Tuesday, September 08, 2015

TNG Flashback: Timescape

The penultimate episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's sixth season, "Timescape" has nothing I usually enjoy in an hour of Star Trek. There's no major character drama, no allegory or moral dilemma... nothing but a pure sci-fi gimmick. Yet it's a truly entertaining episode all the same.

Picard, Data, Troi, and LaForge are returning to the Enterprise from a conference. Along the way, their runabout encounters strange pockets of distorted time. They follow the distortions back to their flash point -- the Enterprise itself, which is frozen right in the middle of what appears to be a Romulan attack. But once the foursome finds a way aboard without becoming frozen in time themselves, they begin to learn that things aren't quite what they seem. They may in fact be a good deal worse -- Dr. Crusher is being shot point blank by a disruptor, a hostile force has boarded the ship, and the warp core is in the midst of a ship-destroying breach!

It's a familiar tune here in the back half of season six, but once again, another script idea had fallen through just a week before filming, leaving this episode to be rushed to fill the slot. Outside writer Mark Gehred-O'Connell had pitched the idea of two ships (neither the Enterprise) being "trapped in time like amber," which everyone loved. Unfortunately, because of the time crunch, the producers were unwilling to chance letting a first timer write his own script; staff writer Brannon Braga ended up writing it instead, seizing upon the chance to one-up his previous time-twister, "Cause and Effect."

Directing this episode was Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard (Spock himself). Previously, he'd directed "Rascals," and at the end of that shoot, producer Rick Berman promised him another one "with grown-ups." There were no child actors to deal with this time, but still plenty of challenges thanks to the extensive visual effects required here. Even as he wrote the script, Braga wasn't sure it could be filmed. Perhaps if there had been time for more drafts, everyone would have decided not to go for it. Instead, the complicated episode became one of only two that stretched filming over eight-and-a-half days.

One way money was saved was by placing the four major characters on a runabout instead of a shuttlecraft. But interestingly, this was done not to save money for The Next Generation, but for its sister show, Deep Space Nine! It was decided to build the large back room/"dining hall" of the runabout on TNG's dime, and then hand the set over to DS9 for future use. Ironically, the set was never used again on any Trek series.

Just because this story isn't really character driven doesn't mean there aren't still some good character moments within it. The bookending scenes are great, with Riker terrorized by Data's cat Spot, and Data trying to test whether a "watched pot" in fact never boils. In between, we see Troi actually get to lead an Away Team, where her quick thinking actually saves Geordi's life. We also get some fun comic relief as Troi and Picard perform their impressions of the boorish people they met at their conference.

Still, the main course of this "meal" is the wacky way it deals with time. And this episode is a feast indeed, a procession of neat ideas with fantastic visuals. There's the bowl of rotting fruit, and Picard's instantly long fingernails when he tries to reach inside. There's the image of the motionless ships, disruptors and energy bandying between them, which instantly captures the imagination. And then there's the funhouse waiting on board those ships -- a dying Crusher, an exploding engine, and more. And the way in which the twists are presented is excellent; this episode has some of the most compelling "act outs" (revelations right before the commercial break) ever presented on the show.

What knocks the episode down just a peg or two, fittingly enough, is time. The script feels like it came in short. There are lots of lingering shots of people walking into or out of rooms, moments that would have been trimmed to get straight to the action if the episode could have done without them.

There's also the truly bizarre "temporal narcosis" moment, in which Picard draws an anachronistic smiley face in a frozen cloud of smoke right before having a panic attack. Brannon Braga spells out the inspiration for the idea right in the episode -- the nitrogen narcosis condition one can get while scuba diving. (Indeed, diving was so much on Braga's mind when writing this episode that he originally wanted to call it "Deep Time.") But though Patrick Stewart does his level best to sell the hell out of this idea (and even manages to keep you from laughing at its cheesiness), it nevertheless doesn't quite feel right.

Other observations:
  • If you're a fan of continuity, this episode is full of little callbacks to previous episodes. Troi tries plexing to calm her nerves. Her previous experience aboard a Romulan warbird is mentioned. And the method for isolating a person from normal time that was technobabbled up for "Time's Arrow" is recalled.
  • Star Trek fan (and Family Guy creator) Seth MacFarlane has talked about one of his favorite things about the show, and while he may not have been thinking of this particular episode, it is a perfect example of it. When the trouble first begins, and Troi tells everyone that she's seen time appear to stop, everyone just believes her. Despite the fact that a cursory examination detects nothing wrong, no one thinks she imagined it, and Data and Geordi both volunteer to dig deeper to try to find some evidence. Paraphrasing MacFarlane, everyone is afforded respect in the Star Trek universe.
This fun, high-concept adventure scores a B+ in my book. Very few episodes this loaded with technobabble were this good.

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