Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.3: Worlds Of Fantasy And Horror #1 pp85-92

Time And Again

Star Trek Voyager Time And Again

“I swear to the Space Gods, Captain, if you mention the Prime Directive ONE MORE TIME…”

Way back when this ludicrously ambitious article series began, I gently took to task people who say the Trek franchise got tired. I won’t argue that individual people working on the franchise ran out of good material. But as a sandbox to play in Trek offers up, quite literally, infinite diversity.  These programs have sketched out two centuries worth of human civilisation. Saying you can run out of Trek stories is like saying you can run out of stories about the 1900s. You might not like the stories you get, but there will always be more to tell.

Unadaptable

You can’t tell every story in Trek, though.  According to Memory Alpha the original pitch for “Time And Again” was simple: “What if you were in Dresden before the fire bombing and knew it was coming? What would you do?”. As an idea for a short story, that has bite. Stick it in an anthology and I’d get interested fast. Historians – whether genuine or self-appointed – have debated Dresden’s fate for decades. Was setting the city aflame during WWII a necessary evil in a campaign to end a conflict that had already killed tens of millions? Or was it a war crime committed against a major civilian population for no better reason than sowing terror in the dying days of a war already won?

This isn’t really the time or place to go into my own thoughts on this (though I’d note Churchill himself called the bombing raids a “mere [act] of terror and wanton destruction”). But the potential of such a story is precisely that refusing to take a position wouldn’t be possible anymore. Once you have the capacity to warn people what’s coming, choosing to remain silent is taking a side. Furthermore, once you conclude the city should have been warned, you are implicitly arguing that every Allied officer and official who knew what was coming had a duty to do something about it. That simple, two-question pitch could take you down some interesting roads.

(It could also result in a brain-numbing disaster where people throw academic positions at each other whilst the drone of bombers gets ever louder. Not much point in running through hypothetical criticisms of a non-existent story, though. I’ve enough complaints about the episode as aired.)

Interesting though that story might be, however, Star Trek can’t tell it.  Or at least Voyager can’t, stuck in an unknown region of space and bound by the codes of Starfleet. First of all, context is too important. You couldn’t have Janeway and Paris beaming down in the middle of a war between, say, the Kazon and the Vidians to debate whether to warn one side about an upcoming massive assault. Not if you want the story to have the same heft. Even if the story didn’t get bogged down into another interminable argument about the Prime Directive, there’s no historical context there. Any criticism of any position regarding Dresden will have trouble sticking because of that. It’s too easy to shrug the story off as having no bearing on the real world. Deep Space Nine could possibly manage to sell the story, somewhere deep into the Dominion War. Moore’s cynicism and veneration of the military might make the result pretty unpalatable, of course.  You could do it, though. But on a show about never staying in the same place? One just three episodes into its lifespan? That was never going to work. There was always going to be too much lost in translation.

Perhaps this is why the final story replaces a city obliterated by war with a planet sterilised by an industrial disaster. That’s much cheaper than trying to depict a full-on military conflict, after all. If you’re not adding anything with the war angle it makes sense to drop it.

But hold on. There’s a gap here.  If a Delta Quadrant Dresden could never have the same narrative heft as the historical original, why use a stand-in at all? Characters from Voyager managed to end up in mid-90s LA at one point. Why not wartime Germany? If the writing staff had wanted Janeway and Paris to be stuck in Dresden on the 12th of February 1945, they’d only ever have been one temporal anomaly away from making it happen.

And yet they didn’t, and it’s easy to see why. It’s that damned Prime Directive.

“We Don’t Want It To Be Our Fault”

This is the first time the Prime Directive has really appeared in this idiosyncratically ordered re-watch. Picard mentioned it in “Code of Honor”, but it was presented there as just a rule stopping you nicking things from less tech-savvy people no matter how much you want to.  Here we get the full whammy, with Janeway announcing she and Paris are forbidden from warning the planet’s inhabitants that every life-form on their world is about to be disintegrated.

