“Is there a John Luck Pickurd here?”: Yesteryear (TAS) vs. Tapestry (TNG)

Star Trek: The Animated Series – “Yesteryear” (season 1, episode 2)

Written by DC Fontana; directed by Hal Sutherland; first aired in 1973

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise returns to the Guardian of Forever to conduct some historical research. Hopefully this visit will work out better than the last one, knock on wood – okay, nope, Spock just ceased to exist. Kirk and Spock return from their trip through history to find that none of the Enterprise crew recognize Spock … because, in this timeline, he died at the age of 7. Adult Spock travels back through time yet again to visit his childhood home on Vulcan and be his own guardian angel, as Young Spock sets out on a dangerous journey to prove his worth as a Vulcan … and ends up learning some pretty intense life lessons, for a 7-year-old.

VS.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Tapestry” (season 6, episode 15)

Written by Ronald D. Moore; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1993

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

It turns out Picard learned some pretty intense life lessons himself as a young ensign, when his impulsiveness got him stabbed through the heart during a game of space-pool. Now, Captain Picard has been seriously injured once again, during a diplomatic mission gone wrong. As his artificial heart gives out on him, he is visited by Q, who returns him to his Ensign Picard days for a do-over. After Q assures him that only his own future will be affected, Picard sets out to make some better choices and avoid getting that artificial heart in the first place. Changing his own actions in the past might save his life in the future … or it might leave him with a future he doesn’t much care for.    

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Last time, things got a bit dark. We looked at a couple of time travel episodes that really explored the historical and societal importance of – and the tragic personal costs of – preserving those certain, pivotal moments in history where humanity went one way when we could have gone another. This time around, I wanted to take things in a slightly lighter direction … but I also wanted to look at time travel stories with a smaller scope, where the stakes were more personal than historic.

In both “Yesteryear” and “Tapestry”, it’s really only one character whose past, present, and future are at stake; each Enterprise seems to be getting along alright in its alternate timeline, albeit with a different first officer and captain, respectively. The self-contained nature of these stories seems like a deliberate attempt to shift the focus from the grand cosmic consequences of time travel to more personal ones. We’ve looked at some turning points for humanity as a whole, but here we get the chance to look at turning points in the lives of Spock and Picard, and see how they might not exist, as we know them, if things had gone a different way – metaphorically in Picard’s case, and literally in Spock’s.

As I said, I wanted to keep things mostly on the lighter side this time, and what better way to do that than with a 70s Saturday morning cartoon? I’ve only recently begun watching the Animated Series; I haven’t finished the series yet, and I’m still deciding how I feel about it, but I can say that “Yesteryear” is probably my favorite episode of those I’ve seen so far. Like a few of the TAS episodes I’ve watched, it starts off as a continuation of a premise from TOS. But unlike, say, tribbles, the Guardian of Forever is a premise that really was genuinely ripe to be revisited, so much so that I’m kind of amazed it only appeared in one episode of TOS.It’s easy to imagine all kinds of stories that might start with a trip through the Guardian, and animation really opens up those possibilities by avoiding the live-action budget of showing the past of other planets, like Vulcan.

Yesteryear 3

Granted, “Yesteryear” – and TAS in general, as far as I’ve seen – isn’t operating anywhere near the level of sophistication we got from “City on the Edge of Forever”. “Yesteryear” suffers from the kind of temporal mechanics problems that “City” mostly avoided, or at least down-played. For a show which was (I assume) aimed mostly at children, the premise is pretty complicated: why didn’t Spock die as a child in his original timeline? Was he always supposed to go back in time and save himself? How did he ever survive to adulthood in the first place, so that he would have the chance to go back and save himself? It’s the kind of brain-pretzel that can so easily result from time travel stories. It’s also the kind of detail I can brush aside if the rest of the story is compelling enough (as you might have noticed, I’m not the kind of Trek fan who hopes someone got fired because the number of decks on the Enterprise changed from episode to episode, or something). Still, the story is fairly thin and surface-level, suffering right off the bat from the fact that it revolves around saving someone’s life in the past, a cliché “City” had already subverted by forcing its characters to let a good person die. But then I guess, just maybe, it might be unfair to compare an episode of TAS to “City on the Edge of Forever”.

