By Tom Anderson
In this article we will be looking at the use of AH and time travel tropes (and other contextually relevant information) in the final seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, following on from earlier articles.
The two-parter “Chain of Command” sees Patrick Stewart show off his acting chops, as he is captured and brutally tortured by the Cardassian Gul Madred in scenes inspired by both real torture and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Meanwhile, the Enterprise is taken over by Captain Edward Jellico, who offends most of the crew with his style of command – but it turns out that Jellico is a capable commander in his own right, and some of his ideas (such as asking Troi to wear a standard uniform) stick as changes. (However, Peter David’s spinoff novels represent Jellico as a straightforward insane admiral type, which is ironic considering David’s own character of Quintin Stone was not that dissimilar to Jellico’s disruptive style). “Ship in a Bottle” is an interesting sequel to “Elementary, Dear Data” in which Professor Moriarty is angry that the crew haven’t kept up their promise to find a way to get him off the holodeck. He supposedly has worked it out himself, but it all turns out to be a ruse, a simulation within a simulation. He is eventually trapped by his own trick and given a synthetic universe to spend his life exploring, while Reg Barclay paranoidly wonders if even the ‘real’ world is just a simulation too – prefiguring themes from films like The Matrix and Inception.
“Face of the Enemy” is widely regarded as the ‘Good Troi Episode’ by people who don’t like Troi, in which she has to go undercover as a Romulan against her will. “Tapestry”, aka ‘It’s Picard’s Wonderful Life’, sees Picard shot dead thanks to his artificial heart. While he dies on the table, Q claims to be God (which Picard refuses to believe, saying ‘the universe is not so badly designed’) and offers to set his life straight, allowing him to avoid the fight at the Academy that led him to need the heart transplant. When Picard takes over his younger self and does so, however, he then finds that in the present days he’s merely a minor lieutenant with a tedious job; if he was the sort of man who didn’t get into that fight, he wouldn’t be the man capable of becoming captain. He reverts things to how they had been and Picard is revived, wondering if it was all just a dream.
The two-parter “Birthright” was largely an effort to promote Deep Space Nine, which had debuted in parallel with the sixth season of TNG. It is technically not the first two-parter, as the Enterprise and Picard had appeared in the first episode of DS9, “Emissary”, which we will get to. During this visit, Data begins dreaming and painting his dreams (a planned feature by his creator Dr Soong) and Worf learns that survivors of the Romulan massacre that killed his parents might be alive on a prison colony. These stories have very little to do with each other and are really only an excuse to get Dr Bashir involved with one of them. Also, future Zefram Cochrane actor James Cromwell plays the alien Yridian who helps Worf, before he shot to fame with Babe. “Starship Mine” is essentially “Die Hard Picard” as one critic dubbed it, with Picard having to fight terrorists who have taken over a deserted Enterprise. “The Chase” featured Picard’s love of archaeology and the appearance of his mentor, trying to explain the appearance of humanoids in Star Trek by suggesting an ancestral race seeded them all. (This is never brought up again – at least not on screen).
“Frame of Mind” is another example of how Brannon Braga writes best when doing psychological thrillers – Riker can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, flashing between his appearance in the titular play by Beverly Crusher, preparing for an undercover mission and being locked in an alien asylum. “Suspicions” sees Crusher investigate a missing scientist who has developed a shielding system that can protect a ship from a sun’s corona. “Rightful Heir” brings back legendary Klingon founder Kahless the Unforgettable (as previously featured in TOS “The Savage Curtain”) with a plot that essentially amounts to an alien version of ‘what if you cloned Jesus’. “Second Chances” has an interesting concept – they return to a planet where Riker was on an away mission 15 years ago, only to find that a transporter duplicate was created and has been living out his life there, thinking he was the only Riker. This was a probably-unintentional thematic follow-up to Riker’s distaste for the idea of being cloned in “Up the Long Ladder”. In the end, the other Riker agrees to go by his middle name Thomas and forge his own path, though resentful that his life has been ‘stolen’ – he will later reappear.
“Timescape” is an episode I found very creepy when I first rented it from Blockbuster many years ago: while travelling back to the Enterprise, Picard, Troi, LaForge and Data find temporal anomalies keep freezing time or making it run at inconsistent speeds. (The image of Troi seeing the others frozen in front of her mid-sentence in the opening act, with no warning, has stayed with me). They find the Enterprise and a Romulan Warbird frozen together, trying to piece together what is happening – were they fighting, was the Enterprise coming to the Romulans’ aid? When they reach Engineering, they find that the warp core is in the process of exploding and the ship is doomed – so Picard, losing his sanity, doodles a smiley face in the cloud of steam gouting from it. Apparently all of this was caused by some strange aliens who were ‘nesting ‘ in the artificial black hole used by the Romulans for power, but don’t ask me – I was too scared to watch the end of it after that moment and I’ve not gone back to it since 1994. Oh, and it was directed by Leonard Nimoy’s son Adam.
