*This post contains spoilers for the 4th-season Voyager episodes “Year of Hell, parts 1 and 2”, and for the 3rd-season TNG episode, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, as well as spoilers for the 1st-season TNG episode, “Skin of Evil”.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (season 3, episode 15)
Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr & Richard Manning & Hans Beimler & Ronald D. Moore; story by Trent Christopher Ganino & Eric A. Stillwell; directed by David Carson; first aired in 1990
It’s business as usual aboard the Enterprise D, until the long-lost Enterprise C emerges from a temporal rift. The older Enterprise’s trip through time instantly alters history, for better and for worse: Tasha Yar is still alive in this timeline, but many other people aren’t, as the result of a long, bloody war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Only Guinan senses that the timeline has changed, and she implores Captain Picard to send the Enterprise C and its crew back to their time, and back into the middle of a battle which could have prevented the war … but which they have virtually no chance of surviving. Guinan also knows that Yar is supposed to have died a senseless death, years earlier. Tasha doesn’t like the sound of that, and decides that this time, her death will be one for the history books.
Star Trek: Voyager – “Year of Hell” (season 4, episodes 8 and 9)
Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky; directed by Allan Kroeker (part 1), Mike Vejar (part 2); first aired in 1997
Voyager plots a new course through a peaceful stretch of space that suddenly becomes a lot less peaceful. Annorax, a scientist and commander in the Krenim Imperium, uses his advanced temporal technology to alter history, making the Krenim dominant in that region … and they don’t take kindly to Voyager trespassing. What follows is a year in which Voyager is constantly hunted by Krenim ships and their devastating temporal weapons, managing to survive only by eventually developing new, temporal shielding. But Annorax, driven by a personal obsession, isn’t done tinkering with the timeline, and Voyager’s temporal shields draw his attention, prompting him to abduct Paris and Chakotay. Still in command of a badly damaged, mostly evacuated Voyager, Captain Janeway is determined to reunite the Voyager “family” and get them safely through Krenim space … no matter what it winds up costing her.
‘The darkest timeline’ is a trope that’s felt particularly relevant throughout much of 2017. It is, of course, a naïve lens through which to view the real world; it assumes that things can’t get much worse than they are now (they can), and that we can trust things to eventually go back to the way they’re supposed to be in ‘the prime timeline’ (we can’t). But when things are bad, it’s comforting – sort of – to think that our world hasn’t been gradually and permanently changed, but has instead been abruptly flipped over to reveal a dark, inverted image of itself on the other side … and could be flipped right-side-up again. One of the touchstones for this trope, of course, is Star Trek’s Mirror Universe, which the Original Series introduced – goateed Spock and all – and Deep Space Nine and Enterprise would later return to. Some of these later episodes tended toward what-if escapism, but when the Mirror Universe first appeared, in TOS’s “Mirror, Mirror”, it served as an intentionally stark comparison to what humanity had become by the 23rd century. It represented the worst-case scenario; it reminded us exactly how comforted we ought to be by Star Trek’s vision for humanity’s future.
We’re not looking at the Mirror Universe today (though we will, soon). “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “Year of Hell” are certainly set in darker timelines than the one we know from The Next Generation and Voyager … but they are, importantly, not set in the darkest possible timeline. This Riker isn’t scheming to murder Picard, and this Tuvok doesn’t sport a goatee. These timelines aren’t arbitrary inversions of the status quo. Instead, they are the result of specific changes to that status quo. Each of these episodes presents us with something of a nightmare scenario, it’s true, but in this case the nightmare is made scary not by how jarringly different these timelines are, but how plausible they are. These episodes aren’t simply what-if experiments, but are, instead, glimpses of two very different TV series that TNG and Voyager, respectively, could have been.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” hints at this early, in a number of ways. The opening scene – Guinan introducing Worf to a “warrior’s drink”, prune juice, and insisting that there are human women onboard who’d find him “tame” – quickly but effectively establishes the status quo as we know it on the Enterprise D. Not only are relations with the Klingons stable enough that one is serving in Starfleet, but this is also a ship where crew members lounge in the brightly-lit Ten Forward, ordering and trying whatever replicated food and drink strikes their fancy, and having intimate but relaxed conversations about each other’s love lives. When the Enterprise C emerges from the temporal rift, and the timeline is suddenly changed, the differences are both subtle and jarring. The altered Enterprise D is, quite literally, darker: both the bridge and Ten Forward are suddenly lit differently than they were moments ago, with the lights kept low to indicate, perhaps, that this Enterprise D is conserving its power in a way that never seemed to be necessary on the Enterprise we know. And while Ten Forward is still bustling with crew members, their uniforms – looking closer to those from earlier seasons of TNG, with belts and weapon holsters added – immediately suggest that this Enterprise isn’t on a peaceful mission of discovery. Even the fact that there is a pronounced difference between the uniforms of the officers and the ‘grunts’ suggests a more militaristic Starfleet than we’re used to.
