Star Trek The Next Generation: Cause and Effect

Phil: “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today.”

This is one of my all time favorite episodes, and also one of the best of the series. The premise is simple, but the execution is just marvelous utilizing the time-loop plot device before it was popularized by the movie Groundhog Day.

If it was just an average time travel episode, I probably would’ve liked it, but it was so much more than that. It utilizes the trope in such a direct way to effectively move the story forward through each and every loop so that there are no wasted scenes. Each line of dialogue is handled with the same level of care. While many of those lines were repeated, the actors managed to make it fresh each time.

The teaser is short, to the point, and the ship blows up. (In an interview, Brannon Braga mentioned that it was the ultimate teaser.) Beginning with the first full iteration after the credits, the characters seem almost normal. It's shot in a traditional Next Gen style, with lighting and angles that feel familiar, but there is still a slight level of discomfort, like something is off. Obviously, since we saw the ship blow up before the credits, but that could’ve been an in media res, and we aren’t told that we’re in a time loop yet.

As the episode progresses and the iterations deviate, it's all about the details, and not just the dialogue. Every scene is shot from a different angle, with occasionally different lighting. My favorite iteration, where the sense of deja vu is ratcheted up to eleven, is set very close, very intimately, which establishes a heightened paranoia, just through visuals. Riker, Worf, Beverly and even Data are deeply unsettled by the game as they predict the cards. Little things like that are studded through the production, and it shows how much love and effort went into this episode.

Using Beverly as the point of view character was an interesting choice; the way she kept solving the mystery showed how good she is at her job. It also gave us some lovely character moments, with her calling Riker’s bluff, and that really nice moment with Picard over the warm milk. The best one was knocking over the glass again and again, including the time we didn’t see, but we heard her frustration over the intercom. That always makes me smile; it's a perfect little moment.

Jonathan Frakes directed this one, and it shows. He has a firm grasp on the show, how it is shot and how to take advantage of the cast’s strengths. Brannon Braga wrote the episode, and he spent so much time adding little details to the various iterations, convinced that the only way to make the episode fun was to make sure nothing was the same, even when it was. He even gave a directive to Frakes to never reuse a shot, so multiple cameras were used for every take, even the ship blowing up which had several breakaway models created and filled with explosives to get that spectacular explosion in camera without optical effects.

"Cause and Effect" is practically a textbook example of how to write, produce and direct a time loop story. Like Groundhog Day, it showcases the use of subtlety and detail in communicating change to create a unique experience in every loop. Mostly, it's just really, really good, and a lot of fun.

Bits:

I really loved Picard's struggle with the book he must have read a dozen times.

Kelsey Grammer had a nice little cameo as the captain of a time-displaced ship from the Original Trek film era.

According to Memory-Alpha, the staff wanted to get Kirstie Alley to reprise her role as Saavik for this episode, but scheduling didn't pan out, so they pulled the idea. That would have been awesome.

The USS Bozeman is a modification of the same model used for the USS Reliant from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Quotes:

Geordi: "Must be déjà vu."
Beverly: "Both of us? About the same thing?"

Riker: "How'd you know I was bluffing?"
Beverly: "I just had a feeling."
Riker: "I guess it's better to be lucky than good."
Beverly: "It's the way your left eyebrow raises when you're bluffing. (Riker looks shocked) Just kidding, commander."

Riker: "Sometimes I wonder if he's stacking the deck."
Data: "I assure you, Commander, the cards have been sufficiently randomised."
Worf: "I hope so."

Data: "Still no help for the Klingon."
My favorite line in the entire episode. It makes me laugh every single time.

I'll keep the wrap up short. I loved this one.

4 out of 4 games of chance, a routine medical examination, glass breaking and tree trimming, senior staff meetings and ships blowing up.

4 out of 4 poker games, issues with Geordi's visor, Beverly humming while tree trimming and breaking the glass despite trying not too, debriefings to the command staff and the Enterprise blowing up spectacularly.

4 out of 4 eerie games of cards where everyone knows what's going to happen, a totally different medical examination of Geordi's visor, trimming a tree but getting freaked after the second leaf and still knocking over a glass, a senior staff meeting where they come up with a solution, and a tragic final ship explosion.

4 out of 4 stacked games of cards, a standard eye examination, ignoring the tree needing trimming but still knocking over the glass, and a ship that doesn't blow up.

(So maybe not so short a wrap up.)

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

A lovely review of one of my favorite episodes, J.D. -- thank you. I particularly loved your four out of fours. :)

Heather1 said...

You are so right, J.D. -- a fantastic episode! Usually a time loop or any kind of time related episode focuses on the big, grandiose things. I particularly liked that this episode paid attention to the details. This was such an original way to tell the story. I, too, wait for that last time the glass breaks and we only hear it and Beverly's reaction on the com. And the way the number 3 appears so frequently and supposedly randomly throughout the last iteration, culminating with Data noticing the 3 pips on Riker's collar. I also always love seeing Kelsey Grammar as the captain of the other ship. I wasn't aware of the story about wanting Kirstie Alley to reprise Saavik. That would have been awesome!