This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.
It’s really remarkable the sense of self that Star Trek: Voyager had three issues into its run. It took Star Trek: The Next Generation two years to figure out what it wanted to be. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine only really settled down in its fourth season. Star Trek: Enterprise reinvented itself twice before it was cancelled. On the other hand, Voyager just seemed so aware of what it was and what it was going to be within only a few episodes.
Sure, there would be a few changes made in the years ahead. The Borg would appear in the third season; Seven of Nine would join the cast in the fourth. Janeway’s fickleness has yet to be firmly established; the Doctor hasn’t come to the fore. And, yet, three episodes in, it is quite possible to look at Star Trek: Voyager and get a sense of what the next seven years will be like. The shape of things to come.
Time and Again is a time travel story, but it’s also the first time that Voyager pulls a full-on end-of-episode reset. It will not be the last.
To be fair, Time and Again does seem to suffer from bad timing. It was filmed and broadcast very shortly after Deep Space Nine had done a similar “time travel moral dilemma” story with Past Tense and The Next Generation had ended on a “prevent the time crisis from ever occurring” plot in All Good Things… As such, Time and Again can’t help but feel overly familiar and heavily recycled.
At the same time, it is worth conceding that neither of those stories was highly original. Peter David joked in the foreword to a later Imzadi edition that Ronald D. Moore swore All Good Things… did not rip off David’s novel. Past Tense was essentially a gigantic homage to The City on the Edge of Forever. Even The City on the Edge of Forever itself was just part of a long line of similar time travel stories.
So the problem isn’t that we’ve seen this type of story before. The problem is that we’ve seen this story done quite recently, and quite brilliantly, on two other Star Trek shows. There’s a sense that the Star Trek offices should probably be keeping an eye out for these sorts of things and making sure that they don’t happen. Time and Again might be a reasonably serviceable time travel story on its own merits, but it is very much in the shadow of those two episodes.
There’s a sense that Voyager isn’t really trying to figure out what it wants to be. It knows what it wants to be – effectively a continuation of The Next Generation, with a more cost-effective cast. In The Art of Star Trek, Judith and Garfield Reeve-Stevens remark that “the first season of Voyager went almost as smoothly on the technical end as an eighth year of The Next Generation.” That feels like the result of a conscious design. After all, the production numbers on Voyager‘s first season were 801 through 816, as if to emphasise this fact.
Indeed, several people noticed this. In 1995, Time published a rather scathing article, To Boldly Go Where Seven Movies and 300-Plus TV Shows Have Gone Before:
Star Trek: Voyager was billed as a whole new series by its creators at the new United Paramount Network. But so far. the latest Trek spin-off gives new meaning to Eugene O’Neill’s observation that there is no future, just the past recurring. And recurring…
The article went on to list a bunch of similarities between episodes from Voyager‘s first season and other Star Trek shows. (Caretaker was compared to Return of the Archons and The Apple; Time and Again was likened to The City on the Edge of Forever and Past Tense.) Some of these comparisons were superficial spurious; others were spot-on.
So Time and Again felt a little tired when it aired. The none-too-subtle political subtext didn’t help. Star Trek has always prided itself on engaging with important and vital social issues, and Voyager would have its share of episodes offering incisive commentary on moral issues. What is fascinating about Voyager, though, is the way that the show’s moral compass seems to be anchored in the wake of the Second World War.
Nazis – whether literal or allegorical – seem to turn up with great frequency on the show. There are quite a few analogies made to the holocaust over the course of the show’s run. Two of the episodes from the show’s first season – including this one – deal with the legacy of splitting the atom. There’s a decidedly retro vibe to Voyager‘s allegories and commentaries. Given how Caretaker was structured to feel like a throwback to the classic Star Trek, featuring our heroes thrown into an outer space Wild West this probably isn’t a coincidence.
Time and Again seems interested in nuclear politics. Although it references the use of a dangerous and devastating power source, it’s clearly intended as an analogy to nuclear proliferation as well. The devastation witnessed by the crew of Voyager doesn’t look like the damage caused by a radiation leak from a nuclear power plant so much as the devastation caused by a nuclear weapon. Tom Paris finds a stopped clock, an iconic image associated with the Hiroshima bombing.
Although the disaster is caused by an explosion at a power planet, the technology responsible is first mentioned by Tuvok in the context of weapons. “A Romulan research colony was nearly destroyed during the testing of one these devices,” he recalls. “It lead to the Polaric Test Ban Treaty of 2268.” It goes without saying that this sounds like a shout-out to some of the many Nuclear Test Ban Treaties signed in the wake of the Second World War, one signed by Kennedy a few years before Star Trek went on the air.
