STTNG – A Matter of Time (Review)

Ah yes, the idiot plot episode!

Officially it’s known as A Matter of Time, and it involves the bridge crew acting like complete chumps for the duration of a hugely implausible mission in which they fight anti-global warming with a few keystrokes. This should really rank down there with The Outrageous Okona. The only reason it doesn’t is because Matt Frewer (ya know, Max Headroom! Or, if you’re a big dork like me, Jim Taggart on Eureka!) is a lot of fun as a hugely annoying time traveller.

About that. As the episode opens, we’re told during the Captain’s Log that the Enterprise is busy working out a way to save a planet from global cooling caused by atmospheric debris released by an asteroid impact. Immediately we ask ourselves two questions. One: since it’s evidently not a violation of the Prime Directive to help this planet, we know right away that they have the technology to see asteroids coming before they hit the planet and muck up the atmosphere. SO WHAT THE BLEEDING WHOREHOUSE ARE WE DOING CLEANING UP A COMPLETELY PREVENTABLE MESS? Why couldn’t the Enterprise be here like, oh, a week ago, to deflect it instead? I guess it’s not enough of a challenge for the crew. Or something? Two: What’s the real story, because we’ve been watching this show long enough to know that every. damn. time. they tease us with a science fiction plot, like cleaning up environmental catastrophe, what we’re going to get instead is something about a someone who shows up on the ship and talks to the crew and learns a Very Important Lesson. So, just hit us with it already.

Hit us with it already they do: Picard calls Riker to the bridge because Worf has detected a time distortion! And then, there’s a 5 meter Space Object what appears right before our very (sensor) eyes just moments later! And then, it appears to be some kind of Space Vessel of Unknown Design. And then there’s a communication transmission that tells them to move. Picard is not about to move the Enterprise while they’re busy Saving the World From Global Cooling, but Worf clarifies, just as Picard’s walking away anyway, that they actually meant for Picard to move. And then Jim Taggart – known here as Berlinghof Rasmussen, which you have to admit is a pretty natty name – beams right to where Picard used to be standing and introduces himself.

He claims to be a time travelling historian from 200 years in the future. Picard talks to him in his ready room, and it turns out that all this has to do with some momentous decisions that Picard himself is about to make. YUGE historical importance, believe me. And we have to, because he can’t tell Picard what it’s all about since that would obviously alter his decisions and pollute the timestream. In a way that just showing up and telling him that what’s a routine mission is actually YUGE won’t, I guess. I mean, to be fair, I don’t have an advanced degree in Time Travel, so… Since Geordi has the whole Saving the World from Global Cooling thing in a holing pattern, we have time for a meeting about it.

During the meeting, some due skepticism is expressed that Rasmussen is who and what he says he is. But no one really presses the point, and so Picard orders them all to fill out the questionnaires Rasmussen has prepared for them, even though he showed up unannounced and arrogantly assumed they would help him on a tight deadline at a moment when they’re massively preoccupied saving an entire ecosystem from global cooling. The episode seems to want you to think that Picard really is flattered that he’s apparently the center of some very important historical events, but no one who’s actually been watching this show for very long will buy this. Picard is a humble and disciplined man, and in any case he’s dealt with more than enough con artists to know not to take any strange space traveller at his word.

Why do they take him at his word? Scene by scene, you slap your forehead so many times in disbelief that it’s practically a Klingon Pain Ritual. Speaking of which, Worf is, as usual, the only one at the meeting who makes any sense. Well, OK, and Riker, a little.

Meanwhile, over at the B plot, it turns out that planet-scale geoengineering is something a starship can just do. Particulate matter in your atmosphere turning your planet into a giant Frigidaire? No problem! We’ll just blast a couple of carbon pockets in the ground with our phasers, release all that Devil’s Gas back into the atmosphere, and warm ya right back up! Wait, doing that caused volcanic activity which released more particulate matter into the sky, undoing all the great environmental healing work our green friend CO2 was doing? No problem! We’ll just ionize the atmosphere, turning yer whole planet into a giant plasmaball – but Don’t Panic!, ’cause it’s just for a bit, just long enough to bounce the whole atmosphere off our deflector shields so we can absorb all that gunk fer ya! NO CHARGE!

