Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Second Chances”/“Timescape”
B+

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Second Chances”/“Timescape”

B+

Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Second Chances”/“Timescape”

Season 6, Episode 24
B+

Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Second Chances”/“Timescape”

Season 6, Episode 25

“Second Chances” (first aired May 22, 1993)

Or The One Where Riker Doesn’t Make Out With Himself, But Could’ve

On the one hand, “Second Chances” is a mild, laid-back melodrama about characters facing choices and versions of themselves they’d thought long abandoned into the past. Troi gets another romance (although thankfully, this one isn’t humiliating or horrific), and Riker gets a chance to see first hand how he would’ve reacted if his life had gone differently than he’d planned. It’s all very pleasant and a little sad. On the other hand, “Second Chances” is a huge mind-blow, to a degree that I don’t think the writers really take into account. The premise is, well, not straightforward exactly, but it seems to fit in the same lines as “The Enemy Within” from TOS: a transporter malfunction creates two Rikers. Unlike “Enemy,” these Rikers are functionally identical at the moment of creation, but for one fundamental difference. The first Riker, our Riker, was successfully beamed off of Nervala Four eight years ago, going on to live a life that led to his current position, as the First Officer of the Enterprise. The second Riker was left on Nervala, and due to an atmospheric condition that renders transporters inoperable on the planet for years at a time, he had to fend for himself on the station, right up until Riker1 and an away team beam down to pull the station’s data records.

Pretty cool, right? Very cool, in fact, and while “Chances” isn’t drop-dead amazing or anything, it’s got a terrific hook, and it does a decent job living up to that premise. (Unlike other episodes I watched this week.) But what amazes me is how much the existence of Riker2 should change things in the Trek-verse. Kirk’s bifurcation in “Enemy” happened after the transporters were exposed to an alien ore—it would be theoretically possible to replicate the mishap, but you never get the sense anyone on the old Enterprise was taking rigorous enough notes for that sort of experiment. (Or any notes at all, really.) On TNG, though, some weeks it’s like the crew does nothing but take notes. Even more importantly, there’s no weird ore required to pull off the malfunction that created Riker. If I’m getting the fiction science right, the two Rikers were created when the tech who was trying to beam Riker off the planet hit some interference, and created a second transporter pattern, identical to the first, to reinforce the beam. That second pattern got bounced back to the station, where it reformed into Riker2, just as Riker1 was arriving on the orbiting ship. Basically, by creating two beams, the tech inadvertently created two Rikers, and, well, that seems like it could be a big deal, right? I guess there’s some hand-waving about frequencies being exactly aligned, and we’re supposed to come away from this thinking it’s a once-in-1,000-a year coincidence, but… well, to look at it another way, this is a way of creating exact duplicates of people with no apparent drawbacks or restrictions if you can refine the process. That just seems like it would be useful. 

Okay, maybe I’m getting overly enthusiastic—Trek, and science fiction in general (especially sci-fi series, which generally try and maintain a base level status quo, and as such, don’t generally embrace massive, earth-shattering discoveries), has a history of throwing out crazy stuff and then letting it drop through the cracks between episodes. It’s fun to speculate, but  I wouldn’t say it’s a huge flaw in the episode. But there’s something so mundane about “Chances” that you can’t help but poke around for something more. I’m off two minds (Ha!) on this episode—which means that, yes, you’re about to get yet another review in which I piece together my thoughts and impressions as I type, rather than me approaching the material with a cogent thesis already in mind. I’d be sorry about that, but honestly, I get paid either way. (Bonus honesty: All my reviews are basically like that. Even the ones which seem to have cohesion. You type enough sentences, you’re bound to get a good run of paragraphs eventually.)

In my first mind: “Chances”’ most exciting moment happens in the cold open. No, I don’t mean Riker’s thwarted jazz solo. (Although—brief digression—I know it’s supposed to be charming and prankish of Troi to push Riker to perform a solo he’s avoiding, and I realize Ten Forward is about as low pressure a performance environment as you can come up with outside the womb, but it’s a bit mean. He’s spent years working on something, and he’s never gotten it right. The odds of him suddenly nailing the solo now, in front of everyone, are slim to none.) When Riker comes face to face with Riker2, without any warning to him or to us of what’s about to happen, it’s a great shock. Presumably, this shock was ruined for anyone who read TV Guide in 1993, but dramatically speaking, it’s a fine beat whether you’re prepared for it or not. But as the episode progresses, there’s never really anything to top this. The explanation for why Riker2 exists is about as mundane as a “I just discovered another me” explanations can be. Sure, it says all kinds of cool stuff about the transporter, but this episode isn’t about the transporter, and Geordi’s little speech about what happened is the beginning and end of the science-fiction element. The rest of “Chances” might as well be the story of two brothers who haven’t seen each other in a long time, at least in terms of plot mechanics. There’s some thematic stuff about what makes us who we are, and how we keep on making the same choices even when our situations have changed (there’s a reason for that title, after all), but all of this is very low-key. Riker2 has been around for eight years by the time the Enterprise finds him. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, there’s no sudden twist that one Riker or the other has to die (although apparently this was considered, in a Spider-man Clone Saga kind of way). Riker2 shows up, spars a bit with our Riker, hits on Troi, and then decides to call himself Thomas and sign on with another ship. The episode presents us with a conundrum, but then never puts much energy into resolving it, or using it to rile anyone up, apart from Troi, who tends to spend her time on ship in a state of constant riling already. 

