"Time's Arrow, Part I"
Or The One Where Data Finds His Head
It's funny, sometimes, how a show can learn all the wrong lessons from its successes. And by "funny," I mean, "irritating as heck." No one is denying that "The Best of Both Worlds" was a brilliant hour and a half of television. After an increasingly self-assured third season, TNG upped its game in impressive fashion with one of the best cliffhangers in the history of genre TV; and whether or not the resolution lived up to the reveal of Picard as "Locutus," on the whole, it was as well-crafted a two-parter as one could hope to have. It was an event which, for once, fully managed to justify its status as something special and distinctive, as opposed to simply existing because the show's creative team decided they wanted to goose ratings. This was a story that needed more than just a single episode to tell, given its scope and its subject, and its popularity, and lingering impact on the Trek universe, were both richly deserved.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate, then, that instead of taking this clear demonstration of the heights the series was capable of as an inspiration to keep striving, TNG has apparently decided that two part episodes—more specifically, two part episodes in which part one serves as a season finale, making the cliffhanger conclusion all the more teeth-gnashingly frustrating for fans—are less a form to be saved for the kind of plots that deserve them, and more something that has to be pulled out every year, whether or not the writing is good enough to support the extra focus. We've already dealt with the fall-out from this. While "Unification" certainly deserved extra focus because of its guest star, Leonard Nimoy, the two-episode structure led to an inordinate amount of padding, and a storyline which felt lumpy and distracted, less than the sum of its most effective parts. Another part of the problem here is also the show's on-going struggle with serialization; a rebellion within the Romulan empire is the kind of concept that's too big for a single episode, but also too nebulous and slow-moving to support a two-episode structure. Compare "Unification" with the long-form disintegration of the Klingon empire which played out over two seasons. The Klingon mythos wasn't perfect, but it helped create a much stronger sense of the show being larger than it really was. "Unification" just made the Romulans look a little more ridiculous.
It's too early to tell just what "Time's Arrow" will look like when it's finished, but after watching "Part I," my hopes are not high. We've got time travel here, a trope which TNG has handled ably before, but one which can lead to all kinds of confusion and lazy writing when mishandled. We've got two cliffhangers: Data's apparent death in the general sense, and Picard and the others sudden disappearance in the more specific. We've got potential back-story for Guinan, although I'm less excited about that then I once was. We've got a lot of terrible fish-out-of-water comedy. And we've got some actual honest-to-god monsters, which I'm generally a fan of, although they seem terribly confusing here. There are potentially interesting ideas floating throughout this episode, but hardly any of them really stick. While I hesitate to dismiss "Arrow" out of hand, seeing as how I haven't watched the second part yet, I don't think it's too out of bounds for me to suggest that this isn't anywhere near TNG at its (And then you wake up and you're someplace else
"The Inner Light"
Or The One Where Picard Takes The Longest Flute Lesson In History
No one's ever asked me why I care so much about genre fiction, despite being so regularly disappointed and frustrated by its myriad of false starts and failures, but if they did ask, I'd say that I'm fascinated by possibility. Science fiction, fantasy, even horror, appeal to me for any number of reasons, but the big one, the one that makes it so painful to see yet another clone of last year's—or last century's—hits trundle off the assembly line, is what the best stories can do to us when they don't have to pretend to be real. Admittedly, no fiction is ever "real" in the strictest sense, given its tendency to confirm the haphazard and fumbling exigencies of life into plot, but genre fiction doesn't have to bow its head to the grim dictates of common sense. Genre fiction, so long as it provides its audience with some small familiar core to hang on to, can do anything, create any world, violate any law. Gravity can be overcome, death can be denied, and time itself might bend or curve or even break, should an author require it. Great genre fiction—more to the point, great science fiction and fantasy—makes us reconsider the reality we take for granted, so simply and beautifully that we can never go back to where we thought we were.
