Star Trek’s best time travel episodes, part 2: DS9, VOY & ENT
Last time, I looked at the best time travel episodes from the first three Star Trek television series: TOS, TAS, and The Next Generation. In this article, I’ll look at what are, in my view, the best time travel episodes from the next three series, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.
Deep Space Nine
This episode has a cinematic feel to it, from its atypical narrative presentation, to the epic sweep of the story, and the great visual look and music that goes along with it. It’s an altogether great package, one that you can tell is something special even while you’re watching it. For a time travel story, it’s got a fairly straightforward “reset button” premise built in (we know while watching that the events of the episode will be set right by the use of time travel), but it’s got a strong emotional core to it. It’s a story of family, and of an alternate Jake Sisko ruined by the maddening uncertainty of his father’s fate. Its impact is somewhat lessened in retrospect, however, when Sisko goes on to leave Jake’s life in an ambiguous way just three years later in the series finale.
2. “Trials and Tribble-ations”
This is an episode that could have gone wrong in a lot of ways, but doesn’t. It’s an affectionate homage to a beloved TOS episode that just works, on so many levels. As a celebration of Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, it’s far more effective than Voyager’s “Flashback”, as it avoids the technobabble and takes itself far less seriously. The in-jokes and meta-commentary on aspects of TOS from the perspective of the newer shows thirty years later (like the difference in appearance of TOS Klingons from later Trek, and the nod to Spock as the truer “ladies’ man” than Kirk) add another layer of enjoyment. The time travel element and framing of the story here are fairly basic, but then the real point is really just to have fun.
3. “Little Green Men”
Ferengi episodes on Deep Space Nine could be hit or miss, to say the least. The comedy was often overly obvious and repetitive, and dependent on certain features of Ferengi culture (e.g., obsessive pursuit of wealth and misogyny) to generate laughs. “Little Green Men” works as a comedy episode, time travel episode, and a Ferengi episode, an impressive trifecta to pull off. It does this by changing the setting away from the space station to 1947 Earth to take advantage of a “fish out of water” scenario. Also, its focus is smaller, involving only the main Ferengi trio and family of Quark, Rom, and Nog.
4. “Past Tense” (parts I and II)
This is a time travel episode with a social message, and one that sheds some light on an era of future Earth that hadn’t previously been explored in Trek. Star Trek had shown many references to a troubled pre-Federation Earth of poverty and division, and had talked about and shown much of a Trek-era unified Earth of egalitarianism and abundance. While 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact would pick up that thread as well, depicting first contact with an alien species as the catalyst for social change, this two-part story came before that, and showed a movement on Earth to deal with problems such as crime and unemployment. “Past Tense” is a worthy entry in the collection of what can be considered the “Star Trek looks at contemporary issues through allegory” episodes. Also, the way the story shows a society that almost criminalizes poverty as a substitute for dealing with the structural causes is so relevant to certain contemporary political discussions, it’s almost sad. Having Sisko take Gabriel Bell’s place is a clever solution to the dilemma here, and if the second part isn’t quite as good as the first, it’s still very strong as a whole.
1. “Before and After”
Ironically, considering when it aired, this episode demonstrates how Kes could be used effectively. This episode comes late in the third season of Voyager, so it’s one of the last episodes for her before Seven of Nine would come along to replace her. The episode is structured somewhat like the movie Memento, in that it goes backwards with a character who doesn’t have many memories of what’s come before. In this case, though, the cause is not a neurological disorder, but rather time travel. This way of structuring the episode could easily have come across as a writing gimmick, but instead works well to make the episode seem like a puzzle providing clues as it goes along. There’s also good use of continuity with the Krenim attacks that foreshadow a future encounter with them. It could have just been a throwaway plotline, but it adds to the narrative of the series. The use of the time jumps allows us to see a lot of important moments in Kes’ life, though of course many of them would never happen for real. There are also good character moments involving Tom and Kes, as their future marriage is shown, as well as Kes and the Doctor, one of the stronger friendships among the main characters in the early seasons of the show.
