*This post contains full spoilers for Voyager’s “Before and After” and Enterprise’s “Twilight”, as well as mild spoilers for Voyager’s “Year of Hell” and the Xindi arc in season 3 of Enterprise.
Star Trek: Voyager – “Before and After” (season 3, episode 21)
Written by Kenneth Biller; directed by Allan Kroeker; first aired in 1997
Kes awakens as an elderly woman (by Ocampan standards, anyway) on her deathbed, as the Doctor – sporting a full head of hair and a new name, Van Gogh – tries to prolong her life through the use of his invention, a bio-temporal chamber. She then finds herself periodically flashing backwards in time with no memories of who she is, or of the other people on Voyager. Some of those people are new to us – like Kes’ daughter, Linnis, and her grandson, Andrew – and some are familiar, but changed: Chakotay is captain; Janeway, Torres, and others were killed during Voyager’s “year of hell” in hostile alien space; and Paris is the husband Kes doesn’t remember marrying. Kes works to figure out what’s happening to her – and to get the others to believe her – as she moves further and further back in time, to her first day on Voyager, her childhood, and … well, even further back than that.
Star Trek: Enterprise – “Twilight” (season 3, episode 8)
Written by Michael Sussman; directed by Robert Duncan McNeill; first aired in 2003
A confused Captain Archer wakes to find he’s been confined to quarters by … the captain? He rushes to the bridge anyway, just in time to watch the acting captain, T’Pol, try – and fail – to stop the Xindi from literally blowing up the Earth. Twelve years later, an aged Archer wakes up confused, again, and is told by T’Pol that a strange accident left him unable to form new memories that last more than a few hours. Since he was injured saving her – and maybe for other reasons, as well – she’s spent the last dozen years or so taking care of him on Ceti Alpha 5, where the last remnants of humanity have taken refuge from the Xindi. Now, Dr. Phlox has arrived on the planet with a potential cure for Archer’s illness which could, for timey-wimey reasons, cause him to never have been infected in the first place. This could change the course – or, you know, the ending – of human history … if they can cure him before they’re all killed by the Xindi.
Of all the live-action TV incarnations of Star Trek, Voyager and Enterprise are the ones I tend to be most critical of. In Voyager’s case, I’m critical because I want to like it more than I do. I like the cast in general, and Janeway in particular; I love the opening theme; and the show’s two main premises – a ship trying to make its way home from the final frontier, and a divided crew of Starfleet officers and fugitives forced to work together – seem to promise a fresh, innovative take on Trek. But too often, instead of delivering on that promise, Voyager gives us episodes – like Deadlock, for instance, or Coda – that feel like generic, no-name Trek; like they’ve been made from scripts which were written before the writers knew which series of Trek they were writing for. Enterprise, on the other hand, is a show that simply wasn’t made for me. It’s someone’s Star Trek, I’m sure, and I don’t begrudge them that; Star Trek isn’t only what I, or any other fans, say it is, and that’s as it should be. But from its choice of theme song, to its casting and its treatment of women, to its underlying philosophy (embracing Trek’s tendency to portray humans as exceptional, but rejecting Trek’s usual assumption that we must earn that portrayal by becoming better than we are now), Enterprise often feels like it’s going out of its way not to be my Star Trek.
All of which is why I’m actually really happy to be looking at “Before and After” and “Twilight”, two episodes which capitalize fully on the potential, not just of Star Trek in general, but of Voyager and Enterprise specifically. Both episodes are classically executed Trek, taking a problem from the real world – Alzheimer’s Disease, or dementia and memory loss in general – and putting a sci-fi spin on it, then using that sci-fi concept to craft a story rooted in the experiences of characters we can connect to. But each of these episodes is also rooted in a premise or character dynamic very specific to its respective series: “Before and After” makes interesting use of Kes’ short lifespan, while “Twilight” likely wouldn’t be anywhere near as impactful as it is if any character other than T’Pol – one of the first Vulcans to spend so much time, day in and day out, with humans – were taking care of Archer. In short, these are two episodes that help me to understand what fans of Voyager and Enterprise see in these shows that I don’t always see, myself.
Part of what’s always drawn me to Trek, in general, is the way it can allow us to see a familiar issue or problem from a fresh perspective, by using sci-fi tropes to heighten or exaggerate the issue while simultaneously grounding it in the experiences of relatable characters. In keeping with this tradition, both “Before and After” and “Twilight” make a point of inserting us into the experience of someone else’s disorientation and memory loss, by opening the episode from the effected character’s perspective; “Before and After” even does this literally, by limiting its first scene to a first-person point-of-view shot. We share in some of Kes’ and Archer’s confusion, as each episode deliberately begins with events already in progress, giving us no context to begin with and gradually filling in the blanks as we go. “Before and After” further creates confusion for the audience – who, unless they’re new to Voyager, probably remember much of what Kes has forgotten – by introducing elements that will be new to us right from the first moments of the episode: The Doctor’s hair and new name, Kes’ daughter and grandson, and the aftermath of the crew’s Year of Hell (an event which would take place – sort of – in a later episode, but would be new to anyone watching their way through Voyager for the first time). “Twilight” achieves a similar effect, but in a decidedly different way: what’s disorienting to Archer is that, while he does remember his ship and his crew, the circumstances he finds himself in don’t sync up with his memories. Being told that “the captain” has ordered him confined to his quarters immediately communicates, both to him and to us, that things aren’t as he remembers them. And that disorientation is heightened, to say the least, by the fact that what he sees when he goes searching for answers is just about the most disturbing thing imaginable, presented completely out of context: the literal destruction of his home planet.