No wonder our heroes didn’t end up on Earth. If the sections of the Prime Directive that deal with time travel forbids them acting on this alien world, it forbids them acting in Dresden. Or in Coventry, for that matter, or Stalingrad, or Hiroshima. Even for those who argue bombing civilian population centres is justifiable, it’s hard to imagine it being enjoyable watching our heroes refuse to so much as save a single child from the oncoming destruction. You can’t set a Starfleet story set in 1945 Dresden simply because the Prime Directive would render our protagonists monstrous.

This approach isn’t all that much better, though. What moral good is possibly served by allowing an accident at a power plant to exterminate all life on an entire world?

I’d like to propose something. A test for whether a given Prime Directive story comes close to working. The rules are simple: you re-frame the central problem as one of foreign policy, and decide whether Starfleet’s position seems remotely reasonable in those terms. It seems like a fair approach to me. Certainly the Prime Directive seems like a stance against careless and/or paternalistic interventionism. You never know if meddling will make a bad situation worse. And in truth plenty of western governments could stand to consider that kind of argument far more often. I’m sure, as various Starfleet officers endlessly insist, that in the vast majority of cases it’s a pretty sharp philosophy.

So let’s try it out, shall we? Let’s say that on the 25th of April, 1986, British Intelligence receives a report telling it the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat is about to explode, irradiating vast tracts of the-then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and generating fallout that could kill tens of thousands of people. Can you think of any sensible argument in favour of MI6 sitting on that information? Because I’m not seeing it, to put it mildly. The kind of arguments required to support the Prime Directive in cases like this one are desperately weak. If all those settlements across the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia hadn’t been rendered uninhabitable, then maybe their occupants might one day have begun a vicious war against their neighbours. Perhaps clearing the scarily-named “zones of alienation” of human life will one day result in a new society being born there, one that otherwise could not have flourished.

I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of argument, and fortunately in the real world almost no-one is callous enough to try them. You can almost always come up with some technically possible hypothetical as to why an appalling disaster might lead to positive consequences given enough time. But arguing those possibilities outweigh the actual lives of actual people is utterly grotesque. But that’s what Janeway is pushing here. It’s not only ugly but patently ridiculous. So ridiculous, in fact, that even the episode itself rebels against her position, with Janeway snapping at Paris for scaring a kid. The contrast is obvious: Paris thinks it’s OK to spook children but not let them be obliterated. Janeway believes the exact opposite.

In fact, whilst we’re on the topic of this episode gutting the captain’s central philosophy, it’s notable that a doomed city became a doomed planet in later drafts. I guess someone realised that in the former scenario Janeway’s plan would be to flee the blast zone and hide. That would clearly be a pretty sure way to kill sympathy for her character before the show had really gotten started. I get why the writers didn’t go with that. Why they went with this, which damages our new captain nearly as badly, is rather less easy to understand.

“We Hate Those”

Things pick up somewhat once Janeway realises she and Paris are actually unwittingly responsible for the disaster. The twist might finally complete the hatchet job on the initial premise, but it at least kicks us out of another round of smug navel-gazing. I like how the episode jumps from mimicking a parable about the dangers of nuclear power to something resembling a criticism of environmentalists to a reveal that neither of those were the point at all. Rejecting the former two approaches is a worthwhile thing to do, with the former being a well-travelled road and the latter just mean-spirited hippy bashing that helps out all the wrong people. It’s smart to cast them both aside so as to move onto something more interesting.

The problem is it’s not that much more interesting. The final twist that Chakotay’s rescue attempt set off the cataclysm is nice enough, I suppose. It doesn’t do what truly great twists do, though, which is to make you want to go back to the start again. There’s no motivation to re-watch the episode in the light of what’s been revealed. We were given no clues that need reconsidering, no context worth reevaluating. In short, the twist doesn’t make the episode more interesting in hindsight. Given how totally it failed to be interesting on the first run-through, this is problem.

