Final Frontier Friday


Hello and welcome once again to ‘Final Frontier Friday‘! This week takes us back to ‘The Next Generation’ for the fifth season episode ‘Cause and Effect’. If this seems like a bit of a left field choice, then you clearly haven’t been watching ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. That series’ seventh episode, ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad‘, similarly featured an iterative time loop, inviting obvious comparisons to its predecessor. It’s also been one of the show’s best episodes to date. So with that in mind, I thought it worth looking back at the episode that… well, we don’t know for sure whether or not it provided a direct inspiration, but ‘Discovery’ star Anthony Rapp has described ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ as a “great tribute” to this episode, and who am I to argue? In any case, on with it!

‘Cause and Effect’ has its genesis in writer Brannon Braga’s love of time travel stories. More specifically, it’s what you get when you combine Braga’s love of time travel with a desire to avoid a lot of the usual tropes of time travel stories. That gave rise to the episode’s hook of a time loop (which, despite the frequent comparisons, actually pre-dated ‘Groundhog Day’). Similarly, the episode’s use of the senior staff’s regular poker game to as – in Braga’s words – “the key to saving their entire existence,” stemmed from the idea of taking an element of the show that was so often window dressing and making it integral to the plot. The very nature of a time loop, however, brought with it its own challenges. Namely, you’re repeating the same events and even the same scenes several times, but you don’t want the audience to get bored or mistake the episode for a clip show (especially on the one ‘Trek’ series that had actually done one of those…). The solution, then was to take great care to make each iteration of each scene in some way unique. Indeed, Rick Berman pointedly forbade Jonathan Frakes – who directed this installment – from reusing any footage. To this end, Frakes used multiple cameras to avoid reshooting scenes that would be repeated more or less as is, and made subtle alterations to others.

The episode begins with bedlam on the bridge. Something has collided with the ship. Though the crew scrambles to contain the damage, it’s clearly a lost cause. As Picard gives the order to abandon ship, the Enterprise is destroyed.

As the Enterprise begins a mission to chart an area of space known as the Typhon Expanse, Riker is joined in his quarters by Data, Crusher, and Worf for their regular poker game. Data deals, Worf folds, and Crusher calls Riker’s bluff, winning the hand. The game is interrupted when Crusher is called to sickbay. LaForge is there, complaining of headaches and dizziness, culminating in a collapse in engineering. As she gives him a hypospray, Crusher is struck by a sense of deja vu. But as Geordi has never had these issues before, they think nothing of it. Later, she hears voices in her quarters and breaks a glass as she reaches for the light. She reports this at a staff meeting, but there is no readily apparent explanation. They return to the bridge where sensors have detected a massive space-time distortion off the starboard bow. The ship suffers a power drain and something – another starship – emerges from the distortion field on a collision course. When the other ship fails to answer hails, Riker recommends decompressing the main shuttlebay, reasoning that the explosive force may be enough to push them out of the way. Data, meanwhile, suggests using a tractor beam to push the other ship out of the way. Picard chooses follows Data’s advice. Though the tractor beam does alter the other ship’s course, it’s not enough and the vessel collides with the Enterprise. Though the crew scrambles to contain the damage, it’s clearly a lost cause. As Picard gives the order to abandon ship, the Enterprise is destroyed.

With the Enterprise en route to the Typhon Expanse, Riker, Data, Crusher, and Worf meet in the commander’s quarters for their regular poker game. As the hand proceeds, Crusher seems distracted and in the middle of placing a bet, Riker suddenly realizes that she is going to call his bluff. Once again, the game is interrupted when Crusher is called to sickbay. This time, both she and LaForge experience a sense of deja vu, but a check of his medical records confirms that he’s never been treated for this constellation of symptoms before. As before, Crusher hears voices in her quarters and breaks her glass when she reaches for the light. Unable to sleep, she meets Picard in his ready room, where the captain brings her a glass of warm milk. Picard then tells her that he too has been experiencing deja vu, feeling as though he’s read certain passages of his book before. A shipwide diagnostic is ordered, with results expected in the morning. At the staff meeting, Data and LaForge report that the diagnostic turned up nothing out of the ordinary, but Crusher adds that ten other crewmen reported hearing voices at the same time she did, so something is definitely up. Worf summons them to the bridge, where sensors have detected a time-space distortion. A ship emerges from the distortion field on a collision course, the officers make their suggestions, with Picard choosing Data’s. The two ships collide and the Enterprise is destroyed.

The poker game is once again plagued by deja vu. Despite Data’s assurances that “the cards are sufficiently randomized,” Crusher, Worf and Riker are able to predict exactly which cards will be dealt and in what order. An unnerved Crusher contacts sickbay to ask if LaForge is there. Moments after she does so, he arrives. Crusher calls Picard to sickbay, where she asks if he has been experiencing deja vu. He says he has, and she tells him that several other crewmembers have reported the same. She has traced the source of LaForge’s headaches and dizziness to a phase shift in the visual receptors of his VISOR – essentially, he’s seeing things that aren’t there, which he compares to “blurry afterimages”. Crusher again hears voices in her quarters. This time, she picks up a tricorder and runs a scan. When the voices stop, she contacts LaForge, who confirms that the ship’s sensors also picked up something strange. She grabs her lab coat and heads to engineering, breaking her glass as she does so. In engineering, we find that her scan actually managed to record some of the voices. Data analyzes the recording, eventually determining that the voices belong to the Enterprise crew. Crusher calls a staff meeting, where she and LaForge explain that the ship is trapped in a time loop, reasoning that the voices they’re hearing and the phase shift in LaForge’s VISOR are echoes of previous loops. Data has managed to isolate key segments of audio, enough to allow them to piece together elements of the collision that resulted in their getting stuck in the loop. Though armed with this knowledge, the crew acknowledges that they may not be able to break the loop on this iteration. Their analysis of the echoes from prior loops offers them a way to send information into the next loop, in such a way that it would be received by Data as a sort of subconscious suggestion. After setting up a mechanism to send this “message,” Worf summons them to the bridge, where sensors have detected a time-space distortion. A ship emerges from the distortion field on a collision course, the officers make their suggestions, with Picard choosing Data’s. The two ships collide and the Enterprise is destroyed.