Few shows ever strive for this, and fewer still achieve it. TNG has vacillated between ambitious, mind-bending stories and more traditional space opera fare, but while the series has had a great number of successes up to this point, "The Inner Light" still feels singular. It's an off-format episode; apart from a handful of scenes on the Enterprise, most of the episode has just a single regular cast member, and the emotional power of the episode comes entirely from this singular character's journey. Despite the initial set-up, there are no problems to be resolved here, and, apart from one brief scene, little in the way of danger. Of the story's two central crises, one solves itself, and the other turns out to have passed long ago. There are no action sequences; no striking alien designs; no sense of galactic import or epic doom. Well, maybe a little of the last—the story is, after all, structured around the slow death of an entire civilization. Except we only see a very small part of that civilization, and the point is less epic, and more personal. But we'll get to that.
As far as beginnings go, though, nothing marks "Light"'s cold open as particularly out of the ordinary. The Enterprise is exploring a sector, they find a probe that looks a bit like a lightning bolt, and Picard gets hit by some flashing light. He collapses, and when he wakes up, he's in a modest stone home somewhere, and a woman calls him Kamin and says how grateful he is that his fever broke. Picard is understandably non-plussed by this, and tries every way he can think of to break the spell, or program, or illusion. So far, so normal. While getting knocked unconscious and mentally transported to an unfamiliar world may be an unusual event for us, for Picard, and most of his crew, this is practically a biweekly occurrence. Trek history is full of people waking up in strange places, with aliens who tell them "Huh? You've always been here! This is totally your beautiful house, wife, etc. Now come over here and explain to me the defense systems of this imaginary 'starship' you keep going on about, and then we can build us a rocket."
No, what makes "Light" so effective, and so striking, is the passage of time. Picard wakes up as Kamin, in what he eventually learns is Ressik, in the Northern Province of Kataan. The concerned woman at his side is Eline, Kamin's wife, and she's as kind and patient with Picard's questions as she can be, even though she doesn't seem to understand them. Picard goes for a walk in town, meets Council Leader Batai, and gets the general impression that wherever this place is (while they give him the name of the town and planet easily enough, it's not something that provides him with much context), it's full of terribly nice people. But that's often how it starts, isn't it? You don't get brain-napped, and find yourself surrounded by slavering psychopaths hell-bent on destroying everything you care about. Well, all right, that can happen, but like I said, so far, none of this is outside the range of our experience, Trek-wise.
"Light" cuts back to the bridge of the Enterprise, where Riker is attempting to assess the situation while Beverly and her assistant do their best to determine what's happened to the captain. I'd never seen this episode before this week, but I knew the premise; when I was a kid, a family friend had related the whole thing to me and my father one night, and it was such an amazing concept that it stuck with me ever since. Some shows are actually better appreciated this way, I think, like that episode of the '80s Twilight Zone about the box with the death-dealing button. Thankfully, "Light" is quite a bit better than "Button, Button," but I did manage to form my own conception of the ep over the years, and I was surprised that there were any cuts back to the Enterprise at all. I understand why they did it, at least on a functional level; it at least gives the rest of the cast some reason to show up for work (though Troi is absent, probably because she might've been able to figure out what was happening too soon, I guess), and, more importantly, it helps us jump forward in time whenever we return to Picard-Kamin after seeing the "real" Picard passed out on the bridge.
At one point, Riker has Geordi and Data break the stream of energy that's passing from the probe into Picard, in an attempt to disrupt whatever hold the probe has on the captain. It goes poorly, and back on Kataan, Picard-Kamin suffers something that looks quite a bit like a heart attack, only recovering when Riker lets the energy beam get back to its business. This is the only contact between Picard and his crew for nearly the entire episode, and certainly the only time Riker and the others are able to inflict any sort of change on whatever's happening. Traditionally, in this sort of story, Geordi and Data would've made every effort to figure out someway to circumvent whatever was holding Picard in its sway. While Picard pushed the boundaries of his mental prison, the rest of his crew would go through a trial and error process until finally, through some combination of luck and ingenuity, both storylines would meet up, and Picard would force his way free with the help of the others.
