Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: Time's Arrow, Part 1

The Next Generation, Season 5
Airdate: June 15, 1992
125 of 176 produced
125 of 176 aired

Introduction

The Enterprise is called back to Earth to investigate a startling mystery - sealed in a cave, untouched for 500 years, is a perfect duplicate of Commander Data's severed head. When the path of clues leads them to a cadre of aliens assaulting Earth's past, the crew finds it necessary to travel back in time to the 1890s. Can they preserve the past while also rescuing Data from his apparent demise?

Sometimes, two heads are better than one!



Writing


Matthew: Well, here's another time travel story. Do I sound weary of them? I kind of am, by this point. Luckily for us, it is used to achieve some actually interesting goals, here. By starting the teaser off with a severed Data head, we raise (not beg) all sorts of interesting questions about causation and fate. Data, for instance, is absolutely certain that if there is a head here, that means he must have it severed at some point in his future time line. Other characters chafe at this sort of fatalism, but Data chides them for being irrational. But really, how irrational is it? "We'll Always Have Paris," "Time Squared," and "Yesterday's Enterprise" all feature timelines that are go all wibbly-wobbly, or are apparently altered by the behavior of characters. Either way though, seeing the crew react to the news of Data's impending doom is very illuminating of relationships and character traits. So overall, I don't mind time travel if and when it is used to do something other than simply travel through time.

Kevin: I agree that the time travel elements of the story are, at worst, secondary to a more interesting plot. Obviously picking Data was the most shocking choice since everyone, Data included, believed he was functionally immortal. Despite going to the time travel well several times, Star Trek in general, and TNG in particular is usually very good about finding an interesting twist to tell a more interesting story, and the results can be among the best of the franchise. Here the focus on Data's death means that time travel is the problem, not the solution. Not time travelling at all would really save the day here.

Matthew: The 1890s scenes were a lot of fun. Mark Twain in particular was written very well, with a raconteur-ish flair and a decidedly accurate strain of misanthropy. It was a real treat to have a guest star take up so much time but not seem boring or trite at all. Honestly, I'd watch an entire show structured around the character. It was very cool to see Guinan as a "youngster" (around 300?) who was traveling around the cosmos apparently listening and learning from whomever she came across that was interesting. On the other hand, the obligatory Guinan wisdom scene was probably at its most forced here - apparently she set up her evanescent beverage for an hour before calling Picard down to Ten Forward, just to use it to illustrate a point about temporal mechanics.

Kevin: I agree with everything you said about Mark Twain. He really stole scenes, and not in a bad way. On paper, his portrayal may be a little over the top, but in practice, it really sings. I don't mind the whole drink scene. It was so much fun to watch it that I don't mind its slightly forced nature. Guinan has a low key enough approach to things, and given her advanced age, I can easily see her taking ten minutes to set up a point.

Matthew: Although I generally enjoyed everything that was going on in this episode, I could not silence my brain when it came to questions raised by the alien plot. Why in the name of Planet Hell do they suck the souls out of people from 500 years ago, hundreds if not thousands of light years away, except to give us a reason to go to the 1890s on Earth? It seems inordinately complex and unduly arduous to do so when there are apparently thousands of less developed contemporary star systems that could be harvested with a lot fewer eyebrows being raised. The Federation capital? Really? And we get yet another mushy "out of phase" concept. Just what does this mean, besides "invisible alien?"  Also, Picard and crew just blithely walk through the rift at the end of the show, without even cracking a tricorder open to scan it. We've just been told all episode that these aliens use fatal energies, are out of phase, etc. etc. Seems to me that walking through one of their energy rips in spacetime could have some deleterious effects.

Kevin: This is a problem that tanked the Matrix trilogy for me. I'm always bothered any time humans are a source of food for anyone. In the Matrix, whatever energy they were keeping the humans alive with would have been a larger, more efficient source of energy than the humans themselves. Here, what is it about humans they need? How did they evolve? Wouldn't similar, non-sentient primates work? Why not just have a monkey farm, and only invite the rage of PETA, and not...you know...the most resourceful crew on the most pimped-out ride in the Federation?


Acting


Matthew: The ensemble gets a lot of fun things to do here, with the Data-doom stuff. Spiner of course has the toughest row to hoe, maintaining his android emotional tone throughout everything, while still communicating enouch emotional context to keep us interested. He definitely succeeds. He also did well in his past scenes, modulating Data's earnestness just enough to seem realistic as someone trying to get along in an unfamiliar world. Burton plays Geordi as the pained friend, Frakes has a few fun scenes in which he denies behavior X, only to admit to it in the next sentence. And yet again, I enjoyed Sirtis as the counselor. So all told, this was a strong outing for the main cast, displaying a lot of enjoyable camaraderie.

