the senior crew of the Enterprise. If they failed, not only would the characters suffer, but the plot would. I needed to be able to hear the name Garrett sandwiched in between Kirk and Picard and have it sound right, and happily she knocked it out of the park. Particularly in the scenes with Picard, she acted like his equal, and in her scenes dismissing Crusher's concerns, she was every part the captain of a starship named Enterprise. MacDonald had great chemistry with Denise Crosby, and his line about seeing a man twenty years older looking at her across a crowded room was particularly moving. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You have to commit to science fiction acting and dialogue to make sure the fantastic feels real, and both main guest starts delivered in spades.

Matthew: Michael Dorn gets a short little teaser (and a bit of the denouement), and does well. His reaction to prune juice and his somewhat forced laughter at Guinan's suggestion that he date human women were really good. I am starting to notice Frakes when he is not the center of a scene - he doesn't do as well in limited dialogue as some of the other actors. It's not that he's bad so to speak, he just seems to be pressing a little.

Production Values

Kevin: Trying to pick a favorite element of this episode is like trying to choose your favorite child, but production values might just edge out the other two, even though I would never tell them that. As with any great production opus, it expands the canon in a myriad of ways, both important and not important to the plot of the instant episode. The Enterprise-C is a top notch design inside and out. It looks like the perfect midpoint between the Excelsior and the Galaxy class starships. We get the same Okudagram styles from Peak Performance and The Battle, making their eventual appearance in ST:VI all the more gratifying. I liked that the ship appeared a little smaller than you would expect. It implies things about the time period that are fun to extrapolate on. 

Matthew: I agree in general, but not with "inside and out." As far as the bridge of the C goes, it was a pretty obvious redress. I understand that they can't build a new set to the same level as a main bridge (and redress the main bridge to boot), but it didn't impress me. Nothing on the Enterprise C did, really, except for the Okudagrams. The model itself was super-cool in terms of shape. It's great to see a circular saucer again, but the engines were much closer to TNG. I kind of wish it had a few more windows - it looked like a smaller ship than the Excelsior class.

Kevin: The Enterprise-D bridge redesign is fantastic. They took advantage of better video monitors for the aft station, and the side stations are great additions, ones they will revisit in Generations. I liked the redesigned uniforms with the solid collars and cuffs. I was not a huge fan of the shiny belts, but it wasn't debilitating. I liked Wesley in the full ensign uniform. This is more a writing note, but I LOVED that they didn't talk about it or draw attention to it. The audience was trusted to infer that Wesley would not have dilly-dallied with studying science in this universe. He went right to the academy. Also, I want that nifty concentric circle diagram with the Enterprise in the conference room.

Matthew: They did a great job populating the halls of the D with extras. Having that many extras, and having all of them seem rather male and tough, really differentiates things with the "prime universe" in a way that's relatively subtle but easy to feel. All of the audio really helped, as you mentioned, with the background announcements.

Kevin: The battle sequences were a little weak, but they made up for it in volume. Three... THREE...birds of prey. The explosions are the best they were going to be unless they had the budget for a full explosion or until the advent of cheap CGI, so they were the best they could be, but they weren't bad by any stretch.

Matthew: It will be interesting to see what the rumored TNG remaster will do to these kinds of scenes. The Klingon disrupters seemed a bit anemic, both visually and in sound effects. The void effect was also a bit lacking - it was quite reminiscent of the Nagilum "hole in space." Does it matter to the story? No. But I noticed it. The Okudagram showing the symmetry of the hole was super cool, though.

Conclusion

Kevin: This episode gets a five because Matt won't let me give sixes. Some BS about internal statistical integrity or something. Anyway...this episode is great top to bottom. The only thing that might allow another episode to unseat it as the best of TNG or Star Trek overall is you need to be at least passingly familiar with TNG to find it so impactful. The Yar reveal means nothing if you don't know she died. Other top tier episodes, like City on the Edge of Forever are a touch more self contained. In any case, as a fan who has seen the episode, this episode is why I love Star Trek. The writing is intelligent and layered. Complicated philosophical questions are packaged well with gripping personal drama. The acting is first rate, and it's all wrapped in a package of top-notch special effects. The only thing wrong with this episode is that it stops at the 43 and not the 143 minute mark.

Matthew: I've been playing devil's advocate because I think both of us gushing and agreeing wholeheartedly would make for a boring review. I love this episode, and it's an obvious 5. It was mind-blowing when it premiered 21 years ago, and it's still mind-blowing today. I remember thrilling to it as a 13 year old, dubbing it onto my VHS "best of" compilation tapes, and pondering the temporal mechanics of it all. This show really has it all - thrilling battles (e.g. Picard vaulting the tactical console to fight the Klingons while going down in flames), thrilling dialogue (e.g. Picard's pre-battle speech, his dire prediction to Garrett), romance (Yar and Castillo), tragedy (ditto), mind-bending Sci-Fi (duh), and even some humor (prune juice). It's the Trek style and format used to its fullest. So our ratings bring this to an obvious but well deserved 10.



1 comment:

  1. Yeah this is a great episode. I especially like as you guys have pointed out the little details about the enterprise that would be different on a warship as opposed to a exploration ship.

    ReplyDelete