When the Enterprise C emerges from a temporal rift right in front of the Enterprise D, the ramifications go far beyond the ship and its namesake.
There's about to be a lot of gushing.
I love alternate universe/timeline/reality/perception/whatever episodes, and this one is very well done. The minute the Enterprise C emerges from the rift, the first thing we see is that the lighting changes. It's literally darker. Obvious, but very effective. The uniforms are almost the same, with little changes - shiny silver harness things to carry phasers, mainly - that make it look just a little bit more military. (I know that sounds a bit daft, it's all military, but they're reminiscent of gun holsters and, therefore, real weaponry, and therefore, the real military). It's only as the camera pans up to Tasha Yar that you realise not only is she suddenly back, but Worf and Troi have disappeared from the bridge. Something has gone very wrong.
Back when I reviewed 'Skin of Evil', I talked about how the writers were trying to do something a bit different by giving a main character an expendable ensign's death, but that it wasn't necessarily very satisfying on a dramatic level. Tasha Yar never was an expendable ensign, and that's borne out by the fact she gets at least a mention at least once in every one of TNG's seven seasons (Data talks about her and has a photo of her in season two's 'The Measure of a Man', for example). Her senseless death is discussed openly in this episode by the character herself, who was prepared to die in the line of duty, but disappointed that her death achieved nothing. Here, both the character and the writers get the chance to put that right, and she gets a hero's death, sacrificing herself for the greater good (insert your own Hot Fuzz recitation here!).
Of course, the fact she's fallen for the equally doomed Castillo, not to mention the fact that if all goes well she's dead either way, does rather help there. Tasha and Castillo's romance is pretty quick, but since she's in the middle of a war and he's been flung 22 years into the future and then sent back on a suicide mission, that's understandable - you don't mess around in that situation.
For Tasha, convinced she's dead either way, her choice seems logical, but for Picard, there's a classic Star Trek moral dilemma here. Should he risk the lives on everyone on both Enterprises on the slim chance of saving others? And how can he possibly know which timeline is better in the long run anyway? (The technology developed during the war, for example, will be lost). Guinan has no proof of anything she says beyond intuition, but through a combination of trust in her, general gut instinct and, as he makes clear in his quiet confidence to Captain Garrett, sheer desperation, Picard goes for it. It's another aspect of what makes this episode so good - only in dire circumstances could Picard put such faith in what is, at bottom, a fairly barmy plan. He doesn't say it so openly, but I'm reminded of Wish-verse Giles's defence of a similar decision in Buffy, when asked how he knew the other world would be any better - "Because it has to be".
The icing on the cake is one of Star Trek's best television action sequences - between Starfleet and classic enemy the Klingons, no less! We've already seen that this episode will not hold back on blood and the consequences of war (within family viewing boundaries) with Captain Garrett's somewhat gory demise, but when it's Riker lying bloody on the bridge, the emotional impact is that much greater. I'm a sucker for alternate timelines where half the main characters die, it's a great way to get some really dramatic sequences in. We end up with the Enterprise in tatters, Picard leaping athletically over the panels to struggle on, flames rising around him (a brilliant shot - the direction in this episode, by David Carson, is fantastic). And then the sudden, so satisfying switch back to normal lighting, to Worf and Troi, and Guinan confident that everything has gone back to normal.
There are so many things to love about this episode, it's hard to know when to stop talking about it. I haven't even mentioned the hilarious opening with Worf and the prune juice that lifts it and balances out the heavy drama. Or the fact that, unlike the majority of TNG episodes (in which, if Crusher and Troi talk to each other, they tend to be talking about men), it passes the Bechdel test. Or the fascinating idea behind it, that one apparently small incident could change the course of history (we will probably never stop debating whether or not that's true). Just go watch it. If you've already seen it, watch it again. It's awesome.
Bits and pieces
- We see Wesley in a proper Starfleet uniform for the first time. It suits him, and he fits in much better and looks much less out of place when appearing as a young but fully integrated Ensign. (Did I mention the crush I had on Wesley when I was ten years old? He's really pretty cool when he's several years older than you are!)
- Wesley's uniform is just one of the many small changes in this timeline that aren't pointed out or spelled out to the audience, but make perfect sense - another being the absence of Counselor Troi from the bridge, and possibly the ship. One of the ironies of war is that, while PTSD and other mental health issues increase, treatment for them gets shoved way down on the list of priorities.
- Also, thanks to the time travel stuff, we get to see the best version of the Starfleet uniform again, the all-red super stylish jackets from movies 2-6.
- With the exception of a non-canon animated series episode when Uhura relieves all male officers of duty and takes over (it's cheesy, but kind of awesome) this is the only time we see a woman as Captain of the Enterprise. I always think of Garrett as a really cool proto-Janeway, not just in her gender, but her attitude and bravery. Also her hair.
- This episode means we have seen all iterations of the NCC 1701 USS Enterprise, from the original through all of A-E, though at the time it was made we had yet to see B or E (Enterprises A, B and E appear in the movies).
- This is one of several episodes that hint that the relationship between Guinan and Picard is particularly deep, and which demonstrates that his trust in her goes far beyond his trust in anyone else, perhaps even Riker or Crusher.
- Sometimes I read criticisms of Star Trek for using the 'reset button' to undo any dramatic developments too often. Firstly, that's not entirely true - Tasha is still dead, for one. And secondly, when the story is this good, who cares?! It's not like you could kill off half the crew without pushing the reset button or there'd be no show, and it makes for great drama.
Worf (on prune juice): A warrior's drink!
Picard: Who's to say that this history is any less proper than the other?
Picard: One more ship will make little difference in the here and now, but 22 years ago, one ship could have stopped this war before it started.
Garrett: The Romulans will get a good fight. We'll make it one for the history books.
Tasha: I've always known the risks that come with a Starfleet uniform. If I'm to die in one, I'd like my death to count for something.
Picard: Let's make sure that history never forgets the name Enterprise.
Klingons: Surrender and prepare to be boarded.
Picard: That'll be the day!
Not only is this one of the all-time best episodes of The Next Generation, I honestly believe it's one of the best episodes of the entire Star Trek franchise. Possibly the best - ask me again in a few weeks! Five out of four alternate timelines.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.
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