Once again, I can see potential to the structure of the story in and of itself. Seed it with clues and give the main characters something more interesting to do (like investigating from the very start instead of claiming the moral choice is to permit genocide) and you’d have a neat sci-fi short story. So long as the emphasis was put on “short”, anyway. As a Voyager episode it just can’t work. Partially there’s the pacing issue – if this twist was the end of an eight-page story it would feel like far less of a trudge to get to it. But there’s also the fact that the structure makes absolutely no sense.  “Time and Again” is built to resemble one of those cyclic time-travel stories – “predestination paradoxes”, they call them over on Deep Space Nine – but that collapses under the slightest scrutiny. If Janeway prevented her would-be rescuers from causing the disaster, how did the planet get scoured of life in the first place? What changed from the “original” time-line the second go around? How can the circle be closed and open at the same time?

Ordinarily this is the kind of worrying at plots I try to avoid, but with so little else to hold my attention here it’s kind of hard not to notice. Besides, as I say, it just further underlines how much twisting these ideas needed to get them to (sort of) fit. What this story should end with is the destruction of the planet, so that the cycle actually exists (preferably in a context where fewer people die and the end twist actually makes a point rather than just being a surprise). Once again, though, that isn’t a story Voyager can tell. What gets told instead is an interesting mess, but one far more messy than it is interesting. Worse, it’s a mess the franchise could have made anywhere. You could set this episode in the Alpha Quadrant with a standard Starfleet crew (number of times the word “Maquis” is spoken: zero) and it would make no difference. It might even be better. We’re only three episodes into this series, and already Voyager isn’t just struggling to find stories it can tell, it’s actually ignoring the concepts from which its stories were supposed to spring.

Symptoms Of Larger Problems

The closest the episode comes to making use of its setup is Kes’ subplot. It might be overly familiar to anyone who watched Counsellor Troi go through similar trials on a semi-regular basis (this isn’t the last time Kes will echo Deanna), but in an episode where so little character work is attempted and so much of what is tried proved counter-productive, it’s not nothing. Even this sub-plot has major problems, though. Neelix is close to unbearable here. After “Parallax” consciously cast him as a bumbling rambler with no self-awareness, here we’re treated to him mansplaining the myth of powerful Ocampan telepathy to an Ocampan exhibiting powerful telepathy. This isn’t a great episode for Janeway (which is ironic, since showcasing her character was an explicit goal of the episode), but it’s straight-up disastrous for Neelix. Three episodes in and literally the best thing you can say about Neelix as a boyfriend is that if you’re captured by slavers, he will try to rescue you. Eventually. Even when Janeway asks him to do the job they have him on board for he can’t make a decent fist of it.

Also under the “terrible people” heading this week we find, well, pretty much everyone else. The crew’s treatment of the Doctor continues to be totally unacceptable. Much as in “Parallax”, their refusal to prioritise him here goes beyond simple bigotry and into full-blown self-defeating idiocy. No-one has told their only physician there are now at least two new species aboard the ship?  That there’s over a dozen new personnel he may need to treat? What the actual hell? How is he supposed to have baselines for Neelix or Kes? Does anyone on the Maquis crew have a chronic condition that needs monitoring? Is he supposed to ask for a full medical history at the point of treatment? What if there are medications commonly required by those of mixed Klingon/human heritage he’ll need to stock up on? Does Neelix’s ship contain any physiology information on Talaxians or Ocampa that should be added to Voyager’s data-banks? These are questions it took me five minutes to think of. The Doctor was only partly right. This isn’t a voyage of the damned. It’s a voyage of the damned incompetent.

(Plus, of course, since almost none of this episode actually “happened” following Janeway saving the planet, the Doctor still doesn’t know the crew roster has changed.)

Beyond Kes, then, is there anything good to be said about “Time and Again”? Not really. The occasional twinkle, I guess. The images of our crew walking through a dead city are rather nice, which is all the more impressive given budget issues required this episode scale back its original plans for the ruined planet. It’s nice to come across an alien culture with its own system for measuring time, even if this is undercut by them apparently speaking English (neither Janeway or Paris have their universal translators with them during the fourth act). This is decidedly small-bore, though. Like, struggle to fit spaghetti into the gun barrel small-bore. And really, when you’re flailing wildly in every direction, you’re bound to land a glancing hit on occasion.