That doesn't happen here. After they block the beam once, and Picard nearly dies, Riker essentially gives up try. Actually, that's not quite right—it's more that there really isn't enough time for him to find and attempt another solution, because, on their end, Picard is only unconscious for twenty-five minutes. As well, on Picard-Kamin's end, instead of obsessively continuing his quest to get back to his real life, Picard eventually gives in to the evidence of his senses and accepts that Ressik is where he belongs; that Eline is truly his wife; and that no matter how many times he views the stars in the night sky and feels a pang of longing, there's nowhere else for him to go. And the pang fades, as such pangs always do eventually. Over the years-
Yeah, that's a big concept right there. Let's not rush by this. What truly distinguishes "Light" from every other episode of this sort is its understanding of the concept of time. Picard doesn't spend twenty-five minutes as Kamin. He doesn't spend twenty five hours, or days, or weeks. Picard lives somewhere in the area of forty years as Kamin, and in that time, he fell in love with his wife, had a daughter and a son, and the daughter grew old enough to marry and have her own child. In this time, Picard invests in his community, and watches the encroaching signs of destruction as drought begets drought, and the sun begins to die. And then the people of Kataan launch their probe, and the ghosts of Kamin's past explain to him how all he has seen is their attempts to pass on their culture to a stranger, someone who'll remember them long after they are gone. And then Picard wakes up on the bridge, in his old uniform, his young(er) body, and all the friends he spent so many decades putting behind him staring at him in concern. He's been gone to them for less than half an hour.
I suppose I could find points to criticize here. The culture of Kataan is never specifically defined, and sometimes comes off more as a New Age paradise than a specific place in need of being remembered. By the end of the ep, all really know about Eline and Batai and their people is they're terribly pleasant, and they have ceremonies for their children. Oh, and they have schools, because Kamin's son drops out to be a musician. And of course, there's the flute that Picard spends so much of the episode learning to play. As well, I'm not entirely sure it works to the episode's benefit to have the cuts back to the Enterprise at all. It would've been possible to indicate the passage of time in other ways, and the story works best if we're locked into the same mystery as Picard. It smacks a little of the writers backing down from the strength of their premise, trying to make it more user-friendly by reminding us occasionally that, yes, Riker and the others haven't been written off the show, and Picard will be back in the red and black soon enough.
But those cuts represent maybe a tenth of the overall episode, and my resistance to them could very well be the fact that I've spent so long with an imagined version of "Light" in my head. As for the supposed blandness of the Kataan people… I don't care, and I don't think it matters that much, because we're not here for a history lesson. Besides, the probe the Kataanese send out is designed for one use, on one person. (How lucky are they that it discovered Picard? Can you think of anyone else capable of surviving an experience like this without losing his mind? Between this and the Borg, Jean Luc is officially a super-human.) They're not trying to bring the ways of Kataan back to the universe. No single probe could encapsulate an entire race, and entire world. Not even forty years would be enough to pass on a whole civilization.
What possible memorial could serve for the lives lost, for the way of life forever destroyed? Perhaps nothing more than to let someone somewhere know that there was a place once, and the people in it loved and were loved, and then they died. The specifics aren't important. Sometimes, just knowing there was beauty, and that it is lost, is enough, and in the end, all that's left are some memories, and a flute, and a single line of melody. Also, the lesson that the most important time is the time we have, and our only true duty to ourselves and those we love is to make the most of it. "Light" is an expertly constructed episode, one that ably demonstrates the potential of genre fiction to astonish us and move us in equal measure. And it manages to be beautiful, hopeful, and devastating all in a single final scene.
- Patrick Stewart is just amazing in this. The episode wouldn't work without an absolutely tremendous actor at its center, and, as always, Stewart delivers.
- This was the first TNG episdoe to win the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation.
- Man, Meribor looked an awful lot like Debbie Gibson.) best.
Evidence has been discovered of the existence of extra-terrestrials on Earth from waaaay back in the past. The Enterprise is called into investigate, most likely because one of the pieces of evidence discovered is Data's head, which surely he'd be interested in examining. And it is his head, as an examination back on the ship soon determines, which makes everyone depressed because, well, losing one's head is not a great indicator of longevity for anyone. Data seems to be only person not bothered by this discovery; as he explains to Geordi, he appreciates the knowledge that he is mortal, as he believes that this makes him more human. This isn't a bad concept to explore, but the sight of Data's head is so odd, and the circumstances under which it's found so puzzling, that it's hard to take any of the discussions seriously.
