"A Matter of Time"
Or The One Where Max Headroom Tries To Pull A Fast One
By this point, we're all familiar with the various dangers of time travel. It'd be interesting, if you were of a mind to do it, and had the patience to track decades of science fiction, to see how the concept has developed over the years. Because surely at some point, it was just wish fulfillment or fantasy. H.G. Wells The Time Machine was largely a parable for the way social classes would eventually split into two distinct races; it was an adventure story that was less concerned with the possibilities of paradox than it was with extrapolating a distant future that helped Wells make a philosophical point. (Poor people will eventually become monsters; rich people will eventually all turn into Paris Hilton.) What I'm talking about is more jumping backwards in time and trying to change what was, in order to create a more positive present. By now, I can barely even type the idea without wanting to fall into an argument about the dangers of meddling, the butterfly effect, chaos theory, and how creepy it must've been for Marty McFly to jump into a completely different timeline, even if it did score him cooler parents and an awesome truck. But surely there was a time when people didn't take this quite so seriously.
I wonder if the ground zero moment for all this contemplation isn't Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder." First published in Collier's magazine in 1952, it's the sort of high concept, brutal gut-punch that only short stories are really capable of managing. In "Thunder," time travel is real, and a group of entrepreneurs use it to take rich big game hunters back into the distant past to hunt dinosaurs. Everything is carefully controlled to prevent any impact on the present. There's a path the hunters follow, and the T-Rex they kill is one that would actually have died moments later, even if it hadn't been shot. But of course something goes wrong, something very small on the surface but something that changes everything. It's a fine story, turned into a terrible movie (and, according to Wikipedia, a book series?), and I always think of it whenever I get to thinking about time travel. The idea that someone could step on a butterfly and thus significantly change the course of history is one of those ideas that seems so horribly plausible you can't help but believe it's fact.
Although who knows? I'm stalling here a little, because in the end, "Matter of Time" isn't really that much about time travel. It's mostly about a clever con-man (played by Matt Frewer), and how he ingratiates himself (sort of) with the crew of the Enterprise while they do their best not to completely destroy a planet desperately in need of their help. Frewer, who calls himself Rasmussen (because it's easier to type "Frewer," I'm just going to stick with that), claims to be a historian from 300 years into the future. He's arrived just in time to watch Picard and crew handle a crisis on Penthara IV, and all he asks of them are the answers to a few questions, a couple minutes of their time, and maybe some spare technology they may have lying around. Oh, and if someone—say, Beverly Crusher—decided to sleep with him, he wouldn't have any problems with that, either.
It's obvious from the start that Frewer isn't who he says he is, which is one of the reasons I had a hard time getting behind "Matter." Any storyline that opens with a stranger making the claims Frewer makes is going to have make an extra effort in order to fool us along with the rest of the cast. Obviously, a show like TNG has advantage here that something like, say, CSI doesn't. In the Trek-verse, we know that time travel is very real; nearly every major character in the franchise has engaged in it at some point or another. So at least when Frewer arrives in a ship like nothing anyone on the Enterprise has ever seen before, right next to a space-time distortion, well, it's not completely ridiculous that they'd give him the benefit of the doubt. And hell, as modest as everybody is about it, who wouldn't like some confirmation that everything you're doing right now is going to fascinate people centuries ahead of you?
My problem here is that the benefit stretches just a bit too far. Frewer's claims are potentially possible, but apart from his ship (which is just an unknown quantity) and the distortion, he can't really offer anything to back those claims up. He argues that it's his responsibility to his own time that prevents him from sharing more information with our heroes; much like that squished butterfly (or Homer's single sneeze), a misplaced factoid might alter crucial decisions and send events along an entirely new course. This is reasonable, but you'd think he'd have something to offer to help smooth the way. Maybe an additional piece of shiny future tech or restricted knowledge about, say, Picard's past that only future historians might have access to. Instead, he simply shows up and arrogantly makes his demands.
It's unfortunate, really, because I like Matt Frewer quite a bit, but his tightly-wound style isn't well used here. He's so immediately grating and unpleasant that you know from the start that he's running some kind of con. Which is funny, actually, because you'd think a real con-man would've actually tried to run more under the radar. Obviously in order to pull something like this off, it's necessary to have a certain confidence in your convictions (and Frewer largely maintains his cool until the very end), but this guy goes out of his way to irk people. You can defend this conceptually. After all, in the end, Frewer isn't really a con-man, just as he isn't really from the future; he's actually a failed inventor from the 22nd century who killed the historian the time machine actually belonged to and took his place. So it does make a certain amount of sense that he'd act like an ass. This really isn't his usual line of work.