And if the uniforms hint that “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is almost a reboot or reimagining of TNG from the series’ very beginning, that feeling is amplified by the sight of Tasha Yar at what would normally, by this point in the series, be Worf’s station on the bridge. As recognizable as Denise Crosby is to fans of TNG, her character, Yar, is notable for not having remained even to the end of the first season (and for the way she was written out of the show, which was oddly anticlimactic, and infamously unsatisfying). The sight of her back on the bridge is, simultaneously, a sign that things have changed, and a callback to the earliest days of the series. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” shows us Starfleet deeply embroiled in war, something we’d never really seen up to that point (though we would eventually see more of it during DS9’s later seasons, and in Discovery) … but part of the episode’s appeal, to fans of TNG, is the way it gives us a glimpse of what the series might have looked like if Yar had remained as a regular, ongoing character.
If the return of Tasha Yar sets up “Yesterday’s Enterprise” to feel like a reboot of sorts, the presence of the Enterprise C adds to the sense that this is what TNG might have looked like from the start, if its creative team had wanted to show a very different side of the Star Trek universe. It could have been any Starfleet ship that was thrown through time in the midst of a fateful battle to defend a Klingon colony from Romulan attack; it could have been the Bozeman, appearing here instead of colliding with the Enterprise D on a time loop in “Cause and Effect”, and the plot of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” would have been unchanged. But it wasn’t the Bozeman. The writers chose to make the never-before-seen Enterprise C the central plot device of this episode, and that hardly seems like an arbitrary decision. Everything about the Enterprise C, from its name, to the crew’s Original Series film-era uniforms, to the very well-done ship design, serves as a bridge between Trek’s past and TNG’s present; even before we meet its crew, the ship itself looks almost perfectly like the mid-point between the Enterprise and Excelsior of the TOS films, and the Galaxy-class Enterprise of TNG. The Enterprise C is the missing link between TOS and its films, and TNG – not just stylistically, but thematically; without its doomed but heroic attempt to aid the Klingons, the optimistic future of the Original Series couldn’t continue into The Next Generation.
But again, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” doesn’t feel like just a one-off experiment in darker storytelling, or a total, Mirror Universe-style inversion of everything Trek normally stands for. Instead, I think we get a glimpse, here, at what TNG could have looked like as an ongoing series if the creators behind it had decided to go in a different direction. Yes, it’s much darker, both literally and tonally. The episode is peppered with war-time details like Picard recording a “battle log”, or Yar (and everyone else, I’m assuming) ordering military rations in Ten Forward, to keep replicator use to a minimum. And probably the most striking difference – as subtly as it’s executed – is the much less collegial, more fractious captain-first officer dynamic between Picard and Riker. While the Enterprise D is still presented as a well-functioning (if much more militaristic) workplace, the crew doesn’t feel nearly as much like the ‘work family’ that TNG would come to be known for. But the old, familiar Star Trek themes and values are still there, I think, even if they’re a little deeper under the surface than TNG’s audience would be used to.
Just as DS9’s darker premise wouldn’t keep it from having fun with episodes like “Little Green Men” and “Trials and Tribble-ations”, and just as the initial conflicts between Discovery’s crew members has gradually given way to allow for the development of character relationships well worth rooting for, the war-time premise of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (and the alternate version of TNG it almost could have been a back-door pilot for) doesn’t erase the essential optimism of Star Trek. It’s still there, and it’s in Yar’s story, I think, that it really shines through. While the plot of the episode hinges, most obviously, on Picard’s decision to send the Enterprise C back to its own time, this episode is not alternate-Picard’s story, not really. While his decision is important to the mechanics of the story, it doesn’t really say anything, thematically; as he admits to the Enterprise C’s Captain Garrett, he isn’t really motivated by a conviction to preserve the timeline (which we would expect, I think, from our normal Picard), but is in fact making a tactical decision, a last-ditch gambit to end a war the Federation will otherwise lose. But we do see some familiar Trek themes in Yar’s decision to join the crew of the Enterprise C.
