WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for "Timescape", this week's TNG episode. If you don't get out now, you may not be able to prevent being spoiled. Now *that* was bizarre. A generally nice form of bizarreness, mind you, but "bizarre" is definitely the most appropriate word. More, of course, after the usual synopsis:
The Enterprise, with Riker in command, goes to answer a Romulan distress call claiming engine failure, but keeps shields up and red alert ready just in case. In the meantime, Picard is returning from a conference, along with Troi, Geordi, and Data. They pass the time discussing various facets of the conference, but Troi suddenly finds that from her point of view, everyone else has suddenly frozen!
They "unfreeze" in a few seconds, but all are mystified about what it is Troi could have seen. As Data and Geordi run a diagnostic, Troi tells Picard about the situation -- and then finds that everyone is huddled around her seeming very concerned. This time, *she* is the one that froze -- and did so for a full three minutes. What's more, Geordi's readings suggest that she didn't age during those minutes either -- as if time simply stopped for her.
Still unable to contact the Enterprise, they increase speed. However, just at that moment, the starboard nacelle inexplicably fails. They stabilize their flight, but find that the nacelle's readings indicate continuous operation for almost _50 days_. Puzzled, Picard goes to check the fuel logs, but finds that the bowl of fruit previously on the table is now full of very rotting fruit. He reaches for the fruit, and suddenly screams in pain.
Troi and company arrive, concerned, and find that Picard's hand has aged at more than fifty times its normal rate while he was near the bowl. The tricorder detects a bubble of temporal instability within which time runs at about fifty times normal speed -- and the bubble includes the starboard nacelle of the runabout, thus explaining the engine failure. They attempt to move away from the bubble, but find themselves backing into another -- in fact, the sensors now detect a whole host of these pockets, varying in shape, size, and effect. It appears that the space-time continuum has been "shattered" in this area, and the trail of breakage leads to the place where they're supposed to rendezvous with the Enterprise. They head for it as quickly as possible, while taking pains to avoid any of the pockets.
When they eventually reach the Enterprise, they are stunned to see it frozen in time. It sits, dead in space -- with a Romulan Warbird near it, also frozen, and firing on the Enterprise. The Enterprise shows damage, while the warbird does not, prompting Geordi to suggest a surprise attack. There is also a second beam going from the Enterprise to the warbird's engineering section, which no one can explain.
They decide to go aboard the Enterprise, and after Geordi and Data work up a skintight force-field to let them enter a different timeframe without being integrated into it, all but Geordi go aboard. First, on the bridge, they find three Romulans, all with disruptors. One sits at Con, and another is standing over a helpless Riker. Picard and company discover that they can move objects, but decide not to try to change the situation until they discover more about it. Based on the data readings existing on the screens (which they can't change), Picard heads for transporter room 3, Data for engineering, and Troi for sickbay.
In sickbay, Troi finds several Romulans, and the usual complement of sickbay personnel. The Federation officers are all staring in shock at something, and Troi turns to see that it is Beverly, being hit point-blank by Romulan disruptor fire. She quickly heads for Picard, but in doing so brushes a female Romulan, who begins to move...
Picard, in the transporter room, finds three Romulans being beamed aboard by Worf. These Romulans, however, have no weapons -- and one even appears injured. As the mystery deepens, and Troi tells Picard that Beverly can't survive once time begins to run smoothly again, Data calls them both to Engineering.
There, he shows them the cause of strange readings they saw on the bridge: the warp core is in the process of exploding. What's more, since the explosion occurs so rapidly, Data can now tell that time is _not_ stopped dead, but merely slowed down to an infinitesimally slow rate. He estimates that the explosion will destroy the Enterprise in just over nine hours. The cause is unknown, but is in all probability related to a power transfer currently going on between the two ships, which is the second beam they'd seen earlier. The analysis is cut short, however, when Picard begins to snap from the strain, alternately laughing hysterically and crying for help.
Geordi brings them back, and finds that the protective fields aren't quite as good as he hoped -- Picard was in a state of "temporal narcosis", in effect drugged by the conflict between the two timeframes. Modification isn't possible, so their only choice is to continue and keep visits to one or the other ship _short_. With Picard staying behind this time, the team goes to the warbird's engine room.
There, Data, Geordi, and Troi see signs pointing to a Romulan _evacuation_, not an attack. The core breach on the Enterprise is traced to feedback on the power transfer beam, which the Romulans were apparently trying to stop. With the signs pointing away from a Romulan attack, they look at the Romulan engine core, which is reading as stopped. They find a maelstrom, still moving, which is a strong break in the space-time continuum, like the ones they'd found before, only more than a million times as powerful. There are also several dark specks seen in the core, which register as organic and possibly alive!