But in my second mind: There’s something to be said for taking such an outlandish premise and handling it as realistically and straightforwardly as possible. While “Chances” lacks a lot of overt shocks or twists, its thoughtful approach is, in its way, pretty darn subversive. Once we establish that Riker2 is real as real, and that the nature of his creation poses no threat to anyone, he’s treated as completely and reasonably human as the rest of the ensemble. In fact, most of the episode is told from Riker2’s perspective—or at least, more of it is from his perspective than from our Riker’s, which is an odd but neat choice. This is an episode that requires more of the viewer, in that it doesn’t spell out all the strangeness. Like the fact that Riker2 and Troi pick up again where our Riker and Troi left off years ago. Or the obvious frustration both Rikers have with each other. Riker2, having spent so much time on his own with little hope of rescue, is more mercurial, more willing to take risks and less willing to accept orders. Our Riker isn’t a fan of this, and it’s doubtful either man is all that happy to meet a slightly skewed version of himself; for our Riker, it’s clear evidence of his faults, and for Riker2, it’s getting to meet the guy who stole your life. This conflict is played out via strained expressions and the occasional shouting, and has as happy an ending as it could’ve when Riker saves Riker2 from death while the two are doing repairs under the station on Nervala Four. When Thomas Riker leaves, Will Riker gives him his trombone as a parting gift, which is nice of him. 

Maybe a little too nice, really. While I like “Second Chances” more than I dislike it, I do think the episode short-changes the drama in favor of TNG’s standard, “Everybody really can get along if we’re all polite and patient with each other” approach. Riker2 spends nearly a decade in isolation, keeping himself alive through improvisation and, I’m guessing, a fair bit of luck. Then finally someone comes to rescue him, and he can go back to the life he had and the love he left. He tells Troi that thinking of her, the hope of seeing her again and being with her again (every time anyone on this show says “I want to be with you,” I assume they’re talking about sex), is what got him through the rough patches. And you have to imagine that there were some seriously rough patches on Nervala, days when suicide must’ve looked very, very attractive. But he had love to pull him through, and he had the same determination and energy we’ve seen our Riker display on the series. This guy is an adventurer to the core, and while getting stuck in a few small rooms millions of miles from anyone isn’t exactly a romp, it’s not implausible that he’d manage to get through it.

And then he meets himself, and everything he’s spent eight years waiting for falls apart. As much as I’d like to believe that Riker would be reasonable in either form, I don’t think there’s a reasonable solution to that, at least not an easy one. Near the end of the episode, our Riker rescues Riker2, which helps mend some fences. The length of time Riker2 has been away from Starfleet makes the split between the two of them easier to take, since Will Riker’s position on the Enterprise isn’t something that Thomas Riker ever knew to long for. But identity is a tricky business, and it’s not as logical as “Chances” would have us believe. Thomas’ choice at the end is reassuringly sensible and non-stabby, but sometimes, TNG’s commitment to reasonability is, well, unreasonable. Sometimes, people need to go a little mad to be believable. This is one of those times. Riker2 spends most of “Chances” acting a little on edge (and Frakes does a decent job differentiating between his two selves), but that never goes anywhere. He takes to prolonged isolation and being forced to be the “not-Will” Riker with a surprising, and not entirely believable, aplomb. 