What’s hillarious is that my snark doesn’t even do it justice. They literally pull off both of these plans in about 5min. of fictional time – not screen time, in-world time. How do any of these space battles we sometimes see actually function if deflector shields are so damn good that they can boomerang an entire planet’s ionized atmophere into space? It’s just … I mean, I give up. All I can do is make my point yet again another time already: it’s FUCKING LAUGHABLE that this show somehow has a better scientific reputation than Space: 1999. Star Trek is truly the auto-tune of scientific realism.

Alright, well, while we’re snoozing our way through a global catastrophe, Rasmussen is busy buzzing around everywhere, getting in people’s way, and reminding us where Jim Carrey stole his act from. In junior high, I was briefly in the Chess Club, and there was this irritating Vietnamese immigrant who thought he was a supergenius who was the president, and he used to do annoying things like walk over to you playing Chess against someone else and mutter things to himself like "very interesting – two completely different approaches to the game." I am not even kidding you. To be fair, he really was the best player in the club. But he was nothing like on a level where he was remotely justified walking around condescending to people like that. How he escaped the psycopathic, racially tense bloodbath that was my junior high with a full set of teeth is one for the ages.

Well, Rasmussen walks around doing basically that. Worf asks a question about phasers, and he just kind of goes off on this smirky monologue about how everyone sees history through the lense of their own interests. Ah, if only you tiny-minded people knew the future like I do… This is not a complaint, by the way. Watching Mork do his thing is the only part of this episode that was actually entertaining. Individual mileage will vary here, depending on whether you like Frewer’s delivery or not, but I do, so watching him walk around and be a complete ass to everyone more or less made my week.

Oh, and I made the Mork reference advisedly. Apparently they wrote this part with Robin Williams (and, barring that, Tom Baker!) in mind. Heartfelt thanks to Everything Holy that didn’t come off, because Robin Williams is 20 times as annoying as Matt Frewer in a way that’s not even a little bit fun to watch. Nope, Frewer was the man for the job.

But OK, plot. There isn’t one, really. Rasmussen goes around creeping everyone out and stuffing things into his pockets. How he honestly believes he’s going to get away with this petty larceny is a really good question right up until the twist comes. I mean, here in 2017 we already have internet-connected toothbrushes. It’s a good bet the main computer knows the position of every tricorder on the Enterprise at all times. You can’t just steal things on this ship. I mean, the guy who reaches for his tricorder to notice it’s missing is just going to say "Computer, locate my tricorder," and Majel Barret’s annoying nasal is going to say "Tricorder issued to Lt. Rickshaw-Baxter-Birney is in Berlinghof Rasmussen’s quarters," and Lt. Rickshaw-Baxter-Birney is going to get on the horn to Worf and clear that shit RIGHT. UP.

Fortunately, however stupid the episode is, it isn’t that stupid, and just as Rasmussen is about to return home (after they bounce the planet’s atmosphere off the ship’s forehead like a doped-up Globetrotter), Picard gives Worf a significant nod, and they’re all in the shuttlebay waiting for him. They’ll need to search his ship for the missing goods, which it turns out they did notice after all, but he insists he can’t let them as they’ll learn things about the future, however it’ll be OK if just Data comes, because they can order Data never to tell. Don’t worry, they actually do realize this is a trap, and they have the Computer deactivate everything in the capsule over the brief moment the door is open, so when Rasmussen inevitably turns a phaser on Data, Data knows it’s just a toy. He then gets a cool line in: "I assume your handprint will open that door whether or not you are conscious." That’s some cold shit, Mr. Data.

Turns out that Rasmussen IS a time traveller, he’s just not from the future. He’s from 200 years in the past, and he’s gotten this ship out of killing the original owner (who really was, or at least claimed to be, from the future), and he’s just here to be Biff, bascially, and collect things he can take to the past and "invent." For dosh.

Welp, they don’t get a chance to send him back, because his ship takes off without him, so they arrest him and pack him off to Starfleet Headquarters so historians can study him. Nothing unethical about that!

So, not a bad day’s work for our intrepid crew. Drill holes in planet to release CO2. Check! Ionize atmophere. Check! Use shields like a giant planet-wide vacuum cleaner. Check! Crack the Case of Encyclopedia Brown and the Missing Tricorder. Check!