The core, hit with a great deal of energy from the tricorder, suddenly flashes -- and time begins moving again. The team sees the Romulans doing their level best to sever contact with the Enterprise and prevent the core breach -- except for one Romulan they do not see, who sees them and quickly heads for the shadows. The attempt is unsuccessful, and Picard sees the Enterprise explode -- except that immediately following that, time flows *backwards*, back to the point where they first saw it.
With time frozen again, the team continues exploring the engine room as they speculate on the cause of the sudden change in time. Geordi, however, is attacked by the one Romulan from the shadows, who is still able to move. Both are knocked unconscious, and Geordi is put into severe shock. Unable to save him, Troi removes his force-field, thus "freezing" him in the hopes that he can be saved later. The Romulan is alive, but Data's scans show that he may well _not_ be a Romulan...
Data, Troi, and the prisoner return to the runabout, where the tricorder data is analyzed. The structure of the "specks" is similar to that of the alien they've taken hostage, though far simpler, and Picard theorizes that they are embryonic forms of the alien they see. That alien wakes, and tells them some of what they need to know. He "assumed" the Romulan body in order to exist in this timeframe, and had come to save their young. This species, it is discovered, nests its young in singularities such as black holes. The Romulan engine core uses an artificially created singularity which they thought would suffice, but instead the nest's presence shut the engine down. The alien stops there, but Picard continues: The Enterprise came to help them restore the engine, and the power transfer endangered the nest, which created the feedback that destroyed/destroys/will destroy the Enterprise. That act also disrupted the space-time continuum, causing the problems they've encountered so far. The aliens did their best to attack the Enterprise to save their young. The prisoner goes so far as to say that there is one other adult around, but dies before he can say more.
Shortly thereafter, Picard suggests altering the tricorder and then using it on the engine core again. With luck, it can be altered so that time will flow backwards *first*, then forwards -- and if it goes back far enough, the power transfer might be preventable. As Data works on it, Picard and Troi plan where to be and what to do, as they are likely to have very little time.
Everything is made ready: Picard is on the bridge, Data in Engineering, and Troi in sickbay. Data remotely activates the tricorder, and time begins to flow backwards. As things flow backwards, however, Data is attacked by the second alien (the "Romulan" seen earlier in sickbay) and incapacitated temporarily. He recovers quickly, but not in time to stop the transfer. He places a containment field around the warp core and hopes...
Meanwhile, Picard sees the Romulans helping on the bridge, including one Romulan reaching down to help Riker up from a fall. Picard orders a very surprised Riker to continue evacuating the Romulans, and to get Geordi from the engine room as well.
Troi pushes Beverly out of the way as the Romulan fires, then holds the Romulan at bay. He and Beverly, however, explain that he was firing at the alien and that she only got in the way -- "and where did she go?"
Data tells Picard that the transfer is still underway and that feedback is imminent. Picard remotely guides the runabout into the path of the power transfer, disrupting the beam. The Enterprise is saved, but the warbird vanishes into a different timeframe, along with the aliens. Everything is back to normal, although Riker is very confused. "It's going to take a little time to explain, Number One..."
Ooooookay. Finished? Good. Now, let the comments begin.
"Timescape" is the sort of show that will make a lot of people's heads hurt. It wasn't so much a time *travel* story as it was a time *manipulation* story, and the latter is usually a much tougher idea to play with. (Think about it. Time travel is simple enough that it can be turned into something like "Terminator 2", but how often do different flows of time come into play?) That rarity, if nothing else, might cause some confusion.
Personally, I rather enjoy being confused when it's at a time and place of my choosing, so I didn't mind that at all. If you prefer avoiding things this odd, then "Timescape" will not be to your liking. (Of course, you'll have to learn to check the writing credits -- when we've got the author of "Frame of Mind" and "Cause and Effect" at work, if you're not expecting a little confusion then you're confused in a totally different way. :-) )
More seriously, "Timescape" does suffer a bit in that it's an almost totally plot-driven show. "Suffer" may be too strong a word, actually; it's not like being plot-driven is inherently *bad*. I just prefer the heavy character episodes like "Frame of Mind" myself. Here, the premise is mainly the characters (and us) solving the mystery of "what the hell happened?" and finding a way to resolve everything. That's what the show boils down to if you take away the frills, and that by itself isn't the most exciting of premises.
However, the premise isn't everything, and "Timescape" without a lot of the frills of time-shifting would be like "Jurassic Park" with 1950's-style dinosaurs -- just a bit lacking. "Timescape" had a lot of little touches, both in execution and in the characters, to rise far above that mystery premise.
