November 19, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Time's Arrow"

It is 15 June 1992 and time for the Season 5 finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise is urgently recalled to Earth, where an excavation has uncovered an abandoned mine not entered since the 19th century. The cavern walls are soaked with alien radiation. A small number of artefacts litter the floor, including a pocket watch and a revolver. In the corner of the room there is also the severed head of Commander Data (Brent Spiner), sealed away and abandoned for 500 years.

As far as cold opens go, "Time's Arrow" has one of Star Trek's all-time best. It is a delicious premise, since you immediately know that Picard (Patrick Stewart) leading the investigation into how Data's head came to be left in 19th century San Francisco is going to inevitably lead the story back in time and cause the fatal decapitation to occur. From this smart opening gambit the episode develops with a combination of great ideas, an entertaining period setting and some solid time travel-based science fiction. While it does not quite match the apocalyptic brilliance of "The Best of Both Worlds", "Time's Arrow" stands as a solid second-best season cliffhanger for The Next Generation.

The episode works because it is littered with great ideas. The mystery hook gives the episode an instant sense of intrigue, as the crew use their scientific abilities to track the alien radiation down to a distant planet. There a species of time-displaced parasites are travelling back in time and space to kill humans and absorb their energy for food. They are shape-shifters, which also allows them to look remarkably creepy as they stalk the alleys of San Francisco in formal wear and with their faces in a near-constant state of shadow.

This alone is all rather effective, but then Data is accidentally thrown back to the 19th century with them. There he quickly tracks down Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), thinking that she has been thrown back with him. Instead it's a completely different Guinan: one almost five centuries younger and who has never met Data, Picard or anybody else in the United Federation of Planets. This episode gives Goldberg a huge amount of material with which to work, essentially playing two different characters: one who is fresh and young and in over her head, and another who already knows how events in the past will play out but feels obliged to keep it a secret. Goldberg does an excellent job.

The episode then inserts Jerry Hardin as Samuel Clemens, aka author Mark Twain, giving the episode yet another outlet for character and humour. Hardin plays the role very well, and indeed later went on to perform as Clemens in his own solo show. I suspect some viewers will chafe slightly at the 'celebrity historical' aspect of the episode. I think it adds a great deal.

Brent Spiner is so good as Data generally that it becomes easy to take him for granted. He does a particularly strong job here, presenting a character with enormous amounts of curiosity, caution and confusion, but never with emotion. His performance really accentuates Data's emotionless nature. He has discovered his own death, yet is not perturbed by the knowledge that he will die in the past.

An awful lot happens in this episode, and it benefits from a fast pace and a well-balanced double narrative. In the 19th century Data works to track down the shape-shifters with Guinan's help. In the 24th century the Enterprise crew struggle to get Data back - in their case without Guinan's assistance. The episode - and the season - ends with Picard and his command crew entering a portal into the past. It's a strong cliffhanger that entices audiences to eagerly await the story's conclusion without being as on-the-nose and climactic as "The Best of Both Worlds" reveal of Picard as a Borg.

This is a great first part, and a strong cliffhanger ending for the season. It leaves Season 5 with 17 good episodes out of 26 and a quality ratio of 65 per cent.

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