And once you get past that mixed blessing of the call-backs to “City”, there’s some pretty good stuff in “Yesteryear”. It’s fun to see how far the animation (dated as it is) lets the show go in terms of world-building. The fact that one of the historians accompanying the Enterprise crew is a winged, gargoyle-like alien (a detail not necessary to the story, by the way: it’s just there) made me smile, as someone who’s always wished Trek could feature more aliens who aren’t just humans with funny foreheads. In the same vein, I enjoyed Spock’s replacement as first officer in the alternate timeline: Commander Thelin, an Andorian, a race whose blue skin and antennae were pretty ambitious on TOS’s budget. Again, it wasn’t necessary for the episode to even introduce a new character as its alternate first officer, let alone one who looks so decidedly alien, but I like that it did. Sure, it’s a bit odd how perfectly fine Thelin is with having his own reality altered, but I put that down to this Saturday morning kids’ show wanting to avoid any challenging questions about the morality of Spock changing history.

Yesteryear 2

And Spock’s trip into the past is interesting. Again, it’s fun to see this animated version of Vulcan (however much it may or may not resemble versions of Vulcan we’ve seen before this episode, or will see after), and his visit with his family gives us some nice moments between Spock and his parents. Well, ‘nice’ might not be the right word in Sarek’s case; Vulcan mannerisms or not, the guy really is kind of a jerk to his son. But these scenes between Spock, his parents in the past, and his younger self are actually kind of touching. And I like that the real climax of the story isn’t Spock saving his younger self from a wild animal … which he does pretty easily, before inexplicably letting young Spock travel alone through the wilds to find a doctor who can help his pet, I-Chaya, who was injured in the fight with the other animal. The real dilemma here is young Spock’s to wrestle with: prolong I-Chaya’s life, and his pain, or allow his cherished pet to be humanely put down. It’s a surprisingly serious, real-world choice, one that hits home for a lot of us, and one which real, grown adults often have trouble with, let alone a 7-year-old (or the actual human children who, again, I’m just assuming were the target audience of this show).

It also seems significant that, after much discussion of conflict between his human and Vulcan sides, the big lesson young Spock learns is a decidedly Vulcan one: he puts his own feelings aside in order to do what’s right. Trek’s approach to Spock has often been to present him as having the potential to become ‘more human’, an idea which has persisted throughout the various series of Trek, in characters like Data and Seven of Nine (and an idea which I’ve always found a bit troubling, and which I’m sure will be discussed in future installments of this blog). Here, though, his becoming more Vulcan is presented as a crucial step in growing up. Even though this episode came first by almost a decade, young Spock’s choice here almost seems to foreshadow the most famous choice the character will ever make, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. His realization that I-Chaya’s need for relief from pain outweighs his own emotional needs could almost be seen as an early logical step toward “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” – a line I love not just because of its emotional impact in the movie, but also because it was that rare moment when Spock’s logical Vulcan-ness could be acknowledged as genuinely heroic. I’d like to think this episode is taking a small step in that direction. Then again, the episode ends with Spock making a joke, emphasizing his human side, so I may be reaching a little there.

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Much like “Yesteryear”, “Tapestry” starts off as the story of Picard going back into his past in order to save his future self. And like in “Yesteryear”, “Tapestry” has Picard actually accomplish that goal, relatively easily, some time before the end of the episode. After that, again as in “Yesteryear”, the focus of “Tapestry” shifts from that tangible goal to a life lesson that Picard must learn. And finally, in both episodes, that life lesson is at odds with the main character’s mission: if the pressing needs of others outweigh Spock’s emotional needs, then perhaps he should have left history alone, and not altered the past of Commander Thelin (and presumably everyone else); and if changing his past turns present Picard into a person he doesn’t recognize, or particularly like, then maybe he’s better off leaving his life as it is, even if that means it will end sooner. One of the weaknesses of “Yesteryear” is that the episode doesn’t acknowledge this contradiction, while “Tapestry” very much does: the irony of Picard’s realization is the whole point of the episode.

Of course, much like the Nausicaans when they beat Picard’s friend Corey in space-pool, “Tapestry” cheats. After avoiding his fateful fight with the Nausicaans and keeping his heart in one piece, Picard is returned to his own present, where he has essentially become an extra on any given episode of TNG: a reliable but unremarkable “lieutenant junior grade”, dutifully delivering reports to the characters we tuned in to watch. Picard quickly realizes that he’d rather die as the person he was, warts and all, than live this new life he doesn’t recognize; basically, he’d rather be written off the show as series lead than be a recurring extra. Alone in a turbolift, Picard pleads desperately for Q to come back and make this right (in a touching scene which I only wish had been allowed to go on a little longer) and Q eventually agrees. Picard gets to re-live his confrontation with the Nausicaans yet again, and gets himself properly impaled this time, after which he is returned to his original present, and to Crusher’s operating table, where he … lives. Just like that. No catch. It’s not made clear to us whether Q saves Picard’s life, or whether he was misleading Picard about the severity of his injuries; in fact, Q’s entire role in this episode is left deliberately mysterious (more on that below). But either way, Picard’s choice turns out not to carry the consequences he thought it would: he gets to have his life and live it, too.