That’s what Voyager feels like it’s doing right now. Desperately throwing itself every which way and hoping it’ll find one that works. This isn’t a show that knows what it wants to be or what it wants to do yet. Which is fair enough. We were all spoiled by how imperiously Deep Space Nine began. Neither did the Original Series. Neither did The Next Generation. But both those shows are about to hit episodes which, whilst arguably not tremendously good, are at least unquestionably iconic. Voyager needs to pull out something similar, and it needs to do it quick.

The illness is a severe case of generic space opera. Can the Vidians prove the cure?

Ordering

1. A Man Alone

2. Where No Man Has Gone Before

3. One Of Our Planets Is Missing

4. Time And Again

5. Code Of Honor

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

2 comments

  1. Ryan F /

    Hi – great post.

    I’m not sure your alien planet-as-Chenobyl metaphor really works. Of course we should have warned people in 1986 if we’d known about the meltdown in advance, but I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison, simply due to that fact that time-travel is involved.

    Look at this this way – if I were a time-traveller who found myself in 1986, should I change history and avert the disaster? Well, possibly not. Who knows how history would have played out had Chernobyl not happened? For all I know, I could return to my own time and find a world where the USSR never broke up, the Cold War continued and Earth fell to nuclear war. There are a lot of crap Prime Directive stories in which Starfleet are made to look like asses (Pen Pals and Homeward spring to mind), but – to my mind – this one doesn’t fit into that category. In a universe where time travel is almost a regular occurrence, it makes a lot of sense to have a rule that says, basically, don’t mess around with established history. It’s just common sense. Just a minor thing like killing a butterfly in China five hours ago could create a deadly hurricane in England in the present day (or something).

    On nearly all your other points I heartily agree, but to my mind Janeway’s position is exactly right – trying to ensure the ‘correct’ events happen as they should seems like a good rule of thumb for time-travel. In any case, the energy the aliens are using is basically a ticking time bomb – the way the crew go on about the alien reactor, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before the planet is destroyed anyway, with or without Voyager’s intervention. The crew change time and prevent the explosion for now, but what have they really gained?

    Had this been a non-time-travel story and the crew were faced with an impending disaster on a planet in the present day (as in Homeward), then to not interfere would have made them look really awful (I love when, in Into Darkness, Kirk defies the Prime Directive and saves the primitive planet). But for something that’s already happened in the past, I think it’s absolutely okay that Starfleet don’t go around changing stuff, otherwise they could end up like Kurtwood Smith’s character in Year of Hell.

  2. TheScholarlySquid /

    Hi Ryan. Thanks for the compliment; glad you enjoyed the post.

    Unsurprisingly, I disagree with much of what you’ve said. I think you’re on the firmest ground when you point out that since Chernobyl wasn’t a world-ending disaster it’s conceivable stopping it would have led to greater suffering later. That risk would always exist in almost any attempt to change the past; I realise that. The problem – and I’ve talked about this in my piece on the Enterprise pilot- is the difficulty in defining what’s actually a ‘worse’ outcome. Worse for whom? How you justify to people who are suffering your choice to not do anything about it because it could conceivably make things worse?

    Beyond that, though, I think the ‘correct time-line’ argument is particularly unconvincing here. The explosion actually happens when Voyager is just a few hours away at most. Janeway and Paris go back only a day or so in time. A decision to save the planet would possibly change the *future*, but there’s precisely zero chance a return to the present would result in clear differences of the kind you mention. There just isn’t time, no pun intended. If you wanted to your “time-traveller going back to Chernobyl” example to be as accurate an analogy as possible, said traveller would have to have come from a time so soon after the disaster Pripyat would still be burning. We ourselves can imagine a very different present with the disaster never having happened; they would not.

    Combine this with the literal total extinction of all life on the planet (and I’m really not on board with the idea that the fact the disaster was very likely to happen at some point there’s no benefit to stopping it now), and it seems pretty implausible future events could be ‘worse’ than they would have been had the disaster been allowed to stand. You’d need some pretty extreme hypotheticals to argue otherwise. Sure, maybe this world, if saved, will eventually become the central planet in a vast interstellar empire of unsurpassed cruelty and horror. But at what point do you have to accept that the possibility of something bad coming out of your meddling is so utterly tiny that it can’t support the decision to let people suffer and die?

    All that said, I agree entirely that Homeward is much worse.

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