Like “Before And After,” this was a time travel episode that made good use of a character that was sometimes not treated well by the writers, to put it mildly. Harry Kim was the seven-year ensign whose character was mainly defined by being green and naive, which while not a problem for the earlier seasons necessarily, would become repetitive in later seasons and reflect stagnation, as new experiences or opportunities for responsibility just didn’t turn out to matter. In this episode, though, he’s a different character in the future scenes, having become guilt-ridden, bitter, and regretful over the loss of Voyager. This episode also features an effective teaser that finds the ship buried in ice, and some eerie exploration of the crashed ship that’s filled with dead bodies. I would say that a flaw is that some of the “past scenes” with Voyager’s crew trying the slipstream technology are tainted by a lack of suspense, since failure is inevitable there. The premise of future Voyager crew members going back to help the past crew despite the effects on the timeline is effective enough to be reused in the series finale.
Voyager liked to do stories that opened with the viewer not quite knowing what was going on, and this one features another beginning that puts the pieces together gradually as far as Seven of Nine and her mission in the past. It has some moments like TNG’s “Timescape”, like localized time distortions resulting in a frozen ping-pong ball, parts of the ship being out of sync with others by a few hours, and multiple images of Chakotay appearing to Janeway. This episode features a good twist with the character of Captain Braxton, and surprisingly good use of continuity with the two-part episode “Future’s End”. It’s also got foreshadowing of the series finale “Endgame”, as one of the recurring themes is how Janeway has no qualms about interfering with the timeline and the consequences that it can cause. I would add one criticism, which is that whereas “Timeless” focused on two underused characters, this one is yet another Seven of Nine-centered show at a point in the series when there were plenty.
4. “Future’s End” (parts I and II)
Like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, this one features the crew going back in time to what was then the present for the viewer, and the setting and premise are mostly an excuse for lighthearted adventures. This is a fun “event” episode that’s fast-paced and gives all of the characters an opportunity to shine in some way. The stand-out here is guest star Sarah Silverman (yes, that Sarah Silverman) and her rapport with Tom, as well as her amusing interactions with Tuvok.
5. “Year of Hell” (parts I and II)
A criticism of Voyager during its run was that it often didn’t show the consequences of an isolated ship facing scare resources and attrition from repeated attacks from constant foes. This two-part story gives us a glimpse of what a show like that could have been like: a much darker one, with an exhausted and damaged crew. This episode succeeds by being an intriguing “what if” story, as well as by having a nuanced, well-developed antagonist in Annorax, played by Kurtwood Smith. His moments with Chakotay in the second part, with Chakotay at first finding some sympathy and understanding for Annorax, are among the best scenes in this two-parter, as they provide depth to both characters. The ending is mostly a reset, but hints at a possibly different path for Annorax to take.
The best Enterprise time travel episode came in the third season, when the show had seemed to find some direction at last, avoiding the pointless meandering of the first two seasons. The third season was for the most part a continuous storyline that followed the crew of the Enterprise as they worked to stop the Xindi from building and using a destructive super-weapon to destroy Earth. “Twilight” is an episode that shows a bleak alternate future, and the consequences of the failure of that mission. It’s an episode that the viewer knows from the start will have a built-in reset button, and another episode in the line of “time travel must be used to avert disaster” seen previously on this list. In this case, the mechanism for the reset is so contrived that it borders on magic, and to top it off, we get an overly dramatic “nick of time” race to the finish to restore the proper timeline. Still, Scott Bakula gets a chance for some excellent work here, as Archer is for the most part lost and confused due to the effects of parasites in his brain, and the character moments with him and T’Pol are strong.
Overall, of the various Trek shows, TNG and Voyager had the most great episodes featuring time travel. That’s not very surprising, since those shows had longer runs than TOS and Enterprise, and DS9 tended to focus more on politics and war-related storylines than ones about exploration. As for Enterprise, it’s ironic that for a show that had a continuing arc throughout most of the series focused around time travel, the so-called “Temporal Cold War”, this series in my opinion didn’t have that many great individual time travel episodes to rank alongside great ones from the other Trek series. The Temporal Cold War never found its footing as a concept, with the factions involved or what was being fought over mostly kept unclear to the viewer, as these things were apparently unclear to the show’s writers as well.
The use of time travel can allow writers the opportunity to take risks with certain characters or explore hidden sides of others, and that’s because these events are usually undone by a preordained reset built into the plot. While that may seem like a “cheat” or a way of avoiding consequences, we as viewers can still enjoy the moments that endure on screen and are not lost to us.