The loop begins again. Once again, the poker game is plagued by deja vu. As Data deals, Crusher, Worf and Riker begin to predict the cards, expecting the same sequence we’ve seen on each previous occasion. But this time it changes. First, each player is dealt a three, then three of a kind. Crusher is then called to sickbay where she examines LaForge and the two begin to piece together the existence of the time loop. As Data runs a diagnostic in engineering, the result he receives is impossible – a set of threes. Crusher calls to report the voices. The staff meeting proceeds much as before, though this time Data and LaForge report the unusual occurrences of the number three. They reason that someone may be trying to send a message when they are called to the bridge. The ship’s sensors have detected a time-space distortion. A ship emerges from the distortion field on a collision course, the officers make their suggestions, with Picard choosing Data’s. At the last second, Data realizes that the tractor beam will not be successful and decompresses the shuttlebay. It works. Once clear of the other ship, Data explained that he realized that the strange instances of the number three likely referred to the number of rank insignia on Riker’s uniform, thus indicating his suggestion was the correct one. They access a Federation time base beacon and learn that they have been stuck in the loop for nearly three weeks. The other ship – now identified as the Federation starship Bozeman – hails them and offers assistance. Picard asks Captain Bateson of the Bozeman if he has any idea what just happened. As Bateson tells us, the Bozeman’s sensors detected a temporal distortion, the Enterprise emerged and the two ships nearly collided. Picard explains that they’ve been caught in a time loop, and when asked what year it is, a puzzled Bateson replies that it’s 2278. It is in fact, 2368 and the Bozeman has jumped a full ninety years into her future.

Cause and Effect’ is a fun, but ultimately lightweight episode. Both the time loop and the solution presented are clever while not overly complex – which, in fact, is a good way of summing up the episode itself. It’s almost odd to say, but a lot of the fun of the episode comes from its iterative nature. The banter in the poker game is always a delight, and here it’s turned on its ear as the crew’s “deja vu” completely upends the usual rhythm of the game. I also like that the episode is really just a series of small events. Or rather, variations on a series of small events. The poker game, an insomniac Crusher chatting with Picard over warm milk… With the exception of the Enterprise’s destruction (which, it should be said, makes for perhaps the greatest teaser in the fifty-plus year history of ‘Star Trek’), the time loop is made of largely mundane, day to day events. And yet it’s never boring.

Hats off to Frakes, as well. He’s always been one of the franchise’s more dependable directors, and it’s episodes like this that remind us that he’s often a more clever director than he sometimes gets credit for. As I mentioned before, ‘Cause and Effect’ is never boring, despite the repetition that’s baked into its premise. And much of the credit for that goes to Frakes. It’s the subtle touches in the way scenes are shot across different iterations of the loop. For example, while the earlier portions of the episode are consistently shot in what might be called the “house style” of early Nineties ‘Star Trek’, a number of Dutch angles start creeping into the later iterations. It’s a seemingly small thing, but it’s enough to keep things interesting.

If there’s anything that stands out as a mark against this episode, it’s that I’d rather like to see more of Captain Bateson and the Bozeman – and not just because I’ve always had a fondness for Kelsey Grammer. Yes, I know there are books, but that’s not the same thing. The thing is, it’s hard to even hold that against the episode. You see, ‘Cause and Effect’ really isn’t the kind of story that would merit a second hour. And while you could get an interesting episode out of following up with the Bozeman crew, the sad fact is that that’s just not how television worked in the early Nineties. Episodes needed to be mostly standalone outside of the occasional two-parter. And frankly, an episode dealing with the fate of the Bozeman would have been too disconnected from the central premise of ‘Cause and Effect’ to make a proper “part two.” Put another way, it’s a shame, but it’s a product of the way television production worked at the time rather than a flaw in the episode.

With regard to the ‘Discovery’ comparison, the similarities are hard to ignore. ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ is definitely a more character driven affair, as is ‘Discovery’ in general. Likewise, that episode just generally feels “bigger” than ‘Cause and Effect’. The iterations of that time loop also have a more repetitive feel too them, though in all honesty I’d have to watch it again to properly talk about the way it’s shot and the specific variations that I addressed with regard to this episode. And I’m going to leave it at that, because frankly as ‘Magic…’ is one of the more standalone ‘Discovery’ installments, I’ll probably end up covering it sooner than later.

What do you think of ‘Cause and Effect’? Is it a favorite of your or just midseason fluff? What do you make of the comparisons with the ‘Discovery’ installment? As always, let me know in the comments, and be sure to check back in two weeks for our next installment.