Now, you may be asking yourself at this point, why didn’t Troi just tell them Rasmussen was a fraud? Well, there’s a good reason for that, and that reason is that she did, actually, sense some deception in him, and the crew did actually ask her if it was deception-deception, or just deception, and she had to tell them that she didn’t actually know the conclusive answer to that question just at the moment, but that she could sense some things, and so they thanked her for her time and hard work and took her report under consideration. The next couple of times she sees him, she makes it clear she doesn’t like him. So, Troi is basically the ship’s dog at this point. She growls at the guests who are secretly planning on stealing the silverware, and Picard says "I’m so embarassed, she’s usually not like this" and puts her back in the pen.

I’m leaving out one pretty important scene.

See, right when they realized that they’d actually made things worse for the planet by drilling those holes in the crust, leading them to instead float the idea of turning the entire atmosphere into plasma so they can kick the bad bits into space like skimming oil off the surface of boiling water, there’s some minor telegraphed tension from the fact that if they fail at this, they’ll fry the whole planet. I mean, it’s basically either they succeed in plasmatizing only the bad particles, or they plasmatize the whole atmosphere – and so they either kick out only the bad bits, or they kick out the whole thing. That would, you know, kill everyone on the planet. Which would be bad.

Picard’s alternatives are, don’t do it and let Global Cooling run its course, killing everyone on the planet (eventually). OR, run the risk of ionizing the whole. damn. atmophere and only probably kill everyone on the planet.

So, huge dilemma, right? I mean, do you (a) definitely kill everyone on the planet by not even trying or (b) probably kill everyone on the planet by trying to save their lives?

Obviously the answer is (c) evacuate the planet?

I mean, honestly, this setup is about as silly a false dilemma as we’ve seen on this show. The answer is pretty obviously to FIRST EVACUATE THE PLANET and THEN, after careful study, decide whether the risk of blasting the whole atmosphere off the planet is worth it.

I get that we’re talking about 20million people, and 20million people won’t fit on the Enterprise, but I’m pretty sure the Federation has ships that can move 20million people. The way they’re playing this, everyone has already taken shelter from the cold, so while it might not be a comfortable couple of months while they wait for transports, it’s at least better than making a saving throw against plasma to avoid dying to a man, no?

But OK, even on the idiot plot terms in which this question is phrased, Picard’s choice is still blindingly obvious: you go with the one where everyone probably dies rather than the one where they definitely die.

Picard doesn’t get that, apparently, which is why he’s the captain, so he invites Rasmussen into his ready room again and tries to talk him into telling him what happens.

It’s an admittedly cool conversation – because Patrick Stewart is really good at delivering stern moralizing lines, and just for a moment Rasmussen seems sincere when he tells Picard to please not ask him that, because he can’t answer.

The problem with the scene, of course, isn’t even that it all evaporates once you learn, at the end, that Rasmussen is a fraud. The problem is that it evaporated well before it even started, because the audience, unlike Picard, already knows that Rasmussen is a fraud, and it’s not because we saw him pocketing tricorders. He’s been super duper smarmy since he stepped on board. The mystery is less who he is and more why Picard can’t see through him? But even if you’re one of the maybe 50 people who watched this episode and took Rasmussen for what he claimed to be, it still evaporates at the end because we just can’t believe that Rasmussen is alternately the best and worst con artist in the world. To pull off this scene with this level of sincerity, Ramussen has to be a kind of master con artist. But a master con artist who was just here to steal shit would’ve been, like, WAY more stealthy about it. He wouldn’t insinuate himself into every conversation and generally act like a jackass. More likely, he’d speak to Picard privately about not wanting to pollute the timeline, mention that he’s going to observe but that the crew generally can’t know who he is or what he’s up to, and otherwise he’ll just fade into the background and mostly not talk to anyone. You know, be low-profile guy. Since he’s actually the opposite of low-profile guy, we know he can’t also be the guy who smoothly stays on script during this confrontation.

Nope, this episode doesn’t work at all. It’s an idiot plot from beginning to end. The only thing that’s fun about it is watching Frewer do what Frewer does. I mean, that and that Picard was making his puffy, pompous ethics porn speech o’ the week in all sincerity to a con artist – that was kind of fun in retrospect.

Overall Rating C-

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