"Time's Arrow, Part II"
Or The One Where The Rumors Of Data's Death Turn Out To Be Greatly Exaggerated
I can't help but wonder if I'm being punished for something. Last week, I sat through Star Trek: Generations, but I was confident that I still loved this show enough to keep covering it without taking a break over the summer. Oh sure, it was tempting. Whenever Todd posts one of those articles about "New TV Club Classic," I feel like I'm getting picked last for the softball team or something. (Yes, I know this is stupid. Maybe that's where the punishment comes in?) I like new things, and y'know, I have been writing about Trek for a couple years now. Last time I had a break was when I covered The Prisoner for a couple months, when I was still writing about TOS. It's easy to get impressed by the amount of time I've invested, and to start dithering about how, hey, I want to do one of the serious shows, I don't wanna just be "the Trek guy." But really, I'm lucky to have what I have, to get to keep writing about a franchise I honestly do enjoy, and get paid for the privilege. There are much worse things than being "the Trek guy."
None of this was precisely on my mind when I sat down to endure "Time's Arrow, Part II," but I did begin the episode with the complacence of having made a decision that I believed was both easy and fundamentally sound. Within minutes, my beliefs were shaken. "Time's Arrow, Part I" was terrible; "Part II" is, amazingly, worse. It is, quite possibly, the worst episode of the show I've seen since the first season. Yes, worse than "Cost of Living." (Okay, it was better than "Shades of Grey," but I tend to skip that one, as it's a clip show, and shouldn't count.) And probably worse than a bunch of other episode I said were horrible. And you know Hitler? Totally worse than Hitler! I—sorry. I'm a fan of Samuel Clemens, and I liked Jerry Hardin on The X-Files, but by the end of this ep, I wanted Hardin dead and Clemens to have never been born.
Well, okay, not really. I do quite like Huckleberry Finn. And in case this hasn't been made obvious by the sheer electronic tonnage of hyperbole I've unleashed in these pages (how can you have electric tonnage? Because my words are made of MAGIC), when I'm irritated or bored by a TNG episode, I tend to go overboard; if I didn't enjoy myself watching the ep, the least I can do is try to enjoy myself when I'm writing about it. "Arrow" is pretty bad, though, and Samuel Clemens is one of its biggest problems. What little narrative momentum the story manages to build stops dead whenever he comes on-screen; he's an irritating caricature who serves no purpose beyond padding out the running time in order to justify the two-part structure. Which is even more exasperating when you consider how how much of this episode feels weirdly under-developed. I'm not sure it could've been saved by focusing more on the alien threat, or Picard and Guinan's "first" meeting, but at least those would've allowed more dramatic opportunity than Hardin's cackling, tedious whine did.
All right, let's try and get through this while we're all still young. Hey, remember how "Time's Arrow, Part I" ended in a cliffhanger, in which Picard, Riker, Troi, Geordi, and Beverly (I have no idea why I refer to some of these characters by their first names and some by their last, by the way) stepped into the glowing doorway, after seeing the freaky glowing snake monster? Well, if you guessed that doorway was similar to the one Data passed through (although it's not the same one, since they don't end up in the same place; I'm not sure why the aliens keep creating new doorways to slightly different time periods), you are correct. The away team arrives in San Francisco of the 19th century, where Data has put together a machine to try and track the aliens' movements, and Samuel Clemens has become obsessed with time travelers he believes are here to take over the world. This leads, unsurprisingly, to an awkward reference to A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court.
What's strange here is that "Arrow" doesn't actually pick up right after where "Time's" left off. We've actually jumped a few days ahead of when Picard and the others went back in time, as they've all managed to integrate themselves into San Franciscan society, in full costume and everything. I appreciate this in theory; screentime is at a premium, even in a two parter, and as we've already seen how Data had to work to get himself set up in the past, we don't really need to see Riker stealing a cop's uniform or Beverly applying to be a nurse. But the material chosen to replace this potentially tedious, but still story relevant exposition, is The Adventures of Sam Clemens, General Irritant and All Around Busy Body. A quarter of the episode or more is devoted to the man's attempts to expose the "conspiracy" which Data and the others represent, and it gets even more pointless when Clemens gets sucked into the future, and spends a whole scene just complaining about everything to Troi, only for Troi to carefully explain to him how wonderful her present really is. This serves no purpose; worse, it's dull, preachy, and thoroughly unentertaining. If Jeri Taylor (who's credited for the teleplay of this ep—she's also credited with "The Drumhead" and "Violations," among other episodes, which is quite the gamut) was going to be clever and throw us into the middle of the action, the least she could've done provided some action worth being thrown into.
