“I was driving starships while your great-grandfather was still in diapers”: Relics (TNG) vs. Flashback (Voyager)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Relics” (season 6, episode 4)

relics 8Written by Ronald D. Moore; directed by Alexander Singer; first aired in 1992

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Investigating a distress call, the Enterprise discovers a Dyson sphere — a massive structure constructed around a star — and the USS Jenolan, a Federation transport that crashed on the sphere’s surface 75 years ago. Inside the Jenolan, they find that its transporter surprisingly still has power, and has been creatively jury-rigged to preserve two survivors: one who can’t be restored to his physical form, and one who can … and who turns out to be Montgomery Scott, the legendary Chief Engineer of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise. Captain Picard welcomes Scotty to the 24th century, and to this new Enterprise, and Scotty is eager to get into its engine room and get back to work. But this Enterprise’s Chief Engineer, Geordi La Forge, isn’t so eager to walk Scotty through the basics of 24th-century engineering. After an argument between the two, a struggling-to-cope Scotty gets drunk with Data and has the holodeck recreate the bridge of his Enterprise, where Picard finds him. The two have a heart-to-heart about the starships they’ve loved and lost, and Scotty admits that he can’t feel useful on the Enterprise-D, but also can’t fool himself that the Enterprise on the holodeck is his own. Picard sympathizes, and tactfully (but firmly) suggests that La Forge take Scotty along with him to the Jenolan to recover its computer files. While the two are there, the Enterprise is sucked inside the Dyson sphere, which once held an entire civilization but is now abandoned … probably because the sun at its center has become unstable, and is giving off enough radiation to soon destroy the Enterprise. Once La Forge and Scotty discover what’s happened to the Enterprise, Scotty works some of his old engineering magic, and uses the Jenolan to open the sphere’s doors, and jam them open long enough for the Enterprise to escape. Later, with newfound respect for Scotty, La Forge escorts him to the Enterprise’s shuttle bay, where he’s granted a shuttle to get him where he needs to go … which isn’t into retirement just yet.

VS.

Star Trek: Voyager – “Flashback” (season 3, episode 2)

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Written by Brannon Braga; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 1996

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Tuvok’s sampling of Neelix’s cooking is interrupted when Voyager comes across a nebula containing sirillium, an energy source which can be used for just about anything, apparently. As the crew debates how to make use of it once they’ve harvested it, Tuvok becomes unwell, and collapses amidst flashes of what seems to be a childhood memory: young Tuvok trying his best to pull a young girl up from where she dangles over a cliff, before losing his grip and watching her plummet to the ground below. Having no memory of these events, Tuvok enlists Janeway’s help, as the closest thing to a family member he has on board, to conduct a Vulcan ritual in which she will mind meld with him, and journey with him into his memories. But however much he might focus on the girl, Tuvok and Janeway keep landing in the same set of memories: his time aboard the USS Excelsior under the command of Captain Sulu, during the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, some 80 years earlier. As events in the background of that film play out in Tuvok’s memories — including a dressing-down he received from Sulu for placing regulations over loyalty to his fellow officers — he and Janeway realize that those memories are leading him to the death of his old crewmate Valtane, not the death of the girl. It turns out that Valtane just happened to have a virus that hides itself in an implanted painful memory, and that virus just happened to jump from Valtane to Tuvok, and there never actually was any girl that fell from a cliff, apparently. Whatever. Anyway, the Doctor eliminates the virus, Janeway is left knowing some things about Tuvok he’d never shared before, and Tuvok is left reflecting on his painful early days in Starfleet, and how they helped make him who he is now.