“Before and After” puts us in Kes’ shoes to give us a glimpse of what it might be like to experience dementia, and it can, honestly, be quite uncomfortable for anyone who’s ever watched a real human being go through that (as most of us probably have). I know I, personally, cringe when Kes predictably (but accurately) asks where she is, and who her loved ones are. But then, as the episode progresses, “Before and After” does something interesting. It allows Kes to adapt to her situation in a way that a real Alzheimer’s patient couldn’t, since she is capable of making, and retaining, new memories. This is a departure from the Alzheimer’s analogy, true, but then that’s the beauty of science fiction: it allows us to tell stories we couldn’t if we restricted ourselves to reality. There’s something very satisfying about watching Kes learn from each of her time jumps, and stop starting from scratch each time. While it’s sad to see her get used to people thinking she’s delusional, I appreciate the agency and resourcefulness Kes shows here, without downplaying the emotion involved; her carefully neutral “Oh, hello,” when Paris walks into their quarters manages to perfectly capture how uncomfortable it would feel to be told you have a relationship with someone you don’t remember. It might also be an interesting comment on ageism that the younger she gets, the easier it seems to be to get her crewmates to believe her.
Watching “Twilight”, I related more to the other side of the story – not Archer’s experience of suffering from memory loss, so much as T’Pol’s experience as his caregiver. Granted, this could be because Archer is a character I’ve never cared for, or been able to connect with. And I’ll admit he has some genuinely good moments in this episode; my favorite is when he declines T’Pol’s thanks for saving her from his fate, acknowledging with a slight crack in his voice that “a few hours from now, I won’t remember.” But T’Pol is, for me, the real emotional anchor to this episode. Jolene Blalock’s performance perfectly depicts the Vulcan emotional control which would, understandably, be wavering somewhat after more than a decade in close quarters with humans, let alone the emotional strain of being the long-term caregiver to someone who must have their condition explained to them, seemingly for the first time, every few hours. From the moment we see Archer awaken on Ceti Alpha 5, almost every word T’Pol says to him is layered with complex undertones. Even for a first-time viewer, I think, it’s immediately evident that she’s said most of these things to him before, probably hundreds of times. Blalock makes it clear that T’Pol is, to some extent, reciting a script which, Vulcan emotional control notwithstanding, she must be weary of; but she also communicates a kindness and empathy (and maybe more) for Archer which, again, is muted by her emotional control, but is clearly there.
That paradox of caregiving – selfless empathy bumping up against understandable, unavoidable weariness – is a crucial part of any authentic story about dementia, and “Twilight” makes perfect use of its sci-fi amnesia conceit to communicate that. The inevitable one-sidedness of T’Pol’s relationship with Archer is heartbreaking; as she eventually tells Archer, their relationship has, from her perspective, “evolved” over the years, but of course Archer himself has no idea how far it has evolved, since she remembers all of their time together, while he remembers none of it. When Phlox gently asks T’Pol if she’s told Archer how she feels about him, we don’t get an answer from her, but there’s an implied, tragic answer hanging over their conversation, one that could echo Archer’s own words: even if she had told him – and who knows, maybe she has told him – he’d just forget it in a few hours, anyway.
Besides making excellent use of a classic Star Trek plot device to explore the real issue of dementia, “Before and After” and “Twilight” also make excellent use of elements that are unique to their respective series. Kes’ very short Ocampan lifespan – nine years or so – is one of those bold ideas Voyager was great at coming up with, but not so great at following through on (though in this case, that’s partly down to the actress, and the character, leaving the show not long after this episode aired). So it’s fascinating to see that concept explored so fully here. You could, in theory, tell a similar story with any character – as “Twilight” does with Archer – but making Kes the protagonist of this episode means that the future Voyager’s crew is still familiar enough to us that the things that have changed are even more disorienting, I think, than they would be if everything had changed. Seeing an aged Kes married to a Tom Paris who looks exactly as we’re used to seeing him – not to mention seeing Harry Kim married to someone who hasn’t even been born yet in ‘the present’ – is a bit uncomfortable, perhaps, but also raises some classic sci-fi questions. Trek has often explored the ramifications of humans encountering species with much longer lifespans than our own, but much shorter lifespans are something the franchise has rarely touched on (partly, I’m sure, because it places limitations on what can be done with the character, in a way that might not be appealing to writers or producers of a 20-some-episode-per-season TV series, let alone a multi-series franchise always looking for opportunities for spinoffs and crossovers). “Before and After” does make me a bit sad that we won’t get to see those ramifications explored further with Kes, but it’s still fascinating to get hints of what that would have been like.