The most fundamentally horrible thing about war, I think, is the way it serves as the ultimate excuse for devaluing human life (or, in the context of Trek, Klingon life, or android life, or what have you). Actual people with actual lives are transformed into game pieces on a board, pawns to be readily sacrificed for the chance to take a queen or king (or a rook or bishop, for that matter). We see how even Picard – someone we know, from the prime timeline, to be a thoughtful, compassionate, highly moral person – has internalized this wartime mindset, when he receives Riker’s report on the Enterprise C’s casualties as simply numbers to be crunched, with a detachment that borders on disinterest. But as “Yesterday’s Enterprise” continues, it tries to reconcile the Trek philosophy with the unavoidable realities of war. We see this in the senior officers’ heated discussion of sending the Enterprise C back to certain destruction in its own time:
Riker: With all due respect, sir, you’d be asking one hundred and twenty-five people to die a meaningless death.
Data: Not necessarily meaningless, Commander. The Klingons regard honour above all else. If the crew of the Enterprise-C had died fighting for the survival of a Klingon outpost, it would be considered a meaningful act of honour by the Klingon Empire.
Picard: Even their deaths might have prevented this war. If the Enterprise-C returns to the battle and its mission is a success, history will be irrevocably changed. This time line will cease to exist and a new future will have been created.
Contained in this exchange, I think, is the suggestion of a classic Trek theme: that no matter how hopeless the situation, a team of good-hearted people, working together as professionals, can help to make things better. In this version of Trek, of course, the situation is grim indeed, which means the cost for making things better will be high … but not so high that it can’t be paid by those who are willing. This is, perhaps, where “Yesterday’s Enterprise” might offer some comfort for us, here in the real world. It’s also where the character of Tasha Yar finds redemption in this episode. Upon learning, from Guinan, what happens to her in the prime timeline, Yar feels much the way many Trek fans feel about it:
Yar: I know how important it is that they don’t fail, Captain. That’s why I’m requesting this transfer.
Picard: You don’t belong on that ship, Lieutenant.
Yar: No, Captain Garrett belongs on that ship. But she’s dead. And I think there’s a certain logic in this request.
Picard: There’s no logic in this at all! Whether they succeed or not, the Enterprise C will be destroyed.
Yar: But Captain, at least with someone at Tactical, they will have a chance to defend themselves well. It may be a matter of seconds or minutes, but those could be the minutes that change history. Guinan says I died a senseless death in the other timeline. I didn’t like the sound of that, Captain. I’ve always known the risks that come with a Starfleet uniform. If I’m to die in one, I’d like my death to count for something.
As shaken as she is to learn that she’s supposed to be dead, what bothers Yar the most is the idea that her death didn’t help anyone … that it didn’t “count for something”. Here, Yar is given the chance not to be randomly killed by the hostile alien of the week, but to instead be a part of “the minutes that change history”, a chance she’s willing to pay a high price for. Dire circumstances may raise the price of doing the right thing, but they don’t change the fact that doing what’s right, helping those who need help, can “count for something”, always.
In “Year of Hell”, we see, once again, a crew placed in dire circumstances that may never truly be hopeless, but do take an increasingly higher and higher toll. And, like “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “Year of Hell” realizes that premise by giving us a glimpse of an alternate version of its respective TV series, of the Voyager that could have been. But whereas “Yesterday’s Enterprise” shows us a version of TNG that feels plausible but would have been highly unlikely to actually get made (in its own time, at least), “Year of Hell” shows us what Voyager really could have been, without any changes to its basic premise. In fact, it’s been argued by many a Trek fan that “Year of Hell” is one of the only times that Voyager fully delivers on its premise, as a show about a lost ship, alone and with limited resources, on its way home through uncharted, potentially hostile space. It’s also been argued, of course, that perhaps a Star Trek show is not the best vehicle for fully exploring such a potentially dark premise, and that we would eventually get a better vehicle for exploring that premise in the form of Battlestar Galactica, as rebooted by Trek’s own Ron Moore (who, maybe-not-so-coincidentally, was one of the writers on “Yesterday’s Enterprise”). Either way, and regardless of the fact that “Year of Hell” technically takes place in an alternate timeline, the episode’s plot isn’t much of a departure from Voyager’s status quo (and the ‘reset button’ it hits near the end is classic Voyager, for better or for worse), even if its tone is, perhaps, something new to the series.