Really, then, the issue is that everyone on the Enterprise trusts him for as long as they do before finally bringing the hammer down in the final scene. It's irritating to be this far ahead of the heroes for so long, and while it's not like their trusting nature ever puts any of them in any real danger, they still come across as a little too thick for my tastes. Riker wonders if he might be a fraud, but there's never any attempt to restrict his access to the ship or to force him to give more answers beyond the clearly evasive lines he keeps throwing out. Really, all the show needed was to tone down Frewer's attitude a few notches and throw us a bone of evidence that would give his story more credibility. (I realize that since he isn't actually from the future, that bone might be difficult to come up with, but still.) At least then, Picard and the rest wouldn't look quite so naive.
It's a shame, really, because there was stuff here I did like. The B-plot, for instance: After an asteroid hits an unpopulated continent on Penthara IV, creating a giant dust cloud that creates a planet-wide drop in temperature, the Enterprise tries to fix the problem by shoot phasers into the planet's crust and kickstaring a greenhouse effect. This goes badly, and Picard is forced to make a decision. Either he lets the crisis on the planet play out, killing tens of thousands, or else he tries to fix things one more time with the Enterprise, with a solution that will either resolve the problem or kill everything on the planet surface. It's a thrilling storyline, with huge stakes, and it almost feels like it would've been better served as the A-plot. I do like the idea of having these missions play out as the backdrop of some more specific, character-related crisis, but c'mon: This is an entire planet we're talking about.
This does lead to one of the episode's better scenes, a scene that, once again, only really works because of the quality of the actors involved. Picard begs Frewer to tell him which choice to make, and Frewer keeps dodging the question. It shouldn't be that engaging, because odds are you've realized by now that Frewer isn't who he says he is, and that the real reason he can't tell Picard what to do is because he simply doesn't know. That makes all of Picard's debate tactics moot, but Patrick Stewart is so good at sincerity and Frewer is so good at responding to that sincerity that it's all pretty enjoyable. And the finale, when Frewer finally explains who he really is to a Data he presumes is at his mercy, is a relief. I suppose it's somewhat hardcore that Picard lets the time machine vanish, trapping Frewer in their present, but really, he killed a guy. Now he's going to get stuck in a cushy Federation prison and talk about the past with scientists, and really, how are they ever going to build a case against him? All the evidence is gone. And it didn't sound like his life in the past… in New Jersey… was all that wonderful to begin with.
- It looked like one of the pieces of Enterprise tech that Frewer was trying to steal was a Klingon blade. Not really sure how impressive that would be to "invent."
- I guess Troi is like an emotional barometer. If she's tense, at some point, someone will do something bad.
- "Yes, it would be. It would be quite a shame." I love Stewart's reading of this line.
Or The One Where Worf Learns There's More To Being A Father Than Yelling
Here's another episode where we have a B-Plot I cared more about than the main storyline. A scientist develops a wave of energy that might supplant warp drives as the primary mode of interstellar travel? That's cool. Worf tries to bond with his irritating, boring son? Significantly less cool. It's not that I don't see a place on the show for the former storyline. Worf is cool, and any excuse to give Michael Dorn more to do than simply glower and/or be humiliated is at least a step in the right direction. And given how things ended when we first met Alexander (his mom, Worf's wife, murdered, Worf gone on a vengeance killing, and the boy shuttled off to live with Worf's adoptive parents), well, it stood to reason we'd probably see him again at some point. There's too much potential for awkward drama there for any long-running show to ignore it for long. Besides, now that Worf has largely given up on the Klingon Empire, we've got to find some way to give him storylines. It's not like he can start dating, right?
As always, there's potential here, although I'll admit it's not mind-blowing. In order to make this work, Alexander would have to be interesting. You'd need an exceptionally talented child actor, and writers who really understood how kids worked. (Or at least understood how to present kids on TV in a way that didn't make you want to speed-dial Pennywise the Clown.) Brian Bonsall isn't going to set the world on fire here; his range runs from shrill to sulking, with occasional, unconvincing stabs at sincerity. But it's hard to blame him, because, for one thing, he's all of 11 years old here, but for another, Alexander as a character is already annoying even before the first line-reading. He's not someone with a personality; he's a plot complication that Worf has to find some way to overcome. Which makes it harder to sympathize with the boy, even when his situation is inherently sympathetic. He's making life difficult for one of my favorite characters, and given his connection to that character, I know he'll have to be dealt with.
Man, that B-plot, though, that was cool, right? For once, I found it very easy to identify with Geordi; his geeky excitement over what was about to take place, and his difficulty in finding anyone that shared that excitement, was quite charming. Even better than in "Matter of Time," the threat here developed organically from one point to the next. The first test is set up, the Enterprise tracks the wave, the wave is initially successful but then becomes unstable, destroying the test craft that tried to ride it. Then, because the wave is travelling at warp speeds, and because… Hm. Well, it's actually a little tricky to establish why they wouldn't've tried to aim the test wave in a direction that didn't stand the risk of destroying a colony somewhere if things went wrong. Obviously, warp speeds would mean the wave could travel tremendous distances, so it would be difficult to find a direction that wouldn't ever come up against something. Although space is pretty big. I guess the issue is that the wave increases in size over time? Anyway, it made enough sense at the time. The experiment goes wrong, the wave is very dangerous, and that's part of the reason why Geordi and his team are observing; because when things go wrong, it's nice to have a big starship around to fix them.