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Star Trek is deeply nostalgic for me, as it is for a lot of people. Sure, I’d like to say that I love Trek because it’s such genuinely great television (which a lot of it is), and because I’m an excellent judge of quality entertainment (which is … debatable). But I can’t deny that some of what I see in Star Trek is the soothing memory of my childhood self absorbing reruns of The Original Series, and first-run episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the way a sponge absorbs water. Through all the arguments I could make for including The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in the canon of all-time best TV (or best pop culture, period, dammit), my very thorough, very good logic would be all tangled up in the fact that TNG began when I was 7, and DS9 when I was 13, nearly the perfect ages for becoming a lifelong fan of something (though I was obviously a bit young for some of the nuance I now see in DS9, and a couple of those TNG episodes I watched as a 7- and 8-year-old did scare the bejeezus out of me … I mean, come on, a guy’s head explodes in “Conspiracy”!). My nostalgia for the Trek I grew up with is something I simply can’t separate from how I feel about it now, or from how I respond to newer Trek, though I try, at least, to be aware of that; when we won’t admit to our own subjective, nostalgic reasons for liking the things we like, we can end up ranting about how the new stuff is disrespecting the old stuff and ruining our childhoods, on YouTube channels which, while lucrative, make a lot of people sad and angry … and who would want that? But nostalgia can be positive and joyful, too, and anyone who loves stories can tell you, often in great detail, not just about the stories they love, but about who they were when they got into those stories, what those stories still bring them back to today. Nostalgia for fictional characters, or for fictional places, is nostalgia for how it felt to meet them, to spend time with them, and to have that experience mean something to who you were at the time.

flashback 7Fictional universes as long-running and far-reaching as Star Trek’s inevitably become nostalgic to a lot of people, who can compare notes on which character, which series, which alien or starship or futuristic technology was their entry point, the bait that really hooked them (something that can happen at any age, of course, and not just in childhood as it did for me). But these fictional universes tend to become nostalgic for themselves, too, for reasons both cynical and optimistic. Yes, nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool (he typed between sips of coffee from a decades-old Jim Lee X-Men mug), and it has undeniably made a lot of money for corner-office shot-callers who couldn’t care less what any of this stuff is actually about, or what it means to anyone except their accountants (which, again, isn’t part of any grand conspiracy to ruin anyone’s childhood, but is just, you know, capitalism doing what capitalism does). But it’s also true that, over time, some of the people who love this stuff eventually get the chance to make this stuff, and their nostalgia for the old stuff inevitably informs their work on the new stuff. This is particularly interesting to watch in Star Trek, with its generation-length gaps, in and out of universe, between some of its stories and characters. As I’ve noted before, though, Trek’s nostalgia for itself didn’t take anywhere near a generation to first show itself, but was baked right into the franchise from almost the very beginning, when Gene Roddenberry turned his original unaired pilot for The Original Series, “The Cage,” into a clip show, “The Menagerie,” in its first season, creating a sense of nostalgia for characters and events the audience had never even seen before up to that point.

relics 3Besides making us nostalgic for a side of Star Trek we’d never have known otherwise (at least not until “The Cage” was made available to audiences roughly two decades later), “The Menagerie” was the first instance of a now-well-established tradition of characters from old Trek appearing in new Trek. And besides the obvious fun of seeing beloved characters again, this tradition has also clearly served the purpose of christening new Trek as Trek, marking its connection to what came before. This is most obvious in the first episode of The Next Generation, when an aged Dr. McCoy gives the new Enterprise (and, by very heavy implication, the new series) his blessing, but literally every series of Trek since The Original Series has referenced some pre-existing character from the franchise in its very first episode: besides including TNG‘s O’Brien, and eventually Worf, in its regular cast, Deep Space Nine‘s first episode includes an appearance by Picard (even if it does pointedly emphasize how different he is from Sisko, DS9‘s own series lead); Voyager‘s first episode features DS9‘s Quark; Discovery‘s first episode features recurring Trek icon Sarek, before returning to TOS villain Harry Mudd, and centering its second season around characters from “The Cage” itself; even Enterprise, a prequel series set earlier than any other incarnation of Trek, references Zefram Cochrane and the time-travel-fueled events of the film First Contact in its own first episode, and beyond. And Picard, of course, continues this tradition while taking it in a new direction, marking the first time (but almost certainly not the last) in its over half a century of existence that Star Trek has returned to an existing character by giving them a TV series of their own. Ever since “The Menagerie,” Star Trek has been almost as preoccupied with looking back on its own past as with looking forward to our optimistic future.

