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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Time Squared (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Time Squared is an intriguing little episode, if not entirely satisfying. Like The Royale before it, it features the Enterprise stumbling across a phenomenon that it can’t explain. Also like The Royale, the episode presents an existential horror to the crew. Time Squared is significantly stronger as a character piece, forcing Picard to confront a potential future version of himself that he can’t reconcile with his own expectations and self-image. Unfortunately, the open-ended mystery of the episode lacks the bizarre charm of the unresolved questions dangling at the end of The Royale.

"I never noticed before, but the Captain has pretty spectacular bone structure..."

“I never noticed before, but the Captain has pretty spectacular bone structure…”

The universe of Star Trek must be terrifying. I’m not even talking about the Romulans or the Klingons or the Borg or fear of death by oxygen starvation or even the random god-like entities that seem to stalk the cosmos. In a limitless universe, it seems inevitable that you will stumble across some version of yourself sooner or later. “Well,” Picard muses in the episode’s closing scene, “they say if you travel far enough you will eventually meet yourself. “ That seems particularly true in Star Trek.

You can meet clones or duplicates or robots or even alternate versions of yourself, wandering through the cosmos. There’s an entire mirror universe populated with copies of characters that we know and love. And then there’s time travel, which is a horrifying concept. Not just in a “oops, I made Hitler win the Second World War” sort of way, but in a more existential and personal manner.

Picard is his own worst critic...

Picard is his own worst critic…

Characters can meet themselves, in the past and in the future. Meeting your younger self is undoubtedly an interesting experience. Was I ever that young? Did I really believe that? How could I have no idea where my life would take me? What if things had gone differently? At the same time, it seems relatively safe. After all, you know your own past. You lived through it. There’s a certainty about how everything must eventually play out, with your present self the inevitable result of all those decisions. You use your past actions and thoughts to determine your identity, so it’s easy to reconcile your past self.

Your future self, on the other hand? There’s a horrifying thought. As much as you might like to think that you know yourself, your future self knows you better. As much as you might like to pretend that you will know how you will react to a particular situation, your future self knows for certain. How does your future self measure up to expectations? How does the choices that person made stack up against the choices that you thought you would make?

Talk about changing your mind...

Talk about changing your mind…

That’s the hook at the heart of Time Squared, and it’s enough to keep the episode interesting – even if the script buckles a bit under all that pressure. Finding one of its own shuttles adrift in the void, the Enterprise is startled to discover that it contains a copy of Jean-Luc Picard. More than that, though, it contains a version of Jean-Luc Picard who watched his ship explode and his crew die. And yet, despite that, this version of Jean-Luc Picard survived.

It’s hard to imagine a vision of the future that would be more unsettling to Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Even at this stage in the show, we know how much pride Picard puts in his own self-image. Picard is a veteran explorer, and a hero. He takes some deserved measure of esteem in that fact. That’s part of the reason that the events of The Best of Both Worlds would affect him so deeply – they damaged his self-image as a strong-willed man of character.

Some quality time with himself...

Some quality time with himself…

And this version of Picard understandably unsettles and disturbs Picard. What would it take to force Picard to abandon his ship and his crew in their hour of need? How could this brave hero decide to save his own life at the expense of those people who served under him? This isn’t a version of Picard from some distant alternate future or some dystopian parallel universe. This is Jean-Luc Picard six hours from now.

This is a pretty nice character-driven plot, and Time Squared finds a way to make a decidedly science-fiction-y premise feel quite personal. Patrick Stewart does a wonderful job playing a version of Picard facing the unthinkable. Our Picard is unwilling to accept that this could be the same man. “That person is you,” Deanna insists. Picard simply responds, “No.” Instead, he uses euphemisms to disassociate himself from all this, referring to his duplicate as “the facsimile.”

"This ship ain't big enough for the both of us..."

“This ship ain’t big enough for the both of us…”

Indeed, Picard seems quite ready and willing to phaser his other self at the episode’s climax, creating a sense that he remains detached from his other self. When he prepares to march with his double to the shuttle bay, he orders the area cleared of crew members. “I don’t want any distractions,” he explains, instructing Troi and Pulaski to wait behind, despite the fact that his double is disorientated and uncertain. It seems more likely that he wants to manage this confrontation in private.

Once he has stunned his counterpart in the shuttle bay, Picard is quite happy to abandon him, not waiting for a medical or security team to show up. There’s a sense that – even after he comes to understand the actions that his duplicate took – Picard still can’t forgive himself for abandoning his ship. There’s a lot of ambiguity in that scene. Given Pulaski doesn’t remain with future!Picard in the shuttlebay, does that mean that he is beyond saving? If so, did Picard kill him? If so, did Picard do it consciously?

Also, is this murder or suicide?

Also, is this murder or suicide?

Time Squared never quite manages to pay off this character plotline as well as it might. The core idea is a fascinating one, and it’s a wonderful character dilemma. At the same time, we never get to delve too far beneath Picard’s cold and commanding exterior. Patrick Stewart manages to convey just how unsettling this must be through a superb and nuanced central performance. There’s a sense that Time Squared could easily have done so much more with the hook.

At the same time, Hurley’s script seems a little rough in places. There’s a sense that The Next Generation is still figuring out how to pace itself. We get another of those lovely introductory sequences of the crew at rest, but the teaser ends with the Enterprise receiving a distress call. Given the main hook of the episode is “another Picard!” and that reveal comes a few minutes into the first act, it would have made more sense to shuffle the opening around a bit, and cut to credits with the shot of the second Picard.

Coming to terms with ourselves...

Coming to terms with ourselves…

There are other problems with Hurley’s script. Most obvious is the fact that what is going on is never really explained. To be fair, The Royale also left a host of unanswered questions, but they were questions that would seem difficult to answer in the context of the episode. In contrast, the plot threads dangling at the end of Time Squared seem pretty essential to the episode itself. The nature of the anomaly and Picard’s travel through time are never really explored.

The Royale gets away with it due to the absurdity of the basic premise. It’s about a mystery hotel on a dead world created by unseen aliens to house an astronaut. The episode comes with a certain amount of absurdity built in, and it’s book-ended by discussions about how some things elude even the most rational of minds – a reminder that there will never be a point where people will know everything. And that’s pretty great.

Floating some ideas...

Floating some ideas…

In contrast, the phenomenon in Time Squared is more like the kind of generic weird space thing that Enterprise stumbles across four or five times a year. This isn’t strange enough within the context of The Next Generation that we can really accept a shrug of the shoulders and a half-hearted “well, it’s a mystery, isn’t it?” It feels more like a cheap cop-out to get the script ready on time than a thematic plot point intended to subvert audience expectations.

There’s a hint that the phenomenon is self-aware. “Are you saying there was some conscious mind at work here?” Picard demands. Riker replies, “There’s no evidence either way.” However, Deanna Troi handily exposits, “There is a consciousness here.” More than that, the episode suggests that there’s some sort of plan afoot. The pull of the phenomenon is not natural. Studying his read out, Data declares, “It is similar to our tractor beam, only much more powerful.”

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

It’s worth noting that the reason for this ambiguity is down to Roddenberry rejecting Hurley’s original pitch for the episode. According to Hurley in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorised Complete Trek Voyages, he was planning on revisiting this plot line a few episodes later:

The way it was originally designed, is that three episodes later they’re going through space and all of a sudden Picard finds himself stuck in a shuttlecraft in a flash, and he sees the ship falling in to the top of the vortex and exploding. He thinks he’s lost his mind; he doesn’t know what’s going on. Q appears and says, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ Picard says, ‘You caused that and all these other things?’ Q says, ‘Ah, well, surprised you didn’t put it together earlier. Oh well, you are slow. Just a kind of calling card, something to do. Interesting, wasn’t it?’

To be fair, this is hardly a dramatically satisfying explanation for what happened. For one thing, it would turn Q from a mischievous menace into a malicious sociopath. For another “Q did it” is a cop out on par with “a wizard did it.” It’s almost certainly better that the events were left a mystery.

Blast from the... eh... present?

Blast from the… eh… present?

As per The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, the plan was for this script to lead directly to Q Who?

The story – originally titled “Time to the Second” – began as the first of what Maurice Hurley had planned as two consecutive but stand-alone episodes. “Time Squared would segue into “Q Who?”, in which the mischievous superalien is revealed as the cause of the vortex. That plan was scrapped at Gene Roddenberry’s insistence, Hurley has said, and so adds confusion to the ending. “Why would going into the vortex’s centre save you?” Hurley asked. “It doesn’t make sense. But it does if Q is pulling the strings.”

To be fair, Time Squared fits quite well thematically with Q Who? Both are scripts about how little our heroes actually comprehend the existential terrors of the universe around them. At the same time, I’m not sure that flying to the centre of the vortex makes any more sense if Q is directing events.

Should the crew worry that Picard spends most of the episode talking to himself?

Should the crew worry that Picard spends most of the episode talking to himself?

At the same time, the resolution to the plot seems to play into the larger thematic concerns of this second season. Here, Picard is confronted by a duplicate who is trapped in a loop, repeating the same action over and over again. “So, when we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again,” Geordi explains. “The Enterprise will be destroyed, the other Picard will be sent back to meet with us and we do it all over again. Sounds like someone’s idea of hell to me.”

For a show that is trying to emerge from the shadow of an iconic predecessor, that seems rather on the nose. At this point in its run, The Next Generation is struggling to define its own identity. It’s a show fighting the urge to fall back into familiar patterns, to settle for being a cheap imitation of the classic Star Trek – of getting caught in a loop of repeating itself. Talking to his duplicate, Picard urges future!Picard to reclaim his own agency and to stop repeating what came before. “You’re locked into a single intent unable to change. Unable to alter any part of your previous actions.”

"One of our shuttlecraft is... like, what's the reverse of missing?"

“One of our shuttlecraft is… like, what’s the reverse of missing?”

As such, Time Squared becomes something of a cautionary tale. It’s a warning against settling into repeating what came before, of trying too hard to emulate the classic Star Trek. It’s almost a fable, as Picard reflects on the meaning of the episode’s events at the end of the episode. “Or maybe he was thrown back in time, so that we would be able to take another road. Make a different choice.” It’s an argument for The Next Generation to try to carve out its own unique identity and to forge ahead.

That’s why “go forward” is the correct answer to the episode’s central dilemma. If The Next Generation tries to go backwards, it will end up pulling itself apart. While the problems with the first and second season make an attempt to retreat into the past enticing, Time Squared urges the show to weather the storm. After all, it will come out the other side stronger, more confident and more sure of itself.

Can you smell what Riker is cooking?

Can you smell what Riker is cooking?

While Hurley didn’t get to seed the multi-episode arc that he originally wanted, it is interesting that the opening scene of Time Squared points directly towards The Icarus Factor. It provides us with some nice context for the relationship between father and son, as Riker explains his troubled childhood in Alaska. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing and continuity for the series, even if placing it in the episode directly before The Icarus Factor feels a little on the nose.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that the show doesn’t have a tight enough grasp of continuity to quite pull that off. For one thing, Pulaski seems to have absolutely no familiarity with Riker’s family history. It’s not a detail that’s impossible to reconcile (“I used to sleep with your father” is quite likely to stop a conversation dead), but it does demonstrate that The Next Generation hasn’t quite reached the stage where it’s able to seed storylines across multiple episodes.

Down the rabbit hole...

Down the rabbit hole…

Time Squared is a solid little episode that never manages to live up to the wonderful hook at its core. Still, it’s a demonstration that The Next Generation is getting a lot better when it comes to producing “average” episodes, which is a necessary part of the evolution of any television show.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

6 Responses

  1. Isn’t this the one where the future Picard spends a great deal of the episode lying in sickbay, looking like he’s on a bad acid trip? If memory serves, no-one could really communicate with him until near the end of the episode where the one truly good scene is – the Picards chatting with one another on the way to the shuttlebay.
    The episode’s premise was much greater than the end result, I think. It would have been a more solid and entertaining episode if the two versions of Picard had been given lots more dialogue time, exploring each other’s emotions towards their inevitable fate. I mean, come on – who greater for Picard to debate with than himself?
    Trek’s best moments are in its dialogue between the better characters; in TNG’s case, that’s Picard, Q, and Data. Time Squared was a great idea, but a somewhat wasted opportunity.

    • Hi Scott!

      I think you’re right. And it is a wasted opportunity. The future Picard might look like Picard, but we don’t really understand him that much. We don’t see why he’s so committed to trying to escape again. While our Picard’s reaction does a lot of that groundwork, it would be nicer if the disagreement were developed – if we knew why future Picard was so insistent on leaving beyond “we need him to for the plot to advance.”

      Being honest, I like Time Squared a lot, but it could have been a lot stronger. But, at the same time, I think Patrick Stewart does some wonderful work. There’s a sense that Picard is far more unsettled by this than the script allows, and that the thought that he might be a coward is one of the most disturbing possibilities he has yet to confront. The scene where Picard kills his future self (and, while the episode is ambiguous, it also leans pretty heavily towards “cold-blooded murder”) is probably the second best Picard scene the show had done to this point – just behind his closing statement in The Measure of a Man.

  2. Well that’s very clever to draw a parallel between the Enterprise’s forward movement through the storm and the show’s own need for that forward movement. Well done!

    • Thanks Mickey!

      I don’t think it was intentional. In fact, given the difficulty behind the scenes, I’m fairly sure it wasn’t intentional. But it’s a nice metaphor, and one that plays through the season. The Royale features Riker and the away team trapped in a terrible story that they have to see through to the end – another nice metaphor about plowing through the rough stuff.

      It’s a nice happy coincidence, kinda like how Maurice Hurley’s inability to structure an episode of Star Trek helps to make Q Who? seem so ethereal and surreal. It doesn’t follow a simple act structure, and so it’s decidedly unnerving. However, Hurley’s other scripts all have the exact same problem. (Witness how terribly Time Squared is structured – the cliffhanger reveal should be the duplicate Picard. That is a story hook.)

      • Thank goodness Hurley’s insect concept never materialized. The Borg are much scarier as a Captain EO rip-off.

      • Hurley seemed to have a bit of thing about insect-like aliens, from what I recall. I think the Jerada in The Big Goodbye were originally insects and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was Hurley who suggested the insect-like parasites when Roddenberry deep-sixed Tormé’s original “Iran-Contra in Starfleet” plot. (Which, ironically, seems quite similar to the eventual plot for The Undiscovered Country.) As somebody who loves the design and the use of the parasites, though, I can’t help but wonder whether Hurley’s insect Borg would have worked on screen as well as the cyborgs. (And, while hardly the most elegant of designs, the Borg are iconic.)

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