I happen to disagree with the argument that a Trek series couldn’t handle an extended, darker look at the unmitigated challenges of life on the final frontier, and with the argument that this sort of thing was best left to Battlestar (a series which started very strong, but eventually spiraled into the sort of dark-without-much-to-actually-say storytelling of so many so-called ‘prestige’ dramas). And I think “Year of Hell” does a good job of demonstrating that. As in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, the darkness of “Year of Hell” doesn’t cancel out the classic Trek themes underneath it. As I’ve observed before, where Voyager hasn’t always seized all of its potential, one thing it has tended to do quite well is show that a crew in their position will either live or die by their ability to work together. Contained in that premise, of course, is perhaps the overarching theme of all of Star Trek: humanity’s potential lies in its capacity for peaceful collaboration and rational problem-solving. And this is a theme that “Year of Hell” embraces wholeheartedly. Throughout the first half of this two-parter, the story is largely driven by Janeway’s refusal to “break up the family”, as she puts it, and her realization that the crew must split up makes a dramatic ending to that first episode.
That sense of Voyager’s crew as a family is heightened by the “slice of life” moments that are peppered throughout this otherwise intense, action-heavy episode. Two-part Trek episodes often run the risk of packing in unnecessary scenes in order to pad for time, and as I noted in Voyager’s “Future’s End” and in DS9’s “Past Tense”, those scenes tend to be far weaker than the rest of the episode. But in “Year of Hell”, the scenes we might be tempted to label as padding are, in fact, some of my favorite moments: Kim and an injured Torres quizzing each other on trivia while they wait for help in a jammed turbolift is pretty great, as are the scenes of Seven of Nine assisting Tuvok to make his rounds (and to shave) after he was blinded while rescuing her from an explosion. Hardly a moment of “Year of Hell” feels wasted, which is impressive in any episode, and all the more so in a two-part episode. All of these incidental scenes work to demonstrate the relationships these characters share, the affection and responsibility they feel for each other – which is essential to making the story work as well as it does. “Year of Hell” never falls into the trap of dark-for-dark’s-sake, precisely because it makes such a concerted effort to show us what the crew have to fight for during their year of hell: each other.
While there are some strong similarities between the two episodes, “Year of Hell” gives us something we don’t get from “Yesterday’s Enterprise”: a villain. While the Enterprises D and C encounter Klingon Birds of Prey as obstacles, Voyager’s year of hell is brought about entirely by Annorax, the Krenim commander and scientist who uses his “temporal incursion” weapon to cause entire civilizations to have never existed, changing history for everyone else in the process. As played by Kurtwood Smith, Annorax might be one of the best villains Trek has ever introduced; his numb weariness, almost to the point of boredom, as he erases billions of people from existence is downright chilling. We get the sense, even before we hear the story, that he isn’t really committing these temporal incursions for the sake of the Krenim Imperium, but for someone he’s lost, someone he’s desperate to bring back – his wife, as it turns out. But however sympathetic this motivation might seem at first – both to us, and to Chakotay – it almost makes what he’s doing feel worse as the episode goes on. The fact that he’s changed the history of an entire sector of space, repeatedly committing genocide in the process, for the sake of one person – a person who’s been gone, from his perspective, for 200 years, presumably far longer than he ever knew her – demonstrates a level of detached selfishness that is, at once, unbelievable and far too believable. Watching now, in late 2017, there’s something surprisingly familiar about him: about this man who casually wields more power than he could possibly have any right to; about the way his isolation, aboard his ship that exists outside of time, has made him callous and paranoid; about the way his crew doubts his sanity even while they follow his every irresponsible, destructive order; and about the way he brags to Paris and Chakotay about the extinct foods from wiped-out civilizations that they’re eating at his dinner table, as if any reasonable person would be impressed by that soulless decadence, and not horrified by it.
“Year of Hell” certainly agrees with “Yesterday’s Enterprise” that no situation is ever so bad that it can’t be made better by persisting in doing what’s right. But maybe it’s in Paris and Chakotay’s dealings with Annorax that “Year of Hell” has its own lesson to offer us. Where Chakotay thinks Annorax can be reasoned with, Paris insists from the start that there is no reasoning with this man who places so little value on the lives of others, this man who is so deluded and narcissistic that he thinks time itself holds a grudge against him. Ultimately, Paris is proven right: not just that Annorax can’t be trusted to do anything other than what he wants to do (which, surprise surprise, he can’t), but that the key to setting things right lay not in working with Annorax to make more changes to the timeline, but in destroying his damn ship – in stopping the temporal incursions altogether, and reversing those that had already been performed. Maybe, as we near the end of 2017 (which, unlike the year of hell, can’t be reset), we should remember that people who do bad things on purpose, and get away with it – get rewarded for it – probably can’t be trusted to stop doing bad things any time soon. The bad they do can be undone, but only if we undo it, by persisting in doing what’s right.
I’ll be taking a break from posting over the next few weeks, but Trek vs. Trek will be back in January. Thank you so, so much for reading, and I hope you’ll come back and join me again in the new year. Until then, happy space-holidays! Live long, and stay warm.