Seasons 6 and 7, the latter being the final one, are bridged by the two-parter “Descent”. This story is not especially good, but has its moments that stuck with me as a kid. The Borg show up again, this time in a mysterious, irregular-looking ship, and Data finds himself impossibly experiencing emotions while he fights them. A captive Borg (who has a name) manipulates Data into doing anything for his next hit of emotion, and he betrays the crew. The crew chase the Borg ship through a transwarp conduit (the first appearance of this Borg technology) to a distant world where their sensors do not operate well. Looking for the vanished Data, Picard sends down most of the crew to search the planet by hand, leaving Crusher and a skeleton crew in charge. (This feels very plot-railroaded but sets up some nice scenes in part 2). Picard, Troi and Geordi discover Data and the Borg in a base, only to find the real mastermind is Lore – who became a charismatic leader to some Borg who had been infected by Hugh’s individualism (remember that?) Part 1 ends on Lore and Data declaring that ‘the sons of Soong’ will destroy the Federation because reasons. In part 2 Data then tortures Geordi at Lore’s behest, his ‘ethical programme’ having been closed down; Riker encounters Hugh, who is bitter about what the crew’s actions have caused, and shows them two Borg who have been subjected to a fate worse than death by Lore’s promised experiments to make them fully cybernetic life forms. Picard and Troi manage to get Data’s ethical programme going again in time to save Geordi (a purely technobabble solution which undermines Data’s character by reducing him to a machine lacking free will) and Lore is defeated at last when the Borg are led in revolt against him. Meanwhile, in the best scenes of the story, Crusher uses her experience with Dr Reygar’s shields from “Suspicion” to hide the Enterprise in the sun’s corona and leads her crew of second-stringers to trigger a trap that destroys the Borg ship. In the end, Data retrieves Lore’s emotion chip, but worries about installing it in his own head – Geordi tells him to save it for the feature film. “Descent” is really a big part of the Borg being downgraded as a threat, with even VGR usually presenting them better. One good reason why the film “First Contact” helps restore them as a villain is that, rather than the two-dimensional idea that Lore could con the Borg because they want to be purely cybernetic life forms like him, the Borg are instead shown as installing flesh parts on cybernetic life forms like Data, i.e. pursuing a harmony of technology and flesh rather than one over the other. Data’s temptation in that film also feels much more like the actions of a living being who happens to be made of metal, rather than a software-based robot as in “Descent”. One reason why “Descent” is a bit weak is that the creators dropped some high-concept ideas that would then be left for “Generations”, which I’ll come back to.
The seventh season of TNG is generally considered a bit weaker than most, and it was probably good that the series ended when it did. Nonetheless, there are still several noteworthy episodes. “Gambit” is a two-parter that was very influential on my own early science fiction writing, where Picard and then Riker have to go undercover among pirates playing Indiana Jones to steal ancient powerful artefacts. It also involves an excellent and memorable scene of Data respectfully reprimanding Worf for the latter’s inappropriate attitude when acting as Data’s first officer, and Worf admitting his fault and pledging to do better. “Phantasms” and “Dark Page” back to back illustrate that the show was becoming more reliant on high-concept ‘was it a dream’ type settings. “Force of Nature” tries to be an episode about environmental crises about the ozone layer (instead relating it to warp drive damaging spacetime) but was almost immediately forgotten about, thus perhaps being too good a metaphor.
“Parallels” is an episode that deserves a full treatment, for this was the first time that on-screen Star Trek had really played with the idea of parallel universes and a multiverse – not a single, changed timeline, nor the dark Mirror Universe which was always more of a moral contrast than an alternative setting per se. Worf returns from a martial arts tournament, but finds subtle things about the ship and crew have changed, and continue to change as he ‘jumps’ between different versions of the ship (similar to Quantum Leap). What made this episode particularly interesting was that Worf is the protagonist, whereas an episode like this would historically have been more likely to star a character like Riker, Geordi or Troi – Worf gets to be a character in his own right, and not one whose stories always have to be related to him being a Klingon. There is also a bit of character development, in that in earlier episodes (like “Where Silence Has Lease”), Worf would tend to react solely with rage and incomprehension to events like these, whereas here he slowly accepts the situation and begins to figure it out.
