This week in Sci-Fi Time Capsule, one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation: “Cause and Effect,” from Season 5, Episode 18. It doesn’t involve Klingons, Romulans, Borg, or any mysterious planet or moral dilemma. What classic Star Trek trope does this one play on? Time.
(WARNING: Spoilers begin below)
The Enterprise explodes. Yup, in the first scene. “All hands, abandon ship. Repeat: all hands, abandon …” Kaboom.
Then we go play a game of poker with Data, Riker, Worf, and Dr. Crusher. Huh? Oh, this must be one of those flashback episodes where they start at the end, then show how they got there. OK. So, the game plays out, Dr. Crusher calls Riker’s bluff and wins the pot, only to get a call from sick bay about Geordi. She treats him for simple dizziness, then calls it a night. In her quarters she hears voices, but no one is around. She knocks over a glass. The next morning, the ship encounters a “highly localized distortion of the space time continuum.” Most of the ship’s systems fail, another vessel comes through the distortion field, collides with the Enterprise, and …
“All hands, abandon ship. Repeat: all hands, abandon …” Kaboom. (that’s twice now we’ve seen the Enterprise explode … I’m keeping a tally)
Back to the poker game. Oh. OK. We’re in a time loop. Got it. This time Riker knows Crusher will call his bluff. Dr. Crusher and Geordi both have deja vu about his symptoms. When she hears the voices in her quarters, she knocks over her glass again, but goes to see Picard about it. He’s had deja vu about the book he’s been reading. The ship blows up again (and I start getting the feeling that the breaking glass is foreshadowing of that).
(we’re on 3 explosions of the Enterprise)
Back to poker, and Worf claims to be having nIb’poH (the Klingon word for deja vu). Everyone agrees, and they go around the table like Nostradamus, calling each card before it comes. Dr. Crusher calls sick bay asking about Geordi even before he reports. Once there, she tries a new test and discovers a phase shift in Geordi’s visor. In her quarters, she had a tricorder ready and records the voices. But even putting the glass out of harm’s way doesn’t stop her from breaking it (putting on her jacket to report to engineering). Data analyzes the voices and determines that they are the crew’s, more than a thousand different people speaking. When analyzed, they puzzle out their predicament and conjure up a Dechyon message to send to Data (who can pick them up) in the next Temporal Causality Loop (great episode for technobabble, BTW).
(aside: if they know they can hear voices from previous timelines, why not have everyone just keep shouting the solution, or as much information as possible, to the next-loop versions of themselves?)
Ship explodes, but Data realizes their error. He sends himself a (needlessly?) cryptic message for the next loop to pick up.
(4 Enterprise kabooms)
Poker: Everyone tries to predict the cards, but they come up 3, then 3-of-a-kind. According to Data later on: “I have encountered the numeral 3 an inordinate number of times in the past two hours.” (if Data had a sense of humor, the “ordinate” number pun would have been a worthy jest).
It turns out that in the end, Riker was the one who has the solution, and Data implements Riker’s plan to save them just in time. Loop ends. Other ship turns out to be an obsolete Starfleet vessel trapped in the loop for 80+ years. The Enterprise was there for 17.4 days.
(aside: if Data was going to send a message, why not “Riker” instead of “3?” Could they have been that pressed for bandwidth that they couldn’t pass along 5 letters?)
Why Is This a Classic?
Time travel is a constant theme in Star Trek. From The Traveler to slingshotting around the sun, the idea that time and space are mutable is one of the key underpinnings of the Star Trek universe. In this episode, we combine Groundhog Day with Memento, leaving a recurring mystery with a (partial?) memory wipe at each iteration. Except this episode aired a year before Groundhog Day came out. Was this episode a catalyst for the movie, or had one of the writers seen the script prior to filming?
The storytelling is great as well. Even though the same scenes play out over and over, there are subtle differences each time. Even in the first full loop shown, Dr. Crusher had a hunch Riker was bluffing, implying that there had already been loops prior. That initial scene where the Enterprise explodes sets up for a flashback episode, then yanks it out from under us.
Picard (heard in repeated loops): “All hands, abandon ship. Repeat: all hands, abandon—”(kaboom)
Worf (heard in repeated loops): “A highly localized distortion of the space-time continuum.”
Data (after everyone predicts the cards about to come): “This is highly improbable.” The android with the gift for understatement.
How it Holds Up
It was good then, and it was good now. One thing I noticed in re-watching is that there is so little downtime in the episode. Often there is a buildup to the main episode plot; this is common in hour-long dramas of all sorts. This one blows up the iconic vessel of the series in the first minute, and drops us in the middle of the mystery. Even the first poker game, which seems mundane at the time, contains clues. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you go back and have a watch.