Another aspect of Voyager that’s always appealed to me is the way its most fundamental story premise – a lone starship finding its way home through vast stretches of unfamiliar space – contrasts so nicely with that of The Next Generation, the installment of Trek which other aspects of Voyager are, I think, most closely modeled on. Where the Enterprise D has seemingly unlimited, replicated resources, and the full support of a vast, powerful Starfleet, Voyager is isolated, vulnerable, and, in theory, dependent on limited resources. Again, this is a premise which would be followed somewhat selectively; while the show did take the chance to introduce many new species, it couldn’t fight the temptation – and, I’m sure, the ratings implications – of returning to more familiar species and stories, like the Borg, or Q, and I rarely get the sense that the crew is really making do with limited resources. “Before and After” gives us a taste of that fully-realized concept here, with its cryptic references to the Year of Hell, a long trip through hostile space with lasting consequences (an idea Voyager would return to in the 2-part episode “Year of Hell”, and which I’ll be looking at in my next post!). But beyond that, “Before and After” also makes use of an element of that premise which Voyager has a much better track record of delivering on: the idea that the crew lives or dies by their ability to work together to solve problems. A big part of what I like about Janeway is her no-nonsense decisiveness, the professional intensity with which she identifies a problem, draws out a course of action with her crew, and then confidently depends on that crew to carry it out. Kes gets the chance to display some of that herself in this episode, gradually collecting enough information from each time-jump to better convince and mobilize her crewmates in the next jump, and when she finally reaches a time when Janeway is still alive, it’s invigorating to watch them work together.
As I wrote above, the premise and crew of Enterprise are less interesting to me, in general, than that of Voyager. But “Twilight” gives us a glimpse of the full potential contained in the show’s premise, and creates a great episode from it. Whatever the pros and cons of season 3’s overarching Xindi arc, this episode spins the storyline out to an extreme but logical conclusion which is treated with respect and genuine care for the characters. Aside from Mayweather’s death – which I’m assuming was at least partly the result of the actor being unavailable during filming, since I think it’s the only time we see him in the whole episode – the episode doesn’t use its eventual reset button as an excuse to milk cheap drama from character deaths (something Voyager’s “Deadlock” could be accused of), and when Enterprise’s bridge is destroyed and the bridge crew blown out into space, the moment is given the gravity it deserves. And beyond just the Xindi arc, this episode explores the darkest possible implications of humanity venturing out into the final frontier before we’re fully ready, actually paying a high price for not being as advanced as the Starfleet we see in other incarnations of the franchise. In a series that sometimes struggled to make references to the rest of the franchise in a way that wasn’t just cheap fan service, reducing humanity to a huddled mass of refugees on Khan’s future home, Ceti Alpha 5, is a subtle reference that really works, with the dark implication that, if things had gone just a little differently, the entire human race could have found itself as out of place in the future as Khan and his cryogenically frozen followers were when Kirk encountered them in “Space Seed”.
But the potential “Twilight” capitalizes on best, I think, is that of T’Pol’s place on the crew, as a Vulcan fully immersed in human culture in a way that, presumably, no Vulcan ever had been (with the exception, I guess, of the characters from T’Pol’s story in “Carbon Creek”). This is a dynamic that, as I’ve already written, really hasn’t worked for me in other episodes, when it’s been reduced to Archer and Trip taking cheap shots at her like obnoxious kids at recess, or Trip yelling at her in front of the crew despite the fact that she’s his superior officer. But in this episode, the character is allowed to deal with her uncomfortable, challenging situation in genuinely interesting ways. The version of T’Pol that we see 12 years in the future has been clearly, but subtly, changed, both by her time on Enterprise and her time on Ceti Alpha 5 … and the change isn’t simply that she’s become ‘more human’, as Star Trek often seems to want its aliens to do. While her Vulcan stoicism has perhaps cracked a little, it’s arguably that ability to control her emotions – a Vulcan trait so often criticized or called into question by human characters – that makes her better equipped than anyone else to deal with the emotionally draining task of repeatedly breaking the news to Archer, every few hours or so, that his homeworld was blown to pieces. Where Enterprise can tend to use the differences between humans and Vulcans as a cheap source of conflict, “Twilight” gives us a more nuanced exploration of what long-term interaction between the two cultures might be like. And in the process, it gives Jolene Blalock the chance to do some of her best work.
Next time, we’ll go on to look at another of Voyager’s stand-out episodes, and an all-time TNG classic as well, when Trek vs. Trek wraps up 2017 by comparing The Next Generation’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise” with Voyager’s “Year of Hell”!