All of this was a little dry, maybe, but it didn't have to be. And while I understand the attempt to create more personal story for our regular characters, it seems weird to be equally invested in whether or not Worf can make friends with his son and whether or not someone can successfully invented a new mode of warp speed travel. This imbalance was even more obvious in "Matter," actually, where the entire fate of planet hangs in the balance while we watch comic relief get up in everybody's business. Honestly, it would even be a problem if Worf and Alexander's problems were more entertaining to watch, because I like the idea that the Enterprise is always flying around doing this crazy, mind-melting crap, while its crew-members squabble or work through personal issues. It's a world-building tool, because when no one seems that surprised when potential catastrophes arise, it gives you the sense that these people encounter danger quite often, and have worked through it countless times before.
But yes, Alexander's issues are not the most engaging to focus on. Worf's mom shows up with the kid in tow (completely by surprise, I might add), and while Worf initially assumes its just for a visit, Mom soon breaks the hard truth: She and Worf's father are too old to handle a Klingon child, and Alexander is, well, a bit of a handful. This is reasonable enough. We're told again and again how difficult Klingon kids are to raise, and it hardly seems fair that Worf's parents get stuck with the hassle, even if they were initially amenable to the idea. Really, it's not fair for anybody, not for the kid, who has been run around the galaxy his whole life, or, for that matter, for Worf himself, who never even knew he had a child until about a day before Alexander's mom was killed. Difficult situations in which no one is entirely to blame are the life-blood of great drama, and while it would be easy to say Worf has just been a negligent parent (and to some extent, he has), really, he's not a selfish man or an immature one. He's just in over his head.
Alexander himself doesn't make matters any easier. He acts up in class, he lies, he even tries to steal a dinosaur model (I think I actually did this once when I was seven or so). All because he's so messed up inside since his dad abandoned him and his mom died, and everybody's just a big old jerk. It's funny; we've been told many times throughout the franchise how difficult Klingon children are to raise, but while Alexander certainly presents his share of problems, there's nothing about his behavior here that wouldn't suit a human child of roughly the same age and circumstances equally well. I suppose you could say that's one way of showing how some kinds of problems are universal across intelligent species, but it's also something of a let-down. Maybe Klingons don't become really difficult till they hit puberty, but it would be nice if this particular Klingon wasn't so safe in his rebellion. His new teacher on the Enterprise is terribly upset about his actions (to be honest, this lady looks like she's been terribly upset for years; the pained, sighing expression her face must've stuck there the first time somebody tried to eat paste in her presence), but if this is the worst they have to deal with one the ship, well, child-rearing has come a long way over the years.
Worf makes all the expected bone-headed moves. He gets angry, and he tries to use the logic of honor to reason with the boy, which goes about as well as you'd expect. Dorn does a lot of solid work here, and, to give the episode its due, the writing does a good job of admitting Worf's culpability in what's going on without ever making the mistake of blaming him. I call them "bone-headed moves," but there's a certain sense in appealing to Alexander's sense of honor; giving him something to strive for in his behavior, as opposed to simply lecturing him for his mistakes, is a constructive solution, even if it isn't the entire solution. Troi gets involved, as is her wont. There's something almost charming in the desperate way she latches on to anyone in emotional crisis. "I'm useful!" her eyes scream. And she helps point Worf in the right direction, explaining that Alexander probably feels abandoned, and that maybe sending him off to Klingon school isn't the best way to reduce that feeling.
Then everything resolves in one of those irritatingly convenient calamities that force everyone involved to rethink their priorities. The warp drive causes some problems on the Enterprise, and Alexander gets trapped in one of the cargo bay type rooms because it has cool animals in it, and Worf has to go save him. In doing so, Worf proves he's a bad-ass (he lifts a beam which is probably supposed to be totally heavy!), and he learns how much he cares about his son and how important it is to keep Alexander close at hand. I would be more worried about this if I thought we were going to see Alexander regularly, but I have a sneaking suspicion he'll be background noise for the most part. I mean, remember Ensign Ro? I almost didn't. Like "Matter," "New Ground" raises some interesting points, but it doesn't have quite the knack of delivering on them.
- I think I used "annoying" or variations on that word at least six times in my notes. Really, I respect the idea here more than the idea behind "Matter," but at least Frewer was occasionally amusing. Alexander is just a chore.
Next week: We take a look at "Hero Worship" and "Violations."