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Does that hurt the episode? Well, I’m sure most of us watching this never thought, for a moment, that Picard would actually pay the ultimate price for his decision (not even when I watched this back in 1993, when Picard could conceivably have been written off the show, and when I was a considerably less savvy consumer of content than I hopefully am now). But, more to the point, do we believe that Picard was willing to lose his own life, rather than live a stranger’s? Yes, I think so. Again, I wish (maybe a little sadistically?) that we had a little more time to watch the blue-uniformed Picard lie in the bed he’s made, but even in such a short time, Patrick Stewart really sells the weird, oppressive feeling of finding yourself living a life so different from your own. Based on that performance, I believe that he was fully ready to accept the worst possible consequences of keeping his original life. And what’s more, I believe that the experience has changed how he sees his own life. In TNG’s typically episodic fashion, Picard’s experience in this episode is never referenced again, but his conversation with Riker in the closing moments of the episode – in which he tentatively, but happily, launches into another story from his past – shows that the experience has had an impact on him.

As mentioned above, based on TNG’s loose formula for its Q episodes, it’s a bit suspicious that “Tapestry” doesn’t end with Q flashing back in and out with some cryptic final words for Picard. Talking with Riker, Picard voices the question the audience is probably already asking at this point: was Q ever really there at all? Did Picard’s trip into the past actually happen, or was it all just some trauma-induced hallucination? As I’ve written before, I’m not generally a big fan of stories that reveal, right at the end, that most of what you just watched didn’t actually happen. As with most clichés, ‘it was all a dream’ stories are often just the laziest way of telling a story which could have been told in a more interesting, more effective way. So, given my feelings about ‘dream’ episodes, I obviously prefer to think that Picard really was visited by Q, and that his visit to the past was real, as well (or at least as ‘real’ as anything that happens when Q shows up). But I’m actually very much okay with the ambiguity here. I like that I can believe it all really happened, and you can believe Picard hallucinated the whole thing, and the episode equally supports both interpretations (and Picard’s new perspective at the end feels earned either way, thanks to Stewart’s performance).

Tapestry 3

And besides, having Q show up with one last snappy rejoinder really would have been the wrong way to end this impressively restrained Q episode. This is the first Q episode I’ve written about so far, and it’s probably my second-favorite of his appearances, after “All Good Things …”. Q is in rare form here: his appearances in Picard’s past make for great comic relief, but they also, paradoxically, add weight and significance to what’s happening. Whether Picard’s experiences are ‘real’ or not, they are important, and Q treats them as such. His final scene in this episode is fascinating; while Q lectures Picard about being more appreciative of what Q has done for him, and while Picard owns up to the lesson he’s learned and pleads for his old life back, the director keeps us focused clearly, deliberately, on Q’s face. What we see there – aside from the slightest ghost of a smile when Picard admits he made a mistake – isn’t the gleeful gloating I would normally expect from Q. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s stern and serious throughout this exchange:

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be, one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth. One who was less like me. The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be – the one who did not fight the Nausicaan – had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face-to-face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. […] He learned to play it safe, and he never, ever got noticed by anyone.  

If we assume that this really is Q, and not just a figment of Picard’s imagination, then it’s interesting to view this exchange from Q’s perspective – to think not just about the lesson Picard is learning, but about what Q himself is getting from all this. Earlier in the episode, Picard disdainfully described his younger self as being a bit like Q, and Q’s call-back to that here seems significant. I suspect that Q wants Picard to view their encounters in the same way he is just now learning to view his fight with the Nausicaan: as a blessing in disguise, momentary pain for future gain. I can imagine, as Q describes the life of Lieutenant Junior-Grade Picard, that he is also describing exactly what he thinks Captain Picard’s life would have been like – would be like in the future – if Q hadn’t taken an interest in him back in “Encounter at Farpoint”. And when Q sums up the qualities Lt. JG Picard lacks, maybe he’s listing the qualities that led Q to take an interest in Picard in the first place. Maybe Q’s feelings really have been hurt by Picard’s constant annoyance with him … or maybe he wants Picard to be more receptive to whatever lessons Q wants him to learn in the future. Given Picard’s admission to Riker that he was impressed by Q’s “compassion”, and that he owes Q “a debt of gratitude”, perhaps he will be.

We’ll have the chance to examine Q’s motivation again next time: in anticipation of the upcoming debut of Star Trek: Discovery, we’ll look at a couple of Star Trek pilot episodes, when we compare “Encounter at Farpoint” to DS9’s “Emissary”!

 

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