flashback 2Not only do The Next Generation‘s “Relics” and Voyager‘s “Flashback” take part in this tradition of Trek’s nostalgia for itself, they also seem interested in commenting on it, each in their own way. First airing in the early and mid-90s, respectively, their nostalgia is as much for the films based on The Original Series as for the series itself; “Flashback” returns to Hikaru Sulu as he was in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a captain in his own right, while Montgomery Scott’s portrayal in “Relics” is, for better or worse, much closer to his almost purely comic-relief role in the later TOS films than to the undeniably funny, but still consistently competent, Scotty of the TV series. This focus on the film era stands in contrast to Deep Space Nine‘s own nostalgia-fest, “Trials and Tribble-ations,” which, like “Flashback,” paid tribute to Trek’s 30th anniversary; but where “Flashback” immerses itself, through mind-meld, in the events of Star Trek VI, “Trials” actually, canonically incorporates itself into an iconic episode of TOS, through time travel and mid-90s film-making technology. Neither “Relics” nor “Flashback” go quite that far in their nostalgia, but it’s worth noting that they do, like “Trials,” come up with unabashedly contrived reasons for these classic Trek characters to appear alongside their successors. This isn’t Bones simply living long enough to tour the Enterprise-D in “Encounter at Farpoint,” or Captain Pike’s tenure on an older Enterprise coinciding chronologically with the events of Discovery‘s second season; Scotty’s and Sulu’s appearances in TNG and Voyager aren’t really about placing these series within existing continuity, so much as just reveling in seeing these characters again, by whatever narrative means necessary.

relics 2And these episodes very much do revel in the fun of returning to these characters. To me, “Relics” is “comfort Trek” at its finest, from the moment Scotty first appears, in his crashed shuttle, amidst the beautifully familiar visual and audio effects of an Original Series transporter beam. (Yes, I know those effects are anachronistic, as his shuttle dates from the era of the films, which had their own transporter effects. And no, I don’t care, not even a little.) Which isn’t to say the episode is without its flaws, of course. As mentioned above, the version of Scotty we get here seems mainly inspired by his role in the last two or three TOS films, in which this brilliant engineer of the Federation’s flagship would sometimes just straight-up walk into walls, for the cheap LOLs. And in setting up its message that older folks shouldn’t be written off as irrelevant, “Relics” paradoxically leans into some unfortunately ageist stereotypes, with Scotty repeatedly lecturing the whippersnappers that “I was doing X back when your Y was Z,” and just randomly poking at equipment he doesn’t understand in Engineering, as if he isn’t a skilled enough engineer to know better than that, no matter how out of his element he is.

relics 4But even if I wish his character had been written a bit differently here, James Doohan is just a joy to see on screen — his delivery of “No bloody A, B, C, or D,” when asking the holodeck to recreate his own Enterprise, makes me laugh every time — and he does an excellent job of playing Scotty as someone who’s an odd fit in the calmer, quieter Star Trek of The Next Generation, but an excellent fit in this episode. While some of his scenes with La Forge do suffer from those misguidedly broad comedic impulses, Scotty’s conversations with Data, and particularly with Picard, are both fun and surprisingly substantial. And while these character moments, and Scotty’s return to the old Enterprise bridge on the holodeck, certainly evoke nostalgia for me, they don’t strike me as simply gimmicky or manipulative; they feel, for lack of a better term, quite real. In fact, with Picard‘s first season currently airing as I write this, it surprises me to realize that “Relics” contains some of my favorite moments from Captain Picard himself, as when he gently but pointedly lectures La Forge on Scotty’s need to feel useful, and especially his touching heart-to-heart with Scotty over some Aldebaran whisky (“It is … it is … it is green”). Not content to simply be fan service, this episode uses Scotty’s guest appearance — and what could have been a throwaway callback to Scotty’s earlier binge on green booze in The Original Series — not just to elicit nostalgia from long-time viewers like me, but to elicit some beautifully humane moments from Picard, and a subtly perfect performance from Patrick Stewart.