And you know what? Maybe we do need to see Riker stealing that cop's uniform. At the very least, it would provide a stronger sense of continuity to a story that's painfully lacking in it. Everything in in the episode is disjointed, a series of predictable gags masquerading as context: Picard and the others have rented a room from a comic Irish woman, and he tricks her into thinking they're an acting troupe. Ha ha. Except how did he get the room? I can come up with a somewhat plausible scenario, but this ep requires me, as the audience, to do too much of the legwork required to make it make sense. I'm not sure where the line is here; I think structures that shortcut through obvious set-ups can actually work wonders, especially if the writers in question don't have anything new to add to a particular scenario. (I doubt that anyone involved in this episode would've written a "Picard fakes his way into an apartment" scene that would really make you think.) And I certainly don't wish this had gone on longer. It's just, the reality of this 19th century world wasn't all that real to begin with, and these jumps made it seem even more haphazard and slipshod.
Really, though, if the rest of the episode had worked, I doubt I'd be complaining much about this. It's more endemic of a larger problem to me, in that so much of "Arrow" seems haphazard and slipshod. It's possible to put together what's going on with the Devidians—they feed on neural energy, so they're travelling back in time to a point in Earth's history when the people they feed on can be dismissed as cholera victims. But there's no sense of an organization at work, no feel for the dead hundreds Troi senses back in the cave in part one, and no real urgency. There's nothing to match the eeriness of the scene in the last episode when a pair of well-dressed rich folk drained the life out of a drunk. As I said when I covered "Time's," stories that take this much time on a show need to actually be more important, or more complex, or more something than regular stories. (That's one of the problems with them, really. Too many "epic" plots, and epic stops being quite as special as it once was.) This had the pieces, but none of them paid off in any real way.
And what the hell was all that noise about Picard and Guinan? I think I'm supposed to be more invested in their friendship than I actually am; it's clearly intended as the emotional centerpiece of the ep (we don't ever "mourn" Data after his head blows off, since it's obvious Geordi's going to rebuild him; Clemens is the only other element that appears to be trying for a deeper response, and look how that turned out), because when Picard comes into Data's apartment and Guinan is there, everything gets really ponderous all of a sudden. Then later, after the confrontation with the Devidians in the cave that started all this mess, after everyone on the away team except Picard and Data's head have gone back to the future, Picard stays behind with Guinan to tend her injuries. They share some tender moments, and Stewart is obviously doing his best (Goldberg is fine, too), but for all the set-up, there's nothing really there to speak of. The time has passed for the show to make much effort in building Picard and Guinan's relationship, and its supposed "origin" here (which, as others have noted, is a disappointing resolution to all the hints we've had over the years as to how they met) is, while far from the worst scene in the ep, not much of anything at all.
Then there's the fact that Picard is able to program a coded binary message into Data's head with an iron filing. It's conceptually cool—while the message appears to transmit almost simultaneously to us, it takes five hundred years for the characters, in a way—but utterly ridiculous, to think that Picard would be capable of such delicate work with such a clumsy tool, and that Data's head would stay in mint enough condition for half a millennium to still retain that work. (I may be forgetting something from part one here. Maybe the cave was airtight or something? Still, I stand by the first part of that criticism.) Then there's the way Guinan refuses to tell Riker what to do when he asks her for advice after Picard is stranded in the past. She doesn't want to affect his decisions. Except, well, this is the present. And it's not like the decision is that complex. Is Picard still in the past, and if so, how can we get him back? Besides, how does Guinan know that her advice wasn't part of what happened? All she remembers is hanging out with Picard for a bit, and then he left. Oh, and she was probably still conscious when Clemens showed up, but it's not like he tells either of them, "Thank goodness your future self didn't provide us with any helpful tips!"
Then there's the fact that the alien race is defeated by… Ah screw it. This isn't worth the effort it takes to tear it down. It's just crap, and the worst sin it makes is that it never really feels like a TNG episode at all. The ensemble acts largely like themselves, which puts it ahead of most season one eps, but too much of the action is dominated by a one-off character who is supposed to be charming simply because, well, shut up, he's totally charming. Just dreadful through and through, and I say we wash our hands of the whole mess and move on.
- Yes, that grade is motivated partially by vengeance. But then, aren't they all?