Kevin: Troi miming Data's line about friendship actually chokes me up. Frakes has gotten much better and portraying a range of pissed off states that don't seem so "shouty." And this is easily one of the best examples of Spiner's understated acting skills. His earnest appraisal of his mortality on his self-image is interesting and heart-rending. And totally agreed on Troi. Speaking of time travel, here's a note to the writers of 1987: The only lines that should fall out of Troi's mouth should be about actual psychology or here complex relationship with her comrades. No pain. No loneliness. No deception. Thank you.

Matthew: Jerry Hardin was great as Mark Twain. Apparently, he really threw himself into the part, so much so that after this episode, he mounted his own one man show as Twain. Really, this is the image and the voice I think of whenever I read Twain or read about him. It's an indelibly great performance. Marc Alaimo is good fun as card shark Fred LaRoque, as is Michael Aron as the bellhop (we won't spoil his true identity until the next review). All of the period extras did a fine job, really.

Kevin: I liked the butler; he was fun. Marc Alaimo is always a treat, cause he can rock crazy-eyes like no one's business. And, damn, I was hoping you'd whiff on the mention of Hardin's one man show, so I could look all knowledgeable when I mentioned it. But yeah, he was awesome. I loved his speech about the origins of life with Guinan. It was simultaneously one of the most sophisticated and most brash, in-your-face smackdown of creationism the show has done, and that's credited largely to Hardin's gruff but smiling manner.

Matthew: Whoopi Goldberg turns in one of her best performances, despite the hackneyed writing in the bar scene. Her "young Guinan" really shows what kind of chops she has. She shaded the performance ever so slightly such that it immediately read as "young" to the viewer. That takes skill, and Goldberg clearly has it.


Kevin: I didn't really think about it until you said it, but you're right. There's a higher energy level to her delivery that absolutely reads as younger. I find it pretty easy to believe either she, the director, or both thought of how Guinan would have acted before the trauma of losing her people to the Borg, and it's done really well.

Production Values


Matthew: Apparently, the standard issue science-guy jumper is in fashion on Earth as well. The clothes for the most part were really nice, especially Guinan's period finery. I did not like, however, Data's shades-of-Neelix vest after the poker game. It seemed anachronistic.

Kevin: I liked Guinan's period dress as well, though it does make her issue about garters in "Clues" a little confusing. I liked the period San Francisco sets. I assume it was either a standing backlot or a ride at Universal Studios. Either way, it was well done. I enjoyed the pans of the city to give a sense of the size of the real San Francisco.

Matthew: The severed Data head might be the single best effects prop on the series so far, especially in comparison to the really bad one we saw in Datalore. It was a very convincing replica of Data, and the expression, glassy stare, and dirtiness, were really creepy and effective. The aliens looked pretty good, too. They really seemed otherworldly - it's too bad that they weren't re-used in the later season 6 episode "Schisms."  Planet Hell, though, looked pretty weak as the Devidia II cave. I thought Wesley and DErgo were going to pop up unexpectedly.

Kevin: Agreed on the head. I wonder what happened to it. It's eerily realistic. The design of the aliens was good, and the blurry, blue ambiance washed out enough details to make them really "other." The caves were ho-hum, but I wouldn't say they were "bad" by any stretch.


Conclusion


Matthew: This probably would have been a 5 had the alien plot made more sense. But overall, this is still a 4, given its sheer entertainment value, good emotional tale, and the fine performances littered throughout. I always have a lot of fun watching it.


Kevin: This episode holds a bit of a special place in my heart. Like I said in my "Why I Like Star Trek" post,  this episode started me recording all of TNG. I watched Part I on a Saturday right before the premier of season 6, and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss it, and I didn't realize that the weeknight episodes were not in sequence, so my father ended up recording five episodes in the back half of season three (Sarek, The Most Toys, etc.) before getting to Part II of Time's Arrow, and after that we just kept going. Whatever else the episode's issues, I remember really, really wanting to know what happened. I remain highly entertained by it these many years later. I agree with the 4. The acting and production elevated this out of average, but the slightly forced set up keep it from being extraordinary. That makes a total of 8.

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