Interestingly, the story had originally been conceived as a more direct parallel to the Second World War. As per Captains’ Logs Supplemental, Jeri Taylor recalls, “The original pitch was what if you were in Dresden twenty-four hours before the fire bombing and knew it was coming? What would you do?” It lends the whole adventure the feel of a throwback, as if Voyager is still writing for the politics of the sixties. (The costume design on the episode’s aliens doesn’t help – anti-nuclear protesters clad in goofy-looking primary colours.)
It is worth noting that nuclear weapons were still a concern into the nineties. Indeed, with America as the leading global power and the Soviet Union collapsed, nuclear proliferation was a hot-button topic. In many respects, the first few seasons of Voyager feel like an attempt to move through what Charles Krauthammer described as “the unipolar moment”, the point where America was the dominant political and military force on the planet. As such, many of the plots from those early years featured Voyager encountering more primitive and troubled cultures, acting as peace-keepers and peace-makers.
Here, it seems like Voyager is being thrown into the debate on nuclear proliferation. After all, Time and Again aired in early 1995, a year after the signing of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances between the US, the UK and Russia. The agreement hoped to convince the Ukraine to give up its nuclear capacity, in return for support from the signatories. The Ukraine reportedly began shipping its warheads back to Russian in March 1994. The United States also hoped to prevent South Korea from developing nuclear technology by vowing to protect it using its own weapons of mass destruction.
The United States had ceased testing its nuclear weapons following a moratorium imposed by George H. W. Bush in 1992. The last anti-nuclear protest held at the Nevada Testing Grounds was held in two years after the moratorium, in 1994, perhaps suggesting that the issue was perhaps slipping from the consciousness of the American public. So the fascination with “polaric ion devices” feels a little bit too much like a science-fiction throwback.
Dealing with the issue of proliferation, it is not too hard to imagine a Star Trek analogy for attempts to keep nuclear technology out of hands ill-equipped to deal with it. In fact, the show would do something similar with The Omega Directive much later in its run. Ultimately, Time and Again doesn’t go down that route. In fact, it comes down quite heavily against the idea of the Starfleet crew presuming to meddle in the affairs of another culture.
Ultimately, the polaric explosion is not due to the local population mishandling the advanced technology. It is the result of attempts by the crew of Voyager to rescue Janeway and Paris. So Janeway saves the day by preventing the rescue attempt, rather than meddling in the affairs of the local culture. In short, Time and Again is a defence of non-interference in other cultures. Janeway winds up creating an alternate time line where the Voyager crew don’t intervene and the explosion doesn’t happen.
Here, we get a sense the inconsistency at the heart of Voyager. The climax of Caretaker saw Janeway directly interfering in the politics of two less-advanced cultures because she could not justify inaction. Tuvok even drew attention to how saving the Ocampans was a breach of the Prime Directive. So it seems weird and arbitrary that Time and Again is an episode about how the Prime Directive must absolutely be respected for the greater good of everybody.
It’s also a little weird that Janeway comes down so firmly on the side of the Prime Directive early in the episode, so soon after justifying the breach in Caretaker. She warns Paris, “You have no idea what the consequences might be once you involve yourself.” Of course, this seems at odds with her logic in Caretaker. (“We never asked to be involved, Tuvok, but we are. We are.”) Even more weirdly, the episode treats this position as correct, even though it was incorrect in Caretaker.
More than that, there are some logical questions that apply. If Janeway and Paris went back in time caused the explosion, but they only arrived because they were investigating the explosion that they caused, what attracted them to the planet in the first place to cause the explosion the first time? This isn’t a stable time loop, after all. Given that the end of the episode demonstrates that a universe where the explosion doesn’t occur causes Voyager to by-pass the planet and not beam Paris and Janeway down to cause the explosion, this seems like a bit of a logical gap.
If Voyager’s interest in the planet is dictated by the explosion, and Janeway and Paris’ involvement is dictated by said interest, how did the explosion happen the first time? The plot tries to hand wave an explanation, in the same way that Parallax did for the distress signal that had not been sent yet. “You’re saying we’re responsible for an explosion even though it occurred before our ship arrived here?” Paris asks, ignoring the fact that he asked pretty much the same question in the last episode. “We’ve travelled back to a point in time before the explosion, so, yes, we can be responsible for it,” Janeway explains. It’s a bit wishy-washy.
