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[TNG] Lynch's Spoiler Review: "Timescape"
Review by Tim Lynch <tly...@juliet.caltech.edu>
===============================================

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 awakened 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:  tly...@juliet.caltech.edu
UUCP:  ...!ucbvax!tlynch%juliet.caltech....@hamlet.caltech.edu
"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...

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