But then, I guess that’s part of being a hero. “Chances” is a good episode, and if the review is more rambling than usual, that’s because I’m trying to pinpoint what stops it, to me, from being a great episode. Riker2 and Troi’s courting is sweet and melancholic, and that’s a rarity for TNG; and the resignation on Troi’s face when Thomas tells her he’s leaving the ship speaks volumes. She clearly still has feelings for Riker that she’s never entirely gotten over, and the opportunity to embrace those feelings again is irresistable. And yet it’s doomed from the start, because for all his different experiences, Riker2 is, at heart, as ambitious and driven as Will, and as much as he tries to deny it, given the same choice Will was given, between a relationship and his career, he’s going to take the latter. This is an episode that arrives at its conclusions a little too easily for my taste, but that doesn’t make those conclusions less valid. We all think about second chances from time to time, but it’s the first chances that define us; and as much as we may wish otherwise, we can’t ever leave them behind.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I do really, really love the fact that Thomas Riker survives the episode. Now there’s a spin-off series.
  • “You always had the better hand… in everything.” Ooo, poker burn!
  • While I do feel bad for Troi, surely she didn’t expect Thomas would be able to stay on the ship? Even discounting his ambition, having two Rikers would be tremendously confusing. (As well as a drain on the show’s budget.)
  • Levar Burton directed this episode. It’s his first time in the director’s chair, and he did a fine job; this is an actor-heavy ep, and everyone involved does fine work. 
  • Another spin-off I’d like to see: Data and Worf, discussing philosophy and fighting crime.

“Timescape” (first aired 6/12/1993)

Or The One Where Time Is Out Of Joint

Everybody’s had a good idea for a sci-fi or fantasy or horror story at some point. Getting a single good idea isn’t that difficult, at least when you don’t need to come up with one. Writers will tell you the difference between a good idea and a story is the actual hard work of writing it down, and that’s true, but there’s also the fact that good idea on its own isn’t much of anything. A good idea isn’t a story, it’s just a way into a story, and if you can’t come up with the follow-through, you aren’t going to get very far. And what’s really tricky is trying to find a way to explain the good idea. The more effort it takes to provide a logical reason behind some really arresting image you’ve stumbled across, the worse the story’s going to be. Explanations require an organic elegance—when revealed, it should seem like there’s no other answer to the questions you’ve been asking. The minute the audience sees the work that goes into suspending their disbelief, that’s the minute you start to lose them. It’s a hard line to walk, and examples of failed attempts at exposition and explanation litter the genre landscape like ungainly corpses. “Timescape” is a lively corpse for the most part, and one I enjoyed a lot at the start. But once it starts throwing down answers, things go from mysterious to silly in a hurry.

Let’s at least savor those first two acts while we can, shall we? A quick double shot of scenes on the Enterprise tells us Riker is scared of Data’s cat (understandably, considering the size of the scratches the cat leaves on his forehead), and also sets the plot in motion, although we won’t know exactly how for a while yet. The ship receives a distress signal from a Romulan ship, Riker tells Worf to make plans to assist the Romulans—carefully—and then we cut to a runabout (a slightly larger than usual shuttle) carrying Picard, Geordi, Troi, and Data. All four of them are headed back home after attending one of season six’s legendary interstellar conferences: This one was about the psychological effects of long-term deep space missions, which, you’ll be delighted to hear, has exactly nothing to do with the rest of the episode. Troi and Picard regale the others about embarrassing and/or tedious experiences they had during their sessions—an expert on inter-species mating hit on Troi, and Picard suffered through a lecturer so boring he didn’t even realize he was speaking on the wrong topic—and it’s all very charming. But then, everybody but Troi freezes for maybe 20 seconds. When they unfreeze, they have no memory of the time loss, and Data’s internal clock is still in sync with the shuttle’s computer. Troi starts to wonder if she didn’t imagine the whole thing, but then she falls, and when she comes to, the others tell her that this time, she was the frozen one. 

Something strange is going on, and “Timescape” is never better than when it follows our four heroes in their efforts to unravel the strangeness. A few more temporal oddities pop up—like an engine that burns through all of its fuel as though it had been running constantly for 47 days, or a bowl of fruit that rots in an instant, and has such a fast-running time bubble around it that Picard essentially burns his hand with aging when he reaches inside. Data determines that the entire area is littered with time bubbles, small-to-moderate sized anomalies which speed up, slow down, or otherwise interfere with normal chronology. When the shuttle arrives at the point in space where they’re supposed to rendezvous with the Enterprise, the other ship never arrives, and when they finally find her, it’s obvious why she’s late: The Enterprise is frozen alongside a Romulan Warbird, apparently in the middle of battle. And if it is a battle, the Enterprise is losing.

The image of the two ships hanging suspended in time and space is a great one, and a natural conclusion of the build-up of the first part of the episode. The rest of “Timescape” is on the downhill side. That’s not a huge surprise, really; the weirdness that pulls you into the story is cool in no small part because it’s seemingly inexplicable, and the explaining part of mysteries is nearly always duller than the set-up. (Even learning that the shuttle was flying through time-bubbles was a bit of a let-down. All of sudden, eerie horror is transformed into moderate science-fiction inconvenience.) But TNG has had plenty of stories with decent or even powerful reveals. The backstory of “The Survivors” turned something spooky into a powerful tragedy of loss and misspent vengeance, and while “Timescape” probably wasn’t going to hit that level of emotional complexity, it at least could’ve managed something like the end of “Schisms,” which provided enough information to justify what had happened, and then got out of the way. Instead, we get a story that tries for a big concept, but pushes too much into too little time, leaving us with a resolution that feels more than a little forced into existence.