The parallel universes seen in the episode play with a number of AH tropes and factors from the history of the series. They begin as subtle things due to playing with the viewer’s (and Worf’s) paranoia, such as the flavour of his birthday cake changing. We then see more major things, such as uniforms shifting, Worf having a different bridge role, Data’s eye colour changing for the duration of one jump, Wesley Crusher briefly reappearing in his bridge role, and so on. What makes the episode especially impressive, as Phil Farrand noted, is that nobody calls attention to the last two items, they’re realistically just there. It’s like the positive inverse of Ricky Gervais gurning stupidly at something. They even reuse things like the different comm badge design from “Future Imperfect”. These changes culminate in a universe where Worf and Troi are married! (This would then, interestingly, be the catalyst for this romance being played with in the ‘prime’ universe).
A particularly cute one is the universe where the Cardassians’ and Bajorans’ roles are reversed, so there’s a Cardassian officer on the bridge and the Bajorans are a hostile empire. When the boundaries between realities start to break down and many different Enterprises appear in space nearby, the crew(s) realise Worf needs to be returned to his own ship (in fact, multiple Worfs appear in his shuttle as he is sent back). This involves a conversation between ‘our’ Picard and the Captain Riker of Worf’s current Enterprise, who tells Picard that it’s good to see him again – as he had died in “The Best of Both Worlds” in that timeline, as was speculated about out-of-universe. While we’re patting ourselves on the back about how perfect that use of an AH trope is, the show then shocks us by having Worf’s ship fired on by another Enterprise with a Captain Riker and a POD in “The Best of Both Worlds” – but one where the Borg won and that Enterprise, its crew wild-eyed and ragged, is one of the last ships left, begging not to be sent back. It ends up mercifully exploding in the process. Now that’s how you do dystopia subtly and disturbingly, not great big golden swords on walls everywhere or whatever. When Worf is sent back, he discovers one last change – on his original ship, the crew really didn’t throw him a surprise birthday party when he asked them not to, which had been the starting plot device of the episode. “Parallels” opened the floodgates for Star Trek AH speculation, and was even cited as the justification for the use of multiple timelines in the 2009 reboot film.
“The Pegasus” is an incongruously important episode. Riker’s former commanding officer, now-Admiral Pressman, comes aboard for a mission to retrieve their old ship, the titular USS Pegasus. There is clearly something shady going on, and when the ship is found buried in an asteroid, it comes out that the Pegasus was equipped with an experimental – and illegal – Federation cloaking device that allows her to phase through matter (like “The Next Phase”). Riker is ashamed that, as a young and naïve officer, he defended Pressman against his colleagues who mutinied against him, something that was covered up. An outraged Picard uses the phasing cloak to let the Enterprise leave the asteroid and then deliberately decloaks in front of Romulan ships to expose the treaty violation, ensuring that the Federation cannot cover this up. “The Pegasus” was (strangely) used as the framing device for the final episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, which may leave a bad taste in some fans’ mouths as a result, but I like it. It illustrates that one can do plots about shady Federation activities in Star Trek without the moral degradation of claiming those acts were justified, as sadly became the norm in later incarnations. Picard remaining true to his principles, no matter the consequences, is a powerful image. I’ll come back to this point when we get to those later series.
“Lower Decks” was a good concept – telling stories from the perspective of junior officers, as later used in the animated series of the same name – but suffered from the aforementioned Locarno/Paris problem, introducing characters for VGR who then got renamed anyway, so what’s the point? “Thine Own Self” is another episode I was very influenced by as a kid; Data crash lands on a less technologically advanced planet and loses his memory (that he was there to retrieve radioactive fragments and avoid breaking the Prime Directive) while, on the Enterprise, Troi sits the commander’s exam, after being thrust unprepared into command in the episode “Disaster” and deciding she should do something. I could talk about this episode for ages, but what I really like about it is how intelligently it is written. One of amnesiac Data’s acquaintances on the planet is a teacher and natural philosopher who teaches something which is recognisably similar to the Greek four elements, but is still different and original; Troi’s command test, instead of being a hey-look-continuity reheat of the Kobayashi Maru, uses the same themes but instead requires her to send a simulation of her friend Geordi to his death to fix a simulated engineering problem. Data is also attacked by the villagers not because he looks different, as stereotypes would suggest (the teacher simply decides he is an ‘iceman’ from the north) but because the villagers correctly blame him when people become sick after wearing jewellery made from the radioactive fragments he brought – not remembering they were dangerous. They’re minor things but they really elevate the episode, to the point that I recall a Canadian Star Trek book once cited a fan even named their son after Data’s amnesiac alias, Jayden.
