Star Trek: The Next Generation – Cause and Effect (season 5, episode 18)
Written by Brannon Braga; directed by Jonathan Frakes; first aired in 1992
The Enterprise blows up before the opening credits roll. What follows is a slice of life on board the Enterprise – a poker game in Riker’s quarters, a trip to sick bay for LaForge, Dr. Crusher having a glass of wine before bed – leading up to the Enterprise’s destruction, again, in the same freak accident. All of which happens again, and again, and again, as the crew pieces together what’s happening and tries to find a way to stop it.
Star Trek: Voyager – Coda (season 3, episode 15)
Written by Jeri Taylor; directed by Nancy Malone; first aired in 1997
On an away mission in a shuttlecraft, Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay are apparently attacked by an enemy vessel, and are both killed … only to find themselves alive again, and back in the moments before they were attacked. Unlike the crew of the Enterprise, Janeway and Chakotay surmise almost instantly that they’re caught in a time loop, and try to avoid their previous fate … only for Janeway to die anyway, repeatedly, in very different circumstances. Eventually she finds herself disembodied and attending her own funeral, accompanied by the ‘ghost’ of her father, who, to anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Trek (or of anything, really), is pretty obviously not what he seems.
The time loop is a sci-fi conceit which might, somehow, be even more relevant now than when it was first imagined. Cause and Effect, in 1992, and even Coda, in 1997, first aired in a world that was still more analogue than digital, but today, watching these episodes is not so different from finding yourself stuck endlessly refreshing Twitter. Coda, in particular, feels almost like a social media simulator: it starts off as the same thing over and over, but by the end you’re not sure where you’ve ended up, or why – you only know it’s not what you thought you were getting yourself into.
But I’ll get to Coda. And yes, I know, I’m being too hard on it. The episode has its flaws, but there’s some good stuff there, too … and overall, it’s nowhere as depressing as endlessly refreshing Twitter.
First, though, we’ll look at Cause and Effect, an episode that somehow manages to be both simple and radical at the same time. Watching now, in the trademark-copyright Golden Age of Television, it’s easy to forget how jarring the first few minutes of this episode must have been to viewers when it first aired. Even today, outside of premium cable and streaming services, deliberately disorienting the audience is something major TV networks tend to be pretty squeamish about. I can easily imagine a writer on Star Trek: Discovery being told by network executives, as I write this, that blowing up the ship and crew in the first few minutes of an episode would be a crazy thing to do; that it would run too high a risk of confusing or alienating the audience. To do that in 1992 – when TV was still widely seen as little more than disposable entertainment for an audience who would only be half-paying attention while eating dinner or doing laundry – must have given some poor network executive the cold sweats.
And that opening – throwing the audience into an unexplained disaster-in-progress which results in the death of the show’s entire cast – isn’t the only bold structural choice Cause and Effect makes, and maybe not even the boldest. Each time the Enterprise explodes, the time loop resets to the same starting point … which means that the show returns from commercial, several times, to a scene that starts off as nearly identical to an earlier scene. Again, it’s easy to imagine the confusion this might have caused some viewers in 1992, many of whom would probably have been watching more casually than the prestige drama live-tweeters of today. I can’t remember how I reacted to it back then – I was a kid, anyway, and wouldn’t have been thinking about anything as sophisticated as story structure when I first watched it – but even today, I’m struck by the boldness of it, and impressed by how thoroughly Cause and Effect commits to its premise. It’s structured in such a way that the audience always knows more about what’s happening than the characters do, right up until the end of the episode … and still, somehow, I never felt bored by the repeated scenes, or impatient for the characters to catch up to what I’d already seen. The episode isn’t a mystery for the audience to solve, but a chance for us to experience this disorienting situation alongside the characters, and it’s genuinely exciting when the characters begin turning their déjà vu into accurate hypotheses about what’s happening to them … and genuinely kind of chilling that, even as she’s getting closer to figuring things out, Crusher just can’t keep from breaking that wine glass on every single loop.
I couldn’t find a great deal of theme to dig into here (unless Crusher’s unsaveable wine glass is suggesting that some things are simply inevitable … but then, the episode ends with the crew avoiding the inevitable, doesn’t it?). Mostly, this is an episode keenly focused on its high-concept premise, and on exploring the implications of that premise for story structure and character. Again, its commitment to that premise is impressive … and even more so when compared to Coda.