For some examples of character touches, I'd have to include virtually the entire teaser. Both Troi's impression of Dr. Whoever at the conference and Picard's impression of one particular speaker seemed very in character, and were absolutely _dead on_ for scientific conferences to boot. (Naren Shankar's the one PhD scientist on staff -- he must have lent some advisory remarks to this bit.) I also particularly enjoyed Riker's problems feeding Spot ("all of a sudden there's this hissing ball of fur coming at my face..."), but that may be a product of being woken all too many times by hissing balls of fur coming at MY face at 4 in the morning.
Another, much subtler one is Troi's little ear-tapping when she's trying to explain what she saw to Picard. We've never seen her do it before, but it's been mentioned as a Betazoid relaxation technique in the past -- and to actually see her do it this time suggests that some people did their homework.
Some equally strong non-character touches to the show were that it was an extremely _good_ mystery. Although I kept thinking that it didn't feel like a run-of-the-mill Romulan attack, my theory about what it *was* was quite different.
I'd figured that the temporal effects kicked in differently in different locations. Thus, perhaps the transporter room and main engineering "froze" first, along with something on the Romulan ship. The Romulans, already jumpy, could have interpreted it as some sort of Federation attack and responded in kind, both from the warbird and the Enterprise -- and then the battle sequences could have frozen after that. That might also explain a great deal of what we saw.
Don't get me wrong -- the eventual explanation was just as sensible and just as interesting, and it's a credit to the thought that went into the show that there *was* more than one plausible explanation. I just wanted to mention my own original ideas on the topic, so that anyone out there who had them as well doesn't feel lonely.
Moving on, the show looked and felt great, but there are some questions I have nibbling at the margins about the show's internal logic.
First, in the final rescue attempt, exactly who was it that was firing on the Enterprise? We're strongly led to believe the first time that it was the alien on board the Romulan ship, since they were trying to save the young. But the final time around, that alien was dead. Who decided to fire?
Second, it's not entirely clear to me whether the aliens had freedom of movement or not once time froze. I think the implication is that they did, given that (1) the male one did so when it attacked Geordi, and (2) the female one wasn't in the path of the Romulan disruptor in sickbay, but if so, it seems a little too coincidental that the female was anywhere *near* sickbay once everybody we know came aboard. It's not a big deal, but it's a little _too_ neat.
Speaking of sickbay, I do think it's a bit of a cheat on the part of whoever chose to put the female alien out of the path of the disruptor when Troi first arrives. If she'd been in the beam's path, but significantly far back, then everything could be fine. As it is, her position was not only not a clue for us, but a deliberate deception preventing us from figuring out the situation in sickbay. That's sort of like hiding the murder weapon; a bit, well, _tacky_. I don't know whether Brannon Braga or Adam Nimoy made that decision, but it's not the way I'd have gone.
That said, everything else worked swooningly well for me. Everybody acted appropriately and intelligently, Geordi's removal from the action made perfect sense, and Picard got to make a smiley-face in the middle of a warp-core explosion. What else could anyone ask? :-)
So, some shorter points and I'm off.
-- A small scripting glitch: the acceleration on the runabout couldn't possibly be only *50* times normal, if the starboard engine had been shown to be running for 47 _days_. Besides that, Picard's hand was only in contact with the bubble for a few seconds -- that's not a few hundred seconds' worth of growth, nor a few hundred minutes' worth of rotting in the fruit. 500 would seem a more reasonable estimate.
-- Say, how'd everybody end up on a runabout, anyway? That's the first we've ever seen of them on TNG -- where did it come from?
-- No comments, please, about how we shouldn't be able to see if light isn't moving and time is really still. That's called "suspension of disbelief" if used properly, and "really anal-retentive thinking" if it's not used.
-- When we saw the similar but simpler version of the aliens in the engine core, I'll admit that my first thought was not alien embryos, but that time had accelerated for a few of them and that they'd _evolved_ really quickly. Too much Asimov late at night, I guess...
-- Finally, while I still think the "forced quantum singularity" idea for the Romulan engine is a fairly silly idea, we had here a very sensible use of it that actually dealt with what the engine source must be. Neat.
So, all in all, lots of fun. A few questions that make you wonder, but all in all the headaches you'll get from "Timescape" will be intentional. Nice work.
So, numbers time, as always:
Plot: 9. A bit off for the logic, but not much. Plot Handling: 10. Edge-of-your-seat stuff, most of it. Characterization: 10. Spot-on (no pun intended :-) ).
OVERALL: 10. Nice one.
NEXT WEEK The season finale. "The Borg are back, and Data is in trouble ... hey na, hey na..."
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.) BITNET: tlynch@citjulie INTERNET: firstname.lastname@example.org UUCP: ...!email@example.com "Where's that cat of yours?" "Spot is sleeping. Why do you ask?" "No reason." Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note. This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.