“Masks” (no connexion with the earlier novel of that name) is a very strange, but interesting and artsy, episode. “Eye of the Beholder” is a murder mystery with Troi as the detective – because there is a psychic element. The ill-regarded “Genesis” sees everyone de-evolving into earlier life forms because the writers don’t understand what introns are. (Speaking as someone whose office is in a building named after the co-discoverer of introns…) “Journey’s End” both concludes Wesley Crusher’s story, having him become disenchanted with Starfleet and finally join the Traveller, and also helps set up the Maquis plotline, which had already been chronologically earlier established in DS9. (Yes this is confusing, yes we will get to it!) “Firstborn” is a strange and oft-forgotten episode featuring both the Duras Sisters and a mysterious Klingon warrior sent to train Worf’s son Alexander – who instead turns out to be a future version of Alexander, guilty that he was unable to prevent Worf’s assassination. “Bloodlines” is a peculiar follow-up to “The Battle” from way back in season 1. The penultimate episode, “Preemptive Strike”, features the return of Ro Laren and, again continuing events from DS9, ends with her breaking with Starfleet and joining the Maquis – never to be seen again, and a peculiar choice as Michelle Forbes had no intention of coming back. Apparently the choice of story was made because time was short due to the upcoming “Generations” film.
Despite this, the final episode, the two-parter “All Good Things”, is excellent and manages to provide perfect closure for the show as a whole. Picard finds himself being transported between three different time periods – ‘now’, his first mission on the Enterprise in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, and decades into the future, when he is retired on his family’s vineyard in France and is suffering from a brain disorder. (Viewers of the recent Picard series will note that it deliberately invokes the future setting seen in this episode, though many details are different). Of course, Q is behind it all – as Picard first realises when he fails to show up on cue (haha) in “Encounter at Farpoint” and he rages at the blank viewscreen, much to the confusion of a returning Tasha Yar and Chief O’Brien. (Some critics found it implausible that the past crew are so accepting of the erratic Picard, but Picard was actually pretty erratic in the original episode – characterisation marches on). Q taunts Picard by bringing him to the original courtroom from “Farpoint”, then by saying that the beginnings of life on Earth will be averted by a strange anomaly, and it was caused by Picard himself. Picard’s Farpoint mission is redirected to investigate that anomaly, as is his present-day mission – but the object is bigger in the past. Future Picard manages to persuade Geordi (now with cloned eye replacements) and Data (Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge) to help him make it out there to view the anomaly in the future, too. To do so, they hitch a ride on the medical ship USS Pasteur, commanded by Captain Beverly Picard – Jean-Luc having married and then divorced Dr Crusher.
Data has the idea of a type of scanning beam to investigate the anomaly, and Picard brings the idea back to the other time periods, all three of them scanning it. Unfortunately, it turns out that this interaction of the three beams across time is exactly what caused, the anomaly, which now will grow backwards in time until it fills the whole quadrant at the time when life is supposed to begin on Earth. (The time travel logic doesn’t quite work here, but the story’s good enough that we’ll forget it). To make matters worse, the Pasteur is destroyed by an attack from newly hostile Klingons – in the future, this space (which is Romulan in the present day) has been taken over by the Klingon Empire and they are less friendly with the Federation than before. This is a perfect example of how Star Trek is surprisingly resilient – this idea was criticised in DS9, when it seemed like the Romulans would become more powerful, but then the Romulans were indeed reduced to a remnant and the Klingons rendered more hostile. Also, the Klingon ship design used as a basic grunt ship of the future here then plays their new super-advanced prototype flagship Negh’Var in DS9, in a perfect inversion of how the Excelsior design was used. This is what I’m talking about when I say that when Star Trek writers choose to use aesthetics well, they have a unique gift in being able to portray past and future eras semi-consistently. The future uniforms and Starfleet logos introduced here will also be used again when depicting the future in DS9 and VGR episodes, building on the sense of consistency.
Future Picard and co. are rescued by Riker, now an admiral in command of an upgraded, three-nacelled dreadnought version of the Enterprise that makes short work of the Klingons – with help from Worf, now a Klingon governor. Future Riker and Worf are estranged over the death of Troi, an idea possibly borrowed from Peter David’s novel “Imzadi” which depicts a similar bad future (and which we’ll get to). All three versions of the Enterprise converge on the anomaly and try to close it with a static warp shell, meeting in its interior and exploding in sequence from past to future. Picard wakes up with his head in his hands in the courtroom, and Q informs him that “the trial never ends”: as Picard originally wanted in “Farpoint”, Q has judged them on their entire seven-year mission. But Q likes Picard enough to be flexible with his instructions from the Continuum and dropped him a few hints.
The episode – and the series – ends with Picard finally joining the bridge crew’s weekly poker game, a heartwarming moment in which, as the ship flies off into the sunset – I mean, a nebula – he declares that ‘The sky’s the limit’. (As I mentioned before with respect to “The Last Roundup”, they literally let someone write a comic whose plot involves them then being interrupted and going off on some boring adventure – this sort of thing is why I hesitate when asked my opinion on capital punishment).
Thus endeth Star Trek: The Next Generation, though its characters would return in four films and more. Before we go on, though, the next article or two will be devoted to the other TOS and TNG spinoff content that came out during these later years.
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.