Where Cause and Effect can be intentionally disorienting for the audience, the most disorienting thing about Coda probably wasn’t intentional. It becomes apparent, around the episode’s mid-point, that what you’re watching is the result of at least 2 story ideas that were forced together, pretty inorganically, to make one episode. The episode starts off cycling both Janeway and Chakotay through a time loop that resets when they die, very much like Cause and Effect, with the notable exception that they remember what’s happened to them in previous loops (more on that below). Then, somewhat abruptly, it’s only Janeway who’s remembering what happened in previous loops; and then, even more abruptly, Janeway stops looping, and instead continues on after her death as an out-of-body ‘ghost’, watching the crew deal with her death but unable to interact with them. It’s weird, and confusing – how do the time loops and the whole ‘ghost’ thing fit together? – until you realize that they don’t fit together, that they are, almost literally, two halves of two entirely different episodes. It’s almost possible to make them fit together, if you really work at it; since we find out, near the episode’s end, that an entity is trying to make Janeway accept her death, then maybe those early ‘deaths’ she experienced were just unsuccessful attempts to convince her that she was dead? Maybe the shift from loops to ‘afterlife’ is just the entity adjusting its approach? We could almost make sense of it. But that still leaves us with an episode in which most of what we saw never actually happened. To be fair, this is something we will encounter in other episodes of Trek, and it might work for some viewers … but it usually just leaves me feeling somewhat cheated. There is a difference between surprising the audience and outright misleading them, and I can’t help wondering if I really ought to care about the events I just watched, if they’re not supposed to have actually happened. Again, this is in stark contrast to Cause and Effect, which challenges the audience while still playing fair; it makes a point of telling us that the crew of the Enterprise were stuck in their time loop for 17 days, meaning that each trip through that loop actually happened, even if the crew can’t remember it.
Having gotten all that out of the way, there’s actually quite a bit I like about Coda. I like that Janeway and Chakotay, after their initial ‘deaths’, immediately hypothesize that they’re in a time loop, and immediately begin changing their strategy accordingly. I like the genre self-awareness of that; given how many miscellaneous disruptions to the space-time continuum we’ve seen in Trek, it’s always nice to see the characters act like they’ve heard of this stuff happening before. I mean, by the time this episode takes place, you’d have to think there would be whole classes on this sort of thing at Starfleet Academy: Introduction to Time Travel, Advanced Alternate Realities, Survey of Accidental Changes to the Timeline, the whole nine yards.
Coda immediately sets itself apart from Cause and Effect by allowing its characters to adapt after each death, in a way that, today, reminds me very much of a video game. The trope of death as not a final ending, but as a chance to restart and avoid the last mistake you made, is one that many of us, by now, have internalized through hours and years of gaming. It’s a potentially problematic trope, of course – one that some newer game designers are finding interesting ways to tweak, as documented in this fascinating podcast – but it might possibly be the most pervasive trope in gaming, and I was excited by the possibility that Coda might explore the idea. Not that I would expect the episode’s writer to have had that in mind, what with video games being much less a part of mainstream, adult pop culture when Coda was written … but I strongly believe that works of fiction often have more to say than their authors intended. If they didn’t, would we still care so much about Trek, all these decades later?
I continued to hold out hope for an exploration of such video game logic when the nature of the loop first changed, and Janeway was suddenly quarantined and dying of a disease. This, too, seemed like video game logic: the player learns the mechanics of the game through trial and error, and then a new element is introduced, forcing the player to start that process of trial and error again. Even after the unnecessary shift to the much more predictable, much less interesting ‘ghost’ storyline, the episode seems to maintain its interest in this idea of learning and adapting through trial and error; what finally convinces Janeway that the entity is something other than the ‘ghost’ of her father is the way it hounds her to accept her ‘death’, instead of giving her space to make her own mistakes and reach her own conclusions, as her father did when he was alive. This is exactly what we see Janeway doing during the time loops, and her resourcefulness, her persistence, and her knowledge of – and faith in – her crew all make for compelling viewing.
Again, as in Cause and Effect, I’m not sure there’s much to say about deeper themes in Coda, beyond perhaps the suggestion that an effective leader is one who is capable of adapting to her circumstances and learning from her mistakes. At any rate, Coda’s explorations of the implications of a time loop are much less successful than in Cause and Effect … but only because they are so rudely interrupted. I would love to see the dramatization of game-like, trial-and-error-based learning that Coda could have been, if the episode had been allowed to focus on that.
Who know … maybe that’s the episode I will see, on my next time through the loop. Oh well, off to refresh my Twitter feed.