- It was neat seeing Picard in "normal person" clothes. That's not much, but there it is.
- God, how awful was the scene when Picard fools the perfectly within-her-rights landlady into thinking she's a good actress? The correct answer is: very.
- Not sure why people hearing the first fight between the aliens and the away team mistook "phaser fire" for "gun fire."
- Oh right, I forgot to mention the scene where Clemens tells the bellhop at Data's hotel to go to Alaska, and the bellhop's name is Jack London. There, I just mentioned it. It was terrible. Moving on.
"Realm of Fear"
Or The One Where Barclay Gets Beamed
Now, this is a little more like it.
It's not great. Let's not go crazy here. "Realm of Fear" takes a long time to get going, and it honestly never really gets going; it's more a semi-decent idea that wanders around a bit before getting tired and resolving. Barclay is annoying throughout, though he does have his moments. If I was going to introduce someone to the show, or put on an episode just for the hell of it, this would not be a first, tenth, or fiftieth choice. But at least it feels like an actual TNG episode, and at least it gets its job done in the space of a comparatively economic forty minutes and change. I'm not sure how much I really have to say about it, as I've already expressed my issues with Barclay as a character (in short, the idea of someone who isn't entirely functional working on the Enterprise isn't a bad one, but the execution too often turns him into a caricature), but I wanted to make sure that came across. Whatever it's problems, "Realm" was better than "Time's Arrow, Part II," and that, really, is all I needed.
Plus, it takes on one of my favorite ideas from all of Trek: the fact that the transporters are, if you think about it, more than a little creepy. I'm sure we've discussed this before (there've been other transporter accident episodes), but it's worth repeating. The machine "converts" your entire body into data, rips you apart, and then puts you back together someplace else. Except, how sure are you that it's really "you" who's been reconstructed? The copy may be an exact copy, and the episode goes to great pains to ensure us that the teleporters are designed to be as airtight as possible, but it's not your original tissue, is it? In a very real sense, you've been killed and then a new version built, and it's possible to imagine every character we see on the show is just the thirtieth or fiftieth or hundredth iteration of someone we never actually met. Now, fine, this is a fictional show, and this is all kind of sort of magic anyway. But I appreciate it when a someone asks these questions. Back in the day, we had Bones on TOS complaining about the transporters, and here we have Barclay, terrified of them. Admittedly, Barclay is terrified of everything, but at least this fear, it's not impossible to understand.
All right, so: Barclay's back! The Enterprise is checking on the U.S.S. Yosemite, a science ship that was investigating a plasma streamer before dropping out of contact. Our heroes find the ship floating dead in the water (so to speak), and Picard sends an away team over to investigate. Due to the ship's placement in the plasma, transportation is difficult, but Barclay comes up with a potential fix; unfortunately, because this fix requires some work on the other ship, Geordi orders Barclay to join the away team, and Barclay freaks out. (He freaks out about the transporter, not about being included on the away team. "Oh my god! Riker is so dreamy!") So he runs to Troi, they have an impromptu counseling session, and he works himself up to facing his fears. He beams over, helps out aboard the Yosemite—most of the crew is missing, although there is a horribly burned corpse—and then, when it comes time to beam back to the Enterprise, he sees something in the transporter field. Something that looks like a giant, floating worm. And it bites him.
Yeah, that would freak anybody out. All things considered, Barclay handles it well. He asks a few questions, and convinces Geordi and O'Brien that it might be a good idea to do an overhaul of the transporter equipment; this is something both men are more than willing to do, and we get a pleasant scene in which Barclay describes his concerns about the transporters, and O'Brien and Geordi scoff at them—in a friendly way. I've always appreciated how seriously crew-members on the Enterprise take each others concerns, no matter how ridiculous they might sound on the surface. This is partly just a matter of survival. Given the volume of weird shit the ship encounters on the course of its travels, you have to pay attention to detail, as you never know when some little girl's imaginary friend might turn out to be the representative of an alien race that's deciding whether or not it wants to murder you. But there's also a general sense of mutual respect, which makes this kind of storyline much easier to take.