flashback 3“Flashback,” too, finds some great character moments for Tuvok and Janeway through their mind-meld memory encounter with Sulu. This episode has its own faults too, of course, though interestingly, they’re almost the opposite of those that bother me in “Relics.” “Relics” is, I think, a focused and tightly-plotted episode that skillfully ties its Scotty-centric A-plot into its Dyson Sphere B-plot (which I’ll come back to below), and makes its only real missteps in its characterization of Scotty (as much as, again, I love seeing him on screen). “Flashback,” on the other hand, suffers from Voyager‘s most consistent problem, in that its plot feels a bit like Mad Libs, a series of disparate story ideas awkwardly strung together to fill an hour of television, whether they cohere together or not. The nebula, the much-in-demand “sirillium,” even the identity of the girl in Tuvok’s recurring memory, all turn out to be nothing more than meaningless MacGuffins, ultimately serving no thematic or narrative purpose but to set up the Excelsior flashbacks; and for the girl’s identity, in particular, to have never mattered, despite being presented as the central mystery of the episode, feels like serious foul play on the writer’s part. Sure, we all know that this episode was always going to be, first and foremost, a Sulu delivery mechanism, but this just makes it more striking that he’s only introduced after nearly half an episode of ultimately irrelevant plot development, where “Relics” has Scotty appear before the opening credits roll.

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But once we do finally find ourselves on the bridge of the Excelsior, “Flashback” achieves much the same feeling of nostalgic homecoming as “Relics” does. It is, again, just an unmitigated joy to see both Sulu and Janice Rand back on screen, and their characterization in “Flashback” feels more solid, more rooted in the core of their characters, than Scotty’s in “Relics.” Granted, Rand had precious little character development in The Original Series before her appearances in the films, but that’s precisely why it feels satisfying to see her clearly holding a position of significant responsibility and authority on the Excelsior (even if she still doesn’t get a great deal of screen time, here). And as for Sulu, not only is George Takei’s screen presence as ever-impressive as Doohan’s, but what he’s given to do here continues the work that Star Trek VI had done towards moving Sulu forward from his supporting role on the bridge of the original Enterprise, and into a suitable position of authority and gravitas (“Flashback” hangs a lantern on this, when Klingon commander Kang, himself a welcome returning face, delivers his extremely on-the-nose line, “I see they have finally given you the captaincy you deserve”). Sulu’s handling of the very green, very rules-oriented Tuvok provides some great moments for Sulu, and for Tuvok, as well. “Don’t tell me Vulcans don’t have a sense of humor, because I know better” is a fun bit of fan service, of course, but it also shows us that this Sulu isn’t just the timeless TOS character of our nostalgic memories; this Sulu has lived through, and been shaped by, his working relationships and friendships in the original TV series and films, and has been there with those colleagues as they themselves evolved. We see this, as well, in his speech following Tuvok’s objections to defying Starfleet orders:

Ensign, you’re absolutely right. But you’re also absolutely wrong. You’ll find that more happens on the bridge of a starship than just carrying out orders and observing regulations. There is a sense of loyalty to the men and women you serve with. A sense of family. Those two men on trial, I served with them for a long time. I owe them my life a dozen times over, and right now they’re in trouble, and I’m going to help them. Let the regulations be damned.