Because really, if you found a friend's head buried five miles under San Francisco, and you learned that it had been there for five centuries, well, I'm betting your first reaction wouldn't be "Oh my god, [friend] is going to die!" Obviously at some point you'd be concerned (especially since he still owes you that twenty bucks from Comic Con), but I think the initial, "What the hell is going on?" response would take precedence. Sure, the Enterprise has dealt with time travel before, and I suppose you could say they're clinging to the most easily graspable concept in the middle of all the crazy, but it still comes across as awkward, and, justifiable or not, more than a little like padding.
While all this discussion is going on, the Enterprise heads off to Devidia II to investigate the situation still further. There they find a glowing pool and, at least according to Troi, a whole lot of people trapped and in agony. There are life forms on the planet, but they're just a second or two out of phase with the Enterprise away team. There are ways to deal with this, but the only person who can do the necessary calculations fast enough is Data, whom Picard had ordered to stay aboard the ship to try and avoid the whole time travel, head-loss problem. But of course Data winds up on the planet anyway, and he phases in with the aliens, who are glowing and freaky and have this big snake that they're feeding. Then Data goes through a glowing doorway, and winds up in San Francisco, to 1893.
If "Time's Arrow" had been lumpy but inoffensive to this point, once Data shows up on Earth in the 19th century, things get actively painful, as we're forced to deal with scene out of scene of unfunny, draggy fish-out-of-water comedy. It's not as bad as Lwaxana, thankfully, and Spiner's straight-forward straight-man performance always helps take some of the bite out of the worst jokes. But again, none of the characters he meets, not the comic drunk or the comic bellboy, are setting the world on fire. There's something of a "City on the Edge of Forever" vibe here, as Data quickly focuses his efforts on trying to put together some kind of machine. (There's also the fact that 19th century San Francisco looks just as much a set as 1930's New York did in "City.") But since Data is alone, he's forced to play off the locals for conversation, and it's just a whole pile of not much fun.
Then Data sees Guinan's photo in the newspaper, so he heads off to see her—only she doesn't know him. Yet. Ah, time travel. Our Guinan had made some comments earlier, most notably to Picard, that suggested this sort of thing might happen, and from what she says to Data, there's definitely a story here; she doesn't seem at all bothered by his appearance, even though she doesn't specifically recognize him, and she asks him if her father sent him to bring her back. Who knows what's going on there, and considering how little we still know about Guinan, it would be nice to find out some more about her past. Yet her interactions with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain (Jerry Hardin, aka Deep Throat from The X-Files) are wince-inducing, and the knowledge that Clemens will be back for part two fills me with dread. Yes, we get it, it's fun to write pseudo-witty things for Twain to say, and we all like to see famous people in time travel stories, don't you know. But it doesn't work.
Truth is, not much of this does. Some of it's boring and irritating, and some of it is very creepy and weird, but so creepy and weird that it almost doesn't really belong in a TNG episode. Really, this feels more than a little like a Doctor Who script that's been edited to fit a larger cast. There's the time travel, of course, but the bizarre alien menace also has a very Who feel to it, particularly the scene where a well-dressed couple shots the drunk Data met earlier in the episode with some special weapon, draining him or freezing him or something. At the end of part I, Picard and the others finally get a glimpse of the glowing monsters, and that freaky snake thnig, and then they pass through to follow Data back to 1893. As cliffhangers go, this is weak sauce. The mysteries of whether or not Data will be killed, and just what the hell those glowing creatures are up to, are intriguing, but given how slipshod "Arrow" was, I find myself not all that interested in what happens next. But I suppose I'll find out eventually.
- This wasn't a great episode, but I have to love a show that can casually throw out lines like, "Yeah, we found Data's head five miles beneath San Francisco."
Next Week: All right, announcement time. I can officially confirm that I'll be covering Deep Space Nine, so y'all can stop bugging me about it. For right now, I'm planning on starting DS9 after I've finished TNG, even though the two ran concurrently. If you think this is a horrible mistake, please let me know in the comments. Next week, we'll be looking at the first TNG movie, Star Trek: Generations. See you then!