Before that can happen, we have to spend some time with our heroes poking around on the frozen ships, because hey, why not? Geordi works up personal shields for everyone to prevent them from being frozen with the rest of the Enterprise crew—the shields are imperfect, initially making Troi dizzy before eventually sending Picard into hysterics. Amusing/freaky as it is to see Picard laughing uncontrollably and drawing smiley faces into semi-frozen clouds, the “space-time madness” subplot is padding, plain and simple. I don’t object to the reminder that it’s dangerous for Picard and the others to move inside the displaced time, but the fact that Picard’s collapse doesn’t add anything to the story or create new difficulties (apart from meaning Picard has to stay behind on the shuttle for a little while), is sloppy writing. 

The tableau which Picard, Troi and Data discover aboard the Enterprise are appropriately dramatic: On the bridge, it looks like a Romulan is attacking Riker, and in Sick Bay, a Romulan has actually fired on Beverly, hitting her in the stomach with a now-paused disruptor ray. (Which looks totally cool, by the way.) Worst of all, Data discovers a warp-core breach in engineering, and through that breach, Data learns that what they thought was stopped time is actually just time moving at an infinitesimal rate. That means that Picard and the others will have to figure out what happened before time slowed to a crawl, figure out what caused the crawl, and figure out some way to prevent disaster and resolve the issue, before the warp core breach slowly but surely engulfs the ship. They’ve got nine hours, which is just enough time to make the work possible, but not so much time that it kills the suspense.

In the interest of adding even more suspense, we see a supposedly time-stuck Romulan blinking in Sick Bay. If this seems familiar, it should—almost the same exact scene occurred in “The Next Phase,” a season five episode that had Geordi and Ensign Ro wandering around invisible after a transporter accident. There, the sudden twist that Geordi and Ro weren’t alone did a great job of goosing the ep into its final acts; here, it’s a big piece of the puzzle of why all this is happening, and it’s also the most problematic aspect of “Timescape.” Because the blinking Romulan isn’t actually a Romulan at all, but an alien being whose taken over a Romulan body. She and her mate (who also grabbed a Romulan host) were using the artificial singularity in the Romulan engine core as a nest to incubate their young. Normally they would’ve used a black hole, but I guess those aren’t easy to find, and maybe they had dinner plans they just couldn’t get out of, so they dumped their kids into the Romulan ship. Then it went horribly wrong, and when the Enterprise came to help the Romulans, not knowing the situation was more complicated than just an engine failure, the aliens showed up, grabbed a couple of warm bodies to invade, and made things worse.

That’s sort of cool. It’s reverse engineered, in that the writers started with “time keeps on skipping!” and then tried to figure out some way to justify the premise, but hey, that’s not the end of the world. The problem is, we barely get to know either of these aliens before they (somewhat conveniently) disappear—first they assault one of the heroes, and then the shock of the assault sends them off to the Phantom Zone, or makes them cease to exist, or whatever. The reverse engineering becomes more obvious when its result doesn’t have much character beyond its function as a plothole-plugger. Plus, their behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why are they just hanging around? Why don’t they make any attempt to communicate with Picard or anyone else before they attack? After Picard cleverly uses the runabout to interrupt the power transfer between the Enterprise and the Romulan ship that would’ve caused the Enterprise’s warp-core breach, the Romulan ship—and the second not-a-Romulan alien—both disappear. Why? And why isn’t anyone even a little bothered by any of this? 

There are plenty of cool moments in “Timescape” to keep it from being a waste. The episode makes good use of time manipulation in all sorts of clever ways, building to the final attempt to save everyone’s life in which Data rigs a system (using the alien young trapped in the Romulan ship) to reverse time back far enough to allow him and the others to manipulate events. It’s convenient that every seemingly damning tableau of the Romulans turns out to be innocuous; they really were just trying to evacuate their ship, having no idea the root cause of their problems. But it’s not distractingly convenient. No, what keeps this episode from really delivering is the rushed, poorly thought through fourth act reveal, and a sub-par coda in which Data is humorously attempting to test the veracity of yet another human idiom. (This time, he’s studying to see if a watched pot ever boils. Hilarity!) The cooler the mystery, the more important it is that the solution makes sense. What we get here is too close to “aliens = magic,” and lacks TNG’s usually insightful follow-through.

Grade: B

Stray Observations:

Next week: We make our “Descent, Part 1,” and I throw together a few overall thoughts on season six.