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This also shows us how Tuvok has grown since his time on board the Excelsior, leading us to what “Flashback” has to say about nostalgia (beyond “Hey look, it’s Sulu!”). In a conversation with Harry Kim, in which Kim is taken aback to learn that Captain Sulu “falsified his logs” regarding the events of Star Trek VI, Janeway observes that it was “a very different time” in which “space must have seemed a whole lot bigger,” and explicitly addresses her own in-universe nostalgia for the era of Sulu and Scotty and the others: “Of course, the whole bunch of them would be booted out of Starfleet today … but I have to admit, I would have loved to ride shotgun at least once with a group of officers like that.” Personally, I’m slightly uncomfortable with this scene, given the way that “it was a different time” is sometimes offered as a real-world excuse to be nostalgic for the past without engaging with its injustices … and also given that Janeway’s comments could be taken as the show flippantly dismissing the very valid issues a contemporary viewer might have with some of the 1960s sensibilities of The Original Series. But when Tuvok tells her of the path his life took post-Excelsior — initially leaving Starfleet, but eventually coming around to value what he could learn there, from humans and other species — and the role his time on that ship played in starting him down that road, we’re shown a more positive side of nostalgia. Tuvok, of course, actually lived through that time, the good and the bad, and even if he has avoided looking back on it, doing so in this episode reminds him, and shows us, how far he has come, and how much he has learned about himself (leading to his suggestion that Janeway “be nostalgic for both of us”).

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“Relics” also reflects on the value and dangers of nostalgia, and does so in a surprisingly complex way. Scotty, struggling to find a place on this new Enterprise, understandably takes refuge in nostalgia for the time before he preserved himself in the transporter, first through anecdotes of the old days, then by going on a bender on some familiar green booze, and finally by recreating his own Enterprise on the holodeck. And first Picard, then La Forge, realize that Scotty needs the chance to “feel useful” again, as he did back in those days; “just because something’s old doesn’t mean you throw it away,” in Geordi’s own achingly on-the-nose words. At the same time, though, Scotty’s arc through this episode is his coming to terms with the fact that he can’t really return to those days, either literally or metaphorically. As Scotty says to Picard, in his turning point, Doohan’s finest moment, and my favorite part of the episode, on the simulated Enterprise bridge:

I don’t belong on your ship. I belong on this one. This was my home. This is where I had a purpose. But it’s not real. It’s just a computer generated fantasy. And I’m just an old man who’s trying to hide in it. Computer, shut this bloody thing off. It’s time I acted my age.

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While Scotty’s appearance in this episode is clearly meant to play to the nostalgia of many in the audience, “Relics” uses that guest appearance, at least partly, to comment on the dangers of clinging too hard to nostalgia. And that danger is made cleverly literal by the Dyson Sphere, an impressive marvel of engineering and a fascinating bit of world-building … which has been abandoned by the civilization that built it, and is now an inadvertent death trap for Scotty’s shuttle and for the Enterprise-D, all because the sun at its center has run its course, and is now dying. This seems interestingly at odds with Geordi’s feel-good reminder not to simply throw away old things; yes, the episode ends with plans for Federation scientists to safely study the Sphere, but as the home it once was for those who built it, the Sphere has lived out its lifespan, and to pretend otherwise would be to get cooked by the past-its-prime sun inside it, as the Enterprise-D nearly does. This is a big part of why I find “Relics” to hold up impressively as an episode in its own right, and not just a novelty or gimmick; it’s also why I harp on the thrown-together plotting of “Flashback,” an episode I also enjoy, but simply wish were more thematically (not to mention narratively) coherent than it is. Not only is “Relics” fun and comfortingly familiar, it’s confident enough in its storytelling to deliver a warning against the dangers of uncritical nostalgia in an episode which was almost certainly advertised as a vehicle for nostalgia. That’s a lot more gutsy than this episode needed to be, and it has, however ironically, helped make “Relics” one of my most rewatchable episodes of The Next Generation.

ask 1And speaking of nostalgia, next week we’ll revisit old Captain Pike himself, as we compare questionable Starfleet Academy testing practices in The Next Generation‘s “Coming of Age” and the Short Trek “Ask Not”!

 

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