Of course, this does have its downside. Normally in a story like this, most of the episode would be devoted to the protagonist's increasingly desperate attempts to get the people around him to believe what he's saying before it's too late. But because everyone is so trusting, that's not really a path that's open to us; if Barclay just told Geordi and the others that his arm was glowing, Beverly would run her tests, and we'd cut down the episode by a good ten minutes. So we need to find another conflict to delay the resolution, and in this case, "Realm" relies on Barclay's innate insecurities and self-doubt. After the diagnostic of the transporter equipment fails to reveal any significant flaws, Barclay decides he has "transporter psychosis," which is a silly name for something the episode invents for him to obsess over. He believes that he's hallucinating, and that he's thirsty because he's gone crazy, and since there's no known cure for TP, he tries to hide it from everyone and fight off the impending madness.
This isn't a completely unbelievable idea. I'm all too familiar with the way ridiculous or unsettling concepts can take hold of you, and warp your perceptions of reality until everything you see confirms your mistaken belief. And it's not like Barclay hasn't been set up as neurotic before. That's almost his only character trait. But I'm just not sure it makes for a great drama. We know in the audience that he's not really nuts, because that's not how shows like this work, and we know that "transporter psychosis" is bull, since Geordi and O'Brien both scoffed at the idea. So we get to sit through a lot of awkward "Barclay forces his way through his routine" scenes. While the crew is more than willing to listen to anyone's problems, they aren't particularly enamored of the concept of "personal space." Once Data notices that Barclay's been acting strangely (and since when is Data a snitch?), Troi starts badgering him, and when Barclay refuses to tell her his problem—which appears to be "walking around a lot" and "being slightly odder than usual"—she kicks him off active duty.
This seems like overkill to me. Barclay's behavior hasn't affected his work that I can tell, and he's always been a bit twitchy; Troi acts so frustrated that he won't tell her what she wants to hear that her imposed vacation almost plays like an action of spite. But it does isolate Reg, so that when he has another glowing arm attack, he's forced to confront his fears directly, asking O'Brien to beam him over to the Yosemite and back again so he can see if what happened before will happen again. This is a good scene—throughout the episode, Barclay's been more active than he's been allowed to be in the past, and the way he jumps right back into the here makes up for a lot of his nervous twitching. Once he determines that he's no just seeing things, Barclay calls a meeting of the senior staff to tell them what's going on. This is something else it's hard to imagine the old Barclay managing, and the episode rewards him by having the staff treat his concerns as viable and worth looking into. (Well, except for Worf. You know how we make fun of the show because every new alien threat has to prove its strength by beating Worf up? I think Worf serves in general as the Goofus to the rest of the Enterprise's Gallant. He's only really allowed dignity when he's compared to the foolishness of the rest of the Klingon race, and that's pretty lame when you think about it.)
The worms Barclay's been seeing were real after all, and in order to get a reading on them, Geordi asks Barclay to get back in the transporter beam, and stay there for just under a minute. I'm not sure I grasp all the ramifications of what happens next, but it is a fun scene, satisfying in a story sense (Barclay has to face his greatest fear in the worst way, much like O'Brien had to face all those freaky spiders), and suspenseful to boot. I'm surprised at how cavalier Geordi is about asking Barclay to put himself at risk—it almost seems like Geordi doesn't think there is a risk, and while that may be technically true, those worm things indicate otherwise. But then, there's a surprise there too; at the last second, before getting pulled back into the Enterprise's transporter room, Barclay reaches out and grabs one of the worms, bringing it into physical form. There are a freaky few moments when it seems like Barclay's going to wind up with a giant worm in his arms—but then he comes into focus, and he's carrying a guy. One of the missing Yosemite crew members, in fact.
I didn't quite get how all this worked, but it wasn't an awful twist. "Realm" was a general meh episode; it relied too much on Barclay's oddness, and played a little too much like an ep of a cartoon show, where one of the character's has a phobia, and is then conveniently forced to face that phobia in order to teach us all a valuable lesson about nothing is quite as scary as we think it is. TNG is better than this, capable of more complex, adult stories. Still, it wasn't terrible. After Generations and the double barrel of crap that was "Time's Arrow," I'll take my blessings where I can find them.
- Is this the first time we've ever watched someone transporting from the perspective of the transportee? I think so. (Although there may have been a scene like this in TOS.)
- O'Brien's great throughout this episode. Wasn't a fan of the "Here, meet my pet spider" ending, but I like the idea of O'Brien owning a pet spider.
- "The imaging scanners are actuating." TNG went a little too far into the realm of technical bs in "Realm," and this line may be the epitome of that.
Next week: I am on vacation! Woo! So TNG reviews won't be returning till the following week. Please join me June 9th, as we once again face Deanna Troi's love life in "Man of the People," and spend some quality time with Scotty in "Relics."