Star Trek: The Next Generation – Time’s Arrow [5.26]

The Enterprise is called to earth when an engineering crew working underground turns up Data’s head Investigation shows that it has been buried for hundreds of years.  The crew is shaken by what seems to be the inevitability of Data’s death, though Data himself finds the thought of his own mortality almost comforting.  Investigating the system of the possible inhabitants of the cave where Data’s head was found, the Enterprise travels to the Devidia system, where they find evidence of humans who are trapped in an “out of phase” state.  Only Data is capable of safely attempting to enter into their state of existence, but the effort causes him to be transported to San Francisco in the 1800’s, where he meets both Samuel Clemens and Guinan from that time period (who is visiting earth against the wishes of her father).  Mysterious aliens are apparently kidnapping humans from this period to somehow consume their life energy.  Picard leads a team of Enterprise officers in an investigation, and ultimately into the same portal that apparently sent Data back in time.

Teleplay by Joe Menosky and Michael Piller  Story by Joe Menosky. Directed by Les Landau.

Previous Episode: The Inner Light • Next Episode: Times Arrow, Part II

Comments:
I have to admit it’s been several weeks since I saw this episode again, and I’ve already almost forgotten it.  I mean, I haven’t completely forgotten it.  I know it’s the one where they find Data’s head in a cave, and that eventually this leads to Data being transported back in time to the 1800’s, where he meets a younger Guinan and Samuel Clemens.  There are some creepy aliens there that we never really see clearly who are doing disturbing scenes, and the whole thing was the season 5-ending cliffhanger.  I remember all of that.  Actually, most of that I remembered from when I first saw the episode, back in 1992.

Beyond that, I can’t recall much.  And that’s the problem with this episode.  It’s just forgettable.

It was supposed to be a big deal.  It was supposed to be the cliffhanger that said to everyone that Next Generation was still alive and strong–as it seems that with spinoff Deep Space Nine approaching, people were apparently doubting this.  It included time travel and a new alien menace and famous historical figures and a lot more Whoopi Goldberg than normal.  So it was supposed to be imaginative and new and fun.

But unfortunately, the end result is pretty routine, and a little bit of an awkward mash-up.  One hand, the episode is trying to tell an interesting character story with everyone reacting to the apparent certainty of Data’s death.  That’s okay as far as it goes, but in the end it does not go very far as it’s sort of familiar ground – after all, we’ve seen previously everyone react to Data’s actual death (or so they thought – in The Most Toys). 

On the other hand, the episode desires to be a high concept science fiction story – with the striking image of Data’s head, the disembodied victims of the mysterious aliens, the time travel plotline (the first honest-to-goodness  full-on people-traveling-through-time story that Next Generation has had, in some ways) and the subplot with Guinan.  Unfortunately, the presence of Samuel Clemens and his larger-than-life personality seriously undermines this, and makes the whole thing feel like an episode of Voyagers (not the Star Trek one, but the other one), with the colorful but one-dimensional historical figures showing up everywhere, or one of those modern Doctor Who stories where creepy aliens threaten famous historical settings.

The episode is not irredeemable, by any means, and is certainly watchable.  There are a few funny jokes to be had with Data walking around in the past trying to pass himself off as a foreigner (“Thank you for your advice, but I’m trying to find two individuals with a snake”), and though Samuel Clemens is a distracting presence, he does have some well-written dialog (eg. “Eavesdropping is by no means a proper activity for a gentleman. Nonetheless, the deed is done.”)  But the tension and the drama of the story itself do not really grip, certainly not in the way you’d want from a season ending cliffhanger.

Guest Cast:
• Jeremy Hardin, who plays Samuel Clemens, was Deep Throat on The X-Files.  He was also in When the Bough Breaks.

• Ken Thorley plays a Seaman.  He also played Mr. Mott in a few episodes.

• Marc Alaimo plays Frederick LaRouque.  This is last of several appearances as different characters in Next Generation.  He of course went on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine.

Shout out to the Past:
• Troi refers to Data’s previous definition of friendship, which we heard back in Legacy.

• Guinan has occasionally made oblique references to the origin of her friendship with Picard before.  We get the feeling that we’re going to see that in this story.

Setting up the Future:
• Of course, we’re about to see the resolution of this immediate plot in the next episode.  Other than that, there’s nothing really.

Observations:
• Reference to Sector 001 – back to earth

• Data is genuinely surprised at the sight of his head.  That guy has emotions!

• Nice exchange between Data and LaForge.

DATA: I expected to make new friends.
LAFORGE: True.
DATA: And then to outlive them as well.

• “One might also conclude that it brings me one step closer to being human. I am mortal.”  But Data has faced the prospect of his own apparent death many times before, I don’t know if I buy that this odd incident as much weight as it does.

• Troi and Riker are very awkward on the turbolift

• Good moment from Picard, after Data’s “Captain, there is no rational justification for this course.”  He says, “Then I’ll be irrational.”

• Apparently it’s standard procedure for the second officer to attend an Away Mission.  And Captain’s generally don’t go on away missions, although Picard has violated that protocol many times.

• Things are out of phase – just like Geordi and Ro a few episodes ago

• Picard is actually listening to Data as he narrates his observations.  That doesn’t seem to be normal procedure.  Data’s narration is weirdly compelling.

• Data sounds funny speaking French.  And his pretending to be weak and injured is hilarious.

• A strong contender for the episode’s best dialog:  Clemens says, “Someone might say that, dear lady, if someone thought that the human race was akin to a precious jewel. But this increasingly hypothetical someone would not be me.”

Dialogue High Point
After consideration, I have to settle on the summary that that the Bellhop gives to events:

Well, a man rides into town in his pajamas, wins a grub stake at a poker table, turns it into a horseless carriage and makes a million bucks. That’s America.

Previous Episode: The Inner Light • Next Episode: Times Arrow, Part II

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