Time Squared (ST:TNG Rewatch, Season 2, Episode 13)

Rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation after a 20-year break.

The Enterprise encounters an abandoned Federation shuttlecraft and a time-travel mystery.

A “bottle” episode that takes place entirely on the Enterprise, which frees up the production budget for some cool “energy vortex” special effects and gorgeous computer interface displays that really help create the illusion of place. The six-hour time-loop plot device helps ramp up the tension, and Picard’s resolution is duly shocking, but the story itself is a jumble.

In this episode, Troi’s empathetic powers are powerful enough to rule out definitively any possibility of deception or illusion, but not powerful enough to be of any practical help.

Some odd editing suggests that the editors weren’t quite sure of what to do with Troi in this episode. Picard exits the bridge via the turbolift, and Troy shoots a worried look at Riker, before walking towards the lift doors (presumably to follow Picard in the next lift). Then in the very next scene, we see Picard entering sickbay, where Troi is already there. In the original broadcast, there may have been a commercial break there, so the discontinuity would have been less noticeable. Picard orders her to stay in sickbay with the “patient,” but after she exchanges some lines with Pukaski (who warns her about Picard’s erratic behavior) Troi, after defending Picard, promptly leaves, thereby disobeying the order he just gave her.

Likewise, LaForge and Data are completely unable to get any useful information from a log file except for the very dramatic few seconds that the script says they can recover. At another point LaForge says this is it, we have absolutely no energy left, we must shut down the engines immediately, and Picard tells him to hold on, which he does, completely contradicting everything he seemed to be saying about needing to shut down the engines. No attempt is made to explain or work around these limitations.

Nobody’s perfect, but good writing and basic continuity are staples of the TV / film industry. Star Trek shouldn’t get a pass on these storytelling fundamentals just because the show spends its money on cool space vortexes and energy beams.

This episode tries to focus on Picard’s reaction to his opportunity to undo a decision that he knows must have seemed like the right thing to do at the time. A scene in which Riker and Picard try to talk their way to a solution makes perfunctory references to time-travel in earlier episodes of Star Trek, but only to establish that this time-travel plot device is completely unlike any other time-travel plot device we’ve ever encountered before.

Why is there an alien intelligence in the vortex, and why does it have a personal interest in Picard? Why does flying directly into the vortex make the vortex go away? Why are the shuttle’s power systems are reversed, why are the patient’s biological functions are reversed, why does Picard shoot to kill instead to stun? Yes, science fiction requires a willing suspension of disbelief.

Learning from alternate timelines makes good character development for Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, and Marty McFly. I’ve seen dozens of low-budget Doctor Who episodes that do a much, much better job telling an ethical / personal story with that premise. This episode doesn’t try to explain how, in the sequence of events we are watching, Picard manages to gain the insight that allows him to break the time loop and set things right. The writers wrote the lines, the director filmed the scenes, and there it is.