(And there’s also the rather unfortunate implication that it’s perfectly okay if an alien culture destroy themselves while you aren’t looking. There’s no indication that the planet will avoid a similar catastrophe in the future, as Tuvok seems to suggest incidents like this are not uncommon. However, it’s treated as a happy ending because our heroes won’t be around to witness it. That’s a rather uncomfortable conclusion.)
There are other issues with Time and Again. The planet itself and the characters inhabiting it are about as generic as they can be. Given that Voyager is meant to be charting a new corner of the galaxy, it feels weird for the show to fall back on human-looking aliens so quickly. The Delta Quadrant was meant to be exotic and exiting – something new and different from the set-up in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Instead, this feels very familiar.
None of the characters inhabiting this world feel particularly fleshed out. The script takes for granted that the audience cares about what happens here, without giving them any reason. In particular, Makull feels like a garden-variety psychopath. He’s an anti-polaric protestor who is willing to threaten a child (and it’s not an idle threat) in order to bully Janeway into cooperating. There’s no sense of nuance to the character, rather a sense that he exists to move the plot along. He gets Janeway inside the reactor, and the script has no interest in him outside of that. He feels terrible one-dimensional.
However, the alien world around him has no texture to it. The set design is quite nice, but the world looks like stock Star Trek cliché: “the alien world of humans in silly outfits.” As with a lot of Voyager‘s first season, this could be read as a conscious throwback to the classic Star Trek, which was fond of using goofy costumes to avoid using make-up on a given week. Certainly, the local fashions scream “sixties!” with the emphasis on primary colours. However, it just feels a little lacklustre for what is the first of Voyager‘s many “planet of the week” stories.
The writing assignments for the first season of Voyager do seem a little bit weird. Michael Piller takes one of the final writing credits on Time and Again, which is essentially a time-travel reset button episode. Given that Piller’s strength has always been character work, it feels like an odd fit. Time and Again would make much more sense as a Brannon Braga script. Instead, Braga was assigned to write Parallax, the episode dealing with the character fallout from the merging of the two crews in Caretaker. One imagines that Parallax would have worked better from the desk of Michael Piller.
Of course, there are logistical and scheduling reasons why certain writers got handed certain briefs, but it seems like none of the writers on the first season of Voyager are really playing to their own strengths. (Well, at least until Brannon Braga writes Projections.) And so Time and Again is filled with lots of weird Piller-esque character moments that don’t go anywhere because there’s no room for them in the plot. Paris and Kim discussing double-dating in the teaser, the development of Kes’ very sixties ESP skills, the weirdly possessive (and creepy) relationship between Neelix and Kes. All set up, none paid off.
However, it’s the ending that feels most disappointing. Time and Again ends with the revelation that the Voyager crew were responsible for the disaster. Janeway prevents it by stopping the rescue attempt, which prevents the explosion, which prevents the two officers getting thrown back in time. Instead, Voyager continues on its merry way, oblivious to this pre-warp civilisation and what might have happened.
In other words, it’s a reset button.
Voyager would become very fond of the reset button, ending an episode so that there were absolutely no consequences for any of the characters involved. To be fair, the classic Star Trek and The Next Generation also tended to avoid long-term fall-out to individual episode plots. As an episodic adventure franchise, Star Trek tended to feature different aliens and worlds each week, with the crew of a given show carrying a minimum amount of baggage from one to the next. There were exceptions, but this was certainly the rule.
However, Voyager elevated this to an artform. Not only did the show avoid any long-running continuing plots, but it was also quite fond of emphasising how little impact the events of a given week had on the Voyager crew. Time and Again is the first episode that ends with Voyager crew oblivious to an adventure we’ve just watched them endure, continuing on oblivious to anything the audience has just seen. It won’t be the last time that Voyager uses this ending.
Although the series used this sort of direct “nothing you watched mattered” reset button slightly less than most critics would have you believe, the show still fell back on it far too often. It’s fascinating that the show has resorted to it on only the second episode following the pilot. Start as you mean to go on, indeed. In fact, between this and Parallax, we’ve already seen foreshadowing of Voyager‘s fascination with time travel, duplication, generic planets of the week, strange anomalies of the week, its lack of interest in long-form storytelling and the reset button.
Voyager already has a keen sense of identity. It knows what it wants to be, even if it doesn’t want to be anything particularly ambitious. Given the teething problems that faced other Star Trek spin-offs, that’s quite remarkable. Sadly, what it wants to be is hardly commendable.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager: